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Education friendship Teaching

5 Tips I’ve Learned About Work From My Mentor

I walked the quarter mile from the Metra train to my first school for my first teaching job lugging my wheeled suitcase behind me the whole way. The suitcase was full of my personal collection of children’s books, gleaned from my childhood library and garage sales.

I was one of several thousand twenty-two year old white woman applying for the same few teaching positions in Chicago Public Schools and my job and life experience had little to recommend me. I finally got a job after interviewing with the principal at a job fair, answering her questions while she ate Cheetos out of the snack-sized bag. She promised to call me. She didn’t. So I called her every day for weeks until I finally managed to get an interview at the school. The interview consisted of a tour of the building, bullet holes in the classroom windows and all, after which the principal looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to work here?” I answered in the affirmative, and a few weeks later I showed up for teacher inservice.

I knew very little about how to be a teacher or how to be a worker. I was still learning how to pretend to be an adult.

In her book Lean In Sheryl Sandberg talks about the need for women to find a mentor in their profession. This insider can help them develop as an employee and help them hurdle the potential pitfalls in their job. I was fortunate enough to run into exactly this person on my first day of work. Enter: Karen.

Karen had previously made partner in her law firm when she decided to change careers to become a Chicago Public School teacher in one of the more challenging schools in the district. Karen walked into the office of the school on my first day, took one look at me, and immediately took me in as her project. Since that day she has grown from being my mentor to being one of my best friends. In honor of her birthday I offer you five lessons I’ve learned from her about how to be a better employee (and maybe how to be a better person.)

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1. Sit in the Front

When I’m in new situations I try to squeeze in unnoticed, sitting near the back, slouching in my seat, keeping a book or notebook nearby to detract attention. But this was not Karen’s style. I spent a lot of time watching her, trying to figure out what it was about her that got her so much recognition and praise. And then I realized it. She always sat in the front. For everything. Often directly in front of the speaker. Often she would even go a step further and talk to the speaker afterward, always finding some relevant question or point from what they said.

We all know it’s not cool to sit in the front. Or to be “that person”. But Karen changed my mind of this. She was known by everyone: the boss, the boss’s boss, the other teachers, the parents, and the students. She made herself seen, and once she was seen her ideas were acknowledged and affirmed. Of course this could backfire if you don’t want to be seen. However, Karen wasn’t afraid of being seen making mistakes. Instead, she invited people to come into her classroom, preparing opportunities to be seen at her best (and she was often the best). Her fifth year of teaching she won a DRIVE award for teaching with a $2500 stipend for excellence. It worked.

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2. Read the Mass E-mails

Every week our principal would send out an email telling the staff the announcements for the week. I would generally read the weekly memo, but I was in the minority in that regard. I remember Karen telling me to print out the memos and put them in a binder. She has this thing about binders. I looked at her as if she had turned into a seal. Not only did that seem useless, it was a clear waste of paper.

But I did it. And over time I started to see trends in what appeared in the memos. I started to notice what my principal cared about and ways I could stand out from the crowd. Paging through old memos gave me insight into the goals and vision of my administrative team I otherwise might not have had, and gave me immediate conversation points when called upon by my principal.

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3. Contribute to the Team

Among other challenges my first year of teaching, I found myself strapped for cash. Especially once my student loans came due and I inherited a car from my sister (which cut down my morning commute by an hour and a half each day, but increased expenses). Therefore, when my colleague walked into my classroom in the middle of chaos, ahem, “a lesson” and told me that she was part of the social committee and was collecting twenty dollars from everyone, I dismissed her.

I asked Karen about it later and she said, “You gotta give to the social committee.” I argued with her, but she stood firm. She said, “There are things you do because it builds investment and buy in, and shows you’re part of the team.” I gave the money, and I gained the friendships of my colleagues, people I desperately needed to help me that year, and people I still keep in contact with today.

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4. Take Advantage of the Additional Opportunities

While flailing as a teacher my first year, I was also taking graduate courses to earn my teaching certificate. These classes met three nights a week. Then there was planning lessons and gathering the necessary materials for my classroom. Add to that making copies at Staples everyday since requests for copies to be made at the school had to be submitted a week in advance, which was a week more advanced preparation that I ever had my first year. Free time was at a premium and was mostly spent drinking, crying, or in panic attacks.

There are thousands of opportunities for free trainings and workshops and professional development for teachers. And Karen dragged me to them all, mostly by bribing me with hot chocolate. But these extras were almost always incredible. There were tons of free giveaways, I met important people in the field, I collaborated with other teachers, and I learned a ton about what it meant to be a good teacher, and how I could become one, someday.

Would it have been easier to sleep in on my Saturdays? Yes. Am I a better teacher because I went to the trainings? Absolutely.

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5. Give it Something Extra

It’s an ongoing joke that Karen buys the heaviest, glossiest paper that money can buy. I once asked her to print out sub plans for me, and she printed 150 pages of worksheets on 75 pound, high gloss paper. I came back the next day to find the prettiest, color-ink worksheets sitting completed on my desk. Laughing, I told her that I didn’t think the kids needed to be doing multiplication tables on vellum. She just said, “But it’s so nice to write on that paper.”

We may have to agree to disagree on the quality of our paper, but paying attention to the small details and going above and beyond is a point of agreement. When covering bulletin boards, Karen used fabric instead of paper. And not just any fabric, coordinated and brightly colored fabric. And she kept a couch in her room for the students to sit on in the library.

By doing the extra, she became a magnet for people. As you can imagine, her students love her.

I haven’t “arrived” in my field, so the advice here is shared humbly, with the caveat that it is all anecdotal with no formal research backing. That being said, taking these tips from watching and listening to Karen has allowed me to be pretty successful in all my workplaces thus far. Except maybe when I work with her. Then she steals the show. But it’s worth it to get to be on her team.

