Sunday, February 2, 2020
"I know, I know," I said, sick to death of hearing it. "Everyone tells me, 'Don't blink! It'll be over before you know it!' "
"Actually, you don't know. You can't know until you experience it." She scrawled her signature on the last form. "My kids are forty and forty-two." She seemed edgy. Bitter? Resentful? I wondered, subconsciously, as I often do around testy people, if there was anything I could say or do to make her feel better.
"But you're so proud of them, right?" I tried. "I mean, I'm sure you miss them being so little, but I bet there are wonderful things about being a Mom to grownups. Right?"
She stared at me. Not kindly, either. "It's not about what I miss or what I like. It's about the passage of time. You can't stop it or catch it. It's like water in a sieve."
She looked down again at the tiny human in my arms, and her expression softened a little. "Well, let's get you home." She stood and helped me into a wheelchair. Wordlessly, she pushed us out of the room, down the elavator, and into the soft spring air to my husband's waiting truck.
It took years figure out what she was saying to me. It took getting dunked into the everyday work of being a parent to really understand the elusiveness of time.
The days have been long—sometimes painfully so—but oh, oh how quickly the years are going. I've been marveling as my children turn into real humans. My friends tell me this is just the beginning; they say it'll just be a minute until I'm an empty nester and I won't know what happened.
Why, then, do days sometimes seem like an endless slog of sameness, in spite of what will, someday, feel like rapid change?
A friend of mine has taught sixth grade for over twenty years. A few months ago, over a cup of coffee, she mused, "I spend my days with people who are always the exact same age. It's like time stands still in my classroom." Ahhhh, yes, I thought, struck: There it is. Time stands still for teachers, who work with young people in the beginnings of their lives, day after day after day, and those students stay the same age. Then, if we're parents, we go home and contend with the unexpected marvel of our own little people turning into bigger and bigger people. This is the quandary of educators, especially if we haven't changed jobs or grade levels much. It's why time is such a fickle thing for us. That's why we can say, with a completely straight face, "This week flew!" and then, in the next breath, "God, this week seemed to take ten days." And we are precisely, exactly correct in saying both.
The nurse was right. It isn't only about what we love, hate, dread, desire, aspire, or regret, or what we miss when it's gone. It's also about capturing time when we can, and about understanding that it's immeasurable. We can't control time and we certainly can't change how it feels as it flows by. And we don't know until we experience the elusiveness of it. Like water in a sieve.
Sunday, January 12, 2020
Monday, September 2, 2019
But a few months ago, in an episode somewhere in the middle of the current season, there was a line, white-against-black, in the closing credits: "In memory of Fatima Ali."
A quick Google search told me the story: She was gone. Cancer. Twenty-nine years old.
Here's what she said in an essay as she sensed her time waning:
I found a lot to think about here, layered between sadness about her death, about the death of someone so sparkling and real.
It's so stupid-easy to forget to indulge in the experiences of living. To get stuck on a fear of being average. To forget the value in a simple, uneventful life.
This school year, I'm trying to focus on enjoying the littlest things, and not scramble for them, either, but actually seek them, find them, and feel them right when they're happening. Last night I had a ghost itch on my foot and I took my sneaker off and scratched and literally marveled at how good it felt, but even more than that, I marveled that I'm now old enough and focused enough to notice my own ability to feel something fantastic in simplicity: The scratch of my own itch. And all the magical things that happen in a day, like that ten-minute period of sweet silence when every child is in a classroom and there aren't any problems to solve, for just that moment. Or when the thunderstorm holds off until the precise millisecond every child gets off the bus and safely into the building. Or when kid comes up behind me and gives me one of those for-real hugs. The feeling of connecting with a staff member in a new way. Or other things, too, in everyday, average life: The first bite of a homemade brownie. The way my dog looks at me. When I don't muck up the polish on my toenails. The satin-y feel of September, when the air is neither too hot nor too cold and really nothing at all except perfect.
In a job where we're all running around with sledgehammers, using will and strength to eliminate and tear down problems, it's nice to flip things around and consciously slow down to enjoy the simple and the uneventful.
Rest in peace, Fatima. I am grateful for you and your acceptance that average isn't something to fear.
Saturday, August 17, 2019
All fifth and sixth grade teachers were asked to identify gifted students from their classes. Once a week, those students would go to the cafeteria for "gifted class," taught by an "enrichment expert" they'd brought over from the junior high school. Only those teacher-identified kids, though: All the others would stay in their regular classrooms. To be ungifted, presumably.
