14 December 2013

The Weary World Rejoices

My favorite Christmas song of all time has to be "O Holy Night." I may not be so sure about this Jesus fellow, but I know beautiful language when I hear it, and this song... this song gets me every time.

"A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices/ For yonder breaks a new and glorious morning./ Fall on your knees/ O hear the angel's voices./ O night divine!"

The weary world rejoices. That line right there is probably one of the most gorgeous I know. This year that line resonates with me in a special way because truly, this year I am weary.

I am always in low spirits in November and December--I drive to work in the dark, I come home in the dark, I don't sleep, the grind if grading is at the highest point, and (let's face it) students are crabby. This year, on top of that, my husband and I are planning a move three days after Christmas while simultaneously attempting to pay off the last of our dreamy European vacation in July. The bills and stress are piling up and my desk in my home office is covered in freshmen papers on To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the worst things about being an adult is that Christmas ceases to be the magical time of excitement it was when you were little and becomes a pressure-filled month of planning and spending.

I'll say it again--I am weary.

Although my husband and I don't celebrate the religious nature of the holiday (and yes, I know some people would have something to say about that, but that's for another post), we still go all out at this time. In fact, we go all out for precisely the reason I just said: I (we) are weary.

I've discovered that there is no better time to celebrate beauty and light and life than when weariness settles deep into your bones. There is no time it is more important to remind yourself that rejoicing is still possible than when you find yourself in the middle of the darkest part of a journey. No time requires fall-to-your-knees-appreciation more than when you find yourself overburdened by the demands of life, forgetting its joys.

I can't pretend this Christmas will be the most relaxing. Moving and money have effectively taken care of that. But I am determined to rejoice and believe that a new morning is breaking. I am determined to appreciate what I have; after all, I might be still paying for that five-star hotel on the Rue de Bac, but I wouldn't trade those seven days exploring Paris for anything. The bills will get paid, the move will happen and summer will eventually arrive, allowing me to sleep and pee whenever I want. So I will rejoice. That's the spirit of Christmas; the world rejoices for one beautiful moment and refuses to let the darkness win.

That's the magic of Christmas.

28 May 2013

What I Learned from Jay Gatsby, or I'm Too Old to Party Like it's 1922

Anyone who knows me knows I sort of love The Great Gatsby. You know, in the same way that I sort of love Doritos and sleeping in. Which is to say, obsessively love it. With wild abandon. And I am always thrilled when my students, each year, fall in love with Gatsby, Daisy, and all the rest (well...not so much Daisy... they usually hate her). But Gatsby, Gatsby I love.
 

 
And then, this year, the unthinkable happened.
 
I gave the book to one of my freshmen who wanted to read it (it's in our curriculum 10th grade year) and when he finished, I asked what he thought. His response? "I liked it... until Gatsby turned into a possessive d-bag."
 
Right through the heart.
 
I was dumbfounded, and no matter how vehemently I tried to explain to this very smart young man that he was just wrong (and why he was wrong, and how very wrong he was), he just could not understand Gatsby's actions and attitude toward Daisy. To put it in his succinct, freshman vernacular, "The guy's douche-y."
 
And then it hit me: how could a 14 year old sympathize with a 30 something year old man who is desperate to relive his past? How can a freshman in high school relate to Gatsby's undying hope that the best part of his life--the best part of himself--is not already behind him? Because, the kid's 14. What past could he want to relive? Middle school is kind to no one.
 
I read Gatsby in high school when my grandfather, a retired English teacher, gave it to me. I read it again in 11th grade Adv. American Literature. I loved it each time, but it wasn't until I had my student staring me down, insisting Gatsby was just an unreasonable jerk, that I realized that I didn't really love it until I was much older, teaching it to my students. And I've had to accept that maybe--though it pains me to say it--the biggest difference in my attitude had to do with my age.
 
Don't we as adults all understand his fascination with the green light? Don't we all connect with that dream of what could be--or in this case, what could have been? Gatsby's profound longing for that idea of himself and who he might be is something we relate to because, like Gatsby, most of us have lost it. We know that, as we grow, some things just don't work out like we planned, and we just have to move on. But how many adults out there would love to be able to recapture a lost part of themselves? To relive a moment of glory? To go back to the days where the world lay before us and everything--absolutely everything--seemed possible? We're all Gatsby, in some way.
 
And it made me realize that really, that's what growing up is. It's a gradual release of dreams in exchange for reality. An acceptance of "what is" rather than "what could be." At some point, more possibility lays behind us than in front of us. Our lives turn from chasing dreams to surviving reality. And while we may have the green light, few of us can afford (literally) to pursue it with the abandon of Jay Gatsby.
 
This is not to say growing up is sad. But, despite the many joys and discoveries that accompany getting older, growing up is--at its core--a gradual loss. Of innocence. Of dreams. Of possibility.
 
And so, his struggle resonates with me in a way that my sophomores probably can't understand. And that's okay. They love Gatsby for his youthful optimism. As an adult, I see him differently; I see a man utterly bewildered by adulthood and adults, by lost dreams and the burden of time passed. So we relate in different ways, but at least we still relate.
 
And that is the magic of that book for me--the depths of one character, one tragic man standing on a blue lawn with arms outstretched, waiting for his life to take him to new heights--and his ability to pull us all in, just as he pulls in his guests at his parties. His magical belief, however tragic, that life can be better, is noteworthy. It is, as Nick says in the early pages of the novel, "his extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again" that enthralls us. Because we all know that feeling of infinite optimism. We were all children once.
 
