Say, Wha?


Don’t you just hate it when you think you’re pretty smart, and all of a sudden you realize you’re an idiot?

Yeah.  Me too.

Especially when it happens in a room full of other teachers.  It’s a little disheartening, to say the least.

Let me give you a little glimpse into the Attack of the Killer Acronyms.

It seems that a few years ago, the federal government (the USDOE) became upset with our state education department, (the MADESE) because of its failure to help our ELLs make progress on the MCAS.  So the USDOE formed a consortium called the RETELL to make a plan. RETELL then ordered the MADESE to train all of its teachers to become SEI certified.

You with me so far?

So I signed up to earn my SEI Endorsement under RETELL. Of course, to enroll in RETELL, I had to go to the MADESE ELAR page.  And naturally, I wanted to put the SEI on my IPDP.  I did all that, and felt pretty darn good about life.  I was almost sure that the IPDP (fondly referred to by teachers as the “Ippdip”) had something to do with keeping my teaching license and I thought that “RETELL” must mean something about repeating a good joke.

When the day finally rolled around, I went to the class and greeted my colleagues. I’m pretty interested in languages and language development, and I’m eager to help my non-English speaking students.  So I was looking forward to learning more about them.  Plus, I like a good joke.

Within a half hour, though, my head was spinning, and I was feeling like a complete idiot.

The nice instructor lady was showing us slides and guiding us through the text book that went with the class. And she was moving really fast.  REALLY fast.

“OK”, she said as the class started. “So the RETELL is intended to make sure that every teacher can provide SEI to our ELLs using ESL and ELE.  They need to be helped to pass the ACCESS (which used to be the MEPA, just like the PARCC used to be the MCAS).”

Uh.  Ok…….so, SEI for ELL with ESL and ELE….got it…..ACCESS not MEPA……My mouth was getting a little dry, and I was glancing furtively around at the other teachers.  Did they understand what this was all about?  At this point, I wasn’t sure exactly what was a test, what was a kid and what was a book……

I gulped and tried to stick with the discussion. I was sure that after a while it would start to make some sense.  That was when we turned to a discussion of standards.  We heard that the WIDA was sort of the CCSS for the ELLs.   Wait, what? WIDA?

My left eye began to twitch.

I was trying to take notes, but when I tried to jot down ELL, I sometimes got mixed up and put ELE or ESL instead.


There certainly seemed to be a lot of E’s and L’s around here!

The teacher guided us into small groups where we began to read about the changes in the educational law that had lead to the current RETELL situation.  (Or was it the SEI situation? Crap. I’m not sure.) I know a little bit about education law, so I gave a small sigh of relief and started to read.

And you know I found out? That a law passed in the early 2000’s stated that “In order to provide services to an LEP, a teacher must have demonstrated ELP.”

I’m not kidding.   I didn’t want to seem stupid, but it was starting to feel like a big spilled bowl of alphabet soup.  I turned to the attractive, intelligent high school teacher beside me.  She didn’t look dazed and confused. I felt so inferior.  I decided to bluff.

“Obviously”, I said to her with what I hoped sounded like supreme confidence. “If you want to teach an LEP, you’d have to be ELP. Right? I mean, really!”  I lifted my palms up, showing how silly it would be for a non ELP to try to teach an LEP.  My colleague frowned a bit, “Well, of course, ” she agreed, “Unless the student is a FLEP.”

My jaw dropped.  As the high school smarty pants turned to talk to the instructor, both my eyelids were twitching.  I decided not to say another word. I think I might have been drooling a little.

After a few minutes of deep breathing, I tuned back into the classroom discussion.  The instructor seemed to be talking about vocabulary growth.  Hooray!  A subject I actually understood!  I sat up straighter.  I looked at the screen in the front of the room.

And I read,   “How to differentiate between BICS and CALPS in an ELL under SEI.”

My forehead hit the table as I slumped into a friendly little coma.

Glossary of terms.  Really.   No, I didn’t make these up.

ELL= English Language Learner    aka   LEP= Limited English Proficient                                                                                   ESL= English as a Second Language           ELE= English Language Education                                                                               ELP=English Language Proficient                                                                                                                                             FLEP= Formerly Limited English Language                                                                                                                                        SEI=Sheltered English Immersion   also  Sheltered English Instruction                                                                     RETELL=Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners                                                                            ACCESS for ELLS=Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State for English Language Learners. MCAS= Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System                                                                                                 WIDA= Word Class Instruction Design and Assessment                                                                                                  BICS=Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills                                                                                                     CALPS=Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency                                                                                                 CCSS=Common Core State Standards                                              

“Shut that whole thing down.”


