I took a day.

It takes me a day to process some things. Usually, they end up with pretty simple solutions and me a little irritated at myself for being overly dramatic. I come by it honestly. I was a super-sensitive kid with undiagnosed dyslexia and The Fear. The Fear must be capitalized because that’s how I referred to it until my early thirties when I realized it was a combination of depression and anxiety. Thank God for doctors who are willing to listen and prescribe medication. Anyway, all those years dealing with The Fear altered how I deal with life even now that I’m properly medicated. We can’t always change our initial reactions, but we can learn to manage them. And I do try to manage my issues.

Bad days or emotionally draining ones can be really hard. Sometimes all my friends are too busy to listen or to hold my hand or to let me vent; I get it, they have lives, families, and obligations. Last night, though, one of my best friends invited me over for dinner (I skipped my Monday night class, because I knew I would bring nothing positive until I dealt with my frustrations and properly identified myself as the largest part of the problem). I am blessed to have some friends who will listen if that’s what I need or help if that’s what I need. They’ve known me for long enough that they get how I process things. I’ve been friends with them long enough to return those favors.

I read a book a few years ago that offhandedly mentioned that friendship as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon. The ancient world had patronage and our world has it too. The very wealthy can sometimes only trust the people they pay and it must be sticky at times to be a good friend to the person who writes your paycheck, but what an honor too to be one of the trusted few with whom someone can just be themselves. Trust is vital to friendships, however it’s secured. Some friendships do start out as patronage; others start out as exchanges of favors or secrets. While we have to trust people to develop friendships, we should also trust ourselves about who to avoid and who to embrace.

I’ve learned the importance of trusting my intuition a few times. It’s made a little more difficult by the habits in thinking and behavior that stem from The Fear, but I can’t let The Fear always be an excuse. As an actual grown-up, I alone am responsible for how I handle things and that means I screw up. It also means I have a lot of learning opportunities. I known that I’ll fail at things. I know that I’ll drop some balls. I known that I still have a lifetime’s worth of apologies ahead of me. I also know that I can find a way to do better, to be better; a willingness to fail paired with the sense of personal responsibility are so hugely important to the art of adulting.

And sometimes, we just need to take a day or a week or a month to sort through our emotions and their causes.

Two Flutes

They bring a second flute

For me and my books;

It’s easy to ignore

All those looks

At a woman of a certain age

Drinking pink champagne

In the middle of a Saturday.
I sent out a call to a few

Of my social circle

Busy with husbands, kids,

Or other things—

So I’ll happily while

Away the time alone

Again today.

Dig Deeper

I want my students to really think about the information that comes at them from literature and from the Internet. They need to be smart consumers of information, they need to learn to ask all sorts of questions in order to get the most out of the lives they live. With the ever-increasing cost of college, fewer and fewer student are going to go beyond community colleges or trade-specific programs of study. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a thirst for knowledge. We all have to look deeper in a world of blurbs and minute-long news items. We need to look beyond the satire and into the reality of the world we live in.

I start the school year with a few of the classics and move into the world we live in as the months pass.
I love teaching Beowulf who is far smarter than he is often given credit for. He has heard rumors of Grendel and knows that swords don’t seem to work. While often called out for his hubris at choosing hand-to-hand combat with Grendel, it’s also an indication that Beowulf has a strategic mind. He schools Unferth the first night and establishes his bona fides as a warrior and war leader; mere days later he shows how well he understands Unferth by accepting his apology and exchanging swords.

At this point in the story, Beowulf and Unferth are close to their kings and represent a type of threat to those kings. Unferth is Hrothgar’s Left Hand; he does the uncomfortable things that need doing which is why he gets away with killing off his brothers. Beowulf spends half his time traveling and saving other people’s kingdoms. He is easily accepted for the help he offers and it allows him to function as a spy and an unofficial diplomat. The world of Beowulf is a world where favors are exchanged across generations and the ties that truly bind are personal relationships. Purely political moves (like all those marriages) rarely end well for anyone involved as is shown several times through the ballads and epics used as entertainment.

We see proof positive how intelligent Beowulf is when he returns home and discusses Hrogthgar’s Court with his King and Queen. Beowulf has insights into the way the Court works, who holds which position, and why a planned marriage is doomed to fail. Much of what Beowulf does to keep his kingdom safe is create or strengthen the relationships his father and grandfather built around the region. Hrothgar had helped Beowulf’s father so Beowulf helps Hrothgar. One day Hrothgar’s sons may end up in the Court of the Geats.

