Best laid plans

Oh, I had such plans for Tuesday.

When I began my part-time teaching job, I was determined to work only on the days I teach. This would give me all of every-other-weekday off. I’d teach in the mornings and do all my prep and grading work in the afternoons.

Those off days? Those would be a luxury of time filled with things bolstering enough to get me through the work days: writing, creative projects, cooking, reading, leisurely visits with friends. Maybe even some naps.

It hasn’t gone like that, so much so that Tuesday was the first day this school year that I could actually have an entire weekday free from work.

I was going to run to a local shopping center to pick up some things. I was going to go to the produce stand to buy ingredients for soup and some pumpkins for the front porch, and then to the grocery store to get some other things we were out of. I was going to make soup, and put out the pumpkins, and process a box or two of things in the garage that is still full of stuff from Cane’s house. I was going to spend some time with my son.

I put my back out in the morning, sliding a storage container out from under the bed, but I downed some ibuprofen and was out of the house by 10:30. I had finished the shopping center stops by 11:45, when I took a call from a friend. I sat in my car for over an hour, mostly listening and being witness to a challenging situation she’s dealing with. I thought of my list and let it go for a bit. This is what you wanted more of, I thought to myself. Time to be present for the people in your life. That’s more important than pumpkins or cleaning the garage out. And it was, and I was glad to use some of my day for that. I still had plenty of time left.

After our call ended, I turned my key in the ignition, ready to head to the produce market, and…nothing. The engine didn’t even click. The dashboard lights blinked at me, then went blank, except for one with a lock icon.

I called Cane, who helped me troubleshoot, and we thought the problem might be that the antitheft system had been activated. From our Googling, it seemed that perhaps I needed to let the car sit for a bit, so I decided to have lunch in a nearby restaurant.

I let a little more of my plan go, but not as easily. It was not the lunch I had wanted, but it was not a bad lunch, either. Still, I had so wanted a day mostly at home, puttering and making comfort food and just being in the place I love. I was now going to have much less of that than I’d hoped for.

I went back to the car and tried the things the internets had suggested I try, and…still nothing. I called the dealership and talked to someone in the repair center, who suggested it might be more likely that I had a dead battery. “Try giving it a jump, and then call us back if that doesn’t work.”

And there went what was left of my day. It was already after 2:00 by then, and it didn’t make sense to call for roadside assistance when Cane would be off work at 3:30. After having a mini-melt down (my back still hurt, and I wasn’t going to have time to make the soup, and I didn’t know what I was going to do if the car didn’t start, and I hate it when I feel at the mercy of things I can’t control), I let the rest of my plans go. I used a bit of my time in the car thinking about plans and how they do and don’t serve us. Then I took a nap.

The car started right away when we gave it a jump. (We still don’t know what caused it to go dead, but it’s been just fine ever since.) Rather than trying to make the soup work or figure out something else to make for dinner, I gave myself permission to go home and sit in a comfortable chair with a heating pad and a book and have my son pick up takeout pizza.

I had a wonderful evening.

Wednesday I had every intention of working all day so that Thursday could be that work-free day I’ve been dreaming of, but Wednesday afternoon I was so exhausted from low-grade headache and back pain and a morning of teaching that I took a nap instead. This, too, is what you said you wanted, I reminded myself. Enough ease in your schedule to give your body more of what it needs. I slept well, and when I woke I made the soup I’d originally planned for Tuesday. I never did do any prep work that afternoon, but it was OK. I adjusted my plans for Thursday.

Thursday afternoon I had a long and unexpected visit with a different friend, and my plans flew out the window again. It was the first time we’d talked since we both returned to in-person teaching, and much of our conversation was about how our lives are both the same as and different from what they were before March 13, 2020, when our world stopped. We did some wondering about our labor and supply chain issues and all the folks who, seemingly, have decided that they are not going to return to life as they knew it before that day when we went home for what we were told would be just a week or two. How do they do it? we wondered. Then,

“I guess I’m one of those people,” I said. “I didn’t go back.”

I can see, too, that my students haven’t really gone back, either. Like me, they are where they were–but important things are not the same, and we’re not the same, either. They are not driven by the same things as those I knew before, and they expect different things from us. “Good morning, Ms. Ramstad,” one began an email to me this week. “I want to let you know that I won’t be in class on Friday because I am taking a mental health day.”

Good for you, I thought, and marveled a bit at how things have changed in the twelve years since I last had my own classroom. On Friday, my students gave presentations about aspects of their lives that have likely contributed to their biases, and they talked freely about all kinds of things that would once have been the stuff of secrets or privacy or shame: religious belief, gender identity, divorce, addiction, discrimination, incarceration, mental health.

As each shared pieces of themselves with the rest of us, part of groundwork we are laying to be able to talk productively about important and controversial topics, I felt myself softening and opening and feeling connection with fellow humans. By the end of my classes, I felt fuller, not depleted. I needed no recovery from the day’s work; instead, the day’s work gave me some recovery from the on-going dire news of the world.

Each day, they teach me more about how to be a teacher for them and how to live in the world that is emerging from and for us. In the presence of these complex, resilient, and open people who sit in front of me every other day, I have seen more and more clearly how arbitrary and unnecessary so many things in schools have been–like rigid plans and inflexible due dates. The last time I was a teacher, I spent so much energy managing due dates and absences and the rules around them. If your absence was excused you got an extension on a due date, and if it wasn’t you didn’t, and if the assignment was late you lost points on it, and if it was on time you didn’t. Tracking all of that was time-consuming and exhausting, and our practices rested an all kinds of assumptions about what students would do and should do.

I didn’t question it much, though; it was just how it was. I never liked it, but I felt I had to go along. It was what everyone did. We assumed that if we didn’t do such things, no one would ever turn anything in on time. It was what students expected, too. If we didn’t take off points for late work, students who turned their work in on time would complain that it wasn’t fair. They’d stayed up all night to get it done and they should be rewarded for that. (And others punished for not doing it.) If we didn’t hold students accountable for meeting deadlines, we said, they’d never learn the importance of doing it.

What a crock! What a waste. What needless labor and pain for all of us that didn’t need to be. We imposed it upon ourselves. We did it because that’s how it had always been done, and because it’s what had been done to us. It felt natural and right (even when it felt wrong), but it was all something we’d manufactured. It didn’t occur to them or us that, perhaps, the true unfairness was in expecting students to sacrifice their health or other important things for a grade.

Now, in the wake of Covid, doing something only because it’s the way we used to do it feels like a thing of the past. We are reminded frequently of all that our students have been through and of what they are still enduring, and many things seem up for reconsideration.

Now, I strive to ground all of my practices in authentic purpose and true care. When I could see that some students were submitting assignments in the middle of the night, I told them that I never want to see that they’ve turned an assignment in after 11:00 pm. I’d rather they sleep and turn it in late. It doesn’t mean I don’t have due dates. I do. Every time, many students meet them, and some don’t. When they don’t, though, our conversations are not about the points they’ll lose. They are instead about what barriers are keeping them from getting their work done and what strategies we might use to remove them. No one seems to care that someone who turned the assignment in late gets the same full credit as someone who turned it in on time. Maybe it’s because we’ve talked about how grades should reflect what we know and can do with regard to our learning standards (rather than our behaviors), or maybe it’s because they like knowing that, should they need it, they will be given some grace when they can’t meet a deadline. (Because things happen to all of us, eventually.)

To be honest, I don’t know why they’re responding differently. I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter.

It is so freeing to teach this way, to be this way. It feels so much more humane. There are some natural consequences when deadlines are missed (say, when progress report grades are due), but I am driven much less by plans and deadlines that I’ve created and much more by what all of us need. The grace I extend comes back to me; when I explained to my students that some assignments wouldn’t be reflected in the progress report grades because I hadn’t had time to grade them yet, no one grumbled. It’s just how we are now, it seems. We trust that the soup will get made eventually, and some nights we eat take-out pizza because that’s all we can manage if we want to be OK. We’ll all live.

As I rest from this week and begin turning toward the next one, I’m wondering what more I can let go of, in order to free my hands for other things to hold on to. This week, the more I let go of ideas about some days being for work and others for the things I want to do, the more work became a fulfilling thing I wanted to do, and the more peace I felt about whatever I could and couldn’t accomplish in any given day, either in my school life or my home life.

All of this pondering about plans sent me back to the Burns poem alluded to in the title of this post, and re-reading it I focused on things I never have before, such as its line about Man’s dominion breaking social union. I realized how much our pandemic has been like his farmer’s plow, and how much I’m coming to think, like the farmer, that in spite of the sudden and unwanted destruction we’ve lived through (those of us who are still alive), it might be better to be the mouse than him, who looks back at prospects drear and forward to fears. Even though I know it could be upturned at any moment, I’m much preferring the honest nest I’m building now than the one that gave me false security before.

