Something stinks

Pause for a minute and take stock: we’re 14 months into a global pandemic. While my birth country, the US, has decided the pandemic is largely over, my current home, Canada, has taken a more cautious approach: here in Ontario we are under “stay at home” orders. After weeks of socializing almost exclusively with our immediate family, we have all become slightly feral. The stay at home orders end on June 2, and while many are rejoicing at the small freedoms we will begin to re-experience, teachers, students and parents are still biting our nails. In its infinite wisdom, the provincial government has neglected to decide if the re-opening of the province also means the re-opening of schools. They are, apparently, thinking about it. Nevermind that the re-opening is happening on Thursday. They will come to a decision when they are good and ready.

At any rate, it’s not like they can make this school year any more convoluted than it already has been. Not only have we been teaching in hybrid “quadmesters” (the word “quarters” just doesn’t capture the essence of this school year – and some schools have “octomesters”), but also no two quadmesters have unfolded in the same way: we’ve had fully hybrid, hybrid until the last month, fully virtual…. Quad 4 has been entirely virtual up until now, but with three weeks left in the year we may be randomly shifted back to in-person hybrid. Or maybe not. No one knows. It’s a mystery.

All of this may explain Saturday morning. I was sitting in the kitchen playing a word game when something outside caught my eye. There, just beyond the sliding glass door, a skunk was destroying my hostas.

I. was. livid.

I didn’t even pause. I jumped up, ran to the door, and flung it open. I tore onto the back porch, clad in my fuzzy pink bathrobe and old sneakers, unwashed, hair unkempt, and cried out with all the fury of a teacher nearly at the end of a school year, nearly at the end of a pandemic, nearly at the end of her rope: “DON’T YOU DARE!” I shook my fist. “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!”

The shocked skunk looked up from its meal.

“YOU LEAVE THOSE HOSTAS ALONE! THAT’S ENOUGH!”

She stared at me. I stared at her. I gradually began to realize that my actions might have been, well, rash. There I stood, a slightly crazed, decidedly disheveled, middle-aged school teacher in a pink bathrobe yelling across the lawn at a rodent on a Saturday morning. Still, we stared. Then she turned around.

Well, let me tell you, I took one look at that skunk’s butt and ran back inside. Behind the safety of the sliding glass door, I seethed. Our cat, Hera, joined me. Together, we glared.

The skunk, clearly worried that the humans of *this* house might be rabid, delicately picked her way out of the yard and left.

The lesson? Do not mess with a tired teacher at the end of an exhausting school year during a global pandemic. The teacher will win.

a trail of half-eaten hostas

Picture this

Mr. 10 had to write a quatrain for school. Not just any quatrain, mind you, this quatrain had to be focused on one topic, have a distinctive rhyme scheme, at least 12 lines and alliteration. Reasonable enough, I suppose, but he was having trouble keeping all those things in his mind at the same time. The task seemed impossible, so he had put it off for several days. Now it was late.

Last night, he reluctantly agreed to let me help him. We looked at the list of potential topics and he chose ocean. “Great!” I tried for enthusiasm. “Let’s brainstorm a list of words that you think of when you hear the word ocean.”

He glared.
“Oh, the ocean,” I sighed. “What does that make you think of?”
Nothing.
“Why did you choose the ocean as your topic?”

By now his arms were folded across his chest and his leg was jumping. He has big emotions, this kid, and when they swell, they can quickly drown his rational brain. I tried to calm him, but the undertow was almost inescapable. When I thought we were on firmer footing, we started again: what are some synonyms for ocean? His eyes shifted; his brow lowered; his mouth pressed shut. He wasn’t really ready to talk, but it was already 8pm; he’d put this off as long as possible. Bedtime loomed and he didn’t want synonyms. He wanted something else, but I had no idea what. Finally he spit out, “shark.” Delighted, I slid into my spiel, “ooh, ‘shark’! What a good choice! Let’s see… sharks are gray…”

“Shark, bird, ocean,” he interrupted, then clamped his mouth shut again.

He is not stupid, my boy; he is, in fact, loquacious. When school is open, he regularly gets in trouble for talking. He reads, tells stories, is enthusiastically goofy. But not now. “Sharks eat birds from the sky?” I guessed. This, of course, made no sense. “Sharks eat birds on the ocean? Like seagulls?” He shook his head. I was really trying , but I had no idea what he was thinking. He stamped his foot and I saw tears brimming in his eyes. As gently as I could, I said, “Lovey, I don’t know how to help you write poetry if you don’t use words.” I lowered my eyelids towards my cheeks. Breathed deeply. Prayed for patience.

