Saturday, October 31, 2015

Rock star siblings, happy families, and lies

Parent Teacher Conferences 2015 Edition.

My school has some high stress families. I'm not sure what that's all about because although sometimes my family is in high stress situations (lead paint remediation summer, or, you know, anytime Bix goes out of town for longer than a day), we are not really high stress. There's a lot of focus on achievement and there's an assumption that children of bright high-achieving parents are going to always be bright and high-achieving. Not always so.

So when I walk in with a couple and sit at the table, oftentimes there's some stress in the room with me. Pretty much I'm there to give good news, though, so that's nice. I like my kids and I'm super tolerant of ADHD behavior. I'm here to teach math. So most people who come to talk to me, I can feel the stress melt away as we talk. I'm also really good, now, at being the person someone needs me to be in a conversation. So parents like me for the most part and students do, too.

Except this one 6th grade boy I can't get a handle on. At first I thought it was a mismatch between my extreme extroverted teaching style and his obvious reserved introverted life. Introverted boys take a while to warm up to me, but this one backed away when I approached him. Flinched sometimes. It always looked like he was gathering a huge amount of courage to talk to me. I mentioned this to the teacher next door, who is reserved and introverted herself (her classroom is very quiet and orderly, as opposed to...). She had similar things to say. So we started watching and thinking about what to do. The resource teacher suggested a conference, and the parents met with her. Right afterward, they met with me. I started in on the basics--grades, standardized tests, and mom covered the papers with her hand.

"I need to talk about what the resource lady said to us just now," she told me.

So I let her talk. How happy her son was, how involved in how many things, how happy their family was, everything they did together. And on and on.

And something was wrong. I picked up her nervous stress, of course, but I could explain that away with the fact that this was a stressful time. But something else was just weird. While she sat there explaining her perfect life, I glanced over at dad--he was sitting about 4 feet away from her and neither of them were interacting with the other--no glances, no physical contact. She didn't even reference him while she spoke.

He kept putting his hands up to his eyes, and I realized what was so weird. He was pretending he wasn't crying. He was wiping away tears as his wife talked about how happy everyone was.

"I'm so glad to hear you say that," I lied. "Because that's not what we're seeing and I just don't want him to be sad here at school." Then I talked about Brooklyn, the introvert who treats school like her job, for the most part (although she is happier this year). I mentioned that the counselor was really excellent (she is) and if he wanted to talk to her?

"Tell me more about her," dad said, the first thing since he'd shook my hand and introduced himself.

"Well," I started, and mom put her hand up.

"I'm going to fix it. He needs to not be like that at school. I'll talk to him."

So that was the lies, not the happy family.

The happy family was a high school teacher, an elementary teacher, and their two happy kids that I get to teach math to. Dad's a high school math teacher, so we talked in code about what each student needed to know to move on successfully next year. Dad admitted that he doesn't check grades much, and mom interrupted him. "No, say it right. Say, 'Teresa does it all.'"

"Ah yes," he nodded. "What I meant to say is that Teresa does it all."

Both kids are totally comfortable sitting next to their parents. They listen to me talk about one of them and then move on to the next. The genuine happiness at the table is a relief. And as they leave I'm reminded that this family goes to national parks for summer vacation like we do. Happy families are all alike, right Tolstoy (they're not, and his prelude to Anna Karenina is false, but anyway).

Finally, rock stars.

Last year my favorite student was an 8th grade boy named Patrick. Serious favorite. This year his younger brother Joe is in my homeroom. I don't know a thing about Joe when he walks in except what mom has said on the side, implying essentially that he might not be the same rock star that Patrick was.

The open house the Sunday before school starts, that family is standing in the back of my room looking at the black butcher papers I've hung up with questions on them like "What did you learn this summer?" "Where did you go this summer?" and so on.

"You should put something up there," mom suggests to Joe.

"I'm not Patrick," he says back to her, which doesn't make much sense, it's not like it's asking him to solve quadratics. But in that moment I promised myself I would never mention Patrick. I would never compare and I would never tell him he reminded me of Patrick or didn't. Nothing. Clean slate starts here.

He loves me. I knew that would happen, of course, because he's bright and funny and the edge of some ADHD and that's my favorite boy archetype. He gets my jokes and is comfortable in my class and all is great.

So it's parent teacher conferences. His mom stops by, not for a conference, but just to say hi and get his standardized test scores. A few minutes later I'm in the hall waiting for my next (late) scheduled conferencee's, and Joe comes walking up the hall.

"Forget something?" I ask him. He's grinning and holding some book. He thrusts it out towards me. I take it.

"For me?"

"Yep," he smiles, and walks away as I thank him.

It's the book fair, and teachers are supposed to have wish lists in the parish center. Mine was small--I teach math, not literature or social studies. Always a few books about sports statistics, not much else. Students and their families purchase books for us and the book fair drops them off with a to/from included. But this book wasn't on my list. It was called Fish in a Tree. Novel. Never heard of it.

I opened it, and the top quote on the dust jacket is "If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." A story about a student and a teacher who knows she isn't the loser she's convinced herself she is.

