What IF…?

What if we resisted?

What if schools stood up, one by one or collectively, and said NO?  What if someone threw a standardized test party and no one showed? What if school leaders said out loud what we all know — that the tests are damaging to our students, that taking TWO WEEKS to give standardized tests — TWO WEEKS during which very little other teaching goes on, TWO WEEKS of mind-numbing, empty time, TWO WEEKS during which teachers, who must administer tests cannot grade, cannot read, cannot do ANYTHING else while they are administering the test — are TWO WEEKS better spent doing something else? Teaching, say?

What if we just said no?
No, we won’t give the tests. No, we won’t buy into the idea that all students know the same things, that all students learn at the same rates, that all students are the same, should take the same course of study?

What if we started to envision schools in a radically new way? What if we decided that schools were meant to be the place for young people to discover their passions, to cultivate their talents, to discover? What if we acknowledged that true education isn’t tied to a job, that learning isn’t meant to be training?

What if we stopped doing what we’re “supposed to do?” Stopped being dutiful? What if we did what we know is right for kids?

Resistance.

Back when I was a young teacher, I used to resist a lot. Now, as I get older, it gets alternately harder and easier — harder mostly because of fatigue. I just don’t have the energy I used to. But easier because I care less about what people think. OF course I need the job– I can’t simply quit — but I feel less vulnerable in some ways, more able to speak my mind, more able to see what matters. I can’t help but think of Emerson and Thoreau and about the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. About the calls for resistance, the calls NOT to conform, the calls to stand up for what is true and right.

Of course, I am also thinking about Baltimore and those citizens who can no longer be silent, who feel pushed to explode, who are screaming SEE ME, HEAR ME. I want to say: in some small, tiny way I get that. So much happens because we let it, because we don’t say ENOUGH, because we do what we are told, because we don’t resist.

The Heartbreak of Teaching

What we can’t know when we’re faced with a group of students is what will happen to those students once they leave our care.

Care. I’ve written that word unconsciously, but now, deliberately, I think about it.

I’ve written and thought about what it means to teach, what it means to face a new group of students each year. I’ve been doing this for thirty years now — that’s a LOT of students, and inevitably, I’ve lost a few. They have faced addictions, their own demons, illness and violence. And they’ve blossomed too, into interesting adults with productive lives.

We’d like to think that after spending a few years in our classrooms, our students might be equipped with all that is necessary to navigate this world, because even though we spend our days teaching them how to construct sentences, or how to solve equations or to paint or act or sing or build robots, what we’re really teaching them is how to be. Aren’t we?

How to be awake to this marvelous life, how to discover their own passions and pursue them doggedly; how to think, how to rely on their own, smart brains and not be controlled by media, the government, anyone; how to make good choices, how to know their own self-worth; how to feel capable and confident and loved.

How to feel worthy.

So when, inevitably, one of our former students struggles — sometimes in public and devastating ways — we feel it too. We wonder if we did enough while the student was in our care. (Did we care? Enough?). We look back and we wonder, as in all retrospective wonderings — could we have done something differently? If we had done that one thing…if we had said that one thing…?

Now we know, if we’re not parents ourselves, just a tiny bit what it feels like to be a parent. Except in teaching — those young people are not in our daily lives. They leave our care. They head out into the world, sent off after the formal ceremony of graduation when we tell them via our speeches, you’re ready now. We’ve done our best. We hope you’ll be safe. 

And sometimes, for a myriad of reasons beyond our control, they’re not.

I can’t imagine, then, the terror of parenting, of hoping, hoping that what you’ve done is enough.

But what they don’t tell you when you start teaching is this: you are going to care. You are going to hope with all your heart that these vibrant young people in front of you will turn out OK. And they don’t tell you what to do if that turns out not to be the case.

Back from Vermont —

bush w: birdI’m back from Rochester,Vermont, back from four days and three nights at When Words Count retreat, a lovely, restorative, inspiring place for writers, especially emerging writers who are looking to break through with their first book.

When Words Count is a restored inn, with comfortable, book-filled rooms, walls covered in photographs of writers and writing memorabilia, a fireplace –and while we were there — a roaring fire in the Gertrude Stein salon, not to mention a working chef whose delicious meals kept us happily fed the entire time. All of this is enough for any writer, emerging or well-established, and my time at When Words Count suggests that all types of writers do make use of this beautiful spot. Who doesn’t love having all their meals prepared, enjoying appetizers and a glass of wine in front of the fire before dinner, socializing and sharing work with a group of interesting people, all of whom are working on creative projects? Owner Steve Eisner and Writer- in-Residence Marie White Small both are passionate about finding new talent and inviting them to Pitch Week — an opportunity for writers to earn a book deal in an “American Idol” type competition — or otherwise encouraging them to take their work seriously. They listen intently during post-dinner “hash sessions” and offer serious feedback, tremendous gifts to all writers on retreat, whether they are interested in Pitch Week or not. I left my time there uplifted and inspired.

We enjoyed snowy days while we were there, and the Vermont landscape, pre-spring New England skies (Red Sox Home Opener is TOMORROW, vs. the Nats!). Sometimes, just a change of surroundings is enough to jump start the muse. I was working on book edits — and the new setting in addition to the hash session feedback led to some breakthroughs. My time in Vermont was time well-spent on this spring break from school. Today is the transition day back;  it was just so delightful to let time unfold slowly, to not be tied to school’s schedule. but at least this week I start teaching The Great Gatsby!

stones

Vermont Writing Retreat!

WhenWords Count signI was lucky enough to win a stay at When Words Count Writing Retreat in Rochester, VT, so I’m here for three days to edit my novel. I look out onto snowy fields, geese chattering, squawking. It isn’t spring yet, not here; it’s mud season, a fact we quite literally stumbled onto — or should I say drove onto when we turned to head up the unpaved road, mud ruts deep and slippery. We didn’t get stuck, luckily, but the drive was harrowing. This morning, temperatures hover just below freezing — good news for those attempting to navigate the dirt road–and maybe good news, too, for those of us here to write. The tattered American flag blows steadily. Trees are barren, snow-capped mountains off in the distance. This is rugged New England beauty, the stark beginning of spring. I’m happy to look at it all from the coziness of the Dickinson room, comfortable with lovely views but not the premiere room: FScott room

Pictures of F Scott and Zelda abound:

F Scott and Zelda

And evidence of writers and writing everywhere — a view of the “Salon:”

Gertrude typewriter

Shortly after our arrival yesterday late afternoon, we were treated to wine and hors d’oeuvres in the salon, a roaring fire in the fireplace. We are well-fed: three meals a day prepared by the on-site chef. Who wouldn’t trust a chef whose kitchen is adorned with pictures such as these?

Julia

Time now to get to work! More later —