Letting it go


OK. Let.It.Go.

OK. Let.It.Go.

I just had a birthday.

At my age, this is a big deal.

I mean, I’m not ready to pull the dirt over my head quite yet, but I’m not exactly dancing around and celebrating my “double digits” either,  if you know what I mean.

I’m getting on in years.  Getting long in the tooth.  No longer a spring chicken.

If you think about the average life span in the US, I’m past halfway to home base.  Way past halfway in fact.

So birthdays are definitely a time for reflection.

Last weekend, I reflected.

“Yay, me!”, I reflected. “I am still active and working and learning and enjoying my food and drink. I still have fun at the beach and I can still dance at weddings.  Yay, me!”

“On the other hand,” I reflected, “I can’t hula hoop any more.  I can’t eat too many beans. And I don’t know any of the songs on the radio.”

So I’m in that funny space in life. The one where everyone who sees you thinks you’re on the downhill slope, but you still feel like you’re new to the game.

And as I have reflected and thought and sipped on a few refreshing beverages, I have come to some conclusions that can only be reached by wise old owls like me.

And I’m willing to share my wisdom with you. Lucky, lucky you.

I have realized that its time to let go of some things.   I’m ready to let go of beauty.  I had some, once.  But I don’t have to worry about it any more.  The hair is silver, the jowls are jowly, the boobs are heading south.  Let it go.  I am happy to hand off the gift of beauty to my daughter and my young colleagues.  I will celebrate your glowing skin, your silky hair, your tiny waists.  I will raise a cup of hot mocha with whipped cream, and happily cede the joy of beauty to you.

I am willing to let go of fashion trends, too.  I have never actually understood the whole “spring colors” thing anyway, so what the hell.  I am willing to admit that I still buy Levis when I can get them.  I wear Dansko clogs because they stop my knees/hips/back from aching all night.  I do not understand leggings and I never will.

And I am so so happy to never again have to think about this year’s eye shadow tones!  Let it go, let it go.

I am happy to let go of the pressure to say “yes” to every request.  “No”, I am happy to respond, “I cannot volunteer at the local food coop. I’m old. I’m tired. I’m resting.”

“No,” I can now respond.  “I won’t be available to work for two weeks this summer on the newest version of a reading program.  I will be lying on my back on a beach.  I won’t be awake enough to help.”   Let it go, let it go, let it go.

But even as I am letting go of the frivolous, the superfluous, the unnecessary, I am happy to embrace a whole new world of joy.

I am ready to embrace my free time.  I’ve earned it, dammit, its mine.  I am not going to gum it up by writing elaborate lesson plans on how to add fractions.

I am ready to embrace my sick days, too. I’ve saved them up for 22 years now; when I wake up with a terrible headache or a burning sore throat, I am no longer going to make some tea, swallow some ibuprofin and hope for the best.  Nope. Now I am going to log onto the sub folder, click on “sick day” and go back to bed.  And maybe I’ll watch a marathon of “Dog Whisperer” while I eat my chicken soup.  Who cares?  I am embracing my mortality.

Time has gone on.  I had a birthday.

I will let go of my frustration over changing educational fads.  I will embrace my joy as I talk with my sweet students.  I will let go of my sadness at no longer being relevant, and will embrace the freedom that comes from being ignored and left alone.  I will let go of my “mommy” days, and will embrace my new role as the funny, happy relaxed “Nonni” who makes the awesome cookies.

Time to Let It Go.

It’s all in how you look at it.


 

When I was a little girl, my sister and I watched a Disney movie called “Polyanna”.  In the movie, a little girl (played by Hayley Mills, how’s that for a good memory?) comes to live with a grumpy old lady.  I don’t remember much about the story, except that there was a scene where Polyanna notices a prism hanging in the old lady’s window, and makes a big deal of the beautiful rainbow and all the colors.  The old lady notices the beauty for the first time, and the two of them take apart all of her lamps and hang prisms all around the house.

Not the most subtle of metaphors, but it stuck with me.

This morning I woke up to yet another school cancellation day. I have nothing to do, having prepared my lessons and done my corrections yesterday.  I have baked brownies, made meatballs and sauce, walked the dogs, done laundry, read a kids book for the class.  I am bored. And cold. And crabby.

I want sun!  I want warm breezes!  I want to barbecue, but the grill is buried in four feet of snow.

I look out my living room window, and see nothing but white.  I’m sick of watching snow fall; its making me dizzy.  The garden fence is almost buried.  My walk is only a foot wide, with five foot walls on either side.

The window is filled with icicles, handing down from every inch of the gutter.  Sharp, jagged, icy teeth, making me shiver just looking at them.

I decided to lie down on the sofa so I could fully indulge in my misery.  I wanted to look at the icicles, those threatening, terrifying blades clustered together, reminding me that I am falling farther and farther behind in the curriculum, and that the kids will be distracted little cyclones tomorrow.  I wanted to use the image of the ever growing ice daggers to help me enhance my total crabbiness.

But guess what? When I laid myself back on the pillow and looked out the window, I found myself looking through the beautiful fused glass wind-chime that my son and his girlfriend gave me for Christmas.  All of a sudden, the icicles were shining through the brilliant colors of the glass, and the little bit of sunlight that was leaking through made them gleam like rainbows.

My plan was thwarted; my crankiness went away.

I felt like Pollyanna!

SONY DSC

The swings


I did something yesterday that I probably haven’t done in 20 years.

And that still most likely puts me ahead of most people my age, who I would guess haven’t engaged in this particular activity for at least 40 years.

