Monday, June 30, 2014

Sea Change

It's summer and almost July. The school year stumbled to a close and during those last few weeks I discovered that my mother's cancer was successfully arrested, but her heart now requires a pacemaker. I hesitantly registered for a writing workshop in Rhinebeck, New York that will be taught by the great Lynda Barry. This will require me to fly (I'm a white-knuckle flyer of Olympic proportions), change planes, rent a car and drive alone in an unfamiliar part of the state. I'm thrilled and terrified and hoping against hope that it takes my professional life in a daring and unexpected direction.

Because even though 100% of my students--both Honors and not--passed the stupid, stupid test that is so important to the state? Not one word of congratulation or thanks from my principal. For similar reasons as well as others I can't name, both of the 7th grade English teachers quit and, for the time being, neither of them plan a return to teaching.  On that last day I stripped my classroom, boxed up its  contents, and moved it two floors up with no help from the custodians.

My colleagues who at the beginning of the year were so anxious to gather for lunch or a quick trip to Sonic to compare notes or chat were beyond end-of-the-year niceties. Some were bitter and others simply exhausted. All of us stressed and--if casual claims are to be believed--heavier than we were the previous August. I blame stress, aggressively indiscriminate eating and maybe the too-predictable nightly unwinding with a glass (or three) of wine. All of that is going to change. Has already changed.

Then my brother-in-law, the husband of my youngest sister, died unexpectedly and I spent the first day of summer driving six hours away to bury him, returning with full expectations of helping that sister do whatever needed doing. Instead, I have not seen her since. I am still unsure as to why.  I spent one week returning much (but not all) of the homely mess of my house to public cleanliness, though I wouldn't open any closets if I were you. I cooked and baked and the house filled with smells that people actually live here.

I drove to visit my youngest at college where he is working and taking summer classes. I got to find out what is new in his life and filled his pantry and refrigerator with food, which made me extremely happy. I spent the rest of the week in seminars geared for those who teach Honors-level high school  students and because they were NOT created and presented by administrators from my district, I actually learned something.  I started taking barre classes which kick my ass but offer the promise of returning my body to a reasonable facsimile of its former shape.

I'm reading all the time. Susan Cheever's new biography of e.e. cummings is on my bedside table and when I walk or run I'm listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's "The Signature of All Things". Which brings me to today when --in the midst of lunch (a salad--which I was able to actually chew, because I had more than 30 minutes in which to eat it) I received a text from an old friend who said that he and I could no longer actually be friends who communicate because his wife can't handle him knowing or communicating with a female he has known since he was a kid. So despite the fact that he lives many, many states away from here now and our very infrequent texts consisted mostly of talking about our elderly parents' health issues, she feels threatened.

And this? This was the proverbial straw. Amidst the disappointments of the school year, the increasingly precarious health of my parents (and that of their friends and associates which always, always, ALWAYS requires what I've come to know as the "Roll Call of Death" every time I phone or visit) and the loss of a sweet and gentle brother-in-law whose mental illness compromised his personal happiness as well as his ability to be a full participant in his extended family, the loss of an old friend  whom I have seen only once (His brother's funeral) in the last 29 years pushed me right over the edge.

I'm still sitting here. I had my laptop open to this blog which I recently revamped a bit in hopes of coaxing new words from my rusty brain. Because I had just been telling my other sister (Was it yesterday?) about the casual nature of this old friendship and how fortunate I felt to have met and loved someone as a teenager and then--years later after college/jobs/happy marriages/children to STILL know him as a friend, albeit from afar. To text a photo of a new cat or recommend a book on the Civil War because he's a huge nut for the conflict he refers to as The War of Northern Aggression. 

Anyway...I'm still sitting in this chair with my hands on the keyboard. My salad finished and the dishes placed in the dishwasher rack and I've got my iPod set on shuffle. Things are the same...but...they aren't really. I'm down three pounds...but I'm also down a friend. Because of this and everything else, I am changed. Changed...and disappointed.

So how's your summer?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

No Quarter

                                            All that is left of me after this school year. I am a rind husk of my former self.

All I did was ask his daughter where she was headed to high school next year and was told that she came home hysterical after my bullying. A phone call to my principal was placed and a conference with said father arranged for the next morning and it turned out to be every bit as ugly as it was promised to be. During the conversation, I was called a liar. Never mind that this same father had previously--without warning or appointment-- cornered a very pregnant teacher in her class and angrily demanded to know why she felt his daughter was not ready for accelerated classes the following year. He refused to leave until she caved to his demands.

