Learning to Count

Learning to count in 7/8 time.

Yesterday afternoon while the wind blew and the pollen tried to kill me, I was learning to count.

The question at hand was this: Is it 1-2-1-2-1-2-3 or 1-2-3-1-2-1-2? For a few minutes as the numbers were flying, I could feel the panic room shields locking into place around my brain.

Does this happen to you?

Sometimes when too much information comes at me too quickly my brain just stops. Picture a little kid covering her ears and singing “lala-lala-lalala” when she knows you are about to tell her there is no Easter Bunny.* Or worse, if you’re an Apple user, picture that spinning color wheel of death.

Nothing good ever happens after the colors start spinning.

So yesterday afternoon at mandolin orchestra practice when I asked, “How are you counting those two measures in the introduction?” and Ken started calling out numbers, I felt my inner la la girl reach her hands toward my ears.

I don’t know if this shut-down feature has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, or if I’ve just become more aware of it. All these years of encouraging students to reflect on their learning after every project might be rubbing off on me. (Where was it hard? Where did you get stuck? How did you move past that point? What are you most proud of?)

I had a similar shut-down moment a few weeks ago. I was walking through a model home with a realtor who wouldn’t leave my side. She had a really loud voice, and she wouldn’t stop talking.  In fifteen minutes, I learned details about her life story that I couldn’t tell you about some of my closest friends.

I finally had to interrupt her in mid-sentence and run out the door, leaving  Fred to mop up for my abrupt departure.

So Sunday afternoon

after Ken said 1-2-1-2-1-2-3 and 1-2-3-1-2-1-2 and Michael said 1-2-3-4-5-6-7  (and I snapped “That’s not going to be helpful at all,” at him), I thought it was all over. I was about to resign myself to being lost on the intro and hoping I could catch up a few measures in.

And then something funny happened. I looked at measure 48 and saw it–three eighth notes followed by two quarter notes: 1-2-3-1-2-1-2. Then measure 49 came into focus. Even measure 51: half note, eighth rest, eighth note, eighth note (1-2-1-2-1-2-3) started making perfect sense.

Learning to count in 7/8 time.
Learning to Count in 7/8 time.

Maybe you have been confidently playing music in 7/8 time for years, and you’re wondering why this was hard for me. Or maybe you don’t read music at all and you have no idea what I’m talking about. (Sorry about that!)

Or maybe you are neither of those people and you are just trying to figure out what the big deal is about a 54 year-old finally learning to count.

I’m trying to figure that out, too.

But the thing is, it was a big deal. It’s not just about learning to count in a 7/8 time signature. With as much music as I’ve played and sang in my life, it’s more remarkable that I’ve never learned that before.

What excites me is that, when my familiar shut-down moment appeared, my old brain did something new. It wedged its foot in the elevator doors before they slammed shut. To quote my uncle, that’s big potatoes.

I’ve always been able to empathize with students who have test anxiety. I’ve always assumed they felt just like I feel when my la la girl starts singing. Now, though, I can do more than empathize. I can assure them that their brain can do something different.

But how?

I can’t claim to know that what happened Sunday is repeatable, but I can tell you what I noticed.

First, I gave myself permission to fail. I was resigned to my confusion. I let go of any pressure to succeed, any pretense that I knew what I was doing, and any disappointment over not already knowing how to do this.

Second, I was persistent (some in the Albuquerque Mandolin Orchestra might, if they weren’t such kind people, say annoying) in asking for what I needed. I kept saying things like, “Could you do that again more slowly?” or “Could you tell me how you’d count measure nineteen?”

Third, I was grounded. I’ve been making some big decisions lately (more about that in a future essay), and those decisions have left me feeling clear and solid. Years ago the city of Albuquerque brought goats (a flock? a herd? a scrabble? a gabble?) into the bosque to eat the salt cedars.

I feel like the bosque must have felt the next day: the goats have eaten away the underbrush and the path is clear.

In The Book of Awakening,

Mark Nepo writes, “the way to stay in the presence of that divine reality which informs everything is to be willing to change.” A dear friend gave me this book, and pointed out the section called “The Gift of Shedding.” Shed what?  “Whatever has ceased to function within us…whatever we are carrying that is no longer alive” (104).

I don’t mean to argue that loving yourself is some pat cure for test anxiety, but I do know that learning to count didn’t happen while the weeds were wrapped around my ankles.

One more thing about learning to count. I thought about telling you this happened in a dream so you wouldn’t think I’m crazy, but that feels like cheating. Sunday afternoon before I went to mandolin practice I was leaning on my kitchen counter, just sort of lost in thought.

All of a sudden I had this weird image: my chest opened up like one of those shoe box dioramas little kids make, and a whole menagerie of colorful animals came trotting out of my chest into the world.

I don’t know quite what to make of that vision (brain tumor?), but I thought it might be relevant.

I’ll leave you with that thought while I go play a little mandolin. The Albuquerque  Mandolin Orchestra is opening for Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally in a house concert this Friday evening, and while learning to count Cantiga 706 in A minor is great, it’s not the same thing as being able to play it.

(* That little girl is singing la la in a count of 1-2-1-2-1-2-3. See what I did there?)

+++++++++++++++++++

Hurry

How does the universe know when you are in a hurry? I’m going to assume it’s one of Newton’s rarely studied postulates called the Stress-Based Law of Increased Atmospheric Friction.

Or you could just blame it on a design flaw. That’s what I’m thinking after my alarm goes off this morning.  I’m reaching to turn it off when I knock my ipad over on the nightstand. Through the predictable physics of the ricochet (is that a thing?) my glasses fly across the dark room, and of course, since we are talking about my glasses and because it’s dark, I can’t find them. Good morning, design flaw.

I’m in a hurry because I have completely unrealistic expectations for the first sixty minutes of my day today. In order for the  thousand piece jigsaw puzzle that is my life this week to work, I need to start complete this essay and a second piece of writing that is close to being finished, but keeps refusing to give up its truth. Right now that other essay is a beautiful pile of words in search of what it’s trying to say.

Not this essay, though! This essay is going to grow like a freeze-dried seahorse from a tiny capsule into a complex, living creature in mere minutes. All I need to do is add water coffee. (Which is ready now–excuse me for a second while I go get a cup.)

This IS NOT an essay about seahorses. In fact it’s another essay about how wonderful teenagers are, but I know that you can’t tell that yet.

While we all wait for me to get to my point, here is the thing about seahorses. When I wrote that simile about my essay growing like a freeze-dried seahorse, I was thinking about Dudley Do-Right and those crazy things you’d want to order as a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons or reading the backs of cereal boxes.

Help me out, siblings or age-group friends. Does anyone else remember ordering freeze-dried seahorses by mail in the late sixties or early seventies? Pop them in water, and voila, instant seahorse?

It seems unlikely that I could be making this memory up, but when I asked Professor Google just now (and really, I’m in a hurry! Why am I googling seahorses?!) I didn’t find a link to a site for goofy seventies novelties, I found real information.

