“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.
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 Abbeyduring 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
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com. I am endlessly fascinated by the minutiae that make up our days!
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. I am endlessly fascinated by the minutiae that make up our days!
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.
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.
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.
Looking back now on this collection of carefully orchestrated spontaneous expressions of affection, I have thoughts.
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.
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.
Kevin and Andy totally cheated off each other.
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.
Kudos to Theresa for calling out my gifts as a Girl Scout. By 4th grade, I had already earned the COOKING BADGE, BITCHES.
The extent to which physical appearance came into consideration explains much about my lifelong self-esteem demons.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Mrs. Rice assigned an “analogy” essay.
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.
No matter how many hours I poured into it, there’s no denying: my analogy essay was and is nonsense, truly embarrassing swill.
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.
“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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I’ve been sifting through boxes of memories — the accumulated papers from my youth.
As I grab each handful of faded pages, drunken journal entries, glowing fourth grade report cards, conflicting judges’ sheets from speech meets, crude first grade drawings, crazily folded letters, I am pulling more than paper onto my lap.
Each handful takes me on a journey of arched eyebrows, revised recollections, unexpected reflections, welcome confirmations, kaleidoscopic perspectives, internal questioning, satisfied appreciation, and, thankfully,
My next few posts will present snapshots from the memory boxes.
This one may be my favorite. It’s simple. It’s revealing. It’s from some point in my elementary school years. It’s:
Listen, I didn’t drink all three liters in one sitting.
The last thing I’m in the mood for is wiping vomit off the hardwood.
(Note to self: make Pinterest vision board of photogenic approaches to mopping up half-digested ravioli)
Trust me, I did pace myself with that box of wine, never downing more ounces than my children’s combined ages in a single evening.
Jeezus. It’s not like I have a problem–
except for believing that Life by Pinterest is ever anything but a highly shellacked, manipulated, and frosted version of reality that’s been framed in reclaimed lumber and tacked with hot glue onto a shabbily chic barn door swinging on a single artfully bedazzled hinge, all of which has been photographed at dusk and filtered with Loma.
Yea, cutesie-craftsy shit is all about puttin’ the shine on. I know this well and truly, as I recently spent six weeks surveying online craft ideas and translating them to reality. I’m not proud; I’ll admit it: trying to align my craggy, asymmetrical, ham-fisted efforts with what I saw online pert-near killed me. All hail the Bota Box and three liters of wine that preserved my sanity.
Here’s why I had to drink all the Redvolution:
I went to Star Wars: The Force Awakens and was transported by the story in a way no previous Star Wars film had managed. Simultaneously, I watched my twelve-year-old son fall in love with all the characters, including the heroine, Rey. Some days later, as we attempted to channel our movie love into shelling out additional dollars on related merchandise, we learned that Hasbro had deliberately decided not to manufacture more than a couple lame, nominal Rey products–because in their estimation, consumers wouldn’t drop money on images and figures of a female protagonist.
Underestimating, and thereby undermining, the market appeal of Girl as Heroine irked me. What the character of Rey is achieving, culturally, is massive and significant. She is smart, kind, lonely, scrappy, gifted, shrewd, strong, bereft, eager, gritty, mechanical, tough, and independent. None, not one, one of her traits is related to gender. Everything about her grows purely–beautifully–from her humanity. The role she occupies in the narrative and in relation to the other characters is never dependent on her gender or sexuality. Her actions are not propelled by the presence of a vagina. Her choices do not stem from her ovaries. She is simply Rey, and that’s all that matters.
This is a rarity, if not a first, in mainstream storytelling. With most written characters, traits like “nurturing” or “soft” show up as part of composite femininity. Alternately, in male characters, even the most “evolved,” their superior physical strength or libido serve as markers.
Not so with Rey. Rey is a person. That she has breasts never factors into the storytelling, and for that reason she is a significant development in cinema. The biggest franchise in history did something great, and Hasbro missed the memo.
Shame the fuck on you, Hasbro.
Right around the same time I was stomping in circles around the kitchen, angrily sponging toast crumbs from the counter and muttering “You didn’t even put her in the Monopoly game based on the movie, Hasbro? Not even the Monopoly game?”, I encountered the very sweet video in which a mother in Australia demonstrates how she takes those ratchety Bratz Dolls and revamps them into lovely, appropriate reflections of young kids.
The confluence of my annoyance with Hasbro and the idea that trampy dolls can be rehabbed resulted in an idea:
My son and I would make our own Rey. I would get a Bratz doll, and we would rescue her from the manufacturer’s pimped-up vision of young womanhood by turning her into Star Wars‘ vision of badass Jedihood.
