I do believe… I do. I do.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_h“The word ‘believe’ is rooted in an old English word meaning to hold dear, esteem, trust; it has the same origins as the word ‘love.’ To ‘believe’ is not to agree with particular ideas or concepts, but it is make a commitment of the heart.” – Rev. Bryant Oskvig

 

Last year, I overheard a colleague complain that “everyone” has autism these days. My first reaction was disgust – how could they!? – but my second was compassion. After all, haven’t we all had times when we didn’t believe?

I was teaching 7th grade math. Math! Of all things. And middle school. I had wanted to teach either 3rd grade or high school English – middle school was on my “never will I ever” list. But here I was, in an oddly-shaped room with creaky wooden floors in an old house in downtown Washington, D.C. The school had as much  personality as its location and the students, well, they matched their surroundings.

To be fair, the teachers were equally unconventional. I was one of the few teachers with any formal education credentials, and all of us were impossibly young and unmistakably dedicated to teaching well. We used to joke that we should just put beds in our offices and move in: it would save us the charade of having a life. I was trying to learn the craft of teaching, but 7th grade math in a quirky little school was a far cry from anything I had studied or practiced in grad school. So I was reading a lot about teaching and doing a whole lot of thinking on my feet.

My classroom was full of squirrelly 12-year-olds, and I was full of crazy ideas. We kept math journals, created math skits, and learned statistics with M&Ms. My fellow teachers and I shared successes and failures daily. We dissected education trends and talked about various ideas for hands-on learning. And we complained. Not a lot, but plenty. Often we complained about how “all the kids” had “some diagnosis” that prevented us from using our fancy, researched techniques.

One of our favorite targets was ADHD (though it was ADD at the time). We were virtually all single 20-somethings, but that didn’t stop us from harrumphing about “kids these days” and speaking knowledgeably about parenting trends and over-medication. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I firmly believed that ADHD was a fad and that most medication was just to settle down normally active children.

In my classroom, students sat in a semi-circle. That is, when they sat. Memory tells me that “a bunch” of them were boys, but I can’t vouch for that. I can say that they lacked a certain focus every day after lunch. They were sweaty, talking, moving, tapping, crazy creatures who occasionally learned some math almost as if by accident. And then there was Alex.

Alex was in constant motion. He talked a mile a minute and had incredible eyelashes that framed big hazel eyes. He could make me laugh in about half a second, and I was pretty sure that he actually wanted to learn math. That said, he had physically fallen out of his desk more than once… Oh, and he “supposedly” had ADHD. He was pretty much always in some sort of trouble.

For a while, I had tried putting students who misbehaved into the center of the semi-circle. Only belatedly did I realize that a) I was shaming them, and b) many of the boys took complete advantage of having all eyes on them. I needed a new plan. One of my books suggested a “three-strikes and you’re out” policy. I went with it.

I’ve forgotten the lesson that day, but I know it was a fun one. I know this for sure because Alex really wanted to take part. He was leaning forward in his desk, straining and stretching, tilting the whole thing at alarming angles. He had mentioned that he hadn’t taken his meds that morning, but since I didn’t really believe he had ADHD, I didn’t take much notice. I gave him his first warning about 5 minutes into class.

He looked chagrined. “Sorry. I just can’t focus.”

I gave my best stern look, “Well, give it a little more effort.”

He did. I could see he was trying to watch only me. But he just couldn’t. He was trying to watch everyone in the whole class at exactly the same time. Sure enough, minutes later I gave him his second warning and sent him to cool down in the hallway.

He came back in quickly. He was so excited to be in the room. He sat on his hands. He held his beautiful eyes wide open. He squirmed and he wiggled. And he fell out of his desk. Somehow, this time, I knew it had been an accident. But the whole class was laughing, and I had this three strikes policy.

“Alex,” I said, “you have to go to the office.”

“I know,” he replied, and his little head hung low. His whole skinny little body was the picture of despair. “But I was trying to be good.”

My heart broke as I asked the question: “But were you good?”

“No,” he said, so softly I could barely hear him. He looked up through his long lashes as tears started to fall. And he went to the office.

