Relax?

The summer I was 13, aunt Sara got married. The wedding was a big affair gathering far-flung members of two large families for a riotous celebration. My American aunt was marrying a Scottish man and they lived in the Cayman Islands, so guests hailed from around the Commonwealth and beyond. I spent the week before the wedding thrown together with the other awkward teens – Rachel, from England, and Mark, a very cute boy who I think was half American half British and who attended a boarding school… somewhere.

Rachel was a year older than me and approximately a million times cooler. She was clearly only talking to me because she had no choice. I’m pretty sure she smoked – something I would never even have considered – and she slouched around my grandmother’s backyard in an oversized t-shirt with giant letters that said “RELAX”. When my grandmother noticed the shirt, she smiled approvingly, “Why, isn’t that a nice thing for a shirt to say?” As soon as she had turned her back, Rachel rolled her eyes at me and said, “Yah – good thing she doesn’t know what it really is.”

I, of course, also did not know what it “really” was, and it took some well-placed questions and the occasional faked bits of knowledge (of course I liked “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” I nodded, though I had never heard of them) to learn that “relax” had something to do with sex and music and was most decidedly not a general, all-purpose sort of sentiment. I didn’t fully understand the reference for years.

This story pretty much sums up my relationship with “relax” – it sounds nice in theory, though it may mean something I don’t quite understand, and while I hope I can fake my way through, it often takes me a while to figure out. “Relax” is my one little word for this year, although I have to admit that I actually forgot what it was until a couple of weeks ago. Sigh.

In fact, I keep forgetting that I decided to focus on relaxing this year. Take, for example, last night, after the whole family tested positive for covid. As I fell asleep, I found myself planning everything I could get done in the five days of quarantine. In my head, the list went on and on: re-plan my classes to account for a four-day absence, finish a letter of recommendation, finish marking essays and start marking a project, complete report cards, finish my current book, read to Mr. 13, watch a movie, knit, do the laundry…

Today I mostly played word games and read a little. If I’m lucky, tomorrow I will do a little something else. We are lucky – none of us are seriously ill (keep your fingers crossed!) – and I am determined not to take that for granted. “Relax,” I tell myself, “the work can wait.”

I wonder what Rachel did with that t-shirt? Last I heard she had two children was running a pub; I’m sure the t-shirt is long gone. Still, I’m betting that right about now, both of us could use an oversize t-shirt that reminds us to relax. And we wouldn’t even roll our eyes when someone commented on what a nice idea it is.

Rambling Autobiography #SOL22 29/31

I’ve had a lot of trouble writing today, and then I remembered this. I don’t even know who to link to for this idea. I know Elisabeth wrote one – and Peter – and Carol – and… I don’t know who else. The prompt is from Linda Rief – that much I know. Here it is:

I was born in Cincinnati, but I don’t remember a single thing about it and as far as I know I’ve never been back. I don’t really remember Panama, either, but sometimes I can feel the memories at the edge of my mind, like the way I was fascinated by the iguana at the zoo in Texas – how I didn’t want to leave and pressed my face into the glass and no one else understood and I had to leave anyway because I was just a kid. Or like the day in France when I tasted mango again for the first time, and I was suddenly back in the jungle for just a second and I almost knew it, but then I was back in Strasbourg, and for the first time it felt like a disappointment. Which didn’t happen often because I loved almost everything about being in France. I remember that intriguing boy with the long hair talked about Paris and said, “even if your heart is broken, you’re broken-hearted in Paris and that makes it better” and I had never been broken hearted but I thought that made sense or at least sounded very romantic. And I remember the way that Justin’s cigarette smoke swirled back towards me and into my hair as he was driving us all home in the van when I was in college, and even though I didn’t smoke, and even though I knew I didn’t like smokers, the smoke seemed somehow sensual and I realized I thought he was sexy and I had no idea what to do with that.

Fashionable #SOL22 28/31

By third grade I was allowed to dress myself. My parents were both working, I was the oldest and my mother, frankly, had better things to do than to police my sartorial choices. I was free to express my fashion sense however I chose. I chose comfortable pretty much all of the time. One of my absolute favourite outfits was a pair of grass green pants patterned with red barns next to trees with blue trunks and yellow “leaves”. I particularly liked to pair this with a black leotard. Regularly.

