The week of the equinox I keep taking photos of my cut tomatoes, trying (and failing) to capture what they are before they’re gone. Their catacomb whorls of sweet seed and juice have ruined me for the market’s bland offerings, finally convincing me that tomatoes are, indeed, a fruit.
In the morning dark of autumn’s first full day, I read Kooser poems* in bed. Under low lamplight I meet his parents and grandparents, and I think: I know these people. I used to live in their world. I had a great-grandmother who wore boxy black shoes, and a father who smelled of Old Spice. I lived at their slow pace, in a place where a woman might throw rainbows from a basin of used dishwater.
When I was a girl, I believed that one day I would understand how we all make our place in the world. When I was a young teacher, a young mother, I thought I did. I was wrong (but not entirely).
What should I wish for my children? The more I live, the less I am sure of.
This week I gave my students an assignment to read the academic standards to which we will all be held accountable. “What is a ‘grade level band of text complexity’?” they asked, their tongues tripping over familiar stones arranged into an unfamiliar pattern.
I laid the system of my classroom bare and invited them to choose how they will operate within it. “What does it mean to you, to do well in school?” I asked. They live in a viral world of devious licks and Likes, but also one in which a person might grow their own food.
Later, after the sky lightens, I let the dog into the backyard and pick pears from our tree. Fruit fallen onto the sun-scorched grass is half-eaten, and I wonder what kind of animal we are feeding. When I wash my lunch dishes at the sink, warm water running over my hands, I think of a woman I once worked with who always washed her dishes with cold. “Hot water is too expensive,” she told me. I was in college, and it had never occurred to me that a person could wash with anything other than warm or that heat could cost too much. I remember her as happy, in love with her children.
What does it mean to live well? I type later, sitting in a chair at a table in front of a window, in the middle of a day in which I could choose to do anything, or nothing.
The closer I get to the end, the more I find answers in memory, in poetry, in tomatoes.
It has been a beautiful week in my part of the world. We are definitely feeling the shorter days, which helps us to savor the evening light. A bit of rain has returned some green to the garden, and we’re happy to leave August’s dull, brittle dust in the rearview of this year.
We’re settling into our school year routines. I’m still finding my way to ones that will work for my new situation. It’s a matter of composing and adjusting my thoughts as much as my actions. I’m living in some space between working and retired (though let me tell you: I am definitely working), which isn’t what I mentally prepared for and is something for which I don’t really have models. So much of what determines our feelings is based on what we expect. Originally I had hoped to contain my work to the days I actually teach, but that’s a goal not yet within reach. I think I can get there. Maybe. I’m trying to let go of the ideas I once had and just experience the things that come at me each day, let myself be open to all the things that each might be.
This week had a bit more ease than the last, despite having our first instances of students being out on quarantine. One of my classes was missing nearly a quarter of its students the last time we met, and it changed the whole dynamic of the room. The week before, one of our partner high schools closed entirely for 10 days because they had four positive cases but were unable to determine close contacts due to a lack of sound protocols. Things are both normal and not-normal simultaneously. I’m working hard not to gaslight my students, to walk a line between acknowledging what we’re dealing with and getting on with the business of learning in spite of what’s changed and changing. (My colleagues and I have adopted “pivot” as our word of the year.) When I shared with some students that the other English teachers and I had made an agreement to strive for no homework, their relief was palpable. I’ve already fallen in love with my students, and I feel fiercely protective of them. I’ve been thinking hard about what is essential and what is not, which came out in the writing above.
I hope the first week of the new season brings good things to you, whatever that means for you. I would love to hear how things are in your part of the world.
Mary Oliver got it right, you know: You need not repent your survival as if it were a sin.
I know, I know (believe me, I know): You feel it is your duty– your burden, your privilege, your gift– to rush back into the building full of beams rotten with flame, air fouled with smoke, to pull out as many others as you can.
Maybe it is, for a time. It can be hard to know what we owe others. It can be hard to know if the cause is lost and collapse –no matter what we do– inevitable,
but I’m here to tell you, one survivor to another: We never have to burn with it, our mouths filling with smoke, our limbs turning to ash.
Imagine your mother, what she would say if she could see you in the second-story window, your mouth a wilting O through a smoky pane.
Imagine what you would say if it were your child up there, flames under her feet:
Love yourself as your mother would, as you love your child.
Not so you can run back into that building, or into some other one so far gone it cannot stand.
There will always be buildings on fire. There will always be others trapped inside. Your death won’t change that.
Maybe, some other time, you will be one of them, but this time, you aren’t.
Don’t waste the gift of your second chance.
Go find yourself a solid structure and tend to it. Do your best to keep the exits clear, Extinguishers near.
