Struggling through with joy...
Struggling through with joy...
I am in a time of “I don’t know.”
I don’t know how to help a student who is struggling with anger. I don’t know how to help his teacher see that he isn’t acting out to hurt her personally, although he is starting to learn how to trigger her, and his connection to her is eroding because his anger triggers her anger.
I don’t know how to get my daughter to sleep through the night, or how to share the burden of being with her when she’s awake in a way that feels equitable to my husband. I don’t know how to give a little more without resentment, and I don’t know how to make sure I take just enough for myself without feeling selfish.
I don’t know exactly how or what I’ll be teaching next year. I have to make my own roadmap, and I’m afraid I’ll get myself lost with big ideas and not enough detail. I am alternately terrified and delighted by my new position.
I don’t know who will be taking care of my children next year. I can already feel August zooming toward us like a bullet. I want to cling to these sweet days of part time work and Fridays off, when I still feel like I have time to breathe and be a human outside of my roles as teacher and mother.
Springtime always seems to be full of these questions of I don’t know. It makes me edgy and upset.
I recently read the book “The Seventh Most Important Thing” by Shelly Pearsall because some of my fifth graders read it. It is historical fiction based on James Hampton, a folk artist who created an amazing altar out of trash, which is sometimes on display at the Smithsonian. Above his altar is the sign “Fear Not.” My students created a poster after they read the book and at the top they wrote the words “Fear Not.” It’s a good message for them as they head into the unknown of middle school.
It’s a good message for me, too. So often I find if I push too hard I come up with the wrong answer, or I do the wrong thing. I will try to move through my life right now with openness, taking time as needed to get calm and listen. Wait. Not everything will work out the way I want or plan; some things will be better than I expected, some things will solve themselves, some things will need a little more work. If I let go of fear I remember how many times it has happened in my life that the thing I dreaded, feared, worried over relentlessly, turned out better than I could have ever imagined. And even if it didn’t, I survived; there was some seed or kernel of goodness I learned from.
Morning: Husband home, daughter half-dressed, bye bye
Afternoon: Questions upon questions deepen understanding, challenge
Evening: Soccer! Previously unknown joy, with kids
Night: Time to read. Time to sleep.
I have a rare Monday off because, unfortunately, my mother-in-law had to have shoulder replacement surgery and one-half of our daycare equation is gone. My husband and I are covering the gap until my father-in-law feels like he can handle a recovering wife and at least one of our kids.
I promised myself I wouldn’t squander this day, as I often do with extra day off. After we dropped my son off at preschool my daughter and I ran a couple of errands. When we got home I strapped her into the job stroller and off we went on a jog around the neighborhood, followed by a short post-run yoga session punctuated with water spills and tackles from my toddler. I felt guilty to be taking so much time for myself.
Ruby sneaked slices of apple to the Chihuahua and ‘helped’ me unload the dishwasher by tossing silverware in random drawers. I felt guilty that I was cleaning instead of playing with her. As soon as the kitchen was clean I changed out of my running clothes, splashed off my face while Ruby covered her mouth with concealer, and grabbed my phone, my purse and my daughter as we ran out the door.
As soon as it shut, I knew. Click. I uttered a stream of curse words as Ruby asked, “Car?”
“No car for us, Ruby. Mommy is an idiot who locked us out of the house with no car keys.”
“Keys?” she asked, tilting her head just so. I shook my head and she settled into moving the duck yard ornaments around, leaving them forever looking like they got into a batch of fermented grass.
I scooped her up and raced to the back of the house, hoping my flightiness paid off for once, that I’d left one of the back doors open.
I don’t want to be that mom. My son was picked up almost twenty-five minutes late on Friday because of a mix-up with his grandfather. He’s often one of the last kids to arrive in the morning. Because it’s often more trouble than it’s worth to wrestle my daughter into her shoes, she wanders around the hallway outside his classroom in her sock feet while we sign him in.
And now I’d locked us out of the house right when it was time to get him. I’m totally that mom.
Thankfully, I had my phone, and even more thankfully, I called my mom and explained what I’d done. “Can you please get Thomas and come let us in?”
“Oh honey! I look awful.” She chuckled. “Ok. See you in a bit.”
Just like that, I had thirty minutes in the spring sunshine with my girl. There was nothing else I could do. I was locked out of the mountain of clean laundry and away from my computer. I couldn’t prep for lunch. It took me a while to stop berating myself, but when I was done my girl and I dug in the dirt, studied some bugs, and sat together on the step, soaking in the early spring warmth. I didn’t know I was praying for those extra minutes with her, but I got them.
I’ve had no time to write until now. I feel depleted and a bit empty, disappointed in the goals I didn’t meet, the ways I didn’t give enough, searching for something interesting to write about. It has me wondering about our kids who come to school with very few of their basic needs met. Or only their basic needs met: food, shelter, a perfunctory kind of love. No wonder they sometimes struggle to find something to write about. Yet so often they still do.
