Farmer’s Market, Saturday, August 24

At the corner stand marking the entryway to the Farmer’s Market, I see the principal of the school where I finished my school year last June. I hesitate and then walk by, a leisurely stroll with dog and husband, until I hear my name. She has stepped from behind the lemonade stand to greet me. I turn with a smile and a sincere hug, saying her name, introducing her to my husband.

“Is this the principal of your last school?” my husband asks.
And she responds,”You’ve heard a bit about us, huh?”
We all chuckle, but in that quip lies the reality of 17 days spent out of my depth, over my head, dependent upon the kindness of professional strangers. She, this smiley-faced vibrant principal, the principal one.

My sister-in-law urged me to write about my substitute experience, particularly THIS one, because she watched me debate whether or not I should accept the assignment. Then she returned to New Jersey. That was the end of May, and it has taken until today for me to find the writing space to explore a bit about what I learned, my educational take-aways, from my stint in second grade.

“These kids aren’t like the kids you’ve taught before,” the district administrator cautions me at the intake interview for substitute teachers. “They’re great, don’t get me wrong. But so many have their share of problems. You’re aware of the poverty here, right? It’s a tribute to resilience that some of them arrive at school at all.” I hear the words but reassure myself. “How hard can it be? I’ve been at this for 36 years. Aren’t all kids basically the same?”

I acknowledge, however, that throughout my career, with the exception of my tenure as an adjunct at a two-year college, I have primarily worked with students who are privileged. That does not mean they’ve been perfectly compliant or that I haven’t had days, or even years, where I questioned my effectiveness, where I pulled out all the stops to reach them. But I take her words to heart, aware of the inherent limitations of my position. I complete the online training covering homelessness, poverty, and the range of problems that occur where we are in earnest.

Then the call comes from the school secretary asking, ultimately pleading, with me to return to this class of second graders. I had been with them for three days a week earlier before I had to leave to fulfill a job I’d previously scheduled. They were challenging. I’d had to call the front office a couple of times for back-up. In my former life as a classroom teacher, that had never happened. It was humbling for someone with my experience, but the other substitute teachers who had answered the call said they wouldn’t return. Wouldn’t return!

I am galvanized by a challenge, and I understood what these kids were going through. Their teacher—the “real” one— had had to leave suddenly mid-day because of complications with her pregnancy, a scare both for her and for these youngsters who loved her and had come to depend on her anchoring role in their lives. To complicate matters, it was the end of the school year! Remember how you felt as the school year ended? And these kids went from scared to resentful to “Hey, I’m almost done here anyway!”

I did everything I could to turn them around, to get us all on the same team. I’d taught second grade for a number of years before moving to middle school and work as an adjunct professor. Every morning, despite the outbreaks of what I can only describe as chaos the day before, I’d enter the classroom with optimism. Today would be different, better. I researched strategies, engaging activities, programs addressing this level, this demographic; I went in with tools, with commitment.

One day as we sat in a closing circle, I asked the customary question, “Let’s share one thing.” The Teaching Channel had introduced me to the “Appreciation, Apology, Aha” strategy, and I loved the idea. As we went around, the squiggles began to dominate and the effort deteriorated. I focused on my last shot, a little girl who exemplified the student ideal, and she chirped, “Ms. Emerson, you didn’t have to call the office once today!” AHA!

So the 17 days passed, one-by-one. I got sick—it seemed like everyone was suffering from a wicked summer cold— but made it through with lots of tea and the phenomenal, empathetic support of colleagues who came to my rescue. No matter what I asked, several people were there to provide suggestions, moral support, and smiles. My across-the-hall fellow second grade teacher remained calm, no matter what. Her face consistently registered concern and caring and blossomed with smiles over the smallest accomplishments. She brought sunshine to some of those Oregon gray days.

Then there we were at the last short-but-endless finale, a “graduation” as these youngsters moved on to the building for third-through-fifth graders. This emotional departure rattled a couple of the kids, and I had to make yet another call to the front office. Help arrived—as ever—and we moved forward. I walked the final departing group to the bus, and, I’ll admit, relief dominated!

