Friday, February 26, 2010

Things I Have Come To Appreciate, or The Redemption of Eighth Grade

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After I was hired in my first teaching position I was informed that I would be teaching two eighth grade classes—back to back.

I was terrified.

Ninety minutes with twenty some thirteen year olds every single day?

Lovely.

Rewind a decade or so and you’ll find the impetus of my terror: a terrible eighth grade year. I hated the eighth grade, and say that with all the seriousness the word hate can inspire. I was in my third school in three years (in three states), and had not a friend to lean on, unless you count the one that lived 3,000 miles away, who I would get to chat with on the phone every couple of weeks.

Being new is hard. Being new in junior high is horrible. At some point in high school most students learn to be a bit more welcoming, a bit more kind, a bit more supportive of the kid that is having a hard time finding her way. In junior high? Not so much. They tease and make fun and are relentless—because it makes them feel a tad bit more secure. Security is a hard thing to come by at 13, and is sometimes gathered at all costs.

Fast forward a few years, and I find myself in a similar position: freshman in college. Once again the new kid in a new state, my fears of being the friendless loner return—but are not fulfilled. Miraculously (I was convinced) I made friends. Quickly. My 4,000 mile distance from most friends and loved ones was soothed by late night conversations on bus rides and abundant running partners (thanks to a college cross country team).

Five years later when my closest friend from college moved away to graduate school, I would find myself hunting for another (local) kindred spirit…and would find her in the classroom next door. We have vented and laughed and mourned over struggles in family and friends and students, and have found much comfort in sharing the journey rather than navigating alone.

Last year a pair of graduating seniors asked my teaching pal and I if we were “BFF’s”. My friend and I chuckled, and thought for a moment, and I said she was probably my best local friend. The reality is, it’s not that my friendships with people from high school and college ceased when we moved, but our relationships shifted…just like this one eventually will.

I have come to trust that regardless of whether I move or stay, I will find those who can share and support me in my journey. And thanks to eighth grade, I will never take those friendships for granted.

Meanwhile, I have come to love teaching the eighth grade. I love the (surprising) optimism, the candid conversations, and the naïve confidence.

And I love that I don’t ever have to do it again.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Perils of First Impressions

When I was first engaged, I was not prepared for the barrage of two-minute conversations I would have regarding my fiancée. In the first month, everyone I had ever known (an exaggeration, I know) wanted to know about who HE was.

This is how the conversation typically went:

Person: Congratulations! You’re engaged!
Me: Thanks!
Person: So, who is he?
Me. Well, his name is Curtis and we got to know each other in college because we were both on the cross country and track teams.
Person: Oh, another runner, how nice. So what is he doing now?
Me: Well, he’s finishing up his first year of medical school.
Person: OH. Well done.

The rest of the conversation is irrelevant.

The first time this happened to me, I was surprised. The seventeenth time (not an exaggeration) I was annoyed. Why does the fact that the man I’m going to marry is in medical school elicit the response “well done”?

Well, you might say, he’s going into a respectable profession. Or He’s clearly smart and disciplined. Or Only good looking people become doctors (yeah right, I know).

So why did this reply bother me so much?

The fact that he was in medical school says absolutely nothing about his character, or his self discipline, or his merit as a quality choice of a husband. It has been our experience that the spectrum of personalities in medical school is hardly different than a cross section of people in just about any other profession: Thoughtful, Self-centered, Disciplined, Lazy—they are all in there.

--

As a high school teacher I witness on a regular basis just how incorrect first impressions can be. I am reminded of how young I look every time a new person walks into my classroom and searches for the teacher (while I wave my hands, hopelessly looking to catch the visitor’s attention).

I am reminded when students are highly regarded by their peers for their outward success in one arena or another, but show few signs (from my perspective) of future success in the adult world.

I am reminded when a student confides in me the chaos of their family life away from the classroom, and it is a reality I never would have guessed.

I find that one student blames herself for the destruction of her parents’ marriage, which is dissolving before her eyes on a daily basis.

I find that another student’s sister gave birth over the weekend, her second child while in high school. In addition to all the stresses of a newborn child, the family is trying to determine whether to keep the child or put it up for adoption.

And I want to know why my research paper isn’t getting sufficient attention.

(Boy do I feel sheepish)

Despite my personal frustrations with assumptions based on career or appearance, I am just as guilty. I have craved and appreciated chances for second and third and fourth chances to correctly evaluate situations, and have valued when someone has trusted me enough to enlighten me about the true state of things.

