Tag Archives: Teaching

Mother’s Day and Teacher Appreciation Week: The Most Unsexy Jobs of All

You can smell Jakari from eight feet away. The combination of unwashed clothes and hair, shoes that have seen an extra winter of wet and dry feet. As if that didn’t already put her in the shallow end of the popularity pool, she weighs in at least forty pounds above the average fifth grader.

There is something so incredibly unsexy about any profession that gets an appreciation week. Teacher appreciation week shows up at the same time each year as nurses week, and quite honestly, both professions boil down to dealing with other people’s feces, literally and physically. Is it any wonder that Mother’s Day is only five days away? The role of mother falls solidly in the “dealing with feces” category.

This week is full of small gestures of thanks. Cups filled with chocolate, vases filled with flowers, boxes filled with jewelry. My cynical self can start to wonder if these appreciation weeks and days are lip service, a compulsory nod, the thank you we throw over our shoulder at the cashier as we take our receipt. As if that could possibly match the contributions our mothers and teachers have made to our lives.

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This past two weeks my sweet little toddler has learned that he can have an opinion, and that it is most exciting when that opinion goes in direct opposition to mine. I can’t blame him. That’s his job, to figure out the boundary lines of mommy and baby, to test the limits of my patience, to experiment with the rules until he learns them all, and then to experiment some more to make sure I wasn’t kidding.

But last Sunday morning was tough. It started with screaming and didn’t stop for almost three hours until he collapsed asleep in a pile, just in time for us to pack him in a car to head to church. He woke up, of course, right when we walked into church fifteen minutes late (also of course). The sermon had started and I knew his dazed cuddling was a ticking clock, no way it would last. Sure enough, the angry fish flopping started as soon as I told him he couldn’t run around in the pew.

I took the elevator up to our church’s nursery, my son upset, again, because he didn’t get to push the “up” button. I pushed into that deep inner resolve, the one I channel when I need to stay calm in trying situations. And maybe there was a little bit of self-pity. You know, the “I deserve a break” or the “somebody should be helping me right now” feelings. The “I deserve a holiday to celebrate my massive contributions to my son and society” feelings.

And at that moment, right as the elevator doors chimed and opened, my son turned to me, put his tiny, perfect, chubby hands on my cheeks, grinned with his lovely twelve teeth and his tiny dimple, and said, “Mama.”

He spoke the words with the awe and wonder that I so often feel for him. This incredible realization that we are part of one another, that our lives are forever entwined with cords stronger than DNA; that we are sewn together with love.

I had surgery recently, and I was desperate for help during the recovery that the doctor had misled me to believe would only last a few days and has instead continued for six weeks. Within a few days of the surgery my mom caught wind that I was struggling, rearranged her schedule and drove down to spend a week caring for me, cleaning my house, cooking my meals, and most notably: waking up with my son to spend the mornings with him. (Is there any greater gift than this?)

I often turn to my husband, when my mom is at our house and caring for our every need, or when his parents have extended some truly incredible gift of generosity, and ask how we could ever repay our parents for all they have done for us. We are disgustingly fortunate to have such loving and supportive parents. And he often will say, “We can never repay them. We can only pay it forward.”

And that’s what I keep thinking as I watch Jakari’s teacher sit down next to her and teach her to read, inviting her after school, allowing her to keep her siblings in the room during homework help, since Jakari is their primary caretaker. Jakari is still so often ornery in class, still bullies other students, still talks back. And yet her teacher comes back each day with a deeper resolve to help Jakari learn to read and write. Could Jakari ever pay her back for this?

That’s what I think when my mom works tirelessly to make sure that I am healthy, being willing to exhaust herself so that I can rest. That’s what I think when she insists I go to bed instead of helping her do the dishes or wash stains from our clothing. Is the card we send her, with someone else’s words printed inside a joke?

Maybe Teacher Appreciation Week and Mother’s Day (and Nurse’s Week) help us to remember that there is no way that we can ever repay the people who have loved us, who have parented us, who have shown grace to us. No chocolates or flowers, stuffed animals or crayon-scribbled cards could ever repay the mothers, biological or otherwise, who have nurtured us.

