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

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

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.

Nothing At All

The nature of a residential school means that students are constantly being admitted and discharged. Some weeks, like this one, discharging students are leaving with diplomas and optimism. It’s much more sweet than bitter, but saying goodbye to three much loved kids made for a different kind of drama this week.

It’s Saturday, and I’m a vegetable. Thing1 is home from college with his significant other. They’re in the kitchen making dinner for all of us while the Big Guy and I baste in the heat from the wood stove as we binge-watch Portlandia. Thing2 pokes his head out of his room every few minutes to relay Princess Jane’s latest antics.

There are so many things I should be doing besides sitting on the couch right now, but some how, this little bit of nothing, this evening of being conscious of not working, of just being, feels like everything.