Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mama Bear


But not speechless. I’ve got so many words bouncing off the the back of my teeth, my head is pounding.

I’m trying to deep breathe.

Because I got a call today from a pleasant-sounding young man who introduced himself as some sort of recruiter. I wasn’t really paying attention; I was busy.

He wanted to know if my seventeen year old daughter had plans for the future.

I said she did.

He wanted to know what those plans were.

I declined to tell him. I asked him to clarify his identity. He introduced himself again, as the army recruiter for our area.

I still declined to divulge my daughter’s plans to him. He kept talking. I told him, politely, that we were not interested, expressed my thanks and I hung up.

He immediately called back. I know, because I have caller ID, and there it was–the local number, and the words, “United States Gov”.

I didn’t answer.

He blocked the number/name, and called back.


I finally answered.

He chewed me out for my unprofessional behavior, and made thinly veiled threats about people who dare to hang up on him.

And then hung up on me.


Are you KIDDING?? You called a CIVILIAN RESIDENCE. You are not talking to a professional–you are talking to the MOTHER OF A 17 YEAR OLD GIRL!!!  WHAT BUSINESS IS IT OF YOURS WHAT MY DAUGHTER’S PLANS FOR THE FUTURE ARE!!!!???

My husband doesn’t think I should go down there and wring that  man’s neck. He thinks that’s exactly what the army wants. That they are baiting me. I think I will wait until the drumbeat in my head slows, but then somebody is going to hear about his. Lots of somebodies. You don’t harass me in my own home. Not today.

How is this possible in a free country? How does a person like that wear the uniform of our “protectors”?



On Mothers and Teachers and Mem

It’s strange–how much I can love teaching and at the same time… really wish I could just stay home and bake bread and make sure my children are wearing socks before they go off to school every morning.

do love teaching.  If I have to have a job, this is a pretty good one.  I love the challenge and the students and the intellectual wrestling over puzzling behavior problems with colleagues.  I love the success stories: Mr. “Dunno”, after all, did bring me a story this week–an entire page of writing, complete with the most beautiful piece of code-switching you’ve ever read.

“Dunno!” I exclaimed as I read it. “You wrote me a story–and this, this, right here, where you write about un grande sombrero charro? I love this!”

He couldn’t help letting a grin escape, but he wiped it away with the cuff of his sleeve–quick, cool–hoping I hadn’t noticed. “I didn’t know the English for it,” he said uncertainly.

“That’s okay!” I told him. “It’s more than okay! It allows me to hear your voice, and that’s what we want.”


“Seriously. There are lots of magnificent writers who do this–there’s even a fancy name for it, when an author alternates between two or more languages: they call it ‘code-switching’, but this is all it is. You did what brilliant writers do, and you didn’t even know you were doing it!”

That’s worth getting up for, every morning.

But so are the needs of my own children. I think it was Mem Fox who said, “I have always been a working mother, which is just another way of saying I have always been a guilty mother.”

I tried to envision myself, today, getting out of my car and walking into a school building, every day, day after day. Unlocking my classroom door, pouring my heart into loving and teaching these kids (because, as Mem also says, and she is correct, you cannot teach without love),  year after year–and not just teaching them the things I want, but teaching them the things the State says they have to know.

I realized this week that I love teaching language because I love language. I love the windows it opens into our world, and the power it gives to young people who feel so little power over their own lives. I will never love teaching them how to fill out mind-numbing worksheets and bubble forms, tasks that are suspiciously disconnected from real learning and language.

Students in three different classes asked me if I was tired today.

I didn’t mean to let it show–but it did. And if they can sense it on just one day: that one, stray, niggling thought of lessons I dread but will probably have to teach, what will they ferret out after I have been sitting in that desk for fifteen years? Am I being honest with them or myself, to even take up this gauntlet?

“I Fail! That’s What I Do!”

I have something like 110 sixth grade students. I have the ones whose habitual pose involves a soft snore and saliva pooling on the desk. The brilliant ones who won’t lift a finger to complete a homework assignment. The uncertain ones who have never succeeded in any class and have been passed on from one grade to the next simply because the system doesn’t know what else to do with them. I even have a kid so accustomed to failing that when I scored his participation rubric a ten out of ten, three days running, he slammed his pencil, point down, into the zero he had given himself and darkened it furiously, tracing its predictable curve until he broke through to the other side of the page.

