Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Power of the Imperfect Teacher

When I returned to teaching children five years ago, my principal asked me if I thought I was a better teacher now than I’d been when I was younger. I told her no, that I was still pretty much the exact same teacher I was when I was thirty.

Aside from having some wisdom about children and how most of them turn out okay despite of our best interferences and also some amassed logical thought about how people actually learn, I do believe I'm basically the teacher I was years ago, one who was, and still is, incredibly imperfect and flawed.

And that, to my mature, long-view way of thinking, is a good thing.

In our American system, kids have an average of about twelve teachers through fifth grade, and then most likely a minimum of forty more from middle through high school. Just like everybody else, teachers come in all ages, shapes, sizes, colors, political leanings, and yes, sexual orientations. They also come with strengths and weaknesses and preferences and irritating habits and passions for things like kayaking or Sudoku or hairless cats.

Teachers also arrive with preferences and strengths and weaknesses when it comes to teaching itself. For example, my school has about fifty teachers. Some of those teachers are wonderful at creating a serene and ordered environment that makes kids feel safe and valued. Others are masters of planning and organization who never ever forget to teach a skill or a standard, or they are creative geniuses who think of new and interesting ways to make learning fun. Still others will travel all over Atlanta begging pizza parlors for boxes to use for fantastic projects. Then there are those who will stay late with a kid every afternoon until something sinks in, and one in particular who loves hands-on and minds-on learning to the point that he spends hundreds of dollars out of his own pocket each year so that his students have the games and manipulatives and learning materials they need for maximum understanding.

Although I do try to be the best teacher I can be, I’m not any of those people . I will never have the most well-behaved students or those with the prettiest handwriting. Very few of my kids will make perfect scores on achievement tests, nor will they walk in a perfect line to and from the lunchroom. What I do believe I’m good at is finding what each of my students is good at, whether that be drawing or telling a joke or being an excellent friend or break dancing or somersaulting while singing the Star Spangled Banner. I'm more interested in salvaging their little psyches than in molding their minds, I'm afraid. I, myself, am more heart than brain.  In addition, because my sense of what’s humorous arrested at about age eight, my second graders and I think the same things are extremely funny, something that, believe me, makes the grayest February day seem a bit more sunny.  

But it's not only our strengths that give the children we teach the gifts we have to offer; it's also our weaknesses and our crazy, not to mention irritating, foibles.  For example, I can't teach Science worth a darn so I have to get Starla, my scientific genius, to explain our solar system and the life cycle of a frog.  I also can't ever find anything so I need Katherine and Maddie to help me to organize myself.  Then there's the rest of my class who have to finish my sentences for me because I'm post menopausal and I've misplaced about 50% of my language synapses.  

However, my students are lucky to be learning that grown ups aren't always right and are, in fact, rather lame in some important areas, and that, I can tell you, is a learning worth learning for kids of all ages.

If teachers were electrically powered automatons or perfect humans, kids would lose out on so many things, like a grown up who will try to help them make a map of the world with macaroni no matter how incredibly stupid that idea is, or an adult who can't recall at just the right moment how many inches there are in a yard but will give the kid who can remember a high five and a very loud "thank you, Einstein!"

And the good thing is that, next year or maybe the next, my current students will get a teacher who loves Science or who truly believes that neatness counts or who sets firm rules they will learn to follow and believe in. And ultimately, all of the teachers those children have throughout time will help to give shape to the adults they will become, along with their own strengths and weaknesses and preferences and irritating habits and passions.

That, to my mind, is how it works.

The mother of one of my current students just sent me this email:

These children are making such strong friendships in your class.  You are making such lasting impressions on these young children.  They will remember you with love all their lives and will always have positive memories of second grade.  Thank you!

Notice she didn't mention anything about her child's improved handwriting or how well I taught our last Science Unit.  I'm afraid that praise will have to go to next year's teacher.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Doing God’s Work in the Middle of a Marathon

No, I wasn’t blessing the runners or handing out water or cleaning up the pukers. I was mainly sitting in my car and cursing. I am proud to say, however, that I wasn’t shooting the bird or arguing with the poor traffic cops like some of the other stuck-in-traffic pissed-off people.

I knew that the Georgia Marathon was going to be run on Sunday morning and that streets were going to be blocked. I had even checked the marathon map on my way out the door.  But, I still managed to get on the primary race route road.

