Saturday, August 9, 2014

You Have Seen

Dear Jennie,

Today you're well-rested, having just returned from a relaxing getaway with your incredible husband. The new school year is looming and you're feeling a little stressed, beginning to make lists of all that must be done. But the stress you're feeling now is nothing compared to how you'll feel next Sunday night, when you know that 75 students will be entering your classroom the next day expecting great things of you. The stress will be even greater as you begin to prepare them for the high-stakes testing that will determine so much of their future - and yours. The anxiety will mount, the exhaustion will set in, and around February of this year, you'll begin to grumble. So I'm writing to you now, before all of it starts, to remind you that the stress, anxiety, and exhaustion are all a privilege. Really, they are.

You see, Jennie, how have you forgotten? You've traveled to other countries where education isn't a given. You have seen with your own eyes children carrying their own chairs to a makeshift classroom in a tin building well over 100 degrees.





You have seen their kitchen, empty but for a few small bags of beans and a jug of oil. You have heard the school leaders say that the kerosene is almost gone and there is no money for more.



You have listened to lessons being taught in another language to children who have to pay to be there.



You have snuggled with a student who had never seen you before but held on for dear life.



You have seen the reality that education will be their only way out.


You have seen students smiling just at the chance to be at school. You have seen classrooms that are not Pinterest-inspired but are instead - and more importantly - freedom-providing.









So, Jennie, when education in America seems overwhelming both to you as a teacher and to your children as students, remember that it's education in America! It is not held under a bridge, it is not dangerous for your daughter to attend, and it is not financially impossible. 

Is it perfect? Of course not. But compared to what you've seen and where you've been, Jennie, it's a dream come true. A dream that even today, non-American children are chasing by illegally riding trains into this country. A dream that today, in 2014, little girls around the world don't have to opportunity to pursue. A dream that today, most people take for granted. Don't be one of them, Jennie. Don't be a grumbler. Don't fall into the trap that only complains about education in America. Be a part of making it better. And be a person who remembers just how incredible it really is.






Wednesday, July 2, 2014

You Think You Love Her Now

My side of the family is in a sweet baby frenzy right now, with my younger sister having just delivered her very own 8 lb 14 oz daughter. Born in the wee hours of the morning, sweet Emma has enchanted us all and ended a 7 year baby drought. We are all awash in pacifiers and swaddling and worries of when she last pooped. Babies make us crazy, don't they? (Side note - those 8 lbs 14 oz and my sister's tale of delivery made me thankful for my own unexpected C-sections. They weren't what I wanted, but neither is pushing out an 8 lb 14 oz baby, thank you very much! She's my new hero.)

As I've seen us all fall head over heels in love with this brand new person, it has occurred to me that the love we first feel when we see our newborns is nothing compared with the love that develops as we get to know them as people. The love we feel when we hear our newborns cry and when we nestle them for the first time is powerful and automatic, a connection so strong that we would immediately fight to the death for them. We think that we are as in love with them as we will ever be, but we are wrong. We think we love them now, but that love intensifies and changes as they do.

So I'd like to say to my baby sister as she is loving on her baby, you think you love her now, but just wait.



Just wait until that helpless newborn smiles at you for the first time (and not from gas.) Wait until she locks eyes with you and smiles that toothless grin because she knows that it's you. Just wait. You think you love her now.



Wait until she cries for you and cannot - will not - be soothed by anyone else. Wait until only Mommy will suffice. Your heart will swell knowing that she really does know her Mommy. Wait and see.



Wait until she reaches out with her fat-roll ridden arms, saying, "Carry you, Mommy," needing the safe arms of her mother. You think you love her now.



Just wait until she says in that squeaky 2-year old voice, "I wuv you, too." You will melt every time you hear it and secretly hope that she never learns to pronounce her L's.



Wait until you walk her into the first day of kindergarten, her hair in pigtails and your heart in your throat. Wait until you walk back to your car, crying the ugly cry because she's so big and you're so sad and you know nothing will ever be the same. Wait until she runs back into your arms and tells you about her friends and shows you her papers. You think you love her now. Just wait.

Wait until she begins to hide notes for you written in her own handwriting. "I love Mommy" painstakingly penned in crayon is more priceless than any Picasso in a museum. Wait until you pull out the shoe box containing all of her notes and have tears rolling down your cheeks because you remember feeling her kick in your belly. Wait and see.