All we’d need to do is watch a few videos online, poke around Pinterest and other crafty sites, and voila! We’d have beaten The Man, and I’d enjoy the gratification of conveying a major message to my boy: we don’t have to believe corporations when they undervalue women. We can hang corporations with a long hank of skanky doll hair that they, themselves, manufactured. We can clap wildly and hug our dollies to our chests as we crane our necks to ogle corporations swinging in the wind, dangling from the top of the skyscrapingest building on Wall Street.
Fueled by anger at Hasbro and appreciation for the gentle, loving approach of Sonia Singh in her video, we began the project.
I got a doll.
And we tried to wipe off her crappy assembly line make-up with acetone (nail polish remover). In the video, Sonia Singh easily wipes a cotton ball across a doll’s face, leaving it clear and ready for painting.
In our kitchen, Paco started the wiping with excited anticipation. Five minutes later, the doll’s make-up looked untouched. He asked if I’d like a try. Sure. I re-soaked the cotton balls, laid them on her eyes in a kind of abrasive spa treatment, and left them for a bit. Then, I applied my not insignificant energies to the wiping.
Something like a poop patty smudged across her face. And stayed there.
Despairing, my thoughts drifted to the new box of wine in the cabinet above the stove. Maybe, as a reward for persevering with the facial scrub, I’d sip a wee dram.
I’d still be entertaining wistful thoughts of a dram, had Byron not offered to take over. Within a minute or two of getting no results, he dove under the sink and grabbed a scrubby pad, the kind we’d use to remove baked-on grease from a broiler pan after making ribs. Jamming the doll’s head between his knees to hold her still, he scrubbed the holy hell and the make-up off her face.
TALLY:three people; a bushel of elbow grease; diverting thoughts of spareribs; a wee dram
Excited that we could move on to the next step, Paco asked if he could remove the doll’s heavily stylized out-of-the-box hairdo and get it ready to be Rey-ified. Little did he know, it would be six more weeks before we were ready to sculpt her locks into the signature triple buns.
Sweetly, blissfully, my lad brushed his doll’s hair, more than a hundred strokes, mourning how stubbornly her factory-steamed hair held its original waves. At one point, she received a quick dousing under the kitchen faucet. Next, he asked if he could start to distress the fabric we’d bought for her clothing; his idea was to use coffee grounds.
Minutes later, his interest waned as we realized Rey’s hair would never be tamed, and her clothes needed a deeper soaking in actual coffee.
And as long as I was making coffee, why not toss back a shot of wine while I waited for the water to boil?
TALLY:two people; dipping spirits; three tablespoons of coffee grounds; one trip to the store for fabric; a quick nip of the good stuff
Because life rears up, Rey and the fabric for her clothes sat, untouched, for days. I did realize we’d need something leathery for her belt, and although the skin on my forearms fit the descriptor, we found some old deer hide in the basement (youknowyouhaveweirdshitinyourbasementtooyousociopath), after which I spent one focused afternoon staining it a darker brown BECAUSE AUTHENTICITY MATTERS WHEN YOU’RE FLIPPING THE BIRD AT THE MAN instead of grading 25 student activities on summarizing.
Eventually, I realized the project was stalling out because I was scared to make Rey’s pants. Here’s one thing I learned in 7th grade home economics class: crotches be tough. Here’s one other thing I learned in 7th grade home economics: measure peanut butter by using water displacement.
Guess which two things I learned in 7th grade home economics and have never used in the 36 years since then?
Fortunately, I had bought fabric glue at the store and reveled in the small solace of not needing to make minuscule stitches. While I had no interest in displacing water, I was ready to face the crotch.
Drumming up courage, looking at every possible online image of Rey’s clothes, I cut. I glued. I sipped repeatedly from the box of wine, mouth to nozzle, as I tried to match up fronts and backs of her inside-out trousers. In a moment I would never have predicted, I thanked all the very special adults of Internet who are into cosplay, as their tutorials were more helpful than anything.
TALLY:purple teeth; ten days of inactivity; an hour of actual work; seventy sword clinks with adult re-enactors
I also cut out and glued Rey’s tunic shirt. Advice to world: if you ever have to make your own clothes, go tunic. Go full on tunic, caftan, And Then There’s Maude in your wardrobe, and you’ll be a true golden girl. Little-known fact: caftans don’t have crotches.
Rousing himself for the project once again, Paco made Rey some clay boots, effectively turning her feet into those of Ronald McDonald. While most Bratz dolls have nothing but nubbins for feet once their stilettos are removed, I had found a pre-teen Bratz, a girl who’d been deemed “actual foot worthy” by the white guys in suits. So Paco had no shortage of foot real estate around which to mold the clay. Then we put some masking tape around her legs to protect them–AND HOLY FRICK IF THE MASKING TAPE WOULD ACTUALLY COME OFF THE ROLL WHICH MEANT I ENDED UP STICKING TWENTY MICROSCOPIC PIECES ONTO HER CALVES, AFTER WHICH I TOOK A STRAW AND JAMMED IT INTO A GOBLET OF REDVOLUTION AND STARTED SUCKING UNTIL MY EARS POPPED–before he painted her shoes brown.
