06 December 2010

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said  in 1817 that reading required a "willing suspension of disbelief" from the reader. In other words, the reader must voluntarily and consciously agree to believe the author, no matter how fantastical the plot or unlikely the outcome.

This willing suspension of disbelief--this voluntary pretending--allows us, as adults, to experience the world the way a child does. You see, children start out believing in the impossible. They believe the world is good, and wonderful, and that magic lurks around every corner. But children are in a hurry to be adults. They quickly become jaded and caustic. Teens, especially, are eager to be more "grown up." They don't realize that in growing up, they're sacrificing the most precious gift they're born with: the gift of belief. An easy ability to believe, to hope, and to have faith. The ability to get totally and unabashedly excited about something.

Of course, we adults still do this. We get excited and sometimes, we too can barely contain ourselves. Case in point: this past June, while in New York City, my husband and I went to see Green Day's American Idiot on Broadway. Ostensibly we went because we are Green Day fans. But let's not pretend. I bought tickets because John Gallagher, Jr (who I stubbornly maintain will fall head-over-heals in love with me if/when we meet in the future) was the star of the show..and I may have a teensy (gigantic) crush on him. And as the curtain went up in the St. James Theater and I saw my favorite actor/future second husband sitting center stage, I could barely contain my glee.I quite literally bounced in my seat while poking my current husband in the arm, (quietly) squealing "There he is! There he is!" (something my wonderful current husband tolerated gracefully). I was a child on Christmas morning.

Yes, I still experience moments of sheer, childish joy, but as any adult can tell you, they grow fewer and farther between as we grow older. Our excitement may be something we experience, but it's rarely something we share. We aware of the skepticism and scrutiny such childish joy can bring. So we hide it. Other than weddings and births, there are precious few things we adults can truly lose our heads over.

And maybe that's why I love this season so much. Because despite the cold, and dark, and snow, and ice, it's the one time of year we get to stop acting "too cool" and get truly, deeply, magically excited about something. For one short month, we get to be kids. We get to pretend magic exists and deny that we ever grew up. Christmas is simply one big Never Never Land.

There is a reason the Catholic Church, way back when, decided to plop the celebration of Christ's birth (which was in spring, let's be clear) in the middle of the darkest part of the year. Because in our darkest days, we need reminding that there is light and goodness in the world. We need reminding that hope can triumph over despair, and salvation--however you define that--can and will come to you at the blackest hour. It's a symbolic reminder that even when things look their worst, hope, light, and love can be found.

If that doesn't require a child-like sense of faith, I don't know what does.

It is too easy as adults to lose ourselves in the bleak reality of the world. But despite all that grimness, the truth is, the world remains a beautiful, awe-inspiring place. There is pain and sorrow, but Christmas--brightly lit trees shining through the dark, quiet snow-filled nights--reminds us that always, always something can illuminate that darkness.  We believe in miracles, Santa, and the innate goodness of human beings. We have faith again, in our world and in each other. It is a true "willing suspension of disbelief." We pretend that anything is possible, and in so pretending, we ensure that anything is possible.

Even my second marriage to John Gallagher, Jr.

Happy Holidays.

28 November 2010

Why We Read or Yes, You Have to Read This

I am something of a classicist when it comes to literature, and this recently has been a subject of debate among not only my department, but English departments across the country. Is there truly a benefit to students in reading the so-called "canon" of literature? Do Hemingway and Steinbeck truly teach our students more than the teen books they might otherwise prefer? One colleague in my department--who I respect enormously--questioned at a recent meeting whether or not we should truly be teaching Shakespeare at all in this day and age.

Once I recovered from my shock (it took me five days to do so) I had this to say...

Yes, we should.

And while I think that response should suffice, I'll explain. First, do not misunderstand me. I am a fan of all literature, and I read voraciously both classic and contemporary works. I am a huge fan of Jonathan Lethem (read Motherless Brooklyn, my all-time favorite), Connie Willis, and Jasper Fforde. I see the value in contemporary literature, and I do not question that many current authors are asking questions and making points in thought-provoking, entertaining, worthwhile ways. I just question whether they are doing it best.

