On Caribbean Rum Cake and Composition

My legs finally still, and the ground beneath them, too.  The dimly lit street fights blackness earlier each week, though I notice it only when I collapse into the worn, wicker love seat.  The mellow hum of neighborhood insects hypnotizes, urging the teacher to forget about Homecoming festivities and picture week long enough for the writer to emerge.

It’s getting harder to distinguish between my career and my passion; the two complement each other like lettuce wraps with the Korean beef I fixed this weekend.  When I taste-tested the ginger and spices marrying with sautéed garlic and onions, my taste buds were please.  It wasn’t until I served the ground beef on a crispy, green shell garnished with sesame seeds and scallions that my taste buds took it back.  The cool, bland lettuce consoled the spicy Korean beef, like rice and peas with Jamaican curry chicken or some dairy ingredient to top every Mexican recipe.

The writer’s voice is breaking free, but I can barely type a sentence without dismissing the grammatical lesson or figurative technique it would illustrate for my AP Language and Composition students.  AP kids carry high expectations, and either their acting careers will be successful or they’ve bought into my ability to shepherd them toward their writing goals.  I began our year with a game plan and a calendar like I’ve done for eleven prior years of teaching.  When a hurricane shifted the dates, I told the kids I’d make a new calendar.  The Type A student that typically scores a seat in that class likes the order, structure, and consistency as much as I do.  The winds settled two weeks ago, and I’m not sure there is going to be a new calendar.

We’re not just surviving the ebb and flow of an authentic learning community – we’re experiencing an awakening.  When I faced my first AP class in Nashville so early in my career, my thorough syllabus and rigorous coursework compensated for my lack of experience.  Teaching the same class with a new batch of analytical thinkers after three and a half years of writing nights and longer still shuffling students toward the finish line with passing scores on the end of course test is the fulfillment of a dream I didn’t know I had.  Every other day, these nineteen students share ninety minutes with me, and when they leave, I am confident of these two things: I am a writer, and I am a teacher.

That’s why, with every varied sentence combining technique I employed in the last four paragraphs, I was thinking about how I would explain the choices I’d made to budding seventeen year olds.  On the first day of school, their sea of stoic faces only wanted to believe that I wouldn’t waste their time or give them busywork.  A month in, the on-task chatter and myriad “light bulb” moments remind me that my AP kids now enter my room expecting to take something away.  Sure, a few might be flying comfortably below the radar allowing me to hope in the generalization, but even if it’s majority rule, I feel like these seventeen minds were appointed to challenge me, and I to deliver on my promise to equip them to write powerfully, persuasively, and passionately for any purpose.

Eight years ago, I was striving to be an AP teacher, and my curriculum was engaging and standards-based with valid, reliable assessments featuring a dozen types of rubrics to reduce subjectivity.  Even sitting in my teacher chair in Nashville, I stood ready to defend my plan and my grades.  The hunger of teenage motivation is almost palpable, and the discernible climate change in Virginian classroom reflects an unmistakable desire to be better writers.  Two to three times a week, we meet together to talk about reading and writing about reading and writing, and it’s sufficient to me that the class has a binder with the material we’ll cover this quarter.  It’s sufficient to them, too, because they’ll complete a lesson for homework that we didn’t get to in class because authentic, unscripted learning was happening.

Forcing myself teach in a different way puts me outside my comfort zone.  Cooking entrees is where I clocked the most training hours, so while my curry and rice meal simmered confidently on the stove, I slapped about at flour and sugar hoping that with some divine intervention and about an hour in the oven, my efforts with the food processor would satisfy my craving for the Caribbean rum cake my family used to buy from vendors outside a Walmart in the Adirondack mountains a lifetime ago.  The messy undertaking and dish duty were well worth the effort. The first bite was heaven, and I’m not sure how many bites I’ll share.  I surprised myself, perhaps because I’d been expecting failure.

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When I click “Publish” on this post tonight, picture me closing my laptop lid and scurrying into the kitchen to remove the lid from the cake pan and cut into the rum-soaked delight.  With gardening and with writing, I’ve improved in successive measure equal to my consistency in practicing the craft.  I didn’t really know I was a gardener until I had seen enough small gains to start taking big risks.  I started with a garden bed in the front yard, and then I built the vegetable garden out back the next spring.  Granted, I still cook with more confidence than I bake, but like the two different gardens, taking the risks means greater rewards, too.  It was needier than the flowering plants, but my back yard fills my dinner table for months at a time.

And, had I not gained confidence tending a simpler garden, I would have never imagined the possibilities if I were actually a gardener.  If I were a cook.  If I were teacher.  If I were a writer.  A year ago, I baked boxed brownies and was pleased if they weren’t visibly burned.  Last week, I made my imitation recipe for Otis Spunkmeyer’s chocolate chip cookies for the third time this month, and I’m inching ever closer.  The rum cake was a personal challenge, and the session warmed my mixing bowls for last night when I made German chocolate cupcakes for my department chair’s birthday.