A few days later, sighing deeply, quaffing a neat two ounces of wine, I repainted the boots, trying to cover all the tiny white flecks that still showed through.
TALLY:Maude! Ronald McDonald! Quaffing!
And then came the point when I heard Paco’s soul mewling for help. Bravely, he had agreed to paint Rey’s new eyes. Sonia Singh, whom I’d started to call “That Lying Bitch” in my head, seems to hum a little Chopin while she quickly paints eyes on her dolls. Tra-flipping-la.
For Paco, though, there were agonies. He watched videos. He looked at pictures. He mixed paints. He painted two very good eyes. I raised his allowance.
Yet. Hmmm. One of the eyes was a little, how to say it?, asymmetrical. Rey looked tanked, like Mama.
The imperfection was distressing to Paco. He might have to tolerate it in his mother, but he certainly didn’t have to live with it in his Rey.
Straightening my shoulders, attempting to be the grown-up, I docked the kid’s allowance and then set myself to the task of removing, with acetone, the offending eye.
Quickly, I learned to love the scrubby.
When Byron got home, I showed him the doll and asked if he could try to match the one good eye. Kindly, he agreed to. When he had time. Which didn’t happen for weeks. Finally, he started the new eye but then lost the thread as his attentions were claimed by actual things in life like work and bills.
So I tried to finish it up.
It sucked. So did I. Eight ounces.
My spirits bolstered by spirits, I grabbed the nail polish remover and the scrubby and applied my muscles to removing both eyes once again. Byron helped trace out almond-shaped sockets and arching brows.
More days passed. Her eyes eventually emerged, with Byron doing parts and then me taking over, just to keep the momentum going. As it turns out, my attempt to make hazel out of the three tubes of acrylic paint we own that aren’t completely dried up resulted in a dramatic neon green, which made our heroine appear possessed.
Showing Byron, I asked his opinion. Tell me straight, I said. She looks like a demon, he said. He thought we needed to start over once more, with him handling the eyes from start to finish. During this conversation, he only yawned once and noted, “This isn’t actually my project…”
Because he leads with a gracious spirit, the guy painted her eyes after I scrubbed off the demonic possession with a god-damned scrubby, and we called them fine. Mostly, we had to be okay with them because the skin on my hands was peeling off after the latest immersion in acetone, and our scrubby had filed a grievance and gone on strike.
TALLY: a crushed son who now believes he hates painting; an annoyed husband who unquestionably knows he hates painting; a shortage of nail polish; an abundance of tubes containing dried paint; a box of wine I could hoist with a single finger; a mother, joyful that the face was done so that she could AT LONG LAST do the triple buns
I quite like doing hair–have ever since the early elementary grades when we girls would sit in what used to be “Indian style” but which is now “criss-cross applesauce” and twirl and braid each other’s hair while Mrs. Bulger or Miss Hertzler read aloud to the class.
More than anything, I just wanted to reach back to first grade and do my dolly’s hair.
A regular-sized hair rubber band was too large for the doll’s apricot-sized head. So I entered into deep negotiations with Allegra and managed to barter two of the tiny braces rubber bands from the bag that lives by her bed. I’d already grabbed a couple others from the bathroom floor, where the rubber band-hoarding girl often drops them, careless so long as no one is in need.
Having watched seven videos about making the triple buns, all of which stressed the ease of the look, I began a descent into a crazed frustration that ultimately felt like anger.
The doll’s hair is extremely thick and had been cut into layers. Every time I looped Rey’s hair, trying to catch all the ends so the bun would be smooth, rogue hairs popped out. I did each of her three buns at least ten times. I got the scissors and cut off some chunks. I broke a rubber band and had to crawl around the bathroom floor until I spied another one Allegra had dropped.
I spent more than an hour trying to wrassle the doll’s ‘do into reasonable shape–long enough for me to realize how rarely I feel anger, long enough for Byron to put a comforting hand on my shoulder and ask, in a soft, carefully measured voice, “Would you like me to bring you a glass of wine?”
Three sips later, I was back to myself. The hair was fine. Rey is an impoverished orphan living in a remote outpost. Like she cares how her hair looks?
TALLY: thirty buns; one fabulous beau; one significant brush with rage; one son who told me the next day, “Her hair looks so good!”; four more trips to Michael’s and JoAnn Fabrics, which I don’t want to detail here because mind-numbing craftsy words
The next mental obstacle was finding the courage to cut out the belt. Before contemplating making one, I hadn’t noticed that Rey’s belt is fashioned from a single piece of leather, yet it splits into two loops, one fitted around the waist and one dropping onto the hips.
