Of pulleys and buttonholes and light

There are two more names to add to the long list of luminaries whose lights went out in 2016:  Ann Marchbank and Melba McConnaughey.

I know. Most of you don’t know either of these women, but they were famous to me in the way Naomi Shihab Nye so eloquently aspires to fame in one of my favorite poems:

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

In 1979, I was a bit of a lost soul.

No, that’s not quite right. I wasn’t exactly lost. I pretty much knew where I was–walking a sketchy path that, in spite of its obvious dangers, seemed would take me to a better place than the one I’d been. Luckily for me, Mrs. Marchbank and Mrs. McConnaughey steered me off of it.

I don’t know if they knew the peril I was courting or if they ever knew they helped save me. I suspect they didn’t. I suspect they were just doing their jobs, teaching me and bringing opportunities my way, the way teachers do. I suspect they didn’t know that my dad was an active alcoholic, or that I was far too aware of what shaky ground my parents’ marriage was listing on, or that my whole family was struggling hard to care for my severely autistic brother who hadn’t even received an accurate diagnosis, much less anything that could be called adequate support. I am sure Mrs. Marchbank, my 9th grade English teacher, didn’t know that I sometimes drank in the girls’ bathroom before school (because school was “so boring”). I’m equally sure that Mrs. McConnaughey didn’t know I struggled with depression throughout high school, flirting often with what we now call suicidal ideation. I’m guessing they didn’t know how much I battled every single day with fear and loneliness and self-loathing, or what a difference it made that they helped me see myself as a person who had value and potential.

Mrs. Marchbank was the matchmaker who hooked me up with Shakespeare and grammar and poetry, kindling life-long love affairs with each. She championed my work, entering it in contests and telling me she was sure that one day she’d walk into a bookstore and see a book with my name on the cover. When a poem of mine was published in a national magazine, she whooped with excitement and joy–and she was not, generally speaking, a whooper. It was how I knew it was a big deal. She gently teased my friends and me about our obsessive need to check our appearance in mirrors, letting us know that there were more important things for us to care about. As I left the halls of Sylvester Junior High, she handed me over to Mrs. McConnaughey at the high school. During spring forecasting, she told me I needed to take Mrs. McConnaughey’s classes because “she’s the head of the English department, and I want her to know you.”

Mrs. McConnaughey, who died on December 16, was a force. She’d long left her native Arkansas for the northwest, but she never lost her accent. She was both genteel and formidable in the way I’ve come to know that Southern women can be. My first real memory of her is from the day after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. She was furious that the election was called before polls had closed on the west coast, and she was furious that he’d won. I was pretty sure she shouldn’t be sharing so much of her own political beliefs in class like that, but I became curious about why she would, and from that curiosity grew my own political awareness and philosophy. Later that year, I took a class from her called “Semantics and Logic,” which had a Matrix-like impact on me: she revealed the codes of language and argument, giving me personal and political power I hadn’t even known existed. It had everything to do with why I later became an English teacher myself.

Being human, Mrs. McConnaughey was not a perfect teacher. A friend once told me that I was the only one she allowed to really challenge her ideas in class. Others teased me about being her pet, and I know she gave me special favors. Our high school had what they called tennis shoe registration for classes, where we’d walk around the gym and pick up registration cards for the classes we wanted. If all the cards were taken for a class before we got to it, we were out of luck. As a sophomore trying to get into an English class for seniors, chances are I wasn’t going to get the card I wanted. I will never forget coming to the front of the line and watching Mrs. McConnaughey pull out a registration card for me that she’d hidden behind a curtain, or the “hey!” of injustice that exploded from the kid standing behind me in line as he realized what she’d done.

