Saturday, June 21, 2014


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.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Give It Up

Lent begins today. For the next 40 days I will try to stick to my Lenten "sacrifice" of not complaining. Ideally, this sacrifice will become a habit, and I will find I gain time, breath and peace of mind formerly wasted on blowing hot air about things over which I have no control.

Make no mistake: I am not a chronic complainer. I'm overall proactive and positive--sometimes naively so--and I usually look at the bright side of things. Still, I feel like lately I've been more critical and negative with respect to certain areas of my life, and I don't like it. I want to change it. Lent seems like the perfect time to do it. I've already ditched sweets on a regular basis, quit smoking 16 years ago, gave up fast food 19 years ago and I almost never drink alcohol anymore. (No wonder I'm complaining.) Might as well give up this. 

Complaining is something my exceedingly positive and faithful grandmother warned me about when I was studying for my midlife career shift into teaching. She had more than 40 years in the profession, including a few years as principal, and yet she rarely doled out unsolicited advice about it--except once: "Just be careful who you ally yourself with in a school. You'll find that some teachers, in any school, spend most of their time complaining and blaming rather than reflecting and improving." 

These were some of the most important words I ever heard about fitting into the culture and climate of  a school. But it is not my job that has me feeling more cantankerous lately. In fact, my job is a highlight of my life. I love it, I love my students and I love some of the talented and selfless people with whom I work. Teaching is simply a fit with my life in a way no other job has been, especially now that I'm teaching high school. I enjoy going to work in the morning. I missed my colleagues and students during our extended mid-winter break. I want to teach in some capacity over summer vacation. Teaching is hard work, but it brings me a lot of joy. It doesn't aggravate me. (Well, not much and not most days, anyway.) 

Other things do, though. I can pinpoint a few things that get my Irish up. Some days my eyes can't roll high enough in my head over these triggers. But is it worth it to actually complain about them--especially if there is nothing I can do to change them? No. And after 16 years of yoga and lots of meditation, I know this. Still, enduring this impossibly long winter, coupled with grieving the death of my father throughout it all, definitely has me a little more contemptuous than usual when it comes to things that annoy me. 

When I want something, I go for it. In this case, I want to stop allowing myself to be annoyed by things that are truly of no consequence. Sounds simple enough, although I know some days it won't be. But life really is short, and I don't want to waste any more of it on things undeserving of my attention. 

In a little while the boys and I will head out to an evening Ash Wednesday service, where the priest will cross our foreheads with the ashes of last year's Easter palms. The last Ash Wednesday that Grandma was alive was two years ago, and at the time I was a student teacher at the very school where I am a full-time faculty member now. After receiving ashes, my brother, sons and I went to visit Grandma, who was too frail from cancer to go to services that night. It may have been the first time in her life that she had missed receiving ashes. We visited in her warm and snug kitchen, sharing stories about teaching and listening to the boys share stories about school. We teased her about skipping services, and I asked her if she wanted some ashes. I rubbed my index finger on the cross smudged into my forehead and gently touched the thin skin above her brows, making the sign of the cross in faded, second-hand ashes from St. Bernadette Church. The boys giggled at the gesture. 

It's one of those genuine moments forever frozen in time for me. Less than two months later Grandma died. 

Tonight the boys and I will once again bare our foreheads to receive ashes, something that for me always signifies the start of spring and baseball as well as Lent. And if some of the inky soot from Father's hand sifts down onto my eyelashes like it does every year, I won't complain. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

'S now...

It's that tricky time of year again, when the shortest month feels infinite. It's been a long winter, starting with the unexpected death of my father before Christmas. The near-daily snow has only added to the monotony. Cabin fever has set in, despite long walks, sledding and skating. During today's walk there was a glimmer of hope, though, when I saw the first robin of the season flitting through the branches of a tree covered in new red buds. The sun is shining, too. These little things, plus following the Olympics, will help get me through to March.

I'm ready for muddy gardens, seeds and sprouts, long runs with my first-born, afternoons on the front porch and chilly baseball baseball practices on the field by the water. I'm craving both routine--which has been broken by snow days--and a departure from it, since it seems the only routine I have is a domestic one. I'm also working hard to accept the (snowy, cold, house-bound) moments as they come and yet always look forward to something new, but not at the expense of experiencing the now.



'Snow. It's now?

Yep, this this my challenge: accepting, maybe even enjoying, winter while it lasts, no matter how long it lasts. For some, this is easy. But for this summer girl, it often feels like a test. I can skate and do yoga through it, my boys can skate and snowboard through it, we can watch hockey through it, but it still feels like a task. While I preach that we shouldn't wish away our lives, I do sometimes wish away a little bit of this season. And by "a little bit", I mean everything that comes between New Year's Day and St. Patrick's Day.

