Oh, I do so miss them


I remember back when I struggled so much with the sadness of the empty nest. Back then, it was the children who had left me behind. I missed them terribly, and had to give myself the time to grieve.

Now I find myself facing a different kind of emptiness.  This time, I am the one who has left the children.

Last June I retired from teaching, well before I was ready to go.  I left before I had finished the job.  Before I had reached my best, before I had grown too old and tired to love the children.

But I retired, having read the handwriting on the wall.  I understood that I was no longer seen as relevant or valuable, at least not by the people who do the evaluations.  My usual well respected questions were no longer welcome, but were now seen as insurrection.  All of the knowledge about children that I had gathered and learned over my 30 years of teaching were suddenly “outdated” and in need of replacement.  When I couldn’t manage to forget what I knew, it was time to move on.

So I said goodbye to a job I loved and was so proud to do.  I took myself out of the world of “teachers”.  I left my wonderful school behind.  I left the comforting support of my colleagues and friends.

I’m the one who left the nest.

So today I am sad. I miss those children so much! I miss the bright eyes, the goofy grins, the lame bathroom jokes.  I miss the rapt faces as I read out loud. I miss the morning meetings and the “sharing” stories of soccer games and birthday parties and new puppies.

I miss the flushed faces of children coming back inside after recess on a cold day. I miss the hushed conversations in the hall as I help a group of girls work out a social struggle.

I miss the math lessons, the moments of “lightbulb” realization.  God, I miss the hugs and the little drawings and the poems and the handmade bracelets.  I miss knowing that they are happy to see me.  I miss the incredible validation that comes from the realization that they trust me, and respect me.

I miss seeing those children make progress. I miss the moments when they surprise themselves.  I miss seeing them slowly come to the realization that they disagree with my interpretation of something, and gather the courage to challenge me.

I miss being a teacher. I do.

I miss the hugs that came at the end of almost every day.  I miss having all those smiling little faces saying, “See you tomorrow!” as they headed out the door.

I wasn’t ready to go.

I miss it.

A Final Teaching Thought


OK, I promise. I really am ready to let it go.

Or at least, I’m ready to try to get ready to let it go.  (Sorry about the “Frozen” song now embedded in your brain).

I won’t keep ruminating on the sudden abrupt end of my teaching life.

But I do have one final thing to say, and it is about “data”.

If you are a teacher, you know that you are now expected to gather reams of “data points” on each child. Test scores, retest scores, reading levels, spelling levels, writing rubrics, formative assessments, summative assessments, standardized test scores. You are supposed to use all of this data as “evidence” to prove that the kids have improved.  In other words, to prove that you have done your job.  Without this data, in theory, the parents of your students will not know that their children have grown or improved under your care.

So over the past few years, I’ve done my best to gather data.  This year, in particular, it was made clear to me that I had better come up with reams of hard data about each child.  So I gathered information, I scored work and tests and retests, and I graphed it, recorded it, kept it in a spreadsheet.  I had rubrics, score sheets, explanations and bar graphs.  I had all of this “evidence” at my fingertips as I got ready for my end-of-year conferences.

And guess what?

I had 23 conferences.  I spent 45 minutes with each set of parents.  I had parents tell  me, “You know my child so well!”  and “We can’t believe how much he has grown and matured this year!”   I had one Mom tell me, “No one has ever understood her and her learning style as well as you do.”

I’m not trying to brag, although I am delighted and proud that these parents feel that way about my teaching.   What I’m trying to say is this:

Not only did I complete 23 conferences without having one single person ask me for my data, but all 23 sets of parents declined when I offered to show them my graphs and spreadsheets and scores.

They don’t see their kids as a collection of numerical scores.

And neither do I.

Goodbye, teaching life.  It was wonderful while it lasted.

Letting go, moving on…..


It’s the very end of the year.

I always try to let the kids help me as I pack up the classroom for the summer. I know that some teachers feel that its too hard on the kids to watch their classroom being taken apart in these final days.