Back in the classroom, chairs stacked, supplies put away, boards cleaned, floors swept, several watercolor paintings announced: “Happy Summer, Ms. Emerson.” It felt like every other end-of-the-year, the disappointments softening, the sweet moments surfacing. I felt lucky, yes, to have survived but more to have learned:

ASK FOR HELP
PEOPLE ARE GOOD
LET THE LESS-THAN-GOOD GO
LAUGH WHENEVER IT’S POSSIBLE (and it’s usually possible, if not easy)
CELEBRATE SMALL TRIUMPHS
WHEN IN DOUBT, PLAY “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar” (It involves tapping and a whole lot of fun!)
SING…even if everyone doesn’t join in
READ ALOUD OFTEN!

An envelop rested on one round table beside a tiny plant. I opened it and read, “Dear Ms. Emerson, Thank you for teaching our naughty but good class. Love,________” Out of the mouth of babes…

April Showers Can’t Stop Poetry!

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 5.26.55 PM

Welcome to National Poetry Month—no foolin.’ One feature I receive from the Academy of American Poets is its Teach This Poem, arriving every Monday like clockwork. Today’s poem comes from Toi Derricotte and captures the marvel that is cherry blossom time.

Cherry blossoms
Toi Derricotte, 1941

I went down to
mingle my breath
with the breath
of the cherry blossoms.

There were photographers:
Mothers arranging their
children against
gnarled old trees;
a couple, hugging,
asks a passerby
to snap them
like that,
so that their love
will always be caught
between two friendships:
ours & the friendship
of the cherry trees.

Oh Cherry,
why can’t my poems
be as beautiful?

A young woman in a fur-trimmed
coat sets a card table
with linens, candles,
a picnic basket & wine.
A father tips
a boy’s wheelchair back
so he can gaze
up at a branched
heaven.
All around us
the blossoms
flurry down
whispering,

Be patient
you have an ancient beauty.

Be patient,
you have an ancient beauty.

From The Undertaker’s Daughter, by Toi Derricotte, © 2011. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Used with permission.

My favorite lines, “Up at a branched/heaven.” I can see the father tipping his son’s chair back. I imagine standing under the pink snowfall of petals myself. Juxtaposition of human disability and the perfection of pink petal flurries cocoons me.

The recommendations for using this with students focuses on: “Be patient/you have ancient beauty.” What is ancient beauty? Things of nature, cyclical things, things that remind us of Whitman’s lines inLeaves of Grass:”And will never be any more perfection than there
is now,/Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”

Pink snow used to fall and stick to the spring-rainy streets running in front of the school where I used to teach. For 26 years I marveled at the shock it gave me to see the ground covered so with spring snow. I miss that ancient beauty.

Gratitude

To the members of the Two Writing Teachers community and especially the teachers who orchestrated #SOL19:

I wasn’t 100% on board with this year’s SOL Challenge if I’m honest. When I review my posts, I’m somewhat surprised that the entire month passed, and I have something published for each day. What I’m happy about is that I’m back in a “somewhat” habit and hopeful that Tuesday will arrive with renewed commitment to the weekly opportunity to engage with a community of writers.

More than writing some pieces that feel true to me in hindsight though, I am grateful to the people whose words have resonated for me, made me think and wonder. I have loved small moments in waiting rooms and the creative impetus manifest in a knit cap,  and with kids contemplating Spring Break at the request of their dad. I have nodded in sympathy with a writer who said, “I just can’t do it right now,” but didn’t let that deter her from writing when she could—and being unashamed of life’s other demands.

I’ve traveled to quilt shows and seen the world through cats’ eyes. I’ve read flash fiction that used a summit as a symbol for recovery from divorce. I’ve heard about wind storms and weddings, the love of a mother for her son-turning-forty. I’ve gone dress shopping for the last dance in elementary school and weathered a minor flood and house repair. I’ve sat at the dinner table with a mother and son who gathered over frozen pizza and made it a gourmet moment.

I’ve felt like the turn-and-talk partner to so many writers with stories to tell on the big carpet where we all are learning together.

Stories are the way we share our humanity, and this March has proved that without doubt. Thanks, everyone!

The Poetry Remains

Poems fill my in-box. I get a poem-a-day every day, thanks to the Academy of American Poets; Jane Yolen, one of the today’s most dedicated writers, sends me one of her daily poems (I subscribe), and I have written about my last year’s resolution to memorize at least one poem a month here. Poetry lights my life.