Vices get many people through it. I know plenty of people who stock up on booze and chocolate for winter storms, but those days are long behind me as I so rarely drink anymore and have cut back a ton on sugar. Some people go tanning (blech, but I get the primal need for warmth and light). Others compulsively exercise (or eat). And most of us take to Facebook, another vice, to share it all.

After seven (Right? I've lost count.) snow days inside, I can safely say I am burnt on Facebook. Yes, I like reading pithy status updates, inspirational quotes and silly memes, but I am Just. So. Tired. Of. It. One of the only things left about Facebook that I enjoy, save for being loosely in touch with friends with whom I might otherwise never communicate, is Humans of New York. And one of those Humans recently remarked that all of her friends on Facebook are getting married, buying houses and having kids, and she was trying not to freak out about it.

I hear that. Yet for those of us with the marriages, kids and houses, we take it to the next level: there is a tendency to compare ourselves to the projected perfection of the same in our friends' worlds. If I judged my life against the standards of modern American living on Facebook, I a) don't work out enough; b) do not eat organic enough; c) do not use enough non-toxic products and therefore am poisoning my family; d) do not create enough projects from Pinterest; e) do not go out enough at night, boozing with friends and raging against the dying of the light (aka, middle age); f) am not a red-blooded 'Merican because I've not yet taken my kids to Di$ney World; g) am anti-American because I voted for Obama; and h) have not achieved the American dream because I've not yet sold my house in the city and moved to the suburbs.

Believe me, I don't always compare myself to other people's lives on Facebook (cue the guy from the Dos Equis commercials), but when I do, I usually feel like a miserable failure.

Okay, that's not true. At all. But I do find myself sometimes stupidly comparing my life (but definitely not my politics) to other people's lives, and then I get angry with myself. The fact is that there IS NO COMPARISON. Everyone's lives are different, interesting and beautiful.

I just forget that about my own life sometimes.

Years ago I stopped reading beauty magazines (beauty sections of magazines like Real Simple excepted), because I realized I felt like crap about myself whenever I read them. Those magazines are garbage filled with mostly unimportant information designed to fill space, sell ads and sell magazines. Facebook, while often fun, sometimes makes me feel the same way if I'm not careful about my negative self-talk when I'm on it. But no matter--I'm tired of being on it. I won't disable my account or anything, but I'm definitely bored with it. In the end, it's really just a tool for me. It's a place to keep connected to friends, post lots (and lots and lots and lots and lots) of pictures of my children, provide links to this silly blog, make snarky comments about politics, and share positive affirmations.

I'm not selling my house and moving to the suburbs, but I'm happy for my friends who want to and make it happen for themselves. Disney isn't going anywhere--I'll get there when I can safely spend the money (emphasis on safely), and most Friday nights I'd rather eat take-out and catch on DVR'd episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Downton Abbey. I like my life, a lot. I'd rather spend more time exploring it in this space than waste too much of it scrolling and trolling on social media.

My life is here. And now. Snow and all.

That said, I'm totally posting a link to this blog post today.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Memory's Radio Dial

Another snow day here. The kids went out and played in it early, before the snow began to fall heavily. Now the flakes seem to be howling in every direction, criss-crossing and drifting into high corners around our 20's Cape-style house. Despite how so totally over the snow I am this season, it's still beautiful, peaceful and quiet on our little street.

Well, it's kind of quiet. My house is occasionally rattling with the boys' floor hockey games, wrestling, epic Xbox battles, hula hoop contests, chocolate milk messes and hilarious Facetime chats with friends. Wet boots, snow pants, hats and gloves drape every radiator on the first floor of the house, and the dogs are playing musical chairs as they rearrange sleeping positions on the couch in between chewing bones and tracking in snow. I'm not complaining. I love it. These days are fleeting, and before I know it I will be a 49 year old empty nester lonesome for these moments with my witty, handsome sidekicks.

Still, I have to carve out my own little headspace here somehow on these long, crowded, housebound days. I can--and do--escape to my room or the study/sewing room/guest room/yoga room to do a little yoga, meditate, get crafty, read or just exhale. Sometimes, like today, I write. I am also the queen of the 30+ minute shower. Maybe that's the Pisces in me. But oftentimes all it takes is some music and mundane chores to get me out of my head and into some kind of winter-defying catharsis. Give me a sponge, a counter and some music, and I'm good to go.

