Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Don't get me started

Don't get me started
Originally published on June 12, 2013

School's out for the summer in Toledo.  Cookouts and picnics abound in my neighborhood as well as the sound of laughing children, happy to be outside after a long winter into spring.  For two and half months, my friends who are teachers are able to work on home projects, attend workshops and prepare for the 2013-14 school year.  In addition, many of them have a summer job to help cover their expenses. 
When I quit teaching fourteen years ago, someone asked, "What are you going to do now?"
"Work less and get paid more," I replied.
"How could you work any less?" she sneered.  "After all, you get your summer's off."
"Why don't you come into my classroom on a Monday morning at 9:00," I said.  "I'll leave you nothing...no lessons or behavioral plans; no indication of what the kids need or their challenges.  By Friday at 3:00, you tell me how little I work."
Her eyebrows shot up.  "I wouldn't want your job in a million years."           
And so it goes.

Teachers in America have become the target for why our children are failing.  Many of my former colleagues, all highly educated and trained professionals, are now facing the fact that their salaries may one day be linked to how well their students perform on standardized tests.  They've been instructed to teach to the test to avoid having their schools labeled "at risk," and often feel scapegoated by those who spend little to no time in their classrooms.  
I began every school year by saying something like this to the parents of my first graders at Open House:  "You are most welcome in our classroom at any time.  It's important for you to know what's happening here at school.  I encourage you to keep in mind that while I'm responsible for your child's academic work and safety while he or she is with me from nine until three, you are responsible for the other eighteen hours of the day. 
"You are your child's first and most important teacher.  For the first five years of their life, you taught them how to speak and think and eat and everything else a little person need to learn.  You taught them your values and your habits and they will reflect you here in the classroom. Let's work together to make your child's education a success."
I was lucky.  The majority of the parents attended conferences and signed their children's homework notebooks.  Some of them called to talk about issues at home and asked my advice on what I was doing in the classroom that seemed to make a difference.
But that was in the nineties.  Testing was just beginning to become influential and by late 1998, I could see the writing on the wall.  Watching my first graders sob over mandated standardized tests was one of the reasons I left the classroom the following spring.  No longer would I be able to teach creative, developmentally accurate lessons.   And with more and more children coming to school without their basic needs met (let alone the need to be seen and heard and loved), I knew that if I continued teaching, my life would be so stressful, I'd end up burned out before my fortieth birthday.

I've been out of the classroom more than I was in it, but I still teach.  I choose where and when and how.  I choose how much I will charge for my services and live with the reality of being in a service profession which can be feast or famine.  But it's still my choice, and it's one I'm thankful to make.
I stay in touch with many of my former students and their parents, some who are very close friends.  They keep me grounded in why I love working with children, why I wanted to become a teacher in the first place.   While I am deeply blessed to be surrounded by many people who love and nurture their children, it's heartbreaking for me to watch how many parents don't parent. 
There was a blog posted last week by a woman who sardonically bragged about being "the worst end of the school year mom ever."  She hadn't checked her son's homework notebook in three weeks, complained mightily about the time and energy it took to throw together a mediocre project and whined about how she just wished the school year would end already.  She didn't make the time to check his work or make sure he was doing his best on a project, but she made the time to a write a blog complaining about it. 
I wonder what her son is learning from his mother's behavior.  Beyond that, does she realize how difficult the end of the year is for teachers who are trying to cover curriculum, complete grade cards, and manage a classroom filled with children infested with spring fever?  I wonder how she would feel if she were under pressure at work to finish a project that was a year in the making only to have her co-workers drop the ball in the final quarter.     

Teachers do not create children. 
Parents create children.
Teachers can influence them greatly, but the unpleasant truth is the lack of accountability for who is responsible for the other eighteen hours in a child's day and how that environment more profoundly colors who the child is and who he/she becomes.
I recently spent the day at a friend's home and in a five hour period, her sons and I played chess and Monopoly, did a little knitting, wrote a story, played outside, and finally, at the end of the day, read some books before bedtime.  This is common place for my friend's boys and I love every moment I get to spend with them.  Their parents often hold them close and listen to what they have to say.  They occasionally will ask a question, then they listen some more.  The boys are well adjusted, bright, articulate and confident children.  They are also curious and honest and hardworking when given a task.  It's no wonder they do well in school and continue to thrive in their home environment.
But not all children are as fortunate.
When shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond, I was trying to steer a large cart through a narrow aisle.  A family with four small children sat in the seasonal area, trying out lawn furniture.  The littlest, a boy who couldn't have been more than fourteen months, was pulling himself up on his father's chair.  As I approached the family, I said to the father, "Excuse me, I don't want to bump into your baby."
He had been staring into space and when I spoke, he reached down and grabbed the baby's arm, pulling the boy into his lap.  "I forgot I had another one," he grumbled.
I glanced at the mother whose face didn't register a thing.  I imagined she had heard him, but chose not to acknowledge his sardonic comment.  The other three children looked at me with grimy faces, oblivious to their father's cruelty.  I felt sorry for them all.  So I smiled at the kids and sent them all thoughts of peace.
Then, as I walked away, I sent a prayer to the teachers who will one day have all four of those children in their classrooms.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Summer lovin'

