Monthly Archives: March 2013

Getting Real

Speaking of American Lit.

We are now well into the Civil War era and all the nitty-gritty realism that entails. We took a breather from death and depression and the question of today was, “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?”

They recounted everything from, “Don’t stop when you hit the ramp; just keep pedaling” to, “Expect the best; plan for the worst.”

We then read a letter from Robert E. Lee to his son, in which he gave his son various tidbits of advice. I assigned the class to write a letter of advice to anyone their heart desired. In their own language. About any topic.

I then alternately laughed and cried and sometimes did both at the same time as I read heartfelt words of wisdom from 16, 17, and 18 year old high school students to the people they care about most: little brothers and sisters, despondent friends, and future children.

“Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. I used to think it was funny to play dumb and then nobody would take me seriously. No matter how hard I tried to change it, they still saw me as the funny fat kid. Nobody could see me as intelligent.”

I put down the letter and asked this (clearly, obviously, absolutely) brilliant 17 year old kid when that happened. I was met by confused silence, so I clarified my question. “Did they treat you that way in grade school or middle school or what?”

Here, the student’s eyes welled up ever so slightly. “Yeah. But they still think that.”

Gah. You’re killin’ me. 

There were gang-members pleading with little brothers to steer clear of the wrong crowd, boys instructing imaginary sons  about how to be men, and girls pleading with future daughters to not sell themselves short.

Not one of them complained that they didn’t know what to write about or who to write to; they had thoughts that mattered and they wanted to share them with real, flesh-and-blood people.

I seriously love these kids. I wish we could learn together for longer than one short semester at a stretch. The semester is almost half over.  I’m just now getting to know them, and I can already feel June 6th rushing onward at a relentless pace.


Georgiana’s Death

My third period class today informed me they were terrified the first time they walked into my classroom. They were convinced I was going to be the meanest teacher alive–although, they were unable to articulate exactly why that was. Seriously? How am I not the least intimidating person you’ve ever met?

Today was also, however, one of those days which keep a teacher teaching, instead of… I don’t know–slamming her head repeatedly into a wall.

My juniors were reading “The Birthmark”, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I started class with this set of questions:

  • What is your greatest weakness? And,
  • Would you be willing to give it up for the sake of true love?

In the story, Georgiana is all-too willing to change, and her husband, Aylmer, kills her in the process of “perfecting” her.

There were many death threats made against Aylmer after we closed the book.

But the question which arose next was, do we, in demanding others or even ourselves to change, inadvertently destroy people in the process? And if so, what might we do instead? How can we see past individual characteristics which drive us crazy, to the whole, valuable–if somewhat flawed–person?

Holy Kamoley.

That story resounded with these 16 and 17 year old kids like nothing I’ve ever seen.  Students who have never spoken up in class before were waving their hands, anxious to relate their own connections to this tale. They spoke of friends, parents, mental health counselors, physicians and countless scenarios I’d never have made the connection to. 

They rose their hands timidly at first: “I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but my aunt….” And, yes! it would have everything to do with it, in ways I never could have predicted.  And then, emboldened by the connections that other students made to their own tale, they would raise their hands again. And again. And again.

“Some days it’s a good day to die, and some days, it’s a good day to [read American Lit. with teenagers.]” (Smoke Signals, 1998.)

It’s About Time

Great news: as of 2:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, my clocks will finally all be accurate again.

Bowing Out

I made this goal in January of not only cooking 5 out of 7 nights a week, but reporting my success here so you could keep me accountable. It felt spectacular to actually do that for almost two months. It felt great to be a mother who cooks–in fact I voiced the opinion at one point that half the battle was actually just deciding to cook–just knowing that not cooking was off the table made my job easier. I didn’t have to decide to cook or not; I just had to decide what to cook.

I realized this week that the cooking is not nearly the stress as the reporting has become–I find myself not blogging simply because I don’t know how to gracefully interweave commentary about dinner into what I really want to write about–and who wants to read posts about just food, really?

So I’m bowing out of the reporting thing (in case you hadn’t already noticed) but I’m still committed to cooking for my family. I may not always be successful each week, but I do know it’s critically important to sit down together in this rushed society we find ourselves in.



