Thursday, August 30, 2012

Waves of Grief

A gray day at the beach from this summer on the island...

The rain came down in sheets this afternoon, a rare occasion in our state. In the Midwest we experienced heavy showers regularly, but here the clouds seem much more prone to spit—for days—rather than pour generously.

And while the sun shined with a seeming grand finale of summer for the past few days, the rain seems somehow more fitting. Grief is in the air these days, and I find myself prone to tears over the brokenness I am surrounded with: students, friends, acquaintances, neighbors. Everyone has a story, and a glimpse into the details of private lives often leaves me speechless. I am grateful for the trust that I can delicately treasure the truth of the circumstance, even as it leaves me silently grieving for hours and days beyond the conversation.

The other night I went walking with a friend through wooded trails that nearly connect our neighborhoods. As we crossed a bridge over a major road that was blocked with ambulances and fire trucks, we couldn’t help but speculate about the nature of the accident; all signs seemed to point to a pedestrian being hit, which was later confirmed in the newspaper. Who was I, in that moment, but a pedestrian out for a walk?

There have been many occasions where friends and their loved ones have crossed paths with friends of mine in the hospital, and I always find comfort in knowing they were cared for by those I love, in ways I would never be able to help. But even as my medical skills are lacking I know from experience that sharing a burden can be just as therapeutic as any medical care. Sometimes it is the greatest gift you can receive.

These are the days when heaven is what I long for, when we will finally be at peace.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A New Start, Once Again

The midnight sun is quickly fading, and the rush to enjoy every sunny day has set in...

At the end of the first day of school, I am usually one of two things: excited or overwhelmed. Some years the details all come together to create a place where the students have a seat, I have a plan, and we can talk about the upcoming year. Other years I feel scattered and unorganized, forgetting to what I have said from period to period, and failing to share some details while repeating myself elsewhere. This is the curse of secondary education I suppose: in teaching the same class more than once, you have to keep track of the details.

Today was not perfect, but I felt like it was close. Sure, there was the locker combination that was mis-entered and had to be researched, the girl I had on my team all of track last season yet still mispronounced her name, the boy who is in my let's-read-for-fun elective class that proclaimed he doesn't like reading, but the wins countered the losses and at the end of the day I couldn't help but revel in my neatly written schedule on the board that hasn't yet been scratched through by some student who rubs too close to the wipe-off board with his sweatshirt.

There is something clean and fresh and new about the first day of school that can't be replicated on any other day.

While the students were new to the building today, I have been here for several days now. I have spent quite a bit of time assigning locks to lockers, proofreading syllabi (mine and others), typing up seating charts and perusing a new curriculum guide. I have proven I know how to use an epi pen and an inhaler, printed off medical alerts for the necessary students, reprinted rosters as they are updated, hung posters, created posters, and updated necessary lists with student preference: "My name is Alanna, but I go by Liza." Right.

This morning I told many of my classes the story of my morning, which included a stop at the coffee shop where one of my sisters works. As we exchanged details about the day, one of her regular customers walked up, whom she introduced to me as Robert. Once this older man discovered it was my first day of school, he wanted to know what I liked about teaching. I feel like it's important to share with the students why I chose--and would still choose--my profession. Some days I have students that look at me with a confused look as if to ask, "And why would you ever want to be here by choice?" There are a lot of days of teaching that are hard and long, but also a lot of details that make this profession enjoyable. At the end of the day though, when a ten second answer is all a fellow customer really wants to hear, I tend to keep it simple: I love to hear what they think.

There's a small window between being a child and being an adult when teens haven't quite figured out what people want or expect to hear, that or they don't feel compelled to give it. And that makes teaching teenagers an endless adventure. There are times for lessons in learning what is appropriate or respectful or timely, but there are also times when I like to have conversations about the concerns they have about the world they live in, concerns that haven't yet been filed into a folder titled "That's Just The Way Life Is". 

