A little extra understanding

The email caught me by surprise. Maybe if I’d woken up earlier, or if I hadn’t already had to help one of my kids with math – before breakfast! – or even if I’d felt more on top of things, maybe then I would have been more prepared, but I wasn’t. Maybe if I wasn’t cooking breakfast and checking work email, navigating my children’s schooling, my partner’s morning meeting for work, and my own job – maybe if I’d been in the school building, I would have remembered to check the timestamp before reading, remembered my personal rule of thumb that middle-of-the-night messages tend to be more emotional and less filtered and are therefore to be taken with a grain of salt. But I was at home, managing all the crazy, and the email was unexpected.

I know the student who wrote, know that the parents are often more worried than the student, know that the student is doing fine – even well! – during this time of remote learning. I can imagine the student’s frustration at being stuck at home with parents and the parents’ frustration at being stuck at home with children. I could hear all of this in the words on the screen. I could guess that the parents, not the student, had laid out the phrases that I was reading.

But it still hurt to read a even a short diatribe about how I’m not doing my job properly. Welcome to Monday morning, the beginning of week 10 of emergency online instruction.

SIGH

To be honest, I’m behind on basically everything, constantly scrambling just to stay near the crest of the growing wave of “things to do.” I’m behind on marking, on providing feedback, on creating new assignments for this new reality, on playing the video game I assigned as text. (Walden, A Game – it. is. awesome. for right now. The grade 12s who chose it are really enthusiastic about it.) I’m behind on navigating the apps and programs I suddenly need to do my job. (Look, I *know* that Screencastify is easy, but I haven’t had time to use it yet.) I’m so far behind on email that sometimes I just scratch the old ones off the list because they’re no longer relevant. At home, I’m behind on blogging, on commenting, on laundry – actually, we *just* caught up on laundry.

Still, I know that I’m doing the best that I can, and that my best is good. I’ve read a BUNCH about online learning and teaching; I’ve been focussing on building and maintaining relationships with students where I can, calling “missing” kids at least once a week; I’ve started a weekly lunch hangout with the English Department, just to chat. I’ve been attending webinars on best practices for online teaching and anti-racist education. I’ve even created a website for Grade 12, just to have a central space for information. I’m really proud of it – even if, to be honest, the students are working in three interest-based streams, and I’m having trouble keeping all the streams up-to-date. Sigh. I know that I’m focusing hard on creating and co-creating work that the students find both interesting and important. And I’m letting my home life fill me up (well, except when I’m negotiating the endless fights about screen time), remembering the importance of time away from work

So after I read the email, I stepped away from the screen. I went for a walk, talked to my children, tried to work. I allowed myself to imagine some *perfect* responses that were cathartic if not especially kind; sadly, neither sarcasm nor lecture are effective responses if learning is the goal. I wrote a nice email to one of my children’s teachers. (They have so many from me at this point that they probably don’t read them anymore.) In the afternoon, when I recognized that the negative words were still a heavy pit in my stomach, I called a colleague. I read her the email, and we laughed and talked. We chatted about this & that, swinging from work to everything else and back again. I was able to focus on some of the more enthusiastic responses I’ve received from students. I loosened up, then used my newly-restored good mood to write a supportive response to the student.

After all, change is overwhelming, and we each deserve a little extra understanding right now. Maybe my response will help my student remember that; it definitely helped me.

Join us at https://twowritingteachers.org each week; come write a Slice of Life!

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.

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Pre-mourning: Slice of Life 28/31 #SOL20

The night before I turned 29, I sobbed. I forget what comment from what well-meaning relative released the river of tears, but there it was, there I was, crying uncontrollably about a life I couldn’t control.

At 28+ 364 days, I was unmarried with no children. I loved my job, knew that teaching was who I was, but I felt stuck in a life I hadn’t expected. My birthday, near the end of November, often coincides with Thanksgiving, so I was surrounded by family and usually felt buoyed by love. That evening, I was bereft. Where was the life I had dreamed of? What would become of me? What came next?

My poor father was perplexed by my outburst. He rubbed my back and repeated, “Honey, you’re turning 29, not 30.” And, to be fair to him, I didn’t cry even once the next year when I turned 30 – still unmarried, still childless, still in the same job. Then, I celebrated: a visit to wine country with my sisters and mother; a series of dinners and parties with friends; and, on the day I turned 30, a decadently expensive bottle of wine shared with a dear friend over our favourite takeout Peruvian chicken. No tears at all.

