Thursday, November 10, 2016

Until We Make It

Until We Make It

The opossum’s body curled 
like a tired fist while our 
great horse of a puppy
hovered, 
barking, 
whining,
confused paws splayed in
vain hope of play with the
sad sack of fur.

We called him inside with
whistles and treats, then
watched from the window
still, silent
just like our new friend,
heads bent together.

My husband’s voice cut
through the darkness.

“You won’t see anything.
He won’t move for a while.”

We turned and shushed
him, glancing at each other
and rolling hazel eyes like
synchronized swimmers,
my youngest son and I. We
turned back toward the yard.
“You’ll see,” I whispered,
more to myself than to
any man in the house.

Ten yards away our old,
black dog kept watch over
her land, over this opossum.
Resting in a pile of leaves,
she looked away from us
and gazed toward the trees,
blinking into the chirps of
crickets, as if to give the poor
creature the privacy it needed
to come back to life.

Suddenly, earlier than promised, 
a twitch. The opossum’s tail 
sprang forward like a Chinese 
yo-yo.We gasped and smiled, 
noses pressed against the old 
window screen, inhaling rusty 
aluminum and the bewitching 
warmth of an October night.

“It’s okay, little guy,” my son
whispered to the creature. 
“You’re safe now.”

Slowly, the opossum began to
soften from the grip of its fear.
Its legs stretched as if to greet
a new day. Its little face
turned and raised as though
waking, dazed, from a long nap.

“He’s so little,” said my son.
“He’s so young,” I replied.

Staggering to its feet beside the
azaleas, the little critter gently 
shook its head, peered into 
the darkness and paused.
Then, unfazed, it toddled toward
the fence and into the night. 
Close by, our old girl sighed 
and settled her grey muzzle 
between muddy paws.  





Saturday, October 8, 2016

From the Top

The fire’s not catching. The wood is good, but on humid nights when fall refuses to yield to its crisp promise, there is only a weak draw from the chimney. And so, the fire is simply not. It just won’t without more effort than it’s worth. It is a pile of smoldering, seasoned logs that beg me to wait until some other time. A colder night. A drier night. Any time but now. And so, for now, I’ve given up on it.

And therefore I find myself in the living room listening not to the crackle of logs, but to the scratchy tick-tick of logs that have given up and that have been given up on. And crickets. So many crickets singing a slow round of fall’s inevitable triumph.

Autumn is a tough transition for me, a die-hard summer girl. September might actually be my least favorite month, despite its spectacular blue skies and bright air. The month begins with my total denial of summer’s end, and it concludes with a quiet, resigned acceptance of pumpkins and foliage. October is a bit better. For one, I’ve already said goodbye to summer on last month’s calendar page. Secondly, it brings with it the familiarity of newer school routines, post-season baseball, and the dawn of another hockey season. It’s the month I finally jump headfirst into fall, whereas September leaves me clinging to idyll and hope. October is for kettle corn and cider donuts. September is a swan song, with the last lobster rolls, the last summer ales, the last bathing suit beach days of the year.

There are constants, though. In my small city of New Haven, some things transcend seasons. In fact, they make the changing seasons more bearable. The heavy roast of Willoughby’s Coffee is just one example. The beach at Lighthouse Park, another example, is one of my favorite places to go during the coldest, snowiest depths of winter. And the summit of East Rock is like a beacon no matter what time of day or year it may be.

I find great comfort in the fact that my new classroom faces the monument, the Angel of Peace, atop East Rock. Pulling into my parking space at the base of the rock each day, I have watched the summit disappear into the mists of muggy September mornings, and I have watched it emerge from the same fog in the heat of early fall sunshine. In the past week, I have savored the slow shift of the summit’s leaves from lush to faded to fire. East Rock is more of a ridge than mountain, its jagged, striking fa├žade a metaphor for all the city that claims it. From the parking lot, my classroom, and the teacher workroom on the third floor of my building, I gaze upon the summit at all times of the day. I see the tiny figures of bodies that have walked—or driven—to the top of East Rock, and who gaze upon the city. Upon me. Upon all of us.

What do they see? Do they see the city as a whole, its diverse geography of rolling hills, rivers, and the Sound? Do they see a jigsaw of neighborhoods—like the ‘Ville, the Hill, and the 8? Do they see the grey rooftops of buildings, a patchwork of industry, academia, wealth, and poverty that exist in the 06511 zip code alone? Or do they look instead for where the town lines blur into the sprawl of surrounding suburbs, the towns where people who like New Haven—but who may not necessarily love New Haven—call home?

There is a lot to see from the top of East Rock—if you want to look for it. Some people might only look for the city’s landmarks and notable spires. Others may look for their homes or the old neighborhoods of their families. But do they really see our city? Do they see New Haven—and New Haveners? I like to think that from the vantage point of the summit we are all equal. I like to think that somehow, beneath the gaze of the Angel of Peace, the transient Yale grad student and the sixth-generation townie are the same; that a gang-banging wayward teen is no different, no less worthy, than the Ivy-bound child of a visiting Professor. I like to believe that a tight-knit multi-generational Italian family sharing a two-family house in Morris Cove is no more worthy of respect than a newly-settled refugee family served by IRIS.

I know my own roots beneath the gaze of the monument and what they mean to me through my own lens. I know that, while they are part of my story, they are not my story. I know that I identify with all of them and none of them at the same time. My great-great grandfather was Postmaster General of the city in the late 19th century. My great grandfather was a beloved pediatrician in town during WWII. Another great-grandfather, William Connelly, was a rough-and-tumble Fair Haven Irish fireman in the 1930s (as were all of his brothers) who dropped dead in his kitchen after working a big fire. One of my grandfathers ran an Esso station on Broadway. Another never fully realized the magnitude of his intelligence, privilege, and education in the long shadow of Yale. And the women? Journalists. Teachers. Social activists. Some were all of the above. All of them were New Haven, each one of them stronger than the next.

The view from atop East Rock is constant throughout the seasons, and the only constant about the seasons is change. Whether I am looking at the monument from my classroom or upon New Haven from the summit, I am certain of several things: I love my city, I love its promise, I love the people who live here, I am proud of my family’s history here, I love living here, and I love working here.

And I love it all that much more in summer.




But I guess fall is nice, too. 