So here's to second and third and fourth impressions, for finding truth in difficult situations, and for being forgiving to those that are guilty of a faulty first glance.

I surely am just as at fault.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My Life Behind Bars (Or, Observing Lingering Accumulation)

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The many snow storms of late have left the eaves of our roof laden with icicles. They have formed many times this winter, creating gleaming crystals to catch the sun, while leaving evidence of the heat loss of our 1920’s windows.

One particular icicle has grown so long that it connects the first and second story eaves, towering ominously over the rear entrance to the first story apartment. The first snow left the corner icicle no different than its counterparts, but the second and third and fourth storms left it to accumulate with each day the temperature temporarily rose above 32 degrees, eventually leaving us with a large ice sculpture.

Yesterday I watched (and offered advice) as Curtis tried to dislodge the monstrosity with a snow shovel. It offered little response, and certainly didn’t budge, much to our chagrin.

It has been in the 40’s all weekend. With every day of gradual melt the icicle (if you can even call it that) becomes more unstable, and I fear that one day it will fall on our neighbor downstairs, who might exit to find it falling too quickly to avoid (this is—without a doubt—the worst case scenario, but still one I have fearfully imagined).

--

Last week I attempted to patch a relationship that has been at odds for a long time. Years ago there was a conflict of opinion about the well-being of a person, and I fell on one side of the argument, while she fell on the other. When the person passed away, we went our different directions. Despite the long history of our relationship, it was ended.

Years later, I feel like I am chipping at a large icicle to restore this relationship. Its harsh end has seemed to color all that came before, and despite my attempts to make peace I have not (yet) been met with a positive response.

--

Every day I examine the icy growth as I walk out to my car, and then again as I return from whatever task or occasion. And every day I remind myself that it will fall, one way or another, sooner or later; spring will come and the threat will (literally) melt and evaporate. Yet even with this assurance, I can’t help but admonish myself for not dealing with it sooner: knocking it down before it became such an un-opposable force.

Some things are much clearer in hindsight. And sometimes you have to accept there may not have been much you could have done about it anyway.

*Note: Above icicle monstrosity has grown even more since the picture was taken a week ago.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Planning For That Which Does Not Yet Exist

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In the scope of human personalities, there is a spectrum. On one side are the people who fly by the edge of their seat, throw caution to the wind and make decisions as they come. These people embrace adventures and excitement and hate to commit to things prematurely.

I am on the other side of this spectrum
.

I like to have things scheduled in advance. I like to have time to anticipate making a decision, collect all information that could contribute to the decision making process, and make an informed one. This is not to say that I am incapable of making quick decisions, I just prefer to have time to prepare and investigate.

As a planner or a procrastinator, there are some decisions that need to be made without knowing whether those decisions will ever matter.

Welcome to my life.

I am currently in this state of limbo, feverishly making lists of things to do “in the event of…”. We will find out where Curtis has been placed for residency one month from today, and with a (potential) cross country move on the horizon, I am helpless to combat my plan-making tendencies—even if it may not come to fruition. Curtis and I have talked through so many plans and discussed so many scenarios, considering everything from keeping/selling/purchasing vehicles, to keeping/selling/moving everything we own.

Sometimes in the midst of a perfectly normal conversation one of us will point to some household item and ask “Would we keep this?”

Our dented trashcan (that we love).
Our first set of dishes (which though inexpensive, are still in perfectly good condition)
Our beautiful bookcases (purchased from an elderly man, who was selling all of his furniture to move in with his children)
Our books. (We have so many books. So many.)

But the looming possibility of a move has brought to my mind all of the things we plan for, without knowing whether or not they will happen. I am planning for a track season, but the (unfortunate) reality is that all the kids could decide to do baseball and softball and I would be left with a meet schedule and training plan that no one will ever use.

I am planning for the arrival of (multiple) babies from friends, and while everything points to healthy growing children, I am not so naïve that I have not known tragedy in the most unexpected places.

We plan to the best of our knowledge, but must recognize that despite our best efforts, things may entirely change.

My husband read an article recently that talked about change. Some people, regardless of planning tendencies, embrace it, while others shy away at every turn. Change, for better or for worse, equals loss: the loss of something that existed before, something that can often never be regained.

But while change is loss, it is also gain. Planning for the future is planning for the addition of something: a season, a child, a move. New experiences, new people, new places. These are good and beautiful things. But in my preparation, as much as I anticipate the arrival of good, I mourn for the loss of what was.

