Baby, You’re a Star

stars

At the end of each quarter at the high school, many students’ schedules undergo shifts. Maybe they switch to taking the required Health course, or maybe external pushes and pulls result in the order of their classes getting switched around. Sometimes, those pushes and pulls cause a student to be moved into the class of a different teacher.

This is what happened to Allegra’s schedule earlier this year, at the end of a quarter. With some consternation, she realized her new schedule had her moving from the tutelage of one Spanish teacher and into the classroom of another. When she reported this to me — and naturally it burbled out when she was upstairs, and I was halfway down the staircase, heading to the main floor — I didn’t understand what the problem was. “But I thought you don’t exactly love the teacher you’ve had? I thought the glacial pace, the lack of interesting content, and the feeling of being taught a warm, romantic language in a very Germanic manner — those things weren’t exactly making you thrilled about Spanish this year? So wouldn’t a move to a new teacher be a good thing?”

Standing at the banister on the second floor talking down to me while I craned my neck to look up at her, the girl clarified: “Yea, but in that class, at least I stand a chance of learning something. With the other teacher, the one they put me with for the new quarter, I won’t learn anything. It’s a move for the worse.”

Well, damn.

Fortunately, as we stood there, still staged for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, Allegra continued, “So when I saw my new schedule, I decided, ‘No, I don’t want this.’ The guidance counselors always say we can come see them with problems, so I went to the office, talked to a counselor, and now my schedule is fine. All my classes are staying the same next quarter, and I’ll have the same Spanish teacher.”

I hoped my face didn’t reveal my surprise. As a rule, our kids are so mild-tempered, so shoulder-shruggingly fine with almost everything, so averse to direct interactions — to the point that we can hardly get them to say hello to a person standing three feet from them — that I have trouble imagining scenarios where they have an issue and then deal with it. For the most part, they have made sure their lives don’t have problems because then they can glide.

I can’t imagine where they get it.

A day after Allegra got her schedule settled to her satisfaction, she was in Spanish class. At some point, she wandered up front to ask her Germanic romance-language teacher a question about the homework.

“Allegra!” the teacher started. “You aren’t going to be in my class next quarter. I was looking at the rosters and noticed that you’ll be switching into a different class.”

Well, actually, Allegra told her, I will be in your class next quarter.

“Oh, I didn’t know you’d gotten it switched back,” the teacher continued. “The other day, when I looked at my class list, your name wasn’t on it, and I noticed. I have to keep an eye on my stars, you know!”

Wait. What?

As Allegra, my Juliet, stood above me, recounting this moment, her face was a mix of raised eyebrows, happy smiles, and wonder. “I mean, she’d never even talked to me before, really, and I don’t actually speak up a lot in her class, so I had no idea. She thinks I’m a star? I almost left her class without ever knowing that. How come I didn’t know I’m a star?”

There, her words drifting down from the balcony, came one of life’s important questions.

How come I didn’t know I’m a star?

As the 15-year-old and I considered that bit of life, the part where we don’t realize we’re valued, I trotted out an old chestnut: the story about when I telephoned my dance teacher, from whom I’d taken ballet and modern dance lessons for nine years, to tell her I would be quitting classes. Although her instruction had been a significant part of my life from the ages of seven through 16, I’d hit high school, joined the speech team, found new interests. If something had to give, it would be dance — because it wasn’t like I was built for a career as a ballerina or was going anywhere except around and around in tightly pirouetted circles with those dance classes. So I called Miss June to inform her of my decision.

Even now, I am still processing her reaction. “Oh, that’s too bad! You really have promise as a modern dancer. I would have loved to see you pursue that!”

Much like my daughter thirty years later, my reaction was a confounded Wait. What?

From Miss June, I knew I needed to pull my tummy in. I knew I needed to tuck my derrière under. I knew I needed to pull my shoulders back.

But it was only when I quit that I found out what Miss June really thought. It was only once I was done that I learned the words that had been barrel rolling inside Miss June’s head.

It was only when Allegra’s teacher thought she was losing an excellent student that Allegra learned her teacher thinks she is an excellent student.

It’s human nature, the business of having a thought flit through the brain and then neglecting to voice it. Sometimes, we just forget. Other times, we don’t want to be overbearing or come off as false. Perhaps we are consciously holding back praise; we don’t want to give someone a big head, or we feel awkward, assigning formality to the casual, creating the weight of “a moment.” Bizarrely, to extend praise to someone can feel like admitting a vulnerability in ourselves, like a rook-takes-knight power shift. In some cases, sitting with a compliment rather than expressing it is a deliberate teaching tool — since confidence must grow from within. Most frequently of all, we just don’t realize how very much someone might benefit from hearing the words.

Ah, but if we flip that awkward moment of formality, cast ourselves in the recipient role, hand ourselves the telephone receiver and whisper, “It’s Miss June. She has something to tell you!”…if we remember what it was like to be 15 and to self-motivate and to aim high in a class driven by ho-hum instruction…if we remember what it was like to be 15, even in the best of circumstances…if we remember what it is like to be a person of any age at all, walking through life with only a thin layer of skin sheltering a vulnerable heart…if we remember the times when we were 19 and a grandpa at the bus stop sauntered by and called out “How’d you get so beautiful, anyway?” or when our fathers told us “People are drawn to you because you have an effervescence” or when our crying friends snuffled “Thank you. I didn’t know what I was thinking until you helped me see it” or our husbands noted, mouths full, “You bake the best cookies; you make them so that they taste generous”…if we remember those holy, transformative moments that embrace our vulnerabilities and hold them to the sun…

how can we ever forget, neglect, hold back when it comes others? How can we allow the stars among us to feel that they are shining only for themselves?

I cannot.

Thus, I want to announce loudly and for all to hear:

Allegra is turning 16 today, and she is multi-talented, quietly confident, astutely observant, admirably self-possessed, firecracker smart. The world is lucky to have her.

May there never be a question about my feelings for you, my beloved girl, mi amada estrella.


Allegra Collage

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A Day in the Life: I Am a Hat Rack

Four years ago, a new semester started in my online classes, and I got scared.

In one of my sections of research writing, a section that was very lively from the first day and never ceased to have excellent energy, there was this one student, and she made me nervous. You see, during the first week of class, students were asked to post personal introductions of themselves and then reply to two classmates’ messages. This activity is a nice way to break the ice and to get at least a few connections going.

This one particular student, however, didn’t reply to just two classmates.

She replied to every single person’s introduction. And there were 50 people in that class.

Whoa, I thought to myself. I’m going to have to keep my eye on this one. She could be a real handful. 

As the semester progressed, though, my fears were allayed; this student, a woman named Deanna, was not crazy or too much or out of control. Nope. Rather, Deanna was a steady, positive influence for the entire class. She never missed an assignment. She never turned in work late. She never made a single excuse — even when her father died, and she had to make a through-the-night drive across several states right when an important assignment was due. She was a damn delight.

After that semester ended, it occurred to me that Deanna would make an excellent student mentor. Our college has a program that allows online instructors to draft stand-out students as mentors who are then embedded within online sections. Flattered, Deanna accepted my offer, and for the next few years, she and I became a team within the online classroom. In addition to the instructional materials that I would provide to students, Deanna would post a weekly tip for the class, answer questions if she saw them before I had logged in, participate in discussions when they were lagging, and complete a critique of every student’s rough draft of the research paper. She did all this in addition to taking her own classes and working full time.

During these years as a team, we became friends more than anything. Eventually, Deanna approached me to ask if I would be willing to serve as the faculty advisor for Phi Theta Kappa. If anyone else had asked me, I might have said no. But since Deanna was the president of our campus’ chapter of PTK, I was willing.

For the next two years, Deanna and I worked together to bolster the health and presence of the PTK chapter. Not only did we hold monthly meetings, we started having chapter officers do presentations during Student Success Day, and one semester we ran an ESL group on campus, in an effort to forge connections with our international students. Even more, we traveled to various PTK conferences, both regional and national. There is a very specific intimacy that comes from hanging out in airports and staying in hotels with a student/friend. Put another way: I could walk up to a Starbucks counter and know what kind of drink to order for Deanna.

Just last week, on the day before my birthday, Deanna came over with a four-pack of my favorite beer in one hand and a screamingly fine chocolate cake in the other hand. After days of pain and isolation, I felt myself emerge from behind my sling a little bit that afternoon as three of us shared beers, gossip, and cake.

Over these past four years of getting to know Deanna, I have learned a great deal about her. I have learned about her years with her emotionally abusive ex-husband: one of his weekly demands of her was that they go into the bedroom and spread a towel onto the floor near the bed; then she would stand on the towel while he sprayed tan lines onto her body. I have learned that this ex-husband also constantly told his wife, who has battled anorexia since her teen years, that she was “fat” at 5 feet 4 ½ inches and 120 pounds. I have learned that she has the softest of hearts: her house, which she bought from her parents when they wanted to move, has often served in recent years as a halfway house for young people dealing with issues of finances, sexuality, and homelessness. I have learned that even though she became a nurse several decades ago, she is willing to push beyond the easy comfort of a known career and retrain herself, now that she is in her 50s, for a new life as an English teacher.