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Education Teaching

The Hustle Is Sold Separately

I like signing up for things. I like the feeling of anticipation when I commit to doing something new. I love making new goals. When I was in college, my favorite time of year was signing up for classes. I would pour over the course catalog for days, looking at every possible new course offering, thinking this might be the semester to try international relations, or economics, or political science.

I like signing up for things. But follow through is hard.

This is something I am thinking about with some regularity as I start my new job. It’s been awhile since I’ve changed jobs, and an even longer while since I’ve worked in a job that isn’t teaching. There’s something incredibly satisfying and exciting about being part of new. But even in the first three days of the job I am already aware that what isn’t new is me. I’m still me. I can wear business clothing, put on makeup, do my hair, recreate an image, but the core of who I am is not changed. Which means that despite my new beginning and all the possibilities it holds for change and growth, I still stand face to face with my strengths and weaknesses. I still have to do the hard work of becoming a better me.

One of my big challenges is that I give up before I try.

When I walked into school on Tuesday for my first day of reporting to work, I saw a quote written on the wall that made me stop, backtrack, and stand and stare. In script it read, “In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure.” (Bill Cosby)

There was literal writing on the wall. For me. Okay, not just for me. But I internalized it as a sign from above.

About a month ago my friend Lenora and I were talking, and I was crying to her about how hard it was to leave my job, how scary it was to accept a role of leadership, how hurt I have been by past bosses, and how easy it would be to hold back, to stay in stasis, to allow the circumstances of my life to happen to me instead of being the agent of change in my situation. Maybe what I have right now is good enough. Maybe my dreams and visions are foolish. After a lot of talk Lenora said, “I’ve had to face the fact that sometimes my biggest enemy is me.”

Mic drop.

I’m so scared to fail. What if my bosses don’t like me? What if the teachers I work with don’t like me? What if I can’t stay organized? What if I am revealed to be the faker I am, making things up as I go? What if I can’t make friends?

In other words, what if I fail?

A week before my last day at my charter school I went with the fifth and sixth graders to a team building nature center. Of the activities we did, the one that the students were most excited to participate in was the climbing wall. We did this activity last, and the students, most of whom had been my students two years earlier, were understandably eager to know if I was going to be climbing.

I think we’re all aware of my feelings about my body lately. The group leader came up to me privately to see if I was going to climb, and I told her that I would just let the kids climb. I made a comment about how I wanted to make sure they all had time to climb. I said something about not being sure if the harness would fit. I said a few other nonsense, pathetic reasons why I wouldn’t be able to climb the wall. The leader didn’t push me, but simply said, “Well, if you change your mind, I need you to fill out this waiver.”

I stood there as I watched my students climb. A few made it to the top. Others stopped half way. Then Sonya got up. Sonya has a physical disability that makes it very challenging for her to do gross and fine motor activities. But she marched up to that wall with the confidence of an olympic athlete. In a moment that makes me cry to just remember, she grabbed the hand holds and started to climb. She made it up one hand hold, pushing her feet a foot off the ground, and then fell down.

We cheered. There wasn’t a person there that didn’t see what an incredible accomplishment this was for Sonya. Her classmates gave her high fives as she made her way back to the group, smile a mile wide, screaming, “Did you see me? Did you see me? Did you see me?”

In that moment I decided that regardless of the size of my butt hanging out of the harness for all my students to see, regardless of whether or not I could get myself off the ground, regardless of the million reasons why I “can’t”, I was going to climb. And I did. And I made it to the top. Not such a failure after all.

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I have a dream. I want to become a principal. I want to open a school and I want to change a community. I want to change the lives of hundreds of children. Becoming a teacher coach is one step in the direction of achieving that dream. And it scares the snot out of me. It scares me to even type it.

It scares me to let you see that part of me. I am not like Sonya, I do not want you to see me. Because that makes failing so much more humiliating. Because that sets me apart from others. Because that makes it so much harder to take back if everything comes crashing down around me. Because I don’t always believe I deserve to succeed.

I may fail. I may never become a principal, or I may become a principal and totally suck at it. And as I go farther down the road toward this dream, each role becomes a little more public and  a little more open to ridicule. As I climb toward this dream, the fall gets more and more treacherous. And my fear cave is never far, giving me the reasons why it won’t work.

But what if it does?

My friend posted on Facebook recently, “The dream is free, the hustle is sold separately.”

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This is the hustle. I have my exciting fresh start, my new beginning. I’ve signed up for the race. I’ve picked my courses. Now comes the hard work. Now comes the battle against the fears and the reasons not to try. And while there may be people along the way who prove difficult, I think the biggest battle will be with myself, giving myself permission to fail, but also giving myself permission to succeed.

I’m grabbing the first hand hold, and I’m pulling myself up on the wall. And I’m praying for the courage of Sonya, to do my very best, to give it my all, no matter the risk.

“Did you see me? Did you see me? Did you see me?”

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Education Grief Teaching

Forgive Me For This Crappy Goodbye

When I was little we went to visit my grandmother every summer in the small town of Gilby, North Dakota. We bought penny candy and played on the teeter-totters at the playground in the one block main street that consisted of a bank, post office, grocery store, hardware store, and bar. What else does a town even need?

I have a million fond memories of that place, and even more of my grandmother. My grandma was a strong, playful, extremely hardworking woman. And she hated to say goodbye.

When it was time for our family to leave my grandmother found it of utmost importance to begin trimming her hollyhocks. Or hanging the laundry to dry. Or cleaning out the pantry.

It was an ongoing joke in our family to talk about where we might find Grandma when it came time to leave. But it is also an inheritance. One shared by my mother, and then me; a deeply-seated avoidance of goodbye.

Today is my last day at school and I would much rather talk to you about dropping my dog off at the vet this morning, or going to Starbucks to get an iced tea than I would like to process how I feel about leaving. It’s the last day of school and I am hiding in my room writing a blog instead of going to say goodbye to the hundred students I have taught over the last four years.

