Probability vs. Possibility

Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).

Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

The morning after the school shooting in Texas, my principal shared a resource with information about how to talk with children about violence, and some of it I can’t quite believe anymore. (“Schools are safe places.”) But I glommed onto a sentence about possibility and probability and the idea that while it is possible something horrific could happen at the school where my husband and I spend our days, it is not probable. I shared this idea this with my adult daughter the day after the shooting, and she rejected it.

We were skating together at the mall where both of us now spend a good portion of our time, and I argued for optimistic probability even as I was remembering a moment only a few weeks ago when a noise that didn’t sound right caught my attention while I was skating, and my first thought was: Where do I go if someone starts shooting?

It’s not probable that someone would start shooting in the mall, but I know it’s possible because of the 2012 shooting that happened in a mall not far from the one where each us now goes several days a week. It was a mall that I regularly took my children to when they were young. I know it’s not probable that I will ever be directly involved in a mass shooting event, but when you have trained and drilled for years for that possibility, when the structures in which you have spent your working days for more than three decades have gradually been transformed into semi-fortresses, when so much of how you operate within those structures is shaped by potential threat, it is no wonder that my first thoughts on hearing a noise that didn’t sound right were: I’ll need to get off the ice, this space is an obvious target. I can’t run in skates. Where is a place with no windows? Where is a place with a locked door? Where can I get quickly with skates on? Are there children here who will need help?

I didn’t get off the ice that morning because I quickly determined that there was no threat and because I know–I truly do know–that it’s not probable that any unusual loud noises in public spaces are the beginnings of a mass shooting event. Still, I do know it’s possible to be directly involved because a principal I once worked for had previously been principal at a school when it was the site of an infamous shooting. I know it’s possible because a school I once taught at was the site of a shooting (and my former classroom there had windows that faced the field from which the shooter fired). I know it’s possible because of the school shooting at a high school two miles from my house in 2014, a school that some of my current students attend and that was the target of a threat (one deemed not credible, but still) on Friday. A colleague/friend had a child that was in attendance at that school that day in 2014, and I will never forget the sight of his face as one of our administrators walked him down the hall after pulling him out of class to tell him what was happening. I know it’s possible because of an event in 2019 that happened at the high school serving the neighborhood I now live in. I know it’s possible because in the US this year, we are averaging 10 mass shootings a week.

Still, I argued with my child that it was not probable. She rejected that. What she was rejecting, I think, was a line of thought that can be used to dilute the horror of where we’re at with this, or to be in denial about it. Our debate grew a little heated, and I finally had to say: “I can’t talk about this any more right now.”

I needed some denial to be OK on Wednesday.

Later that day I de-activated my Facebook account because I don’t know that I can listen any more, either. We seem to have moved past thoughts and prayers as a primary response (unless you’re a politician who takes NRA money), but it was the earnest pleas from so many that I care for and respect (but who don’t work in schools) to call senators and give money to activist groups, and the assertions that now, finally, something will be done that did me in. I just couldn’t listen to it this week. How can anyone who is paying any real attention to what’s happening in our government believe that our calls are the thing that will make something change? It is so clear–on so many fronts–that the desires of the majority are not what’s driving too many of our lawmakers, on so many issues.

I couldn’t listen because the next day I had to go to school and do my job, and I couldn’t do the latter if I had done the former. I cannot teach well when I’m dis-regulated from fear, anger, and hopelessness, and when seeing our responses to this latest massacre of children, those are the emotions I felt. I chose doing my job (because what other choice is there?), where the threat of violence is such a constant hum in the background of what we do–it’s in the badges that we wear, the locks on all the outer doors, the reminders not to prop the doors open, the drills, the security camera footage playing on a big screen in the front lobby, the small shot of adrenaline we get if we see an unaccompanied stranger in the building who isn’t wearing a badge–that we don’t really notice it until something like this (temporarily) turns up the volume of it.

So what do we do? I don’t know what we need to do, but more of what we’ve been doing since Sandy Hook to no meaningful effect feels futile. Of course I will continue to vote, and I will do what I need to do to remain informed, and I might give some money, too, but I’m well aware that while it is possible that our government will reform itself, it is not probable that it is going to happen now. While I know it is possible that large numbers of people will remain activated on this issue past this weekend, I don’t think it’s probable that they will. I think we should all get grounded in these realities and what they probably mean for us, and make our choices–about what to fight for, and how–accordingly.


