First Days of School

With just ten days left until the start of school, I’ve been ramping up my prep for the new school year. After two years in one district, I’m making a move to a different district closer to our home west of Boston. I’m happy and excited about this change, even if I’m terribly nervous about starting over at a new school. It’s difficult to think about those first few days , as I struggle to set the tone for the kind of teacher I’m going to be for the 125 new faces before me.

I like to give homework on the first day of school, so that my students understand I’m serious about their learning and will hold them to a high and rigorous standard. The assignment I’ve given on the first day for the past two years I plan to repeat with my new classes. I love that it’s creative, gives me a taste of their writing skill and style, and tells me something about them that I might not get from their first day student survey. I’m asking them to write poetry, but it’s a structured form of poetry with the first three words provided for them. Plus, with the model I provide, it’s a good way for them to learn something about me: that I’m willing to share pieces of myself with them as we learn together throughout the year.

The original idea for this homework came from a colleague via this website: http://www.georgeellalyon.com/where.html

“Where I’m From” Poem

I am from a small, brown house, now razed to the ground,

The land holding memories of

A wooden swing set behind a heavily shaded, slate patio

Where I would spend hours pumping through the air,

Trying to touch the sunlit trees above.

A driveway full of rocks that cut into my young feet.

Bamboo growing unwieldy by the garage,

The leaves taken as food for my stuffed panda bear.

Wild raspberry bushes hidden behind the compost,

And I would sneak berries, staining my fingers blood red

Before I slipped them into my mouth.

 

I am from love, two parents eager for children.

From a world of “We never quit,”

And “It’s ok to cry.”

From nights of racing into my mother’s lap for a bedtime story.

I am from a world made bigger by stories,

By education and the opportunities it has always held

Ever so slightly out of my reach, so that I never stop learning.

 

And I am from rooms with floors bathed in golden light.

Century-old walls whisper secrets of lives that have passed.

Pencil marks etched deep into the wood of a doorway

Tell of growth by inches, by feet.

I breathe easily as

A black cat swishes her long hair against my legs,

Watching the world through an open window.

-Ms. Jones

HOMEWORK: Now write your own “Where I’m From” poem. Where are you from? You can write about your house, your town, your city, your state, your country, your heritage, your family, your values and beliefs, etc. Think about the senses associated with theses places. What do you smell, taste, see, hear, feel, and touch? Think about specific details or experiences you remember. It should be at least 15 lines. You can decide how many stanzas you would like to include.

Four Years

Four years ago, I sat in my therapist’s chair, worrying about the date I had scheduled for just after our appointment. Having spent the better part of a year and a half dating, on and off match.com, I had had every single one of my idiosyncrasies and failings revealed to me in the ending of many, many short relationships. This particular date followed a months-long break from the website and two very important realizations on my part: 1. that I was worthy of the love I desired, and 2. that, perhaps, all the previous failed relationships had more to do with the men I was dating than with me. Though I tried to hold these thoughts close to me while I waded back into the online dating pool, it didn’t stop my mind from returning to old worries.

 

“What if he thinks I’m too silly or strange?”

“What if he doesn’t think I’m pretty or interesting?”

“What if he doesn’t like me?”

 

My therapist, a slight, kind-faced woman with high, round cheeks, listened patiently as I spiraled through these thoughts. She finally interrupted me with this suggestion: “Laura, why don’t you take this date as an opportunity to decide if YOU like HIM?” 

 

On the way home, I drove the road that curves easily around a large reservoir. I practiced my relaxation breathing and focused on what I would wear, how much time I would need to get ready. As I rounded the reservoir, I looked to the sky and saw a rainbow, the first I had witnessed in many years.  “It’s a sign,” a tiny voice whispered, a voice I quickly squashed with reality. Instead I told myself, just go on this one date, be present, and don’t think about the future.  But thoughts of the rainbow lingered in the weeks and months that followed.

 

Two hours later, I approached the spot Eric and I had agreed upon for meeting. We planned to walk together the few blocks to the restaurant in Washington Square he had chosen for our date. As I rounded the corner and saw him, my first thought was, “He looks nervous!” This was reassuring to me, because I was nervous too. He stood, a bit stiffly, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his crisp khakis, while my nerves manifested in incessant, mindless babbling. We began our walk, and I chattered on about the small needles my acupuncturist had left in my ears to help with my anxiety (WHY???)

