Commencement

On the evening of Friday, May 17, my seniors graduated. Commencement is a pretty common event yet I always find myself inspired and moved as I watch another group of young people venture off toward their future. This year was a bit different as this was the first group to graduate since I became Head of High School and I was also asked to deliver a commencement address. Since Friday, several people have asked me to share my words from that night, so I figured this would be the easiest way to make that happen. Below are those words–certainly, they are more significant to my kiddos and in the moment that it was delivered. Regardless, here it is…

“I love graduation night at CES. Friends and family outside of this community struggle to really understand this about me. Last year, for example, I was too sick to attend graduation and in the depths of my disappointment over my absence, I turned where anyone else would for comfort…to social media. I just knew that if I were to share my heartache over missing this special event that at the very least my teacher friends from other schools in other places would get it…they would understand. Except, most didn’t. In fact, many of them congratulated me on getting out of attending the ceremony, saying things like “the kids won’t even know that you aren’t there” and “there will be another graduation next year, don’t worry” All I could say was “You just don’t get it.” And they didn’t. I didn’t try to explain that things here are different or unique. They wouldn’t have gotten the weight of that either because our “essence” as Zoe referred to it in her Seniors Speak is far too intangible to fill a pithy Facebook response and worth far more than any number of likes, loves, thumbs up it might receive. There wasn’t enough space to express that when these young people graduate after spending so much time with us in our small, quaint setting that they are not just students saying goodbye, rather they are family moving away from home—and graduation has become a sort of formalized celebration of that bond before they depart and look to the next exciting moments in their lives. When graduates cross this stage, it means something to each member of this faculty because we have an investment in the lives of each of these young people that is made richer because of the size of our school, for though our community may be small, its heartbeat is mighty. Every graduation counts here. Every kid matters. These young people seated before you and all who have graced this stage before them have taken up a residence in my heart and in the hearts of all on this campus and while they leave us physically, there they will remain.

I consider it a great honor to have the opportunity to speak this evening as I stand in awe of this particular group of graduates. Mr. Morvant referenced them as “Living Stones” of CES the other night at our Academic Awards and while I’m sure his intent was for us to consider St. Peter, I couldn’t help but think of a line from the U2 song “Ordinary Love” —“the sea throws rocks together/But time leaves polished stones.”  While these lyrics stray from Mr. Morvant’s purpose, I also think they typify and exemplify so much about this class. To me, these lyrics consider the power of refinement an environment, even one that is tumultuous at times, can have. These lyrics also speak to the power of the company you keep in that environment—company that is not always your choice but because you share space you are being shaped by each other every single day in ways you may not even recognize—Yet, as a result of this closeness, there is  also a need to figure out how to respect the differences in those that surround you without losing what makes you the individual you are. After all, the rocks being tossed in the sea would become far less interesting if they were all polished to look identical.

So, if you don’t already know it, this is a group of strongly opinionated young people who had to work rather hard in order to learn how to share those convictions without insult or injury and how to hear opinions different from their own without judgement and clearly disgusted facial expressions. They had to learn how to have difficult conversations without it degrading into argument and vitriol. Honestly, the adults in this world have a great deal to learn from the process these kids have endured. When they believe in something, they are fiercely protective of it and that is commendable. That is how you end up with an Equality Club and a GSA; that is how you end up with a thriving golf team and a student council that fosters activities on par with schools 3 and 4 times our size; that is how you end up with costume design and a newly popular student vestry; that is how you end up with 17 young men and women some terrified, some exhilarated but all willing to stand up at Seniors Speak and share not just their learning, but their truth.

