Monthly Archives: September 2012


Just for kicks, some day you should try to explain to a non-native English speaking math student all the meanings of the word “mean”. As in, “What does it mean to live within your means? What about mean girls? And how are all these meanings different from finding the mean of this math problem?”


Under the Microscope

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a ridiculously paralyzing fear of imperfection. I couldn’t do an art project in class because I didn’t want anyone to see it in progress. I can’t write anything if I think someone is going to walk up behind me and read as I type.

It’s ironic, then, that I became a teacher–something you really only learn to do well by doing it, and in a very public way. You try one approach and it fails miserably, so you tweak it and try it on the next class period, and it’s a bit better, and then you try it again. And again. And hope that eventually you figure it out.

Because teaching can’t be perfected in seclusion. Every activity I try that bombs, every word I mispronounce, every mistake I make–there is always someone watching as I stumble my way toward being the teacher I want to be.  And not just students, either: Because I’m the teacher with a cart, there is always another adult to witness it.

And they’ve all been doing this so long they could do it in their sleep.

You could say it keeps me humble.

(And really glad for Friday.)

Overheard in First Period

Hey, you think Mrs. Lybbert is Meg’s mom?

You’re such a dork! It has to be her sister.

I Wash Your Car; You Bury My Father

I’ve heard plenty of cliches about teachers being overworked and underpaid.

I’ve heard teachers express the sentiment that nobody else can possibly understand what their jobs entail.

But good grief!

Nobody told me that teaching would consume my entire life–my every thought.

Nobody told me that I would need to be a magician, a mind reader, and an acrobat, just to make it through each period and from one classroom to the next.

Nobody told me how not to cry while grading a remarkable essay in the middle of class.

But mostly, nobody told me what to say when my student answers her telephone and tells me she hasn’t been to school for three days because her father and brother just died and they don’t know how to pay for the funerals. And will I come to her car wash tomorrow?

She seemed to think I should know all about this.  Have some answers maybe.

But I don’t.

And the longer I sit here, the less I know.

Two Kinds of People

My cousin reminded me the other day of one of my grandfather’s favorite sayings. “There are only two kinds of people in the world: the ones you like, and the ones you don’t know very well.”

This week I put my grandfather’s wisdom to the test. I began conferencing one-on-one with my students during work time. There is so much I didn’t know.

There is the boy I’ve been calling the wrong name, all month.

There is the cage fighter who misses school for long periods when he gets kicked too hard in the head. He writes like he fights–with determination and passion. In torrents of beauty and quick one-two punches that make it impossible to breath.

There is the girl whose parents smash her belongings when she displeases them.

The foster child of 15 years and innumerable homes who has just been adopted.

The immigrant who speaks a language I’ve never heard of. He’s been adopted too–at the age of eight, because his parents could no longer feed him. He walks the neighbor’s dog, and whenever he earns ten dollars, he sends the money home to his birth parents.  He doesn’t feel like he has any stories to tell.

The boy who walks around alternately looking shell-shocked and then abruptly erupts into being the loudest of class clowns.  Court issues consume his time and attention. When I called home to let a parent know about a spectacular essay he wrote, the woman who answered sort of grunted in response. When I asked him the next day what his mother did for a living, he said she left 16 years ago. He doesn’t know about his dad.

The girl who slammed into a parked car, and can’t believe I want to read more about it.

The girl who just wants to keep her son safe.

The stories go on.

And those are just the ones they told me. Powerful, frustrating, heartbreaking, funny. Real.

I wonder how I could have ever not known their names.

For Sale: One American F-22

This week I ventured into the student bathroom, as the one-stall staff bathroom is usually occupied.

And we wonder why contagious illnesses rage through the population.

Did you know that the sinks in the girls’ bathrooms only dispense water if you are actually (forcefully) depressing the faucet? You can wash one hand at a time… sort of. I’m not sure how effective one-handed-hand washing is. And to top that off, you then  have to touch the faucet again to rinse off your soap.

You could turn on the water with one elbow while rinsing the other hand if 1) you have no nerves in your funny bone, 2) you are flexible, and 3) don’t mind the soapy water of the elbow-depressing-arm running down your sleeve. Oh. And your arm would need to fit between the faucet and the soap dispenser.

Not that I’m complaining. Because there are schools in Africa without any running water at all.

Also, I’m incredibly grateful for the circa-1974 copies of Roget’s thesaurus. All eight of them. Because there are schools without any books.

Ditto the slightly more than 1000 novels we have  in our library to serve our student population of more than 2200.

You think I’m making this up. But seriously. One thousand books? Reference materials older than me?

I’m supposed to teach writing, but students don’t have  regular access to computers. I signed up early for the lab so I could snag myself  a regular spot.

Once a month.

We are supposed to be preparing our students for college and for life, but who in the real world, academic or otherwise, writes anything without access to a word processor and an internet connection? Nobody! It’s not authentic!

It’s not realistic to expect them to do research papers when they have one 45 minute session in the library every two weeks. It’s not realistic to expect them to make the kinds of revisions college writing demands when they are doing it with a pen and paper.

Yes, you and I did it in college with ball point pens, but we would never do it now–and we write differently because of that. We hold our writing and fact-checking to a higher standard.