But what I choose to listen to these days depends upon not only the mood I'm in--or want to be in--but also what memories I'm feeling brave enough to conjure up. After more than 40 blessed years of this amazing, wacky life, there are very few songs on my personal rotation that aren't tethered to some kind of memory. I guess that's what happens when you're raised by teenage wolves and wean yourself on punk rock.

Some of my earliest memories involve music. Being the daughter of a teenage mom who was the oldest of her siblings, I grew up in a loud, political and well-read Irish-Catholic household that always--always--had some kind of music playing. One of my very first memories is from when I was about three, and my Uncle Danny was about 18. It was 1976. I sat on his tapestry-covered bed and pleaded with him to play Bowie's Diamond Dogs. I would squeal and scream, terrified and thrilled, every time Bowie's howl began. As soon as it ended, I would cry, "Again!" As always, Danny obliged. Upstairs, in the room my mother shared with one of her sisters, I would dance with my mom to Sonny and Cher's "I Got You, Babe". My mom would hold me in her arms, smelling of sand, salt and Ban de Soleil suntan lotion, and we would spin around the room singing, laughing, smiling. When I was five, I would hang my head off the bottom of my mother's bed and stare at the ceiling, picking apart all of the instruments on Springteen's "Thunder Road". Next to me, my mom's sister brushed her beautiful long, dark hair, stubbed out a Marlboro into a Wedgewood ashtray and spritzed herself with Chanel No. 5 before running off to bartend at the beach club. Then, alone in the room, I would pick up the needle and set it down again at the beginning of the song, resume my spot on the bed, and listen to piano. Saxophone. Guitar. Bass. Drums. Piano. Piano.

The Rolling Stones and Beatles were obvious staples of my youth, along with CCR, CSNY, Zeppelin, the Who, the Faces and a lot of other "classic" rock. As I aged, my tastes never changed as much as they compounded. I added punk, hardcore, rap and some new wave and pop to my repertoire. From U2 to Minor Threat, Pavement to Fugazi, Liz Phair to Public Enemy, the Clash to Norah Jones, and everything in between, there is a lot of music in the back pocket of my heart. Each of these artists and more represent moments and, more acutely, relationships in my life. No longer 20 with it all ahead of me, I'm now 40 with it all ahead of me and a whole lot behind me. Family discord, divorce, financial struggle, poor choices, loss, unrequited love and heartbreak are all reflected somewhere in a stack of records or in files on my iPod. But that's not all. My children, good friendships, good career moves and integrity in motherhood, work and self are all reflected in there, too. The problem is, some days I can handle songs from my past. I love them. I sing them at the top my lungs. Other days, not so much.

Other days, no lie, I sometimes feel a wave of anxiety course through me when I hear a long-forgotten or avoided song, depending on my association with it. But while a year or two ago I might have immediately skipped the track or turned the dial upon hearing it, in recent months I've given over to letting a dreaded song and any related feelings toward it wash over me. Music and the moments connected to it is part of me, like it or not. To deny it is to deny myself, my full story. That said, some songs truly suck, and I won't listen to them anymore no matter what the association--this goes mainly for some mid-80's pop songs that are as horrendous as my middle school memories linked to them. But there are certain songs that I've buried for years, unable to listen to them because I couldn't accept something about the memory attached to them. Now, for whatever reason, I'm more accepting of the past as just that: over. No more do I hang to hope that some old, broken relationships will bear new fruit. From family to friendships, some losses just have to be cut and dealt with.

What is is about a relationship that we hang on to, anyway? Isn't it about how we felt about ourselves when we were in it? When I was five, my mother's family was large and full of messy, noisy love. I felt good as a little McGuire kid. As years went on and patriarchs and matriarchs passed on, the family became smaller, and full of messy, noisy resentment and even downright cruelty. At times I lamented this shift, and I wondered why it couldn't be like it used to be. But sometime in more recent years I woke up. I realized that the family had always been the same, but that I no longer saw it through the lens of childhood. Yet that didn't mean I couldn't hold on to those feelings of messy, noisy love within myself. I could still feel good as a McGuire, even if the McGuire's aren't much of anything anymore.

The same goes for other relationships. What we miss is not always the person--although sometimes that pain is undeniable. Often what we miss is how good we felt about ourselves while in that relationship. That doesn't have to end when someone leaves, or dies, or when we walk away from something that no longer serves us. It also doesn't mean that a relationships was healthy just because it evoked positive sense of self for us. It can simply mean that, even for a brief moment in time, someone crossed our path--even if only with shadows--to help us see our own light. Memories are just feelings we have about ourselves in moments that are frozen in time.