Once we’d have thought this an ugly pumpkin, but now we admire it. There’s a metaphor there.

Fall Equinox

The week of the equinox I keep taking photos of my cut tomatoes, trying (and failing) to capture what they are before they’re gone. Their catacomb whorls of sweet seed and juice have ruined me for the market’s bland offerings, finally convincing me that tomatoes are, indeed, a fruit. 

In the morning dark of autumn’s first full day, I read Kooser poems* in bed. Under low lamplight I meet his parents and grandparents, and I think:  I know these people. I used to live in their world. I had a great-grandmother who wore boxy black shoes, and a father who smelled of Old Spice. I lived at their slow pace, in a place where a woman might throw rainbows from a basin of used dishwater. 

When I was a girl, I believed that one day I would understand how we all make our place in the world. When I was a young teacher, a young mother, I thought I did. I was wrong (but not entirely).

What should I wish for my children? The more I live, the less I am sure of. 

This week I gave my students an assignment to read the academic standards to which we will all be held accountable. “What is a ‘grade level band of text complexity’?” they asked, their tongues tripping over familiar stones arranged into an unfamiliar pattern. 

I laid the system of my classroom bare and invited them to choose how they will operate within it. “What does it mean to you, to do well in school?” I asked. They live in a viral world of devious licks and Likes, but also one in which a person might grow their own food. 

Later, after the sky lightens, I let the dog into the backyard and pick pears from our tree. Fruit fallen onto the sun-scorched grass is half-eaten, and I wonder what kind of animal we are feeding. When I wash my lunch dishes at the sink, warm water running over my hands, I think of a woman I once worked with who always washed her dishes with cold. “Hot water is too expensive,” she told me. I was in college, and it had never occurred to me that a person could wash with anything other than warm or that heat could cost too much. I remember her as happy, in love with her children.

What does it mean to live well? I type later, sitting in a chair at a table in front of a window, in the middle of a day in which I could choose to do anything, or nothing.  

The closer I get to the end, the more I find answers in memory, in poetry, in tomatoes.

*Delights and Shadows

****

It has been a beautiful week in my part of the world. We are definitely feeling the shorter days, which helps us to savor the evening light. A bit of rain has returned some green to the garden, and we’re happy to leave August’s dull, brittle dust in the rearview of this year.

We’re settling into our school year routines. I’m still finding my way to ones that will work for my new situation. It’s a matter of composing and adjusting my thoughts as much as my actions. I’m living in some space between working and retired (though let me tell you: I am definitely working), which isn’t what I mentally prepared for and is something for which I don’t really have models. So much of what determines our feelings is based on what we expect. Originally I had hoped to contain my work to the days I actually teach, but that’s a goal not yet within reach. I think I can get there. Maybe. I’m trying to let go of the ideas I once had and just experience the things that come at me each day, let myself be open to all the things that each might be.

This week had a bit more ease than the last, despite having our first instances of students being out on quarantine. One of my classes was missing nearly a quarter of its students the last time we met, and it changed the whole dynamic of the room. The week before, one of our partner high schools closed entirely for 10 days because they had four positive cases but were unable to determine close contacts due to a lack of sound protocols. Things are both normal and not-normal simultaneously. I’m working hard not to gaslight my students, to walk a line between acknowledging what we’re dealing with and getting on with the business of learning in spite of what’s changed and changing. (My colleagues and I have adopted “pivot” as our word of the year.) When I shared with some students that the other English teachers and I had made an agreement to strive for no homework, their relief was palpable. I’ve already fallen in love with my students, and I feel fiercely protective of them. I’ve been thinking hard about what is essential and what is not, which came out in the writing above.

I hope the first week of the new season brings good things to you, whatever that means for you. I would love to hear how things are in your part of the world.

Well, that was a fast week

Here it is, Sunday morning, and I’ve got…nuthin’. Or, not the usual kind of something.

It was the first week of school here, and I had to take Daisy to the vet, and I worked far more than my contracted hours. I’ve been so busy doing that I haven’t had much time for thinking (which, for me, means writing).

I’ve had moments of beginning to process this experience of going back to the classroom, but it’s something that feels huge and that I cannot begin to see clearly yet. I don’t think I can really describe what it was, but I will try a little.

It’s a cliche, but it wasn’t unlike riding a bike or skating after a long time of not biking or skating. I felt a little wobbly at first, but then I got my balance back and the wheels flew and it felt so right. Righter than anything has felt for years and years and years. It was hard and fun and exhausting. I have to think so hard when I am teaching–constantly taking in information and processing/assessing it and deciding what my next move needs to be, often in mere seconds. It works my body, too, in a way it hasn’t worked in so long; at one point, I realized sweat was running down my face inside my mask, and I was ravenous by the time I got to lunch. But at the same time, while I was in it, I wasn’t aware that I was thinking hard or that I was sweaty or hungry or thirsty. I was entirely present and engaged and energized and calm.

At the risk of sounding corny or over-wrought, I will say that it felt like my whole being was vibrating, maybe singing. I was very much in the state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as flow, one in which you become so involved in what you are doing that you can lose all sense of time and of yourself. Being able to experience flow states is, according to Csikszentmihalyi, essential to happiness. While I certainly had moments of flow in my earlier teaching experiences, I don’t remember it ever feeling quite like it did this past week.

I felt that flow state not only while teaching my classes, but also later in the day while creating lessons for the next time we’d meet. For me, teaching is a highly creative act of problem-solving, and my brain loves the play of figuring out how to effectively connect with other brains by creating sequences of experiences that will engage and support them in strengthening or building neural networks. What was wonderful this week–and what I’ve never before experienced as a classroom teacher–is that I had enough time to fully immerse in planning. I was able to think about and design for nuance in my instruction, those small details that can make understanding happen more quickly and easily. I was able to think deeply about sequence and resources and how to build supports.

Because I am teaching only two block classes (each 90 minutes long) every other day, I can teach at a higher pitch than I ever have before. Although I’m not aware of how hard my body is working while I’m immersed in it, I feel it afterward. I had time to recover between Wednesday and Friday. I am not having to pace myself the way I would if I had to teach 3 block classes (or 6 standard classes) every day, as most of my colleagues do.

Aside from issues of time, I think there are other factors making this feel like something I’ve never quite experienced before. In the article linked to above, there is a TED talk in which Csikszentmihalyi says a person needs about 10 years of training and learning for the kind of deep knowledge that we need to create at high levels. For the last 12 years, I have been immersed in learning about how to teach. I was able to receive in-depth training on instruction, assessment, several different pedagogies, and equity. I have been in countless classrooms, working with many different kinds of teachers, observing and thinking deeply about their practice. I knew I was a competent teacher before I left the classroom (after 19 years of teaching), but the depth of knowledge I had then is so shallow compared to what I know now. And it’s not just knowledge of techniques or pedagogies or frameworks; it’s also knowledge of people. In those 12 years, I had experiences with students in every grade from kindergarten through 12th; with teachers from those just starting to those about to retire; with support staff and administrators and instructional coaches in a variety of roles. I learned so much about what motivates people and opens them up and shuts them down and helps them grow. When I stood before my students this week, I saw them in ways I never could have before all of the experiences I had after leaving my earlier classrooms. I met them in ways I was never able to before.

Can you imagine what education might be, if every teacher had opportunities to learn deeply, plan completely, and adequately rest between classes?

I don’t know what I will be able to do with the understandings that are only just starting to develop. I’m seeing things about teaching, learning, creativity, struggle, work, and rest that I haven’t really understood before. But I’m grateful to be having them, even as they raise some difficult feelings. As I have experienced so much more joy in the past week at work than I had in all of last year, it’s been hard not to also feel anger and regret. Part of me is furious about how much suffering there is in our schools for both students and staff. In our world. We don’t have to do things the way we do them; our systems are a result of our priorities and our choices. If we truly valued our children the way we like to say we do, schools would look and function in radically different ways than they currently do.

At any rate, I hope to get back to the kind of writing I am more used to doing soon. But not today. Today I hope to stave off a headache that’s been toying with me for two days by getting off screens and heading to the garden. On Thursday, my day off, I had high hopes for spending time there, but our old Daisy refused her food (something I cannot ever remember her doing), and she could not be comforted, even when I held her. I called the vet, something that (if I’m being honest) I’ve avoided doing ever since we had to let Rocky go. Realistically, I know our options are quite limited at this stage.

She is still with us and doing better, but the vet and I had to have The Talk, and I know in a new way that our remaining time is short. A next visit will likely have a different outcome. All of our remaining time is short, if you think about it. I doubt any of us will feel, at the end of our lives, that we had quite enough. Off to savor some of mine, and I hope that you are able to do that today, too.