I went on the swings.

I was teaching a summer class this week.  Well, to tell the truth “class” might be a bit of a stretch, and “teaching” most definitely is hyperbole.

I was leading two groups of little kids in a camp class called “Drama Start to Finish”. During a break in our thespian endeavors, we went out on the playground.  One of the little ones asked me to push her on the swing, so I did.  Another asked me to swing with them, and for reasons that escape me at the moment, I agreed!

My butt barely fit into the plastic sling, and I had rivets digging into both thighs.  But for some odd reason, I didn’t really think about it.  I just leaned back and started to pump my legs.  The other three swings were filled with little girls, and the conversation between them swirled around me as I leaned into the smooth back and forth rhythm.  I pulled on the chains, feeling the tension in my shoulders.  I listened to the girls, chatting about movies and songs, but I knew that they didn’t need me to respond or comment or ask a question.  Their voices became a part of the background, mixing with the sound of the wind in my ears and the squeak of the chains above me.  I tilted my head as far back as it would go, amazed and thrilled by the perfect blue of the sky above me.

I could see the undersides of some of the leaves in the trees that line our playground.  The green was a paler, softer shade of the color that I usually see. I could see, if I really leaned far back, the bottoms of tender young pine cones in the white pines behind me, and one silver drop of sap, nearly ready to fall.

It made me wonder.

When did I stop swinging? When did I give up the giddy swoop of my dropping stomach as I reached the highest peak of my backward arc?  When did I stop fearing that I might somehow go “over the bar”, and hurl myself too far?

And I wondered not only “when”, but “why”. Why is it that adults stop wanting to hold onto those chains, pushing to see just how close we can come to flying?

I swung back and forth, as long as I could.  My head began to feel dizzy, and my lunch was no longer securely in its place inside my stomach.  My arms were a little bit achy, and my fingers were slightly numb.  I had been swinging for less than five minutes, not even a fifth of what my little students could accomplish with ease.

Still, I was feeling happy.  I had looked at the brightest summer sky. I had leaned myself back as far as my aging back could go, and I had noticed the beauty that is usually hidden by the maple leaves.  My arms would remember my adventures, and the dents in my legs would no doubt leave some bruises.  But I had no regrets.

It made me wonder what else I have forgotten since the last time that I really enjoyed recess!

Muscle memory= Muscle aches


 

Late night fun.

Late night fun.

Last night I learned something very interesting.

I learned that my body can actually remember what it felt like to be ten years old.   And I learned that the morning after it has had this wonderful memory, my body can experience what it will feel like to be ninety nine.

Last night I was one of four teachers who volunteered to host a sleepover at our school. Its part of an annual auction that the parents run to raise money for the school. Its a big job, because we arrive at work at 7 AM on Friday and we stay until 8 AM on Saturday.  It can seem like a really long night, but it can also be an absolute blast.  I have only done it once before, a few years ago, and sort of decided that I was too old to participate any more.

After all, I’m pushing sixty, and out of shape.  I figured that all the twenty and thirty somethings could handle the sleepover.  My auction donation is usually something easier, like a home made dinner or a bread baking lesson.

This year year, though, they were short one chaperone, so I let myself be talked into helping out.

It was a long week, and I was tired by the time the thirteen kids arrived at 6:30 Friday evening.  I thought I’d be able to serve the pizza and then just sort of watch everybody run around for a while.

But the kids had other ideas. They decided that it would be fabulous fun to have a big game of “capture the flag” inside the building.  Now, you have to understand that our building houses two schools with over 1,000 students. It has a huge gym, a cafeteria, two music rooms, a big sprawling library and a multi-purpose room filled with tables, sinks and ovens.  At 8 pm on a spring night, as the sun set, it was a huge challenge to play “Capture the Flag” over three floors of a giant, empty building.

The kids recruited the four adults, and we broke into teams. There were dozens of complicated rules that I don’t really understand, like “No jailbreaks!”  and “Seven minutes of captivity!”  I pretended that I understood, but mostly I just rushed around with everybody else, sneaking up the back stairs, giggling as we peeked around corners and trying to tag the guys on the other team.

At first I thought I would just trail along behind, acting like the aging observer that I see myself being. But my younger colleagues were all in, racing around the empty hallways, screaming right along with the kids.  I started to get caught up in the game, especially as the night wore on, and the darkness outside made the bright lights of the building seem cozy and safe. I started to relax and I started to run.

There were moments last night when I felt like I was in a crazy surreal dream.  At one point I found myself freed from “jail” by the tag of a little boy, who then grabbed me by the hand and yelled  “run!!!”  I could feel my sneakers pounding down the hallway, but I couldn’t believe that it was really me, running full speed down the hallway past the gym.

A little bit later in the night, I found myself creeping silently down the back stairs, hoping to find the hidden “flag”.  When I stepped into the hallway, I glanced behind me. There was a player on the other team, a beautiful grinning girl, ready to tag me. Now, I know this girl very well! She’s been in my class all year and her humor and sass and vibrant personality have made her one of my absolute favorites.

But there she was, ready to tag me and send me to jail!  My heart jumped and I let out a shriek that made us both jump. Then I took off running as hard as I could, careening around the corner to my “safe” area as if the FBI was on my tail, instead of a little girl with long silky golden hair and a glorious giggle.  As I skidded to a stop, I couldn’t contain my laughter.  We stood on opposite sides of the invisible line, my student and I, face to face and laughing like fools.  “OK, that was awkward!”, she said, “I just chased my teacher down the hall!”