It is in fact a process of refinement. And I think part of what makes that refinement so difficult is the call to love. This greatest commandment, this call to love our neighbor is daunting because sometimes it is the people in closest proximity that can become the most difficult to love, the most difficult to forgive, the most difficult to really see because we feel we know them so well. But as we heard in the reading tonight, love “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)

These polished stones seated on this stage tonight have learned together the weight of these words as they have trekked the journey of these four years in community. Their years here while often full of laughter and silliness, coordinated dress up days and themed get togethers, have not always been so simple and this call to love has gotten cloudy and complicated at times, as it does for all of us–yet despite the seemingly enigmatic challenges and the time it may have taken to unwind them, these young people have always abided, they have always found a way to rise above, they have always sought to work it out and I believe that they will continue to do so in their lives even now as they go their separate ways. They will bring that goodness and the understanding that the single story, what we think we know, is never, not even once, the entire story, they’ll bring that to new environments, to new people they have yet to meet because that foundation is strong—because they worked to build it. Because this is the sheen of their polish. And in doing that they will absolutely become “Living Stones” of Christ Episcopal School. They will carry forward the love that was fostered in them and by them and in doing so, I hope, I expect the world will be a better place for it.

As an aside, as our Salutatorian and I discussed speeches this week, she told me my speech would be great as long as I didn’t include any poetry, and I tried not to include any, I really did, but alas, here we are and I am definitely going to quote some poetryJBut it fits, I promise…

Elizabeth Alexander in her poem “Praise Song for the Day” writes the following words that I believe speak to this call to love perfectly and also to the call that I repeat more often than any of my students cares to hear that “words matter”

“We encounter each other in words, words

spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,

words to consider, reconsider…

 

What if the mightiest word is love?

 

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

 

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

 

praise song for walking forward in that light”

Each of these young people seated before you have faced at one time or another seemingly insurmountable odds, moments that have forced them to make decisions far beyond the wisdom of their years, moments that presented challenges they may not have felt equipped to face, moments that required courage they didn’t know they possessed, yet here they are tonight on this immense occasion, not simply having survived but having overcome. Having overcome it all together. They are here tonight ready to face what the world will offer them because that offering while sometimes brilliant and generous, will not always be pretty, will not always be kind, will not always be an extension of love. Yet, they will leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge and confidence that they have what it takes to meet with adversity, hardship, crisis and to tough it out until the polishing is complete and their sheen has returned only now with more sparkle. They leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge that their CES family is always here to shelter, to support, to celebrate, to sing their praises. When I look at this class that is what I see—I see strength, perseverance, and a willingness to melt the skeleton and reshape when necessary. A willingness to extend love and grace—and hopefully that love will cast “a widening pool of light.” You have all taught me so much about what it means to be a human in this world. And for that, I am so grateful to each of you. Your absence here as you move forward will be noticeable and you will most certainly be missed—and not because you ran clubs or helped set up chairs, not because you made good grades or won awards—you will be missed simply because of who you are, because you are a part of this school family.

Just don’t lose sight of the fact that as you greet every new and exciting moment that you have the opportunity to consider and reconsider your words, don’t lose sight that love is the mightiest of those words and that today –every day “any thing can be made, any sentence begun” You guys are walking forward into such bright futures with so much light, but don’t forget that “we all make choices” and that it is your job to bring light with you as well.

Your mark here is indelible, Congratulations Class of 2019. We are so proud of you.”

 

 

phenomenal

 

“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”
(excerpted from “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou)

In early December, I received this gorgeous thank you note from a student of mine. The thought behind this handwritten note alone would have been enough to remind me that the weight of my job delves deeper than the daily decision making that occupies so much of my time as principal/teacher. Our young people, my students, lead busy lives that create a constant hum of events, studying, clubs, family life, work and  more. College pressure and the pressures of figuring out who it is they wish to be in this world rests upon their shoulder’s as Atlas’ burden sat upon his. Amid all of this, she escaped her own needs and responsibilities and found the time to write a thank you note.

I also would have been moved by her simply mentioning of how grateful she is for the introduction she received to poetry in my class last year…for the opportunity to explore her new found passion fully in her writing (instead of forcing her to maintain the plan I had set out for the class). Students often come to my classroom with only negative feelings toward poetry. Once they are immersed in it, once they have the freedom to find their own meaning, once they venture into writing their own stories poetically, doors open, confidence blooms, they become writers.