If I were a good cook, I would try to make the things that are just out of reach.  Not everything took root in my vegetable garden, but I learned from the failures as much as I benefitted from the harvest.  My AP students might not all genuinely believe we’ll be better writers together by the end of the year, but the sentiment is irrelevant.  I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t more to self-fulfilling prophecy than doom and gloom.  I’ve taught in public education for more than a decade in three school districts in two states, and every class I see every other day, year after first days of school… the teacher my AP kids experienced in Nashville was a good teacher who loved writing.

The magic in my room every other day happens when nineteen disparate minds find intersect within the art of rhetoric, where light bulbs illuminate the room because language conventions are no longer a set of antiquated rules but rather arrangements of words just waiting to be manipulated for the author’s intended effect.  For their effect, as in my students’ to make the pronoun reference clear, because they aren’t just writing about writers like they were during their summer reading projects.  I think they’re starting to get that they can be great writers, that they already are writers if they know they could be great.

It seems to me that those things at which I’ve excelled and come to identify began as things I wanted to be able to do well, even if I wasn’t sure I would pull it off.  It was that way with my garden, it was that way with the rum cake, and if the irreplaceable investment of time mounts in tandem with mastery of craft, then it makes sense that I feel like the best writing teacher I’ve ever been, so much so that I’m willing to throw my calendar out and let the students drive the content forward.  As it is, I haven’t seen them in thirty-six hours, and their still inspiring me to write well… while taking correctly punctuated risks in language convention.

Maybe it’s because I believe I can take them to the next level that they believe me, but I’m grateful that they keep coming in and out of my classroom, challenging me to deliver on my promise to make them better writers.  I hadn’t anticipated this bunch of brainy teens would do the same for me, week after week, as the night settles in earlier, and I write.

A Non-Traditional Love Life

I respect the sanctity of Tuesday night writing binges, so I’m perched on the same white wicker love seat that supported three and a half years of processing life and love through garden analogies and teaching metaphors; I don’t want to write tonight, but what example am I setting for sixteen year olds with writer’s block if I don’t honor this commitment.  I sit stiffly, typing to the tune of the cicadas and crickets, stiffening at the first thought I’d rather dismiss again.  I don’t write about my love life anymore.

I have one – it’s just non-traditional.  The story Charming and I were writing with our lives was exciting and adventurous.  For a few years, I was a princess in a fairy tale.  It’s disquieting now to recall the epic Cinderella proposal, complete with horse and carriage. It’s been just over a year, but the warmth and joy of that day couldn’t survive a scorching summer after separation.  He was incredibly good to me, and I’ll always cherish the way so many of our friends came together to make the moment happen and share it with us.  The love I felt then still lives in the memory, despite the way things ended.

Charming was my love life, and writing about our dates on King Street in Old Town was typically a safe choice.  These past few months, I’ve processed life here every Tuesday, but I’ve been avoiding the most common theme.  I haven’t been entirely true to my voice.  I’m supposed to just settle in on the blue paisley cushion and write whatever comes to my mind. In recent weeks, I’ve dismissed a few first thoughts, and though I still experience “writer’s growth”, I wonder what realizations I haven’t arrived at because I’ve been afraid I’ll drown once I dive in.

To some extent, my relationship with Charming ended when I began questioning faith, meaning, God, and tradition.  Grams lived a full ninety-plus years, but her death still shook me.   She was the matriarch of our family.   I don’t understand how my obsessive thinking came to center on questioning those values and beliefs most central to Gram’s ideology… and three generations to follow, all gathered around her casket in the rain.  I’m not angry at God.  I’m not rebelling.  I just don’t know if I only believe what I believe because Grams did, then Dad, then it was only naturally for me.

Maybe this is a mid-life crisis.  People like authentic.  It wasn’t something I could name in high school; it was just a feeling I got from some people didn’t like me. I had a family name to keep polished and Christian example to uphold.  I saw my mother get up for quiet times every day to spend time with the Bible and in prayer, so I did, too.  Every day for dozens of years, I spent a quiet time with God.  The peace and comfort I know my mother found in those quiet times evaded me.  No, ours upstairs in my bedroom was stiff and distant, structured and scheduled.

I spent time with God because I knew I was supposed to, and I do well with some impassable structures and routines in place, not unlike writing night every Tuesday.  In thirty years of living life as a proclaimed Christian, I never experienced a deep and abiding friendship.  I was always struggling, striving, seeking forgiveness.  My family is grieved that I’m not walking a righteous path, and understandably so given our heritage.  I’m still open to God, only I see a desperate urgency to figure out who I am, independent of deep family roots, so that I live fully, authentically and peacefully.  I don’t know how to explain life’s existential questions without the lens Biblical Christianity always provided.

Charming was my love life before, when God was still real to me in a personal way.  Now, I’m collecting love in unsuspecting places.  With strained family relations post break-up, I found support in my existing community.  People that I’d met up with at raids for Pokémon Go have some of my closest, most reliable friends.  I still have a love life; it’s just non-traditional.  I love the game, my Pogo partner, and spending time with friends who love it, too.