I played outside a lot – catching frogs and climbing trees with Chad and Saundra – so I spent most of third grade in grubby clothes that were just on the edge of unwearable. We often roller skated to school, which involved a fair amount of sweat and a small amount of falling. (Before you laugh too hard, our school actually had roller skate cubbies near the bike area to accommodate all of the roller skating kids. The 70s were weird.) I showered when someone noticed I was dirty.

Third grade was also the year I convinced my teacher that I was really good at reading and really bad at math. Apparently this was at least in part because I “paid attention” while reading – I have long been able to get lost in a story – but wandered the room aimlessly during math, “helping” others after finishing only two or three of the problems. My grades suffered but my demeanor did not. I neglected to mention to anyone that I just did the last three problems of every worksheet and then moved on. After all, those were the hard ones. As a result, my math work got easier and I had more time to read and contemplate my lovely green pants. Perfect.

Towards the end of the year, my teacher, Mrs. Glantz, proposed a class party. She said we should ask our parents to see if anyone could host it. I immediately said that my family could do it. Mrs. Glantz said I had to bring a note from my mother. I did. She seemed uncertain about this, so she called my mother who confirmed that we could host at our house.

“Ok,” said Mrs Glantz, dubiously. “I’ll just take up a little collection from the children to help with the expenses.”

“Thank you,” said my mother, “but there’s really no need.”

“Oh, no worries, no worries. The children can help out.”

Puzzled, my mother accepted. Mrs. Glantz sent home the collected money, and the weekend before the party, we prepared food and decorations. I was really excited.

Finally, the big day came. The whole class was going to walk (not roller skate) to my house. I was probably wearing my fancy green pants/black leotard outfit because I loved it. My mother came to school and she and Mrs. Glantz led the way to our place.

As they walked and chatted, my mother noticed that at many intersections Mrs. Glantz seemed to want to turn away from our neighborhood, towards the ones a little closer to the school with smaller houses, but she didn’t think much of it. As we turned into our neighborhood, my teacher got quiet. Then, we arrived at our house, she exclaimed, “Oh, but this is a beautiful home!”

****

Sometime after the party ended, my mother took a long look at me and realized what had happened: the yearlong experiment of letting me dress myself had resulted in my teacher thinking that we were poor. When she tells this story, we all laugh and it ends here. But when I think back, I realize that fourth grade was when I started bathing regularly and my outfits mostly matched. I wonder now how Mrs Glantz might have treated me differently if I had dressed differently? I marvel at the privilege of changing my clothes to change people’s perception of me. And I’m not even the tiniest bit surprised that things changed in fourth grade.

At this point, my sister had inherited the beautiful pants.

Deported #SOL22 20/31

Look, you need to understand that no matter how I tell this, Erin and Tanya are going to say that I got parts of it wrong. For example, Erin insists that those guns were serious; I maintain that they were more show than threat. And the last time we talked about it, Tanya was a little embarrassed about the tears in the translation part of the story, though when I get to that part, I can never quite suppress a smile. Honestly, I’m not sure any of us have a completely clear picture of what happened because there were a lot of languages involved. And emotions. And those guns.

And I might as well tell you right now that we were young. Stupid young, really, which is the only way to be young if you happen to be studying abroad in Europe for your junior year. Which we were. As a result, we thought we were worldly, but of course we weren’t because we were 20 and studying abroad. And if you’re paying any attention at all, by now you already know that we were ridiculously stunning because we were 20 and studying abroad and that’s how that goes.

One more thing: this is a Spring Break story – the kind that meant adventure and freedom, not minivans and visiting relatives – because of course it’s a Spring Break story. So, let’s recap: This is a hotly contested junior-year-abroad Spring Break story about three pretty 20-year-old girls traveling through Europe. And yes, there are guns and tears and beer.

Our trouble started not long after the train crossed the border into Czechoslovakia (that’s how old this story is). We were chattering away in our compartment when the money-changing guy came in. As we decided how much of one currency to change into the next, a handsome young Czech border guard appeared and asked for our passports. We handed them over and continued to change our money. The guard looked at our passports and returned both mine and Erin’s. He flipped through Tanya’s a second time, then left with it. Suddenly, we were on alert.

