Category: Education

Pacing the Tiger’s Cage

My legs want to move, my brain says it’s time to do something, but my incision and internal organs say, heck no, all we want to do is lay around on the couch. Grrrr.

I definitely overdid things on Thursday after getting good news from the doctor. The staples came out, we found out the cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes or internal organs, and I thought I was all that. Okay, I still had cancer, and a rare form at that, but death wasn’t knocking on my front door. Heck, he wasn’t even in the neighborhood!

So what did I do? I had lunch with my sister, my son, and his girlfriend. I went to Half Price Books, walked around the store, and bought knitting books (full disclosure: I did have to text everyone and tell them to come find me under the Arts and Crafts sign, sitting in a cushy, padded, wingback chair, probably fast asleep by the time they got there). I met my running group for drinks. I had a late dinner with some of them. I had brunch the next morning with my closest friends.

Beer at Fuzzy's Tacos

Some of the WRRC when they’re not running.

I had a blast. Seeing friends and family has kept me sane throughout this entire experience. But yesterday I was exhausted. My incision hurt and it was uncomfortable to walk. Today is the same. Setback. I was doing so well. A rock star. Now I’m just restless and impatient.

I haven’t had a really bad day since this all began. I haven’t had a meltdown about having cancer. I haven’t gotten angry and shook my fists at the gods screaming, “WHY ME???” I’ve been surprisingly accepting and realistic about the whole thing.

Cancer can happen to anyone.

I’m reading the Gilda Radner book It’s Always Something about her battle with ovarian cancer. It’s a great book, but shocking that it took almost a year before she was diagnosed. Things are better now, almost 30 years later, especially as far as treatment, but I can’t help but be saddened that there is still NO screening for ovarian cancer.

Dr K told me that being diagnosed as stage 2 is very rare. She only has ONE other patient who is a stage 2. The majority of her patients are either stage 1, when the cancer was caught early either accidentally or because of torsion (twisting) and pain, or the more advanced stages 3 and 4. To me, that’s shocking.

The torsion, rupturing,  and pain I experienced were the best things that could have happened to me. They literally saved my life. On the flip side, I have a rare form of ovarian cancer, and I fear that the doctors won’t know exactly which drugs to treat it with during chemo to send it into remission. I will get more information the next time I go to the doctor, but it scares me.

A good run would do me a world of good, but that’s out of the question. In the meantime, I’ll keep pacing the tiger’s cage, back and forth, over and over, until I can one day break free and return to my “normal” life once again.

Photo courtesy of: Dcoetzee (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Enemies and Rivals

We have met the enemy and he is us.  – Pogo

I’m tired. I work hard, I run hard, and I never seem to have enough fun. Everywhere I turn these days it seems someone is showing me their angry face, or I’m reading yet another snide blog post from someone who is angry at someone else who is taking all their hard-earned money and having a great life at their expense.

I’m so tired of the rhetoric.

The election is over and we’ve all moved on. Right? Wrong. And of course we shouldn’t just “move on.” That’s not how democracy works. We should all be ready to roll up our sleeves, dive in, and get this country back on track. All of us, We the People, not just the ones who vote the same as we do.

And that’s what is making me tired.

Seven years ago I started running. The people I run with are the best friends I have. We laid one to rest yesterday and perhaps it’s the reason I woke up this morning with these thoughts pushing their way to the front of my crowded brain. Things that once seemed important no longer do. Life is short, and I have some things to get off my chest.

My friends and I run crazy long distances for hours at a time, and no subject matter is off the table. Within my larger circle of running friends we rarely talk religion or politics, which pretty much mirrors life at large. I suspect most of us don’t talk religion or politics with our less close friends either. Within my smaller circle of running friends, however, religion and politics is what we talk about the most, kind of like what we do with our families.

Even amongst my less close running friends, we all get along great. We come from all walks of life, have very different jobs from one another, enjoy varying interests outside of running, and we break bread and toss back a cold beer together quite often. We really like one another.

Beer

Beer: the great equalizer

Of course we all stay in touch on Facebook when we’re not running together. But something happened these past two months. We had to choose our next president. For some people, Facebook suddenly became a battlefield. Things I never would have expected to see were posted, not just by my running friends, but by everyone. Some of the posts were funny, some rude, some mean, and some downright ridiculous. What bothered me the most wasn’t what was said — though some of it was very surprising — it was the vitriol behind the words, the hatred and disrespect if you felt differently.

The other day I read a blog post that disturbed me, but I couldn’t figure out why:

When we answer to each other, as we do now, we are only as successful as our neighbor allows us to be and he is only as prosperous as we permit him to be.

When one neighbor can pass a law or raise taxes on another neighbor, then we all lose making one man’s tax benefit another man’s income loss. This negative spiral of self-defeating tax and law resolutions causes every man to have a small piece of his own personal freedom (and income) taken away from him by his neighbor. In this way we each take turns taking from, and losing to, each other until in the end, everyone is just a slave to everyone else.