20180925_200458I find love in my nieces and nephews.  The twins are in Pre-K, and tonight I got to join the family at the school’s open house.  I saw their hand prints and their desks and their “All About Me” posters.  Tessa’s boasted she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up, like her mommy.  I smiled.  I could remember making a similar poster when I was little.  Tessa took me to the board and read me the word “Scissors” while her teacher explained to Mommy how Katarina plays the, “I don’t know how to do this.  Will you help me?” card when she’s disinterested in doing something she can do.  I smiled.  I could remember a similar strategy when I was little.  They’re not my children, but they are precious to me, and a hug from one of them is like a love tank instant refill.

I find it most lately in stolen moments with Leia when school’s not in session. Friday night, we just sat in her back yard and talked into the darkness.  The crickets and cicadas weren’t so persistent.  The whole world disappeared into the suburban skyline and we laughed at each other’s self-effacing humor, determined to be happy right where we were.  Her girls have always called me auntie, and I’m starting to feel like one.  It’s not a traditional picture, but I’m happy with Leia and her kids.

When Charming proposed, there was this outpouring of love from friends and family that made an impression, and though there are some different faces in the circle now, I’m surrounded by love everywhere I turn, even at my new school.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get married, but I still want to be a mom.  My juniors were talking about how to avoid making the same mistake twice, and I found myself thinking about my biological clock.  A year ago, I never would have considered motherhood without the male silhouette in the perfect family frame.  I’m open to it now.

When I was with Charming, he was my love life, and that was restricted to the weekends.  Most days, I’d see no one from the time I left the gym until school the next day.  It was easier to be a workaholic when friends weren’t dropping by, announced or unannounced, when the china gathered dust in the dining room hutch, when the only cushion getting used on my front porch was this one.  I love loving people, and I get to do that in everyday ways.  It’s not a traditional love life, but I’m happy.

I don’t have it all figured out, and that’s okay.  I make mistakes and try to avoid making them again, like my juniors will do.  I get writer’s block too, and I can and did write through it to arrive at some nugget of truth.  The story I was writing with God and Charming was a lot easier because I knew where I wanted the plot to go.  My writer’s growth is dependent upon my willingness to go places I don’t want to go.  I didn’t drown in the despair.  I’m still here, typing to the tune of cicadas and crickets.

And even if I don’t feel like it, I’ll be back next week.

Whipping in the Wind

Last week, a hurricane didn’t hit Hampton, but it still wreaked havoc, damaging any sense of normalcy in its potential wake. Stores closed. The government evacuated homes.  Families stockpiled water and canned goods.  We prepared.  Braced ourselves.  Waited expectantly.  Its course shifted, and though the winds stirred swiftly, a true storm never came.   In the aftermath of a hurricane that wasn’t, I’m recovering tonight from a week’s departure from my normal routine.

I’ve always been a creature of habit, but it wasn’t until this past week that I realized how desperately I rely on my normal routine to keep my brain balanced.  With no school for three days to add to the weekend off, the gym closed for my daily workouts, and my best friend out of town missing the inaction, the unfamiliar, uninhabited hours loomed eerily after my last post was live.  Writing night concluded my commitments.  Every other obligation or responsibility was dismissed with the threat of the storm.

When I awoke Wednesday, I inventoried all the possible ways to make the unexpected day off a productive one.  I cleaned and shopped and baked and laundered and still didn’t make a visible dent in my task list.  When my new teacher friend texted that she’d taken me up on my offer to ride out the storm here with me, it was rinse and repeat until she arrived that night.  We spent a couple of days like college roommates, always intending to crack open the books to plan for our eleventh graders, but talking into the wee hours of the morning instead. Worlds collided.  The teacher next door was now a millennial in my guest room, and I hoped my mid-thirties night life of nightcaps with friends and Pokémon Go shiny hunting wouldn’t disappoint Dalmatian, especially when all Hampton’s offerings were closed.

Even Fort Monroe beach.  It would be days before I’d step foot in the sand, but that’s what an impending hurricane does.  What’s the value of routine if you don’t have enough water to survive an extended shutdown of utilities?  Dalmatian was dogsitting for her roommate, and she suggested we get outside and expend some energy before being cooped up by the storm.  Instantly, I thought of Leia’s kids and messaged her an invite to walk with us. Fort Monroe is her favorite place, too.  Options limited, we opted to walk the abandoned streets of downtown Hampton and play Pokémon Go.

Though Dalmatian was a good sport and had played the augmented reality game with me and my friends, she surrendered her phone in favor of running and playing.  Leia, on the other hand, is torn.  Whether born out of a desire to spend more time with me or out of dissatisfaction with her same old routine, Leia created an account.  She’s a fast learner, leveling up quickly, always asking questions, and her excitement is refreshing.  Leia likes the game and my company.  She’s caught between real life and the game, and our stroll through the windy streets and down by the bay made a picturesque backdrop for her growing Pokedex.

Unlike Dalmatian and me, Leia is a mom.  Her oldest warmed immediately to my new teacher friend and hound, contented to run with the dog on a leash, smiling a toothy grin, all pre-teen authenticity.  Her youngest was glued to me, partly because I was hot-spotting internet to the device I loaned her to play with during our walk.  The two girls are like night and day.  This one objected to beach outings regularly until I introduced her to Pokémon Go.  Now, Leia’s girls join us for time in the sun and in the game.  Thursday afternoon, we walked into the wind, five girls and a dog, all driven by different motivations at different stages of life and yet pleased by the surprising moments cultivating kinship in the calm before the storm.  We had the common goal of enjoying the fresh air together in our own ways.

