Am I making any sense?

I remember moments from my childhood, but I don’t seem to remember as much as some people do. I know that some of my memories have been fuzzied by time or exaggerated retelling, but I know there’s a lot I’m missing. Tonight, I had dinner with my Aunt and Uncle. Among the many topics we covered was Wild Wild Country and I gained some clarity about why I allowed some memories to drift.

Until tonight, I hadn’t put together the time my dad was really sick when I was little and the time all the salad bars in The Dalles were spiked with salmonella.

Until tonight, I hadn’t put together why I have such a deep issue with something that happened around me from third grade through seventh grade.

My parents did a really solid job of sheltering my brother and I from the increasingly scary reality they dealt with for five years. I’m sure I didn’t want to remember why it was important not to be alone walking to or from school. I ignored the people openly watching our house. I didn’t put all of my father’s little lessons on how to be safe into the right context.

What I did remember was our only elementary school lockdown and the speculations we all had as sixth graders—we were pretty convinced the Rajneesh has returned with their guns. I have to give Mr. Mac credit at least for talking us off that ledge. I also remember that I stopped taking art classes of any kind at WOSC when they purchased some cheap trailers from what was left of the settlement outside of Antelope, Oregon while the art building was being retrofitted for earthquake safety.

I know I’m more than old enough to sit down and watch a documentary series about this on Netflix, but I totally walked away twenty minutes in when Wild Wild Country already started to seem awfully sympathetic to people who really did do some serious (and seriously intentional) damage over the course of building their “intentional community”. My dad was a confirmed name on a Rajneeshpuram hitlist because he was the publisher at The Dalles Weekly Reminder; and he was working closely with his editor to figure out exactly what was going on inside and outside of Antelope. Their peers at other local news organizations probably went through similar issues during those years.

I don’t like seeing this minimized into a simple case of “rural overreaction” or “rural intolerance”. I’ll finish watching it, but not tonight.

The biggest monsters always have human faces.


The Commonplace Book Project

A few years ago I finally figured out how to incorporate a variation of one of my favorite types of journals into what I teach. I’ll admit that I had a couple of missteps before making it a final project instead of a year-long project. It’s the assignment I look most forward to grading from most of my seniors.

Now they want examples from me…

I loved science in high school so much I took it for four years. In biology classes I learned about life cycles, dissected animals, and read Origin of The Species since my fellow teen Christians didn’t want their psyches destroyed by the “theory of evolution”. Chemistry should have taken me to bigger and better places, but instead it took me to a “work my butt off for barely a C” which is probably the hardest I worked in any class my first three years of high school. Ultimately, what I learned about and from high school science fed my curiosity about how the natural world works and a conviction that if the universe has so many set rules it can’t have come from accident or chaos. [As the kids say, “Don’t @ me.”] I love science even though I’m an English teacher. Science is puzzles and fun and figuring out the order underneath the randomness. I love that scientists publish books to explain the things they love to people who may or may not be able at attend college. I love that kids today have new theories to learn about and participate in variations on the same labs I did. I guess what I really learned from all those science classes that I use constantly is the theory of micro-evolution: we all evolve and change as does our species; if we aren’t changing we are just dying slowly.

This one’s for you Jaiden Lemberger and your fellow seniors.

My Teacher Hates Me

Over the twenty-one years I’ve been teaching, there are very few students I’ve genuinely disliked. There are certain qualities or questions or tones of voice that hit my “snark right back” button, but I actually like most of my students. I enjoy the kids who are smartasses as long as they aren’t malicious with it; I love the kids who seem to be in la-la-land, but pay attention to the discussion and listen to the reading so they can answer the question in rock star fashion. I adore the kids who know they have low skill levels, but, dammit, they are going to work their brains off to get better. From the beginning, way back when I taught the dreaded Publications classes, I quickly learned that bitchy girls get things done–that doesn’t mean they are snotty to everyone all the time, but they don’t suffer fools (even teacher fools) lightly.

I’m lucky that I’ve lived and taught in the same community for almost twenty years. This means I get to run into former students at any time and in any place. Usually, I remember that they were a student and what kind of a student they were (but, I don’t always remember names). I get to see kids that cheated on ten point quizzes, or kids who failed to turn in any completed work, or kids who hated English vocally every day as grown-ups. They are working, taking care of children, dating or married, and making sure that they take care of their business. I have such respect for those kids. They often had multiple strikes heading into the work force (functional versus full literacy, a wobbly work ethic, a pathological urge to make the wrong choice) as fully functional human beings. It reminds me that every student I teach has the potential to be “okay.”

I don’t want to touch just one student’s life–I want to make a positive difference for the majority of my students. I probably won’t ever see the results of my work, not like a plumber or seamstress or woodworker will. Still, I seed the wind with life lessons from literature, analysis of what’s between the written or spoken words, improved communication skills, and I’m hopefully creating a whirlwind of critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. I just want my students to leave my classes a little better off than how they started them.

That said, I’m not the easiest teacher to deal with. I get snappy and short-tempered more often as spring blows in. I may engage in very few power struggles, but certain questions or tones of voice get disproportionate lectures. I’m not as funny as I think I am. My ADD and dyslexia come out to play far too often (although I connect it back to the official track 99% of the time). I actually answer every questions (often to the chagrin of my students). I am sarcastic. I sometimes straight-up lie about really obvious things to see if they are paying attention (Geiko cavemen, cats from Mexico, Australian wild cat hunts, the Russian moon base, flying bears, teachers who practice performance art on the weekends…).

But I care.