As an educator myself, I know that wasn’t fair. But I also know that sometimes, some kids really need us to show them that we think they matter. I was one of those kids, and she did that for me. When I was a senior, she spent her lunch period every day shepherding me through an independent study of poetry. “I am so sorry we do not have anything in our curriculum to teach you what you need to know about poetry,” she said, “and you just can’t go off to college without knowing more about it.” It was clear that the independent study wasn’t an option, but a requirement. I would sit in the class she had before lunch, reading and writing on my own while she taught the rest of the students, and then during her lunch she would talk with me about the poems I’d read. Like Mrs. Marchbank, she entered my writing in contests and expressed unwavering belief in the importance of my work and my ability to do it.

It is because of both women that I became a high school teacher myself. Although I entertained the idea of teaching in higher ed, I knew that where teachers had mattered most for me was long before college. If it weren’t for those two, I might never have made it there. A 9th grade girl who was drinking in the bathroom before school and throwing herself into one ill-advised infatuation after another needed champions to show her that she had value that wasn’t to be found in a bottle or a boy. She needed people to love her, and they were those people for me.

I’ve been out of the classroom for 8 years now, coaching teachers rather than working directly with students. I wish that during my years there, I’d better understood what I know now–that a teacher’s most important contribution isn’t necessarily what they are teaching students about a subject, but what they are teaching students about themselves. I would have worried less about the finer points of my lessons and more about the rough and tender edges of my students.

When I coach teachers, I encourage them to be willing to take some risks, to be OK with small failures that might be a necessary part of the process of learning how to create classrooms that are more relevant, rigorous, and safe for all students.

“We aren’t brain surgeons,” I tell them. “No one’s going to die if we mess up a lesson.”

It’s true. No one’s doing to die if we mess up a lesson. But that doesn’t mean teachers don’t have the power to save lives.On the dark and deeply troubling path we’re walking now, that’s something I hope all the teachers I know will remember. I hope that all of us who work with and for youth, in schools or out, will be famous in the ways of pulleys and buttonholes, never forgetting what it is we can do.

I am so thankful for these two teachers who never did.

The beat goes on…

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If I were to evaluate my high school journalism teacher, Miss S., through the  current thinking about what makes a teacher good, she’d get a pretty low grade.

Sometimes, she’d teach what looked like a lesson, sort of. I do remember her standing at the front of the room occasionally, sharing information about journalistic principles or practices for a few minutes. There were no learning targets on the board, no rubrics, no scoring guides, no real assignments other than the ones we were given to produce our student newspaper.

The teacher who chaired the English department told me that the journalism class wasn’t a good use of my time. When I shared that with Miss S., she laughed, and I understood that they didn’t like each other and that my presence in her class gave her a battle win in some kind of teacher war. It was the first time I understood that there were such things.

She was volatile and erratic. Once, in a fit of anger with one of us, she yelled and kicked a wastebasket across the room. I remember that, and the way we all went silent, afraid of what she might do next. We whispered among ourselves about what might be wrong with her. Someone once snooped in her closet and found an empty pint bottle. We wondered if she drank at school.

And yet, we produced an award-winning newspaper. Under her direction, our scope extended beyond the walls of our high school. She drove some of us to the state capitol so we could interview law-makers for a story about the impact of state budgets on our education. We wrote a story about the Green River Killer, who targeted young women in our area. We took national stories and examined what they meant for us locally.

Somewhere along the way, between flying trash cans and trips to the capitol, I learned the fundamentals of journalism that guide me as a consumer of information today:

  • You need to present all sides of a story.
  • You need credible sources of information.
  • There is a hard and clear line between fact and opinion.
  • You need to dig beyond the surface of a story to what lies beneath it.
  • Good journalists ask hard questions and tell hard truths, even when others don’t want them to.

One of my award-winning stories was about the dangers of “look alike” amphetamines, which students across the country were buying and selling. It included photos of such pills taken in our newsroom, as well as quotations from anonymous students who were dealing them in our classrooms. My principal did not appreciate the story. He wanted the names of my sources, the students who told me how they were doing business during class. For a people-pleaser like me, this was kinda scary stuff–but I was never really scared because I knew that Miss S. had my back. I also had the strength of convictions she’d instilled in me about the necessity of a free press and the duty journalists have to tell the truth and protect their sources. I wasn’t privy to the adult conversations that took place and don’t know what kind of heat she took from her boss, but I never did have to reveal mine.