On blooming (and not)

On this Labor Day weekend, I feel so full from the past week I don’t even know how to start. It was my first in my new job at a new school, and I have so many thoughts/feelings about:

Work

Burnout

Community

Culture

Teaching

Trauma

Growth

(And that’s just about what’s going on in my personal world. What a dumpster-fire of a week it’s been in the world at large! Haven’t begun to process all of that yet.)

One day this week I was scrolling a social media channel and I saw a photo full of now-former colleagues. They were doing something fun together, and I felt this tight little feeling in my chest. Not because I missed them or wished I’d been included, but because I felt so relieved to be out of the place I’ve been and sad/weird about feeling relieved. They are not terrible people, and it is not a terrible place. But, now that I don’t have to work there any more, I can finally fully admit to myself how much it just wasn’t my place. Their community and its culture isn’t mine.

And that’s OK. It’s good to know.

I have spent the last 12 years trying desperately to fit into a place that simply wasn’t my place, and…oh my god what that did to me. There are people in that place I treasure, and going there was the right move when I made it. It gave me things I needed, and I did some good work there, and I learned so much. I’m deeply grateful for the learning and for the people who kept me afloat, but the lightness I feel now that I am in a place that fits, preparing to do work that fits, in conditions that feel manageable? I don’t have words to convey it.

After one week in my new/old place/community/culture, I feel more belonging than I did in 12 years in the one I just left–which has blown open truths I had never fully admitted to myself. I used to joke/not-joke to new hires in my former district that after ___ years, I still felt like a newbie. What that meant was: This is a tight community, and I still feel like an outsider. While I was known and had those I grew close to, I also always felt a wall with many people. Not a thick one, but an impenetrable one. Most (though not all) of those I grew close to were on my side of it. The wall was a thing we sometimes talked about. No one was ever unkind or disrespectful to me, but I rarely felt the kind of ease that comes with knowing you are fully accepted. That you will be given grace for your foibles and fumbles. That you will be understood. That you can be your full, real self and others will be theirs with you and you’ll still like and respect each other. While I had pockets of people with whom I did feel that kind of ease and knowing, I never had it in a general sense. In many situations, part of me was always on guard. (And, I’m sure, others never felt that kind of acceptance from me.)

It is exhausting to spend so much of your life in a stance of vigilance, especially when you are in denial about why.

I kept thinking the problem–that work took such a toll on me–was in what I was doing. I thought if only I did something different (held different boundaries, communicated in different ways, set different priorities, worked in different buildings, took a different position, etc. ad nauseum), I could make it better. I tried so many different ways to be OK there.

After years of failing to make things better, I began to think that the problem was within me: Maybe I was just too old and tired. Maybe I’d just been doing this work too long. Maybe my time had passed. Maybe I no longer had what it takes to be good at this. I never thought I was the best at what I do, but I always felt competent and that I had valuable contributions to make. I lost that confidence.

Eventually, I also lost interest in things I had once found compelling. I didn’t want to read or learn about new ideas or practices in education. I cared, but only in an abstract sort of way. I more fully understood my child who once said about school: “I want to want to do it, but I don’t.” I stopped keeping up, and then felt like I was falling behind and becoming more irrelevant by the day. It all made me so weary, and all I wanted to do was stay home and nest. I knew that I was suffering from burnout, and I knew systemic issues were at play, but it still felt like the root of the problem was something within me, and that it wouldn’t/couldn’t be better anywhere else–because I’d still be wherever I went.

Then came the pandemic.

While many things about the pandemic shutdown of schools was hard, I also felt a tremendous easing. It was such a relief to spend my days in a place I felt freer. The uncomfortable parts of my job that remained became easier to tolerate. I had fewer migraines and began sleeping better. Even in the midst of trauma (after trauma after trauma), I was healthier and…happier? (Yes, happier. Which brings to mind the time I looked forward to major surgery for the break that staying in the hospital would provide, but I’ll save that story for another time.) I even started to feel a little better about my ability to contribute, and better able to see which failings were mine (I am older and don’t have the physical stamina I once had) and which belonged to a broken system. I could no longer deny how toxic many things about my work situation had become for me, and when we returned to school buildings last spring the idea of returning to my job(s) in the fall became untenable.

Of course, likely the only reason I was able to come out of denial was that I had options; last January I became eligible for full retirement, and I’m no longer supporting my children financially. I’m sure the reason I didn’t allow myself to fully feel and see the truth of the situation earlier was that I needed it to be OK for me to be there. For a variety of reasons, changing districts to do library or instructional coaching work presented different sets of dilemmas that did not feel better than the ones I had. Returning to the demands of full-time English teaching (the only subject I can teach) would have been no more manageable than what I was doing, even in the best-fitting community, because of the unmanageable work load. But leaving the salary and benefits I earned was also not an option; I was supporting children as well as myself. I told myself what I had to in order to be OK-enough to stay.

What I am understanding this week is that there was likely nothing I could have done to make it better. It just wasn’t my right place or right work or right workload.

The most amazing thing to me (in this time full of amazement) is how different I feel to be doing something I’ve done for so long. This back to school season feels nothing like the 31 others I’ve lived. The return to school each year has always been a time marked by dread. While each year (except the last) always contained things I looked forward to and was excited about, there was also always sadness and resignation. It meant returning to imbalance and exhaustion and ethical compromise–all of which stemmed from simply never having enough time to do all that needed doing. Important parts of me that opened during the summer months shut down when I returned to school. This year, in spite of all that is unknown and likely to be challenging, I feel only light, happy, and open. I cannot remember a time in my life that I have felt as down-to-the-bone good as I do right now.

I feel that way because I’m returning to work that is a better fit for me. I feel that way because it is my choice to do this work; I didn’t feel trapped by economic need. I feel that way because I will have a manageable work load that gives me enough time to take care of my personal and family needs, as well as time for things I simply want to do. I feel this way because I get to do work that aligns with my values and that I know I can do well.

Think of what a difference it could make to our children if all their teachers felt light, happy, and open as they return to school! Think of what a difference it could make to our world if everybody felt light, happy, and open about their work, able to do the kind that is a good fit for them, in places where they feel safe and accepted and able to be the best version of themselves. These insights I’m gaining about community, belonging, competence, choice, and meaning will definitely inform my practices with students this year as I facilitate their work of learning, as well as choices I continue to make about where and how to work, live, and be.

This post is already too long for a deep-dive into a critique of work in a world driven by capitalism (that others are doing so much better than I could, anyway), but on this Labor Day weekend, I am full of ideas and wishes and longings for how work could be different for all of us, and what that could mean for our planet and societies. I am so grateful for new colleagues who feel like my people and who have welcomed me into their community. I can’t wait to work beside them and to learn from and with them. I wish they were not going to have to carry the kind of weight that I did for so many years, but I know that most of them will. I’m wishing that all of them and all of you and everyone I know could work in the way I now get to, so that we might all bloom where we’re planted–because blooming isn’t just a matter of your attitude or desire or effort. (Just ask my raspberries.) It’s about having the conditions you need to live, grow, and thrive.

“Bloom Where You’re Planted” by Ian Varley is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Some thoughts on revision

It is still summer here, but this week marks a turning; the mornings have been cool, and at the end of a warm day I needed a sweater for an after-dinner walk. The pears on the backyard tree are suddenly pendulous, and the lettuces I never got around to using have bolted. Every day I told myself that I must pick the cherry tomatoes that are beginning to rot on the vine, but I didn’t get to them until Saturday. My interest in the garden is waning as much as the season.

It was our last week before Cane and I return to school, and our focus has turned inward. We spent much of the week on painting a back room, and all the doors in our hallway. (There are 7! A ridiculous number for an 1,100 sq. ft. house, but ours is the clown car of houses; it also has 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a full laundry room.) We also finished working on our renovation of the front of the house–or, at least, finished working on it for this year.

When I look at the house’s listing photos from 2018 and then those I’ve taken today, I am struck by the power of vision and revision.

It is the same house, and it is not.

Our changes were driven by function: I wanted more light in the house. The first year I thinned and cut back the camellias. I wanted more light, but I also liked the privacy screen they provided, so I didn’t cut too much. I planted some things around the camellias to fill in the space that felt too empty after making them smaller.

During our first pandemic spring, as the weather warmed, we found ourselves sitting on the front steps at the end of the day with a cold beverage. We talked about how it would be nice if the porch were large enough to hold some chairs, as sitting on the hard steps with only a post at our backs for support wasn’t very comfortable. We found that we liked sitting there and seeing all the people who walk by, and listening to the boys one door down shoot baskets in the street. Having a privacy screen began to feel less important than having a greater connection to the world. We cut the camellias way back, and I used a good chunk of my stimulus check to buy even more plants to fill in the spaces below them. We began talking about extending the porch, but I wanted the camellias to stay.