I hadn’t stained all that much deer hide, so if I screwed up my first attempt, I’d have to head back into the basement and start calling, “Here, deerie, deerie, deerie!”
Bolstered by liquid courage, I picked up the scissors and cut.
Later, I noticed some rough detailing on the belt, zoomed in on a photo, and realized it was twine.
You know one thing I’m able to do without crying? Wrap string around a leather belt. (The belt picture on the left is of the actual Rey costume, from the film, and the image on the right is what I made. Chums, you want to roll up on me and register for belt-making lessons.)
So delighted was I by this discovery that I sipped a few ounces of celebratory Redvolution as I typed “Accomplished at crafting dual-level leather belts” onto my CV.
TALLY: one rustic belt overlaying an artfully draped gauzy, coffee-dyed fabric; spirits fueled by tannins; me casually not mentioning how I also fashioned some arm wraps and a leather wrist cuff; basically: I learned I have the skillz to show at New York Fashion Week
With Rey’s look burning hard and bright, I was ready to move on to another favorite hobby: accessorizing.
Early on in the process, back when he was still excited, Paco had taken a chopstick and run some lines of hot glue around it. Thusly, he crated Rey’s staff. All I needed to do was paint it, glue on some fabric, find a strap and figure out a system of hinges for it, and drink a lovely ceramic cup full of wine.
Not incidentally, the photo above demonstrates what our dining room table looked like for the duration. Fortunately, we don’t use the thing for eating.
Just gluing and boozing. That’s all.
TALLY: emerging fierce weaponry; a suspiciously light wine box; continuing visual chaos in the most centrally located part of the house
With the project flowing instead of stalling, and with the most-frustrating bits completed, Paco re-engaged. The kid has admirable abilities at self-preservation, and since he’s too young to drink, his strategy during the taxing weeks had been full-on retreat.
However, when a light saber that his mother has sculpted from clay needed painting, and she’d gone to the store yet again and bought some metallic acrylics…he bothered himself.
TALLY: a project I could once again say I was doing with my kid WHO HAD STARTED TO LIVE IN HIS CHEWBACCA PAJAMAS; the entrance of The Force to our dining room; the words “red wine” on the shopping list
While the light saber dried, I added the finishing touches to Rey’s staff. (On the left is a full-sized one made by someone on Internet who spends summers jousting at the Renaissance Festival; on the right is the one Paco and I made.)
TALLY: a fantastically accessorized doll; an exuberant swing of my wine goblet into the air as I mock clinked with a Wookie; a growing hope that this interminable project might one day end
Doll done. I’m sorry: did I forget to mention that I also made the tiny hip bag?
TALLY: me inordinately proud to have Rey living with us, to be able to collage two photos into a single image, and that the plastic bladder in the wine box still contained enough red stuff to see me through the painting of Rey’s sidekick, BB-8
Indeed, the best heroes have engaging sidekicks. In the case of Rey, her helpful buddy is a droid named BB-8.
Finding an old plastic ball rolling around under the couch–because what mother has time to clean when she’s fabric gluing her fingers together?–Paco covered it with clay and made BB-8’s body. He molded a head out of the same clay.
Then the clay ball was in my court. Repeat, frantic viewings of BB-8 images assured me that the detail work on the body would be hell.
Fortunately, by this point, hell was just another Tuesday to me. Hunkering down, a flask of Redvolution tucked into my bra, I sketched out the panels, rivets, shapes, lines. In the image above, the left hand panel illustrates the challenge of it. All those little flecks on the white? Gunk from an eraser. But I was in the zone; determined to finish this thing, I sketched it all out, and then I painted. Remarkably, I did not rage spiral or jag cry.
I was a damn artisan.
When the body was finished, Paco heaped praise upon me–as a good friend recently noted, “He’s very solicitous of you, isn’t he?”–and announced he wanted to be in charge of head and antennae attachment.
TALLY: high-five of achievement with my very own cute-as-hell sidekick; boobs shaped like a flask; a desire to go into robot design after I show my fall line at New York Fashion Week
I mean, COME ON.
TALLY: an unrealistic moment of magical thinking wherein I believed I could crank out a whole bunch of Rey dolls and BB-8s and open my own Etsy shop–followed by maniacal laughter and me stabbing the wine bladder with a fork so that I could shower myself in an alcoholic baptism as I was reborn into the reality where I remember crafting hurts me
With our characters complete, the only thing left to do was play.
The neighbors do not either think I’m insane.
And, yes, Paco and I staged some key scenes in the raspberry canes.
As I lay on my belly in the snow, snapping photos while the sun set, the kid enthusiastically shaved handfuls of snow into flakes drifting down onto Rey’s head, attempting to re-create the climactic moments of the movie we love so well.
