Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Island of Grief

I wasn't prepared for the fact that grief is so unpredictable. It wasn't just sadness, and it wasn't linear. Somehow I'd thought that the first days would be the worst and then it would get steadily better - like getting over the flu. That's not how it was.

Meghan O'Rourke
April 20th marked 88 years since my father was born. It also marked the first time that he was not here to celebrate the occasion.  I thought I was doing pretty okay that day, getting ready for work, driving kids to school, and doing all the normal things I do without feeling weighed down with sadness and a sense of loss.  I was doing okay, until halfway to work the image floated through my mind of my mom waking up in the morning without him.  On his birthday.  And that struck me as impossibly sad.  Tears filled my eyes and spilled over as I continued on my way to work, all the while willing myself to get it together.  I hastily wiped at my eyes before exiting the car, thankful for the dark glasses that would hide the tell-tale trail of mascara.

The quote by Meghan O'Rourke seems to fit so perfectly what I have experienced over the last nine months. No, grief is certainly not linear.  It may move in a generally forward direction, but only because that's where time is going and time drags everything and everyone along for the ride. Instead, grief performs an erratic dance; it swirls and leaps and just when you think you've made it to someplace smooth and steady, it suddenly loops back to where it was in the beginning. Unpredictable indeed.

People talk about the stages of grief, and there probably are identifiable stages, I am sure I have experienced them all, but they don't neatly line up and usher you from one to the next until you arrive --ta da!-- at the finish line all completely healed and whole again.  One day--one minute--you're fine and the next you are wiping tears from your eyes because some song or some object or just some random thought mercilessly punched you in the gut once again.

Unless you've been through it, it's hard to understand.  And even if you have, there is a hesitation to acknowledge grief past a certain point.  Beyond the initial expressions of condolences, no one really wants to talk about it.  Maybe it's part superstition.  Maybe it's truly a desire to not want to bring up the hurt in the one who is grieving.  (As if we had forgotten all about it.)  Maybe it's just a matter of not knowing what to say.  The end result, though, is that you become isolated on a deserted island of grief.  You don't dare say anything either, even writing about it is risky, because you figure everyone expects you to be done grieving.  You've had enough time; get over it and move on.  But that's not how it is.

After my brief meltdown in the car, I made it through the rest of my day just fine, no more morose thoughts to lead me astray.  I taught my lessons, talked to my students and fellow teachers, and did everything as I normally do.  When I came home I did something else I always do; I grabbed my iPad and hopped on social media to see what exciting things had been going on in other people's worlds.  Scattered throughout my Facebook feed I found a few posts that could best be described as heartwarming.  They were from members of my family.  To my dad.  Wishing him a happy birthday.  

Now, I know there are people who think that sort of thing is weird if not just plain crazy.  A few months ago I was listening to the radio when a couple of radio talk-show hosts went on and on about how stupid it was when people posted as if the person was still alive.  I naturally would have to disagree.  It wasn't crazy.  It was beautiful.  The messages we all left said virtually the same thing.  We love him and think of him everyday.  Although separated by miles, there on my dad's Facebook timeline, we gathered together to share our grief and our love and our gratitude for all that he meant to each and every one of us.  We left messages to honor a man who deserves to be remembered.  

And in so doing, I was reminded that the island of grief I sometimes inhabit isn't really deserted at all.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Thoughts on Becoming a Mother (to a Teenager)

I'm pretty sure I became the mother of a teenager last night. 

No, it wasn't my son's birthday.  We still have a few months before the title of teenager will officially be his. So there was no cake, no blowing out of candles, no off-key singing to mark the occasion. Instead, the realization quietly crept up and made itself at home as I was driving Jared and two of this friends to a comic store to attend their first Magic the Gathering tournament. 

There they were, three boys who have known each other since they could barely walk, crammed into the back seat of my Prius.  Their low, almost-man voices, punctuated by bursts of  young-boy exuberance, filled the car, drowning out the CD playing.  Excitement bubbled over and carried us to our destination.

Only it wasn't our destination.  It was their destination.  As soon as I had parked the car, the three boys tumbled out of the back and headed immediately for the store, leaving me, already forgotten, in their dust.  I followed them in to find them patiently waiting their turn at the counter. 

"Can I sign up for the Magic tournament?" I heard Jared ask confidently, as though he had done it a million times before, when the girl behind the counter turned to him.  Here in this place, a world completely foreign to me, he was right at home.