Because, you see, he had ADHD. And he hadn’t taken his medication. So he couldn’t focus, and the whole exciting classroom was one giant distraction for him. I knew it in that moment as surely as I knew anything.

I wanted to shout after him, “Wait! No! I was wrong! I believe!” But I didn’t. And since I wasn’t the only non-believing teacher, that wasn’t his only trip to the office. Happily, we had an incredibly kind principal and a deeply connected community. I taught Alex again, and I was privileged to watch him grow up. Today, I see him on Facebook and I marvel at the compassion he has for his own students. He was an outdoor education instructor and now he teaches science. He seems to be a fantastic teacher, but I could be a little biased.

And I believe. I believe in ADHD and autism and so much more. I worry sometimes about labels, and I know that these things are complicated. But mostly, I look at the children who come into my room and I think, “I believe you. I believe in you.” And I wish for my non-believing colleagues a moment that helps them believe, too.

 

Whisky sour, please

As I navigated the cobbled streets on the way to the hotel, I hoped that would be less awkward than I had been at 13. I was 20, on my way to meet a charming British gentleman at his hotel in Strasbourg, France.

I was studying abroad and my aunt’s father-in-law was attending a meeting not far from my temporary home. My aunt, always interested in strengthening the ties between the people she loves, had insisted that we get together. So here I was, teetering precariously through the ancient streets on brand new heels to meet a man I barely knew.

The last time I had seen Bill – the only time, in fact – was at my aunt’s wedding 7 years earlier. I had been an awkward 13 who fell hard for a handsome blond British boy who’d flown in for the wedding. He was one of my very first crushes. We had spent a lot of time gazing and each other and dancing. There is a distressing amount of photographic evidence of this. Bill, the bride’s father and the 15-year-old’s great uncle (I think), apparently found me charming, though looking back I did not recollect feeling charming in anyway. ‘Self-conscious’ would have been my choice of description.

I was definitely self-conscious now, as I walked into the lobby of a fancy hotel on the River Ill and glanced around for a man who was 44 years my senior. Ah, there he was, crossing the room with a welcoming smile. I can’t remember if he kissed me on my cheek or placed a comfortable hand over mine, but I’d bet he did both. He embodies graciousness, and his kind presence calmed me as we said hello.

He immediately suggested an aperitif, and naturally I agreed, but as we walked across the lobby to the elegant bar, I was suddenly aware that I had no idea how to order a drink. Of course I had been on dates before, and I’d been to college bars, but I wasn’t a big drinker, and since I wasn’t of legal drinking age at home, I’d never ordered a drink in a fancy restaurant. What was I going to do?

We sat down, and my increasing panic must have shown. A glass of wine? Surely not a beer? I didn’t even know the names of most cocktails. My eyes darted to the bar as the waiter approached. Then, quietly but with a sparkle in his eyes, Bill leaned towards me and said, “If I may. I suggest a whisky sour. In my experience, the ladies enjoy the sweetness and the men are always impressed by the whisky.”

I ordered my first whisky sour that evening, and I kept ordering them for years. Bill was right: I impressed many a date with a confident, “whisky sour, please.” Their sweetness accompanied by the complex undertones of the whisky always brought the echo of a lovely evening in Strasbourg, France with a charming older gentleman who saw me as I could be.

Bill turned 90 this week – my aunt, still connecting us all these years later, has been sending me pictures of the celebrations –  and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him a few more times in the quarter century since that evening. To me, he is the epitome of graciousness. So today, I raise my glass to Bill, and to his clever recommendation and simple kindness to a young woman he barely knew in a restaurant in a foreign country 25 years ago. I’ll have a whisky sour, please.

Late Night History

It’s late and the long weekend has begun. My mother and my aunt have arrived. The kids are asleep, my mother too. Me? I’m exhausted  – sleep has eluded me several nights this week – but up late trying to write my slice for tomorrow. I am overwhelmed at the thought of this month ending, overwhelmed by the supportive community here, overwhelmed by what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced. I have changed, and I had planned to write about it. But I’m sitting in at the kitchen listening to my husband and my aunt, deep in animated conversation. Honestly… how can I write or reflect when they are talking history?

