The Twice-Lived Life

“It is with a heavy heart that I share…” When an email subject line begins this way and comes from my principal, I steel myself before I open it. Yesterday was no different. Even though I no longer reside in the community where I taught for 26 years, I am still deeply a member of the community because I am teaching the students who do still live there.

Usually these missives contain news of a parent of one of my colleague’s death—and by no means do I minimize that loss—but when the death is a student’s, I am devastated. This is not the way life is supposed to go. No matter who the child, the loss is personal and universal. I have lost students before; it never gets easier. All that hopefulness…

A student from the Class of 2016, the ’15-’16 school year, whom I remember vividly, you know how some of them are, sending sparks of light into the world, a center-stage smiler, Olivia, is gone—suddenly. I sit in shock letting it sink in, all those damn questions about why, and why, and why. No. Answers.

As the day unfolds, I open another email, the one for the Slice of Life Challenge. Oh, my gosh, in all the activity lately, I’ve forgotten to register. Halfway through there is a question about having our students participate, and now that I’ve come out of retirement and have “my” students, I realize I want to resuscitate my former Edublog. I want my students to challenge themselves as “Slicers” and blog for an audience of their peers.

I open my that dormant space, not remembering the last class to truly engage with this writing medium and scan. Turns out the last class to blog from our class blog hub was 2015-16—Olivia’s class. And there’s “Olivia’s Blog” listed in the roll. And Olivia, a part of her that I was lucky to know, lives there:

“After researching and accomplishing all different kinds of unique bracelets, I have learned more about the techniques, strategy’s, and overall how to make certain intricate bracelets. So far I learned the…

  • fishtail
  • chevron
  • striped
  • heart

and there’s more to come but will be done after the project is over. ” This from her post at the end of her 20% Time Project.

And this:”Out of all the categories on the checklist, one of the highest points I exceeded above is persistence. I kept at the bracelets even when I messed up.”

As I read through the posts tracking our year together, I relive our relationship. It is a bittersweet journey, but writing, writing allows that. Olivia will always be alive on these pages. For that I’m grateful. 

(Thanks to the late Donald Murray for this title.)

Not-So-Super Bowl, and Yet

Oh, February Break is coming, and despite the December holiday still lingering in my rearview, I—and I venture to say my students—will welcome the respite. I, if only to plan for those six unbroken school weeks that await—they, because they’re kids!

And the first Sunday will feature Superbowl LV . LV, I think of it as text-talk for love, and hope that’s a harbinger for 2021. Make no mistake, my husband and I are not football fans. My father-in-law plunked himself in front of the television on the weekend for the games, as to a much lesser degree did my father. My mom loved the ’49ers—a connection that came from her love of San Francisco more than anything else.

When our son was small, I passed that to him—and he caught it. Oh, my gosh! We would watch games together in New Jersey; I felt like I was gently indoctrinating him to the “West is best” philosophy. (And it took, a story for another post.) At one point I even bought “Dish,” so we could watch the Niners play blacked-out contests.

Last year, if you follow the game at all, you know “our” team, went to the Bowl. But it was not a year of love, was it? The Chiefs trounced San Francisco, and I was hosting my wonderful neighbors and friends to tapas while we watched the red and gold go from victory to defeat.

What I did not know then is that my great friend whose support of the Chiefs piqued me (embarrassingly) would soon be diagnosed with lung cancer. The ’49ers would not find any gold that year, but goal posts would come to mean so very little. And our world would close tight its neighborly doors; no party reprise for 2021.

And yet…Amanda Gorman will perform a poem, yes folks, a poem at the Super Bowl (chills course through me). This is a GOLDEN time for poetry—and I dare hope for what’s coming. Though my good friends and I will be physically apart, we remain close; thank the resilient, enduring bonds of friendship, and my son and his wife will be moving here from New Orleans. (The Saints may have been defeated, but this is an unequivocal WIN for us.)

When we gather in front of various screens, yet again, for this 60th contest, I still will be celebrating…LV.

These Precious Days

When we pull up to the entrance of Franz Cancer treatment center, an annex to Providence Hospital, I take a breath before asking, “So, when we pick you up, how do you want us to be? I mean, how will you feel?” Michele assures us, my husband and me, that she’ll feel just fine, maybe hungry. (It’s two days later that the fatigue and general rottenness will become overwhelming. Later when leaving the sofa will be too much to bear. There have been many treatments, and the trajectory is the same.) “So we can talk and everything?” She just smiles, opens the door, and steps out with resolve.

