Friday, April 29, 2011

A Sorta Fairy Tale

Tori Amos' song title is appropriate today as we watched a prince marry his, the title she was given by the Queen. It was sorta a fairy tale due to the pomp and circumstance, the regalia, the carriage ride, and the prince/husband. But in some ways it was the same story as my own son and his bride...just a couple of kids who met in school, went separate ways a few times, came back together, said "I will" and "I do" and hope to live happily ever after.

There have been some who have challenged those of us who were mildly interested (or wildly fascinated) at the nuptials today. I get it. As an educator, I have been thrust into the current war zone along with my colleagues. These are times that I feel the need to justify to the world that I am a professional, that my work is important (so important that it can't be evaluated by looking at student numbers that are gathered on one day, reflecting one test.) So that's stressful and important and distracting enough without getting up at oh-dark-thirty to watch television. In addition, as a resident of the Southeast, I have spent a good part of the past two weeks peering out windows, dreading the all too familiar funnel cloud that has been common around here.

In other words, I know there are more important issues than a wedding involving strangers across the ocean. But lest you haters want to judge, indulge me a moment, and let me tell you why I watched and why I felt compelled to provide a play-by-play social media commentary during the event.

First of all, I have a degree in English. I love England, having studied the history of the country as required by my major. Also, I spent the better part of my last two years of undergraduate studies reading dead poets and playwrights who unknowingly impacted my learning, and then my teaching, for almost forty years. When the Reverend Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, quoted Chaucer during the ceremony, he sent me straight to translations of The Canterbury Tales and my senior English class with Mrs. Gertrude Chewning in a trailer at Northern High School then to an entire semester devoted to "Geoffrey" all by himself my junior year in college. Later during the ceremony the choir sang "Jerusalem" based on lyrics by one of the Romantic Writers, William Blake. At that moment I was transported to sitting in Greenlaw Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill reading Tyger, tyger, burning bright..." Fittingly, both of these literary heroes of mine are buried at the wedding venue, Westminster Abbey, along with Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Dickens, and Austen in a section appropriately named "Poet's Corner." If I ever have a chance to see it, I will surely weep.

Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey - if only those tombs could talk....

So, yes, the English major in me wanted to see the wedding. But the middle-aged woman in me wanted to see it, too. I was there, nose pressed to the television in 1981, rocking a four-month-old and watching the timid Lady Diana marry her prince. A year later, little Wills was born, and I watched him continue to grow through the years just like my own little princess. And I, like so many others, looked on as the marriage struggled, saw the divorce play out in the tabloids, and watched in horror as Diana lost her life and was laid to rest after two little boys followed her casket through the streets of London. Like it or not, this family is a piece of our culture, and for that reason I wanted to watch the next chapter.

For some of us, the royal family is an intriguing history lesson. I tweeted earlier this week that if our country's forefathers could see all the media coverage of this event, they may wonder why they fought so hard for independence. But what a unique social studies lesson for our students: here's where we started, here's what happened next, and here's where we are now. Then we could ask: How about when they sang "God Save the Queen" and it sounded just like "My Country 'Tis of Thee" that we all learned in first grade? Why is that? And why wasn't the Queen herself singing, but her husband was? Cool classroom conversations...

What about the rich discussions we can have in our classrooms about just exactly who among us hails from England? Many of our students originated in other places; let's talk about everyone's heritage while we're on the subject...

Speaking of heritage, my father told me his family came to America from Wales, another reason I found the event today so interesting. My mother's family has traced my ancestors back to Leicester, England. Those of us with ties to the United Kingdom may just enjoy comparing cultures. For example, I have a problem with the fact that if I ever meet Kate Middleton, and I want to display proper etiquette, I will have to curtsy to a 29-year-old and refer to her as "ma'am."

Please. I have sweaters in my closet older than she is. And in general, I was put off by the formality of the wedding. It was too quiet inside the abbey. When the couple was announced as husband and wife, there should have been a few cheers, at least a clap or two. I hate when weddings sound like funerals.