Many years ago, long before I ever envisioned an “empty nest”, I was a patient at a fertility clinic. Or, an infertility clinic. Take your pick.

I had been trying for about a year to conceive a baby.  I wanted to become a Mom. I really, really, really wanted a baby!!!!!!

I had tests. I read articles. I took vitamins. And I even entertained those crazy old wives’ tales about motherhood.  For example, I was told, “If you just relax and don’t worry, you’ll get pregnant!” Oh, and, “If you eat a lot of broccoli, you’ll get pregnant!” and “Don’t say that you want a baby, or you won’t have one.”  And then there was,  “Eat ginger, and you’ll be a Mom.”

Take cough medicine, wait until a full moon, make love when you are drunk, make love when you are sober….On and on it went, making me feel frustrated and unworthy and inept. If only I knew the magic potion, I could become a Mommy at last!


It was all, of course, pure bullshit.

Biology is biology.  The human body is designed to reproduce, and eventually it will do just that unless there is a medical reason why it can’t.  In our case, there were some medical/scientific/biological interventions that lead to my first pregnancy and to the fulfillment of my maternal dreams.

It felt like a miracle to me, but in reality, there was NOTHING that I could have done emotionally or mentally or spiritually to have made that conception possible.

Just as there is NOTHING that any woman can do emotionally or mentally or spiritually to prevent a pregnancy.

The fact that a United States Congressman believes otherwise is a testament to the backward, illiterate, hocus-pocus, fundamentalist bullshit that is controlling at least a  part of our government at this moment in our history. The fact that he is far, far from alone in his ignorance is a true reason for us to rise up and demand that we elect leaders who are literate in modern science.

Rape can cause pregnancy.  Incest can cause pregnancy.  Pure fact.

Global warming is real. Fact.

The dinosaurs lived a bit more than 5,000 years ago. Fact again.

If you are in the company of anyone who disputes any of these scientifically proven facts, it is up to you to make damn sure that they are never in a position to effect public policy.

This is really a disgusting moment in American History, don’t you agree?


She crochets.

I was walking happily along the street this morning, swinging my bag and feeling happy to be a part of the throng.  It had been a long time since I had last ventured into the big city by myself, and I was feeling mighty fine.

The sun was shining, and the air smelled sweetly of donuts and bus fumes. The city seemed to glitter in the bright morning light as I strode along the sidewalk.

I looked up to my right, where a fountain sparkled in the sunlight.  Along its edge, a small plot of annual flowers nodded in the breeze.  Zinnia, marigolds, daisies and cheerful black-eyed-susans all bobbed their heads as I passed.

My eye was caught, just then, by the sight of a woman sitting on a stone bench, her eyes closed and her soft brown hair caught in a ponytail at the top of her head.  As I passed, I saw her smile very faintly, and slowly, gently lean herself back as if to rest against a wall that simply was not there.

Her expression of thoughtful calm never changed as she laid herself back so gently into the space behind her, and gracefully toppled off the back of the bench and onto the pavement below.  I stopped where I stood, unsure of what I had seen.  She had moved so calmly and with such grace. She had simply arched her back and let the emptiness take her down.

From where I stood on the sidewalk below the fountain, all I could see were her too thin legs, raised above the bench, the crooked knees holding her blue hightop sneakers aloft.  They didn’t move, and I didn’t dare to leave.

After a moment or two, I realized that the woman was in trouble.  I had no idea how hard she had fallen or whether she might be hurt.  I quickly mounted the granite steps and walked to the bench from which she had fallen. I looked behind it, and saw her lying perfectly still, on her back, with her legs still raised above the bench.

“Hey. Are you OK?”   There was no answer. Her closed eyes never moved, and her hands stayed curled against her chest.

“Come on, open your eyes.  Are you hurt?”, I asked more forcefully.  This time there was a sound, a faint shake of the head.  I leaned in closer, and could smell the source of both her grace and her absolute loss of balance.

I looked up and around, to this lovely urban park with its flowers and silvered fountain spray.  I watched at least 20 well dressed people walk by my fallen companion and I as if we were absolutely invisible.

