Saturday, March 31, 2018

When On the Way Down


When I was 23, I climbed Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.  It was the hardest physical challenge I’d ever faced, and that’s saying something—I’m the daughter of a hay farmer, so I grew up hurling hay bales in the 90-degree humidity.  I was a 3-sport athlete in high school.  I have run marathons.  I have biked and run and stood on my head and all sorts of other things that tested my physical and mental stamina.

But Half Dome was something else entirely.


And the thing was, I didn’t see it coming.  At all. 

I was volunteering for an organization that supported foreign students traveling through various regions of the United States.  I was the group’s leader.  It was a Band-Aid to fix my wanderlust (and, if we’re honest, zero career prospects).  We were based in San Francisco, but spent weekends exploring the northern California region.  On this particular weekend, were set to camp in Yosemite one night, hike to Half-Dome (however high each person chose to go), camp another night, and then head back to San Francisco.

I didn’t worry one little bit.  A breeze, I thought.  I’m in good shape, I thought.  

I left camp like a warrior, march-march-march up the path.  Fierce and strong.  The hours began to lose themselves.  The air got cooler and thinner.  Often overcome by the beauty around me, I felt tired, but wasn’t intimidated—if anything, I was smugly satisfied. 

I drank through my four bottles of water, rationalizing that I’d lose the weight of carrying the water, and thus my climbing would be more efficient.  Other hikers sipped.  Not me.

March-march-march-march.  Stomp and scrap and scuffle and spit.  No rest stops. 

Others in the group faded off, turning to head down.  In the end, there were only three of us still forging on. 

And forge did I:  All the way to the precarious, mind-bending, tippytippytop. 

The views.  The views!  I rested, achy and thirsty.

And then:  The realization.  You have to go back down.  You’re eight hours in, and you are only halfway there.

And then:   It’s okay.  It will be easy.  Everyone says going up is the hard part. 

Then:  Do they say that, actually? 

As I would, I reacted quickly:  Well, then.  Go.

I started down the mountain, flee-like.  I was in some inexplicable hurry, and I wanted to be alone to do this thing.

Down, down, down, I went, not realizing the rips and tears I was inflicting on my legs.  I grew so tired my body shook, even as I forced it to move.  I fell several times.  I was so thirsty I stopped thinking about anything but water.  At one point, I slipped on stones and skidded into a Sequoia tree, my legs buckling.  I knelt into myself and wept.   

Get up. My inner self-scold.   Put.one.foot.in.front.of.the.other.

I got up.  Don’t.look.up.or.ahead.no.matter.what.

I slipped and slid and ran and rattled my way down that mountain, one step at a time.  

Of all the things that are faded from that day, there is one clear and concise moment:  looking at my watch when I finally arrived at my tent.  It was 6:14 p.m.  I’d been hiking sixteen minutes shy of 12 hours.

I fell into my sleeping bag, begging the universe for sleep, but was kept awake by twitching muscles and that thing that happens when we’ve crossed over the wall of exhaustion and are in some whole new universe of fatigue.  Everything was whirly and twirly, but I couldn’t move one single millimeter.  I looked through the top of the tent as a crescent moon moved across the sky.  I heard my travel-mates drinking beer and laughing, late into the night.  When I finally slept, it was fitful and jagged.

I didn't walk right for a month—I looked like a 100-year-old bent-up mass of torn muscles.  

I’ve thought about that hike many times.  My ridiculous arrogance.  My blind assumptions about struggle.  This swiftness with which I was humbled.   My lack of planning.  The moment I realized I had to come back down—that slow, terrible, “Oh, man… you’re in trouble, girl.” 

Knowing there was just one thing I could do about it.  Head down.  One foot, then the other, then the other.

Sometimes we can’t possibly know how hard things will be.  Many of the things I do—principal, mom, writer, person in this complicated world—feel easy on the surface, but occasionally resemble a ginormous mountain:  they are bigger and harder than I'd planned.  

We can’t predict the scars and rips.  But we keep forging on, though, don’t we? 

