Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bumpin' down the road in my Station Wagon

From my writer's notebook
The week before spring break in sixth grade sometimes feels a little like this:

            My students and I are packed into a wood paneled station wagon, bumping down a dirt road in Learning Land.  It's raining. I'm in the driver's seat trying to facilitate a discussion of the five themes of geography and, in the back, boys and girls are arguing loudly about who is the most hungry, the most tired.  One is silently looking out the window, following raindrops as they snake down the glass. Everyone has to go to the bathroom, including me.  As I am trying to review the difference between relative and absolute location, I notice there's a boy trying to exit the vehicle.  I flip the child locks to secure him in.

            The window watcher begins to cry.  Another girl is complaining someone called her a name. Could I talk to them about this??  Meanwhile, a quiet voice from the back is explaining the difference between absolute and relative location.  I can barely hear her but I try to make eye contact in the rear view mirror and smile.  The girl next to her reaches over and puts a hand over her mouth.  They begin to poke each other in the eye.  I reach back and gently touch a shoulder, give a precision request for their kind attention.  I mentally cross out Five Themes on my lesson plan, shift gears and turn up NPR on the radio.  At least it's educational. 

            More arguing over who farted and someone has organized a betting pool over who's going to win the manly man leg wrestling contest in the hatchback.  The eye poking has now transitioned to hair pulling. "Stop NOW," I say. Another students yells, "Girl Fiiiiight!!" Yet another who has been silently connected to ear buds the whole trip now decides to take inspiration from  Katy Perry and lets out a thunderous, ROOOOOOOAR.

            That's it. "I WILL PULL THIS CAR OVER!!!"
            As if on cue. The station wagon sputters to a standstill.
            A helpful voice from the back says, "I think it's your alternator."
            It's still raining and I can't get the radio.  I tell everyone to take out the book they were supposed to have brought with them. Two people do. "This is stupid." Someone says.
             A clap of thunder shakes the vehicle and it begins to rain harder.  
            "I'm starving," says someone.  I unwrap a granola bar and split it twenty-seven ways.
            One piece gets tossed out the window. "I don't like raisins."
            "This is $%#," says someone else.
            I put my head down on the steering wheel and try to imagine myself on spring break, lying on a beach with my book, a palm tree, maybe a shot of vodka. I've never had vodka but begin to consider I might be missing out. Maybe I'm too conservative. I should have pursued my childhood dream of being a television journalist. I start mentally updating my resume.  

            The car goes silent. 
            Eventually I hear the rustling of eleven and twelve year olds angling toward me. "Is she okay?" One says.
            "I don't know."
            "Poke her."
            "Is she dead?"
            "I don't know!"
            Sirens.  A knock from a uniformed officer of the law.  I roll down the window.  He leans in and smiles, proceeds to write me a ticket for being in a no parking zone.

            I burst into a hysterical, hyena-like cackle that sends tears down my cheeks.
            The raindrops on the windshield begin to sparkle in a splash of sunlight peeking from behind a cloud. The beauty of it catches my eye.  Is this what going crazy feels like?
            "Did you know your tabs are expired?" The officer mentions.
            I barely hear him. We're all watching the glass slowly dry as the sun comes fully out.  One of our more whimsical girls whispers, "It's a raindrop resurrection."  She goes for a pad of paper and a pencil as we exchange that look, you know, kindred spirits.
            Another says, "Why does the rain look like little water bags dragging down the glass? And why does it go so slow, and then fast?"
            "It's surface tension. We learned about it in science," says another.
            "How many raindrops do you figure make up that puddle?"
            "How long was it raining?"
            "How wide is the puddle?"
            And on.
            "You know, there aren't enough seat belts for every passenger in this car."
            Is he still here?
            We get out. The kids jump into the mud and splash their teacher before proceeding to complain about their clothes getting "nasty."  They all look at me, expectantly.
            I smile back, my mud freckles displayed like tiny badges of honor, because I love them all.
            Even the one hiding underneath the car because he's secretly afraid, perhaps with good reason, the officer of the law is really there for him.

To find a vibrant community of teachers who write
visit https://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/

Disclaimer: This is a satirical piece and none of it really happened except for the Katy Perry ROAR which totally did.  Though it might not have been a student. . .it could have been me. I don't really remember.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Saving Laura

