Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Breaking Point

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Latest autumn addition: Mulling Spices...we may or may not be on our third gallon of cider.

Today, it snowed.

I feel like I have peeked out of the blinds in my room every morning for weeks, looking for a dusting of winter. Instead I have been greeted with rain. My first whiff of air in the morning has smelled like spring instead of winter, the darkening skies not matching the other sensations.

But today, it all felt right.

Curtis was home for a quiet weekend for the first time in what felt like forever. His job, great training that it is, has felt consuming for six weeks. Throughout medical school and residency I have felt that realistic expectations have kept me balanced while his schedule is out of control. If I know I won’t see him for days, if I know he’ll be so exhausted he can’t think clearly, if I know he’ll sleep through all the hours he’s home—I’m okay.

Unfortunately, while that method seems to work for months and months of the year, inevitably I hit a point where it doesn’t matter that I know what to expect, I am still very much not okay with the situation. And at that point I worry about his health due to his ridiculous schedule; I get anxious whenever we’re together because it’s only a matter of hours before he leaves. I sleep poorly; I am impatient with my students. And all the while I wonder if I will ever go back to “normal”—if we will ever have a relationship that will be classified as such.

Then, just as suddenly, the streak ends. He’s home for a weekend, and we both sleep soundly—for hours and hours and hours.

Today, the snow felt symbolic. The odd weeks of forty-degree rain equaled out with an overdue, oh-so-seasonal snow, covering the decomposing leaves that have lain dead on the ground for almost a month. It was time.

I was ready.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Estuary Experience: Teaching Outside the Box

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Today:
Shovels, wheelbarrows, hoes, rakes
Broken down wood palates, old newspapers, a mature bull moose sporting an impressive rack
Tights under my jeans, a down coat, a knit hat, boots, fleece mittens

Looking at our crew, you'd never know it was mid-October--and not mid-January.

The nip in the air has been increasing all week, with Monday's morning temperature in the low thirties, and today's dipping ten degrees lower. It was easy to see our breath as we gathered rotted wood and rusted barbed wire in an attempt to clean up city-owned property: an old homestead turned estuary.

Some of the teachers I work with discovered this service-learning opportunity a couple years ago and have taken students to this site to help with every phase of the project, from dismantling the original homestead and make-shift shacks to gathering up debris and trash from the surrounding area. The students were shuttled through different activities, from identifying local critters to observing and discussing the diverse bird population in the estuary, but many enjoyed the manual labor most. After all, how often do most teenagers get to dismantle rotting, wooden structures with brute force? How often do they get to destroy anything without getting in trouble?

Though the chill was enough to numb my fingers and toes by noon, by the end of the afternoon I could feel my face glowing from the sunshine. There is something satisfying about working alongside the students in something other than constructing stories. There is gratification in seeing a clean field where there was previously a generous spread of debris.

When we returned to school, we spread one of many treasures we found in the debris out on my classroom tables: newspapers from 1981. They marveled at the advertisements and the haircuts, and commented about the style of the televisions. They were in awe of the housing prices, which is perhaps what has changed most in the last thirty years, and noted the businesses with which they were still familiar. It is crazy to think that thirty years ago someone lived in a house on that abandoned field, on a bluff overlooking the ocean when now there is nothing now but ruins. Up in Alaska we have so few "old" structures, so little preserved, tangible history that experiencing old buried cow bones and newspapers mysteriously wrapped in plastic feels sort of like an archaeological dig.

Tomorrow we return to the norm: books, papers, pencils, bells. I hope in the return is a new sense of energy that can only come from running through fields of tall grass, working together in projects where I am no more skilled than they are. Yes, in the classroom I call the shots, but they have as much to contribute as I do. And hopefully today reminded them of that fact.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Content with Company

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Last week was spent in catch up mode, the product of many weeks of days packed to the brim. I shopped for groceries and cooked meals from scratch. I made appointments for health check ups, oil changes, and tire changes. I hung a curtain rod I purchased two months ago. I slept. I returned items to stores from purchases made this summer--barely making it under the ninety day limit. I graded stacks of papers, desperate to finish them for this week--the last of the quarter.

By the time the weekend rolled around I felt rejuvenated, and the sunny clear skies seemed bright as well.