Moments later, the first guard returned with others, including an older man who seemed to be in charge. They said something, presumably in Czech. We couldn’t respond. They tried again in German. Between us, Erin, Tanya and I spoke four languages, but only Tanya spoke German even remotely fluently, and it was her passport they were holding.

The conversation was terse. Erin and I were American; Tanya was Canadian. Did she have a visa? No, she didn’t. Our guidebook – she pulled it out – said she didn’t need one. They shook their heads. There had been a change last week and now travelers from the Commonwealth needed a visa. She would have to go back to Vienna to get one.

In the corner of the compartment, the money changer, eyes wide, very slowly counted out bills.

Tanya translated everything. She was going to have to get off the train at the next stop. We were upset, but calm-ish. We started to gather our belongings. The guards stopped us; only Tanya was being deported. Erin and I should go on to Prague.

Maybe it was because we were, in fact, not worldly, or maybe because we were 20, or maybe simply because we were stubborn, but that was not our plan. At some point after being told she had to return alone, Tanya had started crying, but she was still the only one of us who really spoke German. Thus the translation fiasco began.

“Tell them we’re coming with you.”

Tanya turned to the guards and explained. They replied. The tears continued. She turned back to us and translated: “You can’t come with me. Your passports have already been stamped.” Then she added, “You don’t have to go back. We can meet up later.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re staying with you. Tell them we’re not leaving you.”

More tears – hers and ours – as she translated for the guards, who were looking quite uneasy possibly because of all the crying. Unsettled, the guards conferred in Czech. Then they spoke to Tanya in German then she spoke to us in English then we spoke in English and she explained to them in German and they spoke in Czech. This continued for quite a while. Our tears continued unabated.

In the corner of the compartment, the money changer watched.

We never wavered. Tanya would not be deported alone. I think I spoke directly to the captain at one point. We didn’t speak the same languages, but he knew what I meant, tears or no tears. The guards were unhappy, but eventually they gave up. We could stay together.

The money changer left the compartment and armed men took up their post outside our door. Soon enough, the train slowed to a stop, and border patrol herded us out onto the quai. Curious passengers poked their heads out of the windows and watched as the guards installed us on a bench and surrounded us. This was clearly not a passenger stop: aside from the empty quai with our one little bench, the tiny train station had only one room with several tables and a bar. Our bravado gone, the three of us huddled together with our backpacks at our feet.

The minute the train was out of sight, the guards relaxed and started chatting. Suddenly, they were handsome young men, not gun-toting soldiers. As they headed inside to the bar, one of them gestured to us. Did we want to come in?

Shocked, we exchanged glances. We were being deported. By them. And they had GUNS. We couldn’t go into the bar with them. Since she spoke German and was technically the one being deported, we deferred to Tanya. She declined their invitation. They shrugged and went inside for a beer.

Outside, we huddled. We whispered. We tried to be scared. Heck, we were scared, but we were also young. And the guards were having a really good time inside. Minutes passed. We huddled. Finally, Tanya said, “What are we doing?” We left our backpacks and went inside.

The table of guards erupted in cheers as guards raised their mugs. Huzzah! They were delighted. Suddenly brash, Tanya announced she was buying everyone a round – after all, what else was she going to do with that Czech money? – and they cheered us again. The total for all of us came to $7. We sat down and enormous steins of beer appeared. With that, we became what we truly were: a group of young people eager to know more about each other and the world. It wasn’t long before the men were laughing, we were laughing. We muddled through conversations in English, German and French. Questions flew; stories were told.

Some time later, the train back to Vienna finally arrived. The guards gathered themselves and us. They solemnly escorted us onto the train and into first class. They stationed two men outside of our door and appeared very serious all the way back to Austria. After we crossed the border, they turned and waved goodbye, then they left us. Minutes later, the Austrian ticket inspector came in. Obviously we had no tickets and we had to explain what we were doing in first class. As we talked, his face lit up, “Oh yes, I’ve heard all about you” he smile, and he left us in the first class compartment.

When we finally got back to Vienna, it was late – even by our standards – so we used Erin’s father’s emergency credit card. We stayed in a nice hotel and slept deeply. The next morning, Tanya went directly to the embassy and got a visa for entry into Czechoslovakia. That afternoon, we boarded the train to Prague for a second time.