When I went to a large state university and was looking for places that could make campus feel smaller, I sought out the newspaper staff. The first thing I saw when I walked through the newsroom door was a graffitied wall with “Fuck Objective Journalism” scrawled across it in huge letters. I was offended not by the language, but by the sentiment. Objectivity was a bedrock principle for me. I left and didn’t return for a few months.

Eventually I did, and I took the beat covering our crew team. I was not a sports writer, but it was a way in. I worked my way up to writing in-depth feature stories, and despite my colleagues’ irreverence (or perhaps because of it), I never abandoned the principles formed during my time with Miss S. Like so many experiences in young adulthood, though, it was one that showed me what I wasn’t cut out for. I hated calling people I didn’t know on the phone. I hated making people uncomfortable with hard questions. I hated writing under the pressure of a deadline and not having enough time to polish my writing or my thinking. Eventually I ended up working in education, not journalism.

As I’ve watched the demise of print journalism over the past decade, I’ve been thankful many times that I didn’t pursue a career in it. If I had, I may well have been objectively fucked, a victim of mass layoffs at a point where I’d be too old to easily switch careers but not old enough to retire. There are always casualties when industries and economies change, aren’t there?

But what’s happened in journalism isn’t the same as, say, what’s happened to the coal industry. Coal is, as one might say, a “disaster” for the environment. I truly do feel for those who are suffering because the backbone of their economy has snapped–especially those who, like me, are at exactly the wrong stage of life to be able to recover from such a catastrophic injury. But I also know that alternate sources of energy are what we need to survive as a species. I wish we could find ways to support those people without bringing back that industry.

Journalism is different, though. We need journalists–real ones, who investigate corruption and share truth and ask hard questions we all need the answers to–like we’ve always needed them. We need them perhaps now more than we’ve ever needed them. That’s something Miss S. taught me.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I’m grateful for many things, not the least of which is that in spite of the economic challenges facing those who produce print journalism, we still have newspapers that adhere to the principles I learned decades ago. I’m thankful that in spite of all that is currently troubling and uncertain in our President-elect’s relationship with the press,  we still have a free one. I worry about the fact that so many of our youth cannot tell the difference between valid and bogus news. I worry about the proliferation of fake and clearly biased “news,” which may very well have influenced the outcome of our recent presidential election. I worry about lowlife scum who care more about the personal profit they make from creating and disseminating misinformation than the damage they do to all of us through their actions. But I take hope from journalists who are the ones who really tell it it like it is, and those who vow to keep doing so in this strange new world we seem to be living in.

I’m thankful, too, for the public education I received that’s helping me navigate it. A high school acquaintance of my daughter’s recently shared that he distrusted a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist’s article in The Wall Street Journal because she “went the school route.” I wish so much–for himself and for all of us–that in his education he’d encountered a journalism teacher like Miss. S. and wonder how things might be different for him if he had. Like pretty much all of us, Miss S. was flawed, a human mix of strengths and weaknesses. I think of her often these days as I reflect upon what went wrong in our election, one of the first people from whom I learned that one doesn’t have to be perfect to be (and do) good.

(If you’d like to contribute to the continued existence of publications that provide accurate information about matters of crucial importance to us all, please check out the links on the Resources page.)

Photo Credit: Christof Timmermann Flickr via Compfight cc

Ode to Mr. Elwell

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Doing algebra homework, circa 1978.

I’ve always been pretty sure that I was the last kid they let into the advanced math track. At the end of 7th grade, we took a test to see whether we’d be going into Algebra or some other kind of not-ready-for-algebra math. I don’t know what that was, but my ensuing struggle with math that was more about letters than numbers made it clear to me that I must have been the cut-off kid on the Algebra list, the last one that got into the advanced party.