On Saturday, Chris Cluff had asked, “What stops you from writing?” My answer came quickly: “No space of my own; Virginia Woolf nailed it. I’m ready for our family to go back into the world! Also: fatigue, fear (of failure, of success, that my ideas aren’t good/original/interesting enough); too much time thinking about commitments to others rather than to myself.” Chris’s response was, as always, interesting: “i love what uwrite with flowers. its a very cool fluency”.

I was taken aback. I mean, I walk every day, and take pictures of flowers, but I had never thought of this photography as writing. Barring a photo essay, what would it mean to write with flowers? Flowers as fluency? I needed time to mull this over, to consider, but it was a long weekend and my brain was full of teaching and covid and family and life, so I hit “like”, put the comment in the back of my mind, and imagined I would come back to it later.

It turned out that later was now. Mr. 10 was still not ready to speak. “I don’t know to help you write poetry if you don’t use words” and as the phrase flitted between us, Chris’s comment came back… what u write with flowers.

“Want to draw a picture?”
No.
“Want to look at pictures?”
No.
“Want to tell me a picture?”
He said, “sharks are birds of the ocean. They fly through the water. Their fins are wings.” And I was momentarily speechless.

I wish I could say that was the breakthrough, but it wasn’t. No line of this poem came easily. Often his rhymes were internal, not at the end of lines. He would get caught up in his pictures and lose his words. He fell in love with ideas that didn’t work. He struggled through synonyms and rhyming dictionaries. At one point, both of us nearly cried as we looked for a rhyme for “depths”, a word he was unwilling to let go of or even move. It would be “depths” and it would be at the end of the line. No discussion. I tried not to lose my cool, not to write it for him, not to let him off this hook.

We finally finished, exhausted. He had used almost no alliteration, but he’d written 12 lines with a clear rhyme scheme and a focus. And honestly, I don’t know what we learned, but we did it, and some day – maybe when this school year ends – I’m going to figure out what it means to be fluent in flowers.

[the poem – the flying, the strings, the hemming – that’s all him. I *did* teach him a little about enjambment, but just to tell him that it was ok.]

Sharks of the Sky

I dream of the deep dark sea
The best place in the world to be
The water around me is the sky
Sharks, like birds of the ocean, fly

By me. They glide with fins like wings
The trails they leave in the water are strings
Hemming patterns in the depths
Accepting creatures’ last breaths

Striking fast and leaving no trace
The shark must race,
A streak of grey
Hunting for its prey.

Cookies!

I went for a walk and came home to find them both in the kitchen. They can cook, but they have rarely baked entirely on their own. As I took off my shoes, I heard raised voices and then laughter. Andre walked into the front hall and stage whispered to me, “They’re making chocolate chip cookies. They don’t know that we don’t have chocolate chips.” He cleverly retreated upstairs while I tentatively approached the cooking zone. 

“We’re baking!” Their enthusiasm almost bowled me over. My eyes roved over the counter, floor, children.

“Don’t worry!” said my more cautious elder child, “We started with a bowl that was too small and the butter and sugar kind of went everywhere…”

“It made a HUGE mess,” added his brother, gleefully.

“But we’ve mostly cleaned it up. And now we’re using a bigger bowl. But the brown sugar has lumps so we’re smashing them with our fingers.”

“It’s harder than it looks.”

I offered to help and was invited to finish the creaming. “You’re so good at that,” my eldest said wistfully. 

“You’ll get it,” I reassured. Hoping that my help would soften the inevitable blow, I broke the news that there were no chocolate chips.

They hesitated, then rallied. “We can add Nutella!” said the 10-year-old. “That’ll taste great!”

“And the Dutch sprinkles!” added the 12-year-old, “We still haven’t used them.”

Disaster averted, they pushed forward. “Wait!” Mr. 10 is suddenly nervous, “is it ok that we’ve had the oven on for a kind of a long time? It’s empty! It’s not like the microwave, right?” I nodded and moved away from them. They were on their own.

His brother started to raz him about the time he turned the microwave on instead of using the timer. As they cracked the eggs, they discussed something that had billions of something. They were laughing again. One of them added a healthy dollop of Nutella. The other suggested more. The open laptop was immediately next to the bowl where they were mixing the batter. They tried, unsuccessfully, to use the beaters to mix in the flour. 

I stayed near enough to watch without interfering, keeping my mouth shut and my eyes open.