 

As we sat down to dinner, though, I began to relax. One of the first things I loved about Eric was the care he took with his words. He was patient with his thoughts. He didn’t just blurt out anything that came to mind, but instead talked slowly and deliberately, with purpose and sensitivity. Over that first meal, he told me all about the seven months he spent hiking the Appalachian Trail, his work as a human factors engineer, and his family in Chicago and Pittsburgh. When dinner was done, we walked back toward my apartment and had ice cream at a park nearby. We watched a young couple make out on a bench forty feet away, but we didn’t kiss each other that night. I can’t claim that I knew he was “the one” after that first date, but I did know conversation was easy between us. I wanted to talk to him more. I found him attractive and interesting. And I believed, very early on, that being with him would make me a better person. So we had a second date.

 

Four years later, it is hard to believe we were ever strangers. He has become my best friend, my partner, the love of my life. We are a family now, and this summer, we moved into our home, a place I love more than any other place I’ve lived. Tonight, we’ll go back to the restaurant in Washington Square and probably laugh about those nerve-filled first moments. I’ll tell him how much I love him, hold his hand, and hug him tightly. And I’ll acknowledge that rainbow as the sign it truly was, of promise and hope, happiness and love.

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Thinking About Moving On

In college, one of the books that repeatedly appeared on English course syllabi was Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. A collection of near-perfect short stories, Lahiri’s writing was a revelation for me. Never before had I encountered prose so beautiful in its simplicity within stories that so clearly illuminated the difficulties of defining home and self as an immigrant to this country.

 

When I received my offer to teach English at my current school and learned I would be teaching an elective course in Contemporary Literature that lacked a firm curriculum, I decided I had to use Lahiri’s stories somehow. I experimented with a few different selections, but always included the final story in the collection, “The Third and Final Continent.” It depicts the experiences of its male narrator as he moves from India to London to Cambridge, MA to take a job working in one of MIT’s libraries. In the midst of these transitions, he stops back in India to attend his own wedding, arranged for him by his brother. Thus, when his wife, Mala, joins him in Cambridge, they are strangers to one another. Yet there is a moment the narrator recalls as the one where the distance between them begins to shrink. It is a moment in which he awakens to his wife’s vulnerability as a very fresh immigrant and feels a genuine connection and kinship to her given this experience they hold in common. From that small moment, love and respect are born.

 

On the surface, the story may seem like a tough sell to 18 year-old kids who are primarily white and native to this country. However, at the end of the story, the narrator reflects on the thirty years he has spent with Mala in America, raising a family and growing old together:

 

“I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

 

Can I tell you something? These last sentences, this is why I love this story and why I have my students read it, despite their preoccupation with the “strangeness” of arranged marriages. I try to push them past that foreign bit to the universal core contained in the above lines. Because even though my experiences are so vastly different from this narrator, I feel the truth of what he says. While it’s true my life has not taken me to live for any length of time on three continents, and my achievements may seem ordinary, I still find myself bewildered at times by what I have done, the places I have been, and the people I have met. Partially, I think this sense of awe is currently influenced by the reality of our quickly approaching move into our new home and the possibility of a new job for me next fall. But it is perhaps also just one of many common human experiences, this sense of looking back in amazement at all the space and time one covers over a lifetime. I think this is a valuable idea to share with graduating seniors, because my suspicion is they might see the truth of it one day, too.

How To Talk About The Boston Marathon Bombings In School…If I Should At All…

Eric and I just returned from a weeklong vacation in Amsterdam. It’s been a dream of mine to see the tulips fields in bloom, and lucky for us, school vacation week happens to fall in the midst of tulip season. We had an incredible week, but one that was also tinged with disbelief and sadness.