But I also remember that this time of year is never what I expect.

The endings, the goodbyes, are rarely the celebrations or rituals or pomp and circumstance that I think they will be, want them to be. Instead of the meaningful goodbye ritual I create in my head, the last day of school is usually spent cramming the trunk of my car full to bursting with the “last few items” from my classroom that I swore was only one armful, and turns out to be a car-full.

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I forget that trying to get nine-year-olds to sit in a circle and tell stories they remember about the year is about as easy as trying to run a cat circus. So the last day of school often looks like me popping DVD after DVD into the computer, projected onto the scrubbed-clean white board, telling my students, “SHHHHHH! We can’t hear the movie!!!!”

I forget the frustration of trying to hunt down the people necessary to sign off my checklist, showing I’ve completed all the necessary documentation to end the year. I forget that there is always, always, always more paperwork thrown at me that needs to be completed before I can sign out of the building.

I forget that last day of school is usually punctuated with a staff event that is cheesy, with the teachers sitting exhausted, hair pulled up in messy ponytails, barely present to eat a hot dog or luke-warm pasta. I forget that sometimes teachers forgo the party altogether, opting instead to start the summer vacation early, sitting in front of their TV to binge watch the television shows they’ve missed for the last ten months.

I forget that goodbyes are hard for everyone, including my students, and therefore it’s so easy to leave on the wrong terms, saying “Sit down!” and “Stop talking” instead of saying all the things you meant to say, like “I love you” and “I’m going to miss you.”

I forget how quickly I turn into my grandmother, more concerned with the work of cleaning and emptying a classroom than with saying goodbye.

And I forget that the goodbye is one moment, only one moment, but the time before the goodbye is full of thousands and thousands of moments and memories. I forget that we don’t build toward a goodbye. We live. We live. We live.

When I got the call that my grandmother had had a stroke, ten years ago, everything stopped. The family flew in and gathered by her bedside to sing her songs and brush her hair. We told her stories and kissed her head. I had to leave to go back home before she passed away, and so I said my final goodbye to her on a gray Easter Sunday, and then drove the seven hours home to Saint Paul to catch a flight back to my home in Philadelphia.

I cannot for the life of me remember saying goodbye to her.

But I remember sitting with her on the porch and laughing with her as she told stories of the past. I remember the spicy cinnamon gum she chewed, which over the years changed to doublemint. I remember riding bikes around her town, bikes she spent weeks scrounging up for our visit. I remember the smell of the bread she made, “Grandma’s buns”, just out of the oven. If Grandma was to be believed, they were always her worst batch yet. I remember the cards she sent on every birthday and every milestone, telling me how proud she was of me.

And I think my grandma is okay with me not remembering our goodbye. I think she probably prefers it that way. Maybe she somehow managed to arrange it.

Maybe it’s okay to be bad at goodbyes. Maybe it’s okay to not get them right, to say the wrong things, to not say enough, to not say all that needs to be said. Maybe all the good things before the goodbye is enough. Maybe it has to be, even when it isn’t enough.

I’m gonna miss this place, I’m gonna miss these people, I’m going to miss this time.

If you need me, I’ll be hiding in my room.

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Education PARENTING Teaching

Angry ‘Cuz You’re Moving On Without Me

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“You can only love what you got while you got it.” -Kate DiCamillo

I’m leaving.

I have one week left at a school that I helped open four years ago. And I have no idea how to feel about it. Relief that the year is almost over, obvious sadness to say goodbye to a community that has embraced me and a community that I love.

I go back to stories and people and find new reasons why I don’t want to leave, and why I do.

And I find myself angry about everything. Anger. Such a useful emotion, and so dangerous because it is so hard to control. But anger, useful in the way it helps me to disconnect, to push away, to let go.

I wish that instead of anger I felt acceptance. I wish I felt mindfulness. I wish I felt calm. But I’m not that enlightened. And it’s the end of the school year. I’m exhausted.

The secret I’ve been keeping is that I want everything to fall apart without me there. I want the whole school to fail. I want scores to plummet next year and everyone to miss me. Because I want to be that important and that amazing. I want everything to be about me.

When talking with my principal about leaving she told me not to feel badly. And I said, “I am just sad.” I know everyone. I know all the cafeteria workers and all the custodians. I bring Christmas presents for the engineer and she leaves me bags of oranges on my desk chair. One of my favorite parents came to my house during my maternity leave to teach me how to wrap my stomach. I’ve taught half of the students in the school. How can I possibly leave?

My principal said, “It really is your school.”

And it is. And it isn’t. Because people and schools don’t belong to one person, shouldn’t belong to one person. Can’t belong to one person.

I’ve been working on this in parenting. I’ve been reminding myself over and over my son doesn’t belong to me. Now I’m having to do the same in regards to my job.

The same part of me that wants my son to love and adore only me also wants my school to cease to exist without me there. Which is ridiculous for so many reasons, the biggest reason being that it is my choice to leave, no one is kicking me out. It’s a self-imposed exile and I’m all kinds of grumpy about it.

I’ve had good friends leave the school and the school has gone on without them, as it will without me. I hope that everyone will miss me next year, but in two, three, five years very few people will know my name.

In five years, when no one remembers me, what is my legacy?

Yesterday I was in my classroom, working on planning the school carnival. While I was there student after student came in. Some wanted to play a game, other wanted candy, others had stories to tell. But Natasha came in just for a hug. She walked in, arms outstretched, and said, “I just wanted a hug.” I hugged her, and then she left.

I’m angry because I’m leaving. Because I won’t be able to control what happens in our school from here on out. I won’t be the voice of dissent or assent in the leadership meetings. I’m angry because leaving means letting go. And I don’t want to let go.

But I’m also angry because leaving doesn’t make me care any less. Instead, leaving makes the small moments, like the hugs from Natasha, even more powerful and even more painful.

And it’s easier to be angry than to be sad.

