Writing in front of them

It’s not like I hadn’t planned my lesson. I had. 15 minutes of reading – while I conferenced quietly with students – followed by a quickwrite about memories from school. Then I would “write in front of them” to show them how to start crafting a scene. I’d chosen Alexie’s “Indian Education” as a mentor text and brainstormed some memories the night before. I had a few in mind and was ready to go.

Only here I was, sitting in front of 25 Grade 12 students and my writing was terrible. I had modeled how to find a moment – I thought of early memories and jotted them down but rejected them as too vague – then landed on a high school memory of an encounter with my daunting freshman English teacher.

I’d known before the class that I would probably end up writing about her, so I had details in mind. But they didn’t come together. At all. I started a sentence and abandoned it, explaining why. I narrated as I re-thought my entry point and pushed through the lurching prose to at least get a full idea down. I talked about trying to add some detail, but every detail felt forced and flat. I paused and acknowledged my problem out loud: “So I’m stuck and this doesn’t feel good to me. I think I’ll back up and think about what I might be trying to show with this scene. Why am I writing this?”

And suddenly, I was mortified. Not only could I not get this scene on paper but I realized I was wrestling with my own understanding of who I was in high school. I felt naked in front of my students’ curious eyes: Was I the nerd who studied for hours? The kind of kid who got sick on the day of the test? Who spoke up to teachers? Who stood up for her friends? This stupid scene – this tiny thorn of a memory from over 30 years ago – was too small and too complex and too big and too flat to possibly write, and certainly not as people watched me.

Defeated, I stopped. “I can’t make it work,” I admitted. “I’m realizing that I don’t know what I’m trying to do in this scene. I don’t know who I was in that moment, and I feel like I’m revealing way more of myself to you than I meant to – I mean, was I really this nerdy and this outspoken and this dumb? It’s unsettling – I’m unsettled. Why don’t you start your scenes while I see what I can do here?”

As students opened their notebooks, I stared at my own work, distressed. So much for “writing in front of them.” So much for “teacher as model.” I heaved a sigh and looked up. One girl – front and center, whip smart and unabashedly vocal – looked back and smiled ruefully at me. Then she dove into her notebook, pen moving unwaveringly across the paper. 

And I went back to writing, too.

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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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Payoff

Last semester was a tough one for me. I’ve been doing lots of thinking and writing about it, but so far there’s nothing I’m willing to share. Still, when the new semester started Monday I was excited and nervous in a way I haven’t been for a while. I laid my clothes out the night before and still forgot my lunch in the flurry of leaving.

Moment one: I am teaching a grade 12 English class for the first time in a few years. I love teaching grade 12 and my mind is awash in possibilities, especially since I have completely revamped my reading and writing instruction since I last taught this level. Also, years of teaching students who benefit from explicit and concrete beginnings have changed my understanding of learning. I’ve got a whole new bag of tricks.

I get these senior students up on their feet and have them move about the room as they consider and acknowledge their own attitudes towards English, reading, writing, group work, presentations and more. They can see that they are not alone in their experiences and views. When I ask them how many books they read last semester, over half the class clusters into the corner for “exactly what was assigned.” I squint my eyes at them, start to laugh and ask how many are lying – because research tells me that a lot of them fake read those books. They are relaxed enough that several of them grin and move themselves over to zero. “No worries,” I tell them, “we’ll find you something.” Our class is off to a great start.

Then comes the moment that blows me away. I ask them to write about their interests. THEY ALL HAVE PENS OR PENCILS. Every. Single. One. They pull out paper and write. Just like that, like it’s no big deal. I don’t know how long it has been since I taught a class where everyone is actually ready to learn. When the bell rings and they leave, chatting and laughing, I am bubbling with excitement. What might we accomplish this semester if we all have pencils? The possibilities are endless.

Moment two: My grade 10s come into the classroom with significantly less enthusiasm. This class is half the size of the other, but reading and writing are a much bigger challenge for these students. They have all made it to class on time, though, and we celebrate our successes in here. We do the same activities as the grade 12 class, and things are pretty low-key until we get to that question about how many books students read last semester.

Here’s where I should mention that five of these students had me for grade 9 English last semester. They are trying to catch up to where the system says they are “supposed” to be, so they’re with me again. They know my ways, and when I ask students to move to a corner to show how many books they have read, my former/current students move proudly to the areas that are well beyond “exactly what was assigned.” I don’t say much – these kids don’t always want to stand out academically – but I watch their peers notice that these students have been reading.

Then, magic occurs. After a few book talks, I gesture towards my classroom library. It’s a complete jumble because I had to switch rooms this morning: books are everywhere and in no discernible order. “Go ahead and explore the books to find something that might be of interest to you. Take your time; have a look.” And my five, my students who know me, find books, sit down and start to read. Just like that.

