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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On scars and being a woman

I was on a new-to-me big kids’ bike with skinny wheels, a slender blue frame and even gears. I wobbled a little every time I started, but no matter: the bike was mine.

That day, riding home from Saundra’s, a hot breeze blew my unkempt hair across my sun-browned face. I knew I should have combed it that morning, and could almost hear my mother scolding, “Mandy, if you’re going to have long hair you need to brush it and tie it back.” But who had time for combs when Saundra swore there was a real live black widow spider right in her bathroom and I needed to come over now before it got away?

The bike veered sideways as my dirty hand pawed my hair from my eyes. My legs splayed out and I nearly crashed, but – miracle! – caught myself just in time. As I  stuttered to a stop, I felt a stinging pain and looked down to see a furrow carved into my left shin. I watched the blood well up and drip down my leg, eventually pooling at the edge of my bobby sock. Then I started to cry.

It was only another few minutes to my house, and I biked the whole way: teary, bloody, determined. By the time I got there, my shin was splattered dark red and my face was shiny wet. In the kitchen, my father cleaned my leg with a damp paper towel while I dried my eyes on his shirt. Now that we could see it, the cut wasn’t much, really: a narrow inch and a half of pain. Daddy got the Band-aids and some Neosporin and set about doctoring me up.

When he finished, he patted my hair and said, “Well, that’ll leave a scar. There goes your shot at Miss America.” He grinned conspiratorially and walked away. But I was eight, and I didn’t get the joke. Was I supposed to be Miss America? Was I supposed to want to be? My father had already returned to his gardening, but I sat in the kitchen staring at the dark stain I could just make out through the pink of the bandage and thought of the beautiful women on TV. Where were their scars? Did they ride bikes? Maybe they were better at biking.

I don’t know when I realized that my father had never wanted me to be Miss America. I don’t know when I understood the jest he had offered to his scruffy, sturdy eight-year-old daughter. But that was the summer I recognized that, someday, I was going to have to deal with hair and dirt and scars and beauty. By the time 4th grade started, I played mostly with girls, combed my hair more regularly, and faked disgust at spiders.

It’s almost invisible now, the scar that introduced me to womanhood, but if I look hard, I can still see it.

 

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This post is part of the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, a weekly invitation to share a snapshot of life through writing. To read more or participate, click here.

When friendship lasts

As we pulled into a parking spot, we saw a blond boy waiting on his porch, looking longingly up and down the street. For a fraction of a second, before he recognized us, I saw how tall he was and, maybe, how lonely. Then his eyes widened and a smile filled his face. While he was visibly excited, he descended the steps and came towards us slowly.

In the van, Eric said, “What’s he doing waiting on the porch?”
“I think he’s waiting for you,” I explained.
“Oh,” Eric was hesitant, “ok.”

He opened the van door and walked towards his old friend. Looking at the ground, their feet in constant motion, the boys exchanged diffident “hi”s. Then, without warning or explanation, they started talking and, just like that, resumed their friendship from three years ago when they were six. Hours later, after the park, the corner store, the house; after basketball and jungle gyms and ice cream; after talking and laughing and wrestling, they parted reluctantly, already asking when they could see each other again.

Oscar’s family just finished a three-year assignment overseas. Our boys were inseparable before they left, but they’ve only seen each other in person once since then, so they barely know each other now. After all, they’ve spent one-third of their lives on different continents. No matter, they seemed to say, friends are friends.

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Learning to bike together at age 3

I believe this. Every summer we travel to South Carolina to see family and one of our stops is at my friend Malia’s house. She and I become friends as new moms in Ottawa, long before her husband’s job landed her an hour and a half from my father’s house in SC. As much as I love seeing her, our children’s friendship is a real driver of our annual visits. You see, our oldest kids were constantly together for their first year and a half. Sometimes I think they got encoded in each other’s DNA. Despite being separated when they were 18 months old and not meeting again until they were, I think, eight, despite visits of only a few days once a year, the boys magnet together every summer and still count each other among their closest friends.

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Left out of their mother’s conversation – escape attempt in progress
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These days, their enthusiasm is overwhelming.

And really, I should understand. After all, my husband still spends at least one weekend a year with friends he’s known since daycare. As for me, last month my childhood best friend and I had a slumber party (ok, ok, a “visit” because we are adults now, but really, it was a sleepover) for two glorious days. We met at her parents’ house for dinner. They made salmon, grilled on the backyard barbecue, creamed corn leftover from a reception, and homemade broccoli salad. After dinner, her father made us peach ice cream by blending real peaches into vanilla ice cream. He added a dollop of whipped cream and we settled onto the new patio until the mosquitos chased us indoors. This dinner, served in a place I know so well by people I love so deeply, nearly overwhelmed me.

After almost 40 years of friendship, the fact that we hadn’t seen each other for at least two years didn’t change a thing. We started chattering the moment I walked in, talking as though we had just picked up the thread of the conversation we started sometime in 5th grade. Sometimes I think that, if you counted only the times when we were physically together, Jamie and I haven’t stopped talking since we were ten. Nevermind that we are now very different people who likely wouldn’t have much in common if we were to meet today. That’s not how friendship works.

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The picture’s a little blurry, but we’re still laughing after all these years.

Even as I write, my toes are still painted from the pedicure we got the next morning. Just seeing them makes me smile. There’s something about these friendships, the unlikely pairings that last well beyond the convenience of time and place, something that nourishes us through their mysterious inexplicability.

Parker and Thomas have been talking online. Jamie and I just tag each other in social media posts. Oscar and Eric already have plans to play together again. It makes me grin. I’m glad they’re back from their posting – may the friendships continue.

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