Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mystified and Horrified

On Tuesday, I took my sophomores to the library. The purpose was to get a book to read - a book of their choosing. I know this sounds ridiculous to even have to say WHY I took them, but anyone who's a teacher will nod and say, yep, gotta tell them.

And I did. I thoroughly explained why we were going and that we would be reading in class. I'll set time aside for us to read for fun (here's a foreign concept), and when they are done with their work, they will read then. This, I told them, is for all of you who ask that ridiculous question: Why do I do now that I'm done with my work?

Unfortunately, right before I told them this eye-opening information, I had given them a research assignment on World War II, as we are beginning the novel Night by Elie Weisel. So, when we got to the library, I had a lot of students thinking they had to get a book for that oral presentation. No, I told them. Well, what do I get then, they asked. A book you're interested in reading. Huh? they said.

Dear God, I prayed.

You get a book on anything - whatever interests you. You like cars, get a book on cars. You like mysteries, get that. Anything!

Oh, they said.

There were probably six to eight students in my sixth period who honestly did not get that is what you can do in a library. You can pick a book about something you like and read all about it! I am not joking, and I am not exaggerating. They did not get that. They did not know that.

What exactly has happened to these teen-agers the last 15 years of their lives I do not know. Didn't their parents - or an uncle or a grandma or a SOMEONE - take these kids to the library? I know some teacher along the way did. Right?

Did these soon-to-be adults simply forget these experiences? Do hormones completely eradicate specifically chosen memories?

I just don't get it. Is it the kids or is it the parents? Is it the educational system or the biological system? Who the hell has the answer to this question?! Who the hell can explain to me - an educator of 12 years - why 10th-grade students do not understand what a library is?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Exhaustedly Excited

Ah, Week One down. Thirty-eight to go.

The first week of teaching is always exhausting, if not for the simple fact that we have to get used to being on our feet and talking all day. That alone is a lot. Couple that with having to think so damn much - and think critically. Whew. Then there's dealing with kids all day, in my case teenagers, who are an entirely different species altogether.

But, this first week went well, and I have to say I was surprised at how well. My students were focused and ready to go. A few will need some reeling in, but I'm an expert at all that. I think it went well because my mindset is much different than it was last year - and in many previous years. I'm thankful to have a job, first of all, and I'm grateful to be at that school. The teachers have laid out well the curriculum and pacing, and there's little left for me to figure out. Except for the important part - how am I going to teach what I'm supposed to teach. And that's where I get to be creative!

So, off I go to figure out how the hell I'm gonna teach analyzing a prompt and writing a strong argument on Monday.

Whew. Exhausting.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Challenging Routine

Today was the first day of school. Sad in that we teachers have to give up the freedom of summer: staying up late, getting up when we want (or our children want), swimming lots, sitting on the porch endlessly, reading what WE want. Ah, the time comes we have to let it go and head into routine: up at 5, in bed by 9. But, exciting also. When I first started teaching, a veteran teacher said she gets nervous every year on the first day of school, and that was the talk at break today; new teachers and veterans saying how nervous they were first period. I wasn't so much nervous - though I do still get that way even now in my 12th year - but excited. I am teaching a new course this year - AP English Language and Composition. I've taught AP Lit but not Lang. New for me. Exciting. It appears the focus is on writing and how authors use language for effect - and affect. Perfect for me!

My regular sophomore classes went well, too, though as I stood in front of them and one tried to be a class clown, I thought to myself They are just overgrown freshmen. Seriously!

The year will be hard in that I'm teaching something new, but hard is good. It means challenge and growth. Amen to that.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Big Steps and Big Strokes

As time inevitably zooms along, yet another marker of that has come to pass: Semeli finished preschool at Mama Pete's where she has been for the last two years. She and Lorelei will attend the same school next year - Lorelei in third grade and Semeli in Pre-K.

Semeli's leaving Mama Pete's is significant, because it means our family leaving it. We spent three years there total (Lorelei was there for a year), and I've dreaded parting. We were very happy with the education the girls received: the teachers were experienced, wonderful, loving; the families were always friendly; and Mama Pete, well, she's nearly indescribable. Sure, I can give a description, but it won't begin to do her justice. She's owned the school for 65 years, just celebrating her 94th (I think) birthday. She's hands-on, taking part in running the school with love and discipline and respect. I could go on and on, and, in fact, I included an entire chapter about the school in my book.

