29 October 2018

For Pam, For Healing, For You

About a year ago, I lost a dear friend of mine, Pam. I wish I could help you understand what a blessing this woman was in my life, but words are difficult for these things. But, alas, I will try.

The first thing you learned about Pam when you met her was that she was loud. I knew Pam my whole life; she and her husband were my parents’ best-best friends, and they were over at our house pretty much every weekend. I grew up knowing her as the wonderful, loud, sweet, outgoing, life-of-the-party Pam that I’m sure most people knew her as. Her heart was as big as her personality, and she lit up the room when she walked into it. But it wasn’t until I decided to become a teacher that I got to know the full extent of who Pam really was.

I was blessed to have been assigned to Dodson Middle School, Pam’s school she had retired from, for my student teaching in August 2016. Even though Pam retired a few years prior to my assignment, she was still a legend at the school. She loved to sub. She loved any chance she could be back in the classroom. She loved the students - I think it’s because those middle schoolers met her with the same energetic intensity that she had.

I was completely terrified when I learned I was placed at Dodson. Student teaching is the culminating experience of receiving a teaching credential, and although I had two awesome master teachers, I still felt unprepared. Pam, on the other hand, was nothing but exstatic for me. The night before I was supposed to go to school and meet the teachers she said that she had told the teachers all about me and that they were expecting me. This made me even more terrified, because I was scared I could never live up to the things Pam had told everyone about me.

On the second day of student teaching, Pam subbed in the same hallway one of my classes was in. When she stopped by my classroom at lunch, she stood in the doorway beaming at me as I spoke with a student. She was so proud of me, and it made me feel like maybe I actually could survive another day of teaching.

At lunch that day, she took me to the grass by a building I never could have found on my own and introduced me to her teaching friends at Dodson: another English teacher, a couple history teachers, a science and a math teacher - people I never would have met without Pam. From that day on, whenever Pam was on campus subbing (which was often, more on this later), she took me around to various groups of teachers: potlucks in the science lab and salads in the Spanish teacher’s room.

Some days, my favorite days, it was just the two of us sitting in the room she was subbing in. She would listen to my teaching problems and offer advice. I survived my student teaching in large part thanks to Pam’s guidance and moral support. I walked out of Dodson with friends and professional colleagues - people that I never would have grown as close to without her. I don’t think I would have the amazing teaching job I have today had Pam not done what she did for me.

In August 2017, Pam got her diagnosis (and subsequent prognosis): stage 4 liver cancer. She surprised me when she said she wanted to keep subbing as long as she could. My school year was just starting, and I was overwhelmed by planning and ideas and feeling unprepared yet again. I already needed a break, and I couldn't imagine wanting to go back to school by choice. But my first day of school turned out to be SUCH a good day that I couldn’t wait to tell Pam all about it. I went over to her house that evening, and I told her about the joy of that first day of school, how all my anxiety melted away into just pure joy being surrounded by students, new ones and veteran ones. She leaned her shoulder into mine and smiled at me.

“It’s healing, isn’t it?” she asked. Healing? I had never before thought of teaching as a healing experience, but somehow I totally got it in that moment. “That’s why I’m going to keep subbing,” she said. “Being at school heals me.”

I understand the word healing more and more these days, as I face uncertain things in my life outside of the classroom. Being a teacher doesn’t allow much time for you to sit and sulk and have an off switch. The only time I miss my mindless desk job are days where I feel like I’m running on empty (which, lately, has been more often than not). My kids pick up on my off days. It’s a blessing and a curse. It is deeply profound that my moods make enough of a difference for them to know when I’m not me. It sucks, though, because I can’t hide from them. Regardless of what’s happening at home, though, I show up every day and give them what I got. And the time I spend with students - human beings who are going through just as challenging, if not more challenging, things than I am and still showing up every day - is healing. Being at school heals me, too, Pam. I wish I could tell you.

And I carry so much of Pam’s goodness and spunk with me into my own classroom now. I miss being able to call her after school and tell her about something wonderful a student or admin said to me, yet I keep her alive by spreading goodness and spunk to the students and colleagues at my own school now.

Pam was the quintessential teacher, and everyone that knew her was one of her students. She taught me how to love deeply and to be silly and to be unapologetically myself. And I return the favor by teaching those around me to do the same.

Namaste, dear friends.

30 January 2017

The Heart-Shaped Balloons

I think it’s time to tell you about the heart-shaped balloons.