And when the bride and groom exited, I longed for Kate to simply grab Will by the arm; that dainty handholding halfway up in the air looked a little as if they may break into a waltz at any moment.

Which leads me to the last reason for watching the Royal Wedding: the sheer entertainment of it. I mean, seriously, Eugenie and Beatrice, you call yourselves princesses? I call that stuff on your heads target practice! I feel bad for whoever sat behind you.

Here's the thing: in these days of devastation and tragedy, these days of feeling that there is a fight brewing inside us ready to be unleashed at every turn, we need to take a break and celebrate love and beauty, and, well, magic. Life will be back to smack us in the face soon enough.

Sometimes we just need a sorta fairy tale.

My son, Prince Will, and his Princess Rebecca last August. No formalities during this wedding recessional....right down to the Converse sneakers.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Irises and Sweet Bubby Bushes

The Smokehouse at My Grandparents' Old Homeplace

In so many ways, we are who came before us. In many other ways, we are the antithesis of our ancestors, fighting to do better, have more, and be more than our parents and grandparents.

Today I sifted through artifacts (trinkets, my daughter called them) of my grandparents' life. In a house that was built during WWI, my brother, sister, husband, and I waded through the debris that takes over when a house has been abandoned by sickness and death...a house that previously had seen 100 years of Christmas-gift-opening laughter, 50 years of chicken dumplings and strawberry cakes served by my grandmother, 30 years of gathering around the piano to sing "Have a Little Talk with Jesus," countless years of living about to be demolished as new owners will soon clear the land to build a new home.

"Watch out for Tippy's grave," my brother told the buyer.

"Watch out for my memories," I thought.

In the summers of my childhood, when other kids were packing up for camp, I was sent to my grandparents' house. I dreaded it with all the fervor my young self could muster: as a child I thought the country was undoubtedly the most boring place on earth! My grandmother went to bed at 7 PM...and we may as well have been in bed: there was certainly nothing to do there, and by the way, it was darker in the country than any individual from the city could imagine! They didn't believe in lights there. I thought all those old-timey years with candles ruined them - they were so impressed with inside electricity that lighting outside would seem an indulgence.

So I spent those weeks in the summer scared senseless at night, lying awake with bulging eyes because no kid in America could possibly be asleep at that hour, and no kid should have to lie awake and listen to sounds that don't include interstate traffic.

Occasionally, I was scared senseless during the day, too. I was awakened every morning to the crow of a rooster (does anyone really think that screech is a pleasant sound?) The other daybreak sound in the North Carolina Sandhills is that of a Mourning Dove - those "who-who-who's" are still ingrained in my audio memory and remind me of missing my parents during those summer trips.

Once I woke up with an ax-wielding Granny standing over me. My grandmother needed help with a classic country chore - chopping the head off a chicken. I was pronounced the "holder of the chicken." I had a problem with this job on many levels, none the least of which was that Grandma the Chicken Slayer could possibly miss and chop my hand off. Also, I love all living things, and to this day can't even step on a spider in my house, preferring instead to hoist him onto a paper towel and deliver him outside. So poultry-cide certainly proved unpleasant to me. And, by the way, chickens DO run like, well, a chicken with its head cut a circle...all over the yard. Note the post traumatic stress here!

I was also traumatized by the lack of conveniences out there in my Granny's sticks! She didn't have indoor plumbing until I was married and had my own children. I was pretty sure that there were creatures that had not been identified in the abyss that was the bottom of the outhouse. Sometimes I was brave enough to look down there in that hole, but there was nothing discernable - only darkness forever and ever. The fear still lurches in the pit of my stomach today when I think of the child abuse that was going on when Granny made me sit on that hole.

All that aside, I have other memories of my childhood summer place that aren't so traumatic. When I was eight, my grandmother's friend loaded my cousins, my sister, and me into the back of a pickup truck and took us to see The Sound of Music in the movie theatre on the day it was released in that small Southern town in 1965. I remember the bumpy truck ride over rural dirt roads every time I see the movie replayed.

