Saturday, November 23, 2019

The one in which both of my kids beat me in a 5K

Tonight my kids and I ran a 5K at Mooseheart (in the dark because it showcases their holiday lights display.) I haven't run much the last three weeks because of my hamstring, and it's back to not feeling good after going from stand-still to somewhat race pace. I finished in 25:37, which in a small race was good enough for 6th place woman. I am grateful that I can do that and grateful that instead of beating myself up over how I'm slower than I once was, I can be grateful that I'm faster than I was more recently. It's a respectable time. But what I'm more grateful for is when we were walking to the starting line, and my kids walked off together to start near the front of the pack, talking, looking strong and fast and completely in control of the situation. (As it turns out, they were and they weren't. Neither had run since the end of their respective seasons, which was almost a month ago for Adam and almost two months ago for Gretchen, so neither ran as well as they thought they would. Afterward, Adam said that if this had been at the end of the cc season, he could have won. He got 6th. G did, actually, win 1st girl in the 12 and under category and was 4th woman overall. At the end of her season, she still would have been 3rd, though.) Both kids beat me. This is beautiful to me not because they are stand-outs--they aren't--but because they are just good enough to feel empowered to walk up to the front of a race, to run until they hurt (G was hurting pretty badly), and to see themselves as runners. I feel, perhaps foolishly, that identifying themselves as runners will, to some degree, innoculate them from some dumb decisions in their teen years. Not all, of course. But if you see your body as a thing that runs, you don't put really bad stuff in it. If you see your body as a thing that runs, it doesn't matter what the opposite sex says of it. If you see yourself as part of a team, it doesn't matter if there are other crowds you aren't part of. I am also grateful that running brings them closer together.

Both of my kids can run faster than I can. Tonight I'm grateful for my own running, but I'm just as grateful for theirs. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

 I am so very grateful for my run today and for being well enough to run again and for what running has been and is in my life. 

Today I ran at dusk on a warm(ish) November afternoon. The light was soft and grey to start and faded to softer and greyer until it was almost gone by the end of my run and my path was illumined by streetlights and headlights. I ran on the Fox River trail from St. Charles to Geneva and back up the other side. I was the only one on the trail, and it was silent. There wasn't anyone to respond to or care for or even be polite to. It was just me and the silence and the river. I didn't run fast or far, since it's possible my hamstring is still healing. It was effortless. Like floating, but better, because I was running. It was my body, my breath, my feet making it happen. There was a twinge on the back of my knee on the previously injured leg, and it was just enough to keep me vigilant. My left foot was striking a little differently from my right. It was perfect in its near-miss of perfection. It was like coming home, but better. Like I imagine it will be to rest in heaven. Not boring, like rest. But a full body welcome. The place I was designed to fit. I was grateful for every previous run on that path and for every path that led me to that particular one on this particular day. Everything that ever happened to me brought me to that run, and that run redeemed all of the moments before it. It made everything that happened all day insignificant but also vital. The run would not have been what it was if all of the things that came before weren't exactly what they were. 

There are a few moments in life that I can return to at will, and I will that that run be one of them. That when I am old and can no longer run, I will be able to close my eyes on life and for just a moment relive that run.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Methodology of Hope

This morning I woke up in darkness, as did all of the Methodists I know. But Wednesdays are "hope" day at the school where I work, so I put on my HOPE sweatshirt and showed up in the cold and dark. Just before 7:20 am, my room filled with two dozen teenagers. Without a lot of hope in what would happen next, I put eight poems in front of them and assigned three students to work through each poem from three different literary theories. A wise endeavor on an already dark day? Maybe not. But it was first hour on a Wednesday, and this is what we do.

Then something happened. They started to read the poems out loud. They knew this is what one does with a poem. (That may sound obvious, but believe me, that in itself was something pretty cool to witness.) They started to talk about the poems. I joined the group reading “There are Birds Here,” and we started to notice lines like “how lovely the ruins,/ how ruined the lovely/ children must be in that birdless city.” “What do we call that?” asked one girl. “Yeah, it’s so cool! Is it...is it antithesis? Can we use that word in poetry?” “And why is the city birdless if he’s talking about there being birds here?” “I noticed that he’s contradicting someone the whole time, but who is he talking to?” We asked the poem questions and asked each other questions and by the end of the conversation, we sat back in our chairs and sighed. The magic had happened.