Yesterday afternoon, I relaxed in my baby-pool while enjoying a bowl of juicy watermelon.  It was supposed to thunderstorm, but alas, rain must have fallen elsewhere, for my sweetheart and I enjoyed a lazy day catching rays and listening to music.  While Steve trimmed shrubs, I soaked in the sun, enjoying Beatles radio on Pandora.  Song after song after song, I was reminded of the summers I spent as a child in south Toledo where my friends and I blared music on our transistor radios while lying on aluminum foil, our preteen bodies coated in baby oil.  Soon enough, I longed for a soft-serve ice cream cone at Penguin Palace, at swim at the Rec Center, and an afternoon goofing around on the Slip and Slide in my own backyard.
The night before Steve and I went to a Toledo Mud Hen’s baseball game with his daughters.  Sitting in the stands, I remembered a summer night when I was seven and my father caught a pop fly with his bare hands.  We had been sitting in the second row near first base, and I’ll never forget how amazed I was that Dad not only caught the ball, but was brave enough to ask the players to autograph it at the end of the game.  Back then the only sounds on the loud speaker were the announcer’s voice and the pipe organ playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame".  This past Saturday, I was surprised at how much things have changed.  Now it’s no longer only about the game, for music constantly blared, t-shirts were tossed into the eagerly awaiting crowd, and there were constant interruptions from advertisements and video shots of the crowd on the Jumbotron.
As we left the stadium, I was talking with Steve’s youngest about how when I was her age, there was no such thing as the Internet or cell phones.  “When I was twenty-two, things were a lot simpler,” I told her. 
Silently I added, Man, I miss those days sometimes.
While I’m not a fan of all things summer related (like fireworks and high humidity and endless road construction), I do enjoy this season more now that we’re finally in mid-July.  The crickets are chirping, shadows are getting longer, and my garden is finally producing after an odd start this past spring.  There’s still a lot to look forward to (like peach season, endless hours relaxing on the front porch swing, and the week Steve and I will spend at Posey Lake in Michigan), so I don’t want to wish summer away.  When I was little girl, I’d keep track of how many days until school started so I could pack in every ounce of fun before the inevitable loss of freedom.
These days I’m waxing nostalgic for the summers of my childhood.
Back then, time was different…slower somehow.  Every day there seemed to be endless hours to ride my bike, watch game shows on TV, bask in the sun coated with baby oil, and even go to a matinee movie if it was too hot and muggy.  When I was ten in the summer of 1977, Star Wars was released and I did odd jobs around the house to earn a dollar and a trip to the Glenbyrne I and II where I watched Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star eleven times.  The next summer, my sisters and I memorized all of the songs (and most of the lines) from Grease.  
Not every day was stellar though.  I recall a particularly humdrum Sunday afternoon when we deviled my mother for something to do.  She took a nap while my father drove us to Penguin Palace for chocolate ice cream cones coated with chocolate shot, then we came home and watched fifteen years worth of 35 millimeter silent home movies in the basement until suppertime. 
It was heavenly…and one of my most cherished memories.

These days, there’s still so much to love about summertime – the vibrant colors in my flower gardens.  Long hours of evening sunlight, perfect for twilight bike rides.  Open windows and canopied swings.  Sweet basil and baseball and board games played on the back porch.  It’s a wonderful thing to turn off the phone and tune in to the natural world.  Or visit with a friend over iced coffee at an outdoor cafe.  Or sit in the sun, savoring a good book. 
Before we know it, autumn will arrive in all its glory.  School will be back in session.  Life will get busier for many of us.   But for now, it’s nice to slow down and enjoy the little things easily discovered during this season of light.  So I’m headed outside to watch the baby cardinals play in the birdbath.  To breathe in the cool breeze blowing in from the northwest.  To bask in the baby pool for a bit before I go back to work.
And abundantly enjoy every moment this beautiful summer day has to offer. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Counting crows