There were dozens of moments like that one all night.  Moments when I found myself running around like a kid, laughing out loud, trying to play with a hula-hoop, putting on sparkly nail polish, baking cookies with a bunch of girls.  Slathering on green face mask with my pal to make the kids smile.

And what I loved was that my legs remembered how to run like a maniac. My arms remembered how to pump for extra speed.  My waist even remembered how to swing a hula-hoop, although it wasn’t very successful at recreating that particular experience! We finally wound down and went to sleep around 1 AM and I sprawled on a deflating air mattress in the music room, surrounded by my friends and the sleeping children.

I woke up at 6AM with every muscle in my body screeching in protest.  No one else was awake as I slowly eased myself to my knees and then to an upright position.  I could practically hear the sound of my joints and muscles trying to unkink as I straightened my spine.  I pulled on my fuzzy red robe and stepped gently over the mounded shapes of the kids, and made my slow way up the stairs to wash up and get changed.  I planned to make a pot of strong coffee and find the ibuprofin in my desk drawer.

As I crossed the empty lobby, I thought about how great it had felt to run full speed again, even if it was only down a short hallway.  I thought about how much pure fun it was to scream with the kids in the big echoing building.

I smiled to myself as my bare feet padded through the empty darkness of the cafeteria to my classroom.

Waterworks alert.


Sometimes  life seems to conspire against us.

Or for us.  I’m not entirely sure.

But there are key points in life where every event seems designed to wring emotion from our hearts.  Where all of life’s resonance seems work together to create a touching and beautiful chord.

I am in just such a place right now, and I find myself compelled to warn my friends and relations. “Waterworks alert!”  I tell them. I say,  “Every part of my life is coming together to capture me in a net of emotion.  I will be teary.  Don’t freak out; just hand me a tissue.”

I’ll give you an example of  what I mean.  Last Thursday I went to a meeting with a lawyer, checking on the status of my Mother’s estate.  My Mom is healthy and hearty and living independently in her own home, but the conversation itself was a reminder that she is nearing her final chapter.  I find myself wanting to simplify and clarify my relationship with her while there is still time.  I want to be sure that I say everything that needs to be said.  It makes me sad just to think about it.

And my middle child, my sweetly idiosyncratic boy, came home last week for some loving care while he was recovering from oral surgery.  While he was here we had a small bulldozer working in the side yard.   The last time that a bulldozer worked here, Matt was a year and half old, and he had to stand on a stool to look over the windowsill that now comes to his mid-thigh. As we watched the work,  I looked up at his six foot three inch frame. I could clearly see the golden haired boy who once stood at rapt attention gazing out the same window, breathlessly recounting every move of the tractor in his husky baby voice.   I felt the pressing of time on my neck as I watched him, remembering the baby he was such a short time ago.  My heart squeezed.  More emotion.

Add in this fact: My third child, my baby, is graduation from college next week. Wasn’t he just born a year ago?!  How do I begin to understand that my last “dependent” won’t be one any longer?  I am excited for him, but I suspect that it is hard for him to be leaving his happy college days behind him. Is he worried about the future? Is he sad to say good bye to so many friends?  How can it be that I don’t know the answer to these questions? I gave birth to him! I held him under my own heart; how can he be so grown up that I don’t know what he is feeling? So much emotion!!

And then there is this: My only daughter is getting married this summer.  I spent today shopping for her dress.  We were with her Maid-of-honor, a beautiful young woman who I have knowns since her birth.  When they were little, the girls used to play “Double Wedding” out on the lawn.  I am breathless with the realization that both are now planning weddings, and that they will stand up for each other.  Just the way we once dreamed…….

And yesterday I was at school with my fifth grade team.  We were having our weekly meeting, talking about lessons and kids. I am the wise old woman on our team.  Another teacher, Amy Jo,  is new to the profession, but is a young mother of two girls.  The third member of our team, Caitlin, is my daughter’s age, and is due to deliver her first child in a few short weeks. We were going over our usual teacher business when suddenly Caitlin grabbed my hand. “Want to feel the baby?”, she asked with a smile.  I placed my hand on her swollen stomach, and Amy Jo put hers right next to mine.  We all paused, waiting. I looked at our three hands; the hands of three women who love each other and who love this not-yet-known little boy.   I could feel how connected we all are, how much our lives have been woven together.  I felt that little boy moving, and my mind went right to my own little ones, who I first met as they moved inside of me.

I looked at our three hands, and I thought of the healing power of love, and of the “laying on of hands”.  I thought about how time moves in unending circles, and my eyes filled with tears.

Time is not a river, or a ribbon, or a journey.  Time is an eternal circle, coming back again and again to the moment when a woman comes to know the brand new being who lives and moves within her.

Waterworks alert.   I can’t believe that I am the wise old woman of the village. I can’t believe that Caitlin is having her baby. I can’t believe that my boys are all grown up, or that my own baby girl will be getting married and starting her own life circles.

Around and around it goes.  Life conspires to remind us that it is all about change, and growth and moving on.

Waterworks alert.

Negative Space


BGM examples_negative space & positive space

 

I teach fifth grade in a school which focuses on the integration of art into all parts of the curriculum.  Since I have literally no background in the visual arts, I have learned a tremendous amount in my twenty years at our school.

One of the concepts which was introduced to me during my very first year was the idea of  “negative space”.  I learned about negative space when our art teacher passed by my classroom one morning and saw the funny, lopsided little cut-out picture that my then third grade daughter had created to decorate my door.  Honestly, I didn’t think much of it, and found it a little bit crude and messy. But I hung it up because I love my daughter dearly, and I wanted her know it.