Some of my third period students pointed out to me today that I have a hard time saying no. They are correct, and some of them are not quite sure how they feel about that. They hear their peers say things like,

“Can I hand in my essay tomorrow?”

What, I’m going to refuse to accept it? Like I’ve never been in a tight academic situation before, desperate for a bit of human understanding?  Like if I accept it, that student won’t learn his lesson about punctuality and one day he’s going to grow up, miss a mortgage payment and the bank is going to then refuse to take his money entirely?

Not realistic.

Am I going to say no when you want to use the bathroom or fill up a water bottle or take care of any other bodily function your highly unpredictable teenage body is guaranteed to throw at you?

Like I want to be the teacher who made you soil yourself in Junior English. Or worse yet, hear in detail about whatever crisis it is that impels you to ask me to use the pass precisely when the school-wide handbook prohibits that you do so. Just GO. 

I’m not sure I’m cut out for the nitty-gritty disciplinary aspects of teaching. I understand why the policies are in place, but I’ve always sort of favored the spirit over the letter of the law, and despite my best intentions, that side of my nature generally wins.  Most kids don’t take advantage of that, but occasionally one will. The thing is, though–I’m not really sure that bothers me enough to change my approach.

I’m not actually sure I’m a proper teacher, at all.

I mean… I know the theories of good pedagogy. I understand the rationale behind discipline matrices, common assessments, diplomas, class ranks, etc. I wholeheartedly agree that education is an immeasurably valuable thing.

But I despise trying to rank them or their ideas on a scale of 1-100.  I despise cataloging them in my computer each period as on-timelate, or absent, and trying to determine whether or not the story about 300 other people waiting in line to use the bathroom is a valid excuse for being tardy, or if one student’s medical condition requiring them to eat in class is more legitimate than another kid who’s just plain hungry.

And so I say yes. And maybe I say yes too often, I don’t know. I do know who I am–and that teacher in 3rd period–that’s about as me as it gets: I’m just as hungry and tired and ready for something besides taking notes and reading small print under florescent lights as they are; for most of us, it’s been six hours since breakfast–if we had time to grab it at all.

So yes, go get some lunch. Use the bathroom. Turn in your essay as soon as you get it done; you won’t have time to rewrite it for a better grade like your classmates, but I’m not going to penalize you for not fitting into the same mold your neighbor did. Mostly, I just want to hear your voice speaking loud and clear–and if that takes you longer to formulate than it did the kid next to you, then hurrah. Ask me if you can turn it in next week. You know I’m going to say yes.

And if you are the kid who turns in your work on time,  every time, and never needs to use the bathroom during class or borrow a pencil, then hurrah for you, too. Doesn’t that feel good? To be organized, and sure of your future, and stress-free when grade-checks come around? There will be plenty of other yeses in your life, too. Yeses that your struggling peers will never hear: Yeses to job interviews and scholarship applications and friendships and bonuses.

Don’t get to feeling anxious about the few yeses you share with your less academically gifted peers right now, in this classroom; you are going to have to share other things with them in the future–a lot of things–and if you learn to do so graciously, it will become easier for you to say yes to others.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asking you to become anything less than you are now–I’m not asking you to shrink or shy away from your full potential–in fact, don’t you dare. In (roughly) the words of C.S. Lewis, the graciousness I’m asking you to develop, the humility of which I speak–it is not to think less of yourself, dear student–it is simply to think less about  yourself, and more about others.

When Flagellation Just Doesn’t Cut It

Best student malapropism of the day: “Dimmesdale turned to flatulation in search of redemption.”

Sequester, Classroom Style

One of my students asked me, last week, why the sequester is called a sequester. I asked them what they thought.

There was much muttering and confusion.

“Is it because Congress is locked up together until they can finally get along?” someone finally asked.


But it got me thinking. I’ve started occasionally doing this thing in some of my classes called “Roll Call”, in which I ask each student to answer the same question. It gets them thinking and looking into each other’s eyes and hearts and really examining their own opinions in light of their peers’ often very different opinions. It takes a bit longer than traditional attendance taking. In fact, there are days when it takes a significant portion of the class period. Sometimes they don’t want to leave.