Reading and discussing this epic with my seniors is all about looking below the surface. What else is going on in the story? Why is someone who is clearly “not good” allowed such a close place to his King? Is Beowulf really just an adrenaline junky or is there more to his visits? How important is it to understand the chaos of the region during the time Beowulf and his kin were active? These are the big questions that get circled around for most of the stories we read in English 4.

Job, like Beowulf or Odysseus, epitomizes the best of his civilization. And Job’s story is one that isn’t taught often because it contains such deep theological discussions that cause many teachers or administrators worry about separation of church and state. Job isn’t about why bad things happen, it’s about how we deal with the bad and the good. I abridged the version I use, cut out the in depth discussions of theology and went for the core of the story. Why is Satan allowed in God’s presence so easily? Why does God offer Job up to Satan’s game? Why are Job’s friends trying so hard to convince him to give up? How do these questions fit into our own lives?

In our own time we have thousands of films or television shows that are supposed to be documentaries or versions of the truth. I have my students watch several documentaries for the purpose of looking at how information is being shared, avoided, manipulated, and to what purpose. Some of my best classroom discussions are in the spring when students start making connections between the things we’ve researched, the things we’ve read, and what they have witnessed on a screen. We pull relevant news articles in and discuss the reliability of the source and of the information. We figure out what matters about each film. We discuss things embracing the politics of today in order to help them identify the cornerstones of their morality and ethical structure.

I’m lucky to teach high school students. I’m lucky that I get to help them become thinkers. I love it when their communication skills improve and they can see it happening. I love watching them come together from different backgrounds and learn new things about each other. That’s the real benefit of college—figuring out that we all have problems and we all have solutions (some are better than others). Sure, the knowledge gained from academic-minded professors is important, but the interaction, the expansion of how we think, the expansion of what we think about, the tons of information that are added to our personal frames of reference are what will help us adapt to the way life constantly changes.

I want my students to be critical consumers of information. I want my students to be critical thinkers. I want my students to be effective communicators. I want my students to be flexible and willing to change as new information becomes available and as life happens to them.

I want my students to show up on time and honor their commitments. I want my students to know when to stand up for themselves and when to back down. I want my students to do work they are proud of even if it’s not what they saw for their futures. I want my students to grow and learn and be people who can grow and learn and be.

Gatsby’s Light

Most readers are taught that the light at the end of Daisy’s dock is hugely important to understanding The Great Gatsby. Their teachers wax poetic about the symbolism and meaning behind the light referencing Gatsby’s comments in chapter 5 and Nick’s comments at the end of the book. I tend to think that the light, like the parties, is just an illusion. They are there to distract us as readers and to distract the characters within the story. The parties are the perfect place to do business, to not notice smugglers at the water’s edge, for illicit meetings between people who shouldn’t normally be seen together. Fitzgerald spends three paragraphs naming all the people and types of people who come to the parties. And, yes, the parties are obviously for Daisy, everything Gatsby does in an increasingly shady manner is to be worthy of her financially.

Like Myrtle, Gatsby doesn’t understand the agreement between Tom and Daisy, none of us do. However they appear at different moments, they are ultimately loyal to each other. Faithfulness in a marriage isn’t always about sex. As we can see with many political or celebrity marriages, the ones that stay are the ones that often surprise us; who knows what agreements are constantly renegotiated by the wealthy? For a long time marriages were arranged at the highest end of the socio-economic ladder and at the lowest end; in both situations they were for business, money, and contacts.

We fool ourselves today by believing marriage is about love. Love as a feeling is an illusion. Love in action is real. We love our friends and are loyal to our patrons. We love ourselves (sometimes). And some people love the idea of love, the twitterpation that comes from a new crush, the sexual attraction that feels like a magnetic pull. Many people get married for that feeling thinking it will always be around. Other people are serial monogamists because they want the feeling and understand that it is fleeting. This is the essence of why Daisy Buchanan would never have worked with Jay Gatsby. She is too pragmatic and he is too much the starry-eyed romantic.