(The only thing that gave me any real solace this week was this, grim and cynical as it is. Because at least it felt honest and true.)

On the morning of the latest massacre of American schoolchildren

My students and I read “American Cheese,” Jim Daniels’s poem about, well, cheese–as you’d expect from the title. But, we’ve been working all semester on forming interpretations of literary text, and–of course–the poem isn’t just about cheese. “This is about/this is really about” has become our short-hand for moving beyond literal comprehension of the text’s subject (what it is about) to interpretive comprehension of the text’s themes (what it is really about), and my class of nearly all boys is initially stumped by the question of what the poem is really about, have a hard time getting past the seeming triviality of a man’s preferences regarding cheese.

I back them up. “What is the poem saying literally?” I ask, and we establish facts: The speaker attends department parties with fancy cheeses that he’s come to like. As a kid, he ate American cheese, the stuff that comes in individual, plastic-wrapped squares. (“You know, they can’t even call it cheese,” one student offers. “They’re called Kraft Singles because it’s not technically cheese,” he says.) His dad worked in a factory; there were five kids in the family. They ate cheese sandwiches. When he visits home now, he craves American cheese, and his mother is surprised by how he eats it without anything else.

They skip over what I think are the most crucial lines:

...We were sparrows and starlings
still learning how the blue jay stole our eggs,
our nest eggs.... 

I send them into small groups to identify what the poem is really about, and when we gather back together to share ideas they circle round and round above the poem, talking about food, nostalgia, family–never landing on the lines about birds. When they offer their ideas, I ask them to clarify their thoughts, perhaps to extend them, but I don’t direct them to those lines. My goal is to grow independent readers and critical thinkers, not for them to understand the particulars of this poem, which, in the scheme of literary things, is not a particularly important piece of work.

Someone offers an idea about the poem, and I ask: “Does everything in the poem make sense with that idea?”

Finally, someone gets there, asks what those lines about the birds are about, how they fit in. “Think about how we use our background knowledge and own experiences to build understanding of a text,” I suggest. “What do you know about these kinds of birds, and how can that knowledge give you ideas about how these lines contribute to the poem’s meaning?” I ask.


I drill down just a bit. “How about sparrows and starlings?” I ask. “What about just those birds? What do you know?”

One student, a boy who regularly wears clothing adorned with American iconography, says, “They’re scrub birds.”

I ask him to explain, as I’m not sure what he means.

“They’re, like, nothing birds,” he says. “No one cares about them.”

I let that idea stand. “And what about blue jays?” I ask. “What do you know about them?”

“They’re cool,” he says.


“They’re big, and blue. They’re beautiful birds.”

“They are,” I say, and I turn back to face the rest of the room. “Here’s a great example of how we can form different interpretations of the same text,” I offer. “One person can see blue jays as better birds than sparrows and starlings, who are small and not very noticeable. Jays are bigger and stronger and much more distinctive–and these facts might influence your interpretation of the poem. But I have different associations and ideas about the birds because of an experience I had,” I say, and I tell them the story of the time I watched a blue jay attack a nest of small birds built in branches outside my bedroom window. I tell them about the sounds of the parent birds as their eggs were destroyed, how they never returned to the nest once they finally left it. “Blue jays are birds that attack other birds,” I say, “and because of my experience, those are more important facts about them to me.”

Now that we have turned the keys of these lines, the poem unlocks. Yes, it is about food, and family, and nostalgia. It’s also about social class, and a declining culture, and pride, and love of country, and community, and hard choices, and survival. What it’s saying about those things is open to interpretation, to different ideas.

We don’t reach strong conclusions about the poem’s meaning as a class. We are a diverse group. I like leaving them with some ambiguity. I want them to figure it out for themselves, to be able to sit with complex and contradictory truths. I know that me telling them what to think or insisting on a particular interpretation won’t meet my goals. They might say what they think I want to hear, but they’re going to think what they think, do what they want to do with their ideas.

As they are gathering their things and heading for the door at the end of class, the boy who shared his ideas about the birds says to me, “I liked class today.” He’s a student I have struggled to engage. We are very different people, he and I. He hasn’t done very well with me, and I know that most days he hasn’t liked my class.

“I’m glad,” I say. “I really appreciated your contributions to our discussion.”

“Thanks,” he says, with feeling, and he smiles at me. I smile back, also with feeling. We have such different views of the world he sometimes astounds me, but I will miss him when this school year ends in just a few short weeks. I am glad to have known him, and I think he might say the same about me. There are things in each of us that the other likes and respects. I want to believe that, anyway.

