Migraine trigger #248

“In January it might seem like teachers would return from a vacation and feel rested, ready to jump back into the classroom with energy. That’s partly true, but Aguilar has also found that the time off can decrease people’s tolerance for stuff they have to deal with in the classroom. They’ve felt like a normal human for a few weeks and they don’t want to go back.” 12 Ways Teachers Can Build Resilience So They Can Make Systemic Change

Oh, y’all.

Did you see that last sentence? “They’ve felt like normal humans for a few weeks and they don’t want to go back.”

So much there to unpack. I mean, what is “a normal human” anyway? What is normal existence? Seems to me that for more and more people “normal” life is some combination of low wages, various forms of oppression, unaffordable housing and healthcare, corrupt government officials, insecure/inadequate retirement, and fear of rising authoritarianism/the deep state/what crap white people are going to do next in response to their fears. (I’d put in links to substantiate those claims, but: migraine.)

And, do you see that assumption that not feeling like a normal human is just part of what it means to be a teacher? I know the article title implies that we’re to develop resiliency strategies so that we can remain in the system and the fight to change it–to which I can’t say anything but, Yes, of course. But can we for just a minute acknowledge how that’s such a tricky line to walk? How it may be counter-productive to keep patching ourselves with band-aids when what we really need to be well is surgery? Because then no one sees that we’re bleeding out, maybe until it’s too late?

I’m under no illusion that a teacher’s life on break is “normal” for any but a privileged relatively few of us (and I’m deeply grateful for the breaks I get, because I know many people don’t have anything like that kind of respite), but c’mon. I don’t think that’s what the Aguilar means.

I’m guessing she (and all of us) might define “normal human,” as one who is reasonably healthy with manageable stressors.

Since coming back from break, feeling so healthy and determined to stay that way (as opposed to the exhausted, brittle, fragile way I felt in the weeks leading up to the break) I have been self-caring the shit out of myself. I have been practicinggoodsleephygienemealplanningeatingplantsavoidingcaffeinestayinghydratedtendingrelationshipsreframingstoriesholdingboundariesowningwhatsminenotowningwhatsnotdoingcreativeworkpracticinggratitudeshiningalightonwhatsgoodkeepingabudgetbeingmindfulstayinginthemoment, and…

…my self-care is stressing me out, which I think is the opposite of its intended outcome. At the end of too many days, I’m just too depleted to do much of any of those things. All I want to do is to pick up a pizza and collapse on the couch in front of mindless TV and numb the fuck out.

But I’ve been doing them anyway, because I really, really want these things to work. I really, really want to be/feel healthy more of the time. I want that more than I want to numb out.

And it’s not like I have unreasonable standards or am trying to win some gold medal in the self-care Olympics. I cut myself slack as needed. On Thursday, recognizing physical and mental depletion, I realized I could not spend time with a friend and make my scheduled session at the gym and make/eat a healthy dinner. I chose friend (social connections/relationships) and healthy dinner and cut the gym (and doing laundry) and felt just fine about that choice. But migraine came anyway, sending me home early on Friday and messing with my weekend as well as my head.

What I’m trying to say is…hell if I really know what I’m trying to say. I’m too damn tired to figure out what I’m trying to say, and I need to get off this screen so the migraine doesn’t show up for a third day.

So, just 4 more things:

  1. This isn’t just about teachers. I spend most of my time with teachers, but this struggle isn’t limited to teachers. It’s about systems and conditions that touch many of us.
  2. I know I’m relatively privileged. I know I have it better than many, many people. (That doesn’t make it OK or OKer.)
  3. I don’t want any advice. I’m already doing all of the things Ms. Aguilar and so many others advise to build resilience. I AM DOING ALL OF THE THINGS. Your experiences–including things that have worked for you–is very welcome if you’d like to share that.
  4. Sorry for shouting there. It’s just, I know, OK? I know the things. This post isn’t really about the things. Sorry if I haven’t taken the time to express what it’s about more clearly.

One of the things I promised myself I’d do is write more regularly here. (Suggestion #10: Play and Create.) And I gave myself permission to sometimes do it quickly and to live by William Stafford’s wise counsel to lower my standards if that’s what’s needed to get words on paper. Or screen. Whatever. Practicing that hard with this entry in the notebook. (See: migraine.)

OK, just one more thing:

  1. Thanks for being here. Human connection really is one of the things that makes a difference.

Off to meal-plan and get to the grocery store early enough to avoid the crowds.

Learning Swedish is my current zoning out method of choice. It’s something I’m doing with my daughter (building relationships, being connected), and as I told her this week, it’s cheaper than therapy and healthier than drinking. I always feel better after a few lessons.

