A day in images:
I always wake before my family. I ease into the day drinking coffee and reading. Today I finish the Murakami book. His writing is like a gentle voice talking right to me, like spending time with a friend. I will miss his philosophical observations.
Walking to work in the dark again, the music coming from my earbuds makes me feel like I am both in my own, private room and expansive, like I'm walking across a screen. A version of "Angel from Montgomery" comes on that I've never heard before and headlights, March weeds bowing their heads, everything looks more beautiful.
In the afternoon, I call my 12 year-old son to say I'll be home soon. He answers the phone and says, "It's so beautiful out!" Then he sings a silly song whose words are something like: I'm happy, so happy, happy.
I go outside and see what the singing was all about. The sky is blue, blue. The air smells like the wet underbelly of the world, like plants rotting, like Spring. Two planes draw parallel lines across the sky in satisfying symmetry. Suddenly, I'm surrounded by teenagers running. I hear their breath, so alive and moving, and see splatters of mud painting each runner's back. .
On my walk home I see a grown alone man walking around on the ice pond in our park . Later, when I walk the dog, I see why. The ice is melting in artistic textures, forming a blue, grey, green, milky white sculpture. It crumbles on the edge of the pond with a lovely crunch.
Today I showed this video to my Seniors as a writing prompt: What If Money Were No Object? It caused me to reflect on what leads us to our passions.
My sister in law, a successful businesswoman, told me how she found her career path. Her mother told her to find the profession that pays the highest and study that, so that is what she did. I admire the clean simplicity and clarity of the trajectory. Mine path was a bit more crooked.
My first year at college I was not fully committed. I was a horrible student my last two years of high school, I was going to Wayne State University almost purely by chance (that is another story), and I just started by taking classes that seemed interesting to me.
I remember the semester I took a poetry class. My professor was a short, pale man who looked exactly like my imagination English professor. He even wore jackets with pockets at the elbows. The class was in the evening and in the bright, white classroom that shined out into the city, that quiet man would read us poems, and it thrilled me. I sometimes almost cried, or my heart would race. Even more so, my brain woke up, and I felt like I understood a secret, magical language. I almost couldn't believe that I got to do this for college credit. I loved writing my papers about Dylan Thomas and e.e. cummings. I treasured my text book (which I still have), and I approached the rest of my college the same way. I just sought out what I loved, and then I found a lot more that I loved, including history, linguistics and French.
Teaching was not a passion or a calling for a long time. I just kept doing the next thing I loved until I found myself in this job. I don't even think I loved teaching at first. Years 1-3 were hard, and I often wondered if I made a mistake. I told myself I would do it for 5-7 years then do something else.
16 years later, here I am still in the classroom. Even now, not every moment brings me to chills or feels like a privilege, but I know that teaching is my passion, the thing I would do if money were no object. I think the idea that our passion is going to come to us ready made when we are 18, 19, 20 and be unwaveringly inspirational is paralyzing and unrealistic. Maybe it works that way for some people. But for people like me it takes time and faith to find the passion that is better than money.
It's Sunday morning, and I'm going to yoga in few minutes, and I'm thinking about flexibility.
We all know that as we age, our body becomes less flexible. At the beginning of the yoga class my hips and hamstrings feel stuck. With every downward dog and warrior one it feels like flakes of concrete are sloughing off, allowing me to touch my toes and straighten my legs.
I also think we can lose mental flexibility. When I was in my 20s, I moved apartments every year, lived in different states, travelled all summer. I porpoised in and out of situations elegantly, piling my stuff in the backseat of my car, ready for the next adventure. The transitions felt sleek and seamless.
As I've gotten older, I've noticed how much harder transitions are. I changed jobs this year after 15 years in my same job, same building, same classroom. I'm surprised at how I haven't just danced into my new role, but have creakily and awkwardly stumbled around in it, feeling the concrete of my old routines and expectations encasing me. Even littler transitions are harder---the changing trimester, the day after a long break, Sundays. I don't feel the same ease from one moment to the next but sort of lurch, worrying about what I've given up and fretting about what the next moment will bring.
