Ladies (and Gentlemen) of the Club

Ladies (and Gentlemen) of the Club

We lost an hour of sleep on Saturday night. I couldn’t fall asleep until after midnight on Sunday night, and I had to be up by 4:30 on Monday to drive to a teachers’ workshop in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

I was excited, but, for once, I wasn’t nervous.

When I worked in IT, I had a few professional development opportunities that sent me to fun locales, but the courses were usually more competitive than collaborative. There was always an unspoken challenge to prove you were the smartest person in the room (I am rarely smartest person in the room — Except when Jim Bob the orange tabby is here. Then I am the smartest person in the room).

Today was different. I’d done my homework. I had just finished a course at University of Wisconsin on today’s exact subject, and I knew it would be fun and useful.

I was bleary-eyed when the alarm went off, and I hit the snooze button once. Then I remembered what day it was and snapped right out of bed, hobbled in and out of the shower and donned my favorite scarf, a Maria Wulf creation that had been waiting for a perfect occasion on a perfect spring day. I was out the door and over the mountains before the sun was fully up.

When I got to the workshop/conference, the room was filled with a few dozen other Special Educators who hooking up their WiFi’s and getting acquainted. The news on the way up had told me I should be terrified to be in a crowd this size, but as we shared jokes about the rhymes we are all using this week to get our students to wash their hands better, I decided this day was worth any risk.

We talked about programs. We talked about helping kids with trauma and disability. We talked about our kids and our “kids,” and I suddenly got a feeling I’d never had at any professional conference before.

I sell art at art shows and craft fairs in the summer, but I always feel like an imposter, secretly certain that everyone can see how much better all the other artists are (I rarely worry much about writing since I need to do it badly enough that I don’t care if it’s bad or good). I was in IT in one role or another for over 20 years and, even when I knew I knew my job, I never felt like I really belonged.

Today was like being a ballplayer who had been moved up from the minor league to the “show.” Talking with people who care passionately about helping children and who were as nerdily excited as I was about the best techniques amplified the feeling.

It was a club, but, instead of competing with each other to be the smartest in the room, the members were sharing ideas about how we could help each other to our common goal.

I realized I felt like a real teacher today — like a professional. And, for the first time in any career, I felt like I belonged there.

And it’s a good club.

Rest for the Working

Rest for the Working

During the first week of my recovery I wrote constantly. When the second, unexpected week of incarceration began, I still wrote more than usual, but, after teaching for almost a year now, I discovered I suddenly missed being around people. Ten years of working at home once had me trained to prefer solitude, but last week I went searching for social interaction in the worst possible place — social media.

At first it was a quick check of the latest news from friends and family. Then it was looking for silly memes. And then it deteriorated into watching videos about all that’s wrong with the world and how to be afraid of it making me wonder if it’s just an accident that S&M and Social Media ended up with the same initials.

After a day or two, despite the exhaustion of living with the pain in my recovering foot, I began having trouble sleeping. Then I started getting antsy when I opened my laptop to write. I started kvetching over homework assignments from my online class and all the things that we should be fixing in the world.

Monday I got back to work — to my girls. There were the initial hugs and greetings, and then it was back to the usual, constant redirecting and behavior management that goes with working with students with emotional disturbances. For the first time in two weeks there was drama and tears, occasional profanity and impromptu after-school meetings. There was still homework online and more comforting of teenagers.

There was suddenly far less time to peruse the feed telling me what’s wrong with the world — or at least I stopped worrying about trying to control the things I can’t. There’s still a daily dose of S&M (or is it SM?), but, like backing off of percosets after surgery, I’ve stepped down. And, diving back into work, putting my effort into the things I can control, or at least influence, is suddenly enough good vibes to start putting me right to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 

Tell Me a Story

Tell Me a Story

Word Art

I’m a geek for historical literature.

I don’t always love the language — some 19th century authors seem to go out of their way to use 25 words where 2 might suffice — but I love seeing day-to-day lifestyles through the eyes of people who lived them. I’ll happily wade through six hundred pages of Vanity Fair because it’s a window into what the author actually thought about the early 1800s in 1847. Ditto for Tolstoy and Chekov.

The stories that give me the best time-travel value, though, are the ones written by women. So few history books describe the lives of women (not too many led armies or signed treaties), and, until recently, few women authored history books. Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, however, gave us windows into their daily lives. How did they manage a household? What rules of the day did they follow in spirit or to the letter? What did they actually think about the business of marriage?

What did they think?

