Personal Icons

I’ve written about them before, probably with more poetry and thought. On the anniversary of my paternal grandmother’s death, I want to take a moment to pay respect to the many women I admire.

Elizabeth Thouvenel lost both of her parents at a young age and helped raise her younger sisters. She ran a boarding house for several years while going to school and raising her sisters. She ceded official control of the boarding house to her middle sister when Grandma went to work for a local real estate company. She invested her savings well, made sure her sisters married well, and then met the love of her life. She live nearly thirty years before meeting an Oregon State Trooper, they were married for thirty years before he died, and she lived a full, fully independent life for nearly thirty years before she needed to turn to family for help.

My maternal grandmother was blessed in wholly different ways. She grew up with an often divorced, often single, mother in a time where no one wanted to admit single mothers existed. She and her younger sister grew into women who loved helping others and turned that into marketable skills. Darlene Reese Fletcher has two great loves in her life and found a way to be happy and fulfilled after more than sixty years of marriage to two men who really understood and loved her. She raised children, influenced a brood of grandchildren, and still finds ways to keep her circle of friends (new and old) vibrant and full of love.

My mother developed gestational diabetes with me; and, it exploded on her between my and my younger brother’s birth. It started to affect her health dramatically the same year I started teaching. I’m impressed by the constant renegotiation she and my father have weaved through for 46 years; I’m amazed by her ability to deal with declining health, and a declining quality of life, with grace and faith. [My father loves her to the point that he would rather be her caretaker than see her taken away, and , luckily, they both have enough mobility to make this continue to work.]

My closest female friends amaze me with their resilience, their willingness to love and lose and love again, their passion for their work. They have raised or are raising (or are helping to raise) some pretty amazing human beings. They are strong and passionate and kind.

Even with the humanity and flaws each of these women acknowledge and deal with, they work hard to be the best versions of themselves just like the women before me in my family.

I just want to thank every woman who does her best with what she has, every woman who tries to teach the children in her care to be true and to be kind and to be their best selves, every woman who stumbles or falls and rises again. They each play a part in who I aspire to be whether it’s risking their hearts, their financial security, or letting go of the plan they thought they had for their lives. Thank you all.

This Morning’s Meditation

nyti.ms/2CKSAvC

Say what you will about the NYT, but this article lays out the growing culture of hate. It also makes me think back on all I’ve learned through books, classes, others, life, and my faith—all three of the sister faith (or People of the Book) actually have love/submit to God and love in action as the cornerstones of their belief systems.

There is no excuse for the cruelty taught by some individuals or denominations of any faith; and the history of The Church is bathed in blood and hate rather than love in action.

This was an act of terrorism.

This was another act of domestic terrorism. And this is another reason for devout people to live their lives showing their love for others in whatever ways they are able.

This was evil.

Yes, my heart breaks for every person who has been harmed or in any way affected by acts of domestic terrorism; America’s long history of hate towards citizens and immigrants has to stop.

Yeah, my thoughts and prayers are with this weekend’s victims and their friends and their families. My acts of love toward others—teaching my students kindness, personal responsibility, forgiveness, the importance of doing what is right, and critical thinking—will continue. I will do my best to seed the wind with love in action. And when I have a bad day or I am thoughtless or I am cruel, I will take responsibility for my actions and I will work to not make that mistake or choice again. When I see acts of petty cruelty, I will step in to stop them and try to turn them into teachable moments.

Two Beowulfs

After assigning today’s senior paragraph, I received a Reverse Uno card (RS) and I played along agreeing to write the paragraph myself. Once I started the paragraph, I received a +4 Uno card meaning my paragraph had to be at least eleven sentences long. This is in no way a truly academic paragraph; this is at best an outline of my thoughts on why there are two Beowulfs written in the first fifteen minutes of class while my seniors were writing their own responses (yes, I put it on the projector so they could read what I was writing).