But, what struck me most was the line that is underlined: “Thank you for being a strong female leader I can look up too [sic]” Well, it would be easy to forget this responsibility in the busy days of the school week. One could quickly become numb to the rest, to the fact that the kids are always watching. One could lose sight of the example we set just by being ourselves. Across this nation there are heaps off female high school principals–I am the product of an extremely impressive one, after all. But at my small school, the only leadership that has ever presided over the high school has been male. I know that I felt a small victory in breaking that barrier and assuming this position but I don’t think I realized until I read this note the impact that my students (especially my girls) felt by witnessing that changeover and the days that followed.

It has become increasingly important to me to uphold that responsibility, that honor with the dignity it deserves. I don’t necessarily do my job any differently or better than I would have before; I do, however, act with intentionality and a mindfulness of what my words and actions create. I feel an extraordinary  duty to exemplify that a leader can have an empathic heart and also enforce rules and enact change. I am more keenly aware that it is ever-important for me to display that a good leader has vision for the future and creates plans to achieve that vision but without sacrificing the heart of the institution. Honestly, every leader should be conscious of these qualities. But, I am also cognizant of the need to demonstrate that a woman is equal to that task. It is imperative that I use my voice wisely and not be afraid to assert it just because I fear being seen as noisy or abrasive. When I speak for the good of my students and the good of the school, I am working toward bettering learning opportunities and I should not cower from that because of possible perception. Because when it comes down to it, the reverse, the depiction of female leadership as always needing to be told what to do, of always waiting and never acting, of being quieted rather than elevated, is a far more dangerous example to set.

I am blessed to work in an institution that values my voice and my brain and so the confidence I am fighting is more from what the world around me has said for my lifetime rather than what is actually being enacted around me. Breaking that common societal narrative for the girls in my school has become paramount. My hope is that they will seek leadership roles in their lives, as many already have, and that they will assume those positions with grace and confidence because they are more than equal to the task and no one has ever made them think or feel otherwise.

So, these days, I am willing to walk the line a bit more. I am working to own the confidence it takes to do that. I keep this note with me all of the time as a reminder of purpose when the job feels too much…like another path would be easier. Ease isn’t always better; simplicity can also bring emptiness. The task is hard, the job demanding (seemingly impossible at times), but I am up for it…

“’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”

 

(Day 58–tomorrow is king cake day!!! I would expect a super early post because I am anticipating king cake for breakfast and maybe again on the parade route!)

perseverance

Over the weekend I sort of accidentally came across the Guy Raz podcast “How I Built This” on NPR. In this particular installment, he was interviewing Bobbi Brown and I found myself captivated. Now, if you know anything about me, you know that makeup is not something I would claim to know a lot about or even to have a keen interest in. I see its purpose, I’m sure it’s great, but I’ve just never taken the time (or spent the money) to really figure it out. Honestly, I think most people assume that I wear no makeup at all (and not in that “Oh wow! Her makeup looks so natural” way). Given this set of circumstances, my fascination with this podcast came as a surprise. At first I listened only because I felt positive that my sister would enjoy it and I wanted to be able to recommend it to her with some credibility…to be able to tell her something about it. I stayed with it, because it was about so much more than makeup.

The substance of the show weighted itself in ingenuity, perseverance, knowledge of self–all of which are critical parts of any successful creative process. Her story begins in childhood enchantment with makeup, travels through finding the right collegiate experience after recognizing that the traditional college program scratched uncomfortably at her being, then treks through her career (both her work as a make up artist and in developing her own brand). At every stage of this story, her humanity was palpable which made her experience relatable. I am never going to build a multi-million dollar make-up brand, but her trajectory offered me some critical reminders about what it means to be creative.

In this society of immediacy that we live in where information is always at our finger tips and measures are always being taken to curtail waiting, we become forgetful of the fact that success isn’t always instantaneous. Generating a clever idea does not promise progress, does not assign accomplishment. We meet with achievement when we possess the dedication it takes to not only see the idea through, but also when we are willing to own when alterations are required and further, when we have the vision to make them effectively. Bobbi Brown’s brand’s initial spark ignited during an almost accidental conversation with a chemist and then through devotion to herself and her product, progressed from a really ingenious idea to a concrete reality. Success. After years of hard work and patience. After years of nurturing a notion.