When the beaters got stuck in the batter, they both left the kitchen in favour of the backyard and the hammock. The batter waited. They returned.

In went the sprinkles. They mixed with their hands because the dough was “too hard”. More laughter. They dragged out the cookie sheets & argued about how big to make the cookies. Then they talked about how much they might spread and how many could go in each row. I managed to say nothing and laugh inwardly.

And now the cookies are baking. They look pretty darn good – and I have a suspicion that the boys might declare them the best cookies ever. They’ll probably be right.

Update #2: 36 hours later, I found some creamed butter and sugar nestled in the leaves of a plant that lives several feet from where the original creaming took place. Luckily, it’s easy to clean

Update #1: The cookies were, in fact, delicious.

Something nice #SOL21 26/31

“I want to write something nice,” I say. “I’ve written so many negative things lately.”

My husband nods. He suggests a haiku. I reject this. I declare it “not good enough.” He gives me a knowing look, “Not hard enough?”

I protest: “Good haikus *are* hard.”

“Not long enough?”

Harumph. He knows me too well. “Let’s just watch tv with the kids and I’ll write later.”

Now it’s later. I need to write. “Something nice,” I mutter again. My darling husband says, “Here, I’ll help” and he begins to dictate a poem.

“It’s an acrostic,” he tells me.

Hunk
Unbearable
Salacious
Bodacious
Astringent
Nefarious
Devious

I try to convince him to change some of the words. Astringent? I suggest admirable instead. He tells me that it doesn’t “fit with the tone.”

By now I am laughing and, for no discernible reason, he has begun to sing “Domo arigato Mr. Roboto…” I have no idea when I last heard this song. One child has come back downstairs and asks what domo means. Now they are discussing Japanese. And I’m writing and laughing and it’s Friday night and even though I’m tired this is better, this is good.

Tomorrow is his birthday. When I don’t know what to write, he gives me ideas. He has both an excellent vocabulary and a good sense of humour. And at the end of a long week, he makes me laugh. My son, who is sitting next to me, says I should add “he’s really good with the kids” – high praise. I don’t write about him enough because his stories are not my stories, but he’s the best partner I can imagine.

And here: I’ve written my Friday slice – and it’s something nice.

Thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org/ who welcome writing whether or not it’s nice.

Dr. Grandpa #SOL21 23/31

His first foray into the kitchen that is currently my classroom is around lunchtime. “Mom, can you bruise a bone?” He stands just out of the camera’s line of sight, poking at his ribcage. “Yes,” I nod and he heads back to the living room, ostensibly to do more school work.

He returns around 2. I’m still online – now in a meeting. “Can you mute yourself?” he mouths. I do. He pushes at his ribs. “What do bone bruises feel like?”

Oh! I briefly ask about his concern and learn that he has a sore bump near the bottom of his right ribs. If the light hits him just right, I can see the bump. I remind him that he spent much of the weekend practicing flips on a neighbour’s trampoline and then went to his parkour class where he hurled himself up and over things. Repeatedly. I suggest that the bump/bruise is probably from that. He nods and wanders off again.

He lasts about 5 minutes. When he comes back this time, he’s obviously in distress. Tears threaten to fall over his bottom lashes, and the bump is a little red, probably from being pushed repeatedly since he’s doing that right now. I leave my meeting.

“Does it hurt?”
“No,” he shakes his head. “Well, only when I really press on it.”
“Do you want a Tylenol?”
His head shakes again.

“I’m sure it will go away if you stop pressing on it, love,” I soothe. At that, the tears spill out and run down his cheeks. He’s not sobbing, just silently crying in front of me. Then I know. I scoop him up in my arms – thank goodness he’s still small enough! – and whisper in his ear, “Are you afraid it’s cancer?”

He nods and begins to cry into my shoulder. Oh, my sweet. Oh, my love. I hold him and rock him and wipe away his tears. He has every reason to be afraid, though we haven’t shared all the details of our friend’s diagnosis. Still, he’s been to the hospital; he’s seen what chemo does; he knows that the grown ups are sad and upset.

“Do you want me to call the doctor?” A quick shake of the head. “Are you afraid of what the doctor might say?” He nods tentatively. “What if we call Grandma Donna or Grandpa Dave?”

He’s unsure of what, exactly, his doctor grandparents can do from a distance, but I have an inkling. We make the call. Grandpa Dave listens very seriously and asks us to send pictures. We hang up, and I sneak onto the back porch to call again and explain what’s happening. I hang up again. Back inside, we wait for Grandpa to call back. This time, he speaks directly with Eric. I’m not exactly sure what he says, but I know it involves Tylenol and ice and follow-up phone calls from Grandpa at least once a day for a few days, maybe the whole week.