Take Lord of the Flies for example. In it, Golding forces us to wonder what each person is capable of at his/her core--what could we do with no fear of reprisals? Would we do it? Is human nature ultimately an evil constrained by society, or goodness ruined by circumstances? Do other contemporary books ask such questions? One colleague pointed me to Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games as a suitable alternative. In the series, a teen is forced to kill others in order to survive a twisted reality-TV type situation. Yes, certainly the themes are similar. But in The Hunger Games, our narrator is forced to kill or be killed; she is left with little choice. Each murder is an act of self-defense, acts she struggles with and deplores. In Golding's work, Simon is ripped to shreds by a group of young boys for no other reason than they can, Piggy pushed to his death because his reason runs counter to their savage nature. There is little remorse and certainly no provocation to the murders. Surely, while the basic questions are the same, the point of Golding's work is more provocative and the implications far more serious. So, in my room at least, I'll stick with him.

I teach the classics not simply because they are works a culturally literate person should know--certainly that's a part of it--but because their authors did it best. If you want to examine racism and the lengths to which people will go to preserve an unjust status quo, why not look to To Kill a Mockingbird? If you want to examine the extremes of the 1920s--the greed, selfishness, shallowness, and carelessness--and their effects on the American Dream, where else to look but The Great Gatsby? His green light--his dream in the distance--is the pinnacle exploration of these themes. All else is imitation.

I teach classics because--in the end--I do not just teach English. I teach grammar and paper writing; we study imagery, allusions, and symbolism. That is part of my job. I want to create life-long readers, so I encourage my students to read The Hunger Games and teen books I know they will enjoy. (And there are some truly amazing teen reads out there). Yes, I teach English. But I don't just teach English. I teach students how to think about the world around them--how to understand it in a new way. And I teach them that great literature--the canon--is a way to understand that world. So we slog through slow starts and intense imagery--as my sophomores did with The Great Gatsby--to uncover something new in an old book. We read because sometimes it's about entertainment, and sometimes it's about more: it's about learning, and understanding, and discovery.

So my students will read Romeo and Juliet. We'll laugh at Mercutio's dirty jokes and yes, my girls will tear up as the lovers take their final breaths and Romeo utters the most romantic dying words in literature: "Thus, with a kiss, I die." I smile as my students, who complain bitterly through the first third of Gatsby, give themselves over to the story and gasp in shock as they realize Daisy killed Myrtle and left Gatsby to pay for it. My sophomores will debate bitterly the merits of George ending Lennie's life and expand that discussion to one concerning the death penalty in general. And I truly believe my students, at the end of the year, are not simply better read (though they are) but are better educated, better thinkers, and, hopefully, more compassionate, considerate people.

The classics have lasted because they tell us something vital about humanity in a way others cannot. They are lenses through which we see our world in a new way, we understand humanity at a depth not previously attained. They are classics because decades, even centuries, later, we share Scout's indignation, Ralph's horror, and Gatsby's disillusionment.

And we understand the world better because of it.

14 November 2010

While my Soapbox is Still Out...

In the district where I am employed, we recently passed a renewal levy worth three million dollars...by 59 votes. As if that slim margin wasn't disheartening enough, one (crabby) lady living in the district has petitioned to have the levy recounted at the expense of the school district. Apparently that $25 a year she'll save if the levy doesn't pass is her bingo money. And we all know how important that is.

Bitterness aside (temporarily), I am baffled by people's reluctance in this country to support public education or those who make public education their career. I am disgusted by the lack of respect teachers receive from many Americans, including those whose children are currently in public schools. I understand I am biased; education is my livelihood, of course I'd like to see people willing to pay for it (and me) in spades. But I accept that this isn't the case. I just don't quite understand why.

Recently the NEA published an article about an essay written by a Florida teacher, Jamee Miller. You can see the text of her essay here. And while I agree with Ms. Miller about the many sacrifices we teachers make, I'm not sure complaining about said sacrifices is the best way to gain the respect and support we so desperately need...and deserve.

Yes, I work long hours. Yes, I am paid less than most other professionals with equivalent education and experience. And yes, I dislike spending my own money on my classroom simply to make the room habitable for the nine months of the year I am there. But it is churlish to deny that I do enjoy my summer vacation (though summer school significantly cuts into that time) and my strong benefits package. Time and effort are important in any job, but they aren't the defining factors for success. And, as I often tell my freshmen and sophomores (particularly around test day): whining and complaining gets you nowhere.

Every September, I approach the first day of school nervous about my classes--will they be manageable? Will they get it? Will I be able to refrain from throwing things and stamping my feet when they don't do their assignments? And at the end of the first day, without fail, I'm in love with 200 news students who will constitute the next nine months of my life.