When I was a beginner yoga student, I despised cobra pose.  While it was one of the basic positions taught every week, I mightily struggled with it for more than three years.  Ironically, arching up into cobra made me feel as though I was choking, even though my throat and neck were lengthening upward, supported by my hands, arms, shoulders, and upper back. Yet practice after practice, I became more aware of how incredibly challenging it was to lift the front of my body off of the floor and extend the pose upward through my head.
I was stuck in my throat…literally.    
Over the years, I tried every variation, every modification.  Sometimes I pushed myself to do it.  Other times I skipped it altogether.  Even now I prefer to practice sphinx, or baby cobra, instead.  It’s much more stable to prop myself on my forearms and while my neck is in neutral position, I’m still able to stretch without feeling strangled.    
Having practiced for more than twenty years, I’m not surprised at all to recognize that my neck and upper back were incredibly tight, having held on to unspoken words for almost three decades.  And it’s not really a revelation to realize that through diligently working with a host of healing modalities, my ability to speak up for myself has been transformed.   While I’ve always been able to bang the drum for the underdog or any child in my care if I knew they needed a strong support system, I’ve not always been forthright in speaking my own truth. 
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I became a writer. 
Still, for a while now I’ve been practicing honesty…with myself and with others.  Not that it’s been a cake walk.  I’ve lost friends who couldn’t understand my reasons for setting boundaries.  I’ve lost work because I was outspoken enough to ask that my business policies be respected.  Like struggling to make peace with cobra pose, I’ve often grappled with the knowledge that, for me at least, it’s a risk every time I open my mouth to say how I feel.   To be really truthful, sometimes I have to push myself to find the courage to speak.  Other times, I still keep my mouth shut out of fear.
Conversations that begin with my saying to someone, “Can we talk?” are always like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates.  I never, ever know what I’m going to get. 

A few weeks ago I noticed several crows circling over my neighborhood.  It had been a while since I had seen more than one, and that was years ago when a brazen bird angrily chased an unsuspecting cat out of my yard.  For days, three crows flew into the tall treetops across the street and silently sat there, fluttering their wings, surveying the territory.  One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on my porch next to a friend with whom I had recently argued.  The spat ended quickly, but because I needed time to sift out my angry emotions to get to the heart of what I was feeling, a day later I was still a bit bruised and didn’t know what to say. 
So, like the crows, I said nothing.
They nestled together, not moving an inch the entire time we sat on the porch.  As the person talked about the plans we had made earlier in the day, I listened, but I also noticed the crows and their silent, stoic posture.  Moments later, just as I was getting up to cut the grass, the crows instantly flew away.
Later that evening, I pulled Animal Speak from my bookshelf and looked up “crow”, remembering that the feisty black bird had shown up in significant moments in the past.  I read in part:  Crow’s voice is a notable characteristic which reminds us to listen for the ways creation is continually calling out to us.  Wherever crows are, there is magic, for they are symbols of creation and spiritual strength. 
The next evening my friend and I were sitting on the porch after having hashed out the better part of our disagreement.  As another round of conversation started, I noticed the three crows sitting in the treetop, but this time, they were cawing loudly…over and over again.  I don’t remember exactly what I said to my friend, but I do recall firmly saying what I needed to say, even though it was incredibly difficult.  For a long while, the cawing of the crows echoed around us as we talked past twilight, finally creating some common ground.
Oddly enough, since then I’ve not seen or heard another crow, and these days I’m counting humming birds, robins, and rabbits. 

I believe that everything in nature continually speaks to us, and if we know how to truly listen, magic can be a constant presence in our lives.  While I was jolted to discover that a group of crows is called a “murder”, it doesn’t really surprise me, for whenever they show up in my life, I know that a part of me has to die in order for another part to be born.  This time around the trio of messengers reminded me that while my truth might not always be the same as another’s, I no longer need to stay silent out of fear or apprehension...and that miracles spontaneously arise when I’m being my most authentic self. 
In the fall, I’ll be re-introducing preparatory work for the crow pose in my yoga classes.  While I’m still not able to hold it for long, I have found that being in it, even for a split second, arching my neck upward toward the sky has never made me feel more alive and free.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence Day