At lunch today three second graders came up to my room. I asked them what they wanted to do. I expected them to say they wanted to play on my iPads. (The possession of the iPads makes me infinitely more popular.) Instead, they said, “We just wanted to tell you about our weekends.”

If I have any choice in how I leave, any choice in how I’m remembered, I hope my students remember me as a teacher who took the time to listen to the stories of their weekends. In the craziness of testing and Common Core, the decisions about what curriculum to use and how to structure our literacy block, I hope that listening to stories never stops being my priority, regardless of the school I am teaching in, regardless of whether I’m teaching or not.

I’m leaving. And my school is going to move on, with or without me. I want to want this and want to be happy about this. Eventually I think I will be. I’m trying to be thankful for the lesson I’m learning about how I am not the center of the universe, probably not even the center of my school. I’m trying to once again open up my clenched fists and let go.

With open hands or clenched fists, next Thursday will come. Angry or grateful, selfish or gracious, the goodbye is here. One more week left to leave my legacy.

I plan to give lots of hugs.

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Education mothering PARENTING Teaching

I’ve Had Enough of the News.

I’m over it.

In case you aren’t keeping track, it’s been a tough month for women. Over 270 girls were kidnapped from Nigeria, an Iranian actress faces prosecution for kissing the 83 year old head of the Cannes Film Festival on the cheek, a Sudanese woman is facing the death penalty and 100 lashes for converting to Christianity, the shooting rampage of a man angry for being rejected by his female peers has left seven dead and many injured, and the death of Maya Angelou has taken away a great feminist, poet, and teacher. There’s a reason why I hate reading the news.

Meanwhile, back in my two foot square of influence in Chicago, while standing in line to buy my comfort food, purchased at least in part because I have absolutely no idea how to process and deal with the bombardment of bad news in the media lately, I noticed that US Weekly has chosen this week to publish “The Body Issue: Heidi Klum and 100 Sexy Stars Strip Down and Show Off.”

There just aren’t words.

Yesterday my students helped me label and sort books in my classroom which, over the weekend, became the book room of our school. I’m up to my eyeballs in boxes of books with more than a little work cut out for me.

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I let my students pick the songs we listened to, until one of my students said she wanted to listen to “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry and Juicy J. I said I didn’t like that song. She of course wanted to know why, so I said, “I don’t like the rap. You know the part where it says, ‘She’ll eat your heart out, like Jeffrey Dahmer”?” And then I explained who Jeffrey Dahmer was, and why that line is particularly twisted.

They didn’t really feel like finishing their breakfast after that.

It reminded me of a small moment; a conversation I had with my friend Amber. My husband and I were deciding if we were ready to have a baby and I was pretty sure it was hinging on how well we were prepared to do the whole “sex talk” thing. (I have really weird ideas about what it means to be a parent, hang with me here.) Since Amber is a mom I respect, I asked her how she broaches such important topics with her children and she said, “The same way we deal with every other issue. We talk about it, we’re honest about it, and we answer the question that is asked.”

Basically, they talk to their kids, listen to their stories, and share their own. It seems so simple, and yet…

When my student found out about the lyrics of “Dark Horse” her first comment was, “I have GOT to tell Lana about this. That’s her favorite song. She knows all the words. And she don’t even know what she’s rapping.” Then the three of us had a long conversation about being afraid of people like Jeffrey Dahmer, the shooting in California, and what it feels like to be women. And it wasn’t just my stories, it was their stories, too.

It’s kind of amazing what happens when you answer the question that is asked.

Mary Oliver says that the instructions for living a life are: “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”

I find that when I’m overwhelmed with the news, it’s often because of what I’m paying attention to.

It’s been a rough month for women. But that’s not the only story.

There are women sharing their #YesAllWomen stories. There are post cards being sent to politicians saying “Not One More”, we’ve had enough of the killing. Neko Case is challenging people’s ideas of what it means to be a musician who also happens to be a woman. And my fourth grade helper is telling her friends why its important to understand the lyrics of the songs they listen to.

It’s not everything, but it’s something.

I’m over it. But it isn’t over. It’s been a tough month for women, but we keep marching along, and “still we rise.” We have to.

And so I keep paying attention, I keep telling my stories, and I try not to forget to let the good ones astonish me as much as the bad.

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Education fathering mothering PARENTING Teaching

Catching Vomit In My Hands: A Teaching Fail and A Parenting Win

teacherrachel(#TBT: me, my first year of teaching)

The hardest part about the first year of teaching is that you have no instincts to draw upon to help you as you face a sea of faces; twelve year olds with zits the size of Mount Doom and still you are the most self-conscious one in the room. In that moment you are as far away from knowing what it means to teach a seventh grader as the distance you’ve tried to wedge between you and your seventh grade memories. In that moment you become about as qualified to teach seventh graders as, well, your seventh grade self.

Or maybe I’m just speaking for me.

I did, after all, go through an alternative certification program that gave me a teaching certificate after six weeks of teaching summer school while attending evening classes. (These classes were held in a run down Chicago Public School building where the water was not suitable for drinking and the classrooms were on the third floor of the un-airconditioned building. I got heat stroke. But seriously, that’s everyone’s entry into teaching, right?)

Let’s just say I got “on the job training”. A whole lot of it.

I’m a fast learner, so I realized I had taken a belly flop into the deep end of the pool when my plan for helping students enter the school building from the playground on the morning of my first day of teaching went something along the lines of, “We’re in room 210. See you up there.” All the rest of the teachers stood confidently facing their students, telling them the designated stopping points along the way to their classroom. Then in a spell of jujitsu magic, their students neatly filed into one line and silently entered the school.

I think my line may have been able to accomplish this sometime around May. Fine, I’m exaggerating. Sometime around June. If we ever did get that together. There’s a lot about that first year I’ve blocked from memory. But seriously, that’s everyone’s entry into teaching, right?