Wait until you watch her do something she really fears for the first time, like riding a big-girl bike or diving into a pool. When she falls and fears but tries it again, your pride in her tenacity will add another dimension to your love for her. You think you love her now.

Wait until you're sick or have a headache and she shows genuine concern, asking, "Are you okay, Mommy?" Your love for her big heart will overwhelm you, and you will have faith that she'll be an amazing woman one day. You just think you love her now.



Wait until she begins to say her own prayers, saying things like, "I'm thankful for all of that, God, but mostly for you." You think you love her now.

Wait until her baby teeth fall out and too-large teeth grow in and her legs are long and gangly. You will wonder where your baby went, but you'll catch a glimpse when you least expect it, and it will make you catch your breath. Just wait.

Just wait until she confesses a fear to you, that she won't get a reward M&M in computer lab because she's not the first to finish her work. Your own tears will well and you'll want to fight over M&Ms and you will love her so fiercely it hurts. You think you love her now.



We think we love them now, but the truth is that we will love them more - and differently - tomorrow. A mother's love for her child is a dynamic, always-evolving, never-lessening creature. It is a love that no one can prepare you for, and it is a love that transcends even horrible-birth stories. It is a love from God himself, and it is a love only surpassed by Him. We just think we love them now.







Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Deep Thoughts on Food Network

So today's deep thoughts about Food Network are 100% percent indicative of the fact that school is out and I'm at home and I have wayyyy too much television-watching time on my hands.

Nevertheless.

We shall begin with Giada De Laurentiis. My immediate thought every time her shows come on is, "For real?" She's a doggone chef who cooks all the time, yet she has the figure of a fashion model. She weighs like 82 pounds and smiles with those perfectly white teeth, and I am (understandably) inherently distrustful. I like my chefs to have the figure of Barefoot Contessa or pre-scandal Paula Deen. I need to know that they eat what they cook and that if I were to somehow begin cooking the way they do, I would blow up and am therefore justified in my less-than-Food-Network-worthy culinary prowess. It makes me think she's a wizard or something. Plus, "Giada at Home" contains views of the ocean through her window. Unfair.

Barefoot Contessa. Ina Garten. Whatever you call her, she is a character. She says things like, "I suppose you could always use a store-bought chicken stock, but it's just so easy to kill and roast a free-range chicken from your farm and use produce from your own garden. Home-grown basil has a freshness that stores just can't duplicate." Well, then. I couldn't agree more. Plus, she laughs. A lot. If you've never noticed, just listen when her friends mosey on over to her palatial abode in the Hamptons. She laughs a strange amount.

Ree Drummond. I think we could be friends, but I would need to see her not smiling just once to know that she's the real deal. Seriously - she smiles the whole show. Still, I like her. She uses the blasphemous store-bought ingredients and makes things like Monster Cookies, so she can't be too bad. Plus, we could hang out at the lodge while the kids round up the cattle.

Guy Fieri. While his bleached porcupine hair is a bit jolting at first, I adore "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives." He is hilarious, and he's pudgy. The two most important qualities in a TV chef. Plus, I just got back from a cruise that served his burgers, and they were unbelievable. Super melty cheese and donkey sauce. Yum yum. Which makes me think of yum-o, which makes me think of Rachael Ray.

In a paradoxical predicament, I am highly annoyed by her, yet always watch her. Why is this? Is it because her 30 minute meals seem accessible even if they would cost a million dollars to actually make? Is it because she could talk the paint off a wall? Perhaps it's her stories about her Sicilian mother and her excessive use of EVOO. The mystery of her appeal remains.

I would like to address the hidden hilarity of my watching Food Network shows at all. I don't like to cook. Not even a little bit. And eating isn't something I love too much, either. I am not a foodie, and I do not have a discriminating palate. I could eat cereal three meals a day. I guess I like living vicariously through people who have mastered the stress of having side items finish cooking at the same time. Tears me up every time. Last night, my rolls finished just as the pork chops did and I felt they should award me a show. Maybe the hours of watching Food Network are starting to pay off after all.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reflections on a Sabbatical

I needed a break from the world.

Life was chaotic, I was overwhelmed, and the constant barrage of perfect pictures of everyone else's world was about to do me in. So I did the 21st century version of squirreling myself away from society for a while - I logged off.

I didn't blog; I didn't read blogs. I swore off Facebook, and I shunned Twitter. I gave myself a time-out from the nonstop updates that stole my minutes and brought out my envy.

It was glorious.

And now that I've allowed myself some social media again, I almost wish I hadn't. Perhaps it's just my personality type, but I've come to realize how few contributions social media actually make for me personally.