This is the first time we have had the privilege of helping our good friend in this way. Usually her husband takes her in for the treatment every three weeks. But he’s a fisherman and is waiting for word that the price for commercial crab has been settled. The moment that happens, he and the members of his crew will muster and head out to battle for Dungeness. Like minutemen, they wait…

The entire ride into Portland from the coast, we have chatted—masked but fully engaged— as the rain drove against the car. It has been far too long since we’ve had the opportunity to spend time together—like before, pre-Covid. The occasion may not be joyful, but it is not devoid of joy either.

When she texts us that she is ready for pick-up, almost five hours have passed. Our trip home begins and the talk, too, as she explains how the protocol goes, who does what when. I register names of nurses and technicians and then they vanish. The comfort of a normal car ride eclipses the subject matter; it could almost be a story someone I don’t love is telling…almost.

Yesterday Michele sent a quick email—subject line: These Precious Days, reading, “Trish, Joann Ya gotta read this.” And so I do—of course I do. And when my husband returns home from the grocery, I am in tears, staring at the computer screen. Ann Patchett is always brilliant. This time, however, the subject in its life-winding way, carries me on a river of words to the inevitable. I am swept away in that river.

It is reductive to say that “These Precious Days” is a story about someone living with cancer. It is more the story of anyone loving someone who’s living with cancer. That someone is Ann Patchett, and Michele’s husband, and Michele’s son, and countless others I have never met, and …me.

Writers Welcome

“Dear March—Come in…”

The email lets me know that sign-up for the March #SOL2021 Challenge is coming. Gosh, it’s going to be January 29th, the day to commit, before I know it. That’s one thing teaching does—hastens time. Look, there goes winter…

This will be my third year participating, and I am nervous about posting every day. During March 2018 and 2019 I wasn’t working, not each day anyway, so I had no excuse. Then I realize that when last March ended, I aimed to post every Tuesday. The once-a-week SOL community has its ebbs and flows. I certainly have been part of the ebb since September. Even today, despite knowing that I should be posting something, I almost let it ride. But the specter of March 2021 prodded me to action.

I don’t know why it is, but when I am busiest, I do more, meaning it might be the best thing my writing life ever experienced to take on daily March posts. I guess we will see. (Maybe some of you will see, too.)

If you are thinking of joining this group of writers this March, I can’t recommend the adventure strongly enough. It is a humbling thing to find a topic worth developing and placing in front of the world—each and every day. Here, however, people are kind. It’s a model worth taking into the world, both the doing of something consistently difficult ( hence challenge) and supporting others as they do the same.

Early mornings will bring some tossing and turning, some frustration, some uneven writing, no doubt, but let the March #SOL Challenge enter “in like a lion, out like a lamb.”

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.

Gratitude

Oh, I am grateful for where I live. I know I’ve said it before, because when we’re grateful, we have the luxury of that refrain.

Oh, I’m grateful for the work I love. Granted not every day goes smoothly. In fact some, like yesterday, are truly awful and make me question whether or not I should subject the students to my ineptitude, but I am grateful for them, their forgiveness, their generosity of spirit.

Oh, I am grateful for the rain. We have had quite a bit lately, and all I can think is, “Let it rain,” as I recall September past and fires, and ochre air that kept us inside and sent others fleeing their homes.

Oh, I am grateful for my husband who has essentially repainted our entire home. Gone is the paneling that covered every surface, a flashback to the 70s on every wall. While I teach away, he maintains a low profile in another part of the house. Our yard, our small repairs, our big decisions? All is a part of our partnership.

Oh, I am grateful for my son, who married the love of his life—and now one of mine, too—in what he called a “rustic formal” ceremony in the redwoods of northern California a little over a month ago. His wedding clarified for us all that truly, “Love is all you need.”

Oh, I am grateful for those stunning words and music, for those Beatles, among so many contributors to the soundtrack of my life. Let the music play.

Equal Time for Awesome!

I touted the joys of sixth grade last week, but I have to give eighth graders a doff of my cap today. Thanks, kids.

There are only two of them; that alone puts them under scrutiny in a way that would never happen were we in a “real” classroom. I think about that every time we meet, how annoying it must sometimes be for them to see perky me first thing in their morning. (In pre-Covid school, predictably that first block was always a challenge with ubiquitous big yawns and glassy stares.) Truthfully adolescents often would rather hide than be noticed. There is no escape in this set-up, but I digress.