Just as we were settling in, we saw an Australian girl who we had met at the hostel before leaving the first time. She got on the train, and we proceeded to practically shove her off once we found out that she didn’t have a visa. “Trust us! Go to the embassy!” And the train left the station.

This time, when the train stopped at the border, we stuck our heads out the window and waved to “our” squadron of guards. The captain came over to chat.

“You have your visa?” Tanya assured him she did. “Good! You’ll have fun in Prague.”

Only then, as we chatted through the window, did we learn that they had been deporting people regularly since the new visa regulations had come into effect. In the ten days since they had started, not a single group had stayed together – not one. The captain had a daughter about our age. “I hope,” he said, “that she has friends like you.”

Sadly, our border guards weren’t scheduled to be on this train, but they told the current patrol that we were the girls they’d been talking about and to take good care of us on the way to Prague. And they did.

(With gratitude to Erin, who’s been pestering me to write this story and who answered my texts this morning when I needed to double-check bits of pieces of my memory. Potts, Jaeger & White live on!)

Hey, Siri #SOL22 18/31

(This memory came to me after reading Stacey’s slice about her son and Siri.)

He is maybe three when he discovers that the phone will converse with him. “Hey, Siri!” he says, and she always responds. Within minutes, they are best friends. She will answer any question, entertain any flight of fancy. “Would you like me to call you Alien?” she asks, and I swear her electronic voice sounds dubious. “Yes!” he agrees enthusiastically, so she does. (For years, my phone will continue to call my husband “Alien” because I can’t bring myself to change it.)

Phone in hand, Eric wanders away, chatting enthusiastically with the only one who is paying him any attention at all. We adults are in the other room, reminiscing about old times. The older kids are running about, screeching. The house is full: at least one dog, a cat, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, grandparents. And it’s noisy – so noisy that no one really hears a three-year-old having a chat with his new electronic best friend. In fact, none of us really even know where he is until we decide to go out on the pontoon boat. “Have you seen Eric?” we ask. No. No. No. No one knows where he is.

Andre heads towards the back of the house, searching. As he passes through the living room, he hears an argument behind the couch. It sounds as though Siri is telling Eric he is being unreasonable. Just as Andre starts to chuckle, Siri stops playing around: “Ok,” she says, still with that dubious tone, “Dialing Emergency in three… two… one…” Andre lunges for the phone, but Siri is already dialing, and Andre manages to hang up just as the call goes through.

Disaster averted, Andre begins to talk to Eric when the phone rings. It’s the emergency operator who informs this flustered father holding an unhappy toddler that she is supposed to send help to the address of the phone call if the call is terminated. Andre explains. He explains about Siri, about the crowd, the noise, the child. It’s early days with Siri, but the operator understands. She does not send an emergency vehicle. We scoop Eric up, change him into a swim diaper and whisk him away to the boat. He barely notices that his friend is gone.

To this day, Siri is disabled on my phone.

Hot tub #SOL22 11/31

“Write about the hot tub,” they say. I’ve done a quick write in front of them, randomly listing childhood memories. Trampoline and Hide-n-Go Seek haven’t piqued their interest in quite the same way as hot tub.

I laugh. “Sadly, there’s not much to say. We had a hot tub in our backyard when I was in high school… nothing really happened there.” I trail off and end up writing about the trampoline after all, shaping the story, modeling various openings, playing with structure.

I don’t tell them that images of the hot tub bubble in the back of my mind. Look: my sisters and I are playing in the warm water, snow on the deck. There: I am 13 and awkward, wearing my bubble gum pink bathing suit, my hair pulled back – the photograph reveals a liminal beauty that I can only now appreciate. Over here: My birthday party, fifteen-year-old girls full of high spirits and loud laughter, though in every photo of the evening our heads are hidden in our arms, as shy away from the very lens we crave. “We’re in our bathing suits!” someone had squealed and the camera was put away.

Was that the night the boys crashed the party? Possibly, but even that phrase implies a wildness we didn’t embody. Maybe I should rewrite it and say, “was that the night that Michael and some friends came over while we were outside and we sort of pretended to scream but mostly chatted?” Or maybe both ways of telling the story are true.