And this time, if you smell smoke and shout fire and no one listens, if you start beating at sparks with blankets only to have others accuse you of fanning flames,
get out before you get so turned around you don’t know which doors lead to closets and which to stairs.
Let yourself go love what you love.
It’s so hard to know, isn’t it, when you should stick with something and try to save it, and when you should walk (or run) away from it because nothing you might do will. It is hard to know when quitting or leaving is weakness and when it is strength.
So many times in my life I have been unable to truly see and understand a situation until I’ve been able to get away from it. We become acclimated to what surrounds us, and we tell ourselves things we want to be true or need to believe in order to be OK where we are.
When I left classroom teaching in 2009, I had a nearly-finished poetry manuscript, plus a folder with about 20 others that I named “divorce poems.” Since 2011, I may have drafted 2 or 3 other poems. (Maybe. It might have been fewer than that.) I think I have a hard copy of the manuscript in a box somewhere, but I’m not sure where the box might be. The folder was digital and its poems are trapped on the hard drive of some long-discarded laptop.
That’s OK. We can’t save all our darlings, can we?
This week I got to go and browse the shelves of my local library for the first time since March 2020. I knew I had missed it, but I didn’t fully feel the missing until I was back there, running my hand along spines back in the stacks. I took a “greatest hits” of Ted Kooser volume home with me, and later, sitting in my living room with late afternoon sun filling the room, I remembered what I first loved about poetry. I remembered that poetry can be made from simple language, about simple things. I remembered that it doesn’t have to be such a big, hard, artistic deal.
I also took a walk with a friend this week, and we talked about survivor guilt. I found myself continuing the conversation in my head long after we finished, and it came out of me as a poem, not prose. What you see above is a draft. It feels a little clunky, too didactic. But this blog, it’s just a notebook. This is what I scribbled in it this week. Words haven’t been coming easily to me lately. There’s a lot of shifting going on. I’ve been happy. The world still feels on fire, and I still care about that, but I’ve been happy, too. I don’t quite know what to make of that.
it’s just past 8:00 on Sunday morning, so I’m going to hit publish on this one. I have food to cook and lessons to plan and some library advocacy work to do. I hope you all have a week that’s good to you.
Here it is, Sunday morning, and I’ve got…nuthin’. Or, not the usual kind of something.
It was the first week of school here, and I had to take Daisy to the vet, and I worked far more than my contracted hours. I’ve been so busy doing that I haven’t had much time for thinking (which, for me, means writing).
I’ve had moments of beginning to process this experience of going back to the classroom, but it’s something that feels huge and that I cannot begin to see clearly yet. I don’t think I can really describe what it was, but I will try a little.
It’s a cliche, but it wasn’t unlike riding a bike or skating after a long time of not biking or skating. I felt a little wobbly at first, but then I got my balance back and the wheels flew and it felt so right. Righter than anything has felt for years and years and years. It was hard and fun and exhausting. I have to think so hard when I am teaching–constantly taking in information and processing/assessing it and deciding what my next move needs to be, often in mere seconds. It works my body, too, in a way it hasn’t worked in so long; at one point, I realized sweat was running down my face inside my mask, and I was ravenous by the time I got to lunch. But at the same time, while I was in it, I wasn’t aware that I was thinking hard or that I was sweaty or hungry or thirsty. I was entirely present and engaged and energized and calm.
At the risk of sounding corny or over-wrought, I will say that it felt like my whole being was vibrating, maybe singing. I was very much in the state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as flow, one in which you become so involved in what you are doing that you can lose all sense of time and of yourself. Being able to experience flow states is, according to Csikszentmihalyi, essential to happiness. While I certainly had moments of flow in my earlier teaching experiences, I don’t remember it ever feeling quite like it did this past week.
I felt that flow state not only while teaching my classes, but also later in the day while creating lessons for the next time we’d meet. For me, teaching is a highly creative act of problem-solving, and my brain loves the play of figuring out how to effectively connect with other brains by creating sequences of experiences that will engage and support them in strengthening or building neural networks. What was wonderful this week–and what I’ve never before experienced as a classroom teacher–is that I had enough time to fully immerse in planning. I was able to think about and design for nuance in my instruction, those small details that can make understanding happen more quickly and easily. I was able to think deeply about sequence and resources and how to build supports.
Because I am teaching only two block classes (each 90 minutes long) every other day, I can teach at a higher pitch than I ever have before. Although I’m not aware of how hard my body is working while I’m immersed in it, I feel it afterward. I had time to recover between Wednesday and Friday. I am not having to pace myself the way I would if I had to teach 3 block classes (or 6 standard classes) every day, as most of my colleagues do.