Cue the Global Read-Aloud Kahoot. A wonderful, generous STEM teacher from Canada, set up a global Kahoot. Do you Kahoot? I never had. At the end of a section, as I understood the directions he sent to everyone wishing to participate, he would send a quiz for the kids to take regarding the most basic novel aspects. They’d play; teachers would send results; qualifying students would make the “Global Leaderboard.” Sounds like a manageable plan.

I’m a Quizlet aficionado, so I was game, but I enlisted my dynamic eighth grade duo for a test run before the “youngers.” We got to the site together. We signed in successfully. I started the game, so far so good, right? But I forgot to share my screen. I had also muted my audio because the Kahoot opening music is fall-on-your-sword inspiring. There I am in my little bubble, playing the game, while my students did….What exactly? Their scores were mounting as I watched. Tral-la-la…

I found out after I finished and returned to our “room” that they’d not seen the game but played charades and waited for me to return. I couldn’t hear them, couldn’t see them —while I remained ensnared in my own little world. Upshot? Disaster or Success? Copious laughter for us all in the early a.m.

What did we learn today? So much about letting go and the power of making a fool of oneself and being able to roll with it. Maybe I’m finally growing up.

Thanks, eighth graders. You are Leaderboard material as far as I can tell.

The Magic of a Happy Ending

The last class of my day is always a sixth grade. Whether a member of the “blue” cohort or the “gold”—colors representing the school and the way 100% virtual students and “school-in-person” students achieve parity in time spent with a teacher—ending with the youngest kids is wonderful. I invariably walk away smiling, soothed by their relative innocence and their acceptance of effort on my part even if it doesn’t guarantee real success in teaching outcomes. They are forgiving.

Today we began class with one of those “babies” (keep in mind, eighth and seventh graders precede them) explaining to her peers how last Friday when she “stayed after” in our Google Meet, “Ms. Emerson and I talked about having a mini-virtual Halloween Parade on the 29th,” our last online meet before this revered holiday.

In the community where I teach, as in much of the Northeast, Halloween is second only to Christmas. The all-community parade is a sacred institution and FUN! In the past, people have lined the streets, adults, children, teens—this event brings out the spirits in the even the most jaded. So when this pre-teen suggests that we wear our costumes on that day and parade around our Meet space, wherever that may be, I am 100% on board. The small things are large in this Covid-world; joy must be cultivated!

Her peers are excited, eager to join in. Google Meet has met its match! We start our class there and end it here:

We are reading Prairie Lotus for the Global Read-Aloud. We have just completed Chapter 6. If you’re participating, then you know that in this chapter the main character Hanna is struggling with prejudice and feeling “other” as a “half-half,” half Chinese, half white. She has pleaded to attend school, but it has not been the dream-come-true she’d envisioned. It’s 1880 in a newly settled town in the South Dakota territory.

Her teacher, Miss Walters, sees the suspicion of her students as they regard Hanna. She tells each of them they will address the entire class answering this question: Where did you come from before you wound up here, in LaForge? The names of places mount on the chalkboard. It turns out that everyone is from somewhere else; they are all newcomers. And Hanna, as the only one from California, who has eaten many oranges, not just for Christmas or a party, suddenly becomes the vaunted one. She realizes this:

“As Hanna listened to her classmates, she glanced occasionally at Miss Walters. She made them—she made us see that we all came from somewhere else.”

(Park, Linda Sue. Prairie Lotus (p. 65). HMH Books. Kindle Edition.)

After we finish the chapter, I give the kids several minutes to work on a novel tracker, to make brief annotations and give a chapter title where Park has only numbered. We come together and share. Then I say, “I made a text-to-text connection. Do you remember when we read ‘Eleven’ a couple weeks ago and the birthday girl was humiliated? I know it’s because I am a teacher, and we focus on what matters to us in a first reading, but I keep thinking about how different these two teachers are, how lucky Hanna is to have Miss Walters rather than that other one.”

The kids are agreeing. Then I say, “I want to always be Miss Walters, kind and perceptive, and open-minded.”

One of my students says, “Ms. Emerson, you’ll never be the mean one!” Oh, in these hard times, I can only hope that’s true.

I end by saying that we all have bad days, but together we will sort it out. We will be forgiving. That shared belief as we say goodbye, smiles all around, makes me thankful for my sixth grade finale.