That wonderful year of my life (my first year of teaching) comes to mind frequently these days as I find myself once again at the beginning of something, something I face without the instincts of a veteran. By this, I mean mothering. I’m still in my first year of mothering, and while I don’t have to do tasks like teach my son how to line up in a straight line, I often find myself surprised by how a simple task can seem impossible. Like how to put a sleeping child into a crib without said child waking up and screaming. (The equivalent of Indiana Jones attempting to take the golden statue…no. sudden.movements.)

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While I was living in Philadelphia during my sophomore year of college I became friends with a woman named Keia. She had a beautiful one year old daughter that was crawling around everywhere. I would follow Keia around pretty much all the time so that I could hold and play with her daughter. One day at church we were sitting in a luncheon and I was holding her daughter when the little girl started to cough. Before I registered what was happening, Keia had turned around in her chair, flung her hands forward in front of her daughter, and her daughter threw up in her mom’s cupped hands.

Gross, I know. But also kind of amazing. I developed a new awe for Keia that day. I think I shouted out something like, “You’re a MOM!” By which I meant, of course, “You have those mother instincts!” The ones that tell you when your child is puking. (Motherhood is glamorous, what can I say?)

Which leads me to this week. Our son has been sick for the past five days with what I assume is a cold and a fever. It is way harder than I ever thought it would be to watch my child wheeze. And maybe a little cute that he has a cough that makes him sound like a pack-a-day smoker. OK, not cute. Sad.

He’s been sleeping in bed with us the past five days which is bad news for everyone. But it was that or wake up fifteen times a night to go get him, help him fall asleep, and then put him back in his crib again. (Refer to earlier note about my skill in the area of putting a baby into a crib.) Turns out the latter is even worse news for everyone. It also turns out that my twenty seven inch long son is able to dominate sleeping space, leaving my husband and me mere inches of space on our king-sized bed.

Anyway, two mornings ago at about five in the morning my son wanted to nurse. Having mastered the art of sleep-nursing I fell asleep, waking up at six in the morning only to realize he was still nursing. I tried to cut him off, but he was having none of it. That is, until he started coughing. And then he promptly threw up all over the bed. Approximately an hour’s worth of milk, all over the sheets.

I kicked my husband awake and held our son out to him so I could get something to clean up the bed. In the four seconds it took me to get off the bed our son started coughing again and then threw up all over my husband.

Neither of us possessed Keia’s instincts. It was our first rodeo. We didn’t know. WE WEREN’T PREPARED!!

And that’s what it is to be a new teacher or a new parent or a new anything, I assume. It takes a long time to feel like you have any mastery over anything. And usually once you do, the game has changed and the rules are different and suddenly you don’t know who’s winning in volleyball anymore. (Seriously, rally scoring? What is that?)

But I know that this changes. Over time, the instincts start to kick in.

I know that I can now get most anyone to line up in single file lines with ease and maybe even a little finesse. I don’t know when that turning point happened, only that it has. After eight years of teaching I can walk into a school and instinctively know where the stopping points should be when directing thirty students from one area of a school to another. Eight years in it still isn’t always easy, but it is habit.

Some expert teaching advice I got during that first year was, “Focus on those things which you can control.” Which I now know is also expert life advice.

Most days the thing I can control is getting out of bed and doing the best I can all over again.

But I have a good end to this story. Yesterday morning I woke up and started nursing my son. About ten minutes in he started coughing. I held him upright and my husband and I both shot out our hands and he promptly vomited into them.

hands

Instincts. They are amazing things. So is not having to wash the sheets two days in a row.

I told you I’m a fast learner.

-Rachel

friendship Grief

Death by Death

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”  Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird.”

Book thief quote

I have struggled to write this post for months.  And then, I just decided to take it “bird by bird.”  Still, it has taken me weeks to post it.  No, it still isn’t perfect.  But, in the spirit of being a “good enoughist,”  I pushed the button today.

 A dear friend’s husband died last April from lung cancer (he never smoked); he was 43. This is not supposed to happen and an uneasy chill entered my soul. I felt powerless and incensed:  what is God thinking?  Then, not long after, three dear friends of my husband died in rapid succession, leaving behind a bereaved spouse. As we left the last memorial service, I briefly decided (in a very self-absorbed way) that God might be putting me through “widow” school. I mean, my husband is significantly older than I am and maybe I needed to be ready for the next stage of my life – when he shuffles off this mortal coil.  Who in their right mind thinks this way?  I did manage to recover from this moment of temporary insanity after remembering that not everything that happens is all about me.

I found the unfathomable grief deafening.  And terrifying. I hugged everybody and murmured worthless words that I desperately wished were comforting. But I felt powerless and STUPID. I had no idea how these graceful widows actually felt.  NO CLUE.  I could sense the sorrow, but I could not feel it with them.  I was an outsider – but I really didn’t want to be an insider, despite my clumsy ineptitude.

 For death, as Hamlet notes, is the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”  Although, Hamlet cannot possibly be right, as his dead father paid him a visit only a few scenes before he uttered these words.  Of course, Hamlet was not in his right mind.  I relate to Hamlet a lot.

 There was a lot of death last spring and summer.

 And then, the unthinkable happened.  My dear friend Nancy was diagnosed with incurable cancer.  Nancy: the definition of what it means to be alive.  She was whole-hearted, full of zest, passion and love.

And despite the word incurable, I was certain Nancy’s cancer could be cured.  We just needed to find the right remedy, the right doctor, the right hospital.  I researched treatment options for her cancer like a woman possessed and efficiently put together a binder with tabs and places to record symptoms and medicines and tests and infusions and never-ending visits to doctors. I accompanied her to meet with docs to get a second opinion.  I kept very busy looking for solutions.

 Because Nancy could not die.   Who in their right mind thinks this way?

And despite my will for her to live, Nancy, the soul I loved and cherished, began to leave her life here on this earth.  Slowly, steadily, gracefully: on her own terms.  Even though I didn’t want her to leave – not just yet.  Well, I never wanted her to leave.