For my husband and my aunt, history is alive and fully present. They are teary while talking about Uncle Pete (my great uncle) finding a baby during WW2 and carrying it with him through France until he found a family to care for it weeks. My aunt has a picture of the baby on her phone, but no one knows what happened after Pete gave the baby back. As Pete was dying, he wondered about that baby.

UPDATE: Here’s the picture of “Pete’s baby”
Pete's baby.jpg

And now my aunt is telling another story… and there are more tears – for a soldier who died at 19, for his buddy who lived and married his friend’s widow, for his revelation 50 years later that he had been living his buddy’s life for him and, after all that, he was afraid if his wife died first she would meet his buddy in Heaven and he would lose her forever. He died minutes before she did. These men, their stories, they are real and important right now in this kitchen.

And now they are laughing through the tears – for Uncle Pete who probably would have been diagnosed with PTSD and swore to God on a battlefield that if he ever got home he would never leave Rte 27 again. How he RSVP’d for a wedding by writing on the back of the invitation “Sorry, can’t leave Rte 27 yet.” How he really thought that Eleanor Roosevelt and Churchill were having an affair. And about the seemingly endless keg of beer in his basement…

And now they are on to Band of Brothers. And Saving Private Ryan. And Frederick Forsyth’s “The Shepherd.” Movies and stories and books that have embodied the stories that move them to tears. Their passion, the way they build on one another, their fully focused presence in this kitchen, far from any battle – it’s absorbing.

And here I sit, listening, writing, and marveling at their passion, at how stories bring these men into our kitchen, at how important the stories are. Tomorrow, I’ll mourn the end of this Slice of Life Challenge. Tonight, I’m listening to two of my favourite people discuss their passion like it is alive. What could be better?

slice-of-life_individual

 

Slice of Life Day 30, March 2018

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this wonderful month of inspiration.

 

For D’Arcy: a list

If you are reading my blog regularly or semi-regularly this month (thank you!), you may have noticed that I’ve had a tough week. I know this makes several heavy posts in a row, but I suppose some weeks are like that, and these are the moments that are resonating with me. Thanks for hanging in there with me. I’ve been noticing plenty of sunshine even through this gray; I promise to share it soon. 

For D’Arcy – a list

I remember

  • You walked onto the frozen canal wearing only a thin – but very fashionable – shirt and a light jacket. Your mother muttered to me, “He runs hot. He has always run hot. I worry about him.” I thought it was sweet that she worried about a nearly-grown man. Surely you knew if you were cold?
  • The nurse called from the hospital, “He said to tell you he is fine. He told us that you are pregnant. He’s worried that you’ll be upset.” I was at work. You were not fine. I was upset. I still don’t know why you asked them to call me and not your brother. I was worried, you hot-headed boy.
  • We stood just outside the movie theatre near those stairs, the hot sun shining through the big windows, illuminating us. You said, “It must be so incredible to be growing a life inside you.” I was heavy and hot. “Not so incredible, just exhausting,” I grumbled, but you still had a look of wonder on your face. Or maybe I’ve added that.
  • Andre hung up the phone and momentarily filled the doorway, saying, “My brother is dead.” And then he crumpled. It was March. It was cold.

I can no longer remember

  • The last time I saw you.
  • What you cooked that night we came over for dinner.
  • What happened after that first phone call from the hospital. You stayed with us, right? Surely you stayed with us.
  • If you ever came inside our new house.
  • If you ever touched my pregnant belly.
  • If you ever felt your nephew kick.

It’s been 10 years. Even the most solid things are melting away. Is it a memory or a photograph? A story someone told? A detail I added to comfort myself? I can’t remember anymore.

I can’t remember.

slice-of-life_individual

 

Slice of Life, Day 23, March 2018

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this wonderful month of inspiration.

Learning to love again

Once, when my older son was about 3, not long after his brother was born, he started a list of all the things he loved. He was inspired by the large roll of paper we were drawing on and the urgent need to capture the incredible greatness of everything. He dictated; I wrote. He had a LOT to share, and I had trouble keeping up. At one point he stopped to take a breath, looked over at me and commanded: “Mommy, you do it, too.” Good idea: next to his list, I wrote the heading “Things Mommy loves” and underlined it. I wrote 1. Then I hesitated.

