Monday, October 24, 2016

Ten on Tuesday: My 10 favorite Van Morrison songs

#7 showed up on my pandora station Sunday afternoon, on my birthday, and I couldn't believe that I had forgotten how much I loved that song. And I started thinking in lists, like I do, realizing that most of my favorites are songs that most of the people I know probably don't know. Van Morrison holds a special place for me--he can show up on any pandora station and I don't thumb him down. This isn't true for anyone else. I have stations built around several different genres, but he's the only one that transcends.

10. And it Stoned Me. This song was sent to me on a mix tape by my best friend at the time, Robin. She also introduced me to the Grateful Dead, but it took me longer to develop an appreciation. My favorite lines are from the very beginning: Me and Billy standing there, with a silver half a crown/hands all full of fishing rods and the tackle on our backs/we just stood there getting wet with our backs against the fence. Just give in to the rain.

9. Gypsy Queen. Dance on, you know it's all right, Gypsy Queen. 

8. Caravan. Turn on your electric light, so we can get down to what is really wrong. So many nights of my life spent at a kitchen table or front seat of a car or in a corner of a living room getting down to what is really wrong.

7. Bulbs. This is more of a stream of consciousness song, I'm pretty sure, not really telling one story but bits and pieces of them. So many bits evoke images in my brain. This:
I'm kicking off from center fieldA question of being down for the gameThe one shot deal don't matterAnd the other one's the sameOh! My friend I see youWant you to come through (alright)And she's standing in the shadowsWhere the street lights all turn blueShe leaving for an American (uhuh)Suitcase in her handI said her brothers and her sistersAre all on Atlantic sandShe's screaming through the alley wayI hear the lonely cry, why can't you?And her batteries are corrodedAnd her hundred watt bulb just blew
6. Cyprus Avenue. This is the first song on this list from Astral Weeks, which has to be his best album ever. When it showed up on my sister-in-law's Christmas list last year I snatched that right up for her. It really is perfect. My favorite lines: I'm conquered in a car seat/not a thing that I can do. And: yeah baby my tongue gets tied, every time I try to speak, my tongue gets tied, every every time I try to speak, and my inside shakes just like a leaf on a tree. 

5. Slim Slow Slider. Also from Astral Weeks, the last song on the album. It's just so raw. You're gone for something/and I know you won't be back/I know you're dying baby, and I know you know it too/every time I see you, I just don't know what to do. Because that is what I have felt so many times at so many partings with so many people.

4. Ballerina.

Well, I may be wrongBut something deep in my heart tells me I'm right and I don't think soYou know I saw the writing on the wallWhen you came up to meChild, you were heading for a fall 
And this time I forget to slip into your slumberThe light is on the left side of your headAnd I'm standing in your doorwayAnd I'm mumbling and I can't remember the last thing that ran through my head

3. Sweet Thing. Also from Astral Weeks. This line is a mantra of mine, something I find myself repeating when I step outside into a beautiful day or even just walk through life: And I will never ever grow so old again. Because I've been old. I've given up on living before, really living. I've given up on trying. I've walked blankly through life and not allowed myself to really live. But I keep trying. I keep working on not growing so old again.

2.  St. Dominic's Preview. This song means something to me that doesn't apply to what Morrison was aiming for. I've read his background on it but the line that gets me is:

All the orange boxes are scattered
Against the safeway supermarket in the rain
And everybody feels so determined
Not to feel anyone else's pain
I heard this song for the first time the week after my aunt died. Only a Blake would understand why it hit me so hard. But everybody does feel so determined not to feel anyone else's pain.

Except I can't not.

1. Astral Weeks. Obviously, also from Astral Weeks.

If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop
Could you find me?
Could you?

Tryin to do my very best.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ten reasons I teach middle school math

1. I tend towards the ADHD end of the spectrum. Scattered, bright, anxious. I am not cut out to be the calm presence a first grader needs. I made first graders cry, in fact. By mistake, I mean. My room is not a pinterest worthy picture but it is comfortable. Nothing is cute, nothing is perfect, and I sometimes have to switch gears quickly. This is not good for primary kids.