That spring and summer, we walked all over our city. Walking was one of the few things we could do for entertainment outside the house. We’d drive to different neighborhoods and walk their streets, talking about the houses we’d see, analyzing what made them appealing (or not). I started taking photos of houses with features I thought I’d like to have in mine.

We noticed that we liked a low porch with ranch homes; they felt inviting. We liked thicker post beams and window boxes and wood doors.

I decided I’d rather have a low deck than the camellias. Near the end of the summer I got brave and told Cane I was ready to take them all the way out, something he’d been advocating for a while, but when we did I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Did I cut out too much? The front of the house felt empty, and maybe too exposed. And there still wasn’t as much light inside the house as I’d hoped there would be. I had wanted camellias in my yard for a long time–the presence of them had been a selling point when I was making the decision to buy the house–and I’d gone and destroyed them. There was no putting those mature trees back once they were gone. It wasn’t like cutting bangs, you know?
I had to live with it for awhile like that (a whole year, as it turned out) before feeling comfortable with it and knowing what to do next.

These thoughts of revision and revision processes have been much on my mind this week, as I start preparing to return to classroom teaching for the first time in twelve (12!!!) years.

To put things in some perspective: My students were four years old the last time I was a classroom teacher. They’ve never really known a world without smartphones. I left the classroom the same year I started a Facebook account. There was no Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, or Tiktok around the last time I was an English teacher. Obama had just begun the first year of his first term and many were celebrating our wonderful post-racial world. (Hah!)

Waking up with a headache one morning this week and wanting to keep my eyes away from screens, I wandered to my bookcase and pulled out William Stafford’s You Must Revise Your Life. It had been years since I’d looked at it. Stafford grew up in the midwest but is legend in my part of the world, and I earned my M.A.T. at the school he made his academic home (Lewis and Clark College). His ideas about teaching, writing, and learning were seminal in my development as both a writer and teacher, and seeing the passages I’d marked decades ago felt a little like time traveling:

At first I taught as those around me did–correcting papers, pushing students to ‘succeed.’ But gradually my ways changed. A teacher just retiring at San Jose State had told me that teaching composition got harder and harder. She was writing more on a student’s paper that the student had written. She was heroic. But I thought mistakenly so.

My classes became more like ballet than like workshops. What did a piece of writing mean?–not what did it say, but what did it portend, or hint, or reveal, about that surely valid human impulse that brought it about? My job was not to correct but to understand and participate. A student’s paper was a test for me, and I began not to put any evaluation remarks at all on a paper. My remarks were meant to show my accompaniment, sometimes my readiness to learn more.

(You Must Revise Your Life, ©1986, page 17-18 of the The University of Michigan Press’s 2006 edition)

When I began teaching, there was a paradigmatic war raging in English departments between traditionalists and those who believed in the kind of teaching Stafford espoused. I was wounded in more than one skirmish in my first years of teaching. From my (admittedly limited) vantage point, I’d say that the movement toward standards and accountability ushered in by 2001’s No Child Left Behind legislation gave the win to the traditionalists and killed Stafford’s kind of pedagogy.

When I read, “The student should not worry about standards. I won’t. And I will never try to make the student either complacent or panicked about external obligation. Never. That kind of measuring is not what art, what writing, is about,” I sighed (page 94). Equating writing with art ignores the writing that is done not to create art but to gain admittance through gates; that’s a kind of ignoring I once did but now can’t do. I’ve come to understand the privilege inherent in such a position, and the disservice I might do by not being explicit with students about what they need to be able to do to pass through barriers to schools, scholarships, and jobs. But I sighed also because in the schools I’ve known, writing has become a thing so broken down into its concrete, measurable parts that we’ve lost sight of the whole; we’ve turned process into something nearly void of space for discovery or wonder–something essential to all kinds of writing, even the gate-keeping kind. I might argue that the same has been true of how we view and work with students. There was a lot of talk of “the whole student” in my early years of teaching, but that’s not terminology I’ve heard for years. I suppose we are turning back to that now, with understanding borne of the pandemic and our recent emphasis on social and emotional learning, but our high school students have spent their entire eduction in a system driven by data, test scores, and the attainment of discrete skills and bites of knowledge. The reasons for this are myriad and complex and not really germane to my main point, which is that the students I will be meeting in a little more than a week are going to be different in important ways from those I once taught, as will the context in which I’ll be teaching.

And that’s OK. I am different, too. I need to revise my practice as I have been revising my life.

As I prepare to return to something I once thought I’d left forever, I’m thinking a lot about the project we’ve been engaged in of revising our house. I look at those earlier photos of our home and see what a closed, uninviting place it was. I think of my worries about being seen as I went about the business of living within its walls, and how I was afraid to lose the camellia’s screen. I think about how I was afraid to get rid of the camellia because it was a thing I had once wanted, even though it was keeping me from other things I now value more. I think about how I was initially uncomfortable with the openness I now treasure.

I have been wondering what, like the camellia, I may have to cut out of my ways of teaching–wrong and risky as it may feel to do so. I have been wondering how I can create a classroom with an open porch, with doors that are more window than wood. I have been thinking about how Stafford is not unlike a vintage home: Clearly of and for a different era, with both features that no longer work and those worthy of preservation.

As I think about all our students have been living through in recent years–our divided and divisive politics, our climate crisis, the pandemic–it seems to me that it’s time for the pendulum to begin its arc back to a way of teaching that is more holistic. More flexible, responsive, and humane. Near the end of the book, in an interview piece called “Facing Up to the Job,” Stafford talks about visiting high schools with limited and restrictive libraries and nothing on the walls but military recruitment posters. He says:

…I’m not trying to indict anyone, but I suddenly felt forlorn. I thought those who talk about accountability in schools think they’re talking about split infinitives or something–trivialities. I’m talking about lives, vision, hope, something plain like kindness and humility, and they’d throw their kids into a school that would teach them all about split infinitives and send them straight over to drop bombs on someone. Is that accountability?

“Facing Up to the Job,” page 86.

As I watch my city struggle with soaring hospitalizations, houselessness, and crime, I’m thinking hard about what accountability really means, and I appreciate Stafford for helping me to think about it. Seems to me the world could do with a whole lot more vision, hope, kindness and humility right now.

(From an after-dinner walk at dusk last night. We’re eating out only at places with outdoor dining again. It was pretty wonderful to sit at a picnic table outside a dive bar and eat some really good fried chicken as the sun made its descent on the day, the season. Will miss this kind of evening when the weather turns.)

Maybe you can go home again?

About 20 years ago, I saw a notice in a work newsletter that a committee was forming to create a new kind of school. The idea was for several local school districts to combine resources to create advanced tech-based programs of study that none could afford to offer on their own. Core academic skills would be embedded into the context of non-academic fields, tying learning in English and science to topics students would (presumably) be highly interested in.

Well, I got myself on that committee as fast as I could. I’d been teaching English Language Arts (ELA) for a bit more than a decade then, long enough to have learned that I was not cut out to be a traditional English teacher. I loved the idea of connecting my curriculum to current, meaningful topics for students. I eventually became a member of the school’s design team, and when our public charter school opened in 2003, another teacher and I were the English department. I soon found my true home and true people working in the IT, digital media, and engineering/manufacturing programs. Teaching there was fun, creative, challenging, and rewarding. Our students attended their home high schools half-time, and our school half-time. We were small, and students traveled through their day with us in program-area cohorts, taking all of their classes with the same people. It made for tight communities and close relationships. It felt almost like family. The first few years, I thought I’d never leave and would be there for the rest of my career.

Then life happened. I got divorced and the demands of single-parenting and full-time English teaching toppled a balance I’d barely been maintaining before the divorce. The Great Recession hit, and in order to absorb devastating budget cuts the school administration decided to separate English from program areas in order to make bigger English classes that combined cohorts. This would mean going back to teaching a more traditional English curriculum. The idea of going back to traditional teaching, with an increased workload, crushed me. I left the place I loved and had helped create to take a completely different kind of job (coaching teachers) and pursue a long-deferred dream to be a teacher-librarian. Painful as it was, I knew I was not going to live out my career in that place and retire from it.

And I didn’t.

This spring, I officially retired from my career in education, but as I’ve been telling people all summer it has never felt like retirement. “It feels more like I quit,” I’d say. I just couldn’t do what I’d been doing any more. Every article I’ve read about people leaving their jobs because of what the pandemic revealed to them about work and its impacts has resonated for me. I had no real sense of closure or ending; I felt more like a person escaping from a burning ship: I had to jump off to save myself. I felt enormously fortunate to have that choice, but it didn’t feel good, leaving like that. Ending like that. I didn’t like it, but the alternatives felt impossible. Until now.