Aside from issues of time, I think there are other factors making this feel like something I’ve never quite experienced before. In the article linked to above, there is a TED talk in which Csikszentmihalyi says a person needs about 10 years of training and learning for the kind of deep knowledge that we need to create at high levels. For the last 12 years, I have been immersed in learning about how to teach. I was able to receive in-depth training on instruction, assessment, several different pedagogies, and equity. I have been in countless classrooms, working with many different kinds of teachers, observing and thinking deeply about their practice. I knew I was a competent teacher before I left the classroom (after 19 years of teaching), but the depth of knowledge I had then is so shallow compared to what I know now. And it’s not just knowledge of techniques or pedagogies or frameworks; it’s also knowledge of people. In those 12 years, I had experiences with students in every grade from kindergarten through 12th; with teachers from those just starting to those about to retire; with support staff and administrators and instructional coaches in a variety of roles. I learned so much about what motivates people and opens them up and shuts them down and helps them grow. When I stood before my students this week, I saw them in ways I never could have before all of the experiences I had after leaving my earlier classrooms. I met them in ways I was never able to before.
Can you imagine what education might be, if every teacher had opportunities to learn deeply, plan completely, and adequately rest between classes?
I don’t know what I will be able to do with the understandings that are only just starting to develop. I’m seeing things about teaching, learning, creativity, struggle, work, and rest that I haven’t really understood before. But I’m grateful to be having them, even as they raise some difficult feelings. As I have experienced so much more joy in the past week at work than I had in all of last year, it’s been hard not to also feel anger and regret. Part of me is furious about how much suffering there is in our schools for both students and staff. In our world. We don’t have to do things the way we do them; our systems are a result of our priorities and our choices. If we truly valued our children the way we like to say we do, schools would look and function in radically different ways than they currently do.
At any rate, I hope to get back to the kind of writing I am more used to doing soon. But not today. Today I hope to stave off a headache that’s been toying with me for two days by getting off screens and heading to the garden. On Thursday, my day off, I had high hopes for spending time there, but our old Daisy refused her food (something I cannot ever remember her doing), and she could not be comforted, even when I held her. I called the vet, something that (if I’m being honest) I’ve avoided doing ever since we had to let Rocky go. Realistically, I know our options are quite limited at this stage.
She is still with us and doing better, but the vet and I had to have The Talk, and I know in a new way that our remaining time is short. A next visit will likely have a different outcome. All of our remaining time is short, if you think about it. I doubt any of us will feel, at the end of our lives, that we had quite enough. Off to savor some of mine, and I hope that you are able to do that today, too.
On this Labor Day weekend, I feel so full from the past week I don’t even know how to start. It was my first in my new job at a new school, and I have so many thoughts/feelings about:
(And that’s just about what’s going on in my personal world. What a dumpster-fire of a week it’s been in the world at large! Haven’t begun to process all of that yet.)
One day this week I was scrolling a social media channel and I saw a photo full of now-former colleagues. They were doing something fun together, and I felt this tight little feeling in my chest. Not because I missed them or wished I’d been included, but because I felt so relieved to be out of the place I’ve been and sad/weird about feeling relieved. They are not terrible people, and it is not a terrible place. But, now that I don’t have to work there any more, I can finally fully admit to myself how much it just wasn’t my place. Their community and its culture isn’t mine.
And that’s OK. It’s good to know.
I have spent the last 12 years trying desperately to fit into a place that simply wasn’t my place, and…oh my god what that did to me. There are people in that place I treasure, and going there was the right move when I made it. It gave me things I needed, and I did some good work there, and I learned so much. I’m deeply grateful for the learning and for the people who kept me afloat, but the lightness I feel now that I am in a place that fits, preparing to do work that fits, in conditions that feel manageable? I don’t have words to convey it.
After one week in my new/old place/community/culture, I feel more belonging than I did in 12 years in the one I just left–which has blown open truths I had never fully admitted to myself. I used to joke/not-joke to new hires in my former district that after ___ years, I still felt like a newbie. What that meant was: This is a tight community, and I still feel like an outsider. While I was known and had those I grew close to, I also always felt a wall with many people. Not a thick one, but an impenetrable one. Most (though not all) of those I grew close to were on my side of it. The wall was a thing we sometimes talked about. No one was ever unkind or disrespectful to me, but I rarely felt the kind of ease that comes with knowing you are fully accepted. That you will be given grace for your foibles and fumbles. That you will be understood. That you can be your full, real self and others will be theirs with you and you’ll still like and respect each other. While I had pockets of people with whom I did feel that kind of ease and knowing, I never had it in a general sense. In many situations, part of me was always on guard. (And, I’m sure, others never felt that kind of acceptance from me.)
It is exhausting to spend so much of your life in a stance of vigilance, especially when you are in denial about why.