I hung around until they had all paid their $5 and had their decks checked to make sure they were tournament legal.  (Yeah, I didn't know there was such a thing before either.  Fortunately, you don't get arrested if they find an illegal card in your deck.) 

"What do you do now?" I asked.

"I don't know," Jared responded.

I would have been filled with anxiety not knowing what I was supposed to do.  The tone of his voice and the shrug of his shoulders made it clear that he was not bothered by it, but rather secure in the knowledge that he would figure it all out in due time.

As the boys turned from the counter, they discovered that a friend from school was also there.  They greeted Tad, who has a reputation for being a really good player, with enthusiasm.  I have a tendency to imagine all the kids I don't know at my son's middle school as resembling the punks they are portrayed to be in movies.  I was pleasantly surprised that he just appeared to be a normal kid with the added bonus of being capable of polite conversation.  Tad was clearly an experienced tournament player, the girl at the counter even had a nickname for him, and he led the boys to the tables where they would be playing.  Led them away from me.  Except for one last plea for some money for the vending machine, my son no longer needed me.  With a final  "good luck" and "goodbye," I walked back to my car and headed for home.

It was a strange feeling to leave my baby in a room full of men in their 20s and 30s, who were at worst child molesters and at best socially-awkward males who had never quite figured out the whole male-female dynamic.  (I know I'm stereotyping, but these are the crazy thoughts that go through your mind in situations such as these.)  The rational part of my brain recognized that the people gathered to play cards were probably none of those things. Even if they were, chances were pretty slim that one would suddenly leap across the table during the middle of the tournament to molest my son, who, now merely months away from earning his black belt, could protect himself better than I could anyway.  And of course, I wasn't leaving my baby.  I was leaving the confident, independent, smart, funny, semi-responsible young man that my baby had grown to be. I knew he would be all right. 

And so would I.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Journey Unfinished

Just the other day, I remarked to my husband that it has been twenty years since I earned my teaching credential.  Twenty. Years. "Wow!  That time has gone by fast," he said.  No kidding.

Dan and I met at the end of my first year of teaching.  Back then I was an English-Only 6th grade teacher at a Spanish bilingual school.  Looking back, it was probably an odd placement for me.  I was properly certified to teach English Language Learners, but properly certified doesn't necessarily mean properly qualified.  Many of my students had been in a bilingual classroom since kindergarten, but the program ended at 5th grade, so they were all unceremoniously dumped in an E-O classroom in 6th grade.  With me.  A decidedly green teacher who hadn't studied Spanish since her junior year of high school ten years earlier and who figured out pretty quickly that the language arts methods class had done little to prepare her for teaching reading and writing to actual children.

Although I was green, I was young, determined, and enthusiastic.  And single. Evenings and weekends were wide open for me to devote myself to figuring out what the heck I was doing.  Which was exactly what I did.  One day while waiting to get my hair cut, I calculated how much I made an hour by dividing my annual salary by the number of hours I actually worked.  I was making less than I had at my last job as a receptionist.  I didn't care.  I was happy.  I was living my dream and was confident that I would soon be a pro at my chosen career.

Now, here I am almost twenty years later and I am still trying to figure it out.  I am no longer green nor young and there are way more demands on my time.  And yes, while I still remain enthusiastic, I have to admit that the enthusiasm has been dampened a bit by the realities and politics of teaching.  What really frustrates me, though, is knowing that I should be better, that I should be further along in this journey than I am.  I joined Twitter a couple of years ago and was amazed and inspired by the brilliant ideas I found being shared.  Actually, stupefied might be a better word.  How was it that I didn't know all these strategies?  Why wasn't I doing all these amazing things in my classroom?  How had I fallen so far behind?

There were possible answers to these questions, but ultimately they had to be acknowledged for what they truly were.  Excuses.  At that point, at that proverbial fork in the road, I had a choice:  I could give up or I could start moving forward again.  I chose to move forward. I may never reach the pinnacle I seek, but I know I sure as hell am never going to get there if I don't journey on.  

The truth is, it is easy to get discouraged when you look at that long stretch of road behind you and realize you haven't accomplished all you had planned when your journey began.  Even worse is realizing the stretch of road before you is shortening by the minute, and you are left wondering if you're ever going to get to where you thought you were going.  You look around you and see all these other people who are so much more accomplished than you and you question if maybe you just don't have what it takes.  It would be so much easier to give up and just go through the motions.  Easier to just stay right where you are.