The point is, the time came to go, and I was so sad. The girls, of course, took it in stride, but they did mention they will miss their teachers. I sensed they knew it was a big deal leaving this place.

I helped the girls put their handprints on T-shirts, and we gave them to all the teachers and Mame Pete as a gift. They loved them - or at least acted like they did. They even wore them at Show-Off Day.

This is the day all the kids show us what they learned in six weeks of swimming lessons at Mama Pete's. Yep, there's even swimming lessons at this magical place! This was Semeli's second year, and she totally took off and - pardon the pun - dived right in. At Show-Off Day, there are usually four groups, starting with the youngest kids and moving up to the older ones. Semeli was in group three, though I think she should have been in group four but wasn't because there were six kids in it, and that is the max.

She was the last one in the group to "show off," and when it was her turn, instead of swimming from one side of the pool to the other, she swam all the way to the deep end, taking a big breath in the middle, and then turned around and swam back to the shallow end where the swimming instructors were.

It was awesome! I was so damn proud.

After the event, it was obvious Semeli was proud of herself, too. We went out to dinner to celebrate, and then the next day was her last day and the big swimming party. Thus ended our life at Mama Pete's: bittersweet, wondrous, and unforgettable.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lost and Found

I don't always understand this life. OK, I rarely understand this life. I mean, I get we're supposed to learn lessons and learn to be compassionate and learn to love. I know. I know. But why, pray tell, does it have to be so damn hard? Why do we have to lose so much in order to learn? That's when we really take things seriously? That's when we really pay attention?

Today is six months that my Mom passed away. In six months, I have not gotten used to the idea that she is gone. And in six more months, I will not adjust to this new idea. I hate this fact. I hate this reality. I don't want to adjust to it or get used to it or accept it. I just want my Mom back.

I reworked - again -the chapter on her funeral for my book. I'm still reworking it. Revise. Edit. Play. Fix. Adjust. Make it better. I haven't had this much trouble writing in a long, long time. If ever. It's a good chapter, but the beginning is stumping me. I wrote it. Didn't feel right. Rewrote it. Let it sit. Reread it. Rewrote it again. Now, I think I finally have it to a respectable place. I think.

Of course, every damn time I read it, I cry. Sob, actually. Which is really what I need to do. I've not given myself enough of a chance to mourn. It's never the right time; I'm out or driving or having a great day and don't want to start feeling all depressed again. The writing of this chapter is giving me a chance to mourn. But the mourning sure as hell is getting in the way of the writing!

Losing anyone alters our lives. It doesn't just have to be someone who has died. The loss can almost be as great when someone we deeply love leaves or we leave. I just don't get why it has to be this way. Why did God, who loves us so much, put us in positions where we lose and we live with pain? There has to be a better way. I don't care what Eve did - Eve, who was framed by the way. I get it builds character. I get it builds strength. I've got enough character, and God knows I'm strong enough. I just want what I've lost to return.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Swimming Lessons

Last night, we swam again – under a full moon. We met up with our friends Karly and her mom Sara again. Karly swims exceptionally; she has been on a swim team, and this summer, swims every day with mom or dad. Lorelei swims well but not that well. She doesn't yet have the speed or skill Karly does, but still, Lorelei does well for her age.

Sara had some pool toys - two plastic neon sticks - and we would throw them, and the girls would swim to get them and bring them back: Pool Fetch, if you will. The girls would start off together, but Karly would get ahead of Lorelei and get to the stick first. Not everytime, but enough to where Lorelei realized Karly would get there first. After a while, Lorelei would start out with Karly, but then she would stop, giving up, and wait for Karly to return.

I know Lorelei was disappointed, and this made me hurt. She never said anything and didn't appear upset, but I know it bothered her. She's very competitive, and she hates to lose. (Who doesn't?)

Walking to the car together, I brought it up.

"It's good to be with people who are better at something than we are," I told my eight-year-old. "It helps us to strive for more and to improve our skills."

"I know," she said, but I don't think she quite understood.

"You swam well tonight," I said.

She nodded.

