Riding with Emily

As imperceptibly as Grief
by Emily Dickinson

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away—
Too imperceptible at last,
To seem like Perfidy—
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon—
The Dusk drew earlier in—
The Morning foreign shone—
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone—
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.

This poem greets me as I open my daily Writer’s Almanac, and I flash back to a day in late summer driving north from our stay in the Rogue River Recreation area and Crater Lake visit. We have passed through worlds of weather, terrain, and geography, in the span of a few hours, and we will be merging onto I-5 in a few minutes, a high-speed ribbon of road, rain-grayed and unspooling toward our destination: home.

In the back seat of our Mazda, our son and his soon-to-be-and-now-is wife, wrap around each other like puppies finding comfort in this womb of conveyance while outside pastures and river disappear in the rearview as hurtling forward takes over. In the front seat, my husband at the helm, I sit both beside him—and elsewhere— in the world of Emily Dickinson. Martha Ackman and her book, These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson are transporting me.

What is it about Miss Emily that captures my imagination? Yes, I read her poetry and am always astounded, but I am no scholar, can lay no claim to having memorized any more than a handful of her 1800 (or so? What about those letters that read like poems?). It is she who fills my imagination, so ahead of her time, astute with rare intelligence, forming friendships that endured a lifetime, witty and sometimes self-doubting…finding comfort in solitude, her own best company but maybe lonely, too. Leaving us with her words, webs she wove to ensnare us in all our humanity, aware of her or not.

Our small car leaves palimpsests in the rain, more than a century later, the past, the present, and the future, breathing within, our light escape into the beautiful.

Write Beside Them

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could…tomorrow is a new day.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said that, and I’m doing my best! Wednesday is our “Wild about Words” day, devoted to the primary building blocks of communication: WORDS. I know vocabulary study carries many mixed emotions, not only the words of themselves, but how to incorporate word study practically, usefully into a curriculum. It encounters yet another obstacle when I realize that the students are not reading with the enthusiasm that they used to before. (Ah, the bane of a veteran teacher with almost 40 years of classroom history: BEFORE.)

This is delicate time of year, and striking the right note to leave my 100%-online students with a desire to return in 2021 is on my mind. That said, I do not want to give up goals I have for them in the here and now. And the habit of learning and using words well matters. It remains a daily challenge to leave them happy, my preference, and to feel like we’ve accomplished something—emphasis on the “we.”

So Wednesdays, above all, we CELEBRATE words! Naturally I give them a list each Wednesday taken from the academic words appropriate to each grade level. And Quizlet practice is the staple for review. But the joy comes with the two additional words each student chooses from life—reading, listening, any source that presents an intriguing collection of syllables—to add to their personal digital dictionaries.

Their vibrant selections posted on a class Jamboard, “Our Words,” attest to the joy of this strategy as they add their personal selections: glib, malice, spirometer, beveled, malarkey…words far richer the circumscribed list. They have performed introductions of their words, written haikus (thanks to Corbett Harrison), written opinions about why their word should be chosen above all the others. In short, they have used their words in context, their nimble minds on display.

Last Wednesday I asked them to pick any three words from the current list and to use them cohesively in a story, not an original assignment by any means, but because this was not a “throw-away,” not a “time-filler” but one with devoted notebook and class time, and the opportunity to share, they brought their best writer-selves to the task.

Kelly Gallagher says we must write with our kids. Before we began the assignment, I did the next best thing. I selected three words from their list, told them how they seemed connected, planned what I would write aloud—and wrote with them as they composed. When the 10 minute timer chimed, cries of “Just a couple more minutes…” won the day. When we finally stopped, I showed them my notebook pages—they’re seventh graders and couldn’t care less what I actually wrote (the sixth graders wanted me to read, too, though)—and had kids clamoring to share, with the magic words, “I still have more to write,” floating in the Meet space.

More than half the class shared in my seventh grade, a rarity. Stories elicited sincere peer appreciation, some chuckles, an “Aw” or two. Did we get to everything I had planned? Of course not. We delayed due dates on independent work, closed with our daily chuckle and left happy.

Tomorrow is a new day.

We Never Know

These Grinch Treats arrive in my inbox this morning, and I flash back to Wednesday when, as ever my first to arrive in our Google Meet, I corner Nick and after standard pleasantries, ask him if he’d be on the lookout for a holiday party snack. Now I balk at starting party talk so early, but this cohort of six sixth graders has stolen my heart. And honestly, they work hard for me!

Halloween was so awesome because another of my students had found a craft—a pumpkin made out of orange string. She and her mother made supply bags for each of the students and DELIVERED them—after making sure each one was cool with that, of course. (Can you tell that I teach students who are truly lucky to be embraced by a small, loving, affluent community that cares deeply about their well-being?)

During the actual Halloween celebration, we all made our string pumpkins together, laughing and enjoying 2020’s version of a class party. We had so much fun, in fact, that the time—down to 60 minutes from 84—slipped away from us. Nick, who had given us all directions for our snack earlier in the week,

Zombie Lips from allrecipes

was stuck with only me as, one by one, the kids scampered off. Together we walked to our kitchens, he in New Jersey, I in Oregon, bearing our devices, and gathered ingredients. Together he walked me through the process, and there it was—my version:

(I know he wants to be a chef, but based on his tutelage, he’d be a terrific teacher, too! Nick made all the appropriate, encouraging comments.) Together in the end, our two sets of Zombie Lips garishly grinned at each other across the country.

My disappointment lay in the absence of his peers. Now that would’ve been something!

So when I asked him to find a snack we could make for December 23rd, I let him know that he’d go first, so we wouldn’t run out of time. Meanwhile, his classmates had been entering the Meet. When he agreed, one of the students said, “Ms. Emerson, Maddie and I made the Lips after the class ended.”

“My sister and I made them, too”

“Me and my brother, too…”

One-by-one, the kids announced that they had used Nick’s directions to create their own snacks—on their own time!

“Did you let Nick know?” I asked.

“Hey, Nick, that was fun! Thanks.”

After each of them had spoken, I said, “So Nick, how does it feel?”

“Great” small pause. “I’m on it for next time!”

What a gift—conversation—just waiting to be opened.