30 years

When I began teaching, 30 was a magic number. After 30 years, a teacher had earned full benefits in the public employee pension system and most could retire with an income close to the one they’d been earning.

Back then, it seemed to me that almost all colleagues nearing their 30-year mark were just a bit past their sell-by date. They looked tired. They sounded tired. Many said they were ready to go. I could hardly imagine ever being one of them. I knew, of course, that one day I would be, but that day was so far away it didn’t seem or feel real.

And yet, here it is. Here I am. I began my career as an educator at the end of January, 1990. 30 years ago this week.

A lot of things have changed in 30 years. In my initial teaching certification program, we had one half-day class on instructional technology that included a rotation on how to use a ditto machine. There was no mandated language arts curriculum in the Seattle public school where I did my student teaching, so I was able to make up my own. I had a snazzy new Mac with software on floppy disks, but no email or internet. There were no standards, no annual standardized tests, no school report cards. And–oh, yeah–no school shootings, no lockdown drills, and no room clears, either.

I finished my licensure program at an odd time of the year (December), and I was entering a tight job market. In a seminar on how to conduct our search for a teaching position, we were told that only one in eight of us would likely get a job. The eight of us earning a secondary language arts license all looked at each other when the presenter said that. Well, I thought, if only one of us is going to get a job, I need to be the best so I can make sure it’s me. I braced myself for a grueling search and at least six months of being a sub (the idea of which terrified me), but then I applied for a mid-year opening at a high school just outside of Portland, and the next thing I knew my young husband and I were packing up our belongings and heading south.

I don’t really know how to capture 30 years in a short blog post. I’ve been an English teacher, an instructional coach, and a district librarian. I taught grades 7-12, in 6 different schools, including an alternative school and a charter school. Twice I’ve been involuntarily transferred, which isn’t really the same thing as being fired (but it feels like it is), and once my colleagues recognized me as one of the best teacher-librarians in our state. In addition to teaching English, I’ve also taught keyboarding, humanities, and personal finance. Right now I am the librarian for every student in my district, grades K-12, a job that’s had me reading stories to Kinders and teaching seniors how to use databases.

Over the 30 years I have been on the receiving end of curses, tirades, tantrums, tears, and hugs (from both children and adults). Last year a 2nd-grader threw a pencil in my face and last week a 4th grader asked me for my autograph and last Tuesday high school girls outside my office talked in pretty graphic detail about their sex lives. I have kept confidences and reported secrets. I still choke up when I think about the autistic boy with finger-shaped bruises on his throat or the smart, loud, provocative 14-year-old who turned silent the day we read a short story about a girl with a sexually abusive father. I have both thrown out lifelines and blundered into situations I didn’t know enough about, causing damage I couldn’t repair. I’ve been frustrated, shocked, devastated, and disappointed, but also delighted, surprised, elated, and profoundly happy. I have never been bored. I have some regrets.

It’s such a cliche, but it’s all gone so fast. In my 30 years I have lived in 3 different cities, in 6 different homes. I divorced 2 men and raised 5 children. I graded at least 30,000 essays, give or take a few. (Probably give.) The years fly when almost every day feels like a race against the clock. Starting in year 5, I worked 3 shifts: I taught during the day, parented in the evenings, and after the children went to sleep I graded papers or planned lessons until I couldn’t stay awake any more. Every single week day. Well, I didn’t do third shift on Fridays, but I did it Sunday nights, and I can’t tell you how many sick days I took so that I could work all day to try to catch up. I also regret all the times I was not fully present for second shift because I let third shift intrude upon it, grading papers at soccer games or mentally planning the next day’s lessons during dinner.

It has always, in one way or another, been a struggle. Until a few years ago, I kept thinking that some day I was going to figure out the thing I was really meant to do. In the space that opened after the last of the children left home and I no longer had three shifts or a perpetual stack of papers hanging over my head, it occurred to me that it was probably too late to find that thing and that maybe I had been doing it all along. Maybe what we’re “meant to do” isn’t necessarily what feels most comfortable or enjoyable. Maybe it’s what feels most meaningful and compelling. Maybe it’s the thing we can’t bring ourselves to walk away from, even when part of us really wants to–and it’s not because we’re co-dependent or afraid of risk or incapable of doing something else, but simply because we can’t imagine anything else that could matter as much to us. Maybe it’s not so different from loving a partner or our children: No matter how hard it gets, we just can’t give up on it.

Like the teachers who were ending when I was beginning, I now look a little tired and am past peak freshness. Thanks to pension reforms, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and the aforementioned divorces, though, 30 isn’t quite the magic number it was when I started; I cannot afford to stop working yet. Still, there is a window opening. Being at full retirement age means I could retire from teaching and do some other kind of work that doesn’t pay as much to bridge the gap between here and social security.

