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In Praise of Grover


When answering the existential questions of our time, such as how do we end institutional racism, or what will take it solve income inequality, we should give some consideration to the deserted island Sesame Street companion question posed to us on Twitter this week. If the choices for a companion on a deserted island come down to Elmo, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, or Grover, there is only one logical answer to that question. Grover. One must choose Grover. Here are my thoughts, unasked for and unnecessary, as usual.

Cookie Monster is the easiest one to eliminate when determining which character would be best for survival. His need for unnecessary calories coupled with his limited conversational skills make him the least attractive companion for a survival situation. He would become annoying within the first hour, and I cannot see him being helpful in shelter building, hunting, foraging, fire building, or emotional support. No cookie.

The next furry creature that would be eliminated from the challenge would have to be Elmo. He has the developmental skills of a preschooler and he speaks about himself in the third person. While the creativity of a preschooler might be a real asset when surviving on a deserted island – they are great at unconventional building for example – the use of the third person voice in everyday conversation about oneself would surely be justifiable grounds for muppetcide. There isn’t a jury that would convict someone for killing Elmo after a day or two of listening to him say, “Elmo thinks we should use more palm fronds for Elmo’s raft,” or “Elmo doesn’t have a problem with the biting flies because Elmo has no nerve endings,” or “Elmo wishes you would stop chasing Elmo with the machete now…” Elmo is simply not a suitable companion for surviving on a desert island.

In all fairness, Oscar the Grouch would be a close second to Grover because Oscar has some mad survival skills. You don’t just wake up one day knowing how to live and thrive in a New York City trashcan,  that takes some experience and ingenuity. Oscar has fifty years of experience in making it work. Oscar would be prepared for life in a survival situation if he were allowed to have his trashcan with him, but that’s a big if. And the obvious question, of course, is whether or not Oscar would deign to share any of his materials or know how with someone else. My sources say no. When has Oscar ever shared anything willingly and without expectation of reciprocity? Rarely, if at all, and whenever he has shown any connection or vulnerability he dials it all back in the end. If I were to survive with Oscar and ended up back in civilization, I would fully expect to end up in endless litigation with him trying to gain something back from me with interest. He is the perfect symbol of the “I have what I need, what’s in it for me?”  mindset that happens to be in political power right now. I think a few days of that might trigger something in this loudmouthed snowflake if you catch my drift. I’m not sure a jury would be as forgiving if I offed Oscar and I don’t think I could live with him for very long.

Grover is the clear choice for a desert island companion. Grover is humble and caring. His emotional intelligence, a very important attribute in a survival situation, is extremely high. He has had a variety of life experiences, from being a waiter, to traveling the globe. Grover can get along with many types of personalities and he is curious about the world around him. I saw him learn how to make mud baked bricks with children in Nicaragua so I know he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and get to work. Sure, he’s a little clumsy, but we won’t be polishing the crystal on that island. Grover would also be a terrific parent if we needed to repopulate the island. And if he has his cape and helmet with him, Grover can fly off the island as Super Grover and bring back help. Grover is the most highly evolved of the Sesame Street characters. He has faced his fears, as noted in his best-selling, ghost written memoir, “The Monster at the End of This Book.” Surely Grover could help me work through my existential angst at being on a deserted island and help me face life’s big questions. Furthermore, Grover would do it without expecting anything in return. Grover would be a terrific ambassador to the United Nations upon our return to the civilized world. When he retires from being the moral conscience of Sesame Street, maybe someone could nominate him for that post. The world needs more Grovers.



No Reprieve

The moon is a white disc crisscrossed with branch lines, like a Mondrian piece without color. Or maybe another artist whose name escapes me.  It’s what I keep focusing on while I sit in the car and wait for my daughter to leave rehearsal. The moon and all its branches, like a mantra, I repeat it silently to myself. Terrible pop music leaks out of the car radio and I don’t care enough to change it, even though it’s grating on my nerves. In fact, I make it a challenge to see how long I can listen to the music. I’m three songs in and I can feel my spirit breaking with every auto tune note, but I don’t change the station or put a CD in instead. I’ve come this far. I can take it. Until I don’t think I can. Just then my dear one arrives to save me from my masochism. Except she gets into the car and begins singing along.

Souper Sunday

I’m not sure when I became a person who gets excited about soup, but I get excited about soup. I think my love for soup grew slowly, then all at once. Maybe it’s like the culinary equivalent of a plantar’s wart, you have no idea it’s there until suddenly it’s impacting your life and the way you live it.