When I first heard the story of Beowulf from Mr. Gordon, it was in AP English in the fall of 1990 and I firmly believed that one Beowulf ruled them all (the Geats for fifty years after Hygelic and Heardred died). Over the last ten years, I’ve been teaching Beowulf to class after class of seniors and have come to the conclusion that there are two Beowulfs. Simply using the timeline given through the epic, it is impossible for one Beowulf to fight and kill Grendel, his mom, and the dragon. First, Beowulf would have been in his mid-twenties at the earliest when he heads to Denmark (he would also have left a wife and at least one child behind). Hygelic would have stayed king for ten to fifteen years after Beowulf returned from Denmark. Upon his death in battle, Heardred would have been king for at least five years before his death putting Beowulf’s age to about forty when he finally ascends to the throne of Geatland. Then, according to the text, Beowulf ruled for fifty years before the dragon gets growly and deadly. That puts Beowulf at ninety at the youngest when he heads out to fight the dragon. Granted, people in the early hundreds were smart enough to wash regularly, clean and care for wounds, which means if they survived battle and disease they could live to sixty or seventy, but they wouldn’t be able to fight at that point. Additionally, the text seems to be of two minds about how Beowulf was viewed by his own people—the badass monster hunter whose king worried about his safety while he was in Denmark was seen as weak by the Geats? I don’t think so. The killer of Dayraven and the killer of Grendel, the monster slayer, were obviously different people. Besides the difference in pivotal, fame-making moments, the two Beowulfs have very different approaches to actual monster killing—to wit, Beowulf Senior trusts his men to follow him and they trust him enough that without knowing Beowulf’s full plan they follow him; Beowulf Junior doesn’t trust his men at all, so he goes to fight the dragon alone. When Beowulf Senior has a sword fail while battling Grendel’s mother, he tosses it; when Beowulf Junior has a sword fail to slice the dragon, he keeps trying until he breaks the sword. Therefore, there are two Beowulfs.

It’ll do for today.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

I have a ton to do. This weekend instead of doing anything I would get out of bed, look at the projects that needed doing, and go back into the bedroom where the cats were sleeping, curl up, and read. I tend to call these lost weekends or lost days. They aren’t lost so much as given up. It’s no surprise that I woke up on the salty side of the bed—I don’t even dislike Mondays, I’m just salty today.

Fortunately, I teach teenagers. I’m lucky and blessed and sometimes pushed to my breaking point, but I’ve grown into this vocation. I’m much better at teaching than I used to be. I still have areas of weakness, but I love talking to teenagers, teaching them, getting them to think or to open up their minds a bit.

I have come to loathe articles and headlines and rants about “kids today” or “millennials” or “generation z.” Kids have always had variations on the same issues adults deal with except their voices go unheard in many situations. They aren’t always allowed to enjoy being in transition because we are pushing them forward or they are running ahead, ready for that next step.

I’m not sure gen-x ever did a good job learning to balance peace & quiet with a strong work ethic. We tend to see-saw back and forth, so how can we really teach the next generations to find balance?

Writing is my meditation. I don’t know why I keep trying to find other ways. I have a thirty minute break today between periods two and four; I have grades to enter into the computer and assignments to grade—I am sitting outside in one of the courtyards and breathing and writing and letting my thoughts wander. Do my students know that sometimes it’s okay to stop and breathe? Have I ever taught them that writing isn’t just about communicating with others, that sometimes it’s about communicating with ourselves?

I suppose I should go back inside. I’ll look at the grading that I have to stay and do this afternoon. I’ll appreciate my students. I’ll be a little salty. I’ll have housey chores to do at home.

I’m not broken

Growing up the mechanics of sex always grossed me out. My parents told me “that will change when you find the right guy.” I faked crushes on lots of boys, impossible boys, boys who would never give me a first or a second look. And, I was fucking awkward about it. I came across as creepy and about as subtle as an Acme anvil, because I was playing pretend. Whatever I told myself, my friends, or my family–it was only ever half the truth. Besides being unobtainable, but never anyone with a steady girlfriend, I chose boys who had a spark of kindness. They may have been popular or athletic or smart, but they also had a core of kindness to them that came out in little ways. I respected that. I respected that a great deal. I figured if I couldn’t like them the way I was supposed to, I could at least like something about them besides their looks.

At least fifteen years ago I got horribly offended when a friend and fellow teacher, TS, told me he thought I was asexual. I had no idea what he meant by the term and only a few years later I was in a place where I would’ve asked before getting offended. At that point in time though I was try so hard to be normal (and failing on all fronts) that I heard the word and assumed it meant I was broken. We are still in a culture where many people look at those of us who aren’t into sex as broken.

I inherited some wonderful qualities from both sides of my family–generosity of spirit, faith in God, inherent kindness–and I inherited some less awesome qualities from both sides of the family–migraines, panic attacks, depression, quickfire anger, and nuclear slow-burn anger. All on my own I picked up spending money and eating food to mask my pain which put me overweight and in debt. All on my own I embraced laziness which means my house is rarely as clean as I would like it and I’m perpetually behind on all projects. But, I’m still not broken.