With my sisters in the snow

How disappointed they would be with the truth: “The hot tub story” isn’t really a story, and it isn’t salacious. The hot tub is evenings with family, breath-holding contests with my sisters, a science fair project done with my dad (about the chemicals – the only science fair I ever won. Figures that it was about that hot tub.) I know what my students expected to hear when “hot tub” appeared in my list. Instead it’s moments of connection with my family and friends, moments from a time so distant it seems almost unimaginable now.

On the other hand, the trampoline – now, *that’s* a story.

Losting #SOL22 8/31

Near the beginning of each semester, my students write 100 word memoirs (thanks, Kittle & Gallagher). These never fail to knock my socks off, and this year that’s even more true. At my new school, many students have clear memories of coming to Canada, and many of them are continuing to learn English. Combined these lead to some great moments. For example, below, Tung wrote about his first time in a Canadian high school. Pay particular attention to the word “lost” – we’ll come back to that.

Walking through Canadian high school for the first time was like walking, lost, in an old tunnel surrounded by unknown creatures. The low-ceilinged crowded hallway was an ant’s nest of students trying to sprint through the narrow corridor. The thick moss-green bulletproof door had only a small glass cut-out, covered with an English-only poster. This prevented my curious eyes from spying on the Canadian students in the classroom. Everything was beyond my imagination. Each step I took, one rhythm faster my heart beat. What was I getting myself into? Would there be a light at the end of this tunnel? 

Tung, Grade 12
What I was seeing/ What was in my mind

He added pictures – including some pictures of his school at home. It’s much, much brighter and airier than our school and I can safely guess that it has never seen snow.

Watching Tung try to capture the feeling of that first day was fascinating. Some descriptions came easily – he knew he wanted a tunnel and he knew the door needed to be moss-green and bulletproof. Those things never wavered. Other things changed – coming in, getting cut out, changing form. To me, the most interesting thing of all was the word “lost”. He really wanted it to be “losting”.

We chatted in the back corner of the room – the place he’s chosen for now – about this word. Somehow lost just wasn’t quite what he was looking for. He had a sense that losting wasn’t a “real” word, but he wanted the word to be active. He wasn’t simply lost, he was wandering, loose, casting about, feeling the sense of not fitting in, not knowing if he belonged. He was losting.

I couldn’t help but think of my own child, then quite small, crying as his grandmother left after another wonderful visit. He threw himself into her arms and said, “It’s your fault, the goneness.” The goneness. Really, it’s the only word for the feeling.

I told Tung he could keep “losting” – that it made sense to me and described what he was feeling – but English isn’t thoroughly his yet; making mistakes and making new words are still too intertwined to tease one away from the other. Still, I expect that the word exists now. I suspect that someday, probably soon, I will see a student wandering in the hallway with a particular look in their eye, and I will know that they are losting. When I do, I’ll try to help – because the goneness can be overwhelming.

Join us – or just come to read – as we blog every day in March at twowritingteachers.com

Just add salsa

I was still grumpy from school nonsense when I got home. Since the time changed this weekend, I’ve been walking in the mornings, but my husband took one look at me and suggested I should maybe take an evening walk, too. I declined. He backed out of the kitchen, supposedly to go finish some work.

I stewed.
I scrolled.
I texted.
I muttered.

Finally, I had to admit that none of this was making me feel any better at all. And since I was filling the kitchen with my frustration, no one was making dinner, either. Even Mr. 11 – hungry, as ever, 20 minutes before dinner time – had abandoned the space when I glared and said he could not have a snack. Harumph.

At least if I was alone in the kitchen, I could play my own music. My finger hovered over my list – this was not the moment to let some app determine what I needed to hear – and I landed on Dream in Blue by Los Lobos. I heated water for the pasta and smiled at the thought of Patrick – his horror at my unformed musical taste; his insistence that I listen to, well, everything; his eclectic music the soundtrack to our relationship and the fun we had while it lasted and we listened. 

By now I was reheating the chili and cutting the bread. When the song ended, I didn’t hesitate: very sharp knife in hand, I found Carlos Vives and cranked the volume on Pa Mayte. Ah… My feet started moving, then my hips, and despite the fact that I was in the kitchen making dinner for my family, despite the fact that I will turn 50 in two short weeks, I was back in Chief Ike’s Mambo Room with Linda, sweaty and happy as we danced with whichever partner was nearby, danced after-hours until we were so tired that only their hands and the music held us up. I was at the Gipsy Kings concert dancing on the lawn and I was in Belize, with Amy and Janny and no, I don’t remember how we ended up at the club, but oh, we danced until our feet hurt and we took our shoes off and danced barefoot and then…

Well, then the pasta was done and the chili was warm. Andre came in and turned down the volume because he needed to tell me something. The kids tumbled in and we sat for dinner. And it was good, life was good, life is good.