Sure, I can see what people I went to high school with are up to (and goodness gracious, that's more than I needed to know), and I can learn quickly who just got engaged or took a pregnancy test, and yes, I don't know how we lived without knowing who was at the gym or seeing a picture of their meals, but truly - does the information we're obsessed with posting and fanatical about reading enrich our lives? Does it make us better people, or does it just make us voyeurs? Does it make us more satisfied, or does it just make us compare?

I know what it does for me, and it often isn't pretty.

Now, I'm not saying that social media can't be useful. Certainly it can. It promotes some good causes, reconnects old friends, and (sometimes) encourages us. But if we were to draw up a list of pros and cons, I'm afraid the cons would win every time - at least for me. And in an age where time is so limited and people are already so disconnected, allowing social media to consume such a large part of our lives is unproductive and isolating. And I don't think anyone can argue that it doesn't consume a lot of time. Nearly everyone I know checks their social media multiple times a day. Don't believe me? Go to any restaurant and just watch the people dining. They can't eat an entire meal without checking who has updated Facebook or taking selfies to show the world they were on a date (enough already!). We no longer know how to be; we must also do.

What it all boils down to for me is this quote from Roosevelt - "Comparison is the thief of joy." Every single time I get on social media - and maybe it's just me - I compare what I say/do/look like/wear/write with everyone else. I don't want to, and goodness knows I don't try to, but it just happens. Most people post the highlights of their lives (although we all have those 'friends' who post the negatives that should really remain private), so seeing the highlights can wrongly make us believe that their lives are all highlights. News flash - they aren't. Social media has become, for many, just the grown-up way of bragging about the good and concealing the bad.

My sabbatical revealed to me that I can live without Facebook. Twitter isn't a necessity, and even though I enjoy keeping up with strangers' lives via blogs, I don't have to. I did not suffer in the least from not knowing the ins and outs of others' days. I managed just fine without poring over entries of 140 characters. I spent more time reading and less time with my nose buried in my phone. Life felt calmer, and I honestly felt less anxiety. Maybe it was imagined and just a placebo effect, or maybe there was really a connection. Whatever the case, I learned something valuable. Less computer, more living. You should try it sometime.







Thursday, February 27, 2014

An Olympic-Sized Dream

As a teacher, this is how I envision myself.



I'd like to think that, like an Olympic torch bearer, I am beckoning all hopefuls to follow the flame as I dutifully lead them to the place of dream-realization.

Unfortunately, this is a more realistic picture.



When I went into this profession, I honestly believed that I would be the teacher to make a difference. I would inspire adolescents to love learning, and they would look back on their education and hallowedly speak my name as The One who made all the difference.

Nobody told me that the reality would be slightly different, with me admonishing the same 14 year old three days in a row for failing to bring a pencil, or that I would slump in my chair at the final bell wondering just why I thought I was cut out for this. Nobody explained that the kid in all black would cry out for attention in ways I had never seen. Nobody said that my heart would break when my student's mother died while he was in my class.

Teaching, in case you don't know, is not always leading a charge with a flame. It is pulling your charges towards a pinprick of light. It is not always inspiring; it is often excruciating.

So often, when the classroom clears and all that's left are long-forgotten, tooth-marked pencils, I feel defeated. More often than not, I leave the space where I thought I would make miracles and feel like I've just made a mess.

Today was one of those days. I know I explained the same concept 452 times in 452 ways, then had 452 questions from 452 students. It was (she says hyperbolically) exhausting. I looked back at the beautiful but now ragged lesson plan book, questioning where I made the mistake. Should there have been more differentiation? Would a group activity have been more effective? Surely there was a video that could have been a help.

The fault, I always assume, is my own.

This job gets hard when we forget that we're dealing with people. People who have free will, varying interests, and unpredictable behavior. People who can't always see that the now of a classroom affects the future of a life.

I so badly want to be Hilary Swank in "Freedom Writers" or Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds." I want to be Matthew Perry in "The Ron Clark Story." I want to change the course of lives and know that what I'm doing matters.

But the reality most days for teachers is that we're the tortoise in ye old parable. We plod on, ever so slowly, gaining what appears to be very little ground. We march forward despite feeling that we're losing this race. But maybe, just maybe, one day we'll look up and realize that we did win after all. Maybe we won't have turned a 15 year old aspiring dropout into the next Maya Angelou, but maybe we will have reminded a cynical youth that not all adults are out to get him. And we need to see that as a win.