Friday, September 9, 2016

Commit

What is commitment? Is it a promise to successfully complete something? Is it a contract to see something through all the way to the end no matter what? Is it a pledge to be unwavering, unfaltering, unfailing in the pursuit of some goal or reward? Is it clear and obvious when that goal has been met, or the thing has been seen through or completed? Is it worth enduring no matter what?

I’ve been thinking about the concept of commitment a lot lately as I’ve transitioned to a new teaching job at a different high school in town. Although the move is the right one and a good fit for me on pretty much every level, I had concerns that I would be seen by some as a district job-hopper. That worried me, because that kind of opportunistic, career stone-skipping is so far from my intention. The truth is that in the last several years I’ve learned a lot about what kind of teacher I am, what kind of teacher I hope to be, and what kind of environment best supports those things in order for me to do my best work for my students. It is, after all, support that helps us truly thrive as educators.

So here I am. I have new school colors, new colleagues, new students, and new school hashtags. But does that mean I’m not committed to this work? Does it mean, as I swap out purple and yellow swag for the peppermint red and white school spirit of my new building, that I am somehow less credible and reliable because I didn’t stay somewhere simply for the sake of staying?

It’s not that anyone has suggested as much. But I have asked myself these questions, because I’ve hit some personal milestones this past year. For starters, my second marriage has officially outlasted my first (there’s something bittersweet about that). Also, August marked eight years that I have lived in my current home. That is the longest I have ever lived anywhere since I lived with my grandmother as a child. After that it was hop, hop, hop, with six years being the longest I had spent anywhere else. Finally, my years as a teacher are nipping at the heels of the time I spent as a business reporter and freelance writer in my post-college and pre-divorce years. I dare say I’ve almost settled down. But still.

All that change. All that movement.

All that growth.

I admire people who stick to things without faltering. Some people are really good at it. They drive the same car for 15 years, live in the same house for 25 years, keep the same job for 30 years, and get a nice, gold Cross pen for their efforts when they’re done. They might even keep the same spouse for 50 or more years. I find these things admirable because I know that not everyone can see things through to the end like that. Especially me. I lease a new car every few years, because I’d rather pay on the front end than on the back end for maintenance and repair. Besides, I like new cars. I also like new phones. I have switched careers and houses a lot. I've been married twice. 
.
Does that make me someone of less integrity, less commitment?

I guess that depends on how you look at it. Just because someone sees something through to the end doesn’t mean they’re committed to it. It might just mean they feel trapped, or they fear change, or they don’t want to deal with the hassle of that change. Longevity and endurance do not equal commitment or quality of effort. Sometimes they are congruent, but they are not the same. 

I’m committed to quality. I’m committed to effort. I’m committed to excellence, not perfection. I’m committed to growth, not stagnation. I’m committed to living my own truth. I’m committed to nudging myself out of my comfort zone, because outside of it is where the magic happens. I’m committed to (usually) learning from my mistakes, and I’m committed to being the best version of me that I can be—whatever that means for today, because that definition will and should change. I’m committed to love and to the process of growing in that love. I’m committed to friendship, kindness, and forgiveness--and to the process of discovery and evolution in all areas of my life and in the lives of others. I’m committed to my work. I’m committed to my children in every possible way, and I’m committed to the idea that things can and should change, and that we should walk beside one another through the beautiful mess of it all.

Time waits for no one. Embrace change. Love life. Commit yourself to it in all of its forms, grab it by the reins, and ride that sucker. For some, that means committing to a place or person or cause for their entire lives. For me, it means committing to my truth. Sometimes it’s a flash in the pan. Sometimes it endures. Sometimes I wish it would endure, but it’s out of my control.

As I pulled up to the stop sign at the end of my street on my way to work today, I paused and rolled down my driver’s side window. My oldest son, now a high school freshman, stood at the stop sign waiting for his painfully early morning bus to take him across town. He popped out an ear bud. 

“Hey,” he said, sleep still cracking his voice. 

“Hey,” I said to my little boy, who just yesterday was a curly-headed toddler who held my hand everywhere we went. “Have a good day, sweetie,” I said. “I love you.”

He nodded, putting the earbud back into his ear. “Love you too, Mom.” 

I drove away. His lanky frame in the reflection of the rear-view mirror was just fine without me.

I arrived at school 15 minutes later, and a former student of mine (who transferred to my new school two years ago) greeted me in the hallway with open arms. “You did it!" he cheered with a huge grin. "You switched it up, Miss!” 

Once my kids, always my kids, wherever I may find them, and whoever they may be. That is my commitment.


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Lucky Break

“Are you hurt, or are you injured?”


A family friend who is also a fireman asked one of my sons this question after my son had whacked his nose at a birthday party a few years ago. Kneeling down in front of my boy, my friend inspected the bloody nose and said, “If you’re hurt, I can help you. If you’re injured, I can still help you, but we’ve got to get you to the doctor. Let’s see which it is.”


Fortunately, my son was only hurt. One ice pack and 10 minutes later, he was back in the fray of pizza, cupcakes, and bowling. But my friend’s words stuck with me. So when the skate guard glided up to me in Lake Placid last January and asked if I needed to see an EMT, I had to think about it.


“Hold on,” I said, sitting in the snow. “”Give me a sec.”


Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we are hurt or if we are injured. We can be dismissive of serious problems or too concerned with benign issues. When it comes to the body, we can be deceived. Moreso, too, when it comes to the heart.


In this case, it was my arm, not my heart, that took the blow. It was such a stupid fall. There I was, sailing around the Olympic oval on my skates under a starry winter sky. The ice was the smoothest I’d ever experienced, and I happily joined in skating with my younger son, his hockey teammates, and several parents as we enjoyed our last night of a hockey tournament in Lake Placid.


At the center of the oval there was a bonfire. A narrow, snowy path led from the rink to the fire, and I spontaneously decided to hop off the ice and walk down the path toward some toasty flames. In doing so, I underestimated how fast I had been going, and therefore I overestimated my stopping ability on the snow. There was nothing to grab in order to steady to myself, and there was no rubber mat to keep my skates from slipping. There was just ice and a hard, packed, snowy path. I slid off the ice, took one step onto the snow, lost my balance, tried to steady myself with another step, and then seemed to slip up into the air before landing--entirely on my left elbow.


It hurt, but it was also kind of numb. I sat in the snow, trying to steady my shaken nerves and assess the situation, when the skate guard showed up.


“Are you okay?” he asked.


