Where I’ve Been and What I’ve Been Doing

11 06 2009

Sun Belt has begun, and, as in years past, it has been all-consuming, exhausting, and exhilarating. We have a nice mix of folks in the room this year from all parts of the education spectrum: elementary teachers, secondary teachers, English teachers, Social Studies/History teachers, media specialists, a principal. Every year, the first week surprises me. There is so much getting-ready and cutting-through-red-tape that by the time the first day rolls along, I am pretty well spent. But by the second day, I am looking forward to the third and the fourth days. Teaching is a lonely profession–– you spend all day in a room with students, which leaves very little time for collaboration and conversation with adults. I never realize how isolating it can be until the first day of Institute. That first day is like a slingshot into teacher heaven, where there is thinking that you can see, where there are conversations that are full of the kind of energy that comes from being understood, where there is tangible evidence of the integrity of our profession. I spent an hour after everyone left on Monday crouched over a green piece of butcher paper, armed with tempera paint, and in that hour, I got that tingly feeling that you get when you’re where you know you’re supposed to be. I really believe that the Writing Project is magic, and I’m happy to be a part of that magic these next three weeks.

So, if you’re wondering what exactly we do for three weeks, check out our blog: Sun Belt 2009.





Super Fruity

31 05 2009

grocery shopping

Fruit selection is not my strong point when it comes to grocery shopping. Bananas especially stress me out. I feel like they’re always either all green or beginning to turn brown, and I can never gauge how long it will take for my bananas to spoil, which attracts those annoying hovering fruit flies that take me days to get rid of. I see these people at the grocery store who can just walk up to a bunch of bananas and stick them in their carts with a sneer of confidence on their faces, like ha! how bout these bananas, bitch! It takes me a good two to three minutes to figure out which bananas will work for me. Sometimes, when I notice a person who takes the time to sniff and kind of squeeze peaches or lemons or whatever, I’ll go behind them, careful not to pick up the ones that they put back. All of my own sniffing, squeezing, and general fruit fondling leaves me feeling kind of pervy and ridiculous since my own fruit selection is completely arbitrary. Aside from, you know, avoiding apples with severe bruising, I just pick the prettiest ones. The trickiest part about fruit selection is that they trick you with their tricky fruit and vegetable lighting that enhances the greens and oranges and yellows to make them look all luscious until you get them home. And then there’s the worst trick of all: the strawberries that are moldy on the inside of the crate, but all red and smelly-good (as Ruthie would say) on the outside. That fuzzy stuff totally gives me the creeps. I wind up double bagging it and taking it out to the garbage. Sick. 

Ruthie loves fruit, so I usually wind up making several trips to the grocery store each week just for fruit. Yesterday I was doing my little banana routine (analyze the entire selection, pick one up, turn it over, put it back, reach for one then change my mind, rip three off of a group of five, put those back, finally grab some random bunch of three or four and walk off in a huff), when it struck me how much parenting is like picking out fruit. No matter how much I know about it, no matter how many times I see people do it, I find myself doing with Ruthie what I so often do with the bananas and all of my arbitrary fruit selection in general. You can’t ever be prepared for what you’re going to have to deal with, and whatever it is that you’re going to do, however you’re going to handle it, you can’t take more than a few seconds to make up your mind or all hell breaks loose. And the most difficult things to handle are usually the simplest. Topics like death or illness or male/female genitalia or basic hygene or, I don’t know, body image can leave you so dumbfounded that you wind up explaining something with the pitiful refrain that left you insatiable as a small child as well: “because that’s the way it is.” This phrase is the equivalent of my huffy grab at a random bunch of bananas because I’m sick of trying to figure out which ones will last longest and taste best. Why does Sam tee-tee standing up? Because he has a penis. Why? Because he’s a boy. Why is he a boy? Because he is! And there you are, with your bunch of green bananas that will never ripen in time for you to eat them in one hand, and your toddler in the grocery cart mulling over the word penis, which will probably have to be explained to her again once you get home at about the same time you realize that you just bought a bad bunch of bananas AGAIN.





“To fight aloud, is very brave”

30 05 2009

There is nothing more irresistible to me than a bookstore on Saturday morning. I spent the better part of an hour at Books A Million this morning, roving the shelves, armed with a cup of coffee. I get lost in the titles and the covers and the sheer number of books. Getting lost is something I’ve been very keen on this past year. I can’t ever quite tell what will make me lose myself until I’m doing it. I positively swam through the store, hanging on as many words (that were not mine) as I could. It was a relief, to read and not to write or to think of writing. For the past year, I’ve thought of nothing but writing, but I have written virtually nothing. Meandering through that space crowded with words meant to incite, capture, invoke me, the reader, I could feel my shoulders loosen and my stance shift. My knees grew bendier and I rested on my joints. My face became open, and I began to craft some writing in my mind. While I would normally rush somewhere to put it on the paper before the words left me, I tried to relax into the words, repeating them over and over. And then I came across the Dickinson poem that is the title of this post, and the words became cemented in my mind. I left with six books and the resolve to write. Something. Today.