Oh baby I hear you. Loud and clear. Thank you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

We interrupt this class

We were working on fractions. It was a 6th grade class doing a 4th grade lesson, but they needed it. Cut pieces of shapes and problems to solve and aha moments from the kids who have struggled with fractions for the last two years. I was ROCKING IT and they were learning and it was awesome.

Boooooop. Booooooop. ......Booooooooooop.

The intercom. But not the single boop followed by Brenda the secretary's voice. Not the triple quick boop boop boop for the all-call when the secretary comes on and asks for the tech teacher to go to the office (that is almost always what the all-call is for, to call the tech teacher). But three long drawn out tones.

And then silence.

My kids looked at me. Fires have buzzer alarms. Tornadoes have sirens outside and gloomy skies. This was not a fire and it was not a tornado.

"Close the door, Finn," I said to the mohawked blond kid getting something out of the closet next to my door. He did exactly what I said without question. Pulled the blackout curtain down on the little window.

Without telling anyone a thing, all the students moved to the corner together and looked at me. I took the chair I was taught to use and wedged it in the door handle.

"It's probably nothing," I whispered, coming over next to them. Silent.

"Was there supposed to be a drill?" Rachel asked. There wasn't.

"Is that the alarm for an intruder?" Will asked.

"There is no alarm for intruders, and I don't think this is a thing, guys, but we're going to treat it like a drill."

They nod. They are silent. Trey points to the windows. It's raining.

"No, not yet," I whisper back. We wait for just a moment, and then I go over to the door. Look out my little window and see my partner teacher looking at me through her darkened window. I listen. I hear children's voices. Chatter. I move the chair and open the door. My kids don't move or make any sound.

The first grade is using the bathroom down by the office. It's not a thing. We're fine. No intruder. No death. I feel a little stupid, but my kids don't think it's stupid. I reflect on it. Whatever that weird noise from the office was, what if it had been Brenda's last move, grasping up at the intercom phone, as she collapsed onto the floor in a pool of blood? And if I'd stood there and blew it off and went on? And if we'd all died because, whatev, it's just a weird noise.

Turned out, all the middle school teachers treated it as a thing. The science teacher even grabbed an aide out of the hall and pulled her into the room before she shut it down.

I opened my door and we went back to normal. And then Greta, the little sister of one of my favorite 8th grade boys, walked up to me as I was getting back to teaching.

"Can we shut the door again?" she asked. Her eyes were scared. I wanted to hug her.

I shut the door again.

I started teaching again.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ten on Today: What's happening in my classroom these days?

At school these days:

1. I love my partner teacher. She's a first-year right out of the gate teacher and she's wonderful. She's good at her job, reflective, dynamic, and she loves girls. My neighbor across the hall and I love boys, so she's a good balance. And in the middle school, the six of us, it's an even balance, or even a little bit tipping in the positive (my) direction, between old-school and new-school. If that makes sense.

2. I have fallen in love with 8th grade again. I did it my first year somewhat (I only taught 16 8th graders that year, one little math class), and I fell for them hard last year. They graduated and I naively thought that this next class couldn't replace them. But they have. It's a harder class. The kids in it come from more challenging backgrounds and carry more obvious pain. But they have the same loves and humor and deep need for connection. And I have their attention.

3.I worry about some of my people, but I don't take it home as much as I once did. Two children in particular. I try to make my classroom the right kind of place for them to look forward to each day and that's what I can do right now.

4. My students do math on the windows in dry erase markers. They love this.

5. My homeroom, this week, we are having a class meeting on Wednesday and I'm showing them a Jon Gordon video and they're going to pick their word for the year. Mine, remember, is "fishing." I think I'm going to put them up on the lockers.

6. Conferences are this week. I'm only worried about one of the conferences signed up for, well, one and a half. Something may surprise me, but I think a lot of it will be pleasant conversation. I don't fear them anymore.

7. I'm in charge of the faculty lounge this month, and we're still arguing over who gets to drink coffee. It's a strange place when it comes to some of the adults sometimes.

8. I've started having lunch with students, one at a time. Starting with my 8th grade math class students, then I'll move to 8th grade algebra, and then down to 7th and then 6th. So far, three boys and then tomorrow is a girl from that class. I'm learning a lot. I now can have a conversation about trap shooting vs. skeet shooting. I have a glimpse into the world of select soccer. Families are complicated but sometimes that's all right. Picking a school no one else in your class is going to go to for high school is scary but exciting.

9. About those lunches--I thought they would balk, that it would be weird, they wouldn't want to, and at first they teased each other about eating with the teacher, but each of them has come up with their tray of pizza and grapes and carton of milk smiling. Two of them, I had to chase them out to recess when I realized their lunch was over. I think this is going to be my thing.

10. I'm torn. Torn between staying and leaving. Afraid of getting stuck and not being able to afford high school for London. Wanting to stay at least a bit longer to see certain things pan out. Wondering how long I can risk it. Hoping I pass the high school math exam so that I can find a high school job and leave gracefully. Torn.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

I heart you.

I collect things.