And how many people can say that they have climbed on a wooden pasture fence and jumped bareback onto a moving horse, grabbing the mane, and holding on for life? (But mainly holding on so Mama wouldn't find my body in the pasture and know what I had done.)

How many folks have played in the top of a hayloft, jumping to the bottom floor of the barn (but not getting hurt because of the hay mattress that lay below)? Who's picked blackberries from vines beside the garden, only to be eating warm cobbler thirty minutes later? Gathered chicken eggs out from under squawking hens? Watched kittens emerge from a little hole in the stable door just as they're able to walk? Seen neighbors walk up the driveway with fresh baked goods to share? Snapped beans on a country porch for hours while swatting gnats? Taken a ride on a mule-drawn plow through rows and rows of cornfields? Who's banged on a piano, displaying no talent at all, but yelling, "You like my song, Granddaddy?!" only to hear, "It's beautiful!" shouted in from the other room? (Nothing to DO in the country? Boy, was I wrong...)

All of these experiences make up a big part of who I am. But my parents chose mostly a different life for me, raising me in the city and stressing the importance of getting the education that my grandparents didn't have. I'm a long way from the cotton mill that my grandmother worked in. I'm a long way from that outhouse.

Today my mother pointed out flowers around my grandparents' yard and house. "Just dig up a few, and we'll replant them at home. I want the Seven Sisters roses and the purple and gold irises."

I reminded her that we gathered bunches of irises during our last visit. They're blooming in my yard now. "Well, get me some of that Sweet Bubby Bush then."

Soon we drove away and began our long journey home. For miles I could hear my Granny playing the piano; I could taste her dumplings and home-canned green beans. I could feel crafts between my fingers, the ones I made every summer at Vacation Bible School at the Bright Light Baptist Church. I could feel the rough wood of my Granddaddy's plow.

I arrived home with a sense of homesickness - I walked outside to shake it off....homesickness at home - such an oxymoron.

I walked across the backyard with my dog and caught a flash of color.

I turned and saw the purple and gold of my grandmother's irises, transplanted to the city like me, blowing in the wind.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What Kind of Difference Will You Make?

It is no secret that I've been preaching far and wide about the difference that teachers make. I've lived it, as a first grader, in a dark basement classroom, and I've read it in letters from past students who want to thank me for impacting them in a positive way. I've written articles about the importance of teacher/student relationships, and I've written a book about the difference my own first grade teacher made almost fifty years ago.

A theme that runs through my speeches and articles, as well as my book, is that the nurturing, caring teacher is the one who makes the biggest impact on students. The adult who displays an unconditional regard for students and their learning is "the one" who will be remembered as making a difference in the life of a child. And I'll stick to those words. But I had a conversation with someone a few days ago who had an interesting twist to the story of teachers making a difference.

She told me that as she thought back over her life, she knew the teacher who was the reason behind her eventually becoming successful - an educator, now working on her doctorate - as opposed to becoming a juvenile deliquent taking a destructive path to nowhere. That teacher was a high school math teacher, and my friend was not a good student, particularly in math. Growing up in poverty, she didn't have the tools she needed to be successful in school, and she was not confident about her abilities in math. I waited for her to tell me how this teacher encouraged her, hovered over her desk and pointed to numbers on her paper, giving her a quick hug before moving on to the next student.

That's not what came next. She told me instead that this teacher would often humiliate her in front of the class, would admonish her for incorrect answers, and would mistreat her in unthinkable ways. She said it was during that year that she decided to focus her energy on doing whatever was necessary to be successful in school. She woke up every morning determined to be a stellar student, a student who wouldn't give that teacher the opportunity to humiliate her in front of her peers.

"She pushed me to be great," she said.

Years later, she gave that teacher a call to tell her that she had, literally, changed her life. The teacher did remember her but made no mention of her drive and determination. Instead, she learned that my friend's current job isn't inside a classroom; it includes mentoring and training other teachers. The math teacher displayed some old habits when she ridiculed my friend: "Well, you're not even a teacher." Some things never change.