But maybe those sentiments are a statement, a reminder that there is enough grace to go around, that we are all better when someone loves us more than we deserve, more than we could ever repay.

And maybe these appreciation weeks and days are a chance for us to turn around with awe in our eyes and acknowledge those people who have loved us well. Not because we can pay them back, but because their love has allowed us to pay it forward.

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Facebook is Ruining My Life

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I’m getting a new phone on Saturday. My iPhone 4S (yes, people still have those) has been slowly dying. First, my son ate the Otterbox Defender case. When I went to try to replace the case at Verizon I was told that they no longer keep the 4S cases on the floor. After convincing the salesclerk to go into the back and retrieve the box of unwanted iPhone 4S cases I decided it might not be worth $60 to buy a case for a phone that doesn’t even warrant display in a Verizon store. (This made the salesclerk’s day.)

So my phone has been naked for the past several months, and during that time I have dropped it approximately three hundred fifty seven times, and my son has chewed on it more times than that. Only one speaker works, it shuts off completely at random intervals, the battery runs out after twenty minutes, and the screen has a small crack in the corner.

Still, all in all, I’m pretty impressed with this small piece of technological wonder, and its ability to defy all odds and power on with 95% reliability.

However the newest development has caused me to bite the bullet and purchase a new phone. Why? Well, my phone no longer opens any programs except phone, chat, and music. While it technically opens Safari, it only provides a 3G network. According to the Verizon representative I talked to, that’s the equivalent of dial-up. So basically, my phone has the computing ability of my 2007 Motorola Razr.

This development has meant that none of the apps I have downloaded will load. The phone crashes when I try to look at Facebook, for example. Just an example.

Well, technically, it’s THE example. Because I look at Facebook a lot. A LOT. And not being able to access Facebook on my phone for the past week has shed some light on the depth of my addiction.

My average day, it turns out, generally starts by turning off the alarm on my phone, and immediately checking to see if I have a red number hovering over the blue f on my phone’s home screen.

But it doesn’t stop there. Oh no. When stuck in traffic, car at a stop, I find myself reaching for my phone. Yes. Please shame me for this, because it is terrible.

Then there are the moments throughout the day, those moments when there is even a tiny little pause. It’s those moments when I get the sensation that I am forgetting something, that there is something I am meaning to do. Then it hits me. Facebook. I should be checking Facebook.

The evening continues with much the same. Facebook is a constant fixture in my life. I’ve checked Facebook four times already while writing this post.
But seriously, does that even matter? I can’t possibly be checking Facebook any more than anyone else. How many times have you checked Facebook today?

But not having Facebook has forced me to spend my time differently. I’ve been sending longish emails to some of my friends. I’ve been tracking what I eat into My Fitness Pal. I talked to my coworkers at lunch today. I ordered reeds for my clarinet so I can start practicing again. I’ve been reading books.

And then when I do get on Facebook, generally at night after my son is asleep, I notice that there are 12 notifications and I quickly browse through them to see if there are any I even care about. And the answer is that I mostly don’t.

But I sure do like that red number. Especially when it is such a high number after a long day away from the page. But there’s a lot I don’t like.

I don’t like that Facebook is controlling so much of my life. I don’t like waiting for my Facebook to load, hoping that someone somewhere has noticed something I’ve said or done, and feeling badly when the red number doesn’t appear.

I don’t like that I’m the person who looks at other people’s kids and thinks about whether they are as cute as my own. Obviously none of them are. Except for that one. And that makes me angry.

I don’t like the news stories that leave me hopeless.

I don’t like looking at pictures of my friends with kids and hoping to see that they, too, still wear their baby weight.

I don’t like hating the posts from my family members who disagree with me politically. I don’t like how self-righteous I become, justifying how balanced and fair I am because I get angry with people on both sides of every issue.

I don’t like the jealousy when I see someone has bought a house, or published a book, or discovered the secrets to the universe while I fumble along learning a new job.

I’m tired of the compare game, because I always lose. And even when I win, I still lose.

For the record, I have checked Facebook two more times while writing that last part.