Most teachers did as asked, and letters were sent to parents. Your child's teacher has indicated that your child exhibits learning and behaviors of a gifted child. Every Monday afternoon, your child will receive special instruction... or something like that. Classroom teachers distributed the letters, concealed in long white envelopes: "To the parents of..."
At the time, I didn't know any of this was happening. Because I was a student in Mrs. J's class.
Mrs. J. instinctively and immediately recoiled against the whole thing. She quietly ignored her principal's mandate, refusing to bear the responsibility of such a subjective and arbitrary gifted identification process.
So on the first Monday, when the principal's voice boomed from the P.A., asking for all gifted students to come to the cafeteria, Mrs. J. stopped us, right in the middle of our study of the solar system. Pack up your Trapper Keepers and follow me," she said. Innocents, all, we did. The principal's eyes widened as we walked in, all 27 of us, single file, led by the marchy-marchy Mrs. J.
He sputtered. "What is this?"
"Gifted students," she said.
"But... you were to identify them. A small number of them. Five, or six, at the most."
"All my students are gifted," she said, firmly and fiercely and full of fight.
I don't know what happened next. I can't remember a single thing beyond the set jaw of Mrs. J. and the stunned expression on the principal's face. Never before, or perhaps since, have I seen, in person, someone so unafraid of her position, of the why and where and how she stood. It was a marvel, being defended in that way. I mean, she stuck up for us. All of us. "All my students are gifted," she'd said. All my students are gifted.
I don't know if she got in trouble, or if the gifted class continued, or if the principal took a step back and rallied the gifted identification process toward fairness and transparency. Didn't matter, really, because Mrs. J.'s 27 students had learned more that afternoon than any gifted class could begin to teach.
Not long ago, in a Facebook exchange with Mrs. J., another of my classmates recalled this moment. "You were such a badass, Mrs. J.," the student said. Mrs. J.—mid-seventies, perhaps, or maybe older by now—simply left a winky, smily emoji in response. Right in character.
Friday, August 2, 2019
Monday, June 10, 2019
Sunday, May 5, 2019
I've been thinking of a close friend of mine. She's raising two teenagers. As many before her have learned, a woman can birth two children, and they can grow to be so drastically different that it feels they can’t possibly be related.
|No Answers Yet|
Did it help? I responded.
We didn't discuss the photo-bomb wine, because it's super-funny, except it's not.
Principaling. Parenting. Neither have a code (though that doesn't stop us from looking for it): There are too many ingredients. Time, demographics, effort, community, culture, history, nature, nurture, perhaps the way the wind blows and the stars align. Most people parent as they were parented, or they flip the narrative and parent in the precise opposite way they were parented. It makes sense, because pretty much everything we do in this world is related to something we've seen from others and our conscious decision to follow the model or eschew it.
I say "we," but I really mean "me." I often use inclusive pronouns to make myself feel like part of a team.
There's lots of books out there, and there are a lot of Facebook groups, Twitter chats, blogs, and feeds. None can provide the answers for perfect parenting or perfect principaling.
But there is one thing: Getting up, stepping up, working our fingers off, and being fierce in our determination to do the
Friday, April 19, 2019
Teacher lounges are funny places. I love and hate them, in the same way I love and hate—oh, I don't know. Zoos. Laundromats. Tire stores. Stories are found there, that's fo sho. Lots of stories.I’ve always thought it would be a great project to collect stories from teachers’ lounges across the country, in the same spirit as Humans of New York. The laughter, the anxiety, the therapy, the human connections. The friendship and awkward silences. The way substitutes are treated. The coffee pot, the toaster, the random Sweet-and-Low envelopes mixed in with salt packets. There is a disgusting microwave, mismatched plates, random collections of cutlery, cabinets full of random-origin chipped coffee mugs. Hundreds of different chunks of napkins left from hundreds of parent-teacher-conference night dinners.
And the food—oh, the food. All day long, all year long, there are meals, breakfast and lunch and dinner and everything in between. There is a steady stream of leftovers, forgotten tidbits left in the refrigerator to die—expired salad dressings, wilted lettuce, blackblackblack bananas, yogurt with an expiration date of 1992. It isn't atypical for people to bring leftovers from home to share, or bring things they don't want in their cabinets any longer. They drop all kinds of things in the lounge, sometimes pre-announced with an email and sometimes just left on a table for communal consumption. A half sheet cake from a child’s birthday party. A tray of sandwiches from a graduation. A box of Valentine’s chocolates. Last month, someone left an entire case of Shakeology from the BeachBody Diet. I chuckled at that one. Abandoned goals, I guess.
Saturday, March 30, 2019
Saturday, March 23, 2019
Mary Norris wrote of particles when explaining her dive into the Greek language in her New Yorker piece, "To The Letter."