There's a collection of marbles, many of which I found while gardening in my yard. My house was a rental property in its first incarnation (second incarnation was a boarding house, and now it is ours). I figure there were quite a few young families who made their way through and left their boys' marbles behind.

I have books. Machinist dies. Quilts (I have a vow to myself now that I will not buy a quilt that I can make, which means I have a growing collection of appliqued lovelies but no patchwork). Sewing machines...starting to at least...yarn and fabric (although that's a different sort of collection). Christmas ornaments. Teacher Christmas ornaments...

I don't collect things that are limited edition collectible kinds of things--nothing I collect will be worth anything when I die. My kids won't inherit a bunch of statuettes that they will need to figure out how to split up or arrange.

My favorite collection, though, is my heart shaped rocks. I started collecting them after a walk on a retreat one time when one appeared in the path in front of me. I love those little coincidences or moments or postcards from God or whatever you want to call them. So I started looking, and finding, them everywhere. They became my souvenirs. Someone goes on a trip, bring me a heart shaped rock. I go on a trip...I bring home heart shaped rocks. They sit in my bathroom and bedroom and dining room and kitchen. And when I die? My kids can dump them in the back garden. There.

My parents just returned from a trip out west. Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota. They spent a few days in Jackson Hole, at a house that belongs to my godmother, Ann. She was my mom's friend from college. I know her best from her annual Christmas ornament she sent me (sometimes a year late as it caught up with us through our moves). I haven't seen her since I was 10, and the last ornament was the year I got married, which seems fitting.

While they were there, talking about their families, my mom mentioned that I collect heart shaped rocks. Ann gave her a look and opened a drawer. A drawer full of heart shaped rocks.She sent this one home with my mom to give to me.

You can't tell me this isn't a thing. It's a thing.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Church Decorating of Christmas Past

Years ago, Sister asked me to help with church decorating. I said sure, because I was a joiner, easily persuaded, still young, and I liked to spend time at church. Helping with church decorating meant going to some meetings and a beautiful collaboration around the altar one evening in November, where a group of very strong personalities, all women, designed a set of banners for Advent and Christmas. I made them. We still use them, what, 9 years later?

The decision was made that there would be a new altar cloth, one purple for Advent and one this gold end of white for Christmas. I was asked to hem them as well. I liked--still like--the Advent version. But the Christmas one felt cheap and thin and too gauzy and flimsy. It was also not very well put together. People claimed to like it but my heart wasn't in it.

Things were set up for Christmas. It was all so magnificent. I will say this: everything was beautiful and fit together in a lovely awesome way, even if my altar cloth just didn't seem quite right.

I'm not sure of the details any longer. All I know is that there was a parishioner, Evelyn, who had, until that year, been in charge of the decorating and I realized sometime in the process that she had either bowed out or been left out of the decision making process.

Sometimes I have these moments when I come to the edge of awareness of my situation. Sort of meta. And I came to one of those on Christmas Eve. The altar was bare when I walked in early--just to make sure all was well. There were folks getting ready to dress the altar as part of midnight mass. And there was another altar cloth waiting to be used, in the back, draped over a pew.

I don't recall anymore how it all came about. I just know that it was replaced, with mine, and Evelyn was very angry.

It was my altar cloth that was causing the strife.

And I didn't even care about my altar cloth. I wasn't especially proud of it and I liked the other one, frankly. And I could tell she really, really, wanted to use the one she'd always used. I felt uneasy.

I don't like feeling uneasy.

I had to make it better or at least make it clear that I was trying to make it better. I needed to get brave.

I found Evelyn in the sacristy, actually in the little tunnel between the sacristies in the back of church. I had the other altar cloth in my hands. And as she looked at me the anger and hurt in her eyes just soaked in and overwhelmed me and I started to cry.

"I don't care what altar cloth we use," I told her, holding the other one out to her. "Use this one."

She shook her head. "No, it's fine."

But it wasn't fine. But I nodded anyway and withdrew my arm.

"I know this is now," I tried to explain, waving my other hand in the air. "But some day Sister will be gone and lots of other people will be gone and it'll be me and you and I can't have this driving a wedge between us."

She hugged me. "I know it's not you," she summed up.

I went back and sat in the congregation. Did a little more crying. Pulled myself together.

It was the first time I'd done something like that, decided I didn't have a dog in a fight and gave another person that knowledge. Let my guard down purposefully. Became vulnerable. And that was good. And that was hard. And I prayed that we'd get along and it wouldn't become some weird rift. And I wondered about the interconnectedness of us all.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
As I sat at the light in Carondelet Park this evening, waiting to take my middle daughter to a mixer down at my older daughter's high school, I thought about time passing and that moment behind the wall in the sacristy whispered to me.

Sister is gone.

And even though I thought I saw the future a certain way, Evelyn is gone.

And so are so many others.

My heart ached for them, wherever they are.

New people come to church. New relationships are formed. There's a turning of seasons and pastors and friendships and conflicts. Communities are always in flux. There is new energy and new fun and our brains love novelty. It's weird to be the stability now.

We still have those altar cloths, but neither is used very often, in favor of two handmade linen beauties made by another member of the parish.

I stick to banners now.