Six or seven years ago, I stumbled across a tumblr post (yes, I was a 35+ woman who read and still reads tumblr) that talked about sexuality and sexual attraction as more of a spectrum than the Kinsey Scale and it was a revelation. A handful of times in my life I have felt a glimmer of sexual attraction to someone I know well. I never lasts, but it has happened. I’ve never been in a romantic or sexual relationship with anyone. Sometimes I wish that I had someone I could be physically affectionate with. Sometimes I wish I had someone that wanted to spend a lot of time with me. Neither of those things has happened yet which makes me doubt either of those things will happen ever.

I understand my flaws. I’m overweight and out of shape which doesn’t seem to attract people to me. I sound judgmental and sarcastic far more often than I am judgmental or sarcastic. I can be truly annoying. I sometimes just shut down and hide. I spend money irresponsibly. I’m lazy at heart. I love naps and books and my two cats. I love my students. I love being a teacher, not because there’s nothing else I can do, but because I get to shape the minds of some of the next generation and it’s awesome. I get to teach people how to decode what they read or hear, to determine the value of the information they are given and the source of the information, to communicate effectively in a variety of ways–that is just so much fun.

Sometimes I’m cranky and it’s not always because of my chronic migraines. Sometime I snap and I instantly regret it. Sometimes I give too many chances and then get metaphorically kicked in the face. Sometimes I say or do things without thinking at all and I offend people.

We all have flaws.

We all have strengths.

Appreciating someone’s kindness, appreciating someone’s aesthetic value, appreciating someone’s talent–those are all normal things. And I’m lucky I have them.

I’m also lucky I live in a time where more people are talking about depression and anxiety. I’m lucky I had parents that forced me to learn in regular classrooms despite mild dyslexia. I’m lucky to have been born middle class. I’m lucky to have been born white.

I suppose if there’s one other lesson I want to teach my students, no matter when they were my students, is that different isn’t broken. Living a non-traditional lifestyle is an okay thing to do. What we feel will change over time. What we know to be true will change as new information becomes available. We owe to ourselves and others be respectful of others and their experiences.

For a long time my classroom rules were: be smart, be safe, be kind, be true, and try to be legal. Now they are: be respectful of others and their things; get consent ahead of time and respect someone’s choice to say no or to change their mind.

Beowulf

For most of the last ten years I’ve taught Beowulf. Back in 1990-1991 when Mr. Gordon was wowing us at TDHS with “The Strongest Man Who Ever Lived” I had a pretty traditional view on Beowulf and his tale. I thought it must be nice to be well-born, well-trained, and lucky. As I’ve been teaching it my thoughts on Beowulf have shifted. Blame fan fiction or fantasy stories or magical realism, but now that I know about the positions of Left Hand and Champion in addition to Right Hand, I have a very different take on Beowulf. Now that I’ve lived more and I’ve read more and I’ve had years of interesting discussions with seniors, I see how well Beowulf played the game.

Beowulf built a solid enough brand that his story was written down and has been taught generation after generation. Sure, it’s always a little awkward to read because it is translated verse and not all translators are equal. Earlier in my career I noticed a lot of the sexual overtones and undertones in the battles and interactions between characters. I mean, Beowulf jumps into Grendel’s Mother’s lake and tries to use his sword on her; Grendel’s mother then tries to knife Beowulf–thank Freud that I moved past that imagery in a year.

Strangely enough reading and teaching The Great Gatsby really moved me toward my current understanding of Beowulf. I will never love or like the character of Daisy Buchanan, but I have come to appreciate Jordan Baker. Jordan is a true socialite who plays her parts with specific goals in mind. I have no doubt she could be married if she had a mind to, but instead she’s raking in connections, money, and fame that will allow her to live a comfortable life when she decides to stop being a socialite. Jordan and Daisy are both playing specific parts for their peers and “friends”–the difference is that Daisy is a traditional sleeping beauty who reflects the most dominant male nearby whereas Jordan always has her own agenda.

I started (unsurprisingly) to make connections between Jordan Baker and the old-school PBs (Professional Beauties); I started to make connections between Jordan Baker and the Hilton sisters, Tinsley Mortimer, and the Jenner-Kardashian clans. Ever since fame became a commodity, people have played the part of “real people” to make money off of being famous for little to nothing. They can’t all be stupid, lucky, and good looking–there has to be more to them than what they allow the masses to see. As I taught more and more epic literature, I began to see some of the same patterns among the best known heroes of “ye ancient times.” I still think Agamemnon was an unforgivable, power hungry asshole and Achilles was a true idiot and brat, but Hector and Odysseus and Beowulf were something more.