I had all but forgotten about the little image until the art teacher stopped in my doorway and exclaimed, “Oh, who made that?  What a great use of negative space!”  I blinked, looked at the funny little cut out, and told her that Katie had done it. “She has such a great eye!”, said Margo.  “I love it.”

She then went on to describe the idea of negative space in art; how an artist can use the part of the image or sculpture that contains nothing to clarify or refine what we see.

Here is another example of how negative space creates the image:

 

The white part, the negative space, is clearly the most important.

The white part, the negative space, is clearly the most important.

You get the idea, right? It is the absence of color, texture, shape that gives the piece its true image.  The art is created by what is not there.

I have been thinking about this concept for the past week, because I have come to realize that in my empty nest life, summers are my “negative space”.

In my mommy days, summers were the busiest times.  I had my three children, and often their friends, to feed, entertain, clothe, care for.  I had my children to laugh with, to travel with, to shuttle from place to place. There were beach days, and movie days. Zoo trips, hikes, rainy day art projects and “We’re making a fort!” days.  Cookies to bake, ice cream trucks to await, grilled cheese sandwiches and bowls of popcorn and Disney channel marathons.  Every minute was full.

During the school year, of course, every minute was full then, and it is full now.  School days are positive space, there is no doubt.

But summer now is simply negative space.

I try to stay busy, although I know that I am in desperate need of rest after the rigors of the school year. I get together with friends, I visit my Mom.  I teach for a week or two, and I take classes for a week or two.  I plan little projects to do around the house. I give myself a routine to follow; the elliptical every other day, a good long walk with the dogs each morning, gardening most afternoons.  I make a good dinner and enjoy it with Paul when he comes home. We have weekends away with friends and family.

But summer is still mostly negative space.

It is the absences that define me in the summer. There are few demands on my time; no one needs me to be home, to be in the car, to be at the park or the hockey rink.  I am free. I can go wherever I want to go most days.  But with no company, there is no place that calls to me, and I stay home.

It is the absence of voices around me that defines me in the summer.  Some days (not many, thank goodness, but some days) I hear only my own voice from the time Paul leaves to the time when he comes home.  I put on music, or I watch the news, just so that I can hear someone’s voice.  I go to the library or to the farm stand, just to chat for a bit.

Too much negative space.

I’m just smart enough to know that these quiet contemplative days are good for me, but they make me uncomfortable.  I know that the absences impact and shape the image that is “me” right now, just as the negative space in the portrait above lets us see the woman.

Without the negative space, we couldn’t see the woman’s beauty or fragility.

I guess we are all made up of both positive and negative space. We reflect all that we have, and all that is missing.  I guess we have to accept all of the space if we are going to fully appreciate the art.

 

“That’s kinda stupid.”


My favorite part of every school day is “Read Aloud Time.”  I love to read to the kids.  I love the looks on their faces as they react to the action in each story.  I love it when I try to stop, and they beg me for just one more chapter.  Its the closest I’ll ever come to getting a curtain call, you know?

A few years ago I was reading the book “The Liberation of Gabriel King” to my fifth graders.  The book is set in Georgia, during the Presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter.  It is a great story, and I often use it to begin the school year, as the main characters are an unlikely pair of best friends who are about to enter fifth grade, one with enthusiasm, one with total fear.

The subtext of the story is the racial tension in the South in the 1970’s. The book talks about bigotry, racial prejudice and even the KKK.  The children in the story have to learn how to stand up to these things, and how to face their personal fears.

As I read the book to the class that year, they asked a lot of questions.  One of the reasons I love this book is because it leads to such rich and interesting discussions.  Ten year olds are honest, and they’re very curious.  They keep asking questions until they find out what they want to know.

I remember one particular little boy in that class. He was a serious, quiet kid.  Not a great student, but just a really good kid. He was the kind of typical fifth grader who spent a lot of our day waiting for recess so that he could play ball with his friends.  But he was a thoughtful kid, insightful in his own way.  I’ll always remember him for one comment that he made, as we were discussing racial prejudice.

One of the other kids had asked, “Why did some white people think black people weren’t as good as them?” (Note that past tense ‘did’, please).  I tried to explain it briefly, referring back to the history of slavery, doing my best to shed some light on a dark story.  “But why would they think that?”, the kids kept asking.

You should know that my class at the time had a few students from Asia, South Asia and Central America, but none of them were African American.  All were equally bewildered by the descriptions of racial prejudice, but all of them wanted to understand it.

I remember looking at the group, feeling somewhat at a loss. But I remember that particular little boy, slouching back on the rug, both hands in his pockets.  He had on a baseball cap, and his eyes were shaded.  I remember him saying,  “So let me get this straight.  Some people back then thought they were better,  just because their skin was lighter?  Well, that’s kinda stupid.”

Don’t you love it?

As I watched the news coverage of the Supreme Court rulings on marriage equality yesterday, I pictured a classroom of the future. I pictured a cute kid, ball cap tipped rakishly over one eye.  I imagined him saying, “So some people back then thought that one kind of marriage was better than another kind?  That’s kinda stupid.”

“I took a chance.”


Well, my class has finished the fifth grade math state test.  Huzzah!

Instead of actually learning anything for the past two days, the kids had the pleasure of taking the Massachusetts Comprehensive Achievement System.  Also known as MCAS.  Also known among the kids as the Massachusetts Child Abuse System.  Also known, on my morning message board as “Maybe Chinchillas Are Slimy”.  Who knows?