This father mocked everything from my posture (unlike him--my arms were uncrossed) and the expression on my face. Because I refused to cry or crumple in his presence, he said I was rude and sarcastic. He referred to me as a disgusting person, though this particular opinion was not adequately explained. He did not want to talk about his poor daughter's academics, but rather, her face-saving version of a simple conversation we had about academic plans for the following year. And because her answer to my initial question took the conversation off in a completely different trajectory (An aspect of school that many people support OVER academics and I can't say what it is for fear that this blog will accidentally pop up. Think, people! It starts with an "A" and it doesn't require studying), I was held personally responsible for the expression I had on my face when I dared to disagree with her answer.

And this father? This bull-necked gorilla of a man whose volatile demeanor makes Hitler look like Tickle- Me Elmo" decided it was his right to verbally curb stomp me and then mock me for failing to fold like a bad poker hand in front of my principal. ( Thank you, Russian ancestry).  My principal made a half-hearted attempt to reign him in, but Godzilla was having none of it. He had not come to listen to anyone else's side of the story. Clearly high on testosterone, an overblown sense of self-importance and some military grade horse stimulants, this father had come to take an enormous and metaphorical dump on me while the unwritten rules of the Parent/Teacher Conference Handbook required me to sit passively like an apologetic bag of meat.

Except for the fact that I did not apologize. However, thoughts of firing a t-shirt cannon full of thumbtacks directly into his face did cross my mind.

America, our schools are going down the toilet and the biggest reason out there (besides the underfunding of districts and the teachers who toil there) is that parents have way too much control. And when I say control, I mean that no one questions them when they "early dismiss" their child every Friday without question because traffic is heavy and they miss half of my class. Control in that we are no longer allowed to demand any kind of work standards for our classes as long as it keeps their child from being designated as Honors/Pre-AP/Accelerated. This just in: Not all children are gifted. You heard it here first.

Anyway... control in that I am forced to forgive/overlook/accommodate the fact that their child comes to school without completed homework, materials, sufficient sleep or breakfast. Teacher, feel free to use your own money to buy my hungry kid a breakfast burrito every morning on your way to work, but don't expect me to teach him/her to thank you or even follow your daily classroom instructions without acting like a major jag weed in the process. That would require me to actually p-a-r-e-n-t my offspring. And if you dare to correct my baby for his heinous display of disrespect, disregard for you or disruption of the learning process, I'm going to have your ass on a platter and your license to teach revoked.

It's not 1986 anymore when parents approached the school with requests and not demands. When an abominable report card meant consequences for the student, rather than threats to the teacher. When "Zeros Are Not Permitted" meant a kid wasn't allowed to skip a homework obligation, rather than an edict requiring teachers to offer a bottomless bucket of chances to turn in work for weeks after it was originally due. Parents still write to demand that you take the half-assed, hot mess of work that their kid probably just copied from someone else and then offer the chance to make "corrections" for a passing grade when it misses the mark My co-worker currently has a parent who demands she change a report card grade from January. FROM JANUARY, people! The kid had a 38 average and the teacher generously bumped it to 50. The mother wants it to be 70. Even though this kid refuses to do any work in class or out.

The inmates took over the asylum quite a while ago, my friends, and changing schools only puts a cheesecloth haze over the lens. Eventually, the grim reality comes into focus.  I've spent the last few days having crazy stress dreams which, if I am honest, were most likely underscored by the ingestion of both wine and cold medication. I am deathly sick with a cold that has taken my voice and most of my will to live. I would love to call in sick tomorrow, but I have five days until the Memorial Day weekend and I plan to see them through. Meanwhile, I look over my shoulder wherever I go now and I examine the mirror for any residual signs of the Resting Bitch Face that apparently spelled my doom last week. Because to hear this d-bag of a sperm donor tell it, everything is all my fault.

Monday, May 12, 2014

On Testing

So I have finally emerged from that buried alive feeling known as standardized assessments. My fellow public school teachers know this sorrowful reality all too well. Honest to God and Eckhart Tolle, there is nothing quite like pacing a barren classroom for 4-5 hours to test your "power of now". Because after eight unbroken months of doing everything but an interpretive dance in an attempt to accommodate our state's desire for 100% student engagement --our district's newest buzz phrase--all at once it becomes clear that even the laziest student has suddenly decided to give two craps about passing and my stuffy classroom--walls stripped of all educational wording or simply covered with soulless swaths of white butcher paper-- slowly fills with the unsettling aroma of heated hormones and flop sweat. My role--that of a constantly moving sentry-- is to make sure that students are correctly following test protocol without actually reading any of the test or their answers myself.

