Saturday, January 14, 2017

Ten Things I Have Learned From Project Runway

I've been watching Project Runway for years. You know it, most likely. A group of clothing designers gather in New York and produce pieces for the runway each week based on a theme (a makeover for an awkward friend, make a dress out of hardware store supplies, make a red carpet look, design a new look for a drag queen--these are all actual challenges).

Each week one designer wins, and gains some benefit (immunity for the next week, a photo spread in a magazine, an ad in Times Square), and one designer goes home. There's nothing more fun than listening to Michael Kors tear something apart ("she's like a mother of the bride who's a belly dancer"). I love rooting for designers and watching what they create.

I know enough about clothing construction, fabric, and sewing to follow the details and be amazed. And as I've been watching, I've learned some things. Here are a few of those things.

1. Representation is important. The models on Project Runway are all skinny little things, yes, but they from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. More important than that, though, are that the designers are not all gay white men. They aren't. I swear. And as the seasons progress, the standard designer becomes less and less apparent. There are plus-size girls with low self esteem. There are weird Japanese guys with afros. Southern black gay men. Hippies and freaks. A deaf guy. Yes, there are a lot of gay white men. And a lot of tattoos and a lot of severe white women. But there are a lot of others.

What I found most interesting is when the “Tim Gunn Save” was introduced a couple of seasons ago, when Tim Gunn (the world's best human) could decide to save a designer who had been eliminated, once a season, the first three years he had the choice he saved the deaf guy, the black girl from Detroit who was self taught, and the black man with amazing work who made one slip up. Wouldn't life be better if we had a Tim Gunn Save? And we could use it when equity would be best served?

2. Be vulnerable. But don't walk through life unarmed. Take risks and do amazing things but be strategic. Know when it's ok to risk everything and when you should maybe hold back. Learn who to trust and remember that if it's a zero sum game, nobody is on your side but you. But still take the risks you think are best because fear never conquered anything.

3. If you can edit something out and it doesn't make what you are doing less, then you'd better edit it out. Trim down that writing. Make the proposal shorter and sweeter. Make your resume packed with only the essentials. Also your suitcase for a two week trip. This summer I went through my guest room and cut out 15 bags of trash. I filled a dumpster from the attic over Christmas break. Clutter isn't just in my house, though. Clutter in my heart. What can I edit out without losing my essential self?

4. If you can find a mentor who knows you and wants you to succeed, never ever let him go and always listen to him. Tim Gunn has to be the best human. I love him. I love watching him on this show and whenever he shows up on a radio program or internet meme or video. On Project Runway, he walks into the workroom and goes to each designer and has them explain their work. He asks questions. He stands there with his hand to his chin, worried. He is usually guarded in his advice, but sometimes he is blunt. And the smart designers listen very very carefully.

5. Tears do not necessarily sway people, but they also do not necessarily make people think less of you. Crying on the runway doesn't change what the judges think. In either direction. They don't like excuses, they don't like spin. But just because you have a hard time controlling the tears, it doesn't eliminate you. They judge you based on your work.

6. People can smell self-doubt like sharks smell blood in the water. You have to be convinced of your own expertise. If you are good at what you do, but you frame it like it's not good, people will feel it. And it will likely confuse them because if the work is good, you should be proud.

7. You will be thrown under many buses. Work on a team and watch yourself become the scapegoat when things go poorly (or watch yourself as you gang up together against another team member). Watch as coworkers bond together based on meaningless divisions like what hallway they work on or whose cubicles are next to each other or what subject they teach. Know that if you risk and stick your neck out, you are an easy target.

And especially if you're a black girl from Detroit or a fat girl with bad makeup. Mean girls—mean people—will throw you under the bus. They will do what they need to get by. They will not give you a hand up.

8. If you blow it big, it doesn't matter what successes you've had in the past. So much of our lives are based on the latest thing we've done. If we are currently good at what we're doing, people love us. If we screw up, that is often all people will notice. You can be great friends for a dozen years and then make one huge mistake and it's over. You can do excellent work and then your personal life starts to drown you and it makes things suffer at work and it doesn't matter. Often folks will give you a little leeway but screw up big? And that's it. Doesn't matter how pretty your last three dresses were. That romper is gross and you're out.

