gillis and her big mouth

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It Was a Lying Purple Plastic Tablecloth That Was Eating at Me

A flimsy, plastic, purple tablecloth was the thin line standing between me and rationality in my classroom yesterday. Sadly, the tablecloth won. It began the week before when I went to some trouble to create a little student interest in literature circle book choices. I wrapped books in brown paper and placed them on top of the aforementioned tablecloth spaced around our conferencing table like place settings. Students read descriptions I had written on each book then ranked them in terms of their interest level. I called it “blind dating with books” hoping this would make it fun for the kids. The students seemed to respond well to it and I was certain when all was said and done I would be able to provide each of them with one of their top three book choices. When I was straightening the books up for another group, I noticed there was a very deliberate series of gouge marks in the tablecloth. A small thing. Or, more accurately, several small things. But these small things were enough for me to feel completely and utterly overwhelmed with grief about our classroom community.

The destruction of a cheap, plastic tablecloth had a huge effect on me in that moment. It made me feel that all of the work we had done to build a safe community was worthless. No one was spit upon, insulted, or physically harmed, but I had to take a step back and reconsider what I had seen as our progress. It has been a rocky year in terms of social-emotional learning, but I felt we had come so far from the earlier days when some students were writing on the walls with permanent marker, hiding trash and nasty notes for me to find in the classroom, and putting one another down on a regular basis.

I did not react well. I lectured the whole group, knowing full well it was most likely only one or two students who ruined the table cloth. I dredged up a litany of discouraging things from the past months. I didn’t yell, but I dropped the guilt card into the mix which shamed me, so I forced myself to be honest. I very sincerely and directly told the students that my feelings had been hurt by this act. I laid it all out there and told the kids that I had only wanted to make things more fun for them and felt really badly about having my display ruined. Then I told them to take out their books and read for the rest of the period because I didn’t want to have to talk to anyone for awhile.

In hindsight, I’m sure there are lots of things I could have done to prevent this from happening. I could have told the students to steer clear of the conferencing table while the books were there, I could have gathered all of the materials up after each class so that the tablecloth would not be tempting to someone in need of an outlet for their negative emotions, or I could have used a fabric tablecloth which might have showed more clearly how much thought I had put into this activity. The students are ten and eleven years old and several of them really need a lot of guidance to stay socially positive. They are wonderful young people, and I enjoy their energy, curiosity, and creativity. Knowing that this encounter probably made a strong impression on many of them makes me feel like a bit of failure. I know I have let them down. There is important work to do over the next few weeks so that we can all “finish strong.”  I will figure it out because I would prefer that my emotional reaction to a plastic tablecloth not define our time together.

Ghost of Getting Up

I was recently visited by someone I haven’t seen in forty years. She came to me wearing blue and white striped overalls, her shiny, fine hair was cut in a kickass shag, as she silently followed me through my day. I could tell she was surprised, and not in a good way, about what she witnessed. She had that impish, but somehow judgmental smirk glued to her face as tried to understand what she was seeing, why she was brought forth to see it, and what might help her get back to the business of climbing trees and writing parody songs about things that she found ridiculous.

It didn’t take her long to figure out that she was supposed to kick my ass back into the game. Once she saw the way I was walking around in a fugue state, which she called moping when she called me out in it, she got to work. There were no spirit advisers with her, so she and I had to deal with one another face to face. Instead of taking her hand and gently flying back somewhere, she instantly transported me, rather abruptly, to a few moments we had shared a long time ago.

The first place we visited was the old Highland Elementary School in my hometown. A beautiful, yellow brick building where the town library now lives. We went into a second floor classroom filled with fourth graders getting ready to leave school on their Christmas break. The male teacher was passing out lifesaver candies, a rare treat to celebrate the holiday. To each boy, he would simply dole out a candy and receive a proper thank you. To each girl he would hold a small sprig of mistletoe overhead and demand a kiss on his cheek in order to receive tha candy. My little friend in overalls refused to comply with the required kiss and was skipped over, which suited her just fine. Until the dismissal bell rang, when the teacher would not allow her to leave with the others. He told her she could go home only after giving him a kiss. So she sat there. He graded papers. She sat there. He cleaned off his desk. She sat there. He walked around the room, straightening things up. She sat there. The neighboring teacher, a kind, gentle man, came into the room ready to have a friendly chat with his coworker but found himself witnessing this standoff of sorts and excused himself saying, “Ponch, we’re leaving in fifteen minutes.” She sat there. The sky outside grew dark. Still, she sat there. The teacher put on his coat, turned off the light, and walked out the door without speaking. She sat there until she heard cars driving away, then she got up, went to the window and watched the two men drive off. She walked alone through the darkened school, and went home, where she faced a mother who was angry at her for being so late without a good reason.