In an attempt to provide a testing environment with no distractions, teachers are encouraged to place strips of tape over the door bolts, so that no one is jarred by the comings and goings of administrators or students headed to the bathroom and face all desks away from the doorway itself.  I, on the other hand, must wait for another qualified and trained educator to give me a restroom break, a rare phenomenon that did not happen at all on the last exam and I waited three and a half hours for someone who never showed up. A phenomenon that I'm pretty sure violated some tenet of the Geneva Convention. It's like "The Nun's Story" where nobody is allowed to break the Grand Silence and we glide quietly on gum-soled shoes so as not to startle the testers into selecting a wrong answer.

Our communications with other adults are limited to soundless hand gestures: waves or finger Audrey Hepburn motioning for more salt from one of her wimpled convent sisters.  Computers off. Phones locked away. One may not read a magazine or make a grocery list while pacing. One may not speak off script to any student and if the school catches fire during the assessment? Find a way to secure the test. Not while risking student lives (to hell with mine, of course), but it's good to try. It's a grim academic semaphore that gets very old very quickly and I now have the IQ of a cold McDonald's french fry for my troubles.

I'd rather be slapped with a sock filled with anthrax than go through another testing season again, but you know I'm going to have to.  And the saddest thing of all is that the state would be more willing to take away my teaching license because I failed to take up a kid's phone before the test than for being a crappy teacher whose students can't learn.

This fish rots from the head down.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

At the Corner of Random and Whatever

I've started no fewer than four blog entries in the last few days and none of them have panned out into anything worth a full post. I'm going to claim grading fatigue after reading and marking 180 English I benchmark essays in three days time. According to Web MD, I should now have the brain function of a woman with a penchant for sucking on car batteries.  Herewith some samples gleaned from a recent dumpster dive into my brain:

*How do I express my real thoughts about hot-button issues without generating a Category 5 Shitstorm Alert from at least three people in my real life? Once I observed an elderly woman directing her husband into a parking space and I described her impatience with him on a previous blog. Because it was my blog and I thought their interplay was amusing. I was immediately pilloried by a guy I knew from college who said I was making fun of old people, which was not even true and certainly not at all the intention of the post. Needless to say I did not give him the location of my current website.

This kneejerk enmity is actually a much bigger problem on Facebook, since I seem to have absolutely no trouble getting 159 people to weigh in with their favorite kind of pie in a span of 30 minutes. However, even this lame conversational thread will immediately be followed by an exchange of gunfire and an argument started by an old acquaintance who will claim that President Obama's alleged love of pecan pie was a direct result of his influence by the pecan lobbyists. Then someone else who knows me but does not even know the author of the pecan comment will attack said commenter and I start to wonder if there is ANY topic that won't initiate a Shiite-variety response, because apparently none of us is even allowed to have an opinion on anything unless we have personal and documented experience with that particular thing. Which is weird, because I thought the very definition of opinion meant that it didn't necessarily require experience.

Meanwhile, I have a total of 16 people who profess to read this blog and only eight of them comment regularly. Maybe if I wrote about pie every day...

*Spring Cleaning. By this I mean the literal kind where I begin hauling out unworn/ill fitting clothing in bags designated for Goodwill, beating rugs on a clothesline and attacking every cobweb with a shop vac. And... the figurative kind where I distinguish the difference between those people in my life who are authentic (read: here for the long haul) and those who are merely familiar. There's a lot of dead wood in my life and I'm currently busy using all of it to build a bridge which I will promptly set on fire.   The unfortunate result of this will be a greatly reduced circle of friends, but it's my belief that people have to earn that designation and I've been far too generous with it in the past. Case in point: Do not use the amount of time my job requires from me to justify how busy YOU have been--and thus-- explain why you haven't returned a text or call from me since November.  My watchword for this year is going to be reciprocity. I refuse to participate in relationships (face-to-face or on social media) where reciprocity is not at work. Ain't nobody got time for anything else...

* Recent staff meeting reminder: Apparently, it is now considered bad form to use all capital lettering on any word in any email communications (for any reason) with parents of students. Downtown authorities are calling this a bridge too far because it's like we are shouting at parents and their delicate feelings. Even when they deserve it.  Whatever. I'm over it.