I know you’re not supposed to have favorite students, but we all do. For me, her name was N (censored for obvious reasons), a 6th grader. At the beginning of the school year in August 2016, she walked into my class with purple woven into her braids. Over time, those braids would turn neon green, and acquire really cool gold rings; she would chew them when she was nervous or upset and flip or twirl them when she was happy.

My heart cracked open on the second day of school because of N. She came into my class and just literally broke down in tears. I told her to go step outside and get some fresh air. When I came outside to speak with her, she was sitting on the steps of my classroom with her head buried in her lap, sobbing uncontrollably. I sat down on the steps next to her.

"I'm really stupid, Ms. Jones," she sobbed when I asked her what was up. “My mom told me that if I fail 6th grade like I failed 5th, I’ll be in big trouble.” Her tears were so real, so raw, so overwhelmingly full, and so powerful. They shone like little precious diamonds on her cheeks. And I promised her that 6th grade would be different for her.

At week five, kids received their first report cards. She had all A's and one C (in PE, so who cares). When she left class that day, she twirled her braids as she slipped me a note (pictured at right) with tears in her eyes.

Thank you so much Ms. J.

It was the most simple and yet the most beautiful note that anyone (with the exception of my mom) has ever given me. It was in that moment that I realized that I need my students more than they need me.

This need is something that I’ve talked about at length with some of my especially special teacher friends. During my first month of teaching last fall, my boyfriend (of 5 years) and I were in the middle of a very ugly breakup (update: things have changed since I wrote this, but it was ugly at the time). My personal life was in ruins. And yet every single minute in the classroom blurred out the shittiness.(And yes, there were some really difficult days with my students.) At the time, though, I had one purpose in life, and that was to love and care for my students relentlessly. And I did.
I watched N struggle, a lot, over the course of 5 months. I witnessed her lowest lows and highest highs. Even though I had her for 6th period at the end of the day, we had little rituals of seeing each other throughout the day. Her third period class was next door to my third period class (I moved classrooms throughout the day), and every day I would stand at the door to greet my third period students and she would walk by and we would chat for 3 minutes about all the important happenings in both of our lives. I looked forward to that part of my day as much as she did, perhaps more.

And almost every day after 6th period, she would wait for me to close down my classroom and we would walk out of the school together, talking about life and school and the future and giggling the whole way to the gates.

So fast forward to early December. It’s a Friday, and I'm supposed to take my students to the library. N comes into class sobbing uncontrollably and dramatically puts her head down in her arms and just heaves those sobs, her braids spreading out over her shoulders and the table like a black veil. No one can even get near her, she’s sobbing so loud. I ask my master teacher to take the rest of the class to the library, and I sit in the desk across from N.

“What’s up?” I ask.

Her head jerks up and she looks at me with these swollen eyes. And in her eyes I can see this war raging inside her, and I must have had it too at some point, this teetering between child and teen, all the wild and weird and wonderful thoughts. But beyond all that, something different: a fire. In that fire I can see the learning disability and her absent father and her mean twin brother and the poverty and the Projects and the injustice and all the other things I can’t begin to help her with, even though I wish I could. All I know to offer her is my presence.

“Seriously, what’s going on?” I ask again.

“My...friends...forgot my birthday,” she sobs. Her birthday - her 12th birthday - is the following day, Saturday. She manages to tell me, literally gasping for air, that all of her friends had arranged to sing happy birthday to her other friend, whose birthday wasn’t even until Sunday, during 5th period. She's devastated and feels forgotten and can’t stop/won't stop crying. “I’ve never forgotten any of their birthdays.”

And I totally understand her. I understood her all along, but I really understood her right here at this desk in this classroom on this day in December. The teacher in me wants to make this into a teachable moment; the human being in me has to share my personal story with her to help her understand.

“Dude, people suck,” I begin. “People suck. And it’s a totally horrible part of life.” Her eyes get all wide and her tears sorta slow down in their descent. Deep inside me I held a similar sadness, and I told her about that sadness. I told her how I always go out of my way to wish people happy birthday via hand-made cards or heartfelt messages on Facebook, and that the sad reality is that sometimes people just forget your birthday. Then, I dug deeper, to the part of me that hurt the most about birthdays.

“You know what?" I continue. "Every year for the past 4 years, I’ve filled my boyfriend’s room with balloons as a surprise for him for his birthday. I love balloons, and I think he likes them, too, so I buy them for him. And do you know how many birthdays he’s bought me balloons? Zero. He’s never bought me balloons. But do you think that stops me from buying him balloons? It doesn’t. You know why? Because I’m kind.” Her eyes are huge at this point. “I’m kind, and I want him to know that he’s so special to me I’m willing to say it with balloons.”