Did you know that there are twenty-five different species of seahorses? That fact is from some website I already clicked away from, and I’m in a hurry, so I can’t go back to figure out if I should trust it. I’m sorry if that information isn’t true. But really, this isn’t an essay about seahorses, so let it go, ok?

Get this. According to National Geographic, seahorses “are monogamous and mate for life.” And I know what you are thinking now. You are thinking, what can this possibly have to do with teenagers making five circle Venn diagrams?”

At least, that’s what you would be thinking if I had started writing the essay I was planning on writing this morning. That essay is about serious things like fiscal policy and Venn diagrams and compromise. I think you’ll like it.

I know we’re in a hurry; I’ll get to the Venn diagrams in a minute. But did you know that, according to Nat Geo, seahorses,  those amazing creatures that I think I remember buying freeze-dried through the mail “are among the only animal species on Earth in which the male bears the unborn young”?

“Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!”

It reminds me of the day I learned about asparagus plates.

Before I start talking about teenagers and  fiscal policy, I’d like to point out that it’s not even six a.m. (but it’s close–way too close! I’m in a huge hurry this morning!) and I’ve already written about physics, marine biology, and economics. Well, I haven’t really written about economics yet, but that’s the subtext. I’m sure a careful reader will be able to tease it out, just as they picked up on that little Shakespeare quote I just slipped in.

I thought someone should notice. A little applause maybe. (Note to self: When I’m in a hurry, I forget to edit out my arrogance.)

Since googling seahorses led me to information about a real species, I decided to google “freeze dried seahorses” instead. That search didn’t go so well. In fact, it made me sad. I learned that seahorses are ground into powder for use in Chinese medicine. I learned about an illegal shipment of seahorses that was “seized at the Beijing airport.” I skimmed through the comments at seahorse.com  and read this note from a seahorse breeder who said “It is a LOT harder to raise seahorses than to kill them.”

And damn if I haven’t googled myself into a perfect segway for talking about teenagers.

This fall I fumbled my way into my now-all-time favorite lesson plan. It started about six hundred crises ago when the government was on the brink of shutting down. At this point, I can’t remember why. Passing a spending bill, maybe?

I found a nifty little game online called the Fiscal Ship. I’m in a hurry, so I’ll just give you a quick overview. You choose three governing goals–things like “protect the elderly” or “fight climate change” or “rein in entitlements” from ten or eleven choices the game gives you.

Then, you play the game by implementing realistic policies to meet your goal while you simultaneously work to “reduce future debt to today’s levels.” The policies are sorted into seventeen major categories, like education, defense, social security–you get the picture. I’d give you more examples if I wasn’t in a hurry.

Each time you choose a policy, you can see the impact on the debt level. It’s a nifty game, and it worked great for teaching kids about the sort of choices that politicians make.

John Dewey said:

“…give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; …learning naturally results.”

(I’d just like to pause in my rush for a moment to point out that I’ve now added pedagogy to the list of things I’ve written about before six a.m.)

I was having so much fun seeing the students struggle with hard choices that I decided to ask them to present their results to the class. Surreptitiously, I took notes on their governing goals as they spoke.

Then, because one of the students said, “This would be so much harder if we had to get other people to agree with us,” and I had already been thinking along those lines, I matched them up with other people whose goals were radically different from their own and had them play again.

First, though, I wanted them to reach a thorough understanding of their differences. On a whim, I told them to make a Venn diagram showing the overlap between their ideas. For the record, making a five-circle Venn diagram is no small feat. None of us were even sure it was possible.

Here’s what they looked like while they were trying to figure it out (and for the record, they told me I could use these pictures).

Photo of students, not in a hurry, figuring out how to make their Venn diagram.
These students found a model online, projected it onto the board, and traced it. That was the easy part.
A project you can't hurry through; finished five-circle Venn diagrams.
Here are some of the finished products. The tiny writing indicates the policies they each chose when they played alone.

Making a five circle Venn diagram was just hard enough that it took them a really long time to figure out how to do it. By the time they had worked it out, they had a rich understanding of the differences between their goals. (If you didn’t know me, you might think I had planned it that way.)

I’m in a hurry, so I’ll jump to the punchline. Once the students had clearly identified their differences, they were able to reach agreement on shared goals easily. I was shocked; kids who had chosen “rein in entitlements” quickly found common ground with kids who had chosen “shore up social security” or “decrease inequality.”

They played the game, and I listened to them negotiate their differences. I walked around the room hearing them say things like, “We all agree on the carbon tax, so that will give us enough money to pay for pre-K education for all. Can everyone live with that?”

The point is, they made it look easy. If you want to believe there is hope for the world, ask a teenager to solve a problem.

Finally, because one of the skills we’ve been working on is developing  models, and because I was so impressed with their work, I asked them to develop a model for how to reach a compromise. Again, piece of cake for these kids.

Picture of a student model; even if you are in a hurry, you can make a compromise.
One group compared reaching a compromise to growing a flower.
No hurry; this photo shows kids working on their model.
These students created a recipe for compromise.

One group based their model on a recipe. They combined five tablespoons of ideas with a “pinch of open ears and hearts.” Another group drew a flower. That model included taking the areas you agreed on and applying them back to your shared goals. Others created simple, step-by-step flow charts.

None of them failed. Every group was able to agree on policy choices that met their shared goals and kept the deficit in check. Not only that, they kept their friendships intact, too. No one called each other names or stormed off or took their crayons and went home.

The other thing none of them did was to decide that the problem was insoluble. A good Venn diagram  “shows all possible logical relations between a finite collection of different sets.” When the students played the game individually, they chose as many as thirty policies each. Showing all of the possible logical relationships between their sets was a massive undertaking.

That fact didn’t stop them. Even when they weren’t certain they could solve the entire problem, they kept doing what they could.

I’m in a hurry this morning, so I’ll leave it to you to wrap things up. There are some things we can all learn from teenagers like the ones I’m lucky enough to spend my days with.

Maybe someday they’ll even save the seahorses.

Teaching Teenagers: All the Feels

When you teach teenagers, you often come home tired. I’ve mentioned this before. Some days it’s because you’ve got more work than hours. Some days it’s because too many students are crying or because your cheeks hurt from laughing all day. Some days, you get a full cardio workout  as your heart swings back and forth through sadness and silliness.

February 7th was one of those days.

It started with the tampons.

At my school, students lead service learning groups that emerge out of their own interests. Faculty act as sponsors, but the students are where the action is. My group is called “WEL,” which stands for Women’s Empowerment League.

Earlier in the year, when the teenagers watched a video showing how hard it is for homeless women to get basic hygiene products, they decided to hold a drive.

On the morning of the seventh, two brave young women got up in front of the whole high school and explained the problem. They talked about the cost of tampons and pads and showed a clip from the video. In less than fifteen minutes, two teenagers disrupted the secrecy surrounding women’s periods.

