Sixteen to One

Twelve-hour days are really killer. I don't know how nurses do it. There's really only one a year for us: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when we teach five hours of classes and follow that with five hours of parent conferences. In the lull between the two, I squeezed in an impromptu gathering of my French Club officers to plan an upcoming outreach project, wrote the last of my college recommendation letters, and got to use the bathroom approximately three seconds before I exploded. 

The meetings fell into a comfortable rhythm after an hour or so, and there were lots and lots of moments worthy of the Secretary's Report. The first mother had made an appointment and come to school just to tell me how much her daughter appreciated my sympathy after she had become emotional in class over a sick family member. Others told me how much my students loved the class, loved me, even loved the tests I gave (I promise I would never make up something that absurd!) They had discovered an unknown passion for the French language or American literature. Some of them were hoping for higher grades next quarter, but they were inspired by the online resources I suggested for extra practice, impressed by the detailed syllabi I provided each quarter, supportive of my high standards and desire to challenge my students to take an active role in their own education. They thought I was doing a great job.

Buried among sixteen wholly productive exchanges, however, was one laced with frustration and negativity. Sixteen to one. In baseball that would be a massacre. In craps it could win you a small fortune. In the grand scheme of things, you can't please everyone, and because one student is just not up to par in one class, one family is clearly not pleased.

So why on earth was I so haunted by the one? When my principal came by to ask how everything had gone, I shared this with her -- and even though it was late, she sat down and commiserated, and reminded me that sometimes there's just nothing you can do. I remarked that because teachers (for the most part) care so deeply for our students and feel each failure and triumph so acutely, it's even more painful when parents imply that we haven't done enough to help their child succeed. It's hitting below the belt. It's kicking us when we're down. It's a guilt trip down a well-worn mental path. Because really, there's a grain of truth in what they're saying: we probably could have done something more, and if we'd thought it would end like this, we would have found a way to.

Finally I promised my principal I would let it go and rethink the situation in the morning, and we said goodbye, and on the way out she promised to say a prayer for me and for my student. I stacked up my papers and turned off the lights and bundled up against the cold and stepped outside into the night, twelve full hours after I'd stepped in.

On the way out in the darkness, the convent chapel was a beacon, flooded with light, and through the window I caught a glimpse of a lone figure in white, kneeling before the altar.

The next morning I received an email of apology. A promise to work harder on communication. A step toward a positive resolution. Why was I so shocked by this development? I'm not sure. There was no reason to be. Sixteen to one is pretty fabulous, but seventeen to nothing? That's nothing short of a miracle.

Good, Existential Spookiness

There is so much I want to say. So why don't I just say it? 

Time, thank God, is plentiful. There are plenty of days when I can sit, as now, listening to the rain fall, resting one elbow on a pillow and the other on a sleepy dog, and just reflect. But when I have those opportunities, more often than not, I consume the minutes one by one -- an article, a video, a recipe, or two of each in quick pell-mell succession -- constantly absorbing information without allowing it to sink in, let alone formulating a response. There is so much I would like to respond to. Things that provoke and incense me, that paint my hours and days with sunshine, that grip my heart with sadness and won't let go.

Right now, reflecting on all that the last few months have encompassed, I keep coming back to a truly life-changing moment, when I sat at the feet of this holy man as he "told me everything I ever did:" 

If you live only for the now, and temporary life that the world preaches today, how are you going to resolve the inner conflict in the very depth of your being? Because it’s wrong to run away from the mystery you can’t find. . . Sometimes you stay up at night and you wonder what that mystery means. Sometimes you look at your husband and say, “I love him, but I really don’t know him,” after 22 years of marriage. (And now I’m spooking you – in a good, existential, way.) And that’s because there’s something in you that wants to remain true to the mystery you haven’t found, about who you are. You have to remain true to that mysterious center of primary value, which, even though anyone else can’t see it, you know it. And without the Resurrection, you won’t find it. 

Take the time to listen to the whole talk, and you may have your own woman at the well moment. Maybe, like me, you'll even struggle with putting more words into the world, when there are so many to think about already.

Helicopter Confessions

Cheers to Judith Newman for her charming honesty about who really does her son's homework:

“Listen,” I hiss. “People pay me to do this. I have a master’s in literature from an Ivy League school.” I continue, pathetically. “I write for all the major magazines. I write for The New York Times, for God’s sake.” Oddly enough, this doesn’t mollify him.

How I found myself justifying my career to a 12-year-old was this: I wanted him to ace his “To Kill a Mockingbird” essay, and I was nervous. I am always nervous; you might be too, if your son’s highest intellectual aspiration involved beating his friends at their daily lunchtime poker game. He usually won’t let me near his homework. But this time, after much pressure, he did. Because, as I calmly explained, I knew just what this essay needed.