And then I get all preachy.
“The world will not always be kind back, N. It won’t. But you are kind, and you can’t let the world take that away from you. Never let it take away your kindness.”
Okay, blah blah, you’re getting sick of reading this sappy bullshit, but I swear there’s a point to this.

Fast forward again. It’s my last day of student teaching, and I am a wreck. I already cried about it all day long. I said goodbye to my 8th graders without too many tears, but just thinking about my 6th graders made me tear up.

It’s 6th period and I’m sitting in my classroom already crying. The periods were only 35 minutes, so I know the period will come and go too quickly. Students start to trickle in, we all exchange somber looks, and I tell each one how much I already miss them.

Then N shows up in the doorway. Well, it's actually a bouquet of heart-shaped balloons and a bouquet of flowers that show up first, with N behind them. One glance and I’m gutted, there in front of the classroom I stand up and have to sit back down again. It's the most heartbreaking and heartwarming thing I’ve ever experienced. I put my head down in my hands, and she comes up to me. It's her turn now. She puts the balloons and flowers down next to me, and I can't even look at her.

"Now, whenever you think about the first person to get you balloons as an adult, you'll think of me," she says. "You'll never forget me."

And, you guys, it's not about the balloons. It wasn't about the balloons with my boyfriend, either. It was the gesture, the act. Buying balloons is a fucking hassle. You have to have someone at the store blow them up for you - you have to first locate a person to even do it. You have to carefully exit the store with them and squeeze them into your car and pray that they don't pop while you're driving. And you have to carry them inside, hiding them from the person they are intended for until the right moment. And it's not even about the hassle, because each time I bought my boyfriend balloons I was always so excited to see his face light up when I surprised him that the hassle was just a part of loving him.

N later flipped her braids as she told me that she saved all her birthday money for my bouquet and balloons. And it wasn't about that, either. I don't even know what it's truly about. I try to put into words what those balloons mean to me, and I have no words. Those balloons are still in my room. They are almost completely deflated, and my cats want to destroy them. Once they completely lose their air, I will flatten them and staple them to my wall in my classroom: the ultimate trophy, the ultimate display of love.

These heart-shaped balloons, my friends, are so much more than heart-shaped balloons. I wish I could help you understand. Maybe you already do.


P.S. There's a lot of hate in the world right now, even some in my own heart. Please, above all else, be kind to each other.

01 October 2016

The Journey: On Leaving You and Arriving at Me

I haven't been too personal on this blog lately. To be fair, I haven't really been much of anything on here lately. I've been hesitant for a number of reasons. When I finally remodeled this site a little over a year ago, I had hoped that this would once again become a public sanctuary for my thoughts, feelings, stories, crappy poetry, and life philosophies. But this year didn't turn out the way I expected it to, just like most years. I'm learning that that's not a bad thing. I'm learning that it's ok when the plans my very narrow mind plots and measures do not come to fruition.

On paper, 2 months ago my life kinda fell apart. I broke up with my boyfriend of 5 years. This has been both a devastating blow and a ... I don't have the words to describe the other half of what I feel. I'm 27 and I'm alone, and yet I don't feel alone inside myself right now, which I always feared I would. Instead, I feel more at home with myself. I don't want to get into any details of what happened except to say that I forgot how to love myself, care for myself, and advocate for myself. I lost myself completely in a relationship that didn't give me enough in return.

And here I am, the first day in October, my favorite month, and I am the happiest I have been in a very long time. Maybe that's the other half of the emotion, and I'm just afraid to admit it: HAPPY. Last year at this time, I made plans to lose 15 pounds and to eat healthier and to quit drinking for one year and to turn my soft, fleshy arms into hard muscle. I planned to have written half my book and to have read at least 40 books so far this year. I planned to build a life with a person that at one time was my entire world. Instead, I gained another 15 pounds, my arms are still fleshy, and I started incorporating alcohol back into my life. Instead, I haven't written anything except lesson plans and to-do lists and I haven't finished one book I've started this whole year. Instead, I am starting over, alone, with myself.

I am nowhere near the vision I had for myself of what I thought happy would look like. And yet, I'm happy.

I'm happy. The guilt over feeling happy for myself gets smaller each day. At first, when I first felt happy, it sizzled and burned in my chest. The sensation furrowed my brow. I was riding my bike by the beach and looked out at the water and down at my chubby thighs pushing the pedals forward and I started crying - I was HAPPY. I WAS SO HAPPY BEING ALONE BY MYSELF ON MY BIKE THAT I CRIED. Do you understand what a revolution that is? To fear that you were going to hate yourself if you were alone and to realize that you love yourself? To realize the person you've been all along is enough to make you happy?