And so, as Fitzgerald so perfectly put it, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

22 April 2013

One of Those Moments

This hasn't been an easy year--teacher-wise--in my world. And the weather here in Minnesota seems determined to make any possible pain last as long as possible. This past Friday, despite a (depressingly) late-spring snowstorm that closed schools across the state, the Minnesota High School League State Speech Tournament went ahead, sketchy roads and all. I left my house at 5:45am in order to ensure my state participants were at the tournament site in time for rounds, which started at 10:15. As I drove slowly down a back county road with no discernible road markings--they had been completely covered by the fierce blowing snow--I prepared myself for what I knew was going to be a long day.

Thirteen hours later, I sat in a high school auditorium surrounded by 15 amazing team members who had braved the weather and forfeited their snow day to cheer our two state participants on as the MSHSL handed out the last of the day's awards. And standing on the stage, for the first time in school history, was a proud member from my team. Our school, who only five years ago wielded a less-than-mighty team of 10, had now grown to over 40 and produced a state finalist. A girl I had worked with closely for four years--her entire high school career--had her moment in the spotlight, celebrating her 8th place finish. My heart was full to bursting.

No, it hasn't been an easy year. But Friday, as I watched her accept her medal, I was reminded that even in the darkest of times there is light. And I was reminded of the power of being a teacher. I was reminded that as a teacher, even when we know we perhaps haven't done our absolute best, we always have the power for moments such as these.

A girl. A stage. A medal.

We have the opportunity, even in casual circumstances, to change lives. My student will never forget that feeling of standing on stage, forever identified as one of the best speakers in the state. And how lucky I am to have gotten to be a part of it.

And so, good or bad, there is always an opportunity to change the world.

It was a lesson worth remembering. It was a lesson I needed to be taught this year. And I am so thankful to have learned it in that particular moment with that particular student.

A girl. A stage. A medal.

A reminder.

11 February 2013

When You Have One of THOSE Years . . .

The reality of life as a teacher is that some years are better than others. Different mixes in your classes mean that each year--despite teaching the same content--is radically different than the year before it. Last year was one of my good years: a fantastic mix of kids created a magical mix that made coming to work a joy.

This year is not that year.

As such, I've been struggling this year to find a coping mechanism. It's particularly harsh to have a low year after such a previous high, and it seems in the 9 months last year of fairy tale class discussions, I forgot how to manage the stress and disappointment of a rough year. Here I present to you my (admittedly lousy) coping mechanisms in the hopes that somewhere out there, someone's got something better:

1. Patiently Explain the Situations to Students: Let's face it, students whine when you make them work, especially if what you're doing in your room is harder (or perceived as harder) as another teacher teaching the same class. "Why do we have to do this--THEY don't have to!" This is normal, and I have never had students who don't do this. So, each year, I patiently explain the following:

Students have to be in class. They are mandated by law (at least, my freshmen and most of my sophomores are), and as I teach a core class, they have no choice but to spend an hour a day with me. I respect my students enough not to waste their time--yes, it's fun to play games, watch movies, or sing for the entire hour, but students are there to learn, and I owe them that. While I try to make things fun, I also have high expectations for my students. No, my class isn't easy, but that's because I respect my students, their time, and their futures. And I will hold them all to the same high standards, no matter what their future plans are. As I tell my students, easy teachers are disrespecting their students--they are telling them that they aren't capable enough to be challenged. I don't do that.

Believe it or not, this response works 8 times out of 10.

2. Turn on the Sarcasm: When the "Patient Explanation" fails, I turn to my go-to response to all things which annoy me: sarcasm. "Oh, I know, it's awful we have to read in English!" "Oh Lord, you have to write a paragraph, try not to die!" If things get truly dire, I may spit out a "Buck up, Buddy. It's time to act like a real person." Believe it or not, this typically makes students laugh and stops the whining. I rarely have to go beyond this level.

Until this year.

3. Plan for Quiet Time. Lots of It: If students really won't cooperate, we do a lot of quiet-time activities. These activities include silent reading of assignments, silent written reactions rather than class discussions, and (in the most extreme cases) quizzes and other quiet study guide activities. The plan is that, as long as they aren't talking, I don't need to hear how awful and unfair class is. Needless to say, assigning a lot of not-fun work to a bunch of kids who are whining about working doesn't keep them quiet for long. This phase usually lasts about a day.

4. Cry: Not in class, but anywhere else is acceptable: the car to/from work, at home, during prep, sometimes in the bathroom between classes. This phase typically coincides with all remaining phases.

5. Remind Yourself that it's "Just a Job:" This plan always fails spectacularly. I'm a teacher--it's not a job, it's a calling I've heard since I was 5 years old. It's not something I do, it's something I am. This phase typically lasts about 5 minutes because I acknowledge it's uselessness and move on. This is a good time to revisit phase 4.

6. Become the Loathsome Human They All Suspect You Are: They think I'm mean? I'll show them mean. While in the classroom, I am limited as to what I can say to my students, so this phase is usually one inflicted on those around me. I turn on my students, I begin to hate what I do and who I do it for. My frustration spills out in mean-spirited rants that often leave me feeling guilty. However, with no where else to go, it becomes my last-ditch effort to convince myself I am not, in fact, a totally unfair teacher, that it's really those asshat kids' fault, and that I will be vindicated when they all fail the tests because they didn't listen.

When the guilt overwhelms you in the rant, repeat phase 4 before trying again.

7. Decide They Must Be Right: I'm awful, mean, and unfair; class it too hard, and they're learning nothing. Stare in despair during prep for about 20 minutes. Revisit phase 4 for at least a week.

8. Give Up. Count the Days Until Summer and Start Planning for Next Year: My current stage. This one also coincides with 4 and 6.

Oh...and by the way, 73 student contact days left until summer.

Here's to next year.