Later, she brought me back into the same building and took me to a spot on the bench in the makeshift basement gym. She wordlessly reminded me of how she was made to sit repeatedly for arguing or fighting. We looked out the windows through latticed iron and saw the tar-covered play area outside where she went toe-to-toe with anyone, male or female, ten year old or forty year old, who was being unfair about rules or equipment. I stared intently as I saw her tear one of the “good” kickball bases out of a boy’s hand and send him spinning because it was Thursday, and the girls were allowed to use those bases on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Each time she went toe-to-toe with someone out there, she had to sit. On the sideline, in the principal’s office, on the bench.

When the teacher decided to allow the class to hold class elections, she ran for president. It was a futile endeavor because the teacher didn’t allow the students to do anything, but she didn’t know that, she only knew that she wanted to be the president. She was going to make sure the girls could use the good side of the playground and the decent equipment on the two recess days each week that they were allotted. So she and and her friend made posters for the election, she wrote a speech, and she won the pointless election. Weeks later, when the teacher was handing back school pictures, she sat in her seat as he held hers up in front of the class and ridiculed it because she had worn her overalls instead of a dress on picture day. When he said it would, “make a great Wanted Poster someday,” she sat and listened to her classmates laugh along with the teacher. Even the kind, gentle teacher from the classroom next door joined in, because, what little girl wouldn’t want to look pretty in their school picture?

She decided it was time for me to head back to present day. She wasn’t certain her magic had worked, but she knew she had some rollerskates and penny candy to get back to, she couldn’t waste any more of her time trying to fire me up. All she could do was hope that I would stand up.

image

 

So Long Sucker

It’s August, the teacher’s month-long Sunday night when you still have the freedom to use the bathroom according to your body’s dictates, but you know it won’t last much longer. It hangs over your head. When August first rolls around, the time for fairy magic thinking is over, my friend. This is not the marathon-running summer when you will lose those 20 pounds. You will also not be renovating the downstairs this summer. No. No you silly, silly fool.

When the glorious summer months stretched out before you, you had some grand dreams, didn’t you? Regular grown up lunches out with friends. Getting to the bottom of that book pile you created back in June. Daytrips to new places. Weekly movies and hikes.  And parties! Remember how you thought you would host parties, plural, with an S? Ha ha! So cute.

No dear, your summer is on the downswing now. You’ve passed the middle age of your summer break. And what do you have to show for it, besides this petite existential crisis? Daily drop offs and picks up to camp and summer jobs? A laundry mountain that conjures up some Greek tragedy every day as it reforms from nothing, waiting for you to scale it once again? Every form of medical appointment under the sun? Multiple trips to brick buildings with forms and papers dribbling from your arms as you rush to keep the house/car/dog/retirement fund/teen’s job legal and up-to-date? Online courses whose deadlines fast approach and dreaded summer work projects now needing to be completed? Yes, all of this and more sweetie, all of this and more.

Summer may be on the downswing, but you don’t need to follow its lead. Like you, your summer is unfolding just as it should be at this time. Soak up the sun while you can, hold your babies, drink the wine, let the dishes pile up, unplug the alarm clock, and enjoy those lovely bathroom breaks.

 

 

38 Minutes I’ll Never Get Back

When you cannot get a word in 

Edgewise

When the illusion of choice

Illusion 

of voice 

has been unmasked.

When all of the air in the room has been

sucked out.

When all the faces are blanched and blank

except for the speaker’s.

You know you were part of 

A non-parliamentary 

Filibuster.

The End of an Era

“This is really it, the end of an era,” said the NPR reporter. His story centered around the late Nancy Reagan. Californians were sharing words to honor the former First Lady. Some were also juxtaposing the Reagan era politics with the current landscape in Washington.

I was in high school and college when Reagan was in office, and it’s true that democrats and republicans still worked together at that point. Reagan and Tip O’Neill were famous friends. We certainly haven’t seen that with Obama and Ryan, or Boehner before him. It was a very different time, but I don’t have a pair of rose-colored glasses to strap on when I look back at that era.

While I can appreciate the nostalgia people are feeling with the passing of Nancy Reagan, who was a formidable, intelligent presence on the cultural and political landscape, I don’t long for a return to those times. I don’t have warm fuzzy feelings about the world then. I think we’re still unraveling some of the trickle down Reaganomics that kept my generation scrambling for professional work with not-so-professional salaries. Fawn Hall and Oliver North provided me with my earliest televised government scandal memories since I was too young to comprehend Watergate. The shredding of documents and ideas about needing to go “above the law” made me question my government for the first time. But the AIDS policies, or lack thereof, are the bitterest Reagan-era  memories that I would not wish to relive. 