I have few memories of that math class. I know I had Mr. Elwell, a kind, quiet man with the kind of dark, bushy mustache that lots of men had back in the late 70s. (The kind my second ex-husband, who probably came of facial-hair age at about the same time as Mr. Elwell, still has, although his is now white.) Despite learning very little algebra from him–and learning was generally a huge part of the criteria when determining whether or not I liked a teacher–I liked Mr. Elwell.

I had him not only for Algebra, but also for Driver’s Ed the fall of my sophomore year. That was the year our junior high was transformed into a middle school, and the 9th graders who should’ve been top dog at Sylvester Junior High were instead lowly freshmen when we all migrated to high school together. A handful of teachers came, too, one of whom was Mr. Elwell.

I’m sure one of the things I liked about Mr. Elwell was that it was impossible to rattle him, which made him different from so many of the men I’d known, starting with my dad. Any other teacher probably would have had some misgivings about my driving group the first day we all climbed into the Driver’s Ed car with him. There was Dorrit Norvell, who, I guessed from her skill, confidence, and obvious boredom, might have been driving since about the 3rd grade. She had eyes sharp as her Pat Benatar-esque attitude, and she made it clear that she did not suffer fools gladly. She scared the shit out of me because, when it came to driving, I was everybody’s fool. Unlike most parents, mine did not do one thing to prepare me for Driver’s Ed before it began. No practice drives, no sitting in the car introducing me to the controls, no nothing. I was a driving virgin that first day in the parking lot, and next to Dorrit, with moves as smoothly polished as her nails, it showed. The only saving grace for me was that the third person in our car was Cam Tu Nguyen. She was no fool–but she was a worse driver than me. Our first day Cam Tu tore up the parking lot at about 5 mph, and I thought Dorrit was going to get whiplash from the way her head snapped every time Cam Tu slammed on the brakes, but Mr. Elwell’s calm never faltered.

Eventually we all made it out onto the streets, even Cam Tu. Although I got better at it, driving was not something that came easily or intuitively to me–kind of like algebra, which is maybe why Mr. Elwell was kind to me, the way we are kind to those who are a little slow or a little fragile. Although I was considered to be a smart kid, driving challenged me. The only test I ever failed was the written driving test. I remember coming out of the DMV office and telling my mom I didn’t pass.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know…” my voice trailed off. “I think I got confused because of the colors of the cars,” I said.

“What?” She looked puzzled.

“Well, it seemed like the colors of the cars in the drawings had something to do with the colors of the stoplights in the scenario questions. I was sure it did on this one question, and I got the right answer, but then it didn’t on some others…”

What are you talking about?” she asked, not even attempting to sound sympathetic or like I was making any kind of sense.

“Well, like, if the car approaching the intersection was red, I thought that had something to do with the color of the light, and so if the car was yellow or green…but it didn’t work if the car was blue…” My voice trailed off for a third time. It had made so much sense when I was taking the test. But trying to explain it to my mom, I could hear that it made none.

Later, I would attribute some of my failure on that test to being upset over my break-up the night before with David Ravander, my senior boyfriend who treated me so poorly I finally felt forced to end things between us. That morning of the failed test I couldn’t connect the dots between my broken heart and my foggy, over-thinking brain, but later I saw the lines linking one to the other.

None of my test failure was Mr. Elwell’s fault. He had been a bastion of calm support in that Driver Ed car with Scary Dorrit and Whiplash Cam Tu. Driver Ed cars came equipped with a brake on the passenger side, so that the teacher could, if necessary, save us all in any kind of near-death situation, but I never saw him use it. He didn’t even do it the time I came to a red light, carefully looked both ways to make sure the intersection was clear, and proceeded to turn left.

It wasn’t until after I had completed the maneuver that he said, “Uh, Rita, you might remember that we can’t make free left turns in Washington. You can get a ticket for that.” I felt my bowels begin to turn hot with shame, the way they always did when I’d made a public mistake, but his voice was quiet and calm, and that was all Mr. Elwell ever said about that.