“I fell on my elbow,” I said. I tried to move my arm. Something was wrong, though. My forearm wasn’t moving. It was just kind of hanging there.


The sweet, pimply-faced kid said, “We have EMTs. You should probably get that looked at. Can you move it?”


I instinctively held my arm close to my body. Although I was wearing layers of clothing and a puffy down jacket, I could tell something was definitely not right. My mind immediately flashed to visions of sitting in an ER in Lake Placid, effectively ruining the last night of an otherwise amazing tournament weekend.


Hurts can inconvenience us; injuries can change the game completely.  


I tried to move my arm and felt pain around the bicep while having no control of anything below the elbow. “Shit,” I said out loud, realizing that my elbow might have actually dislocated. Then, to the guard, “Sorry.” I straightened my arm as best as I could and then pulled hard on my elbow. Something popped. Eureka! I could move my arm again! “There!” I said before being overtaken by pain and nausea. “Oh,” I gasped. “It’s better, but it’s worse.”


I conceded defeat. “Maybe I should see the EMT,” I said.


“I think that’s a good idea,” the skate guard said, reaching out his hand and helping me onto the ice and into the arms of my husband, who could only shake his head at my awesomeness as he guided me toward the EMT. He rolls his eyes. A lot.


At me.


The EMT determined that my arm didn’t seem broken, but it was severely bruised. She gave me a bag full of Lake Placid snow to ice it. “Sorry,” she said. ‘It’s all we have here.” Then she told me to take some ibuprofen and get checked out when I got home. I followed her orders, and 36 hours later I was at the doctor with a black and blue arm that was frozen at a 90 degree angle and an elbow that had swelled to the size of a tennis ball. Two doctors and several x-rays later, the results were in: I was injured.


I had not only dislocated my elbow--and somehow managed to relocate it by myself--but I had chipped it in the process. Worse, though, was that the tendons and ligaments of my left arm were in rough shape after being rocked by the dislocation. Prognosis: I would heal, but the healing process required time, rest, physical therapy, and absolutely no weight bearing activity whatsoever until the orthopedist said otherwise. “You’re lucky,” said the orthopedist. “Injuries as severe as yours to the ligaments and tendons often require surgery. I’m hopeful we can avoid that, but we will see.” She added that my 18 years of yoga practice had likely kept my bones nice and strong, which is why I hadn’t suffered a compound fracture.


I didn’t feel all that lucky. I was actually annoyed. I couldn’t believe I had been stupid enough to get hurt--wait, injured--like that. I should have known better than try to skate off the ice too fast. Now I was stuck in a cuff and collar, perhaps one of the ugliest slings ever made, and I couldn’t hook or unhook my bra every day without excruciating pain. But of course, I never asked for help. I’m too stubborn. My body was injured, and my pride was hurt. And I damn sure didn’t want surgery.


I wasn’t feeling particularly good in my own skin, and the injury had left me feeling vulnerable and weak. Most arm-oriented yoga poses were ruled out for several weeks, which was a serious bummer for this downdog girl. It was winter, dark, and cold, and I couldn’t even ice skate. Faced with limited options, I made a decision: I was going to get back into my running routine. My orthopedist gave it the green light after two weeks in the sling, and I was off. I began new, more mindful eating habits, too. By April, I had dropped several pounds, gained a ton of strength, and felt better than I had in months. Even better, my arm had mostly healed, thanks to my persistence with at-home physical therapy and the guidance of my PT at Yale.  


I kept running, reminding myself to keep my body loose and my breath steady, and on a very hot day in June this 43-year-old ran her first-ever five-miler in under 56 minutes. My goal is to do a 10k next spring, and a half by next fall. But, as with everything, we will see how it plays out. I’m not married to that schedule of progression. As long as I keep running and challenging myself, I think I’ll be in a good, healthy place, regardless of when I make it to that half.


My injury may have healed, but I can still feel its ghost. When I move my arm a certain way or slightly overextend it, my bicep winces. My elbow no longer feels wonky and wobbly, but the arm is still recovering. It’s not as strong as my right arm, although one day it will be. And I will skate again this winter, but with some hockey padding on my left elbow from now on.


That’s how it goes with injuries, I guess. Healing is a long process, and sometimes we have to adapt and modify our ways if we want the payoff to last. If we don’t learn how to heal and how to stay healed, we will open ourselves up to injury again and again. But sometimes, if we are really good to ourselves, we can turn our injuries into new beginnings.


Tomorrow I will teach my regular Wednesday night beach yoga class, one of my two summer jobs that I have come to love. I will guide my students into downdog and show them how to care for themselves and their joints in the pose in order to avoid injury--especially on the sand, which can seem deceptively safe. As usual, I will also remind them of the importance of caring for small hurts and pains on and off the mat, in the body, and in the heart. It is just as important to care for the little hurts lest they turn into injuries. Healing takes work, and not everyone is up to that task.



Saturday, July 16, 2016

Disconnect

I keep my cellphone far away from me at night these days. For the past several months I have elected to drop technology completely from my bedroom in an attempt to create a more relaxing and restful environment. I use a Moonbeam alarm clock to wake up instead of my cellphone alarm, and I do not miss my phone one bit. Not when I’m reading. Not when I’m falling asleep. And especially not in those precious early morning moments when I’m waking up to greet a new day. Instead of reaching for my phone to check emails and social media updates, I stretch, say a few prayers of gratitude, read some meditations, rock a few yoga poses, and start off my day right.

So it was strange this week to have the cellphone back on the nightstand. My oldest son was away at camp, which means that I needed my phone by my bedside—not because he was homesick. He definitely wasn’t. But because, you know, I’m his mother. That’s what mothers do.

It was the best and worst possible time for me to have my phone at an arm’s length first thing in the morning. The current racial climate in our country has had me engaged in some Facebook discussions in which I restated my support for the Black Lives Movement, which resulted in disappointing yet unsurprising backlash from some people. It was a reminder of why I try to avoid Facebook on a general basis, and it was a good reason to get away from it again.

I’ve gone long stretches with a break from Facebook, having deleted the app from my phone. For the first five months of this year I only checked my account once or twice a week on my computer, with my posts being mostly Instagram photos that I shared to the site without ever logging in. Only since roughly the end of the school year have I become again more entrenched in Facebookland—through the browser on my phone, because I refuse to reinstall the app--mostly because I’ve got a little more free time. I also have a lot to say about the status quo of American society, and I’m brave enough—and stupid enough—to share my thoughts about it in that space.