And I have learned that during the first week of our research writing class, the reason Deanna responded to every single classmate’s introduction was this: she couldn’t bear the idea that her classmates had devoted time and effort to creating descriptions of themselves, yet their introductions might go unacknowledged. As she explained to me, “I know how terrible it feels to try at something — but not be seen.”

It came as no surprise, then, that when I put out the call asking if anyone would be willing to share the details of “a day in the life,” Deanna willingly agreed to give me an assist. Here, then, is Deanna.

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I have decided that sometimes I wear too-many-damn-hats! It wasn’t always this way. There was a time in my life where I possessed just enough that I could either juggle them quickly – or sometimes wear two at a time. I possessed the hats of trophy wife, mother, and nurse. Though I had children, life was simple then. However, over time, the hat of motherhood wasn’t needed as much. Additionally, one of those hats just didn’t seem to fit quite right. It was too constricting, restricting, controlling, and confining — plus I was required to wear it 24/7. So, after 23-years, I decided I’d had enough, and I held a small bonfire of hats and walked away. Ran actually.

I discovered that once I was rid of the “constricting and confining” hat of trophy wife, I could take on bigger, better, and even MORE hats!

With my day beginning from the time I walk out the door at 5:30 am (sometimes at 5:15 am) and going until 10:30 pm at night, many of these hats are in a continual rotating basis.

Monday through Friday typically looks like this, with some slight time variations depending on what classes I have:

5:45 am-10:00 am – nurse hat

10:30 am-3:20 pm – student hat

3:45 pm-6:45 pm – nurse hat

7:15 pm-10:30 pm – student, girlfriend, and Phi Theta Kappa advisor hats

The open times in between are spent driving to and from campus. When I have volunteering, work time shuffles as I can be flexible just as long as I get those 40-hours in. Most of my phone calls are made during drive time <gasp> yes I wear a headset! It really is the only time I have figured out where I can make phone calls to family or PTK members.

On weekends, while there is no time constraint, I’m girlfriend, student, PTK advisor, writer, and archer or hunter (depending on the time of the year). Happily, I don’t have to get up until 8:30 am on the weekends – yet I’m typically not in bed until 1:00 am.

Am I insane? Perhaps. Yet I believe if there is something that interests me then damn it – I’m going to buy that hat and see if I can wear it.

My current hats:

Girlfriend: this is the easiest, most carefree, and most fun hat that I wear – non-stop. Of course it is a younger hat, but one that I love wearing. It fits me very well and never goes out of style. At the age of 45, I found the love of my life: a man 13-years younger whom I had been good friends with for two years before my divorce. I was surprised as heck when he told me he wanted to date me. I can honestly say that I am no longer who I was because I have blossomed without the restriction I had been placed in during my marriage. It is this relationship (of more than 7-years) that has afforded me the freedom to pursue new hats. In this hat I have traveled to France, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. This hat will eventually see me (with Shawn) living and teaching in Thailand six months out of the year.

Full-time Student: taking 14 credits at a time – in the classroom five days per week — with too many outside of class hours to think about. It would scare me if I did the calculations. Happily – this hat does not resemble a cone-shaped dunce hat. This could also be called my “planning and preparatory hat” as it is this hat that is needed for the dream of living in Thailand. Admittedly, it was difficult getting used to wearing the hat of student after being out of the classroom for 27 years. Starting with an Associate’s Degree, now working on my Bachelor’s Degree, and then heading into Master’s in English is a time commitment but necessary for the life we envision for tomorrow.

Nurse: though I initially burned this one, I did get a new one in a slightly different model. I wear this hat 40-hours per week typically. However, sometimes I have to put the traditional nurse’s hat back on for family and friends — you know, when they have questions that they don’t want to bother their doctor with. After graduating from practical nursing in 1983, I spent the next 27 years as a pediatric nurse, an OB/GYN nurse, and a medical surgical nurse in a hospital. Now I use my nursing skills in Quality Review. This is a job (and hat) that is flexible enough that I can don my student hat over it.

Phi Theta Kappa Advisor (PTK): the honor society for 2-year colleges. This hat has undergone some style changes since I first put on a PTK hat in 2011. It initially started as a chapter officer and then regional officer and morphed into the eventual advisor hat. Sometimes this involves giving workshops, just listening, or helping with scholarship applications. The transition in style has definitely been a learning process, and there are times when this hat gets a bit uncomfortable to wear.

Volunteer: while I was wearing the trophy wife hat, I was not allowed to volunteer because, after all, what would I get out of it? Since my divorce, I have found that I enjoy wearing the hat of volunteer. Wearing the hat of the fryer queen at the VFW burger nights (this hat looks more like the tall paper chef hats we see on TV) along with keeping their wireless internet up and running has been a great way to give back to those who have served.  Donating blood and working with elementary kids as a Rolling Readers classroom reader looks like a baseball cap with the words – “Just Ask Me & I’ll Do It” written on it. If I can fit it into my schedule, I will happily accept any volunteer hat that is offered.

Writer: this invisible hat allows me to blog under a pseudonym so I can be deep, snarky, give advice, or be serious; my “Avie Layne” hat is a fun one to wear. I’ve honestly tried this hat on from time to time since I was a teenager. Undeniably, as a teenager, what I wrote was truly horrible – but it was a learning process. During the later years of my marriage, I dabbled in writing, but it wasn’t a hat I could bring out very often.

Archer/Hunter: YES – this hat is camouflage (or bright orange) and is typically worn from August through January. A full camo ensemble accompanies the wearing of this particular hat. This is the newest hat in the bunch. I’ve never been athletic, but trying archery at a fellowship event showed me this was something I could do. I discovered, in this past year, that I’m actually quite good at it. Later, I decided it would be a fun hat to wear with my dad during deer hunting season. This year the hunting hat was in practice as I think my quarry knew that my hat was very new and stayed away. Next year, however – my hat will be quite broken in.

Not-and-April-Fool27s-JokeWriter-Hat

Future Hats: While I will always have the hat of girlfriend, there is the possibility of changing the style slightly to that of wife. Of course, this time it won’t be the trophy style – rather it will continue to be comfortable, carefree, and easy. While we are living in Thailand, my hat will be teacher of English language, lover and chef of Thai cuisine, all while keeping my writer’s hat close at hand. In the months each year that we will be back in the States, at the property we lovingly call “The Lake House,” I will don the hat of gardener and make a slight variation to the teacher hat while teaching community classes on cooking. This little tree of hats could happily sustain me for the rest of my life.

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Deanna 3 (1)

Growing up under the hot Kansas sun, Deanna Keller spent many hours sitting under the apricot tree with her nose either in a book or writing in her scruffy notebooks, carefully composing stereotypically bad teenage poetry with a Number Two pencil. Exploring writing as an adult, she found her voice by blogging about her observations and musings surrounding life using a ghost name, which she has done for the past five years. Creative Writing classes at college opened her eyes to the idea of short stories for young adults and ignited new writing passion. Many are based on the stories of her parents’ poor childhoods growing up in the Ozarks of Arkansas in the late 1940s early 50s. Currently, as student at The College of St. Scholastica pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in English, she will continue on to a Master’s in teaching and a certification in online education in order to teach at the high school or community college level. She plans to pass along the love of writing to future students and assist young writers in finding their own writing voice. Deanna’s motto is, “Never let anyone prevent you from reaching for your dreams. The only failure is in not trying.” Deanna blogs at: Avie Layne.

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I Didn’t Eat the Booger

It’s my birthday. I’m 49 today.

I’m also in the midst of recovering from shoulder surgery, in a semi-diminished state that has left me feeling grateful for many things on this day of taking stock.

Example #1:

Last week, Byron and I were standing in the bathroom, with him waiting to assist me in some small act, perhaps applying deodorant. He was waiting because I needed a minute to blow my nose. With my right arm in a sling system, I was blowing my nose using one hand. I am as good at this task as I am at running a six-minute mile. Just as I was starting to feel proud of myself for getting the Kleenex around both nostrils and for managing to emit some snot into the tissue, a bad thing happened.

A Kix-sized booger flew out of my nostril, dodged the tissue, jettisoned upwards, and landed with an audible splat upon my glasses lens.

It was a marvel, that thing. Bright neon yellow. Perfectly gunky. A rogue with great character.

Because Byron and I have been through childbirth together, a lively, glowing booger is hardly worth an eyebrow twitch between the two of us.

“Sorry about that,” I said. “I’ll just…”

“Yeah,” Byron agreed. “You’re going to need to deal with the actual booger, but once you get it off, I’ll be happy to clean your glasses for you.”

And he did.

Example #2:

Paco is usually very tired by the time he gets home from his school day. He needs a snack, something to drink, and a few gentle touches to remind him that he’s with us now — that the tiring world is locked away outside our doors. Often, this means I play with his hair or scratch his back for a little while.