The storm didn’t come.  Dalmatian packed up her roommate’s dog and headed home. Friday, my house was quiet again.  The previous two days had been almost corporate, hanging out with friends and making decisions on the fly, and while I needed some alone time to recharge, anticipating three more days until we’d return to the normal routine forced me to call the gym and discover they had reopened, despite what Google said.  I was mentally already in the parking lot before hanging up.

A little bit of normal and a steady endorphin release primed me to devote Friday night to grading.  I worked more than I played for the rest of our impromptu break, fitting in workouts and chores and schoolwork, always seeing more that I should do, but refusing to reject an invitation from Leia.  My life’s been pretty windy these days.  Adjusting to a different school system, managing life around a longer commute, and trying to make a new normal flow has me perpetually preparing for a storm that is coming eventually.  I’m flirting with the workaholic mode again already, only now I hear Stefano, our tour guide in Italy, telling us that Americans live to work while Italians work to live.

I reply, “Yes,” to Leia’s invites because we’re in a similar place with a similar threat of storm, both having worked too hard without living enough, dissatisfied with the real world such that King’s Street looks more promising through the screen of a device that might spawn a rare Pokémon.  Whether it’s hitting the beach, walking downtown, or even joining her for my first step class at the Y while my gym’s door was lined with sandbags, Leia is my silver lining.  We laugh as sincerely together over a drink at Marker 20 as over her silly kids on the swings at the playground.  She has the kids I dreamed of mothering, and I have the independence that active house makes her crave.  And we’d never venture that the grass would be greener if we swapped shoes.

We’ve done enough living to work.  We’re counting wrinkles and days.  We’re measuring our lives against traditional values and coming up short.  We’re feeling the angst of not knowing how much time we have to make something meaningful of our lives and sharing the fear that we’ve wasted too much already to leave a lasting legacy.  Leia’s girls just couldn’t grasp why we had spent so much time and money preparing for a storm that didn’t come.  She explained that when a hurricane is coming, we make the most of the moments before we have to hunker down, stockpiling, preparing for the potential worst case scenario.

Sunday was the first day we didn’t have face time in over a week.  We were both preparing for the work week.  I wrapped with an afternoon grading AP dialectical journals in a beach chair with the tide licking at my heels.  The wind whipped the strands of my hair and the papers in my lap, but I hadn’t felt so still or calm since school let out last Tuesday.  Tonight, alone again on my front porch, the air is calm, but I’m feeling the winds kick up.  I’m writing about living and finally naming the storm: Death.  I’ve been living to work, stockpiling for a future that I still haven’t arrived in yet, always preparing to live more.

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In the threat of a hurricane, we prepare for the worst.  What if instead of preparing to live more, get more, attain more, achieve more… what if we prepared for that impending storm that could strike at any moment?  What if we lived like we were preparing for the worst, facing death and question marks and concepts like infinity.  Leia and I have been un-tethered in our crises, whipping about in the wind like my schoolwork, and I never pass up a chance to spend time with her because, somehow, we anchor each other in an unexpected way.

Leia’s my silver lining in this season.  Like working with Dalmatian at school during the day, living life with Leia in my free time is better, easier, more enjoyable when it’s together.  Dalmatian said just the other day that no matter how much schoolwork she does, there is always so much more.  It will be that way for all of us until June, every year, rinse and repeat as long as we’ve got passion.  I’m giving Dalmatian Stefano’s advice, and working with Leia to live the example.

Our lives might not look like they thought they would.  We might not have lived up to our own expectations.  But what we might have done or not done is irrelevant; contemplating it only serves to prevent us from living now, from seeing the shiny potential in the moments in our everyday routines. Leia is the silver lining to my life after Charming; she makes the real world look promising again… it’s comforting  to be navigate these winds of change together.

The Idiomatic Storm

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.

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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.

The First Day, Again

Four years ago this week, I put a green T-shirt and boasted Warrior blood, as green as my lawn, begging to mowed since my attention shifted to the blue and white backdrop of my new school’s colors.  A year ago yesterday, I said, “Yes,” to the perfect proposal from the perfect guy, knowing it would mean an end to Warrior green.  Our wedding day and has come and gone, and our colors, sea glass green and robin’s eye blue, once faded into the black of broken promises, find new life in my home away from home.

The most colorful facets of my classroom weren’t the details I attended to before I met the new batch of bright young minds I’ve been entrusted with for the next few seasons; the rugs, lamps, and posters don’t hold a candle to the dynamic rainbow of personalities its seats will host the year through.  After a quiet summer in Hampton, the hustle and bustle of commutes and demanding workdays reminds me that I’m not as young as I used to be.

When I introduce the concept of a paradox, I suggest the familiar claim that youth is wasted on the young.  Perhaps under the guise of attending high school for the rest of my life due to my chosen profession, I truly believed I would never feel old.  During a five minute planning conversation with Dalmatian, the bright-eyed new teacher next store, I know that my age and experience carry positive and negative connotations.  Her enthusiasm is palpable, her excitement disarming, and her energy seemingly endless.  After her first day of teaching, she had us both smiling as we snapped pictures in our new classrooms to commemorate the occasion.

