Saturday, November 24, 2012

How Much of Me Is It?

The few days before Thanksgiving were parent teacher conferences at my kids' school. Because my 8th grader takes Freshman Algebra, I ended up talking to teachers from all three buildings in our little district. Every teacher spent little time talking about my kids' academics, saying mostly that they participate in class and are keeping up just fine.

This of course, is very nice to hear, especially being a teacher myself. The three Honor Roll report cards were amazing to see, especially because this year felt like a key year for them. My oldest took on higher level math and made a B. My eleven-year-old entered sixth grade fresh out of intensive math tutoring from last year. After spending her first five years of school struggling to do her best, putting in double or triple the work of others, she made honor role - pretty close to all A's even! And my youngest in second grade seems to be right on task after some reading tutoring last year. Yes, definitely bragging! They all faced their own academic challenges going into this year and they all came out on top!

However, just as important to me is what else the teachers had to say. They each praised my kids' personalities and character. The Algebra teacher said he is so proud of my oldest daughter's work ethic, that she is friendly and a pleasure to have around. He told me, "You've done a great job with her." Oh, well, thanks.

The Science teacher, who has both my daughters this year (in different classes of course), said the same about my oldest and added that my middle daughter is so friendly, inquisitive, and helpful. She loves them both. Same from the social studies teacher. Wow, okay.

My son's teacher talked the least about his academics and jumped right to telling us that he was the most compassionate kid in the class. His ability to empathize with others was truly touching. And she gave us examples to back it up. She couldn't say enough about him. Once again, "You've done a great job with him." Well, I know he's a sweetheart and all...

Well, I was glowing for two days of course. Nothing better than great conferences with your kids' teachers. But then two more conversations caught my attention on this topic. Had a great conversation with a friend the day after conferences, in which she mentioned how my kids seemed like good kids and had it together, so to speak (not her exact words...I was too caught off guard to remember exact words). I remember commenting, "They don't always seem that way to me at all!" She laughed and said she feels the same about hers at times.

The second incident was just today. We ran into my oldest's piano teacher and we talked awhile. She was also my piano teacher in high school. Her husband, who also gives lessons, said about my daughter, "She is a great kid. You've done a wonderful job with her."

These last two conversations are what really got me thinking about my kids - their accomplishments, character and even their much of me is it really? Years ago, when they were very little, I remember telling a co-worker I hoped my kids would grow up to be great kids like her daughters. I'd actually had her youngest as a student and they are great girls. She told me, "They'll be fine. The apple never falls far from the tree." I nodded and hoped I could be a better tree before they got much older!

I mean, I feel like I'm bumbling around, second guessing, randomly placing rules or giving liberties as we go. Even intentional acts on my part don't play out how I would like or think is best. And while I do have certain expectations, rules, and ways in which I lead their lives, I also feel like I mess them up as much as any good I contribute! And so, with them becoming such wonderful young people (I mean, six different people saying it in the same week? I'm going to take their word for it!), I wonder, how much of me is it? And what are the chances they can continue this way in spite of me?

Anyone else suffer from crazy parenting thoughts? Or have grown kids and have looked back and figured this all out? ;)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Breaking Dawn 2 broke the audience

NO Spoilers, I Promise!!!!

I saw Breaking Dawn 2 tonight. For anyone who has invested time in the books and movies over the years, you have probably found one of the biggest draws of books: investment in the lives of characters, for whatever reason. I find myself invested in characters for different reasons. Sometimes characters remind me of myself, who I want to be, let me escape reality, make me thankful, make me brave...and the list just goes on really.

Even knowing this as a lifetime reader, I was surprised to witness it firsthand tonight. Yes, I've seen audience reactions to all of the Twilight movies so far, but this one was far and above the most impressive audience reactionary movie of the series.

Without spoiling the actual events of the movie, let me just say, the point at which the audience's simultaneous heart attack took place was amazing to see. Yes, I was watching the movie and reacting too, but the reader in me couldn't help but notice a packed movie theater of people reacting to the events of a couple characters in particular. At the exact moment of shock a collective breath was drawn, hands flew into the air, people yelled, made exclamations, and heads turned to those beside them in disbelief, mouths open but speechless.

My sister-in-law sitting next to me muttered a couple times about how much the movie was starting to piss her off. I myself wanted to whip out my iPhone and post to FB, "Stefanie Meyer, what the hell is wrong with you?!"

And all this for what? Reaction to a character. A central character to whom we've attached ourselves and whatever the books have meant to us over the years. And this is fantasy! Imagine realistic fiction and nonfiction. The connections made between life and story are never ending and thrive with the possibility of inspiration and life changing thought.