But as a teacher of those tender, smart, observant fifth graders, I have always felt that it is a healthy part of saying “goodbye” to have the kids participate as I “close up shop”.   We work together, my kids and I, taking down posters and finding the dried up markers.  We organize the books, we clean out the supplies.

I think that it is helpful for them to thoughtfully pack away the sweet memories of our time together.  We laugh, we sigh, we carefully fold up the year and put it into a safe place.

Usually, this process brings me a bittersweet joy.  Usually, it helps me to think, “Good bye, beautiful children!  Hello, next crop of kids!”

This year, though, is very different.

This year I am carefully packing away every little bit of my teaching life. Every single item pulls at my heart.  Every tiny objects presents a small dilemma.  Do I leave this little woven basket to the colleague who will follow me?  What about this old book of Civil War photos?  What did I buy with my own money, years ago?  What belongs to my school?

I carefully wrap up the little blue pinch pot that my first born child made for me some 15 years ago.  For all those years, it has held paperclips for the class to use.  Now it will come home, to rest in empty sadness on my shelf.   I pick up my brass recess bell, rubbing my thumb along its worn edge. How many kids have raced into line at the sound of its pealing voice?  I sigh, putting it down in the pile of things to leave.  I will have no more use of that quintessential symbol of elementary school.  I leave it for the young woman who will take my place here in the fall.

I am calm and relatively serene as I slowly pack my personal items in my bag. I am ready to go. It is time. It is most likely past time.  I am strong, and resolute.  I am ready.

Then I raise my eyes to the back of my bookshelf. To the place where my most special items have been stored.  And I see this:

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My little boys gave me this paper, on my birthday, 14 years ago.

I picture their sweet, smiling faces, presenting me with this birthday card. I can feel myself hugging them close, so touched at the tender words.  I can feel their pride, see them grinning at me.

I carefully, slowly, take my precious birthday card down from the bookshelf.

I sit at my desk, just for a moment, seeing my little boys.  Seeing the long parade of children who have made me laugh and made me so proud after all these years of teaching.

I reach for a tissue, pull myself together. I carefully pack up my beautiful birthday gift and place it in my workbag to take home.

“Let’s put on a show!”


drama

At the end of every school year, my class puts on a play.

They cut up huge cardboard boxes to make sets, they create the costumes out of old scraps and outgrown clothes.

They create the script.  They direct.  They make the posters and the programs. They practice and memorize and improvise and fine tune.

At the end of every school year, I ask myself why I tolerate the chaos and the mess and the paint smell. I ask myself if all of the time and money spent is really worth it.

And every year, I realize that it definitely is.

My students create a play that is original, always a bit random, and often completely confusing. By the time they have completed the creation, the rehearsals and the multiple performances, I am always exhausted.

But it is worth it.

It. Is. So. Worth. It.

Why?

I’ll tell you why.

There is no rubric.

There are no scores to measure success.

The children are allowed to create on their own.  They are allowed to make the story their own.

There is almost no adult guidance or control

Which means that the kids have to compromise, work together, support each other, listen to each other.  They have to learn how to share a stage.  They have to be able to imagine a place and then to create that place.  They have to learn how to depend upon each other and upon themselves.

They get to laugh.

They get to be silly.

Every year, every single year, at least one shy child steps forward and assumes a leading role.  Every year, at least one assertive child learns to step back and listen with an open mind.  Every year, children learn how powerful it is to share a stage with friends, and how exhilarating it is to be a part of a cooperative group.

I don’t interfere in the play. I don’t insert my ideas or my beliefs.  As much as I possibly can, I do something else while the play is being created and shaped and fine tuned.

And this is the true meaning of education.

When the kids in my class put on their wigs, their bacon costumes, their tiaras and their matching tutus, they are showing all of us what they have learned in the fifth grade.

It is so not about the rubrics. Or the test scores. Or the stupid state tests.

What they have learned is that they are competent.  They have learned that they are kind.  They are cooperative. They are funny.

They have learned that they can work in a group and can put forth their very best efforts to make that group a success.

When we do our play, my students have learned that nothing is sweeter than hearing the audience laugh, and knowing that you and your friends made that magic happen.