Having spent the past three weeks cramming and drilling for this thing, there was quite a sense of excitement yesterday and today as the kids arrived at school.  I put on a fabulous (if outdated) playlist of inspirational songs, and the kids got themselves all psyched up and ready to go.

And here are some of the events that really, truly, I-swear-to-God-I-am-not-making-these-up honestly happened in my room.

1. A child who was out sick yesterday and missed “Session One of the MCAS fifth grade math test” came in this morning.  I greeted her with a big smile and the obvious question, “Are you feeling better?”

Her answer? “Not really.”  A shrug, a smile and she sat down to take the test.  And she got up and got a drink. And she got up again, holding a tissue to her mouth.   I went to her, of course, and asked her what was wrong.

“My tooth is coming out.”, she said calmly, and went back to her desk to work on her math calculations while wiggling her tooth.  Ten minutes later, she came to me with her tooth in her hand, her cheek streaked with blood, and fear in her eyes. “I got blood on my answer booklet!”, she whispered desperately. “Do you think they will make my answers invalid?”  I reassured her and told her that her answers would most certainly be counted. She had been working so hard!

What I thought, in my head, was, “Honey, if they fail you on this test, you have the perfect answer!  It wasn’t me, it was my blood on the test!”

2.  Four different students came up to my desk to ask the meaning of a word on the test.  The word was “integer”.  It means “number”.  It didn’t appear in any of the chapters of our math book this year.  The kids all knew how to solve the math problem, they just didn’t know the word “integer”.  I bit my tongue, swallowed hard and said (four times), “I’m sorry, honey. I can’t tell you that.”

3. I looked up to see one of my most struggling, learning disabled kids whispering to a classmate, five minutes after the testing had begun.  I was so shocked when I saw them that I called the culprit up to my desk in my loudest public inquiry voice.  Now, you should know that I never, ever, ever shame or embarrass a kid in front of his peers. Never, never, never!!! Until the pressures of this stupid, mindless, idiotic test forced me to lose my mind at the thought of cheating.

“What are you DOING?”, I hissed at this little boy. “What did I JUST say about talking during the test?!?”

He hung his head, and whispered, “I took a chance.”

My blood pressure rose, “You did WHAT? You knew that talking during the test was wrong and you did it anyway?”  I was absolutely aghast.

“Yes”, he said simply.  He wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“What in the world were you talking about?”, I demanded.

And so he told me.

“I saw that he was putting his answers in the wrong place. I know he isn’t from Massachusetts, so I thought he didn’t know what to do.” He raised his tear filled eyes to mine.  “I couldn’t let him get them all wrong.”

We stood for a moment, face to face.  My little student was resolute, nervous, red faced, but determined.  I was filled with guilt and shame and a sense of awe.   I took in a breath.

“So…”, I began slowly, making sure that everyone in the class could hear me, “You knew that it was against the rules to talk, but you took a chance of being caught, of getting in trouble, so that your friend would not fail?”

He shrugged, then nodded his head, never looking directly at me.

I thought my heart would break.

I put a hand on his shoulder, urging him to look me in the eye.

“Honey”, I said, through the lump in my throat, “You are a hero. You risked getting punished so that you could do the right thing. I am incredibly proud of you.”

He smiled and went back to his desk to finish the test.

•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

And I am left with a whole pile of questions.

Why on earth would we design a system that makes it wrong to help a friend?

Why in the world would we create a testing system that is so complicated that kids might put their answers on the wrong page?

What are we really testing when we refuse to define the words on the test?

What are we doing to our teachers when we make them so nervous about “cheating” that they feel compelled to publicly embarrass a student this way?

I don’t have the answers, but I certainly have the questions.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.


One of the coolest parts of teaching fifth grade is helping young kids to recognize metaphors.  Kids tend to be pretty literal, and they usually come into the grade level with a fairly concrete way of understanding literature and life in general.

Its part of my job to help them understand that sometimes a storm is a metaphor for a really bad mood, or that a sunny kitchen is a metaphor for a happy family life.

I love teaching this stuff!  Our poetry unit is one of my favorite parts of the year! All that symbolism.  All those fabulous metaphors.

So you would think that I would recognize a real life metaphor when it slaps me in the face (literally).

But I missed this one until it rose right up and stared me in the eye.

You see, I am a “wannabe” gardener.  I read gardening blogs. I subscribe to “Organic Gardener” Magazine.  Every spring, I visualize a glorious riot of colorful blossoms, a neat row of delicious vegetables, a panoply of growth and life.  And every June, as the weather gets hot and the bugs descend, I think, “What the HELL was I thinking?” and I go back inside where it is safe.

One of my very favorite flowers is the simple daffodil.  It is easy to plant, easy to grow, and it bursts into sunny, joyful life every year just as we are about to slit our wrists at the thought of one more week of winter.  Daffodils laugh in the face of the winter blues.  They are the exuberant cry of life’s triumph over death.  And they are really pretty.

So the first year that we lived in this house, 23 long years ago, I made sure that I planted a whole bunch of daffodils in the brand  new garden beds that I had created along our home’s foundation.  I planted yellow narcissus, and creamy colored double petalled daffodils. I set them out with tulips and grape hyacinth and day lilies and irises.  Awesome!

After about 12 or 13 years of glorious growth, though, my daffodils seemed to sort of peter out.  A lot of them sent up leaves, but never flowered.  I figured that they were just worn out, lifeless, no longer viable.  So I dug them up and threw them into the woods just behind our compost pile.