A few days ago, he leaned in for a forehead-to-forehead hug. Although I have not been engaging in many hugs since the surgery, I enjoyed the feel of his arms around my shoulders. Quickly, though, he retracted one arm and apologized, saying, “Oh, no, that must have hurt you! I’m sorry, Mom.” Telling him I appreciated his solicitousness, I assured him that no one’s touch is more gentle than his.

“I’m just really glad it didn’t hurt you,” he almost whispered, looking relieved.

Example #3:

By the end of each day, my shoulder is aching, and I’m forced to admit that my energy is still on the rebound. At that point, there is nothing more welcome and comforting than sliding into the castle of pillows on my bed.

Last night, as I lay there, messing around with my phone and reading a few pages from a new book, Allegra got up from her chair at the computer where she had been plugging away at her homework and came over for a good night kiss. Before I pecked her cheek, however, she settled onto the edge of the bed to tell me about some of the career presentations her classmates have been giving in English class.

For the past several weeks, all the sophomores have been working on research projects focusing on potential future professions; this research culminates in a video that is then shown to the class. For Allegra, choosing a possible future career required a lot of thought and discussion — because the beauty of being a sophomore in high school is that everything is still possible. After talking through her interests and passions, she narrowed it down: she is genuinely excited when it comes to travel, cultures, and various countries around the world. Thus, I suggested she consider researching the profession of a Foreign Service Officer, someone who works and lives abroad, helping with visas, finances, tourists, expatriates, all the associated issues of an embassy. This suggestion and her decision were bolstered by the fact that she was required to do an interview with someone who currently works in the chosen job, and I have a high school friend who is a Foreign Service Officer.

Once I knew what my own girl was doing, I started asking what her friends were researching and what careers they were contemplating. Also, I warned her I would be eagerly anticipating updates about all the presentations given in her class.

So there she sat last night, telling me about the first couple days of presentations. A few of her classmates wanted to be teachers, and there were also presentations about being a meteorologist, and animator, a veterinarian, a physician’s assistant, a pilot, and all sorts of other options that made me want to go back and be young again.

As I leaned against the pillows, feeling the ache in my back relax, I watched her lovely face in the dim light, that lovely face that came into my life out of my own body 16 years ago, and I forgot about the phone in my hand, the book by my elbow, the painkillers on my side table, the plate of chocolate cake awaiting me as soon as midnight struck. All I thought about was how much life there was in her big, blue eyes, and how she was sitting next to me when I was aching, telling me about her day — because she knew it mattered to me.

Example #4:

A few days before my surgery, I received an email gift certificate from my best friend, Colleen. To help distract me from my anticipatory worry about the surgery, she had sent me an early birthday present: a hefty amount towards a pair of Fluevogs— shoes that are quirky, whimsical, well-made, and expensive. After tearing around the house to find Byron — to tell him of my excitement — I was surprised when his face only looked semi-happy at the news.

“At the risk of blowing my birthday present to you,” he said, “I’m just going to tell you now that I was planning to give you the exact same thing, right down to the same dollar amount.”

His disclosure in no way ruined my birthday present. Rather, it provided a delicious delight: to have both a best friend and husband who are so attuned to even my smallest desires, who are so thoughtful about who I am, is the very definition of a perfect gift.

Just as good: when I buy a pair of those shoes, I will smile with every step, thinking about how Colleen sponsored the left foot while Byron sponsored the right.

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On this special day of taking stock and feeling gratitude, then, I am thinking many things.

I’m thinking about how my glasses are clean.

Because I am loved and supported.

I’m thinking about how good a hug can feel.

Because the people in my life are gentle and respectful.

I’m thinking about how I am not lonely, and I have company in the dark hours when pain creeps in.

Because someone lovely takes a minute to sit on the edge of my bed.

I’m thinking about feeling seen and acknowledged and beloved.

Because those who have known me over the years show me that they understand exactly who I am.

When I was young, I would not have known how to ask for this life.

But here it is.

And it is so good, so full, that I can’t even have candles on my cake.

Because I wouldn’t know what to wish for.

ThwappyBurpday

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In a Funk

“How can it smell so bad? We just showered you yesterday!”

As I stand in the kitchen sniffing my fingertips, Byron is incredulous.

Bruno Mars is still backstage polishing his loafers, yet there is some serious funk going on. I press my fingertips to my nose, and it is a testament to my steel stomach that I do not vomit.

A minute before, I had been slowly, gently tucking fabric from my shirt into my armpit. Having recently undergone a rotator cuff repair, my right shoulder and arm are immobilized in a sling for the next month, and I had been trying to push cloth into the armpit to minimize chafing and maximize moisture mopping. When I removed my fingers from the armpit, a festering funk hit the world of oxygen and light and unfurled its wings.

The smell was like a shiitake mushroom had been rolled in a clay bowl of goat cheese, dragged through a ramekin of beaver feces, and dipped into a fondue pot of sulfur-rich water collected from a geyser in Yellowstone Park. In other words, it was fungus meets mold meets poop meets rotten eggs.

“But we just showered you yesterday!” Byron reiterates his disbelief, certain that our careful spraying, soaping, and dabbing of my muffled pit should have kept it tamed for more than a measly 24 hours.

For all the work that it had taken to clean that pit — I had leaned gingerly to the side so that gravity and body mechanics could passively arc my arm away from my body, allowing Byron to softly run a bar of soap up into the pit’ s folds before using the shower head to blast the suds away, after which he had tentatively eased an edge of the towel into the crevices to soak up the moisture — we had expected a more lasting payoff.

But no. The funk dominated. Wrinkling my nose distastefully, I accepted that dangling my fingertips into a bottle of rubbing alcohol would provide the most efficacious countermeasure to the stink. Ever my partner, even in the most gorge-raising situations, Byron snapped a chip clip onto his nose and helped me remove my shirt. “Holy crap,” he commented before pitching the offending fabric down the stairs to the laundry, “that is rank.”

I am only a week into my recovery, but already it’s been quite a journey.

hospital

Outside of the astonishing funk, I’ve had a few other eye openers:

  • being a post-surgical patient is a whole lot like being a celebrity. For both me and Jennifer Aniston, we are most constructive when we are passive. We have people do our hair, we have people dress us, we have people bring us food; the way we show up most actively in our lives is predicated upon being docile recipients of other people’s attentions
  • when the anesthesia wears off, and the three-day pain pump running into the neck through a catheter runs out, BE SURE TO HAVE SOME OTHER PAIN MEDICATIONS ALREADY GOING, OR DEATH WILL SEEM A REASONABLE OPTION
  • I am almost ashamed to admit that the cliché “laughter is the best medicine” has proven true; nothing has been more effective in recent days that a good, hard belly laugh. In my absolute worst hour, Byron was sitting near me, keeping me company, when he started chuckling at an article he was reading on his phone. I asked him what was so funny, so he read it aloud. By the end of the piece, I had the best kind of tears running down my cheeks. (Here is the article he read: “Hummingbird Back at Feeder Again, Grandmother Reports”). I also continue to snortle every time I remember my best friend advising me before the surgery to take a Sharpie to my feet and write upon them “Do Not Amputate.” The morning of the surgery, when the doctor came out and asked if he could write his initials on my shoulder, I was possessed by a private, unexplainable giggle
  • there are few things more satisfying than a bowel that remembers how to move
  • it is tear-droppingly gratifying when a physical therapist looks you in the eyes while you are hurting and whimpering and and secretly believing you’re a sad, weak thing, and he tells you that you’ve had one of the most painful surgeries there is, harder even than a full shoulder or knee replacement
  • it is really hard to put toothpaste on a toothbrush when you have only one hand
  • it is really hard to open a container of yogurt and stir the fruit from the bottom with only one hand
  • it is really hard to reach toilet paper located on the right when only your left hand is functional
  • it is really hard to squeeze a zit with only one hand
  • it is really hard to open the Percocet when the container is childproof and you yourself are on Percocet and therefore essentially a toddler who just sucked down a juice pouch of gin
  • it is really hard to do buttons; this is a lifelong problem for me and has nothing to do with surgery, but I thought I would mention it
  • it is really hard to do a whole lot of fundamental tasks when you are limited to one arm and or one hand, and I never before had the opportunity before now to appreciate the nuance and minutiae of the challenges
  • I am having an opportunity to learn new kinds of empathy, and that feels like a deep, unanticipated, most-welcome, sideways gift. Having never broken a bone, or suffered profound physical trauma, or had to maneuver through my days with any sort of disability, I have been fortunate to trip along life’s path singing tra-la-la, occasionally stopping to look at someone who is dealing with a trial and think, superficially, “Oh, that poor person. What a difficult way to live.” After clucking sadly for a nanosecond, I begin to skip again. In this past week, however, I have been registering all the things that are taxing when the body is not at full capability, and I have been witnessing how much grace lives in the hearts of the caretakers, and I have been appreciating the systems that evolve for coping, and I am, in the quivery cinema of my mind, sifting through all the images I have seen over the course of my life of the hurt, the wounded, the crippled, the maimed, the war torn — right down to replaying mental scenes with the extras who roamed the grounds of Downton Abbey during Season Two when the manor house was used as a convalescent hospital — and I am humbled by how many people in the history of the world have suffered a physical blow or been born with a congenital problem and who, nevertheless, figured out how to get their teeth clean or stir the fruit into their porridge or wipe their private parts, every day for their Always. I am astonished by the millions and millions of people who have been able to smile, to laugh, to plan, to create, to live full and rich lives even though they sometimes cry with pain in the darkness of the night
  • thanks to this passing elective surgery of mine, I am being permanently improved. I am figuring some things out that will help me live more compassionately, and that is an incalculable lesson for which a shoulder dotted by sutures is a beggarly down payment
  • despite all the goodness that is resulting from this procedure, there is one eye-opener that is not necessarily positive: I am willing to put my own needs over the future of the planet — because after Byron threw my funky shirt down the stairs to the laundry, I totally added the words “aerosol deodorant” to the shopping list. Hole in the ozone be damned. No fingertip, no matter where it’s been digging, should ever smell that bad

sure

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I Want to Hold Their Hands, Part 2: A Day in the Life of a Stay-at-Home Father and English Teacher