As far removed as I felt from the series going into the theater tonight (I mean it has been at least three years or more since I've read the books...I've literally read hundreds of books since then), this instant, the audience's reaction as much as the scene, brought the story, its characters, and purpose back to life for me. The way only a good story and a well drawn character can.

Oh, and yes, I recommend anyone following the Twilight saga to get themselves to a theater ASAP. Take a defibrillator, you're gonna need it.

Friday, November 9, 2012

In Memoriam 4

Fast forward through the busy summer (which I spent in class and at home writing 20 page finals to finish grad school) to the new school year, 2008-2009. I see Paul around the school, but not as much because he has moved on to tenth grade, so I don't have him in class. The year moves along as school years are wont to do.

November 9th, fourth period, I am in the middle of a grammar lesson for my 7th graders. (Strangely enough, those same 7th graders are my 11th graders right now, in 2012.) Another teacher walks in and says he is there to cover the rest of the period for me. I'm confused because I wasn't told I had a meeting of any kind. He's as clueless as I am, but as I  sum up the end, assign their homework and pack up my stuff, an administrator comes in and walks me down the hall. "We're just going down the hall here to tell you something...don't worry, it's not your family or anything." What!? I wasn't really thinking of anything specific or bad, let alone a problem with my family! What was this?

We stopped just a few doors down and she let me into a small office, locking the door behind us. Inside there were two teachers seated in chairs to my left and another standing directly in front of me, in the doorway of another little office. I didn't really notice anything because I didn't know what to expect. If I had paid attention upon entering I would've noticed wet cheeks and downcast eyes.

"Paul was found dead this morning. He hung himself," the teacher in the doorway was able to get out in a quick, shallow breath.

I remember a silence so pervasive I could feel it pressing in and counting down through the tick of my watch. I heard, rather than felt, my bag drop from my shoulder, hitting the ground with a solid thump. Hot tears spilled from my eyes, instantly chilling on my cheeks, as I took the two big steps to the teacher in the doorway. Although shorter than me, she leaned into the embrace I offered, the shared sorrow.

After a minute we sat in the little inner office together, in silence. They wanted to tell me and a couple others before they sent a school wide announcement out. And thanks to the technology of texting, word was getting around through the few students who knew. I wondered at first why they chose to tell me separately, not realizing my previous efforts with Paul placed me in close proximity to him. Looking back now I am grateful for their respect of my feelings because I had been more involved than I realized, but they had noticed.

We never heard the exact events...a fight and he ran off is all I was told. But who knows what "fight"consists of, who was involved, what was said, what was done.

I went on to my next period class at the bell, where we happened to be given a handout to announce Paul's passing as gently as possible. Most of my class, only a year behind him in school, said things like, "Who?" "Oh, well I don't know him." And life moved on.

I am not one to struggle over death. My family has always mourned, but we were not raised to commemorate it, to make it a ghost that haunts us. And I never have (although I don't know what I'll do if it's ever my immediate family). But this one has stuck with me. For a long time I could not look at his bus stop, which was the end of the road he lived on, and beyond the dead end of that short road, the woods in which they found him.

My husband and niece (who attends my school) attended the calling hours with me. I didn't know if I wanted to go, but students who knew Paul kept asking if I was going, so I went as much for them as myself and Paul. The school very kindly volunteered a substitute so a few of us teachers could attend the funeral. To this day I have not listened to the song they played at his funeral, even though it had been on my iPod before. My husband and I bought a copy of Chris Crutcher's Ironman, labeled with a dedication in memory of Paul inside the front cover, for the school library. His obit from the newspaper is clipped and tucked away in my fire proof box with my car title, marriage license, birth certificates, and teaching certificates. And every year since, on November 9th, I have commemorated him on my Facebook page and classroom whiteboard quietly, without fanfare, but always remembering.

Always remembering because Paul is my reminder that there is more to people than what we see and even what they will show us. Of how our lives have the ability to touch others, but we have to be intentional about it. We cannot be afraid of messing up because we will. We cannot allow ourselves to be too afraid of the messiness of life - it is reaching into that messiness and meeting people where they are that shows them you care most. It's where we make the biggest difference. Paul is my reminder to reach out and love the people around me.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In Memoriam 3

At the time of our field trip I was taking one of my last two classes for graduate school. The class was a study on Whitman and Dickinson, not two of my favorite people. But my perspective changed that semester and in large part thanks to Paul. Less than a month after our trip, I read through some of Dickinson's poems with newly opened eyes. #439, "I had been hungry, all the years" caught me and stuck. Connecting with what Paul had taught me about life in the past month, here is a portion of a paper I wrote in that class, starting with Dickinson's poem first.