Yesterday my husband shared a random survey query: name a book that changed your life and tell why/how. This is not a novel prompt, by any means, and as I thought about it, I realized that I could make a cool graphic—a visually data-rich time line—of writing that has affected me throughout my life. (In fact, I may just do it as a creative exercise, lots of writing there!) My very first influencer would have to be The Bumper Book by Watty Piper, published first in 1946. There Robert Louis Stevenson and I became best friends. Winken, Blynken, Nod and I fell asleep together, Edward Lear’s far-fetched chorus in the background. My love of verse awakened early and has never waned.

On March 21, Yolen’s poem begins: “They are going from us/Hall, Oliver, Merwin/ Those strophic breaths stilled…Yet the poetry remains/…They have left the best of themselves behind.” I am certain that the death of former poet W.S. Merwin on March 15, 2019, completing the magic three of “vatic voices” we have lost this year, impelled her. I have written about Hall here and my love of Mary Oliver shows here, the inside cover of my current writer’s notebook:

20190330_062437.jpg

Today before March ends and National Poetry Month begins, I have used Jane Hirshfield’s lovely “Remembering W.S. Merwin” to create a found poem, a craft I used to practice with students and am missing as well:

William’s Zendo

a hand-made clay water pitcher

as if teaching might be poured from it

two small Buddha figures

a few incense bowls

a low block, rough-cut

wood as altar

thirst addressed

with rain and a poet’s concentration

whenever needed.

What came from William’s eyes:

the world’s wonder

just outweighing its suffering

the poems hold all

a waiting water pitcher

empty

and open.

—thanks to Jane Hirshfield

 

Sympatheia

“We should call Dan,” my husband Eric says as he sits down beside me. “We’ve talked about it, but we haven’t done it. If we don’t, we’re gonna lose him forever.”

Stark those words, and true, the consequences are clear: either we make this overture, or we will have to let Dan go; he’ll become one of those people we used to know. The actuality of it makes me feel sick. Dan has been a part of my life, albeit an intermittent o since I was a college junior and dating one of his best friends—that’s almost 50 years. Eric has known him for longer sharing youth, hometown, friends, and a raft of anecdotes.

Dan was at our son’s bris, comforted me in the kitchen when the reality of what was happening in the living room assailed. He brought his charm, warm blue eyes, genuine interest, and soft touch to that event as he did to so many others. I was there when he returned to town to bury his mom.

We knew him through serious relationships, and he knew us from the beginning of ours—two friends of his who found each other in their thirties and married. When my husband-to-be told Dan that he was getting married, Dan said, “Really…to who?”

“Trish, you know her.”

“You can’t marry her. She’s always been my girl.”

No we were never a couple, but we grew up knowing each other, sharing houses and places, Thanksgivings and Christmases, triumphs and setbacks. One afternoon we went tubing on the Ichitucknee Springs, my boyfriend didn’t want to go, but as usual, Dan was game, seamlessly endearing himself to my work friends. As the sun warmed us, and the cold clear water bore us gently along, a manatee lifted his head beneath the arm I was dangling in the water. Startling, magical. We have shared moments like that, too numerous to mention.

When he moved to Asheville, he invited us repeatedly to visit, and we vowed we would. As Eric quipped yesterday, “Hey, Dan, what are promises if they can’t be broken?” Of course that was at the heart of it. Dan would return almost every fall to visit his brothers in Jersey. He’d come for dinner with mutual friends or alone, and the nights would unspool in threads of story and laughter; I was usually the first to leave the table, the sounds of friendship drifting upstairs, my lullaby.

We left New Jersey in a whirlwind of activity: fast house sale, quick packing, and Westward Ho! No backward glance. The glances, though they have been few, came later. Looming in the rearview for us was Dan and the lack of goodbye…our broken promise, and a history we held.

Yesterday we reconnected, and today my email from the Daily Stoic talks about the importance of sympatheia:

the idea that “all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other.”

It clarifies that even though Stoics espouse the value of independence and strength, this does not mean that we should be isolated. We need friends, “We are made better by caring and being cared for.” This wisdom comes at the right time. It reminds me how lucky we are in the lives we share with others.

