Sunday, August 21, 2016

If You Love a Teacher...

If you love a teacher, this post is for you. Not because it makes you special, but because it makes you a target. This post is not a celebration. No, my friends, this is a survival guide.

Tomorrow is a big day. It's big because it's the first day, and first days are frantic and messy and long. No matter how many first days your teacher has had, it never seems to get easier. We just become better at faking it.

And, dear Baby Jesus, if your teacher-love is having their very first of the first days, you are probably already in the thick of it. There's not much you can do at this moment except hold on.

Before we delve into tomorrow, though, let's get a few things straight so that your innocent "jokes" don't become long nights on the couch or a butter knife in the back of your hand.

1. They have not been "on vacation" all summer. Most have done training and conferences and summer school. Or they have families, dear God. And even if they have been on the most magical vacation of all time, shut the hell up. They've earned it. Take me with you next time.

2. They have been back "at work" for a week or two now, but being at work with adults is a great deal easier than being back at work with 900 children. Even the worst, most annoying adults can be moved away from; children never stop following you. Shut up.

3. Stop looking at the receipts. Just stop. Setting up a classroom is like buying a new home every year. It's not just bulletin border and smelly markers they're buying. An easel pad of poster paper (50 sheets) costs $27.95. That's 10% of our yearly tax deduction we get to claim, and it's paper. Yes, it's paper that will showcase the steps to finding the area of a triangle or how to punctuate a complex sentence, but let's be real -- it's PAPER. And if you're buying the easel pad with the sticky side? Your spouse must be rich. Adopt me. I need giant sticky notes.

And if your teacher love wants to drop $11 on a pack of felt tip pens? You don't say a word.

Some girls want a bouquet of flowers. I, myself, prefer a bouquet of new felt-tipped pens.
I'm serious. This is the teacher equivalent of buying a ridiculously expensive bottle of whiskey. Yes, they could just use other pens. But you could also just knock back a crisp, refreshing Purell on the rocks. Shut up.

4. They will come home with no voice. A non-teacher friend once came to my school to speak to classes all day. All she did was talk. She went home and laid a frozen washcloth on her face and refused to look at her husband.

Your teacher-love's face will ache from smiling. The first day, we are a crowd of deranged Miss America contestants.

You smile to welcome students. You smile to alleviate parental panic. You smile to defuse parental discontent. You smile because, inevitably, shit will fall apart. Crying child, lunch schedule mix-ups, parents who don't understand the pick-up line, or technology that worked fine today will have reverted back to 1952 tomorrow.

Tomorrow night, do not expect them to whisper sweet nothings to you. Do not expect them to ask about your day. Do not try to Face Time them. You will not want to see their face on the other end. Tomorrow is not the day to get your feelings hurt because they "seem distant". Tomorrow is a day to shut up. Maybe they'll talk again on Tuesday.

5. Don't expect them to keep up with their responsibilities at home to the usual standard. If you came to my house right now, I'd only let you in if you brought laundry detergent and a casserole. Even then, I might eye you warily through the peephole and text you instructions to leave it on the porch and walk away. They've gone from picking up after a few people (or for only themselves) to herding a school full of Pig Pens who leave a trail of pencil shavings and Axe body spray wherever they go. Think about how rage-y you get when the people in your house can't remember where dirty socks go. Now multiply that feeling times 125.

6. If your teacher-love is not in your home, consider yourself lucky. We are not a pleasant people. For the first 2 weeks, we are like zombies who have somehow retained the ability to drive. But not like the fast World War Z zombies. This is more us:

So do yourself a favor tomorrow. Give your teacher a big hug before they leave. Give them a little space when they get home. And just wait it out for a couple of days. They'll be human again someday soon. And if not... at least you have a leg up on them.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Panic of Perfection

As the first day of school draws near, I am sensing a definite theme with my teacher friends as I scroll through social media: Panic.

Not about curriculum. Not about students. Not about school policies. Full-blown Panic about the state of not-nearly-readiness of our classrooms. I sense their panic because I know this Panic. We are, in fact, old, old friends, he and I. Today was our 17th anniversary.

Hello, lover.