Many people feel this way. Even my better half leans in this direction, and I still love him. I find those words sad and cynical. What happened to being my brother’s keeper and all that? The fact that for this person his “neighbors” are the ones keeping him from personal happiness (and solvency), and his equating this to slavery, makes me wonder how we got so far off track. I appreciate his thoughts, though, because I’m trying really hard to understand views that are so different from my own.

(Personal aside that really bugs me about his post: he eventually throws in something about having to pay for his neighbor the teacher’s higher salary, health care benefits, pension, and school building improvements. Sigh. Those evil, greedy teachers who are once again out to steal money from those who have real jobs. At least he didn’t bring in the unions. For 18 years I was admired for being a teacher, and about two years ago I seemingly overnight became the root of all problems in this country, without even being a member of a union. Fighting teacher-hate makes me really tired. I apologize for the digression.)

Dog

Shasta asks the question: Can’t we all just get along?

The entire point of my tiredness is this: WE, the citizens of this country, are not the enemy. When did we let ourselves be convinced to turn on each other, to be each others’ victims and rivals? We’re spending so much time these days hating some other guy (myself included, apparently, considering my response to the aforementioned blog post) that we’ve lost sight of the fact that our country is only as great as we make it.

We own this place. Those people in Washington are there as our representatives. I live in Texas and I’m not a Republican. My congressional representatives rarely represent my views. That doesn’t mean I throw up my hands and cry uncle. I don’t want to go out and shoot up a school, either, but I do bitch and moan a lot because I earned the right to do so when I voted.  I continue to make my views known to my Senators, even though I rarely agree with their votes, because that’s the way it works. I have to trust in that. If I didn’t, I would try to change it.

As for taxes, of course there are problems. Teaching in a low income neighborhood for 20 years illuminated a lot of welfare abuse. I saw it firsthand. But here’s the deal: those poor families and their children who need assistance aren’t going anywhere. They aren’t going to magically disappear and suddenly leave more money in your pocket. Isn’t it better to try and help their children, and at least offer them a good education as a way out of poverty? If we can’t see the benefits of having good public schools, as a way of preserving our country’s future, without resulting to privatization and making a profit off our kids’ education, then there’s no hope for us. None. Hopefully those tax dollars will come back to us in the form of intelligent, responsible citizens. They won’t all be lost. I’m willing to help my neighbor with that, and I’m willing to see the bigger picture and think of the ramifications for the future, not just my own small, short life.

Poor people are not the enemy. A larger share of our tax dollars go to mega corporations in the form of tax breaks, grants, and incentives. These corporations then use our tax dollars to develop new products, which then leads to jobs being outsourced overseas to people who will work for pennies a day. Then these same companies turn around, pay the guys at the top six and seven figure salaries, and the corporation pays little to no taxes. Isn’t this just another form of welfare? Socialism? Capitalism? I’m not seeing many benefits to our country by continuing down this path. I’m not anti-business. I would love to run my own small company. But if you’re going to use my tax dollars, I’d like you to at least contribute something back to society.

We have plenty of money in this country, it’s just in all the wrong places. But, really, rich people aren’t the enemy either. We all know that. Let’s work on putting our money where it can be put to good use.

Maybe we should all turn off CNN and Fox News and start thinking for ourselves. Look around. Talk to those neighbors you resent so much. Bandy together and see what you can do to change the things you don’t like. Accept that there will be differences in your beliefs. Those differences are what make life interesting. Assume that most people are smart enough, and have enough common sense, to be able to make good decisions. Debate. Talk.

And, please, let’s get rid of all the catch-phrases and labels. Liberals, socialists, conservatives, entitlements, idiots, blah, blah, blah. I am not an idiot because I think something other than you. It’s not okay to belittle someone because they’re different. Please, be respectful.

Houston Marathon 2012

Houston Marathon 2012

I didn’t support the decision to go to Iraq. I had a teenage son at the time and worried about all the sons and daughters being sent off to die for something I wasn’t convinced was right. It hurt when others felt my nonsupport was unpatriotic and treasonous, as if the simple acts of questioning war and fearing for the safety of our troops made me less of a patriot. Now I shake my own head in disbelief at those who talk of secession. Is that a more honorable solution, to walk away rather than work towards a better future? I’m very confused by this.

It’s all much more complicated than I’ve stated. There are no easy answers. I would lose any debate on this issue, I’m sure, and get way too emotional for my own good. I’m just someone who is tired of the way we all seem to hate each other these days. I see it when I drive my car, when I buy groceries, when someone steals my lawn mower and my grill, and when people talk about others they don’t even know. I honestly think our differences are smaller than we imagine. We seem to have lost sight of the ability to “walk a mile in someone’s else’s shoes.” Compassion is not only reserved for those who believe as you do.