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When was the last time I took a picture of myself on the first day of school?  During my planning today, I’d already broken in the school’s yearbook camera, securing a few photos to use as instructional aides when I meet my staff tomorrow.  Dalmatian reminds me to keep the first things first.  While I was stressing over the quarter’s eleventh grade curriculum, she was dreaming of how to create her own welcoming learning environment.  After our first full day, we were both emotionally spent, but I think we were equally encouraged at facing the year together.

It’s been a long day.  I met a hundred kids, reviewed syllabi and supply lists, and tried not to butcher the names when I called roll.  I left after bus duty, drove to the gym like I always do, came home to change after a solid calorie burn, and landed at my brother’s dinner table for hugs and a first day debrief.  I came home to write, like I always do.  It’s only just the first day.  We hit the ground running, us school teachers, putting our best foot forward while lamenting the rejuvenating rays that make summer a necessity to recover from the ten month race we’ve started… and it’s just the first leg.  I don’t feel like writing, so I know I must.  I am not sure what life has to teach me tonight, despite a clear picture of my students’ expectations for the next nine weeks.  I’ll trust the process, that if I sit here like a hundred and eighty plus Tuesday nights before, I’ll make meaning of my life.

I can’t remember the last time I took a picture of myself on any of my recent eleven first days of school, but this is a new beginning for me and Dalmatian.  She doesn’t know what to worry about yet, and I am grateful for the unjaded energy that pops its head in my room throughout the day with her new, bob haircut.  Dalmatian doesn’t walk – she bounces… and she lifts me on her the upstroke.  Had it not been for that extra busy duty responsibility that raised my privileged eyebrows, we wouldn’t have engaged in a conversation resulting in a shared desire to snap a few photos of our new digs.

Had I not been fully present in the moment I was in, I would have missed what was a momentous moment for Dalmatian.  I was honored to apply the rule of thirds and store some shots of this dynamic brunette, beaming with the pride of fulfillment completing her first day in her chosen profession.  Our decorative flair flows seamlessly, the eleventh grade English classrooms all twinkling with alternative lighting, more like an office suite with the curtains, throws, and cushions that invite sixteen-year-olds to figuratively put their feet up.  I’ve finished so many first days with so many new faces and names not to butcher that I’d taken the fresh start for granted.

I’ve always worked through lunch, so when I saw Dalmatian eating across the hall with a few other teachers as I picked up some handouts from the printer, it struck me that perhaps it was natural to engage with others over food instead of squinting at a computer screen for the half hour break from adolescent hormones.  I’ve always done a lot of things, like hitting the gym after school.  I’ve skipped twice in the last week, not in a lazy, summer objection sort of way, but because I was experimenting with my “always”.  It was being ejected from the familiar colors of my old pond as Charming’s fiancé in Warrior green with a June expiration that catapulted me into a vast, unchartered sea of new experience.

My gym time is healthy, but so is meeting my friend Leia at Marker 20 for a mid-week nightcap, where we talk so much the watered-down drinks are not bartender error.  Her name’s not really Leia, but after some friends and I finally convinced her to create a Pokémon Go account, I pulled the pseudonym from her favorite movie to help make her trainer ID when she signed up this weekend.  She isn’t a princess at all, no air of pretense or entitlement. My Leia teaches kids, raises little women, and runs just five years ahead of me also questioning how her life doesn’t look like it thought it would by now.

Dalmatian’s new world is probably unfolding on Facebook tonight while Leia tucks her children in and wonders how, after so many years walking its green earth, there seems to be nothing new under the sun.  If there’s a bell curve, I’m nearer to Leia on the plot progression.  Young Dalmatian reminds me of both of us older women back in our finer hours, not just the tight skin and bright eyes, but also that spirit eager to devour adventure… spirits Leia and I tamed for our disparate reasons.

It’s inspiring. It’s unsettling.  But isn’t that what these new starts accomplish for the pensive among us, those who require a little extra time and external stimulus to coax our brains away from waxing nostalgic over To Do List’s and things we can’t change into a rejuvenating night’s sleep that will only tease until the final bell rings in June?

Charming started over in Germany a few months ago.  I opted to stick a little closer to Fort Monroe beach.  I cross the water twice a day now, barely noticing the tunnel that used to make my pulse race.  I venture outside the familiar colors of my garden beds in the morning and experience life that changes me when I return.  I was a workaholic so long that I didn’t realize I was missing out on relationships, that hiding in my room or car or living room at a laptop screen couldn’t satiate my hunger for adventure, not in the long term.

I didn’t have to take an airplane – I just crossed the water, and I found another friend to add to the circle of imperfect, passionate professionals navigating the colorful, uncertain seas of starting over.

Why Should I Keep Writing?