After a bit, neither of us could feel our hands, and Kylo Ren was whining for a snack.
Grinning, we packed it in.
“Peace out,” said my very special doll named Rey.
“Peace out,” I replied, wondering why we both were using such a hackneyed expression.
Carefully brushing the snow from Rey’s clothes, praying to the Goddess of Fiber Glue that Her good works wouldn’t disintegrate, I set the heroine back onto the dining room table, peeling my fingertips away from the tacky masking tape residue that still gummed up her calves.
She was complete. The mess was done.
“Screw you up and down the wall, Hasbro,” I whispered under my breath.
Then, digging for my car keys, I called out to the Wookie who lay on the couch, leafing through the massive Star Wars guidebook he’d gotten from the library, “I’m going to run out for a few minutes, kiddo. I need a new box of wine.”
Grey sky hangs low, a cinder block compressing the horizon. Lifeless, yawning fields spread to the left; decaying tillage muddles the acres on the right. The car flits past a “Did You Know? My Heart Beat 18 Days from Conception” billboard, then another, this one taking the tack of “My Doc Says I Could Smile Before I Was Born.” Next is a sign touting high-quality smoked fish on offer at an upcoming truck stop. Along the berm runs a fence, its broken posts half buried by drifts of blown snow. In front of me, leading me, the black asphalt of highway is narrow; one lane is clear, but the other is coated with grey glaze, turning passing into a dicey prospect. On both sides, the shoulders of I-35 are covered with dingy whorls from a recent blizzard. The car’s defroster battles the chunks of freezing moisture flapping onto the windshield. When a truck passes me, dirty muck smacks the glass; I squirt the wiper fluid, clearing a 2 x 3-foot expanse, and my eyes once again scud across the somber flatness of February, the month when winter tips from glory into grind.
I’m on the road for work, driving south to visit two high school teachers whom I’m mentoring. In Minnesota, high school students who qualify can enroll in college classes using the “post-secondary” option. Some take classes online. Others come to campus and sit in college classrooms. Still others complete college courses that are offered within their high schools, taught by high school teachers. In all cases, the state covers the cost of their books and tuition. Particularly clever and motivated students can graduate, simultaneously, with a high school diploma and an A.A. degree.
The third option, the one where high school students complete a college class without ever leaving their high schools or having a college instructor take the helm, is controversial. Problematic. In most cases, the classes they take are “concurrent enrollment,” meaning the students earn both high school and college credit for the same course, accompanied by the caveat that the class will challenge students with “extra” assignments and assessments to boost the content from secondary to post-secondary level. In many cases, these courses are taught by high school teachers whose academic credentials would not qualify them for hire by the colleges granting credits to these students. In the next few years, that issue will be resolved, when a new policy (thank you, teachers’ union!) is implemented, one requiring that all teachers of classes resulting in college credit have the requisite credentials. What will not be resolved are the issues of atmosphere and curriculum that crop up when high school students stay in their high school classrooms and are taught by high school teachers, all while earning college credits.
The bandaid on this sticky issue is the college-instructor mentors. Through a carefully hammered out agreement, every high school teacher and post-secondary class benefits from the oversight of a college teacher, someone who evaluates the syllabi, textbooks, assignments, and examples of student work.
Simultaneously, this is a good idea and a fraught idea. Yes, we should have our hands on what’s being taught in remote locations under our college’s name. But. It sets up a bizarre power differential in which two colleagues–united in mission, skill, and passion–are thrown into a relationship where one makes demands, conducts reviews, and completes paperwork about the other. While that differential can be largely neutralized by sanity and interpersonal awareness, there remains a whiff of “Kapo” about the whole thing, at least to the nose of this taking-a-jiff-to-sniff-for-a-whiff-of-spliff-or-a-reason-to-miff-and-roll-out-some-rhymes-in-a-riff mentor.
So I’m driving south on I-35, blasting the defroster and squirting the windshield in order that I might sit, one-on-one, with two high school teachers in two different towns, running through a checklist with each of them, ultimately, ideally, deeming legitimate the work they do.
Getting into other people’s business is not my jam. Then again, assigning respect and value to a college education is.
A decade or so ago, I willingly agreed to be a mentor. We who sign up for the gig trade off a bit of teaching time for a bit of mentoring time. To an English teacher, the prospect of reading a a hundred fewer papers in a semester is a kind of bliss. Yes, I said back then. I will mentor.
It’s possible I had conflated mentor and Mentos and was actually thinking, “Mmmm. Candy.”