Every glimpse we get in the novel of the Buchanan’s relationship makes it seem toxic. We are supposed to be rooting for Jay Gatsby to get the girl. Jay Gatsby, who determined his whole persona at the age of seventeen, is still stuck in that mentality. It’s the same pattern of thinking that has men today shoving their “niceness” at women and then their misogyny at those same women for “friend zoning” or otherwise rejecting their romantic overtures. I find it hard to see Jay Gatsby in a positive light with my modern perceptions about how people treat each other. I feel for his character, trapped in that teenage mindset of what’s cool and what’s real, but I don’t root for him to get Daisy. There are hints throughout the book that she will destroy him. In the end Tom will never leave Daisy and Daisy will never leave Tom because they are far too conventional to consider divorce. Part of their social standing stems from the drama and rumor they evoke. They are entertainment for many of their peers and they take as much enjoyment from the pain or drama their peers inflict on each other.

Love is an illusion as presented in The Great Gatsby. The parties Gatsby throws are clever misdirection and brand building. The light at the end of the dock is unreachable. However, loyalty and friendship carry the book. We can’t ever fully believe first-person narrators, but we can tell how they really feel about the subjects of their stories. We can see Nick’s real respect and love for James Gatz.

Robert’s Rules of Order

One little word:

A shift,

A change—

It stays the same.

Passionate verbiage

To an ambivalent crowd;

“They’re stealing our jobs”

Runs around the room

(As if the extra papers

Are any type of boon)
One little word:

A shift, a change—

Amend it or don’t;

It stays the same.

Big city teachers,

Waving their time;

“Don’t they teach?”

Is whispered along the sides.

As if their passion

Had outlived its time.
All in favor?

All opposed?

My voice silent.

My words lost.

My passion elsewhere. 

But I keep showing up,

Year after year,

To watch people change

One little word.

It just stays the same.

Another Ramble

Today it was incredibly hard to focus on the things that needed doing. It hasn’t been hugely different from any other day this year. Three of my classes are mid-novel, two classes are writing essays, one class is reading short stories, and I am grading all those papers that came in at the same time (from every class). Today I couldn’t focus on the grading I would normally do on my prep period. I couldn’t focus on reading ahead. And, my writing has been spare and not what it could be.

Sometimes I tell kids the only way through writer’s block is to write, other times I tell them to set it aside for a day and see if anything has changed. I’ve tried both approaches since Sunday (I know, not even four full days) and now I’m in the “fuck it, at least I’m writing something” stage that usually precedes some epically poor writing on my part. However, I committed to write every day. It’s not always (even usually) something I’ll choose to post on my blog. The blog is important, honoring the money I pay for the address, honoring the part of me that loves writing—that’s what I need right now to move forward. I’ve been stuck in the same place mentally for too long.

A couple of years ago I started tagging my stuff as screaming into the void because that’s what writing felt like. I was throwing words into blank books, or the occasional tumblr post, into poems and musings, but nothing went anywhere. No one read my words and the fiction I’ve always wanted to write turned out to be pretty awful. I know that not many people read what I write and that’s fine. It just feels like I’m throwing things into an infinitely deep hole and there’s no way for me to known if there’s a bottom. For a long time I let that stop me. I was afraid of being noticed and of being ignored. I was afraid that people I know would be able to read between the lines (I’ve written around the thing most important to me for most of my life). So, I had to get honest with my words. I don’t have to tell anyone my secrets, small as they are.

I’ve always been a fan of the idea that we have to change as we get older, as new information comes at us, as life happens to us. I don’t think anyone should stay the same in their views or espoused beliefs just for “integrity.” We call politicians flip-floppers or wishy-washy if they change their views which is total bullshit. I’d much rather vote for someone who answered a question (instead of talking around it) and changed their mind as new information became available than vote for someone who just wants to keep their job. The ability to fail, to admit to doing something wrong, to change is being squeezed out of people as our society continues its slow turn toward monied classism. I will apologize to a student if I’ve done something wrong. If I misspeak, I will make every effort to correct the false information I spread.

That said, I still test my students’ ability to tell fact from fiction. I don’t want them to take information at face value, even from their teachers. In our current situation information is readily available and not always (usually) reliable. The focus on test results has swamped the importance of critical thinking, but that’s an argument for another session.

If writing is thinking, then this was another ramble.

Reasons Not To Sleep

The first thing new people need to know about me is that I adore naps. I like naps as a kid, because it was my alone time with books. Often my father would come home to find my little brother napping with my mom and me in a crib or room happily looking through my books. The great irony of my deep love of stories is that I am mildly dyslexic. I learned how to read thanks to a woman named Rosie Brown who spent over two hours a day working one-on-one with me in a small church school for the second half of my first grade year. All I really remember about the first half of first grade is feeling made fun of and crying every day. I really needed that hour at home when I “napped” (sometimes I still looked at books, sometimes I cried into my pillow, and occasionally I slept). It’s safe to say that napping is a long-time coping mechanism of mine.