Well seeking flexibility it is a practice worth doing. I have lived in the same neighborhood for nearly 20 years, I have the same friends, the same husband that I have had for many, many years. Life can wear a grove, but I guess, for me, taking risks, trying new things is what will hopefully keep me flexible and open, sliding into the next new adventure with joy and ease.
On Thursday, I wrote about Murakami's quote about running and writing, focusing on how he explains that, "Basically, a writer has a quiet, inner motivation and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.” I think the same applies to teaching.
A friend and I used to joke about how when people say, "You're a teacher? That must be so rewarding!" we often think, no, it is not rewarding at all. For a teacher, the rewards are few and far between. Most of us don't have coworkers or supervisors regularly seeing our brilliant work, telling us we are doing a good job. Our "clientele" are children, and if we look for rewards solely from their approval, we are likely to be disappointed or really, really bad teachers. Learning takes a long time, with many setbacks along the way, so we might not even fully see the results of our work in the year or less that we have with our students.
In order to continue to teach long term, we have to find our "quiet, inner motivation." We have to develop our own goals and standards for our work and continually work to improve on last year, last week, yesterday. In this way, teaching is so much like running . I'm not in this to compete with my colleagues or get awards or recognition. I'm just here everyday, putting one foot in front of the other, trying to be a little better than I was yesterday.
was always a poem
Even if the meaning is not
The first snow...
Why do I circle
Around the memory
20 years gone
Of a boy with
The street muffled--
Like lush eyelashes
Hiding in the curls.
The homeless woman
Expression hard as stones
Saying, “You’re beautiful!”
To the boy and
His snowy curls.
Why does it matter
That it was a big dark city
Sleeping and empty in the
That outside of the bar’s bright world--
Wood floors and slick glow--
We stood still in a
What does it matter
That luscious snowflakes hid
In the curls of a head that is
Probably bald, a boy
Who is a man
That I no longer even know?
A thought: it matters
As all beautiful
Memories that get
Lodged in the mind’s
holey net like
A diamond in decaying leaves.
I just started reading Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and I was struck by his comparison between running and writing.
“What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically, a writer has a quiet, inner motivation and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.”
As a runner and writer, I feel the truth of this. I run not to beat anyone else, but to beat my former self, or mainly just to achieve a feeling in my body and mind. Even when I run a race, I’m mostly just focused on my own run, my own breath, my own best time.
I have always written--illustrated stories about marrying Don Johnson when I was 10, tiny poems about a boy’s freckles when I was a teenager and sloppy notebooks full of philosophies in my 20s. Somewhere along the line, though, I started to think my writing had to do something, have a purpose or publication goal. That pretty much shut down my writing for years until I was inspired again by my friend who paints, draws, embroiders and writes songs simply for her own pleasure. So I started to try to write again in the same way. I write to achieve a feeling in my mind and body, to connect to some other part of me besides teacher, wife, mom, list-maker. When I come to writing in that way, it opens a door for me. It is a mini-vacation in my day, just like running.
I also think having a "quiet, inner motivation" and not "seeking validation in the outwardly visible" is an integral part of teaching, but I’ll save that thought for another day.
Today was finals' day at my school. I tasked my AP Literature and Composition students with writing an on-demand poetry analysis. After the 40 minutes was up, one student came up to me and said, "I didn't write an essay. I wrote a poem. My grandfather was poet laureate of Wyoming, and today is the anniversary of his death, so I decided to write a poem to honor him."
Well, what do you say to that? I read the poem just as soon as the class cleared out. Here are the last few lines, "It is merely today that I feel an obligation to give you something real, to give you something he would be proud of. In his mind, the idea of teaching how to read and write poetry was appalling. In doing so, one inevitably loses their chance of producing something unabashedly raw and completely true to one’s self. So, here you have it, something true and from deep inside."