Then, third hour, the class that is most vocal about its distaste for poetry also sat down in their groups and immediately started reading. What is happening? I thought. A girl summoned me over to the “Richard Cory” group, told her partners to keep reading, and asked me about rhyme scheme. Before I could finish my answer, one of her partners finished reading, half-stood, and pounded his fist into the desk. “This. poem. is. AWESOME!” he shouted. Yes, shouted. “No, seriously!! They’re all like ‘he glittered when he walked,’ like he’s everything they want, and then he goes home and Cobains himself!” All the people around him stopped their own reading and flipped to “Richard Cory.” At the end of the class, he went up to the kid who most vocally hates poetry and said, “No, really, this poem is the bomb! This is the best poem I’ve ever read. Did you read it?” Who knew. Today was the day the magic finally happened.

Fifth hour, my senior jock boys met with me about the cataloging they noticed in Whitman’s poems and another two talked about how the death of Poe’s mother and wife led to him writing really dark stuff. Seventh hour, a kid asked to borrow a highlighter and spread out eight pages of Billy Collins on the floor in front of him, laid on his stomach, and started to read. Eighth hour when my “An American Sunrise” readers saw the connection to “We Real Cool,” they gasped audibly and their mouths dropped open. The “Richard Cory” group was discussing whether or not any of the great industrialists had committed suicide.

Yes, today was the day when the magic happened: the magic that only happens when they’ve already voiced all of their complaints, when they’ve read so many poems that the fear is gone, when they finally suspect that poetry is about real things and they have lots of tools to find those things and that it’s OK to like a poem. It’s been painful getting to this point. It’s been dark. There were days when I thought that since everything else in which I put my trust has slipped into brokenness and darkness and I’ve felt that any attempt at striving toward a better society is futile that maybe this would be the year when poetry wouldn’t work its magic. Instead, poetry reminded me that the methodology of hope is to keep showing up. To wake up in the dark, put on the hope sweatshirt, and say, “Here are eight more poems; see what you can do.”

So on Sunday, we’re going to church. Because that’s what we do on Sundays. And we’re going to ask the church some questions. And we’re going ask each other some questions. “...but they won’t stop saying/ how lovely the ruins/ how ruined the lovely/ children must be in that birdless city.” No. There ARE birds here. And hope, too. Year after year, poetry teaches me (again, again, again) to just keep showing up. To read it again. To ask another question. Until we figure it out.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Parental Paradigm Shift


I've noticed that the truly momentous events in the parent-child relationship don’t turn out to be the ones for which there are Hallmark cards and pages in the baby books. Sure, I celebrated my son’s birthdays and school promotions and confirmation, but if I had to choose moments when my son changed from one thing into another it would be moments like the first time he walked into the kitchen during dinner when I had left him in the family room. He WALKED in. Suddenly, my whole understanding of who he was and what our relationship was transformed.

I had another such moment tonight. As a mom, and, I’ll admit, as a high school teacher, I wasn’t expecting my son’s first day of high school to be more than another, albeit important, first day. I find, though, that after tonight, my vision of him has shifted. This summer he was a frequently and deliberately irritating middle-school boy. He was largely who he has been for the last decade. Although the change was likely more gradual than it feels, tonight I saw a different person.

When the marching band took the field, I honestly wasn’t expecting anything, but I was still surprised. It’s not that I thought he wasn’t going to be just fine, but I wouldn’t be entirely honest if I didn’t confess that I slightly anticipated that the fact that he’s never done anything remotely like marching band would maybe show a little. Maybe he’d be just a fraction of a step off or just going through the motions but not precise. Nope. He was, as far as I could tell, perfect. Perfectly in step. Sharp, perfectly crisp turns. He was as good as anyone else out there. When the band had to do dance moves, he looked cool. He looked like he’s been dancing all of his life. I mean, the kid—ahem teen—is fantastic! I had no idea. He learned all of that while I wasn’t watching.

Just as impressive is the story I heard from my husband, who watched him execute the day of high school, cross country practice, marching band performance, and team recognition. He wore one outfit to school and did a whole school day in a new building with a new schedule and new teachers. Piece of cake. Then he went to cross country practice and ran. He ate a sandwich, put on his white t-shirt and khaki pants to match the cross country team, and then put his band uniform on over that, including the pants. He performed flawlessly with the band--including the trombone suicides--left the field, stripped off one layer of clothes, threw on the cross country jacket one of his teammates carried out to the field for him, and then lined up with the team. He not only accomplished all of this in a day but planned ahead to make it happen without any direction, and he made it look effortless. Today was a big deal to me because it was not a big deal to him. Just another day in the life of a young man who has it together and gets it together on his own.