I care about how much I don’t know about any kid and his or her home life. I care about how many activities they are or aren’t involved in and why. I care about whether or not they have a part-time job and just how part-time it actually is. I care about whether or not they graduate from high school (and once a year at least I might be the only one who has said that to them). I care about them becoming better readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers and I try to tell them when they’ve improved. I care about the kids who hate me, the kids who like me, and the kids who are too quiet just the same. I want them all to live lives with more joy than pain and to seek out success based on their own definitions of it.

So, no, I don’t hate you.

I might not always love the way you behave and you may just straight up hate me.

But I really, really don’t hate you.

Canon Literature

Since I teach Senior English, I get to read dystopian novels in the the late winter and all spring. One of my colleagues used a genius assignment this semester: he had his students report cheating, skipping, or other unsavory behavior and he made them name names. The purpose was to pull students into the paranoid mindset of Winston Smith. I spend two days going over the idea of Big Brother versus Little Brother, because I think it’s important for my students to see the real world parallels in the things that we read. Some books lend themselves more easily to the application of ideas. One of the things I’ve noticed in the last two or three years is that my students have an intrinsically different understanding of technology and personal information than I do. They think nothing of taking someone’s picture with or without (or even against) their subject’s wishes and posting it online. They either don’t realize or care that their phones and other devices are passively monitoring everything they do.

My generation is more aware of these things happening and our response (at least based on facebook and instagram) is to heavily curate our lives for the audience of our peers. These kids will happily post pictures of themselves in bed on day three of the flu looking like crap. I’m not really sure what their meter for shame is most of the time. They are also in a generation that has learned how to monetize their online presence. I can’t begin to fathom how people make money off their blogs or Instagram feeds; the video entries I sometimes get. Other times, I’ll see a video of an old man doing weird things while shouting Lady Gaga choruses. I just don’t get it.

While my seniors get overloaded with various types of indoctrination (which could never happen to people here and now), they also look at the other small ways freedoms are limited or learning is inhibited. A few of them understand what I’m talking about; a few of them shut down weeks ago, because “they are so much smarter than this”; and a few of them will carry the seeds of what I’m teaching into the future with them. [I’m not sure which is worse: “I’m too smart for this, so I don’t have to pay attention, because you can’t teach me anything anyway” or “This doesn’t matter in my career as a __________, so I’m not going to do anything more than the bare minimum to get a D”.]

I want them to read The Scarlet Letter and understand that single parents have been around a long time and they have a tough road to follow. I want them to read Beowulf and think about what people are hiding behind their personas–and why they have those personas in the first place. I want them to read A Separate Peace and realize teenagers do stupid and damaging things all the time, but we can learn from our mistakes. I want them to read Brave New World and be horrified by erotic play and open indoctrination while they look for the hidden indoctrination around them. I want them to read Huck Finn and recognize that the people we marginalize have something to say and a lot to offer the world. I want them to figure out that every story is an opportunity to learn about human nature and the world around us; then, I want them to apply those lessons in their daily lives.

One of the two most disheartening things about my job is, that there’s a whole world between what I want and what happens. I do my best to teach my students how to be active readers, how to pull information out of various texts, and how to use that information. I can’t force them to learn.

I keep teaching these stories and searching for new articles that relate to the novels, I keep tweaking what and how I teach, in the hopes that I am making a positive difference for the majority of my students.

Ultimately, I want them to learn how to be true to themselves. Yes, I do this by showing them a variety of characters who are true and untrue to who they really are. I also show them characters who choose the darkest truth or the most evil version of themselves to be true to–they need to know how to control their darker selves in order to be true to themselves.

Keep Crawling

Every year I pick a motto or two to keep close to my heart when things get dicey in the classroom or in the school in general. A few of them stick around, because they fit all my situations. One of my favorites was from Firefly and inspired by Martin Luther King Jr’s “If you can’t fly then run if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Some days all we can do is focus on that next step; looking down the path we see too many reasons to give up. I definitely believe that we sometimes have more going on than we can handle, so I’d add “ask for help.” Most of the people I know want to help others–we want to take care of our friends, our family, and those who are less fortunate that aren’t necessarily connected to us. Unfortunately, we all have to prioritize and sometimes money (or time) get spent frivolously.

We want to help others, but we can’t always. However, most people find it very difficult to ask for help. In a time period where we have online fundraisers for basic expenses and various websites that will happily move money from those who want to help to those who are brave (or desperate) enough to ask for help, it can still be difficult.

The help we need isn’t always monetary though. And those kinds of things are almost harder to ask for. My washing machine has been broken for months (it won’t spin when it’s turned on even though I can spin it manually) and I can’t afford to buy a brand new washer. I have handy friends, friends who are able and willing to help me out with minimal to no judgement, but I am still going to the laundromat. Why is it so difficult for me to accept help on such a small issue?

As I’ve gotten older, as I’ve lived alone for longer and longer (I gave up roommates when I started teaching), it has become harder for me to actually ask for the help I need. It’s weird to acknowledge that when I have become more willing to accept all the things I don’t know which forces me to occasionally ask a stupid question (yes, there are stupid question and stupid questioners). I don’t mind looking stupid or failing at something if I get knowledge out of it. But I still have a hard time asking for help. When I do, my friends and my family are more than willing to help in whatever way they are able–just like I would help them as much as I able to.

I accept that sometimes life is too big, things are too full, and I need help. I just have a hard time asking for it.

I think I admire the people I know who are able to put themselves out into the world and say, “Help me please. I can’t do this on my own.” It’s humbling to admit that as adults we can’t always take care of all of our needs. I see people who expect things to be handed to them because they exist every day; I also see people who are struggling, because they can’t bring themselves to ask for help. Why is this something some people are easily able to do? Why is this something that is so difficult for others?

If you can’t walk, ask a friend to help you keep moving forward.