What I discovered over those years of mentoring was that, unlike the uplifting experience of eating Mentos, it left me feeling as grey as a February sky inside. Back in that era, site visits were “optional,” with no clear process set up to compensate instructors for the gas and food they’d need in order to travel to schools a few hours away, so virtually all communication took place through email and over the phone. One of the high school teachers assigned to me was phenomenal, a glittering diamond, but the other was…well…the opposite of diamond. Coal?
For two years, my dynamic with Coal was this: I’d start the semester by letting him know there were certain materials I’d need to see and review, as part of the contract between his school and mine. Coal would return neither calls nor emails. Every three days or so, I’d send him another message. Eventually, I’d get a one-liner in response, making an excuse. He was busy. Would get on it, though. In a couple of weeks.
After a couple of weeks, I’d send a reminder message and then sit in my office, humming to the melody of Jiminy Cricket’s legs sawing together. One semester, I never received any materials from this teacher. When I approached the person in charge of the mentoring program and complained about this lack, she said she’d contact the school principal. The semester ended. We all went on break. The end.
The next year, that same teacher was assigned to me. The sound of my much-put-upon sigh still echoes off Lake Superior on particularly starry nights. By the second year, I’d heard from parents and students, whom I happened to know in my personal life, about Coal. I’d heard that, even with high school instruction, he was everyone’s worst idea of a teacher–truly terrible at his job. That he was teaching classes for our college was mortifying. I hounded him endlessly for copies of his syllabi, samples of assignments, a peek at student work. Behind the scenes, I pumped the person in charge of the mentoring program, asking what the consequences were for not adhering to the agreement. Possibly, the college could decide not to renew its contract with this school in the future, which would mean the college would lose money. Possibly, a different teacher could have been asked to teach the college classes, had the school been in a bigger town, where there was more than one teacher as the option. Ultimately, the bottom line was that he could continue to stall, continue to be crap, and continue to compromise the education received by the students under his tutelage.
Through sheer, unwavering, constant pestering, I finally squeezed some materials out of Coal. In the last week of the semester, an envelope arrived, and in it were his syllabi and some examples of student papers that he’d already graded. The idea was that I could look them over, decide how I would have graded those papers, and then we could discuss any discrepancies in our perceptions of the quality. Generally, this is an extremely productive exercise for teachers to undertake; the discussion of “why” behind assigning a score is hugely helpful for all involved.
So Coal sent me a handful of essays to which he’d assigned “A”s and “B”s.
After I read them, I had to rest my forehead on the little wooden table–the grading table–in my office.
If I squinted really hard and played make believe in my head, these were “D” papers. At best.
Not only was it frustrating to discover how highly he was valuing low-quality writing and thinking, it was frustrating that his grades had already been assigned, and even if I objected to them, there was no recourse. Crushingly, the high school teacher’s grades were submitted for college credit, and under the agreement between our schools, they were filed using the mentor’s name. In short, students whose work I would have failed were assigned superlative grades with my name attached to them.
Worst of all was this: well-intentioned students had received a faulty message about their performance. Excited to take college classes, they were given the impression that they were rocking post-secondary education. Under another teacher’s eye, many of them probably would have been. However, the entire thing served a colossal injustice to the students, and that lodged in my craw.
The next year, I asked to relinquish my mentor role. Gratefully, I added another section of writing students to my teaching load and graded those hundred+ student essays each semester, having learned an important lesson about myself: I’ll gladly assume masses of fruitful work rather than pour energy into inauthentic rigmarole. So devoted to this concept was I that I checked into paying for a run of a few thousand t-shirts with those words on the front, thinking I’d hand them out at the mall on sunny days to shoppers heading into J.C. Penney, but when the lady at the silk-screening shop wanted to add an extra “a” into the middle of rigmarole, the deal fell apart.
So how, then, did I end up driving around Minnesota on a grey February day?
Always, the nuanced explanation is complicated. The Twitter version, however, would read: Enrollment is down; sections were cancelled; teachers still need to fulfill their credit loads; fewer papers to grade = heaven. The follow-up tweet to this would summarize: Contractual obligations intersected with a fatigued instructor.
Fortunately, in the interim between the last time I mentored and this go-round, the program has been significantly improved. There is a new director heading the program, and not a single duckling waddles out of her well-organized rows. There is process. There is paperwork. There are funds. There are mandatory site visits. There is a checklist. There is accountability.
Still, there are no Mentos.
Fortunately, on that mucky February day, as I close in on the school of the first mentee high school teacher, I exercise one of my superpowers by getting completely turned around, needing to stop at a gas station for directions, and using the opportunity to purchase day-brightening treats (Mentos + donuts). After driving back in the direction from which I’ve just come, crossing over the highway, put-putting down the town’s main street–ruffled awnings galore!–and spotting a hulking brick building, I park in the lot near all the other cars. Picking my way through slate-colored slush, I head towards the nearest door.
