What we did on our vacation

I was working on a post for my on-line class when I heard someone pounding on the backdoor. I ran through the apartment to open it, and my 11 year old plowed in. “Hi Mom! We’re home!” He threw his backpack on the floor and started prying off his boots.

Just then, the front door was assaulted. BANG! BANG! BANG! Back I ran, through the apartment, and flung open the door for the 9 year old. “Hi Mom!”

They were returning from a three-day trip to Toronto with another family, Dad and an exchange student. I had stayed home because I had both work and classwork.  Once I corralled both children into the same room, I asked, “How was the trip?”

They had a lot to say, interrupting each other, talking so fast I could hardly keep up:
It was trash. The back of the car was SO HOT. And completely crowded. And on the way down, the windshield squirter broke and it took forever to fix. And they wouldn’t turn on the air conditioning even though we said we were hot. 

It is February in Canada. Their Southern mother cannot imagine wanting air conditioning. I was with the adults on this one.

“But, how was Toronto?” I probed. “Tell me about the vacation part.”

P has a girlfriend. Her name is Emma. She likes the same things we like. Well, I mean, some of them. Like the same shows. We got to talk to her. She’s nice. And he met her on Tinder. And he was like, It’s the last thing I expected, meeting someone here. And we were like, we knew you’d have a girlfriend. But she’s really nice. And she doesn’t even go to his school.

“Whoa! Wait. What? Was she with you in Toronto?”

No, we Skyped with her every night. He talks to her a lot. Oh! And someone got shot. There was a fight. It was right outside our hotel. And then the guy who got shot came into the lobby. But we were asleep. And they took him to the hospital. And there were LOADS of people in the lobby.

I closed my eyes for a minute and took a deep breath. “So, did you actually do anything in Toronto?”

Oh. Yeah. We went to the aquarium.

I looked from one to the other, waiting.

Finally the older one piped up, “Oh yeah, Mom, how was your weekend?”

“Calm,” I said, “Very calm.”

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Night shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What to write in a rough patch

I’ve been having a bit of a rough go of it these past few weeks. I’m a teacher and it’s mid-October, so this is not really a surprise. But it does mean that I’m having trouble deciding what to write. I skipped posting last week in the hopes that sometime this week a post would magically appear. And one did – then another and another. Each day offers me another opportunity to catch a moment and pin it down. Still, I’m having trouble choosing: each one feels like I’m lying a little. Do I tell you how hard things feel right now? Do I talk about my students and our struggles? Or do I capture the ephemeral grace of a moment of connection? Where do I focus? The positive or the negative? Each day, each class period, each activity, each minute is full of ups and downs. Teaching is astonishingly emotional work. 

I try to count my blessings – I really do. My classes are small, my colleagues are supportive, my family is amazing. My students are doing their very best (even when it doesn’t look like they are). I have so much.

But sometimes counting my blessings feels like ignoring the complicated reality of my life. For example, I am overwhelmed by the literacy needs in my classroom and the trauma so many of my students have experienced in their lives. What happened to result in these children reading and writing at these levels? How is it that they have come this far and cannot visualize what they read? How is it that reading and writing are chores they do only when forced, things that are completely unrelated to their lives? At what point did we decide that these children – their unique thoughts, their singular purpose – were expendable? Because I’m pretty sure that someone gave up on them a long time ago. And it wasn’t their parents. How can I possibly convince them that they are important to our world when all I have are 90 days?

Can I be grateful for my colleagues and appreciative of the good will of those who run our school board while still being disappointed when our precious professional development time is sliced and diced into pre-chosen bits that don’t nourish our actual professional lives? Can I be a critical friend to my employer? Who do I ask for the support that we desperately need in order to become the educators our students deserve?  

Even outside of school things are complex. My family lifts me up, but I need space to talk about the complicated bits of my home life – like the four of us (plus the cats) living in a two-bedroom apartment for months while our home is being renovated. 

I know I will look back and laugh. I can even tell you some of the things I will laugh about because there is humour in all of this. I could tell you about the amusing conversation I had with a student about a book (let’s just say that he does NOT know what he’s reading), about the staff’s subtly terrible behaviour during an unproductive PD moment (we really are worse than our students), about how a sex worker buzzed our apartment door repeatedly last night because her client was not picking up. Sometimes laughter is all I’ve got.

But I’m so tired. I’m tired. And I guess that’s my slice of life right now.