I knew that I didn’t want them actually in the compost, but I figured that if I just chucked them out there in the totally unkempt and untouched woods, they would gently fade away.  I planted nice new, fresh bulbs in the beds along the front of our house.

Enter the metaphor.

A couple of years ago I noticed that the thrown out bulbs, although they hadn’t even been planted, were sending up some very nice blooms.  I thought it was an anomaly of some kind, and didn’t really think too much about it.

It didn’t occur to me until this weekend that the “thrown out”, “useless” bulbs on our property were blooming and thriving and filling the air with life and scent and joy in a far more successful and beautiful way than the carefully planted little sets of three that I had so artfully put into the designated garden beds last fall.

I wonder how often my carefully crafted plans and lessons and ideas fall on barren ground, and how often some little “thrown away” thought takes root and blooms.  I wonder how often I overlook the value in what seems worn out and finished. I wonder how often I toss out a thought or idea, never suspecting that it will fall on fertile ground and bloom in awesome beauty when spring comes again.

How lovely it is to think that in spite of our mistakes, life finds a way to send out a patch of beautiful blossoms when the time is right for them to bloom.

Daffodil patch in the middle of the woods.

Daffodil patch in the middle of the woods.

Beautiful flowers flanking the compost heap.

Beautiful flowers flanking the compost heap.

Shame!


Shame on the US Congress! Shame on you!!!  You constantly refer back to your “constituents” and you dare to talk about the desires and intentions of the founding fathers.

Shame on you!!!!

I wasn’t going to post this little fantasy story, written two weeks ago.  I thought that it was too radical, too intense, too angry.

Screw that.  I am going to post my little daydream here now, and I am also going to make a pledge. I hope that you will join me.

I pledge, right here and now, that I will ONLY vote for candidates who receive an F rating from the NRA.  I will never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, send one dime or one vote to any candidate who earns a passing grade from that group of……I’m sorry. I have no words to describe the depth of my disgust for that group.

Please enjoy my story.

“Righteous Anger”

It was Friday afternoon, an hour after the last kid had gotten on the last bus.  I was packing up some weekend work when my best friend, Betsy, popped her head into my classroom.

“Glass of wine before we head home?”, she asked hopefully. Before I knew it, we  were seated at a table at Joe’s, a bowl of popcorn chicken bits in front of us, matching glasses of white wine in our hands.  We started off talking about the week, as usual.  Which kids were having trouble with the math, which kids were way behind in their reading and which parents were driving us nuts.  We sipped and laughed and ignored the calories we were scarfing down in those greasy little blobs of chicken fat.

It was a typical Friday evening.

Then the news came on.  We were sitting across from the bar, and the screen was in full view. We didn’t pay too much attention to the first couple of stories, but suddenly the screen was filled with the smirking face of Warren LaDouche, head of the American Gun Owners Gang.  As usual, he was managing to keep a straight face as he somberly explained all of the reasons why it was necessary to arm public school teachers.  I don’t know how he manages to avoid breaking into gales of maniacal laughter when he says things like, “If every teacher were armed and ready, they would be able to respond to these attackers in a timely manner.”

Betsy grimaced, and took a healthy slug of her wine as LaDouche  went on with fake sincerity, elaborating on his plan to have armed guards standing at recess and loaded guns in every classroom.

“This guy is just sick!”, Betsy hissed, leaning forward across the table so far that she almost landed in the chicken bits.  “I know!”, I hissed back.  “I cannot believe that  NO one out there is calling him out for this crap!”

“Its so obvious that AGOG just wants to sell more and more guns! They don’t give a damn who dies in the process!”

“Everyone knows that they are paid for and supported by the gun manufacturing companies.  But the government just refuses to stand up to them!”

“I can’t believe that people are listening to this crap! They are actually thinking about making us carry guns instead of making the damn things illegal and getting them off the streets!”

We sat there for a while longer, sipping, eating, listening to the bullshit coming from the screen.  The wine ran out just as the news report came to an end. We had lost our happy Friday night mood by then, and we were quiet as we paid the bill and headed out to our cars. I threw my purse onto the seat and turned to give Betsy a hug goodbye.

Uh, oh.  I knew that look.  Betsy was frowning and puffing out her lips in deep thought.  She twirled one lock of greying hair around her finger in what I knew was a sign of concentration.

“Bets,” I began, but she put her fists on her ample hips and launched right in, like she always does.

“What if we do something ourselves?  What if we take some kind of action that just cannot be ignored?  I mean, this is just not right!  I refuse to carry a rifle in my classroom!”

The image of Betsy, armed and dangerous, almost made me laugh, but I knew better.  She was serious, and she was mad.  And she was my best friend.

I sighed, and said, “I don’t know what we could do, hon.  But if you think of something, you know I’m right there with you! I’ve got your back. Have a good weekend.”

By the time I got home and started dinner, I had all but forgotten the press conference and the conversation after it.  My husband came home. We had dinner and talked and then I settled down on the couch with my knitting.

It must have been about 10 pm when my phone suddenly rang.  Everyone who knows me knows that I am usually out cold by 10 pm on a Friday, and I was in fact already under the covers when the call came in.  I would have ignored it, but I always keep my phone close by in case my kids need to reach me.  I picked it up, located my bifocals, and saw Betsy’s name on the screen.  What on earth…..?

“Hey, Betsy!  What’s wrong?”

“I have a plan. Don’t say anything, don’t argue, just listen to me.”

I took a deep breath, settled back on my pillows, and listened to her.