At my school, almost everyone is in a new place, and all week, I've seen people walking in and out of each others' rooms, calculating time lost in meetings, eyeing decor, silently taking measurements, calling dibs on unwanted furniture. Today was NJH Craigslist day: if you want something post about it or if you're looking, post about it. Teachers cruise hallways like seasoned garage-salers. Word about hard-to-find objects like bookshelves or free Expo markers spreads like we're Bodie and the Corner Boys.

Teacher 1: "Yo. You didn't hear this from me, but I saw a sweet, sweet rolling chair just sittin' outside room 208. You want me to go pick it up for you?"

Teacher 2: (twitches and whispers) "I don't know, man. Doesn't that belong to Drury? Why's he puttin' it out there like that? You sure it's safe? I don't want any trouble."

Teacher 1: "Don't worry about Drury. If it's in the hallway, it's fair game. Thems the rules, you know? All I need is a 24 count box of mechanical pencils, and we're square."

And that's just the physical layout of the room. We haven't even started out-Pinteresting each other yet. Elementary school teachers start planning their class themes for the upcoming school year even before the previous year is done. I'm convinced they go on retreats to the desert, do a bunch of peyote, and then their spirit animal drops their bulletin board plan into the sand. It is absolutely the only explanation.

Junior high teachers don't usually dig quite as deep, but don't be fooled. We care. We worry about having the coolest decorations and the hottest memes to use as our classroom procedures. We're all about the best lighting and the comfiest chairs. We want to be seen but we don't want to seem too eager about it because we just want you to like us.

As I've said many times before: it takes junior high to teach junior high.

I've been especially stressed this year because in the grand game of musical classrooms, I've been lucky the past 3 years and avoided a move. But this year, I've taken the sidewalk less-traveled and moved to the portable buildings outside. And not just those outside but across the street. On the football field.

These buildings appeared through some form of wizardry one day last year, only two years after they were ordered. They sat empty until June when my PLC and I began shoving our hastily packed boxes into them.

"BLANK CANVASES!" the optimists shouted.

"NO HALLWAY DRAMA!" the hermits cheered.

"YOUR OWN THERMOSTAT!" everyone exclaimed.


Me, today, after 3 Diet Cokes and forgetting my key card into the building.

It has not been a pretty move. Not only did my lovely students schlep all of my 17 years worth of teaching materials, boxes of mementos, and 743 novels, but they did so in the rain. For the cost of Chik Fil-A. And it all sat, unopened and unthought of until last Friday when I could no longer ignore my ever-growing anxiety. That's when I walked into my BLANK CANVAS that was AWAY FROM HALLWAY DRAMA with my very OWN (unreliable) THERMOSTAT. And I saw that absolutely nothing had changed in two months. My own ragged boxes still there, taunting me but there was nothing else. No teacher desk, no furniture, no technology, no internet -- in any of my PLC's rooms. And all my worst trust issues burst out of me in such a way that I may never make it into Heaven.

I will admit it. S**t got real, and it got real fast. I fumed. I cried. I cussed. I guilted. I played every last card I knew how to play. I had gotten my feelings hurt, and then I got mad. I ranted and raved and reminded until, little by little, things began to appear. I was actually kind of proud of myself for fighting the fight and fighting it so well.

Then last night, at our Preseason Picnic, 40 students and their parents and siblings walked those 527 steps to my unkempt, uncovered, shameful door. Not a single one asked why my bulletin boards were unfinished. Not a single one noticed I had no computer on my desk. Not a single one cast the side eye at my tables covered by piles of construction paper and Jenga towers of novels. Or the missing ceiling tile that I predict will be the gateway to a raccoon home invasion someday soon.

For teachers, their classroom is a second home. We spend 50+ hours per week there. We sometimes eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner there. I had a friend once who took longer to pick out her office chair than I took to pick out my last mattress. It is the place we learn and cry and celebrate and, sometimes, nap. So when we open them up to others -- especially to those first time guests -- we want them to be clean and comfortable and inviting.

So how did no one mention what they saw? Did they politely ignore? Did they silently judge and then talk about me on some "disappointing classrooms of 2016" message board? Or did it really not matter? These are the questions I thought about and woke myself up with at 4:00 AM when I finally realized something and made some peace within my mind. Peace that I knew in my heart but I could not quite hammer into my head.

1. There are entire school buildings in my district that remain in process of construction/renovation. Those teachers have not even been allowed in their own homes yet.