Who knew there was a word for the tools that help us enhance meaning, "...the small, indefinable, not strictly necessary words that linguists dryly call 'function words' and which are known in Greek grammar as particles... Particles help make a language a language. They give it currency and connect you to the person you're speaking with. English is loaded with particles, words and expressions that float up constantly in speech." Norris gives examples:
Like, totally, so, you know, O.K., really, actually, honestly, literally, in fact, at least, I mean, quite, of course, after all, hey, sure enough... know what I mean? Just sayin'.
"Some people deplore the extra words as loose and repetitive, and complain that kids today are lazy and inarticulate and are destroying the beauty of the language," Norris says. She's right. I've heard that done. But Norris explained their value, and summarized precisely why I actually really enjoy particles: They "act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions."
I like a good conversational nudge. A secret little word poke. When words become a facial expression. It's fun.
When I was a teenager, my father pointed out, gently, as he was wont to do, how often I was saying "like" in my conversations. "Listen to yourself," he said. I did. He was right; I was using "like," like, all the time.
Saying "like" wasn't wrong, in and of itself. Using it as the only particle in my arsenal was my mistake.
Which is why I'm never annoyed when I hear students using particles and experimenting with their meaning and effectiveness. After all, all they're doing is connecting with others through words. Who can dispute the benefits of a kid learning to communicate?
It's super-cool. Truly.
*By the way, if you're into such things, track down this piece in The New Yorker. The the effort—the will!— Norris puts into understanding ancient Greek language is unidentifiable to me, but is, among other things, indisputably impressive.
Saturday, March 2, 2019
So I'm writing a pep-talk blog post. The pep talk may be for you, or it may be for me, or maybe both. In the end, it doesn't matter—just so it serves a purpose for one of us.
This year's relentless array of challenges have grown almost comical. Every single time I think there will be a quiet day, I'm blasted with an out-of-left-field problem I didn't see coming. It's been a hard year. Students struggling, staff struggling, an endless stream of parents finding fault, causing fault, raising all kinds of hell.
I've also felt cold for five straight months, and there aren't enough sweatshirts to take it away. My skin feels like a crinkled, worn parchment. My house is crumb-y and my clothes all look the same. Rut, rut, rut.
There should be some sort of law that if you live in Ohio, you go somewhere warm as winter wanes. For a day or two, even. That's all.
My sister lives in Mexico City. Almost on a whim, my husband and I packed up our kids, tank tops, and sun hats, and flew there to see her and her family. We spent three full days drinking in the stories of this rich, layered city. I stepped back from myself and pictured an energy tank that was filling, filling, filling up. We were buoyed, giddy: The colors! The sun! The tortillas! The welcoming smiles of the people! The blue of the sky! For breakfast the first day, my niece squished up a fresh avocado and spread it on thick wheat toast with a drizzle of spicy sauce on top. I ate it every day we were there, and have eaten it every day since.
Seasonal depression is a real thing, methinks. I'm a relentlessly positive person, but there were many days this winter I wondered, "What is wrong with me?" Blech and ick and meh and blah.
A few weeks ago, I presented to a group of principals about ways to avoid burnout. The topic itself was an irony not lost on me, since there I was, presenting as some sort of expert, and I felt—had been feeling— like a wet, bedraggled rat trying to scurry and scrape my way out of dirty depths of seasonal doldrums. I felt like a fraud: Who had thought I could talk on avoiding burnout?
I started by being really honest about the internal fights of frustration in my own mind, reminding them multiple times, "I don't have answers. I can only offer validation." I felt the audience really sitting up. Putting down their phones and closing their laptops. Agreeing and relating. When I finished, one raised his hand. "Why don't principals feel like they can talk about their dark times?"
We kept talking and talking, long after the session was scheduled to end, as we tried to answer his question.
"We have to be the strong ones."
"We're not paid to have bad days."
"There is no time to wallow."
"Everything just moves too quickly."
"We need to be unbreakable."
All these things are valid. And it wouldn't be right or fair or productive to try to find a way out or around them. We are paid to be the strong, positive, confident ones. That's why we are leaders.
It's just what we need to do.
And, as they say, if we look around and see no one following, we're not leading. If we're grumpy, we're making everyone else grumpy. And that's not okay.
So let's pull our bootstraps—yank them, if needed—and bust through this month. Stay strong, my Midwest friends. The sun is coming out soon. It's a promise, promise, promise!
**This, by the way, is a photograph of a tree we saw when walking to the Teotihuacan Pyramids. I look at the colors and gasp a little. This tree alone may be enough to get through
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