 

While we were overseas, we closely followed the coverage of the terror experienced by our friends and neighbors in Boston. After returning from our evening ritual – dinner and a long walk -  we sat transfixed by CNN’s coverage of the tragedy, watching deep into each night. It mattered little that the reporting became numbingly repetitive; we watched, I think, to help us process what was happening to our beloved city while we were away from it. Though neither of us are native to Massachusetts, it is absolutely true that Boston is the city we’ve adopted as our home. I’ve been a spectator at the marathon every year for the past ten, with the exception of this one. The city streets that became a crime scene and place of mourning this week? Eric proposed on one of them.

 

But what I’m thinking about tonight, more than anything, is how, or even if, I should address this with my students tomorrow. A week has passed since the explosions, and because we’ve all been on break, I have no idea how this tragedy might have touched the lives of my students. So, I could start just by checking in with each class on how they’ve been handling the events of the last week.

 

Beyond that, I can’t help but recognize connections to the literature we’ve been studying this year…and I worry that bringing these connections up in class might seem…callous? Insensitive? Manipulative of the devastation and rawness of the situation?

 

I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reminded me of the search for Bigger Thomas in Native Son. And because I felt fear and empathy for Bigger in his situation, I can’t help but put myself in Tsarnaev’s shoes and wonder if he was scared to death knowing that he was being hunted. Is that weird? And then, of course, I feel like a hideous person for empathizing with a boy responsible for devastating so many.

 

In scrolling Facebook, I see tons of comments about how in Boston, when you f*ck with us, we shut the city down and hunt you. So, are we after justice or revenge? Are these two ideas distinct? Can we separate them? This leads me back to our class discussions of Frankenstein that concluded right before vacation. The cycle of revenge that Victor and the Creature embark on…are they truly trying to achieve justice for the wrongs they feel the other has caused? This only leads to their mutual destruction…so where are we, as a society, headed if revenge is our motive with Tsarnaev? In this instance, with three innocent dead and many more gravely injured, is it actually possible to distinguish justice from revenge? And can I attempt this conversation with my students, who are likely all over the place in their responses to this tragedy?

Confessions of a High School English Teacher

Truth time: I really don’t like teenagers. Please don’t judge me. I’m not a horrible teacher, I promise! Let me explain!!

 

On an individual basis, I appreciate and respect and care for the vast majority of my students, who are all technically part of this “teenage” monolith. But as a collective idea, I’ve always felt that teenagers suck. I think I felt this way even when I was a teenager myself. It’s just a tough stage in life, those transitional years between childhood and adulthood, when you think you know everything and really know nothing. (Which stands in contrast to early adulthood maybe only in the sense that as a young adult, you can finally OWN the fact that you know nothing, that you’re openly on a path to figuring it all out without shame.) As a teenager, you are trying to discern who you are while simultaneously managing a desperate need to fit, to belong. You are all at once making mistakes, battling for more freedom, but balking at the impending expectation that you take true responsibility for your actions.

 

It’s a curious thing, that in thinking about becoming a teacher, I never once considered teaching any age group other than high school. With full knowledge of my distaste for teenagers, I said, Yes, I am going to teach children during this particularly tough moment of their young lives, when, let’s face it, they are often difficult to love. I’m not sure what’s behind it, except that transition has always fascinated me, and maybe my hope is that I can positively impact their transition to young adulthood. I want to urge them to emerge from their awkward, icky teenage cocoons to live as contributing, responsible, and educated human beings. Plus, sometimes they are funny!

 

So, in the spirit of providing evidence to support my dislike of the teenage collective, I’ve compiled a list of things I’ve seen my students do that totally and completely baffle me. Enjoy!

 

1. Before going to their first period class, they bury themselves in an embrace with their significant other that lasts way past the point of reason. It’s like they’re preparing for a month-long separation, not a 50-minute English class. Listen teenagers, I appreciate you have fallen truly and deeply in love, but spare me the overt reminder at 7:27 in the morning. I’d like to digest my breakfast.

 

2. They get tattoos. Now, I’m not conservative or prude, and it’s really not the tattoos themselves that bother me, although I do cringe just a little when one of my female students leans over a bit too far, unveiling a lower-back tat. Poor girl, forever unfavorably branded. No, it’s really when they return to class with said tattoo, covering the whole of their left forearm, and can’t open a book or write because they’re in too much pain. OR (and this actually happened to me) they try to reschedule their final exam because they have a very important appointment with their tattoo artist, for which they already put down a nonrefundable $100 deposit. What is up with these whacked priorities, kiddies?