2. On the other end of the spectrum, I still love kids. As kids. So although I'm certified for high school math, I'm not sure if I'm ready to make that move just yet (I will eventually, I'm sure). I still like a little goofiness, giggling at accidental double entendres, and even appreciate real tears and frustrations when I'm not the cause--I mean, I like to try to make things better. Most older teens are moving beyond that kind of transparency.

3. Speaking of transparency, I like that middle schoolers are plain. I can see through them. If they are being sarcastic, it is deeply obvious. I sometimes miss sarcasm with adults--I assume that people are speaking their truth to me, unless, again, it is deeply obvious that we are joking around. So I get caught pretty easily in conversation. Maybe I'm naive about adults. But middle schoolers mean what they say--and when they don't, I know what they mean.

4. But there is humor. As opposed to first graders, who would never catch anything I said as funny because it wasn't funny to 6 year olds, middle schoolers get it. Not all of them, but enough of them that as a group they like to come to my classes. I love looking across the room and seeing that somebody caught what I said. Perhaps my favorite parts of the days.

5. Related to that, I can feel emotion in the room. They are adult enough to have a range of emotions that perhaps very small children don't in the same way. Oh, I can feel little kids' emotions. But in a middle school classroom, it's more of a challenge. And I know that I feed off emotion, good and bad, and in a room of 28 middle schoolers, I'm on fire. I feed off them and give back and the reciprocity of math and life and authenticity is just the best.

6. I remember middle school. I went to a small catholic grade school for 6th and 7th, and then a large public middle school for 8th grade. And the memories from that time are technicolor vivid. It was so hard and so real and awful and good and...just so hard. I can only hope that most of them in my classroom have an easier time than that, but I know some of them are having a hard time. So I want to do my best. I hardly remember first or second grade. I don't know how to relate to them. I can't downshift far enough.

7. They are hungry for authentic relationships and real adults to see them. And that is what I am best at.

8. I can only make things better. There were many things I could have screwed up with a first grader in my classroom. But the basics are covered by 6th and 7th grade--they read, they know basic bookkeeping skills, their brains are developing pretty well. Things might be hard for them, they may hate school, hate math, hate life. I can't make it worse. All I can do is love them and teach them math and try to make things a little bit better. I got a card at the end of the year from one of my 6th graders that read: You are the part of my day that doesn't suck. That's my goal.

9. I hated math. And 100% of my math teachers from K-12 and beyond, were terrible at their jobs. Terrible. I take it as my life's work to be the best math teacher these kids have ever had and will ever have. My self worth is tied up in this, in their success and understanding. I want them to walk into high school and have it be ok even when their Algebra I teacher sucks. Because it is likely that she or he will. One of my favorite things is when a freshman or sophomore comes back to visit, looks out at my 8th graders in the room and says, "Listen to her. You will miss this bad when she's not in front of the room anymore."

10. I can phone in the math. I do middle school math for a living! This is not hard stuff for me. So I can concentrate on why students are making errors, why students don't get the nuances or even the basics of what we're learning. And more than that, I can put my energy into relationship. Because I teach middle schoolers. Math is just my method. In the end, they walk out the door to high school math and beyond and hopefully I've set a nice foundation for them. But what I want is for them to reflect back on our time together and know that they were safe with me. And that maybe they missed me when I wasn't in front of the room.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Ten Little Mysteries at My School

1. Ice. We have a refrigerator in the faculty lounge with an ice maker in the freezer. It is not the most powerful ice maker in the world, which is fine. But every morning, one coworker arrives and steals all the ice, all the hard-earned ice that the ice maker has been working on all night. Every morning she does this. Then, at lunch, she comes back to the lounge. And she does it again. I don’t use a lot of ice at work--I can’t, because she steals it all--but I’m just curious about this. Is there no ice at her home? Does she live so far away that all her homemade ice is melted? Ice is free if you make it at home with ice trays. You could probably make your own ice trays, too, improvise somehow. It’s just a mystery to me.

2. The faculty restroom. For some reason, the building I work in, although relatively young compared to previous workplaces and the house I live in, has mysterious plumbing issues. This is most apparent in the faculty restroom. The sink runs, a steady stream, and does not turn off. And the toilet does not flush. Well, it does. After four flushes. So every time you go into the restroom, anyone in the conference room next door thinks you must have experienced some incredible intestinal disaster. Every time. 