I distinctly remember being younger and not caring about soup, maybe even thinking that people who were my age and were “soup people,” were a bit sad. Eagerly looking forward to broth or bisque? Sure, maybe when I’m an octogenarian or my teeth are compromised. I wish I could point to a moment, or a dish, when things changed between  me and soup, but I really can’t, which is too bad because if I could remember when soup first turned my head, I might be able to recreate the moment, or at least the soup. All I know is that the soup list is the first thing I check out on a menu. It’s a certain type of disappointment to be at a restaurant that doesn’t have daily soup specials. If they don’t have things they need to use up creatively in a daily soup special, their food is probably coming out of freezer bags or cans rather than being made from scratch daily. I wish I didn’t think about things like that when I eat out, but I do.

I’m not much of a cook, so making soup is a good “in” for me because it isn’t precise like baking, and it doesn’t usually require a cook’s full and undivided attention. I’m easily distracted and disorganized. Soup, unlike coworkers and family members, can be very forgiving when I forget things or become overwhelmed. Put a few things in a pan with oil or butter to sweat, add some broth, and pop in whatever else might add flavor or texture, and let it simmer. It’s the oldest alchemy in the world.

Today I made potato leek soup. First I cleaned and chopped leeks, but I actually screwed that part up. Right off the bat, I forgot to cut the leeks in half to rinse them, and instead went right to chopping them into slices that made tight, beautifully graphic concentric circles of white and light green. It was a sweet pile of springtime. And it was dirty.  I had to retrace my steps and separate all of the darling little circles so I could get them into a bowl of water for rinsing. And then another fresh bowl. Followed by a third. No matter, they eventually softened and became aromatic in the pan. When their spell had been cast, I added the potatoes, herbs, and stock. The pot simmered and the magic deepened while I went about my distracted little way, reading, folding laundry, checking email. When everything in the pot had shared all it could for the cause, I moved the soup, ladle by ladle, into the blender. After checking to see that the lid was secure, I blended the whole thing up in a whirl. When it returned to the stockpot, the soup had a shimmery, creamy glow to it. It was both simple and miraculous.



Tournament Trip

A sky full of promising blue.

A solo road trip to meet up with my husband and watch our boy play basketball.

An opposing coach who earned technical fouls for insulting the ref and swearing in front of the kids.

Our coach, who had visited urgent care for an injury, but still managed to chuckle, not yell, when his players made mistakes.

A loss for our side and a return solo trip home.

A sky filled with sunset, followed by snow showers.

Sounds about right.


Life Beyond the Whiteboard

I just ran into a former coworker rather unexpectedly. We met in the parking lot of the local bakery where we were both picking up “take and bakes,” lovely sourdough crusted pizzas that the bakery makes for customers to take and cook in their home oven. She was visiting relatives for the weekend because she lives in northern Vermont now after “retiring” from teaching. At age 50. She had hit the wall. The work had no joy left in it for her. It was heartbreaking for me when she left, but not because I was going to miss her at work. I had actually jumped ship from the elementary building we shared for the relative ease (ha ha) of the middle school a few years earlier. I was heartsick about her leaving because she was a wonderful teacher. She had a clarity and simplicity that allowed students to have space for their own discoveries. She was unflappable, but not in an artificial, overly efficient way. She had a soul to her teaching that spoke especially well to introverts and the blustery sort of extroverts who really needed to know that they didn’t have to strive so hard but they were loved and accepted as they were. And truth be told, I had desperately wanted my son to spend a year in this gifted woman’s classroom, but she left the profession before that could happen.

It was lovely to see her, and indeed- she looked lovely! Rested, fit, and radiant. We are close in age, but she looks younger than I do now and because it’s March and I’ve had a challenging week in the classroom, I attribute it to her new lifestyle. She works in a medical office and is nowhere near a benchmark system or a team meeting. She isn’t planning tier 2 interventions with anyone. No collaboration on standards. No angry parent emails to deal with, no administrative evaluations checking to see if the objectives for the lesson were met effectively. There isn’t a pacing guide in her world, and she isn’t counting the weeks until the MCAS test (psst…less than a month for ELA, less than a month…). She is living as a normal person. She can urinate on demand. She can have lunch with grownups out in the world. These are things I can only do sporadically in the summer between graduate classes and childcare obligations.