I wrote recently about the revelation it has been to notice what I want. That’s something I’m doing now in the realm of work. I read about or watch the kinds of things other people do, and I pay attention to what creates a spark for me, that feeling of wouldn’t it be cool to do that? I don’t think about what might or might not be possible. I’m just noticing where the spark is. I peruse jobs on LinkedIn that I’m not qualified for and ones that I’m over-qualified for. When I see someone out in the world doing something I think I might like to do, I ask them about how they like their job. As I work at my jobs each day, I pay attention to what I love and to what I don’t, and what information those feelings give me about the qualities I might want to have in whatever is next (even if what’s next is more of the same). It’s been eye-opening, all of it, and kind of fun. I never realized how much I shut some thoughts and desires down before they even rose up, just because I thought there was no way to incorporate them into my life. (That’s a regret, too.)

Make no mistake: I am tired (of many things) and a little wilted (some days more than others). But the more I’ve been paying attention, the more I’ve been thinking that I might not be done yet, and not just because I can’t afford health insurance. I can see now what I couldn’t really see in those first years: Energy and freshness are vital, but so is the knowledge and wisdom that come from deep experience. I’ve got a value that no new teacher–even the most well-read, creative, energetic, and dedicated–can have. My profession and our children need both kinds of educators. I’m thinking that (maybe?) 30 is the new 20. Maybe it is not time to leave, but time (again) to make some kind of transformation within this field that is probably the one I was always meant to be in.

Or maybe not?

It’s hard to know. I guess time–and attention, reflection, questioning, and opportunity–will tell.

Wouldn’t it be grand if we still thought 36 students in a class was a newsworthy problem?

In memoriam

34 years ago, I walked into a poetry workshop at the University of Washington, beginning a relationship that has endured longer than almost anything else in my life.

I didn’t want to write poetry. I took the class to fulfill a requirement, which I hoped to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible. As an English major with a writing emphasis, I needed advanced coursework in two genres. Essay writing was my preferred mode, the reason for my choice of major. I had tried my hand at fiction; it was not for me. That left poetry. Although I’d had some success with it in high school, I’d also had some trauma that left scars. It had been 5 years since I’d written a poem. The legendary Nelson Bently, the professor who ran the workshop, didn’t care about any of that (or much about the formalities of the university system), so before I could complete my tale of accomplishment and woe and need, he said, sure, I could begin at the intermediate level.

But this isn’t a story about Nelson, or even about me, really. It is about Robert R. Ward, whom I met in that workshop, and who has been my publisher, mentor, and friend for 34 years.

The workshop was open to everyone from beginners to grad students. Somehow, in ways that were invisible to me, Nelson made sure that the beginners were nurtured and the grad students were challenged. For those like me when I first arrived, commentary focused primarily on what worked. More experienced students received true critique. One of the sharpest of those giving it was an intense, bearded older man who usually sat in a corner and always intimidated the hell out of me.

I was 21 years old. A sorority girl. I had blonde, bobbed hair, and I wore polo shirts and pearl earrings. Robert, for reasons initially unfathomable to me, liked my poetry. He gave me feedback in written comments, in ways that showed me he took my writing seriously. Took me seriously.

I enrolled in Nelson’s poetry workshop–supposed to be a one-off–every quarter after that until I graduated. Robert invited me to gatherings after class at Pizza Hut, where Nelson ordered Guinness Stout and talked with us about poetry. I learned that Robert was the publisher and editor of a literary journal, Bellowing Ark, (and of Bellowing Ark Press, which published books), which is where some of my earliest poems were published. Although I admire and appreciate Nelson and all that his workshop was, Robert was the one who taught me how to write.

Robert always had a day-job. He’d grown up in a rural area and had practical skills. He’d had some wives. He had a twinkle in his eye and a hearty, genuine laugh. He insisted that the only true art is that which affirms the value of living. He was a modern Romantic, through and through. You could see it in Bellowing Ark‘s submission guidelines (here, from the 2009 Poet’s Market):

“Bellowing Ark…prints ‘only poetry which demonstrates in some way the proposition that existence has meaning, or to put it another way, that life is worth living. We have no strictures as to length, form, or style; only that the work we publish is, to our judgment, life-affirming.'”

You could see it, too, in the Editor’s Note that accompanied each issue, as in this excerpt from July/August 1993:

We have heard that poetry should only be; poetry, an artifact, cannot carry meaning because there is no meaning. Truly, it has been said that there is no beauty in nature, only the pretense in men’s minds. This is a lie of the reductionists, those who imagine themselves the rulers of nature….

