Saturday, September 12, 2015

Keep Going


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.