I had been hungry, all the years -
My Noon had come - to dine -
I, trembling, drew the Table near -
And touched the Curious Wine -

'Twas this on Tables I had seen -
When turning, hungry, Home
I looked in Windows - for the Wealth
I could not hope - for Mine-

I did not know the ample Bread -
'Twas so unlike the Crumb
The Birds and I, had often shared
In Nature's - Dining Room -

The Plenty hurt me -'twas so new -
Myself felt ill - and odd -
As Berry - of a Mountain Bush -
Transplanted - to the Road -

Nor was I hungry - so I found
That Hunger - was a way
Of persons Outside Windows -
The entering - takes away -

Keeping in mind the literal definition of hunger, this poem is about a poor person who has not eaten well in years. In the second stanza we learn she has only glimpsed good food through the windows of more fortunate people and she had no hope of ever having that much, while the third stanza holds her marvel at the difference between a loaf of bread and a crumb. The last two stanzas reveal the speaker's awkwardness at being so well provided for; the food is in overwhelming abundance and, now that it is in front of her, she cannot bear to eat. This meaning is both rational and straightforward, as a person unaccustomed to eating well will become sick after eating a normal size portion of food.

On Dickinson's typically deeper level, this poem is about starvation of the soul. It is best explained with an analogous, yet true, story. Stanza by stanza, take a ninth grade student named Paul. Stanza one: At a young age he watched the cops tote his father and brother off to jail, his sister resides in a juvenile detention hall, and his mother's custody of him hangs by a thread because of her abusiveness. By now, Paul is emotionally and spiritually starved. Paul misbehaves because any decent "touch" of goodness is "Curious" and causes him to "tremble."

Stanza two: He attends school where at least ninety percent of the population is better off than he is or will ever be. He knows what success looks like, he sees it through the "Windows" of his teachers' careers and families, the clothes and cars of the other students, as well as the seniors applying for college. He doesn't even "hope" as he compares them to his GoodWill clothes full of stains and holes.

Stanzas three and four: Paul is excited about a field trip to a local college campus. But, once there, Paul realizes how "ample" the world really is, compared to what is "crumb" of life has been. The campus reeks of "Plenty" and he feels "ill" and "odd" while away from what he knows.

Stanza five: Knowing the cost and the improbability of ever claiming this "ample" world as his own, Paul resigns himself to life as he knows it. Fulfillment of your "Hunger" is easy to dream about when standing at the "Window" of possibility - but upon "entering" it is a whole new ball game.

(May 7, 2008)

Monday, November 5, 2012

In Memoriam 2

In the month and a half after the coat I decided to take Paul with me on a field trip I organize every year, a local university's event called The English Festival. Students read seven assigned books over the winter months and attend a one day event at the college to participate in writing, games, and meet authors. I signed Paul up at the last minute...our school knew he was going, but he was not registered with the college. That registration had been done five months prior. I had my own plans for his presence on this trip.

During the festival students are given a schedule to follow to various activities throughout the day. It is very well organized and students get to experience the freedom of a college campus a little bit. Once all of my participants were on their way, Paul and I, not held to any schedule, made our way down to the library to hear author Chris Crutcher speak. Although some of his books are iffy to me, the man had amazing stories of his work with troubled kids and the library setting was small and intimate. I stole a glance at Paul and he was looking around and doodling randomly. I wished he was paying attention, this would hit home for him I thought.

Afterward we went to a museum that is on campus, although it does not belong to the college. I had been to this museum numerous times growing up, much of the art work remained from my childhood with the exception of a few new sections. Coming across a room of what looked like pencil scribbles on paper, Paul and I both laughed that even we could do that! Upstairs was a series of 3D, hands-on displays. We made our way through the displays and found ourselves in a darkened sound booth, where the art was a matter of what you heard and saw in tandem. It was strange and we were laughing harder as we left.

Winding down the sidewalk outside the museum Paul said, "That's the first museum I been to." As we talked I found out it was his first time to see a college too. And as we talked about school, no matter how much I assured him that there were so many ways to get through school, he refused to believe this could be a possibility for him, as much as he wished it. His poverty was beyond physical, it was a mind set. Money in his hand at that moment would not have convinced him otherwise.

I bought him lunch and a copy of Ironman, hoping we could see Chris Crutcher again and get it signed. We wandered our way down to another building, passing a cop, who Paul walked way around, informing me that he doesn't trust cops. For the rest of our walk I learned what it had been like for a much younger, confused Paul to watch his father and brother toted to jail and his sister to juvenile hall.