Coincidentally enough, I went to a retirement seminar yesterday where I learned that I may have to teach for two years beyond what I had planned for before I “retire.” Retirement is a relative term. I don’t plan to stop working when I leave the classroom, but I would like engage in different work that was also intellectually satisfying without being all-consuming – – as education has become for me in recent years. Without fail, there are students whom I carry home with me each night. I worry about what their home life is like. I think about how I can connect more effectively with them. What can I do to help them progress? The well-adjusted students help energize me to continue with this work, but the dysfunctional kids? They haunt me. All night. Every night. And their ranks are growing. How oh how can I help them? It can feel endless.

Running into my former colleague reminds me that there is life after the classroom. There are other things that I can offer to the world. I am more than the Miss Gillis who conferences with writers about connecting explanations to their text evidence. I have more left in me than creating prompts, projects, rubrics, and scoresheets. There are horizons out there that have nothing to do with showing the right amount of yearly growth percentiles. And in-between those things, there are very real people who need to be seen and heard. Every. Day.



Things You Don’t Think You’re Going to Find on the Floor of Your Fifth Grade Classroom

I thought it was an ice pack, the kids are always leaving lukewarm icepacks around the classroom after the drama of an inury has lost its novelty. These white icepacks appear randomly, sometimes in clusters, after a warm, busy recess. They are left behind, forgotten by the injured, or more commonly, those feigning injury. The walking wounded are often too lazy to return them to the nurse’s office because the pain, or the thrill of the attention of the injured, is gone and they are on to the next adventure.

Drawing closer, I saw that, no, it was not an ice pack, but what it was I could not yet say. It was white, but it did not bear the familiar blue and red writing of the ice pack. Nor did it have that rectangular, uniquely distinctive lumpiness about it that is the telltale shape of the unfrozen icepack left to fend for itself on the floor. No, this was a pure white object, and it looked smooth from about 15 feet away.

Still unsure of what I was seeing, I bent down towards it. Assuming the worst, that it was some sort of handkerchief filled with mucus or other bodily-fluid, I bravely sliced down toward it with my pencil and lifted it up on the tip with one hand, while flipping my reading glasses down with the other hand. I still could not make sense of what I was now holding at the end of my pencil at the end of my outstretched arm. I had established its whiteness and its smoothness. It was quite light and shaped like a large leaf which quivered and danced at the end of the pencil as I took another nanosecond to examine it before recognition finally set in. Someone had lost the foam insert to their padded bra. Here in my classroom. During first ELA class this morning.

What the Flicka, Indeed

Ask most parents and they will tell you that there isn’t much they wouldn’t do for their children. In dark hours, over feverish beds, we make wagers with supernatural forces, “please let them get well, please, and if not, please at least let it be me who suffers…” Who among us hasn’t read a story of parental sacrifice and wondered to themselves if they would be so brave as to step in front of that moving train or take the bullet in order to spare their child? I know that I have even wished I could take on some of my kids’ psychic pain – from rejection or misunderstanding – in order to spare them. But where would that get them if my silly wish was granted? What kind of unformed, untested humans would I be sending out into the world if that were allowed to happen?

My oldest child is a junior in high school. She is visiting colleges and imagining life after drop offs and permission slips. She has set her sights on selective schools that her father and I feel dizzy just contemplating. When we visit these schools, I struggle to feel comfortable there and must remind myself to keep my working class roots tucked in to keep them from showing. Our daughter burns brightly and would succeed at these schools because she has the energy and passion to forge her way in this world of intellectuals. She is also not a stranger to hard work and she is learning how to navigate the grown up world in ways that it took me decades to master. I’m proud to cheer her along and to help her manage any disappointments to the best of my ability.

It isn’t easy to watch your child face rejection. I understand the desire to pave the way for your child. I can understand identifying so strongly with your child’s experience that you can’t imagine them not getting something that you believe they so richly deserve. I can almost understand believing that intervening, even I suppose, in dark and criminal ways, on your child’s behalf is a form of love. What I don’t understand is acting on those primitive, base, tribal feelings simply because you have the means to do so. All without regard to who is pushed to the back of the line for your child’s benefit. Something like that cannot be called anything other than hubris, vanity, or ego. And it translates to a colossal lack of belief in your child. What would you say to your child when they learn that you hired someone else to impersonate them in order to ace a college admissions test? Or, even worse, if you’ve let them in on the cheating from the beginning, how do you come to the conclusion together that the best thing to do is to cheat the system because they can’t attain things for themselves? It’s all quite sickening to consider this recent college admissions scandal given that the playing field was already skewed in favor of the wealthy, white families who are implicated.

