The Way I Felt

Sometime earlier this year, Glenda Funke (over at Evolving English Teacher) told me about Ethical ELA‘s monthly Open Write. As I recall, she shared this after I admitted to feeling very nervous about poetry – mostly about writing it (I pretty much hate every poem I write) and sometimes about teaching it. May’s 5-day open write started on Monday, and I’ve been tentatively following and occasionally joining. Yesterday’s prompt was called “The Way I Felt” and was based on a poem from Jason Reynolds’ novel-in-verse Long Way Down. I knew right away what I would write about – my husband and I had just come in from a glorious bike ride – but then I didn’t write at all. Poetry does that to me sometimes. Well, poetry and parenting.

Then today, Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, announced that we will not be returning to school before the end of the school year. The announcement wasn’t shocking, but it still sucked the air out of the room when I heard it. I didn’t have lots of time to contemplate what he’d said because I had too much school to work on, but the emotions swirled around me for the rest of the day. And then, yesterday’s prompt came to me, and I wrote.  (And yes, I hate the poem I wrote- I pretty much always do. But I won’t get better if I don’t write and get feedback, and writing it made me pin down a few things – and that’s what writing does.)

The Way I Felt

when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was relieved.

No more waiting
for people who don’t know me
to make a decision about
my life
my family’s life
my students’ lives
my community’s lives.

No more hoping for teaching and learning
that feels familiar
that resembles what we had started
that would be better if we were together.

No need to
send my own children to a place I don’t think is safe
make decisions about my own safety
wonder what will come next.

I sat at my work space in the kitchen
listening to the Premier speak
and my shoulders settled
my eyes fluttered closed
my breath finally filled my lungs
with a calm I had been missing.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was heartbroken.

Tears welled up behind my closed eyelids
I drew my breath quickly through my nose
and I pressed my lips together.

My children will not run on the playground at recess
or surreptitiously swap snacks with classmates
or stand in front of their peers to present.
My son will not say goodbye to the school he’s attended
since he was four.

I will not see my students again.

We will not laugh or read or write or share
together in a space that is ours.

I will not see some students again at all
they are not in my class this semester
they will not join an online chat
they will graduate and move on.

Their unknown futures will be far more unknowable than we expected,
and I will not get to wish them well on their journey.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was desperate

to remind them – my students, my children, your students, your children –
that though this is different
so different
from what we expected
they can still learn
and grow
and become.
The world is still full of possibility.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm
Join other teacher-bloggers on Tuesdays at https://twowritingteachers.org

Teeter Totter

Last night I was rubbing one child’s back while I read The Mysterious Benedict Society aloud to both kids. His muscles were tighter than I expected in a 9-year-old, and my thumb jittered off one particularly knotty spot and settled with a shudder into a softer space. “Sorry,” I interrupted my reading, “that must have felt weird.”

He considered. “I kind of liked it. Can you do it again?”

I could not recreate the exact sensation for him, so I went back to reading and continued to rub his back.

After that moment, though, I wasn’t concentrating on the read-aloud as much as I should have been. Instead, I found myself reliving summer moments on the teeter totter in my neighbor’s backyard. We were far too old for teeter totters: I didn’t even move to South Carolina until the summer before 5th grade, and I’m fairly certain the teeter totter didn’t arrive until sometime after that summer. What sort of self-respecting 6th grader plays on a teeter totter? And why on earth did the neighbors have one in their backyard when the oldest of their three children was also at least 11? I can no longer answer these questions, but I know for sure that for at least part of one sticky hot Southern summer, the neighborhood kids ate watermelon and rode on a teeter totter in the Pinckney’s back yard.

I really was far too old for this and, as the oldest in the group, too big, too heavy, too cool. And yet, I couldn’t resist. Rion was big enough to balance against me – or we could put together some combination of the littler kids with the bigger ones to balance things out. Up and down we rode, day after day, laughing, dripping watermelon juice and gleefully spitting out the seeds.

If I close my eyes, I can still remember being the one down on the ground, looking at Rion on the other end of the board, trapped in the air… waiting… waiting… and then – now! – I push off hard and whoosh up to the top where I stop with a hard bounce against the board. Now I am suspended, looking down at Rion, knowing she will push soon…but when? waiting… waiting… and then, whoosh back to the ground where the seat hits with a hard juddering thump. Sometimes we hold each other suspended for breathless seconds between each motion; sometimes we find a rhythm and go up and down up and down with unthinking regularity. One way or another, the fun of it is in the motion, the unpredictability, the sense that where we are is not where we will be, and that we will have to cooperate to keep it going.