Teaching The Book of Job from the Judeo-Christian Bible and taking a class that delved into the what Paul’s letters were really addressing in The New Testament reinforced the idea that we only see a small part of these heroes or c-level celebrities. Teaching high schoolers who each have rich internal lives and whose lives outside of school I know little to nothing about also helped reinforce my changing options about some of the old-school heroes of various epics.

Beowulf and Unferth both serve as their king’s Left Hand–they get the unknowable information, they do whatever they need to to protect king and kingdom, they play with other people’s ideas of who they are. Beowulf does this by being the acknowledged Champion of Hygelic which helps most people forget that Beowulf is smart enough to figure out from stories that Grendel can’t be killed by man-made weapons. Beowulf is charismatic enough to turn an enemy (Unferth) into a loyal ally. Beowulf sits at the kiddy table during the feast to celebrate him which is brilliant; those kids are being trained in the art of war and politics by their parents. Of course, they are going to try to outdo each other bragging to the Big Bad Hero Who Took Down Grendel.

Unferth goes from slandering Beowulf while in his cups (499-528) to soberly accepting that Beowulf is everything he claims to be (979-989) to proving his change of heart by exchanging Hrunting for Beowulf’s familial sword (1455-1472). That’ a big damn deal for a dude who killed his siblings so he wouldn’t have to share land or wealth after his father’s death. That’s a big deal for a guy who didn’t fight Grendel or Grendel’s Mother because his job protecting Hrothgar and Denmark was too important. Unferth lives in a society that takes pride in killing their enemies by any means, Finn versus Hengest (1070-1158), and thinks of Unferth as a righteous man (1164-1167). The Danes of Hrothgar’s era had a totally different moral compass from most of the peoples of their time, but Unferth can still see the value in how Beowulf plays the game of gathering information and acquiring allies. Being true to yourself doesn’t mean never changing–Unferth adapts as information becomes available and so does Beowulf.

I don’t much worry about Beowulf’s physical strength; I am impressed by his brain and that’s what I try to teach my students. I teach them to find textual support to agree or disagree with the traditional interpretations of Beowulf. I want them to see what’s going on between the lines. I want them to think about how many generations massaged the story before it was ever written down. I want my students to see the heavy-handed way the monk who first wrote it down made the story into propaganda. I want my students to question whether the Beowulf who fought The Dragon is the same Beowulf who fought Grendel and his mother–let’s be real, the connection seems pretty tacked during the final section.

It stretches even my ability to suspend belief for Beowulf to have refused Hygelec’s throne and to refuse to usurp Heardred’s throne only to take it after he’d hit forty, rule for fifty years, and then take on a dragon…I can’t be the only person who thinks there were at least two Beowulfs in Beowulf. I can’t wait to see how my understanding of the characters and the story will continue to change over the next ten years.

Running In Place

I am stuck.

I’m surrounded by meetings that I have to attend, by deadline extension requests, by piles of paragraphs and quizzes that need to be graded, by a house that needs to be cleaned, by dishes that need to be washed, by books that want to be read, by a bed that is perfect for napping, by a windowless classroom, by bills, by shiny things I’d like to own, by my own fears…

I long for platonic physical affection. I want to spend less time on my own even though I need a certain amount of time each day for myself. I need a hug (or fifty), but I won’t ask anyone for a hug–that’s weird or invasive or inappropriate.

I want my students to really learn something new every day or to practice their thinking and communication skills every day and I really worry about the kids who aggressively try not to learn or improve. I have ten kids who are actually researching or writing; I have five people chit-chatting; I have five people on their phones in front of the computers they are supposed to be writing or researching on. This is a work day…so I’m giving them time to work. One of the kids I thought was researching was apparently looking up thinks to cut out and paste into his notebook. It’s disheartening to know I could be harsh and yell, but it would end in a series of power plays which I’ve been working on avoiding for fifteen years.

I keep reminding myself it’s a work day.

I keep reminding myself that nine kids are really working, that they deserve the time. The truth is that half of my students don’t have easy access to research or writing technology outside of school. I am helping one writer who bounces his sentences and words before committing to them—I understand and respect Bouncers. I too work best when I can voice my ideas and receive actual responses. Just the act of saying things out loud is a huge help when it comes to creating sentences and paragraphs that make more sense, that pack more punch.