My copy of Little House
Lately I'm preoccupied with time management in my classroom. I want to slow down when everything around me says, "Go faster!" This afternoon as I sat at my paper strewn reading table after school, I gazed out my classroom window and indulged in stepping out onto the playground of my own mind. It's nice out here today. This is what I thought about:
When I was in third grade my teacher led a discussion of genres in literature. "So, Charlotte's Web would be fiction," she said, writing it on the chalkboard under the appropriate descriptor.  And a biography of Marie Curie would be. . ."
            "Non-fiction," the class chorused. 
            This went on for a few titles and finally she said, "Little House on the Prairie. Fiction or Non-fiction?"
            I raised my hand. "Non-fiction."
            My teacher looked over her reading glasses at me from the front of the room.  "No. Actually, Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are fiction."
            I was known as a good student, a kind girl you could sit next to the outcast in the class because I would be a friend to them.  Well-mannered.  Flexible.
            So I don't remember deciding this was my mountain to die on. It was instinctual, like protecting your Twix candy bar at lunch. I was pretty sure the teacher had only misspoken.  I took a breath and said, "You mean they are non-fiction."
            "Class?"  She turned to my peers. "When a story is made up it is called. . . .?"
            "Fiction!!" They replied enthusiastically.
            My heart jumped into my throat and I leaped up in a panic to save my precious pioneer stories from this woman's slanderous accusation.  "Those books are TRUE!!!" I said perhaps a little too loudly to be considered respectful, my voice breaking a little. I sat down quickly and covered my face.
            "The Little House on the Prairie books are fiction," she said with calm authority.  Math was more her passion and she had absolutely no idea what she had just done.   I sat, bewildered and betrayed.  I went home that night and asked my mother who responded by scolding my teacher for not better explaining the ambiguity of those books, genre-wise, and the intention with which they had been written. I went to bed staring at my ceiling and wondered why no one else seemed as bothered as they should be.
            I became the books I read, swallowed them whole and digested them into my consciousness. To question that book put my whole inner world into a tilt. It was the first time I felt let down by literature, and utterly misled by the spirit in which I had read something. Why did it matter so much to find out those books might not be one hundred percent factual?  Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were living on borrowed time. My baby sister was two and I was moving into a role of keeping certain things alive for her.  There was a bittersweet feeling about it all, but even at nine I suspected this was the way of the world and growing up.  Part of how I knew this was from reading about what I thought was Laura's real childhood. 


One of my favorite lines is from Richard Peck's Newbery Honor award winning, A Long Way From Chicago.  Grandma Dowdell is a rough around the edges, tall tale telling woman of sometimes questionable ethics. She also fiercely loves her family. Peck gets readers to buy into her sense of justice because her heart is pure gold. This character is more real than some living people I know. The book takes place in a small Illinois town where there  is "time to ponder all the different kinds of truth."  That line closes the first chapter and makes me put the book down every time. It is moving and disappointing and exquisite all at once. It reminds me that what is "real" is up to each of us. The world is full of velveteen rabbits. 

As a third grader I had yet to ponder "all the different kinds of truth," but my writing became a way to examine life through different lenses. Eventually, I understood that my teacher wasn't wrong about the  Little House books, and neither was I.  As a teacher, I take a lesson from her now.  The discussion with my mother about Wilder's books and the subsequent thinking I did that night about it all taught me so much more than knowing where to place a title in an appropriate column.  In the age of Common Core and high stakes testing it is easy to leave the teaching of thought behind. Making "time to ponder" in the classroom is important, either on paper or out aloud.  I've decided it's my mountain to die on. It is, after all, necessary to becoming a whole, real human.

To find a vibrant community of teachers who write
visit https://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Baby Wisdom

         Recently one Saturday afternoon I witness a now-becoming-familiar scene: Our eighteen month old daughter on the step stool at the kitchen sink, swirling a dishrag around in the suds. I pause and watch her because it's clear she has entered that sacred circle of awareness that is "flow."  She is the dishrag. She is the water.  Her pruney hands plunge deep, bring up a rubber duck, a little cup, a plastic popsicle stick. Again with the dishrag, round and round. She leans her face down closer to the suds until bubbles move in response to her breath, then she begins to blow, carefully sending suds in every direction. She pats the bubble peaks with her open hand and goes back to pushing them around in some kind of sculptor's trance. 
            She is our youngest of three, and hyper-engaged in all sensory play. We've been here before: I'm stocking up on cream of tartar for homemade play dough and our water bill might reflect some sink activity unrelated to actual dishes being washed.  Mealtime has taken a turn toward more intentional performance art and baths are lengthy, sudsy, splashy affairs.
            It's especially meaningful to me right now. This toddler life stands in contrast to the becoming complicated lives of our two older children, ages 17 and 20. The eighteen month old was our mid-life shock surprise.  Finding out you are pregnant at 42 while in the middle of pondering an empty nest is an interesting experience.  Part of accepting celebrating this new life direction has been to look for extraordinary moments connected to this child in our day to day lives, and savor them.  Not surprisingly, this part is easy.  
            So there I am, taking a lesson from the baby in being present and mindful.  I decide this is "extraordinary," and call older children over to  watch her play. I tell them whatever they do to always have something in life that takes them to this place she's visiting.  They roll their eyes.  I tell them to always play--not video games--but really play, even while working. They nod, if not in understanding at least out of respect for my tendency to make a big deal out of everything.  It's okay.   Somewhere in their adolescent brains is a memory of playing in water, swirling a dishrag round and round, and being completely at peace in a world of their own making.  My hope is that these memories provide an anchor for authentic living that won't let them down. What is extraordinary is that their baby sister models this every day and we all get to relearn how to live. How awesome is that? "Watch her play," I tell them one more time and the player finally hears me, looks up from her sudsy world, and breaks into a squinty-eyed, toothy grin.
            "This is the secret," I say, "to being happy forever."