“Love” is such a big word. There are many things I like, but things I love? I wanted his expansive, all-encompassing list, but I could only think “my children, my husband” in the most common and inane way. I wanted to feel his urgency, but instead I was mired in uncertainty, unwilling to commit, unable to generate even one thing. I rejected everything: yoga? I mean, I really enjoy it, but love it? Maybe ice cream? How silly is it to start with ice cream? Teaching? I love teaching, but what does it say that my list of things I love starts with my job? I got tangled in my own head and couldn’t get myself unstuck. My toddler loved THE WHOLE WORLD and I couldn’t write anything. I was exhausted and I was nearly in tears. My child had no interest in my existential crisis.

“Mommy!” His little voice was imperious. “Do you like fudge?”

“Well, yes,” I hesitated.

“Then write that down.”

And my love blew the world open again.

—-

This memory returned to me when I saw Elisabeth Ellington’s 12 things I love slice. I was inspired. (She, in turn, was inspired by Margaret Simon who was inspired by two others.) With a nod to those who came before me, and special gratitude to my son, who continues to teach me to love, here are 12 things I love.

12 Things I Love

  1. I love fudge. (Because even though if I stopped to think about it, I would probably list it under “likes”, it counts. Everything counts.)
  2. I love chai tea, creamy with milk, in the morning
  3. I love the way my 7-year-old hums and sings as he goes about his day.
  4. I love reading a book that’s so good I stay up past my bedtime or sneak paragraphs in the car before picking up the children.
  5. I love breakfast. I love that we eat breakfast together as a family. I love that we make big elaborate breakfasts on weekdays and then laze around and eat dry cereal on the weekends.
  6. I love when the phone rings and the caller ID tells me it’s one of my sisters or one of my best friends. I love that sliver of time before I press “talk” when I’m already smiling.
  7. I love ice cream. I especially love Breyer’s vanilla ice cream with real vanilla beans. Because that is the best.
  8. I love starry nights at the beach.
  9. I love teaching. I love being in the classroom, getting to know the kids, trying to figure them out, trying to show them why I love literature, helping them find their own voice and their own love.
  10. I love yoga. I love feeling my body stretch out and my mind pull in to focus on body and breath, breath and body.
  11. I love baths. Long, hot baths are one definition of luxury.
  12. I love.

 

Day 13 of the Slice of Life Challenge

And so it goes..

While searching through my idea files, I found a journal entry from my second week of teaching in France twelve years ago. I’ve tweaked it, but it’s just too funny not to share. So today’s slice is a memory:

Week Two begins and all is well in the world of the Lycée. After the topsy turvy beginning of the French school year, today felt like time to get down to business.

My première class (11th graders) started at 8am (poor things – teenage body clocks just aren’t set for that time!) by writing their (required) summer reading essay. I brought an electric kettle, tea, and coffee to help their brains get moving – and N brought in a few store croissants. I’m not convinced any of them could make heads or tails of One Hundred Years of Solitude by reading it on their own over the summer, and I’m sad that I had to assign this essay before we discussed it. I told them to think of it as practice for when you really don’t know what you’re doing: you come up with something and make damn sure the writing is good because you know the content isn’t. At least I made them laugh before they began. Still, who wants to start the year handing the teacher an essay that doesn’t really represent their ability? Ah well. They wrote for the entire 90 minutes – not one finished early.

All French students have a “trousse”. The technical translation of this is “pencil case”, but the truth is much more complex. A trousse holds the keys to success in the French school system.

Trousse Canvas Matahari - Noir
Une trousse

Much like Mary Poppins’ magic carpet bag, the trousse might contain anything: I have seen students reach into their trousse and come up with pencils, ball point pens,  ink pens, colored pencils, markers, ink-pen erasers with blue write-over tips,  rulers, scissors, small staplers, paperclips, ponytail holders, small dictionaries, cell phones, TVs,  entire living room sets, deeds to houses, and occasionally originals of the constitutions of various small countries. Every writing task involves a variety of colors and steps: even note-taking requires straight edges to underline headings, colors to show what point goes with what and careful ordering of the points the teacher makes. Me? I make regular use of mind-maps and often end class with a chalkboard full of arrows and circles. So far I’ve resisted the temptation to see how my very organized students are possibly using straight-edges and magic eraser to make sense of my crazy notes, but I’ve already started dreaming up days of mild torture: using multiple colors of chalk haphazardly, starting phrases and then crossing them out, beginning an organized chart then erasing it – or adding to it – in the middle. Someday I’m going to steal all their straight edges and see what happens. I imagine the entire classroom will devolve into chaos.