The sun sets earlier now. All the restful trips and staycations hopefully prepared Virginia teachers for the decathlon of pre-service: a week and a half long obstacle course where we juggle meetings, classroom prep, and curricular planning amidst a sea of welcomed interruptions and uninvited distractions.  We’re in it together until the final bell; then, we take on our personal challenges as solo mission, like me alone on my porch again, writing again, vexed by nagging imbalances that find peace illusive tonight.

For three and a half years, I’ve been writing my way to revelation in a public forum.  I ended a long distance relationship that had stalled out like my evening glories lackadaisically meandering up the side of the porch, all green vine potential but perhaps too late to see any white blossoms this year. That break up worked its way out in the soil of the garden beds I built.  As I labored in the mulch, my brain toiled in the dirty, forsaken corners of my mind.  I wrote through my gardening reality and unearthed analogies with figurative significance and unexpected insight.

Spring gave way to summer three years back, and the gardening analogies extended beyond broken heart to chronicle online dating disappointments and disasters.  I’d typed my way toward an epiphany resulting in cancellation of my eHarmony account, committing to dive into my career; Charming was reading about my journey from half a state away – he wasn’t my ex-fiancé then, just an old friend from college who’d caught my blog on his newsfeed a few times and reached out to suggest we meet.

It wasn’t quite three years ago.  I’m still holding on to summer.  He entered in the fall when I didn’t know how many seasons we’d share, that there would be a limit, that I’d truly believe he was my forever and always and so firmly reject that in this soft, Autumn eve with a cool breeze that soothes my aching brain muscles.  For two and a half years of manufactured, weekend-long dates traded along I-95,  I wrote through the joys of the honeymoon phase, the frustration of the waiting room, the anxiety of getting older, the fear of missing out on the miracle of motherhood.

When my readers had already fallen for him, too, I reenacted Charming’s epic proposal with my words.  This blue cushion is worn with nearing two-hundred consecutive Tuesday nights of my growth.  It happens in the garden, in the kitchen, in my classroom, but like the evening glories or a water kettle or a kid writing better, I don’t see the fruit or the inspiration in the moment.  This writing perch is anointed by a weekly willingness to expose my faults and failures.  How can I be embarrassed when I see only the moment I am in, this truth, this attached perspective?  When I trust the authenticity of my voice enough to return to my favorite spot in the house and go to the least favorite places in my mind, I equally trust the tenacity with which I once believed I would spend the rest of my life with Charming.

Even when doing so lost me the support of some friends, when my immediate world was shaming me into silence, I wrote about it while trying to respect prescribed and logical limitations.  I broke his heart, mine, our families.  I I didn’t get married this summer, so I didn’t move away, and Tuesday still hold the same order of events.  My sister-in-law and I are just completing our decathlons in different districts.  Despite geographic changes, we settled swiftly into our family dinner night after my typical workout, and it pleased me to lend a hand and know the routine without asking too many questions; with both feet in Hampton, at night anyway, I feel more present in the kids’ lives like before weekend-long dates.

I don’t have it all figured out, and that might worry people who encountered my professional persona.  My former students form a love-hate relationship with the order and structure, receiving a calendar for the first quarter the first week of school along with a packet of prepared pages numbered chronologically for the first nine weeks, noted in the calendar and daily PowerPoint presentation.  I’m yawning.  I’ve done this for eleven-plus years.  I spent enough summers cross-training by preparing the entire year’s curriculum before the first day to realize that teacher burn-out doesn’t feel like I thought it would.

No, teacher burn out is more like overtraining, where in well-intended dedication, you give everything you have for too long.  My high school track coaches taught me to push my body beyond its limit, or I wouldn’t have made it to state qualifiers in my second year; I pulled my hamstring in that race, when it counted.  Do I regret the counsel, favoring knowledge of a singular injury that I’d hurdle past amidst two more seasons, indoor and outdoor, where I would be a healthy competitor?  I meant well in all my passion and zeal, and there were people like Mama Melissa who gently (not subtly) tried to help save me from myself.

It happened when I left Nashville the year I turned thirty.  I stopped writing poetry or prose.  I couldn’t compose since I hadn’t touched a piano since I left mine behind in my ex-husband’s rented home.  A year working in virtual school administration out of a cubicle both equipped me with out of classroom work experience and served to remind me why I became a teacher in the first place.  Investing in the next generation of leaders and teachers and workers and thinkers… it’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.  This past year, I knew I’d turn in the key to the classroom with the yearbook tree and hope the next teacher doesn’t paint over the handprints.  I put off submitting the letter of resignation even when my fiancé was scheduling our household moves to Germany.  I was immobilized by what was coming because this time I knew how painful it would be.

When I left Nashville School of the Arts during my divorce to try and start over near family, I lost a community of friends, like Mama Melissa, and students who are starting their own families now and occasionally messaging me updates after reading a recent post of mine.  I think I’d spent my whole life in schools, but each one preceding that had a max term of four years served.  I never planned to leave my husband.  I never planned to leave NSA.  I’d retire in that room with no windows and Mama Melissa just up the hallway.  Educators who love what they do can’t help but respond to the infinite need of teaching a whole child; unfortunately, there’s no divorcing my type A perfectionism.