The young women explained to the group that half the students were boys, so they called on their male peers to participate in the drive. At that point, the man who heads the high school jumped up with a box of tampons and made the first donation to cheers and applause from the student body. I stood up and let the boys know I’d have a box of pads in my classroom if they wanted to come in to practice carrying them.

Joy, pride, laughter, goofiness. It wasn’t even 8:15.

The teenager with the sad eyes stopped by later. It’s a teacher thing: sometimes a student says “Can I use your three-hole punch?” and you hear “I’m falling apart.”  When you respond to what you heard instead of what they said, the tears come. It’s 10:15.

It’s lunch-time and I’m meeting with four young women and another teacher. We are revising the harassment policy from the student handbook and writing a sexual misconduct policy. The teenagers’ insights are clear and nuanced. They balance justice and compassion.

It’s overwhelming, really, to witness their focused commitment to changing the world. It’s 12:45.

Midafternoon, the film crew arrives at my desk. Four teenagers from film class are making a movie about coffee. A few weeks ago they asked if they could interview me for their movie because they had noticed that I drink a lot of coffee.

(Years ago I read a good book about teaching called The Students Are Watching. Note to self: it’s true.)

The teenagers, ever prepared, have brought coffee cups along for props. We all laugh when they count six different cups on my desk and realize they could have skipped that step.

“When we ask if you are addicted to coffee,” the student who seems to be the director prompts me, “would you mind just zoning out and staring at the camera?”  I flub the first take, but nail it on the second. It’s 3:15 and I can’t stop laughing.

It’s Wednesday, which means my next stop is a faculty meeting. At 5:15 I’m heading toward my car in the west lot when I hear a violent commotion. It takes my brain a minute to sort out what I’m hearing. I haven’t processed the squealing tires before I hear the explosion of the crash.

My school sits just off one of the busiest roads in the city. I drive home worked up, worried that someone I love could have been in that car.

That’s the essay I started writing last week. One good day in the life of a person who teaches teenagers. All the feels.

In the nineteen days since February 7, my school has been flooded with tampons and pads. Our donation bins are overflowing and my desk is piled high. I’ve probably said the word tampon out loud more times in these few weeks than I have in the rest of my life. The teenagers taught me (and each other) that it’s ok to talk about these things.

We finished the policy drafts and delivered them to the faculty for their review. Then we took them to our student judicial committee to get their input. Not surprisingly, they said smart things.

Some other stuff happened since then, too. Some other teenagers rose above our expectations and got busy trying to change the world. These aren’t your parents’ teenagers.

Today was another teeter-totter day. At 8:15 I sat in a roomful of teenagers listening to a young woman play a bold Prokofiev violin solo. At 5:00 I met with a group of students and adults to put the final touches on our plans for next week’s HPV awareness event.

In between, we had a lockdown drill. The teenagers and I sat on the floor in a darkened class room for twenty silent minutes waiting for the all clear. When it ended, we raised the blinds and turned the lights on and blinked at each other. We tried to shake it off, but I’ll be honest, we didn’t really accomplish a lot for the rest of the period.

Life is bold and beautiful in a high school. Every day you live full out, your heart wide open. Teachers and teenagers alike: we bring what we have and we hope it will be enough.

In The Writing Lifea book Annie Dillard calls (inexplicably) “an embarrassing nonfiction narrative,” Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

If you spend your days teaching teenagers, you can count on getting your money’s worth.

Aly Raisman Nails Another Routine

In honor of the weekend’s Women’s Marches, I thought I’d take a moment to say that Olympic gymnasts are tough.  Pound for pound, I’d put them up there with those crocodile-eating leopards that are all over my Facebook feed this week.  In fact, as my students would say, Aly Raisman is tough af.

In case you missed it, here’s what Raisman, two-time gold medal winning Olympian, had to say to Larry Nassar, the “physician” responsible for sexually abusing US Olympic gymnasts and University of Michigan crew team members for two decades.  (Let that “two decades” number sink in. I’ll get back to it in a bit.)

Looking right at the man who groomed young girls to gain their confidence so he could abuse them, Raisman said,  “Larry, you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force and you are nothing.”

Poster saying "Truth Matters" at Women's March
The number of women signing up to tell the truth at Nassar’s trial was 100 and climbing

This Larry that Aly Raisman was staring down is not only the man who spent his career assaulting young women while pretending to “treat” them. He is also the man who wrote the judge a letter explaining it was too hard on him to listen to the women’s testimony.

I heard this story Friday afternoon from my husband, who told me that the judge had laughed at Nassar’s request and told him to get over it. My first question was, “Is the judge a woman?”

“I don’t think so,” my husband said.

I don’t blame him for that. Every year I do a little writing experiment with my students. I stole this from another teacher many years ago, and it’s fascinating. Without explaining what you are doing, you give the students a list of characters defined only by their job title (doctor, lawyer, nurse, etc). You tell them the characters are waiting outside a courtroom and then have them write a short scene.

The point of the exercise is to see how students assign the sex of the characters to the different professions. In 2016, 69% of my students made the judge male. In other high-powered professions, attorneys were 79% male and physicians came in at 84%. The teachers and nurses in the story were predictably female. The teacher I stole this exercise from provided data showing that in 1987 and 1997, the judges in the story were 100% male.

That’s all just a long way of telling you that I don’t blame Fred for thinking the judge was a man. I was skeptical, of course, so I looked up the story. Sure enough,  Judge Rosemarie Aquilina is all woman. Not only that, she “became part of Michigan’s history by becoming the first female JAG Officer in the Michigan Army National Guard.”

Judge Aquilina told Nassar that “Spending four or five days listening to them [the young women he molested] is significantly minor considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense and ruining their lives.” Judge Aquilina is tough af.

Aly Raisman nailed this one, too. She stared Nassar down and said, “You think this is hard for you? Imagine how all of us feel.”

"Protest

I have to admit that I’m an Olympics junky. I watch all of it, winter and summer, every time. I watch the athletes process in. I watch them light the torch. I tear up when they stand on the podium. I’ve watched curling, canoe slalom, synchronized swimming, luge, bobsled, skeleton, and even that goofy gymnastics thing with ribbons.

Many years ago, though, watching gymnastics used to make me sad. These tiny elite athletes, it turned out, were basically starving themselves while competing at world class levels. It wasn’t enough to twirl twelve thousand  times ten feet in the air in a half-pike position and land with a half-twist and a giant smile. They had to do all of that while meeting their coach’s misogynistic idea of what a female gymnast’s body should  look like.

Eventually, though, that seemed to change. For the last few Olympics, the US women gymnasts started looking more like well-fueled athletes and less like fragile paper dolls. I thought that meant they were being treated better.

I spend my days surrounded by young men and women. I’m pretty good at knowing when to ask a student if something is bothering them. Watching the 2016 Olympics, I kept asking Fred what was wrong with the gymnasts. They were fierce au (is there a social media “au” that means “as usual”?), but the joy and laser concentration that we all fell in love with in 2012 were obviously missing.