Poetry comes, first and foremost, from the land, from the earth, that gave us all birth; poetry now runs as thin as the streams of our childhood because our poets have cut themselves off from the land, have hidden themselves in towers with no windows where they practice their emotionless and intellectual dissections, have become, in fact, one with the reductionists and apologists who deny beauty, and the soul’s deep and necessary connection to nature. Life is a true thing; a primary source of beauty that is available to all who would choose to look. The poet’s task is but to open our eyes.”

Sometime in the late 80s, he fell in love with Paula Milligan, a bright light of a woman who was one of our band–for, yes, I had become one of a band–and they later married.

I moved away from Seattle in 1990, but Robert and I kept in touch and he continued to publish my poems. In the late 90’s, he told me that I had a book, and that he wanted to publish it.

He helped me cull and shape more than 10 years of work into that book, and in 2002 The Play of Light and Dark, my only book of poetry, was published. It went on to win the Oregon Book Award for 2003, an experience that brought me so many other good ones; I met wonderful people and traveled to places in Oregon I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. None of that would have happened if he hadn’t supported my work from those first days in the poetry workshop.

Still, Robert could be a curmudgeonly crank. In many ways he was not an easy person. I heard often from those who wanted to sell my book that he was a most difficult publisher to work with. Each copy was hand-sewn by him, so there was no such thing as a swift response to a request for copies, and although I don’t remember what his terms were I remember that others didn’t like them. He didn’t have much use for the literary establishment or traditional measures of success. As it turned out, I didn’t, either, and am a curmudgeon in my own ways, so ours was a compatible partnership.

In the years that followed the book, Robert and I engaged in a prolonged conversation through correspondence and occasional face-to-face visits. Throughout, he expressed a belief in my work and its importance that I have never been able to have for myself.

Paula, 13 years younger than he, died unexpectedly in 2016. It was about that time that he told me his years were limited, too. A bad heart, he said. He chose to forgo surgery to repair it, knowing that it would change his life and in doing so change him, and he wanted to go on living as the self he was. He preferred fewer years living the life he had than, potentially, more years living a fundamentally different one.

Somehow, although I believed that he was going to leave us sooner than later, I didn’t really comprehend it. The last time I visited, we went for a walk and he seemed as healthy as he’d ever been. I was sure we’d meet again.

The last time we exchanged letters was nearly a year ago. In his last letter he promised to write more soon on a topic about which we disagreed. He didn’t, and I got busy and preoccupied with my own troubles, and I wasn’t writing anyway, and I let myself forget what he’d told me after Paula’s death: None of us are guaranteed anything, especially time.

I didn’t try to reach out until late in the fall, and when I did I realized I’d missed messages from him in the spring. I wrote right away, but I didn’t hear from him. I didn’t worry much; long pauses were common in our conversation. I tried again a little later, and again after that. I worried that he’d taken offense at my disengagement, and that that’s why I wasn’t hearing back from him. That wouldn’t really have made sense in our friendship, but I think I was looking for any reason other than the most likely to explain his lack of reply.

This week, I learned from a friend of his that he died last June.

I searched for an obituary, and this is all the one that I found said:

Robert Ross Ward was born on May 30, 1943 and passed away on June 13, 2019.

Perhaps it was learning about this loss on the morning we all woke to the possibility of new war brought about by our dishonest and self-serving President, or perhaps it was learning about it on the day my son left to return to his Marine base two states away, or perhaps it was learning about it the day after I’d put the decorations away after our best holiday in years, or perhaps it was none of those things, really, but simply the realization that someone who has mattered to me for 34 years is gone, and there will be no more letters, no more of a particular kind of refuge that he offered me at critical junctures, no more wise counsel when I most need it, no more deep and unwavering belief in the importance of my work. Whatever it is, the loss of this person who is officially remembered only for the dates of his birth and death has gutted me.

I realized, only since knowing he is gone, that every time I wrote here, I was writing with him in mind. Although he never commented, he referenced many of these posts in our conversations. It feels so strange to know that a person I’ve been writing to for so long is no longer in the audience. I’m wondering how that will change the writing.

I know that last sentence would please him, with its implication that there will still be writing. Robert believed in the necessity of poetry (in whatever form that poetry might take) in the world, absolutely and without wavering. He championed and shared the work of so many people who affirmed through their words that life has meaning and is worth living. It doesn’t matter that there is no official record to say what he did with his life. It doesn’t matter that most of those works never found a large audience and are already forgotten or will soon be. What matters is what always mattered to him: the work and those who read it. Not fame or acclaim or longevity. Just the work, and its impact on whatever audience it happened to find, and how that impact might ripple out into the world.