Not to mention that when we were writing with those ballpoint pens,  most of us were doing it in libraries that contained actual reference materials.

You know how many books we could buy if the military sold just one of those stinkin’ jets they have sitting around, rusting on the tarmac?  Just one? 

This country needs to seriously examine its priorities.

Moving Out

The other day I overheard several teachers talking about dropping their children off at college.

Some of them cried the entire six-hour drive home.

So did their husbands.

Literally. Like… tears and everything.

After listening to them for a while, I sort of wanted to cry. Because I couldn’t fathom feeling that way. I started to question my own emotional well-being. Shouldn’t I be crying? Is there something fundamentally wrong with my ability to attach to my children?  

The thing is–it just seems like something a parent would be excited about. Isn’t this what we planned for, all those years?

My own daughter went off to college this morning. As in, drove herself. I knew she was packing, because it looked like a tornado hit the entire basement, and I think I heard her step on a quilting tack sometime in the middle of the night. But I never did cross paths with her.

I sent her a text at 6:30 in the morning, as I was headed to school. Where are you?

Taking care of things. 

(I assume that involved, I don’t know…  last-minute pancake breakfasts with her friends, or some such thing.)

I need to go to work. Your SSN is on your bed.


We’re warm and fuzzy like that. Besides, her dad was here to see her off.

I’m not totally heartless.

After school today, there was scrap of paper on the seat of my van. I almost didn’t read it, because I thought it was just one of those bits of litter that show up periodically in a family vehicle, blow around for a couple of weeks, and eventually disintegrate into the carpet.

My son pointed out that something was written on it.

She must have stopped in on her way out of town to leave me a note. It was a strange feeling. That deliberate shift I felt myself make, the moment I read it. An instant shift away from feeling anything that made those other women spend an entire car trip crying. It was like cradling a sprained elbow. If you don’t use it or bump it, you don’t feel the pain. Much.

I didn’t see that coming.

Mucho Gusto

I called the mother of one of my students yesterday.

I wanted to tell her that her son is brilliant. That he doesn’t understand that he’s brilliant, and that he tries harder than any student I have ever had the honor to teach. His English is imperfect but his courage is impeccable. His essay moved me to tears. I wanted to thank her for raising such a son.

I knew there was a good chance she might not speak English.  I tried to bribe my husband into calling her. He gave me the eyebrow.

She answered on the third ring:

“Uh… Hello?”

“Hello. Is this [student]’s mother?”

“No espeak English.”

“Oh. Okay. Um.”

“No English.”

“Well. Um. Hola. No hablo espanol muy bueno. Pero. Su hijo… el es un estudiante maravillosa. Uh…. El es un… el escrib…e uh, muy bueno? Estoy… muy…”

Happy. How can I not remember the word for happy? This may be the first time I have tried to put my Spanish speaking skills to practical, unrehearsed use, and my Canadian background is betraying me. Every  foreign word I can think of is French. Spanish, think SPANISH.

“Um. Mucho gusto?”

Dead silence.

I realize that I probably just told her that I like the taste of her son.

“Um. Er. Gracias por su hijo. Usted es una buena madre.”

“Ah. Gracias?”


I assigned the students to write a self-evaluation of their reading, writing, and speaking abilities yesterday. Wanting them to take the questions at least as seriously as I did while writing them, I belabored the “language is power” and “your learning is really your responsibility” concepts really well before handing the evaluation form out.

Also… I may have told them it was weighted as much as their final exam would be.

Sometimes you gotta pull the grade card.

But I have to tell you, I’m impressed. Almost without exception, these students think seriously about their strengths and weaknesses. They write thoughtfully about their language goals and taking responsibility for reaching them.

As I read their thoughts, and one solution after another occurred to me, I was possessed of a sudden assurance that I was in the right place, at the right time, doing what I’m meant to be doing.  I’m envisioning a drastically different approach to language learning, but I’ve got a feeling it’s going to work.

It’s been incredibly stressful, trying to come up with my own curriculum; more than once I’ve thought a bit wistfully of those elementary jobs where everything is laid out for you in lockstep. But this.  What an opportunity to work with students where they really are!

The Home Office

My bed is covered with mountains of paper. Books. Thirteen pear cores on crumpled paper towels. Three empty water bottles. Textbooks. Notebooks. Lesson plan books. Insurance papers. Some clothes my daughter decided she doesn’t want to take to college. An empty Cadbury wrapper. Tootsie pop sticks. A dead telephone. A live telephone. Me. This laptop, which is burning my flesh through my jeans.

Daughter thinks I need an office.

I think I need at least seven offices. One for secondary teaching, one for college teaching, one for the nitty-gritty of interviews and profile writing, one for the GCRP, one for YW’s, one for all the paperwork inherent to a family of eight which includes four and a half drivers and two college students. And, of course, that mythical office I envision in my dreams: That cozy little writer’s cave cut off from the rest of humankind.

Because if I were that organized, of course I’d have time for leisurely writing.

Also, I should have my own personal chef.

And someone to remotely brush my teeth. Because if I fall asleep within this snarl of cables, paper and sharp-cornered textbooks, you know I’ll wake up at three in the morning with fuzzy teeth and a headache.

Not that I’ve done anything like that before. Ever.

Also someone should take out my contacts before they burn right through my corneas and sear their way into my brain matter.