We have no way of knowing, right then, what the afternoon will bring. I don’t know that after I spend it grading my students’ reading logs–which will prompt me to think hard about purposes and how I might determine if they’ve been met–I will learn, while waiting for the copy machine after school, about the latest shooting in Texas. I don’t know that I will numbly run off copies of another poem for our next class, then go to my empty classroom and sit at my desk and wonder what I should feel and do. I don’t know that I will spend long minutes wondering about the nest I’ve built for us, with its twinkle lights stretched across the ceiling, and posters with art from around the world, and a cart full of window/mirror books, and chart paper with our lists of class norms. I don’t know that I will sit in that space, remembering the day in September we began building those norms as we discussed memes about gun control, or that I will leave memory as I tune into the sounds of students playing ping-pong in the foyer while they wait to be picked up, and that it will be the pock-pock-pock of those balls hitting the paddles that will be the thing that brings me to tears.

This post is about teaching high school students how to read poetry/This post is really about gun violence in the United States


This Is What Happens When You Live Under Minority Rule

On School Shootings

Monsters Are in Charge, and Nobody Is Coming to Save Us

“…with my breath held”

On Wednesday, one blogger I follow left a comment on another blogger’s post saying that she is “living life, but with my breath held” and I felt the way I feel when I pass by a store window and am startled to realize that the person I’m seeing in the window’s reflection is me.

As soon as I read the words I realized that I, too, have been holding my breath, the way we do when we know that a needle is about to poke (just got my second booster this week) or some other kind of discomfort is going to land. Aside from living among the constantly flaring dumpster fires of the larger world, I’m also waiting for or living through a fair number of transitions in my personal life. Uncertainty abounds.

image of old, sleeping dog

It’s all well and good to say, “just breathe”–and I have moments when I intentionally do just that. But life has been moving swiftly and requiring my brain to attend to many other things. Mostly, I now realize, I’ve been getting through the days with my breath held, preparing for shoes to drop or ducking to avoid them. It’s become habit, and most of most days is really pretty good, so I hadn’t noticed the breath-holding until someone else pointed it out. I suppose it’s why I haven’t had much to share here lately; perhaps it’s because, like the blogger whose post prompted the comment, I have so many words that I have no words about quite a lot of things.

So, here are some pictures from the past little while, with just a few words.

Note from student: Hey Mrs. Ramstad
This note from a student kinda wrecked me, with the distinction they make between being treated like “a human with feelings” and like “just a student.” There are so many words I might say here–about schools, about lost opportunities, about what’s happening to our young people and those who care for them–that my throat feels tight with them.
Dishwasher on kitchen floor and man peering into hole under counter where dishwasher used to be

This is the hole where the dishwasher used to be. Some words: Full house, sustainability, needs, wants, money, renovation, priorities, eyesore, time, gratitude, love.

urban yard with the beginning of an island in the lawn with a tree and two shrubs

Mother’s Day plant sale. Kill your lawn. No man is an island. Wind in the willows. Work in progress.

Because Wordle wasn’t enough for me. Because the NYT crossword and Spelling Bee weren’t enough. Because when there are too many words knocking around in your head, wordplay can be a balm for the brain.

Cluttered kitchen with reading chairs

Funky kitchen, part II. Archie & Edith chairs. Best fika spot this side of the pond. It’s weird, but it works. #howwereallylive

hazy purple square

Why is this on my camera roll? What is it? How did it get taken? I don’t know, but it is strangely soothing. I like it.

Slow Going

In my years of peak career and parenting, I often longed for the kind of life I saw depicted in books and films set in earlier times. A life where people had time within their work day to sit down for a cup of tea or to write letters longer than strictly necessary. (Think 84 Charing Cross Road or Call the Midwife.) It was a slower world, one where a person had to wait longer than we are now accustomed to for news and products and services, but I dreamed of having days in which I wasn’t constantly racing the clock and fighting exhaustion and cutting corners on everything I did. I yearned for community, rest, health, connection, and meaning–all things that require time to cultivate.

I wondered, then, if I was being taken in by sentimental fantasy. Had such lives truly existed? Could they, now? I became aware of slow movements of various kinds and wrote a bit about them on the blog Cane and I created (an endeavor that was part of what made my life the antithesis of slow). I read blogs by women who were seemingly living gorgeous, throwback lives full of real food and hand-made things and soulful children playing in sunlit meadows. As getting through a week without resorting to fast food eaten in my car with a sweaty teenager or two felt like an impossible dream, I love-hated these online spaces. I knew they were selling a fantasy, but damn: I wanted it.