 

3. They smell. Didn’t they get the body odor talk during gym in 4th grade like everyone else? And dousing yourself in a can of AXE body spray or a bottle of Victoria’s Secret Supermodel perfume is not a suitable substitute for an honest-to-god shower with shampoo and soap…

 

4. …And yet, they are soooo vain. Vain enough to take out a compact mirror in the middle of class (THE MIDDLE OF CLASS) to check the status of their hair, teeth, skin, latest zit…you get the idea.

 

5. They wear skirts that could double as tube tops. Forget the fact that their chosen attire is more appropriate for the Jersey Shore after 11 pm than 8 am ANYWHERE, let alone school, or that many of them are still wearing braces. Let’s simply address the practicality of the issue: it just cannot be comfortable to sit in a dirty desk chair all day with the backs of your upper thighs plastered to it. Think of all the other people who have sat there before you! Think of the germs! Think of the likelihood you’ll be able to cross and un-cross your legs without flashing half the class! Put on some pants!! (And no, leggings don’t count.)

Big News!

Well, Hubs and I took the plunge and bought our very own house like honest-to-goodness adults! We won’t close and move until June, so it all still doesn’t quite feel real, despite the very large checks we are already writing for things like home inspections and electrical quotes and half the down payment…

 

This also means that I am starting to look for a new job. The commute from our new place to where I presently work would be 45 minutes to an hour each way on a good day, and that is a sacrifice of time I’m just not willing to make. (If you go back and read my last post, you will begin to understand why.) At first, I was dreading the process of finding a new position, because all of my prior experiences with job searching have been completely drenched, saturated even, with a sense of utter desperation. I was desperate for a job, any job, after graduating from college with a very useful and clearly marketable degree in theatre. When I was laid off from that first job in 2009, I was desperate for a job, any job, so that I could continue to live on my own in Boston as my mother gently and lovingly urged me to consider moving home to New Jersey. And then, when I finished graduate school in 2011, certified to teach high school English, I was desperate for a job that would allow me to do what I loved…and to assuage my deep anxiety that perhaps it wasn’t a worthwhile investment to put my money-making on hold and dump a boatload of money into post-graduate education.

 

Now, I hope I’m not jinxing myself here, but this time around, the whole job search process just feels different. I’m more confident that, with two years of experience under my belt and a gut-level belief that teaching is what I’m meant to be doing right now, I will find a new job close to our home. Granted, there is never a TON of demand for English teachers, or teachers of the humanities in general. I’m realistic enough to know this. But it has to be a good sign that I already have second interviews lined up at two schools where I would be genuinely happy and excited to work. And it’s only March!

 

Dear readers, please keep your fingers crossed for me, that I do not live to regret how assured I seem in this post. I’m knocking on wood as soon as I hit publish…

Intense Apathy: An Oxymoron

I shouldn’t have gone to school yesterday. Up until the moment I pulled into the parking lot, I considered turning around and going home. That’s not true. Even as I was making copies and prepping for my first class I seriously thought about asking for coverage and leaving. But I didn’t. Because I am dutiful and responsible, and I do what’s expected of me even on days when my uterus is raging within my body so much that I’d gladly teach class curled in the fetal position on the dirty school floor.

 

I’ve always suffered horrible cramps, which are so intense at times, it feels as if I could faint or throw up. I took enough ibuprofen yesterday to tranquilize a bear, and yet my cramps insisted on crippling me, thumping incessantly against my lower back and abdomen. The painkillers did deaden the cramping to a consistent ache, but that sort of ceaseless discomfort over several hours rendered me highly irritable and short on patience.