Do I complain about my job? Of course. But I love it, and what's more, I think I'm pretty good at it. So no matter how tired I am, or how icy the roads on my commute, or how disheartening their tests results were, I go each day because I know I only get nine months with these amazing teenagers. And that's just never enough time.

Teachers deserve respect not because we work hard--many people do that--but because we take care of your children. For eight hours a day, this country's children are in the hands a small group of educators. Yes, it is our job to help them learn. Yes, it is our job to keep them safe and enforce rules. But it is more than that. It is our job to let them know they are supported; to let them know they are cared for, and listened to, and important. I hand out band aids (Dora or Transformer themed, naturally), listen sympathetically to stories of heartbreak, and am often privy to information and pain even parents don't know about.

Teachers deserve respect because we care enough to teach your children. We care enough to give them a voice, to prepare them for the world, to listen to their fears, their dreams, and their complaints. Teachers deserve respect because it is truly a labor of love. No matter how much you know about a subject matter--math, English, science--the only way to be an effective teacher is to be passionate about students, to care what they think and feel; to marvel at how they grow and change. To be as proud of their accomplishments as we are of our own.

There are teachers out there who aren't as passionate about their students--I work with a few. But by and large they are the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, those teachers who joined the profession for vacation time and good benefits leave, discovering that the work involved requires too much care and emotional commitment. The vast majority of teachers are there because, despite the long hours, shrinking budgets, and disrespect, they love it. And they love their students...even the ones that don't do anything. And teachers deserve respect because we are there for your children. Everyday.

We are there because kids make us laugh, because we understand sometimes kids just need someone to listen and tell them life gets better, and because we want to be the one that makes that difference. We are there because we believe in preparing children for the future.Teachers are there because we believe in the power of knowledge and education.

We are there because we are idealists who believe we can--and will--change the world.

One student at a time.

11 October 2010

Excuse Me While I Get Out My Soapbox...

I know that some people reading this may disagree with what I am about to say, but today is National Coming Out Day, and if I can't say it today, when can I?
I work in a high school and I am a straight ally. I see kids everyday struggle with the knowledge that they are gay. Few students will ever feel comfortable coming out while they are still  in high school--peer pressure and fear of not fitting in are too strong. But some will. And I am appalled at the reaction most of them will have to face. I'm going on my third year at this school, and I have had three students come out to me in those three years, and another two students who let me know in a sort of round-about way. In one case, I was the first to know. In three of the others, I knew before most of the students' friends and family. As I talk to these students, I hear their uncertainty, their fear of judgement, their terror at having to redefine who they are--who they want to be. I see their pain as family members react poorly, and I've shed tears for more than one of them. Some of them struggle because they are religious and feel as though the acceptance of their homosexuality is a sin; others struggle because their family cannot find it in themselves to be supportive. Still others are just uncomfortable with the whole idea and aren't really sure how to change that. But these kids--all of these kids--are kind, loving, funny, generous people who deserve to be happy and to be loved. By whomever they want to be loved by.
The news has been full of tragic cases of hate over the past month. A student at Rutgers jumped off the George Washington Bridge because his roommate set up a webcam to film his sexual experiences. Three men in the Bronx were viciously beaten last week by a gang of nine homophobic young men. I see my students who are willing to stand up and say they are different--they are gay--and I'm simultaneously proud of them, and scared for them. I have no way of knowing what sort of hate they will have to encounter in their lives, but I do know with certainty they will have to face it. And I hurt for them. I hurt for all the people who cannot stand up and proudly say, "This is who I am" without fear of repercussions.
Some people think being gay is a choice. No one I know who is gay would say it was a choice for them. In fact, most of the people I know who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, would gladly choose to be straight rather than face the ridicule of being on the margins of society. They are simply people trying to live the best life they are able. And yet,in our country, we deny same-sex couples the right to marry. We tell them their love is "unnatural," and somehow "less than" the love experienced between a man and a woman. This despite the fact that same-sex couples have a higher rate of success and stay together longer than most heterosexual couples (including married couples).
People who live lives as openly gay men and women have made a truly courageous choice. They embrace themselves and who they are fully, and sometimes I wonder if I would have the courage to do the same. I know that to most, the millions of gay people in this country will remain a nameless, faceless minority. But when I hear gay slurs, when I read about people hurt and abused for being who they are, I don't see faceless pain. I see those five students standing tall in my room, struggling to say the words, "I am gay" for the first time. I see a student sitting on a desk, dejected and near tears because his mother refused to tell him she loved him after he told her he was gay. I see a young girl left alone in a restaurant because her mom walked out on her once she told her. I see a boy who lost his mother standing alone in front of his classmates, struggling to defend himself and his boyfriend after they attended her funeral together--holding hands. And I see a young man--heartbroken--saying goodbye to his boyfriend (his first boyfriend) and struggling to define himself in his absence. These are not the struggles of faceless millions. These are the struggles of our friends, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, students, and neighbors. And they will never be fully supported until we learn to see their struggles as our struggle. For truly, none of us are free until all of us are free.
Some people don't "agree" with homosexuality. And they claim to have a reason for their hate. They call it religion. They call it a difference of opinion. They call it a political issue. Some call it ignorance. The truth is, it is hatred. It is intolerance.
And it is wrong.
I'll end by borrowing from Harvey Milk. Today, on this day on which we encourage people to break out of the closets society puts them in, I ask everyone to "destroy every closet door" in this country.
Because truly...it's time.
Happy National Coming Out Day.