Because in mourning the loss of what will soon be gone, I wallow in my love and enjoyment for it, appreciating every detail.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Curse of the Small Onion

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In our house, grocery shopping is traditionally undertaken by yours-truly, as is every other task related to keeping our family in working condition. Cooking meals, cleaning the bathroom, shopping for toiletries, socializing with friends—these are tasks I tend to, so that in the rare event that Curtis had a free moment, it is not filled with time consuming necessities that could have been handled elsewhere.

Since all sorts of money and children are currently promised to Sallie Mae as thanks and repayment for a medical education, grocery shopping in our house has become a sort of game. How little money can we spend, while still purchasing the necessary amount of calories to survive another week?

(Note: Caloric intake has currently increased exponentially, due to husband’s marathon training. These days it is nearly impossible to have enough food in our house.)

Almost every cost cutting measure has been tried over the past few years. Making yogurt from scratch? Check. Homemade granola (later downgraded to plain oatmeal)? Done. Bulk purchasing? Tried it. Mostly vegetarian meals? Yes. Purchasing small onions instead of large ones?

Now you’ve taken it too far.

We may have one of the world’s smallest grocery budgets, but chopping those small onions is a pain. Have you tried them? They are nearly unforgivable.

A year ago I bought these lovely cost-saving items, and my husband and I grumbled through the whole bag. Months later my husband would tease me every time the little buggers were on sale about the faulty purchase. And we would laugh.

Last week, my household contributing husband was wooed by the cry of low prices (and the promise of fuel rewards), and the sirens convinced him that small onions were a worthy cost-saving venture. And when I opened the fridge after work I was stunned to see the ominous bag of vegetables.

“You bought small onions?” I ask incredulously.
“Yes?” he answers sheepishly.
“They were cheap, weren’t they.”

And we both laughed, except when we had to chop them up, then we cried.

Someday, when the budget is not quite so tight and we have purchased miniature onions enough times to never make that mistake again, I will smile at the yogurt thermos and the inexpensive recipe repertoire.

And I think, in a lot of ways, I will miss it. The urgency of cost-cutting, the rickety car we drove, and laughing over a bag of onions that we can’t believe we have been swindled by once again.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Goal for Snow Day 3: Enjoy Simple Pleasures

Another snow storm rolled in last night, and according to my calculations, it was right on time.

Today is Snow Day #3.

Blackberry bread and Kaladi coffee have made watching the steady snow fall peaceful and relaxing.

On the agenda for the rest of the day? Finish my book, work on a quilt for an upcoming baby, watch highlights from the Olympics, and maybe even take a nap.

(And of course, eat more blackberry bread)
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Monday, February 15, 2010

(Stop) Pay(ing) Attention To Me.

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(Alternate Title: Appreciating the delicate balance between too much and too little)

Exhibit A:
Student, who is intentionally seated front and center in my class, fails to pay attention to an important lesson on poetry (and most other lessons, for that matter). Every minute or so I have to remind said student that I am the center of attention. I call myself vain to expect such focus (which elicits a chuckle from the handful of students that hone in on our brief class-interrupting chat) but insist on it anyway.

Said student has a history of being distracted. I can never be quite interesting or engaging enough. I have yet to discover what will capture him for 45 minutes (or five), though he has informed me that basketball and/or video games would be a nice start.

I am sorry, sir. There are not enough (good) poems on basketball (or video games) to comprise a solid unit.

Exhibit B:
A certain medical student (that I live with) is doing a month with a dermatologist to gain a greater understanding on all-things-skin. (Un)Fortunately for me, I was born with my share of interesting skin. This has made me the subject of all sorts of evening scrutiny.

“What are you doing?” I ask, tired from a day of trying to gather attention from uninterested students.
“I’m looking at your moles” ideal, inquisitive student replies.
“They have all been there; they haven’t changed.”
“What about this one? It’s dark.”
“It has always been dark.”
“This one is an odd shape.”
“It has always been an odd shape.”

(Two hours later)

“What are you doing?”
“I was just thinking, have you ever tried (fill in the blank)? I think it would help with (fill in the blank).”

--

I’m not always the most patient person, but you’d think I’d be a little more consistent. You would think, perhaps, that I would appreciate (my husband’s) genuine interest in applying skills learned earlier that day (in a figurative classroom) in every day life (also known as me).

(I am going to leave that one unanswered)

I find my life to be quite the (funny) joke sometimes, where I leave one environment endlessly frustrated with apathy to find another student waiting at home for me ready to exercise (seemingly) endless analysis.

The irony is (indeed) hilarious.

*Note: Monogrammed t-shirt and expert photography provided by sister.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Where did this Albatross Come From?