My 5ème class – the 7th graders – has no problem talking, though I suppose some would argue about how much thought goes into it. They continue to amuse me and I suspect will do so all year. We are preparing for Beowulf – the big beginning comes tomorrow when we actually start reading! Today was all about Anglo-Saxon riddles. Last week this group got very involved in writing out their own epic quests (L’s heroic test was being forced go to the planet of the nerds and dress like a nerd for a week; someone else’s superhuman gift was smelling chocolate 2 miles away), so you can imagine that riddle solving and riddle-writing was a big hit. M was so proud of his short riddle that he forgot to pause at the end and told us the answer the minute he finished reading it.  J told two riddles in a row about spiders (after using Spiderman as his example of an epic hero on Friday), but then fooled us all by telling a third riddle… about a pencil. Today they also saw Old English for the first time, and I was definitely worn out because it took me a full three minutes to get them to stop discussing whether it looked more like Swedish, German or Icelandic. Icelandic?

Icelandic

When have they ever seen Icelandic? Sheesh. I can’t wait to get these kids dressed as ancient warriors or to have them re-enact the scene where Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm off. I’m convinced we’re going to get in trouble somehow or another; it’s really only a matter of time with these guys. Sometimes they can’t even quite stay in their seats as we talk. It’s going to be a great year.

Thank heavens for my one hour lunch break. I’m not sure I could have managed two more classes without some food! As it was, when I got to the 4ème class, the 8th graders definitely had a little more control of the room than I did. Perhaps it was because I told them that Petrarch wrote hundreds of sonnets to a woman he only ever saw once in church and never really met; or maybe it was because one of the students figured out early on that they had to write a sonnet for homework. Slowly, the class began to revolve around two themes, neither of which were exactly my point for the day: “but I don’t understand why he didn’t just talk to her” and “wait, it has to rhyme AND be in that rhythm thing we wrote last night?” Um , yeah, that iambic pentameter thing.

Petrarch, engraving
Good thing I didn’t show them this picture of Petrarch (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Petrarch)

So I found myself repeating, again and again, variants of “he couldn’t talk to her and, yes, all sonnets are written in iambic pentameter.”
“But I don’t know that many rhyming words.”
“Does it have to make sense?
“Was she married?”
“If she was married, dummy, she just could’ve gotten a divorce.”
“Not back then.”
“How would you know?”
“What if it doesn’t rhyme?  Will that count off?”
“Oh no – Shakespeare wrote a different kind?”
“Which kind do we have to do?”
“But Shakespeare met the women he wrote about.”
“Do they have to be about girls?”
“I would never have written that many poems about somebody I didn’t even talk to.”

And on we went. Needless to say, we did not have time to try to put together cut up sonnets, nor did we get to Romeo and Juliet’s first scene together when they actually speak two sonnets in a row. By the end of the class, I felt a little bit like the Wicked Witch of the West as she melts and cackles, “Oh, my plans, all my beautiful plans!” Heck, when class came to an end, I felt lucky that anyone actually knew the word sonnet; if they figure out that it’s somehow related to Romeo and Juliet, I think I will be ahead of the game.

And thus I have started my second week. In 5ème L is already one of my sweeties and he knows it. I still don’t know the names of half my 4ème or Seconde classes. Somehow I have to get my 5ème through Beowulf, my 4ème through Romeo and Juliet and my Première through Crime and Punishment; and my Secondes will grimly plod through Huckleberry Finn unless I can get them to engage. And in all of this, I’m supposed to settle in to France, get my paperwork completed and keep my sanity. I’m sure that can all happen – I’m just not sure it can all happen to me. But, as Kurt Vonnegut said, and as precisely none of my Secondes understood (perhaps because half of their essays relied heavily on internet sources), “so it goes”.