9. You have no idea what's coming next and it will take everything you have and it still might not be enough. Each week is a new challenge on Project Runway. Each day brings new challenges in our lives. And sometimes when we encounter the new challenge, it looks impossible and we know there's no way we can succeed. And we put our whole selves into the challenge, to make it work, and we run around and exhaust ourselves trying and then when we offer up what we have—our outfit design, our lesson plan, our job application, our hearts—sometimes it is simply not enough.

And when that happens, it's heartbreaking.

10. Lastly, this is an important lesson I've learned from Project Runway. Every season must include a designer who looks like my sister Bevin. Seriously. I don't know why that is. There is always someone with striking features, jet black hair, pale skin, and large eyes. It's some kind of contractual thing I'm sure.

Friday, January 13, 2017

South City Musings: January Edition

Right now (Ice Edition)

Right now we are iced in.

But not really. There is ice on the branches of the trees, hanging from the roof line, but the streets are fine. No school today, but there could have been. But there wasn't and I was happy because I needed the sleep because

Right now I'm having a lot of nightmares. Tornadoes hit my classroom. Dogs chase me through junkyards. I run my car off very specific bridges.

Not sure what it all means but I'm working on it.

Right now I'm darning all the wool socks that have holes. One pair has been darned so many times I cut the sole out of it and I'm reknitting the whole thing, which is a happy act of futility because these weren't even my best wool socks and I have a whole drawer full--but it's happy because I like this little task and it keeps me in knit socks for just a little while longer for free.

Right now dinner is on the stove and in the oven and I can't eat any of it because it is full of garlic. But it was a snow day and Brooklyn made donuts this morning and I've been noshing while I darned socks and watched more Project Runway reruns.

Right now London is practicing Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies on the piano.

Right now Niles is next door at the friend's house, who also had a snow day, or rather an ice day.

It's an ice weekend.

My grandmother's memorial service was scheduled for tomorrow but it has been canceled. I don't know when it will be rescheduled. My aunts indicated with the spring thaw. Do we live on the 1880s Great Plains? But I get it. No reason to risk anyone's life. Seriously.

So this ice weekend I darn socks and watch Tim Gunn make it work and cook food I can't eat and burn my tongue on hot tea.

Right now, even though I have newly darned socks, my feet are so flipping cold I think I need to go take a bath.

Right now that I've said that about the bath? That is all I can think about. Time for a nice hot bath.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Maybe I need some new moves

But I don't stop asking. Will you please dance with me?

Today the 8th grade walked in, grabbed their exit slips, their mini grades that have become a hook for them to stay engaged in the material day by day instead of cramming at the end, and had a seat. I started teaching before they were all in the room. Notebooks were out. They were scrambling.

It was introduction to mixtures. It's like, the nightmares you have about your Algebra I class? They are probably about mixture problems. Things like:

Andy has 12 ounces of a 5% alcohol solution. He wants to create a solution with a concentration of 30% alcohol. How many ounces of a 50% alcohol solution should he add to the 12 ounces to create the new solution?

There are several variations. And they are where every Algebra I class comes to a grinding halt and has to regroup. They are hard for the first time. Math is hard. It's not just computation. Sometimes kids panic. But I take my time on this topic and every year, they HATE mixtures but they know them.

I just taught away. I wrote out a formula. A grid. A couple of problems. And as I turned the page, as I turned page SIX of my notes, Hank raised his hand.

"I don't have any idea what's going on."

He stated this without contempt. Jenny nodded. Kelly started to chime in but I held up my hand.

I stood up. I walked over to my closet saying, "ok, let's break it down to a simpler problem. What if I had some white beads that sold for $1 a cup. And some shiny colored beads that sold for $4 a cup?"

I opened the closet door and took out a giant mixing bowl of white beads and set them down on the table in front of Vince. And then another big bowl of colored beads next to them. I produced two measuring cups and held up a cup of white beads.

"But I want a mixture of beads that are worth $3 a cup."

I smiled as Kelly asked me how I had all those beads, why, what was going on?

We went through the basics again. I told them to put the exit slips in their folders. I told them that when I taught Ariel's brother's class these lessons, it took them 5 days and one of the girls cried.

Nervous laughter.

Maybe my best days aren't behind me.

Maybe breaking them down a little worked. Maybe creating more structure is what they needed. Maybe making me the enemy? Seriously, making me the enemy, let them not be afraid to finally raise a hand and ask a question, be a hero instead of the idiot who doesn't understand.