You might have thought God would do a better job getting me to church. Maybe he’s a little busy right now, what with Japan and Libya, but still, here I was trying to do the right thing for once and I was getting very little support.

I am, at best, a sporadic church goer. I’ve belonged to my big city, open-doors-to-all-races-creeds-and-orientations United Methodist Church for six years now but I’ve just recently started going back. Our church is so open-minded, we occasionally have to prop up a snoozing homeless person so we can fit everyone into the pew.

Like many people, I vacillate on my beliefs about God and Jesus and Me, Myself, and I. However, I do believe that, if there is a God, when He isn’t Hanging out at the Beach, he’s Spending Time at St. Mark.

As good a person as I’m trying to be (which, come to think of it, it ain’t all that good), I would have certainly blown off church this morning because of how difficult it was going to be to get there.  Had it not been for Cheryl Thompson begging on Facebook for someone to take her place with the reading of the Old Testament Scripture during the 11:15 service, I would've been happily ensconced at home, surfing the net rather than sitting in traffic.

In a weak moment,  I told Cheryl I would take her place and, before I could change my mind, she sent me the passage in an email message (using a large script so I could decipher it). I read and re-read it out loud it like the instructions said to do, so that I wouldn’t stumble over those big bible-like words.

Because we are supposed to at least pretend we are reading from the Real Bible and not a large-lettered computer print-out, I found my mother’s old Bible, the one given to her by my father, who was the true believer in our family, someone who never ever, in my memory, questioned God. In that Bible, I found a newspaper article about my brother from when he finished Officer’s Training during the Vietnam War, something that reminded me, once again, about what a perfect child he was – the ass.

So, after all the reading and practicing and remembering and finding sensible shoes so I wouldn’t fall down climbing up to the pulpit, there I was stuck in traffic and not moving except when there was a lull in the lumbering mass. I thought, at that point, church would have to move on without me, or worse, all of those people, including the clergy, would just sit there wondering where the reading from Genesis had gone.

I finally made it into the sanctuary at 11:20 and, thank goodness, my friend, Katie, had saved me a seat. I didn’t even have to prop her up. After the children's sermon was done, I walked up to the front, remembering that you never want go on after kids.

But it turned out okay. I didn’t fall down and I read the scripture and I even got in a couple of jokes.

I’m not sure you’re supposed to tell jokes leading up to reading scripture but I believe God’s Work arrives in all kinds of presentation styles and I've definitely got my own style.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patricia’s Day

It was 1991, and I was newly separated and living with my kids in a three bedroom apartment just a few miles from our old home. I was feeling optimistic about the future and wanted to take a stand for womanhood everywhere.

So I hosted a St. Patricia’s Day party on March 17th. Only my female friends were invited. Wait, I didn’t have any male friends. They all belonged to my husband.

At my party, I served canned corned beef and boiled cabbage and, for dessert, I’d had a grocery store cake decorated in green, with the inscription “Erin Go Braghless.”

I remember it being fun and I felt brave and free. That was twenty years ago.

These days I still feel free but often not so brave. I now know too much. However, I do feel a small ocean’s worth of compassion and love for the woman I was back then, a woman who would make quite a few mistakes, but a woman with enough courage (and cluelessness) to get up each morning and put on her shoes and start her day.

I’m still that same woman.

Happy St. Patricia’s Day.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

This One's for You Again, Billy

I couldn’t possibly be pregnant. I already had a perfectly good baby.

We were living in your grandfather’s house, sleeping in the guest room that shared a wall with Doc’s giant Magnavox TV, which he kept ratcheted up to about 1000 decibels because he was deaf. On the other side of the other wall was Melissa’s crib, and outside our window was Henry, howling out his confusion and exasperation at being banned from the house. There was many a night I could be seen climbing out the window to throw something at the dog to hush him up without having to walk my nightgown-clad body past your grandfather in the den watching Johnny Carson. Through it all, your father just continued to saw logs. To this day, I can’t for the life of me figure out how I could have possibly gotten pregnant, but pregnant I got.

Born on the thirteenth of March, exactly two years and ten days after Melissa, you were a sweet baby, cute though rather odd looking with your cone shaped head from being so big and perhaps stuck in the birth canal for a bit too long. You were also an easy baby. After just one night of sleeping in Melissa’s room (“Mama, the baby’s crying!”), we moved you into the living room of our tiny house, where you stayed until we finally enclosed the carport to accommodate Daddy’s office.