I sometimes feel as if we’re treating each other as opposing sides at a football game, with our future, the football, being thrown around so haphazardly. Us against them. Maybe we could take a lesson from my running group, all of us so very different, but all running — together — towards the same finish line. I think we owe it to each other, to our children’s futures, and to the future of this country that we all love.

We have a lot to lose if we don’t.

The Snow Day and the Thugs

Now that the days are getting long and hot, and I search for anything to get me through to October when the days might cool off a bit if we’re lucky, I dream of snow. White, cold, fluffy snow.

And snow always makes me think of one of my students.

We have a rule in our school district that if the weather turns bad after a certain time in the morning, the buses will run and the schools will open. No matter how bad the weather gets, once the decision is made schools stay open for the entire day.

We rarely get snow in Dallas, but on this one day it started to snow after the cutoff time. By the time school opened at 8:00, the ground was covered in white and the snow was still falling.

Snow in Dallas

As you can imagine, trying to get a bunch of fifth graders to settle down when all they want to be doing is playing in the snow, is tough. School is the last place they want to be.

On days like this you usually have two kinds of kids who show up: the straight A students who never miss, and the ones you pray will stay home just this one day, please dear God.

Ramon (name changed to protect the innocent) was in that first group. He was a smart kid. He never got in trouble, always did his work, and was very well-liked by his classmates. He even had a few girls think he was cute. But there are times when even the good kids go bad.

Like on a snow day.

After picking up the students, walking them up the stairs and past the windows where they could all moan and groan about the fact that they were here and not there, and telling them for the fifteenth time that no, we can’t go outside and play in the snow, the students settled down and got to work on journal writing. The usual suspects stared off into space, not a clue as to what they should write about, and the others wrote furiously about the unfairness of being stuck at school while so-and-so got to stay home and play in the snow. Pencil leads were snapping, sighs and moans were expelled, and even I felt gipped that school wasn’t closed.

A few minutes into journal  writing, Ramon walked up to me with a worried look on his face and asked if he could go to the restroom, it was an emergency. I gave him the Disbelieving Teacher Look, saw the desperate look in his eyes, and decided he was legit. He grabbed the hall pass and escaped.

Class continued. I decided to read a chapter aloud from the book I had been reading to the students, knowing they would lord it over the kids who hadn’t come to school that day. It was a particularly good part of the book, and I was enjoying making the story as dramatic as possible. The class listened intently as I read.

After fifteen minutes or so, I looked up to see the assistant principal standing in my doorway. Mildly annoyed that she was interrupting our right at the good part, I also noticed she had someone with her. Someone who was hiding behind her.

Ramon.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Is this your student?”

Uh oh. I had forgotten about Ramon.

“Yes. He went to the restroom,” I meekly replied.

“Uh huh!” she said. “Do you have any idea where I found him?”

I looked at Ramon. He was looking at the floor. Ramon was in trouble and somehow it was my fault.

The AP called me into the hallway. The class was loving every minute of this. I walked out into the hallway, sweeping the room with my Evil Eye Teacher Look that said don’t even think about it.

Apparently the AP had been making the rounds downstairs after the bell rang, making sure everyone was in class and accounted for, when she heard someone yelling and knocking outside the door to the playground. The door was set to lock when it closed. When she opened the door who did she discover? Ramon.

For some completely innocent reason, Ramon had decided to go to the downstairs restroom. He couldn’t explain why. As he passed the door leading to the playground, he heard someone knocking to be let in. Being the good Samaritan that he is, of course, he opened the door–and was promptly thrown into the snow by some THUGS! They had really done a number on him, too, because his hair, shirt, and jeans were sopping wet.

“Who were these thugs?” I asked. “Just some guys who wanted to be mean” he sheepishly answered.

I said, “Wow, those were some really mean guys to throw you down in the snow like that! That’s awful, Ramon. It’s too bad you opened the door for them.”

He swore it was all true. He even cried.

We sent him into class, closed the door, and burst out laughing in the hallway.

Snow in Dallas

We teased him all year about the thugs. We warned him to watch out for the thugs at dismissal at the end of the day. We asked him if the thugs ate his homework when he didn’t have it in class. We made sure he had a buddy on field trips so the thugs wouldn’t force him to do fun things again.

We were so worried about him, we even had him explain it to his mom on Parent Conference night. After a long look at him, she rolled her eyes and shook her head.

He knew he had been caught red handed, and he laughed along with us. I told him he would never, ever forget the day he went bad. He said he would never, ever do something that stupid again.

So on these horribly hot days of summer, when I’m running in temperatures that are meant for an oven, I’ll think of Ramon and how much fun he must have had rolling in the snow. He said it was worth it, and I believe him.