That seems to do the trick. By dinnertime, the bump – now largely left alone – is smaller and less red. At bedtime, I remember a technique that Grandpa used on me back when he was just my dad: I draw a circle around the bump with a ballpoint pen so we can see if it grows smaller overnight. Eric seems content, and he reminds me that Grandpa will call tomorrow, just to double check.

Oh, my love, how I wish more things could be fixed with a photograph, a ball point pen, and a few calls from Dr. Grandpa.

Tiny wins #SOL21 22/31

I probably should have called in last night, but I was honestly hoping I wouldn’t have to, even though both my partner and my eldest child were complaining of a sore throat or sniffles or the ever-dreaded “feeling off” as we went to bed last night. Public Health’s rules state that if you have a symptom, you stay home & get tested. Sometimes this feels pretty silly to me – we’ve been home several times for things that are clearly not Covid – but nine schools in our area have “open outbreaks” (meaning someone is still sick) and the variants are clearly here, so when the 12-year-old rolled over and sort of moaned at me this morning, I knew we’d all be staying at home.

Oh, that’s the other rule: if one person has symptoms, they have to get tested & the whole family stays home until the results come back negative. This Spring we’ve had a lot of in-the-house family time. Sigh.

Now, I haven’t used this blog to say a lot of good things about pandemic teaching this year. In fact, I’ve been pretty grumpy about the whole thing. I feel rushed & disconnected & over-connected & pulled in too many different directions to be effective. I could go on. But today I found myself grateful for some of the pandemic changes. Unexpected.

First, I convinced (coerced?) the 10-year-old to read with me in French. This is nothing short of miraculous. We made it through two chapters of Mon Hamster est un Détective before I had to be “in class.” Because I can see his Google classroom, I knew to have him work on math and an outline for his persuasive essay. (He’s pushing for three-day weekends – prescient.) Then, right before my own class started, I made a second pot of tea and then settled in at the kitchen island. Yes! I was able to teach a full class even though I wasn’t physically in the school. My students could see my unmasked face (finally!) and I got to see what it’s like to experience the classroom virtually. Even better, my “sick” child was “able” to do the math test he was missing while we were at home. (I’m not sure he counts this as a good thing.) The teacher simply sent it to him & I supervised.

I know there are downsides to all of this. I don’t think that anyone should teach or study when they are unwell, and I’m *really* going to miss snow days (well, around here that’s “bus cancellation days” because we almost never cancel for snow), but today felt like a series of tiny wins. Not bad for a Monday.

I let him stay home #SOL21 19/31

This morning he was grumpy and, frankly, rude.

He’s stayed up too late, reading, for several nights, even though we’ve turned off his light and told him to go to sleep (he reads by the nightlight if the book is “so good I can’t help it”), so this was entirely his fault.

And yet… something was different this morning. When we sat on the couch to talk, he burrowed into my lap and cried. Today the world was too much for him. Tears rolled down his cheeks until he drifted off to sleep; I held him for as long as I could.

I woke him gently. I had to go to work. We struck a deal: go outside; play the math game; call at least one grandma. Grandmas understand.

And I let him stay home. Because even though we are trying to make things feel normal, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and we are all tired. Some days it’s ok to crawl back into bed, stay home from school and call your grandma.

Even if you have stayed up late with a good book.

Bloody Sunday #SOL21 7/21

My son and I are sitting at the kitchen island, working together. His 7th grade teachers are very big on projects and presentations, so he spends a lot of time creating slideshows – exactly what he’s doing right now. As it turns out, hybrid teaching also requires quite a few slideshows, so I’m doing the same thing.

He loves it when we work together, laptops side by side. Mid-afternoon on Sunday, and he’s still shirtless, wrapped in a blanket. Right now he’s looking up information about Selma and the March to Montgomery for a presentation on John Legend and Common’s song “Glory”. He’s already confused and unhappy, and he has not yet gotten to the worst of it: he’s just about to learn about Bloody Sunday, 56 years ago today. And… here it is.

“Um, Mom, there’s something I don’t understand,” he begins.
Me neither, my love
“Didn’t the law say they could vote?”
“Yes. Yes, it did.”
“So why did people elect a racist governor? Didn’t they know he was bad?”

The pandemic means that I have had the privilege of watching my son’s racial awakening this year, and also the burden. Since my children were small, we’ve read books with protagonists who do not look like them – who are not white boys – and my son’s friends own many identities. Still. There’s knowing and then there’s knowing, and right now he’s starting to grapple with whiteness.