Even when I read it now it kind of brings tears to my eyes. Not because the student didn't do the assignment (because I will have to figure out what to do about that), not because l believe learning how to read and write poetry is appalling (because I don't think that. Not even a little), not because I am end-of-trimester exhausted (even though I am), but mostly because the idea of being "unabashedly raw and completely true to one's self" in the classroom really sings in my heart. I want this, yet I am not, cannot be, my completely, truly raw self in the classroom. That is a little too...raw...and feels like it might get me fired. I think it is very scary for my students to be truly themselves too. We are all slightly protected, sanitized versions of ourselves, which in many ways is right--we are in a workplace. However, to get to real writing, to be writers, we do have to be raw. We have to take risks and be willing to be our true, humble selves.
Some of us are better at it than others, anyway. I've never been the kind of person who could give a poem when asked for an essay, even if a poem what what I really felt like writing that day. I suppose I will continue to try to be as brave as I can be, and count the unexpected poems as blessings.
With my new job this year comes a big blessing: I can walk to school. After being in a building all day, it is a luxury and a pleasure to get be under the sky, to hear the crunch of of my feet on the sidewalk and to watch the neighborhood nature, as scraggy and neglected as it is, go through the miraculous cycle of the seasons.
Today, my morning walk was a study in contrasts. The air was so cold it was a presence. It was heavy to walk through and shocking on this March day. Isn't March supposed to be Spring?
But, I wasn't walking in total darkness, like I have been for so many months. I got to see even the meager, wintery sunlight paint the sky. Walking in light to school is a kind of hope. No matter how much this moment feels like deep winter. No matter that my ears ring with cold and my legs are numb, Spring is coming. That is enough to keep me going through at least a few more bitter mornings.
I'm buried in grading and my mind is to-do list, so today I will write something simple: a description of my dog, Teddy.
His huge, furry mass is lumped on the floor.
His breath often sounds so human, so recognizable.
He is tenderly licking his own paw
as if his paw is something to be cared for and loved.
Every time I get up, he follows me,
snorting aggressively and moving his head toward the door
in an obvious communication of his desire.
I try to reason with him,
tell him the boy is sleeping and we both know,
you will just bark and wake him up.
I can't really tell if the message gets through,
but when I sit, he lays down and resumes his paw ministrations
in an aggrieved silence,
dreaming of lying in the snow.
A few years ago, I attended a summer workshop called Everyday Advocacy here in Michigan. I spent an amazing week with other teachers learning about how activists often build change through many small steps and figuring out how to apply those principles to changing something at my school.
One key principle is gathering allies, and I've been thinking about how this happens in a school. At my former school, where I did the advocacy project, I had allies already. I had worked there for over a decade and those years gave me the armor of credibility. I
worked in a small town, with a stable staff population, so we all knew each other. Even if members of my department didn't agree with everything I did, they knew me as an educator who was acting in good faith, trying to do what is best for our students. So all I had to do to get them to take the first steps with me on my Advocacy project to promote a love of reading in our school and community was ask.
Some people jumped right into what I was doing and added on with their own ideas, and some just took small steps, but my whole department walked with me. Then, they listened when we talked about how reading workshop changed our classroom practice, and once they saw the good results, others were willing to try it too. I saw first hand how change starts with some small steps and snowballs.
Now, I'm in the first year at a new school, a school three times the size of the rural school where I spent my whole career. I'm realizing that the first step, finding allies, is much harder from the place I am in now. My new colleagues are friendly and open, but the key missing factor is my credibility. Because I am new, my ideas don't carry the same weight. The path to successfully changing something in my new situation has about twenty more steps than in my former school, which from this vantage point is looking like a long haul. I even question myself-who am I to suggest a change in this new school? Why do I think I could make things better?
This is a true slice of life because I don't have an answer that I can put at the end of my blog as a pithy statement. In my slice of life right now, I still figuring it out, making baby steps.