This is because I still didn’t (and probably still don’t) have a handle on this death being part of life thing.  There is this tenacious piece of my soul that refuses to accept that we cannot be with those we love forever and ever.  I understand that suffering is part of life – but death?  Who in their right mind thinks like this?

 Nancy knew this about me.  So, she kindly and gently helped me understand that she would die.  Despite my “valiant” efforts to help her get cured.  I drove her to chemo whenever I could.  I meditated and prayed daily, imagining her surrounded by healing blue light, as the therapeutic poison dripped into her veins.  When I arrived at her door after being away for three weeks, Nancy no longer could walk on her own and she was breathless even when lying down.  Her energy, which always had seemed boundless, had been stolen from her.  She appeared to be looking off in the distance most of the time and it was difficult for her to talk.  I think part of me knew that Nancy had begun to disembark from this world and she was seeking her way to the next.  But my heart refused to acknowledge it.

So, I was the friend she asked to come to the “end of life” discussion.  I think she knew I needed to hear the devastating news directly.  Frankly, it never dawned on me, as I drove Nancy and her daughter over to the hospital for what I thought was the next round of chemo, that there would be no more life saving efforts.  I saw that Nancy seemed even more depleted and made a note to ask the doctor for a blood transfusion, because I was sure her hemoglobin was too low.  I chatted away like we were going out to lunch.

 With my notebook and pen in hand, sitting next to Nancy in her wheelchair, furiously taking notes as the oncologist, in a detached voice, talked about the failed chemo and continuing tumor growth, I asked, “ok, what’s next?”  But nothing was next.  Well, no cure was next.  And no, there was no need for a blood transfusion.  I was filled with dread and my heart began to hurt, like someone was beating me on the chest.

 As the doctor left the room to get the papers to “release Nancy to hospice care,” I just kept writing furiously, vowing to stay in my head, ignore my breaking heart and silently prayed for a medical miracle despite this damned, seemingly indifferent doctor.  Nancy’s daughter had been softly crying and quietly apologized.  The room was so quiet, except for the sound of my pen scratching senselessly across the pages of my notebook. And then, Nancy said, “Allison, don’t apologize.  Your crying is perfectly normal.  Of course you’re upset.  I’m the weird one. I’m so detached.”

And with that, despite my heartache, I laughed – as did Nancy – as we had laughed together so many times before when sharing the sorrows and joys of our lives. Allison’s tears were soon mixed with laughter (Nancy’s laugh was one of the most infectious on the planet). I said, “Thanks for sharing that.  I am so glad you noticed your detachment. I thought it was just me.”

It was at that moment, I got it.  She was getting ready to depart – and looking towards her next life, in “the undiscover’d country.”  How like Nancy to help me see what I did not want to see.

For years, Nancy and I had talked as only good friends do as we “fast-walked” the Chicago lakefront path, often meeting before dawn to fit the walk into our hectic schedules.  But now, Nancy embarked on a journey that only she could take, with her family and friends at her side, but yet, alone, all by herself.

 I hated that she was alone.

 Nancy was the friend in the past 10 years that often helped me whenever I felt most alone.  She listened, supported and laughed, no matter what. Despite my relocation 1300 miles away, we i-chatted most days.  Often, she greeted me as soon as I opened my laptop in the morning.

I hated that Nancy was leaving.

Like Mary Magdalene, who clung to the earthly Jesus, I wanted to hold onto Nancy.  She knew this about me.  And even as she suffered through the final stages of cancer, she tried to help me let her go.  Slowly and lovingly.

I last saw Nancy and hugged her a few days before Christmas.  She died 3 weeks later.  On her terms.  And I grieve.  Every day.

 I realized at Nancy’s memorial service how much trouble I was having letting her go, despite her work to help me in my stubborn quest to keep her immortal. I fled the service quickly, consumed by grief, and I continue to struggle with the swiftness of her death (barely 6 months after diagnosis).  I watched cancer, that evil beast of a disease, ravage her body, once the epitome of strength and endurance. My yoga teacher, my shiatsu specialist, the woman who did 100 things a day could no longer sit up for more than a few minutes without being out of breath. But cancer never took away her wisdom, her beauty, her sense of humor, her love, her kindness, her empathy.  So selfishly, I wanted her to stay.  Despite her suffering.  Some friend.  Who in their right mind thinks this way?

 I know I must help clear the path for Nancy’s spirit to “move on” – these are the instructions I remember from the memorial service.  And I panic every once in awhile that I am hurting her by not clearing the path properly.  I’m not experienced in this death business.  Honestly?  I hate leaving places once I am having a good time.  Nancy and I used to joke and laugh about this difference between us – we would be out at a gathering or watching our boys play baseball together, and I would linger at the end, hugging everyone goodbye (sometimes twice).  And I would look to hug Nancy goodbye and she was long gone…she always said she knew when it was time to leave and that drawn-out goodbyes were not her style.  Clearly.

A dear friend, and widow, who despite her own grief, has gently reminded me that the souls that leave earth still visit us.  And though I sometimes claim to be an unbeliever in the spirit life (like Hamlet), most of me believes that we are watched over by those that have gone before us.  And so, every morning at my workout, when I clasp my hands together in a yoga pose and gaze over my left shoulder, I say softly, “good morning, Nancy.”  And sometimes her laugh enters my ears and I see her briefly smiling before me, surrounded by blue, healing light.

 And every day, I work to sweep the path for her, always wondering if I will get any better at this, death by death.

nancy  Continue Reading

Education friendship Teaching

The Many Shades of Appreciation

100_0212(Student Self Portraits)

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s the week when teachers get catered lunch and are brought balloons and homemade cards by their students. The week rife with platitudes like: “I touch the future, I teach.” And, “I teach, what’s your superpower?”