We did find Chris Crutcher again, listened to a slightly different speech this time. At one point Crutcher skipped over part of a story we'd heard earlier that morning and Paul leaned over to me and said, "He left out the good part from earlier." He HAD been listening that morning. I should've known. When the speech was done I took Paul up front and shoved him into the mass of kids waiting to get their books signed. Crutcher signed it "To Paul" and Paul seemed happy with it. I would give anything to have that book now.

The day had gone well. Fellow teachers who knew I volunteered to take him had shaken their heads in disbelief...why bring trouble with you if you don't have to? But Paul was nothing but polite, respectful, and on his best behavior the entire day. He was not the same kid any of us knew from school and not even I had expected that. I was winging it.

Part of my goal was to expose Paul to things in life that he didn't know were options for him. I wanted to show him that there was a whole world (not even just college, but life) outside of the hell he was living in and that he had access to it. I wanted to take him out of his little bubble for a day. Maybe this was naive of replace even a piece of a lifetime of hurt with hope in a day is impossible. Looking back I'm not sure what I expected. I was working on autopilot...thinking of ways to draw him in to the life around him. Another part of me just wanted him to have fun for a day. No school and no worries for a day.  But exposure to life outside of your own is a two-way street. You can't give it without receiving it in return. And what happens when what you receive begins to change you?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

In Memoriam 1

Many students come through our school and my classroom year after year. I've had the honor of teaching an average of 800 in my eight years. But sometimes there are those few that stand out from the rest. For the sake of privacy, let's call one particular student Paul. Paul was a troublemaker, missed a lot of school, and had trouble at home. His clothes were worn and dirty looking so people felt bad for him, but overall he was just more work than most students. And with a class of 20-30 others, it's hard to give one person as much attention (or in his case it seemed to be babysitting) as he needed.

One day an aide observed him in my 9th grade English class and afterward told me that he had noticed that Paul often tries to participate, but he doesn't necessarily comply with the usual methods...but would I please look for his efforts? Of course I would. The next day Paul didn't have his textbook, so I let him use mine. We were reading "Romeo and Juliet" so I didn't expect him to follow along for long. As we read he seemed to doodle and talk to himself a little. After reading, I asked a question. I cannot remember what I asked, only that Paul spoke up. He didn't raise his hand, he didn't phrase the answer a specific way...just blurted what he had to say straight out. Luckily, before I reacted, I realized he was answering my question and his answer was absolutely correct. This short, scrawny, rough acting, tough talking punk had zeroed in on a piece of Shakespeare and understood it absolutely. I asked another question and he nailed it. The aide was right, teachers (myself included up to this point) often reacted to Paul's carriage and ways, not noticing that they were sometimes attempts to participate and only attempts at trouble after he'd been shut down.

Snow came later that (school) year, January and February. Driving down the center of town to get to work, I saw certain students waiting at bus stops every morning. In a week's time I noticed Paul standing at the end of his road in a short sleeved shirt, no coat. Not even a jacket. That weekend my husband and I were at Kohl's and we wondered past a rack of boys winter coats marked down from $100 to $10! There wasn't a second thought that I needed to get one for Paul. I wanted to get the blue, being my favorite color, but my husband insisted on the red and black, since it was our school's colors. I mentioned it to a teacher that worked closely with Paul over the past few years and she said that she wasn't sure how he'd react to me offering a coat. He had mentioned dry lips the week before and when she offered him a new Chapstick he was offended and asked her did she think he couldn't get his own? (It's likely he couldn't and it was this sense of pride I didn't want to run up against or offend.)

So that day in class I told him to make sure he came to school the next day because I had a surprise. I was hoping that giving him a heads up would help stimulate his interest and soothe any ruffled feathers. He said ok and was in school the next day. After class he followed me to my office (I was a classroom-less teacher at the time, teaching in different available classrooms throughout the day). I told him I had noticed he didn't wear a coat at the bus stop. He claimed it was stolen from his locker and I presented him the new coat.

He was silent. He stared at the coat. His mouth moved a little and I held my breath. I knew I was about to hear it from him as the other teacher had over her offer of Chapstick. He reached ever so slowly for the coat. It was a bulky polar coat with a lining that zipped in and out to create a jacket and a lighter winter coat. He squeezed the material in his fingers and looked up at me.

"Is it ok?" I asked, completely unable to read him.

"It's red," is all he said, simply and quietly.

"Is that bad?" Maybe wearing school colors wasn't so cool. I mean, my husband had been a jock in school, so what did he know?

"Red is my favorite color," he almost whispered. Then a little more enthusiastically, "Thank you." And I watched a 14-year-old boy hug a winter coat to his chest in awe. I watched for him at the bus stop over the next month, the red coat as the tell tale sign that I would see Paul later in the day.