I came home, put on some music, then decided against it and opened the windows, and began reading my earlier posts. I didn’t realize I began this venture two years ago, when Ruthie was only 18 months old. My third or fourth post (Taking the Long Way) speaks to the way I feel now. And it occurred to me that my life is terribly, wonderfully recursive. I keep coming back to the same places, and each time I revisit them, I am a little stronger, a little braver, a little older. I am trying now, even as I type this, to be okay with the possibility of coming off as a complete fool. I am also trying not to write what might be considered a bit of an over-share without compromising any of the truth of what has led me to the key board today. The truth is that I am exactly where I was two years ago, only less afraid and more alone. Scared and alone are two of the shittiest aspects of the human condition, if you ask me. And I am always both. But today, as I sifted through those titles and browsed the books I had selected, it occurred to me that everyone is scared and everyone feels alone (which, of course, is why it’s a part of the human condition and not the Whitney condition). All of my favorite things–- books, films, music, art –-capture those two features of what it means to be human. It is a painful condition, the human one. Which is why I found myself in the bookstore today, seeking a connection, through language, to humanity. Which is why I am writing today, seeking to establish my own connection, in my own words, to humanity. 

I’m finally reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, as per Emma Bolden’s recommendation. At the very beginning, Anna, the person who keeps the notebooks that she (unsuccessfully) divides herself into, has an insight that I can’t stop thinking about. It is during a conversation with her best friend that Anna has this sort of epiphany:

But now, sitting with Molly talking, as they had so many hundreds of times before, Anna was saying to herself: Why do I always have this awful need to make other people see things as I do? It’s childish, why should they? What it amounts to is that I’m scared of being alone in what I feel. (Lessing, 10)

It is this thought that has kept me from writing through the past year. When I write, my thoughts are permanent and vulnerable, pulsing under the lens of my readers’ discerning eyes. If I simply think my thoughts, then they are mine, and mine alone, and I have no way of knowing whether or not I am alone in those thoughts. When I put my ideas and experiences into writing, then I risk knowing that I am alone in my thinking. But with that risk comes the possibility of being affirmed and understood. It is with hope and trepidation that I continue to write, even now, when there is so much at stake (namely, myself).





Undoing Unteaching of “Those Kids”

9 04 2009

I’ve been meaning to post a link to this article that really every educator, and every person whose tax dollars go into public education, should read. During my tenure as a teacher in a rural community where 12% of the adult population has a college degree and just over 65% have a high school degree (data taken from census.gov), I have often felt misunderstood by my colleagues and my peers. In this article, Kylene Beers, the president of NCTE, brilliantly (and succinctly) captures the cultural beliefs governing so many “underachieving” schools. The tricky thing about cultural beliefs, those because it is beliefs, is that they are usually taken for granted and thereby invisible. Beers stares down some pretty damning evidence of the kind of deficit thinking that has tainted the public educational system since its inception in the mid-1800s, when Horace Mann and his contemporary cronies established public education as a means of educating the poor. Please, please, please take a moment to read this. It’s short (only 4 pages), and it will rawk your brain!

The Genteel Unteaching of America’s Poor





Futi Kunga

8 04 2009

Two nights ago, Ruthie discovered Futi Kunga in our kitchen pantry. What follows is the story of our new found friend Futi and how she came to be.

I was washing dishes in the sink because we don’t have a dish-washer. Er, we do have one, but it sits on the back porch because it has to be wheeled over to the sink in order to work. When I wash dishes, Ruthie usually plays in the pantry or with the magnets on the refrigerator. I could hear her babbling, but I was mostly just focused on not breaking a glass. When I (finally) finish with the dishes, I turn to Ruthie and begin the whole let’s-get-ready-for-bed process. Actually getting in the bed takes at least an hour of prodding, changing, whining, resisting, and brushing teeth with princess toothpaste. I tend to be fairly impatient about moving things along at the end of the day. So I was standing behind her, nudging her away from the pantry, and cooing, “C’mon, bud. Time for bed. Let’s go. C’mon. Let’s go. C’mon…” Ruthie whipped around, eye brows raised in her most serious serious face and whispered to me.

“Futi Kunga’s in there, Mom. She’s got those beans. You see those beans down there? Futi Kunga’s gonna eat um, Mom.” (I keep our canned food on the very bottom of the pantry.)

I asked Ruth if Futi might want to come to bed, and she (again with the most serious serious-face) said, “No. She’s not comin’ with us in the bed. She’s gonna sleep in there tonight.” I nodded, like, “Oh, right. Of course.”