Many years ago, a young woman at my school uttered words that changed my life. A group of students had attended a diversity conference and had come back newly empowered with language that allowed them to describe their experiences.

Their stories of being mistreated by classmates were hard to hear, but it was one young woman’s reaction to the faculty’s outrage and outpouring of compassion that changed me. “I had no idea you would help me with this,” she said.

In the courtroom on Friday, Aly Raisman called out the whole organization; she said that USA Gymnastics was “rotting from the inside” and condemned the US Olympic Committee for their silence.

Raisman said, “If over these many years, just one adult listened, and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided.”

Larry Nassar spent at least twenty years abusing the power of his position and molesting young women. Meanwhile, those young women were waiting for just one adult to do something courageous, and no one did.

Just one adult.

I know that I am not in charge of keeping the US Olympic Gymnastics team safe from pedophiles. (I point that out in case Sister Therapist happens to be reading–I do know that I can’t save or protect all of them.)

And yet. Maybe instead of blithely celebrating the gymnasts’ Olympic victory, I should have written an essay asking why they didn’t look like they were having fun.

I’m at the point in this essay where I need to decide where I’m going. If I’m to meet my new goal of publishing every Monday, it’s time to wrap this up. I’ve been circling; zigging left, zagging right. But I think I’m closing in.

Last week, Fred and I went to see The Post. I’m not much of a movie critic, but I think people should see this movie. In an age where every leader has to look around and take a poll before they decide what to do, the movie tells the story of one person (just one adult, you might say) who looked inside to find that answer.

Katharine Graham was tough af, too.

The 2016 US Olympics Gymnastic Team named themselves the “Final Five.” Let’s all act like adults to make sure they got that right.

(PS–My students taught me that “AF” thing. I’m finding it surprisingly useful.)

Waiting on Light

This just in from my email:

We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’ll get to that in a few minutes. Meanwhile, the post I’ve been struggling to finish all week is about how everything is different this year.  I keep saying these words to my students as old books hit this year’s raw nerves in new ways.

A few quick examples:

Tom, in the opening pages of The Great Gatsby, quotes white supremacists and warns about the downfall of the white race. “Oh,” I find myself saying this year, “this sounds just like our president.”

George Murchison, sometime boyfriend of Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, tells her to stop thinking. He’s sick of hearing her talk, he says; all she should worry about is looking pretty. Then he bombs in for a kiss she doesn’t want and has to push away. (American Lit refresher–he’s the rich boyfriend. They let you do anything when you’re rich.)

Finally, earlier this week, I pulled out the Ta Nahisi Coates Atlantic essay from a few years back, “The Case for Reparations.” I have my students read excerpts from it to get a sense of how government sanctioned red-lining has kept neighborhoods segregated and prevented African American families from accumulating wealth through home-ownership. It helps them understand that the Younger family isn’t heading into an uncomplicated  “happily ever after” when they move into an all-white neighborhood in Chicago.

Of course, that was different this year, too. Usually when I read that essay, I praise the Congressman who has brought HR40 to Congress every year since the mid-80s. You’ll recognize his name. It’s John Conyers.

Teaching English for seventeen years in a row makes you tired creates an interesting anthropological window into our culture. Ten or fifteen years ago teaching Gatsby, students often didn’t notice Tom’s racism. They would read the first few chapters and come in complaining about how much they couldn’t stand Daisy. After the chapter where Tom hits his mistress and breaks her nose, they would come in talking about how much they didn’t like Myrtle. They somehow didn’t see the big abusive white man hiding in plain site. (OH–I just re-read this and realized what I wrote. None of us saw them, did we? )

Five or so years ago teaching Raisin in the Sun, I would have encountered an earnest young student who argued that Mr. Lindner, the man from the home owner’s association who tries to buy out the Youngers to keep his neighborhood white, was actually being reasonable. After all, Lindner himself assures us, “that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.”

This year, we encountered this scene the day after David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Donald Trump’s reckless promotion of racist videos. In other words, a man who left the KKK to start his own white supremacist organization is praising POTUS. That’s new.

My students, though, bombed into class calling out Lindner’s hypocrisy before they even sat down. “Hurry up and graduate,” I told them. “You’ve got work to do.”

So, I was trying to figure out what to do with all these  random thoughts about how teaching literature is different this year.  Nobody needs another litany of the past week’s (or weeks’, either works here) horrors, and my trusty old optimism tic seems to be on sabbatical.

I thought I might write a cutesy “Five Things to Do…” essay like all the cool blogs do, but how would I end that sentence? Five things to do while…waiting for a new president? …wondering about nuclear war? …waiting for the next Evangelical pastor to endorse Roy Moore?

And even if I could end that sentence, how could I come up with five things? Who could possibly have five pieces of advice for how to live or love in these times? I’ve been having trouble coming up with one.

And then that Bonhoeffer quote showed up in my in-box.

Forget the cutesy, self-care suggestions. Don’t go for walks in nature. Don’t stop reading the news. Don’t pet a dog or drink tea or make time to relax with friends.

Bonhoeffer gives us advice that just might be hard enough for these hard times.  “Learn to regard people…” he tells us, “in the light of what they suffer.”

My first thought was to end this essay there and let that quote just resonate. Fred wasn’t impressed. “That’s it?” he said, when I stopped reading. “You’re just going to stop there?”

If I had stopped, I would have gotten this essay out into the world before the latest school shooting happened last Thursday, a few hours up the road in Aztec, New Mexico.

I wouldn’t have had to wrestle with the line I keep hearing the students say on tv. I wouldn’t have had to spend even five minutes thinking about just whose suffering Bonhoeffer wants me to attend to.

When I first started teaching, I felt what I think most new teachers or new parents feel–an overwhelming sense that I somehow had to be better than I am. After about ten years in the business world, I knew how to be a professional–I knew how to leave my real, messy self at home and take a shiny, polished version of my life into the office.

Then a few weeks into my teaching career, 9/11 happened. None of us had a shiny, polished version of ourselves ready for that morning.  I had to learn to stand with students in their fear while navigating my own. I had to accept my lack of answers and get busy working on me if I was going to have anything of value to offer my students.

Over the years, I’ve had to keep learning–teaching begs you to be more compassionate, more clear in your thinking, more solid in your knowledge of who you are. It’s never-ending: every year I have to scrub off more pretense, barrel through new fears, crank open my heart wider than I know it can go.

When you are a teacher, I’ve learned, you don’t have that luxury of having a “work” self and “another” self–ready or not, the work calls you into wholeness.

Maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about those teachers.  Thursday morning when the immediate danger had passed and the horror remained, they kept trying to protect their students. “Don’t look to the right,” they told them, as they ushered them out of their classroom-turned-bunker, past the body in the hall. I can’t stop thinking about how that walk, about how those words are going to resonate in their lives.

So it turns out, I still don’t know where I’m going with this. Thursday night after I watched the evening news I went to choir practice. It’s advent. We’re singing about waiting for light to be born into a suffering world. It occurs to me that things might not be so different this year.