By the time we moved into the big house, you and Melissa were pretty much inseparable, going to Children’s Friend each weekday, playing outside in the afternoon and watching C.H.I.P.S. and Night Rider in the evening. I was your kindergarten teacher and it was during that time you buddied up with Chris (like a lawn) Moore and a couple more little scalawags with whom you remained friends throughout high school. I loved being your teacher and your mama at the same time. I thought you were just about the cleverest kindergartener ever to build a block tower and then knock it over.

I still remember the drawings you did as a little boy, airplanes with prodigious amounts of cloud-like smoke spewing from their innards, and little round cars, often with one flat tire, which I think had typically been shot out. I now look back and wonder if those gimpy automobiles offered a glimpse into your personality and view of life, as if you expected good things seldom to be perfect. That probably came from having Melissa as your big sister. Remember the time when you watched that scary movie and she materialized and startled you at the top of the stairs? You were so horrified that you refused to go upstairs by yourself for the longest time. Putting my picture in that locket and that locket around your grimy little neck was most likely my finest moment as a parent. No boogie people could have survived a gander at that face and you knew it.

Your earliest birthday parties were in tandem with Melissa’s, mainly because I was cheap and tired. I particularly remember those at Dry Lake Park and Burger King. However, your most memorable party, not counting those as a teenager I don’t even want to think about, had to have been the spend-the-night one when the partiers tried to turn over Dianne’s mini van just after dark and then flew the balsa wood airplanes in the front yard at four in the morning. Was that the same one where Molly sat naked on the dining table during the birthday-candle-blowing-out?

On the Molly topic, it was when Molly came along that your life changed and I began to catch a glimpse of the man (and father) you would become. After getting over your disappointment about not having a little brother, you and she developed a bond that remains to this day. Just as Melissa helped form you, you did the same for Molly.

Notice your hand here. You
are making sure Molly doesn't
fall off the porch.

Despite that good old Warner Robins tradition, you were never much interested in sports. You played Little League and were pretty good; however, soccer drove you nuts as those other little boys just ran all over everywhere and didn’t stay in their assigned positions. The idea of random shenanigans seldom got in the way of your logical thinking and that hasn’t changed.

In middle school, when you halfheartedly joined the football team, I remember going to a game and complaining to your coach that he wasn’t letting you play. He told me every time you got to the front of the line and it looked like you might actually have to go onto the field, you’d disappear to the back. Again, to your way of thinking, being on the team was enough, especially since you got to wear that great green uniform. Actually playing, on the other hand, could have lead to injury.

Speaking of uniforms and perhaps a different type of machismo, you didn't fare particularly well in the one ROTC class you took in high school either, the one you failed, partially because, on the one day you deigned to wear that uniform, you sported a t-shirt which offered the notion that one should Play Naked Lacrosse in bold letters under it.

To this day, you are one of the few heterosexual men I know who isn’t interested in sports, and, in fact, you appear to consider this to be a badge of honor. When you moved to Portland, you did join a kickball team, which you continue to enjoy, at least the beer drinking part of it. It did turn out, however, that playing in a co-ed league was mostly just a ruse for meeting women, and we have kickball (at least in part) to thank for Mary and Cami.

I recall once, when you were around fourteen, you told me that I needed to make you tougher. We were standing in the kitchen; I remember it well. I felt so sad, so insufficient, so unable to do what you'd asked of me. I couldn’t play golf or throw a ball or even pee standing up. But, you know, like most things, it turned out just the way it should. Even though neither of us had what it took to make you into the Incredible Hulk, you turned out to be tough in all the ways that are important. You are steadfast and kind and loving and funny, ready to make a joke when you sister is being wheeled into surgery, determined to be at her bedside when she returns. You are a partner to Mary and a wonderful father to Cami. You are your own person, content to be the basement guy, happy with your wires and connections, caretaker of drunks and fools. You were definitely born into the right family.

Finally, since I do usually think of you in one of those t-shirts you still wear (and wear and wear), my final word on the Billy-factor will have to be that you are like one of your shirts: typically unconventional, occasionally tacky, and often spouting something outlandish. But, oh, what a comfort you are.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Still Vertical

I have a friend who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, and, after the earthquake there last week, I sent an email asking him to let me know that he was okay.