So maybe, as much as I don’t like those things, I can’t help myself.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could end this post by telling you that I am quitting Facebook? Wouldn’t it be a fantastic declaration of mindfulness and balance, rising above it all by quitting the comparison game? Wouldn’t I be so incredible?

Well, I’m not quitting Facebook. I love the updates from family and friends. It’s still my primary source of news, local and abroad. It’s still where I look to find the funniest memes.

It is, after all, a pretty incredible means to keep in touch with my family, spread between three continents. And I do actually enjoy seeing my friends’ babies, even the ones that aren’t as cute as my son. Especially the ones that aren’t as cute as my son.

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And I like being liked. In the Facebook sense and the real world sense of the word.

So there are no declarations of quitting Facebook to end this post. But maybe when I pick out my phone on Saturday I will think twice before downloading my Facebook app.

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5 Tips I’ve Learned About Work From My Mentor

I walked the quarter mile from the Metra train to my first school for my first teaching job lugging my wheeled suitcase behind me the whole way. The suitcase was full of my personal collection of children’s books, gleaned from my childhood library and garage sales.

I was one of several thousand twenty-two year old white woman applying for the same few teaching positions in Chicago Public Schools and my job and life experience had little to recommend me. I finally got a job after interviewing with the principal at a job fair, answering her questions while she ate Cheetos out of the snack-sized bag. She promised to call me. She didn’t. So I called her every day for weeks until I finally managed to get an interview at the school. The interview consisted of a tour of the building, bullet holes in the classroom windows and all, after which the principal looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to work here?” I answered in the affirmative, and a few weeks later I showed up for teacher inservice.

I knew very little about how to be a teacher or how to be a worker. I was still learning how to pretend to be an adult.

In her book Lean In Sheryl Sandberg talks about the need for women to find a mentor in their profession. This insider can help them develop as an employee and help them hurdle the potential pitfalls in their job. I was fortunate enough to run into exactly this person on my first day of work. Enter: Karen.

Karen had previously made partner in her law firm when she decided to change careers to become a Chicago Public School teacher in one of the more challenging schools in the district. Karen walked into the office of the school on my first day, took one look at me, and immediately took me in as her project. Since that day she has grown from being my mentor to being one of my best friends. In honor of her birthday I offer you five lessons I’ve learned from her about how to be a better employee (and maybe how to be a better person.)

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1. Sit in the Front

When I’m in new situations I try to squeeze in unnoticed, sitting near the back, slouching in my seat, keeping a book or notebook nearby to detract attention. But this was not Karen’s style. I spent a lot of time watching her, trying to figure out what it was about her that got her so much recognition and praise. And then I realized it. She always sat in the front. For everything. Often directly in front of the speaker. Often she would even go a step further and talk to the speaker afterward, always finding some relevant question or point from what they said.

We all know it’s not cool to sit in the front. Or to be “that person”. But Karen changed my mind of this. She was known by everyone: the boss, the boss’s boss, the other teachers, the parents, and the students. She made herself seen, and once she was seen her ideas were acknowledged and affirmed. Of course this could backfire if you don’t want to be seen. However, Karen wasn’t afraid of being seen making mistakes. Instead, she invited people to come into her classroom, preparing opportunities to be seen at her best (and she was often the best). Her fifth year of teaching she won a DRIVE award for teaching with a $2500 stipend for excellence. It worked.

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2. Read the Mass E-mails

Every week our principal would send out an email telling the staff the announcements for the week. I would generally read the weekly memo, but I was in the minority in that regard. I remember Karen telling me to print out the memos and put them in a binder. She has this thing about binders. I looked at her as if she had turned into a seal. Not only did that seem useless, it was a clear waste of paper.

But I did it. And over time I started to see trends in what appeared in the memos. I started to notice what my principal cared about and ways I could stand out from the crowd. Paging through old memos gave me insight into the goals and vision of my administrative team I otherwise might not have had, and gave me immediate conversation points when called upon by my principal.