2. There are entire communities underwater in my neighboring state where children dream about going back to school as they sleep curled up on the roofs of their actual, submerged homes.

3. There are teachers in my district (but finally, FINALLY not in my school) who do not have their own rooms, and they must depend on the kindness and care of fellow teachers to let them in.

4. When I started at my school 17 years ago, we didn't have our own computers or telephones or wifi signals. We calculated grades on calculators and hand-wrote our grade sheets on triplicate forms and actually walked to someone else's classroom to ask a question. And I survived! And I was loved! And my children learned!

5. There are still schools in our very own God-Bless-the-USA nation that cannot afford copy paper of textbooks or faculty pay checks. Schools with mold and broken windows and fear, and yet children learn.

6. And that there are people in this world willing to sit under a bridge, in the dirt, to learn from a man with only a battered chalkboard and the desire to teach.

7. That never -- not once -- have I ever been denied what I need at my school. Things have arrived late. They may have arrived inconveniently. But they arrived, and I am blessed by their arrival. Even the NJH Craigslist furniture ads typically get fulfilled within 24 hours by someone.

So, I know I'm preaching what I must practice myself these next 3 days, but this is what finally gave me peace this morning, and in moments of panic, I want you to say it with me:

It doesn't matter.

It will all be okay.

My home doesn't have to be Pinterest perfect to be clean, welcoming, and inviting. It just needs me.

I am enough.

My students don't need things; they need me.

All a classroom needs is students, chairs, and someone who cares.

And to be honest, when necessary, even the chairs are negotiable.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


The first time my father lost his mind, it was a Tuesday.

I stood in line at the concession stand of a junior high football game, staring blankly at the smiling booster club moms and dads, while on the phone, my own father spit curses and lies about my mother and, later, about me.

The first time I did not recognize my father's voice, it was a Tuesday. 

The first time I ever had a panic attack, it was a Tuesday.

The first time I ever considered my own death, it was a Tuesday.

The first time I ever prayed for my own father's death, it was a Tuesday.

I have a real and palpable anger about Tuesdays.


Looking back, almost a decade later, I know now that wasn't really my father on the phone. It was a plague of chronic disease, financial despair, and unregulated medication.

It was a man whose brain was betraying him, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy; a wrecking ball of delusions and conspiracy and rage.

It was a mind, once full of joy and song lyrics and the names of every person he ever met, now tormented by even the simplest of tasks.

It was a distortion; a funhouse mirror reflection of the man I had cherished my entire life.

It was a jailer of logic and a thief of memories.

It was a havoc I would not wish on my own worst enemy.


There were many other horrors that would happen in the years between that phone call and my father's death. Some happened on Tuesdays, I'm sure, but when there are so many sadnesses and fears, the calendar fills up quickly, and other days have to suffice. 

But when my father died, he died on a Tuesday, just as I had prayed those hundreds of Tuesdays before.

I think about that prayer often. I've spent a great deal of time and money, on therapists and vacations and cheap bottles of wine, trying to come to grips with that prayer. How a daughter can pray such a thing for her hero. How I could pray for an end to the madness however God might see fit. Maybe He would take him to spare all of us; maybe He would take me, at least, to spare me. Either way, I prayed.

My guilt is that I prayed that prayer out of anger and selfishness. My shame is that it wasn't the only time I prayed it. I war with that shame often still.

Over time, my anger and frustration transferred from my dad to his disease, Parkinson's and its terrible little sidekick, Dementia. And although I eventually forgave my father the grievances he had caused, I still found myself praying often for the end. An end to this cruelty. An end to the indignities he endured. An end to his confusion and tears and pain. 

So, in the exquisite and beautiful circles of life, his life ended on a Tuesday, but my pain did not.

I have a real distrust of Tuesdays.

There have been several deaths this half year that have affected me more than I expected. Perhaps it's just the feeling of loss in general. Perhaps it's the ways they are connected back to my father -- the music he loved, or the storytelling he so encouraged, or the afflictions that tormented both him and my family. I was told that I would often see my father's death in the deaths of others, especially in those whose endings feel so familiar.

Last night, I read that Pat Summitt, one of my idols in education and sports and being a badass woman, was dying. This news hit me profoundly, and I found myself praying, yet again, for a quick end. 