I fail as a teacher when perfection is my aim. There really is no perfect lesson, just as there are no perfect students. There will be no perfect days. Heck - I can't even make a perfect bulletin board. Perfect is preposterous. Progress is attainable. Progress should be our goal. 

When I look back at the hard days, the ones that left my lip quivering and my confidence dashed, they will be rendered meaningless unless I look for the small progress. And even on those hardest of hard days, there was some. There was the student who never speaks in class, but who sent a tender-hearted email asking if my daughter was feeling better. There was a colleague who thanked me for being firm but fair. There was the quiet English language learner who scored higher on the quiz than many native speakers. There was the tough school-hater who raised his hand instead of blurting out.

Even on the days when I feel like a failure, there is progress. There is someone closer to the light today than he was yesterday. There is someone who was welcomed and nurtured, even if my classroom was the only place it happened.

With so much talk of high stakes testing and standards being raised, I'm afraid that we might be forgetting the most important standards. The human ones. The ones that teach kids they matter. The ones that listen instead of lecture. The ones that believe that even the kid on your last nerve can become something great.

The best moments in room D-122 come when the lesson plan is pushed aside and my students become people. When I hear of their fears and frustrations with the system. When they are given a voice and allowed to use it in a place of safety. When they ask legitimate questions and I have to consider my own wrongness. The best moments come when we share life, not just a classroom.

The question plaguing me in all of my life right now is this: "What If?" And I must consider it for my students as well as myself. What if school were not about grades and papers but about preparation for hard times? What if every child knew he had an advocate who would walk through the fire for him? What if we relaxed rigid standards and raised serious expectations? What if we allowed interest to inform instruction?

I wish I had the answer to cure our education system's woes. I don't - because it's not simple. The best cure I have is for us to continue to care. When the bureaucrats ask us to see it all as black and white, right and wrong, I will fight for those kids in gray areas. When the policy makers who have never taught a class decide that standardization is the answer, I will close my door and do what's best for my kids. When the statisticians look at scores as the only indication of what's learned, I will look at the character of the students in my charge. When the government wants to pay me based on students' performance, I will fight like - well, you know.

For as long as I teach, I will continue to lead them to a light. No matter how small it may appear. No matter how imperfect I feel.

For as long as I teach, I will trust my gut and teach how I believe is best. I will do what I can to touch the heart as well as to teach the brain. 

For as long as I teach, I will remember why I started. And it had nothing to do with test scores.

I will lead them to a light. Even if it's not Olympic-sized.



Photo Credits:
www.washingtonpost.com 
imgfave.com

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recipe for Disaster

Just in case you ever want to ruin the morning of a perfectly good snow day, all you have to do is this:

1. Wake your seven year old daughter (who went to bed later than she should have the previous night) and inform her that she has a dentist appointment.

2. Attempt to dress said seven year old daughter as she thrashes about and wails, "But I just wanna go back to sleeeeeppp!"

3. Then wake your eight year old son and tell him he has to tag along to the dentist - repeating what you said one more time, louder, so he can hear you over the dramatic protests from the room across the hall.

4. Drive to the dentist, through the snow, wishing you were back home in your warm bed.

5. Pretend to be happy at the dentist's office when the receptionist asks you to update paperwork. Think, "It's not personal. Insurance requirements. Grin and bear it."

6. Enthusiastically usher your increasingly-nervous daughter to the back where the poor hygienist is waiting and has no idea what she is about to face.

7. Hold your precious second-born as tears well up in her eyes at the announcement that all six-year molars are in and "it's time for sealants."

8. Half-lead, half-drag her to the even backer-back, because sealants apparently require a different hygienist and room.

9. Drape your body across that daughter and physically hold her down as the poor, unsuspecting hygienist begins to wish she had called in sick..

10. Ask the Lord why he gave an octopus eight arms and a mother just two because dear Jesus this physical restraint would be a whole lot easier with another hand or four.

11. Look up at the hygienist with a look of pity and pleading as the strongest seven year old you've ever met renders you powerless in matters of restraint.

12. Send that dear, precious, stubborn, and dramatic daughter to the bathroom to get herself together and dry those tears because Mommy has had enough and you are NOT making another appointment to do this another day!

13. Compose yourself as the hygienist goes to get reinforcements. Conclude that you will never go to the dentist again. Decide that teeth are highly overrated.