But quickly after my real-life epiphany, the guilt set in. I felt guilty for being happy. What kind of mind fuckery is that? Guilt over happiness. I felt bad. It took me a long time to shake the guilt. But it is fading. Every now and then I get a sharp, searing pain in my heart when I realize how happy I am right now. Most of the time, though, it's just a tingling surge. I'm learning that it's ok to be happy for me. Silent revolution.

I found this poem, like so many other life-changers, on Brainpickings. It spoke to this journey I'm a part of - that is, of loving myself again. I hope this speaks to you, to the message "inscribed across/the heavens" waiting just for you.

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again
Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.
Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens
so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out
someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.
You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.
-David Whyte

Namaste, my friends.

30 July 2016

Wild Geese / Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
-Mary Oliver

Needed to rediscover this masterpiece tonight - I think you did, too.

20 July 2016

Technology, Education, Utilty, and Isaac Asimov

From Zen Pencils: Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot

(Slightly Relevant Preface: I LOVE Zen Pencils. I LOVE ZEN PENCILS. For those unaware, ZP takes inspirational quotes and turns them into inspirational cartoon posters. It's as if ZP cartoonist Gavin Aung Than read my bookmarked tabs on Chrome and my delicately transcribed journal epigraphs and created cartoons featuring literally EVERY favorite quote I have in my arsenal: Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, Terrence McKenna's Nature Loves Courage, Rilke's Live the Questions, Frida Kahlo's Strange Like Me, Max Ehrman's Desiderata, and so, so many more. I could - and probably will - write a post about every single one of the quotes featured on ZP and how that quote has helped me through some dark moment in life.)

A recently featured ZP was Isaac Asimov's A Lifetime of Learning. Asimov is pretty prolific. Aside from the fact that he published over 500 (yes, five hundred) books in his lifetime, in a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers, he basically predicted what the mother-effing Internet would become. He said, "Once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference materials, be something you’re interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else… that’s what YOU are interested in, and you can ask, and you can find out, and you can do it in your own home, at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time…"
From Zen Pencils: Asimov basically predicting the what the Internet would become decades prior.
Today, we can learn at our own pace, on our own terms, using the computers in our homes for reference. That sounds an awful lot like YouTube tutorials. That sounds like Lynda.com. That sounds like online college courses. That sounds like Google. The point is, he saw and predicted what he hoped the Internet ("computer outlets in every home") would become for us. More than that, he hoped that the automation of mundane informational tasks would in turn make us more creative, engaged humans. In other words, he hoped that technology would be used to its full capacity.

Today's Zen Pencil was, to be frank, something else I've grappled with for the past five years. I've been ruminating a long while now over how I can help my future students to grasp the wonder and grandeur that is a Smartphone, tablet, and laptop. It's the most powerful tool they will ever own (with the exception of their minds). They have the ability to look up virtually ANYTHING. How deep is the Red Sea? How many satellites currently orbit the earth? How old is Alex Trebec? You don't even have to type the whole question before Google autofills it for you. No one seems to understand the labor that used to go into answering simple questions (let alone complex ones). We have such a gift, and I fear that students don't see it. Hell, I think most adults don't even see it. But, (un)fortunately, I'm a middle school teacher, not a world teacher. (I've made peace with this.) What I seek to do is help my students see their technology as one part entertainment to three parts utility.
From Zen Pencils: Asimov's A Lifetime of Learning
Technology is a utility. The Internet is vast - perhaps infinite. It is at times amazing, other times awful. It is distracting and focusing, catastrophic and helpful. It is literally everything. I go down so many rabbit holes on a daily basis - some useful and educational, some (more than I like to admit) completely useless. I have had to learn how to wire my brain to use my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook as more than just a vessel for distractions. It takes extreme discipline to do this. It takes hard work and dedication. But it also leads to a valuable life, at least by my own self-declared, scientist-artist-hybrid standards.

I'm rambling. Clearly, I haven't thought very clearly about this blog post. I am so passionate, and that passion is overriding my judgement. I will leave you with the quote that stuck with me the most, the quote I hope to drive home to my students. May you also be inspired.

It seems to me that when it's time to die - and that will come to all of us - there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well. That you had learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There's only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try and grasp it. And while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, they can at least do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.
From Zen Pencils: Asimov's Lifetime of Learning
Namaste, students of the Universe