I’m a little like Niggle [of Leaf by Niggle by JRR Tolkien]; he painted instead of preparing for his “journey” and I nap instead of doing most things. I understand this is one of the things that makes me bad at adulting. So, I need to remind myself to stay awake and do something—

  • deep clean the floors in my house
  • get rid of the boxes on my dining room table
  • get rid of the huge television that doesn’t work
  • wash, dry, fold, and put away all my linens
  • get rid of the clothes that don’t fit
  • get rid of the clothes I don’t wear
  • clean out my garage
  • set up the metal shelves in my garage
  • reorganize my books
  • reorganize my office
  • paint more
  • read all the books I haven’t read over the last two years
  • write about all the books I read
  • write about those books that I cannot finish
  • dig into the units I’ll be teaching next year
  • write about why I want to teach certain books at certain years and the books that I think have been overrused
  • actually use my rowing machine
  • actually walk in all the pretty places that are available in Pendleton
  • hang out with my friends
  • hang out by myself at my favorite places
  • grade, I guess

False Advertising in Teaching? Duh.

10/28/15: I will never fail to be amazed that students get to me as seniors and don’t have the basics of writing down. Usually it’s due to huge gaps in attendance during their school careers; occasionally, it’s due to aggressive laziness; more rarely, it’s because they have very real learning issues. I’m always willing to work with kids who will work with me which means showing up, asking for help, and following through on what I ask them to do. Sometimes it backfires because they don’t want to work with/for me and sometimes life gets in the way.

The other day a kid accused me of false advertising because while I run a slacker class (I’m lenient on due dates, I’ll treat each situation differently, I’m okay with tangents, I don’t mind a certain level of noise most of the time) I expect the work to be solid. I want my students to show growth in thinking and communicating. I want them to turn in work they are proud of rather than the bare minimum to get points. I want every kid to move forward—I want them to end the year better than they started it, so I try to meet them where they start.

Sometimes I fail. Sometimes they fail.

Most of the time we all succeed (even if it isn’t testable).

4/16/16: Last week I had a kid accuse me of lazy notes because my notes for a book inlcuded the larger questions I’d like them to think about. They can find out about the minutiae of author’s life, the details of a time period (versus the very general overview I tend to give). I look at the general character archetypes and how the characters both fit in and don’t fit in. I like to push the nontraditional interpretations of literature.

The Scarlet Letter is actually a condemnation of the close-minded communities and their group think that centered around the church. It was a Romantic era fairy tale with surprising things to say about what is holy, what is repentance, and what redemption really takes. I maintain that Chillingworth starts the novel as the most holy character and in the end he is redeemed through his three small acts of treating Pearl as he would his own child. I also maintain that Dimmesdale is never redeemed, because his hypocrisy is so deeply ingrained that he knows every confession won’t be believed despite what he tries to tell other characters and himself.

My sophomores shifted my perspective on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea which I had always taken as a traditional boys’ adventure story that developed parallel technologies for things that were a hundred or more years ahead of their time. Apparently, it is also a love story between Aronnax and Nemo that spawns a love story between Ned Land (after he recognizes where Aronnax’s attention truly lies) and Conseil. I’m still shaking my head over this one.

Much to the consternation of the three students who openly despise me and the two students who are actually as smart as they think they are, I maintain that Beowulf is a canny and intelligent fighter. Pulling text from the entire story there is a great deal of support for this. He plays the part of the Big Damn Hero while operating as an unofficial emissary and spy for his own King and Queen. His line holds the throne for fifty years of chaos and upheaval in their region before ultimately losing to “the dragon [army]” and getting swallowed up by the Swedes.

Spring and summer are great times of reflection for me as I look at what has worked and what hasn’t. What warnings will next year’s students need besides (I believe some work is preparation and practice and not for a grade)? I change current and upcoming units to fit whatever tweaks I’m already planning for next year. This is what we do as teachers: we plan, we apply, we assess and evaluate, we reflect, we change, we adapt, and we reassess and re-evaluate.

I still don’t want to do anything else for the next eighteen years. I can’t wait to see how society and education continue to change. I’m safe in the knowledge that every year and every group will be different as my core goals stay the same.

One last thought, the light at the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby is an epic misdirection. Where should we really be looking?