And so it does go.

 

The harm I’ve done; the lesson I’ve learned

I knew that Martin had cheated.

I was teaching EFL in Bulgaria – my first year of teaching – and most of my students were spellbound by my American-ness. After seven months, I was beginning to think that I had mastered the art of teaching or, better yet, that I was simply a natural teacher.

What was so hard after all? Discipline was a breeze: most of my students wanted to be in my classroom. Motivation was a snap: everything I assigned fascinated them just because it was from me. Of course, a few students refused to believe in my American magic, but I had fallen under my own spell and thought of these few as difficult, recalcitrant, even bad.

In fact, cheating was one of the only problems I had encountered in my short time in the classroom. Today I know that I had no idea how to teach writing. I didn’t model, scaffold or even help with revision. As a result, for their first assignment nearly all of my students had turned in essays copied from some famous work or another.

I really believed that these children of a failed Communist state valued accuracy and impressiveness over creative thought. I had no idea that I had played a role in the outcome, so it was hard to tell who was more befuddled by the Fs I gave back on that first assignment – me at what I perceived as my students’ betrayal, or them at my unrealistic expectations.

A few months’ experience had made me a slightly better teacher. I had learned to articulate my expectations more clearly and my ever-attentive students had worked to meet me well more than halfway. It didn’t hurt that the students generally liked me and, mostly, wanted to please me. I rarely received plagiarized papers anymore. Until Martin’s.

He was unconcerned as he swaggered up to my desk after class. He gave his friends suggestive looks as if I were going to proposition him or ask him on a date. I shooed them out of the room, and he planted himself in front of me with an impressive “I don’t care about anything you do” stance: shoulders slumped, hands jammed in his pockets, chin jutted sideways. He assumed an air of infinite boredom. I realize now that he must have been waiting for praise on his essay.

The essay was about his grandfather and his wartime exploits. It was nearly perfect and absolutely fascinating, so I assumed that it was someone else’s grandfather’s exploits. I hadn’t even bothered to finish reading it. After all, Martin’s work in English had been far from perfect to date – when he did it, that was. Frustratingly, I thought that he and I had recently made a connection, and I was angry that he had copied this essay now that we were on the verge of understanding one another. It didn’t matter: he was one of the “bad” kids who didn’t hang on my every word.

Martin was clearly smart, and he had no natural respect for me. He didn’t care if I was from the US or Mars, and I found his apparent lack of motivation more frustrating than anything else I had encountered. I had no idea how to encourage him. Sometimes I felt that his attitude, his unwillingness to do his work, was calling my bluff: I was just masquerading as a teacher. His lack of respect for me fed my growing fear that maybe this teaching thing wasn’t as easy as I had imagined.

I accused him of cheating. Martin was silent for a long moment before he ripped his essay out of my hands.  He raged back to his seat.  He grabbed his bag and shouted his way to the door. Through the noise and garbled grammar, I discovered that Martin had spent hours on the essay. His grandfather was, perhaps, the most important person in his life. He had taught Martin everything. Martin had wanted me to know his grandfather and had worked and worked to show him to me.

I cried after he left. Nothing I could say or do made any difference (and in my youthful chagrin I changed his grade to an A, as if that were the important thing). Martin had long known what I had just realized: I didn’t see him as a whole person but rather as just another kid in my English class, just another one of the bad boys, just another, but not unique. My accusation confirmed his opinion. If I had read the whole thing, if I had listened to the note of honesty that rang through the essay, if I had paused for even a moment, I might have seen Martin, the real Martin, who had tentatively entrusted me with a bit of himself in that essay.  But I hadn’t.

In my whole career, I may never want to go back and fix something as badly as I want to go back and fix that day. But since that awful confrontation, I have tried, in Martin’s honor, to remember every day that I teach whole people, people with lives outside of my classroom and outside of the school. I teach people with problems at home, secrets to keep, and dreams they desperately need to share. I teach people who have amazing grandfathers. Martin may never know that I know this, but I always will. It has shaped my career. It has changed my life.

And I really really hope that it has not shaped his.