“Why were white people so mean? Why couldn’t they just understand that everyone is a person?”

I badly want to tell him that there were good white people. I want to reassure him, to make him feel better. I want him to learn about James Reeb in the same moments that he is learning about John Lewis, but that’s not the truth. “Not all white people” isn’t what he needs to know.

So we talk about the violent history of whiteness. Briefly, he says, “but not in Canada” and I explain that Canada, too, has systemic racism. This talk is not easy. He does not want this to be true. But it is true, and he needs to know. Eventually, he goes back to his presentation. “What is Ferguson?”

I explain. He feels like Ferguson is long in the past; after all, seven years is over half his lifetime. Isn’t it better now? I remind him of George Floyd’s murder. “Right,” he says, “right.”

This child, this white boy of mine, will need to be part of the solution as our society changes. He needs to know about history – and not just what shows up in his textbooks.

Later, he’s working on a different slideshow, this time about Canadian politician Lincoln Alexander. He asks me to check his work, and I see that he’s written that Alexander “had to work very hard to excel, even harder the I would have to work because of the color of my skin.”

Yes, my love. Exactly. The struggle is with the colour of our skin, not with his.

With gratitude to https://twowritingteachers.org for hosting this annual challenge

Unfounded #SOL21 5/31

One way or another, I thought we should get out of the kitchen. 

Earlier that day, the construction crew had excavated in order to waterproof our kitchen foundation. But instead of a true foundation, all they’d found was a cinder block wall just casually supporting our kitchen, approximately 14 inches back from the edge of the walls. It was as if, at some point in the past, a couple of guys decided to dig out a basement, and while they were at it one of them looked around and said, “Hey, whaddya think about throwing a few cinder blocks up here? Just in case, ya know?” And the other guy said, “Think we should dig on over to the actual edge of the entire house above us?” And the first one said, “Nah, what’s a foot or two? It’ll still hold things up for now.” 

Which meant that now, in 2018, when the foundation crew stopped for the day, we were left with a trench and a flimsy wall rather than the soil that used to help support the kitchen. We also had a small mountain of dug-out dirt towering over the trench. Not ideal, but before they drove off, the guys assured me it was “solid enough” until we figured out what to do. 

The tornado threw us for a loop. We don’t have tornados here: this is a government town, and things like that are just a little too dramatic for our tastes – and Ottawa isn’t exactly Tornado Alley. In fact, we were so surprised when the radios and cell phones started blaring about a tornado watch that we kind of ignored it. It just didn’t make any sense. One of my friends hopped in the car with her child to come over to visit. Even if there was going to be a tornado, she said, which seemed ridiculous, it wasn’t due for another 30 minutes. As my friend walked in, she commented that the wind and rain had really picked up.

She was right about “really picked up” given that it had been a lovely day right up until the tornado came. We sat down in the kitchen, our usual gathering place, and poured a “nice to see you” drink. Andre walked in a few minutes later – he’d biked home from work – and he, too, commented on the wind and the rain. “It was so pretty earlier,” he mused as we handed him a drink.

Did I mention that our kitchen was no longer supported?

Mere moments later, through occasional wind-blown gaps in the rain that was now sluicing down our kitchen window, I could make out cascades of water gushing down the pile of mud and directly into the ditch next to our definitely-not-to-code kitchen foundation. “You’ve got to see this!” I gestured my guests over to the window. 

We looked out, gasping, and at that moment, as the wind howled around us, we realized that we were watching torrents of water flow into the trench below us next to the sort-of-supportive cinder block wall. Standing next to the window meant we were standing over the trench – which meant we were standing over thin air. The lights flickered. One way or another, I thought, we should get out of the kitchen. 

As we settled into the (well-supported) playroom, the lights went out. The kids were horrified and delighted. We rounded up the flashlights and the candles. Within minutes, the winds died down and the rain stopped. From what we could see, the trench had quite a bit of water in it, but there wasn’t much in the basement. Nevertheless, once the tornado had passed, we decided we were better off at a friend’s house for a while. In the end, we were lucky: our house held up, probably because the tornado – which turned out to be several tornadoes – didn’t directly hit our part of town. Our power was out for a while, and school was cancelled the next day, but the foundation crew had been right: that old cinder block wall was, indeed, solid enough. Somewhere in the early 1900s whoever dug out our basement must have known what they were doing after all – thank goodness.

Thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org for hosting this annual challenge