 

So when during my 2nd period class, after an unexpected 4 day weekend thanks to Blizzard Nemo, I discovered that only three of the 25 students in the class had successfully completed 15 pages of reading originally due for last Friday, I pretty much lost my sh*t. It was half my angry, crampy, screaming uterus, I swear. But it was also the frustration that has been building and compounding upon itself over the last year and a half in this teaching position. You see, many of my students suffer from an intense and severe case of educational apathy. (This seems like an oxymoron even as I type it – severe, intense apathy, ha.) This second period class is overwhelmingly comprised of exceptionally lethargic and indifferent learners. More than half the class failed last quarter. On a regular basis, there are only five or six students who complete assigned work. I have been unfailingly kind, understanding, and encouraging to them while at the same time trying to hold a line of high expectations for their learning. That is, until yesterday, when the perfect storm of severe PMS and unexpressed discouragement at how the class has been going stirred together and spewed forth in a four-minute verbal tirade. I must have said at least five times something like “SERIOUSLY?!?! IT WAS 15 PAGES, AND YOU HAD FOUR DAYS TO READ IT!!!” I then made them sit without speaking for the remainder of class to actually do the reading, because…what else could we do? Maybe this was too kind, but at that point, I just couldn’t muster the patience to try to engage with them at all.

 

Is this just me being a relatively inexperienced teacher, or am I right to have difficulty understanding how they can just care SO LITTLE about their own education? How is it possible for me to do my job when I care more about their learning than they do? Why do they have absolutely no sense of urgency when it comes to their own futures and the impact their education will have on this future?? Half the time, it feels as if I am going 85% of the way to meet them…and they still refuse to meet me with 15%. I doubt raising my voice at my students yesterday had any effect outside of making me feel a bit better for the moment. Once the class was over, I just felt guilty for letting my irritability overtake me.

 

I gave my uterus and myself a “mental health” day today. I’ve been laying on the couch under a heating pad watching reruns of “Scandal” on Hulu, which has been surprisingly restorative, because at least I don’t have to deal with the problems that arise when one is the leader of the free world. I’m still dreading tomorrow, though.

Daily Post: Reincarnation: do you believe in it?

I don’t know. What I do know is that if reincarnation exists, hands down, I’d want to be reincarnated as Beyonce. Because, I mean, come on…Image

COME ON! If that isn’t amazingness personified, I don’t know what is, people.

And lest you think I have abandoned writing about teaching altogether, there is a connection here. My juniors began the process of writing their big research paper this past week, which is a long and arduous struggle for most. However, they can choose to write on any topic that is school-appropriate, because my philosophy is that if they select their own topic, they are more likely to remain engaged in the research process over this next quarter. That, or they’ve dug their own hole, so at least they can’t blame me when they completely lose interest and focus halfway through. In any case, one of my most meek and mousy female students handed in her proposal yesterday. And guess what her topic is?!? Yes, it’s Beyonce. Specifically, how Beyonce is the most successful female star and mogul of her generation. Of course, I totally approved her proposal.

An Ode to Midterms

Hello, dear readers! (Assuming there are any of you left out there after my longer-than-intended absence.) I’m back because, well, I finally have a moment to catch my breath. It’s midterm week, and for the first time since the summer, at this very moment, I have NOTHING on my desk that needs grading. This will change in about 43 minutes when my honors students, who are so diligently working now, hand in the midterm they are currently taking. But until then, I have 43 glorious minutes to bask in my grading efficiency. True, there is so much I could be doing right now, including reading Jane Eyre (is it English-teacher-sacrilege to say I don’t like it? At all.), which I intend to begin teaching with this class sitting here now, or planning the first week of my new senior elective that begins on Monday. But instead, I am choosing to bask in this quiet moment in my classroom, to take in the scratching of pens on paper that indicates there is thinking happening all around me, and reconnect here.

 

How can I explain my three-week absence? It’s not that I haven’t wanted to write or haven’t had ideas swirling around my mind that would have benefited from being put to paper. Many afternoons on the drive home from work, especially on difficult days, I would begin composing a post in my head, fitting words together, thinking of intriguing first sentences. Determined to break the dry spell, I would swear to myself that as soon as I entered the apartment, I would sit down at my computer and pour out what I had already mentally written. But then, I wouldn’t. Instead, our soft white couch would beckon me to its cloud-like fold, I’d find something mindless to watch on Hulu, and remain there, a sad, exhausted lump, until Eric walked through the door, and I could no longer justify my state of utter vegetation.