It occurs to me that on Tuesday when the people of Alabama cast their votes for Senator, we won’t learn anything new about ourselves if Roy Moore wins.

If he loses though, I’ll be thinking about those teachers in Aztec. In that most awful moment, they were still trying to shape how their students see the world. They were betting, I think, on the next day, a day with algebra homework and band and cheerleading practice, a day where no one hears gunshots in the hall.

They were teaching us how to live and love in these times.

Waist deep in suffering, they were making a space for the light to come in.

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Things that Move, Things that Stand Still

One morning in July, Rusty nudged me out of bed at 6:30, amazed as always to have woken into another wondrous day. There were squirrels to see, bunnies to yearn for, birds to bark at. His whole body was wagging. How could I still be in bed?

I pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, slid my flip-flops on, and out we went into what passes for Eden. The air was cool, a good twenty degrees below the nineties we’d reach later in the day, and everything was moving.

Cottonwood fluff landed on my eyelashes; finches and cowbirds danced and dipped and dove. Trees quivered, a dotted line of ants marched crumbs across the sidewalk, and neighbors on their way to work waved from their cars. Rusty, beside himself in the brand new world, could hardly keep his paws on the ground.

At the far end of the street, high up in the cottonwood by the mailboxes, the neighborhood hawks are raising another family. The eggs have hatched and the birds are staying close; this morning one watches from the wall at the top of the hill while the other flies low overhead, gripping a doomed lizard. Tiny bits of bone and feather and fur litter the ground under the nest.

I was starting to think that maybe I would write about motion when I started noticing things that were standing still. I looked at the mesa, the Sandias tugging the sun over the crest, the thick trunk of the cottonwood I leaned on while Rusty sniffed and pawed at the ancient earth.

That was a few months ago. These days Rusty is sleeping later. Summer’s bright promise slid into golden fall, and I keep sorting the world into two piles: things that move, things that stay still.

I’m in my seventeenth year of teaching high school. I started in 2001, just before the Twin Towers came down. I was driving to work when I started hearing the story on NPR. When I reached my classroom, students were already crying. I remember saying something stupid, something to suggest that when we learned all the facts, things would somehow be ok, less terrifying than they seemed in those early hours and days of not knowing. Of course, that wasn’t true.

That day provided some of my earliest lessons in how to be a teacher. Understand that you don’t have what they need. Hold a space where they can cry. Try to be just a little bit stronger than they are, unless it’s one of those moments when they need to know it’s ok to be weak. Be grateful for structure; in a chaotic day, it can help to head off to chemistry class just because it’s 9:35.

Because I started teaching at this precise historical moment, my life divides neatly into before and after, just as in so many ways, the story of this country does. Because I started teaching at this precise historical moment, my work as a teacher has always been tied to my hopes and fears for the world.

Seventeen years isn’t as long as some things. It’s shorter than the time my sister Meg has been dead. It’s shorter than the number of years I’ve been married. It’s shorter than the number of years my parents lived on Marvle Valley Drive.

It’s longer than the lives of the students I am teaching now. When I started my life as a teacher, most of my students weren’t born. The students I taught in those magical early years are married, have children, lament on Facebook that they feel old.

My current and recently past students are in motion. They grow, they graduate, they move away, they come back. “How are you?” they ask me when they stop by on winter break. “What’s new?” Fine, I tell them. Nothing much, I tell them. I am still here. Some of them, I know, find this comforting, this returning to your past and finding your old teachers still mucking around in it.

Last week  The Birds of Chicago spent the week in residence at my school, making music for and with us. These people who tour over two hundred days a year taught classes, made us laugh, and yanked our hearts right out of our chests. We laughed and cried together while our hearts flopped around on the outside like fish at play in this crazy new thing called air. On Thursday morning after they played with our jazz band, I found myself talking to a colleague. “I want to go back and make every decision differently,” I heard myself say. Then the day took off as the days in a school always do, and I didn’t give it much more thought.

Do you know how, when you pray or meditate every day, answers to questions you haven’t even figured out how to ask appear fully formed in your head? Well, I haven’t been meditating every day, but I have been trying to write most days and to take a few deep, intentional breaths now and then, and, wham, somewhere mid-afternoon the answer to a question I didn’t know I’d asked popped into my head. “Do nothing safe,” it shouted, as though it was afraid I wouldn’t hear.

What the hell, universe? I’m fifty-three and ten twelfths years old. I’m healthy-ish, but that’s because I’ve got good health insurance that pays for one of those expensive drugs that flowy-haired women on horseback advertise on tv. I live in a beautiful, paid-for home in a marriage that works pretty well most days. I can afford to take violin lessons with my granddaughter and pay for the gym membership that keeps my joints moving. Sure, it would be nice to have a bigger number in my 401K, but I can’t really think of a different number that would make me stop thinking that. My only real gripe is that, when I read that the average age of menopause was fifty-one, I took it as a promise. That hasn’t really panned out for me.

So what’s up with envying people who spend two hundred days a year on the road, and what does the universe mean when it tells me to “do nothing safe”?

The next day I’m talking with my friend Nina who tells me about her friend the successful entrepreneur. His motto is “Think short term and rely on good luck.” It sounds like a prophecy, so I write it on a notecard and tack it to the bulletin board in my classroom. It’s terrible advice for teenagers, but I can’t bring myself to take it down.

So. October is sweeping the floors, getting ready to close up shop. November is dusting off the shelves, hanging the grand opening signs. I hear the cranes have come back. I haven’t seen them yet, but I believe they are here. The sycamore in the back yard is gold and going bare. The plum in the front is still green and going red. Some things are moving. Some things are standing still.

The problem is that I can’t figure out which one I am doing. On any given day I love my work. I love standing like a ledge, or a rock, or a launchpad in my students’ lives. On any given day I’m background noise or a faint breeze. On any given day I support or chastise or applaud while my heart swims out beyond my body and back again, over and over.

Those early lessons about teaching still hold. Just this week I’ve had students who needed strong, and students who needed to know it was ok to be weak. Just this week, I’ve held a place for them to cry. Just this week, I’ve realized for the millionth time that I don’t have what they need.

The problem is, lately I can’t figure out whether I’m living out my calling or avoiding it. Something is moving in me, stretching at my seams.

Maybe it’s just my body’s stubborn refusal to quit producing eggs, or all this Halloween candy, or another chronic illness come to swell my joints. Whatever it is, when it reveals itself, I hope I’m paying attention. I hope I will remember to do nothing safe. I hope I will remember to think short-term and rely on good luck.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, you might want to check out The Birds of Chicago.

*****************************

Two Gyms

The Sunday after forty-five first hung a “Closed” sign on the Statue of Liberty, my granddaughter had a gymnastics meet. Sunday afternoon found us in a gym full of sparkly tweens, cheering as Aurora balanced, swung, jumped, flipped, and tumbled.

The meet began as they all do. We stood and turned toward the flag hanging way up in the corner. Kids and adults put their hands on their hearts, men took off their hats, and a scratchy recording of the national anthem blared through the sound system.