3. The One Note Printer. For some reason, my computer loves the One Note Printer. I don’t know what the One Note Printer is or where it is located. But every time I start to print things, my computer eagerly offers to send it there. I want it to go to the copier in the the faculty work room. I have told my computer that the One Note Printer isn’t for me. I have talked to our IT person about it. She has fixed it a couple of times. I have stopped asking because my computer fixes it back for her. It wouldn’t want me to miss out on using the One Note Printer! 

4. Paper. Paper is a commodity in a school. We are no longer in the era of slates and chalk, although I have used them in classrooms in the past. I have. Here, we have unlimited copies. There is no code for the copier. There is no accountability. And twinned with this is a miserly approach towards paper. We simply get told we use too much. But...wouldn’t it make more sense to track who uses it? Or maybe nah.

5. Lockers. My kids have lockers. This is awesome because their desks are on the small side and I hate cloakroom hooks and the messiness of sweatshirts on the floor and so forth. But my lockers are about 5 inches wide. Two of them next to each other, and above a pair, two “top lockers” that will fit some books. Five inches wide. Twenty six lockers in a row. Most of my kids carry huge backpacks. Sometimes they bring stuff for soccer or sleepovers. All of that gets stored on the floor. There really isn’t a solution for this. It’s just a mystery.

6. Kleenex. My homeroom kids are given a supply list over the summer that includes two boxes of kleenex. Right now I have over 50 boxes of kleenex above my lockers. I have 22 homeroom students and the year is well underway. I will never run out of kleenex. I pulled out a box of it the other day with a name written on sharpie, the last name of a student who graduated last year. I want to tell parents not to bother next year...but that will be the year I run out. Do I risk it?

7. The Pen Bin. In the faculty workroom, there are shevles with VHS tapes and boxes of paperclips and binder machine parts and on and on. There is also a bin the size of a shoebox full of pens. Broken pens. Dead pens. Not one of these pens is functional.

8. Chairs. The chairs in my room are navy blue. Standard chair has one square hole in the back of the molded plastic. But a large majority of my chairs have two smaller holes in the back of the molded plastic and seem to be a slightly nicer chair. To make matters worse, I have one light blue chair and one yellow chair, each with three slits in the back of the molded plastic. They don’t like to stack with chairs that don’t match. We are supposed to stack our chairs at the end of each day. I walk through the halls and everyone else’s chairs appear to match exactly.  I wonder many things: why do we have different colors and different shapes? Why don’t I have a matched set? Why am I the only one? 

9. Our Lady of Fatima. I teach at a Catholic school. So there’s a crucifix in every classroom. I also have a picture of Mary that my grandmother gave me. And a poster from my monastery. All of this is fine. The weird thing is that every classroom has a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, encased in a plastic box. We aren’t Our Lady of Fatima School. Why not Perpetual Help? Sorrows? Lourdes? Grace? There are so many Marys. I don’t have anything against Fatima. But...were they on sale at a Catholic Outlet somewhere? Was she a special devotion of a former principal? It’s a mystery. Our Lady of Fatima, Pray for Us.

10. Coffee. I’ve talked about this before. Coffee is provided by the school. But the janitor is in charge of the pots and sometimes takes them away if he thinks we’ve been bad. If we aren’t standard coffee drinkers, we shouldn’t take coffee  And we certainly shouldn’t use any of the creamer in the fridge that I’m not using anyway because it has soybean oil in it. And the coffee is pretty carefully measured out. So if you drink any, it messes it up for the other coffee drinkers. Even though it’s free and provided by the school. And we all know how to make a second pot. My new partner decided we were going to fix this ourselves. We are going to bring in a pour over or a french press (she has such things) and I’m going to bring in my electric kettle. And we will have our own coffee. Our own good coffee. With real milk instead of soybean creamer. As much as we want.

Of course, at any school or workplace there are weird things.And hard coworkers. And bewildering rules. These are just my benign mysteries...

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Boats, Danger, Fortitude

I read this to my 6th graders today and had them draw a symbol of fortitude to tape in their lockers. Most drew anchors. xoxo I think I might be their teacher after all.