(especially if you can fit in a little salsa)

The privilege of support

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about kids and classroom behaviour. The same week that I wrote it, the same week that I laughingly remembered some of the things my friends and I got up to in 8th grade, the same week that I blithely assumed that my long-ago teachers “didn’t write Michelle off or worry that she would turn out to be a bad one” – implying, of course, that they didn’t write off any of us – that very same week, Matthew Morris wrote something very different in his post What My Teachers Were Saying About Me

Matthew, a Black male educator in an elementary school in Toronto, wonders what his teachers were saying about him and his friends back when they were in school, in part because he hears what other teachers are saying *right now* about the students in front of them. And the conversations he overhears – “(that boy) is gonna’ end up in jail. Kid just doesn’t know how to get out of his own way” or “(that girl)  is going to end up pregnant by 16, watch” – are not the ones that I was imagining in my post.

As I read his post, my heart sank: no matter how many times I encounter it, I am always shocked when I find another way I experience privilege. I never – never – wondered if my teachers said bad things about me. I mean, maybe they got annoyed with me or kids like me, but I don’t think a single one of my teachers ever sat in a staff room and  predicted a negative life outcome for me. Nor did they think that any of my friends – no matter how outrageous – were going to end up pregnant at 16 or in jail. Now, I should be clear that there were no Black students in our magnet program in suburban South Carolina. We were smart wealthy white kids. We were going places. 

Never mind the fact – the FACT – that a boy in the class above me, a nice smart rich white boy, actually *did* end up in jail while we were still in high school. Never mind the fact that I know of at least two girls who *did* end up pregnant while we were still in high school – and I’d bet there were more.

What does it mean to live in a world where you have every reason to suspect that the people who educate you, who are supposed to be helping you create pathways to your future, also think that you are likely to go nowhere? What does it mean to live, instead, in a world where even your bad behaviour is written off as youthful indiscretions? What does it mean that the colour of a child’s skin might be -no, is –  the difference between these two things?

A few years ago I attended a conference that brought together teachers, support workers, and school resource officers – a community of support. One of the keynote speakers that year was a police chief from the States who had transformed the way her department dealt with kids whose parents were involved with drugs, many of whom were Black children. She told a “before story about an officer at a drug bust handing a baby over to a social worker and saying, “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you in about 16 years.” The social worker nodded in resignation. A baby. A BABY. The very people who were supposed to be protecting this child had already decided their life’s outcome. And statistically, they weren’t wrong.

I cried after her talk, but the future chief didn’t bother with crying. She got to work and changed the way the community handled these children. She made sure that children’s futures were not about their skin colour or their parents’ faults. She created a community of support, looked at the systemic problems and made changes.

I’ve been thinking about Matthew’s post for a week now, and I’ve been thinking about that police officer. I’ve been thinking about what my teachers said about me and what Matthew’s teachers said about him. I’ve been thinking an awful lot about what I hear other teachers saying as well as what I say or believe about the children in my classroom and in all the classrooms in the school.

I think it’s time for me to be 100% sure that my students know how much I believe in them. In twenty years when they look back at their schooling, I hope their memories are like mine – full of the certainty that the adults in the school buoyed them up, even behind closed doors – and not like Matthew’s. Every child should be lifted by the adults around them. That should not be a privilege but a given.

PS – You should follow Matthew. His voice is powerful. https://www.matthewrmorris.com/

Post-pandemic classroom chaos

Somewhere in the middle of Week One, I had to confiscate the thumbtacks and hide the Sharpies because some of my grade 9 students were using them “inappropriately”. Yup, they were poking each other and drawing, well, everywhere. During Week Three, someone repurposed a pin as a tiny rapier and surreptitiously attacked their classmates. Someone else found spitballs in their hair. I have had to keep both a basketball and a model rocket (“it really works”) at my desk.