I often mourn before I am meant to. I anticipate the yearning, the loss, the melancholy; sensing an open door, these emotions respond by visiting before I have actually prepared for them. I should know better by now, but I am almost always caught by surprise. Tears come when I least expect them.

This month, I have written and published something every day for 28 days. 28 days ago, I was staring down a month that was far too busy for this challenge. I guessed that I couldn’t blog daily, but I wanted to write anyway. On March 7, we moved back into our home after months of renovations. On March 8, friends gathered to help us move in. On March 12, Ontario announced that all schools would close for three weeks at the end of the next school day. On March 14, some friends and I had a craft day. By March 16, the seriousness of COVID-19 had set in and physical distancing was in full force. My expectations of March were nothing like reality I encountered; I was able to write daily. I forced myself to write daily, even when I didn’t want to write.

Today is day 28. For the past week, writing daily has been tough. I had to consciously allow myself to write about what is actually happening, to name this moment in time. I had to forgive myself when I couldn’t seek out unfamiliar blogs to read. I had to accept that I didn’t always have the emotional resilience to respond to the wonderful comments on my own blog. Some days I *really* didn’t want to write. Some days I actively looked forward to the end of March, to the relief of not writing daily.

Today, day 28, not day 31, the pre-mourning has arrived. What will I do without this daily ritual, without the knowledge that I need to look actively for moments to record and share? What will I do as this virtual community dissipates, convening only on Tuesdays? This blog, this writing, this group has sustained me through the transition into a reality I had never imagined. What will I do without it?

At age 28+364 days, I could not anticipate the fullness of my life today. I had no secret foreknowledge of the wonders that were on their way. My mourning was real but unmoored from reality because I didn’t know what was to come. I didn’t know that turning 30 would be easy. I couldn’t have guessed at my husband, my children, my life in a new country. I couldn’t fathom the adventures that awaited.

On day 28 of the March Slice of Life Challenge, I am pre-mourning the end, and I am trying to remember that there are, undoubtedly, wonders to come. There almost always are.

Still, if you are reading this, I miss you already.

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My achy breaky heart: Slice of Life 27/31 #SOL20

This morning, my 9-year-old had his first-ever online meet up with his class. The kids were so excited to see each other that some were literally bouncing out of their seats. Several brought pets which led to others leaving the room to go get their pets. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs and even a hamster all played brief outsized roles. I stayed until my son waved me out of the room, but I wasn’t focused on the guest appearances. Instead, I watched his teacher’s face, transfixed by the genuine delight and caring that crossed it as he saw each little person show up on the screen. For one moment his eyes glistened, then he took a deep breath before he continued. My heart ached for him.

*********

This afternoon our 18-year-old exchange student went home to the Netherlands. During his short stay with us, he met a young woman and, in the way of teenagers, they fell head over heels for one another. Because pandemics apparently hold no sway over passion, they struggled to stay apart. Ok, truth: they didn’t stay apart. So this week our family and her family decided to break social isolation and let the two of them be together for four final days. Yes, we took a risk, but seeing them together at our house for the past two days made my heart swell. I had nearly forgotten about that overwhelming, all-consuming love that makes the rest of the world fall away from you. They were almost glued together at our house and were completely devastated when we dropped him at the nearly empty airport. Their hearts are broken for now, and my heart aches with mirrored emotion, aware that I know more than they do and that the knowledge isn’t always sweet.

***********

Today is my husband’s birthday. He woke up and made *us* scones because that is who he is. Later, while he was dropping the teens at the airport, the kids and I tried to secretly bake him a cake. Because I had a call scheduled with some of my own students, my boys proceeded on their own. When I finished the call, I found the kitchen and the kids fairly covered in butter and flour. Unable to find a mixer and unwilling to interrupt my call, the children had tried to cream the butter and sugar with a wooden spoon, then added the flour without adding any liquid ingredients. When I showed them how to read the whole recipe first, their faces fell: “Do you think it will still taste ok?”

“Oh yes,” I assured them, “if you have good ingredients, the results are almost always pretty good.”

Before I could stop them, they dumped all the buttermilk in at once, adding to the existing kitchen chaos. I started to laugh, my heart aching with happiness at their excitement.

***********

After the cake-baking, I insisted that we go for a walk. This was not a popular decision. Still, the kids have been inside for two days and it was finally sunny and veering towards warm. I was relentless. I forced them outside.