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And that’s why I found myself on my couch two days later, my laptop open and my credit card in hand.  My heart was hammering away, and I could feel nervous sweat pooling under my arms.  I had gone to several web sites to find the best deals, and now I was ready to order.

“It’s perfectly legal”, I told myself as I got ready to click “Add to cart”.  The fact that what I was about to do was legal was the root of the whole problem.  I sat up straight, gulped, and hit the button.

As promised, my purchase arrived within a week.  I read the little “how to” pamphlet that came with the packages, and called Betsy to see if she had read hers.

“Sarah, this is ridiculously easy!! I can’t wait to try them out.”

“What?!  You can’t try them out!  Betsy, don’t!”

“Oh, I’ll be careful…..”

“Betsy! No! You’re the one who made up the plan! You said we’d wait until the last minute so no one would know!”

She grumbled a little, then gave a sigh.

“OK. Then I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

The next morning, early, I kissed my sleeping husband on the cheek, and grabbed my very heavy bag.  I placed it carefully in the back seat of my car, and headed out to pick up Betsy at her house.  I had told my husband that I would be away for the next few days, the first part of April vacation, relaxing with my dear friend.  I had lied.

After Betsy placed her own very heavy bag in my trunk, we headed onto the highway.  As we headed south, she reached over and squeezed my hand.

“We are doing the right thing, Sara.  Someone has to do this. They haven’t left us any choice.”   I nodded, but kept my eyes on the road in front of me.

We reached our destination without any problems, in just under 5 hours. We parked on the street across from the surprisingly modest house.  We waited.  We ate the last few M&M’s in the bag between us.

“I need to pee.”, I complained.

“Hold on, hold on.  He’ll be here soon, I’m sure.  I called his secretary this morning, remember? I told her we wanted an interview, and she said his last appointment today was at 4.”

“What if he goes out to dinner?”

“Oh, just hold it, will you?  Sheesh. You’re a teacher, for God’s sake. You can hold off for hours.”

Just as I sat back to wait, a big gray car pulled into the driveway.

“It’s him!”  Betsy clutched her chest, breathing hard. “Oh, my God, oh, my God!”

“Calm down!  We have to get over there, quick!”

We piled out of the car, straightening our skirts and pulling down the backs of our sweaters.  As we hustled across the street in our sturdy Dansko clogs, each of had a big “teacher bag” over one shoulder.

We looked like two middle aged elementary school teachers. Because that’s what we were.

We were also two angry old ladies on a mission.

And we were armed.

As we approached his driveway, Warren LaDouche cast a wary glance over his shoulder.  I smiled with every ounce of fake cheer I could muster.

“Oh, my goodness, Betsy, you were right!”, I squealed, “It really IS Warren LaDouche!”  I waved my free hand as I scurried up the long drive.

“Mr. LaDouche!  Oh, my goodness!  Please, can we have your autograph!” That was Betsy, huffing and puffing with excitement as she hurried up behind me.

Just as we had predicted, ole Warren was so full of self-appreciation that he fell for our story right away.  What could be less threatening than a couple of chubby older ladies? He smiled at us, showing yellowing, uneven teeth.

“Can we have your autograph? Please? We’re teachers!  We’ll just be so excited to show your signature to our friends back at school! You’re, like, the hero of the schools!” As we chirped and fluttered around the smiling man, we had maneuvered him closer to his back door, and the car was now between us and the neighbors.  It was nearly dark, and we knew that there was very little chance that anyone would see what was about to happen.

I gave the signal that we had agreed upon. “Let me just grab a pen from my bag!”

Warren still stood there smiling as Betsy and I simultaneously reached into those big canvas bags and pulled out the semiautomatic handguns that we had purchased on line.  Mine felt like it weighed a thousand pounds as I swung it up into the shooting position that I had seen in the pamphlet.  My arm hurt already, and I was pretty sure that I was about to have a heart attack and wet my pants, all at the same time.

“Open the door and walk inside, Warren.”  Betsy sounded slightly less panicked than I felt, but I knew that this was the key moment. If he believed us, we could pull this off.  If he laughed in our faces, it was all for nothing.

The thought of having spent almost $2,000 for nothing sent a jolt through me.  The thought of this man allowing ever more deadly guns to be brought into our schools sent a wave of rage right behind it.

I surprised myself by jabbing the muzzle of the gun right into Warren’s pudgy midsection.

“Open the damn door, Warren.  NOW!”

He was breathing fast, and his beady eyes were scanning the street, but Warren reached for the door.  He inserted a key and took a step.  I kept the gun firm against his waistline.

“You two have no idea what you’re doing.”  I was gratified to hear that Warren’s voice was shaking.

“Oh, you’re wrong, LaDouche.  We followed AGOG’s advice to the letter.  We have our guns, two bags full of ammo magazines and all the time in the world.  You were right! It does make us feel more powerful to have these things in our hands.”

As we had planned, I held the gun on Warren while Betsy checked him for weapons (ew…..).  We were slightly amazed to find that he was carrying a handgun under his jacket!  Yikes!!!  He hadn’t even tried to reach it!  We exchanged a look of terror as Betsy emptied the chamber and put the gun in her bag.  I pushed Warren into a kitchen chair, then Betsy pulled his arms behind his back, and attached him firmly with two pairs of handcuffs (also purchased on line without a problem).

We stood looking at each other, our eyes huge, our mouths hanging open.

I was still flooded with adrenaline, but I was starting to shake.

Betsy dropped into a chair that matched Warren’s, her gun clanking against the table.

