Accept the fluster*

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I am looking for my sunglasses. Again. I’ve been planning lessons – poetry broadsides for the 9s, I think, to emphasize the connection between word and image, but what will I do with the 10s? – and I’m not fully focused. I walk back into the kitchen and check the table. They still aren’t there. And they’re not on top of the shelves near the phone or next to the printer or even in the TV room near the lamp. They’re also not in the cubbies by the front door or on the stairs.

By now I have a blanket over my arm and a glass in my hand. I head upstairs to put the blanket in its bedroom and then downstairs to put the glass in the sink.

Four kids are already in the car. We’ve gathered our children and some neighbour kids and we’re heading to the Arboretum for a “romp.” This mostly involves tree climbing, but will also include looking for frogs, finding very large sticks and rolling down hills. Even though I will likely not do any of those things, I would like my sunglasses.

My husband has moved into the hallway, waiting patiently near the front door as I check the kitchen table one more time. After putting the glass in the sink, I’m here. The sunglasses are not by the refrigerator either.

He is nonjudgmental, my husband, whether because he understands my fluster or because he is used to it by now, I do not know. He usually helps me search for things for a minute or two, then moves to the hallway and eventually, quietly, into the car, leaving me to search for whatever I’m missing.

My sunglasses are not next to the refrigerator, but I do locate some sunglasses left over from my cousin’s wedding last fall. Or last spring? I should remember this. Let’s see… the baby is 7 months old… so….

These sunglasses are not the ones I’ve been looking for, but they are going to have to do. I pick them up and take a few steps toward the front of the house. I’d like to go meet that baby this summer. If I see my friend from college… when is that?… well, whenever it is, can we then get down to see my cousin’s baby? And when is Beth visiting? I should probably send her a link to “things to do in…”

I hear the door close. My husband has moved out of the front hall and into the car. I spot another pair of sunglasses – where were they hiding the last time I looked here? – on the bookshelf, but still not the right ones. Why do I suddenly have so many pairs of sunglasses? When did this happen? Nevermind. I have the wedding sunglasses. Good enough.

I move toward the front door, nearly stopping to pick up some nerf darts – no! I move on. I am thinking about the lessons for my 10th grade class. Again. Is the work actually “applied” or am I fooling myself? I grab my keys from the hook we installed so I can easily find them. I put on the sunglasses and head out the door.

(In case you are wondering, my sunglasses were on the shelves over the TV. I found them at 9:30 pm. While I was doing something else.)

*the title is taken from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art

Tie, tie again

 

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My son is learning to tie his shoes. It is not easy. It’s not easy to teach and it’s not easy to do. Learning to tie shoes, it turns out, requires desire, patience, persistence and no small amount of fine motor dexterity.

I watch him carefully cross the laces. He does not pull them tight before racing to form the first loop. Bunny ear. He pinches it together, hard, high above the shoe. Too high, I think, but I say nothing because he is already on to the next step, the one that gets us both every time. He takes the second lace, loops it around the first and… randomly stabs it through a space. He pulls. The maneuver does not work. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. So far, neither he nor I can figure out what makes the difference. I’m guessing it’s luck; he thinks it’s magic. Same same.

The bus will arrive in a few minutes. Does he have time for another attempt? Before I even finish the thought, he is pulling and pinching, looping and stabbing again. Without looking up he says, “You do the other one.” His focus is unbroken. Nope, it doesn’t work again.

He scooches his foot towards me, “Your turn.” If he is disappointed this morning, it does not show. This is just part of the routine. How many times has he tried this? How many more before he will be able to do this automatically? How many before he is teaching his own child, trying to remember the steps that elude him right now?

When was the last time I worked like this to master something? When did I last work through failures, secure in the knowledge that eventually I would get it? When did I last believe practice would lead to inevitable success?

Today, my son stands up, shoulders his backpack and skips out the door. His shoes don’t fall off. He knows that eventually he’ll be able to tie those laces. He’ll try again tomorrow.

Sink Holes and Lava Flows

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On Mondays, if I remember, I ask my class how their weekend was, though sometimes by last period the weekend seems far away. I don’t have any research on this, but somehow it seems like talking about their weekend honors their life outside of school and says that what they experience matters. Also, sometimes I glean interesting tidbits about them, and pretty much always I can get a sense of the class energy from the way the discussion flows. So I ask.

Today, before I even finished the question, one girl was shaking her head and making a face. It was not a good weekend. She wants to move. Uh-oh.  I looked at her hard – I know of several reasons why she might want to move, so I wanted to tread carefully, but I also knew that if she spoke up, she might make connections in the classroom, and she might find support, so I took the plunge: “Anything you can share?”