Knowledge is Golden

I’m one of those people who would probably be happiest being a full-time student. I wouldn’t want to write the papers and take the exams, but I would be happy sitting in class, taking notes, reading the material, and taking part in classroom discussions.

I think it all started with The Golden Treasury of Knowledge.

I probably learned more from The Golden Treasury of Knowledge than anything I learned in school. The Golden Treasury of Knowledge was something akin to The Encyclopedia Britannica, only on a much smaller scale. I think my mom and dad bought them on sale at the grocery store. To a shy, nerdy, bookish grade school kid, they were knowledge nirvana.

I had the first six volumes. Each volume spent three or four pages on different subjects. I particularly liked the pages on gems because I loved collecting rocks. I was also kind of fascinated with the medieval ages.

I spent many summer afternoons reading through the books. I went back to them all the way through junior high and high school. They taught me a lot.

I always loved school, especially grade school. I loved learning. High school was different. My senior year I felt like all I was doing was biding my time until graduation. I was ready to be done, and didn’t put much effort into my classes. The sad thing was, no one really seemed to notice.

Maybe it’s blasphemous coming from a teacher, but I don’t think formal education is necessarily the only–or best–way to learn something.

As a former grade school teacher, I have to acknowledge that at least a quarter of the school day was spent transitioning from one class or activity to another. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never understood the unrelenting push for “time on task.” Try sitting all day in a seminar or conference with no breaks and you’ll get what I mean. No one is meant to spend eight full hours engaged in learning, least of all small children. And the push to get rid of gym, music, art, library, etc. in order to spend more time on “academic” endeavors (i.e. test taking prep) =  complete insanity.

I think anyone can teach themselves anything on their own. In my world, the answer to almost anything can usually be found in a book–or the internet. If I have a problem with anything in life, I usually head for my computer first, a book next, and then all my friends.

Michael and I are teaching ourselves how to garden. We’re building a fence. Neither of us expects perfection, which is key to teaching yourself anything.

When I started running six years ago, before I joined a running group and learned from the experiences of others, I read every book about running I could get my hands on. I still go back periodically and consult the books, especially when I decide to start training for a new race and make a new a training plan.

For me, the best teacher is experience. I’ve learned more about running by just running than anything I ever read in a book.

Michael taught himself everything he knows about computers. Despite a degree in something completely unrelated to computers, he now makes his living from data and computers. He’s also recently taught himself photography and videography.

Hel’s also directly responsible for my own exit out of the technological stone age. A few years ago he showed me how to set up Power Point presentations for my fifth grade social studies lessons. Then he talked me into giving up my Blackberry for a smart phone, and I spent a very stressful weekend reading the online manual trying to understand the mini-computer in my hand.

By the time my son gave me an iPad for Christmas, it took me no time at all to learn the ropes.  Learning to blog and upload photos has been huge for me this past year. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

I still love to read and learn new things, especially science. I wish I’d had better science teachers when I was younger.

I recently read a book by Carl Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which Wikipedia called “a Roots for the human species.” Sagan is one of my idols, and I wish he was still alive. I have to admit, the book was a little dry, but I learned a lot.

I have no idea what happened to my Golden Treasury of Knowledge, volumes 1-6. Like other things from childhood, I suspect it either found a new home or met its end in a trashcan. I can’t imagine not having computers and the internet, but I think we did okay without them when I was growing up.

I don’t know if there’s some type of internet equivalent of The Golden Treasury of Knowledge, but I hope there is. It taught me a lot about the world.

Baby, You Were Born to Be Something

A couple of weeks ago I experienced some problems with procrastination and motivation, especially in the area of writing. It happens fairly often and tends to coincide with a random change in routine (like being out of town for a week). For inspiration, I downloaded the book The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle, by Steven Pressfield. It’s a short, easy read on fighting Resistance.

I’m terrible about trying to get everything done in my day before sitting down to write. I like to save the best for last. Of course I never get everything done that I want to, and writing usually pays the price. And to be honest, there are many days when I question putting so much time and effort into writing posts that are sometimes very personal and that very few people actually read. Writing takes a lot out of a person, and sometimes I question why I spend so much time doing it.

I remind myself that Vincent van Gogh never sold a painting his entire life either, except to his brother, Theo. Obviously, he wasn’t doing it for the money.

So I turned to a book to help me out of my slump.

As these things often happen, the last part of the book synchronized with a post I had recently written on being who we are, as opposed to who we are meant to be.

We’re not born with unlimited choices.

We can’t be anything we want to be.

We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.

Um, I’m not so sure about that. Mostly, I just don’t believe in a “specific, personal destiny.” I don’t believe there’s that one, true thing everyone was meant to BE, kind of like I don’t believe in that one, true soul mate. He continues:

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter.

If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to become a mother.

If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realize it and get down to business.

Well, maybe I do agree with that.