It’s a question that popped up for me earlier this month as I was gathering readings for Black History Month. A number of retailers were already sending marketing emails with book suggestions, but they were often books by white writers telling the history of African Americans, books that had been ‘redecorated’ for Black History Month, or, the perennial classroom favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I love Harper Lee, and she will have a place in class sometime this year, but the initial idea offerings seemed uninspiring.

The first week was drawing closer, and I stumbled on an anthology of Langston Hughes’s writings. His poem, “Let America be America Again” has been enjoying renewed popularity on the internet in the last few months. I thumbed through the volume, marveling at the breadth of work he had generated in a relatively short life, thinking how he had set a great example of how varied a writing career could be.

And then it hit me (you can say it, that took a while).

I’d been looking for a way for my predominately white students to learn what African Americans thought and think about the American experience.  I, obviously, can’t speak about that experience as anything other a sympthetic observer. The kids are also quick to point out that English class is for English not History, but behind the grammar and the literary devices, English class is about learning to understand stories. 

It’s about understanding who’s telling the stories and why.

And for me, teaching literature is also about showing the kids where to find the windows into other people’s ideas and lives — and, then, why they should.

To do that this month (and beyond), I decided to lean on the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a great excuse to introduce favorite writers and poets  and artists from that era, connecting the kids to them through poets and rappers from this era. And, in the end, deciding to shut up and let the authors and artists who lived and still live Black History do as much of the storytelling as possible may have been the easiest and best way to get the kids to hear it.

The Reason for the Season

The Reason for the Season

Thursday at 2:45 P.M. was officially the beginning of my winter break, but, before I left school, I decided to leave my kids with a little holiday cheer by using that most important of all teacher skillz, making a bulletin board.

Today, of course, is Valentines Day. I don’t know about you, but I remember Valentine’s Day being bit unpleasant for a lot of kids in high school. My old high school uses the days to raise money for prom by selling carnations to be delivered to (mostly) girls in homeroom. It was all in good fun, and the recipients were always happy, but there was also a bit of schadenfreude as they looked around the room at the girls who had received nothing.

That memory plus the knowledge that at a girls’ school where any romantic relationships, inside or outside, the school are frowned upon had me searching for a different take on the holiday.

Enter the Pinterest and the National Day Calendar. As luck would have it, we are on the cusp of National Random Acts of Kindness Day/Week.

Pinterest was rife with suggestions for RAKW bulletin boards, but the idea I liked the best was a wall of pick-me-ups they could be borrowed or shared or added to as the viewer’s mood struck them. I found one with the phrase “Throw kindness like confetti“ and on a site dedicated to corporate bulletin boards and ran with it.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. putting a bunch of post it notes on our bulletin board with the words “throw“ and “confetti“ is just asking for serious pushback from the people who do maintenance (in our case, the girls at the school). but, over the last few weeks as I’ve been hobbling around on a boot and hands free crutch, I have seen dozen random acts of kindness from my girls.

These kids, many of whom have experienced very little kindness in their lives, go out of their way to help carry things or pick things up. They are solicitous, looking out for the person who is supposed to be looking out for them. To be sure, like every teenager, they still offer the eye-roll and sarcasm to kids and staff, butthey have embodied the spirit of caring and kindness.

I thought that was the most appropriate holiday to celebrate with them.

Better than Before

Better than Before

The girl had received bad news for the umpteenth time in the last few months. Her sobs of despair reverberated down the hall as she asked the powers that be, “What’s the point?”

“You’re the point!“ The cosmos answered in the form of a lanky young man charged with keeping order the school. “People like you are the point, “ he repeated. “Don’t you know that you all make us better?“

I smiled as I leaned my head towards the doorway to listen from my classroom. I was on standby for hugs and comfort, but my young coworker was already working his magic. And, as he elaborated on the ways our students make us better, I thought about how Thing1 and Thing2 have done that for me every day over the last 19 years.

Just before Thing1 was born, I still didn’t have a handle on my bipolar disorder. My depressive episodes sporadically threatened jobs, and manic phases spurred spending sprees and other self-destructive behavior.

But then Thing1 happened, and I knew I had to be better.

“Every day I go home after work and think about how to be better,“ my coworker said to the girl who was now listening quietly. “You do that for all of us.“

I thought of all the ways I have tried to be better for Thing1 and Thing2 over the years. I thought of the therapy I’ve sought and the examples I’ve tried to set.

Then I thought of all the ways our students spur me to be more organized, to learn more, to be better for them. It made me smile as I thought of how no matter what we will ever do for our own kids or for the ones we take care of during the day, we will always owe them far more for every day making us a little bit better than we were the day before.