It has a sign on it, a notification that all doors except the southwest one are locked during the day. I need to head to the southwest set of doors and get buzzed in there.
…as though I have any slip of a sense which way is southwest. There’s a reason I pursued a career that lets me read Alice Munro, the masterful short story writer who once famously asserted, “No thinking person should ever know which way is southwest.”
The building is massive, so I climb back into my car and drive around two long expanses of wall, eventually parking by the town’s post office, which is across from the high school. From that vantage point, I spy a different set of doors! A set of doors with the same notification taped to them! Just as I start to despair that I’ve plunged into an alternate reality where southwest is their heaven–an invisible promise, always just out of sight–I realize there’s yet another corner around which I haven’t yet checked, and after trotting another few hundred yards, I discover: damn if it isn’t SOUTHWEST. Praise the God of Cardinal Directions. I sought, and I did find.
Between getting lost and then getting loster, I’m ten minutes late. I hit the buzzer, leaning towards the intercom, ready explain my purpose, but after a two-second delay, a friendly voice crackles, “C’mon in, Hon!”
It’s swell to be inside a school I’ve never seen before, especially one where I’m anointed “Hon” before they’ve learned the reality of me. Gawking at posters and trophies, I make my way to the second floor where I spy the main office. There, I ask the pony-tailed secretary where the hell I can find the teacher in question; in response, she darts from behind the high counter, her tennis shoes squeaking on the linoleum, jerks her chin my way, and leads me all of ten feet across the hall.
Two hours into this professional outing, and I have yet to actually do anything exceptmentos. Felicitously, mentoring plays to my strengths.
Sitting behind her desk is an English instructor who, at 11:00 a.m., is done teaching for the day. She has reached the stage of her career where she’s in partial retirement, so her load consists of two classes, both of them college-level. She grabs a folding chair, and I settle in across from her, noting that her bright clothing reminds me of a summer dress I wear in the hottest months and that she seems completely without issues. Her easy confidence stems from decades of facing the battles and joys of the classroom and from a delighted sense that she’s almost done, nearing the day when she’ll head out that door, and not necessarily the southwest one, for the last time.
We chat for about 40 minutes. Clipped together on her desk is a packet of papers–the syllabi, assignments, strategies–that she uses in the two classes she is teaching for the college. When I ask to take a look at the textbook she is using for the literature class she’s teaching, I have to use both hands to heft the thing onto my lap; I ask if she’s ever actually weighed it. Easily, it’s more than eight pounds. As she explains the readings they’ve been doing–we both emit a relieved “Whew!” when she notes they’ve just finished Beowulf–I leaf through the immense text. She did not choose this book; it’s the one her high school requires for the high school version of the class. Luckily, the contents of the book qualify as college-level, too, although I marvel at how large, crude font can make even “The Wife’s Lament” feel like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
I enjoy talking to this seasoned teacher who is still rocking the classroom while also admitting, “I always loved my job. But now that I teach only two classes–to the cream of the crop–and I’m done dealing with special ed and behavioral problems and the more challenging students, I really love my job!” She has 5 students in one of her sections, 9 in the other. A faint moan of envy is born in my diaphragm.
What I like best about this meeting is what she and I don’t say: I am just one more thing she has to deal with. I understand this feeling. Much of my life, of all our lives, if we’re honest, is built around squaring our shoulders and facing tasks that are necessary but not likely to be folded into our hearts for safe-keeping. From paying bills to returning library books to calling someone back to watching someone check items off a list and then ask for our signatures, substantial amounts of energy are poured into drawing a line through the things that need to get done. My visit is the equivalent of returning a library book for this gracious teacher, and I appreciate that she and I are meeting each other with smiles that scrub a shine onto the subtext: “I am being patient and pleasant because this is something I have to do, and then it will be over, and then I will go get something to eat and talk to people who mean something to me, the real me, outside of this professional construct.”
We are good together in the room for 40 minutes, and it is lovely to see her face light up when she talks about her grand-daughter, but then the feeling of “Okay, we can be done” creeps in, and so it is over, and that is great. I return the textbook to her desk, offer to put away the folding chair, gather up the sheaf of papers, make sure she’s signed the form, and wave my way out of the room.
Walking in a southwesterly direction, I watch students in the high school corridor mess around at their lockers, and my stomach growls. I feel a roast beef sandwich calling to me–“Jawsin, I here for you!” (roast beef sandwiches favor baby talk). Ten minutes later, I watch a 50-year-old Hardee’s worker with two sleeves of tattoos and four rubber bands in his ponytail repeatedly yell “I’M MISSING MY HOT HAM!” and marvel that my per diem from the college barely covers a fast food sandwich and drink. Having said yes to the curly fries would surely have broken the bank.