I have two children. Both kids came into this world with distinct personalities, interests, and talents. Each have their individual strengths and weaknesses. One is very artistic and creative, the other very logical and mechanical minded. I could not have molded them to be otherwise. They were literally born that way.

Ironically, the creative one became a geologist. Her saving grace: she makes sure there’s enough time in her life for artistic, creative endeavors after work to be happy.

Getting my other child to read anything other than maps, cross-sections, or Tin Tin–and that’s if I could coerce him away from his Legos or video games–was like pulling him from the jaws of a grizzly bear. He now builds wind turbines and couldn’t be happier. And he still doesn’t really like to read.

(Remember, I’m a teacher. Having a child who hated to read was tough.)

In twenty years of teaching, some children’s natural talents were like billboards in the classroom. I’ll never forget third grade Madai and her incredible artistic talent. She made beautiful drawings in class (she was constantly drawing), and was also emotionally mature beyond her years. When I read a picture book aloud to the class about Wilma Rudolph, who overcame polio as a child to become the first American woman to win three gold medals in the Olympics in 1960, I looked up to see tears streaming down Madai’s face. She was absolutely born to be an artist. She felt everything so deeply.

I can honestly say that if she does anything other than something artistic, it will be a terrible shame for herself and the world. She was born to create art.

Other children were fantastic athletes, eloquent speakers, and gifted mathematicians. Most students didn’t display their talents as brightly as a select, dominant few. I was often surprised–and relieved–when the music teacher would tell me one of my academically struggling students was musically gifted. I suspect many quiet students had talents they chose to keep hidden after years of testing and being forced to conform in the classroom.

For me, I’ve always loved to write. From the time of my first lock-and-key five-year diary to journals in high school, to English Lit papers in college to this blog, writing is a natural love. I suspect almost everyone feels the need to express themselves in some manner, and for me writing always met that need.

I never had enough confidence or courage to make it a career, or never made enough time after earning a living to do something with it. I don’t feel like I’ve disappointed myself, or haven’t lived up to my potential, however, because the desire to write is not going to suddenly disappear.

It’s just there, like breathing. It always was and always will be. And as long as I respect the urge to write, and keep writing–even if it’s junk–I’m being true to myself and the person I was “meant to be.”

It might not pay the bills, but it will keep me happy.

Perhaps life is nothing more than figuring out what you were born to do (which to me is the same thing as figuring out who you were meant to be), even if you never make a penny doing it. You may put in the hours at a lackluster job to pay for the groceries and that great vacation you’ve been saving for, but hopefully there’s something else, something meaningful, that makes you feel like a whole person.

Make it your job to make it happen. Life is too short not to.

Creating Beauty for No Particular Reason

In keeping with my latest goal of creating beauty, I’m finishing up a wrap I started knitting during the Christmas season. The wool was ridiculously expensive, but I couldn’t resist the colors.

Sometimes spending a lot of money on something beautiful is worth it.

I originally bought the yarn for two pillows I wanted to knit for the sofa, but I decided those colors were meant to be worn and draped around someone’s shoulders.

I’m not sure if I’ll keep the wrap for myself, sell it, or give it away. It doesn’t really matter what I decide to do with it. It’s all about creating beauty.

Have you noticed, like me, that there isn’t enough beauty in our man-made world? When I look around the city where I live, I see a lot of generic sameness. I acknowledge that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but it seems too often today that if something doesn’t have a strictly utilitarian purpose it has no value.

I disagree wholeheartedly.

I love poetry. When I’m in the right mood, I love to curl up with my favorite poems and swim in the words. Reading poetry is such a visceral, emotional experience. Certain opera arias have the same effect and can bring me to tears.

The last time I took the train I noticed that poems had been posted on the walls. I loved it, and read the poem on the wall above me over and over.

What a great way to get to work, reading a poem instead of an advertisement. I loved that someone had the idea to post the poems, something that seems so frivolous, yet beautiful.

Children understand the need to create something beautiful. There were always certain kids in my classes who couldn’t stop themselves from constantly doodling, sketching, writing, folding, and making. It wasn’t boredom. Boredom is spitballs, talking, falling asleep, and knocking your book on the floor on purpose.

This was making and doing just because you can’t help yourself.

I understand those kids because I used to be just like them, only I usually saved it for the privacy of my bedroom where no one could see me. I generally like to keep my creative projects to myself, maybe because showing them to the world is showing a little too much of yourself.

Nothing exposes you more than poetry. I used to write a lot more, but rarely showed my work to anyone. Even if it’s unclear who or what the poem is about, you can’t hide the emotion, and showing others your deepest feelings in a poem is like standing naked in a snowstorm.

Knitting something is a little less gut wrenching and transparent. For some reason, I feel almost guilty when I take time to knit during the day. I feel the same way about reading a book. Maybe it comes from all those years of teaching and feeling like I had to stay “busy” every second of the day, but knitting doesn’t feel like real work.

