When Attention Hangs in the Periphery

There’s no quiet, no solitude tonight.  It’s beautiful outside, but my mind could focus only on the bass in my neighbor’s playlist, barely audible.  I turned off my AC in hopes of finding solace in the backyard with the raccoons, finally retreating to my living room after realizing the family across the alley wasn’t bringing their party inside anytime soon.  I shut off the dryer.  There’s no noise, yet it’s definitely not quiet.

The dead screen of my external monitor begs me to bring it to life so I can be uber-productive with two screens.  The bag of Save the Date cards, half addressed, hangs on the dining room chair; somehow, just its presence in my periphery hangs on me, too, and I think about switching on that second monitor for just a minute to see if my better half has his addresses so I can run a final mail merge and have them all ready to go, ironically just waiting for the stamps to come in snail mail first.

The blanket Charming bought me at Fort Monroe this summer adorns the arm chair in front of me, and it pleads with me to pause, just for a moment, to enjoy thinking back on the proposal that soon followed.  The black TV screen yells in silence, opposing its neglect since I’ve too much school work this year to give it any relaxed time and attention.  There’s no noise inside my home; nevertheless, the concrete reminders of competing responsibilities that surround me make the silence deafening.

How do we unplug, escape, disconnect, retreat, when our world is waiting for us to hurry up and finish our current task so we can attend to the next need, prioritized and distributed for maximum efficiency?  Creativity requires us to dig up some original artifact, a unique contribution, and the associated processes involve emotional and intellectual room to breathe.  I can’t design theme elements amidst emails, calls, texts, and messages that continually borrow mental resources, producing a crowded warehouse inside my tiny computer… so I work at home on things like that.

When I blog, however, I go outside.  That’s my best bet at a safe retreat where nothing legitimate competes with my ability to be right here, right now, typing my way to clarity in an attempt to uncover an original thought.  Inside, creative juices are squelched by visual reminders of life and all its responsibilities and obligations, and I’m trying to write through it anyway.

It’s a good exercise, really.  How often can we eliminate all our distractions?  Back in undergrad, we learned strategies for helping kids learn to focus on the task at hand.  I should be able to ignore everything else like I expect them to do, realizing that my students and my colleagues have other obligations and responsibilities, too.  We all find ways to shift our attention to the current task… and some of us are naturally better than others.

Ah, I literally just breathed a sigh of relief. You’ll feel it, I’m sure.  The music ceased, and I’ve settled outside again on my white wicker love seat, where a symphony of insects calms me instantly.  The serenade, a writer’s soundtrack, consumes the space and silences all the other noises and distractions.  I see this screen, and dim street lamps and porch lights would illuminate little besides what I want in my periphery – trees and evening glories and a glass of red wine.

Mastery of intentional compartmentalization must be achieved at varied levels, I’m convinced.  Just like the NoRedInk modules my sophomores are currently combating.  Unlike a traditional worksheet assignment with a simple grading key, when I use this online platform to assign a set of grammatical skills to teens preparing for a writing proficiency test in less than five months, the assessment method is customizable by kid.  Students are forced to interact with sentences, making changes, like choosing whether or not to add an “s” to a verb to make it agree with a singular indefinite pronoun.

The more questions they get right, the faster they finish.  The more they get wrong, the longer the task.  This can be frustrating, but from a teaching standpoint, I’ve taught a concept and we’ve practiced it together and independently in other ways, so I see this as the opportunity for students to prove they “get it”, on their own.   In other words, the kids actually have to understand and consistently apply correct usage to a series of sentences.  When a student struggles, NoRedInk acts as one-on-one tutor, reminding him of the associated rule with an example, then it offers a similar set of questions until mastery is achieved.

Within each skill, however, are four levels of achievement.  As Johnny collects stars, he can’t lose them.  He can’t go backwards, only forwards.  That’s encouraging.  No matter how many wrong answers Johnny gives, the possibility of earning a 100% on this assignment is the same as the girl in the front row who tested out of basic subject-verb agreement the first week of school.  Those little stars also help me identify which students need a mini-conference with me to get “unstuck” and move on.  Making visual progress toward mastery is encouraging.  Knowing that perfection is achievable, even for one who struggles on that journey, makes the pursuit worthwhile.

And I’m not just talking about NoRedInk anymore.  Attention is a sore spot for an adult recently diagnosed with ADHD.  When Charming senses I’m distracted, it bothers him.  If he gently calls me out on it, that bothers me… because my inability to give him my complete attention bears associated guilt, that I’m somehow less of a loving fiancé because I didn’t see any harm in using ten minutes of unlimited lives on Candy Crush on the last leg of our drive to Annapolis on Saturday morning.

Of course, it wasn’t until after all our weekend activities that I found out it bothered him in the first place, so the retroactive guilt may have, in its accumulated volume, transformed into an offensive arsenal.  It’s not his fault that I’m distracted.  It’s not even the ADHD.  I predicted when I saw the first draft of the master schedule for this semester back in June that this school year would require my professional juggling services to work overtime without the financial benefits.

Last year was perfect.  I had English 10 Honors and two classes of Yearbook.  Weekends were for Charming, and creativity had plenty of room to produce quality products in all areas of my life.  I worried about my biological clock and timeline with Charming, but I had time to think about those concerns and process them accordingly.   This year, with a third prep and a halved yearbook program, I’m going to have to find ways to adapt and re-compartmentalize, intentionally, to juggle effectively without losing myself or missing out on my favorite TV shows.

Sometimes, we have to escape normal to feel like we can really enjoy the moment we’re experiencing.  That happens for me, out here on the front porch.  It happened on Saturday, too, though, with Charming, right after I logged out of Candy Crush.  Though I didn’t force it on him, I was beyond excited to attend a Renaissance festival in full costume… a royal gown I hadn’t been able to squeeze into for at least a decade.

Renaissance Festival - blog.jpg

Charming had my full attention while we were immersed in this other world where cell phones were clearly out of period and only acceptable for snapping photographs.  One vendor told us he’d met his wife here decades earlier and they’d married during the festival, and his daughter and her husband and baby were “around here somewhere”.  There were henna tattoo parlors with pillows and blankets, tusks and tiny barrel mugs of beer, jousting and sword fighting and performers at every corner.

We were in another era, one I much preferred, I’ll admit, to the current week I returned to back in Hampton.  I giggled and squealed like a school girl while Charming and I danced around the May Pole (though he had never heard of it before).  We flirted with the idea of riding an overpriced, painted elephant.  We ate curly fries while watching MacBeth performed in less than twenty minutes.

I wasn’t thinking about our yearbook theme or my struggling English students or the unsent Save the Date cards.  There were plenty of other distractions, but I experienced this day with Charming.  There’s nowhere else I would have rather been, and I wouldn’t have traded my prince for a knight at the festival, even one in a costume that would have paired well with mine.  My aim was off in archery, but he was patient with me.  He’s always patient with me.

There are levels of mastery, and it’s encouraging.  Charming was that guy in the front row that tested out of all attention-related skills in the first week of school, and I’m just smiling at the second of four stars, the first being the Renaissance festival and the second bringing this blog to a close.  I know I can and will get there eventually.  The achievement potential is better when I try out new strategies, so I’m applying rules and not just guessing like I urge my students to do.

In any event, focus and attention is another way I can relate to my students.  We can grow together, racking up stars towards mastery in NoRedInk and the real world until that real world shifts and weekends in DC become a new marriage, a new home, and a new job.  I’ll admit, it’s intimidating… but there’s levels of mastery, and we’ll get there, one star at a time.

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