This was his response:

Bloody miracle really but still vertical.

I met Judith and Malcolm Tait my first year as an Assistant Professor at Georgia Southwestern State University. He was our Interim Vice President and she was on the adjunct faculty there.  I’d never met New Zealanders before and I don’t believe I’ve run into any since, but that’s okay because I had the chance to get to know the Taits. To first look at them, they seemed an oddly-matched set. Malcolm looked important; Judith looked like she seldom thought about how she looked. Together, they were a lovely couple, still interested in each other after more than forty years of marriage.

The Taits had spent much of their adult lives in the US, following Malcolm’s professional path. Along the way, they’d lived in New York, where he did his graduate work at Columbia, and then Hawaii, Ohio, and North Carolina, welcoming three sons born in various places. Americus, Georgia was to be their last stop before going back home to retire in New Zealand.

Judith and I bonded over books. She was the first to tell me about Harry Potter and Augustine Burroughs, with his crazy book, Running with Scissors. We also shared a love for liberal politics and cats. Malcolm and Judith had some of us over to their charming rented Victorian-era home on several occasions during the time we worked together and I was always struck by how much like them their rented house was, down to the baby grand in the music room. I remember when Judith cried after one of her cats was hit by a car and died. I also remember her giving me her other cat, Sheba, when they moved back to New Zealand some time around 2001.

Over the years I would hear from Malcolm and Judith.  Because all three of their boys lived in the US, they would come over to visit them and their grandkids.  We got together one time in Americus when they drove through.  After that, Judith would send letters and notes with that New Zealand airmail stamp; and, at least once a year, I would get a phone call from some strange number, a call  I wouldn't answer until around the third time it showed up on my phone and I picked it up out of pure curiosity.  Then I would hear, "Mahsha, is that you, Mahsha?  It's Judith Tait calling from New Zealand."  And off we would go with everything from family doings to international news.  It was as if we were back in the faculty lounge and not on opposite sides of the world.

At some point, I knew that Judith wasn't well, something about a hospital stay in the US in the midst of a trip to see the kids.  Then there was a while when I didn't hear; then a phone call from a strange number and "Mahsha, is that you, Mahsha? and it was Judith and she sounded good.

Ultimately, an email came to me from Malcolm in December of 2009 with the news that Judith had passed away.

Judith Tait gave me many gifts, including friendship, book recommendations, copious amounts of wine, and her cat.  But although I loved Sheba, the greatest gift Judith ever gave me arrived all wrapped up in her memories of growing up in New Zealand.  Before her death, she gathered those memories together in A Pretty Gumboot Show, a book she dictated with great courage and effort to her cousin, Ruth Alley.  

Those memories include:

I was born in a nursing home in a suburb of Christchurch, New Zealand.   I was the first born child of Geoffrey Thomas Alley, and Euphan Margaret Alley.  I was born in the latter hours of the day in the middle of the New Zealand summer and on the longest day of the year - the 22nd December 1931.

I have always been told that I inherited my Grandmother's complexion and her family, the Buckingham's build.  I had big broad bones and this was attributed to the Southland Buckinghams, who lived at Waikawa and who bred cattle of vast dimensions.  Thus, as a toddler, I was frequently described as 'one of those big Waikawa things'.

We moved back to 'Westcote' (outside of Christchurch) when my Grandfather died so that my father could help my Grandmother, Nanna.  We lived in The Jung.  This was a little cottage a short way away from the main house.  There was no water and no loo and it had three rooms.  It was called The Jung because a visiting family called it a bungalow and somehow this got mixed up with the jungle and then the Jungalow was invented and shortened to The Jung.

I have many, many vivid memories of my grandmother Nanna and she was an important influence in my life until after her death.....  I was a little girl during The Depression when many people were out of work, homeless and poor.  Unemployed people would travel the country looking for work and some of them turned up at 'Westcote'.  Nanna would never turn them away and always made sure they were fed and had shelter for the night or even a little work about the place. There were often strange people tucking into a bowl of porridge at the kitchen table and these people came to be known as 'Nanna's lame ducks'.  I remember Nanna's favourite black cat was called Paul after the American bass singer Paul Robeson.