Wassail

Will you cry when I die

Or raise your glass in a cheer?

Will you tell my truth

Or reveal all my little fears?

Will you dump my ashes

Or bake them in a cake?

I’m not so fond of cannibalism,

But the symbolism is great. 

Long Lunch (or more writing than I planned on)

We don’t often get time as teachers to just sit and enjoy the nicer things in life. Today, I’m late getting back to the RA in favor of a leisurely (and spendy) lunch of steak salad and Terminal ESG. There’s something really lovely about just enjoying good food and slowing everything down. I think this is what my favorite diet/lifestyle books are talking about. I watched the river and glimpsed at Mt. St. Helen’s cropped top. I read while I ate. I enjoyed my libation. I slowed down from the pace I’m usually expected to keep and it was the perfect choice. I love the slowing down that comes with summer even though I am not cut out for a life without some sort of structure. I suppose getting back into writing is supposed to give me that structure, but I’m not sure it’ll work if it’s my only source.

I’m trying to articulate the slow shift in my worldview and how I actually live my life. As a single woman of a certain age, I appreciate that I alone am responsible for my financial insecurities. I alone am responsible for all the little and all the big things in my life. This is why I have three retirement accounts (including the one that comes with my job). I don’t think my niece or nephew will be there to take care of me in my old age. Nor do I expect my godson or goddaughter to step into that role. I’m one of millions who will have to fend for herself as time ticks on. I have eighteen years to get my shit together before I’m forced to the next step. A step may appear in that time that I’m not expecting, but what I hope for has changed so radically as to almost be a whole different set of dreams.

I never looked forward with a specific vision. I have wondered how I fare in alternate universes. Am I a writer in one? Am I selling advertising in another? Did I make the jump to administration? Did I fall in love with academia? Did I manage to create and run my destination bookstore in any of them? I love playing what if because it’s never really made me sad for what I don’t have. I would love a true partner, someone to balance me. It would be great to feel like I had someone I could always count on. It would be wonderful to be the person someone else could always count on, but it’s not the path my life has taken so far. I have a hard time imagining what else I should be doing and it’s great. For too long I shoulded myself. I was sure there was this or that and the possibilities froze me in place. I’m not totally happy with my life. There are aspects that grate on my nerves. There are things I wish I had (like a stronger urge to save rather than spend).

I just can’t bring myself to fully regret the results of my choices. I’ve learned so much in the last forty-two years. I love that I keep to get learning. This summer I’m dedicated to getting at least twelve books read from my epic list of books I’ve purchased and not followed through on. That’s not to say I don’t regret some of the things I’ve done or how my thoughtlessness and inexperience may have hurt others. I hope with all my heart that I’ve done more good than bad for every student I’ve interacted with over the last twenty years. I hope with all my heart that I haven’t damaged any of my friends or acquaintances too much. None of them have damaged me beyond repair. And there’s a lot to be said for learning from our mistakes and failures.

I would love to see the national school system shift to year-round school (two-and-a-half months on, two weeks off) with entrance and exit test for every class (nationalized, of course). I’d love to see the federal government partner up with states to train teachers in grade level batches and see things phased in over several years instead of this slap-dash do it now approach that is the hallmark of every reform. I’d like teachers and students to have a voice equal to that of business interests in dictating what the foundational skills and ideals should be for students. I would love for every administrator to teach one class a year in their schools. We all like to revise our personal history and it’s usually not for the overall good.

We are all lucky to live in a time that allows us the leisure to think, reflect, and learn. We are blessed to have a resurgence of books and open university style courses for those who can’t afford the ever-increasing cost of post-high school education. It’s awesome that we have Star Trek level technology we can take for granted. Think of all the writers publishing themselves on Amazon or other e-publishing sites; sure there’s a lot of crap, but there’s a lot of gold too. It’s far less expensive to nurture many of our hobbies or passions today than it was twenty-five years ago.

There are many problems in American society that need to be addressed and solved. There are problems world-wide that are shaping the present and the future. The history of each group of people in the world is shaping today and we don’t always acknowledge that. It’s easier if people aren’t literate and able to think too much. It’s easier if people are more focused on survival than thriving. America is steadily moving toward a monetarily bound class system. The world has changed so much in the last hundred and fifty years; I can’t see the pace of change slowing down at all.

What does this mean for the next generations?

How will they meet the crises we are seeing the edges of today or the ones we can’t comprehend?

Which visionaries really have the right ideas?