So here is to a year of adventures in the small window of honesty, brutal, shocking, and sincere. Day one is looking mighty fine.

Another first day of school post here

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Last Great Adventure of the Summer

IMG_3758Taken on the island while visiting Curtis's family last month...

This morning over breakfast with the fellow coaches and captains of my cross country running team, we formulated a plan for practice. We had spent most of the meal discussing legistics: meet schedules, team dinners, plans and inspiration for the season. And as the meal closed we discussed today: where should we do our long run? At 7am it was already clear that the chance of a hot, sunny Alaskan day was high, and after tossing around various trail systems near our meeting location, a brilliant idea arose: the beach.

There are as many beaches as coastlines in Alaska, though many would not think of them as such. Most are rocky, a few are sandy, and we have few days hot enough to warrant sunbathing, let along splashing in the glacial waves. As word spread at practice that afternoon of our destination, few were disappointed. It was sure to be an adventure, a departure from our norm, and with the thermometer reading at 77 it was the perfect place to run.

We started down a paved bike route, over three dozen high school runners, graduates, coaches and volunteers. After a couple minutes we veered off onto a dirt path, and then turned sharply again to a trail only wide enough for one person, that required even my petite frame to hunch over. The sunlight peaked through the gaps in the branches, and the turns wove around destined to shoot us out somewhere spectacular--by virtue of how mystical a trail like that feels. All of the sudden, the trail ended spitting us out on a steep, sandy slope overlooking the ocean inlet. Mountains towered from the peninsula across the water, and the sun gleamed on the ocean waves, removed from the beach by a quarter mile of mud flats exposed in a low tide. 

We scaled the downward slope of the sandy cliff, and I struggled to keep my eyes on my footing as I was so mesmerized by the view. Pausing for a moment on the sandy beach, I remembered coming here when I was barely a teen, feeling like I had discovered the best kept secret in town. You won't find many tourists scaling the rugged trails to this spot, and on a hot summer day there is something special about being the local at the only sandy beach in town.

The run along the beach quickly changed from sand to rocks to weeds over marsh. We ran past bonfires long since burned out and abandoned, driftwood forts capped with a torn white t-shirt for a flag, dogs ignoring their owners call as they sprint across the mud with abandon. There were logs to clear--both over and under--and I rolled my ankle at least twice as my feet struggled to navigate the uneven terrain, the slick mud covered rocks. Even as I baked in the sun and stole glances of the coast I was aware that even as I live surrounded by such beauty I don't always get to soak it in so closely, undistracted and submersed in the middle of it. The trail made by our team along the coast through marshy grass eventually took a turn back uphill, weaving through sparse birch trees until escalating in a steep angle uphill. The athletes I was with at the time started to give me looks questioning "Are you sure we're going the right way? We'd hate to climb that cliff only to find ourselves in the wrong place..." Onward we climbed, glancing over our shoulders to make sure we were being followed, straining to see if the rest of our team ahead of us was further down the coast, continuing to break trail where we didn't see it. 

As we crested the steep cliff we'd descended just a few miles before, we saw the final destination: the sand dunes. We continued our hike up the back side of the hill, and as I crested the top I saw pairs of boys racing across the top and launching themselves into the air, and flying for a few brief seconds before they gradually colapsed into the steep face of sand--eager to climb back up to do it all again.

In the end, we had to head back to reality, making our adventure into a loop through some of the many trails in acres of park I've explored for years on foot and bike and skis. When our initial route brought us face to face with a large moose, we adjusted our course, working up and down the undulations of trails, until familiar markers told us we were near our start. By the end I was tired, but could not have been more satisfied. If I was looking for a grand finale of this summer, this was it. 

School will crowd my schedule very soon, leaving my free time limited as our daylight wanes. And perhaps that is when I love being a coach most: mandated time in this beautiful creation--sun, sleet, wind and all--makes me a happier person. I hope today's adventure developed a new love in a few teenagers as well.