We are living through a frightening, unstable time. Robert and I viewed many things differently, but we agreed about this. His death–or, more importantly, his life and his beliefs and his many words to me–have me thinking hard about what work needs to be done in the face of all that is coming. About what work I need to do. I know that some of you write, and struggle with writing, and wonder about how to best use your life’s energy, given all that is happening right now. Since learning of Robert’s death, I find myself returning, again and again, to words from Dylan Thomas that appeared at the top of the masthead in every issue of Bellowing Ark, and in remembrance of Robert I want to offer them to you now:

…Look: I build my bellowing ark to the best of my love as the flood begins…”

Whatever your ark might be, but especially if it is built of words that affirm that life is beautiful and meaningful and, above all else, worth living, I hope that you, like Robert, will make it with the best of your love and invite as many people aboard as it will hold.

It’s what I hope to do. I can’t think of a better way to honor my friend.

Every teacher I know be a little like…

Leaving for work on the third Friday of the school year, I noticed my strawberry plants.

No, wait–that’s not quite right. I’d noticed them plenty of mornings before. They are directly in my line of sight when I walk out my back door to the garage. I’d noticed them drooping (and then browning and then shriveling) every morning, and every morning for at least two weeks I’d thought, I really need to water those when I come home tonight.

And then I wouldn’t. They weren’t in my line of sight when I came home, and even if I did remember them I was too tired/busy/late to do anything about it. (Or so I told myself.)

See, I had them hanging from the roof of my shed, which means that even though we had plenty of rain last week (thank you, weather gods), the poor strawberry basket didn’t get any because it was under the roof overhang. And the thought of dragging out the hose and giving it a drink of water–something I love doing in July–felt overwhelming in September. (See: tired, busy, late.)

I kept telling myself every morning that tonight, this night, I would water the poor thing. But I never did. And then, the third Friday of the school year I made myself go up close and really look at it to see if it could even be saved and then I beat myself up a little bit for letting it get so bad and then I wondered why I’m so lazy and can’t just do a better job of taking care of business.

Suddenly, lightening struck.

Not really, but out of nowhere I realized: I could just take the basket off the hook and put it on the pavement that doesn’t have any roof overhang covering it and the rain would water it.

No, it wouldn’t look as nice sitting on the pavement as it did hanging off the cute little shed roof. But half-dead wasn’t looking so nice, either. Wouldn’t it be better for the plant to be healthy in a less-optimal location than dead in a prime one?

For me, September has been multiple migraines, two rounds of antibiotics, 12+ hour work days, one sick day, fast food lunches, and lots of driving from school to school to school. (Last Thursday I never made it to my desk.) On the third Friday of the school year I finally paid attention to the strawberry basket, and looking at those dried up leaves and shriveled berries that could have been lush and plump–and that I might have eaten!–if only I’d stopped long enough to realize there was another way, I understood that, of course (of course!) this basket was a metaphor for every educator I know living through the month of September. (And most of the rest of them, too–but especially September, second only to May–not April–as the cruelest month.)

To suggest that all we need to do is somehow move our metaphoric basket to a place where we can get a little rain is not to ignore or dismiss or diminish the systemic and structural and resource issues that plague education and leave so many of us only half-alive by the end of the third week of the school year. But still, I’ve been wondering if there are things I might do to keep myself healthy that are as simple as moving my strawberry basket to a place where I don’t have to water it. And I’ve been reminded that we can’t just ignore our basic needs day after day after day because we’re too tired/busy/late to tend to them. Unless, you know, we want to end up like this:

Which doesn’t serve anyone. So, if you haven’t already–go water yourself this weekend! (Yeah, I know that sounds a little inappropriate. Or maybe I think that just because I’m surrounded many days by humans who love fart jokes. Whatever. Go take care of yourself!)

Stay gold, Ponyboy

You will find yourself, on a cold February night, at the end of a snow day in the middle of a long week, sitting in a basement wine bar that really isn’t much more than a hallway lined with small tables and chairs. At the end of that hallway there will be a wall draped with fabric and twinkle lights, which will pass as the backdrop for a small space that will pass as a stage.

You will find yourself there because one day a few weeks earlier you were looking up summer concerts and saw on an event calendar an act called The Lariza Sisters, and you remembered your former students Crystal and Angela Lariza, and how the last time you saw them, just after Angela graduated, they were playing their first music gig at a local coffee shop. You will have realized that The Lariza Sisters on the calendar must be the same ones who once sat in your English class talking about trying out for American Idol.