Maybe my jaw dropped just a little as I watched him on the field tonight. I can look backward in my mind and see the kid he used to be—only a month ago, I swear!—and I can turn my head just a bit and see the sharp, responsible, level-headed, capable man he is already becoming. I wasn’t prepared for that to happen. But he was.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Teaching Poetry and Learning Grace

My creative writing class. They are a sentence unto themselves and then some. And yet, just as a colleague promised, for the very reasons that they make me crazy, they will also be a class I remember for a long time and maybe even miss. In almost every sense of the typical use of the phrase, they are not my best students, but they are making me a better teacher.



Last week we worked on meter and rhyme. It was a struggle. A struggle that sort of defies description. Even so, yesterday we carried on with a really cool villanelle lesson that a colleague designed in which every student writes a single line in iambic pentameter with a few assigned end rhymes and then posts the line on a padlet that everyone can see. Then the homework was to cut and paste those lines into a villanelle template. Today’s plan was to look at how those same lines took on different meaning when used in different places in the villanelle: the point being that form affects meaning. Of course, today’s plan was entirely contingent on at least SOME students having turned in a sample villanelle. ONE person did. ONE.


I put a bunch of zeros in the gradebook. I showed up to class ready to lay into them. Why? Why couldn’t they do this super easy task? Why did they sign up for creative writing if they couldn’t write this one pre-made poem? I literally cannot make these people learn. I literally cannot make an assignment easy enough that they will even attempt to do it. Despair and frustration overtook my ability to make a new lesson plan. My colleague’s wise advice was to shame them by showing them that LITERALLY I was just asking them to cut and paste, that they could have done their homework in five minutes. Then make them do the assignment in five minutes and carry on with the lesson as planned. When the bell rang and they didn’t sit down and begin the Tuesday check-in, I stormed into the middle of the room and told them that I was already feeling low on grace due to having to change my lesson plans because noone did their homework and could they PLEASE just do the Tuesday check-in on classroom.


And then maybe because of the nature of grace, because it comes when we need it and not when we earn it, I was given grace.


One of my students raised his hand and said that the Tuesday check-in wasn’t showing up on classroom. I apologized and said I’d go post it. As I was posting it, I overheard what my students were chattering about: poetry. My posse of students, more than half of whom are failing CREATIVE WRITING (!) as well as multiple other classes, most of whom have experienced some version of being kicked out of their houses or lost parents because of the actions of those parents, most of whom struggle just to show up on a regular basis, many of whom see their deans more than their classroom teachers, some of whom speak English as a second language, were talking about how they like poetry. (“Then why the hell didn’t you do the poetry homework?” I thought.) The rest of them were talking about the fact that I am their only teacher who does a check-in. They wanted to know why and if I use the information for planning. I told them that I don’t necessarily use it for planning, but I like to know about them, and some people will tell me things when asked that they wouldn’t initiate on their own. I want to be here if anyone needs me. “That’s nice,” said a very uber-cool young man. “I like that you do this.” And so, because of the nature of grace, instead of shaming or blaming or accusing, something moved me to say instead, “What’s going on? My lesson plan was to look at how lines take on different meanings in a bunch of different villanelles, but I didn’t get a bunch of villanelles, and so today might not be as good as I meant it to be. Why did this happen?”


Three people said they wrote their poems on paper and didn’t know they had to be turned in electronically. “OK,” I said. “Maybe we can still work with that. Let me think about that. Get them out.” Everyone else started to babble about how they just didn’t get it. “Didn’t get what?” I asked. “Tell me where the confusion starts.” About ten people raised their hands. After everyone had spoken once or twice, I said that I was hearing two possible places of confusion. One was that they didn’t understand what a villanelle does, and the other was that they didn’t see how to make sense of a bunch of random lines that didn’t necessarily go together. Most students said it was the second problem. The problem, dear teacher, was that my students want their poems to make sense. They didn’t want to write just anything and turn it in. Oh.


And then more grace happened. To show them that the point of the assignment was to help them see how form can help MAKE meaning, I pulled up the one poem that had been turned in. It was from a student who has not turned in anything else. She is from Colombia and struggles with English in addition to having the usual (in this class) list of personal issues. I had thought it odd that the handful of people who always turn in their work had not but that she had. With her permission, I projected her poem on the board and read it out loud. I read it with my most expressive awe-filled voice. I paused after a couple of the stanzas and pointed out something beautiful that had happened because of the form. When I finished reading, there was a moment of silence. “Wasn’t that beautiful?” I asked. “Didn’t she make something meaningful out of the lines that originally had nothing to do with each other?” The whole class nodded, unusually silent. I looked over at the poet, and she had her head down with her hood pulled up. I told her I didn’t mean to embarrass her but to show everyone what the villanelle form can do. She sat up, and tears were running down her face. Her friend, another native Spanish speaker, but one more adept at speaking in English, said, “No miss. She isn’t embarrassed. She’s...how do you say this? She wrote that for someone in particular. It’s emotional for her.” And then the class began to reread the poem and murmur about how beautiful it really was. They literally patted her on the back. They told her it was her best writing so far, and it was.