Once we got in the bed, I learned that Futi Kunga had come from the dungeon––a place that, for Ruthie, is the most terrifyingly awful place she can imagine, so terrifyingly awful that the word is uttered with the weight of words-you’re-not-supposed-to-say. But, and this is important, “Futi did not drive there.” We don’t know how or why Futi was in the dungeon, but we do know that she got out (because she’s in our pantry).

So what’s Futi been doing since she moved in? Well, yesterday, Futi ate a banana Ruthie left for her, and tonight, we read Futi a story about bunnies. We went to tuck her into the pantry for a good night’s sleep on the canned beans, but Futi insisted on sleeping in the other side, where the vacuum cleaner is.





Sprung

25 03 2009

Springtime is a teacher’s nightmare. The kids and I are currently engaged in a riveting unit that involves standardized testing and the systematic banging of our heads against the cement block walls that keep us from fresh cool spring air and delicious temps that, in Alabama, are fleeting. My solution to the bitterness that testing hath wrought? Practice testing with Blow Pops. Class time currently consists of bleary-eyed students (who, in recent weeks, have taken on a scary resemblance of actual sloths) taking practice tests for 30 minutes. At the end of 30 minutes, we stand up to stretch and then review the answers. Students are rewarded with Blow Pops, which I deliver using an underhanded pitch. As a fifth-year veteran teacher, I have come up with no greater reward for my students than time outside and/or candy. Despite the fact that public education deems sugar unsuitable for its students, I believe that sugar goes hand-in-hand with learning. Personally, I cannot endure any amount of studying without a bag of sweet tarts and Hershey Kisses.

Me, on a Sunday afternoon, tending to the garden in my best frock.

A first-class gardening gentlewoman bearing the fruits of her labor with a waist that would surely snap were she to exist in real life.

Along with standardized testing, spring also marks my annual yard analysis. Prognosis: not good. Both yards will not grow grass, and I, lacking even a green fingernail, can barely remember to water the pitiful fern that lives above the kitchen sink. This year, I am determined to make something of my nothing of a yard. I look across the street with longing each day. There, the grass grows thick and the young man who inhabit the right side of the brown stone duplex planted (successfully) tulips that have turned up beautifully. Meanwhile, I have three arbitrarily placed rose bushes that spike from the ground with their stubborn, stark thorns.

I’m writing this in hopes that someone, some gentle green reader, will be able to offer advice. I would like to put a flower box in Ruthie’s window where the yard gets sun from about 11:00 on. I’d also like to plant some kind of bush-ish thing beneath the window to cover the immense space between the dirt and the window (we have a crawl-space). Then, I want to plant GRASS. The problem with grass? Half the yard gets sun, half does not (I’ve got a magnolia tree). Lastly, there’s a little bitty square garden where my driveway intersects with the sidewalk and it gets nearly-full sun. I want to plant some cute flowers there as well. So, friends, please, please, PLEASE! tell me what to plant. What kind of grass? What kind of flowers? I prefer flowers and grass that will not die, but I know this might be over-reaching. Any suggestions would be welcome.





Pause and Shift

21 01 2009

I am out today on sick leave. I should be writing the paper that was due last semester. I should be getting some laundry started. I should be drinking water instead of coffee. I should be reading about web development for my class tonight, or addressing invitations to Ruthie’s birthday party at the very least. I am in my last semester of grad school. Three years I have been in grad school and it has officially rendered me brainless. I am too serious. I am too intentional, too resentful. Everything is personal. I wake up gritting my teeth. Every question is an interrogation, every request an imposition. And here I am sitting at my computer: paralyzed by the desire to write, and overcome by the dull conviction that I don’t have anything interesting to say. 

So I reread Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” which was, to me, inspiring. I can’t imagine writing anything under such pressure. In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading as much about her as I could find on the internet. I’ve found that I like her– she’s honest, thoughtful, and insightful. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown, she talked about the task of composing the inaugural poem:

JEFFREY BROWN: So — so, have you made a start? How do you — how do you go about this? What is it that you want to accomplish? 

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: What I want to do in the composition of the poem is to be very quiet and very humble before the forces that make me able to write poems.

It’s a very, very big challenge. It’s a very extraordinary moment. And I think the fact that Barack Obama has decided that he wants to have a poem as part of the inaugural is tremendously significant, to say that here is a time when we can listen to language that shifts us a little bit, that allows us to pause for a moment and contemplate what’s ahead of us, to think about how we can contribute to the challenges ahead of us, all of those things can be possible in the moment of pause and shift that — that a poem makes possible.

So, I’m just trying to be very serious and very quiet and very humble as I — as I try to — try to write something.

I am neither a quiet nor a humble person, but I can reside for a small time in the moment of  pause and shift

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

 

(These lines were clipped from the New York Times transcript of Elizabeth Alexander’s reading of “Praise Song for the Day.” Sadly, the transcript does not reflect line breaks.)