I’ve also heard writers speak before about how some projects take years to craft, and something inside of me wonders if I possess that kind of patience and dedication required to write anything of true significance. Will I just dawdle my days through a hobby? Or will I finally pay it the attention it deserves to actually attempt to move it forward? Do I really lack the dedication or have I just not conceived the right project yet? I really thought after 51 days of blogging I would know better what it is I want to write, how to direct my attention. I really thought I would at least have figured out what kind of blog this is! But after listening to this podcast and others who have lived through this process, I realize that 51 days might not be enough….it might only be the beginning. Maybe I have more writing to do if I really want to figure that out. And it may not lead to anything at all, but at least I will know that I gave it everything I had…that I didn’t just extinguish the dream before it had a chance to become something more. That I didn’t abandon something I love simply because it might not take me anywhere. Actually, staying true to that part of myself, might be the best possible outcome anyway.

Some poems about dreams felt appropriate…

Harlem” and “Dreams” by Langston Hughes

My Little Dreams” by Georgia Douglas Johnson

“(“dive for dreams…”)” by E.E. Cummings

(Day 51!! I ordered my gluten free king cake today and it will be ready to be picked up next Monday–the hardest part will be waiting until I’ve written Tuesday’s blog to eat it!)

becoming

I was speaking with a student the other day about how when we aren’t paying attention, things in our lives (both insignificant and critical) change. Sometimes that change brings positivity and goodness and sometimes that change surreptitiously steals something irreplaceable. We also talked about how it can be hard to look back on that easier time, that time before. Pervasive jealousy can eat away at you in those moments if you aren’t careful. Jealousy for moments when you felt more yourself, more able, less confined, less troubled. I should know. I look back on the pre-inner ear days with great longing. In pictures from before this disorder began, I immediately recognize an ease to my smile that indicates I hadn’t yet suffered the weight of what was to come. I wonder who that girl could have become…what her life might have looked like…what she could have accomplished.

But, I had a student in a bit of a crisis with me, so I couldn’t stop there or even really linger. I had to bring a more important insight to her. And that was simply this: Don’t focus too much on who you feel like you were before this “thing” interrupted your journey, retrain your gaze on who you will become as a result…give that girl some grace and begin to wrap her in love and acceptance.

For my own purposes, it doesn’t matter who that smiling carefree girl in my pictures could have become without the illness; the fact of the matter is that the strength and determination I possess today was instilled because I walked through that fire…because it melted and reshaped me and I am stronger as a result. Is my life what I thought it would be? Nope. But that isn’t a terrible thing. Sure it would be nice to float through a simpler existence on this earth…to move through my days with nothing more than average human dilemmas. That is not the lot I drew and pouting about it only denies the beauty that my life still has to offer.

Of course I can say this because I’m currently on the other side of that fire and it is easier to see the truth because of that. But this student needed to know that she wasn’t alone. That she will reach the other side of her fire as well. She needed to know that it is okay to grow and to change in response to this life and it is also okay to feel frustrated and hurt that this change had to occur…but that giving up is not a worthwhile indulgence. She needed to know that she could still tackle amazing feats. She needed to know she’s not done yet just because it’s hard right now. And she needed to talk and to be heard. So I listened…for a while..before sharing anything with her. Because sometimes you need to empty the tank before you can be filled up again.

(For some reason, as I wrote this, Joy Harjo’s “Once the World was Perfect” came to mind. I think it was the beginning of the poem that resurfaced first–

“Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—”)
(And I also thought of this–“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes)
(Day 49–7 weeks of daily blogging–and good thing I’m almost done. Parades have begun in full force and king cake is getting harder to resist!)

endurance

There’s this section in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Jerusalem,” that lingers…sort of always there, but every so often pronouncing its presence with a sense of passion.

“I’m not interested in

who suffered the most.