I read the whole piece with a knowing smile. One of my favorite things to watch when I taught piano lessons was parents, while their children were engrossed in an activity. Take, for instance, the aptly-named Solitaire. The child is patiently making stacks of note and rest cards, building down on the bottom and up on the top. If he makes a mistake, I will correct him in time -- that's the way he learns. But while he dithers, or if he misses a move -- oh, my, how the mothers squirm, knowing they should keep quiet but unable to avoid a "Honey, look carefully, now . . . " and the fathers tend to just blurt: "You've got a sixteenth note there!" I would give them my best Patiently Suffering Teacher look and they would sheepishly zip it up.

On one hand, as a recovering perfectionist / control freak, I totally understand why it must be hard for parents to allow their children to miss something -- a comma splice in the essay or a key move in a card game. But on the other, it really isn't missing anything; it's simply learning naturally. Somehow the child will grasp the concept in her own time, using her own methods. When I'm tempted to intervene with that process, I remember the thrill of working something out on my own -- tying my shoes in elementary school, or using a table saw in college -- and I watch the student calmly, waiting for the moment she figures it out alone. A triumph.

Summer Begins

Oh, summer. How I have missed you.

Summer vacation for us is usually a whirlwind of travel and activity, but this year we're taking it easy: a fun little jaunt last week to say goodbye to some friends who are moving far away, and a French-language course in Montreal just before we return to school. Between that, six solid weeks of NO PLANS. 

This week I cooked up a storm -- cherry recipes at the forefront, as I had picked 15+ pounds of them last weekend, but I also made dinner every night. Vegan dinner from scratch. Uh-huh.

I took advantage of two cool mornings and spent many contented hours weeding, though there are plenty more where those came from.

When two friends called on different days, needing rides from the train, I was able to drop everything, share a meal and catch up with them.

Finally, as a summer gift to myself, I spent 99 cents on a New York Times subscription so I could enjoy reading at my leisure. And on the first day of enjoying it, I ran into what might be the best news story of all time:

It’s hard to talk about Yo. The app is so simple (it lets users send the word “Yo” to each other) that even to mock it feels like taking it too seriously — come on guys, it’s just Yo! Luckily, hackers have made things easier on all of us by making Yo do some new tricks.

Pre-hack, critics had to evaluate Yo on its merits, which was somewhat difficult, since it has so few of them (and so few demerits, for that matter). Nonetheless, some rose to the challenge. At Yahoo, Alyssa Bereznak said the app’s one message “might be succinct, but then so is throwing a brick through the window.” 

An app that exists solely so you can "Yo" your friends. Man, if only we could expand it to include other words as well . . . and pictograms . . . and photos . . . and maybe even a feature that would let one user talk to another user! That would really be something.

What a gift: time to enjoy life's exquisite ironies. I wish you the same!

 

The Animals That Serve Me

I would rather read a hundred pages than go for a walk, but I would rather go for a hundred walks before preparing for confession. Health of any kind depends on regular, beneficial habits that are difficult to form, because those habits involve tasks that are not, on the surface, enjoyable or easy. Go to yoga or watch a movie? Movie wins. Wash and chop vegetables or stop for French fries? Fries. Spend time in prayer or reorganize the linen closet? You can see where this is going.

So I put off making my list, again and again, until I had to be at church in an hour. I sat down on the couch with paper and a pencil, recited the customary prayers, and settled into thoughtful silence. In less than five minutes I was in tears.

She appeared at the edge of the room when she heard the first sob. Ears pricked, gait cautious, she approached. Strange noises normally meant anger, and anger meant a scolding and maybe a swat, but curiosity and apprehension were too potent a combination to overcome. She took a few steps forward, eyes fixed on me, and paused to sniff the literal and metaphoric air.

I looked up at her eyes, which seemed to hold so much understanding. I knew -- knew she was only taking cues from me, the dominant animal in the room. But those warm amber pools seemed to bore right through me, and, coupled with the furrowed brow above them, they simulated such sympathy that I cried even harder. There was something deeply satisfying about the empty house, the lack of inquisitive glances and pitying pats on the back, the freedom to let my mascara melt onto my cheeks with no one to see it.

She continued her journey toward the stairs, but paused about three steps up, still watching me, ears flattened slightly now. I realized she would not leave the room without some form of reassurance.

"It's all right." I spoke to myself as much as to her. Neither of us responded. I repeated my words: "It's all right. I'm okay." This time, in answer, the slightest of swishes in her lowered tail. My words had not convinced either of us. I kept crying, and she stayed put. Finally, I patted the couch next to me; she skittered down the stairs, sprang up, curled herself up against me with such force I knew my feet would be asleep soon.

But I didn't move her, and it occurred to me as my breathing began to even out: this is why people love dogs.

True Love and the Tides

When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity -- in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern. The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.

--Anne Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

I'm not sure how I made it through a decade of marriage without these words. But I'm grateful to have them now.

The Classroom in Cinema

It's a strange thing, as a teacher, to have time on your hands, but it so happened that during a recent free period, I had nothing to grade, plan or print. So I reached for the huge stack of educational articles I have been meaning to wade through all year. At the top of the pile was the annual AATF review, including articles in both French and English. I flipped through it at random and became engrossed in a piece about a recent Quebecois film, Monsieur Lazhar, about an Algerian emigre who fills in as a substitute teacher. Although the article concerned the use of formal and informal address between teachers, colleagues and students, I found myself so interested in the characters that I sat down that night and watched it.