Then four men approached, wearing shirts and hats that identified them as maintenance workers at a local university. They asked me what had happened, and I told the story of what I had seen.  One man knelt by the woman’s head, cradling it in his strong hands and asking her “What hurts you?”  Another pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911, while the other two went to stand on the corner to alert the rescue squad as to where we waited.

I felt somewhat useless at this time, unable to help the woman to raise her head, to answer our questions or to rise from her uncomfortably cramped space between the stone bench and the stone garden wall.  I wanted to comfort her somehow, so I held her hands and tried to ask questions. “Did you hit your head? Does your back hurt?”  Her only response was to mumble something incoherent and squeeze her eyes more tightly closed.

Then I noticed a canvas bag on the bench beside us.  It was a shopping bag, clean and crisp and still retaining its squared shape. Inside of the bag, I saw the most improbable sight: three skeins of bright yarn, yellow, orange and green; all neatly wound and as clean as new snow. And attached to the yellow yarn by a long strand of wool were two small hooks and an absolutely beautiful blanket.

“Hey!” I said, in some surprise. “Is this your yarn? Did you do this knitting?”

For the first time since I had noticed the woman, her eyes opened wide. Hazel eyes, trying desperately to focus on my face, bloodshot, wandering, golden lashed and beautiful.

“No.” Her voice was suddenly both firm and clear. “Not knitting. I crocheted it.”  She reached out one thin, strong hand, trying to grasp the bag and the treasure it held.

“This is beautiful.” I told her honestly.  “I could never make something like this.”

“Yeah, you could.” Her voice was slurred and rough, and her hands shook. “I’ll show you.”  She took the blanket in her hands, and tried again to sit up, but she couldn’t do it, even with the young man supporting her.  “Grandma…showed me.  Grandma.”  She reached for the yarn, still trying to explain it all to me.

While we waited for the rescue squad, the four gentle young men spoke softly together in Spanish, leaving me to my lessons with this unlikely teacher.   I couldn’t understand even half of what she said, but I heard the words “niece” and “blanket” and “Grandma” more than once.  And I heard her say, almost clearly, “Yes, you can do it.”

Finally, after dozens of people had walked by us without a look or a word, after a handsome young family had eaten their breakfast sandwiches not four feet from where my sad companion lay sprawled on the pavement, finally, finally a fire truck pulled up and four strapping uniformed men stepped toward us, snapping on their rubber gloves.

“What do we got?”, they asked.  I started to explain what I had seen, how this woman had toppled so slowly and gracefully, losing her hold on the earth like an old birch tree in the wind.  I started to tell them what the woman had said, but they cut me off. One shook his head, the other gave a sharp, barking laugh.

“Oh, yeah. We know her. We’ve had her a bunch of times before.” They stepped toward her, bending with confidence over her huddled form, reaching down to where she lay, clutching her crocheting hook and her bright, bright yarn.

I knew that she was safe for now, that the right people were taking care of her.  I knew that my momentary cameo in her drama was over, and I turned to walk away, following the broad backs of those kind men who had stopped to help. I left the woman there, surrounded by a flock of young, healthy EMT’s, so sure of themselves and of their place in the world.

But all the way down the street, past the tourists and the flowers and the pretzel vendors and the businessmen, I wanted to find a way to tell somebody about her.  “She is a person.”, I wanted to say. “Her Grandma taught her to crochet in neat, perfect, beautiful rows.  She is making a blanket for her niece.”

She made me so sad.  She is someone’s beloved grandchild. Someone’s sister. Someone’s Aunt.

I don’t understand how she came to be on that stone bench on this sweet summer day. I don’t understand how she came to so gracefully bend and sway and fall to the earth the way that she did.

I hope she remembers that I saw the beauty of what she had created, and that I held her hands as she lay on the clean gray stones.

What I wish for….

I have been spending a fair amount of time lately with young colleagues and the children of close friends, all of whom are working mothers of little ones.  I hear them lamenting the intensity of the pressure that they feel to be great Mom’s, great wives, housekeepers, cooks, cleaning ladies, soccer cheerleaders. Many of them wish, desperately and aloud, for “one day to myself!”