I’m interested in

people getting over it.”
There is beauty here that is simple, pure and I think often misunderstood. My students sometimes see these opening lines as insensitive…lacking in sympathy, empathy, human kindness. But what is missed in that interpretation is that she doesn’t write that she isn’t concerned for those who have suffered. She is simply less concerned with the misguided competition for who has endured more and is more intensely intrigued by the human process of getting over it–the ability to move on…without harboring hate. Because in the “getting over it” the substance of the human soul and the intensity of perseverance, the will to not just survive but to flourish becomes evident. The getting over it is the example, right? It is the inspiration to the rest of us, the paragon we look to in the midst of our own suffering. Without that inspiration, it’s hard to believe we can surmount the struggle. The “people getting over it” embody the hope that we need to carry on. (and when we persist toward healing, we in turn become that hope for others…a pretty cool cycle, right?)
Later in the poem she writes, “Each carries a tender spot:/something our lives forgot to give us.” Suffering isn’t unique to the individual, rather it is a quality of humanity. We all suffer to varying degrees (we all carry “a tender spot”), it is what we do with that pain that makes the difference. Do we choose to become bitter? To hate? To live in anger and frustration? Or do we choose to forgive? To extend grace? To live in acceptance and hope?
It isn’t always easy to envision a path that leads to the “getting over it”…and sometimes even once we locate that path, it is rather thorny. And sometimes the path requires more energy than we possess in the moment, so we sit down and rest…not wallow, just rest…so that we can unearth the strength, the courage to continue toward overcoming.
The poem ends with the hopeful line: “It’s late but everything comes next.”
In this world that swells with selfish selections…that swirls with negativity and heartache, fear and hatred…this line fills me up. It is late. But nothing is over. There is more to come. We haven’t seen it yet.
Let’s get over the tender spots and marvel at those around us who do the same. Let’s remember that hate doesn’t have to be our answer when wounded. Let’s keep our eyes on what comes next. Let’s live in community, in forgiveness, in a world where getting over it, healing is more interesting than some strange competition over who hurts more. We all hurt. At some point, we will all hurt. Let’s embrace our humanity and rise above that struggle to live our lives with meaning and intent.
Because that is, after all, the blessing of each new day.
(Day 44…loved revisiting this poem)

reading life

I have been rereading Toni Morrison’s Beloved…lingering over the language, pausing to absorb the weight, walking away when the truth (atrocity) overwhelms me (knowing that is a weakness), standing in awe of the craft and construction of this text–a text that knows itself, doesn’t oversell, over word, or over extend itself. I have adored this rereading more than any other reading of this book for some reason. I am not sure why, but something inside of me was ready to understand it differently (and I am not entirely sure that isn’t simply because I’ve been writing more and that impacts my perspective).

But I’m conflicted.

I am rereading the book because I recently took over a class for a colleague who had assigned Beloved to AP juniors. So, this time I’m reading the book to teach it. Working through literature with teenagers is honestly one of the best parts of my job. Inevitably, my students reveal insight through their analysis and questioning that is profound and reflects a perspective I might not have considered. This is particularly prone to occur when I allow them to lead the way in discussion and response. When I allow them to define what is important and to determine what is worthy of study, their engagement with the text deepens. When I allow the text to belong to them too and I grant them agency as readers and thinkers, the work is suddenly far more than a school assignment.

Yet despite my love for facilitating discussions about and analytical work with literature, I’m struggling with this one. I really just want to read the book. I just want to enjoy that reading and with all that I am, I sort of just want to keep it to myself. I don’t want to have to mar the solemnity of the read or intrude into my interaction with Morrison’s words and images in order to create lesson plans. Selfishly, I want to consider and consume the book in solitude…to make sense of it on my own and not to have to share that with anyone else. And in the midst of the whining I’ve been partaking in because of this, I realized something else.

My students feel this way all of the time. Sometimes they just want to read a book without school sort of wrecking it.