On our walk, my younger son complained and complained of a bellyache but offered little information and no solutions. Eventually, I lost my temper and yelled at him. Not long after that, he ran behind a metal bin and everything came out of him. I had to use my disinfecting wipes to clean him up. Afterward, he held my hand and snuggled close as we walked home, and he didn’t say anything about my inappropriate anger. My heart broke a little at his ungrudging forgiveness.

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

Today my heart has ached all day long.

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The little things: Slice of Life 25/31 #SOL20

Today did not go the way I expected it to although, now that I’ve written that phrase, I suppose I could say that about pretty much any day of the last two weeks, which is when COVID-19 reared its ugly head in this part of the world. And, if I’m being even more honest, daily chaos of some sort or another has featured in my life for nearly 12 years (hello, children), and probably for longer than that (hello, teaching). Still, since we’re in middle of a global pandemic, I’m totally going to blame the virus rather than my life choices. After all, pandemics need to be good for *something*.

At any rate, I woke up today ready to write this blog – clearly I did not, in fact, finish it this morning because it is now decidedly evening and here I am. And, worse, none of my “hangouts” worked, my children were stir crazy (we baked brownies and polished silver, among other things – yes, you read that right. We polished silver. I cannot explain this. We don’t even *use* silver. I honestly didn’t even know we *had* silver. But there you go.) Still, I had a plan, dang-nabbit, and involved pictures. I’m plowing ahead.

Yesterday, Molly over at Nix the Comfort Zone joined Leigh Anne’s Self Care Spring Fling. Leigh Anne invited us to share our three best self-care ideas. Molly’s second was “Focus–At least for a little bit every day, take the time to slow down and focus” then added, “For me, both writing and photography help.”

If you want to see some beautiful nature photography (and read some excellent poetry, too), Molly’s blog is a great place to hang out. I find the pictures inspiring or calming or just what I need, and recently her inspiration has slipped over into my walks. My walking has increased because of COVID-19 (remember a few days ago when I didn’t even want to name it? Take that, you nasty virus! I can say your name!); I am often nearly desperate to get out of my house. With the walking has come noticing, and with noticing, photography (from my cell phone – don’t get too excited). The photographs, in turn, have enticed my children to come walk and notice. This is a cycle I highly recommend.

We have taken to looking for small unexpectedly beautiful things or big things with details we might have overlooked before. One boy likes close-ups and shapes; the other likes the way colours go together or how things look from a distance. We try to look at both natural and manmade things. We pass my phone between us, sharing each delight with the others. Every walk reveals things we’ve never noticed before, no matter how many times we have previously walked that way.

Our neighbourhood is quiet these days, and we have plenty of time to pause, notice, reflect. Our walks meander. Our focus, however, seems to have sharpened. It turns out that our everyday is brimming with wonder. Who knew?

 

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Precision: Slice of Life 22/31 #SOL20

Days before we all became aware of COVID19 and started practicing social distancing, we moved back into our house after nine months of renovations. While the world has changed so much so rapidly that I could almost swear we moved home months ago, we’ve actually been home for less than two weeks. And our builders only finished up two days ago – or maybe three? I honestly cannot remember.

The last thing the builders finished was the basement, and the renovations meant that we lost some of our attic storage space. Taken together, this means that we have not been able to unpack nearly as much as we would have liked to because we really needed the basement space for a) things that used to live in the basement and b) everything else. Mostly, we’ve been moving boxes to new temporary homes, cursing a lot, and swearing that we are just going to donate everything that’s still in a box so that we don’t have to make another decision. Things are so bad that I might have even taken that last step if only any of the charities were open.

Our house is still complete chaos.

While I am very, very far from a neatnik and can tolerate a fair amount of mess, I have realized over the last few years (ok, truth: after having children) that there is a level of clutter beyond which I get pretty stressed out. We have been there for weeks. No matter what I clean or move, when I turn around, more awaits me. Boxes are everywhere, taunting me, daring me to open them, their unknown contents laughing evilly, waiting for me to despair. My senses are tuned too highly: every noise bothers me, every touch sets my skin to alert (yes, I’m rashy); my tastebuds, oddly, dull & I sneeze often. Many days, I hide in our bedroom to avoid the onslaught. Sometimes I have trouble breathing.

Andre, however, is largely unphased. He spends hours in the basement moving things from the front to the back, from the floor to the shelves with dogged determination. He is calm, careful and confident, knowing that all of this will eventually be sorted out. He finds a happy medium between motion and perfection. He just keeps working, even when I try to pick a fight. He is measured where I am not.