You can’t recall all that many of your former students, certainly not by name. There were literally thousands of them by the time you left the classroom, and most have blended into a singular monolith of memory, but there are some who remain distinct. Crystal, her friend Mary, and Angela are three of them. You still think of Crystal and Mary as CrystalandMary because you don’t remember ever seeing them apart, and it may be that you remember Angela, who was quiet and earnest and sweet, mostly because she was attached to CrystalandMary, who were loud and irreverent and sassy, but none of those things are the most important ones about either of them or why you’ll find yourself in that wine bar on that Wednesday night.

What will matter is that when you see The Lariza Sisters on the event calendar you’ll know you have to go because you remember them and their dreams and you want to see how both are playing out.

As it will turn out, The Lariza Sisters won’t be headlining that night because Angela will have recently decided to pursue “a different passion,” and Crystal will have joined a new band–but as luck will have it, Angela will be in the audience because it is Crystal’s birthday, and they will sing together for a few songs, and it will be all kinds of magical for you, like you were just meant to be there on this random weeknight so that you could see some things you need to see.

As you’ll watch Crystal sing with her new partner and talk about how their songs came to be written, you will feel awed, as you often are, by the creative pulse that beats in some of us, and the things we do in answer to it. Later, on a break, in the midst of talking with Angela about her decision to put music in the place of hobby rather than career, Crystal will tell you that she is 29 now and feeling the pull for a baby but doesn’t know how she can do that and music, and you’ll tell her the story of how your daughter, when she was 6, told you she never wanted to be a mommy because she always wanted her art to come first, and how you told her she could do both–make art and mother–and she said, “But you don’t, Mommy.”

As soon as the story leaves your lips you’ll wonder if you should have told it because you’ll never not be a teacher (even though you haven’t really been one for almost a decade now), and you’ll never not be an artist (even though you haven’t published anything for even more years than that), and you’ll never not be a mom (even though your babies just turned 21), and in the presence of these two young women you’ll feel a little bit like all three things to them, and you want to do right by them in each of those roles.

You’ll wonder what story you needed to hear when you were 29 and making the same kinds of decisions Crystal and Angela are making now. What kinds of stories you wish you’d heard. You’ll think about how it is all well and good for people past those decisions to say: Follow Your Passion! Make Art!–but that we all have real needs for food and shelter and love and there are all kinds of ways to follow your passion and make art. You know that now (but you didn’t then) and you’ll wonder if you should say that, too.

But there won’t be the time, and it won’t really be the place, and the moment will pass because you’ll all just be happy to see each other and laugh about the silly things CrystalandMary used to do and catch up just a little bit with what the past ten years have held for each of you.

Walking back to your car after the show, warm from the glow of wine and music and memories, you’ll wonder, as you often do, at how so few artists achieve what we think of as success, the kind that includes fame and fortune. “So many people have talent,” you’ll muse to your companion, who was also once your partner in teaching and everything else, and also, like you, an artist of sorts. “But you also have to have luck and timing and a certain kind of drive to make it like that,” you’ll say, thinking of the two of you and the choices you did and didn’t make. And you’ll wonder if Crystal and Angela know yet how many different kinds of success there are and that they’ve already achieved many of them. Thinking of your own successes and failures, and of all that you’ve won and lost, you’ll wonder what you should wish for, for them.

Later still, you’ll think about how these two were the last of your students; Angela graduated in your final year of teaching, and Crystal the year before that. You’ll feel such a pang, remembering those years, because you know nothing you do now feels as meaningful as what you were doing then–raising your children, building a family, loving a partner, teaching and knowing and caring for all the Crystals and Marys and Angelas. That you can’t remember each of your students now doesn’t mean they didn’t matter to you then.

You’ll think, Those were golden years, and part of you will roll your eyes at yourself for thinking such a sappy, trite thought and part of you will remember all the things that were not golden about that time–divorce and tight finances and worry and exhaustion and turning away from writing–and part of you will feel wistful and sad that you couldn’t see more clearly, back then, how much shine there was in your life.

Before you leave, Crystal will put in your hands two of her CDs, and for the next few days you will play them in the car. Instead of driving to and from work listening to the dreary news of the world or the banal chatter of radio DJs, you’ll lose yourself in the voice and strings and words of these women who once shared two years of their life with you, and you’ll marvel at all they’ve become.

You’ll know you can’t take credit for much of it. You’ll doubt that their ability to transform their lives into story and song has much of anything to do with anything they did in your class, but you’ll know that at least you didn’t kill it, that thing inside of them that sings. You’ll think of all the children who lose that–their wonder and their songs and their pictures and their words–and you’ll know that it’s not nothing, that you played some small part in keeping that alive.