An opportunity has come up to return to that school I helped create more than 20 years ago, and I’ve taken it. I’ll be teaching two English classes, every-other-day, in the mornings. With only two classes, I’m confident that I’ll be able to take care of prep and grading in the afternoons, leaving two or three other days of the week free for other things. Instead of serving 10 entire schools in two different roles that often had me feeling isolated, conflicted, disconnected, and ineffective, I’ll belong to one school, one community, providing direct service to students. Instead of performing a role that felt increasingly at odds with my values, I will get to do work that aligns with them.

All through the spring and summer I kept seeing different kinds of jobs that felt almost-right. I started to apply for some, but I never completed any applications. At one point I told myself that I wasn’t going to take any job for a year, so that I could fully detach from how I’d lived in order to allow space for wildly new directions to appear. And then this opportunity appeared, and it felt completely right, immediately. So much so that I felt a little wary about it, as I tend to be about things that seem too good to be true. I took three days to think/feel and had multiple, long conversations with some of my most trusted people before committing. And now I am all in.

It has all felt a little magical. I tend to be skeptical of most things, and I have looked askance at the current fascination with manifesting, but… It feels like that is what has happened. Right before the pandemic hit us, Kari wrote something about wanting to stop blaming others for her unhappiness and it struck something deep within me. I was so tired of being unhappy and so tired of feeling powerless in my unhappiness. I hate toxic positivity and any solutions to personal problems that don’t consider systemic causes of them, but I sat myself down and made a mental list of all the things that weren’t working for me and asked myself what I could do to change them, by myself. I quickly realized I would have to do two things: Be open to what I started calling “radical lifestyle change” and tell myself and those close to me the truth of what I wanted (and didn’t), despite fear of my truths and of others’ responses to them. Sometimes it was scary and it was never easy, but when I remember my life two years ago and then look at what it is today, it feels like a damn miracle. (But to be clear: It’s not. I could not be where I am without systemic structures and advantages that have allowed me to make the choices I have, primarily the one that is allowing me to both draw retirement income and return to work.)

You guys: At the core of my life is a healthy, loving, committed relationship. We are creating a home that feels just right for how we live and want to live. I have time to nurture my health and relationships. I have time for creative work outside my for-pay work and to learn how to live in more congruence with my values. And now I get to go back to school, doing the kind of teaching I’ve missed for more than a decade, in the place I loved more than any other I’ve worked. I know it won’t be the place I left, and it’s going to be hard (Covid alone assures that), probably in many ways, but I am so excited to finally be tackling what feels like the right kinds of hard in this very hard time. To be starting a new chapter. To revise the ending of my story.

I remember: Elementary school edition

I remember the radiator clanking on a winter day as rain slid down the panes of our second-story classroom windows.

I remember the teacher who kept a monkey in a cage in his classroom. He was never my teacher. 

I remember Mrs. Anderson, who was old and had a crippled foot, playing hopscotch with us at recess, dragging her foot behind her as she hopped.

I remember sitting in a small circle at the front of the room, reading about Dick and Jane and Sally, the most boring children I’d ever met.

I remember Mike, the boy who only drew cars. No matter what we were supposed to be doing, Mike drew cars. 

I remember wondering about Mike, marveling at Mike, envying Mike. He disappeared early in the fall, to go to “a different school.” (No, he hadn’t moved.) I didn’t want to disappear, so I knew I could never be like Mike. 

I remember the lunch cart rumbling down the hallway’s wavy wooden floors. I remember waiting for it to stop outside our classroom door, lining up to push our plastic plates along the cart’s metal counter, and hearing food thunk onto plates. 

I remember salty gravy laced with stringy chicken over a snowball of mashed potatoes, watery green beans dull and flat from a can, wiggly red jello squares, tiny cartons of lukewarm milk. I remember loving the salty gravy.

I remember loving Mrs. Anderson, and knocking on the door of her house one time with my friend Sandy, who lived down the street from her, and how she gave us each a cookie but wouldn’t let us come inside. 

I remember being moved to Mrs. Smallwood’s class in October, and being scared, and meeting Kimberlee and Ellen, and how small the playground looked from the second-floor classroom, and how wonderfully amazing our mail cubbies were, and how glad I was that the grownups had moved me, even though I didn’t really know why.

I remember that happiness was a warm puppy.

I remember coloring a picture of Snoopy while listening to a scratchy record singing about a land where children were free. 

I remember my body tensing when I had to walk to the board to do a math problem, my silent panic every time we raced to do 100 math problems in one minute.

I remember not caring about when the train would arrive. 

I remember the reading corner, with carpet and low shelves and pillows, and reading and laughing and talking there with Kimberlee and Ellen when we finished our work early.

I remember Laura and Mary, Henry and Beezus and Ramona, Freddy the Pig, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

I remember Mrs. Diefendorf telling Kimberlee and Ellen and I that we wouldn’t be friends when we were adults, and how we called her Mrs. Beefenbarf when she couldn’t hear us.

I remember using jump ropes as halters and being sometimes the horse, sometimes the rider, my hair flapping like a mane the recess I cantered through puddles again and again and again.

I remember sitting through the entire Christmas assembly with wet pants, soaked in Mrs. Smallwood’s disapproval. I remember getting very cold. 

I remember Miss G.’s eyes, narrow slits in a puffy face, and her mean mouth.

I remember Miss G. scolding me in front of the class for reading my own book on my lap under my desk during her read-aloud time.

I remember using stubby nubs of pencils because Miss G. hated them.

I remember sitting on the playground with friends and reading books during recess. I remember Margaret and Dinky Hocker and Alice and Harriet the Spy.

I remember racing the boys on field day, flat Keds slapping hard dirt. I remember winning.

I remember Mrs. Hoffman leaving the classroom and Butch and Mike standing on top of their desks and dancing and giving the finger to the ceiling. I remember laughing, and I remember the principal walking in. 

I remember hating the principal. 

I remember fearing what the principal would do to those boys as he pointed at them from the door and glared at all of us as though we were equally culpable. Maybe we were. Maybe he was, too. (He had a paddle and used it.)

I remember Mike saying he wanted a BJ and I didn’t know what that was and when my friend whispered “blow job” I still didn’t know what it was.

I remember my friend telling me what a blow job is.

I remember hating fifth grade. 

I remember my school closing, the one with two stories and tall windows and clanking radiators and the classroom with the monkey cage, and I remember walking two blocks further to what had been the junior high but was now our new elementary school. It had breezeways, not hallways with wood floors, and my 6th grade classroom was a long, chilly walk away from the library. It had new kids from another closed elementary school. We still ate lunch in our classrooms. Mine had cinderblock walls with only one window next to the door. (Maybe. Or maybe I just remember it that way.)

I remember new girls who wore lip gloss and kissed boys and said mean things about highwaters.

I remember missing the days we played horses at recess. 

I remember asking Allison what highwaters were, and her pointing to the hem of my corduroy pants. I remember wondering how she knew that and why I didn’t.

I remember the boys snapping our bra straps, and no one saying anything about it. I remember craving their attention and hating it. 

I remember asking my mother for a bra, not to support the buds emerging from my chest, but to flatten them.

I remember my mother re-making new pants because any that fit my torso were too short, but my hips weren’t wide enough to support any that were long enough to cover my ankles.

I remember the principal I hated calling me to his office to accuse me of things I didn’t do, to tell me I was nobody, to shame me. I remember feeling shame even though I was innocent.

I remember being guilty. I remember leading a pack of girls in making Donita cry in the bathroom. I remember hating Donita and not knowing why, and hating myself for making her cry, and hating the other girls for following me, and hating Donita even more for crying behind the locked door of a bathroom stall while we taunted her from the sinks.

I remember going to the library every Saturday and consuming books like they were candies. I remembering reading all weekend long to go numb, to pass time, to dream, to escape.

I remember my friend Toni developing full breasts when the rest of us wore training bras, and I remember the day Mr. Buer had us vote on whether or not he should throw Toni’s beautiful map in the garbage because she’d turned it in without her name on it, and my despair at things I couldn’t name as I watched it slide into the wastebasket while tears rolled down her cheeks.

I remember my dad, years later, telling me that it was so hard to watch me lose my confidence as I became a teen-ager and what happened, anyway? 

I subscribe to a weekly email from Creative Nonfiction, which means that I start my Sunday mornings with a usually fantastic read of a short literary essay. If I were going to commit myself to writing in any genre, it would likely be creative nonfiction, as it combines prose with elements of poetry. That’s always been my sweet spot as both a reader and writer.

Creative Nonfiction offers classes, and I recently saw one on writing the braided essay, a subgenre of creative non-fiction that is probably the closest to poetry. It was self-paced, online, and inexpensive. Interaction with others is completely voluntary and can be as little or as much as I’d like. Sold. (They aren’t paying me to promote this. Just sharing something I like.)