I spent most of my preparation periods this week writing exhaustive notes for Beowulf and working my theory of intelligent Original Beowulf versus “never going to live up to his father’s name or legacy” Beowulf Junior. I keep telling my seniors that they should disagree with my interpretations—I’m trying to trick them into explaining themselves and supporting their arguments.

I’m stuck in a world where people make their own choices to learn or to not learn while I am trying to teach them. This is the life of a public school teacher; we have to capture their interest enough to sneak in actually skills and learning.

The Crucible

I have been teaching for twenty-two years which is awesome. I still feel like I’m faking being a good teacher even though I can see exactly how much I’ve grown from my early years. My rookie mistakes still make me cringe in embarrassment and hope that my former students actually learned something about thinking for themselves and communicating effectively. Those are still my goals for my students. I spent the last five or six years teaching mostly sophomores and seniors which has been blissful and painful and fun in turns. I got to indulge in my love of fairy tales with the sophomores and my love of science fiction utopia/dystopias with my seniors. Of course, I managed to slip in two of my favorite books: for sophomores The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon–and thank you Marla Charlton for introduction; for seniors I snatched The Scarlet Letter from the junior curriculum. I have not taught juniors in all that time unless they took an English elective.

I am teaching juniors again which means revisiting some of my favorite and least favorite literature. We start with The Crucible by Arthur Miller; the two women who taught American literature to juniors over the last six years did a remarkable job with having the students research The Red Scare and key figures from The Crucible before reading the play. They both clearly loved the work and that passion came through in their activities and discussions of the play.

I’ve gone about thing a little backwards. I decided to read the play first, then we will do a very short research on The Red Scare (four paragraphs with at least three sources in the bibliography) and a short profile on a randomly selected character as they existed in life rather than in literature. I don’t know if this is the best way to go about things; I don’t know if I should have followed the methods of the other teachers, but I’m going to find out. I think it will be interesting to have my students look into why women, young women, would fall under someone’s influence so deeply that they came to believe they had been attacked by people’s spirits or by agents of Satan. I think it will be interesting to tie those experiences together with how women–white and non-white–have been treated in American culture since it’s colonization.

I worry a little bit about whether or not I can do my ideas justice. I worry a little bit about what my students may find to be relevant and what they may wish to communicated, but I know the ups and downs of the journey will prove to be worthwhile. I also find myself reading The Crucible through different eyes this time around.

Midnightish Meditations

Sharing too much?!?

Lydia, my elderly cat, decided to come chill on me when my migraine woke me up thirty minutes ago.

Beau, the newbie (relatively) is snuggled right against my legs.

I’m so tired of this.

Not the cats. The cats are perfect little Agents of Chaos.

I’m tired of the pain.

I’m tired, so tired, of afternoon migraines, of middle of the night migraines, of how tired the pain makes me, of how cranky I feel, of the nearly everydayness.

I’m so grateful for medical professionals who believe me, of medications that help.

My problems are small.

I’m lucky not to suffer from something worse. I’m lucky to have health insurance. I’m lucky the cats will set aside their rivalry for a bit. I’m lucky I have a job that pulls at me to show up do the best I can.

But sometimes, I’m just so tired.

Sometimes, I have to remind myself that my pain is valid. That it’s okay to have a bad day.

Sometimes, I overshare my pain and it makes me feel small and whiny when I know people who suffer…who really suffer.

Kind vs. Nice

For over a year I’ve been trying to articulate the inherent difference between someone who is kind and someone who is nice. They are, at best, imperfect synonyms and this has been hammered into me over the thirty-some years people have been complaining to me (or around me) about the perils of niceness while dating. I think the divide carries over into most of our interactions. It’s a bit like the idea that someone can be an asshole and still be good.

Good isn’t a synonym for kind or nice either. I think there’s an inherent element of good in sincerity and compassion, but I don’t think it’s an either or thing. Goodness is tied up in how we view the world, whether or not we try to help others, how we try to help others, why we try to help others—good is tied into how we try to make a difference in the world great or small.

We all have seeds in our personalities that our families feed or let wither. We all throw seeds into the wind as we grow up, interact with others, figure out who we are, and move in the world. Some people will trend toward the lowest element in their make-up no matter how awesome their childhood and family is. Some people will transcend the worst circumstances no matter how difficult their early years.

My job is to seed the wind, to hopefully make people think, and to be okay with the fact that I will rarely see what seeds sprout or what comes of them. Someone else will reap those whirlwinds.

The upshot is:

  • Kindness: sincere concern for the well-being of others applied through action
  • Niceness: actions that appear kind, but are done with the intention of garnering favors