I held my breath. My lungs were filled with grace.


“Do you see how the form can help you write something beautiful?” I asked.


The class nodded.


“Do you want to try again?”


The class nodded.


“Do you want to just use your own rhymes and go it alone already?”


The class exhaled in relief and asked for me to post the template back on the board and a new assignment on classroom. One girl moved to her focus spot at a table by herself. Other people pulled up websites with rhymes. People started counting syllables on their fingers. Five hands went up: could I check this line? Did it have the right number of syllables? Did it make sense?


I ran around for about ten minutes posting things on classroom, answering questions, suggesting rhyme options. Then I stood still and looked at my room full of poets. They were learning. So was I.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

After the bell

The bell rings, and the students who were lined up at the door (I know--shame on me for not keeping my seniors captivated up to the bell) join the noisy throng of teenagers in the hall. The room is silent except for the clicking of keys as I answer an email from a parent. The hallway is loud with words and bodies in motion. The contrast causes me to pause and contemplate my place in the order of the universe: I get to be a teacher. What a breathtaking responsibility and opportunity. I get to see these young people every day while they are still young. God willing (or helping,) they will be ever so slightly different when they leave me, and they WILL leave me. They will walk into the world as they walked into the hall, with anticipation to be elsewhere, with an idea that the something out there is better than whatever it is they already have in here. But, sitting in silence in my middle age, I know that I already have what I was hoping for. This. Them.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Watching the Big One Approach



When I was a teenager, my parents took me to Ocean City, Maryland a couple of times. But in the two decades or so between then and recent years, I did not have much of an opportunity to go in the ocean. Last year, I took a life-changing trip to Brigantine, NJ with a dear friend who lives out east and goes to the shore regularly. While I was there last year, she taught me a “game” that she plays with her daughter to help her manage the breaking waves. She calls it “Under/over.” This year, I was again intimidated by the breakers--this in spite of the fact that I could see children employing the under/over strategy and living to battle the next wave--so Sara helped me play the under/over game again.

The game is simply this: most of the time, if you’re standing in the right spot, you can bob over a wave, riding up one side and down the other. But every now and then, when a big wave is going to break right on you, you take a deep breath, shut your eyes, and dive into the wave, emerging on the other side and missing the worst of the downward power of the break. Diving under a wave is still an intense experience for a Midwestern lap-swimmer like me--the water is salty and sandy; the power of the wave is still present and a bit awe-inspiring; and some waves are wider than others--but the game effectively prevented me from getting knocked down and tossed about. The wisdom of the game that Sara had to coach me on is to wait until the wave is very close to decide if it’s one you can ride or one that will likely take you down. I’d see a big wave coming fifty or more yards away and start to panic; I’d call out, “that one’s an under!” Calmly, Sara would respond, “No, wait and see. Sometimes something happens before it gets to you and you can go over.” She was right. Often, a wave that looked from a distance like it could easily destroy me would instead just lift me off the ground and deposit me back to it several seconds later. Those waves are fun, really. They are why we even bother getting into the surf in the first place rather than sitting on the beach or, worse, staying in Illinois and swimming laps in a pool with lane lines. There is joy in the lift, thrill in the ride.

As I try to plan for my teaching year, which begins in a few days, I am reliving the panic I felt in my chest as I watched a huge wave approach. The last few years in my department and school have had some periods of really rough surf. I’ve felt knocked down and tossed around a few times. This year I’m facing down teaching three preps—two of them new to me. Every year teaching English means an overwhelming quantity of responding to student work. Also, I’m just the type of teacher who, whether it’s worth it or not, revises everything. So even the prep I’ve taught three times already is, in many ways, new because I choose to make it better as I learn and grow as a teacher. I feel like I am standing in the ocean watching an enormous wave start to curl at the top, about to pound me into the ground.

In a fit of angst, I texted my friend Sara to tell her that once again I am afraid of what is coming toward me. She reminded me that I know what I’m doing and that I’m good at it. It may be that I’ll just jump up and bob over the top of this wave and that I’ll have a really good time doing so. I’ve learned from Sara and the ocean that sometimes danger looks worse at a distance. But I’ve also learned from Sara that even if this is as big and scary and as it looks, I can dive into it and come out on the other side.  For right now, I just need the courage to stay in the water and a good friend to coach me through the waves.