So Wednesday morning I woke up, did my standard morning routine, and then fired up the phone. As expected, there were no texts from my boy—he was too busy being 14 and away from home. But there were some distressing comments to a recent Facebook post of mine, a post that was centered more on looking at a situation from a black man’s point of view than it was of anything else. After rolling my eyes and feeling a knot well up in my chest, I sleepily typed out what I hoped was a coherent response. Then I posted that Facebook needed to fix its face because its ugly is showing. “Peace out,” I said. And I meant it.

I was barely awake, but the “peace out” was genuine. I just knew that if I want to keep my own peace of mind, which I need if I want to be able to think clearly about the big issues of our time and the work that must be done to fix them, then I can’t have my brain muddled by the cacophony of thinly-veiled racism on social media. I need a break from the ugliness. For the record, there’s a lot more that makes Facebook ugly than just the current conversations on race, gun control, and our upcoming presidential election. I need a big break from all of it.

I decided to go for a run. I’ve gotten back into my running groove, and it feels fantastic. Summer heat mandates that my delicate constitution run earlier in the day, however, since late day temperatures make it tough to muddle through three or four turtle miles. So at 6:30, I wrestled myself into a sports bra, popped in my earbuds, and took off for pre-breakfast 5k.

Anyone who runs knows the first mile is a liar, especially early in the morning when you’re still rubbing sleep from your eyes. With “The Cool Out” from the Clash helping me lumber toward the one-mile mark, I began to look forward to the second hill of my route, since I was finally picking up some speed and momentum. I rounded the corner to take the hill, setting my sights at the top of it.

And there was a deer.

This beautiful young deer was just standing on the sidewalk about 20 feet in front of me. It was so unexpected and peaceful, I gasped. It stared at me, and I stared back. I was afraid to move. Morning traffic was increasing on the main road at the top of the hill, and I didn’t want to scare the poor thing right into it. I raised my phone to take a photo of the gorgeous creature, but then I stopped. I decided I wanted to just experience that moment rather than document it. I wanted that moment to be between only me and the deer. I’m tired of sharing so much of my life with the Internet.

The deer gracefully strutted across the Upson Terrace, becoming more skittish as it neared the main road. It crossed back toward my side but then stood in the road for a moment as I signaled to an oncoming car to slow down. The old man driving the equally old station wagon yelled out his window to me, “What’s he doing around here? He looks lost.” Then he coughed a smoky laugh and drove on.

I slowly trailed the deer to the intersection, where my obnoxious, blaze-orange running shorts helped get a few drivers to slow down and even stop as the deer decided to bolt across the main thoroughfare. So there we were, me on the even side of Townsend Avenue and the deer on the odd side. I felt like if I could just make sure that he made it to the big chunk of open land at the Townsend estate just a couple of blocks away, then I could relax. I didn’t trust most of the speeding drivers on Townsend to stop in time if the deer bolted again. Getting him to that wide open space would be an assurance that he was safe for at least a little while.

The deer sniffed around the corner property to which he had crossed, and then he gingerly poked around the grass of the neighboring lawn. I began to run again, much slower than usual, keeping an eye on him. As I ran, he began to pick up speed, so I sped up. He kept going faster, and so did I. I can’t explain why I felt it was so important to keep up with this deer, but it did. He gracefully leapt over a hedgerow. I laughed. He glanced my way and kept going, with me mirroring him far less gracefully across the road. For a block we ran together. His scamper was my all-out-haul.

He slowed at a side-street corner and seemed to actually look both ways before he crossed and made his way toward the tall grass of the Townsend estate. I stopped for a moment as he lingered by a driveway at the edge of the property. “Go, go,” I whispered, as if he could hear me. “Go, be safe.” And just like that, he scampered behind a high row of boxwood and was gone.

I turned back to the sidewalk before me. I smiled. What had just happened? Everything, and nothing. I picked up my pace again.

A block later I passed an older gentleman who teaches at another high school in New Haven. I was beaming, “I just saw a deer!” I exclaimed with the giddiness of a little kid.

“Beautiful,” he said as he passed me. “But watch out for the black bears. I saw one on Kneeland on my run a few days ago.”

I turned my head over my shoulder to reply, “They’re more afraid of us than we should be of them.”

“Maybe, but you never know,” he called back. I didn’t turn around.

My strides were lighter and freer, and I wanted to run forever—toward a place where deer, and bears, and even people can share space without fear. Instead, I ran home and shared my story with my husband and younger son. And I was proud of myself for having no pictures to prove any of it. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Keep Going


“Mom?”

I was knee-deep in the salty Sound, giving the horizon a thousand-yard stare. August’s balmy breeze belied the strength of the sun that warmed my shoulders. For the first time in weeks, I was truly relaxed.

“Yes, sweetheart?”

My youngest stood next to me holding a small snail in his hand. “Did you know that if you hum to a snail it will come out of its shell?”

In 42 summers at the beach, why had I never heard this?

“No way. Really?”

“Really. Try it.”  My son gently dropped the snail into my outstretched palms. We both looked it.

“Try it,” he said again.

I raised my open hands toward my chin and began to hum a quiet, happy little tune. The snail remained firmly in its shell. I stopped after a few seconds, my hands still raised, and cocked an eyebrow at my son.

“Jeez, Mom. Give it a minute. Keep going,” he said.

I began to hum again, unconcerned with how silly I might have seemed humming a lullaby into my palms. After a few bars of steady melody, the snail slowly emerged from its shell. Its striped, squishy body arched as high as it could. I stopped humming. “Look at it. It’s like a little miracle!” I exclaimed, and just as quickly it retreated into its shell. I tried again, humming a few gentle bars of the song and, sure enough, the little snail wiggled out of its shell and seemed to peer all around.

If I had to choose a moment in time to freeze forever, it might be that afternoon at the beach with my boys. Our summer jobs and camps had ended, we had just returned from a family trip to Washington, D.C., and we had a couple of blissfully uneventful weeks ahead of us before we returned to the school routine.

And yet, despite how happy I was to enjoy this time off, I kind of missed my job—not the work, per se. Not the meetings, data, grading, or planning. But I missed my students, and I had spent the summer thinking about a few of them in particular. I looked forward to returning to school August 31st and being reassured of their well-being.