04 October 2010

Making Pickles, or How to Shower with Your Eyes Closed

I make pickles. I make good pickles. They involve garlic and dill and vinegar. And red chili peppers. I don't particularly like chili peppers because I don't particularly like capsaicin, that nasty chemical that sears the all it comes in contact with and makes your eyes water. I've always been a little perplexed by people's love of hot food, but to each his own, right?

Last Thursday, I decided to make pickles using the suggested amount of red chili peppers. I buy the generic red chili peppers, so they aren't particularly hot, but they do have a kick. In the past when working with these I have had the misfortune of touching my nose, which produced the aforementioned burning sensation in my nostrils, watery eyes, and much cussing. Since then, I've become smarter about my peppers and wash my hands at least a half a dozen times when working with them. This was certainly true this time since they seemed to possess a greater than average amount of seeds, and as all the pepper-wary folk know, this is where capsaicin lives. The pickle-making was without incident. When I was finished, I wandered into the living room to paint my toenails. Half an hour later, my eyes began to itch...

I think we all know where this is going.

I was smart, truly I was. I had washed my hands repeatedly, and when the itch started, I used the back of my wrist, surely a chili-free zone. Alas, this was not true.

I immediately jumped to my feet as that weird, numb burning sensation began to spread from my lower lash line to my actual eye. Stumbling down the hallway, my agonized mind decided that what I needed was my makeup removing clothes, which were wet and extremely cold, both of which sounded appealing. I still had mascara on, you see, and my mind--let's blame it on the turmoil caused by the pain--thought it was necessary to remove the mascara lest it run, flake, and otherwise exacerbate the problem.

I began to wash my face with the cool cloth. And the cold felt wonderful. At first. Those makeup cloths are thin, and whatever residual capsaicin that had remained stubbornly in place through my hand washings was now in my eyes. Both of them.

At this point, the entire episode turns into a bit of a farce. While hopping from one foot to the other, muttering (screaming) a strong of expletives, I quickly determined that I could not open either eye without howling in pain. This ruled out the kitchen sink as a possible eye washing station as I did not think stumbling blindly from the bathroom to the kitchen was an intelligent decision. The bathroom sink, I deduced, did not have a high enough faucet/basin clearance to fit my head under the stream of water, so that left only the tub as a possible route to relief. So I groped by way to the bathtub, turned on the faucet, knelt awkwardly over the tub and stuck my head under the water. But sadly, it turns out my neck only bends so far, and I could only get adequate water/eye contact on my left eye. There was nothing else for it. I was going to have to get in.

I dithered. The pain was bad enough I actually weighed the advantages of disrobing, but common sense took hold and I blindly threw off my clothes, started the shower, and climbed in...after running into the wall and towel bar, which caused a considerable increase in the expletive output. Finally, at last, I stood in the shower and let the lukewarm water flush out the burn. Five minutes later I could open my eyes. Half an hour later, the burning swell around them had decreased enough I could open them all the way. After this episode, I called my mother to lament my now blotchy, tender face before collapsing into bed. At 8:30.

Red Chili Peppers-1, Allison-0. But I live to fight another day. I'm making pickles again this week.

Those chilies won't know what hit them.

13 September 2010

A Teacher's Life...and Other Oxymorons

My feet ache, my laundry is piling up, and there are notebook fringies stuck in my living room carpet.

School has officially started.