We (as teachers) talk all of the time about the importance of independent reading. And then we attach regulations and projects and logs and assessments to what we are calling “independent” and in doing so we have stripped the independence clean away. When we micromanage the reading lives of our students, we in no way stoke a joy of reading…if anything, we stifle it. As an avid reader, I really just want to read books I will enjoy (and sometimes I want to read them more than once…and sometimes they are beneath my reading level but they feed my brain in a different way…I’m looking at you Crazy Rich Asians) and then I want to talk to someone else about them. My 10 year old would agree with this philosophy. He is pretty clear on knowing that if  a book project is required, he doesn’t really want to involve a book he loves…because that kind of work destroys the read for him. I think it is time that we really consider the work we attach to independent reading and then consider what those assignments are doing to heighten the reading experience, to strengthen reading skills, and maybe we also need to consider what those assignments are doing to the reading lives of our kids. And then, from that place of understanding, we need to take some action.

So, as I plan structures that will allow my students to share their understanding of Beloved, I am working hard to maintain my personal reading life and also to help my students develop theirs. This book isn’t part of their independent reading…it was assigned to the whole class…but maybe there is a way for them to own it as though they chose it themselves…and maybe I can help make that happen.

(Day 39!)

half-way

Today, I was mentioning to my students that I was at the half-way mark of my blog-a-day writing journey.

Their response?

“Oh my gosh!! You are only half-way?! It seems like you have been doing this forever!”

(there was also this… “How have you not eaten any king cake yet?!?!” Which, honestly, I have no idea how I have not given in!)

I’m not going to lie, I feel like I have been blogging everyday forever at this point as well. The difference between my students and I here exists in the fact that some of them sort of grimaced at the thought of having so many more blogs to go, while I relish it. What was once a duty brought on by the creation of this challenge to myself, has become habit…has become the discipline that I was hoping for. I’m not really writing for king cake anymore (though don’t get me wrong, I will be indulging on Mardi Gras day), I am writing for myself and because the more I write, the more I understand who it is I am as a writer. It’s not always easy, I do not always want to sit down to write, and sometimes, once I do, I sort of hate what I have written. Some nights I argue with myself for a good fifteen minutes before finally succumbing to the will to write instead of falling prey to the desire to sleep. Some nights, I have no idea how I will find the time. Work and family garner my attention and dedication first and some nights that means I don’t have time to write until later than I care to be awake. But somehow (and with the encouragement of my husband), a moment opens up, invites me in, and the writing finds its way onto the page. The creative act is all at once intimidating and exhilarating and I enjoy facing that challenge every evening, if for no other reason than out of curiosity for what will come of it.

And I’ve learned so much about myself as a writer and writing in general through these 32 days:

  1.  I don’t have to like what I write; I just have to write.
  2. Despite being an avid and proud morning person, I can in fact write at night, while tired, and with a headache.
  3. The more I write, the faster I write. My process has always been methodical, slow, intentional. I have always sort of loved that. And it works–when there is time. But my process should not create an impediment to a regular writing habit. Sure with more care and more time, each of these blogs would have been improved…but with more time, most of them would never have seen completion or publication (and I require that accountability).
  4. This project is a far better use of my time in the evenings than staring at my phone!
  5. I am better spoken than perhaps I was before…or at least it feels that way. Because I have dedicated time with just me and my words everyday and because my composition skills feel sharper and swifter, my conversational skills feel the same (which is saying a great deal– since the inner ear malfunction, my brain hasn’t always been friendly to my ability to converse with ease).
  6. Writing teachers need to be writing. ( I’ve always known this, but I understand it far more deeply now than before this project began)
  7. Writing teachers need to be sharing their writing journey with their students (because honestly, that has been one of the best parts of this whole affair. And I don’t mean just the stiff, teacherly “Let me share my process with you.” That is helpful and important of course, but there is more to it than that, right? It is important to share the moments that aren’t so carefully crafted to be teachable–the human moments that are more instructive than we give them credit for. My students and I have this whole writing thing in common now and if nothing else, they know that I am with them…that I get it…that I am doing the work too…and that sometimes it is difficult for me just as it is for them…and that we can all persevere through that. And also, they have come to realize that writing is not just about assignments in school, it is a way of life.)
  8. 32 days is not enough time to persuade my dog that this project, which has placed a computer in the lap she prefers to sit in, is a good idea.
  9. King cake is a good motivator, but clicking publish is a better one.
  10. The support of my family–the knowledge that they recognize how important this is to me–heightens my desire to persevere, to continue writing.