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It has been a long week.

I know I had a snow day on Wednesday, and have Monday off (hooray for noteworthy presidents), but it has still been a long week.

How is this possible? Let me fill you in.

In the midst of the school year there are five seasons:
-We are entertained by school (Sept/Oct/Nov)
-We are excited about Christmas (Dec)
-We are still running off the adrenaline of Christmas (Jan)
-Now
-We can sense the end of the school year, and thus are motivated to finish (Mar-Jun)

February becomes this zone of the school year where we are “painted ships on a painted sea”*, or in other words, unproductive people stranded with no sign of future productivity.

*Pardon the reference to “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” but I was reading it today with my class.

I’m not sure what albatross I killed* to deserve such a fate, but the fate is pretty clear: be miserable, trapped on a ship with miserable people.

Thankfully, not every day in February feels this miserable. After all, yesterday was a snow day, and Monday we have off. Tomorrow is “day-of-sugar”, also known as Valentine’s Day (observed), and will be full of hyper students who at least have an excuse for their chattiness and hyper behavior. The nine days after this streak of interest--unless interrupted by another snow storm--may bring me to the end of my rope.

Solution?

Cut out red construction paper hearts in an attempt to channel some elementary-school-happiness, and count down the days until the next season of the year begins(10 school days!), when fresh motivation will grace us all with the inspiration to carry on.

Anyone else in a February funk?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Winter Storm: Round 2 (The One That Came On Time)

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I went to school on Monday disappointed
. The storm that had come over the weekend had been beautiful and fierce—but failed to offer any school cancellations. I like heavy snow-laden trees like the next guy, but they are so much more beautiful when I look at them from the couch, in sweatpants, eating fried eggs, while plotting how much I will get done* on my “bonus” day.

*When else are the taxes going to get done? They are (traditionally) a snow-day activity. Something I find the inspiration to complete when a day I was supposed to spend guiding and inspiring teenagers is canceled.

Anyway.

I arrived at school Monday to find out that there was ANOTHER storm coming…on Tuesday night. This one was promised to last 24 hours, all day Wednesday, bringing up to nine inches of travel-hindering goodness.

As Tuesday came the storm was looking even more fierce, with estimations growing to a possible twelve. The snow day was looking so sure that the students grew antsy as the day wore on, with afternoon classes feeling like battles to instill discipline on Christmas Eve.

The present was coming. They were sure of it.

The snow started late morning and continued all day. It was beautiful, and enchanting, and the parking lot was a mess.

The conditions were perfect.

I drove home last night, sliding around corners with glee. The snow continuing all night as predicted would call for a snow day for sure.

But then the unthinkable happened: The winter storm warning was downgraded to an advisory (gasp!) and I went to bed dismayed.

“The students are going to be so irritable tomorrow if we have school,” I mumbled to my husband. “And I’m not going to be able to sleep anticipating this possible misery.”
“It’s like Christmas Eve,” he replied, a little too happily.
“Except that I might end up with coal in my stocking. It’s a viable possibility.”

I tossed and turned all night…

…until I got the promised text message at 5:31AM.

Alas, there was no coal. I still believe.

Now, where are those tax forms?

Monday, February 8, 2010

It Was Perfect, Except A Couple Days Early

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Did you hear about the snowstorm we got? The huge mid-Atlantic snowstorm that our president called “Snowmagedon” and the weather channel called the worst that has hit DC in decades, perhaps ever (but then you have to check the journals of Washington and Jefferson who recorded a pretty bad one in 1772).

But that was in DC.

Six hours west, in the good old Midwest, we “only” got a foot and a half. And as the heavens would have it, it came on a Friday night.

Friday. Night.

The city was flocked in the only 12 hours all weekend that virtually guarantee that the biggest storm of the season equals zero days off school.

It was treacherous Friday night and beautiful Saturday morning. The plows came by in waves, and the neighbors were out with shovels. The mail delivery woman took over an hour on our street, and the children slid down piles of snow formed by their parents’ labor.

And for a moment, life slowed down.

We made banana pancakes and watched a documentary. We drove to get groceries, admiring the Winter Wonderland our city had been transformed into overnight.

In the end, the sunny afternoon melted the slush on the streets, and glistened in the trees heavy with snow. And even though the storm’s timing was terrible, the beauty that comes with such dumps makes it hard to be discontent.

Even if I have to go to work today.