Day in the Life

Below is Part 2 of my friend Andy’s “Day in the Life” essay, detailing his hours as a stay-at-home father and English teacher. This one focuses on the teaching. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

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When we finally get home, I see that it is almost 2 pm. This means by the time we walk The Boy to school, he’ll probably have less than 90 minutes until dismissal. I make his day by granting him a reprieve. As I put Baby down for a nap, the other two settle down for their afternoon screen time, and I try to sneak in some more grading of memos and finalizing the night’s lesson plan. Before I can start grading, though, I see a few students have emailed me.

Just like the memos I’m trying to grade, the emails vary from insightful questions about the assignment to the completely mundane, almost child-like need for help. “The website won’t let me hit the submit button right now. What should I do?” (Evidently calling IT never occurs to them.) This afternoon’s emails, though, all seem to be about a problem with their latest VoiceThread assignment, a third-party app that allows them to make video or audio comments on slide presentations. It is notorious for being finicky. The rest of my grading time is spent solving the problem, which is how I discover that I clicked the wrong buttons when I set up the assignment. What I took to be my students’ struggles really stems from my mistake.

Parker Palmer famously wrote (at least famously to teachers) that “You teach who you are.” I am disorganized at best. Forgetful too. You know, just like I am as a father. I forget diapers, even the diaper bags. I’ve lost coats and hats, even shoes: I once had a baby kick off a shoe at a thrift store, not noticing it until I was buckling her into the car. By the time I got back inside, the shoe was gone. Evidently the thief must have a peg-legged pirate baby that really needed a new shoe badly enough that taking one single shoe off the thrift store floor made sense. I’m not terribly different as a teacher. I lost papers regularly. Or spilled coffee on them while grading, or had kids spill milk on them while grading–me grading, not my babies who tend to be frustratingly illiterate. So I don’t collect papers anymore. I just use the online portal instead. But even that doesn’t keep me from making mistakes.  I try my best to be fair in each situation, so when it is my fault, I admit it and try to fix it.

After I fix the problem, I get the kids a snack before 4:30, when my wife usually arrives home on my teaching days. Some days, we literally play tag-team parenting, with me throwing a baby at her as she walks in the door. Lucky days are where we change together (unfortunately not in a sexy way), her out of work clothes, me into them–mine, not hers. We give each other quick status updates: Baby didn’t nap well, Preschooler needs a bath from crawling on the waiting room floor. I peck her on the cheek, then I am out the door, my patch-less elbows pumping towards the car and work.

The hour before class is spent in mandatory office hours. This is the only time that I really remember my adjunct status. Let me be clear that the director of my program and the administrators in the English Department have been nothing but good people. The pay is pretty good for adjuncts, and we get healthcare benefits and retirement, all things that a lot of adjuncts don’t get at many universities. I’m treated as well as a part-time worker can be treated in a workplace still so codified and stratified by the academic hierarchy and new business models.  But that hour before teaching is full of reminders that I’m not a professor, despite what my students call me. One of those is the pens.

When I get to work, I first check my mailbox and pick up some new office supplies from the cabinet in the mailroom. For some reason, we aren’t trusted with the more expensive white board markers: those are kept in a locked cabinet in the main program office, which is closed by the time I arrive in the evenings. If I need one, I know where I can get one. But that is at least understandable: the department doesn’t want people stealing dry erase pens for their own ubiquitous white boards. The pens, though, are worse than that. The pens are all Papermates, the ones that cost a nickel each; if you used one on a two-hour exam, it’d run out of ink after one hour, 50 minutes. Upstairs where the professors’ offices are, supposedly there are boxes of Pilot G2s in all the colors of the spectrum. Even purple for those rebel graders. But down here, nothing reminds me more of my disposable status at the university than the pens: adjuncts are the Papermates of academia.

I make my way down the hall to the office I share with five other adjuncts. We share four desks and two computers. Tonight, I have the office to myself, meaning I won’t get distracted gabbing with my colleagues instead of working.  Most office hours I have between 0 and 1 student come to talk to me. I think it is because I am such a brilliant teacher, everything I say makes sense in the classroom. It was the same way when I taught junior high and we had 45 minutes of “extended study” at the end of the day. While I don’t have to do much classroom discipline in college aside from talking and policing smartphone usage, the rest is the same as teaching junior high: the kids might be bigger and be able to buy beer, but they still need reassurance and help and questions answered.

The first thing I do when I open my computer classroom is login to the computer which takes at least ten minutes to get fully operational, then I check for those valuable whiteboard markers. As usual, the woman who teaches before me took all the markers with her, evidently to sell on the writing weapon black market, so I am stuck going to the IT desk to borrow one. The IT desk is staffed by undergraduate employees, all glued to laptops and scarfing fast food. The one at the window barely looks up when asking for my university ID to prove I’m not some random whiteboard marker thief wandering in off the street. I hand it over the row of hot sauce bottles that inexplicably line the customer service window. (I make a mental note to ask my hot sauce student if he works at the IT desk.) I then have to sign for the marker, evidently so they can dock my pay if I don’t return it after class. Just like buying beer, tobacco, or any opioid painkiller, whiteboard markers are a controlled substance here.

In class, I teach with a blend of humor and purpose. I have a class planned out, but I don’t mind answering questions ad infinitum and going on digressions. My teaching super power is the ability to digress on long tangents but then find a way to bring them back in a relevant way. Hence discussions of “What Does the Fox Say?” and why “Call Me Maybe” drives me crazy because of both dangling adverbs and direct address.

While teaching, I try to remember how I felt when I was one of those seated in the classroom. That’s why I try to make class fun whenever possible. I also try to support my students through each of my responses to their comments, no matter how off-base or wrong they are. I’ve never been able to just say “no, you’re wrong” like one of my favorite teachers, Professor Alan Williamson, could do. That “No” is something I aspire to.

Despite his inability to have sustained conversations in office hours, his tendency to address his lectures to the overhead projector in the front corner of the classroom, and his preternatural ability to recite long chunks of memorized poetry without reading from the book (He was especially fond of “This Be the Verse” by Larkin, reciting “They fuck you up/ Your mum and dad/ They don’t mean to, but they do. . .”), Williamson could teach.

Professor Williamson not only gave us the basic building blocks of poetic analysis and exegesis, but he helped us understand how the poems we were reading fit into the larger issues of literature and art too. This occasionally came across in a well-placed “No, you are completely wrong,” from Williamson during discussions, which earned my respect: I don’t think I’d ever had an English teacher in high school tell a student clearly grasping for some deep–yet unsupported–insight that they were full of shit, like Williamson did in not so many words. All this flashes through my head like a nugget-induced flashback while I think of how to respond to my own students’ responses. I don’t yet have the courage to tell students they are completely wrong. I chalk it up to having a lot left to learn as a teacher.

Tonight being my tough class doesn’t help matters. They sit there, stonily, resisting my charm and not laughing at my jokes, even the brilliant ones. They don’t raise their hands to answer my questions, only to ask their own. Exercises don’t take long to discuss and no digressions are to be had. No super powers are flexed this night. Even discussing good and bad examples of student writing doesn’t inspire discussion like it usually does: students love to shred apart these anonymous examples. I let them go a few minutes early, both them and me glad to be free of the awkward silences. They probably head out to the bars being a Thursday. I, though, drive home.

Even though it is close to 10 pm, I know I’m too wired to go to sleep. I’ll eat dinner finally, then perhaps read for a few minutes. I’ll talk to my wife and find out how dinner and bedtime went with the kids for a bit before she heads to bed. I try not to grade because to paraphrase Jack White, my brain feels like pancake batter. Plus, I’m sure it will put me to sleep.