The irony of our tragic fairy tale’s timeline has humbled me.  A summer of facing a different future than the one Charming and I had planned and accepting that the inevitable goodbye to the yearbook tree ultimately came, discovering the hope in the realization that I was still here, because that means I’m living the advice I give.  What message would I send to my graduated blogging club members if I stopped writing when my life got messy?

After a weekend of squeezing the company of imperfect people into never-ending handouts for the copy room pinned between two days in training sessions, our principal piled us into some buses for a field trip at Camp Arrowhead.  The activities, aimed at providing faculty and staff with an opportunity to develop rapport, connect, and boost morale… well, they did.  Mine, at least.

This morning felt more like I’d gotten a bye and saw a break in the competition against Thursday’s open house school bell.  My favorite exercise was a team task to create a parachute out of some provided materials.  My principal would have liked the dialogue as four assorted women navigated through balanced determination and respect, courtesy and suggestion, trying and failing, trying again.  Our parachute had good air time inside, but we hadn’t accounted for the wind variable at the outdoor launch location.  We failed in that we didn’t have the best time, but we’d bonded and invested so much that after the competition was over, we returned to the drawing board, made alterations through the break, and found our second parachute was flight ready.  The wind didn’t capsize our craft this time.

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It would have won, and to these four random women, forced to get to know one another in a the best attempt I’ve experienced yet, we did win.  The best strategy to avoid teacher burn out isn’t to love less or give less, it’s to invest jointly.  Every tweak we made to our parachute affected its flight course.  When I was watching it fly down to a new teammate, it was impossible to tell which of our contributions had worked.  All of our ideas were wound up in coffee filters, string, and paper clips, a final product that would not have existed were it not for the cumulative individual contributions spawning further changes and development.

The football games have already started at Darling Stadium, but they don’t have me waxing nostalgic to grab a camera and snap shots for the yearbook.  I’d prepared for that.  Few things in my life have actually been for forever and always, even when I thought they were going to be – not men, not teaching posts, not even whole states.  My world got bigger with this school re-alliance though, not smaller.  I still live in Hampton, still bump into students and former colleagues at the gym or grocery store, still smile when they don’t recognize the blonde me at first.  Now, I believe I have a true gift in my new job.  Starting over is always hard, but as I’m trying to get my room to function how it used to, I can picture her shuffling around in the other side of the wall, moving here after a summer playing Cruela de Vil in Disney, trying to imagine what she wants to create inside these four walls, envisioning what it will be like to teach her first set of students.  Create, not re-create, like I’ve been trying to do.  It’s helped me adapt and make my space new, too.

That was a role she played at Disney, but there isn’t a mean bone in this girl’s slender, dance frame… she’s more like a Dalmatian, sweet and loyal, but I know she can bite if provoked by a threat.  It’s reassuring seeing the start of school through her eyes.  This year, I want to work smarter and avoid burn out, give what I have and take the resources provided to do more than just survive a year while your students thrive.  Whatever parachute Dalmatian and I make, hopefully soaring SOL scores, I know it is going to be better and stronger if we tweak together, try and fail together, try again together.

I write alone on my front porch tonight, like every Tuesday night, because I didn’t get married and move away.  That wasn’t forever, and Nashville wasn’t, and this might not be either.  Mama Melissa still encourages me emails and letters, across so many thousands of days and miles. She reminded me that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. I don’t have everything figured out, but I’m not going to give up.  I’m not going to stop writing, even if I already lost the competition.

When I write, I grow, and I post my sentiments so that perhaps they might be one among many contributions that help another on Team Human get their parachutes safely soaring.

Sunglasses, Side by Side

Today was my second day of new teacher orientation, another eight hours of information overload, and yet already fresh faces feel familiar.  Crammed in an auditorium that’s a virtual black hole for cell service, my school’s latest hires are bonding as much through shared confusion over login credentials as in our mutual dissatisfaction at a forced farewell to the sweet summer still converging outside brick and mortar.  The hectic hype stills as I write into the dark, humid August night, bound to resume its reign with the sun’s return tomorrow.

The sun and students keep coming up, year after eleven years; in fact, the future is so bright, according to this district, that Human Resources handed each educator a pair of sunglasses on the way into training this morning as a symbolic gesture. Every teacher undergoes orientation when entering a school system, and we generally expect little.  I, for one, hope I join the seasoned faculty for pre-service with payroll, benefits, and online accounts in place so I can engage my brain in curricular endeavors and school-specific initiatives.  I didn’t anticipate our training would impact deeply, much less inspire.

The sunglasses, paired with an exercise where we walked twenty steps and shared with strangers our best idea to usher each student into a bright future, ironically opened my eyes.  Perhaps, after some years of service in any profession, we enter into required development opportunities a bit jaded or skeptical, having fought heavy eyelids out of respect to sub-par PD instructors during too many summer sessions when we were all too aware of those snoozing peacefully on the beach getting a tan while we endured yet another training that might never find application in the classroom.

Granted, even wading through benefit options can be a positive experience if you’re sitting beside the right people.  At my old school, we found each other naturally, and those bonds grew during my four years of in-service in the cafeteria with a temperamental, portable sound system. Maybe experience put us ahead of the learning curve, but I’ve made fast friends with a couple of transfers from my side of the water and a recent college grad still ironing out certification.  Though I’d awoken with hesitancy to leave my bed, body still resisting the early to bed mentality necessitated by the inevitable early to rise mornings, figuring out which grasses will be greener and which once more sparse was punctuated by laughter and sarcasm that won our foursome some annoyed glances.