What is it that makes us go?  Perhaps it’s just faith, or resiliency, or a desire to see a new view.  A new perspective.  Maybe it’s a hidden, unidentified drive to be uncomfortable as a gateway to growth. 

I do know this:  If asked to hike Yosemite again, I’d probably do it.  I’d go slower, certainly, and I would pace myself better.  I'd certainly bring more water, for God's sake, and ration it well.  I’d have to contend with age, now, and a more refined understanding of the elusiveness of common sense.  But I'd still be going in blind.  

It’s all blind, actually.  But we keep doing it. 


We’re rounding the corner into the last couple months of school. We’ve climbed the mountain and it’s time to come back down.  Blind or not, we can do it, because we can do really hard things, and we can come out on the other side—weary, embattled, yes—but also accomplished, triumphant, and infinitely wiser. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why Go? Professional Conferences, from Grump to Glee

What’s the deal with attending professional conferences?

I mean, why?

Lots of reasons.  Lots of whys.

My district puts on a fabulous literacy conference every February.  I’ve attended for 19 straight years.  It’s a Saturday morning thing, kicking off with noteworthy keynote speakers and then, throughout the day, piles of great presentations by all sorts of people from the teaching, leading, reading, and writing world.   It is one those heart-filling, spirit-filling, soul-filling days.  Star-studded, too:  This year, I got to learn from Linda Sue Park, George Couros, and Kate Roberts.  Geek out, man.  Geek. Out.  

But let’s not pretend.  It’s not like I always have a paper-chain countdown, especially not in the hours before the conference.  For one thing, the preceding Friday seems to always be a doozy; problems pop up like Whac-a-Mole.   Students get in all kinds of trouble, parents are grumpy and line up to share their grumps, and teachers’ shoulders seem to all be slumping a bit with the weight of their responsibilities.  My regular Friday tension headache hits new levels on February Fridays.  

So, every year, on the morning of the conference, I wake up feeling like a five-year-old.  I don’t wanna, I think.  I can’t do it.  Maybe this year I just won’t.  I have a long internal whine about wanting to stay home in my jammies and eat Golden Grahams and watch Netflix all day.

But I go.  Every year, I go.  And I find the same scene:  The check-in area is crammed with people chattering like magpies.  Many of the attendees know one another, so, early as it is, everyone is all huggy and happy.  It’s like someone sprinkled the room with energy dust.  This year, almost 800 attendees from nine different states joined in, and as it always does, the day left me excited and invigorated.

Sometimes we have to have faith that the fantastic things don’t always feel fantastic, there at the beginning.  It takes getting up, cleaning up, putting a good attitude, and getting in the moment.  It’s recognizing the apathy that is hiding in your pores, finding it and squishing it down and clomping on it until it’s gone.

In the end of the day, I walked away filled with things to think about.  I was overcome with the wisdom of so many educators and presenters.  As always, I was feeling, somehow, as if I were a more complete teacher, leader, thinker, and principal. 

Here are still things that are on my mind, even five weeks later:

  • ·      Libraries really are miracles.   
  • If all we do is watch video games and watch social media, we will get stupider.  But we can “stop the stupid” with books, smart media, and conversation.  And good teaching.
  • ·      You can’t talk about writing unless you talk a lot about reading.
  • ·      When you feel embattled, stop and consider the importance of what you do when you share books with students. 
  • ·      It’s okay to debate about things.  It’s okay to disagree.  We just need to come back to doing right by kids.
  • ·      We shouldn’t use writing to record thoughts; we should use it to inspire thoughts.
  • ·      Sometimes we want students to be much better writers than they really are.  Slow down, back up, and adjust expectations to fit the student, the situation, the prompt, and the developmental process.
Next week I’ll be in Boston at another professional conference, this time for ASCD at their Empower conference.  Presenting, even.  From where I sit today, this Saturday morning, right this very moment, I’m a little cranky about it.  I’d rather spend the start of spring break in yoga pants, drinking chai on my couch.  But once I get into the conference hall, I know I’ll forget that any other option exists except this one:  Rubbing elbows with people who care as much about teaching, leading, and learning as I do.  