(32 days!! My sister told me I should post a pic of myself longingly looking at king cake today. I totally failed there…but it’ll happen eventually.)

And also, because this poem makes me think about the creative act of putting words to the blank page…“The Storm” by Mary Oliver

in defense (part one)

I have had to learn not to be surprised by the audacity of judgement on my choice of not just teaching high school students, but also judgment because I love doing so. I have so many answers for these cleverly disguised insults so frequently slung my way. But the essence of my argument centers around the fact that high school kids possess an energy and a light and a potential for goodness that is simply waiting to be identified and shaped…simply waiting for an opportunity to express itself in the world in some meaningful way. The ability to mask this goodness in attitude and impetuous actions seems to be a trademark of the teenage population. It is the teacher’s job to see through this facade straight to the truth that sometimes the kid herself is blind to. It is the teacher’s job to encourage the student to recognize and harness their potential, to be a guide along the way, and to stand back in awe as the kid takes flight. I gladly shoulder the responsibility of forming part of the village who will shape these young people. I take that duty on as a bit of a sacred act because I know with faulty steering, the ship will lose its way, be drawn off course. And that sometimes, even the most precise guidance and mapping isn’t enough. But the opportunity to try…the opportunity to make that difference blesses me each and every day that I get up and go to work.

My job isn’t an easy one. But even in its most frustrating moments, it brings me inordinate joy.

I guess my main question is…who wouldn’t want to have this kind of impact?

(Day 30!!! That seems amazing to me!)

love-hate

Reading and I have endured a bit of a love-hate relationship over the course of time. (I’m pretty sure that as an English teacher, I am not supposed to admit to this…but if anything, I am overly candid, so consider it a purposeful admission)

As a child, I honestly hated to read. Painfully slow, the process itself became an exercise in humiliation and self-retribution. I was a smart kid, so why was I such a slow reader? Books felt endless and the embarrassment I sustained, even when reading in a room alone, slowed my process further and detoured my comprehension regularly. I struggled to find myself and to make connections within the books I was reading, so I distanced myself from reading altogether. I faked my way through assigned readings and the subsequent tests and projects. And I must say, that I accomplished this task with style and stellar grades. An expert at covering my lack of diligence…I could take pride in that. No one would have ever guessed.

I did enjoy shorter texts. Poe’s stories riveted me and poetry was a language that seemed foreign to so many but preached wisdom to my mind and my innermost self. This isn’t surprising, though, given my situation. I was a slow reader which I thought meant I was a terrible reader and my stamina languished as a result. Short texts, even for me, became a worthwhile challenge; they made me feel smart and insightful. They propelled me forward.

My junior year of high school, though, I met with the book that would transform not only my reading life but my future as well, The Great Gatsby. It was required reading, a book not of my own choosing and so historically, it should have been one I ignored. However, something about Fitzgerald’s words and imagery drew me into its pages, into its story, into its complexity. I found myself sharing my analysis in class and in papers and realizing that while I was a slow reader, part of the reason for that was the thinking and digging into the text that were an intuitive part of my process. No one had ever really paid enough attention to my individual reading habits in school, no one had seen through my veiled charade, so no one had the ability to point this out to me–to instill the necessary confidence. Honestly, without Ms. Osborn’s English III Honors class and this book that captivated my imagination and captured my attention, I would not be an English teacher today. (I really love to tell my students who complain about being slow readers this story! I don’t expect them all to become English teachers, but it is so important for them to know that there are more possibilities than they realize in their own stories and reading lives.)

In recent years, my brain has been distracted by my inner ear issues and the accompanying vertigo and reading became a different kind of challenge. My process slowed more than usual–I fought for comprehension and retention while my brain focused more intently on maintaining balance. Whether I was reading a book or student writing, taking in the words, making connections, considering deeper meanings shifted from a joyful and fulfilling process to an exercise in futility. I found myself faking my way through once again and utterly disheartened, completely discouraged. But again, poetry was the answer. I found solace in these short texts that challenged me as a reader, thinker and writer but also didn’t overwhelm my temporarily stunted abilities. Poetry became my daily meditation.