I suddenly remembered my earlier problem, and gasped, “Betsy!  Keep the gun on him!  I gotta go!”

Somehow, I managed to find the bathroom and use it without shooting myself.  I washed my face and made my way back to the kitchen.

Warren was sitting quietly, looking steadily at Betsy’s gun.  He looked smaller cuffed to his kitchen chair than he had on TV.

For a moment, I just stood there.  All three of us seemed slightly stunned by the events of the day.  But time was moving on, and I knew that we had a lot to do.  I gave myself a little mental head slap, and turned to Betsy.

“OK, kiddo. Get the iPad out.”  She looked at me blankly for a minute, then smiled.  Betsy loves new technology, in spite of her age, and she was excited about the video we were about to make.

We spent a few minutes arranging the items on Warren’s kitchen table, finding a good spot to prop the iPad so that the sound and visual quality would be as clear as possible.   We sat ourselves at the table, with Warren in view behind us.  We had explained our plan to him, and that’s when he had finally come out of his stupor.

“You stupid bitches!”, he had snarled, “You can’t do this!  No one will believe you.  You can never outmaneuver AGOG!”  We finally had an excuse to do what we had been hoping to do all along.  We were teachers. We had been teaching ten year olds to recognize and appreciate symbolism in literature.

We gagged ole Warren with an ugly green dishtowel. How’s that for a metaphor?

At last we were ready to go.

Betsy started the recorder and I began.

“Hello, my name is Sara Williamson, and this is Betsy Manchester. We are elementary school teachers with the Braxton Public Schools.  We are armed.”  (The camera cut to the two guns, and the huge pile of ammunition clips and magazines beside them.)

“We have just kidnapped Mr. Warren LaDouche, chairman and spokesperson for the American Gun Owners Gang, commonly known as AGOG.”  (Betsy moved the iPad camera to Warren, who by now looked both ridiculous and apoplectic.)

“This…….man…..is trying to convince the American people that we will all be safer if we allow every citizen to own as many weapons as he can carry.  He wants you to believe that by carrying a weapon, you’ll be protecting yourself from so called bad guys.”

I held up the gun and clip that we had taken from Warren in the kitchen.

“Well, he was carrying this when we grabbed him.  We pulled out our guns before he pulled out his, and that was the end of his resistance.

Being armed with a dangerous weapon did not do one single thing to keep Warren here any safer.  As you can see, we took his gun away, and now he’s handcuffed to a chair.  We can shoot him time we want to.”

That last line made me gulp a bit, but I grimly went on.  Betsy was handling the filming, saving each clip and keeping the camera pointed accurately.

“Ladies and gentleman, you can see that Warren LaDouche and his friends at AGOG are full of….” I paused to find a proper word.  After all, I am a teacher of young children.  “Full of horse manure.  They are lying to you.”

“Let’s think about background checks, shall we?  AGOG and its supporters feel that there should be fewer required background checks.  We are here to tell you that even the ones we have now are not anywhere close to sufficient.”

I held my gun up to the camera and said, “No background check can keep you safe if guns like these are out there in public.  We bought ours from a licensed gun dealer online.  We both went through the required background checks.  We passed with flying colors. You see, we have no criminal history and we have never been diagnosed with a major psychiatric illness.”

Now I stood up, gun in hand, and walked over to Warren.  I pointed a shaking finger at him.

“This man wants you to believe that we should bring guns into our classrooms!  He wants you to believe that we can kids keep safe, we can keep our families safe, we can keep our movie theaters and grocery stores and neighborhoods safe as long as there are guns flooding all those places.  As long as we run background checks to look for criminals who intend to do harm.”

I was working up a head of steam now, thinking about the little ones in my classroom, thinking about those babies at Newtown, thinking about Aurora and Columbine and the streets of every city in the nation.  I held up my gun one more time.

“I’m here to tell you, right now, that more guns will NOT keep you safe.  Background checks will NOT keep you safe.  Anyone can get mad enough and desperate enough to use one of those guns for its intended purpose.  Even two aging fifth grade teachers can get angry enough to buy guns and use them to kidnap and threaten someone they hate. We passed the checks, we paid our money, we bought these guns legally.  And we can use them right this minute to blow Warren LaDouche to bits.

Think about that when you consider whether or not we need to ban guns like the ones that my friend and I are holding right now.”

I nodded my head to Betsy, and the camera went off.   I started to cry.  Betsy came over and put her arms around me.  We held each other for a few minutes as we cried.  Our guns lay forgotten on the kitchen floor.

Three hours later, Betsy and I walked into the police station in Warren’s home town.  We had spent the time at a local Starbuck’s, fueling up on lattes and scones.  Betsy had spliced and edited the movie clips into one short film, running for about two minutes in length.  Then we had uploaded it to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and Twitter. We had emailed copies to all of the major news outlets, including CNN.  We finished our drinks, ate the last crumbs of our last desserts as free women, and headed out the door.

As we entered the police station, we were recognized almost immediately.  We held our heads up high as the buzz raged around us, and the Captain was summoned.  We remained silent as we handed him our note, giving the location of one angry but unharmed Warren LaDouche and telling him that our guns were unloaded and stored in the trunk of the car. After he had read the note, the Captain scratched his head, told his men to go get the guns and free LaDouche.  Then he escorted us, fairly politely, into his office.

“Weren’t you ladies scared about what you did?  Aren’t you worried about the consequences?”

I gave him a withering look, and smoothed out my wrinkled skirt.

“Captain, we teach fifth grade.  Nothing scares us.”