I’ve done marathon grading sessions at night before, but I end up making too many tired mistakes, writing down the wrong student name or wrong subject of the paper. If I grade past 2am, I’ll often find myself falling asleep briefly to short, intense dreams: once I dreamed about stealing a truck and, when I awoke, found that I had typed the word “truck” in a comment. Another time I dozed briefly while typing, only to find that I’d written, “These audience analyses could help you tailor your argument moreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”  Even for a mistake-prone teacher like me, nothing loses your credibility faster than one simple mistake in a comment. The student could turn in Jack Torrance’s stacks of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” from The Shining, but if you write “stupid” instead of “dull” in the comment, they’ll think there is nothing wrong with the paper because that mistakes proves this wasn’t their paper. Inevitably, the reply will come. “Professor Delfino [sic], I don’t understand your comment. Was this for someone else? I expect my grade to be fixed to the A++-+-++ I deserve.” Now I avoid grading late at night, and instead get up early.

The house is finally quiet again, and I sit in the dark living room before heading to bed, enjoying the silence. I know that these days of adjunct-ness are temporary. Eventually kids will continue to grow as I feed them and hold their hand in parking lots. They’ll all be in school one day, and I may even find a non-teaching job for the first time in my adult life. But for now I work 1.5 jobs to keep my resume from becoming a black hole. The stresses won’t be gone, just different. But still there will be coffee, and quiet, and crepuscular light. And, I know, enough hands to hold.

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Andy

Andrew S. Delfino is a stay-at-home dad of four and a teacher. With a wonderful for a wife and three daughters, he’s not afraid to be called a feminist, but does hate being called the babysitter, though. He blogs occasionally at almostcoherentparent.com and Tweets at @almostcoherentp.

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Also: if, after reading this, you’d be interested in writing and letting me post an essay about your own “Day in the Life,” please let me know in the comments or through omightycrisis@gmail.com. I am endlessly fascinated by the minutiae that make up our days!

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I Want to Hold Their Hands, Part I: A Day in the Life of a Stay-at-Home Father and English Teacher

Day in the Life

A few weeks ago, when I posted “Salt on the Road,” a rundown of a day in my working life, I put out a call to others: I love knowing what people do for their work; more specifically, I wondered if there was anyone who would be willing to write an essay detailing his/her daily life, in terms of its work, and allow me to publish it. Several folks responded with willingness. The first to come through with words on the page is my blogger pal, Andy. A stay-at-home father of four and teacher of English, Andy’s “Day in the Life” posts will present, first, his life as Father…followed in a few days by his life as Teacher. Enjoy Part 1 below.

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I am up no earlier than 5:15 am, though it is usually closer to 6. I enjoy the quiet moments as I make coffee, where the bulb over the sink is the only light as I shuffle around getting the beans from the pantry, turning on the kettle. Eventually, crepuscular light creeps in the kitchen’s east facing windows as I pour my cup of black coffee. I like my coffee plain, and strong enough that you need to cut each sip with a knife and fork; a friend once asked me if I knew that my stove-top espresso maker made nine (smaller) espresso servings, not just one cup of strong coffee like I drink it. But with four kids and 57 students, I need a muscular cup of joe this morning as I start to grade before the sun comes up.

I have two workdays, but they blend into each other throughout the day. My first is as a stay-at-home parent to my and my wife’s four kids. I’ve been home since my second-oldest, The Boy, was born six years ago. When my wife was pregnant with him, she got a job offer in Washington, D.C. She would make slightly more than we were both making together in Atlanta. The only problem was, the job offer came in late April, when all the teaching jobs were already taken, making finding a job difficult, especially in an area 650 miles away. And that was before we realized that my entire teaching salary would probably go to daycare for a toddler and an infant. So I became a defacto stay-at-home parent “just for a year,” I would say, to ease our transition.

I thought about returning to work, though. The next Spring, the only job offer I got was at a start-up school where the principal wanted us there every day from 7am to 6pm, all for the same low, low, low salary I made my second year teaching in Atlanta. Now we would have to pay MORE than my salary for daycare. No thanks. We discovered that me staying at home wasn’t perfect, but it was better than daycare, and less stressful than daycare drop offs. Our quality of life was higher: no rushed daycare drop-offs and pick-ups, no weekend family time fighting lines at the grocery store, no need for horrible slow cooker meals we’d pretend were delicious and not just borderline burnt. And after teaching, I’m used to the repetition and measuring out of the day in hour-long teaspoons. I’ve been home ever since. We have 100% more kids now, bringing us to 3 girls (ages 8, 3, 1) and one boy (6).

Some days it isn’t perfect, like those days when I don’t talk to another adult between my lovely wife leaving for work and her return. But I’m happy to spend time with the kids, working at a job where I can wear pajamas all day, read books to squishy little people, and have our house run smoothly. I respect families with two working families because I don’t know how they do it. Life is hard enough with a parent at home doing all the stuff that needs to get done.

I also work a second shift as a writing instructor to bigger kids two evenings a week at  the large public university nearby. When I got the latter as a way of keeping my resume from having a decade-long black hole on it, I thought being a college instructor would be glamorous: I’d use words like “crepuscular” and wear a sports coat with patches on the elbows. Unfortunately, I found out in orientation that you get the elbow patches only when you get tenure. And it only went downhill from there as I became familiar with the academic ghetto of adjunct work. I don’t think about all that, though, in the mornings. I’m only thinking about the 57 memos I have to grade, where I get to discover what topics my students have chosen for their term paper projects.

Like most teachers, my students make my job endlessly entertaining, especially when it comes to what they choose to write about. This morning is no exception. Amongst the serious, highly useful and prescient term paper projects (e.g., pedestrian safety on traffic-congested campus, helping tutor local middle schoolers in STEM subjects, redesigning a computer science course to make it more welcoming to female students), there are some highly amusing ones. For example, the campus gym needs to make another weight room with no less than $3 million worth of weights to be useful. The dining hall needs more hot sauce (an in-depth comparison of Tapatio versus Cholula to be included). McDonald’s needs to get rid of the dollar menu because it attracts homeless people who make one student feel unsafe since “everyone knows homeless people commit crimes regularly.”

I sit on the couch, quietly using comments to help my students see past their stiff thinking and solidly mediocre writing. I wake up early to work because my kids wake up early: especially my 8-y-o daughter and 6-y-o son. I’m lucky if an older kid isn’t sitting next to me by 6:15. I tell them to learn something by reading a book. Then I try to ignore them. And even though my wife and I share parenting duties until she leaves for work, when either my 3-y-o daughter or my 15-m-o daughter wake up, no grading gets done. So my teaching hat gets replaced with my main hat: at-home parent. I don’t need to spend much space here convincing anyone that parenting is a full-time job, even if it only pays in hugs and kisses–none of which can pay the mortgage.

The morning routine soon gains momentum like $3 million worth of weights rolling downhill. Breakfast. School lunches. Getting kids dressed. Convincing the 3-y-o preschooler that a sleeveless nightgown isn’t a good idea when it is 39 degrees outside. Compromising with said preschooler and dressing her in tights. Telling the 6-y-o that he can’t have tablet time any of the 54 times he asks. Explaining to the 8-y-o budding chef that cooking scrambled eggs on high heat isn’t a good idea. Helping the oldest scramble eggs again, and teaching her how to soak a pan full of burnt egg paste in soapy water.

Today is different, though, since The Boy has a doctor’s appointment. As I start thinking about getting out the door, my wife texts me that the Beltway has been shut down because a truck was on its back, 18 wheels in the air; she helpfully warns me I should get going. But since hustling all four kids into the car is only slightly more complicated than Eisenhower’s D-Day plans, we only leave 10 minutes earlier than I planned. I drop the older one off at her bus stop on the way out of the neighborhood, then steel myself for what I will find. As soon as we turn out of the neighborhood, I find ourselves into a scene from Mad Max, if Mad Max had no high speed chase scenes and was instead just stop-and-go traffic and honking.

There isn’t much to be done, as all the streets on this side of town are filled with cars being shunted off the freeway. I quickly learn that there are normally a lot of cars on a freeway. After thirty minutes, the baby has decided she has had enough of the “Chair of Despair,” and starts crying. This is not good because the baby has the preternatural ability to hit a pure note that is like a spike of sound piercing my skull and setting it ringing. She has learned this is very effective in getting whatever she wants, from water to more ice cream. Except we are in a car, and as much as I want to, I can’t get her out of her seat and drive with her on my lap like I imagine every child was required to ride by law during the Depression.  Eventually I figure out an alternate route that gets me within 2 miles of the doctor’s office. Things are going great. We are moving. When we get close enough to see the doctor office’s street, half a block from the main road that the Beltway is closed and all cars are required to exit. It takes us 39 minutes to go those last three blocks.