All in.    



*Thank you, thank you, thank you to the committee who put the Dublin Lit Conference together.  Seriously. Tremendous.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

School Bus Gratitude

Can we talk about school buses for a minute?

Last week, I had a 9 a.m. dental appointment, so I took a few morning hours off and was able to put my kids on the bus before getting my teeth cleaned.  For years, my loving and dependable mother-in-law has taken this responsibility while my husband and I rush off to work; she comes to our house to do the whole bit—breakfast, teeth brushing, lunches packed in backpacks, last-minute shoe-tying.  She gets them to the bus stop and waits with them, through the white winter-cold and August heat and everything in between, and she gives them the have-a-good-day-I-love-you hugs.

But thanks to this dental appointment, on this day, I was the mom who puts her kids on the bus.  My mother-in-law took the morning off and I tried to fill her shoes with their morning routine.  When it was time, we meandered to the bus stop.  “It’s never late,” my daughter reassured me.  Sure enough, exactly on time, there it was, gently spiraling around the corner, like the millions of big yellow buses before it, on millions of roads, all over the country, for years and years and years. “There it is!” from my youngest, “Always on time!” from my oldest.  The bus wheezed and sighed, and the doors opened; my little people got on, and I could see them, through the bus windows, jiggering down the aisle before they swung, backpacked-bodies, one fluid motion, into their seats.  The driver grinned at me, kindly, a sweet man who takes my most loved people to school every day.  I waved to the other kids, who half-waved back with sleepy eyes.

I thought back, decades, to the bus I rode, when I was a student myself.  I could conjure it up, clear as today—the smell of the seats, the rumble of the tires beneath my sneakers, the gasp of the exhaust when the bus idled.  We lived in a deeply rural area, so I was on the bus just under an hour:  I used to smuggle Twizzlers in my Trapper Keeper to soften the twirling stomach of motion sickness.  If the driver was feeling generous, we were permitted to open the windows; the fresh air would clear away my nausea.  Sometimes there were senseless arguments with the other kids, mostly about who got the back seats; there was name-calling and shoving and pleas from the driver to please.be.quiet. My friend Christy sat with me all through third grade, and we played approximately 5,000 rounds of slap-hand games.  In fifth grade, Shawn Franks got kicked off for three days for writing cuss words on the back of the seat.  His mother was furious at him and refused to drive him to school, so he just didn’t come to school.   We missed him.

My mother had four children.  Counting kindergarten, that’s 52 years’ worth of buses coming to our house to pick us up, take us to school, and get us back home again.  For “free.”  And that’s just one family. 

There is a lot of aggressive opinion, nowadays, about public education.  A lot of it isn’t flattering.  But I’d argue it’s one of the things—warts and all—that is actually working in our country, and I think of the bus, and the driver behind the wheel, as its symbol.  The pre-dawn bus warm-up, the driving of infinite miles on city roads and over rural potholes, the tribe of kids, all living in one area or apartment or street, riding together toward school and then home again, all secure and safe, the whole thing as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning.

There is ugliness that happens on the bus, of course.  Bullying and misbehavior, fights and misplaced lunch boxes, traffic infractions and missed turns. It is a social and behavioral petri dish, and as such, it is a heavy stress that the bus drivers carry.  And that is, of course, its own symbol, reflective of our world, and reflective of kids learning to get along and figure it out.  They learn to ask for help if they need it.  They learn resiliency and toughness and self-advocacy.  Or they learn to wait it out.  

It’s not perfect.  But it is pretty extraordinary, no? The regular-ness of it all, the simple way it happens, all over the country, again and again:  The bus comes, and it takes students where they need to be.  Just like that.

It’s comforting to me:  The sight of a school bus, the idea of releasing my children to the open doors, the steadiness of the driver’s greeting.   It is a sturdy and reliable kind of comfort, one that hasn’t changed in a long, long time, and isn’t likely to change anytime soon.  Which is, perhaps, the biggest comfort of all. 

Many, many thanks to every single bus driver... ever.  




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