As is always the case with a roast beef sandwich, no matter how towering the pile of meat, it disappears too quickly, leaving me a few odd moments of dickin’ around in my car before I need to hit the highway again and head towards the day’s second location. I amuse myself by looking in the rear view mirror and realizing I am wearing both underwear and lipstick, which is significant adulting for this arrested juvenile. Then I visit social media to relate the tale of the 50-year-old Hardee’s worker. Watching him in his element had not been just one more thing I had to deal with. Standing there, clutching the plastic chip with my order number on it, I had been completely committed to the moment I inhabited. Observing that frenetic man dancing to fast food choreography under the heat lamps, feeling my eyes crinkle as he hollered about his hot ham, I had definitely felt the moment folding into my heart for safe-keeping.
Fueled by protein and people watching, I am ready to move on and drive another 70 miles. This time I let my phone, not printed directions, serve as guide, a clever strategy that lands me at the next school early–allowing me to text Byron a bemused “I’m here 14 minutes early. I am unaccustomed to this feeling.”
The second school is a newer, slicker building than the one I’d visited earlier. In drawing up the plans for this school, the architect, a fan of Alice Munro, had ordered, “There shall be no southwest. Simply make a front to the thing, and put doors there.” Blessing the architect, I walk in, talk to a nice lady through something like bullet-proof glass, negotiate the need for me to run out to my car and grab a photo ID, and eventually get buzzed into the main office where I lounge on a mauve chair until the final bell of the day rings, thus freeing up the mentee teacher to come retrieve me. Before he arrives, a gangly teenager slumps into the office and mutters to a cardigan-clad assistant, “My mom was going to drop off a bag for me.” When he is handed the bag, I spot tennis shoes. I hope he plays volleyball. This kid needs a team sport.
After he shuffles out, a perky 16-year-old and her best accessory, a boyfriend, enter the office. “I need to pick up my balloon and flower bouquets!” she chirps. As she floats out into the end-of-day crush of her peers, held aloft by 12 helium balloons, flanked by a boyfriend carrying a mass of flowers, she is proud, glamorous, the best-possible version of A Birthday Girl.
“I just hope she doesn’t ride the bus,” notes the assistant.
“Nope, she has a ride,” chimes in another secretary. “Her mom called and told me before she had all that stuff delivered.”
My eyes crinkle again. So Mom had balloons and flowers delivered to the school and now, most likely, is sitting outside in her car, providing them with a ride home. There are infinite kinds of nonsense in the world. Between the joys of hot hams and chauffeured balloon bouquets, it hardly feels like February.
Just then, a lanky man in his mid-thirties sporting a plaid flannel shirt enters the office holding a travel tumbler. If he walks the halls holding a beverage container, this man is clearly committed to his beverages. He is the second mentee teacher, and I like him already.
In his classroom, we sit side-by-side in student desks, which creates a very different vibe from the day’s earlier “I am behind the teacher’s desk while you are in a folding chair across from me” interaction. He offers me tea. He could be Pete Seeger’s grandson.
There isn’t much I need from this guy, outside of a face-to-face connection. Months earlier, during the summer, I had received materials from him when he was gaining approval to teach a new literature course as part of the college in the high schools program. He had wowed me back in August; his syllabus and semester calendar made me salivate with interest. As I approved his proposal, I also typed, “Pretty much, I want to be a student in your class.” In the intervening months, we have emailed a few times, and the previous week, he had arranged for me to be given access to his school’s online platform, through which student work is submitted and graded. This way, I am able to see both his assignments and students’ responses to them.
We talk for almost an hour, and I feel happy for both his wife and daughter, that they get to have him in their lives. I feel happy for his students–they who draw fantastic anthropomorphized horses onto the whiteboard, drawings that will remain for days because their teacher can’t bear to see them erased. This thoughtful teacher has many questions for me. We consider how he can know, for sure, that his grading is at a college level. We talk about how he will observe an online section of one of the courses he will soon be teaching for our college. We talk about textbooks, feedback, seeing plays, career development. As our conversation winds down, he asks, almost plaintively, “So can you come visit again?” I am unsure, as the college will fund only one visit. However, we can communicate through email, and we can definitely do some “norming” where we read and respond to the same pieces of student work. We can continue to foster this collegial relationship.
Pete Seeger’s grandson assures that he will be folded into my heart for safe-keeping when he directs me to a coffee shop on my way out of town. Just as I’m ordering a breve and a cranberry-white-chocolate scone that will curl my toes with pleasure, Pete Seeger’s grandson is emailing me a thank you and a link to a Fresh Air episode that worked particularly well for him in the classroom. Later, when I read the email, I will grin at the monitor
and flash back through the golden moments of that grey, flat day.
Splatters on the windshield.
A happy grandmother, vibrant, loving literature and the idea that she is almost done.