What they don’t prepare you for in teacher school—what they don’t tell you at all—is how much you could possibly care about your students. Sure, they tell you that you’ll care about them. Yes, they’ll warn you that you will likely, at least once, grieve their untimely loss. But they don’t tell you how much you will fear that loss for certain at-risk students in particular. They don’t tell you how deeply you’ll care. They don’t tell you how hard it will become to listen to the superficial chatter of peers outside of education who, through no fault of their own, have No Clue what it’s like to be a teacher—especially in a city.

Especially in New Haven.

No one prepares you for the day your lesson plans will need to be tossed aside to address the collective grief in class over the shooting death of their friend from another school. They don’t tell you that you’ll worry all summer long about your student who missed the last two weeks of school recovering from a gunshot wound. They don’t tell you that you and a colleague will sob together in a small office because a very disruptive student revealed that both of his parents were dead, and that he’s being raised by his grandmother—but they don’t have any food to eat because she’s too proud to ask for help. That’s why he’s always hungry first period. And, you note to yourself, he’s often so dirty, too.

They don’t tell you how much you’re going to care about kids who often don’t believe you even like them let alone want the best for them. They don’t warn you that some days you’ll stand alone in your classroom after the last bell, forehead pressed against the cool cinderblock wall, one hand holding the phone’s receiver as your weigh whether it’s worth calling home today to report a student’s awful behavior, or if that might make things worse for him, for you, and ultimately for the whole class. You wonder, exhausted, if instead you should talk to him in the hallway next time you see him. You wonder if that class learned anything that day. You wonder if you’re even a good teacher. You wonder if you ever should have become a teacher in the first place. You realize you haven't used the bathroom in five hours, and that's contributing to your crippling indecision. Then you hang up the phone.

They don’t tell you about how you will sit and stare blankly at your gradebook in June, wondering how to convert a high F to a D for a kid who has twice failed freshman English, but who was always present and respectful, who always said hello to you in the hallways, and whose mother once said she had “given up on him” because she has “other kids to raise.” What is a third year of English 1 going to accomplish here? If you pass him, does that mean you are a crappy, easy teacher? Should you have ever bothered becoming a teacher in the first place? The gradebook will stare back at you in silence. 

And surely you never would have become a teacher if you had known that some of your colleagues would say—out loud, for people to actually hear – that they aren’t interested in getting to know their students. They’re just at school to do their job, teach their material, and go home at 2:15. No one tells you how you’ll surprise yourself by wanting to throw punches for that.

They don’t tell you that you’ll get summer emails from students who just want to say hi, who want to share good news, or who need reassurance that their first year of college will be okay. No one lets you in on the secret that you’ll be tearfully proud of your students when they graduate and make their way to college and into the big, beautiful world that awaits them. No one could prepare you for the day an emotionally and academically struggling student would find his way senior year and receive a huge ovation from his supportive class upon receiving an award. And while they might tell you how those aha! moments in the classroom are the reason we all teach, no one could prepare you for just how beautiful it is to see a student's face light up when something clicks or when they find the courage to present something in front of the entire class. 

No one clues you in to the fact that your students will come to you when they are proud of an accomplishment—a good grade, a spot on the team, acceptance to their reach school, or simply that they walked away from an invitation to fight. No one tells you about the invitations you will receive – to recitals, art shows, sporting events, and talent shows – from students seeking your support outside of the classroom. No one warns you how often your Sad Teacher Lunch (a baked sweet potato and apple sauce, anyone?) will be interrupted by visits from freshmen who would much rather sit and safely chat with you during lunch than wither in the wilds of the cafeteria. 

No one could prepare you for the hugs, hugs, and more hugs you would receive the first week back to school. Hugs from kids who gave you hell all last year, but who come back to school a little taller, a little more mature, and who actually ask you if you had a nice summer vacation. No one told you how much you’d want to cry when that student who had been shot shows up after three months and gives you the biggest hug of your life—in front of all of his friends. And you are so grateful—so impossibly grateful—that he is alive. That he is smiling. That he is now where you and your colleagues can see him, keep an eye on him, and remind him to do his best at this game of high school, this game of life. You wonder if you care so much about this kid and so many others because you're a mom, or if it's just who you are. You wonder if you would actually be a better, more rigorous, more effective teacher if you cared a little less.

Really, though, how on earth could you ever care less?

No one told you that you would care this much, and that some people might even chide you for it. But the truth is that you don’t care what they think. Instead you quietly, persistently hum a gentle melody to yourself and know that little miracles are hiding everywhere for those who care to find them.



Friday, July 10, 2015

Teen Beat

If you time it right, and the breeze is slight, and the din of mowers and leaf blowers isn’t crowding your head, you can hear the muffled clang-clang of buoys in the harbor just a few hundred yards from my house. The cool song of the robin and the chit-chat of the cat bird provide the melody, but the buoys bring the harmony of summer to my backyard.

I am entirely sincere when I say I thank God for these seabreezy moments in my small oasis here in New Haven. Summer is here, and although I am enjoying it, I am still busy. I am teaching a freshman transition program at school, where I have the opportunity to work with wide-eyed, incoming students—babies!—for the month of July. I also have one night of graduate classes left next week before wrapping up my Masters program with a capstone project this fall (!). And next week, as soon as my graduate classes are done, I will once again be teaching a six-week session of yoga on the beach to raise money for classroom supplies. I am grateful for all of the above, and I am especially grateful that, despite my commitments, my summer schedule allows me plenty of time to spend with my growing boys.

Maybe too much time.

You see, my boys are 11 and 13. This means that I am now the mother of a teenager.

A good teenager. A smart teenager. A hardworking, high-honors-with-distinction for three years running, witty, clever, creative, and insightful teenager. A teenager who loves to ride his bike around the neighborhood with friends.  A teenager who is still willing to be an altar boy. A teenager who has gainful, self-generated employment mowing lawns for his neighbors. A teenager who loves iFunny, making jokes about politics, and who just earned his red belt in karate. A teenager who loves to kayak. A voracious reader of comics, graphic novels, and all books. Good books. A teenager who is a great brother and a great son. A teenager who loves his three dogs and affectionately calls each one of them “Dogger.”

But still, a teenager.

Please take a moment of silence to recognize what this means for me.

