It was just this morning that I observed a moment of silence to commemorate a seventeen-year old tragedy with a classroom full of students that never knew life before 9/11, while I’ve nearly doubled my age in the years post-tragedy. An hour later, notice that school would be cancelled tomorrow until further notice stole the memorial’s thunder, promising Hampton Roads a hurricane with forced evacuations.
You’d never know a storm was brewing to look at our peaceful Hampton Roads tonight. Apart from the absence of water in the grocery stores, the crickets chirping, my neighbors chatting next door, the occasional car lighting up the night briefly, and the warm, still air all set the stage for a typical Tuesday night of writing through my own personal storms. Three years ago, I navigated through another September storm for a first date in Richmond with a man who would become a protagonist in my narrative. I called him Charming.
For a long time, my story was our story. Our dating adventures, his iconic proposals, and my absolute love for Charming were chronicled here in the annals of my blog. I paused to consider the tense I’d used by default there, “were” vs. “are” and opted to trust my gut that the first instinct is most accurate. And all my advocating for the power of freewriting chides me, enticing me to follow the stream of consciousness despite my logical mind’s best efforts to maintain control.
Crossing the water twice a day is normal now, though it didn’t worry me until the schools around me closed a day before my district. Without traffic, it takes just forty minutes to transport myself into an unfamiliar landscape that’s growing on me. It’s the first time in twelve years of teaching that I’ve been entrusted with the training of half a dozen students in the same block who struggle to write in complete sentences or stay in one tense even while speaking. Fortunately, I have an experienced coworker with whom to share the burden of shuffling these juniors past the SOL finish lines. We have our work cut out for us.
Yesterday when we met to plan together, I noted idioms and figures of speech as first quarter curricular foci. We’ve only collected a few writing samples, but I’d seen enough to question the effectiveness of previous lessons I’d developed with this particular collection of adolescent minds. Just like it only takes a spark to get a fire going, it apparently only takes the threat of a hurricane to turn my struggling writers into poets. At the end of the day, one young man who had just claimed English as a weakness, blurted out, “It’s getting ready to flood like the Titanic.” I complimented the surprised, confused boy on his correct use of a simile.
He was baffled, I think, at why I was so delighted, but one unintended comment had cleared all the clouds away. I’m doing it now, and normally I do it without thinking, but I’m writing about thinking about teaching figures of speech and idiomatic expressions from a new vantage point, the one on my front porch back on the other side of the water, where the high school English teacher never really stops thinking about how to reach her students. I use figurative language all the time, but that’s not unique to a writer; teens speak in idioms when they aren’t asked to give you an example of one.
This solitude in Downtown Hampton won’t last, but in the stillness of this moment, it’s the calm before the storm that encourages my teaching spirit. Everyone’s preparing. We’ve cleaned out the stores and some have jumped ship, but the figurative language ends there. It’s a reality that many have had to leave in search of higher ground. Provided my zone doesn’t get evacuated, I plan to hunker down in my rented bungalow and knock out some schoolwork without interruption. That’s my silver lining.
My students are enjoying all the silver linings while staying safe, I hope. While thoughts of school are likely in the wind for them by now, I’m thinking about their impressionable minds before the rains come. They will come, and we teach them to prepare for the worst case scenario when a hurricane is hurdling this way. The survival advice we apply literally to times like these almost uniformly translates to life guidance. The idiomatic storms resemble Florence’s. There are dozens of expressions about bad weather. My students have been exposed to bad weather. They’ve also endured their own figurative storms. They can make the connection. They can master this set of literary skills. We just need to start with what they already know.
After all, when it rains it pours, to throw another (and another) expression in the ring. I’m typing away on a laptop keyboard producing sets of words that show me the next step with my struggling, young writers… and subsequently, I’m accessing dusty, cobwebbed idioms that deepen my relationship with the written word. I write, I think, I learn, I teach, and in this blog, I have a hard time differentiating between the four. There’s no formulaic approach to my weekly writing nights, and there may well be none for teaching idiomatic expressions and figures of speech to seventeen year olds who’ve only seen the Twin Towers in pictures. For that reason, we excuse them for zeroing in on this pending hurricane with more emotion than observed during this morning’s moment of silence.
Tonight, everything is still. I know the storm will come. The eye will keep moving. The torrents will damage and destroy. Those are inevitabilities. The variables and of when and where entrust leadership the responsibility of preparing the rest of us for the worst case scenario. Tonight, as I look at the peaceful street around me and question how a hurricane could possibly be in the forecast, I make a simultaneous realization that my leadership in the classroom is similarly obligated to prepare my students for the storms they don’t believe are coming.
Charming isn’t a featured protagonist in my blog anymore, but he’s still my perfect storm. Some days it’s the calm before, others it’s the eye of, and still others it’s surviving in the aftermath. Like reading and writing and learning and teaching, this storm’s phases are unpredictable and even overlapping. I wrestle with the sweet memories of our normal. I was going to marry him. He was forever and always. Only, he’s not, and if finding peace is like waiting for a raindrop in a drought, maybe the impending torrential downpour in my physical world will show my personal one how to end.
I’ll weather this storm, these storms, whether my head is in the clouds or under a cloud. I’ll ride out thirty-five waiting for that raindrop in the drought. I’ll celebrate the silver linings, face the prevailing winds, and even if I don’t know which way the wind blows, even if I throw caution to it, both Florance and my tempest will come to an end. We’ll assess the damage, reflect on all the idioms that went into explaining the events of days past, and try to smile like we haven’t just been through a hurricane.
Today, the storm clouds gather. Hampton Roads readies itself to protect against flooding. Students paused briefly to observe a moment of silence honoring heroes who never shared a day’s breath with them this morning, and tonight they look ahead to Mother Nature’s threat to survival. We need to apply survival skills as equally to the real as figurative, and I need to teach figuratively by starting with what’s real to my kids.
You know you love being an English teacher when you spend your first night of hurricane break mentally fostering relationships with teenagers who don’t know if you’re a Ms. or a Mrs., when you thought you were going to write about yourself but can’t turn off that write-think-learn-teach multi-processing brain that still wants to make an impact beyond the grave.