14. Smile as a snuffling girl tentatively makes her way back to the torturous chair. Speak soothing words of encouragement like, "It's not going to hurt at all. Mommy had this done when she was a little girl! All she's going to do is paint your teeth with princess paint."

15. Realize that your words are not making one iota of difference.

16. Attempt restraint one more time.

17. Give up. Listen as the dentist and hygienist say, "We'll just try this another day. It's not worth her having such a bad experience at the dentist."

18. Think, but don't say, "Her?! What about me?!'

19. Walk, defeated, to the check-out counter.

20. Accept the appointment card for another appointment that you swore you would not make. Load both children back in the car and curse anyone who says that snow days are fun.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Our Own Worst Enemies

This is not a feminist post. Yes, I believe that women should be paid the same as men for performing the same jobs. I believe women should become more interested in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields (and I just spent nearly an entire class period talking with my 9th graders about this issue). I would love to see a female become President, and I would readily admit that many women I know are much more intellectual than many men I know. But a feminist? I wouldn't lump myself in that category.

I believe that if a woman wants to forego a career and remain home with her children, then not only can she, but she should. I would without hesitation say that the greatest part of my own life takes place after the hours I am paid, when I am home with my children. I am forever grateful for the women in previous generations who have made it possible for me to participate as a first-rate citizen in society doing things like, oh - I don't know, voting and getting a job. A feminist, though? Probably not.

That being said, I'd like to take a minute to share my thoughts on a disturbing trend via celebrities in our culture. What is it, you ask? Simply this. The depiction of women as nothing more than sexual objects to be flaunted, dissected, and plastered on every screen available. It's so disheartening. The worst part, though, is that many are doing it to themselves. For attention. And ratings. And record sales.

Case in point - Beyonce at the Grammys. (Allow me to say right here that I did not watch this awards show. I was probably reading a book or grading papers or doing some other nerdy thing that I, in typical Jennie fashion, would do on a Sunday night. However. I have seen numerous replays and articles and dissertations on the subject since then, hence my incredible amount of knowledge on the event. Ahem.)

Beyonce is an incredibly talented and incredibly beautiful woman. She is the type of woman who makes awkward females like me resolve to take singing lessons and do more lunges. She's just pretty awesome. But instead of using her talent to leverage more respect and prestige for the females of the world, she chose to flaunt around in black lingerie, nothing left to the imagination, while her husband sang a song making light of an incident of domestic abuse. Why? For the ratings? For the shock value? I feel like her actions (and those of many other celebs who just want attention) are undoing the hard work it took for the women of previous generations to garner equality and respect for women. We are, it seems, sliding back down the slope towards sexual objects, and it scares me for the world my seven year old daughter will live in.

I saw an interview with Beyonce where she explained where the idea came from for the performance. A strip club. She said that she was with her husband at this strip club and wished that she could do that for her man. Well, then. My thoughts are that she could have - at home. In private. Not in a music video, and certainly not on a stage. She says that she doesn't "at all have any shame about being sexual." To that, I say good. You shouldn't. God make us as sexual beings - but that sexuality is to be shared with a spouse, not with the world on an awards show.

(For the sake of argument, let me say that I am not, as a Christian, condemning Beyonce for acting like an unbeliever. That is to be expected. If she does not follow Christ, then I will not hold her to Christ's standards. My concern is with her actions as a female in 2014 and the implications for our society as a whole.)

I don't want to slam Beyonce but to question why she - and other females - feel that being intelligent and articulate and talented is not enough. I'm sure in their field it's partially because of the pressure. Looks and weight and hairstyles are constantly critiqued. Joan Rivers will torment you mercilessly on her show if your red carpet look is not flawless. I get that. It must be incredibly difficult.

I guess my point here is that we females are our own worst enemies. We want equality and respect and opportunity - but then some of us sabotage it all to get a guy's attention or a greater rating or higher sales. And it's not just celebrities. I know of a female who is quite intelligent and successful, but turns into a silly coquette whenever she is around men. It drives me nuts. I just want women to be ok with being intelligent. Why do we feel the need to overcompensate for our intellect with tight clothing and high-pitched giggles and batting eyelashes? As my Mama has been known to say, I will knock my daughter into next week if I ever catch her acting like that. If we want to be respected, we must act worthy of respect.

Celebrity or commoner, we women need to metaphorically link arms and remind this world that we are more than just pretty faces. Our worth is not just found in the swing of our hips and the clothing we fill out. We are talented. We are smart. And we will not stand for the trend of degradation that is so prevalent today.