Summer Surprises — and a Lesson!

Green Harbor marina We are back from our summer adventure, six-weeks of visiting friends and family, savoring the sights and sounds and tastes that are New England — sunsets like this one at the Green Harbor Marina, lobster rolls on Martha’s Vineyard, fried oysters at Haddads, sailing in Casco Bay, Maine, the lakes and mountains and covered bridges of Vermont; Fenway Park for both a Red Sox game and concert (James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, also, in their own way, sounds of New England); the salty beach air and cool ocean swims — it was all glorious, made even more so because of the people we shared it with.

In between visits, I worked on my novel revisions and wrote some flash fiction.

One visit stands out though, a reunion with a former student, herself now an adult, a teacher too, about to to start the year as a department head in a new school. I taught this woman — I’ll call her S — when she was in junior high, and I remember her as an outgoing, funny girl, whose warm spirit and humor I enjoyed very much. We met for brunch, my partner and I, S and her wife, married now for five years. Over pancakes and eggs, she told me this story:

“Do you remember X (another student)?” S asked me.
I didn’t, only vaguely, though once the story started unfolding, memories emerged.
“Do you remember when you took a big group of us on the Walk for Hunger?”
I did. Each year in Massachusetts, Project Bread organizes The Walk for Hunger, a 20-mile walk through Boston and neighboring communities, to bring awareness and raise money to combat hunger in Massachusetts. Back then, a teacher in my twenties, I thought it was one way young people could feel empowered and helpful. Plus, I thought, walking twenty miles for a 12- or 13-year old was no easy feat. So, for several years, I organized a group of students to walk the route with me, teaching them, I hoped, about commitment, about being part of something larger than themselves, about ways they could make a real difference even as young kids, and about the reality of hunger around them.
“Do you remember,” S continued, “X and I started telling gay jokes and you told us to ‘keep the parachute open?”
I smiled. “I remember I used to always say ‘Your mind is like a parachute; it only works when it’s open.”
She nodded and went on. “We kept doing it, kept telling more jokes. One of our friends even walked away from us, saying we were jerks. But you just kept saying, ‘keep the parachute open.'”
I laughed at the memory, seeing the large group of kids I had with me that year, some of them straggling as we neared the finish, the Charles River beside us. The first weekend in May, some of those Walks were warm, though not all of them sunny.
S took a breath and continued: “Then, maybe a year or so later, X and I realized that you were probably gay. There was a woman who used to come to our basketball games; we figured out it was your partner, but being 13, we didn’t have the courage to apologize. X and I are still friends, (both of them lesbians), and every time we see each other– maybe once a year– we talk about this and how bad we felt, how much we wished we had apologized. So now, for the both of us, I’m officially apologizing. And I want to thank you,” she said, “for dealing so gracefully with us back then.”

It has been about thirty years since I told those girls to “keep their parachutes open.” So much time has gone by that I have only the vaguest memories of one of them and no memory of them telling gay jokes or making me angry or upset, though I do remember the day itself. I’m glad I had the wherewithal to be graceful in my response; that hasn’t always been the case in my teaching career. I’ve lost my temper a few times, never to any good. I wish, too, that I had been able to be more honest and open with them (that would come a few years later, when I came out to the whole school, something I documented in an essay that appeared in One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories).  I wish that on the long 20-mile walk I might have been able to talk with them about my own experiences as a lesbian, as a gay teacher, what it meant to hear them — students I liked very much — telling gay jokes, though if I had, I might not have kept my humor and grace. But I, too, was young and fearful. Now, as an older, more experienced teacher, being open in the classroom is less about me and much more about my students, how I can help them in their struggles — a story I have chronicled in another essay, appearing in the new anthology — a 20th anniversary edition of the first one — One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Educators Speak Out About What’s Gotten Better…and What Hasn’t. 

The lessons are several: what we say to our students matters. It sticks with them. Kindness goes a long way. Helping kids find their way is tricky business, and sometimes we have the dumb luck to do it well even though we might not realize the good we have done for years. (We usually know immediately when we harm, though — and that requires an instant apology.)

Thank you, S, for your graceful reminder to me after all these years, of what matters most.

End of the School Year Musings

This is a belated post. School has been over for a week now, so I have had time to regroup, finish some lingering projects, get ready for our summer adventure. But before I head out, I wanted to post these thoughts. I have posted before of how I love reading my students’ portfolios, love listening to their portfolio presentations when they often choose to read from their reflective cover letters. With each portfolio submission — the literary arts equivalent to an exam — we ask the students to reflect back on their learning throughout the semester or year and to discuss what they’ve learned — possibly the best way for kids to a) realize what it is they have learned; and b) in articulating it, begin to internalize their new knowledge. But perhaps even more important than both of these good outcomes is this: my students tell me how much they have learned about themselves. That, to me, is the real goal of education. And of course, something that cannot possibly be tested.