In sharp contrast to my recovery week was Curtis's, where he was slammed from Wednesday on. On Friday he awoke from a few hours of sleep after unexpectedly spending a second night at the hospital in a row. He came out to the kitchen to find a myriad of food items: kale and mango salad, macaroni with creamy squash sauce, pumpkin gingerbread. After the cooking hiatus that has come from my coaching, he probably thought he was still sleeping. We feasted and played card games: me, happy to have him home and awake; him, making corny jokes, and laughing at them in his sleep-deprived state. He was asleep by 9pm on this Friday night, and I lay in bed awake--rested from my generous amounts of sleep, content with my productivity, happy to have a partner, if only for a few hours.

There are many sides of contentedness, I am discovering as my life shifts from a packed schedule to a more leisurely pace. Friday's healthy, homemade feast with Curtis left me just as content as Thursday's date in the hospital cafeteria, and Wednesday's dinner at home with a friend I hadn't seen in weeks. The commonality is not the busyness that I sometimes mistake as fulfilling, but rather the people I am busy with--at work, at home, with friends, with family.

Yesterday, Curtis was unexpectedly home by four in the afternoon, and we headed out into the sunny, cool afternoon to bike for a while. By the time we were finished my legs were weary and my toes were frozen, but the unexpected time together was a gift. Cracking through frozen puddles, slipping around corners on the generous blanket of leaves, weaving around other wanderers out with dogs and children and spouses was all I wanted to do yesterday afternoon. Having Curtis to do it with? Even better.

Monday, October 3, 2011

That Which is Measurable

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I woke tired this morning, and hung on to the fatigue as the day progressed. Nothing could seem to lift me from this funk: not sunshine through the windows, not a canceled meeting at lunch, not candy from the bowl in the counseling office. "I need energy and optimism," I confessed to a colleague of mine as I picked through the wrapped treats. She, who is much older and wiser than myself, agreed that today seemed to be made of such sentiments.

Unfortunately, one fun size Almond Joy and one mini-vanilla-Tootsie-Roll were not the solution.

Returning my desk to get to work during my prep period I was greeted with an online report card, feedback on my first week's work for an online class. This class was the thief of many hours of what could have been free time on Sunday, which I spent reflecting on writing curriculum and personal writing habits rather than idling away time hanging out with Curtis, watching Hulu, or baking cookies. While the three essays and numerous feedback comments led to a reflective afternoon and evening, they left me drained of all creative energy come morning, and bitter that the time had been spent while Curtis was home.

And then I opened the email. Do you remember that moment when you no longer received tangible, measurable feedback? Perhaps it was after high school, maybe college or even graduate school. As much as I did not miss the finals, the schedule, or the endless mountains of reading upon graduation, I did miss the consistent tangible measures of how I was doing. Letters, every few months, would be posted to match my progress, and I could assure myself that my work was worthwhile, no matter how insecure I felt in my developing skills.

Then, I became a teacher. Sure, I have observations with administrators and the occasional pat-on-the-back email from an appreciative parent. But I also have rants from other parents frustrated about a teaching unit or method, some students failing for any number of reasons, and a general attitude of apathy from other students that I can't figure out how to combat. At the end of the day I can give myself a grade for how I feel I performed, but it doesn't seem to hold as much weight as the one that was issued on perforated card stock the week after each semester ended--nor is it as unbiased.

It turns out that a good old fashioned report card was what I needed today, a little positive feedback that tells me "Great job! You excel at writing essays about yourself, reading pages of a textbook, and incorporating that information into your classroom model. You can be critical as well as inquisitive about writing instruction, and you have great voice."And then I felt okay about afternoon classes that were boring and distracted, about impatience with the girl that tried to blame me for her missing assignment, about the fact that I'm never going to finish my units in time for the end of the quarter. For a moment, measurable feedback from an outside source trumped the self-critical-and-sometimes-reflective attitude that forces me to proclaim each day as a success or failure.

Today I declare success: We moved forward even though I was tired; I forced students to pay attention even though they wanted to sleep. Tomorrow is another day, hopefully filled with energy and optimism, hopefully declared success as well--even though I'll have to wait until next week for more tangible feedback.