The class began this last week, and our first exercise was to do some “I remember” writing. This is something I used to have students do a lot in the early stages of writing because “I remember” freewriting is an easy way to generate material to work with. It’s a way of getting things out without thinking too much, making it more likely that happy accidents and surprises can happen. We had a mentor text (an excerpt from Joe Brainard’s I Remember, a “book length memoir in prose poem form” and now on my TBR list), and the writing above is what came of my exercise.

Although I tend to dance around the question of what I’m going to do if I’m not working as a full-time educator (I don’t want to feel tied down and I truly don’t know yet), I know I want to write more. I don’t have anything I’m burning to write, but I’m pretty sure that if I dedicate some regular time to it, things will start to happen. I suppose I don’t want to publicly declare writing as a Thing I Will Do because that can quickly feel fraught with expectations (from myself and others) and I don’t want them. At any rate, I knew this class would be just the right thing to kick-start me; I do better with a little structure and something to respond to. I think it will prove to be a good use of $30.00. (Enrollment is still open.)

But seriously

I missed my self-imposed Sunday posting deadline because we’ve been working non-stop to prep Cane’s house for sale, and then we took the weekend off to visit family five hours away. It was the first time to see any of them since Christmas 2019 (or earlier), and it was 10 hours of driving for about 5 wonderful hours of sitting together on a patio, eating and drinking and laughing and story-telling. And quizzing:

“So, what are you going to do now that you’re retired?”

“Do you think you’ll write now?”

“Are you looking for jobs?”

“How are you going to spend your time?”

I threw out non-comital answers I need to better hone: shrugs, “not sures,” “not burning to write anything,” “going to see how it goes.” I need to work on these responses because they don’t seem to stop these questions I’ve been fielding for weeks, which is what I’d like them to do. Finally, after the third or fourth time one cousin asked me some version of the “what are you going to do?” question, I tried a new response:

“I’m going to just be.”

Uncomfortable (for me) silence, that I rushed to fill with inanity. “I’m going to reach a higher spiritual plane,” I added, clearly self-mocking. (We are not a clan who says such things seriously.)

More silence. Finally, my cousin’s wife said, “No, but seriously: What are you going to do? You have to do something.”

And I felt something rise in me. Something hot and bothered and frustrated.

“Why?” I asked. “What if I don’t?” What I was thinking–and might have said some version of, but I’m not sure, because I was feeling all kinds of flustered–was: Do I have to do to have worth? Do I have to do for my life to have meaning? Do I have to do to be a good person?

To be clear: No one there was suggesting that I must do any particular thing to have worth. (Unconditional love and acceptance is the thing I appreciate most about my family.) My frustration was the culmination of weeks’ worth of such questions, as well as my own stuff around doing and achieving and worthiness. If anything, their questions were likely driven by how I have lived my whole life. Perhaps it was difficult for them to imagine me just being because it’s so antithetical to how I’ve always lived.

“You came out of the womb busy,” my mom once told me. “It was like you just had so many things to get done.”

Those of us around the patio were a collection of Boomers and Gen-Xers, with a handful of Zoomers running in and out of our scene. We have all been doing/working for most of our lives, since we were kids picking berries for pennies on the pound. One of my cousins is now raising her grandchildren; she’s been parenting non-stop for almost 50 years! While having a career. (Two of them, actually.)

Earlier in the conversation, there had been some castigation of our children’s generation, of some of their ideas and ways of being. Some of their questions and demands regarding work and life.

“They just don’t know what they don’t know,” someone said, and others concurred. I’ve said or thought this about others in various situations, and it can be true that not knowing what you don’t know is a significant problem. But it is not a problem reserved for the young.

“That’s probably true,” I said, “but is it possible that there are things we don’t know that we don’t know, that they do?”

Another silence.

All of us grew up in a family, in a social class, in an era when kids were supposed to do what they were told. (We often didn’t, but I never questioned that we should.) We were told that if we worked hard and acted right, life would fall into place. (And for all of us there that day, we mostly did and it mostly has.) We were working-class white kids growing up in a remote state where college tuition could be paid as we went, and housing and healthcare were affordable. I entered a profession that I knew would never make me wealthy, but would provide for my lifetime needs. When my children first began pushing back at some of my expectations and advice and world view, it frustrated and worried me. As I listened (to them and others), though, I came to understand that many things are not the same for our kids as it was for us. Our state is not the same. The world is not the same. As I have worked to see from others’ perspectives, I’ve been surprised by all that I didn’t know I didn’t know–by all I hadn’t considered or questioned. In the past five years I’ve wondered deeply about ideas I once took as universal givens or unchangeable truth. Like, for example, that our worth is tied to the value of our work. Or that education is the playing field leveler. Or that if we just work hard and act right, things will fall into place.

On the drive back home, we listened to Nice White Parents, a podcast series about all the ways in which white parents have undermined efforts to provide equal educational opportunities to black and brown children, sometimes with the best of intentions. As the series moved into the years that my career and parenting spanned, I felt such a weight in the pit of my stomach. I saw myself at various ages and stages in so many of those interviewed. I understood, in new ways, how unseeing I’ve sometimes been and how futile so many of my own efforts were and how toxic the system in which I worked has been not only to black and brown students, but to all of us who have lived within it. This was not new understanding; the series just added some layers to what I’ve already learned, reprising pain that comes from realizing how much you didn’t know that you didn’t know about things at the core of your life and identity.

What am I going to do now, knowing what I now do?

In my year-end reflection at work, I was asked to describe where I am in my equity journey, another question I found difficult to answer. The best I could come up with, finally, was this:

I’m at a rest stop, people-watching. I’m noticing who they are and how they seem. I’m still on the road, thinking about where I’ve been, planning where I want to go, building some reserves in order to keep moving.

This is where I am in general. This is what I am doing, am going to do. Action is not always our best option; if we find ourselves lost in the wilderness, the best thing we can do is stop. In recent years I have come to feel not only lost, but also exhausted. I am bone-weary from so many years of running hard uphill. Decades ago, a mentor counseled me that a career is a marathon, not a sprint. I was less than ten years in, and frustrated with colleagues who did not seem to want to grow and change at the pace I wanted all of us to.

“Some people are where you are,” he said, “charging forward. But others are in a place where they need to walk, or maybe even to step off the path and rest before they can get back to the run.” He paused.

“All of these places are OK,” he said. “I’ve learned to respect where people are.”

At the time, I wasn’t so sure, and I never really did learn how to pace myself. (Perhaps my circumstances didn’t allow it?) But, knowing what I know now, I agree with him: All of these places are OK, not only for our careers but for our lives as a whole, and as I’ve struggled to find easy, concise ways to explain where I am and what I’m doing that won’t bring pleasant social activities to a standstill, John Donne’s words have come to mind more than once:

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Seriously.

Whiplash

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the day I went home from school and never came back. Late in the day on March 12, 2020 our governor announced that schools would be closing on March 13. Most schools in my district had no students on the 13th (staff development/grading), so our students’ desks and lockers were filled with books and papers and soon-to-be rotting lunches.

I began the morning of the 13th with a staff meeting that I later described as “horrific.” I remember shock, tears, and anger as teachers worked to process what was happening. I served our alternative school last year (in one of my half-time positions), and ours was the only building that had students that day. I watched the adults around me pull themselves together to create calm for our students. Those in alternative programs have generally been failed by a variety of systems, and our staff was dedicated to preventing further school-based trauma for them.

The initial outpouring of love and appreciation for teachers at the beginning of the pandemic was both gratifying and disconcerting. It’s always nice to feel seen, but seriously: Have none of y’all been paying any attention over the past few decades?

Our “spring break” ended with a state-level directive to switch our schools to an entirely on-line experience. (Except for lunches. We still needed to feed the kids.) We had two weeks to put that in place. We limp-sprinted to the end of the school year, throwing together packets and scrambling to learn new tech tools and worrying about our students and their families while grappling with our own shock, disbelief, fear, and grief about what the pandemic–and what it was revealing–was doing to all of us.

By the summer, as arguments about what school would be in the fall started, we were no longer heroes. (Not really any surprise there.) We tried to make plans for a constantly-shifting landscape. Some teachers worked the whole summer (unpaid) to ready themselves. Others did not (to ready themselves in a different way). My administrators spent most of the summer planning for hybrid instruction, only to learn in August that we would be fully in distance-learning mode.

Two weeks before school was to begin, our alternative high school staff was informed via group email that our school was being closed, disbanding our small, close community. Our students were sent back to the large high school that hadn’t worked for them or to a new online school that was being put together as the email was being written. A few staff were assigned to the new virtual school. Most were scattered around the district. One was first assigned to a 5th grade class, then, a week into the school year, moved to the online school to teach high school.