This is a hard lesson. It's hard to get out of our comfort zone and to admit there are others who are better at something than we are, especially when it's something we love and in which we take pride. I see this every day in my classroom. I struggle because I know I need to push my students. But, I want to keep them with me and not have them give up. But if I don't push them and have high expectations, I'm not really teaching. I'm babysitting. No thanks. I didn't go to school for two college degrees to be a babysitter, and I haven't invested 12 years in education to be a babysitter. I'll take the risk and push them, nurturing them all the way.

It's different, though, when it's your kid. Your baby. The need to protect is so overwhelming. But if all I ever do is protect, then she will never grow. And I sure as hell don't want that.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Writing's Wounds

They say write what you know, and I've found that when I do, it is easier. When something's buggin' me or truly eating me up, writing is therapeutic. That's no secret. And when I write about the girls, it makes the experience that much sweeter. I chew it, taste it, swallow it. I want those moments to last, to linger. In reliving them, the moments are lengthened. I once again experience the humor or the connection or the words or the giggles. It's not only permanently in my brain; it's immortal now 'cause it's in writing.

When I write about something that hurts, it is as though the act of writing bleeds the pain from me. That doesn't mean I'm painfree when I'm done, but writing does relieve the pressure of the pain.

I went back this morning to the chapter about Mom's funeral for my memoir about the girls. It flows better, but I'm just not sure about it yet. It may be too matter of fact. But I don't want it to be mushy either. I don't usually have this problem; I can judge pretty well. But with this - I'm too close to it, though it has been nearly six months that she died. It's still raw in many ways. So, I need to let the chapter sit for a bit.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Research Paper Hell

This is a place all English teachers know. Well, good English teachers. As many have said to me, "I could never teach English. Look at all those papers you have to grade!" Before the comment is even completed, I think to myself, Actually, that's not the reason you're not an English teacher. But I keep my mouth shut to be polite.

Research Paper Hell is even worse in the summer. The course session is MUCH shorter, thus, the turnaround time is MUCH quicker. I spent all day Thursday grading papers. And when I say all day, that's not hyperbole. That means from 7 a.m. to bout 7:30 p.m. I graded research papers, or papers that were supposed to be research papers. I did have breaks, but essentially, all my energy on Thursday went to grading them. I graded the last two this morning.

This is Hell at anytime of the year because most students in my classes have no idea how to research, compile, organize and actually write said Monster. Which is, of course, understandable. That is why, after all, they are in my class. That's my job - to teach them how to do this, so when they write a research paper for history or science or psychology and every other class under the sun, they know how to do it - which is why English is the most important class one can take. (Poop on you math teachers who don't agree. Math isn't even capitalized if it doesn't start a sentence. How important could it be?!)

So, yes, it's my job, but that doesn't mean I have to like this Hell. I have to accept it, yes, but don't have to like it. Students make the very mistakes I covered a bajillion times: cite correctly, cite!, use punctuation, give examples, don't make claims you can't support, alpha by author on the Works Cited page, actually use the essays you said you did . . .


The frustration comes from students not doing what we tell them to. But the fact of the matter is that's the learning process in action. We humans have to actually do something in order to learn how to do it. We can watch it and hear it, but we never actually get it until we do it ourselves. The fact that this is the third - usually the fourth or fifth - paper they have done for me needs to be taken into account, however. They have had a chance to do this. Hello! Thus, this place called Research Paper Hell.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Peacocks and Pigtails

Now that I am finished with my website, I can get back to writing and spending more time with my girls!

Tuesday night, I was thinking I wanted to do something fun with Lorelei on Wednesday morning: Lorelei-and-Mama time while Semeli was at school. Wednesday evening my students would be turning in their research papers, and I have a short turn-around time, so Wednesday was the day. Lorelei, being the perceptive one, said early Wednesday morning, "Hey, Mama, let's go to the Arboretum!"


Off we went, Lorelei in the lead and me in tow.

Per her request, I put her short brown hair in pigtails, and she wore this beautiful Hawaiian dress - orange with black and yellow - that our neighbors Ami and Sean gave to her for her birthday two years ago. Within the past year, she went to the Arboretum with her Girl Scout troupe, so she knew it better than me, as I hadn't been there since I was a reporter about 20 years ago. So, she lead the way, pigtails bobbing along the way.