I hear them.  Man, I remember, so well, when my one true desire in life was to have an entire afternoon without having to meet anyone’s needs.  A few hours of blissful silence in which I might daydream, listen to music, nap, eat cookies, paint my toenails bright red.  That isolation and solitude sounded like Heaven to me in those days, when I was scrambling to keep up with the demands of a husband and three kids while teaching other people’s children all day.

I remember that wish.

Now I find myself at home on a beautiful Sunday, all alone to do whatever I would like.  Paul is away on a hike with a friend.  He was away overnight last week with our kids, and will be away all of next weekend hiking with two of our oldest friends. I’m happy for him! Mostly.  In the old days, the thought of an entire weekend home alone was absolutely paradise.  I would have been packing his bags and making his lunch……

But this is now.  This is the life of the empty nest.  This is the second Sunday with me home alone. The dogs and I took a nice long walk.  I made my breakfast and enjoyed it over the Sunday paper.  I did some gardening and weeding, washed the floors, threw in a load of laundry.  I read for a while, made some bread, worked on some ideas for the next to last week of school.

Everything is neat and clean.  Everything is done.

I am sitting on the sofa, counting the minutes until Paul comes home so I will have someone to talk to.

I miss the demands that came with being the Mom.  I miss the action, the noise, the need, the endless list of things that I needed to do.  I miss my usefulness.

And that, my friends, is the key to my current distress.  I have a great job, good friends, a loving family.  I read, I write, I bake, I garden.  But I can’t seem to find anything in life that makes me feel useful, in the primal way that motherhood made me feel it.

“Be careful what you wish for.”

I think I’m having too much of a good thing.

Why I think I’m an elf.

I first read “The Hobbit” in the fifth grade, and “The Lord of the Rings” when I was in the seventh.  I fell in love with the characters, and I wanted to be a hobbit for a long time. Like a hobbit, I love comfort, I’m always ready to eat or take a nap, and I have thick wavy hair. I love to grow flowers, and I’m a good cook.  All I needed, I thought for many years, was a house with a little round door.

But now that I am older, and have owned my own home and yard for many years, I can see that I was wrong. Now I’m pretty sure that I am an elf.

Oh, I know. I’m not tall, blonde or graceful, and I sure can’t shoot an arrow. But I most definitely feel an affinity for the trees.

This beautiful sugar maple stands just off my deck, at the spot where our yard meets the woods. I have watched its leaves open for 22 years, have enjoyed its shade every summer, have admired its golden orange foliage every October.  Paul and the boys used to tap it in February to make maple syrup.  It’s like a beautiful guardian of our property. Like a lovely old friend.

Yesterday I was home alone, because the kids and Paul were hiking for the weekend.  It was early evening, and I was on the deck, grilling my dinner.  As I stood there in the silence, with the sun setting behind me, I looked out into my woods.  I was struck by how the sugar maple had grown.  When we moved in here, it was a medium sized tree, and I could look over its head into the sky above the forest.  Now it fills that area of sky, spreading its branches over what used to be part of our lawn.

I looked around the yard, thinking of how the trees have changed in the time that we have lived here.  They grew up with my children.  And some have gone just as the children have.

I remember when this pine was taken down, after we realized that it was too old and too unsound to remain where it might fall on the roof.  I remember how sad I have been each time we have had to bring a tree down.  The loss that I felt as each of our sentinels crashed down to earth in a shower of broken limbs.

We have lost branches to ice storms, wind storms and even a hurricane or two.  Like an elf, I suffered the pain of each break, feeling it deep in my own heart. Each snapped branch has felt to me like a broken arm, but one I can’t soothe or cast or ease in any way.

Like one of Tolkien’s elves, I also celebrate the new growth of my trees.  Yesterday, as I walked around the yard, I was aware of how steadily the woods are growing into the yard. There is a beautiful stand of hemlock on the edge of the woods in a spot that used to be all grass. There is a group of new young white pines, clustered together like the children of the trees we have lost.And everywhere I look, I see new saplings rising.  Maple saplings grow on the stumps of old pines.  Hemlock, pine and even a spruce or two pop up in every sunny break in the woods.  There is such a feeling of “life goes on”, of renewal, of hope in the future.  The trees keep coming, keep growing, keep filling in the spaces.

Like Legolas Greenleaf of Middle Earth, I am happy to see each baby tree. I greet each one with a smile and some words of encouragement.  And I let them grow, even when they are in the middle of my daylillies.