Number two on the list of things that I will miss.  My annual class play. 

When I Go


Serene me.

What is my next adventure?

When I go, when I finally leave my school behind, what will I be thinking?

After 21 Septembers of coming to this school on opening day, what will I be feeling on that September morning when I don’t?

Who will I be, when I’m no longer that “nice teacher” at my school?

What will I miss?

What will I be so happy to have escaped?

Well.

I will NOT miss: the copier, with its insatiable need to eat fifth grade math worksheets.       I will not miss the pencils all over the floor, or the crayons on the heater.    I will most assuredly not miss the sound of my own tired voice, saying “If you can hear my voice, clap once!” or “In line, please!”

I will not miss having to wait until 1 o’clock for lunch, even though breakfast was a banana at 6 AM.

I will NOT miss my commute.  I don’t know why so many people feel it necessary to careen down the highway at 80 mph in a 55 mph zone.  I don’t know why they think it is acceptable to flash me the finger as they do.

I will not miss the early morning wake ups.  The older I get, the less I sleep.  That 6 AM alarm gets earlier every year.

I will not miss the testing, the data, the measurement, the standards, the strands, the Common Core or the stupid shiny boxed kits of curriculum.  I will not miss the mini-lessons, the anchor charts, the obnoxious rubrics or the jargon. I will not miss the buzzwords, the best practices or the formative and summative assessments.

I absolutely, positively will not miss one single thing that reduces a child to a number, a level, a score or a leveled group.

So.

What will I miss in three short weeks, when I leave my teaching career behind me?

I will miss all of those incredible moments with children, when I look at them and they look at me, and when we both realize that a new goal has been reached.

i will miss watching a student with serious learning disabilities as he decodes a four syllable word on his own,  then looks at me with his blue eyes gleaming. I will miss hearing him say, “I did it!”

For sure, I will miss those mornings when I find myself at my desk surrounded by eager children who want to tell me about some little event in their lives. “Karen!  Last night my Dad said the funniest thing!”  or “My puppy was sick last night.” or “I tried to do the homework, but I’m not sure I got it right. Can you help me?”

I will so miss being asked to help.  I will desperately miss the end-of-the day hugs, and the cries of “See you tomorrow!”

I will miss seeing them grow for ten months. They will grow taller, and more confident and more skilled. The boys will begin to show knuckles on their hands and jawbones in their faces.  The girls will grow more beautiful as they approach their adult selves.  And I won’t be there to record it, or comment on it, or help them to come to grips with it.

I will miss those moments when they know that they have written a wonderful story. I will miss the excitement that they’ll feel when they figure out one of the metaphors from “The City of Ember.”

I’ll miss reading “The Liberation of Gabriel King” and “Granny Torelli Makes Soup”.

I will miss them.  I will miss them all so much.

Its time to go, and I know it.

Still, I will miss those beautiful faces so very much.

Builders


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Dianthus. In bloom.

Some people in this life help us to bloom.  They help us to burst into the best life that we can achieve.

Some people reflect our very best selves.  They show us the beauty that we hold inside of us, even when we are not aware of that beauty.  Even when the doubters have made us question whether that beauty truly exists.

Some people see us as we wish ourselves to be seen.  They shine a light on that hidden self that we all want to highlight.

These people are the “Builders” in our lives.  They see and recognize the hidden strengths that lie within us; they hold those strengths up to the light, so that we become aware of how special they are.

These people, these Builders, allow us to find that hidden jewel that lies within each of us, so that we can use it as the foundation of the very best self that we can create.  We recognize that jewel, that special gift, because those “Builders” have pointed it out for us.  They have celebrated us in ways that we would never have achieved without them.

“Look!”, they cry, “This is YOU!”  They hold up our strength, our humor, our compassion, our love, our honesty.  They force us to recognize the unique part of ourselves that makes us stand out from the crowd.  “This is you”, our Builders say, “This is why I look up to you, why I admire you, why I am so happy to have met you.”

We all need Builders in our lives.

We all need to become Builders for those around us who are struggling to find their own inner light.