It was only one day. But it was a good one.

I can't change the direction of the wind but for damned sure I can adjust my sails.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Doing Time

It's not a competition. They don't care if you're angry at them. I'm not here to win against a group of 14 year old boys who have deep contempt for me right now.

It's really frustrating.

When I started back to work, my last experiences with teaching had been in an urban middle school classroom where I had started teaching barely able to contain my terror. What if I couldn't control the boys? What if they walked all over me and walked out of the room? What if they burned things in my classroom or hurt each other or stole from me or worse? I felt like an idiot walking in those first few days.

And then I realized that really, all they wanted was to have class down in the basement in the air conditioning.

And then we were friends. It was always a little tense for me that first year, but the second? The incoming 8th grade class was one of those Camelot classes. Just so right, how they meshed together and enjoyed being together.

I walked away from the classroom to raise my children. But I went back a few years ago and found myself in front of an 8th grade class of, essentially, men. Were 8th graders this large and hairy back when I'd taught before? It seemed so improbable.

They immediately fell for me.

It was such a good feeling to find myself back in the classroom and (for the most part) well-liked by my students. I always hold their opinions higher than my colleagues'. If I am preparing them for the next year of math and they still like me, I win.

That year and especially the following year, the 8th grade boys were my favorites. And I was theirs. We shared a space and time together, fleeting and everyday, but important. Important for some of them, surely, and I found it becoming important to me. Not that my ego rested on the shoulders of teenaged opinions, but knowing that I could walk into the classroom and we could enjoy each other together and do our jobs, it made the crushing parts of the job (low pay, lower respect from other adults, some ridiculous coworkers, some even more ridiculous adults) seem so small.

The next year I fell in love with my homeroom.

Each year I fall in love.

This year I'm still in love with the students who had been my homeroom last year. One mom told me that at the end of last year, her son went home and went up to his bedroom and cried in his bed. Because even though I would be his math teacher, it would never be the same again. I was the first teacher he felt loved him, saw him, and it was over.

And he's right and he's wrong. It won't ever be the same. But just like when my pastor left for another parish and we had the opportunity to be better friends, those former homeroom lambs grow into stronger relationships when they don't have to lean on me so hard.

But my current homeroom? I like them. But it's not love, not like years past.

And the current 8th grade?

I don't even want to talk about it. Seriously.

I feel like a contract has been broken. And I feel like an idiot feeling that way. Because I'm the math teacher and they are students. There's no contract. Stop it.

But there is. When it works, you can hear the harmony as you walk past my door. I'm here to teach and you are here to learn and it's math and nobody really likes it that much except maybe Rachel or Vince but really, they'd rather be somewhere else as well, and we have 45 minutes 5 days a week to let the light in through the cracks in our bits of humanity together and I can be angry and then let it go and I can apologize and disarm you because adults don't apologize and then I can tell you a story about that little girl with pickles in her pockets or the terrible nurse at my first school or that field trip with the drug dealers or that time when I moved to Dallas Houston Columbia Georgia California and that friend and another friend said and did those things and when my aunt died or I stood at the top of Mt. Cammerer and then we can get back to polynomials or vertical angles and then maybe I'll bring in my fencing gear or my recurve bow or I'll show you that video where the older cat talks to the new kitten or the dinosaur pets the cat or that girl with too many words writes letters to Spongebob and we can laugh or marvel at it and look, the snow, look at the snow.

I tried. I kept trying to get them to dance with me. The steps are easy. You can follow along. Just like a ballerina, step lightly, crowd will catch you, come on try it. 

They won't play ball. They won't dance. They won't even learn unless there's a grade at the end, a box checked and wrapped up and put away in a gradebook shelf next to all the other meaningless numbers.

They sit there in silence when former students come to visit and hug me and tell me about their current lives, their lives outside the classroom, inside other teachers' classrooms. The 8th graders must wonder what these visitors see in me. Why they would ever visit my classroom when they weren't assigned to me any longer. I have felt this contempt again and again for instructors, for educators, for professors.

Not for teachers though.

If I could go back and see Mrs. Chott or Br. Stephen or so many others, I would in a heartbeat. And I would say things like those former students say to my current students: you will miss her when she isn't in front of this classroom.

Oh baby.

Thing is, they won't.

Somehow we have passed each other by. We don't belong to each other. We are just doing time.

And it's heartbreaking.