*I gave up wine for Lent, but I actually started it two weeks early. Not because I'm worried about being an alcoholic, but because wine touches off my grim attraction to every salted food in the house. Kosher dills lead to cashews which lead to popcorn. Popcorn is the gateway drug for kettle chips and I'd rather be caught driving carpool in a pair of parachute pants and a Hello Kitty! shirt than live life without kettle chips. Is there a medic alert bracelet for this?

*Impending birthday realizations: 1) Four years of teaching at the New Jack City/Hamburger Hill of elementary schools did not in any way prepare me for dealing with middle-class parents who believe in a world where formalwear dances are un-ironically held for 7th and 8th graders and terms like "date" and "corsage" and "grinding while you dance" are used.  I do not understand why they need to have this experience so early. 2) It occurs to me that I will never know what it is like to live in New York City or spend any length of time in a respected and well-paid profession (Rosie O'Donnell calls this "sick Oprah money". Yes, please.) Those ships have sailed and I'm sad about both of them. 3) Every recent picture of me suggests a relapse photo from High Times magazine. (Disclaimer: If you have a friend struggling with addiction, please pump the brakes on your personal umbrage. I'm not addressing anyone you know.)
4) Personally, I believe that the Tea Party movement is nothing more than a clown car full of maniacs with a bad case of road rage and every time I see a treasured friend quote them on Facebook I lose the will to live. Then end.

Monday, February 24, 2014


My parents met during a game of "42" with friends when my father was a college student and Mom, whose parents were unable to afford higher education, was working as a secretary. Despite my father's difficulty with small talk and the fact my mother-- her hair done up in cage rollers-- was clearly not dressed for romance, they eventually fell in love anyway.

A little more than two years later--on February 24th-- they would be headed to the hospital in the same little college town where my father was a fifth year engineering major. Married only eight months and completely inexperienced in the ways of birth control, as only a naive Southern Baptist girl (and her husband) of the 50's could be, my parents became...parents.

For about 24 hours.

Perfectly formed, my tiny sisters very quickly slid into the world with our mother drowsy from medication, but awake, and our father in the waiting room-- pacing, smoking and getting a head start on his future ulcer. Born far ahead of schedule--three months early--they were already in respiratory distress. Medical knowledge being what it was in 1957, there existed no real expectations for their survival. They were, and would be thought so even now, dangerously small. Whisked away the minute they were born, the obstetrician decided that my mother would become too attached to her dying daughters and then become even more upset, should she be allowed to hold them. As if carrying them inside her for six months wasn't enough of a connection.

And so they were whisked away as soon as they took their first shallow breaths and my mother, whose thought processes were so saturated with shock and grief that she could not raise a protest, was denied even the briefest glimpse of their round faces and rosebud mouths or the chance to briefly touch their outstretched fingers with one of hers.

 It was my father who would return to my mother's bedside and report the death of their first child later that evening and then then next day, the second one. Women in those days remained hospitalized for at least one week after giving birth and my mother's trauma only guaranteed this. With the help of their minister's wife who found tiny white burial dresses, my sisters were laid at either end of the same infant casket and my stunned young father would be required to grieve for them alone. Surely there were friends there to help him as he selected the grassy patch where they would be buried. A section of the cemetery for death's youngest victims.


As the oldest daughter by default, I was always cognizant of the role that chance played in my birth order, but when I was younger I confess that on more than one occasion I gave voice to the notion that my mother didn't speak out loudly enough for herself or her daughters when her male doctor allowed himself to make such a permanent decision for her. I thought her weak for not insisting that those babies graves be moved when father graduated college and they moved three hours north. And there were even times I questioned how much she could love me--and the two sisters born after--if she could leave behind the first ones. It was an asshole thing to think. I know that now.

As a parent I've learned that you get your guts ripped out a million times...not only on behalf of your children but--sometimes--you get them torn from you by the very ones to whom you gave life. Life is happy one moment and tragic the next. And if you're lucky it evens out eventually. You may walk away from the place where sadness is entombed, but motherhood has taught me that you don't ever forget it. Even on the days when it looks to the outside world as though you're having the time of your life.

It took strength for my mother to come home from the hospital and store away the evidence of anticipated motherhood and again--after my dad graduated--to pack up their tiny apartment and drive with him away from the sunny spot where their daughters lay--named-- under a simply lettered headstone. And then to return years later when my younger sisters and I would attend and graduate from our father's alma mater. Surely the proximity was bittersweet for her. I don't know because she's never said.

Last week my mother, the same woman who was able to pick up and move on after losing children she would never meet, kicked cancer's ass and I was there to see it. What I once thought was her lifelong denial of life's gravity was actually something else entirely: the desire to briefly acknowledge that sadness and death exist and then turn away from the shadows to face the sun.