When I squatted down, eye-level with him, and asked if he had a question, I could tell it took all his self control to choke back his rage. “I don’t understand this stuff!”

“What don’t you understand?”

“I don’t do stuff like this! This?? This is something my brother would do!”

“What would your brother do?”

“You want to give me a zero?? Give me a zero!!!”

“Well, I would like to give you a ten. You participated, you solved your differences with your partner, and you stayed in class the whole hour. I think that’s worth a ten.”

I finally got him to calm down enough to come talk to me in the hall, but once the door had closed on his peers, he started shaking and tears welled up in his eyes. He shook his paper at me. “I get D’s on stuff like this! That’s what I do! I fail!”

I fail. That’s what I do. 

This is the message I get, in one way or another, from too many students:

“Hey,” I write to one student on his daily self-evaluation. “Why so low? How’d you lose five points?” I leave my score section blank, because I didn’t notice any off-task behavior, but they are usually pretty honest with me.

“I was daydreaming the whole time,” he writes back. This kid is notoriously off-task in most classes, I’ve heard, but his writing is intense and thoughtful. I’m wondering when he found time to write it if he was really goofing off.

“Were you daydreaming or were you thinking?” I ask.

“I couldn’t figure out what to write until the bell went.”

“Thinking is never off-task behavior,” I write back. I change his five to a ten. He becomes a ten, every day.

The kid behind him, next row over:

I ask, “Can you tell me about this draft of your writing?”

“I dunno.”

“I can tell you what I know. I know from the way you wrote these few sentences that you are smart enough to write an entire paper. What else can you tell me about this trip?”

“I dunno.”

“Well. How ’bout you put your pencil down and just talk to me about it?”

We get nowhere. He really doesn’t remember anything about this trip, I can tell. I have no idea why he has stuck with this topic all week, but he insists on it. The draft was due today, and we both know he’s had plenty of time and warning, but something tells me that I don’t have the full story on what’s holding this kid back.

Finally, I put my hand over his tortured little paragraph, and I look him in the eye. “You have tried so hard on this paper. We both know that. What you might not know is that good writers do this all the time. They work and work and work on a project and it goes nowhere and eventually they have to face the fact that it’s a dead end. You can still write this paper if you want. But can we just talk about something else for a minute?”

He nods, with that sheepish, ear-to-ear, please-don’t-put-me-on-the-spot grin of his. But then we start talking, and he tells me he plays the trumpet and he likes video games and what he’d really like to do is go to Mexico to meet his great-grandmother and all his uncles.  He wonders if his grandmother would like the trumpet. Pretty soon I’m scrawling down notes on the back of his paper–what else might you do there? Who else will you meet? What are you going to bring back home?” And when we are done, we look down at that paper, and there’s enough material for pages of writing. I look up at him. “Can you bring me a full page by Monday?”

He begins to nod, but then he stops. He eyes his forlorn little paragraph uncertainly.  “It’s just that I’ve never written a whole page before.”

“Does that seem really overwhelming?”

He nods, and it suddenly makes sense. In my mind’s eye, I see all the single, forlorn, little paragraphs he has written over just the last week.

“So don’t write a whole page,” I say. I push the page full of notes across the desk. “Write one paragraph at a time.”

He’s smiling, and he assures me he can, but will he?

I don’t know.

Will the kid who has been writing furiously for five days, in tiny little print, page after page, ever let me see his work? Will he allow me to raise his grade above the single digits?

I don’t know even if it matters. They are writing. They are asking one another questions, and thinking.

They are writing introductory sentences like, “I was sitting on the side of the California freeway, with sweat dripping down my back.” and “It was one of those days where I felt like bacon.”  Funny, heartbreaking, and wonderfully ordinary things, but all of them so uniquely theirs–and they are so excited to share them. “Mrs. Lybbert! Read mine! Read mine!”  They write me notes at the end of the day, “Can we do another lesson like that one?” “I never thought about paragraphs before. I like learning this. I take it to mind.” “What mean sensory detail? Can us learns it?”

How can I not look forward to work every morning?