Sometimes, in a tiff, one child would hold another high high high in the sky and then, all anger and meanness, hop off the bottom altogether so that the other person would come down fast with a jolting, horrible whomp. Fights ensued. Teeter totter might be soothing in its regularity or wonderfully unpredictable, but abandoning someone to fall on their own was the unforgivable end of the game.

“That HURT!” we raged, eyes nearly streaming with tears because it did, in fact hurt, or it could have hurt or it might hurt next time, or maybe just because the game was over for at least a few minutes and everyone had to content themselves with the dullness of predictable gravity.

My memories were interrupted when the chapter I was reading ended; it was time for bed. Up and down, up and down. We had had a good day, I knew, though some parts were noticeably less good. This whole time has been like that, really.  Up and down: now I can make a list of the good bits – waking later in the mornings, snuggling longer with my children, working out most days – and the bad ones – missing my friends, not seeing my students regularly, feeling like a failure for some part of most days. I give my son’s back one more rub, wondering if I can rediscover the teeter totter, remember the joy in  the waiting, the whoosh and the whomp that are all part of the ride. Use my memories to make my present more bearable. Maybe. Maybe. But not tonight. Tonight it’s time for sleep. I shoo the boys off the bed and head towards their rooms to tuck them in and sing some songs.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

On futons, spiders & memories: Slice of Life 20/31 #SOL20

Today we managed to get the futon frame out of the basement and into the guest room. Our “guest” is our exchange student from the Netherlands. His dad was an exchange student with my family when I was in high school. Given the current state of the world, this exchange is a *little* different than anyone was anticipating. The current state of our house isn’t making things any easier. Luckily, Pieter is very good natured and has not complained about sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor for a few nights. Unluckily, the futon frame – once we found it and got it upstairs – was very dusty and home to more than a few spiders. Pieter and Andre cleaned it up and put it together and then, over dinner, I regaled them with a spider story from possibly the craziest overseas trip I ever led – the time another teacher and I took ten students to Cameroon. 

After dinner and bedtime, I dug up the email I sent from that day, about twenty years ago. Here is a slightly edited letter from my past self to the parents who trusted me (age 20-something – aka *not old enough*) to take their children to Africa for a few weeks. Just re-reading it makes me gasp and smile. (The editing is that I removed the kids’ names, though I doubt any of them would care. We were two chaperones, ten kids from our school in the US, plus five from the local Cameroonian high school.)

Why hello there.  Did you miss us? Have you been sitting at home wondering what in the world your children have been doing?  Well, they are all alive and well and they are not bored.  Let me tell you about it…

As I recall, I left you at the end of the day Saturday – we’d been to the village and the lava flow.  Sunday morning we woke up bright and early and continued our exciting experiences of Cameroonian roads as we headed up to Bimbie, a town not far from Limbe. Our first order of business was hiking the Bimbie Nature Trail which runs through an old growth lowland rainforest – the only one left between Limbe and Douala. We split into two groups and made our way into the dark, humid interior. We walked by fig trees that have adapted to place their fruit on the ground so animals can get it more easily; we saw ebony trees and smelled their wonderfully aromatic flowers – and learned that you can eat the berries inside the flowers, though I found them bitter; we slopped through a mangrove and thanked the heavens once again for hiking boots that the mud couldn’t suck off our feet (though it tried); we saw a tree whose heartwood rots out leaving space for all sorts of creatures, including hundreds of bats; we even saw a four or five hundred year old tree. The hike was lovely and quite a success.

Upon our return to the road, we realized that the car that had been left for us was not big enough for everyone to get back to Camp Saker, the camp where we were staying in the rainforest.  So a LOT of people crowded into the first car, and the other half of us walked. Eventually, the car came back for the rest of us and we all got to the camp, sweaty but happy.

After lunch, we headed back into the forest with researchers from the Botanic Gardens and we learned how to do a wildlife transect to study a forest.  One student got to use the Global Positioning System (super-technology in the middle of the forest) and the rest of us served as recorders, measurers, tapers and spotters. We spotted lizards, caterpillars and birds’ nests as well as lots of crab holes, but we didn’t see much large wildlife because, in addition to the fact that we were crashing through the forest with about 20 people, these forests have been hunted to the point that almost no large wildlife is left.  Sad, but true. A few sweaty hours after we started our transect, we made our way back to the road and then back to camp.

We spent the early evening at the little beach near our camp. The Cameroonian boys all played soccer on the beach and some of our students joined in. Stella, our cook, was supposed to be making us dinner but, unbeknownst to us, our driver accepted a private deal and was, as a result, several hours late. So Stella was stuck in town, and couldn’t get to us. We realized something was wrong as we got hungrier and hungrier, but we really weren’t sure how to cook for 17 in a camp in the middle of the forest with only rudimentary cooking supplies. When I explained to the kids that we didn’t know what was going on, one of the Cameroonian girls stepped up and promptly took over, cooking a delicious bean stew over an open fire in an outdoor kitchen while I made rice (over a gas stove in an indoor kitchen). Let me just say how seriously impressed I was with her ability to take over and cook. Just as we began to serve, Stella arrived with soda (the height of luxury), and even she was impressed that we’d managed a delicious dinner on our own.