 

You see, I think I lured some of you here under the guise that this would be a blog about teaching. And I know that in order to grow as a teacher, I absolutely must be a reflective practitioner. But most days, when I come home, I am so spent from actually doing the teaching, that the last thing in the world I want to do is sit down and think about teaching. No, I’d rather think about nothing. Or watch The Mindy Project. Same difference.

 

In any case, here’s a teaching-related list for you. It’s called, “Things I Love About Midterm Week:”

 

1. Students are gone by 10:45, and then I have the entire afternoon in my classroom by myself to grade. It’s quiet. No one bothers me. I can listen to music on my classroom speakers. I can go to the bathroom or for a walk whenever I want. I can’t stress how amazing this is.

 

2. I treat myself by going to Starbucks at 11 am every day. This is great because a) I can actually leave the building in the middle of the day, and b) the coffee makes me so much more efficient with grading.

3. I wear jeans all week, and it’s totally acceptable, especially because the students show up in their pajama pants. (By the way, I think this is kind of gross.)

 

4. I’m not as physically exhausted by the end of the day, because I’m not standing up, moving around, and using my voice all day as I normally would. This means I have extra energy to go to the gym, which makes me feel so much better overall.

 

5. My terrible Children’s Literature elective ends and is replaced by an awesome Contemporary Literature elective. I *will* muster the strength and perspective to reflectively write about this Children’s Literature experience one day. But not today.

Gratitude for a New Year

Yes, I do have some goals for this year floating around in my head: I’d like to lose a bit of weight, read more, write more, practice more yoga, finally learn to like to run, be a better teacher, friend, wife. These resolutions are worthy goals for improvement, but they also bother me, because they subtly imply that I am lacking. And when I look at my life, and I mean zoom out and reaallllyyy reflect, I don’t like this implication of lack, because, I am blessed with so much more than any one person deserves. So, instead of dwelling on these resolutions, I feel an impulse toward gratitude today. On this first day of a new year, I’m choosing to focus not on where I fall short, but rather on where I find fullness and happiness. Thank you, universe:

 

1. For my husband…

Oh, what good did I do to deserve this man who loves me, who would move heaven and earth to keep me safe and happy? I spent a long time wading through a mess of self-centered, deficient, man-children who made me feel as if I wasn’t thin enough, smart enough, or good enough to be with them. And then I woke up and realized the problem wasn’t with me, and I resolved to find someone who could love me, warts, anxiety, and all. That is what I’ve found in Eric. He is a blessing to me.

 

2….and the life we’re building together.

I went to the grocery store today to stock our fridge after being away for the holidays. Truth be told, I love going to the grocery store. There’s something meditative in being able to slowly walk each aisle, squeezing melons and reading food labels. As I was taking my time in selecting the most beautiful pink apples, I paused to say a prayer of thanks for the plenty Eric and I enjoy. We do not want for anything, and I must continue to be grateful for this.

 

3. For my job.

Teaching is the single most difficult thing I have ever done. Every single day, without fail, I am tested and challenged. Sometimes, it can begin to feel like too much, as if I’m emptying myself of energy and patience each day, only to be partially re-filled for the next. But I remember how it felt working the administrative jobs I had before graduate school; I was wasting myself. Bits of my brain very well could have leeched out my head during the hours I spent tediously processing checks through a database, not to mention the sadness I felt over working at something I didn’t quite believe in. At least now, even on the most trying and demoralizing of days, I can find comfort in the belief that I couldn’t be doing anything more important with my time and talents.

 

4. For my family and friends.

The support of our family and friends in beginning our marriage and the generosity they bestowed on us to mark the event were incredibly humbling. I’ve never felt more loved in my entire life than on my wedding day, surrounded by all the people we love most in the world.

 

5. For dancing.

Every Sunday morning, I go to Body Jam. It’s a dance-based fitness class offered at my gym, taught by a woman I not-so-secretly have an enormous crush on. She is effervescent and positive and a fabulous dancer. But I mostly love her because she leads me in doing something I love to do more than anything. Body Jam is my excuse to shake it like I’m 21 again without losing any of my self-respect.

What are you grateful for as we move into this new year?