There was a glaring omission of compassion and concern in our country during the AIDS epidemic which started in the Oval Office and trickled down from there. I remember losing a friend with a brilliant mind, the type of mind that could take on the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle and win. Ironically, he developed a very rare form of dementia, let in by AIDS, and did not live to see his 30th birthday. When the AIDS monster decided someone’s number was up, it was up. I wept as the massive quilt filled with squares of love and remembrance toured the nation. I volunteered at a charity shop which supported services for AIDS patients. It was an ugly time. And we lost hundreds of beautiful, brilliant people, partially due to lack of political will.

Nancy Reagan represented many things. She was fashionable and gracious in her red gowns and coiffed hair. She hosted heads of state with elegance and ease. She fiercely and lovingly protected her husband. With her passing we have lost an icon to a bygone era. Rest in peace, Nancy Reagan.

Night on the Town

Dropped the kids off at auntie’s house

drove into the city

checked into the hotel

walked the blocks to see

how many favorite places were replaced

by chains or banks

or the world’s slowest Starbucks.

Changed for dinner.

Walked around the block twice before finding

the Salty Pig where the charcuterie and wine

were more than fine.

Hoofed up to the Wang, now named CitiSomethingorOther.

Climbed flight upon flight upon flight

to the nosebleed seats where we watched as

Mr. Leon Bridges took us back in time.

And forward again.

Remembering the joy of R &B in

each other’s company.

Finished the night with a brisk walk

and more wine

with midnight French fries.

 

Laundered

Our dining room is consumed by laundry. I wish this were a fluke, but the dining room table often doubles as a folding space. More accurately the table is where the folded clothes live. They vacation in our drawers and clothes. This week it’s much much worse because our dryer has turned on us. The long slow betrayal began a few months ago when the dryer barfed up one its baffles, or rotors, or whatever the things that stick out and keep the laundry moving around the inside of the dryer are called. We pulled the piece out,  looking to see if we could reattach it, but reattaching it would require temoving the whole cylinder of the dryer. There was no way for a mere civilian to put it back in there. We threw a tennis ball in there to keep the items spinning. Problem solved. Huzzah. Laundry dreams continue. Until the next baffle-rotor-thing popped off 2 months later. Now we had to be very very strategic about the items in each load with only one baffle spinning the clothes. No more than two towels in a load. No blankets. It worked well enough until the other day when the cat vomited all over one of the beds. The last baffle flew off when the down comforter (stop judging PETA members, it’s a drafty old house!) had to be laundered. Now anything that gets washed must be hung to dry until at least next Monday when a repair professional will be dispatched to install new parts. There are drying items hanging all over this house. All. Over. The. House. I can’t close the bathroom door because a pair of pants is hanging off the doorway holding the door ajar. I’m peeing in public in my own house. The dried underwear now feels crispy -like my skin after a day at the beach – when I fold it. The pockets of pants take longer to dry than the rest of the pants, so it’s been an unpleasant, moist surprise to put my hands into my pockets this week. I know it could be worse, it could always be worse, but I miss the fluff and fold that I once knew.

Dental Image

I’ve heard tales of dental emergencies, full of crowns, caps, and root canals from those who have questionable oral hygiene. Or so I thought. I assumed the screaming call to the dentist was reserved for those slobs who never flossed, the people who, unlike me, did not brush their teeth religiously at work after lunch. Fast forward to this week when I experienced my first dental snafu and I take back my words. And judgmental thoughts. I take those back too.

Tooth pain hurts, people. It fecking hurts. I spent a chunk of time in my second least favorite medical contraption today when I sat in the dental chair. Those trained professionals dug, tapped, X-rayed, and prodded all sorts of things. I kept the saline from running out of my eyes and down my face as best I could. In the end, they couldn’t figure out what was behind the tiny, forceful fists punching up through my left bottom gum-line. They could not see small aliens in there trying to bust free as I had envisioned, but they mentioned a few possibilities.

I might have a degraded filling that needed replacing after forty years of service. That is the best case scenario and the thing I am hoping for with every fiber of my being. Another possibility is that the tooth is undergoing root resorption, meaning that the tooth is eating itself up from somewhere  in the roots. Cannibal tooth. I’m picturing the Donner Party at a weeklong buffet of friends of neighbors. They can try to arrest this by performing a root canal which will stave it off for awhile and let me hang onto the traitor tooth. The worst case scenario is that the entire tooth is cracked apart below the gumline and cannot be saved. They will not know what is in there until they open things up. Next Thursday. Until then, I will continue to eat Alleve tablets around the clock and supplement them in the post working hours with wine until the tooth merely throbs. The throbbing is there to remind me that teeth aren’t a guarantee after middle age. Even brushing after every meal and flossing like it’s an Olympic sport won’t keep all the teeth viable. Sometimes teeth have an expiration date.

