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.

9 thoughts on “Best laid plans

  1. Kate says:

    Rita, your superpower was on display this week as I cried reading your post – in the best possible way. “I’m wondering what more I can let go of, in order to free my hands for other things to hold on to.” in particular resonated deeply.

    It made me think of a meme that a friend sent me AGES ago – it was a picture of women in what I assume was the 1950’s on a rollercoaster. There were two women in the front who had faces of such joy, and two a few rows back who looked like they had bitten into lemons. Underneath it said something of you get to decide how you react. And while it’s an oversimplification – it’s also somewhat true. Rolling with it, extending grace, being kind and honest – it seems like such a better way to go through what is and I have no doubt will continue to be a bumpy time in history. I hope we can continue to let go of things that really aren’t serving us (and I have such hope when I see a generation of kids who just get this.)

    • Rita says:

      I have to tell you, being around Gen Z gives me a lot of hope, too. Sometimes I can get hung up on all the things I had that they don’t (particularly around economic and climate issues), but then I think about all the things they have that we didn’t–their awareness and acceptance of difference, their ability to reality-check what adults are feeding them, their tools for finding others who are like them. I have great hope that they will make better choices than my generation has, because they know so much more.

      Also, living has become so much better since I’ve learned more about how to roll with things. (Thanks, pandemic. I guess.)

  2. TD says:

    I enjoyed reading about your week. Although frustrating at times (as I find life always has been), the power of the universe had other plans for you (as I find life always has been), Rita.

    I don’t know the exact quote from Forest Gump which often comes back to me that life is a box of chocolates that one never really knows what one will get. I ordered grocery delivery yesterday which requested 3 Symphony Milk Chocolate with almond bars. I got only 1 and 1 Hershey Chocolate bar.

    I especially enjoyed that you reminded yourself that some of those things the universe gave you were actually what you requested wanting more of.

    Letting go is an ongoing process for me. I sometimes think that I healed an area of something and then for some unknown reason the universe gives it right back to me to process from a different perspective.

    I find it interesting that people do impact and influence one another no matter what age, gender or generation.

    You sound well!

    • Rita says:

      Hi TD,
      Your experience with grocery delivery is why I don’t use grocery delivery! Maybe I should try it again and adjust my expectations. I would be so disappointed to get fewer chocolate bars than I’d hoped for.

      As for the universe and its lessons, I think your experience is a universal one. A good friend once described it to me as moving up a spiral. You keep coming around to the same view, but each time you’re a little higher up and can see more of it, or see it from a different angle. I really liked that. Now, when I’m in the middle of some learning, I often wonder what I’m not seeing now that I will see at some later time.

      You sound well, too, and I hope you are!

      • TD says:

        I like the idea of moving up a spiral too. That’s a good thought.

        I am going to use that vision of a white spiral staircase with me walking up as a child or whatever age or issue I’m creating healing in my visual meditations sessions.

        As far as the chocolate I still have one and a half left. Getting two instead of three wasn’t disappointing, but it was a bit of a surprise. I had check marked that it’s okay to substitute. Which is how I found Dave’s Killer thin good seed bread. It’s now my preference over Pepperidge Farm’s breads.

        Grocery shopping is something that I really never like to do. Years ago I hired my pet sitter to grocery shop for me when she was doing her own grocery shopping for her and her husband. So I must say that grocery delivery service is the best thing that came with this pandemic.

        Our grocery stores are truly experiencing shortages of being able to get supplies for our community. I’ve seen it on the news in other areas. It’s very concerning for me. I’m wondering if Portland stores are too?

        I’m feeling much better. Changing to fewer meds, rearranging all the furniture and detail cleaning for the season and of course being able to walk Yorkie now that we have cooler weather was very good for my wellness. Thanks for noticing! I’m glad you are feeling well these days too!!

        • Rita says:

          So glad you are feeling better! And your comment reminds me of why I like to shop in the store myself–I like seeing all of what’s available. Dave’s is one of my favorite breads, too. Really the only “healthy” kind I’ve ever liked. (Sometimes I feel I have the palate of a toddler.) I’m about to head there shortly. I haven’t noticed shortages yet, but if we keep talking about them I’m sure they’ll materialize from folks hoarding. 🙁

  3. Ally Bean says:

    Plans change, often. One of the principles of my life. You wrote: “doing something only because it’s the way we used to do it feels like a thing of the past.” I cheered when I read that. I agree, and am pleased that’s a lesson, a good one, that I’ve gleaned from my Covid pandemic experiences. Letting go when possible, mindful of the consequences of not letting go.

    • Rita says:

      It might be that I’m hoping that if enough of us say it, that will be a thing of the past. A lot of folks I know are caught in situations where others are trying to shove the new world into the mold of the old, and it’s breaking them. Feeling so fortunate to be where I am.

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