All teachers have the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child. I've said before that many times we don't even know the impact we've made. Once I was walking in a local shopping mall when I was approached by a lady who identified herself as the mother of a former student. As she went on and on about my class, how much I meant to her son, and so on, I was horrified that I didn't remember him. His name didn't even sound familiar. But I listened and nodded, hoping she'd say something that would spark a memory.

Finally, she said, "You don't know this...but you're the reason my son made it through seventh grade. He was struggling that year, having a hard time with peers, was so depressed I thought he was suicidal at times, but he enjoyed your class and wanted to come to school because of it." My mouth fell open and my brain was spinning. How could I have had that type of impact on a kid and not even know it?

The point is...we do make a difference. We have the honor and the responsibility of making a difference with every child we teach, every day they sit in our classrooms. Luckily, my friend had an inner drive that pushed her to make something positive out of a negative experience. And luckily, I was able to impact a student in a very important way, even though I was unaware of it and had no memory of the student years later.

How will the difference you make as a teacher be remembered? Will the story your students tell about you be positive or negative? Think about that as you walk through those classroom doors every day. What an amazing opportunity...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bring It!

Right now, sitting here in an office in my school, where down the hall I worked through the years to inspire struggling readers to greatness, I have never wished to be back in the classroom more than I do right now. Right now this very minute! But not for the reasons you think.

Ever since I was pulled to serve as a "Teacher Ambassador" when I was named North Carolina's Teacher of the Year in 2008, I have, of course, missed kids. Even though I've grabbed up opportunities in the past three years to get myself back in front of the little boogers, I have not had my own classroom since that time. So, yes, I listen intently every day in the hopes that I'll hear the administrators' walkie talkies popping: "Seventh grade is moving..." so I can walk out in the hall and inhale children. So, yes, I do miss the kids, but that's not my motivation today.

I also miss my own learning communities, the language arts teachers I planned and collaborated know, the ones who encouraged me to dress like Britney Spears on our Genre Jam day. Luckily, now that I'm serving as a "teacher-on-loan" to our state education department, I have been able to set up my office in the same building where that "jam" occurred...which means I see my collegues often and can get my collegiality fix. I'm still there for all the social gatherings - the after-school baby showers and book clubs - and some days I just get up from this desk and walk into their classrooms. My friends, and their students, are accustomed to my drop-ins. But I'd really like to sit down and plan again, to look at assessment data and put our heads together to figure out what will enable our students to grow. But that's not why I'm longing for the classroom right now.

I also miss the actual act of teaching, too, and all the stuff that goes along with it: room decorating, lesson planning, assessing, re-teaching, re-directing, explaining, listening, counseling, hugging...I do miss all that. I even miss faculty meetings.

But none of those are the reasons I'm wishing I could be back in my own classroom today. During the current tumultuous times, I want to be there to join in with all those educators out there showing the world it can be done: teachers can and will continue to provide more with less, to survive in conditions that are demoralizing and demeaning, and to make ends meet with frozen salaries and pink slip threats.

I see it daily in my school: teachers continue to advocate for kids while working from dark until dark to plan innovative lessons all while maintaining positive relationships with kids. In short, teachers continue to make a difference even as policymakers negatively impact working conditions by making decisions that raise class size and cut positions, all while raising standards for performance.

Yes, I wish could have my own classroom during these chaotic times. I truly believe that as the craziness would swirl around me, I would feel pushed even harder to do what's right by kids. Threaten my job? I'd keep working until they dragged me away, still clutching the active board marker. Continue to reference "bad teaching?" I'd spend countless hours working to get better and better, sharpening my teaching skills by staying in touch with cutting edge research and technology. Decide to make my students' test scores public, along with my name?

At that I would stand in front of my classroom and talk to myself using the language of my middle schoolers: "Girl, you GOT this!" Then I'd look out the window toward the world and shout,