Suddenly, in the midst of those years of building resentment and irritation, an epiphany settled in. So many of my students suffer from learning differences and for them the process of reading is painful…for them, avoidance is salvation from the discomfort and humiliation of having a brain that is wired for miscommunication…for them, lack of understanding and encouragement only exacerbates their defensiveness and decimates their self-esteem. None of these kids have done anything to earn this set of circumstances, just as I didn’t ask for my inner ear to sever ties with my brain. I took it on as my duty to harness this understanding and to learn greater patience with myself as a reader and to learn what tactics would help me overcome my deficits. I took it on as my duty to work with my kids in the same way–to treat them as I was treating myself and to hope that they could learn to extend themselves some grace in the process, to open themselves up to the vulnerability of working through it. This was hard work but worthwhile, and it began with building confidence and stamina with shorter texts…it began with poetry, it began with choice.

This summer, after the surgery that healed my inner ear, my brain feasted hungrily on every book I could usher its way.  I couldn’t stop myself from reading at every possible opportunity, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to enjoy books in this way. I found it difficult to explain to other people exactly what this liberation felt like; I found it difficult to relate the excitement of reveling in reading for the first time in years. A burden had released. A passion restored. A life revitalized.

(Day 27! Encouraged today by my husband’s refusal to let me quit just because I’m tired and by my students and their enduring smiles and support)

titles

So, I feel my blog has a bit of an identity crisis on its hands.

I was at the chiropractor the other day and mentioned my self-assigned blogging challenge to one of the practitioners. She was curious and asked what kind of blog I kept. I was uncertain and my response delay extended a bit too long. She filled in the vacancy with “You know, is it a food blog, a fitness blog, a fashion blog, something like that?”

She was genuinely interested and I didn’t have a reasonable single word descriptor for what this space has become.

The origin story of this blog remains clear in my mind, but its journey since that day has been somewhat unexpected.

When I sat down to start this blog in Boothbay Harbor, Maine at a literacy retreat a couple of years ago, my intent was to craft my writing around my classroom and the importance of poetry in that space and in my life…hence the title…I am pretty passionate about the necessity of poetry in the English classroom and this was going to be my outlet to prove that imperative to the world. However, since that time, while I do often discuss my classroom, I don’t only discuss my classroom. I love to talk about what is important to me as a teacher, but when I write about it (even when it includes poetry), my voice as a writer and my passion as a teacher seem to conflict and stifle each other. As a result, both suffer and I am left with a piece of writing that reveals neither my most skilled writing nor my truth as an educator. And so I often embed discussions of my classroom in larger discussions of the world and the humans that populate it.

And then other times, especially these days, I don’t mention my classroom at all. And my blog is just the ramblings of my day. I suppose I view this space now as a canvas where I can create whatever moves me in that moment as long as I am writing. It is a means of accountability because each day, I have to click publish and others will see it. It is an opportunity to grow as a writer, a safe space to learn and to practice and to honor this thing I so love to do…even when it’s been a long day and the writing will suffer for it. It keeps me honest, it keeps me writing. This blog (and the ensuing challenge) has become my greatest burden and my greatest relief in that way.

When I tried to explain how I used this space, her next response was “Oh, so it’s a journal…like an online journal?” I cringed. I don’t want to think of this space that way though I suppose it does sort of fit the definition. But words matter to me and I am not comfortable with that term for some reason. So if it has to be that, until I can better define what this space is, I think I would prefer it to be called my writer’s notebook (not to be confused with my tangible writer’s notebook full of my handwriting and notes and revisions). For me, a writer’s notebook is a space to play with words in a very real way…a chance to grow and to learn and to stretch abilities…a place to be myself without care for the opinions of others…a writing space that is mine and on any given day reflects who I am in that moment.

So, while my blog’s identity might still be in crisis, I’m okay with that. It’s generosity in allowing me to think on the page is all I really require.

(Day 22!)