And after a lifetime of being known as my father's daughter, I find myself envying the power my mother has had all along. Why in hell did it take me this long to see it?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

That Which Shall Not Be Named

Quicksand, according to a recent public radio program, was a concept that used to be one of the most frightening to kids in previous generations. It appeared in books and movies, unexpectedly swallowing the occasional lost traveler or a villain on a getaway horse and its latent threat was reflected in the artwork of schoolchildren as the cosmic punishment for those who didn't mind their parents about staying in their own yard. 

 The guy on this program was talking about how present day kids don't know anything about quicksand and thus, have no fear of it. It has almost disappeared from the national consciousness. As a little girl I remember feeling vaguely bothered by that something in nature which could bury me slowly. However, the most terrifying combination of words for me was not then organic, but a thing crafted by humans. The iron lung.

 Originally, I visualized an iron lung in a literal way in that I assumed doctors replaced the old organs in your chest with heavy metal ones. Like an internal iron maiden, minus the spikes. Imagine my learning that an iron lung wasn't something they put inside you, but a terrifying machine in which you were placed. This news was difficult for me--a dedicated claustrophobe--since I screamed every time my mother helped me pull a sweater up over my head in an attempt to remove it. Indeed, the idea of being trapped and sealed inside a metal box which purported to breath for you was--despite its helpful purpose--nightmarish to me. Photographs of smiling, disembodied heads on pillows did nothing to dispel my fear of being contained in such a way that I could not see my own hands and feet or in any way extricate myself from its strong metal confines. In short...a complete loss of control over my own life.

This past week my otherwise healthy 78-year old mother was diagnosed with cancer. 

The woman who lived through the deaths of twin daughters before giving birth to three healthy ones and who remained strong throughout my own dad's recent health trauma is now the focus of our worst fears. The mom who read Uncle Wiggly to me, taught us to make bread by hand and value the feel of sleeping with a cool and crisply ironed pillow case beneath my head went to the doctor and came back holding the "C" report card that in no way guarantees a pass. In fact it frequently does not. And even though the word is ridiculously commonplace these days, the weight of its mantle is still mercilessly heavy. 

 The superstitious whisper it because of the fear it imparts. It is--like the fictional Voldemort--that thing which shall not be named. It is the sound of the other shoe dropping. The dark train pulling into the station with its accompanying ominous screech of oily brakes. It is--for me--the iron lung of all diagnoses. I am not ready.

I am so. Not. Ready.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Notes From Foot Prison

Six weeks in and I'm still living life as "Frankenfoot". Still sitting with my booted appendage elevated when I'm not moving or hobbling around on two crutches until two angry callouses the size of small potholders have bloomed on either side of my torso. Still wearing only the pants that will fit over my boot as well as shirts or sweaters long enough to cover my expanding ass, given I can't exercise....let alone hurry to get anywhere.

I miss running, yoga and long walks on the river. I miss taking the stairs instead of the elevator and having my shoes match. I miss not having to consider every bite of food I put in my mouth for fear that I will continue to outgrow the one pair of pants that still fit me, after which I throw in the towel, take a second helping and pour myself a glass of wine. I feel like I'm standing still. Like a manatee in a Medic-Alert bracelet for falling risks, even though I've never fallen before.

I realize that all of this is temporary and that at some point I will no longer look like the relapse photo of a middle aged burnout after a hard weekend at Medieval Times. I will get rid of this food baby and get pedicures and wear skirts and feel all the feelings and not just the negative ones. I need some way to burn off the whatever that builds up after 9-10 hours of work every day.

In the meantime I drive to work and see runners on their morning route as they crest a hill all flush with endorphines. I check out Instagram where every yogi in my studio seems to be in competition for having the most obscenely comical number of handstand selfies that make me think in terms of #lookatme , #lookatmesomemore  #seemyawesome and I am resentful.  Like the custodians at my school who have opted not to sweep the classroom floors anymore but--instead--use giant leaf blowers to make a half-assed pass at the accumulated debris, I am not doing everything with my whole heart.

How do the contemplative nuns do it? The robed monks in their remote Tibetan silence? I've been still too long. I feel a cuss coming on and it's directed at me because the moment my foot touched ice on that parking lot crosswalk I had just finished mentally mocking a woman who was attempting to scale some frozen steps in a tight little skirt and high heeled boots. The words were still hanging inside their thought bubble over my head when I hit the ground like a wet sack of applesauce.

And the rest is history and x-rays.