I didn't particularly like "Thunder Road" for a while. And there are some songs or even entire albums that I don't ever need to hear again, simply because they don't stand the test of time. But there are songs I loved that I have avoided because of the hurt I associated with them. Not anymore. What's done is done. I have given up on the past, and that is one thing I have to give up on if I want to have hope for now and for the future. But the sunshiney, warm, summery love I have for myself in spite of the past lives on, baby. It's all I came with into this world, and it's the only thing I'll be able to take with me. So I might as well sing along to its soundtrack while I'm here.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Faith in Public School

I am not keeping up with this blog half as well as I thought I would. When I became a teacher, an old high school (boy)friend with whom I still keep in touch told me something along the lines of this: "Your entire life is going to change. It's not a bad thing, but it's a big thing. Teaching can be socially isolating. Self-awareness and self-care is important so you don't burn out." He should know. He's been an English teacher and hockey coach at a New England prep school for 15 years. But prep schools... well, they're very different from public schools, aren't they?

Are they?

It depends on the prep school and it depends on the public school. Some public school districts have more money than some privately funded schools, and those districts often excel in academics and athletics. But what makes a school "good"? How do you even qualify "good"? What makes one educational experience so different from another? If you pay for parochial or private education, is it better? If so, why? If  not, why not?

I have a lot of questions. I have a lot of hope and a lot of doubt. Welcome to my head.

My own education was a mash-up of public and parochial misadventures. I was a public school kid until the start of sixth grade, when my mother jettisoned me to the local Catholic middle school where my grandmother was an English teacher. After three socially awkward years there, I was accepted to a small, all-girls Catholic academy in a nearby town--not to be confused with the all-girls Catholic high school in the area. Oh no. The school I went to highly prized its status as an academy--not a high school--something for which I had equal parts pride and disdain.

My parochial education was decent. It could have been better; it could have been a lot worse. I learned a lot in English classes, and I cried a lot through three years of Latin. I made some exceptional lifelong friendships, and I have treasured memories from my time there. Yet the high school I attended was a painfully sheltered environment, and some of us knew it. So me and my closest girlfriend found the antidote in spending a lot of our free time hanging out with our public school friends. With them, we cut our baby teeth in the world while making some big, yet fun mistakes. With them, we learned what it meant to have friends who loved and accepted us for exactly who we were, not what town we came from, how much money we had or what prep school boys we were dating. And we did date prep school boys--my old (boy)friend, mentioned above, was a starting hockey player from Fairfield Prep. He was also a less sheltered New Haven kid with a checked family background, though, and therefore he had more practical sense than some of his prep school peers. This could be why our friendship has endured 24 years. But was my public school friends with whom I was usually most comfortable being myself.


I didn't always fit in with them, either. They all went to school together and understood each other's stories about teachers and classmates forever unknown to me. Many of them were from more affluent backgrounds than any of my private school friends. They were able to wear whatever they wanted to school, while I was stuck in a scratchy wool uniform. Their schools had cool teachers, big art programs, crazy fights. Their schools had kids of different races, while my school had, like, one black kid. Through public school, they had opportunities at Yale and other universities that I could only dream of, as all opportunities for me were self-contained within the "academy"--except for one. Striking out on my own, I sought out and was accepted to the Yale Daily News Summer Journalism Program, a summer writing program that had a huge impact on me and the choices I later made in life. But my school never encouraged my interest in that program. My mother did.

After high school, college was nothing I had hoped it would be. Having grown up in a family of Georgetown, Smith, Fordham and even Yale alums, I was disappointed at my options upon high school graduation. Being a then-only child of average grades and mediocre athleticism in a middle class family, I qualified for very little aid or scholarships. My parents had never saved enough money for me to go to school, as most of it had been spent on parochial school. Despite being accepted to even my "reach" schools, I enrolled at the local state college campus and commuted to school on and off for seven years, before finally earning my BA in English. My public school friends, however, were accepted to--and attended--colleges such as the New School, Emerson, Rutgers and NYU. My more financially secure and more academically supported parochial classmates attended BU, BC, Tulane, Duke and a host of good Catholic colleges. But for me, seven years of Catholic school did not guarantee a brighter future.

Maybe it wasn't supposed to. Maybe it was just a opportunity for me to connect with friends in a Catholic environment, and for that experience I am grateful. (Ironically, many of my fellow alumni are public school teachers.) But faith is a very personal thing, and I don't think it's something you can ensure your child will graduate with just because you paid tuition to a Catholic school. When I made the decision several years ago to pull my kids out of Catholic school after just two years and enroll them in our neighborhood public school, I did so with mixed emotions. Their experience at Catholic school had been good. But it wasn't enough, and I resented paying more than $5k per kid, per year for an experience that fell short of what my children needed. The school simply did not offer the opportunities available to them at public school. And as for faith...well, I never felt I needed to rely on school to teach that. We taught it at home. We reinforced it by going to mass. We did what we could to give the boys a solid foundation. Something for them to maybe someday reject, if that is their choice. But also something for them to return to.