Before we end the call, Dan says, “Now we’re in touch. Let’s keep it that way.”  He mentions that he and his longtime girlfriend have been thinking about a trip driving up the coast highway, our coast.

No promises, just possibilities—more than enough for me.

First There Is a Mountain…

20190328_073220

I came to Donovan’s lyrics, “First there is a mountain; then there is no mountain; then there is,” only after I’d discovered D.T. Suzuki and his Essays in Zen Buddhism and Alan Watt’s The Way of Zen. Today I begin reading my newly purchased copy of Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell’s book, Beyond Literary Analysis. The epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets reads:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring

will be to arrive where we started and know it for the first time.

A variation on the Buddhist theme, Marchetti and O’Dell reveal wisdom and our conundrum as writing teachers. Finding better ways to open the world of written communication to students demands a professional curiosity and a commitment to revisiting what we think works, and what we know doesn’t but at least it’s solid ground—familiar—in order to grow ourselves and our students.

I have so many of these books, professional ones, and have written about how, when I relocated, I left a hefty library of them behind, yet here I am, into year two of retirement, still buying them, reading them, pondering what they say, revisiting and reframing what I do, much of which I’ve already intuited through years of practice. There is no “silver bullet,” but there are incremental shifts toward better instruction, toward the mountain, so I will continue my exploration.

“Don’t…”

It’s the advanced class that arrives third period, 32 of them loaded with smarts and spirit! I have my orders: Students should complete their essays on Machu Pichu. I have spent the prep period preceding this group to go over the assignment, the assigned texts, the writing prompt demanding a persuasive piece detailing the reasons why Machu Pichu is a worthwhile travel destination and using the texts to support the three reasons: architecture, culture, and nature.

I know these kids a bit, having substituted before. Seventh grade is a slippery age; they are not to be fooled. As I present what their teacher has left, the groans begin, and frankly, I get it. This is, for the most part, a cut-and-paste project. The students have completed multiple choice questions the day before in a sequence that provides them with all the pieces of the essay. Now they must type their multiple-choice selections into essay form. It begins with an introduction that concludes with a thesis and proceeds from there. In the end, all the essays will read pretty much the same.

Riley raises her hand. “What I don’t get is why we’re doing this. It is exactly the stuff the other classes are doing, but we’re supposed to be advanced. It’s just”—and here she characterizes correctly—”cut-and-paste. We’ve already found the parts and put them in order. It isn’t even our words we’re using.” I begin to explain that they can own the writing, revise to make the lede and close their own. This does not seem to quell the grumblings.

Another voice repeats, “Why are we doing this?” So I do what I usually do, ask them, “Why is your teacher having you do this?” They throw out torture, busywork, the standard responses, and after it gets repetitive, I interrupt.

“If I were your teacher, I would have you do this, so you’d have a template for writing your own persuasion and understand one logical way the parts could fit—not the only way, mind you, because truthfully professional writers undertake this same assignment for legitimate travel magazines and newspapers. They actually convince people to travel to Machu Pichu—for real—and they get paid to do it!” I’ve got their attention, so I finish, “What they do is own it, make it their own. Shakespeare said, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun,’ and that was three centuries ago!”

They get to work. I have no idea what sunk in, but they are good kids, and I’ve told them the truth. Riley raises her hand again, and her friend hisses, “Don’t, Riley.”

I go to her, and she’s sort-of working, sort-of chatting, and I say, “How may I help you?”

“I hear you,” she says, “but I don’t believe it,” and she begins typing, the right-answer packet open in her lap.

Yesterday A.J. Juliani, a guru of Genius Hour and project-based learning, featured an excellent blog post about engagement, targeting primarily teachers but creating an epiphany for me regarding students. He open with a graphic showing the way classrooms are managed and writes, “What I found fascinating about his [recently deceased educator Phil Schlechty] levels of engagement is that I could see myself in the classroom working towards compliance instead of engagement.”

I have no answers here; the truth is compliance has been a goal of mine as well. But I will admit, from my perspective as a substitute, I immediately thought of Riley and of her peer’s admonition, “Don’t…. ” Why shouldn’t students question the efficacy of the way their time is being spent? And why shouldn’t we honestly foreground work with our rationale? Thoughts to carry me through Spring Break.