Class begins at 7:30am in my district, which means that I have to be there at 7:00. Anyone who has taught knows that half an hour is simply not enough time to prepare your room or your mental health for dealing with nearly 200 teenagers. So, I arrive at 6:30am. That means I leave my house between 5:30 and 6:00. It takes me an hour to get ready...so I'll let you do the math for my wake-up time. It hurts me too much to say it. By the time I crawl back into my house at 6:00pm, I barely have the energy to change into my pajamas, much less eat, clean, correct papers, or talk to people. But you see, I don't mind not eating much--I've lost a lot of weight in the past six months as a result--and I'm okay with a fine layer of dust over everything in my house--I'm allergy free--and most of all, I really don't care when they get their papers back. It's this last one that causes problems. Because it turns out, I do care that I don't get to talk to people.

For the past two years, I've disappeared on my friends during the school year. I talk exclusively to my students and colleagues, and that's okay, because I enjoy my students and my colleagues. My Happy Corner at school (that is the official name of the four rooms near where I teach because...well, we are a hoot) keeps me entertained with adult conversation, and my students make fart jokes. It's a delicate balance, but it worked. For a while.

This summer, however, I rediscovered the beauty of a conversation that has nothing to do with thesis writing strategies, independent reading theory, grammar or...well...fart jokes. I relearned the beauty of just sitting with a friend. Of harmless gossip (to be fair, work does provide a fair amount of this). Of analyzing the previous night's mindless reality TV show. Of laughing deeply and without worrying who might walk by. I relearned the comfort a friend can offer simply because she's known you for twelve years, and the smile an email from a good friend living far away can bring in the middle of a bad day. I remembered that your mom will always respond to an email, no matter how banal it was, and that taunting your teenage cousins at a wedding via text is hilarious. I remembered that sometimes, the best nights are spent in the company of your cousins, dancing to "Bad Romance" and behaving far too irresponsibly for your age (alcohol helps with this last one). In short, I learned that I do need people. I'm just trying to figure out how to make that happen.

One day I'll figure it out. I'm getting better. Email is a lifesaver, and texting helps, though I should probably stop doing it while I merge onto I-94 during rush-hour (we were talking about teacher websites!). It's not an easy balance to strike, and some days I fail. More than once I've gone to bed knowing I didn't talk to someone I should have that day, or that I let a promise slip away unfulfilled. I've cobbled together lesson plans because I just had to take a phone call or visit with someone. My friends and family know I'm doing my best, though the admonitions do roll in occasionally. I've been bribed with fresh green beans and threatened with a Swedish Bounty Hunter named Sven. Both worked.

But this is nine months of my year. Nine months of getting up in the dark and not enough sleep. Nine months of printer excuses and "I forgot my book." Nine months of IEP meetings, staff meetings, department meetings, and laughing after school with my colleagues. Nine months of missing my friends and family, waiting for summer when I can see them again. It's only just starting.

See you cats on the other side.

02 September 2010

Leave a Message at the Tone...

I used to have a cell phone. It was apple green with a little sliding keyboard, a rather antiquated screen, and an alarm that woke me up everyday at 5am. Often I'd get to my car after work only to realize I'd left it on my desk; I would not make the 50 yard trek back to my room. Sometimes I went entire weekends without knowing, or caring, where it was.

I say was because in May my husband decided we needed new phones. On the way in the store, I looked my husband in the eye and said firmly, "We do not need data plans. No one needs to have the internet that close to them that often." Two hours later, we left the store, my husband pocketing his new Blackberry while I lovingly cradled my Palm Pixie Touch--with a data plan. The world as I had known it was over.

Prior to my fancy smart phone, I checked email once every week or so, Facebook roughly once a month, and sent approximately one text a day: a short message telling my husband I had arrived at work safely. I called my friends (albeit rarely; my phobia of talking on the phone limits my circle of callable people to roughly four). But, alas, my smart phone brought Facebook and email to my fingertips. I now check Facebook a dozen times a day--commenting on every status, naturally--my email well over that, and last month, I sent over 3,000 texts.

What has happened to my life?

You see, it's not just that my phone is a good time killer when I'm at a red light (yes, I am one of those people; I am desperately trying to break this habit... unfortunately, due to my lack of self-control, this means my phone has to stay in the backseat). It's not just a way to keep in touch. It's become more than that. I check the notifications and I'm disappointed if I don't see an email or text. Has no one thought of me in the fifteen minutes since I last checked my phone? No comments on Facebook. Was my status not witty or apropos enough to provoke a response? No email answer from that letter I sent yesterday. Am I not good enough anymore? Somewhere along the way, my self-worth became tied to how many people text or email me in a given day, my importance tied closely to the number of views my blog received. And I don't think I am alone in experiencing this particular technology angst.