And perhaps that’s the whole point of creating beauty, that it shouldn’t feel like work, that there shouldn’t be any point to it, other than bringing something beautiful to life.

Now that It’s Over: My Love Affair with School

I loved school from the very first day.  When I ran to the car after that first day of first grade, all I could do was jump up and down on the seat and say oh boy! oh boy! oh boy! over and over.  Buying school supplies at Skillerns was almost more fun than Christmas morning, and choosing new school clothes was like becoming a new person.  The start of a new school year was a new beginning, full of things to be learned,  new friends to be made, and fun events happening, and it would all bring me one step closer to my exciting future life as an adult.  I loved every single moment at Henderson Elementary in Oak Cliff, and I loved all the teachers who taught me.

My first day of school ever, first grade, 1966

Junior high was a little more rough.  The boys all seemed to change over the summer from sixth to seventh grade, and things were no longer as innocent and sweet as they had been.  Greiner Jr. High was larger than elementary school, the girls were meaner, and everyone worried incessantly about how they looked.  Boys voices changed, girls got figures, and everyone started pairing up into couples.  All of this was a huge distraction from learning. The teachers were less nurturing and it was easy to get lost in the crowd.  I loved it nevertheless.   In addition to my regular classes I learned how to sew and cook, how to write articles for the school newspaper, and how to cheat in Latin class.  I was even in a mariachi band and learned to play guitar from a man who spoke not one word of English.

7th grade

High school was scary at first.  Skyline High School was huge and I felt like the teachers barely knew who I was from class to class.  The first two years were fun and busy, with commercial art classes and drill team practice, but by the time I got to my senior year I found the classes boring and the teachers stupid.  One teacher chastised me over and over in front of the class because of the way I wrote the capital A in my first name.  My history and science teachers were all coaches, and class consisted of coloring maps and answering questions from the textbook.  With nothing and nobody to challenge me, I did as little work as possible that year to graduate and missed as many days as I could to survive the boredom.  I graduated with honors.  I was ready for that fun, exciting life as an adult.

High school drill team uniform, 1976

And it was.  Neither of my parents went to college, and there was no money to go anywhere far, so I enrolled in classes at the local community college, Mountain View.  It was like the first day of first grade all over again.  I took classes in art history, ancient history, and English literature that all overlapped and melded together.  The things I was learning in history class were being expanded and explained more in depth in my art history and literature classes.  Suddenly, the world and life started to make sense, and I was in a place where it was cool to be smart and make good grades.  Teachers didn’t treat me like an idiot, and they wanted to hear what I had to say.  My first semester of college was like coming home to myself.

Life and fate intervened, however, and at Christmas break I left and took a seven year detour to Switzerland.  I got married and worked for a few years as an English secretary in a Swiss company that made turbine generators for nuclear power plants, then became a hausfrau and mother to two children.  When the marriage failed and I returned to Texas, I went back to Mountain View College, got an Associate’s degree, and won a full scholarship to SMU to finish up my last two years.  I was a single mom and a full-time student, but I would have stayed in college forever if I could have.  My plan was to take a year off and support myself and my kids, then enter a Ph.D track program in Interdisciplinary Studies, Journalism, or English Literature.

My son on his big wheel, peddling around the SMU campus

The seed was probably planted that first day of school that I wanted to be a teacher.  While I was at SMU I took one class in elementary education, but compared to my other classes it was boring and uninteresting.  A few months after graduation, while I was working part-time in the English Department at Mountain View, I met someone who had just been accepted into the Alternative Certification program in Dallas ISD.  There was a teacher shortage and they would actually pay to train you to teach and then place you in a classroom.  I applied for a high school reading intervention position, but after they learned of my years living overseas and my personal experiences having to learn another language, I was talked into interviewing for an English as a Second Language position at the elementary level instead.  I was accepted and decided to put off graduate school and do what I had always wanted to do–teach young children.

I would teach children whose first language wasn’t English, first generation children whose parents were new immigrants to the U.S.  I had a few Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian students, but the majority of my students were Spanish speaking.  I interviewed with a principal whose first question to me was:  would you be scared to teach at a school that is surrounded by barbed wire?  I wasn’t, and was hired to teach second grade at a school half a mile from the center of downtown Dallas.

Like a lot of first year teachers, I was awful.    When classes were leveled in October, I was moved to kindergarten and two half-day classes of students who spoke and understood almost no English.  Many of the students in one class were special needs and could smell my weakness from the moment they walked into the room.  I didn’t have a clue about discipline and went home crying most nights.  I caught every illness known to man from my students and had an assistant principal who made my life a living hell, threatening to write me up if I didn’t outline my color caterpillar and clean the crayon marks off the backs of the chairs.  In addition, I had an old clunker of a car that kept breaking down on the way to school and got me in just as much trouble as the students.  Saddest of all, my heart was broken when the very first student to show up for class on the first day of school, one of my original second grade students, was accidentally shot and killed by her cousin when they found a loaded gun under the bed.  I still have the little notes she used to put in the makeshift paper plate mailbox outside my new kindergarten classroom, telling me how much she loved me and missed me.