Many of the people I spend time with are cynical about this ritual, but I’ve never really been one of them. It’s not that I don’t understand the perils of blind nationalism or know the way a flag can be draped over deep flaws to camouflage them; I do. But I’ve always been a sucker for words sung or spoken aloud together. Maybe it was all those years of Catholic school where we began the day by reciting both the Our Father and the pledge of allegiance, or those long Pittsburgh Lents when we walked around the church, praying aloud at every station of the cross, We adore thee o Christ and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world. I have a vivid memory of a Girl Scout ceremony from elementary school. We were standing outside in someone’s backyard on the other side of Clifton Road on a cool Bethel Park evening. We finished saying the pledge, and somebody’s little brother said loudly, “Amen!”

It was all one thing back then, even before I got to Notre Dame and read “God, country, Notre Dame” engraved in the doorway of Sacred Heart church. It’s the same thing with the national anthem. I’ve always been that person standing in the row behind you at the baseball game, singing along. If I’m being all the way honest, I’ll admit that I even tear up a little in those moments.

I’ve never before stopped  to interrogate those tears. Trying to understand them now I think they might be about the fact that thousands of strangers are sharing a unifying moment, any moment. But now that I say that out loud, it sounds terrifying.

So last weekend in that gym, standing between two of my grandkids, looking out on a floor filled with little glittery girls in leotards, I couldn’t do it. My hands were clenched in fists at my sides and nothing was going to make them move. All that intellectualized fear of blind nationalism that I’ve carried for years moved out of my head and settled like weights in my hands. Symbols matter, I told myself. Now more than ever, it’s important to be clear. 

And then it was Monday morning. I went to work and headed into our gym for a full-school morning meeting. We were gathering to welcome the Mexican exchange students who had arrived that weekend. Thanks to some amazing Spanish teachers, my school has had an exchange program with a school in Mexico City for more than a decade. Near the end of every winter as the light returns, a dozen or so new students enliven our school. Then, a few weeks later, our kids head to Mexico City. For years, this program has built life-long friendships and deepened intercultural understanding. This year, it felt also like an act of defiance. We welcome you, my school said loudly, in the face of those who would build walls to keep you away.

I started writing this essay just after that powerful morning in the gym, and then life took over and sent me meandering down different paths, as it does. When I thought about the gymnastics meet, I wondered if I had reached some new understanding, some new point that would keep my mouth closed and my hands clenched tightly by my side.

And then I started thinking about Lorraine Hansberry. I read A Raisin in the Sun again with my eleventh graders this fall, and last week I kept thinking about the scene where Walter Lee has lost his father’s insurance money, including the part that was earmarked to pay for his sister’s education. His sister, not surprisingly, is furious. When she tells her mother there’s “nothing left to love” in him, Mama stops her. “When do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? …that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so!” she tells her.

Then one morning the students at my school announced an upcoming discussion about America. One of the young women publicizing the event said, “I’m trying to figure it out. Is it ‘America, yay, we’re great!’ or ‘America, oh, that’s not so good’?” She invited her classmates to join her in a conversation to figure it out together.

I was heartened by the students’ desire to make sense of America, and I still hadn’t figured out what Lorraine Hansberry was trying to tell me. Then I was unpacking some books and I came across an old marked-up copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night.  In his Nobel lecture, Wiesel said “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

I’m thinking about all those other moments I’ve spent in gyms and stadiums, cheering on St. Louise, rooting for the Blackhawks at Bethel Park Senior High, yelling for the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame and the Lobos at UNM. I’m wondering about all those times I’ve cheered and chanted and sang for our side, for our team. I’m thinking about how easy is to get pulled in to those moments, to think you care more than you really care.

I’m thinking about the fact that symbols matter, and that it’s important in challenging times to be clear. Let’s write 2017 down as the year democracy kicked us in the teeth and reminded us that we don’t get to keep it for free. It’s not a spectator sport or a pep rally. We can’t cheer from the sidelines and trust that somebody else is going to get it done. This is the year we need to remember that those same fireworks that look so beautiful in the sky are explosions here at ground level; those “bombs bursting in air” actually kill people.

Yesterday afternoon I walked out of the house with Rusty on his leash by my side. We’d only taken a few steps when we both came to a dead stop–I flinched, and Rusty pushed his belly toward the ground. We felt the air above us churn and heard a powerful clapping of wings.  A giant hawk had bulleted over the roof of the garage and passed just inches above my head; it was as though we had stepped right between him and the prey he was diving for.  Rusty and I watched, stunned, as the hawk changed course and skidded back into the sky.

I don’t know what the students at my school decided about America. I suspect, or maybe I hope, that they ended in ambivalence–that they weren’t so cynical to have stopped believing in the ideal of liberty and justice for all, but weren’t so blind to believe it will magically manifest on its own.

At the end of his speech, Wiesel said, “Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.”  We’re all charged with creating the world. Let’s use our hands and hearts and voices for that.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation I Mean Inauguration Weekend and then Mary Tyler Moore!

By the time it became illegal to deny my brother health insurance because he was really sick, most of the damage had been done. Years of inconsistent coverage and subsequent self-medicating had taken a big toll on his organs. He had really good insurance for the last few years of his life, but it was too little too late for his worn out heart.

Not too long before Paul died, we learned I was following him down the trail of inflammatory arthritis. Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve been learning what it means to live with an immune system that attacks my joints. I’m lucky; when my hands swelled up and I couldn’t walk up the stairs without resting at the top, I had a pretty good idea what was going on. I didn’t have to suffer for years searching for a diagnosis as so many other people have. I got myself to a rheumatologist and we got busy trying to find medications that would get me back to something like my normal life.

We’ve done that. I have good days and less good days when it comes to managing pain and fatigue, but I don’t spend any time at all worrying about having rheumatoid arthritis. Lately, though, I spend a good bit of time worrying about having a pre-existing condition.

It seems more likely every day that one of the financial or regulatory “burdens” likely to be lifted in the rush to repeal the ACA is the requirement to provide insurance to people who are actually sick. I take two drugs to control my arthritis. One of them is Humira, which would run upwards of $2500/month if I didn’t have insurance and a “discount card” which brings my price down to a minimal copay. What insurance company in their right mind would choose to insure me if they weren’t required to by law?

One of the things I can do because I have good healthcare is play the mandolin. Last weekend the Guadalupe Mandolin Orchestra opened at a house concert by Lindsay Straw. My little group played three songs, ending with a Mozart tabletop duet, where Steve and Ken play the music from the top to the bottom of the page, and I turn the paper upside-down, basically playing from the bottom to the top at the same time. Somehow it all works out, and we reach the end at the same time. My medicated fingers flexed across the frets and we spent a cold, rainy night making music together.

Then Lindsay took over. She plays folk songs from the British Isles, and that night, all her songs featured women using their wit and their wiles to outsmart men and come out on top.