We entertain ourselves despite The Baby’s banshee impression. From a certain blogger’s story, I loudly demand, “Where’s my hot ham?! I need a little fish!” The bigger two kids will pretend to throw them at me. “Here’s your ham! Here’s your fish!” Then we all laugh. Except the baby, who continues to scream. When we hit the hour mark, I rummage through the diaper backpack on the passenger’s seat next to me and find a chocolate bar. “After an hour in the car, everyone gets chocolate!” I proclaim to cheers from all non-screaming children. The Baby sees what the others have and starts crying differently in the universally accepted message “I want what they have!” She stops crying long enough to eat the chocolate, and rub her tummy with her latest word, “Ummmmmm. . . “

We reach the doctor’s office and park, 35 minutes late, 95 minutes after we left the house. I unbuckle The Baby and Preschooler and we all begin walking toward the office. Because it is a parking lot, I carry the baby and hold the Preschooler’s hand as we make our way through the parking lot. I realize that I had just been complaining that the road was a parking lot because we were moving slowly; now that we’ve parked, and are in an actual lot with mostly non-moving cars, I hold the Preschooler’s hand because “Careful! We are in a parking lot!” so evidently everyone drives maniacally fast here. I make a note of it to use this linguistic paradox and similar ones (e.g., we drive on a parkway but park in a driveway, etc.) to start my class tonight with something fun. I usually use YouTube videos, but this one seems more relevant to a writing class than last week’s digressive, 5-minute tangent about what “What Does the Fox Say?” and “Call Me Maybe” teach us about knowing your intended audience.

Everyone is late because of the traffic this morning. The doctor is just treating the day like the starting time got bumped 30 minutes. The two bigger kids play a game in the empty waiting room of being kings and princesses (always a princess, never a queen), while slithering from chair to chair. The Baby practices climbing up chairs and sitting in them. I praise the kids for their creative play. I praise Baby for her new skill. She claps along with me as I cheer for her and her newly discovered way to hurt herself: evidently she realizes innately that this would be the perfect time and place to fall and split her skull open.

By the time we leave the office, it is 12:30, and these kids need lunch. As a reward for their good behavior on the drive and in the appointment, we go to McDonald’s but don’t see any homeless people mugging customers, a gun in one hand, a $1 McDouble in the other. I make a mental note to ask my student which McDonald’s he goes to in order to avoid it.  I know I shouldn’t like McDonald’s, either as a parent or as an academic. The list of negatives is long, even without counting marauding bands of homeless. Factory farmed food. Working conditions. Low wages. Too much sugar. Too much fat. Too much Americaness. But when I bite into one of the kids’ leftover nuggets, I am 8-years-old, back at my grandmother’s kitchen table, eating nuggets and fries for lunch–one of the few treats to look forward to about going to visit my mother’s mother. In the same second, I’m both parent and child. The paradox makes my head spin for a second, where I find myself surprised: “Where did all these kids come from? How can they be mine? And I live in Maryland?” But that lasts less time than it takes a French author to swallow a madeleine, and I am back to being daddy.

Especially since the preschooler does a ballet leap right into the side of the table, splitting her lip. I hold her on my lap and comfort her; ever since she was really small, whenever she’s hurt she wants me to say “cuddle, cuddle, cuddle” while rocking her. Even as she gets older, this works, even if less frequently than it used to.  When her tears finally end, we pack up and hold hands walking back to the car.

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Andy

Andrew S. Delfino is a stay-at-home dad of four and a teacher. With a wonderful for a wife and three daughters, he’s not afraid to be called a feminist, but does hate being called the babysitter, though. He blogs occasionally at almostcoherentparent.com and Tweets at @almostcoherentp.

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Also: if, after reading this (and Andy’s next post in a few days), you’d be interested in writing and letting me post an essay about your own “Day in the Life,” please let me know in the comments or through omightycrisis@gmail.com. I am endlessly fascinated by the minutiae that make up our days!

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White Knuckles

Fork

Clatterplunk.

Every night we hear it above our heads: the rolling of the office chair as it’s pushed away from the desk, the thump of a plate being grabbed off the wooden desk, and the predictable punctuation of clatterplunk as a fork hits the floor.

These sounds tell us something: the fifteen-year-old is on the move.

Having eaten her dinner in front of the computer, where she’s writing a paper about Julius Caesar or reading a chapter in her e-textbook about the life of a cancer cell or answering questions for APUSH (AP U.S. History), the girl is always ready to take a break after her last bite of stir-fry, taco, or teriyaki chicken. Almost before she’s done chewing, she’s on her feet — collecting her plate and heading down to the kitchen to find a treat. As a matter of course, her silverware hits the floor. Every night.

For some people, after the first few times a fork slipped out of control, a new strategy would be implemented, thus ending the problem. With Allegra, however, the silverware will always win. She tries to control it, but the fork is nimble in a way that she will never be. It’s a body thing, a coordination issue, a fact of her life.

While she’s an excellent runner and skier, there’s no denying it: Allegra can look relaxed and chill while she’s running a half-marathon — as though she’s lounging on a couch, casually surfing the Netflix menu — but do not ask that girl to do a box step unless you delight in seeing stilted lurches wherein right foot is caught under left, the entire torso listing sideways.

Because she’s wired the way she is, she’s able to accept with a shrug the trait some might label as “klutziness.”  Her father’s daughter in aerobic ability, endurance, inability to execute choreography, and mild unflappability, she realizes some things just are.

So, every night: clatterplunk.

Then we all have a laugh.

More serious than predictably dropping a fork is what can happen when someone with a floundering mind-body connection gets behind the wheel of a car.

In Minnesota, teenagers can get their driver’s permits when they are 15 and receive their licenses when they are 16. Thus, Allegra spent a bunch of hours last summer taking driver’s education classes, all of which culminated with her passing the permit test.

She’s a very good test-taker, that one. Just don’t ask her to lift her right knee and then her left knee to the thump of a steady beat.

In the months since earning her permit, she’s hacked away at the required behind-the-wheel hours; drivers under age 18 need 50 hours total, with 15 of those completed after dark. Ideally, of course, she will be honing her driving skills in a variety of conditions and with a variety of passengers, as well.

It’s proven surprisingly difficult for her to rack up the hours. She walks to and from school. The extracurricular sports she participates in are based out of the school or, alternately, bus the athletes to a system of trails. After ski practices this winter, we parents would take turns carpooling a few girls, so even on the nights when we were in the car with Allegra some miles from home, it didn’t seem like the right atmosphere — surrounded by two or three giggling peers — to teach her where the hazards light is or how to flick the brights at a passing car. Thus, in the seven months since she received her permit, the majority of the 30 hours she’s accrued have added up in ten-minute increments, when she drives a couple miles on a straight, flat road to and from her job as a dishwasher.

A few times, we’ve taken her out on rambles around town or to the grocery store, but still. She won’t be getting her license ON her 16th birthday, something which, for many teens, is a much-anticipated rite of passage.

That’s okay, though. She’s not ready, and she knows it.

Because commanding a car is a mechanical, spatial venture, a constant choreography that asks the body to move in certain ways and in certain rhythms, driving does not come naturally to our girl. Every time she puts the car into reverse, I half expect a fork to hit the floor.

Regardless of a teen’s aptitude for guiding machinery, of course, the transition from Driver to Passenger is jarring for a parent. At the same time I’m ready for my girl to grow up, ready for her to expand her independence, ready for her to chart new terrain, I can’t forget All of Before.

She used to wrap her entire hands around my pointer fingers; I would hunch over her tiny body, matching her step for step, my bulk shadowing her unsteady toddles. She used to meet me at eye level only when she was dangling upside down from the monkey bars. She used to scream for half an hour after every nap, her pitch shattering wine goblets, because waking up was so hard. She used to beam with pride when, after six eternal minutes of clumsy futzing to snap the buckle between her legs, she finally managed to lodge the clip in the slot and strap herself into her car seat. She used to hang, suspended, three feet above the water line of the swimming pool — on the enchanted plane where preschoolers can fly — after “Daddy phrew me soo high!” She used to tug on my shirt, requesting, “Will you pick me up, so I can see what’s on the high shelves? I want to choose my own snack.” She used to run breathlessly into the room, book in hand, and barrel onto my lap as she pipped, “I can tell myself the story, but I want to know what the actual words say, too.” Astonishingly, she used to fit inside a box.

2004_0713July10008

How, then, can it be that this girl now extends her hand, not for me to hold as we cross the street, but to grab the car keys? How can it be that she climbs behind the wheel while I futz around in the passenger seat with the seat belt, trying to lodge the clip in the slot?

When we’re in the car together, I’m still adjusting to the tipsy role of Mother as Passenger. The point of the exercise is to help my kid develop skills and reactions, to urge her to listen to her intuitions, to help her develop intuitions where none exist. The other point of the exercise is to keep us alive. So I aim for a balance between supportive silence and quiet offerings of “You know, for me, I feel safer if I leave a bit more space between my car and the one in front of it, especially at higher speeds. For you, do you feel like this is enough space for you to stop the car if that truck in front of you slams on its brakes?” Although I’m a teacher by trade, I’m not one for lectures or didacticism. Rather, I feel best with an approach of “What needs to happen here? How are you going to do that, then?”

Occasionally, this approach is accompanied by an audio track: muted gasps and the thunk of my right foot hitting the floorboard.

Mostly, though, with only a couple detours into “With the nose of the car up against this curb you just drove into, your only option is reverse, but since the car is sideways in the middle of the street, be sure you check for traffic before engaging” talk, I kick back and let her figure it out.

A few weeks ago, we were largely silent during what ended up being her most-challenging driving hours. The kids and I had taken a few days to visit friends who live four hours south of us, and Allegra was excited for the chance to add a good chunk of hours to her driving log. Once we were outside congested urban areas, she drove. After four days away, during our trip back home, both darkness and snow fell.