Then too, I’m thinking about the girls I saw on my Facebook feed last night, an eleven-year-old and a high school junior, respectively, who spoke vehemently to thousands about the need for change in our nation, the high school student standing silent in front of the audience, tears streaming, for several long seconds, forcing all of us to realize the loss she and her classmates are facing. I am awestruck by these girls. I want to raise a girl like this: fierce, full of purpose, not afraid to speak against terrible wrongs.
Oh, these beautiful children who fill up my life; the two precious little ones in my home, the hundreds who have passed through my classroom, the multitudes who are awakening our nation to its brokenness. You are, each of you, so precious. May we live up to what we owe you.
May I live up to what I owe you.
In the middle of the night my daughter cried out for her father, and after he left the room to comfort her I lay half-awake, thinking about water. Two nights ago the rain hammered on our roof and I took comfort in my snug home, thinking about the soaking the infant plants were getting in the garden, the rain a respite from the dry winter we’ve had. I remembered the rain we had the year before we moved back home, the days and days of rain that made many parts of our city an island, cancelled school for a week, left hundreds without homes. I thought of monsoons in wetter climates, when rain ceases to be good and is, at best, something to be endured, at worst, a vehicle of destruction.
I’m hard pressed to think of much that isn’t like this When I think of schools and education, this is how I think of it. A blessing for some, a place of refuge and hope, and for others? School destroys them, strips them of their humanity. Those are strong words from a teacher who absolutely believes in the power of education to changes lives. I hope, in my career, I have not been a teacher who strips my students of humanity, even in the most banal ways. But we all make mistakes. We all have bad days, bad years, even, when we are less than who we’d like to be.
When I was in high school I had a few horrific teachers. Let me be clear: most of the teachers I’ve ever had have ranged from average to excellent. I don’t think I got a bad education in public school. My high school, however, was home to some serious racist, homophobic, sexist teachers. Freshman year, my algebra teacher, a man who looked like a skeezy, human version of Bugs Bunny, used to tell his female students the best way to earn an A was to wear a short skirt and sit up front. Preferably with legs open. I flunked. Sophomore year, my geometry teacher used the term “porch monkeys” on numerous occasions and forced me to stand in front of the class and explain why I was wore a “Make love, not war” t-shirt that said, while he sat with his stubby legs on his desk, sucked at his teeth and shook his head. Passed that class with a D+. My sophomore year, the speech and debate coach organized a student assembly where one of her students defended the idea that homosexuality should be illegal because it was so abhorrent. I quite speech and debate. That was the one that finally landed me in the principal’s office, asking him why he was allowing students to say such damaging things.
My principal? He listened. He asked thoughtful questions. He agreed, the content of that student’s speech was incredibly hurtful. He apologized. He promised to speak to the speech teacher and the student. From that moment on, he knew my name and always acknowledged me with a smile. Not much else changed at my high school and I was miserable most of the time I was there, but I felt listened to and seen. I also had some great teachers in the following years, teachers who actually wanted to educate me, who were interested in helping me learn how to read critically, write well, or solve a problem efficiently. I knew, when I went to school, there were a few adults who cared about me. They made the days more bearable.
Now we work to make school a place where children learn to make life more bearable. They still learn all the basics, and to a greater depth than I think they ever have before, but they also learn vital aspects of self-care I only started to learn about as an adult, when my life was in tatters and I had to figure some way to put it back together.
I think this is a general trend in education, but the urgency in my community is greater because we lose several young people a year to suicide. We realize these kids are somehow lost, isolated and unable to find the help they need when they need it. We teach them how to care for themselves, where to go when they’re troubled, and we tell them every day, “You are valued, just the way you are. We care about you. We are glad to see you here.”
No, not every single teacher will do this. Not every single teacher feels this way. But they muscle through because it’s a district directive. We’ve got to save our kids. Most of us have bought into this idea, one way or another. The teachers who haven’t? Many of them will leave, some will change, and I hope the force of all the teachers who truly care will flood our students with the love they need to sustain through the years with the teachers who don’t. I hope the good will overcome the bad.
Nearly every evening when I cook dinner my Chihuahua Betty White lurks beneath my feet, snatching up what I inevitably drop. There are few foods she doesn’t eat. Grains, vegetables, fruits, meat, cheese, she likes it all. Carrots are sometimes a no, but that’s about it. She even dines on non-food items fairly often, spending warm summer mornings snacking on the ants as they leave their underground lair, or gnawing on cat poopsicles in the winter until one of us catches her and shouts with disgust. She always looks at us with a mix of shame and wonder that we could deny her such a delicious snack.