Since then, I’ve reminded people to sit down – and reminded and reminded and reminded – not to swear in class (at least not at other people), not to talk while others are talking, not to throw spitballs (seriously, who does that anymore?) or erasers or anything, really, and finally – and somehow most shockingly – not to tie pencils into their hair and then swing their head around to see what will happen. Sometimes I feel like an ogre, but I promise that I am not: I’m just helping students remember how to interact with a group of people outside of their family, a group of people with a purpose beyond amusement. 

To make school better for them, I’ve surveyed students about their interests, offered them choice in reading and choice of writing topics. I’ve tried to create activities that allow students to move (we’ve only recently been allowed to let students work in small groups – I think – it’s hard to keep up with the rules) and to work with peers (or not, if they prefer). I’ve tried to identify learning barriers in my classroom and begun to work towards influencing the ones I can. I let students leave their backpacks in my room at lunchtime (no lockers), and I chat with them whenever they pop by. I’ve played innumerable games of tic-tac-toe with one student who doesn’t yet believe me that, played properly, it will always be a tie.

We take long breaks outdoors during each 2.5 hour class. We get social breaks during class time and… it’s exhausting. Teachers everywhere – not just in my school or my city or even my province – teachers I know from all over North America are talking about how different the kids are this year, how they are wild or immature or out of practice. We tell each other that they have forgotten how to school. And they have. Some of the stories are wild – a purposely broken finger, destroyed bathrooms, public displays of what should be very private acts. And all around us, non-teachers share their opinions: articles, podcasts, tweets and posts tell us that this chaos is good – let’s get rid of compliance and control! – or bad – learning loss is awful and they will never catch up! – but we’re still left with 26 fourteen year olds in a small space for hours every day.

I want to complain – heck, I do complain – but sometime last week I remembered a story about my friend Michelle. Michelle who teaches elementary school, who’s married to a pastor and has raised two lovely children. Michelle who collects picture books signed by the author and is incredibly thoughtful. Michelle who is one of the kindest people you could ever meet. But that’s not the story. Instead, I remembered that when we were in 8th grade she kicked Ken in the groin – hard. I don’t remember why. I do remember that we girls only vaguely understood that this was profoundly painful. I do remember that a teacher pulled her aside and explained exactly why this was particularly wrong – and that later she told us, astonished, about how much damage this could do. She was terribly chagrined – there were tears – and apologized quite sincerely. Ken recovered and 8th grade continued apace, this action soon overshadowed by someone else’s particularly stupid decision.

Until this year, until last week, in fact, I had never thought about what our 8th grade teachers must have said in the teachers’ lounge afterwards. I suspect that they shook their heads ruefully and maybe chuckled a little at the drama of the situation. I imagine that they took some deep breaths and made comments about 8th graders and immaturity. I’m pretty sure they didn’t write Michelle off or worry that she would turn out to be a bad one. I don’t think they decided that we as a group were a particularly mean or immature. I bet they took it all in stride. I bet that they don’t remember the incident at all. Or maybe – maybe – if someone mentioned it now they would have some recollection of it. Heck, I hadn’t thought about this for 30+ years; I’m not sure if Michelle even really remembers this. I mean, we’ve all done some really stupid things.

Now, as I look at my pandemic kiddos who are causing chaos in our classrooms, I have to shake my head. I’m not saying that this year isn’t a wild one – it is wild. I may not bring the thumbtacks back out before Christmas, and I’m not sure I’ll ever trust this group with Sharpies. And yet, when I’m not in the middle of it, when I’ve blinked back the tears of exhaustion and the vice principal has, again, reassured me that this is happening in all of the classes – after all of that, I realize that I had to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing about the pencils tied into the braids. And the kids aren’t the only ones who’ve slipped up on the cursing once or twice; I mean, I’ve been stuck at home during a pandemic, too. I’m pretty sure that the spitballs will dry up over time, and I have a feeling that some of the kids who can’t stay seated for more than about 30 seconds may turn out to be school leaders in a few years. Heck, maybe they’ll even be teachers someday – Michelle is and so am I. After all, pandemic or no pandemic, adolescence is always a little chaotic, right? Deep breaths, a little laughter, and a long-range view are going to help.

Many thanks to http://www.twowritingteachers.org for hosting this space.