Incomplete Thoughts

I often think in half-baked comparisons that only I can understand. They flood my mind like movie snippets. And I pile them on like bangle bracelets. See? I know I do this, and l know they’re weird, but I feel compelled to force these thoughts on others. Constantly. At work. At home. I cannot stop myself.  I’m aware that I don’t have a disciplined mind. I wish that I did. I want very much to complete an idea, to see the full arc of something and maybe to make myself understood. Or known. Instead, I’m a chronic starter of ideas. Someone who throws out an idea like:

It feels like we are in the mud season of gender roles in our house, everything that is exposed becomes messy, but it needs to exposed in order to allow later growth.

What I’m trying to say here is that my kids are working through what they experience as male and female at very different points of their development. I’m watching it and trying to exert benevolent influence over it. Maybe.

The six year old male child is all weaponry and bluster. If I could drop him off in ancient Sparta at a nice military compound he’d be thrilled. Until bedtime without a nightlight or someone to sing Sweet Baby James to him, then they’d send him back home on the next chariot. He’s still quite snuggly, but only on his terms. It’s not always easy for me to accept the swagger and the fighting themes. I’m probably a bit ham-handed in the way I react to any comments he makes that strike me as sexist. Until he sounds like the Alan Alda of his generation I will have trouble keeping my mouth shut when he talks about girls being this way and boys being that way.

The fourteen year old female is a bit more complicated. She’s just realizing the mess that femaleness past childhood brings. Corners of the world send her signals about being smaller, softer, less. Other places tell her it’s okay to be bold, as long as it’s not bossy or shrill, but cool and attractive to others. She holds her own in this adolescent arena, but it’s not always fun for her to be herself. I feel somehow responsible for this, and I suppose in many ways I am. I led her to believe that she should expect respect at all times. I told her she should throw her arms wide open and run into the sea of life and she would be embraced, buoyed, and lifted. I didn’t prepare her. Never warned her about the invisible fencing she’d come up against once she became a young woman. I didn’t have the language to share it with her, didn’t want to face it myself I suppose. Wished I had been able to pave the way better. Instead I stuffed her full of stories, poems, songs, and quotes about female strength and powerful beauty. Pretended I didn’t still have innumerable moments of rage and disgust at some of the gender expectations out there for her. I think I’ve done the equivalent of giving her a pair of white gloves and a pillbox hat to face a world of misogynistic tweets and diminished expectations.

I remember being angry and disgusted with my own mother for what I perceived as her weaknesses when I was a teenager. I wanted her to be bold, but she wasn’t. I wanted her to tell me, and all of my sisters really, to get out there and take what was ours in the world. She couldn’t, she didn’t have the language for it, just as I don’t have all of the language to help my own amazing girl navigate this terrain. And I probably won’t  have the magic words to make sure my curious boy always grows his own strength from within instead of stealing bits of it from females later on. But I will keep trying, at least until I find a metaphor that fits. Read the rest of this entry »

Insert Acronym Here

The meeting was at a very, very low point (one might say it was the nadir  of the meeting where you must Never Admit Definition Ignorance Realistically) with several group members trying, once again, to out-acronym each other. Fingers flew across tablets and laptops. I could almost smell the synapses firing as they worked to prove themselves worthy of their membership in what I had mentally started calling the Educational Jargon League.

Realizing I needed to at least try to keep up, I began to create my own private acronyms, if for no other reason than to stay alert. And if a gun were put to my head, I could even make up an acronym of my own to describe the horror (Honorable Options Rarely Realized Over Rhetoric??) I felt as I slogged through the talk around the table. As they wrangled over definitions of demonstration of knowledge vs. depth of knowledge, my eyes spotted movement outside the conference room window. A quick flash at best, but something was alive out there.

A kid was climbing up a snow drift. I could only see him from the waist up. He wore a red jacket and a pair of black gloves, but no hat, and his cheeks were red. As he made his way to the top of the snow pile, he threw his head back, his hair flew out like a little cape behind him and his wire rimmed glasses glinted in the late afternoon sun. He raised his fisted arms up to the sky, shook his head from side to side, letting his lion’s mane fly, and he jumped.

A minute or two passed and I saw him reappear. He climbed back up into my sight line. The wind was swirling snow around him and he was shouting into it, fists in the air. I watched him do this seven, maybe eight times. Each time he varied the routine only slightly. Was he summiting Everest? Storming a castle? I would never know. But in a room filled with endless and lifeless chatter about policy and procedure, the kid in the parka threw me a lifeline (Lively Initiative For Experiencing Laughter and Innocence in the Normal Everyday). Thanks kid, I needed that.