On a scale of Bad Winter Driving Conditions, that evening was maybe a three out of ten. Sure the roads were a bit slippery, there were alarming electronic marquees flashing words of warning to passing traffic, and only one lane was completely clear of snow, but it could have been worse. Reminding Allegra to keep her distance from the car in front of her and to shuck off the pressure of impatient cars behind her, I finished with, “All you can control is this car and your reactions to the behaviors of other drivers. If your gut is telling you to go slower, then go slower. If you don’t want to deal with the snow in the left lane, then don’t pass. Just tuck in behind.”

After that, we lapsed into silence. For several hours, out of the corner of my eye, I watched her hands clench and and tense around the wheel as she dealt with the conditions. A few times, I murmured reassuringly when a huge truck passed us, its force and power rattling us as it coated our car in moisture. Now and then, I noted, “When you hear that rat-rat-rat under the tires? That means you’re driving on the grooves they put outside the highway lanes to let you know you’re veering a bit wide.”

Not once did I think about the clatter of a fork hitting the hardwood. Not once did I worry, “She can hardly spin in a circle on one foot, so how will she handle it if this car starts spinning?” Not a single time did I fret that her inability to catch a ball would kill us.

Driving is a physical activity. It requires communication between the brain and the body. Absolutely. But I realized that night, as we covered the miles in tense silence, that moving solidly throughout the world is ultimately more a mental than physical challenge. It’s one thing to know how to swing the car wide during a left hand turn; it’s another thing entirely to stay focused and keep nerves in check when palms are sweating.

When it comes to steadiness and mettle, Allegra is a teen without peer. The floor next to the wooden desk upstairs may be dramatically dinged by fork tines, but the paint on the car is intact. She can do this.

Any lingering concerns I had about her suitability behind the wheel were quashed that night as we crested the long, major hill that signals the homestretch into our city. As we chugged up the hill, our car was stuck behind a timid driver without snow tires on his vehicle, a guy who was putting along at 40 miles per hour. For a long time, we stayed behind him. Passing was intimidating, given the state of the left hand lane.

After a few minutes, Allegra started to get antsy. She knew she could pass — other cars had been using the left lane successfully — but the thought of leaving the safe comfort of the dry lane made her jittery.

“Hey,” I told her, “it’s fine to just hang behind this guy. If his speed feels right to you, then stick with him. Let him set the pace, and all you have to do is follow him.”

Half agitated, half laughing, the runner-girl protested. “But I don’t want to let him set the pace. I want to set my own pace. I hate having other people in charge of the tempo!” Taking a deep breath, she turned on the blinker and checked her blind spot.

Grinning in the darkness, I relaxed, tipping my head back onto the headrest, letting my eyelids close for a quick second as whole-body maternal gratitude flooded me from the toes up.

I have nothing to worry about.

Smart, composed, determined to set her own pace, this girl — even after she leaves the safe comfort of the dry lane and starts to chug her own way through the world — is going to be just fine.

Her silverware, though?

Not so much.

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Warm Fuzzies

Warm Fuzzy001

When I was in 4th grade, my class went through a careful, deliberate, rigidly enforced process of loving each other.

Such was the climate in the mid-1970s, an era when feeling groovy was a cultural mandate.

At some point during 4th grade, our teacher, Mrs. Ring, talked to us about the notion that “sharing is love.” In order to express our love for each other, all 25 of us  — a crop of nine-year-olds with disparate home lives, values, interests, personalities, and goals — would unite in love and share our feelings for each other.

To assure that only love was shared and that the sharing felt like love, the class discussed each individual after he/she left the room. On the surface, this was meant to help illuminate the subject’s virtues, in case they had momentarily escaped the notice of, say, a grubby-faced boy who actually couldn’t stand a curly-haired girl. Below the surface, this discussion was meant to teach the youngsters in the room that everyone possesses positive attributes, that such attributes gain traction if they are cataloged, and that it’s an act of love to talk about people behind their backs. Rumbling through a deeper subterranean level, down in our guts, was this lesson: if we didn’t like someone, we should tamp it down and play nice — at least while the adults were looking.

When it was my turn to receive my class’ Warm Fuzzies, I was excited and nervous. Even though I knew Mrs. Ring’s oversight would neutralize the cruelty I often experienced on the playground, still I worried. What if someone wrote something that made it past the teacher’s censoring eye but which I knew, from insider experience, was actually a cagily phrased verbal bomb? What if sharing as love decimated me?

Alternately, I also hoped that some heretofore concealed affection would be revealed through the Warm Fuzzies. I knew Daron and Brent and Paul had no time for me, a girl towering over them by six inches, a girl sporting a bra while they found Atomic Wedgies the height of amusement, a girl interested in Nancy Drew over kickball. But what if one of them surprised me — “Jocelyn, I deeply respect the way you keep your shoulders pulled back even though you have boobies” — and actually warmed my fuzzy?

Neither the worst- nor best-case scenarios came true. Those who didn’t much care for me subverted their feelings into ho-hum compliments enhanced by intricate drawings. A breakdown of their time on this loosely academic task would have seen 30 seconds devoted to sharing love and 4 minutes devoted to sketching out a shaggy monster or a marauding army of beasties. On the other side, those who were my friends wrote kind, affirming confidence boosters, formally inventorying everything they already said to me in the notes we habitually passed after school. Either way, the Warm Fuzzies contained no revelations. Whew. And maybe a little Darn.

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Warm Fuzzy Amy
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Warm Fuzzy Tiffany
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Looking back now on this collection of carefully orchestrated spontaneous expressions of affection, I have thoughts.

  1. I bet every student in the class was the apple of Mrs. Ring’s eye. Not so sure her artful use of stickers was a unique or meaningful expression of love.
  2. Even at the age of nine, Daron was gifted at sidestepping a direct expression of kindness. Part of me — not the part that had a faint crush on him, watching from the four-square court as he chased The Popular Girls through the triangular openings in the monkey bar dome — admires his phrasing of “Everyone knows that you are good in spelling and you can jump real far” for the way it conveys his unflinching dislike of A Certain Not Popular Girl.
  3. Kevin and Andy totally cheated off each other.
  4. To put a finer point on it, the entire class cheated off each other. There’s not a whole lot of ambiguity about what was discussed when I stepped out of the classroom, is there? Consensus was reached. Jocelyn should be complimented for her hair, eyes, laugh, speed, jumping prowess, spelling, general academic aptitude, height, humor, silence, work ethic, and ability to wear glasses. Bonus points for the girl who’s co-operative.
  5. Kudos to Theresa for calling out my gifts as a Girl Scout. By 4th grade, I had already earned the COOKING BADGE, BITCHES.
  6. The extent to which physical appearance came into consideration explains much about my lifelong self-esteem demons.
  7. Next time I go out for a run, I am going to have to stop and clutch my sides with laughter as I recall that an entire class of kids once regarded me as “fast.” You know why everyone thought I was “fast” and amazing at jumping? We all had to complete that nightmarish Presidential Physical Fitness Test each year, and since I’d undergone precocious pubescence, I was a mighty Amazon flanked by scrawny dwarfs. You know what my superior mass couldn’t do well? Climb the rope hanging from the gym ceiling or hang from a bar in chin-up position, shaking like I had the DTs. As I imagine what an assignment of Cold Fuzzies might have yielded, the words “You are pure beat at holding your body in space” appear repeatedly in a variety of handwritings.
  8. We hear much about how class sizes are getting larger and larger. I do not deny this. But it’s good to remember that 4th grade classes, even 40 years ago, had 25 students in them. Somehow, my brain had been thinking we’d have had, hmmm, 20 or under.
  9. Much is also made these days about how kids’ grammar and writing skills have declined. It’s all that texting. The Internet. Bad teaching. Poor schools. Negligent parents. This batch of Warm Fuzzies proves that today’s complainers might want to dig into a few time capsules themselves, though. Because, guess what? Even 40 years ago, kids didn’t use apostrophes, couldn’t spell (Except for me. I could spell.), and had virtually no idea when an adverb versus an adjective should be used. Let’s face it: when the masses write, it’s always sucked. Stop the blame.
  10. I’m pretty sure that Angie, whoever she was, remembered me for about as long as the flavor lasted in a piece of Tropical Punch Bubble Yum.

Then again, who knows?

Maybe, to this day, Angie thinks fondly about the color of my eye and the way I never cheated when we played games.

Maybe Debbie, as she stands in the rain bending steel, reminisces about my strong, fast, nice, great, pretty, good smartness.

Perhaps Scott still cracks up sometimes, thinking to himself, “That Jocelyn, she was verry funny!”

Possibly Tiffany still marvels to herself in quiet moments, “Dang, but Jocelyn’s hair was neat — so long and straight and easy to handle.”

It could be that sometimes Jeff, as he parks his Ford Explorer in his three-car garage, still muses, “Ah, that Jocelyn. She sure colored good.”