I wanted my children to experience education side by side with children of all religions, because the world isn't Catholic. I wanted my children to experience education side by side with children of all races, because their Catholic school was only somewhat integrated. Still, their public school is not nearly as integrated as some of the other schools in the city, due to the fact that it is a neighborhood school and our neighborhood is overwhelmingly white. But it is more racially, religiously, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse than their Catholic school was, and that will reinforce some of Jesus' teachings more than parochial school can--if you want to look at it that way.

We are hardly bible thumpers, but faith is important to us. My boys are altar servers, and a couple of weeks ago they were sitting on the altar while our pastor gave a Catholic Schools Week homily. It had nothing to do with the gospel. It started with a fear-mongering claim that public schools have banned the Pledge of Allegiance (they haven't, and I almost stood up and corrected him), and it centered on drumming up business for our parish's school, on increasing enrollment, on touting a school that is centered on "faith". It seemed he held up Catholic schools as being superior to the alternative (read: public school). As our pastor went on to extol the virtues of our parish's school--and it is true that there are many--I looked around the church; the majority of the families there that day have children in public school. My sons on the altar are public school students. In fact, most of the other dozen or so altar servers in our parish attend public school. Our CCD program is large, and I taught first grade catechism there for three years.

I squirmed in my pew, watching my boys listen to Father's words. I hoped his words didn't make them feel bad, but the reality is that they were probably thinking about baseball and Minecraft. Still, for a moment I felt chastised for not sending my children to Catholic school. My mind raced, recalling recent conversations I'd had with public school parents regarding concerns about sending their children to our city high schools when they are done with our neighborhood school. Some were considering abandoning public school for Catholic high schools. Some might move out of town rather than send their kids to New Haven high schools. Between Father's chastising and the apprehension some parents feel toward our city high schools, I felt defensive and annoyed.

Then Father said something about a faith-centered education, and I smiled.

For Father, a faith-centered school is one centered in the teachings of Jesus. I get that. But faith is also much more in public school. Every kid who walks through the door to my English classroom has faith that he or she will have a better life when they grow up because of the education they are receiving at our school. Every student has faith that they will be supported and cared for by the teachers they encounter every day. Every parent has faith that teachers, like me, will do our jobs as best as we can even though it is "only" public school and they aren't paying customers. Every teacher has faith that maybe, just maybe, we are reaching those hard-to-reach kids. Maybe, just maybe, we are making a difference in the lives of some students. And if we're lucky, maybe they're learning from us, too. Every kid who struggles has faith that he or she will still come out as successful as the honor students. Every parent who stays in our city and opts to send their kids to public high school has faith that they are helping to sustain and improve our community by doing so. Every parent who sends their kids to our school has faith that their child won't get lost in the shuffle--something that can happen at any school in any town. Every teacher who can make one-third or more pay in a different district, but who chooses to stay in the city, has faith that their work is valued by the students and parents of their school. Every student who struggles as an English language learner has faith that they will be able to communicate more effectively in English when they graduate, so that they can have the same opportunities available to them as their American peers. The parents of students who spent years in refugee camps in the middle east or Africa on their way to the U.S. have faith that it was all worth it if it means their children can get a free education here and have a better life after graduation. Every student who has lost a friend or relative to gun violence has faith that they can make their neighborhood a better place if they work hard enough, even if it seems hopeless. Every Muslim kid who leaves class a few times a day to pray and every Christian kid who says that some of his friends "need more Jesus" have faith that their words will be heard by Someone. Every other kid who extends a hug or a high-five to another student in the hallway, regardless of race, creed, or favorite basketball team, has faith that their friends have their back.

My old (boy)friend is leaving his cozy New England prep school after the end of this year to teach at an elite boarding school in Jordan. Jordan. When I mentioned this career move to my husband, he said sarcastically, "Wow, that's really working to make a difference." I wish my friend the best of luck, although I'm sure there isn't much in the way of hockey there.

I don't know if I'm making a difference in my little city school, but I have faith that I am. And that is something money can't buy.

Friday, January 10, 2014

I Fell. Hard.

The gift of humility is usually a surprise. In my case, it was a pretty Christmas package that I tore into a few weeks ago. Under all that wrapping was a sweet little pair of new, white figure skates.

I was thrilled. I've been working on getting better acquainted with the Moira that's under all of these teacher/mother/wife labels, and time at the rink is a big part of the fun. I absolutely love ice skating, and while I'm no Dorothy Hamill, I'm a solid skater. Lately, too, I've been enjoying a lot of time on the ice with both of my boys who love lacing up their hockey skates and doing laps around the rink.