First, there is a great deal of snark and indifference with which I must contend on a regular basis. I, the English teacher, might ask him, “Can you please set the table for dinner?” to which the student-turned-master might reply, “I can. Haha.” I might say, “Are you looking forward to [insert amazing plans here]?” to which he might reply with a shrug while chugging 16 ounces of chocolate milk, “I guess.” I have even been known to ask, quite brazenly, “So, are you and [insert name of awesome girl here] an item? Are you going out? What’s going on?” to which he has replied, “Mom, if you were Alex’s mom, I would tell you. But you’re not. You’re MY mom, so I’m not going to talk about it, ok?”

Add to this the host of other questions I might have for him, from mundane to important, to which I am often given the response, “Because reasons.”

Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I ask too many questions. Maybe I shouldn’t seem so interested in what’s going on his life. Maybe I should just back off and let him have unlimited, unchecked hours of online gaming time in peace.  And for the love of God, maybe I shouldn’t interrupt him when he’s wearing his Beats.

Or maybe nothing is the problem. Maybe this is all just par for the course in the life of raising a young American teenager. Boys are not girls, and many boys are not as forthcoming about their lives as their parents might hope them to be. Case in point: my (much, much) younger brother just graduated high school. He is a wonderful young man, and I love him to pieces. He is a volunteer firefighter in his town—has been for a few years—and he asked one of his friends, a female volunteer firefighter—to the prom. However, it wasn’t until we were snapping pics on prom night that we were told by his date’s parents exactly how my brother asked her to the prom: by spelling out his prom-posal in firehoses on the roof of the firehouse.

Are you kidding me? Can you get more adorable than that?

But no, my brother never bothered to tell any of us that. It wasn’t that he didn’t want us to know. He just didn’t tell us because he didn’t tell us. Because he’s 18, a good listener, and keeps his cards close to his chest. And there is something to be said for that. While my teenage boy is a great talker about anything besides his own life, he listens more than anyone realizes, and he knows how to play his hand close, too. That is a skill, actually. It will serve him well in the long run, but it can really infuriate a mom who wants to hear more than grunts and acerbic comebacks from him at the dinner table.

There is more to him than that, though, and I know it. His friends see it, and he is always polite and engaging with other adults. But what he has, and what he rightly takes advantage of, is the safety and comfort of an accepting, loving, funny home, where he is unconditionally loved and sometimes teased for his monosyllabic self. He knows that, without question, when he is ready to share the more personal details about his life, he will not only be heard—he will be listened to. He will be supported and loved throughout anything life throws at him, even if he doesn’t want to say too much about it. And as he gets older, the truth is that he doesn’t have to say too much about many things. Often, he only has to look at me, and I understand.

I cannot help but wonder if we will experience the same with my 11 year old, the teenage understudy who is quite possibly the most observant kid I’ve ever met. I’m not in a rush to find out if my sweet, snuggly boy will soon morph into a grunting teen creature. For now, I will relish his hugs, keep close his confidence, and stay in the moment. And that moment is beautiful. It is loaded with baseball games and, starting this fall, hockey. It is brimming with broken windows from driveway pucks, cracked fence posts from backyard baseballs, car conversations about sharks, a collection of Nike Elite socks, and lots of dog whispering.

And sometimes, during a street hockey shootout, the teenager will share a few secrets with the understudy. And the younger kid will never reveal what he knows, unless he has cause for concern. So far, he’s shared nothing. Those boys have each other’s backs in teen solidarity. They rarely fight. Just the other day, as I weeded the vegetable beds against the quiet clanging of the buoys in the harbor, the peace was punctuated by the crack of hockey sticks and laughter in the driveway. I don’t know what the boys were laughing at.

The truth is, I don’t need to know. They are entitled to their own lives. They belong to themselves; they do not belong to me.

But still, they are “my” boys. And even if, as they grow, they no longer need to share every detail of their lives with me, they do still love a long car ride with some good music and their mom. Whether my oldest chooses to play “Gates of the West” from the Clash and then exhales contentedly, or my youngest asks to hear Aerosmith’s “Dream On” because it reminds him of the movie Miracle and, he has said, it’s such a good song it gives him chills, we can usually agree on a soundtrack for our ride. We will drive, rock out, and maybe talk about baseball standings, hockey trades, or the water shortage in California.

In the end, what we choose to talk about doesn’t matter. All that does matter is the fact that we love each other’s company and enjoy being together, exactly as we are, grunts and all.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Joy (a Miracle) in Winter

Pitchers and catchers reported today for the Yankees. Spring training has begun, and with it the hope and promise that warmer weather is on the way. However, it's still February--and it feels like it. It was two degrees when I woke up this morning, but the wind chill was -14.

It was a perfect day for our family to go ice skating. Outside. In Brooklyn.

And that's what we did. Despite the frigid temps, we shared a fun day skating in snowy Prospect Park. It was a deliciously sunny afternoon, and the open air rink was blindingly bright. I laced up to the PA system bellowing "Mack the Knife," and I practiced my backward skating to Bowie's "Starman." The cold temps kept the crowds away, so we had lots of room to find our groove, dig in, and skate. 

I love to watch my boys on the ice. Sean is a natural skater. Like me, he loves the freedom that comes with gliding on the ice, and he and I enjoy skating side-by-side and chatting while we go along. Nolan has a true love of it, too--and then some. This year he has blossomed into a truly athletic skater after doing a few months of learn-to-play hockey clinics. It has been a joy to watch him develop into a strong, graceful skater who has taught his older brother how to do proper cross-overs. 

Nolan was initially drawn to hockey for the gear. On the baseball field, he has taken to catching this past year. He loves the gear, and he loves being behind the plate during a game. It's a lot of work, it requires focus, and that's what he enjoys. It's no surprise, then, that he would love hockey. It's got all the components that he relishes: gear, intensity, and focus. So here we are, in a house where the movie Miracle is rolling (again) tonight, where the walls are knicked up with black scuffs from inside puck-handling, and where our budget is feeling pressured by planning for Nolan possibly playing on a hockey team next season (in addition to travel baseball this season)--and by the payments on a new Honda Pilot to handle two growing boys and all of that gear

For a long time, before Nolan got into it, I eye-rolled hockey. I had dated a couple of hockey players in high school and, as much as I loved the game, there was a lot that went along it that I didn't appreciate. For one, the smell of hockey gear is absolutely vile. There is also the entitled-white-boy aspect of the sport, especially in Connecticut. But looking at my sweet, kind, long-haired kid who loves to wear winter hats and a Blackhawks jersey every day, and whose confidence has grown so much as a result of learning to play, I am reminded that there is also a lot of good to be gained from playing the sport. I can honestly say my son believes in himself more after starting to play. 