Don't get me wrong, smart phones can be truly amazing. The GPS on my husband's Blackberry helped us navigate Washington Heights and find the nearest A train. My easier and instant access to email has allowed me to keep in touch with friends and family scattered around the United States. And as I write this, my Montana friend and I are trading lyrics to 80s songs in an effort to make each other laugh, thereby extending our lifespan by at least eight years. Technology saves lives.

But it can also dominate them. In an age where information and people are literally just a finger tap away, the seductive lure of the cell phone is irresistible; we feel forgotten and alone because our phone didn't vibrate, ding, or sing to us today. At a time when it is increasingly easier to stay in touch, we feel cheated when people don't. We remind ourselves that people are busy, but always that nagging doubt haunts the back of our mind: are they too busy, or just too busy for us? Blackberry advertises that customers using Blackberry Messenger can now see if their message has been read; in other words, Blackberry customers now know for sure whether the person is busy or ignoring them. Brutal honesty 1, self-worth 0.

I'm trying to put my phone down more often. While working today, I refused to unlock my phone. It was a battle of wills, frequently resulting in me staring wistfully (and somewhat resentfully) at my phone. I knew I had texts; hadn't I heard that familiar chime at least five times that day? But I resisted and instead moseyed next door to bother my neighbors. We got little done today, but we laughed a lot. And it hit me: I didn't need a text, email, or comment to remind me of the fact I enjoy these people, and they enjoy me. Perhaps I've rounded the bend.

My goal isn't to stop using my phone. For a phone-phobe, texting is a lifeline and email a miraculous event. My goal is simpler--to be able to see a blank notification screen without that slight pang of disappointment, that hint of hurt lurking just beyond common sense. My goal is to remind myself that I am worth more than my data usage statistics and total text messages each month. It's a lesson we could all stand to learn.

Then again, when I say all, I'm not sure how many of you are out there, reading my words across the ether.

I mean, would it kill some of you to comment once in a while?

28 August 2010

Taking Stock

Thursday evening I flipped on the news to see each channel reporting live from their booths at the Minnesota State Fair. I promptly turned off the TV and fled the room. Others celebrate the "Great Minnesota Get Together." I see it for what it truly is--the death knell of my summer.

According to the powers that be, the year ends December 31st. But my life has always been tied to the school calendar--first as a student, now as a teacher. Fall for me is a time of fresh starts and new beginnings. Summer then, particularly August, is a sort of ending. It is the time when I take stock of my life, an inventory where I look around and say this is what I have, where I've been, and where I'm going. But what I feel most this time of year is always the inexorable pull of the past, the weight of hurts unmended, friends unspoken, and opportunities lost. Such is the nature of endings.

But this year I remind myself that time always marches forward, and always, always there will be things that we could have done differently. There will be people who come in and out of our lives whether we want them to or not. There will be hurts we cannot heal. And there will be chances lost. Truly, we are always in some sort of shambles; the beauty comes from the way in which we piece it all back together, creating the mosaic of our lives.

Despite the inevitable melancholy that always surrounds endings for me, I am ready for a new year. I feel more grounded in myself than I have months. I am ready to leave behind this hazy, crazy period and move more into the life I have created for myself, leaving much foolishness and uncertainty to stay in the hot, languid days of summer. I am ready to move forward, a step at a time. Because truly, that is surviving and thriving. It is not being afraid to cry and laugh all in the same breath--something my best friend taught me how to do years ago, and something I have rediscovered thanks to her in the past few weeks. It is not being afraid to send an email to a friend two states away saying, quite simply, "I'm blue." And most importantly, it is confronting the good and bad of your life and laying ownership to it all.

As I sit here now, my last true day of summer--the last day of this year for me--I sit here listening to my montage of year-end music in the dim light of my table lamp as the wind rushes through the window and leaves rustle in a seductively autumnal way. I see my year in its entirety: walking the streets of New York City with my husband, spending lazy beach-filled days with my sister and nieces, welcoming my friend's daughter into the world, saying goodbye to friends as they move away, laughing with students (and occasionally hiding from them), holding my mother's hand during the long wait of my father's open-heart surgery. I see all of it--the good and the bad, the hugs and fights and painful goodbyes; all of it is tinged with love. What more can I ask for? And so I feel my grip on last year easing.

Perhaps now, as I pass through one year and greet a new one, I can take to heart the words I hear on my iPod: "There is reason to believe that maybe this year will be better than the last." Not because last year was bad, but because that thought it what keeps us moving forward, trying harder. It is the thought that makes me excited to kick off another year on Monday, that makes me smile when I think of the 180 students who will fill my classroom and my life in a little over a week. It's the thought that, despite the sadness of endings, makes me smile and go confidently into tomorrow.

And I'd really like to reconcile with the Minnesota State Fair.

Because I do love corndogs.

23 August 2010

Pirates and Princesses

This weekend was college move in across the great state of Minnesota. The majority of college campuses are now teeming with students, the dorms (no, I will not call them residence halls) are once again slowly baking their freshman inhabitants alive, and RAs are rounding up beer cans and cheap vodka bottles by the bag. It's autumn in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Most of these students are, right now, experiencing that first lonely, homesick night. They're wondering why going away to school seemed like a good idea and they're desperately calling, texting, facebooking, or skyping every high school friend they didn't alienate during their last senior summer in a last ditch attempt to stave off tears. As I watched the laundry carts roll down the sidewalks and the cars crammed with mini-fridges, microwaves, and terrified families stream into town, I began to wonder about the dreams that brought those students to college.

There are, naturally, students sitting in dorm rooms right now who went to college simply because it's what you do when you graduate from high school. I knew many of these people. But by and large, I knew them for short periods of time, as they inevitably fluttered away to other easier--and cheaper--life paths. Those who stay however, who trek to class when its 20 below, who race strangers for open computers in the library, and who are lucky enough to walk across the stage at commencement, do so because they had some dream or desire that convinced them the money and hard work was worth it.

Yet, somewhere along the way degrees become valued based on their usefulness in teaching "applicable job skills." I graduated in 2006 with a double major in History and English Literature and Writing. I worked three jobs. I had a 4.0. I genuinely enjoyed learning and I was passionate about these subjects. Yet this degree was roughly the equivalent to a Philosophy degree in that it qualified me to do nothing except return to school for more studying. So I did. And two years later, I graduated with a degree in Education. I got a teaching job (which I love wholeheartedly). I was an adult.

At some point, the practical value of what we are going to do becomes more important than the idealistic satisfaction we get from doing it. Ask a child what he or she wants to be and he will say astronaut, pirate, or rock star. Others will tell you ballerina, writer, or princess. I have yet to meet a 5 year old dreaming of becoming an investment banker or telemarketer. So where do these dreams go? When does the world teach its children that money and practicality trump dreams and possibility? It happens. At some point we learn that astronauts have to know a lot of math, ballerinas ruin their knees, and princesses require a lot of etiquette lessons. So we do practical things.

We too often convince ourselves that we're too old, too responsible, too "average," to pursue extraordinary things. When did being an adult become synonymous with settling for "good enough"? The truth is the vast majority of us consider ourselves unworthy of our childhood dreams. We let life happen and tell ourselves that it's just the way the real world works. Fantasies are the stuff of childhood.

But I bet the world would be a bit kinder if there were a few more pirates and princesses wandering around.

19 August 2010

Chasing Summer

According the calendar put out by the school district which employs me, I have been enjoying my summer vacation since June 10th. Teacher workshops begin on August 30, which left me with 11 weeks--77 days--of glorious, sunshine-y summer. Now, 66 days into my summer, I am confused.

As I watched my students file out of my room on the last day of school--wishing some a fond farewell and secretly hoping others would transfer to another district for next year--I was all too aware of the fact that I had curriculum writing the following week, which hardly felt like a vacation. Two days after that, my husband and I left for five days in New York. Now, I recognize that most would say five days in New York is, in fact, a vacation. But as any adult can tell you, vacations are usually far more stressful than working. We returned from New York and I began prepping for summer school. To this day, I am unsure what demon possessed me and convinced me to teach summer school for the month of July, but I am certain that I have rid myself of him. And while a student's ankle bracelet going off during summer school makes for an amusing story, it does not make for a relaxing summer vacation. Those suckers are loud.

So, summer school ended and I found myself marveling at my calendar. August 1st. Summer was two-thirds over and I felt as though I had yet to take a break. But here I was, with a solid month of sunshine and free time staring me down. Instead, I spent far more time than I would have liked familiarizing myself with the local hospital and its myriad of waiting rooms. Alas, another two weeks slipped by.

So here I am, on August 19th, finally ready and able to enjoy my summer. I'm itching to lay outside and lounge in the sunshine. I am ready for farmer's markets, sunburns, and beaches. I am ready to wear shorts.

Instead, I have overcast skies, a temperature hovering around a balmy 65 degrees, and countless emails and messages from colleagues at work about... well, work. I have 30 hours of curriculum writing to complete, and in two weeks, I will have 180 students waiting for me to teach them something.

Perhaps this is the life of a teacher--we dream of long vacations and hours away from our students. Yet, we spend the majority of our "breaks" relentlessly chasing a summer that seems determined to elude us.

Instead of lounging in the sunshine today, I will plug in my flashdrive so that I may update calendars and puzzle over computer lab schedules. It seems that in this particular chess game, summer was always one move ahead of me.

But I still have shorts on.

Check mate.

17 August 2010

I could be a 50s Housewife...

A good friend of mine recently moved to Montana; since then, she and I have started a rather intense but lovely email relationship consisting largely of emails that are, in complete honesty, novel-length and full of snappy remarks. Yesterday, I was feeling a bit blue, so my Montana friend recommended I keep myself occupied and distracted with a bit of work. Housework. I agreed, as my apartment was disgustingly overdue for a cleaning. And this is when I discovered my true calling in life: 50s Housewife.

During my venture into the world of home economics yesterday--they call it family science now--I scoured my apartment whilst listening to Broadway showtunes at an obnoxiously loud volume to annoy my neighbors, who I dislike anyway. I polished furniture, put away dishes, organized drawers, washed windows, and mopped my floors. I dusted baseboards and scrubbed sockets and switchplate covers. I vacuumed in an apron. I washed towels and linens, did my laundry, and even hand-washed a garment or two.

Then I decided to sew.

You see, I had a button that was falling off a sweater that I happen to like. The time had come to sew the button back on my sweater. I had a needle and thread in the appropriate color, and sewing a button is fairly idiot-proof. After all, I can see the four little holes and, as a college graduate, I understand the concept pretty well. My needle and thread needs to go through the holes enough times that the button no longer dangles from the shirt. Easy enough. So I began.

Roughly 45 minutes later, said button and I came to an understanding. It agreed to stay firmly affixed to my shirt provided I never allowed anyone to look at the horrendous sewing job on the inside, where my frustration resulted in a pounding headache behind my left eye and a "eff it" attitude. By this time I was thoroughly aggravated and I believe that were my button able to express feelings, it would tell you that it feels a bit like a stripper with a botched boob job.

I decided to cook dinner. At this time, my poor, unsuspecting husband arrived home. Dinner began smoothly enough. The pork chops were in the pan, sweet potatoes in the oven, and the table set. Then I tried to make the balsamic glaze to put on the pork chops and discovered that we did not have the required 2/3 cup of balsamic vinegar. From here, the situation turned pretty ugly. The final result was my apron lying in a crumpled heap on the floor, me sitting on the couch with tears in my eyes bemoaning my "ruined dinner," and my wonderful husband trying desperately to make our sauce thicken at the stove. It never did.

Yes, I could be a 50s housewife.

But the kind with a maid and lots of liquor.

14 August 2010

When Did This Happen?

Do not misunderstand me. I understand that I am 26 years old. I understand I have graduated from college (twice), traveled around the United States, and been married for nearly three years. I do my laundry, cook dinner, clean, and pay bills. I have my own car and medical insurance. I have a job--nay, a career--that I love. People under the age of eighteen are not allowed to call me by my first name. Parents ask me for advice on how to handle their teenagers. These are the trappings of adulthood. I recognize that. But still I find myself asking constantly, "When did I become a grown up?"

It's not that I mind as much as that I am constantly baffled by this fact. Being a full-fledged grown up seems like a momentous event, something that should be marked by an elaborate ceremony. And yet all around me I watch as my friends, with little fanfare, continue to do things that can only be described as adult. My friends are getting married (to be fair, some fanfare is involved in this). They are slowly fanning out across the country--some the world--to follow careers, significant others, and new opportunities. They are buying houses. My best friend just gave birth to her second child. I can no longer deny that eight years after the end of high school, we are officially a part of the real world.

And the real world seems simultaneously far more and less complex than I anticipated. The things that seemed so impossible as a child--retirement accounts, medical insurance, travelling without supervision--seem easier than anticipated. Other things I thought would be easy--finding contentment and genuine happiness in a crazy world--take far more effort and are much more difficult than adults lead children to believe.

I am an adult. I see this. I even accept this.

That does not mean I have to be happy about it.