After the concert, she and I made plans to attend the women’s march Saturday morning. I haven’t marched in a long time, and honestly, I’d been a little ambivalent about going. I’ve been in the “peaceful transfer of power is a good thing” crowd, and the “let’s wait and see what happens next” frame of mind.

But I teach teenagers. If I know anything at all about teaching, it’s that what you don’t do teaches as loudly or louder than what you do. So while I hadn’t made firm plans to go to the march, I hadn’t been able to decide not to go, either. Friday night, listening to songs about women being smart, and strong, and powerful, I knew I knew I had to go. I had to go because New Mexico’s rape kit backlog is the worst in the nation. I had to go because I know teenage girls who don’t feel protected by their school. I had to go because there are young boys wearing “Not in my locker room” t-shirts who make me feel hopeful about the world.

So I went. I walked. I ran into old friends and old students. I found myself surrounded by thousands of people united by the simple idea that human decency matters, that using our voices matters. For a few hours on a cold, grey January day in Civic Plaza, ten thousand strangers created peace.

Then it was Saturday night and I went to a ceilli, an old-fashioned-let’s-get-together-and-make-music night. We sang songs like “Let it Be” and “Teach Your Children” and “I’d like to teach the world to sing.” For a few hours on a cold, grey January evening in a warm living room on Guadalupe Trail, a dozen old and new friends put our voices together and created peace.

So that’s how I spent Inauguration Weekend. I didn’t listen to politicians give speeches or watch wealthy people attend balls. I walked with strangers and made music with friends.

There’s one more thing about my pre-existing condition. I give myself a shot every other week with a “Humira pen.” It’s a simple process: you pinch the skin on your thigh or abdomen, position the pen against it, and press the button at the end of the pen to activate the spring-loaded needle. Then, all you have to do is hold the pen in place for ten seconds while the medicine rushes through a needle you never even see into your body. Simple.

The thing is, though, it hurts like hell. After the first few months, I started having a hard time getting myself to do it. I would get everything ready, position the pen, and then just sit there, unable to push the button. It was frustrating–I like to think of myself as strong and capable, and it seemed like such a stupid thing to be unable to do.

On the night I finally got frustrated enough to ask for help, Fred came in and stood near me. “Say ‘position, click, hold,'” I told him, a little mantra I had made up to talk myself through the process. “Click” was the signal to press the button, and the point I couldn’t get past on my own. With Fred standing beside me, I “clicked” on the second try. Now we do it this way every time. During the ten seconds of “hold,” I usually yell. Sometimes it’s a simple “Ow” or “man-o-man-o-man,” but sometimes, when the burn is worse, my language gets a lot more colorful. Fred stays calm while I yell, sometimes laughing with me, telling me that it’s only ten seconds, that it’s almost over. And then it is over, and we’ve done it. This one simple hard thing becomes doable when I’m not alone.

When I see Donald Trump speaking as the President of the United States, it doesn’t feel real. It feels like the voiceover at the beginning of the adventure movie where the demagogic dictator has gained power and plans to destroy the country with his evil plan. Grizzly bears are threatening the children at school, and at any moment, Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson or no, let’s make that Katniss Everdeen, is going to swoop in, vanquish the Grizzly King, and save the children.

I don’t know when or if coverage for pre-existing conditions is going to go away, but it seems both likely and imminent. I don’t know if we’re going to end up in an accidental war with China, or do away with the First Amendment, or commit untold atrocities in the spirit of nationalistic fervor.

I do know that whether or not I can get my Humira is not the most important problem in the world. I do know that if my fingers stiffen and swell and I have to stop making music, my friends will play on. I do know that, for as long as I can give myself shots, Fred will stand next to me and help me push the button.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Standing here next to each other, joining our voices–if we’re going to make it after all, I think that’s how it has to happen.

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Why I’m Going to Get in Trouble This Year

I wish Ruth Bader Ginsburg hadn’t been so quick to apologize for saying “I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president.”

I wish she had said something like, “I don’t regret speaking out. Everyone who loves our country should be speaking out.” George F. Will wrote, “Donald Trump’s damage to the Republican Party, although already extensive, has barely begun.” The Washington Post called Trump “a unique threat to the Republican Party and to the country.”

The Post listed Trump’s offenses as follows. “Mr. Trump degrades people, serially insulting women, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, Jews and others. He erodes the discourse, frequently and flagrantly lying…He proposes undermining foundational civic institutions such as the free press. He shows contempt for the separation of powers…Where his policy agenda is not thin, it is scary…”

Nevertheless, the Republican Party has finalized its selection of Trump as their presidential nominee. With few exceptions (cheers to Mitt Romney, who said, “I want my grandkids to see that I simply couldn’t ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing…”), they’ve relinquished their responsibility to choose a candidate worthy of the office. I admit it—I don’t understand the strange moral calculus by which Republicans claim they can disown Trump’s words, actions, and beliefs while championing his candidacy.

As Trump continues to dive to new lows, I find myself asking, at what point does it become imperative that every person who loves her country or even her fellow humans begin speaking out? At what point should every Supreme Court Justice feel morally compelled to speak as Ginsburg did?

This isn’t an idle question for me. I teach English and Economics at a private, independent school in New Mexico. For years, I’ve agreed with the philosophy that it’s our job to teach our students how to think, not what to think. I’ve worked hard to remain aware of the power I have to shape students’ opinions and to wield it ethically. I try to teach students to understand how persuasive argument works, to analyze evidence, to consider the other side.

I’ve always loved teaching in presidential election years; the curriculum creates itself as candidates lay out their platforms and the media offers simplified explanations of complex issues. It’s exciting in those years to push students to challenge assumptions, to look for the details behind the soundbites, to figure out how their own values shape their understanding of the issues.

But I don’t know how to do that this year. No—that’s not really what I mean. I know exactly how to do it; I just don’t think that I should. As a teacher, I know that what I don’t say teaches as loudly as what I say.

All summer, I’ve been imagining my back-to-school-night speech to parents. I want to explain to them that I can’t be impartial this year; I can’t act as though Trump is just any other candidate. I can’t afford his views on issues the respect that his position would seem to demand. I want to tell them what the Washington Post said at the end of a powerful editorial imploring people to remember the many outrageous statements Trump has made: “Winning is not an antidote to bigotry, violence, ignorance, insults and lies.” I want to say, as New York Times columnist Charles Blow said, “If you support Trump, you are on some level supporting his bigotry and racism.”

When I say those things out loud in my classroom, I will almost certainly get a call from an angry parent demanding that I stop teaching her child what to think. When that moment comes, I am not going to be able to say that my comments were “ill-advised” or that “I regret making them.” Like Mitt Romney, I want to be able to sleep at night. I’m going to have to say that I won’t be complicit. I’m going to have to say that I refuse to help normalize abhorrent behavior.