One thing’s for sure. When Amy is unpacking bags of groceries, jamming containers of yogurt onto the sticky middle shelf while her kids ask what’s for dinner, her mind occasionally drifts back to the undeniable beauty of my “macamary.”

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Most likely, at best, all those grown-up 4th graders spare a fleeting thought for their former Amazonian classmate every decade or two. They’re busy living their lives, paying bills, chauffeuring kids, working too much, ordering nachos, getting the oil changed.

But if, when, they do think of me, I hope they sense that I am sending them the adult version of Warm Fuzzies.

Hey, former classmates? Good job paying your bills, driving safely, working hard, knowing how to have fun, and being responsible.

You know what else? You look nice in all of your clothes. Your house is very pretty to. Your family is nice to. Your very polite. You have neat shoes.

sinsearly,

Jocelyn

Fourth Grade Joce

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Wherein My English Teacher Rightly Hangs Me Out to Dry

Memory Box

During sophomore year of high school, my English teacher was named Mrs. Rice.

We can’t accuse Mrs. Rice of being overly fond of the redhead in the second row.

As I review the work I did in her class, it is apparent that Mrs. Rice was a seasoned teacher. I wasn’t the first “Look at me, I’m cute — except I’m mostly an idiot” student to gallivant into her classroom, giggling and checking the crispness of her hairspray.

Mrs. Rice was not impressed.

Exhibit A:

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In the first sentence of my “character sketch,” Mrs. Rice called me out twice, first asking “Isn’t her age a bit exaggerated?” before commenting “blah!” on my use of the word wonderful.

While I concede my opening sentence is not wonderful tight, I’d also argue it’s a reasonably solid sentence from a fifteen-year-old. But nothing escaped the correction of Mrs. Rice’s pencil.

Even now, as I type this, I can hear her bones rolling around inside her coffin as her skeletal hand scrambles to find the grading pencil she was buried with — so that she can scrawl “Do not open sentences with coordinating conjunctions” all over my blog posts. Then again, maybe Mrs. Rice is still alive; I don’t know what became of her after I tripped my way out the door at the end of her rigorous class. Probably, she breathed a sigh of relief so extended that her next inhale didn’t occur until 1984.

What tickles me most about Mrs. Rice and her comments is that now, 33 years later, I am Mrs. Rice. Like her, I am witness to the half-efforts of distracted students, often dragged down by the dreck, perking up when work that is original and thoughtful crosses my vision. Too often, I suspect, my comments err on the side of sharpness rather than understanding. Thus, the review of my early essays is proving a helpful teaching tool. As I look at what I wrote when I was the student, I remember that I was truly trying. I wanted to be clever, articulate, admired. I wanted to express intelligence in my writing, and as I pushed into her assignments, I believed I was digging deep.

Three days after I submitted a masterpiece, the graded copy, shriveled and apologetic, would land on the desk in front of me. Leafing through the pages, I’d read the incisive, poison-dart comments shot into my prose, and I’d feel like a dolt.

At the same time, once the sting faded, I learned from her critique.

For me as a teacher, I need to remain aware of the power of my feedback. Because writing comments is such workaday stuff, I too often forget that there are real people crouching behind the writing — real, quivering people with feelings. Ideally, I’ll forge a Grading Spirit Animal that draws from the best of Mrs. Rice while folding in a bit of Michelle Obama and Mr. Rogers. Fortunately, all of these inspirations have demonstrated a fondness for cardigans, so that’ll be my go-to look whenever a heap of papers hits my Inbox.

Look at me, digressing. That last paragraph, winging off in a whole new direction simply because I wanted to express those thoughts, would’ve caused the tip of Mrs. Rice’s pencil to snap.

Refocusing, then, on the summary message sent by Mrs. Rice’s comments: I annoyed her. More likely, I wasn’t much on her radar at all, and if I were, she thought I had promise but was choosing not to fulfill it.

I’ll grant her that hypothesis.

Her annoyance was legitimate.

Exhibit B:

Mrs. Rice assigned an “analogy” essay.

Assignment

You know you’re in an Old School English class when the light-hearted consequence for a grammatical error is violence and mockery.

I like to think I took her threats seriously and truly applied myself to the assignment.

However.

No matter how many hours I poured into it, there’s no denying: my analogy essay was and is nonsense, truly embarrassing swill.

Introduction Egg

Undoubtedly, I thought I was enhancing the broken heart/cracked egg analogy by bringing in a geyser.

Even though I lived near Yellowstone Park, I was wrong. Mrs. Rice wasn’t afraid to go off like Old Faithful and spout all over my fatuity.

The entire extended paragraph tried too hard and caused Mrs. Rice to pluck out her eyelashes, one by one, as she read.

In many ways the emptiness of a broken heart resembles that of a cracked egg. When someones [sic] heart breaks, all the feelings inside gush to the surface like a geyser spouting off. Emotions become exposed to the world [sic] and the person feels very vulnerable, just as a baby chick when it first breaks out of its egg. A person with a broken heart realizes everything that he grew to depend on gets suddenly stripped away as though an angry gust of wind tore at them [sic] and through their [sic] security. A newly born chick also finds that everything it became used to cracked apart, and it must face new challenges and a whole new life like a pioneer striving to live in the wilderness. Someone with a broken heart feels drained inside and no longer feels useful like a cast [sic] aside doll, the same way a broken egg shell seems empty and no longer needed. The heart and egg once appeared hole, solid, objects, but something happened to both of them, causing them to shatter. A broken heart and a cracked egg appear different, but they do possess many likenesses.

I admit it. That’s a whole lot of crap there.

When I read Mrs. Rice’s closing comment at age 15, I’ll bet I was surprised that I hadn’t dazzled her. I mean, a broken heart being like a cracked egg? WHO HAD EVER THOUGHT OF THAT BEFORE? I WAS AN ANALYTICAL, POETIC GENIUS, RIGHT?

Not so much —

as Mrs. Rice noted in 13 accurate, spirit-deflating words at the bottom of my paper.

Conclusion Egg

Remain with the analogy rather than complicating it with pioneers and the wind.

Decades later, reading her comment, I laughed out loud.

She had me pegged, Mrs. Rice did.

To this day, even though I still hear the echoes of her lessons whenever I try to get words out of my head and into the world, I struggle to meet Mrs. Rice’s standards.

Every single time, I start with simple intentions. A heart and an egg. Before I know it, though, a geyser erupts, the wind blows through, and the pioneers are bumping along in their Conestogas.

That’s the beauty of writing, though. There’s room for both the stickler and the dreamer. My tendencies might have caused my teacher to despair, but, then again,

maybe she needed me.

Imagination

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Dear God, I Love You

Memory Box

One of my first friendships was with a neighbor girl, Susan. When we were two years old, our mothers decided we should be friends. So we were.

As we were coming up, we loved each other hard, yet we had terrible battles. A kid who was innately a people-pleaser, averse to conflict, I was always caught off guard when I realized Susan and I were on the outs. Apparently, I did things wrong, but I never quite knew what they were — until we were locked in the midst of strife, and angry remarks or notes clued me in.

Eventually, we’d come out the other side. Because I’d have been feeling sick to my stomach for days, I was just. so. happy when the fight resolved.

Dear God

It’s only with the helpful telescope of memory that I can look back and realize my gratitude to Our Lord and Jesus Pappy was premature.

The things that stuck in Susan’s craw only intensified once we reached puberty.

God Note

It was a friendship that scorched significant acreage of my internal terrain.

Yet. I loved her.

Eventually, because most of us are wired in ways that pitch us towards peace, Susan and I learned to redact the worst parts of ourselves in the interests of detente.

Redacted

So, once I stopped gasping that anyone could think my family’s modest income made us “rich,” we were friends again. Then, enemies again. We walked to school. Or not. We got our driver’s licenses. Made mischief together. Moved on with and without each other.

By the time high school came around, we’d gotten better at being with each other and apart from each other, gotten better at being ourselves. Once the first rush of pubescent rockiness had blasted through, we started to learned how to own our personal pain, reveal our vulnerabilities without fear of attack, bolster each other.

Yearbook

After high school, our lives headed in different directions. I saw her a few times during my twenties. With the advent of social media, we reconnected, and I’m incredibly glad to know where she is and how she is.

Most of all, I appreciate that we get to grow up. When I was young, and when one of my dominant friendships was hugely fraught, my reaction was quick and visceral. I cowered in a protective squat, agitatedly scratching my side of the story onto tear-stained notebook paper.

What I know now, though, is this: we all have pain.

It wasn’t just me who sobbed on her waterbed in the basement, crying about being wierd and insaen, dreading the next round of drama.

Susan was on her bed, crying, too.

Throughout the years of manufactured agonies, we were lurching towards an important realization.

At the end of it all, after callow energy has burned hot and fierce, exhausting itself, the residue it leaves behind is soft and giving.

Such is maturity, the state where we finally relax and realize it’s not about being fat or a bitch or who walks with whom or who wears what clothes or who needs to suck a lemon or who needs to write God a thank-you note.

Such is maturity, the state where we finally relax and realize

it’s the love that matters.

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