Once upon a time, my sisters and I got in a canoe. We were staying down on the Gasconade River, on a little slough off the river, a side stream without much current. The owners of the property kept canoes down there, and we pushed one into the water and began to paddle around in the still water under the shade of pretty late spring trees.

Bevin was in the middle, sitting on the bottom of the canoe. She’s 8 years younger than me. Colleen, 11 years younger than me, was in the front.  We paddled around and chatted and then suddenly Bevin stood up.

Bevin stood up in the canoe.

You don’t stand up in canoes. It isn’t really a thing. You stand up in a canoe and you’re gonna wind up in the water.

But there she was, standing up in the middle of the canoe.

“Bevin, I swear to God, if there is a spider in the boat and you’re freaking out--” I started. I imagined us all in the dark water because she was scared of a spider.

“No Bridgett!” she yelled back. “There’s a snake!”

There was a snake in our boat. A dark snake. Small. But not like a little garter snake. Nope nope. It was a snake. And we were together in a boat with a snake.

Have you ever seen a bee? And you think, aww, a bee, and you watch it go from flower to flower? Now, have you ever been in the car and realized there’s a bee with you? And you freak all the way out and panic and have to pull the car over because that bee IS GOING TO KILL YOU IN YOUR CAR?

Multiply that panic by a zillion and that’s what was happening in our canoe.

Colleen started screaming. Just imagine it the whole time: “I can’t steer the boat! I’m too weak!” repeated again and again. Bevin, in the middle, stirred the snake with her paddle. We couldn’t pick up the snake. We couldn’t tip us into the water.

“We have to kill it,” I said, realizing I was standing as well.

Bevin agreed. But I wasn’t sure how I would kill it with a plastic end of a canoe paddle. And then Bevin reached under the snake with the paddle, like a scoop, and lifted it up. I got it. I yelled at Colleen to keep the boat from hitting the log, from hitting the shore, from capsizing, while Bevin scooped the snake, and then I caught it on my paddle, and then on hers, and then on mine, all the way into the water.

The snake dropped into the river and we watched it swim about six feet away.

And then turn, lift its head out of the water, and come back at our boat with its mouth open.

With its white cottony mouth open.

The three of us stared.

“That’s a water moccasin,” one of us said.

We paddled the canoe back over to the shore, thinking about this. Thinking about how we were a half mile straight down from our cabin. How, once we were to reach our car, we were 45 minutes from the nearest hospital.

One of us would have died. Probably Bevin. Maybe me. There’s no cell service on the river. There’s no first aid kit. No antidote. We would have died. If not for Bevin’s clear thinking and Colleen not keeping us from capsizing and my cooperating and all of it--if we hadn’t bravely tried to get that snake out of the boat and keep us in it, we wouldn’t have survived.

We walked up the hill, the adrenaline draining from our bodies. Reached the cabin and crashed hard. I’m pretty sure I cried from the what-ifs. So many what-ifs.

But I have another story about a boat.

The apostles were on the Sea of Galilee, fishing, which is what they did, when suddenly they saw what they first thought was a ghost, but then began to realize was Jesus, walking on the water. I’m sure that some of them were in deep denial about what was happening--you can’t walk on water, silly, I must be seeing things. I’m sure that some were terrified. Perhaps all of them were terrified. But Peter saw Jesus and knew who he was and got out of the boat, starting to walk towards him on the water.

If you know this story, you know what happens next. He begins to realize what he’s doing, how crazy it is, how impossible, and he begins to fall into the sea. Jesus saves him and asks him why he doubted.

Lots of preachers and writers criticize Peter because of his lack of faith. If only he had believed more fully, he could have walked all the way across that sea to Jesus. Right?

But think about it. Peter got out of the boat.

We’re not talking about a boat parked on somebody’s driveway. This isn’t a rowboat sitting on the shore of a lake and you have to put your foot down into the mushy sand to push off the shore. This is a fishing boat on the sea. On a stormy sea. The best place to be when you are in a stormy sea is IN A BOAT. There’s not a single reason to get out of the boat. Nothing.