There is something to be said for all of our old stories about knights and warriors and the dignity of a clean death. That's something especially foreign to those suffering from dementia -- a clean, quick death. It's a nice idea -- romantic, even -- but death, no matter how swift, is never clean, and I felt all of my old guilt rising again as I prayed. 

I thought of her and my father, two people who never met but still shared a space in my life. Two people who share the bad luck of a bad disease. Two people known for kindness and teasing and hard work and their bright blue eyes. Farm kids who came from nothing. One grew into a legend, having everything and more; one was everything and more -- a legend --  to me.


What I pray for, I've come to learn, is not just a prayer for him but a prayer for me. An end to my own confusion and tears and pain. I think it must be what so many people experience when they watch a loved one slip away, heartbreakingly slowly, over time.

It's hard to reconcile the selfless act of letting go with the selfish want of being free, and pain is a parasite feasting off such conflict.

A few weeks ago, I read a passage from a book, A Monster Calls, a children's book that (like so many books for children) is really meant to teach us all. It stuck with me and comforted me, and I've gone back to its earmarked page many times. So in addition to my prayer, I read it over and over, first in a whisper, feeling silly and useless, alone in my bed; then out loud and steady in hopes that somehow God would bring it to others.

The article had said that her family had stopped accepting visitors and that she might only have days left to live. But I knew, without question, what day my heartache loves best. 

So it was that I woke up this morning, a Tuesday, to say goodbye yet again.

I have a real loneliness and an ache for healing on Tuesdays.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The In-Betweens

There are moments when I think my students are too old for their age -- that they know too much about drugs and sex and the hatred of this world. Those are the moments I feel hopeless and empty. The moments when I wonder where I misplaced my idealism.

And then, I put on a Disney movie after an ass-whip day of standardized testing. And my most challenging students pull their desks close and stare wide-eyed at the screen, mesmerized by the colors and music and story. They boo the villains and take up for the victims. They talk to no one but themselves about what they'd do if they were that character. Sometimes they cry or get very quiet during the sad parts. Sometimes they sing and dance through the happy moments. And a few have even shadow-boxed the fight scenes right alongside the hero.

But my favorite moments of all time are when they smile at all the parts meant for kids but laugh at all of the jokes meant for grown-ups. That's when I remember that I am blessed with these babies at The In-Betweens. We exist at the intersection of Being a Kid and Growing Up, where some days you just want to be big and tall while on others you still want to curl up and be small. Where innocence isn't entirely eclipsed by cynicism.

And where sometimes you still get a movie and orange slices at the end of a long day of work.

Monday, May 2, 2016

I Am a Teacher

Every year about this time, my students create an "I Am" poem. It's a skeleton poem with a defined structure, so everyone's looks basically the same in the beginning. In the end, however, each student typically finds a way to take control of something that seems so basic, and they make it sing only their song somehow. I keep several each year to remember special kids, unique voices, and efforts I did not expect. It's one of my favorite activities.

Also, it keeps them from asking me one million questions and whining about no end-of-year parties for at least 25 or 30 minutes. I'm not saying this is the main reason I do it, but it sure doesn't hurt.

Today happens to mark the first day of Teacher Appreciation Week. Therefore, I have chosen to create a bookend "I Am" poem to celebrate. If you know a teacher somewhere, give them a hug this week. They probably need it.

Or buy them a drink at Happy Hour. They probably need that even more.


I am a teacher who'll never stop trying.
I wonder what the day shall bring.
I hear the wheels beginning to turn.
I see wonder in their eyes.
I want them all to know their true worth. 
I am a teacher who'll never stop trying. 

I pretend that nothing will go wrong.
I feel their energy streaming down the hall.
I touch their imaginations, their hearts, their spirits. 
I worry I'm just not enough.
I cry when I cannot help them.
I am a teacher who'll never stop trying. 

I understand that they'll soon be gone. 
I say I will always remember, and 
I dream that I actually will.
I try to be enough for everyone.
I hope they know that I care.
I am a teacher who'll never stop trying.


I am a teacher, and it's finally May.
I wonder if my deodorant is working,
I hear their chaos and flash.
I see stacks of ungraded papers.
I want to throw them all in the trash.
I am a teacher, and it's finally May.

I pretend to listen to announcements, but
I feel it's a waste of my time.
I touch my last nerve for its toughness, and 
I worry it's the end of the line.
I cried when the copy machine jammed, for 
I haven't got much of a plan.
I am a teacher, and it's finally May.