Maybe it speaks just as poorly for me that I follow celebrities online and ascribe character traits to them based on their postings and their work. I certainly cannot claim to know Felicity Huffman personally, but before yesterday I would have told you that I thought her to be funny, strong, intelligent, talented, decent, and honorable. I admired her and found her relatable. While I never imagined she did not have an excess of privilege, it still felt like a betrayal of sorts to learn that she went far beyond her privilege and connection to insure that her child would have every possible advantage in applying to colleges. How was her child not advantaged enough already with two famous parents and connections that must reach far and wide? How would a mother justify using criminal means to give her child this advantage? And whose children are denied opportunities they deserve on their own merits because of these admissions scams? My head has been spinning.

Those of us who are plodding along, trying our best to raise thoughtful, curious, conscientious humans were reminded that sometimes the most important work we can do is to believe in our children. Sometimes it’s enough to have faith that they will find their way in spite of disappointments and rejections. Sometimes we have to understand that there are other forces – like the greater good – that supersede allowing our children, or ourselves, to have everything we want. It’s called being the adult in the room.

Household Math

Household mathematics have a special kind of magic. The algorithms don’t fit the norms. Some items diminish and deplete instantly. For example, the other humans in the house can sense if I’ve filled up the cookie jar without my saying a word. Which I did last night. The contents in the jar will disappear within 24 hours. Never fails. Other things multiply exponentially without reason. These items almost always take up too much room for their value and they usually tumble out of their spaces when given the chance.

Today I found myself armpit deep in dirty water bottles. The sink was full. The dish drainer could barely handle the capacity after I washed them. I asked myself, why do four people need twenty or so water bottles/insulated tumblers/smoothie cups? And while we’re in the cupboard, why so many coffee cups? Only two of us drink coffee, yet there’s a collection of mugs cluttering up the shelves. Some of these mugs are perfect, some passably functional, and some are freebies from groups we donate to or volunteer with, but they are unattractive. No joy being sparked in them, they are the mugs of last resort. We use the perfect favorites and when they aren’t clean, we move onto the next best mug. After the third string mugs are used, we might use one of these hideous cups, but we may just as likely wash out a better one instead. Under no circumstances are guests served drinks in these sad cups. So why hang onto them? If they were all mine, they’d be gone, but most of them are not mine. I have a couple of second stringers, but when I get ugly mugs now (an occupational hazard) I put them out on the “free table” at school. Unless someone at school gave it me. I’ve made that mistake before.

I want very much to learn how to find common denominators in our household items. I need to divide and conquer the clutter, and not allow it to simply multiply in stacks. It’s almost spring so I’m getting ready for the new math.


Anagram Musings on Switching to Daylight Saving Time

The first day is not so bad. It’s a Sunday and therefore usually less rushed than a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. You go around the digital gymnast hive* and dutifully reset all of the little clocks on the appliances and in the car. It’s nice to see the sun, or a hazy, light-colored sky at dinner time. You might even feel like throwing a little daisy ginghham vittle* celebration just thinking of the coming spring. Then your child’s bedtime rolls around and a chorus of “but I’m not tired yet,” leads you to have some thoughts of light vintage dismay*.  Next, it’s time for you to go to bed, only it feels quite early and you don’t need to even navigate sight dimly* yet. You don’t feel tired in that physical,  “ready to sleep” way, just exhausted in that existential, “isn’t everything just so evil, shitty, damaging,*” way. You toss and turn, trying to find sleep but it eludes you like the hazy memories of the Invalid Amethyst gig* you once went to back at the Paradise in 1989. Finally, you sleep, but fitfully so because there is always the chance that you might have that dream again, where you are tapdancing on a cruise ship and a mighty girl invades it*, interrupting your big number and capsizing the whole boat. You are left to wrestle against mighty devil *girl until the bleating of your alarm clock wakes you. Trembling, you stagger down the stairs to find your supplements. You shake one into your hand, but you’ve dropped it. You find yourself on the floor, searching for that shaggy vitamin D tile* to add to your spinach smoothie and hope it will help you make sense of this dark, new day.

Greta Recites Poems

She stood up there and recited words

written by others but somehow

meant for her.

She held each word in

her heart,

her mind,

her soul,

before she released it out to us.

Her clarity and strength

moved me

and gave me such hope

such hope.