It’s not that I dislike those phrases or want to take away from the hard work we do everyday, but it’s just those phrases don’t really capture the day to day monotony and ordinary-ness that it is to be a teacher. Most days I am much less aware of my permanent impact on the future, and much more aware of how my teacher training did very little in the way of preparing me for how to handle a student who leaves the room Jerry Maguire style, pointing at each of us in the room and calling, “You’re a butt cheek, and you’re a butt cheek, and you’re a butt cheek.”

Or reflecting on how I never really figured out the right response on my first day of teaching to my seventh grade student, who looked me up and down at 2:45pm when school was finally dismissing (after an excruciating six hours)  and said, “Nice ass.”

And I’m not really thinking about my “superpower” when I am screaming at my students because the fifth stupid pencil sharpener has fallen to the floor, scattering dusty lead and wood chip shavings all over the floor, and five boys have rushed the broom in an effort to be helpful and are now arguing over who is the sweeper for the week. The answer is almost always none of them.

What I do as a teacher definitely matters. But I don’t generally get to see the impact of what I do.

However, there’s a very good chance that this will be my last year in the classroom, at least for awhile, and those sorts of monumental changes and decisions leave me reflective, ruminating on what has been and thoughtful about my legacy. These sorts of goodbyes have a way of crystalizing moments as they happen, recognizing that they may be the last of their kind.

Which is how I felt the moment on Wednesday when Lenaeya walked into my room before school and asked if she could tell me something she hadn’t told anyone.

I closed my computer, looked her in the eye, and said, “Of course. What’s going on, Lenaeya?”

“My dad is in jail. He just got sent to jail.” Her eyes were sad, vulnerability evident in her voice.

I asked her what happened, what details she knew. She didn’t know much. Just that her summer plans to stay with her father had been cancelled. After only five minutes of talking she was already late for class. (Schedules do tend to get in the way of the important things in life.) So I asked her if she wanted to have lunch with me so she could talk more and also write her dad a letter.

At lunch I pulled out the notecards I keep handy for emergencies such as this one and took out the special inky pens I keep sacred and hidden and let her write her feelings and thoughts for her dad. I found myself thoroughly enjoying my shared lunch with my ten year old friend, fully engaged in her concerns about her father, her classmates, her friendships. I helped her spell the words she didn’t know and we sealed the envelope with the message for her dad.

Two days later Lanaeya and I were sitting in my classroom again when Alex, my favorite kindergarten student, flung open the door, breakfast in hand, tear-streaks on his face, wailing at the top of his lungs. We both turned to him as he crossed the room and flung himself into my arms. I asked him what was wrong and he just shook his head. Meanwhile Lanaeya, ever ready in crisis, left to the bathroom to get him some tissue.

While Lanaeya was gone, Alex stood crying. I was finishing some paperwork I needed to get done when he sobbed, “My dad is going back to jail!” The pain in my eyes must have been evident because when I closed my computer (which seems to always be open) and turned to him to say I was sorry, he broke down all over again. While helping him dry his face with the tissues Lanaeya had brought back, I mentioned that he didn’t have to talk to her, but he might want to share what he was going through with Lanaeya because she had been dealing with similar things.

At first he shook his head no, but then stopped and said quietly, “My dad is going to jail.”

Without missing a beat, Lanaeya said, “My dad is in jail, too. Here Alex, do you want to write him a letter? That’s what I do when I’m feeling sad.” Then she took out some extra note cards from our lunch and wrote while he dictated a letter to his father. They talked together about what it felt like to have a father in jail. And I became completely unnecessary, getting out of their way, as a good teacher does.

And that’s the thing about teaching. Most days are just days, like every other. But then the platitude becomes real, the hackneyed phrase shows up in your classroom in the form of a girl extending kindness to a young boy. Every once in awhile a lesson sticks. And if you’re lucky, it’s an important one. And if you’re really lucky, it happens enough to keep you teaching even when the air conditioner is broken in your classroom and the sewage system has backed up, necessitating bag lunches for a week. (Yes, these things have actually happened.)

After Alex finished making his card for his father, I said, “I know this is a really hard time, Alex, but sometimes it helps me to know that even when I’m going through hard times I am not alone.”

“Yeah, like I have my brother and my mom,” Alex agreed.

“And you have Lanaeya and me,” I added.

“Are you my friend, Lanaeya?” Alex asked, turning shyly to her.

“Yes, Alex, I’m your friend,” she said. She grabbed his hand and walked him back to class.

Being witness to these moments doesn’t make me a superhero. But these moments are what I love most about teaching, what I will miss most when I leave.

And maybe sometimes I do have the privilege to touch the future.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Education Teaching

Hugs, Duct Tape, and Learning to Be Brave

free hugs

I met David while teaching the youth group at my church. He was a freshman in High School, just starting to figure out who he was and what made him tick. But two things were certain: he loved duct tape and hugs.

I really liked David, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t really get him. Or maybe, I thought he was a little weird. Or maybe he made me a little uncomfortable.

While other kids were talking about movies and video games, David was making wallets and flowers and his tux for prom out of duct tape. And did I mention that he was hugging everyone all the time? Maybe it’s just my neck of the woods, but it is kind of rare to find a sixteen year old eager to hug adults.

But David did not allowed being different to stand in the way of being himself. He took his dream of giving hugs on the road, writing a book and using the money to travel across the country to give free hugs, over 50,000 hugs to date, tracking each with a counter hanging from his belt. He even has his own website, “Duck Duct Dave“.

I think he made me so uncomfortable because I was so miserable being a teenager. I worked hard to disappear, wishing I could blend into the crowd. I didn’t try out for the school musicals despite the fact that I love to sing and dance. I was too fat. Or at least, that’s what I told myself. I couldn’t imagine flaunting that fact in front of my graduating class of 500 students. From time to time I imagined myself trying out for the musical, applying for student council, or going to the extra curricular events, but in the end I stayed at home, convincing myself I didn’t want any of that anyway.