She often presses her hard little head against my shins or calves when we’re in the kitchen together, just to remind me she’s there. Then she gets yelled at. She gets yelled at more than I’d like. I don’t want to trip and I fear stepping on her, especially now, because she’s getting old and fragile. Her legs twist with arthritis and she can’t jump on the couch or the bed without help anymore.
Some days she hardly moves at all because she’s hurting so much, but she still manages to make herself a nuisance in the kitchen. If I’m honest, her pestering presence is a constant I find comforting. I like to see her half-bald head peeking around the kitchen island, tail aloft and with a half-wag. Will some shredded apple be flying from the sky today? Will mom or dad lean down to offer me a morsel of pork chop?
I like things that are constant. So much of life is unpredictable and a little out of control. When I was a classroom teacher I enjoyed going over the schedule every morning because it gave me comfort: look at all the things we’re going to learn and accomplish today, my hopeful schedule said. It often didn’t work quite the way I wanted. Fire drills happened, a lesson went awry, someone threw up on their journal and I spent a quiet 30 minutes freaking out internally about the germs. But most days it did, at least in part.
Betty is one of my constants. I got her a few months before I met my husband and about a week before my dad died suddenly. She accompanied me on miles-long walks as I tried to soothe my aching heart and quiet my mind, her happy tail a beacon; she pinned herself beside me in bed at night, keeping me from feeling as if I might spin off into the darkness. She greeted visiting friends and family with indelicate joy, sometimes peeing with excitement. When things got better, when my husband moved in, she accepted the shift in her role, just as she has with the arrival of my children. She eyes my daughter Ruby patiently when she toddles over to pet her, submitting to her awkward patting, and Ruby screams with excitement when Betty offers her a forbidden lick on the chin.
I love the reminder of my little dog’s bald head on my shin. I love the way it says, “Hey, I’m still here. I still love you. Now give me some chicken.” Which I will, right before I chase her out of the kitchen.
I used to squander ten minutes like I had it to spare, and honestly, I did. I was single, childless, footloose, able to eat chips and salsa for dinner and leave the dishes for days if I felt like it. Now, when I have ten minutes of spare time, I immediately cram it with some fulfilling activity. Here are a few of my
Since becoming a mother, one of my mottos has become “Some is better than none.” I can no longer go on my beloved hour-long walks or 45-minute jogs. There is not time or money for an hour and a half at the yoga studio or a morning to spend writing and staring out the front window. But I have ten minutes, and I’m going to use it, by God.
Today has been full of reminders to pay attention. Not to work, not to technology, not even to my most beloved people, but to pay attention to the very ground under my feet, the birds who live at the periphery of my vision, the ants who tunnel through the backyard.
My drive to work aids me with this. I speed down the highway to the small town 15 miles from where I live, the town I despised when I went to high school there. It often smelled like fifty different kinds of manure when I was seventeen, and the smallness of it felt like shackles, not peace.
Today, when I turn off the highway I catch a whiff of the manure. I slow down, notice the fat yellow and black bird balanced on the telephone wire, wishing I could remember his name. I pass Buttercup, the male horse I named prior to seeing his maleness. Never mind, he’s still Buttercup to me, placidly munching his feed morning after morning. I pass the shaggy black cows and calves, nosing at the grass or staring at my car as I drive by. I see the kestrel poised to drop into the field and catch an unseen mouse. It is still early enough there is a mist dissipating on the fields where the mouse trembles. The mesas to the north are blurred by the thin fog.
I say hello mentally to the mommy tree, bending protectively over a smaller tree forever reaching up, up to the branches of the mother. As I turn toward my school I inhale the view of the national monument to the south, red rock rising from the earth in columns and swoops, nothing much to me as a teenager but all glory and gratification now.
When we moved back I swore I would never get tired of this drive, of the views from my classroom window. I haven’t. This place, my home, is knitted into the fibers of my soul; every rock, every tree, every bird, remind me of my place.
I am suspicious of the peace and acceptance I feel as we return to school from Spring Break.
I am wary of the good night’s sleep I had last night (6 hours of sleep, at least, uninterrupted by terrifying thoughts of the busy work week to come.)
I observe myself from afar, marvel at this new calm.
Later, of course, I will clench my teeth as my children turtle their way through getting ready, and the minutes tick down until we leave.
I am fairly certain there is some important school task left undone that will send me into panic later today.
I barely clenched my teeth as I loaded my children into the car. They tumbled happily into their grandmother's house and nary a tear was shed as I walked out the door.
The day went by with only a few unexpected moments, and what is school if not a series of unexpected moments laced together with well-planned lessons?
I remembered the important school tasks I needed to do and found there wasn’t time to complete them today.
Yet I didn’t panic. I prepared everything to complete them first thing tomorrow morning.
My lunch for tomorrow is already packed. I sip my evening tea and munch my Cinnamon Toast Crunch, feeling only a little bit overwhelmed. I’d venture to say I’m just whelmed, no over about it, were that a thing.
Is this what adulthood feels like?