It would have been nice to quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

 

Paradise

When I started this essay in April, I was walking with Rusty, my golden retriever friend. Tiny darting birds were dipping and zigging across the street. A late snow had sugared the Sandias, and I was kicking tumbleweeds off the sidewalk while more tumbleweeds went skipping down the street. Rain clouds were tilting at the sky. I was trying to figure out why the year had seemed so hard. A few weeks earlier in another essay I didn’t finish, I had written that the year was all wax and no wane.

Now it’s half past June already, and the summer keeps racing on. It’s father’s day, but I don’t want to write about that this year. I’m thinking about the “8 words” a CNN anchor noted in a story about Charleston this morning. “The doors of the church are still open.”

When my students get stuck in their writing, I tell them to write the problem into their work. Someone important taught me that. (Ann Lamott? Annie Dillard? Nick Hornby? Anyone want to take credit? ) So here’s the problem, at least as it stood through the end of May. I’m stuck. I haven’t posted a blog in months. I’ve started essays and abandoned them. I’ve stayed in bed instead of getting up to write. I’ve spent hours writing lesson plans that should have taken ten minutes. I’ve stopped exercising, stopped even trying to eat things that are good for me. And all that was before my husband broke his ankle.

And it wasn’t just my writing life that fell apart. My life as a teacher went off-kilter, too. It was one of those years when the things I did poorly loomed so much larger than the things I did well. I kept thinking about the kids I didn’t reach; the project that didn’t teach what it should have; the way the big problems of the world–racism, sexism, anti-Semitism–kept manifesting in my school. I finished May thinking about the weight I’d gained, the writing habit that had fizzled, the fact that I hadn’t ridden my bike or gone for a good run since last September.

The problem with not posting essays frequently is that fear creeps in. I start telling myself things like, “No one wants to hear you complain.” And believe me, I get it. I work in a small, private, independent school. A whole wall of windows in my classroom looks out on a grassy quad where art students wrap tree trunks with bright colored ribbons and yarn. Children and puppies frolic (seriously—I chose that verb deliberately) on the lawn. Sometimes on the seniors’ last day of school someone sets up a barbecue grill or a slip’n slide. On rare snowy days, someone always builds a snowman. I don’t even want to hear myself complain.

Here’s more. Students and teachers enjoy one another at my school. Geese lay eggs on top of Patrick Dougherty land art and their babies float around on our pond, squeaking at the turtles sunning themselves on logs. Sometimes a snake or a pheasant shows up by a window outside the library, or a roadrunner with a lizard squirming in his beak darts by the classroom I used to teach in. Between the pond and the cottonwoods I can pick basil or kale or hot peppers to take home for dinner. One day so many crows were flapping in the trees outside my classroom that a student who had just discovered The Birds was getting a little freaked out.

It’s all a bit too much, isn’t it? I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise. We broke ground on the building I teach in just as the recession was getting underway. Every day, as the stock market tumbled and homes were repossessed, I watched a new building rise out of our dusty parking lot and felt like the world was going to be ok. Walking into the lobby of that building every morning now, I’m greeted by a beautiful double-sided fireplace flanked by walls of bookshelves. Vaulted glassy ceilings let in sunlight and amplify the pounding of the rain when it storms. It’s beautiful here.

And yet. I had a really hard year. So hard that I spent a good third of it plotting my (aborted) exit strategy. One day I asked a colleague I ran into outside his classroom how he was doing, and he said, “Oh, you know, another day, another bunch of missed opportunities.” I knew exactly what he meant. Every year as a teacher, you do what you can, and you worry about what you didn’t do.

This was also one of those years when fear kept poking its head out from behind the bulky curtain I use to pretend it isn’t there. It was the kind of year when kids kept reminding me that we’re soft-shelled creatures; that skin is a ridiculously flimsy and porous outer barrier to hold against the world.

This was a year when I stopped going deep.

In late April of this hard year, the parents threw us a Teacher Appreciation dinner where they showered us with gifts. This celebration followed a week of pies, and burrito breakfasts, and chair massages. After this year’s dinner I went home with gift certificates for dinner at The Quarters and a pair of kick ass emerald green cowboy boots. This year, my school undertook a video project where every teacher was asked to record herself teaching. The administrators did it first. We were offered a variety of protocols for reviewing the video, all of them designed to remove fear and create a supportive learning environment. I was allowed to drive the process, to ask for the feedback I wanted from teachers I trust. I am thanked and supported regularly. I do not lose teaching time to state-mandated tests that purport to determine my worth as a teacher or get asked to implement new strategies that may or may not resonate with my own practice every time I turn around. I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise.

But here’s the thing. Paradise is a gated community.

It turns out St. Peter really is standing at the gate, checking his list. It costs families more than twenty thousand dollars to send one child to paradise for one year. We offer as much financial aid as we have, but we’re far from being a place any child could attend. This fall I was conducting a tour around campus at our admissions open house when one little girl asked if we ever give full scholarships. We don’t. I dodged the question, and she continued, “Because if it costs more than a few dollars, I won’t be able to come here.” It can be heartbreaking to teach in paradise.

So here’s what I’m wondering about on this Sunday afternoon, now that the school year has ended and I’m trying to re-find my voice. How do you rejoice in paradise when what you really want to do is tear down the walls to let everyone in? What is the nature of the responsibility that someone who teaches in paradise bears toward someone on the other side of the gate? How do you teach kids gratitude without accidentally teaching them superiority? How do you use the freedom to experiment, the gift of teaching in a beautiful facility where all the supplies I need are stocked down the hall by the copier, to do something other than perpetuate the inequity in the world? How do you bear that responsibility justly? Can you?

It’s sweltering in Albuquerque today. The west mesa is oddly green and the Rio Grande is running high. I’ve come to the end of a hard year simultaneously grateful for and embarrassed by the bounty in my job. If we’ve all got #first world problems, I’ve got first world problems in a private school.

I know that teachers, by nature, believe in the world imagined. I finished the year reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with my 11th graders. As the main character struggles to the end trying to make sense of his grandfather’s deathbed advice, he contemplates leaving his bright basement hole. He affirms, “Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and the light is the truth.”

If I could write a plan for schools like mine, the first draft would read something like this: “We live in a country with a deep history of racism, sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism. This history continues to manifest itself in our world in ways that some of us have the luxury not to see. Private schools, positioned as we are inside the gates of privilege, have a unique imperative to make this history visible, to best equip our students to be responsible, big-hearted actors in the world.”

It’s summer after a hard year in paradise and the world continues to lurch from loss to love. This morning people in Charleston, South Carolina, who know more about the weariness of pain and loss than I will learn in ten lifetimes, said “The doors of the church are still open.” It turns out this same flimsy, porous skin lets it all in—loss and pain and horror and sunlight and love. Ralph Ellison says that, too. As the narrator contemplates his return to life beyond his basement hole, he says, “I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all, I find that I love.”

It’s June, and I’m writing again. Sixteen hundred words and not an answer in sight. I’m still searching for a way to end this essay. I always tell my students not to give their closing words to someone else, but I’m breaking that rule today. In a line that’s always haunted me, Ralph Ellison’s invisible man says, “But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant.“

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