Later, as credits rolled up the screen and tears rolled down my face, I thought about how many dozens of movies I had seen about teachers. Some have been good and some very, very bad. Just for fun, I made a list. 

Good: these movies are not only realistic in their depictions of classroom struggles, but they are also inspiring and uplifting -- even when they're tragic. 

  • Butterfly: Although the politics of the era in which it's set (the Spanish Civil War) heavily influence this movie, it remains for me a story about the profound wonder that makes education so beautiful and necessary.
  • Dead Poets Society: I still remember sitting in shocked silence with my best friend in high school after having watched this movie. It had such an effect on us, especially because of our interest in the arts. Robin Williams manages a completely, disarmingly honest portrayal.
  • Monsieur Lazhar: As a fairly strict teacher myself, I appreciated Lazhar's high expectations of his students (he has them practice dictation from Balzac on the very first day; they're in the third grade.) Of course, they come to appreciate his desire to see greatness in them, just as he comes to appreciate their forthright affection.
  • The School of Rock: This may seem an odd choice, but Jack Black is completely convincing as an awful substitute teacher whose students end up teaching him how to educate them. It's also a fantastic, if unrealistic, advertisement for project-based learning!
  • The Wave: Based on a novella I read in grade school, this German film examines the sobering possibility that a new Nazi Party is just one ideologue away. The teacher who starts the experiment, although he fails in many ways, gives his students an invaluable lesson in the sinister power of solidarity.
  • To Be and To Have: In a tiny town in rural France, a one-room schoolhouse is about to shut down. Modern amenities notwithstanding, I could have been watching a dramatization of Little House on the Prairie. It was inspiring to watch education unfold the old-fashioned way.

Bad: don't waste your time here; these are the same tired Chicken Soup for the Soul cliches you've already heard too often.

  • Akeelah and the Bee: The main character was really adorable, and Laurence Fishburne cannot turn in a bad performance, but it was just too trite to enjoy.
  • Children of a Lesser God: I had such high hopes for this film about a hearing teacher at a school for the Deaf, but again, I felt it was trite, especially the affair between the professor and student. (Sorry for the spoiler. No, not really. Now you don't have to watch it.)
  • Freedom Writers: I am making it a personal goal to warn lovers of this movie and / or book that it's NOT ALL TRUE. Students in her class did keep journals, but they edited them as a group, placing emphasis on powerful writing rather than truth. I will never understand what makes people desire to blend fact and fiction. Also, Hillary Swank just comes off as insincere: um, what happened to that husband she moved to LA with?!
  • Mr. Holland's Opus: Could Richard Dreyfus ever be a teacher? No. The end.
  • To Sir, With Love: My cousin and I watched this with our moms when we were young. I actually liked it right up until the end when one of the characters sings an ORIGINAL SONG by the same title as the movie. I'm feeling sick just remembering that awful moment.
  • Good Will Hunting: Robin Williams is a caricature of himself in this movie. Not to mention, the distillation of an entire profession into one simple, repeated question that magically causes an emotional breakthrough?! (I think this is a real improvement.)

Unqualified: although these are not movies about teachers in the classroom, they are compelling enough that you should watch them anyway!

  • Lean on Me: There are plenty of cliches here, too, but Morgan Freeman has enough memorable lines to redeem it, and I'm partial to the true-to-life story that's close to my church home. Bonus: the faculty meeting that ends with the kind of verbal dressing-down most teachers dream of delivering.
  • Waiting for Superman: The only movie that ever inspired two blog posts, it is more about the educational system than education itself -- but still, everyone should watch it, because if you think you're not a part of that system in some way, you're dead wrong. 
  • Spellbound: This movie is actually a complex character study cleverly disguised as a documentary. The only downside is the knowledge that, out of eight charming children, only one will win the National Spelling Bee -- and truly, you are rooting for them all.
  • The King's Speech: Out on a technicality, because an SLP is not the same as a classroom teacher, the recent Best Picture is one of the few winners that actually deserved that honor. Geoffrey Rush is transcendent, and Colin Firth is maybe even more attractive with a speech impediment than as his normal brooding self.
  • The Life of David Gale: A bold political statement about capital punishment, this sleeper is only tangentially about a wrongfully-accused college professor. Kevin Spacey doing his in-your-face Kevin Spacey thing, and Kate Winslet being the luminous, visceral presence she always is, makes the film riveting to the last moment.
  • Rushmore: I am sorry I waited so long to see this movie about a bizarre love triangle between two teachers and a student. I thought I wouldn't like it. I was so wrong; in fact, it opened the floodgates to a long, torrid affair with Wes Anderson's work. Bill Murray is inimitable. Jason Schwartzman redefines precocious. Be ye not so foolish: watch it now!