Our “not-open” schools were closed the second week of school because so many were displaced by raging wildfires and our air quality was so toxic our homes were unhealthy to breathe in.

I was still an instructional coach, but I didn’t get a new school assignment until mid-October. I didn’t want for work; I supported teachers I’d worked with before, and there were days of training for a whole, new, comprehensive coaching program being launched, pandemic or no. In some ways the lack of assignment was a bit of a blessing, as my other half-time job (being the librarian for all of our schools, K-12) could have kept several full-time people busy. Prior to the pandemic, we had no ebooks in our collections and our teachers had made little use of the digital resources we had. There was a heavy lift to get things up and running in a system that was reeling. Our library staff had their hours cut, and one position that went vacant wasn’t filled, causing us to reconfigure how we provide services.

By the holidays, as some schools in the country remained closed while others opened, we teachers who resisted re-opening were turning into villains. The others (especially the ones who got sick or died) were turning into martyrs. The teachers I know were exhausted. I was exhausted.

Things sort of settled down–in terms of actual teaching and working–after break. Folks got a chance to catch their breath over the winter break, the first real time off many had taken since the previous one. Teachers were cresting the summit of the steep learning curve they’d climbed. They were figuring out how to do things well. We were calm enough to begin noticing benefits from distance learning and thinking about how they might be kept when we return to in-person instruction. My district publicly stated their commitment to providing quality instruction through distance learning, taking into account the needs of our disproportionately-impacted-by-Covid community, and I felt myself exhale just a bit. It was a relief to know what I could expect, and it allowed me to focus my work in a way I hadn’t been able to do since the previous March. I felt a commitment to distance learning that I hadn’t previously, as it’s hard to pour yourself into something new that could go away with little warning.

Then some districts in our state began pushing for in-person teaching, even though our Covid numbers were the worst they’d ever been and nothing had been done to mitigate problems with poor ventilation and air circulation in our aging and long-neglected buildings. Our governor changed metric requirements, prioritized educators over seniors for receiving the vaccine, and set Feb. 15 as the date she wanted schools to return to in-person instruction (but still left decisions about changing instructional models to districts).

If we were villains before winter break, I don’t know what we were by mid-February, when schools weren’t immediately resuming in-person instruction. According to some on many a school district Facebook page, we were lazy, selfish, uncaring, and getting paid to do nothing.

In the midst of the vaccine rollout, an ice storm took out power for hundreds of thousands, and our schools closed again. Some were outraged. “How hard is it for teachers to roll out of bed and stroll over to their computer?” I saw one person ask in response to a district announcement about closure. I worked for 4 of the 8 days I was displaced from my home, but I couldn’t fully work because my school-issued computer has a broken microphone that prevents me from using Zoom on it. (I’ve been using my personal desktop computer since we stopped working in our buildings last spring.)

I sat in a meeting last week where plans for LIPI (limited in-person instruction) were being talked about. We have been working to start LIPI, which would provide in-person instruction for our most vulnerable students, by the end of March. As I listened to the various components that had to be sorted–bus schedules, cohort and other mitigation requirements, teaching team configurations, union negotiations, staffing decisions, food services, communication with families–I understood in a new way the Rubik’s cube nature of solving the complicated problem of returning students to buildings. “I wish the public could know and understand how many moving parts there are to running a school in a pandemic,” I said to a colleague. “I wish people could understand that changing course is like turning a very large ship.”

Last Friday, I worked in our high school’s library. The library manager (the only person who works in the library, and who also manages all textbooks, and whose hours were cut this year) and I were sorting through all the books from the closed alternative school’s library and determining what to do with each of them. (Incorporate into the high school collection, send to the middle school, offer to teachers for classroom collections, discard.) Every single table in the library was covered with either stacks of books to process or packets of instructional materials for students to use in distance learning.

As we were ending our work for the day, the principal came in. In the course of our conversation she shared that the governor had just issued a new order requiring schools to open to in-person instruction by March 29 for K-5 and April 19 for 6-12. That’s two working weeks for our elementary schools to figure out how to pivot to something we’ve never done before while continuing the work we’re already doing, which is still very much in-progress.

In pre-pandemic times, we often shook our heads over being expected to fly the plane while we were building it. What’s going to happen now is more like flying the plane while we’re building it and simultaneously building a whole other plane that we will be transferring passengers to in mid-air, using punch-drunk pilots who’ve exceeded regulations on how many back-to-back shifts in a row they can work.

The point of this post is not to make or engage in arguments about distance learning vs. hybrid learning. The point is also not to defend educators or engender sympathy for us; sympathy does not help and so often is used to turn those we are sacrificing (health care workers, our military, low-paid essential workers, etc.) into heroes or saints or martyrs so that we can justify the things we do to them and ask them to do. I am not writing to invite debate or discussion about the relative merits of different options. There are no good ones, given the things we are unwilling and/or unable to do, and I cannot stomach any more discourse that repeats the talking points of disingenuous and self-serving leaders, or that assumes that how we are living is “just how it is,” or that contains “what about” arguments. I’m just done with all of that. I’m too tired and I have too much to do to spend any energy on debates that will change nothing and do nothing but make everyone involved in them angry.

A year ago, I wrote these words:

As I’m watching the world around me shift to accommodate the shape of something we’ve never experienced here, there is something that feels almost holy in this moment. I have been thinking for a long time that it would probably take some kind of disaster to turn us around on the path we’ve been hurtling down. That is the opportunity inherent in this unfolding disaster that will touch all of us in some way, if it hasn’t already.

My deep, fervent hope today is that this will propel us to remember how inter-connected we all are, to reach out to each other rather than erect walls between us, to uphold ideas and ideals that have always been the best part of us, and to act more from love than from fear.

I want to reach back in time and pat myself on the head and murmur, “Bless your heart.”

While a pandemic will, of course, always create hardship and change and pain, ours hasn’t had to play out the way that it has–and I just want us to, for once, be honest about that and about why that is. I want us to be honest about all the ways in which our schools were broken and not serving kids before the pandemic. I want us to be honest about what we are going to get–and not–from the choices we are making.

If this post has any real point, it is only this: To shine a light. To share experience. To mark a significant anniversary. To tell a truth. To be seen.

PS: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/05/health/virus-oregon-variant.html

What feeds us

“This book is for everyone who wants to learn to cook, or to become a better cook….

By cooking your way through these lessons, tasting and learning from your successes (and your mistakes), you will get to know some fundamental techniques by heart and you won’t have to look them up again. This will enable you to cook with ease and confidence, inspired by recipes–rather than being ruled by them–and free to enjoy the sheer pleasure of preparing and sharing simple food with your friends and family.

Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, p. 4-5

“You don’t need a thousand brownie recipes, you just need one great one. And if you dedicate yourself to mastering a short list of recipes, you can dramatically improve your cooking skills and your confidence….

Even if you only master 20 recipes in this book you will have earned the right to call yourself an accomplished cook.”

Editors at America’s Test Kitchen, 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials, p. 1

In my first year of teaching, I was assigned a course called Expository Writing. I was so excited to teach this class; a pedagogical revolution was underway, and I was ready to dive headfirst into teaching in a radically different way from the one in which I had been taught. Fresh from college and steeped in theories of writing workshops and teaching writing as a process, I spent hours designing a course in which students would find their own subjects, explore their own ideas, and develop their own ways to express their experience and their emerging understanding of the world. I would release them from the kind of stifling, arbitrary restrictions that had characterized my own secondary writing instruction (best exemplified by the formal 5-paragraph essay, in which I’d been drilled), as well as from instructional practices that were now well-known to be ineffective for developing authentic writers. I knew that if I gave them the right ingredients (time, good models, authentic strategies, permission to make mistakes, and encouragement to tell their truths), they could all be good writers, and they would all find they had important things to say.

I was surprised by the resistance I encountered. Not all prisoners, it seemed, wished to walk out of their cages. Many students found the things I tried to give them unsettling, unnecessary, inefficient, or just plain wrong.

“How many paragraphs does this need to be?”

“How many sentences do we need to have in each paragraph?”

“If there aren’t any points for the free-writing, why do I need to do it?”

“What should my three points be?”

“Why do we have to write all these words that aren’t even going to be in our essays?”

Despite their resistance–which I met with energy and optimism and strong resolve–I was eager to collect their first set of essays. After encountering three or four that began with, “Since the beginning of time…” I rifled through the stack and discovered that at least half began with the same phrase. “What the hell…” I muttered and took myself off to the department chair, who explained that those students were likely the ones who had taken Honors Sophomore English from Mr. C, who had formulas not just for whole essays, but for each paragraph within an essay. They had spent an entire year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay.