Any time I think it's not worth the trouble to get my thoughts and memories down to share with my children and others, I need to think of Judith Tait and her gift.  Through her, I know something of a time and place I could have never known otherwise, and, because of her, I have a better understanding of people who live a world away from me, and that understanding is something I believe we all could use.

Judith died over a year ago, but Malcolm is still vertical, thank God.  Although I'm sure he's glad she hasn't been privy to the recent troubles in their beloved homeland,  I know he misses having her on this earth with him, offering a pithy comment or laughing at some absurdity.

 I certainly do.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

To Melissa ~ a repost on her thirty-sixth birthday

 This was written a year ago but it still stands:

You were my first big hope, a miracle I couldn't engineer all by myself. After months of trying and failing, the planets aligned, the perfect swimmer met the ready egg, and you were conceived. I still have the little piece of paper that says "gravindex positive, " a folded memento your grandfather's nurse handed me the day I knew it was true. Back then, there were no magic sticks to wet on in the privacy of your own bathroom; people had to make an appointment to find out. Daddy and I were lucky your grandfather was a doctor and we could get in quickly for a test. We were living in Greenville at the time so we must have traveled back to Warner Robins, with you as our secret, to keep the process all in the family.

I still remember the peppermint flavor of that summer as peppermints were what I used to stave off the nausea. I also recall looking at myself in the full-length mirror you took to Oregon years later. I stood sideways and sucked in my stomach and saw and felt the hard knot that was you. I wonder now at not being able to foresee that the mirror which afforded me my first look at you would one day accompany you to the place that would steal you away from me.

We called you Boogie as we watched you, already a member of the Allman Brothers Fan Club, grow in my belly. We named you after the song that was a reminder of the music your daddy loved so much, and something I, in turn, loved about him .

From the very beginning, you were your own little person, often inwardly focused, occasionally cranky (if you can imagine that). Your need to create happened early on as we all recall your waking us up in the middle of the night asking where the scissors were. You accepted your siblings with resolve and some affection, taking on the mantle of oldest while still maintaining an air of being above it all, as if the promise had been that you would be the only one.

As a child, I remember your best friends as being boys, but what I'm recalling is most likely just that one summer, the summer of Greg and Sonny. You three were like a cyclone pulsating through the neighborhood, all grime and no homework. Some days, I couldn't tell you apart. You looked and smelled exactly the same.
When you became a teenager, with the height of your cock-a-doodle bangs signifying your mood, social endeavors dictated your days and nights but you still managed to do well in school and stay out of trouble (mostly). We had some issues with the car, the curfew, and that big party, but I could still count on you to snuggle up and ask me to scratch your back, and to put your big old feet in my lap when we watched television. Because you were my first teenager, I had to try to figure out how to continue to mother you after you thought it was no longer necessary. I still remember the times you were late enough for me to be scanning the driveway, mentally writing your very sad obituary, and I certainly haven't forgotten the rope and rubber gloves you used for climbing in and out of your second-story bedroom window.

It was while you were in college I began to realize how like my mother you are: intelligent, intense, and ready to travel to places I'd be afraid to go. The summer you and Molly Mitchell spent working in Yellowstone must have been a mighty one as it ended up changing your life. When you later told me you wanted to move to Oregon, I thought of it as a great adventure, never dreaming it would become your future (and to a great extent, mine).

Now you are a wife, a mother, a worker, a driver, a sewer, a maker, a coaxer, a car-seat buckler, and a cinematographer, but, thanks to Trevor, not a cook. You are also still a daughter to your daddy and me, and a sister to Billy and Molly, and a friend to those who are worthy of the relationship. I realized a couple of Christmases ago that you'd already bypassed me to become the family matriarch, making sure events happen with all the necessary ingredients, while the rest of us stumble around mouthing exhortations about what we would have done if we'd just had the time, the money, or if you had simply reminded us.

Being a mother yourself, I know you now understand what you mean to me. I can't imagine my life without you, and Miles and Georgia would tell you the same if they just had the words. We are talking one big deal, reciprocal, co-dependent relationship here.

And so, one heart supports new hearts, life goes on, and the family endures in spite of itself.

The Curious Lament of a Former Second Grade Teacher

  The timing was perfect.   I was 56 and looking toward retirement but not yet ready, either physically, emotionally, or moneta...