We are all in our boats. In our comfortable places. We all look around us and are comforted by strong walls and routines and expected things and knowing what comes next and being able to do what we need to do. Peter was a fisherman, had been his whole life. He knew boats like you know the soccer field or your mom’s SUV or your classrooms. It was familiar, comfortable, easy.

And he got out of the boat.

That is fortitude.

His 11 friends still in the boat? They were careful, sure. They were maybe afraid. Curious. Intimidated. You could say that perhaps they were wise to stay in the boat. I can imagine Thomas turning to Andrew and saying, “No way that is Jesus.” And then Andrew shaking his head and saying, “Actually, I’m pretty sure that is.” And the two of them standing on the deck staring out at the sea, unsure of what was happening, baffled, confused, amazed. But they stayed on the boat.

Peter was always the first apostle to see clearly. He denied Jesus, he wasn’t perfect. None of us is. But what he did that day in the boat was SEE what was going on. He saw Jesus there on the water. And he wanted nothing more than to follow him. To be with him. To do as he was doing.

And so he got out of his boat.

“Look at crazy Peter, he’s going to drown,” James shook his head.

“I wish I had thought to get out of the boat,” Simon thought to himself. “But I just can’t.”

“I still don’t think that was the right idea, I still don’t think that’s Jesus,” insisted Thomas to himself.

But Peter knew. Perhaps he acted without thinking it all the way through--perhaps he’s not the best example of Prudence, which is a virtue for another month--but he knew. And he tried.

God revels in weakness that tries, a Benedictine once told me. Fortitude is the virtue that lets us try. It lets us get out of our boats and into the water with all the messiness of the sea, of life. With the danger and the potential loss and risk. But with Jesus, with Fortitude, we can try.

We might slip under the waves. Peter did, and he was the rock Jesus built his church upon. But he tried. He didn’t stand on the boat just marveling at what was happening in front of him. He participated.

That is what we are called to do. To participate in life. In its messiness and sadness and glory and hard truths and losses and trials. We are supposed to get out of our boats. Roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. Keep trying. Stand up for what is right. Stand up for those who have no one to support them. Reach out to Jesus. Reach out to each other.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Love Letter to my high school darkroom

I was holding my camera. It's a 10 year old canon digital camera, nothing special, not one of those dslr things. Just the run of the mill this is what I have. It has a nice heft to it, though, like a good 35 mm would, and it brought me back to another camera I owned, my father's, that I used throughout my senior year of high school in a photojournalism class. My dad had a set of macro lenses and I used them to take a picture of the laces of my converse all-star lace up high tops, back when they came in black, cream, and red. I had a pair of black and a pair of red. Back when no one wore them. But after the point when basketball players wore them. I placed 3rd in a regional school competition in photography with that picture. Nothing awesome but that was fun.

And I was in this photojournalism class, with this camera with quirks--you couldn't use the timer anymore, for instance. You had to load film just-so. But it worked and I learned how to take a photo. I like taking things with quirks and making them sing; finding semi-broken things that are still usable and using them for their best purpose.

I'm sitting in that darkroom in 1991, transferring film from my camera to the canisters where it will develop. Fumbling in darkness, hoping I don't drop anything necessary on the floor where I'll never find it. And then after developing it, going out into the bright classroom and using the little black machine to roll another canister of film off the bulk roll Mr. Sarver kept in a black bag.

I realized that more than cell phones vs. land lines, more than microwave ovens, more than the internet, actually, that this is the difference for me, the difference between me and now. My kids will never roll film or develop photos in a dark room, sitting on those metal stools that are never balanced right, chatting with John or trying not to chat with Heather, hoping we didn't expose anything, being trusted to do this task. They'll never take that film canister and take pictures at some ultra-boring sports banquet or NHS induction.

We don't have to make our own butter or know how to butcher pigs, either, and this isn't an "oh, these kids today don't understand" kind of thing I'm going for.

I just realized, looking down at my digital camera, that this is my version of my father's tooling around with a British sports car. I know how to do this thing that I never need to know how to do anymore--and when I learned it, I totally thought it would always be a thing. I was glad to learn it, glad to have this skill. My grandfather on my dad's side had a darkroom and I liked that I had a skill that was something from my family.

Now it's just a relic. Like most relics, I don't need it, but I'm happy I have it.