So I'm just happy that he's happy. I'm happy that he has found something new that profoundly challenges him, and he has embraced that. I'm happy that it doesn't compete with his brother, who prefers to run and do karate--two beautiful things in their own right, and I love watching him do both. I'm happy that Nolan supports his brother in his endeavors, and I'm happy that Sean supports Nolan in everything he does. (In fact, in summer Sean regularly gives up other plans so he won't miss his brother's baseball games.)

And I'm happy that we've all found something new to share together as a family.We skate as often as possible, and we share a love of watching hockey. Of course, as with baseball, we are a house divided. Sean and I are Rangers fans. Ian likes the Red Wings. Nolan follows the Blackhawks. Whether it's playing street hockey in the driveway or going to Yale hockey games whenever possible, it is a new tradition for our family. We have found something common to get us through winter, something that keeps us in the moment in this long, dark season rather than always looking ahead to spring--and baseball.

Today, skating at Prospect Park kept us absolutely in the moment. While Ella Fitzgerald crooned, I bravely (or stupidly) closed my eyes for a moment as I glided along the ice. I heard the scrape of Nolan's skates catch up to me. I opened my eyes. "Mom," he said, his little cheeks and nose pink from the frigid air. "Mom, this ice is so good. Listen." He sped up. His skates sliced acrosss the glassy surface. "Hear that? Now listen to this." He stopped on a dime, spraying ice everywhere. "This ice is legit." 

No, kid. You are. 

Now, as he watches Miracle again while wearing his Little League all-star jersey, NHL pajama pants, and Yale hockey hat, I am so happy that he is finding new confidence and joy as a result of trying a new sport. I don't care how bad that gear smells, his smile when he's on the ice is worth all the stinky hockey equipment in the world. 

(Opening day at Yankee Stadium is 44 days away, by the way.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Time is Big

I haven't written in this space in eight months. I'm busy--like, super-busy--with this beautiful, messy life. My most recent entry here was at the tip-off of summer break, a time spent at baseball fields watching my younger son play, wrapping up a fellowship, teaching in a summer program for incoming freshmen, planning lessons for the then-upcoming school year, starting graduate school, teaching summer beach yoga, carting the kids around to day-camp programs, and even managing to get to Orleans in the Cape with friends for what has become a cherished annual tradition. And, of course, I spent plenty of time digging around the backyard with the dogs and trying to reconcile my love of gardening with my love of active, crazy dogs--two things that are in direct conflict with each other. (I am a Pisces, so that makes sense if you believe in that sort of stuff.)

But that's not what I've returned to write about today.

Today is Ash Wednesday, and last year I coincidentally wrote something in this space on the very same day. As an admittedly weak Catholic, I still manage to observe most Lenten customs and holy days, and this is one of them. I'll spend the next 40 days doing my best to sacrifice something that I enjoy but that also keeps me from being more spiritually and emotionally grounded. Translation? I'm sort of ditching Facebook.

I say sort of, because it would actually be impractical of me to ditch it altogether. Facebook has become a means of keeping in touch with certain friends and relatives with whom I might not otherwise communicate, because we don't cross paths in the real world. But apart from that--and viral dog videos, articles about education, Humans of New York, and silly memes--I pretty much use it as a vehicle to share photos from my life. That is, my life away from Facebook.

The problem isn't Facebook. The problem is that I allow myself to be sucked into it like it's some black hole, and I lose track of time. That has become so much more evident the past month, when we've been dealing with bitterly cold temperatures and lots of snow here in the Northeast. (Yankee hats off to Boston, though. They win the prize for most snow this year. Our snow here in New Haven is but a dusting compared to what they're dealing with.) More time inside = more time to be sucked in to the vortex.

The problem, really, is me. And the solution is to put some limits on the time I waste on Facebook. Just like I wouldn't spend countless hours watching TV (except maybe Downton Abbey, Brooklyn 99, or the Yankees), and just like I don't let my kids spend unchecked time playing Xbox or Minecraft or TF2 or whatever the heck they are playing these days, I need to be more self-aware of the time I'm letting slip away while I scroll and troll social media.

So...five minutes a day. That's what I'm giving myself. It's enough time to check in, quickly peruse, and realize that everything posted today pretty much mirrors what was posted yesterday--and the day before that. If I choose not to use my five minutes, I can bank it for another day, not to exceed 10 minutes in a day. That's it.

Curiously, I don't feel the need to do this with Instagram or Pinterest. Instagram usually only keeps my attention for a few minutes anyway, since I'm following so few people. And Pinterest feels somehow more constructive, since I'm usually trolling that site for recipes, gardening ideas, home improvement tips, and teaching templates.

The key word here is constructive.

Facebook, for me, is not a constructive use of my time. That's not to say all use of time needs to be constructive. I'm a firm believer in allotting some time each day to simply being. But if I'm going to spend time on some interwebby social media, I'd rather it be somewhat creative. Pinterest allows me to feel that way, since I get to plan crafty schemes. Instagram lets me play with my crappy photos and make them look pretty. Blogging? That's definitely not passive.

But there's another reason why I dislike spending too much time on Facebook: there, I often find myself comparing my life to others', and that is just not healthy. Depending on my own sense of self on any given day, a trip to Facebookland can sometimes leave me feeling "less-than" someone or something. As the wonderful writer Elizabeth Gilbert recently reminded her readers (on Facebook), comparison is the thief of joy. This is truth. For example, say I'm in a funk because it's winter, and I haven't been able to go running outside, I'm not getting the sunlight I need, and I'm reconciling tight finances for my youngest's baseball and hockey (!) pursuits while trying to plan for a new garage. Then say I go on Facebook, where I am bombarded by shells from other people's lives: trips to the gym, new homes, fulfilling personal relationships, and seemingly endless vacation photos. On most days, I'm usually happy for my friends and family in these matters. But Discontented Winter Moira often sees it as something else: how she's lacking EVERTHING.

This has happened before. Sometime in the mid '90's, when I was in my mid 20's, I stopped reading beauty magazines. I realized they almost always made me feel like absolute crap about myself. The message I received from them was that I was not enough: I wasn't thin enough, young enough, pretty enough, tall enough, fashionable enough, or rich enough to be all of the above. So I ditched them, and now I pretty much only read them when I'm at the salon. That, my friends, is enough.