Here are some samples from my Creative Nonfiction I class — all sophomores. Listen to how self-aware, how smart they are!

“I’d say the most difficult thing about writing is being honest. Some people can just dish it all out, leaving all of their feelings into their writing. I’m working on that. I’m working on trusting myself enough to tell the story right, to not make myself sound any cooler or more troubled than I actually am.”‘

“I think I’ve definitely improved all around, but I’d have to give the most credit to my voice in pieces. I’ve noticed that in almost each and every piece I write, more and more people seem to comment on the voice…and I take great pride in that. I think I still lack to ability to find the heart of my pieces. Even if the heart seems to be there for me, my readers tend to have difficulty finding it. I think this has a direct correlation to my inability to write deep.”

“I learned that language is the key and fall back to objects because they will provide the memories and the stories. Pictures can lie even though they capture the truth in one moment. They still don’t tell how people change. I’ve also learned that finding yourself through nature and others is inevitable.”

“I’ve learned how to view myself and others deeper and in different ways than I ever thought I could.”

“I know I’ve progressed a lot this year as a writer. Honestly, it’s because I’ve become more opened to the idea of not thinking too much when I [compose] because it comes from the HEART, and the senses, come on, CSDs (my note: this stands for Concrete, significant details) always.” This writer goes on to say: “Nonfiction is a genre that has been shunned by unbelievers like me when really, it is basically as personal and as real as you can get with your writing, and isn’t that what our goal as writers is? To be 100% with what we put down on paper, because what we write can be all we have sometimes.”

“We’ve had a lot of great moments in this class! We’ve had some incredible readings that have left deep stains of resonance on me — “Good-bye to all That” and “Fourth State of Matter” were probably my favorites. THere’s just something about the way Joan Didion recalls her time in New York. She seems to feel like an alien in her city, her home. That’s what I’ve been really focusing on this year, I think: the idea of Home, where it is and what it is.”

“Creative nonfiction was something I had never done before and is something I never thought I would do. Opening up to people that I barely knew was something I never thought I’d be comfortable with, so I think my most valuable experience is that everyone was understanding through my pieces, in both listening and helping make them stronger.”

“I am going to take away so much from this class, not only pertaining to writing, but also to, well, life. I definitely found out more about myself this year and learned to not care what others think of me and to continue to strive to be fearless…I’ve learned more about the simple process of being and letting the world connect with myself and to just write.”

“I see nonfiction as a way to place myself in the universe. That’s the reason it’s so amazing, because with creativity, I can connect myself with earth’s elements and the cosmos. It’s easy to get caught up in how big and complex everything is around you. I used to think my time as a teenager was kind of like empty space, like I had to just go through the motions and do as I’m told till I can live my life as an adult. I think writing nonfiction made me realize that I, too, am here.”

Their favorite essays? Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” a perennial favorite, but then more surprising ones like Joan Didion’s “Good-bye to All That” (mentioned by a few of them), and Eula Biss’ “The Pain Scale,” Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Silent Dancing.” Two students mentioned Jennifer Price’s “A Brief Natural History of The Pink Flamingo” for these reasons: “…this piece has stuck with me. Maybe it’s because the title includes one of my favorite subjects — history. Or maybe it’s because Price chose to write about something [that seemed] so trivial rather than a pressing issue in society.” And, “One of the most important things to me is culture and protecting things that need to be protected. But along with that, it’s important to tell people what they need to know, to expose the things that need to exposed. That piece help me, because, in a way, it made me feel like I wasn’t the only one going crazy.”
One student said this about “Good-bye to All That” — “There was something about the way she made you feel like you were right there with her. Reading that, I could smell, hear, feel New York and it made me realize just how important the scene of a story is. Images are everything.”

About Eula Biss’ “The Pain Scale” (which several of them mentioned as their favorite): “Of all the pieces we read this year, I think that “The Pain Scale” by Eula Biss has been the most inspiring and most memorable. I loved how Ms. Biss literally compiled, like, 10 short essays into one giant one, and each of them were connected by the theme of describing each of the ten points on the pain scale. It was beautiful how she incorporated actual science and real medical talk with stories of her father and her own feelings. I hope one day I can write a perfect essay like that.”

.

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 —