After dinner, some of the students organized a coconut feast (the guides had shown them how to get coconut milk on the morning hike). A few kids gathered the coconuts; everyone worked on opening them; one boy even used his baseball skills to throw coconuts at rocks until they burst.  We all loved the fresh coconut meat, which the kids observed tastes nothing like what you get in the grocery store.

Just before bed, I had to get help from my co-chaperone because a GIANT spider had taken up residence on the ceiling over my bed – not quite as big as my hand, but nearly…  I just couldn’t bring myself to sleep underneath it. He chased the enormous thing about until it gave up and dropped directly into my hiking boot – not my ideal outcome. As you can imagine, this made it very difficult for me to put my boots on the next morning. We decided to keep the spider incident quiet because we didn’t want to tell the kids and “creep them out” (many things “creep people out” around here), but then we learned of the lizard in the boys’ toilet and the various critters in the girls’ room, so we shouldn’t have worried. The night was also stiflingly hot, and Camp Saker doesn’t have air-conditioning – or even fans – so we all had a restless night and people looked a little worse for the wear Monday morning.

Today we are having a symposium (which I am late for as I type, so I’m about to sign off) and this afternoon will be spent at the beach with a beach barbecue for dinner. Tomorrow we have an optional hike to Bomona waterfall. It’s optional because it involves starting at 5 am and a 2 hour uphill hike – but the falls are supposed to be beautiful. As soon as the hike is over, we head to Yaounde. Thursday morning we will meet with the American Ambassador and show him our work painting the education center (which the embassy helped fund) at the Zoo and then we go to Douala. All of this is to say that I will probably email tonight, but after that I can make no guarantees. In addition, please limit your emails to your children to a line or two tonight as I won’t be able to get them the actual text, and this is probably the last time you should e-mail.

Hope all is well in DC and that you are out from under the snow.  More information as I can write.

Amanda

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Social distancing: Slice of Life 13/31 #SOL20

Just for today, I let the grade 10s leave before the final bell officially rang. They had asked all their questions, turned in the memoir they’d been working on, and maintained their composure for 73 minutes. They had even agreed to read at home. It seemed like enough. “Goodbye!” they called, and one or two lingered a few seconds longer than normal.

The period before that, the grade 12 students and I had worked together to make plans for our extended March break – all schools in Ontario are closed until April 5. The students met in their book clubs and planned various ways to meet for discussions: Instagram, Google hangouts Flipgrid and Google classroom will host our synchronous and asynchronous meetings. We talked about the value of journals and documentation during times of crisis, and the students decided to write regularly (I’ll provide prompts) for the next few weeks. They really want to learn, these kids. We watched Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk “How to make stress your friend” and talked about reaching out to each other during our time apart. I reminded them that they could email me anytime, and I created a new Instagram account dedicated to working with them. I had to take a deep breath after we said goodbye.

I gave all the classroom plants extra water, gathered my things, and headed to the English office. There, several teachers were in the process of clearing out the refrigerator. April 5 is only three weeks away, but our unspoken concern was clear: what if this lasts longer? I swang by our Spec Ed room to pick up the avocado tree; it’s not really supposed to live in Ottawa, and it won’t last long without water. Back in the office, we threw things away, rinsed, washed, recycled. We gathered books, found papers, printed student phone numbers, just in case.

Finally, there was nothing left to do. Our goodbyes echoed through the hallways – “Take care!” “Be safe!” “Stay in touch!” – as teachers from various departments turned off the lights and pulled the doors closed.

img_2491

Outside of the building, a strong wind threatened to topple the tiny tree I was trying to shelter home. The car door blew shut and my colleague and I, laughing, had to work together to get the tree safely, if awkwardly, ensconced between my knees.

Training ruck march

Moments later, as we turned onto the street in front of the school, a group of soldiers marched by. We knew it was probably a training march, but it seemed oddly apropos. As we drove away from the school, from our students, from our social interactions, the incongruous soldiers in the rearview mirror, we laughed and laughed, trying to forget what we were leaving behind and how little we know of what lies ahead.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Picture this: Slice of Life 12/31 #SOL20

I’m working my way around the room doing reading conferences. Several students have chosen more challenging novels in the last week or so, and I’m curious to see how things are going. As I sit down next to O, I see that he is on page 177 of Harry Potter. He’s been reading it for less than a week.