Unlike beauty magainzes, the happiness of my friends and family does not have an agenda. It doesn't seek to change me or have me buy any products. It's not the fault of anyone but me that I sometimes compare myself to how others are living. But it's hard for me to step back from it and get perspective if I'm spending too much time on Facebook. So Lent is a great time for me to make some changes and to focus on what is really true and important in my own life.

I came to this little realization the other afternoon when I was in the basement, racing along on my elliptical like a hamster on a wheel and wishing for warmer temperatures so I can run outside. (I'm not a runner who enjoys the wind in my face when it's below 30 degrees, and I make no apologies for that.) The Clash's cover of Booker T and the MG's "Time is Tight" cued up on my playlist. It's one of my favorite songs from them. As I slowed my pace for a cool-down to the bass line of the song, I realized that time isn't tight. Time is big, as the great yoga teacher and philosopher Judith Hansen Lasater has said. Time is big. We are all given the same amount of it. It's what we choose to do with that time that matters.

So now I choose to stop comparing myself to others quite so much. What's to compare? I am proud of who I am: a mother of two incredible kids, the wife of a great husband and stepdad, a high school teacher, a graduate student, a yoga teacher, and a good friend, daughter, and sister. I love my old, small, cozy home by the water. I love my block, my neighbors, and my backyard. I love that I enjoy running, even though I'm slower than a turtle covered in molasses. I love that I LOVE to ice skate. I love myself, those extra ten (or so) pounds and all. I love myself, mistakes and all. I love my life, because it's mine.

Rather than get on Facebook this morning to see who "liked" (read: validated) my posts from yesterday, I chose to write. Then, taking advantage of a gift card and February break, I enjoyed an early-morning massage at the spa. Then I had a house full of kids, and we all took a walk with the dogs to Black Rock Fort, where we spent the afternoon hunting for seaglass on a snowy beach, throwing chuncks of ice into the water, identifying animal tracks in the snow, and body-sledding hills. I took a bunch of photos. I posted them on Instagram and shared them to Facebook. I went on Facebook for three minutes to tag people in those pics, and I didn't linger much longer. Later, I took a nap, whipped up some homemade pizza, and then headed to church for a stamp of ashes on my head. While there, Deacon Marty reminded us that Lent is a time for remembering our purpose here beyond the superficiality of our busy lives. It's a time to get out of our heads and into our hearts.

It's a season to remember that time--and life--is bigger and more beautiful than any status update can convey.

xo




Saturday, June 21, 2014

Finals

I had big plans for my blog this year. And by big plans I mean that I had planned to at least WRITE IT. But, oh, how I underestimated how much time it takes to live my life offline.

So here I am, three days out from the end of the school year. It is a busy, stressful time when all of our final grades for the year must be completed, our comments must be finalized, our TEVALs must be approved, and we look forward to two months of rediscovering ourselves apart from  the usual routine.

That is, of course, unless we like routine.

I like routine.

So this year I'm working five weeks during the summer. I'll be teaching an enrichment program for incoming freshmen--many of whom I will be teaching next fall. And now that I have officially been handed the baton to be a freshman cohort English teacher, which means I'll be teaching ONLY freshmen English next year, it's a good opportunity to break the ice with some incoming students who are still just babies. Really. They are. And maybe that's what makes me a good fit as a freshman teacher, if I'm to believe what a colleague said of me yesterday: I'm maternal enough to nurture them, but firm enough not to take any of their B.S. In the game of good cop vs bad cop, I'm the good cop. Usually. Unless you stroll into class 45 minutes late reeking--REEKING--of skunk weed. Then I'm just pissed.

I don't know that I love this time of year. I actually greatly disliked being off last summer. I had no structure, and I felt like I was just waiting for the next school year to begin. That's my issue, and that might be a little more prevalent in those of us, including so many teachers, lucky enough to tend toward anxiety. And by tend toward I mean have it in spades.

I've added to my plate this year in other ways, making this summer break a bit more attractive. I scored a fellowship at a local college, which has been challenging and fulfilling. It winds down in a month, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't ready for it to end. While I've definitely grown professionally and personally as a result of my work as a fellow, I'm ready for a break. I've been writing and reading my ass off in that program. And then, next fall, I will begin working toward my M.S. in Education at another local college. Fortunately, it's a fast-tracked program, and I will be done next summer. As a friend said yesterday, "basically you're going to hold you breath, jump in and come up for air next July. With your Masters. That's pretty awesome." Yes. It is. And it's a program designed for working teachers who theoretically have lives outside of teaching, so I will hopefully be a little less overwhelmed than if I attended a traditional Masters program. Hopefully.

Despite looking forward to some longer nights on the porch, more time to read and lots more time with my boys this summer, I think one reason why me and so many of my colleagues get so irritable this time of year is because not only are we mired in paperwork and other year-end "deliverables", but our routines are changing. And I don't just mean our schedules. We're saying goodbye to students who are graduating, we're accepting that we didn't get some students to achieve the way we had hoped we would and, in one of the most socially isolating jobs out there, we are stepping away from the friends and colleagues who make our days bearable. In some cases, maybe we're getting a break from colleagues who make our days worse. But usually, we're leaving a support network behind, and that can be a little weird.

A colleague recently said that first responders, nurses and teachers are the only people whose colleagues really and truly understand what they experience. I'm sure this point can be argued, but I get the idea. And it's true in many ways. While I may not be running into a burning building or backing up a partner in a hail of gunfire, teaching--especially "urban" teaching--is a beast. Each story outdoes the next. And while there are many successes, it's hard for anyone not in the profession to understand the kind of crying teachers can do together when they finally reach a kid who had seemed so unreachable, so unwilling, so angry, so at-risk, who had never made eye contact with you or trusted you until... until they do. And when they do, even if they are never A students, you've got them. They've no longer given up. That is why we teach.

Then there are the kids who do give up. That? That can make you more disgusted and discouraged than you want to admit.

And so I think for me it's weird to say goodbye to colleagues for two months, and it's hard to put the year to bed without rehashing what could have been done better. We have to, though. It's over. And so we break for a couple of months, get tan, eat s'mores and let our memories recede a little further. Then, with that chronic (sometimes) low-level anxiety that most teachers have, we start to count on a new school year to tell us how to feel like ourselves again.