The future certainly felt brighter today.  Even now, after the heavy clouds unburdened themselves leaving a methodical beat dripping from my drain pipes, I’m smiling at the thought.  Sure, the sunglasses seemed gimmicky at first, but we didn’t need to wear them comically indoors to understand the symbolic sentiment handed to us by those responsible for our growth, investing in us so we can foster student growth all year long.  Two weeks from today, we’ll begin to provide return on that investment, and we’re huddled in classes in school squinting at the projector screen so we’ll be ready by then.

During one session, a trainer mentioned they had more online resources now than actual “human” resources, gearing the hour toward ensuring we could access them and take advantage.  By midmorning, I realized that I had three human resources in my pocket already, and they might be the best takeaways from this district’s new teacher orientation.  It’s almost magical how various aspects of our myriad lives meet, marry, and intersect to make me believe a bright future not only awaits us… we’re existing in it already.  At lunch, over mediocre chicken salad, the four of us uncovered a shared interest in Once Upon a Time, taking care to avoid spoilers for those of us still binge-watching to catch up to the apparently controversial latest season.  The TV series chronicles the journeys of fairy tale characters living under a curse in a modern town with no memory of their previous lives as villains or heroes.  I thought I’d introduce them in my blog with pseudonyms derived from the show, but after our session on equity, I’m finding stereotyping more appropriate in a social context.

From the title, I jokingly admitted to my teammates that I thought this was going to be finance-related.  Instead, we were asked to identify ourselves on a worksheet using cultural terms, then answer a series of questions.  I chose Italian-American woman, and I could answer yes to almost all questions, that I could live and attend church where I wanted, find food I like and images of people like me in magazines, etc.  The trainer asked us to assume a different identity and answer the questions again.  I thought of my very first friend four years ago at the start of a different leg of my career, and quickly sobered at the realization that equality wasn’t equity for a gay, Hispanic professional.

The exercise was intended to help us understand that we have no idea what students are carrying in their physical or figurative backpacks on the first day of school.  We see what people want us to see.  The first thing that comes to mind when I remember my Spanish teacher friend is his infectious smile and contagious laugh that warmed my spirit during busy days at school and Wednesday night dinners at my place.  We talked for hours, at work and the gym and on my front porch… but I’d never considered the unique challenges he faced daily and hid behind that epic smile… challenges that didn’t touch me.  That realization touched me.

Our youngest addition to the English faculty sat to my right, identifying herself as a white female professional.  She’s joining us from Disneyworld, and you’d never guess this sweet Pennsylvania girl spent her summer playing Cruella De Vil.  Had I not died my hair blonde, students might believe we were sisters.  We used our lunch break to head to our school and work in our classrooms, side by side with windows opening to the courtyard.  My principal dubbed me her unofficial mentor since we’re tackling the eleventh grade.  He anticipated she would benefit from my experience, but he couldn’t have known how I needed her youthful optimism, positivity, and un-jaded wide-eyed wonder to remind me why I started teaching in the first place.  She doesn’t fit into a fairy tale.  She’s writing a new one, though the heroine is eerily familiar.

To my left in that session were two experienced teachers who taught together in a different school last year, and though I didn’t peek at their cultural identities, these thirty-somethings are as unique from me as they are from each other.  One is married, makes her own coffee creamer, and is perhaps the first teacher I’ve met that might be more geeky and tech savvy than I, with light skin that suggest beach visits are limited to an hour because she has twenty other things she wants to dive into that afternoon.  Her drive is palpable, her sarcasm is disarming, and I can’t wait to find out what she’s got in her back pack.

The last of our foursome is a single black male with a kid in grade school and another just in college, but he’s too young at heart for me to believe it.  I’d met him over the weekend at a gathering with our department, and he saved me a seat at breakfast yesterday as promised.  We have a lot in common, like quitting smoking and taking up vaping, our aversion of Apple products, and our affection for sarcasm, and undoubtedly, our attention deficits are magnified while sitting together.  His answers from the initial questionnaire in that session made me wonder what I don’t know yet that’s going to continue to round out my perspective of myself and others.  He’s strong and kind and curious.

When they handed me sunglasses in the auditorium lobby this morning, my eyes were still half shut.  After a day learning alongside my new teacher friends, I’m awake and alert and ready for the future we’ve already ushered in… even if I would have been content to just stay where I was before.  Our fresh-faced foursome has bonded as much in our shared interests as in our idiosyncrasies, personal plights, and our responses to cultural stigmas.

Today was confirmation that I am right where I am supposed to be, living my best, bright future, writing a new story with a resurrected heroine I thought I lost back in Nashville.  What’s more, I’m looking forward to my morning drive across the water to work because of these three people, newly positioned in my life.  Perhaps I’m catching some of our youngest’s optimism, but I think we’re going to make each other better in areas the Human Resources department doesn’t cover in handbook.

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