You won’t be able to know what they get out of their creative work and whether or not it’s enough for them, but at the very least, you’ll think, they have put into the world something that is making a small part of yours brighter, and that light they’ve given you is something you can pass along to someone else, somehow. Maybe not in the ways you once did or hoped, but somehow. And you’ll turn up the volume, and keep driving, and look just a little bit harder to see what is shining right now.

You can hear some of Crystal and Angela’s music here. And here’s a song with Crystal’s new band that feels like a fitting end to this post:

All art is collaboration, coincidence, kismet

Because in high school I was fascinated by Spoon River Anthology, and 15 years ago came close to finishing a poetry manuscript with the working title Yearbook, and two years ago met a writer whose memoir blew open my ideas about both poetry and memoir, and sometime in October saw an article about Marian Winik’s The Baltimore Book of the Dead floating by in my Facebook feed, and two weeks ago attended the reading of a writer-teacher I first met a quarter-century ago, and earlier this month joined an online poetry writing group and last week found myself commenting to another writer there, “I’ve never written about my work as an educator, not really. I guess instead I have migraine and fibromyalgia,” and the next day a second-grader took a swing at me and a first grader with the oldest eyes I’ve ever seen in a child’s face began meditating in the middle of library read aloud, and the writer-teacher reminded me 2 days ago that “if you don’t keep open the channel to your soul, you will pay for it,” I have a written a piece that is, perhaps, the beginning of something my whole life has been leading me to.

The Student Who Shot My Other Student

He was a quiet boy, a sandy-haired freshman in the second row of my second period class. Unremarkable, really. I liked him, and not just because it was my first year of teaching and I was open to liking all of them. (I wasn’t. That didn’t come until later.) I liked him, maybe, because there was nothing not to like.

I wish I could tell you more than that about him. But it was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t remember much beyond the top of his head, bent over his desk while he wrote, and his eyes that watched me when I talked to the class. I remember them as kind, but maybe they were simply absent of malice. Maybe I’ve filled them with what I wanted to be there.

I remember him more for what he wasn’t than what he was.

I didn’t know, then, that a secretary’s voice on the intercom announcing an emergency faculty meeting is usually a call to tragedy.

The boy he shot and killed in a dispute over drugs (in a mountain quarry not far from a place I would live after fleeing the city)–that boy was my student, too, though in a different period. A boy with hair bleached loud as his mouth, a joker. I liked him, too, though he was trouble and troubled. I hadn’t known they were friends. My colleagues met the news with silence or sighs before treading back to their lives. I walked numb from the choir room to the parking lot, shocked by all I didn’t know, throat thick and arms slack, for once empty of papers to grade. After dinner that night, I made a new seating chart for each class.

Later, when I was pregnant with a son, his teacher father and I struggled to choose a name for him. For nearly every one we considered, one or the other of us had an association with a student. Each name belonged too much to someone else or to hard memories we didn’t want attached to our dream.

In the end, though, we gave him the name of the student who shot my other student. It was a family name on both sides of ours and the only one we both wanted. At the time I told myself I was claiming something I shouldn’t have to give away, and that the boy I’d hardly known had nothing to do with the one I would raise. Now I like to think it could have been a different kind of claiming, a way of calling home the man-child who once sat in the second row with his head bent over his papers, a kid who, but for the grace of any of our gods, might have been any of ours. I like to think it could have been, maybe, a way of filling the seats left empty in the rooms he once occupied.

Dear First-Year Teacher Me,

I found your journal in a box in the garage this summer. Not your real journal, your “fake journal,” the one you wrote in at the beginning of every class so that you could model journal writing for your students. I love that you dutifully modeled all year long even though you felt it fake and doubted its value–because how else would I be able to revisit you now, 28 years later, and be able to see so clearly who you were?

In just that one short entry, I see all of you, First-Year Teacher Me: your candor, your questions, your limitations, your doubts, your pragmatism in the face of those questions and limitations and doubts. While your journal has more than one outrageous statement that I know you didn’t really mean (“freshmen should be shut up in cages until they are juniors”),  I see how much you wanted to do right by your students.

I love not just your journal entries, but also your lesson plans and lists of things to do, even as they make me kinda want to cry, seeing how seriously you took it all. Could anyone have ever been so earnest about planning for freshman cheer practices? (Yes, you could. You were. God help you. Call on socks!)

As I read these pages full of to-do lists and time logs and lesson plans and journal entries, with their stories of botched lessons, no curriculum, departmental warfare, unclear purposes, cynical colleagues, and endless meetings, I want so badly to reach back in time and give you such a hard hug. I want to tell you that, yeah, you were doing a lot of things wrong, but you were also doing a lot of things right. I want to sit you down and assure you that, no, you’re not a weak whiner–that year was hard, real hard, harder than it should have been.