Friday, February 5, 2010

89 Cents of Pure Joy

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...I told my husband when he called me to tell me he was on his way home from work. I had just arrived home myself, after stopping at the grocery store. In the midst of collecting onions and cucumbers I had stumbled on a bin labeled with a large fluorescent cartoonish sign proclaiming avocados might be claimed by anyone harboring $1 (less than $1—89 cents!).

As I mashed the soft, green, goodness into an edible paste I realized what a perfect ending it was to the day.

It was one of those days.

I woke up exhausted, after the toddler of one of my friends from (very) different time zone called me at 2am. The work day was littered with needy teenagers, one of whose parents came in for a spontaneous conference about his child’s inability to pass any of her classes. Working out after school involved yawning every five minutes. Grocery shopping involved waiting in lines (which is, obviously, not out of the ordinary).

But then I found the avocado.

Guacamole is one of those foods that brings me back to my childhood. It’s comfort food, right up there with egg sandwiches, bean burritos, and donuts. It rivals a foot rub.

So when I have had a long day, with needy people and an exhausted self, an 89 cent avocado (which is just short of a miracle in early February), made me remember that it’s not all bad. That life will go on, and will get better.

Even a bad day can be remedied with an avocado.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Thoughts on Motherhood, While Still Without Child

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I have been thinking a lot about what it means to become a mother lately, mostly because I’m surrounded with many pregnant people in my everyday life: at work, at church, at the grocery store. I had two good friends have babies in last week. (Two!) I guess I’m just that age, the age when people get pregnant.

My social calendar is full—with baby showers. I’m making quilts and painting rooms and researching recall lists in an attempt to keep up with this new life development. (It’s a full time job becoming a mother these days, or just knowing someone who is).

In the midst of conversations with them about their growing inability to sleep, their limited wardrobe, their frustrating indigestion and their mounting anticipation, I have found some interesting articles and books on my own, feeling like in some small way I can contribute to their experience.

Exhibit A: Thoughts on childbirth with Terry Gross.

I love NPR’s Fresh Air podcast. Unfortunately, it is on from 3-4pm in my area of the Midwest, and I’m lucky if I make it out of school and into my car by 3:45pm. Thankfully Steve Job’s (or his genius team of inventors) created itunes and the ipod, and my gratitude for both of these is never so full as when I am listening to podcasts.

I love them.

This podcast (about a recent book “Get Me Out: Making Babies Through the Ages” ) made me want to learn more about the process and pain of childbirth…and I’m not even pregnant. (Though, you could argue that’s why I want to know more, because it’s this far off experience that I have no tangible connection to at this moment).

Exhibit B: Article on the “Profession” of motherhood.

Thoughts on our society’s struggle with motherhood as a profession, and the separation we feel we must put between work at home and work in a career. There are a couple of really great nuggets in this one. Worth the read.

Someday, if or when I become a mother, I’m sure I will become engrossed in the process of change and reflection with an intense connection—very different from the detached curiosity I have right now. But for now I am enjoying the process as an observer, happy to make little sandwiches for showers and hand-stitch quilts...

...and contribute articles on motherhood for reflection every now and then (to help me feel a little more connected).

Monday, February 1, 2010

Evidence of Time Away, or Struggling Back to Reality

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How My Weekend Concluded…

At 9:26pm last night I was feeling restless and just “off”. You know that feeling where nothing offers contentment (productive or not) and there is no motivation to do anything, yet sitting still seems tortuous?

Like that.

Because I needed a nap this morning (before church) and this afternoon (after church) there was fear amongst the family (note: two of us) that I may be coming down with something.

Enter: Zinc Tablet

This lovely, chalky, faux-citrusy dissolving tablet must, however, be taken with food (unless said consumer would like a stomach ache).

Enter: Triscuits

These salty crackers were husband’s solution to “take with food” instructions, which he coupled with another favorite food.

Enter: Frosting

“I can’t put chocolate frosting on Tricuits.”
“Why not?” comes the incredulous reply.
“The Triscuits are salty…and grainy. They don’t go with chocolate frosting.”
“Yes, they do. I ate them the other day.”

Yet one more thing that has come out of his month-of-interviews: new snacks.

--

In all honesty, I wonder if my restlessness stems from Curtis's impending return to the workplace. Though he will have a few more weeks off in April and May, come June, and residency, his plate will be overflowing, and I will return to gathering droplets of his existence, rather than having a cup that is overflowing.

The irony of blessing, of abundance, of out-of-the-ordinary extravagance is that transition of coming back to reality makes me wish the routine had never been disturbed. But even with that half-hearted wish is the truth that we do need breaks and respites from the (sometimes exhausting) existences we choose to live.

Even if there is struggle in the transition.