And now–I think?–I sort of have it. Not some idyllic, click-bait sponsored dream-life, but a genuine slow life. There are no chickens in the backyard, no bespoke linens or cunning needlework projects or seed catalog orders waiting to sprout. I still have a TV, and I watch it. But life has slowed, and it’s better for it.

I think the shift happened in February, when I began skating. Or maybe it happened in December, when I decided to take the winter off from writing here. But it was in March that I noticed my days were being lived at a different pace. It was in March that I noticed the absence of some kind of driving force within myself that had, for decades, pushed me to do and be and accomplish more and more and more. It was in March that I stopped thinking of time as wasted if I had nothing tangible to show for it, no real progress toward some thing I wanted to make or learn or do or achieve outside of those things I needed for our life to function.

Maybe it really all started a year ago, with the broken dishwasher. We still haven’t fixed or replaced it. Dinner now is often a 2-3 hour event, from the beginning of food preparation to the drying of the last dish. I usually don’t bake my own bread or mix my own salad dressing, but we’re eating more real food in which none of the ingredients end in -ose or –ate. Monday night I tore up part of a loaf of bread to dry croutons for a chicken Caesar salad, and I made pasta sauce from whole (albeit store-bought, canned) tomatoes. If I were a person who always bakes my own bread or cans home-grown tomatoes, I likely wouldn’t have had time after school on Monday afternoon to sit on the sofa with my old dog Daisy–a highlight of both our days–and feel myself soften and expand in response to the poetry (truly, poetry) of the final episode of Pamela Adlon’s Better Things. I think my life is better for having spent time that way than it would be if I’d used it to restore furniture or sew clothing or write a poem of my own.

We seem to be in a cultural moment of reckoning with our values around productivity and capitalism, so I know I’m not breaking any new ground here, but I want you to know: It feels good to let go of feeling that I need to be breaking any kind of ground. That I have to write Things That Matter. That I need to make Cool Things of any kind. That I must Do Good.

I have whole days in which I do little but move my body, take care of sustaining our lives, and engage with people I love. And it is really, really good. I have other days where I go to work, and I am rested enough to care well for the children who are mine to care for. That is really good, too. As of last week, both of my young adult children are living with us again, and some days are full to overflowing with going to work and maybe taking a walk and then making dinner and cleaning up and talking with each other and carrying the dog down and back up the porch steps because she too-often tumbles on them now. What the days are not full of is any kind of striving.

It feels so right not to strive.

I am being what and who I am, as I am able to, in the time I have–imperfect wife, mother, teacher, daughter, skater, writer, gardener, homemaker, citizen of the world–without feeling that I have to be great at any of those roles or take on any new ones or do more than is healthy given the resources available to me. Although in my life I have absolutely been bound by punishing structures and forces outside of myself that I could do little about, I am seeing that some of my struggle came from within my own head, which is filled with the voices of my (pretty damn toxic) culture.

Maybe my growing ability to silence those voices is a thing that’s coming with age, as I get closer to the end than the beginning and am understanding how fleeting life is. Maybe it is living through this time in which guardrails and safety nets I once thought would always stand have disintegrated, not likely to be rebuilt in my lifetime (or, perhaps, my children’s), and realizing that anything I might do is not likely to significantly change or save (whatever that means) the world.

Whatever the cause and whenever it began, I am grateful that in this week in which we are reaching, again, for Mary Oliver’s “Of the Empire,” I used my time to eat slow dinners with my family and care gently for our dying dog and meet my students with compassion and skate until my body broke a sweat and sit on our front porch in the early evening sun. I am grateful I had space to write these words for no one but you and me and to imagine going back in time and taking aside that struggling, striving woman I once was and telling her this:

You don’t have to earn your right to be here, to take up space on your little speck of the planet, for the blip of time that is yours. You have no more obligation to the world than a tulip or hummingbird or raindrop does. You, too, get to just be. Make your choices knowing that everything you have and do and love will pass. Everything. The best way to serve the world, probably, is to grow and be guided by a heart that is large, and soft, and full of kindness. That’s a project it will never be too late to start, but the sooner you can, the better. Maybe don’t be so slow with that one, yeah?