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[Post-script, added by husband:  What Amanda has neglected to mention and which I view as highly relevant to this post is that, up until last week, she was taking four courses simultaneously.  She’s down to one, but it involved a super-human push. Picture the most recent incarnation of Wonder Woman, but with less armour and combat and more research and writing.  This, on top of all of the above. And still she’s there 100% for her students. I would tell you she’s amazing but she would be too shy to include it in her post.]  

Exam

On Saturday, I took a three-hour exam to finish up one of my on-line courses. Since I only took this undergraduate composition course for credentialing purposes, I was quite literally 100% certain I would pass. I mean, I teach students mere months before they are supposed to be prepared to take this course. If can’t pass this course, my problems are bigger than a test.

Before I even began the exam, and despite all my preparation, there was a problem with my computer. Someone named JM showed up in a chat box and politely asked if he could take over my computer from a distance. I said yes, then sat and watched as my cursor moved around and things clicked on and off for over half an hour. JM worked it all out in the end, but I started my exam knowing I really am old because I found it all very disconcerting. And, even though I got the full time allotment, I started 45 minutes later than I had planned. This was problematic because a friend was watching my children for three hours – and now I needed four. But now I’d started my exam so I couldn’t use my phone… Oops. 

FOCUS!

Sometime during hour one, I began to wonder when I had last taken an actual exam. Grad school? Probably, but I don’t remember any exams then – mostly essays. Could it have been undergrad? Let’s not consider how many years ago that was. (It was a lot of years.) At any rate, I now remembered how little I like timed endeavours. I really don’t like them. I found myself checking the timer more often than was necessary. At one point my internal voice scolded me for editing when I should have been writing. I wondered how strict the word limits were. There was no one to ask.

FOCUS!

And let’s talk about the exam itself. I give exams every semester. I try to be completely transparent about what will be on the exam and to have the exam mimic classwork as nearly as I can. Nevertheless, my students are always stressed out. I tell them that I understand, but now I definitely get it because on Saturday, I was stressed. In three (short!) hours, I had to… 

  • Write an essay on a topic that I did not know ahead of time (structured but personal, thank heavens), 
  • Read an essay
    summarize it
    *and* write a rhetorical analysis
  • Identify a quote and explain how it fit into an essay I’d read during the class
  • Answer 20 grammar questions.

Thank goodness I remembered my personal time-use strategies: I headed straight for the grammar questions and worked backwards from there. Because I was at home and being proctored remotely (also weird), I drank tea the whole time I wrote, and then I had to ask permission to go to the bathroom – in my own home! 

When I got back from my bathroom break, I found myself assessing the exam: the multiple choice questions were ok but some gave away the answer. The essay provided on the exam was too old (2002 – so the statistics were seriously out of date) and had clearly been edited for length, meaning that it was a bit jumpy in places. I wondered if it was really fair to have students write a rhetorical analysis on an incomplete essay. Wouldn’t have been my choice, but length matters. The quote analysis was straightforward enough, but I was unconvinced that it effectively tested much beyond memory. But, hey, at least I had no complaints about the essay portion – except that I kind of liked what I was writing and wondered if there was a way I could save it…

FOCUS!

I finished that dang exam with three minutes to spare. Three minutes. And now I have to wait ten days for the grade. I’m lucky because I know I did well, but I have renewed empathy for my exam-hating students. Apparently exam-writing is a stressful experience no matter how well I am prepared. I have been comforting myself by thinking that it may have been my last exam ever. At least I hope so.

 

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Words to describe the love

This summer, my father-in-law had a heart attack as he walked home from picking up a newspaper at a corner store. He and my mother-in-law were visiting family in Massachusetts, thousands of miles from their home in Arizona. By rights, Jim should have died. He literally collapsed on a neighborhood street.

But he didn’t die. Angels intervened. Neighbours sitting on a porch, enjoying the morning, saw him fall. An off-duty EMT was home and began effective CPR almost immediately. The ambulance that came for him was from a major trauma center.

For a few days, things were chaotic and unclear. Family drove in, flew in, called in and stayed close in every way that they could. And then, miraculously, Jim was ok. There were some cuts from the fall, some broken bones from the CPR and a defibrillator implanted for his heart, but in large part, he’s just fine. By the end of the summer, he was walking around, wondering when he’d be able to get back to his long hikes in the desert canyons of Arizona.