As they settle in, their peers follow suit. Before I know it, I have 12 reluctant readers sitting with books and reading quietly on day one of the semester. As far as I can tell, only one is fake reading. I’m heading over to chat with him, using this time to get to know him, when an EA comes in and shakes his head with astonishment. I shrug back, my eyes wide. I didn’t ask them to read: enough of them had books that they were actually interested in that they just did it. Because independent reading matters. Because time matters. Because routine matters.

Now, all we have to do is this, 90ish more times. Semester 2, here we come!

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Pause

My favourite parking spaces are occupied, so I drop the boys off and start round two of the hunt. All the usual spots are inexplicably taken. It’s snowing a little, but the temperature hovers obstinately above freezing and the streets are deep in slushy puddles. The going is tough. The city is behind on snow removal, parking spots are scarce, and plenty of cars are taking up an awful lot of the pavement. My mirror nearly touches theirs as I slowly slide my car down the streets.

img_1970I sigh and turn down another side street. Grr! The red and white no parking signs that indicate snow removal is imminent taunt me from atop the snow banks. No wonder I can’t find a space. I do a quick check of my rear view mirror, touch my brakes and pause. Deep breath. Snow removal is good, I remind myself. Yes, I will likely spend a lot of time trying to find parking tonight, but tomorrow and the days that follow will be much easier. 

10 long minutes later, I find a spot. It’s not ideal, but it’s good enough for tonight.

**********************

I’m reading Gregor the Overlander out loud while my older son draws. He’s sketching another manga character, and he’s not happy with the result. As I turn a page he snarls, “I hate this! It’s terrible!” He’s about to crumple the drawing, but my hand catches his before his fingers close around the paper.

“Hey,” I say quietly, “give it a second. What’s wrong with your picture?”

“It looks awful.” He’s looking away from his picture, not at it.

“Mmm. Can you tell me about it?”

He hates it all. I suggest if it’s that bad then it would make a really great place to experiment – just try a few new things. On second thought, he hates a few particular parts. Then he just really hates… wait, maybe he could…

He goes back to drawing; I continue to read.

*************************

The first week back to school after the winter break, I couldn’t bring myself to publish a blog post; I couldn’t find anything that rang true. Every word I wrote seemed to leave out another. I didn’t think it was awful, exactly, but I couldn’t find Hemingway’s one true sentence (even though, I’m just putting this out there, I really don’t like Hemingway). I wrote and deleted, wrote and threw away. I struggled, then I gave up in a huff.

The next week I paid attention and by Monday I had plenty of observations to choose from. To avoid writer’s block, I decided to write by hand first. I got as far as the date. 

I had to pause. I didn’t have much choice: I clearly wasn’t going to write a slice of life by beating myself up. 

Tonight, no parking spot magically appeared; my son’s drawing didn’t suddenly become excellent. Pausing didn’t solve things, but neither did it mean giving up.

So here I am, writing, pausing, and writing again.

 

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Giggling grandmas

As I settle into my seat, I hear one of them say, “…a surprise visit to my grands and great-grands. I have 13 great-grandchildren and 9 grandchildren!”

“Oh my!” exclaims her seat partner, “I’ve got 13 grandchildren and…” her voice is muffled by an overhead announcement and I can’t quite hear the rest. No great-grands, yet, I think.

I turn to my children who have already buckled in and opened their ipads in the row behind me. One holds my tea while the other gazes out the window. Once I’m secured, too, I retrieve my tea and try to listen in again.

“I won’t see them until tomorrow morning. They will be so surprised. I can’t wait to see their faces!”

Her companion nods her head in delighted agreement. The flight attendant’s voice breaks in. My older boy coughs loudly. “Oh my! That was really sweet of your children… that they are in a position to do that… lucky…”

And now a family of three arrives, their seats separate. I trade with the father who trades with the mother so that we end up with two sets of boys and moms. Everyone is content.

The plane takes off and I read for a while, then knit and listen to a podcast until laughter rings through the cabin. I look up and the two grandmas have their heads together. They are, frankly, cackling or maybe giggling like grandmas. “Oooh hoo hoo hoo!” “Ah-hahaha!” Their phones are out and they are scrolling. They snort and whoop. “So cute!” one exclaims. “Would you look at that!” crows the other

Brown head leans towards blonde, then away. My own seat companion has said not a word – first immersed in his game, now asleep. Across the aisle, my boys play a game together. In front of them, the mother and son watch a movie together. And in front of me a middle-aged man snores loudly. Over and around it all, the grandmas talk and laugh. They just met today, and they may never see each other again, but they are spending this hour and a half in joyous companionship.

May we all laugh so loudly and talk so happily this holiday season. May all our travels be as fun as theirs. Happy Holidays!

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Wood, with a gift for burning

Monday night and again I am sleepless. I have sung the songs, done the dishes, folded the laundry. I have chatted and texted and messaged. I have prepped and stretched and even – just for tonight – taken the pill, so that I can get the sleep I need.