My first class of students, bilingual kindergarten, 1992

Somehow I survived, and after the first few years I got used to the stress and oddball characters that seem to litter public education.  Teaching was much, much harder work than I ever expected, and in those halcyon days of Whole Language, everything was expected to be “authentic” (i.e. handmade and not store bought) and thematic (i.e. interdisciplinary).  I loved the creativity of those early years, and spent my evenings copying poems and illustrating them on large sheets of chart paper and finding songs and picture books to go along with our themes–which could be anything from rain forests to families to transportation.

Eventually I found my footing and my confidence as a teacher.  Like most teachers, through much patience, trial and error, and help from veteran teachers, I got better at discipline.  In the beginning, I loved the fun of teaching the youngest students, but eventually I wanted a new challenge and found my way to fifth grade.  I loved the fifth graders’ independence and sense of humor, but had to adjust to some major attitude, lack of motivation, and wisdom beyond their years in areas I knew nothing about until my twenties.  Some days it was like teaching teenagers, some days it was like being back in kindergarten.  Some of the students actually were teenagers, having been held back several times in the past and entering fifth grade in August as thirteen year olds.

2002, at the best reading conference EVER!

Every generation complains about the next generation coming up, about how they have no manners and no discipline, and I’m probably no different.  My students today seem more brazen than those from 19 years ago, and they see no reason to behave just because an adult tells them to.  As a society we have only ourselves to blame.  Television is overflowing with personalities and images that teach our children that being rude is funny, that you can be rich and famous for doing absolutely nothing of value, and that the person who yells the loudest usually gets the biggest piece of the pie.  My heroes are those children who stand strong and aren’t afraid to work hard in school, even when everyone else makes fun of them for doing so and tells them it isn’t cool to be smart.  It’s so hard to be a kid these days.

I have always simplistically believed that education is the way out, that books and learning can solve all problems.  I still believe that.  After nineteen years, though, I’ve decided it’s time to go.  I’m feeling worn down by politicians who think the only thing that matters in education is a test score, that schools should be run like businesses, and that it’s acceptable to cut music and art and cram more kids into a classroom to save money.  I’m tired of the punishing amount of paperwork that is required of teachers, and I’m just plain tired of all the testing.  It’s time to move on.

I hope there are former students out there who think fondly of their time in my class and parents who are grateful that I taught their children.  I hope they can forgive me for those days when I might have snapped at them impatiently or didn’t listen to them when they needed me to.  I hope I made learning fun and interesting, but I also hope I taught them that sometimes learning is nothing more than long hours of hard work.

Most of all, I hope I helped mold some of my students into a bunch of really cool adults, voraciously reading good books and traveling the fifty states, remembering the year they sang Take Me Home, Country Roads in the fifth grade PTA program because it was everyone’s favorite song (to my utter surprise, until I got tired of the kids wanting me to play it over and over all year long), and how they sat spellbound watching and listening to Martin Luther King, Jr’s I Have a Dream speech.  I hope my students remember our Sing Song Sing-Along Fridays and that they will read There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, Freak the Mighty, and Tales from The Odyssey to their own children one day.  I won’t forget the children my students once were, and how they gave my own life so much meaning and love.

In the end, I have come full circle, starting and ending in elementary school.  I realize now that school has probably always been my true home.  I did find that fun, exciting life I always wanted, but like Dorothy, I never really had to leave home to find it.  As a child, it was always there, in the books that opened up my world, in the kindness of teachers who pushed me, encouraged me, and never gave up on me, and in the schools that gave me a safe haven to return to each day.  As an adult, those same elements remained, only I was the one in charge and and had the heavy responsibility of living up to my students’ expectations each and every day.

Fun and exciting?  You better believe it was.

The Exemplary Mr V and one of my favorite students from the best class I ever taught, outside the 6th Floor Museum, 2008

I Never Felt Old Until My First Job Interview in Twenty Years, Part II

I went home and thought about what had happened in the interview.  I had tried to defend myself during Mr. Charter School’s tirade against veteran teachers. I told him I had excellent test scores, that I stayed in my district for so long because I truly believed the inner city students I taught deserved to have a good teacher, and that I had always kept abreast of new innovations and pedagogy in teaching–on my own time, with my own money. I told him how my friends from college were all amazed when I put off grad school and went into an alternative teaching program to teach kindergarten in an elementary school, how they all told me how lucky the school system was to have me, and how I put so much into teaching those first few years that I never made it back to grad school. I told him how I’ve stayed with teaching, year after year, despite serious discipline problems, lack of supplies, educational quick-fix programs, and the crush of mindless paperwork from people above me making twice my salary who need the paperwork to justify their jobs.   I told him I created my own curriculum because the district’s was sub par.  I told him I have great test scores.