We had a map and consulted it now and then, and once she knew where she wanted to go, she instinctively walked ahead, leading me. Keeping a brisk pace, we chatted about the cool trees and interesting flowers, and then we hung out by the lake for a bit. Well, it's called a lake, but it's about as big as a pond - and certainly not as big as Walden Pond, which really should be called Walden Lake, if you ask me. But, I digress. Walking behind my girl, I watched her. She looked around, commented on things, and clearly enjoyed being where we were and confidently navigated us through that huge place. I loved being there with her. I was happy.

Wild peacocks roam the Arboretum: Their cries echo throughout, and their exquisite colors
supplement the already beautiful landscape. They clearly have assimilated to having humans around, as they don't move away from us; in fact, they come closer to check us out! When one came close, Lorelei moved over to me.

"What's he gonna do, Lorelei?" I asked.
"He may peck me," she said.
"Oh, that won't hurt much," I reassured her.

It's awesome to see my eight-year-old innately taking the lead. It reassures me she will do well in this competitive world of ours. However, it's also nice to know she still needs me, or thinks she needs me, for protection, for comfort, for reassurance.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Slumbertime in the Summertime

This afternoon after lunch, after cleaning up the kitchen, I walked into the girls' room to get them - and me - napping. Semeli snuggled next to Lorelei as Lorelei read "Bear and Bunny Grow Tomatoes" (Bruce Koscielniak).

"I'm reading in a funny voice," Lorelei informed me, "'cause I'm her kitty."

They play this often. One is the kitty, and the other is the owner. I think it's ridiculous, but they enjoy it, so who I am to say?

They read together, and I reclined next to them, caressing Semeli's long, still-wet hair, as she now has swimming lessons every morning at her preschool. We finished the book, then Lorelei scratched Semeli's back, and I scratched Lorelei's. The weather in Southern California has been nice; warm and breezy. (Good thing, 'cause I can't function in the HOT.) As I listened to their breathing deepen, the draft gently lifted the shades to waft into their dimly sunned room. It was almost as though the breeze and their breaths rose to meet, carrying them tenderly to sleep.

This is what summertime is about; this is why I work so hard teaching teen-agers all year. This - so I can have time off in the summer and listen to my babies slumber into their naps. And I can fall in with them.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Night Swimming

There is something strangely paradoxical about night swimming: serene, calming while chaotic, silly. At least with half the city's kids in the pool with you it is. Lorelei swims well, and she and her friend Karly, who is an even better swimmer, cruised the pool like dolphins. Watching your baby stand on the diving board wracks you a bit, though she has done it dozens of times. But I never seem to get used to it. Then - off she jumps! Coming up perfectly and swimming to the other side.

Both she and Semeli learned to swim at their preschool, but for Semeli, that was last summer. This was only the second time in the pool for Semeli since then, so she was a bit nervous. I held her with me the whole time, coaxing her to venture a bit more and more as the night wore on. When we arrived, dusk loomed, and soon, the pool lights glowed. This is what I love about night swimming: the water illuminated, the blue-green of the water brightly lit. I just don't know what it is. It's calming and romantic and cool all at once.

Just as I gazed at the lights, Semeli pointed out the half-moon on the rise. Bright and beautiful. What could be more perfect?

As Lorelei and Karly played, Semeli summoned up the courage to put her face in the water. Then, she got some in her nose.

"Wait a minute," she said as she squeezed her little nose. "I have to energize my nose." I laughed out loud and felt very grateful to be mom to these beautiful, crazy children.

The ending to the perfect night was seeing a raccoon on the street on the way home. We see them often, but seeing it at this time, on this night, made for an apt closing to a wondrous evening.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Summer's Flow

Ah, summertime. The last two weeks have mostly been shopping for an agent and time with Lorelei and Semeli, which is the point of summer, wouldn't ya' say? And, of course, teaching a summer session. This time, it's an advance class, and I'm impressed so far. Students and I have held interesting discussions; they presented their first paper last night, which went well. Much debate and varying viewpoints. I'm anxious to see the level of their writing.

Tonight will take the girls swimming, then work on the last chapter of the book, which is about Mom's funeral. Emotions are getting in the way; writing's not flowing.

Ah, more work . . .