I’m writing this tonight to thank my Builders.  My sweet, thoughtful, brave, strong colleagues, who refuse to let me think of myself as a failure.  You are my heroes!

My students, my kids, who surround me every day with trust and love; my wonderful students who show me the truth of myself, for good or ill, and who love me anyway.

Thank you, Builders.

Thank you for stopping me from believing the ghouls.  Thank you for helping me to hold on to what I hope and pray is my real, true, honest-to-goodness teaching self.

Sure Signs of Spring


542973_10150758018781101_166114762_nEvery year, without fail, I am amazed, astounded and otherwise thrilled by the inarguable signs of spring.

“What?!” I find myself whispering, “The maple trees are suddenly tipped with red buds?  Really??!!!  Is spring really coming?!”

I am always astonished.  The snow is still there, clinging with its filthy icy fingers to the edges of the drive.  The nights still make me shiver.  How can there be buds on the trees?

A few weeks pass, and the snow finally recedes, the last dirty nuggets of frozen slush disappearing into the dirt. The peepers come out, singing their songs of longing and renewal as dusk falls over the wetlands.

Lilac buds swell, the grass grows green again.  The phlox begin to open, and the lily-of-the-valley unfurl their tender stalks to soak up the light of May.

But none of these signs of spring can convince me that winter has finally gone.  None of them shows me that life is truly re-emerging from its dormant state.

No.

I am a fifth grade teacher.   I am immune to the calling of the Phoebe on her nest.  I do not respond to the lovely colors of the tulips or the tender scent of the hibiscus.

For me, spring only proves her existence when my students return from fifteen minutes of outdoor play, and I am surrounded by the suffocating odor of an NBA locker room.

For me, the sounds of spring are not the trilling songs of the peepers, but rather the whispered sounds of “I like him, but I don’t LIKE him like him!”

Spring in the fifth grade is captured by the poignant dance of “You can’t fire me; I quit!” where the most insecure students suddenly push away their new- found friends.  It is felt in the moments when the children simultaneously push me away and cling to me as if I am the only buoy in a turbulent sea.

Spring: the time of year when life rushes forward, whether we are ready or not.  The peepers call, the buds swell, the children find themselves confused by love and longing.  Time marches forward with a suddenly ominous drum beat.  Every minute takes us closer to the end of our time together.

Spring time in the fifth grade.  A sweetly gentle mix of sadness, excitement, and relief.  A tender mix of looking forward and looking back.

THAT is a mighty mouse…..


It all started at about 11 o’clock. it was the first day back after a week of school vacation.  After a week of getting up at 9 and enjoying a leisurely breakfast at 10, I had found myself swaying groggily by my bed at 5:30 AM.  I’d managed to make and drink a cup of coffee before rushing out the door to school.

By 11 AM, I had put away the “American Revolution” and taken out “Water Transformations”. I had corrected a math test, answered emails, run morning meeting, met with the Librarian, set up bins of “Memoir” books, taught a lesson in spelling, taken the kids to chorus and picked them up again.

I was starved.

I was ready to eat anything that wasn’t made of plastic.

So hungry.

I got the kids ready to start our math lesson on “Customary Units of Length” and I casually pulled open my “Snack Drawer.”  Now, this is a drawer in my teacher desk where I usually store a couple of items that just might help me make it through the day.   I usually have a roll of rice cakes, a jar of Sunbutter and a whole bunch of coffee and tea.

I have never had a problem with these items in this drawer.

Today was different, though.  I looked into the drawer as I gave the kids directions about how to convert inches into yards.  I had just remembered that the day before vacation I’d placed a plastic container of salted, spicy dried peas in my Snack Drawer.   Yum-o-rama; just what the doctor ordered!!!

I am a highly skilled, highly paid professional teacher, as many of you know.  I am fully capable of pulling out a drawer, rummaging around for my snack and sneaking a handful of deliciousness into my mouth while I coach kids on how to convert feet into miles.  So I talked about feet per mile, blah, blah, blah as I rooted around for the container of peas.