Teacher

More than anything else, though, even more than feeling old, I couldn’t help but wonder: When did I become the enemy? What about all those first year Teach for America teachers, would they be in the same situation as me if they stayed with teaching nineteen years? Will their years of experience be seen as a negative if they try to change schools after so many years? When did public school teachers become The Evil Ones? Yes, there are bad teachers. There are also bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad hairdressers, bad plumbers, and many bad principals and superintendents. Yes, teachers get great vacation time–but we don’t get paid for it. We only get paid for the days that we work, which to me means it actually is a pretty decent salary–but it still isn’t great, and certainly no one goes into teaching for the money. In my state there is no teacher tenure and teachers’ unions have very little power. Since we are a “right to work” state it is illegal for teachers to strike.  I sign a new contract every year.

Charter schools, like the one I interviewed at, may choose their students by lottery, but they can kick them out at any time, especially for discipline. Public schools can’t. We take everyone who walks through the door, regardless of if it’s the first day of school or the last, and we are held accountable for every single one of them, specifically through test scores. One disruptive student can make all the difference in the classroom, and can keep the other students from getting the education they deserve. A good teacher will be able to handle most discipline problems, but there are extreme cases, and administrators are not always willing to assist.  Neither are a lot of parents.

Some years, especially like now when economic times are tough, the classroom can turn into a revolving door of students coming and going throughout the year. Poor families seem to move a lot, and it is not uncommon to have a student enter a classroom who has already attended five or more schools in the current school year, and may only stay a few weeks in your classroom before moving on again. Children come to us whose parents are in jail, are dead, or are on drugs and are being raised by their grandparents or aunts and uncles. They live in one bedroom apartments and sleep on couches with their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We take them all, and we teach them, and we love many of them. We are strict, we don’t feel sorry for them, and we give them everything we can. I’m not making excuses, but when did choosing to stick with it and not give up become a bad thing?

For the record, I don’t intrinsically have anything against charter schools.  I was interviewing at one, after all. What I do have a problem with is all the hype, all the articles and stories and news clips about how public education is failing in this country, and more specifically, how teachers are the problem, especially veteran teachers. Bull. I’ve always said, it’s all about the money. Massive amounts of federal funds go to public education and everyone wants a piece of the pie.  If public education is failing then let’s fix it, but let’s start at the top, not down in the trenches with those who are doing the real work.  If more schools become schools of choice, and public schools are merely the schools for those no one wants, what will happen to those children who’ve been dealt a rotten hand in life?  What will happen to our society?  Will we simply raise the white flag and build more prisons instead of schools?

In the end, I decided not to go for that second interview with Mr. Charter School.  I debated going in and giving a killer sample lesson, and defending myself vociferously in our scheduled “extensive interview,” but I knew deep down that I didn’t want to be there.  Instead, I sent a short email apologizing for canceling and telling him I didn’t think I was the person he was looking for.  I decided it wasn’t the school, it was him, and he was someone I didn’t want to work for.  Mostly, I took it as a lesson on not beating myself up over someone’s perception of me based on their own stereotypes.

I’m not ready to mail in my AARP card just yet.  Even with all the cool discounts.

The Chance to Change

Continuing the topic of joy . . .  Three weeks ago I took an incentive pay package and quit my job. It is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. After 19 years of teaching in the same downtown neighborhood, it was time to go. I couldn’t deny the fact that my job wasn’t making me happy any longer, and that it had been years since I had looked forward to going to work every morning. That’s a miserable place to be. Life is too short to settle for the security of a regular paycheck in a job that no longer brings you joy. I kept hoping some new type of job would show itself, that the universe would hear my call and answer it for me, but either I missed the signs or it never happened. Finally, even though it felt like one foot was dangling off the edge of a cliff, I decided to stop letting others call the shots and start doing what was best for me. After a sleepless night and three good cries, I turned in the paperwork and said goodbye to teaching.  By lunchtime I wondered why I hadn’t done it years ago.

Though I’m still teaching until June 3 and will get paid through the end of August, it’s the great unknown of afterwards that makes me nervous. I have to say, however, that I’m excited about the possibilities of all the things I could do with the rest of my life. It’s like the way I feel every New Years Day, the expectancy of change and renewal, and the chance to start fresh. In truth, we have that chance every single day that we’re alive, but how many of us take that chance and make those changes in our lives? I never thought I was strong enough to make such a huge change–until I actually did. In the end, it feels like I have the chance to find myself again–and what could be more joyous than that?