Why is it so hard to be seen? And why does it make me so uncomfortable to see someone willing to leave it all out there, heart on the sleeve, and dive headfirst into their dream?

Oh that’s right, because people can be jerks and the world can be mean.

David estimates that while standing on the street with his free hugs sign, about ninety percent of people walk past without giving him a hug. That’s a lot of rejection. I did a catering gig once and I felt rejected when I couldn’t convince the wedding goers to take the bruschetta I was offering.

Rejection hurts. When I hear ninety percent rejection a big mama piece of me wants to usher David into my house, feed him some chocolate chip cookies, hug him, and protect him from all of that.

But I’m pretty sure David is right and I am wrong. At least insofar as there is a right and wrong here.

I think in High School I thought there would come this magic moment when I would no longer be afraid to walk out on that stage. Or better yet, I hoped to avoid the fear altogether by having someone notice how amazing I was while I was sitting camouflaged in the corner.

But David has taught me a thing or two. LIke, don’t wait to be seen, just hit the streets with a loud neon sign. Maybe ninety percent of people won’t give a damn, but show up for the ten percent who do. Or better yet, just show up.

David is in college now so I don’t see him as often. When I do, I make sure I hug him extra hard, and I find it really satisfying to watch him click his counter and know I’m helping him live his dream.

And like all the best teachers, I am sure he has no idea how much he has taught me. But I am part of the ten percent who are thankful he has had the courage to show up and have the audacity to be himself.

courage

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Education fathering mothering PARENTING Teaching

Lessons Learned While Teaching the Alphabet

IMG_2013

This past week, I witnessed a miracle.

Let me back up. Last November I returned to work after spending the first three months of my son’s life figuring out how to keep a human alive, while also making most of the recipes I had pinned on pinterest. (But not the crafts. Why did I even pin those? I have been looking for a needle for three weeks now to sew up the hole my dog chewed in my pants and I can’t remember where I left my needles. Why I thought monogrammed anything was a possibility is beyond me.)

I sat down with my principal to make a schedule for working with small groups of students, my position this school year. I mentioned off-hand that I thought I should work with some kindergarteners because I believe in early intervention. Also, I’ve never worked with kindergarteners before and I wanted to know if it really is as hard as my kindergarten teaching friends say. (The answer to that question in a word: yes. In three words: I love it.)

I started pulling a group of three kindergarten students who did not know their letters. I very quickly fell in love with Alex. I already knew he was my favorite when he looked up at me after three weeks and said, “Ms. Wanson, you really meant it when you said you’d come get me every day!” Then he crawled into my lap for our read aloud.

This group quickly became the highlight of each day. When rearranging groups to prepare for our standardized test, my assistant principal looked at my schedule and asked why I was working with a K group. (Kindergarten not being a testing age.) Before she could say anything else, my principal said, “You can’t take away her K group. That’s why she gets out of bed in the morning.”

And it is true. When I cried about going back to work most days in December, my husband would say, “But what about Alex.” And he was sure to get an earful of Alex’s crazy antics from that day. Alex isn’t exactly a well-behaved student. My favorite students never are.

Last week it was my job to give Alex his reading test to see if he moved reading levels. He came to me in November without being able to pass the pre-reading test. In January he passed pre-reading (indicating he knows some of his letters and rhyming words) but threw a crying fit when I asked him to try spelling a few words.

I gave him the test. He knew all but three of his capital letters. He knew all but three of his lowercase letters. He knew all but eight of his letter sounds. He could match the beginning sounds of words. But then the miracle happened. I asked him to watch me read a book. I tapped on each word as I read. Before I could tell him it was his turn, he started reading.

And reading some more. He turned the page. And he read that page, and the next, and the next. And even when the pattern in the book changed, he ended the book with, “I like school.” The three words printed on that page.

I’ve always been an intermediate and upper grade teacher. I have never witnessed the moment when a child first starts to read, when the words are no longer sticks and circles but have suddenly become thoughts and ideas.

It was magical. It was this sacred miraculous moment. I am not exaggerating. My heart raced and the tears started forming. And all the while Alex just kept going, wanting to know what came next, not stopping once to think about the fact that HE COULD READ!

We finished the test and it turned out he can spell, too. Or at least enough to pass two more levels. I high-fived him and congratulated him. He grinned and jumped up and down. And asked if he could get a colored pen because he had passed his test and it was the nearest object to him. Who can blame him for being an opportunist?

Then he turned to me and said, “Am I not gonna come to you anymore?”

He realized what I had already known. That my time of working with him was ending. I had taught him and he had learned. He was ready to move to the next thing, and I wasn’t part of that next thing.

And it broke my mama heart.

Letting go. I am really not good at goodbyes, in whatever form they take. I am of the mind that every goodbye could be the last one, so make it count. Or better yet, avoid it altogether.

But the problem is that I can’t avoid it. And sometimes I get stuck in the goodbyes, near and far. It brings up the fact that I am not, despite my every best effort and a whole lot of wishful thinking, in control of those goodbyes or when they come. Which frankly pisses me off. And the people who console me by telling me that those feelings are hormonal can take a trip off a cliff as far as I’m concerned. Maybe my feelings are hormonal. But they’re also real.

And yet, today I pulled a new group of kindergarten students. Without Alex. And there was little Joel, waiting to be loved, his pants nearly falling off and his nose dripping with a cold, eager to climb into the lap that Alex left empty.

Saying goodbye to Alex left space for me to say hello to Joel.

Does that seem worth it when Alex comes up to me in the hallway and says, “Are you going to come get me today? Don’t say no.”

To quote Anne Lamott, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

What I know is that Alex wasn’t able to read and now he can. And that’s a miracle. And by the grace of God, I got to be there to witness it. So if goodbyes are a reality I cannot avoid, then I’m glad that at least sometimes they come served with a side of miracle.

And I’m extra thankful when those miracles are packaged up in the form of kindergarteners.

-Rachel261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n

 

 

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