There was a shooting just four doors down from her house; she had heard the shots. She didn’t feel safe. “It was a homicide!” called in a boy across the room. Then he added, almost casually, “I live around the corner. A guy got killed.”  I was shocked, but my students were not. Most of them live in the neighborhood, and they had lots to share. They talked about gun violence in their lives: they have heard it, seen it, been affected by it. I wanted to ask questions, find out if they were scared, know what they have seen, but I also didn’t want to push them or puncture the fragile veneer of safety they had created. One boy said he was not afraid because he wasn’t home when the shooting occurred. One girl said most of the shootings are on the 8th floor of her building, and she doesn’t live on that floor. As they talked, I realized that I didn’t know what to do.

I struggled to figure out my next steps, but my students didn’t hesitate. “Miss, did you hear about the sink hole in New Zealand? It’s GIANT!” “Yeah, and the volcano in Hawaii – you can see the lava!” I shook my head – I hadn’t followed any news this weekend, so I knew nothing. They were really proud that they knew things I didn’t. And just like that, we were talking about the changing world. We searched for articles, collected interesting words (“gigantic cavernous void”), talked about potential found poetry, watched videos. I complimented them for being so aware of the world – they weren’t doing this when the semester started. Most students participated in our discussion; everyone looked at the sinkhole video over and over. We couldn’t believe that it just opened up overnight, that the farmer just happened upon it. We couldn’t imagine having lava flow down our street. We decided that if we were in Hawaii we would NOT be dumb enough to go near the flowing lava to try to take pictures (though I’m pretty sure some of the boys were lying). And then we moved on to the rest of the lesson.

Now it’s evening, and I can’t shake off the shots that my students buried in that sink hole, that they burned beneath the lava flow. In case I had forgotten, my students reminded me today that they lead real lives that can sometimes make school seem beside the point. As we talked in class, we tried to imagine what it would be like to walk somewhere we knew well and happen upon a giant sinkhole in ground that had seemed solid just the day before.  I think that actually happened to me today. Their world is not mine. I am shocked, overwhelmed, embarrassed again and again that I can think that I know who they are. I love them, but I know nothing.

Fragmented

6:30 am
Just going to try to get this written before the kids get downstairs. Don’t expect it to be my best slice, but things are *busy* these days. Nothing like taking over a class mid-semester (and supporting the two teachers who are picking up the other ones) to keep me on my toes. If I can squeeze out 10 minutes, I’m going to call this my slice because today will be full.

[The kids woke up. Breakfast. Out the door.]

10:30am
Ok, so I didn’t finish this morning. Maybe I can edit this afternoon & cobble something together. One good thing about teaching writing is that, if I write alongside them, I get a little writing time, too. This week & next we’re looking at integrating music and writing. Today’s prompt is Beethoven’s Minuet in G & they’re supposedly thinking about atmosphere. I don’t know what they’re writing, but at least m
ost of them are physically writing. Of course, some are not. Some stare, almost defiant. Two are chatting.

[Another teacher came in, looking for my advice about a student with an IEP. Turns out that IEPs don’t go away just because I picked up an extra class…]

2:10
Now’s my moment. If I slice now I can do a quick edit when I get home & up it goes. Hmm… what to write about ? Book Sale – we’ve collected used books all year long to sell at the kids’ school’s Book Sale. This weekend we sorted a boxed hundreds of books. Maybe describe the physical feeling of books – the handling of them. But easier and easier for me to give away (though not my own)! Today we took 624 books (well, more or less: we fudged the numbers a little so that they were even) to the school at 8am. We ferried them out of the gray minivan, across the street, up the steps, through the front door, and into the lobby. Pause. Into the gym and onto the stage. Box after box. Sorted and

[Another teacher came in with a question. Then the principal swang by with a question. Then the Guidance Counselor called.]

7:02pm
Here I am. I have 13 minutes until the boys come tearing into the house & we start the bedtime routine. I promised a friend I would return her call 12 minutes ago. One of the cats just yowled in the backyard (where a skunk sprayed last night). The only edits I’ve managed are to add the interruptions.

Today I’m fragmented. Reflection is hard to come by. Story is escaping me and even the details slip away. I need to get my head wrapped around this new course, need to get to know my students, calm their parents, help my sick colleague, pay attention to the students I already love, play with my own boys, laugh with my husband… I need to feed the cats, make the lunches, wash the dishes. All these little pieces of my life & I’m just going to have to enjoy them as they go by because that’s all I’m going to get right now.

Somebody in some blog somewhere [Update – this is the post I was thinking of] recently posted about kintsugi, the ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. What I’m realizing as I write is that kintsugi depends on having something that is broken, something that is fragmented. I bet the literature on kintsugi doesn’t tell about the moment the vase slipped from her hands, the way the pot hit the hard earth, how she wept when she saw the mess, how she had to take a deep breath, remind herself that the fragments themselves held beauty. No one talks about the hope she mustered as she gathered the shards and put them carefully into a safe place, fingers crossed that someday there would be gold – or words, or love – enough to create beauty from the fragments. She just has to wait.