This afternoon, trying to calm my senses, I steal a quiet moment in the sundrenched space of the new kitchen. I sip my tea, concentrate on reading, on writing, on breathing. At the other end of the room, hidden behind the kitchen island, Andre and our younger son begin a project. Andre tells him about the proverb “measure twice cut once.” They practice cutting; they roll something out. Oh! They are making a peel & stick chalkboard calendar for our family schedule. I overhear them measuring and measuring again. “Ok,” says Andre, “We need to cut at 24 and 7/8 inches.”

I am incredulous. 24 and 7/8″? Seriously? At this very moment in our house I cannot reliably find my bathrobe. Our kitchen things appear to have multiplied while in storage. Our younger son’s room is literally knee-deep in stuffed animals; the 18-year-old exchange student is on hour four of a “socially distanced” walk with his girlfriend (so let’s just acknowledge that there is no distance left there, thus undoing all of our work); I think my older child may have been playing video games for 48 hours straight; there are boxes in every single room of our home and, oh, yes we are in the middle of a global pandemic and my husband – a man I married on purpose – is cutting something with a 9-year-old so that it measures exactly 24 and 7/8 inches?

I start to chuckle deep in my belly. I feel a smile threatening to become a full laugh and press my lips together, hard, to stop it. My eyes crinkle as the smile fills my cheeks. Of course he is. In a world filled with chaos, Andre figures you might as well get the measurements right. When they get that calendar on the wall, it will fit perfectly, and it will stay there for years, I bet.

Suddenly, I can breathe a little more easily. Might as well finish up this post and then, I think I can tackle some of those boxes again. I’ll leave Andre to finish up in here. He’s got this under control.

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Abide: Slice of Life 21/31 #SOL20

I am struggling.

I am struggling to find something to write about. This is ridiculous because there is a very obvious thing to write about. But I am petulant and angry and frightened and I don’t WANT to write about it. Yet not writing about it seems unfathomable. Everything – everything – is touched by the thing I don’t want to write about. It is Voldemort in disease form: that which must not be named.

I am struggling to do the work for the course I am taking. Ten days ago I was interested, but now writing about assessment & evaluation in English courses feels ridiculous. I usually dive deep into research and learning, eager to improve my practice and my students’ experiences. Now it seems silly. Who cares how we assess listening when I cannot even see my students? Who cares about grades when we need to be reading the world?

I am struggling because we don’t yet have direction from our school board about how we are going to proceed Monday when our March Break ends. I mean, we know we are not going back for at least the next two weeks, but what then? Online learning? For how long? In what form? I miss my students (which is odd because it was technically March break). I want to give them some sense of stability, some sense that we are learning and moving together. 

I am struggling because so much of my family lives in the US and I live in Canada. And these two countries are not responding to the thing I do not want to write about in the same way. And I am frightened for the people I love. 

I am struggling because my parents are not reacting to this in the way that I wish they would. I want them to stay home, stay safe, stop working, have others do their shopping for them. I want them to understand that *they* are in the high-risk category. They want to make their own decisions, to weigh the risks themselves. I am struggling to remember that I am the child, not the parent. I am struggling to accept that we will all make our own decisions.

I am struggling because I am making choices for my own children and the child of another family who is staying with us this semester. I have just told the 18-year-old that he cannot go stay with his girlfriend. I have told the 9-year-old and the 11-year-old that they cannot play with their friends. I have told them all that they must take walks, find projects to keep busy, stop complaining. I have told them that they must follow rules that I used to tell them they could challenge. 

I am struggling to be kind to myself. To eat well and to exercise enough. To recognize that I am overwhelmed. I am struggling to focus. I am struggling to find the happy medium between acceptance and fear. 

Online, an old colleague used the word “abide.” The word felt calm and solid. I wanted a touchstone, so I looked it up. Bear with me here:

Definition of abide (Merriam-Webster)
transitive verb
1a: to bear patiently : TOLERATE
b: to endure without yielding : WITHSTAND
2: to wait for : AWAIT
3: to accept without objection
intransitive verb
1: to remain stable or fixed in a state
2: to continue in a place : SOJOURN

Calm and solid, yes, but not easy, this word, this abide. At first I thought that abide was nearly the opposite of struggle – and I am struggling. I despaired a little: I cannot abide. Then I realized that, in fact, the opposite of to abide is to give up, to quit, to leave. One can struggle and still abide. I can struggle and still abide. 

I want to write about moments and memories; pleasures and problems; issues and ideas. I have all of these things to write about. For today, however, I will abide. For today, I will acknowledge that, for me, to abide I will have to struggle. 

And I am struggling.

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