“Wow!” I say, genuinely impressed. “You’re making really good progress!”

He glances up, murmurs “Mmhmm” and keeps reading. I hate to interrupt, but I also want to check in on him. This is the first book without pictures that he has ever read (which I talked about a few days ago). I want to make sure he’s getting it.

“What do you like about the story?”

He places his finger on the line he was reading and looks at me, eyes wide with wonder. “It’s like I can see the pictures in my mind while I’m reading the words. That never happened before.”

My heart nearly bursts. Elementary teachers often get see students learn how to read; in high school these moments are few and far between. Often if students arrive in high school reading poorly, they leave the same way. For so long, I have worked to help kids learn, I have tried to believe they are “at promise” as much as “at risk,” but it is only now, more than twenty years into my career, that I think I might have hit upon a method that works. I am almost embarrassed to say what it is: meet them where they’re at; let them choose their book; give them lots of time and encouragement; believe in them; wait.

But, oh! He can picture what he’s reading. I could write about this every day forever and ever.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

All they want is to change the world: Slice of Life 10/31 #SOL20

My Grade 12 class is writing personal narrative essays for the first time in their lives. Because the form is new to them, I’ve been flooding them with mentor texts from real life sources, mostly The New York Times “Lives” column and The Globe and Mail “First Person” column. We study structure, imitate style, consider topics and then work on our own essays. Yesterday, we were looking at an essay called “In this age of #MeToo, my daughter needs to know there are good men out there” so that we could study the way the author used multiple short anecdotes to make her point.

My students, ever willing, examined the structure and noticed the chronology, the transitions, the implied thesis, but eventually the discussion turned to the content of the essay itself.

“I really noticed the silencing of women’s voices in this essay.”
“Even her daughter doesn’t have a voice.”
“I appreciate that she trying to point out that there are many good people in the world, but she’s not addressing the bigger picture.”
“Do you see where she credits her partner with being the primary caregiver but then she’s the one with the playpen in her office? I wonder about their definition of primary caregiver.”
“In the end, all of her examples imply that, as a woman, she is a problem and the men are kind for helping her with this problem. They don’t change the way things work, they just make space for the problems she encounters.”

Snapping – our form of quiet clapping – broke out spontaneously around the room at that last comment.

I wish I had recorded the discussion. These young people were understanding of the author’s perspective; they knew what she was trying to do and they sympathized with her. They didn’t disagree that many men are helpful and supportive – and let’s be clear that this discussion included male, female, and a rainbow of LGBTQ+ students – but they were absolutely unwilling to concede that “good” is good enough. They don’t want men to help them lift things, and they don’t want men to change their work schedules to walk them home so they feel safe. They want a world where it actually is safe for them to walk home and where equipment they use to do their jobs is designed so that they can move it without asking a man to help.

I stood in awe of them. My generation owes them more than reminders that many people are kind and that sexism is inevitable. We owe it to them to change the world – and if we don’t, they intend to do it themselves.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Stupid is as stupid does: Slice of Life 9/31 #SOL20

“This is going to sound, well…” she hesitates, turns her head away from me, “I mean, I know it’s silly, but Idon’twanttolookstupid.” Her head comes back around, chin a little up, glistening eyes meeting mine.

I suspect that she’s only meeting with me because her mom – a friend of mine outside of school – made her. I know she wants help, but I also know she doesn’t want to ask for help. No, it’s more than that: she doesn’t want to have to ask for help. But here we are.

*******

Another student stands in front of her class to give a quick presentation. She is well-prepared but visibly nervous. The first thirty-seconds go well, but once she misses a word her colour rises and suddenly she cannot go on. I encourage her gently and she tries again, but she can’t do it. Tears spring to her eyes.

Later, after the others have left the room she apologizes and says, “I just felt so stupid.”

********

“Is he using his computer accommodations?” his mother asks on the phone. I’ve called home because he’s having a lot of trouble writing in class. He just can’t seem to get pen to paper, just can’t seem to get the words from his brain to the end of his fingers.
“No,” I admit, shaking my head, though I know she can’t see me. “He absolutely refuses. He says he doesn’t want to seem stupid.”

********

Look stupid! I want to yell. I want to scream it down the hallways. Look stupid! Just do it! Go out on the limb, take a guess, ask the question! Try the hard way, make a fool of yourself, share your first drafts. Let it all hang out, be yourself, be human. Stop

In class I catch myself saying, “Well, that was stupid” when I make yet another mistake. I look up at a group of soon-to-be graduates, realize what I’ve done and correct myself, “Guess stupid is as good a starting point as any. Might as well keep going.”

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm