29 December 2011

A Little Blue Chalkboard

When I was a little kid, I had a blue chalkboard in my basement. It was set up in front of a old fashioned school desk, circa 1950-1960. I spent hours in the basement "teaching" an invisible class of students how to do math (cease your snickering), read, and about American history. Science was notably missing from my basement school house, but I'll blame that on my lack of beakers, chemicals, and any scientific knowledge.

I made fake worksheets for my students to fill out. Then I filled them out, answering a few questions wrong so I had something to mark. I made bulletin boards, class schedules and clocks. I read to my students, encouraged my students, chastised my students, and sometimes--just like every teacher secretly wishes he/she can do--walked away from them in disgust. I played school for years. Probably longer than was cool. Or socially acceptable.

So, I'm sure it comes as no surprise that now, two decades later, I'm a teacher, just like I always knew I wanted to be. I remember my life up to this point. I can trace my journey from that blue chalkboard to the LCD projector in my room quite clearly. It wasn't always a straight line, but the end goal never changed: I was going to teach.

And yet, somehow, most of the time the sheer awesomeness of this fact passes me by. How many people can say they are doing now what they wanted to do at the age of five? I go to work everyday and live this dream I've had since I was little, and yet most days, the dream aspect escapes me. It's too easy to get bogged down in the grind of 5am alarms, endless grading, squirrely students, and administrative meetings. No five year old dreams of IEP meetings and contract voting, but it's the reality of a teacher's career. And then, with all this swirling around, the hugeness of my goal fades. I simply work.

Yet, the other day, I sat in my desk in the magical calm before the storm of students. A much-needed-by-all winter break was to begin in three days and, at 6:45am, the first buses hadn't arrived at school yet, so my room was empty. I found myself just sitting, letting my eyes drift around my classroom. I looked at the photos of the Great Depression on the wall (as part of the To Kill a Mockingbird unit my freshmen will be starting soon), the author posters my honors students had made with their research presentations, the books, desks, pens, pencils, and poetry comics that filled every corner of my room. And suddenly it hit me--this was it. Twenty years ago I dreamed of this exact moment. And I was doing it. I have my own classroom, 180 students a day, and tenure. I wasn't playing anymore. I'm a teacher.

It seems obvious, and I'm not sure other people have these revelatory moments, but for me, it was important. I reminded myself that, as frustrated and tired as I can be at the end of a long day, there is absolutely nothing else I would rather be doing. I love my job. I love my students. I adore my colleagues. With all else wrong in the world, here was one thing that was pretty damn right.

Shortly after this small epiphany, my students started filing in and once again my attention turned to the practical things I had do to that day. Like teach. The moment passed, leaving behind a small warm spark of a reminder in my mind. Maybe it was enough.

This is the reality of being an adult--there are those moments when life just hits you and demands to be considered. Life demands to be examined and evaluated, not merely in terms of where we are going, but where we are, have been, and how we got there. When we are young, we constantly plan for the future. As a soon-to-be-28 year old, there is still a fair amount of planning in my life. But less than a decade ago.  Life announces to us, suddenly and without provocation: "You're living right now! Pay attention." That day in my classroom, I did.

I know, after four years of teaching, that I still have a long road to get to where I want to be. I'm an adequate teacher. Some days, I'm good. Other days . . . well, the best I can say is I don't think they leave my room dumber than they entered it. But no promises.

All I can hope for is that the 8 year old in front of the blue chalkboard would be proud of where I am and the journey that got me there.

And take some time to enjoy it once in a while.

03 December 2011

Christmas Spirit Just Vomited All Over my House

Despite the fact my house is aglow with with two different Christmas trees, smells like peppermint, and could land planes by the glow emanating from our balcony's festive lights right now, I'm having a little trouble finding the Christmas spirit this season.

Perhaps it's because we have no snow on the ground--a blessing for my commute, but depressingly unattractive. Perhaps it's the fact that, in a bad economy, an already tight budget is making gift buying exceedingly stressful. Or perhaps it's the fact that my students--in a fit of mid-winter doldrums--have mostly turned into asshats over the past few weeks. Whatever the reason, the generosity and joy of the Christmas season have escaped me; I find myself stuck in a Scrooge-y mindset that I just can't seem to shake.

This year, I find myself avoiding the Salvation Army bell ringers like they have the plague and cussing far more than is customary, even for me. But perhaps this is the reality of the holiday season as an adult; there is a reason that anxiety and depression tend to skyrocket during the holiday months. The stress of the season is trying in the best of times. And in a bad economy, it's downright overwhelming.

And this season, with no snow on the ground to soften the dreariness of frozen, dead grass and bare tree limbs, some of the magic seems to have gone out of everything. But I remain cautiously optimistic that, with a forecast of snow in the coming weeks, the holiday spirit will find me soon. Presents are beginning to pile up under the tree, and I suspect that when a few finally have my name on them, my mood will perk up considerably. A blanket of snow will make the season feel more real, and the anticipation of a solid week off does make me hopeful.

Because let's face it, there is nothing more magical than the holiday season. The whole idea of the season is beautiful. Hope in despair, generosity in lean times, love and light in the darkest of nights. And perhaps, with the lack of snow, a bad economy, and a few asshat students, I need that magic more than ever. A gentle reminder that, even in the darkest of times, there is beauty, love and hope. There is light and joy. There is magic.

And the presents don't hurt, either.

11 October 2011

Breaking Open Closet Doors

Once again, it is National Coming Out Day, and I feel like I really said what I needed to say last year on this day (read it here: Excuse Me While I Get out my Soapbox). But this is me, and I think we all know I can't just leave it there.

I live in a state that, a year from now, will be getting ready to vote on an anti-gay marriage amendment. Those who support this amendment call it a "defense of marriage" amendment, although it has never been made clear to me who it is exactly we are protecting marriage from--roving bands of gays who plan to convert otherwise straight men and women? I thought we called those people Jehovah's Witnesses...

I'm speechless in the face of intolerance. And I dislike that word--tolerance. I want to live in a world of acceptance, not tolerance. A world where we celebrate each other, not merely put up with each other. It is incomprehensible to me that some people can be so full of hate and vitriol. I cannot fathom such anger for such a pointless purpose. I cannot appreciate what it is like to hate so blindly and irrationally.

And I am profoundly thankful for that.

I am speechless when I think of those I know who are LGBT--the friend who makes me laugh, the student who I would be proud to call my own son, the coworkers from college who constantly astounded me (and amazed me) with their courage and determination to be who they are, regardless of the response they received from others. The beautiful acts of defiance and love I saw from these people defies words, as they should.

I'm speechless in the face of this ridiculous prejudice, and perhaps I am intolerant, because I refuse to accept that any "religion" when practiced in good faith truly condones hatred of any person. I have heard the rants and raves of those who claim homosexuality is against the bible, and those of you who know me know that I take issue with this. Are these Christians--and do not misunderstand me, I am talking about a very particular type of Christian here. I know many other Christians who live loving, accepting lives. I do not confuse the two--are these Christians truly telling me that, were he alive now, Jesus would be picketing outside New York city hall with his gladiator sandals, white robe and shiny halo, carrying a sign saying "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve?" I went to a Catholic elementary school and my uncle is a priest; somehow, that's not the view of Jesus I was painted as a child.
Perhaps he's changed.

But, as you all know, I refuse to be speechless for long. And all I can hope is that someday soon, the voices of those determined to see more love in the world will drown out those whose own fear and intolerance seems so loud now.

It's not a difference of religion. It's not a difference of opinion. It's not politics or ignorance or a worldview.

It's hatred.

And it is ugly.
So today, be who you are and love who you love.

Because love--any love, all love--makes the world a more beautiful place.

Happy National Coming Out Day.

02 September 2011

What Teachers Make

My senior year in college, I discovered Taylor Mali, a teacher turned poet who wrote about one of my favorite subjects--teachers and the hard work they do. This Tuesday, public school classrooms around the state of Minnesota will be inundated with school children while the parents do their happy dance as the bus pulls away from the curb. Another year, another nine months to change the lives of the children with which we work. As my friends and colleagues prepare to change the world once again, I leave you all with this clip of Mr. Mali performing his now-famous poem, "What Teacher's Make."

And don't you guys ever forget it.

Happy First Day of School.

25 August 2011

And so it goes

The Great Minnesota Get Together--otherwise known as the MN State Fair--began today. And if you remember back to my post from last August, you'll remember what that means:

My summer is over.

As I watch the local news stations offering tips for cheap state fair parking and the newest deep fried foods on a stick, in my head, all I hear is a slow, sad funeral march.

Goodbye summer, old friend. I hardly knew ye.

College students poured back into town last weekend, a cool breeze is wafting in my window, and my beloved MN Vikings have once again traded many of our rising stars in favor of an aging quarterback and promptly bumbled their preseason game. Fall is officially here.

As always, I feel a little melancholy with the ending of the summer. For someone who has always measured life in terms of school years rather than calendar years, the end of August always forces me to look backwards at another year gone. And looking back this year, it is difficult to put into words what I see.

The past year lays out behind me like a map; I see the places I have been and the places will I go, and I feel a soft sort of ambivalence. Perhaps this is the way of growing up. Life is no longer measured in milestones--graduation, marriages, first jobs. At 27, I've simply got on with the business of passing years. This is not to say the years are unimportant--or even unexciting--rather that they have inevitably taken on a certain shape that will be repeated far into the future. And that shape lends to a certain amount of predictability. For someone who doesn't like change, there is comfort in that. For someone who also detests the idea of being a real-life adult, there is a gentle let down there, as well.

Perhaps my ambivalence is a result of the year I have had, as well. Professionally, despite some high points (taking a student to the state tournament, receiving tenure), it was a tough year. I learned that some people never grow out of the mean-girl attitude and there's just no working with others. I learned that some years I'm a better teacher than others. I learned that--no matter how I feel about the previous year--a new crop of students will arrive in the fall; I will grow older, but those students filling my room will always be 15. I learned that they will graduate and move on to amazing things--things I may or may not know about, but that I would be proud of nonetheless. I learned that that's the beauty and sorrow of teaching.

So perhaps the most I can hope for is that the new year will, in fact, bring hope. I hope I will rediscover my energy Monday, when teacher workshops begin. I hope I can enter a new year without carrying the frustrations of the past with me. I hope I can get more sleep.

Another lesson of growing up has settled in on me this week: no matter how fervently we wish to stop the march of the years, we are always creating our past in each moment that we live.

So, as the Minnesota state fair says to me each penultimate week in August, "Ready or not, here I come."

15 August 2011

An Apology from Minnesota's Sixth

I live in Minnesota's 6th Congressional District. For those of you who haven't been following the recent news concerning the Republican Presidential Race, that means that my constituents are responsible for the atrocity gracing so many magazine covers these days:

Michele Bachmann.

First things first--be clear: I did not vote for this woman. Now, I understand my politics are not for everyone, and I understand that there may even be times when Republicans--this pains me to say--may be (partially) right on some things. I admit I have taken great joy over the past few years in calling Bachmann crazy (and a few other names I shouldn't repeat in public) but I've recently come to see the danger in that sort of rhetoric.

And not because I'm wrong, either.

Bachmann recently made the cover of Newsweek in a famously unflattering picture above the headline "The Queen of Rage." Conservatives complained the picture made her look crazy. They were right. And as much as I delighted in a little Michele Bachmann torment, I suddenly realized that every time the media dismisses or discredits Bachmann as "crazy," we're avoiding the real issue. The woman won the Iowa straw poll. Clearly pointing out her insanity isn't doing anyone seeking to discredit her much good.

The truth is, Michele Bachmann isn't crazy. Every time we call her crazy, we absolve her of the responsibility she bears for the cruel things she says. It's as if we say she isn't really responsible for it because she isn't really "all there." Her rhetoric isn't incoherent. It's hateful. It's mean-spirited, small-minded and extremely dangerous. People have made a big deal of her refusal to answer direct questions concerning her stance on gay-marriage. The media believes they can make her look bad by forcing her to admit she doesn't like gays. As if this admission--despite the fact her husband counsels people on how to "quit" homosexuality and her repeated attempts to introduce an Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution--would surprise anyone. The truth is, the people who support her know what she thinks, and they don't disagree with her.

No matter how often she mistakes John Wayne for John Wayne Gacy (that was one of my favorites), or shrieks at people in Congress for being Un-American, some people in our country are responding positively to her. This woman is one of three possible republican nominees for President. We need to take her threat seriously. This woman isn't Sarah Palin; she's not stupid and uninformed. She's mean.

Our country needs to stop mistaking unpalatable opinions for ignorance and insanity and be honest about what this is: it's hatred. Pure and simple. The more we dismiss such hate as "craziness" the more her supporters are excused from the responsibility they bear for supporting her. If we hold her accountable for her narrow-minded meanness, suddenly she doesn't have to prove she's not stupid, she has to prove that she's not cruel, and that takes a lot more effort, and may just force a real change in rhetoric and the acceptability of some views in our society.

Michele Bachmann is exactly what's wrong with politics in the country. Should she become President, I cannot imagine what would happen globally, and I'm not just being alarmist. Her polarizing opinions would leave an impact on this country not even possible to fathom at this point. I truly believe it would leave a permanent rift in the Republican Party between moderates and Tea Party members, and our economy--already lagging--would make the Great Depression look mild. Civil rights and civil liberties in this country would be sent back decades.

And let's face it, after this blog entry, we all know I'll be on a list somewhere.

Michele Bachmann might just be the Boogie Man.

And that's not crazy.

07 August 2011

These Are the Things I've Learned...

Since having my oral surgery--the only real medical procedure I've ever had done--on Tuesday, I've learned a few things. I thought I'd share:
1. Google is a hypochondriac's best friend and is therefore inherently evil if you are sick and anxious.

2. Not eating while taking narcotics will result in being violently ill and told you are no longer allowed to take narcotics. This causes a considerable amount of pain and cussing.

3. There is a remarkable amount of food that you really don't have to chew if you don't want to.

4. Tylenol is amazing. Especially if you happen to experience the situation mentioned in #2.

5. When your dreamy oral surgeon tells you that taking out a horizontally-impacted wisdom tooth will be the same as taking out a partially erupted wisdom tooth, kick him in the shins and run. He's lying.

6. I am a coward when it comes to pain and the anticipation of pain. However, as the situation mentioned in #2 proved, I also have a relatively high tolerance for pain. Confounding.

7. Daytime TV really, truly sucks. Other than "The Price is Right."

8. Seeing Drew Carey on "The Price of Right" is still disconcerting.

9. Sleeping on the couch has a three night window of acceptability. After that, your back and neck will revolt.

And last (and most importantly):

Real love is when your mom takes three days off of work to just sit with you because she knows you're scared. Real love is when your husband sleeps on the floor for three nights while you sleep on the couch because he knows he can't really fix the pain, but he can at least keep you company.

And that last one was definitely a lesson worth learning.

But seriously... kick the guy in the shins and run.

03 August 2011

The Wizzes

Thirty-two hours ago, two of my wisdom teeth (the evolution of which we discussed in the previous blog entry) were wrenched from my poor mouth. Other than the lack of sleep and tears that preceded the surgery, everything went well.

I was extremely happy to find that my oral surgeon lacked the typical sadistic elements one has come to expect from those crazy individuals who specialize in ripping teeth from people's heads. He was not only a good-looking man (something even my husband pointed out to me during the consultation when my surgeon briefly turned his back on us to examine the x-rays), but he seemed to agree with my own (unmedical) diagnosis that I did not need to remove all four of my wisdom teeth. While he did persuade me to remove the one tooth I was afraid of extracting, I figured he met me halfway, so why not? I signed the forms, my husband was hustled from the room, and surgery commenced.

Other than the extremely painful IV process, which entailed the nurse repeatedly jabbing me in the hand and complaining that my "veins moved," the entire process has gone well so far. The pain has been minimal--though I am currently boycotting the ice packs, as they require me to sit and/or lay in uncomfortable positions whilst trying to balance them on either side of my face. The swelling is barely noticeable and I am cautiously optimistic that the healing process will continue smoothly.

The only remaining concern is my unreasonable fear of developing dry sockets, something I have been told (a bit unhelpfully) is more painful than childbirth (and let's be frank, part of the reason I have no desire to have children is the pain factor). My oral surgeon told me if I made it five days without dry sockets, I was in the clear. This has resulted in my constant vigilance against anything that could cause a dry socket, and a fair amount of tears when I confessed (a tad hysterically) to my mom that I had unconsciously sucked on my water bottle. Once she calmed me down by shoving another hydrocodone down my throat and pushing ice packs into my face, I fell asleep, silently whispering to myself, "No dry sockets, no dry sockets, no dry sockets" in much the same way  those contestants on "Press Your Luck" intoned "No whammies" while spinning the wheel.

I still haven't completely forgiven evolution, but if everything continues to progress as well as it has so far, we may be able to come to some sort of understanding.

Some day.

30 July 2011

Evolution Sucks

Back when we were all Neanderthals, our diets consisted of a lot of caustic food. The lack of cooking meant that much of our food was damaging to our teeth. In fact, by the time Neanderthal was roughly 16 years old, his back molars would already be damaged and shrinking from his diet. If Neanderthal couldn't eat, Neanderthal would die, so evolution kicked in to make sure his broad jaw could continue to grind up that raw meat and all those nuts. Evolution thought: "If you're going to wear away those molars I gave you, I shall provide you with new ones!"

And bam. Third molars (also known as wisdom teeth) began to grow. Neanderthal was saved. Evolution rocked.

Fast forward thousands of years. Fire is discovered. People cook food. Our jaws shrink. Now, third molars are no longer necessary, as our back molars have ceased to rot out of our heads by the age of 16. People learn to make money off these "third molars" by calling themselves oral surgeons and ripping them out of innocent teenagers' heads. Evolution laughs.

And now, at 27 years old, I can no longer hope that I am one of those evolutionarily advanced ten percent of humans born without wisdom teeth. In three days, an oral surgeon will make thousands off me by removing my wisdom teeth, despite the fact that evolution saw fit to give them to me (along with my useless appendix and coccyx, neither of which doctors seem to think should be surgically removed, despite being deemed unnecessary at this point in evolution). Oral surgeons owe a lot to evolution.

And sadism, most likely.

So at this point, despite my love of opposable thumbs, moral reasoning, speech, and high level cognitive functioning, I say, quite emphatically:

Evolution sucks.

19 July 2011

The Lottery--A Must-See Documentary

Tonight I watched the documentary, The Lottery, which follows four young children who are attempting to navigate through the confusing labyrinth of the NYC educational lottery system. The children in question were trying to get into a public charter school in Harlem called Harlem Success Academy. I found myself simultaneously enraged and sympathetic to the message of the film.

I'll start with the rage-inducing factor--the founder and mouthpiece of the academy, Eva Moskowitz is (there is no other way to say this) a horrible, grating person. While I respect her desire to educate all children at higher levels and her refusal to accept that poor economic status and background will mean academic failure, I find her deplorable for her constant vilification of teachers and unions.Do not misunderstand me; I do sympathize with her struggle and frustration with poorly performing schools. I do, however, reject her notion that failing schools are the fault of the AFL, NEA, or the teachers who work in them. Yes, radical changes need to be made, but as a supporter of public education, I believe these changes can and must be made at all public schools, not just those run independently by charter organizations like those Ms. Moskowitz runs. I was frustrated by her constant complaining and finger-pointing. If she has found something that works in her schools, why not help put those practices into place in all schools, rather than berating others who are attempting to do their best in a bad situation? Help fix the problem for all students, Ms. Moskowitz, not just those who win the lottery for a position at your school. Only then can I respect you as a true educator.

What I loved about this documentary, and what I found so profoundly affecting about watching it, was the clear message that all children can learn. And all children can learn at exceptionally high levels. I won't lie, I have at times blamed background and tough circumstances for students' struggles. But what I have come to realize--and what this video so eloquently shows us--is that when we allow those things to become excuses or "explanations" for failure, we send a message to those students that they cannot rise above their place in society. We send the message that the circumstances you are born into will determine what you are allowed/able to achieve. More than a tad disturbing, right? Of course a person's upbringing impacts their future, but how dare we allow that to determine their future? By following four children who came from tough circumstances--all are from  working-class families--we realize that all these children deserve the absolute best future society can give them. And education is the way to do that.

While it was heartbreaking to watch the actual lottery--3,000 students vying for only 20 positions--I believe it provides a powerful impetus to us all to do more for the 2,800 students who didn't make it. I shed tears as I watched the faces of those students and parents who were not accepted. We owe our children more than many are giving them. We owe our children the undying belief that every single student can learn at high levels, that every single student can and should be able to accomplish amazing things. Regardless of anything else. While I vehemently disagree with Ms. Moskowitz on many things, I agree with her about that.

Watch The Lottery. It's a moving (if infuriating) look at education not just in Harlem or New York City, but in America in general. You can watch it free at Hulu (The Lottery). It'll break your heart. But I've come to realize that--concerning many things--sometimes we need to be a little broken in order to move forward.

16 July 2011

When Words Just Aren't Enough...

For the past two weeks, I've been trying to decide how to best write about the death of my uncle on July 1st. It was sudden--he went to the doctor for stomach pains, discovered he had tumors on his liver caused by untreated terminal colon cancer, and passed away less than a week later. He asked that there not be a funeral or a memorial service. He passed away about 12 hours before my husband and my planned visit to say goodbye. In lieu of services, there seems to be a lot left unsaid.

But for the first time in my life, words seemed to fail me. I am a reader and a writer, so this failure confounded me. Unable to say something eloquent, I said nothing.

This past week, my husband I took my nieces to Lake Nebagamon in Wisconsin with his family and very close family friends. For me, it seemed eerily reminiscent of the previous year at the lake, when we were all mourning the death of one of the members of the family with whom we share the week. But somehow, a quiet lake in Northern Wisconsin on a balmy summer evening seems like the perfect place to find peace.

For those of you unfamiliar with Northern Minnesota/Wisconsin in the summer, the lies of this being the tundra dissolve. The days turn hot, hazy and humid. Life (and indeed, time itself) seems to slow down in a pleasant way. And daylight stretches until long past dinnertime. The sun sets in a pale orange sky sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 at night. The quiet and solitude of a lake at 9:30--as the sky blazes orange, pink, and gold--is unparalleled in its beauty and tranquility.

As I sat at the shore, watching the sun lower itself into the tree tops, listening to the leaves rustle around me, I heard another sound every Minnesotan automatically associates with summer--the call of a loon. It is impossible to precisely describe the haunting trill of this bird. Native American beliefs held that the loon call--perhaps because of its impossible to describe otherworldliness--was the voice of the recently departed as they attempted to find their paths into the ether. When I heard this call across the vast lake as darkness began to wrapped around me, I smiled. And I felt some semblance of peace approaching.

Sometimes, no matter how eloquent we are, words cannot say what we feel. Sometimes words just aren't enough. They feel hollow, empty, impotent.

In those times--like the time I sat on the dock listening to the loon call waft across the water--nature sometimes says it for us.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Ron.

Always, always we will hear you calling.

28 June 2011

Facebook Sucks

Some of you are probably laughing right now, knowing as you do how often I use my Facebook account. And while I admit that is true, I also contend that each time I sign off Facebook, I say the same thing--internally, at least--"Facebook, you suck."

A lot.

Let me explain. In the past, you graduated from high school and, unless you kept in touch with everyone, waited until your high school reunions to see what everyone was up to. Inevitably, at that event, some people would show up with amazing and envy-inducing lives, inspiring you and your spouse to grumble about "those people" during the car ride home. Once home, you were once again blissfully unaware of everything others were doing, wrapped in a cocoon of ignorance.

Then Facebook came along and turned everyday into one big class reunion.

Let me give you an example. Today I woke up and perused photos of friends' recent home renovations, travel albums from exotic places like Marrakesh and Thailand, and their plethora of cute baby photos. Do not misunderstand me. I am happy for all those people. I just wish I could be blissfully ignorant once again.

I've been happily married for almost four years; my husband and I both have steady, very secure jobs in a crummy economy, and I have been able to travel (albeit limitedly) in the United States over the past couple years. We are planning a second honeymoon to London/Paris in a little less than two years, and I have the most amazing friends. I know I am lucky. However, I also am aware that I am missing many of the trappings of adulthood--most noticeably children and a house (probably in the reverse order).

This is a result of very careful decision making on the part of my husband and I. At this point, those things just aren't calling to us; there is so much else we want to do (travel, get our masters degrees, travel) that children and a house just seem unnecessary. And while we are okay with our decision, we are constantly reminded that--to others--it somehow makes us "less adult" than our peers.

We are asked with astonishing frequency by our friends, family, and sometimes even vague acquaintances, when we are going to buy house,or have children. "Are you guys thinking of buying a house?" "Do you think you'll have children?" What astounds me most--aside from the shockingly personal and private nature of these questions--is the implicit criticism contained in them. No one asks an 18-year-old if he is going to buy a house soon; and we wouldn't dream of asking a 20-year-old when she's going to have children. People at that age are young and there's plenty of time for those things to be decided. So, when people do ask those questions, the implication is that there is no longer plenty of time. The implication is it is time to get a move on. The implication is: "Why haven't you done these things yet?"

I don't think anyone means this harm when they ask, but that doesn't stop each remark from rankling. It's uncomfortable to have to explain major life decisions to people who really have no business getting involved in them in the first place (in this case, anyone besides my husband falls into that category). Some argue they're just being curious, and that really it is possible to be polite and ask these questions. I argue it is the same as if I were to ask a friend with six kids when on earth her husband is going to get that vasectomy. After all, I'm just being curious.

Obviously, some things just don't need to be asked.

I resent the idea that my childlessness and apartment mark me as somehow "less-than" other people who have made different choices. Our society, for all its progress and open-minded ways (yes, you did just hear me scoff, but rest assured, that's another blog entry), still seems hopelessly mired in old-fashioned expectations. If my husband and I decide not to have children, I have no doubt we will raise eyebrows, not just among friends and acquaintances, but among our own family members. Because ultimately, in our society, we still expect married people to have kids. And woe betide those who decide not to do so.

The comments people throw our way remind my husband and me that some people--however unfairly--view us as less grown-up than our peers. I know I will need to develop a thicker skin--I can only assume the rude comments will get worse the closer I get to 30--but I also have to resist pointing out the obvious: my husband and I are grown ups, and as such, we have made very adult decisions about what is best for us in our life. Will we have children one day? Perhaps. Will we buy a house someday? Most likely. But for now, we know that those things aren't right for us. And so we'll wait and try to ride out the invasive comments.

So go ahead, ask away. But don't be surprised if we talk about you on the way home.

And unfriend you on Facebook as fast as we can.

26 June 2011

Ode to Book Sniffing

Ever since the summer started, I have been suffering from a spate of migraines, making it nearly impossible for me to concentrate on anything for very long and plunging our apartment into a continual state of semi-gloom. So I resorted to my light-reading standby--Harry Potter.

Rest assured, I can hear your snickers from here, but by this point, I am impervious to your mockery. Yes, I have read the books more times than I can count; yes, I have three different complete sets of Harry Potter books  (paperbacks, hardcovers, and the British editions); and yes, I went to Chicago (twice) to see the Harry Potter exhibit when it was traveling. I love Harry Potter. I've come to terms with it. So should you.

But my love of Harry Potter is not my real confession here. My confession is this: as much as I love the story, there is one thing about the books I love more: the smell. Two nights ago, I was curled up on my couch with the third book when I heard my husband snickering from the kitchen . When I asked him what was so funny, he informed me he was amused to see me sniffing my book. I hadn't realized I had been doing it. More importantly, I hadn't realized he was in the kitchen to see me doing it.

I am not, however, ashamed of unconsciously and surreptitiously sniffing my books. My British editions of the Harry Potter books smell very distinct and they are by far the best smelling books I own. As I said to my husband that same night (after forcing him to smell my book and admit that it was pleasantly aromatic) I wish I could smell like that. I admit, I smell my books when I buy them.  Library books are particularly enchanting--though I admit to being a bit leery of getting my nose too close to the pages, aware as I am of the plethora of hands in which they have been. Library books--older and bound better than regular books--give off a particularly sinful smell of dusty paper and slowly cracking glue. And I have no qualms about returning a book to the shelf if it "smells wrong."

Perhaps only other bibliophiles can understand this particular obsession of mine. In this age where digital media are all the rage, so much of the joy of physical reading is ebbing away. I understand the lure of things like Kindles and Nooks; as my husband and I plan our second honeymoon to Europe, I find myself thinking more and more about the practical nature of these devices. But I cannot deny that for me, at least, reading is not mental. It is not merely the stories that I love. It's the feel of the book in my hands. The forms and shapes of the various fonts on the paper. The sound of the paper. And of course, the smell.

For me, books engage all the senses (okay... I admit, I am yet to eat or taste a book, but the sentiment remains the same). The pleasure comes from finding the book that feels right. That is why I am so picky about the books I buy; the paper must feel right, the pages must feel right along the open end (oh how I loathe the trend toward unfinished ends). The covers flop just precisely right as it falls open. The font needs to look right on the page (I am particularly fond of certain fonts' question marks). And certainly, the right smell is positively intoxicating.

I know, despite those of you scoffing out there, that I am not alone in my love of book-sniffing. I have had many students--usually those who are also avid readers--remark on which books "smell" the best. And I've caught more than one of my honors students sniffing the spine on the day I pass out copies of To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies. I am not alone. Perhaps we should start a club.

A recent discussion within my department has centered around how to turn our students into life-long readers. There is a wealth information out there and numerous studies, all with their own suggestions. But as I smell my copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix I realize this is really what I want to impart on my students--the glory and pure, unadulterated, joy that can come with reading. The sensual physical pleasure of simply losing yourself in the texture, sound, and smell of words. I want them to understand that reading can be so much more than just the stories; it can be truly transcendent.

Perhaps when I hand out the copies of To Kill and Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby this fall, I'll force all 200 of my students to take a deep whiff. It'll amuse me, at the very least. And just maybe I'll manage to create one more life-long book-sniffer.

13 June 2011

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Teachers love summer. This is not to say we don't love our jobs or students, or that we are not eager and ready to go back to work in September. This is only to say that we, like our students, love summer. Unabashedly and unequivocally love summer.  So, in the spirit of the first day, I will count the reasons for my love of the next twelve weeks.

1. I get to sleep past 4:30am. There is nothing--nothing--to rival this feeling.

2. I can once again read for fun. (Okay, to be honest, I do a fair amount of this during the school year. But during the summer I can do it guilt-free).

3. I can pee whenever I want. Perhaps only other teachers can truly understand the wonder that is the unscheduled bathroom trip, but it is not to be underestimated.

4. I see sunlight. Often. During the school year, I work in a windowless classroom, and--as Minnesota winters stretch the dark hours of the day to 14 hours or more--I often go five or six days at a time with no real proof that the sun actually does rise everyday. Thus, I have learned not to underestimate the importance of Vitamin D.

5. I do not have to wear makeup everyday or relentlessly flat-iron my wavy hair into submission. This may not be a benefit for those who see me everyday, but that matters less to me.

6. For 12 glorious weeks, I will not have to say any of the following phrases: "Yes, you may go to the bathroom," "There is a test out right now; you should not be talking," "Yes, it is still late," or (my favorite) "Stop touching each other."

7. The emotional baggage I deal with over the summer is mine, not that of the 200 students who filter through my room, many of which will come to me with problems that will occupy my waking hours and prevent me from sleeping as I worry. Summer gives me a chance to recharge my emotional reserves, which will--of course--be required during the course of the upcoming school year.

8. My spare bedroom is miraculously free of that guilt-inducing stack of waiting-to-be-graded homework.

9. I can once again see friends and family without fretting about how I will possibly get everything done. And my friends and family appreciate the noticeable reduction in the number of my stories beginning with, "So one of my students . . ."

10. And--the most important reason I love summer--I can once again file away another year and focus on how I will improve for the next year. Mine is a job that affords me the opportunity to start anew--to start better and stronger--every nine months. I appreciate the summer as an opportunity to study, to improve, to plan, and to reflect. I appreciate the summer as an opportunity to put away past failures and shortcomings and find new excitement and passion for a new year.

I know some people can't believe teachers get 12 weeks off. They think it is ridiculous and means that we do not work hard enough, or that our jobs are somehow not as "real" as other jobs. I, in return, cannot believe that some people in the world get paid to work more than 40 hours a week and do not take work home routinely. In my opinion, we're square.

And with that all said, I just learned that I have a curriculum review meeting tomorrow from 8:00 until 3:30pm that our Curriculum Review Specialist didn't tell many of us about until the last minute. So perhaps my ode to the wonder of summer is a bit premature.

Such is the life of a teacher.

10 May 2011

The Melancholy of Thunder

As I sat on my porch tonight, I was surrounded by that perfect stillness of a warm, muggy summer night. Despite the fact it is still early May, the weather today carried notes of summer on the wings of the breezes and the distant roll of thunder in the background. The silence of an impending storm always puts me in a theoretical mood. As I sat there watching the muted flashes of lightening behind the heavy clouds, I felt a pleasant heaviness wash over me. I am 27 years old; I am grown up and these past few years have seen many changes in my life that all seem to point to adulthood on the horizon. I have not officially accepted it yet, but I feel it looming.

As the title of my blog indicates, I am at best a reluctant member of the adult world. At times, I am skeptical that this is really what all that "when I grow up" business was really about. Robert Frost said two roads diverged in a wood and he took the one less traveled. But life so far has taught me that where we end up is not so cut and dry. Life is not a series of major life decisions forcing us down one path or another. Life rarely offers us the opportunity to turn so dramatically.

Rather, life is a series of gradual veering, a series of small choices that lead us down a path before we even know we were walking. And suddenly, we look around ourselves, at the accouterments of adulthood, and wonder, "How on earth did I end up here?" Few people's adult lives look like the lives they imagined as children. This is not to say we are disappointed. More like surprised. And quietly bewildered.

This time of year, we tell the youth in our world that graduation is the opening of every door to them. But the truth is growing up is more an act of closing doors than opening them. Each choice we make, each door we choose to walk through, is an implicit decision to not make another choice, to close other doors. That it is not to say those doors can never be opened again, but it becomes more difficult to do so with age. They warp. They stick. And sometimes, it is easier to move on than fight against the creaking reluctance of old age. And so the bewilderment grows.

Thoreau said most people live lives of quiet desperation. I think he is overstating the case. I think quiet befuddlement is more appropriate. We muddle through, never quite sure how this all happened, but not necessarily ready or wanting to object to it. And so we become adults. And we see the young who arrive after us, eager for the forked road to determine their fate, and we are reluctant to disillusion them. We try to warn them in our own ways that each small choice will become the stuff of which life is made. But the beautiful arrogance of youth is indisposed to listening to the advice of the adults of the world. Perhaps they sense our befuddlement and believe they can immure themselves against it. They will know it soon enough.

Gradual or not, a slow veering or rapid turn, we must all make peace with the path we walk. My life is not what I expected. I will never get a good night's sleep between the months of September and June. I cannot afford to travel to the myriad of places I want to go. Insurance is too expensive. And despite my many wishes to the contrary, I was born with all four wisdom teeth and they will have to come out. But in general, as I watch the lightening gain strength and hear the thunder gain its voice, I am strangely content. How did I get here? I do not know. But I'm convinced it's a good place to be. And perhaps, for now, that's enough.

The thunder in the distance is grumbling louder and a breeze smelling of rain is wafting through my bedroom window. Indeed, something is looming on the horizon.

And so it goes.

26 April 2011

Letting Go

This past Saturday at 7:30pm, I found myself getting off a school bus for the last time this year. We had arrived back from the Minnesota High School League State Speech Tournament. It was the last speech tournament of the year. We went. We spoke. We conquered (kind of). I was acutely aware of the fact that it was the last time I would work with this particular group of students. Watching those students file off the bus for the last time this season was a bit like a little bereavement. Many of them were seniors. Most of them would not be back the following year. It was an ending. And for those of you who have never spoken to me and are unaware of this, I have never been a fan of endings.
As a teacher, each June I must send my students out into the real world, aware of the fact that many I will never see or hear from again. They will become just another face in what will inevitably become a vast ocean of faces populating my career. And that's part of the job. And as a teacher, I can let go gracefully--sometimes shedding a few tears, but mostly just wishing them well--and believe everyone has done their job well enough to prepare said student for the real world. And so I wave goodbye and calmly file away grade reports, attendance reports, tests and essays and tuck away another year, already thinking ahead to the new crop of students to experience Gatsby, Mockingbird, and Shakespeare. Such is the nature of teaching.
But no matter how high we build our professional walls, no matter how long we teach or coach, no matter how carefully we guard against becoming "emotionally attached," a few students slip through the cracks. We try to keep our distance, but the truth of teaching is that some kids will touch our lives just as much as we hope to touch theirs. Thus far in my career I've escaped each year relatively unscathed. This year, however, as I look at the students preparing for graduation, I know that something is profoundly different in this ending. I know this goodbye will be a bit harder. This parting a little more bitter than sweet.
This year's class of seniors was my first class I taught at my high school. Many of these students I remember from my first day. A few I have worked with daily for the past three years. I've offered Kleenex when relationships fell apart, given pep talks when friendships were weak in times of need, and cajoled one young man off the floor outside my classroom when a stress meltdown/hissy fit prompted him to collapse on the floor, begging to be excused from class for the day. I offered hugs to those tearful team members who watched their dreams of state disappear, and I offered equally tearful hugs to those who made it happen. I've gotten cards and Sour Patch kids galore, and now feel a bit closer to ready to send them off. But I haven't mentally or emotionally prepared myself for graduation yet. Baby steps.
If there is anything I hope my students leave with, it is the knowledge that someone cared--and always will. I still remember those teachers who made a difference in my life--Mr. Gerads, Ms. Braun, Ms. Schraw--and I will be eternally grateful to them in ways they will never know. I am who I am because these men and women changed my life, and I owe them much more than I could ever say. I look at my own students and know I don't need eternal gratitude, or even to have radically altered their lives. I just hope to know I did my job. And did it well. Anything past that is just bonus.
So as much as I hate endings, I have prepared myself for this one, and will resolutely--and with as much grace as my tears will allow--say goodbye to a truly phenomenal group of students. I became a teacher to change lives. I had no idea they would change mine.
Happy Graduation to the Class of 2011.