There is such freedom in skating. A letting go. A fluid rhythm and flow that can be compared to how it feels to ski, swim, do upward bow or break through that first mile running. Once I let myself tune out my surroundings and let my body--rather than my brain--lead the way, it's meditative. 

Certain conditions can get in the way of good ice time, though. Chief among them: crappy ice that needs to be Zamboni'd and a crowded rink. Last weekend, my son Sean glided up next to me and whispered over the pop music echoing throughout the pavilion, "This isn't a rink, it's an obstacle course!" Then he zipped away between little girls pushing milk crates to stabilize themselves on their skates. Grade school hockey players showed off their speed and skill by darting and cutting across the rink in front of novice skaters who wobbled and shook at the surprise. Teenagers held hands and stopped dead-center in the path of other skaters so they could kiss (awww...NOW MOVE!). The rest of us just tried our best to give each other a little space as we sliced our way around the ice. 

Now, I'm a strong skater, but I'm not immune to falling. I've fallen maybe twice in the past few years, each time landing on a knee as a I caught myself after being cut-off by some little half-pint with a hockey mullet. I haven't had a real fall, like fall-and-break-your-face fall, since I was a kid. And those falls don't count; they never really hurt anyway. Not like when you're, say, 40. 

Schools were closed Monday in New Haven for observance of Three Kings Day. So I expected the rink to be jammed, but it was quiet. Such a nice surprise. The boys and I laced up and headed onto the rink, saying hi to some friends and classmates we happily spied on the ice. The public skate is open for 90 minutes most days, and we were about 30 minutes in when the ice started to get a little choppy. It was still in pretty good shape since the rink wasn't that crowded, but I noticed it. My brand-new figure skates have some gnarly stoppers on the front, like little shark teeth, that easily catch onto any chunks in the ice if I am at all lazy or dragging my skates. And they work--they STOP me. More than once since Christmas I've done a little two-step trying to pick my skate out of a divot in the ice. I've remarked to the boys on more than one occasion that I almost took a digger from my stoppers catching and throwing me temporarily off balance. 

I'm sure you see where I'm going with this.

So Monday, roughly 30 minutes into our happy, carefree skating, I rounded a corner with more speed than usual. As I straightened out pushed off with my right skate, the stopper caught--and caught me by surprise. My body wanted to keep moving. As I pulled my skate free and stepped forward, my left stopper caught. With all the grace I've never had, I went down hard and fast. 

There's falling on the ice, and then there's feeling like you've been pulled down on the ice. This fall felt like the latter. I went down face first, slamming both knees into the ice, bracing with my forearms, and smacking my chin. My little head rattled. I had an instant, splitting headache. Fortunately, the scarf I was wearing cushioned my jaw, or it would have felt worse. Stunned, seeing stars, I got up and glided over to a bench. I could not jump right back out on the ice. I needed to catch my breath and regain my balance. And my head was really pounding. 

The boys sailed over and said hi. I told them I wiped out, but that I would hop out on the ice any minute--and I did. Within a few minutes, I was back out on the rink, gliding around and enjoying the relative quiet of the place. My head still hurt, though, and after 20 minutes without it feeling any better, we decided to go. The boys were ready to leave, anyway. 

I had planned to run two errands before going home, and as I did I felt progressively worse. My head hurt more and more, and then I started to feel queasy. As the boys and I wrapped up some deposits at the bank, a little anxiety kicked in: what if I was actually, like, injured? What if it got worse while I was out with the kids? I drove them home, sent up a few flares, and within minutes was on my way to urgent care with my dear friend and neighbor, Madelin. Me, one who rarely calls the doctor for anything unless something persists for weeks, was going to urgent care. Those who know me well know that this little thwack on the ice and its subsequent headache had to be of serious concern to me in order for me to go to urgent care. I. Can't. Stand. Urgent. Care. 

Once there, I waited. After a little while, Ian showed up and relieved Madelin.

And I waited. My head was swimming and my belly was tossing. 

And still I waited.

And after almost two hours, I was finally seen by a doctor. There were eye tests, arm tests, balance tests, and other tests. There were vitals and questions and answers and a lot of bad jokes made by me. After what felt like forever, the doctor gave me the prognosis: it was good I came in. No obvious evidence of brain bleed or concussion, but I was told to keep an eye on symptoms for 24-48 hours. No ibuprofen or aspirin for pain, as that will thin the blood--very bad if one has a brain bleed. "Oh, and don't skate or do anything else that could put you at risk for a head injury. At least for a week. We don't want you hitting your head again any time soon."