I understand that they all will be gone soon.
I say I won't miss them a bit.
I dream of bashing alarm clocks, 
Smashing them all straight to shit.
I try to remember all of the good things 
That each student has brought my way.
I hope they know that I really do love them, but
I am a teacher, and it's finally May.

For all my teacher friends, if I had any money whatsoever, the first round would totally be on me.
Thanks for running this race with me.

Monday, April 11, 2016

A Middle-Aged Monday

Last week, someone alerted me that the documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty, would be on VH1 Classic. As it was beginning at 9:30 PM, on a Wednesday night, I thought that I'd be better off recording it and watching it later.

Just barely a week past my 40th birthday, and already I couldn't think of anything that could make me feel older than taping a documentary about my favorite rock band because it was airing before the nightly news. Off of VH-frigging-1 CLASSIC

But I did it. And then I promptly forgot about it. Because that's what old folks do.

Maybe I didn't really forget though. Maybe my brain was just saving it up for a moment that I really needed it. For a moment where I needed to forget that I was 40 and this was Monday and that my knees are achy and that work totally sucked.

Maybe I needed to stand on my couch and jump up and down and sing at the top of my lungs to all the songs that spoke to me when I was young and anxious and too afraid of the world to be properly mad at it.

So I did. 

Not bad for a middle-aged Monday, I guess.



Some people remember "Black" as the best ballad on their debut. But I always loved this one. It cuts open my heart and stitches it back together every time.

One of my favorite PJ songs (and a shout-out to documentary maker and creator of Citizen Dick, Cameron Crowe)

You were always the radio song I turned up...

And the trailer for Pearl Jam Twenty. It's beautiful.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Puzzle Pieces

I have a young man in my class this year who might just be the hardest-working man in the 7th grade. He is, for lack of better words, just an incredible kid. He pays attention in class, behaves at all times, and respects his classmates. He is generous to a fault, helpful, and kind. He is not especially popular amongst other kids, but rarely do I see any of them turn him away. He knows and addresses each teacher -- whether you have him or not -- by name. He is the purest of spirits and the biggest of hearts.

And I'm worried.

See, this kid struggles academically. He works hard to focus in class, and he constantly worries about his grades. When he gets a poor grade, he immediately comes to tutoring to fix it. He will sit and work for hours at a time. He reviews his notes. He studies my anchor charts. He can spit out words like "appositive phrase" and "subordinating conjunction" and "dependent clause" with the best of them. He can define them. Mostly, he can recognize them. And he can sometimes create with them, but only in isolation.

See, this kid's brain doesn't work like others. It's like a jigsaw puzzle. He has the pieces. He knows what to do with them. He's constantly checking the picture on the box. But as he works, it's like someone dumped all the pieces from the other puzzles on the shelf into his box. And his brain isn't built to sort all of those pieces. It just isn't. So instead, he picks up a piece, he looks at it, and he knows two things:

A) It's a puzzle piece.


2) It's in the same box as the others.

Therefore, it must fit. So he looks at all of the holes in the puzzle, and he attempts to place it in there. Then, realizing that this piece fits none of the spaces, he finds another piece. Maybe a bright orange piece, but the puzzle is clearly an evening sky. And he picks them up, piece after piece, trying them even when it is not logical.

But it is logical to him because they're in the same box. And if they're in the same box, they must go together.

Tomorrow, he has to solve a hell of a puzzle. He's tried 3 times before, but it's as if each time he attempts a solution, it gets worse. Every morning, he greets me. Then he begins the worrying, the fixating, the doubting. See, the worst part is that he knows he can't solve it. And he knows what it means to fail in the attempt. His fear of failure is paralyzing and frantic all at once. He knows that before he even takes the lid off the box, he'll find pieces that don't make sense. Except that they're all in the same box, and if they're in the same box, they SHOULD fit.

For the last two weeks, I have sat with him in tutorials as he prepares for tomorrow. He reads and then looks at the answer choices. We talk through possibilities, but we keep finding odd pieces that have no home. He struggles for the pieces, nervous and searching my face for clues that he might be right. I struggle to hold back my tears, heartbroken and searching for the way to make things alright.

To make the impossible feel possible.

To find the boiling sun in a midnight sky.