I kept thinking the problem–that work took such a toll on me–was in what I was doing. I thought if only I did something different (held different boundaries, communicated in different ways, set different priorities, worked in different buildings, took a different position, etc. ad nauseum), I could make it better. I tried so many different ways to be OK there.
After years of failing to make things better, I began to think that the problem was within me: Maybe I was just too old and tired. Maybe I’d just been doing this work too long. Maybe my time had passed. Maybe I no longer had what it takes to be good at this. I never thought I was the best at what I do, but I always felt competent and that I had valuable contributions to make. I lost that confidence.
Eventually, I also lost interest in things I had once found compelling. I didn’t want to read or learn about new ideas or practices in education. I cared, but only in an abstract sort of way. I more fully understood my child who once said about school: “I want to want to do it, but I don’t.” I stopped keeping up, and then felt like I was falling behind and becoming more irrelevant by the day. It all made me so weary, and all I wanted to do was stay home and nest. I knew that I was suffering from burnout, and I knew systemic issues were at play, but it still felt like the root of the problem was something within me, and that it wouldn’t/couldn’t be better anywhere else–because I’d still be wherever I went.
Then came the pandemic.
While many things about the pandemic shutdown of schools was hard, I also felt a tremendous easing. It was such a relief to spend my days in a place I felt freer. The uncomfortable parts of my job that remained became easier to tolerate. I had fewer migraines and began sleeping better. Even in the midst of trauma (after trauma after trauma), I was healthier and…happier? (Yes, happier. Which brings to mind the time I looked forward to major surgery for the break that staying in the hospital would provide, but I’ll save that story for another time.) I even started to feel a little better about my ability to contribute, and better able to see which failings were mine (I am older and don’t have the physical stamina I once had) and which belonged to a broken system. I could no longer deny how toxic many things about my work situation had become for me, and when we returned to school buildings last spring the idea of returning to my job(s) in the fall became untenable.
Of course, likely the only reason I was able to come out of denial was that I had options; last January I became eligible for full retirement, and I’m no longer supporting my children financially. I’m sure the reason I didn’t allow myself to fully feel and see the truth of the situation earlier was that I needed it to be OK for me to be there. For a variety of reasons, changing districts to do library or instructional coaching work presented different sets of dilemmas that did not feel better than the ones I had. Returning to the demands of full-time English teaching (the only subject I can teach) would have been no more manageable than what I was doing, even in the best-fitting community, because of the unmanageable work load. But leaving the salary and benefits I earned was also not an option; I was supporting children as well as myself. I told myself what I had to in order to be OK-enough to stay.
What I am understanding this week is that there was likely nothing I could have done to make it better. It just wasn’t my right place or right work or right workload.
The most amazing thing to me (in this time full of amazement) is how different I feel to be doing something I’ve done for so long. This back to school season feels nothing like the 31 others I’ve lived. The return to school each year has always been a time marked by dread. While each year (except the last) always contained things I looked forward to and was excited about, there was also always sadness and resignation. It meant returning to imbalance and exhaustion and ethical compromise–all of which stemmed from simply never having enough time to do all that needed doing. Important parts of me that opened during the summer months shut down when I returned to school. This year, in spite of all that is unknown and likely to be challenging, I feel only light, happy, and open. I cannot remember a time in my life that I have felt as down-to-the-bone good as I do right now.
I feel that way because I’m returning to work that is a better fit for me. I feel that way because it is my choice to do this work; I didn’t feel trapped by economic need. I feel that way because I will have a manageable work load that gives me enough time to take care of my personal and family needs, as well as time for things I simply want to do. I feel this way because I get to do work that aligns with my values and that I know I can do well.
Think of what a difference it could make to our children if all their teachers felt light, happy, and open as they return to school! Think of what a difference it could make to our world if everybody felt light, happy, and open about their work, able to do the kind that is a good fit for them, in places where they feel safe and accepted and able to be the best version of themselves. These insights I’m gaining about community, belonging, competence, choice, and meaning will definitely inform my practices with students this year as I facilitate their work of learning, as well as choices I continue to make about where and how to work, live, and be.
This post is already too long for a deep-dive into a critique of work in a world driven by capitalism (that others are doing so much better than I could, anyway), but on this Labor Day weekend, I am full of ideas and wishes and longings for how work could be different for all of us, and what that could mean for our planet and societies. I am so grateful for new colleagues who feel like my people and who have welcomed me into their community. I can’t wait to work beside them and to learn from and with them. I wish they were not going to have to carry the kind of weight that I did for so many years, but I know that most of them will. I’m wishing that all of them and all of you and everyone I know could work in the way I now get to, so that we might all bloom where we’re planted–because blooming isn’t just a matter of your attitude or desire or effort. (Just ask my raspberries.) It’s about having the conditions you need to live, grow, and thrive.