I wobbled out of the doctor's and went home. I was glad I had heeded my gut instinct and went to the doctor, but I was annoyed that I fell, that I had smacked my jaw, that it hurt--a lot, that my head felt like it had been knocked off a tee, and that I still felt woozy. I was annoyed I couldn't skate for a week, and most of all I was annoyed that I'm 40 and that a hard fall on the ice was, well, a bad fall. I'm not 20 anymore. My pride, maybe more than my head, was injured. I'm a strong skater! I can skate! Really, I can! And my balance is great! I do yoga! Are you listening? I'm not old and feeble! Don't you believe me? Still, I kept the knowledge of the fall mostly to myself. I didn't even call my mom and let her know, because she'd spend that 24-48 hours of "observation" very, very, very worried about my little noggin. In the wake of recent events in our family, I decided I would spare her that stress. 

The rest of the night was quiet, and I spent a lot of it on the couch preparing to finally go back to school on Tuesday after two weeks of Christmas vacation. My knees were sore, but the rest of my body didn't feel the effects of the fall until the next day, when I woke up feeling like I had been in a car accident. I cannot recall feeling that beat up by anything--not even three-day yoga intensives, which left me sore enough--in recent years. I went to school, taught and had a great day, all the while noticing that I was spacey, had a mild headache and was extremely sore. But, no ibuprofen for me, and I don't like acetaminophen. Just hot showers and a lot of gentle stretching got me through the week and back on track. 

Sometime in the next few days I'm either going to take my skates out to the driveway and beat the crap out of the stoppers on the asphalt, or I'm going to take them to our local skate shop and get them dulled more "professionally". Either way, I'm looking forward to getting back out on the ice. 


Sunday, January 5, 2014

I'm Back.

After a two-year hiatus, I've decided to blog again. I had never planned to stop. Instead, I had originally set my blog to private with the intention of keeping my thoughts available to a select few as I made my way toward a new career in the classroom. I had concerns about having a public blog while trying to score a job in public school. But once the blog was set to private, I stopped writing. I was consumed with my work as a teacher, and I didn't have the time or headspace to string together two thoughts beyond the classroom. 

But now, after successful student teaching at the high school level, a year as a middle school English teacher, and--finally!--a gig as a high school English teacher, I've decided to resurrect the blog. Besides, I know what to post and what not to post if I want to keep my job. Some thoughts...well, some thoughts you just gotta keep private, which is something our society tends to forget in the age of social media. 

For those who followed my blog prior to it being chloroformed, thank you. And please have patience, because I'm really rusty. Don't judge me even though I'm an English teacher. I'm also not bored at a dead-end desk job anymore either, so I cannot promise how regularly I will update this space. But I will update it. Writing is something I have to do. Like yoga. Like being outside. If I don't do it, I feel like I'll explode. So why not do it and share it again, right? 

A quick update, too, for my previous readers: I had blogged a lot about my grandmother, her battle with cancer and my feelings about that. In April 2012 she lost her battle and gracefully slipped to the other side. She died at home, with excellent palliative care and her entire family by her side throughout her final days. In one of our last conversations, I asked her if she was scared to die. She shook her head no, and then--in typical Nancy fashion--she changed the subject to something more pleasant. "How are the dogs?" she asked. What the---? I couldn't believe what I was hearing. She was literally on her deathbed, and her words were very few and far between. Yet, there she was asking about our three mutts. "They're fine, Grandma. Just fine." 

The day she died was beautiful. It was a glorious, warm and sunny April day. A few hours after her death, I sat in my backyard. I was emotionally and physically spent, having just lost one of the most important people in my life. My grandmother. My first teacher. My actual sixth grade English teacher. My biggest supporter in my decision to become a teacher. My biggest supporter, well, period. I sat in the yard, reclined in a chair, feeling the sun warm my tired skin, listening to the squeals and laughter of the schoolchildren at recess just a few yards away and the chirps of birds who seemed to be everywhere that morning. And then they appeared: butterflies. Monarchs. They flitted and fluttered and darted and hovered all through the yard. It was like something out of a Disney movie. I half expected rabbits and chipmunks to tiptoe out from the woods and start singing. It was surreal, healing and beautiful. The monarchs continued to keep me company that entire spring and summer. They were plentiful in 2012. 

I saw one in 2013. 