There are no words for this sort of miracle. I couldn’t write about this when it happened in July, and I can barely gather all the threads now: the wrenching loss; the nearly unbelievable salvation; the incredible rebirth; the emotions and experiences of so many people.

Today I received a beautiful letter from my mother-in-law, thanking her family for our support. My father-in-law wrote about his experience almost right afterwards,and I found his account equally moving. Each letter is haunting, so I’ve turned them into found poems. It’s the only way I can capture those few weeks in July.

My Strange Disappearance
I didn’t return in a reasonable time.
I have no memories
so I’m
reconstructing
from what people have told me.
I presumably stopped breathing,
my heart presumably stopped pumping.

Some force was certainly at work
to bring two strangers to my side
to bring me back from sudden death.

Unless I imagined this
family mysteriously appeared.

Do I believe in angels?
I sure believe in something.
I like the word angels.

-found in a letter from Jim Perry

Words to describe the love
I’ve been looking for words
But each time I thought or spoke
I felt raw and open.

I wake in the middle
of the night or
on my early morning walks.
I am swept away.
The heart-distance is non-existence.

How tender and fragile life is.

Please know that
if you need me,
I will come.

-found in a letter by Shirley Dunn Perry

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Hera

Hera has trapped a black hairband and is yowling insistently. “Come!” she bawls. “I, the intrepid hunter, have rescued you from your carelessness! I have caught another of your discarded objects! I must be admired!”

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Oh, I have slain the fearful hairband!

Between her squawks, meditation music trickles serenely through the floorboards. Our upstairs’ neighbor’s dog has anxiety and will bark all day without the music to keep him calm. Hera is nonplussed by this feeble attempt to lull her into complacency. She yowls again and trots toward me, hairband firmly in her jaws.

As I open the door to let her take her treasure to the porch, a black squirrel chitters indignantly, its paws scrabbling over the wood railing to the safety of the next porch . Hera eyes it disdainfully: she will not lower herself to chase such a creature, not when she has already vanquished this fearful foe. She turns back to me and drops the band. I know what is coming: she must be adored.

She leaps to the back of the couch, inches from the desk where I’m trying to write. I know better than to ignore her, but I don’t demonstrate my fealty quickly enough, and Hera is in my lap, prodding my typing hands, stepping on the keyboard, purring loudly, insistently. ADORE ME NOW!

And honestly, how could I not?

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Summary of Debate

I am close to finishing my summer writing courses. So, so close, and yet… so far. One long piece of creative non-fiction, one 1500-word research essay (with a proposal – how is that long enough for any real research? Whatever. I’ll take it.) and one 500-word close reading. I can get this done. 

In the meantime, I am amusing myself and, hopefully, the poor “tutors” who have to read these assignments day in and day out. It was with them in mind that I wrote the following slice of life. The assignment calls for a one-paragraph summary of both sides of “a specific, local debate” in under 250 words. I had to present the two sides in an objective, neutral manner. I decided to go extremely specific and local…

Debate: What Is That in the Sky?

The debate in our car is heated: is the giant glowing white orb that we see in the sky above us the moon or is it something else? The person taking the affirmative position states that it is the moon and develops her argument relying almost exclusively on logos. She begins with a concession, acknowledging that the glowing orb does, in fact, look larger than usual, which is part of what attracted the attention of the passengers in the car. She continues to support the affirmative position by pointing out that, despite its size, the orb is in the place where the moon is usually seen, looks like the moon, and appears to be moving along the moon’s expected trajectory. Finally, the person in the affirmative attempts to use ethos, pointing out that years of experience in observing the moon makes her a credible source for determining if the orb is, in fact, the moon. For these reasons, the affirmative asserts that this is the moon. The person defending the negative position contends that what they are seeing is not the moon. This argument, too, relies largely on logos. For one, he argues, what they see in the sky right now is clearly much larger than the moon. The person assuming the negative position points out that he has never seen a moon this large. He then refers to authority, maintaining that “someone” recently read him a book about planets and that planets are, in fact, very large. He concludes his point by reminding his opponent that he, too, has seen the moon many times, which gives him vast experiential knowledge, if not quite as much as the other side. He closes with a clear statement of position: “I know a lot about moons, and that is not the moon.” In summary, the affirmative position is that the large, white, glowing orb in the sky is the moon; the negative position is that it is not the moon but, more likely, a planet.

In case you are wondering, it was the moon.

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