7:15 – the door just opened (they really are good kids). I’m going to post without the Slice of Life picture or anything. And no editing. Deep breath – here it goes. Maybe I’ll edit and add the picture later.

 

Blooming

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Ready or not: time to bloom

When I woke up this morning, my job description included teaching Special Education and Grade 10 Applied English. We’re six or so weeks from the end of the semester, so I assumed I would continue apace through June. Not so. By the time school started this morning, I had become a Literary Arts (aka Writing) teacher. (And also, of course, because teaching is a little crazy, I’m still a Special Education and Grade 10 Applied English teacher.) I teach at an Arts Magnet school, and one of our teachers can’t finish out the school year with this class. I have been asked to step in.

Am I ready? I’ll admit that I’m nervous and also pretty darn excited. To think: I started this blog a mere two months ago. Two months ago I challenged myself to actually start the writing I’ve dreamed of doing; two months ago I started sharing my thoughts in public; and today here you are, reading this. And here I am, getting ready to teach writing. Is two months (plus umpteen years) enough time to call myself a writer? It’s going to have to be.

Here’s what I know: Yesterday, the crocuses in my yard bloomed. They’re sneaky ones, those crocuses. We’re on the shady side of the street, so things take their time coming out. One day, the yard is completely brown and dead-looking; the next, purple and white blooms appear, fully-formed, seemingly out of nowhere. I know that they did not spring from nothing: they’ve been pushing up through the warming earth, making their way skyward long before I am able to see. They’ve put up tiny green tips under the leaves, sheltered from the cold, testing the air. And when it’s finally time to blossom, they have no reason to hide. The blooms are exuberant, wholehearted, and suddenly it is Spring.

Here’s what I think: I’m a shady side of the street sort of writer, coming along in my own time, tentatively testing the air. Am I ready? Not sure I have the choice. Once Spring arrives, it’s time to bloom.

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Just about every Tuesday I blog for the Slice of Life challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. You can read more posts on that blog.

Night light

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It’s bedtime, but he is just home from his friend’s house and full of energy. He’s not ready to stop bouncing. As I hurry him towards bed, he dances about. In the bathroom he hops on one foot and tosses a balled up sock towards the laundry basket. It misses. No matter. He switches feet and does it again. It misses again.

“You need to pick those up,” I scold.

He wiggles towards the corner to fetch the wayward sock balls, bumping things with his boogie-ing butt. One something falls, kerplop, into the toilet.

He stops.

“Uh-oh.”

An old night light. No longer necessary but it can’t stay there. He looks into the toilet to confirm what he already knows, then he looks at me. Quickly, he glances around the bathroom: he can take care of this himself. He grabs the toilet brush, gives it a disgusted look, and goes fishing in the toilet. Turns out a toilet brush doesn’t make a good fishing rod. The night light is wedged.

“Um, Mom?” His face has fallen. He is chagrined. But then, curiosity fires in him, “What are we going to do?”

My sleeve is already rolled up. Wordlessly, I plunge my hand into the toilet, fetch the offending night light, and deposit it in the trash. He sucks in his breath.

“Have you done that before?” He is impressed.

“Yes,” I say simply, as I soap my hands again and again.

“Thanks.”

Then, casually confident of his mother’s competence, he dances on out of the bathroom, pausing long enough to say, “Good thing I don’t need that night light anymore.”

Standardized test answer

Today our Grade 10 students wrote the standardized literacy test they must pass in order to graduate from high school. I supervised the extended time room and silently cheered them on as they worked. I cannot encourage or help them, but I can smile, wink and even pray. I also peeked at some of the questions. I cannot share the prompts here, but I can share two of my own answers…

Short answer response (6 lines provided):

I can swiftly and easily respond to inane prompts. I can generate a story for any question no matter how banal, pull semi-believable facts willy-nilly from the air, and find the perfect example for even the most general of queries, all while employing the Oxford comma. I can write complete sentences, including participial phrases cleverly separated from a main clause with commas for extra points. I can vary sentence length. I can repress my desperate longing to throw in an effective sentence fragment for style; I can restrain myself because, above all,  I possess the skill of passing standardized tests.
(exactly 6 lines in Google Docs)

Opinion response – maximum two handwritten pages.
I’ve done a sneaky poetic response because
a) it’s Poetry month and
b) I don’t actually want to write a one page response to the question and
c) one of my students worked tirelessly on this one, and my heart broke a little for her.

Standardized Test Opinion Response – a Golden Shovel Poem

She flexes her tired hand then gets back to work, suddenly knowing that no matter what she does
Today in the library, tonight she will do the homework
Assigned by the teacher who looked her in the eyes and said, “You can improve,
You will improve” then gave her harder work because she is learning.