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


It was a beautiful tree. And thank God it was a beautiful tree, because a big chunk of this Christmas season was ugly. It hadn't been, originally. Although Advent began on the heels of a late Thanksgiving, and we felt thrust into the "holiday" season, I was excited about this Christmas. It was the first Christmas in a few years that I felt really and truly excited about: I had little anxiety about our family get-togethers over the course of the month. I also think that I was happy with my job for the first time in a long time--since my years writing for the magazine. And because I am happier with my work, I am much happier in general. I love teaching high school, I love the school at which I teach, and I adore my students and colleagues. So I was feeling pretty good. Until Monday the 16th.

It was late. Almost 11 PM. I was jarred awake by a dreaded late-night phone call, followed by police at my door. A word of advice: even if you're expecting that midnight knock on the door, it is still the worst sound you can imagine. I can't get the damn banging of our brass claddagh knocker out of my head. It's a sound I wish on no one. It's like the grim reaper stopping by to say hello. "And by the way, your father's dead."


My dad was 62. Young, as far as I'm concerned. A smoker, so not in the best of health. But he was a guy who left the corporate world behind 10 years ago so that he could do what he really loved: carpentry and restoration. Joseph the carpenter, dead in the middle of the Christmas season. He died on the job while laying trim work at a new house  in Madison. Originally we had thought it was a heart attack, but an autopsy determined it was a brain aneurysm. Snap. Lights out for dad--and for the rest of us. What the hell kind of joke was this? I didn't believe it. My grief was one full of utter denial. And annoyance.

It was Christmas, for God's sake! People aren't supposed to DIE at Christmas! But there I was, in between tears, reviewing my to-do list of "wrap presents" and "bake cookies", and adding "iron clothes for funeral", "write obituary" and "write eulogy". I figured as long as I kept everything in check and organized, we could get through this grief thing and get on with the joy of the season. Dammit.

I focused on that to-do list more than anything else. I fretted everything for the funeral and Christmas wouldn't get done. There were moments in the long week between my father's death and the funeral in which all I wanted was for it to be over. I didn't want to grieve. I didn't want to deal with any of it. I felt as if I understood and accepted his sudden death, so why couldn't we all just move on? Eat cookies. Lots of cookies. I obsessed over the cookies and the wrapping. I obsessed over anything and everything that had nothing to do with what I did not want to think or feel. I was a taut wire stretched between the joy of the season and misery of grief.

The wake was the Sunday before Christmas. That morning I brought the ironing board up from the basement and propped it in the living room, in front of our pretty Christmas tree, to press the clothes my children would wear to their grandfather's funeral. As I stretched out the little size 10 shirt that my youngest would wear to bring up the gifts at the funeral mass the next day, I broke down. That taut wire snapped, and I threw up every ounce of Irish-Italian emotion all over our living room. I had officially entered the anger stage of grief. I swore and cried about how hard it was to balance this Christmas-and-funeral thing. That I was the only one trying to figure out when we were going to wrap presents in the middle of it all. That I was mad and sad that my dad died at Christmas. That I was mad and sad that my dad died. My dad died. My dad died. My dad died.

Now, for every yin there is a yang. My husband is all yin. Sometimes he is too much yin, but that messy Sunday morning he was right there deflecting, absorbing and consoling my emotions that rattled, bang and shook around our home like a pinball. He took nothing personally, even those things I made personal because I was mad at the world. Mad at my father. Mad at God. Mad at every man I had ever loved and who had failed me or, as if they could help it, died. My husband and all of his patience and love just hugged me tight and let me soak his shirt with my McTalian rage, because I had never needed a hug so badly.

Sudden death is very different from being able to say goodbye to someone. I couldn't say goodbye. It was not on my terms. And I was ready to burn down the world because of it.

But we made it through the wake, the funeral, the reception. My brother and sister, so much younger than me, needed me and I needed them. Together we stood at the wake, welcoming the hugs of so many friends, including the entire fire department in which my brother is a junior volunteer. We linked arms throughout the funeral and together delivered the eulogy, each taking turns to read a section about how much we loved and missed our father. We have each other. We have memories. We have love.

A few days later, our beautiful tree glowed early in the morning on Christmas Day while my dad's grandsons opened presents: flat brim hats, baseball gear, books, video games and Legos. We enjoyed a strange and beautiful Christmas with extended family and friends in and out of our house. We even ate lots of the cookies I ended up baking. In the days that followed, we enjoyed the peaceful quiet of our tree, which shone brightly as our fireplace crackled with light and the boys played games on the floor beside it. And some nights, when everyone else went to bed, I would sit in front of the tree--its glow the only light in the house--and just be. Be with my thoughts. Be with my feelings. Be with the waves that crashed and lapped inside me. In the surrealism of the season, sometimes the only touchstone of the holiday was our pretty little tree.

Yesterday, we took down the tree and tossed it into the woods behind our house. I am hoping birds will nest in it this spring.