I’ve been waxing nostalgic a bit this holiday weekend.  While thumbing through a host of magazines while relaxing in the sun, I’ve seen s’mores and sandcastles and sparklers galore.  Children have been riding their bikes through the neighborhood and just this afternoon, a little one who lives behind my house pitched a tantrum that could rival any I threw as a three year old.  I’ve thought of a boy who lived across the street when I was a kid and how we used to celebrate his July 5th birthday a day early every summer. 
This afternoon while hanging out in my baby pool, Steve squirted me with the hose.  “Too bad, I’m already wet,” I told him.
“I’m thirteen and a half,” he chuckled. 
“No kidding,” I laughed back. 
“The first love of my life was the girl next door,” he told me.  “She was eight years old when she moved in and gave me my first kiss.  At the time I thought girls were icky.  But she ruined me for life because I liked it.”
“My first kiss was from a boy who lived up the street,” I told him, shading my eyes from the sun.  “We were in second grade together and Jimmy walked by my desk.  He said my name, and when I turned to look at him, he planted one right on my lips.   I really liked him because we were such great friends...it was sad when he moved away.”
It’s been years since I’ve thought of Jimmy.  Even longer since I remembered that first kiss.  Still, what an incredibly sweet thing to recall on the one day I have least looked forward to all year long…until now.
While I’m all well and good celebrating Independence Day, I’m not a big fan of fireworks…unless I’m at a professional display and know when the end is near.  Yet beginning in late June, folks in my neighborhood set them off at ever-increasing intervals until the 4th, when it seems as though the loud explosions last all night long.  With every searing bottle rocket and imploding Roman candle, my cats freak out, except for Forest (bless him) who sits in the window sill watching for the sparks of light in the night sky.  The house shakes, the windows rattle, and my ears ring for hours.
Thankfully, this year I’ve spent the past few nights at Steve’s apartment, for I find that when I’m with him, the noise doesn’t rattle me as much.  When I was getting ready to go home on Sunday morning, I sheepishly asked, “Can I stay here tonight and tomorrow?”
“I was going to ask if you wanted to,” he smiled.  “You can stay over whenever you like…I enjoy having you around.”
I let out a sigh of relief.  “Can I sleep over here until the 4th of July?”
He looked down at his dog and smiled gleefully.  “How fortuitous.”
“Good,” I nodded.
Then Steve hugged me, saying, “I’m happy to have you stay ‘cause I know how much those fireworks scare you.”
“They don’t scare me,” I replied defiantly.
“You sound like a little kid,” Steve chuckled.
“Well, they don’t,” I said, hugging him back.  “They hurt my sensitive little ears.”
Then we both laughed out loud…because it’s absolutely true.

I’m sensitive to lots of things:  loud noise, strong emotions, and bright light…just to name a few.  Looking back on my childhood, I spent the lion’s share of my time in the cool, dark basement or the quiet sanctuary of my room in the northwest corner of the house.  Sure, I played outside, but preferred to hang out in the shaded corners of my backyard or the limbs of the tree in our front yard.  And while I sometimes enjoyed playing with the kids in the neighborhood, the memories that stick with me the most are the ones when I was on my own.
I imagine that part of my independent streak was due to my being overly sensitive to a lot of things I couldn’t control.  At the time, I figured that if I removed myself from the situation, I wouldn’t have to deal with it…or at least deal with my feelings about it.  I could hide from the world while riding my bike or enjoying a picnic by myself or a quiet walk in the woods where I talked to imaginary friends who lived in the tree trunks.   The pattern stuck and as an adult, I’ve spent the majority of my time in solitude.
But no longer. 
Steve and I give each other space all the time, although I admit that today I interrupted him more than I should to share a silly squirrel story or a slice of watermelon.  And of course, when his inner-devil wanted to come out and play, he ambushed me with the garden hose.  Still, I find that I have time for everything I used to do before we got together…and hope he feels the same way, too.  Both of us are independent, yet we’ve become more interdependent as the months go by.  I can lean on him when I need to, and he can lean on me, too.  We share moments from our past, stories of the present, and dreams for our future, all the while continuing to be authentically ourselves.  I suppose we’ve learned the beauty in what Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet:  Stand together, yet not too near together, for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

I never thought I’d ever want to be with someone more than I have wanted to be alone, and yet that has been my one sign to know when a relationship is real.  For years I’ve been telling my friends, “I’ll know I’m with the right person when I’d rather be with him than alone in this peaceful life I've created.”
Just last night I sat on the couch, gazing out his living room window, in awe of the fireworks that exploded over the treetops in front of his duplex.  “Oh!  There’s another one!” I chirped.  “And another one!”
The sky darkened while Steve leaned over and looked out the window. 
“When I was kid, I’d sit in my bedroom window and watch the fireworks,” I told him.  “It was great to be safe in my room and watch from a distance.”
As Steve walked away to take care of stuff around the apartment, I marveled at how safe it felt to be with him, no matter how close the fireworks were being shot off, no matter how loud they were, or how I could never know when a loud boom would rattle the windows.  Later that night I went to bed while he watched TV and as I lay there listening to the crash and boom in the distance, surprisingly I didn’t mind at all…and was soon fast asleep. 
Tonight I’ll be writing while Steve goes to a meeting, but later on this evening I’m sure we’ll spend some quality time together.  The night sky will soon be lit up with light and I'll be snuggled in with Steve, quietly celebrating the uncommonly incredible life we're creating together.