To make a long, painful story short, I discovered that there is no such thing as a peaceful revolution, and that a first-year teacher from out of state with idealistic, unfamiliar, and suspiciously liberal ideas was no match for a traditional, charismatic, experienced, and wildly popular one who simplified writing to a recipe that any student could master through compliant diligence. I knew some things about writing, but nothing about departmental politics, teachers, or the values differences at the root of a philosophical divide that has been a prominent feature of almost every English department I’ve encountered.

Three years later I was involuntarily transferred to a middle school.

Several years ago, after my kids left home, I decided that it was finally time that I learn how to cook. I’d never progressed much beyond the culinary skills I’d developed while in college (supported mostly by a Campbell’s Soup cookbook in which every recipe required a can of said soup) because first my husband did all the cooking and then I got through single-parenting with what I called “survival cooking,” which featured a great deal of jarred spaghetti sauce, pre-made pizza crusts, and hamburgers. To help myself learn, I bought two books: Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food and 100 Recipes from the editors of America’s Test Kitchen.

In my first attempts with both books, I developed a new empathy for my students who had clung to the 5-paragraph essay and resented my attempts to take it away from them. Alice told me that I didn’t need culinary training, special foods, or a lot of specialized knowledge to be a good cook. I just needed my five senses, quality food, and a few essential techniques. She told me that I would learn by trying and tasting. But, when I tried to roast vegetables the way she told me to, they came out both charred and too tough to pierce with a fork. My vinaigrette was oily, flavorless, and so much more hassle than the bottled dressing in my refrigerator. I appreciated her vision of cooking as a “delicious revolution” that “can connect our families and communities with the most basic human values, provide the deepest delight for our senses, and assure our well-being for a lifetime,” but I was working full-time and couldn’t get to farmers’ markets for fresh ingredients every day or make every part of my meal from scratch or muddle through a series of failed dishes for the sake of learning. I was hungry and needed to eat. Like, now.

Like my students, I wanted recipes that worked, and I had more success with 100 Recipes. Everything I tried from that book turned out really well. True, most things took a significant amount of time and dirtied a lot of bowls and cookware, making the recipes impractical for everyday cooking, but I knew I’d end up with food that tasted good. Although I didn’t really agree with it, there was strong appeal in the editors’ assertion that if I could master 20 recipes, I could consider myself “an accomplished cook.”

Over time, I settled into strategies that worked reasonably well for my life with the resources I had. Sometimes I’d make a 100 Recipes dish on weekends that would generate leftovers to get me through a few days of the week. I looked for other recipes that weren’t as laborious for weekdays and developed a decent collection of them in my Pinterest account. I started making weekly meal plans and shopping each week for the ingredients called for in the recipes I would be using. I mastered a few basic techniques (still can’t figure out roasting vegetables, but steaming them is easy), and was glad to be eating better, healthier food than I ever had in my life.

After awhile, I rarely took Alice down from my shelf of cookbooks, and I began telling myself a new story about my students so that I could tell myself a new one about food and cooking. Maybe when it came to cooking, I began thinking, I was not unlike my former students who didn’t want to experience writing the way I had wanted them to. Maybe they felt about literary writers the way I felt about those I thought of as pretentious foodies. Maybe they were no more interested in creating with words than I was in doing so with food, and maybe that was OK. Maybe they felt incapable of doing anything with words that might both feed their soul and meet demands from teachers, bosses, or other bureaucratic powers. Maybe they were. We all have different passions, needs, and resources with which to meet them. Wasn’t I getting through life pretty well with good recipes and enough skill to execute them–and can’t many people get through life with a similar level of writing competence?

Then, the pandemic hit.

Things I’d been able to rely on finding in the grocery store weren’t always there, and we were advised to make as few trips out as possible. We were advised to stock up on staples, just in case. (Of what? Who knew? Not me.)

For the first time ever, I wondered what I would do if I couldn’t get the things I’d always counted on being able to get and didn’t know what to do with what was available. What would I do if I didn’t have all the ingredients my recipes needed? How do you plan for and buy a month’s worth of meals when produce is only good for about a week? How do you make bread? What if we couldn’t get vegetables? What does one do with dried beans, anyway? How do you preserve food when you can’t buy a chest freezer (because they’ve become scarce as toilet paper) and don’t know the first thing about canning because you’ve always been afraid you’d blow up the kitchen if you tried it?

I’d like to tell you that in the intervening months, I’ve figured out the answers to all those questions. I haven’t. I’ve muddled through, doing large discount grocery store runs once a month or so, supplemented with more frequent trips to a small, local produce market. I’ve baked some loaves of basic bread and pizza dough, but I’ve never figured out what to do with the dried lentils that I bought last March because I read somewhere that a well-stocked pantry should have them. I’ve wasted far too much food because it went bad before I figured out how to use it. I’m functional with a good recipe, but I don’t have a deep enough understanding of why recipes work (or don’t) to improvise well or make pleasing food without them. I’m too often missing one or two ingredients I need to make a good dinner.

Over the winter holiday break, when the quiet, easy days allow so many things to seem possible, I revisited Alice Waters. In her introduction, she shares 9 principles of good cooking, which seem to me not that different in function from Christianity’s Ten Commandments or Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path or AA’s 12 Steps:

  • Eat locally and sustainably.
  • Eat seasonally.
  • Shop at farmers’ markets.
  • Plant a garden.
  • Conserve, compost, and recycle.
  • Cook simply, engaging all your senses.
  • Cook together.
  • Eat together.
  • Remember food is precious.

Is it a stretch to connect food principles to spiritual ones? I don’t think so. Food is the most basic of our needs, and how we meet that need impacts nearly every facet of life in our families and communities–how we work, manage resources, and interact with each other. In Waters’s list, I see a path to a higher version of myself, one I might strive for, even as I know that, at times, I am sure to fall short.

Because, I am surely going to fall short. Re-reading her food principles, I felt resistance rising almost immediately. What a lot of privilege is assumed in this list! Shop at farmers’ markets? What about people living in a food desert without transportation? Plant a garden? What about people living in apartments, with no land to call their own? Then I remembered a children’s book I love–Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, about the former basketball player turned urban farmer –and I get more personal and local (me, and the life I’m able to live) to identify the real source of my resistance: Every one of her principles, if I were to live by them fully, would require new learning, habits, and ways of being. Can I do that? Do I need to do that? What would I have to give up to do that? How do I do that?

I don’t know. These kinds of things–the things I know I need for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being–always feel within reach when I am on a break from work, but just two days back and I am again in the throes of migraine and broken sleep. Dinner Tuesday night is yogurt and a bag of microwave popcorn. And then all hell breaks loose in the capitol.

Over the years I taught, my stance toward the 5-paragraph essay shifted as I tried to figure out how to be a better teacher for my students. Some years, I even tried teaching it the way my colleagues across the philosophical aisle did. The last few years, I landed on a compromise that seemed to work for all of us: I taught my high school students that it is a tool that can be useful for standardized tests and a scaffold that can help them understand basic principles of expository structure, but it is not an end in itself. I dubbed formulaic prose bloated with abstractions and cliches “McWriting,” a characterization palatable even to those who prized it. We talked about how all of us, sometimes, love a fast food burger, even though we know it’s nutritional crap. How sometimes, we just need to kill our hunger and we don’t have a lot of time, energy, or money to cook a beautiful meal.

“Hah, Ramstad!” a student crowed one day, waving a paper in front of me. It was an assignment written for a different teacher. “Total McWriting and I got an A!”

“Well,” I said, “at least you know what it is. I guess I’m glad you know when and how to use it.”

He grinned.

“And when not to,” I added, a statement more of hope than fact. He shook his head at me and went to his seat.

I knew that he didn’t see himself as the kind of writer I hoped he might become, but I never lost belief that he could. I never lost belief that he should. While in the classroom, I never gave up on my students as writers the way I gave up on myself as a cook. I never lost my belief that they needed to be able to tell their stories from scratch. When I told my students that everyone has the capacity to be a good writer, I believed it. When I told my students that stories–the reading and writing of them–have the power to save lives, I meant that, too. The stories we listen to and tell ourselves have everything to do with why and how the world is what it is. These are things I still believe, to my core, which leaves me, at the end of a week in which those who lack the ability to tell true stories from false have wreaked formerly unimaginable havoc, in a place of wondering.

How did I get to a place where I could stand in my kitchen and tell myself a story in which it didn’t matter if my students couldn’t tell their own or understand enough about others’ to see into and through them? Was I wrong to search for some middle ground; did my acceptance of McWriting for some situations undermine every other message I gave about the value of telling stories true? What skills do we all need to sustain life in situations for which there are no formulas guaranteed to save us? What kind of stories do we need to live and tell to get to a better place?