The other day I posted about a writing lesson I taught my students.  I almost didn't publish it.  It seemed so simplistic, so elementary, and I regretted that it wasn't more amazing and inspiring.  I felt like it was something that everyone else had been doing forever.  But it is where I am at this moment.  This is the journey I am on, and if I am going to keep pushing forward, I have to be honest about where I am.  I may be standing at the base of the mountain, but rather than be discouraged by all those who are further up the path, I will learn from them and follow their lead, knowing that they too once stood at the base contemplating the steep road ahead.  

Over the last few days the words of Kris Allen's song, "Lost," have kept playing in my head:  "Maybe I'm lost/But at least I'm looking."  I have always loved the raw, honest emotion of the song, but I just recently realized that the reason it speaks to me is because it is about acknowledging shortcomings but refusing to give up.  No, I don't have everything all figured out.  I don't have all the answers.  I don't even have all the questions yet.  But at least I'm looking. 

And so the journey continues. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Following My Own Advice

Today was the first day back after Spring Break.  In an ironic twist of events, after an incredibly dry winter, it was pouring down rain when I left for work.  Rain is too badly needed around here for me to complain about, so I simply placed the million papers I had brought home to read during the break in plastic bags and dashed from door to car and then, once I arrived at work, from car to door as quickly as I could.  

Fortunately, the papers stayed dry.  These weren't just any papers, after all.  These were the first drafts of the informational books my students had started writing prior to our two-week vacation.  I had brought them home to read so I could plan which lessons to teach next.  I hadn't realized at the time that I would be learning some lessons of my own.

At the end of the Slice of Life Story Challenge, I wrote about what I had learned from the experience.  Learning is one thing; doing is quite another.  I was determined to not let that learning go to waste and to apply it to my teaching.  Because I had experienced firsthand the power of positive feedback, the first thing I did was compliment each student's writing. I will admit that it was more challenging to do in some cases than it was in others, but when my students received their writing today, the first thing each of them saw was a bright pink, heart-shaped sticky note with a positive observation.  To alleviate any anxiety, I told them ahead of time that I had only written notes on what I had really liked about their writing. When it came time to return the papers to their owners, one of my students exclaimed that she was excited to see her note from me.  All around the room, I could hear students reading their notes out loud. It was a nice change of pace to see students actually excited to read my feedback on their writing!

Next, I shared with my class some of the things I had learned about myself as a writer over the last month and identified three areas I wanted to improve in.  I then asked my students to look at both their work-in-progress as well as an earlier piece that I had assessed using the informational writing rubric from the Units of Study in Writing and choose their own goals to work toward.  Each of us wrote our goals on a piece of paper, which was then hung on our writing wall.  As we revise our work, I will refer my students back to those self-determined goals and help them find ways to achieve them.

What I didn't tell them was that when I wrote out my compliments to them I also made notes to myself on areas that needed further development.  I made a really simple chart with each student's name and the three main categories of the writing assessment:  Structure, Development, and Conventions.  

I will refer to this chart when I confer with students and use it to help me guide them toward improving their writing.

As we finish up the unit, I plan on constantly revisiting my own learning to help me better direct theirs. My hope is that they will continue to enjoy writing and want to push themselves to make their writing the best it can be. In the meantime, I will relish in the fact that writing time is actually something that both my students and I can look forward to.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Do It While You Can

Do it while you can
My mother did say.
Been wasting too much time
So starting today--

I will smile
I will laugh
And wear high heels.
I'll cast glances
Take chances
Just to know how it feels.

I will dance
And I'll sing
Though horribly off-key.
I'll do it loud
I'll do it proud
So everyone can see.

Love me
Or hate me
Do as you please.
I'll stand tall
And won't fall
Down to my knees.

I'll jump rope
And play games
Maybe learn to play guitar.
I'll have fun
And I'll run
Though probably not far.

I'll travel
Drink wine
Go out with the girls.
I'll view sunrises
And sunsets
Watch storm clouds whirl.

I'll imagine
And wonder
I'll make a new plan.
I'll dare to dream
And do everything
While I still can.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Devoid of inspiration
And the desire to change.
Each day a dreary repeat
Of the day before.
Moving forward
Like empty cans 
On a conveyor belt.
Moving forward,
But not really.
Stuck in place
As the world drags you along.
Nothing new
Nothing captivating
Nothing to light the spark
And reignite a passion
That burns,
And explodes with a force
That nothing can stop.