Oh my god, First-Year Teacher Me, just the log you kept of your hours! (Remember how an administrator suggested you do that? So you could see where you were “wasting time”?!) No wonder you were so exhausted and cranky. No wonder that fragile baby marriage of yours didn’t survive it.

It was so strange and unsettling, to read the words of this person (you!) who is both me and not-me, and to see you laboring so hard to author the beginning of a story whose plot line is now irrevocably written. There’s no revising it now, much as I might like to. There are only the next chapters, which are in some ways as much a mystery to me now as yours were to you then.

You see, I found you during a summer in which I was surprised, again, to find myself in a place I don’t want to be. It was a summer of unpacking. Unpacking boxes. Unpacking relationships. Unpacking a home, a career, a family, a life. Back in early August, not long after I found you, I was reading Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass, in which she quotes Jung–

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”

–and those words pushed me, who has so often felt my life directed by things outside my control, to unpack yours. As I read and re-read them, part of me felt for you the tenderness I always feel for the young and floundering, but another part of me felt so frustrated and impatient (and if I let myself go there, close to despairing) as I listened to you, First-Year Teacher Me–because in too many ways you could also be Fifth-Year Teacher Me or Fifteenth-Year Teacher Me or Last-May Teacher Me.

As I looked back at you through the tunnel of your journal, I could hardly believe how many of the questions and struggles you wrestled with then would follow you through your whole career. Are, in fact, still with you today, 28 years later. I don’t know if you could have stood knowing that when you were 25.

I can hardly stand knowing it now–and seeing that you already had so many of the answers (or at least the beginnings of them) then. You just didn’t know you had them. You just didn’t listen to yourself. What I can see so clearly from here–what your words have made conscious for me–is that you were in a toxic situation that you endured by taking whatever positive crumbs you could find and letting them be antidote enough to keep you alive in it.

And that is how you are going to get through the next 27 years. First Year, you are going to change schools, jobs, husbands, and homes in search of peace, but it is going to elude you. You’ll spend some years frantically cultivating other opportunities, but you’ll never take them. You won’t know why, not really. You’ll wonder if it’s because you are too cautious or too weak or too scared, and some years those wonderings will tear you up, but near the end, when you finally realize that it’s too late to come up with a different answer to the question of what you are going to be when you grow up, when you find this journal in a garage in the middle of a difficult summer, you’ll understand that you stayed more because of love than fear.

Love is always the reason you stick with hard things. Some part of you, deep down, loves the people you serve and work with, and you aren’t going to walk away from them. Some part of you, even deeper down, loves and can’t give up on the wildly beautiful noble idea of public education and its promise that through it anyone can become anything. Nor can you give up your belief that words can save lives, and that what the world needs most is not your words, but more people who can read everyone’s words and write their own.

I am not a fan of martyrdom, so I’m not going to tell you that you that staying was the right thing because you did it for love, which conquers all. It doesn’t, nor should it require self-sacrifice. But neither am I telling you that you should have walked away. Walking away from love should be a move of last resort.

What I can see so clearly, so consciously now, is that even in your first year the problem was never lack of belief or discipline or caring or even skill, much as you doubted all of those things. They are all your greatest strengths, but what you didn’t know then is that our greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses are always two sides of the same coin. Your dedication to people and ideals and your determination to use your gifts in serving them is both the source of your power and the thing that will zap it. It is the push that makes you long to leave the work and the pull that holds you to it. It’s what fuels both your best moments and your worst.

When we love it is sometimes so hard to know where lines are or need to be: between want and need, between supporting and enabling, between our allies and our enemies, between others and ourselves, between right and wrong. I see you crossing back and forth over all of those lines, again and again and again, and I can see that perhaps you didn’t need to leave the path; perhaps you just needed to walk it differently.

I hesitate to even write these words to you, First Year, because they can so quickly be used to keep us from seeing and addressing larger societal and systemic issues that make this work so hard for everyone I know who does it. But what you need to do–what we all need to do, if it can be done–is to figure out what you sensed then:  Learn how and when and why to say “no,” so that you will be better able to say “yes” to the things that will allow you to love better. And the first thing you have to say “yes” to is yourself:  A dead martyr can’t serve anyone.

Some say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I don’t know about that, but I do know that things sometimes work in ways we’d never expect. Who would have ever thought that it would be you, faltering First-Year Teacher Me, with your fake journal scribbled together in brief moments at the beginning of your classes and the middle of cheer practices and the last moments of your too-long days, that would impart such important lessons to Nearing-End-of-Career Me? Certainly neither of us, but I’m glad that you wrote these words down that appeared, somehow, from a box I hadn’t looked in for years. Thanks, Teach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

*******

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.