Instead, my brain is awash with Adrienne Rich. She has come out of nowhere, her words interrupting my reading, her lines repeating ceaselessly in my head. She will not be ignored.

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
O.K., then, yes I’m lonely

I am not lonely, I think back to her – or at least to her poem. What are you doing here?

Another stanza arises, unbidden. This is what comes of memorising verse, I grumble in my head.

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning

My God, how I love this image. If I remember the words it is because the image is burned into my brain. If I could paint, I would paint this. I would take a photograph that would be this stanza. I would write it again as a book, as a hymn, as a prayer. 

No, I would leave it exactly as it is.

When she died, The New York Times called Adrienne Rich “one of the great poets of rage.” I was astonished. Rage? Really? Then again, I only know a few of her poems, and only one stanza of one poem has burned its way into my brain. So really, I know nothing. Tonight, with her words haunting me, I check the article again – I’ve only just remembered this characterization, and I feel a sudden intense need to understand because this poem, this is not anger. I see this: 

Ms. Rich is one of the great poets of rage, which in her hands becomes a complex, fluctuating power that encompasses the roots of the word “anger” in the Old Norse term for “anguish.”

Anguish. Of course. Not anger – so hard for me to understand, to express, to feel – but anguish… I can understand anguish. I imagine what it means to be the poet of anguish, the goddess of anguish, the writer of anguish.

I don’t feel anguish or anger tonight; instead I am starting to feel sleepy. Rich’s image persists as my eyes close. Am I ice-fast this cold December night? Perhaps the words arose because of the last red light of the year? No, I know the truth. Oh, Adrienne. Tonight your rowboat rocks me to sleep; tonight I will dream knowing that I, too, am wood, with a gift for burning

(Read the whole poem – Song by Adrienne Rich – here.)

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Watching the Game

Image result for basketballThe last time I was in a gym watching a high school basketball game, I didn’t even own a cell phone. I’ve nearly forgotten how much I love high school basketball: the excitement, the daring three-pointers, the hard-won rebounds, the turnovers, the exhaustion. Walking towards this afternoon’s game, I wonder why it’s been so long since I’ve done this. (I know the answers: work, children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue.) Today, I arrive partway through the second quarter. I can hear the noise of the game long before I open the door: the squeal of shoes skidding to sudden stops; the pounding of feet in counterpoint to the relentless beating of the ball against the floor; the staccato whistle punctuating the game.

As I enter the gym, I’m overwhelmed by the powerful sweaty musk of teenage boys’ concentrated effort. The bright lights and echoing space make me feel simultaneously terribly visible and ridiculously small. This is their place, not mine, I realize. I perch uncomfortably on the bleachers and am immediately engrossed by the game. 

I want to tell you about the players, many of them young men who have shared and currently share my classroom. I want to tell you about their intensity, their focus, their grace. I want you to hear their voices raised loudly, unselfconsciously, in unison as they chant: “De-fense! De-fense!” I want you to see how easily they communicate, how confidently they move, how intensely they focus. But I don’t really need to. I know that what is particular to my experience of these boys in this game at this moment is also universal: if you have ever seen a high school game, if you have ever cared for a child playing in that game, then you know what I am seeing as I sit in this bright, echoing gym.

Still, it has been years since I’ve actually watched a game. Five minutes ago, I could have told you that many of my students are at their best when they are playing their sport, but here, now, I am experiencing this truth all over again. The basketball court is 200 steps and 2 million miles from the English classroom down the hall. I need to come here more often, but now I need to go home. Children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue… I miss the end of the game as I drive home in the rain.
______

I kept thinking about the boys after the game, and as I rearranged the voice notes I’d created as I’d watched, I realized how engaged my senses had been. So, I started a poem about the game. Here it is – unfinished, but you’ll get the idea.

Their restless feet fly across the floor
pause
then propel their bodies upwards.
Released from their desks, their bodies
unfurl
stretching towards the orange circle above them.
Uncurled now
from the orange prisms of their pencils,
their fingers flex around the sphere
that is their body’s
focus.

Only as I wrote the poem did the parallels between my experience in their space and their experience in “my” space (though I do try to make the classroom “ours”) come into focus for me – unfamiliar smells, uncomfortable seating, unappealing lighting,  watching apparent experts do something I can’t do and which I have no urgent desire to practice or perfect. This realization, this deepening of my thinking about a situation, is why I write – and maybe why they play. For me, writing takes a tangle of  my thoughts and straightens them out. Basketball, though I enjoy it, provides me no solace, no direction. I suspect many of my students might feel that something close to the opposite is true for them. Maybe this is why I need to make sure to see more games. 

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll share this and see what they say. Maybe we’ll all write a slice of life; maybe they won’t all be written.

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