Ahhhh, there it was! My fingers felt the familiar firm plastic of the dried pea container.  As I lifted up to my desk, my slightly preoccupied brain suddenly wondered, “Why is it so light?”  I gave it a shake, but I kept on talking. “So you can see, boys and girls, that when I convert from feet into miles, I am going from a smaller unit to a larger one……”

I looked at the container, and my voice trailed off into silence.

There was one corner of the little plastic box that was completely missing.  Chewed right off the box.  There were no whole peas left inside, although there were a few pathetic bits of pea skin and salt rattling around in the bottom.

I gasped a little, and every student was suddenly actually tuned in to what I was doing.

Not wanting to upset any of my delicate charges, I dropped the chewed box into the trash and leaned forward to peer into my Snack Drawer.

It’s a little messy in there, but even so, it was pretty clear that there had been an awesome rodent party going on while I was away on vacation.

I found myself looking at the remains of shredded peas, some bits of salt, a pile of tiny yellow plastic bits that turned out to be the chewed edges of my Sunbutter jar.

There was also a prodigious amount of teeny weeny mouse poop spread all over the drawer.  They looked like the world’s smallest sausages, all carefully arranged around the bits of plastic and tiny salted pea snacks.

I looked a little bit closer.

Along with the poopie piles, there were also a whole bunch of tiny black spheres spread out in the bottom of the drawer.

What the……..????

I moved a few things around.  Nope, they didn’t get into the packet of hot chocolate.  They didn’t touch the tea.

Wait…..what’s this……?

I started to laugh, and I couldn’t stop.

I lifted up a brand new, full bag of Starbucks Espresso ground coffee.  One corner had been chewed open, and a stream of coffee was pouring out.

I had a sudden image of the poor little mice, feeling all happy and festive, partying in the drawer full of spicy peas. Feeling all Saturday Night, dancing with the lady mice and pooping up a storm. I could just see the Alpha mouse, chewing away for all he was worth at the silver wrapping on the coffee bag.

“Just you wait, ladies” I can practically hear him gloating. “You’re gonna just love what’s in this awesome shiny bag!  Smells like a human, so its gotta be gooooooood.”

I can see his sharp little teeth finally penetrating the metallic shield and his mouth filling with an unexpected and most unwelcome pile of coffee grounds.

“Gah!!!!!!!!” I can just hear him scream, as he chokes down the pile of bitter, dry coffee bean flecks. “What the hell is THIS?”

The other mice must have cracked up and pooped themselves into a real uproar as they watched him try to clear the awful pellets from his mouth.

It must have been a hoot.

I looked up at my expectant students.

“Um”, I said. “I think there may be an incredibly hyper mouse racing around in our basement today.”

Then I made them go back to converting yards into inches and vice versa.  We got through the rest of our day without any more excitement.

But I can’t get the image of that caffeine crazed mouse out of my head.

Apodemus_sylvaticus_bosmuis

And did I mention that there wasn’t one single nibble on the package of rice cakes?   Who knew that mice were so smart.

Brain Freeze


To begin with, its been wicked, wicked cold out.  For weeks.  Like, really cold. So cold that your nose can’t run, but you can experience snotsickles.

I woke up yesterday and looked out my kitchen window.

Holy Hell Frozen Over!   -20 degrees!!?

I could hardly believe it. I didn’t want to believe it!

But I live in the age of Facebook, so I grabbed my phone and took a picture. I wanted to show everybody how stoic I am, how strong and brave!  I snapped the photo, I posted it, I went to work.

And I decided to share my awesome photo with the kids.  So I put this up on my Smartboard:
1908293_10205648301544331_2526677894090993749_nAnd the kids walked in.

And started laughing and pointing.

“Oh, my God!”, they crowed, “Where did you get this picture of a witch?”

Yup.

They completely ignored the low temp, which was all I saw.

They were totally caught by my scary reflection, which I never noticed.

Goes to show you: kids always see the world in new and exciting ways. They find a way to laugh, and to make me laugh.

Even when its twenty below, and the scary old witch is me.

 

 

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!