Today I asked each of my students what it means, specifically to them, to be an American. I’ve been thinking about this myself–mostly because I’m getting tired of the whole us-versus-them mentality of American politics in which “us” is defined as me and my two drinking buddies, or maybe even me and my yes-men, and “them” is defined as everyone else “us” don’t 100% agree with.

America is facing some significant problems. I get that. There is  ample evidence of corruption, ignorance, and apathy all around us.

I also understand the need to stand up for correct principles. What I don’t understand is why so many people seem incapable of addressing issues, policy, and ideas instead of attacking individuals.

Okay, fine. You don’t agree with everything that comes out of the President’s, or the Governor’s, or the county commissioner’s mouth. Maybe you even think that particular politician is despicable for one reason or another.

But do you really think that Barack Obama, or anyone else, can–all by themselves–ruin or save this country?

Because if we’re already at the point where one man holds that much power, then we are no longer America–so either stop with the histrionics, or do something:

  • If we’re past that point–where the conspiracy theorists are on the right track: all is hopelessly lost,  the Anti-Christ himself is in the White House, etc–then what in the name of all that’s sacred are you doing just posting snide memes and cynical commentary about it? Go storm the gates, now, before it’s too late.
  • If, on the other hand, we are not past that point–if you believe that we are simply headed down a dangerous route with foolish leaders at the helm, but that you still have the basic freedoms which permit you to post those memes without risk of dire retribution–then wouldn’t it be in the best interest of “us” to interact civilly with “them” as we try to right our course?

Tell me this: Have you ever, ever, ever, ever, ever successfully won someone to your point of view by insulting them personally, demeaning their ideas or pointing out their faults?

In addition, when you talk about “the government”, to whom do you refer? Aren’t we-the-people supposed to be running more than just our mouths about things?

I also encounter people who are so disillusioned with the political realm that they no longer vote, no longer read the news, no longer do anything but hunker down and hope things get better, somehow. I understand that.  The same problems that bother them, bother me; and, honestly, I don’t know what to do about any of them either.

I do know this:  we are all human. We are all flawed. We are all a little bit nuts in our own way, possibly.

But we all want what’s best for our children, our communities, and our nation. We are all, in the end, Americans. I am not an economist; I am not a political science expert; I do not understand foreign policy.

But I do understand human nature. And what I see happening in the  political arena and on the airwaves and around the water cooler, so to speak, reflects a deep misunderstanding about that very human nature we all share. We are at risk of no longer functioning as a community–a cooperative group with a common goal–when we cannot see past “us” and “them” to the “we”.

So here’s what I wish the sequester meant: I wish it meant we could sit the members of Congress down in a room and just have them look one another in the eye and discuss real issues, stripped of positioning and party and pride.  Wouldn’t it be great if a meeting of Congress went overtime because the members of it were so engaged in understanding one another they were reluctant to part? Wouldn’t it be great if they were to all go home at the bell saying, “Can we talk about this again, tomorrow?”

I understand that Congress is funded by your tax dollars, and that you want less talking and more doing–but so is the classroom. And I’ve yet to see anything worthwhile come out of a school room until every student feels safe within it. It’s basic brain science that we cannot truly function as problem solvers, at the highest levels–where the real, difficult problems must be solved–until we feel secure as human beings.   It isn’t possible.  Until then, we just keep throwing temporary, desperate fixes at problems of exponentially increasing complexity.

Speaking of complex political problems: I’d offer my classroom for such a discussion but we’re already ridiculously over capacity. Thirty-six desks in a room I’m pretty sure was built as some kind of closet (seriously–isn’t it against some kind of code that there are no windows, and only one door?) is already a little close for comfort; I don’t think Congress would fit. I guess the next best thing is to hope that some of these students grow up and run for Congress themselves. I’ll be first in line to vote for them–I think they’ve got some solutions you’d like to hear about.


Good news: It’s possible I just made the perfect pot of stew.

Bad news: I have no idea what I did different than usual.