Maybe it was because of that time that I asked him to be my escort for the Homecoming assembly that fall. Or maybe it was because I didn’t really know any of the other male teachers at the high school yet, other than the world history teacher who didn’t like me because I questioned why we spent a whole period watching a Laurel and Hardy movie, or Mr. Carmignani, whose creative writing class I had dropped because he made it clear on the first day that if we didn’t share our inner selves in our writing and our writing out loud with the class, we would not be earning A’s or B’s. I would no more reveal my inner self to my peers than frolic naked down the halls, and a C was unacceptable, so that was that. No creative writing for me.

I needed a teacher escort for the assembly because I was the homecoming princess for my class. This was an uncomfortable honor for me. I had no date for the dance and was facing the humiliating prospect of the Pep Club girls arranging to have some boy ask me if no one came forward. I didn’t want to ask my parents for the money to buy a formal dress, because I knew that we didn’t have much of that kind of money, but I was told that I would have to get one. And, I needed a teacher to escort me down the aisle and up the steps to the stage during the big assembly, and I didn’t really know anyone for that, either.

So I asked Mr. Elwell, who seemed both mildly surprised and quietly pleased. At the morning assembly for underclassmen, I hooked my arm into Mr. Elwell’s and we made our way down the auditorium aisle without incident. It was the stairs to the stage that proved to be our downfall. As I stepped up to the first step, I failed to properly lift the hem of my long, formal, faux-pioneer girl Gunne Sax gown, bringing my shoe down on the inside of its skirt. I realized my mistake immediately, but I didn’t know what to do about it, what with my arm hooked into Mr. Elwell’s and everyone watching and me needing to get up those steps. So I just kept going. When I stepped up to the second step, I also stepped further up the hem of my dress. And I did the same with the fourth and fifth and sixth step, even though I knew I was only making things worse. By the time we got to the stage, Mr. Elwell and I were both bent nearly double, as he’d never let go of my arm, and I fell onto it, ears filling with the laughter of my fellow sophomores and those lowly freshmen. Mr. Elwell didn’t say anything; he simply helped me up, re-hooked our arms, and walked me across the stage with as much dignity as he had given me all those times in the driver ed car and in algebra class when I didn’t know the answer.

Years later I would come to see this as a seminal moment, a metaphor for so many things that went wrong in my life. I have had a confounding need to just keep moving doggedly forward, even when it is quite clear that stopping would be the best thing to do–the only thing to do if I did not want my trajectory to end in tragedy. It is has not served me well, nor has my propensity for sticking with others who don’t treat me with the same kind of respect I got from Mr. Elwell.

He was not a very good math teacher for me. I began this essay with the intention of writing about Algebra II, the last math class I ever took because I could no longer fake my way through math without the fundamentals I’d missed in Algebra I with Mr. Elwell. And yet, in retrospect, I can see that he was teaching me something probably more important than how to determine the value of x. He gave me lessons on how to determine the value of I and xy, and although I have been a very slow learner, indeed, now, more than 35 years later, I’ve finally gotten it.

I like to think he’d be both mildly surprised and quietly pleased.

The poor guy I manipulated into asking me to the dance.

The poor guy I pressured into taking me to the dance.

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This piece came out of the last session of my writing class with Kate Carroll De Gutes (the one on writing about serious topics with humor). I almost didn’t attend; I’d had a terrible week, and I was feeling so tired and broken on Thursday night that I didn’t think any good would come of it. But as Leonard Cohen told us, the cracks are where the light comes in. The prompt was simply to write about taking algebra. Although I missed 2 of the 5 sessions, getting this essay out of the class was worth the price of admission. Kate is a teacher in the same gentle vein as Mr. Elwell. (Suck it, Mr. Carmignani.) I highly recommend her classes, which Portland-area folks can take at Attic Institute.