A Slice of (This Teenage) Life

Too. Many. Choices. I knew that would be our dilemma, but I didn’t know the frustration that would arise. When Dana, my friend and colleague, and I were scheduling our day, the problem of earmarked pages in similar time slots, told the tale of our NCTE Convention 2022 experience. As usual, we had some serendipitous moments, when the choice was made for us by simply being in the right place at the right time.

But overall, the final selections were brutal: FOMO exemplified.

That wasn’t the case on Saturday afternoon though. We weren’t vacillating on that one! N.02 “Amplifying Voice and Agency: Storytelling with Facing History and Ourselves and This Teenage Life Podcast,” Room 205-A ,called us both, less Scylla and Charybdis, more North-Pole magnetism. Dana had been intent on gathering resources about mental health and podcasting from the outset. I knew both of these resources because they had been invaluable to me when I spent 2020-21 teaching online…especially This Teenage Life.

I had found out about it when desperately searching for ways to build community among these students as well as some connection to me, an outsider from Oregon who was teaching in their close-knit New Jersey town. (That I had taught there for 26 years in situ and retired only three years before meant nothing to them; they didn’t know me.)

We had begun listening to the podcast featuring teens in casual conversations about topics that mattered to them in our Friday morning meetings. And listening to other teens talking to each other spurred my students into doing the same. Friday mornings were dedicated to this—talking to each other. It was awesome!

The episodes run the gamut. We began with a low stakes topic, a discussion about favorite snacks and then moved on as the teens on the podcast became familiar: “Pets,” “Comfort,” Lies Our Parents Told Us.” The options offered are vast and varied. What they share is honest connection—and teen voices, real voices.

I had to thank Molly Josephs, the founder of the podcast, for that. And there she was, sitting up front, her warm smile spreading sunshine as she looked at the gathering crowd then leaned in, placing her arm across the shoulder of the stunning teenager seated beside her.

Up I went to the front, laser-focused, wanting to say something before the session started. “Hi Molly. I’m Trish Emerson, and I just wanted to thank you for changing my teaching life when I was online with students.” She looked stunned, then rose and said, “Can I give you a hug? I hear from students all the time, but you’re the first teacher who’s reached out to tell me how the podcast worked for them.”

Hugs followed, then the presentations from both awesome presenters. It was beyond my expectations. I wanted to say goodbye, but as I expected, there was now a line…new fans. Dana urged me to wait them out. “Molly would want you to.” So I did.

We exchanged information, another hug, and a text. “I want you to come on the podcast, Trish…and consider becoming a discussion group leader, will you?”

This spring, though I haven’t asked Molly yet, I am inviting her and, fingers crossed, one of her teens, to join us for the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) Spring Conference online. I know how magical their work is, and I want them to share their magic.

The next time Molly and This Teenage Life take the stage, I know I won’t be the only fangirl in the crowd!

Getting to Know You

I almost didn’t show. Friday night after a full day of NCTE, one inspiring workshop after another, the reality of meeting fellow slicers percolated, as I stepped out into the deepening Anaheim night. My colleague and I had discussed it as we were mapping the day.

She and I remain friends and colleagues despite the country that lies between us now. I have made the short trip from Oregon, she from New Jersey, and NCTE Anaheim is our opportunity to connect, face-to-face. There is nothing like that hug that accompanies a reunion, is there?

Since my move west, destinations and events have become the magnets for friendship. And when I tell her that I have a couple of want-to-dos on my list, she’s game. The planned “Slicer Meet-Up” is one of them. From the start, though, it is our being together again that has taken center stage.

“This is an amazingly supportive community I’ve been blogging with since March 2018. Remember the post I wrote about you during the first March Blogging Challenge?” She nods. She says she’ll go along and check it out. An email chain has let me know who might make it for drinks and possibly dinner. It all feels very casual, manageable…I only know these people through their posts after all. But I do know the power of that shared writing.

“Truly, I’m actually doing this,” I confess as we head to the designated restaurant, “because you’re here with me. If I were alone, I’d probably spend the night reviewing the day and reading. You give me courage.”She understands. I’ve told her so much about this effort to commit to public writing, to publish and work on craft.

“]ust understand, Trish, that I might bail if I feel like it.” She’s actually echoing my thoughts. Then we’re through the door, scanning the room, and finding a long table with some gift bags in the center. “That’s them,” I say and we head over.

Right away she wants to leave, and despite my urging, she does. I absolutely get it. She doesn’t know these folks, and there is community here; she feels like an outsider despite my invitation. I am tentative myself, but the warmth in the smiles and the chatter floating freely from friendly faces convince me to stay.

Melanie has arranged this get-together. Now I am meeting one of the Two Writing Teachers—for real! She invites us to introduce ourselves, tell a bit about our blogging adventure, our lives, whatever we wish. It is affirming to match faces and voices with written lives, snapshots of being.

As the time passes, many of the group leave for other commitments, but I’m hungry—and I truly like these people—so when the dinner option is laid on the table, I take it.

Five diehards remain. We move to a smaller, more secluded round table. And we share. We commiserate. We tell stories. We laugh. It is magical for me. The four people with me are my people!

Thanks, Melanie, and all the Slicers who showed up. I am so glad that I did.

Moving Forward

It’s a strange thing—to be asked to write an article for an event you have yet to attend, but that is what happened yesterday. Our professional organization’s newsletter, OCTE Chalkboard, has a deadline in advance of the NCTE Convention which begins on Thursday.

I am one of the few people who will be attending. OCTE does not fund teachers for the convention, hoping that districts will step up for those who seize this most inspiring learning opportunity. My former employer in New Jersey was amazingly supportive. I still marvel at my good fortune. She used to tell me that seeing my enthusiasm and the way new insight played out in the classroom was worth every penny. “We want to put lifelong learners in front of our students.”

Based on experience, I have written the blurb that follows:

Perusing the program for this year’s NCTE Convention, “Sueños Pursuing the Light,” an in-person event after two years in an exclusively virtual environment, is akin to receiving that holiday catalogue full of those tempting items that shout, “Celebrate!”

The welcome from program chair María Fránquiz stated, “…we can share the ways our individual and collective pursuit of light…continues to assist us in imagining a new story…new dreams—for ourselves, our students, and our communities.”

Anaheim buzzed with energy from Thursday, November 17th through the special workshop opportunities on Tuesday, November 22nd. From the very first sessions, themes emerged. NCTE manifested its commitment to expanding the range of voices, the breadth of ideas, and the hope of a more equitable and just world through presentations from dedicated, engaged, and highly skilled professionals.

“Oh, to be cloned!” That thought crossed attendees’ minds as the array of learning opportunities made selecting one nearly impossible. Many colleagues who attended together separated to attend concurrent sessions in order to bring even more resources back to their classrooms.

The NCTE Convention proved, once again that working together fosters growing together—and shined a beacon for all to follow.

(While I have no crystal ball, I do have a history of inspiration with NCTE. May all my dreams come true!)

Dear Sam…

I began writing letters to you as soon as I knew you were coming. I kept writing those letters throughout your life with us until that early morning when you left the house to relocate in New Orleans. I guess we’d had our “training wheels period”—college—as you were no longer a part of our everyday comings and goings, but that departure was different. No school schedule would bring you home.

I gave you the packet of letters I’d written; they were no secret. And you left. I worried as soon as I’d let them go…about you, not hardly: you were ready to soar. But the story of our shared history ? Its absence wrenched.

It was several years later that you photocopied them all and gave them as a book to me for Mother’s Day—best gift ever. And occasionally I’ll pull them out, seldom to reread them, more to reassure me that they are still there. Finding them, skimming the pages, reminds me of the great gift (and sometimes burden) that writing can be.

Almost every year I’d share with my middle schoolers a lesson touting writing as a gift and show them our letters. I’d usually share the one recounting our middle-of-the-night trek to the bay for a Leonid meteor shower.

Even as the frequency ebbed and flowed, a birthday letter was guaranteed on (or at least near) the date…today, November 8th. It was an election day that year, too, but I didn’t plan very well and failed to cast my vote for Michael Dukakis and Geraldine Ferraro. Instead, I delivered you, a wise-eyed wonder.

Epistolary writing got me through some tough times, and you were a writing beacon for me. I could imagine you on the other side of the words, and I felt calm. I felt heard. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Write to please just one person.” You were my person.

Now you live an hour away, close enough to drop by for a weekend, or a dinner out on a special occasion (like this one which we’ll celebrate tomorrow). I don’t write you letters anymore, but…

In the wee hours this morning when I found myself awake and your dad heard me fumbling around in the kitchen, we both went outside because the Blood Moon was upon us. The Oregon cloud cover had parted and the powerfully blushing full-faced moon stared back at us.

Ancients regarded celestial occurrences such as this, as signs, portents often ominous.

Isn’t science wonderful? I can watch the same thing from my small patch of yard, and think, “Beautiful. Perfect. Serendipitous. Happy Birthday, Sam.”

Inner Journeys

Have you ever been in a book club? I hadn’t been a member until I retired and even then, I have only been a member for a year. My calendar bears titles as well as the familiar.

When I was invited to join, I debated. The reading would be no problem; I’m a reader, but I only knew a couple people in the group and book clubs are as varied as the personalities in them. I had heard stories of clubs where books took a backseat to wine-drinking and local gossip. Not my thing.

This one, however, has been running more than 20 years, with one of the founding members still going strong. It meets at 8:30 a.m. every fourth Monday, so I figured wine-drinking wouldn’t be a problem. Even though the first year was a Zoom one, and I felt somewhat disconnected from the closeness that the other 10 members shared, I hung in there. And I’m so glad I did.

Last Monday we met in person, as we have been able to do since the weather beckoned us outside and hesitation to gather abated. Despite the stormy morning, the five of us who could attend were all smiles. We discussed our last year’s final title, Cloud Cuckoo Land, yet another masterpiece by Anthony Doerr, and began our selection process for the upcoming year.

My reading sisters have been through some tough times lately. One had to step away to take care of a mom on hospice, another because of family difficulty, another because of job pressure. One of us is enduring treatment for lung cancer. One was MIA on this day because of Covid. Nonetheless, the Inner Journeys crew persists.

Our reading year begins this November, now also known as Open Water month! We set off together with this title, and a raft of others follow, all sure to take us places we have never been.