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3. Contribute to the Team

Among other challenges my first year of teaching, I found myself strapped for cash. Especially once my student loans came due and I inherited a car from my sister (which cut down my morning commute by an hour and a half each day, but increased expenses). Therefore, when my colleague walked into my classroom in the middle of chaos, ahem, “a lesson” and told me that she was part of the social committee and was collecting twenty dollars from everyone, I dismissed her.

I asked Karen about it later and she said, “You gotta give to the social committee.” I argued with her, but she stood firm. She said, “There are things you do because it builds investment and buy in, and shows you’re part of the team.” I gave the money, and I gained the friendships of my colleagues, people I desperately needed to help me that year, and people I still keep in contact with today.

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4. Take Advantage of the Additional Opportunities

While flailing as a teacher my first year, I was also taking graduate courses to earn my teaching certificate. These classes met three nights a week. Then there was planning lessons and gathering the necessary materials for my classroom. Add to that making copies at Staples everyday since requests for copies to be made at the school had to be submitted a week in advance, which was a week more advanced preparation that I ever had my first year. Free time was at a premium and was mostly spent drinking, crying, or in panic attacks.

There are thousands of opportunities for free trainings and workshops and professional development for teachers. And Karen dragged me to them all, mostly by bribing me with hot chocolate. But these extras were almost always incredible. There were tons of free giveaways, I met important people in the field, I collaborated with other teachers, and I learned a ton about what it meant to be a good teacher, and how I could become one, someday.

Would it have been easier to sleep in on my Saturdays? Yes. Am I a better teacher because I went to the trainings? Absolutely.

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5. Give it Something Extra

It’s an ongoing joke that Karen buys the heaviest, glossiest paper that money can buy. I once asked her to print out sub plans for me, and she printed 150 pages of worksheets on 75 pound, high gloss paper. I came back the next day to find the prettiest, color-ink worksheets sitting completed on my desk. Laughing, I told her that I didn’t think the kids needed to be doing multiplication tables on vellum. She just said, “But it’s so nice to write on that paper.”

We may have to agree to disagree on the quality of our paper, but paying attention to the small details and going above and beyond is a point of agreement. When covering bulletin boards, Karen used fabric instead of paper. And not just any fabric, coordinated and brightly colored fabric. And she kept a couch in her room for the students to sit on in the library.

By doing the extra, she became a magnet for people. As you can imagine, her students love her.

I haven’t “arrived” in my field, so the advice here is shared humbly, with the caveat that it is all anecdotal with no formal research backing. That being said, taking these tips from watching and listening to Karen has allowed me to be pretty successful in all my workplaces thus far. Except maybe when I work with her. Then she steals the show. But it’s worth it to get to be on her team.

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I’ve Had Enough of the News.

I’m over it.

In case you aren’t keeping track, it’s been a tough month for women. Over 270 girls were kidnapped from Nigeria, an Iranian actress faces prosecution for kissing the 83 year old head of the Cannes Film Festival on the cheek, a Sudanese woman is facing the death penalty and 100 lashes for converting to Christianity, the shooting rampage of a man angry for being rejected by his female peers has left seven dead and many injured, and the death of Maya Angelou has taken away a great feminist, poet, and teacher. There’s a reason why I hate reading the news.

Meanwhile, back in my two foot square of influence in Chicago, while standing in line to buy my comfort food, purchased at least in part because I have absolutely no idea how to process and deal with the bombardment of bad news in the media lately, I noticed that US Weekly has chosen this week to publish “The Body Issue: Heidi Klum and 100 Sexy Stars Strip Down and Show Off.”

There just aren’t words.

Yesterday my students helped me label and sort books in my classroom which, over the weekend, became the book room of our school. I’m up to my eyeballs in boxes of books with more than a little work cut out for me.

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I let my students pick the songs we listened to, until one of my students said she wanted to listen to “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry and Juicy J. I said I didn’t like that song. She of course wanted to know why, so I said, “I don’t like the rap. You know the part where it says, ‘She’ll eat your heart out, like Jeffrey Dahmer”?” And then I explained who Jeffrey Dahmer was, and why that line is particularly twisted.

They didn’t really feel like finishing their breakfast after that.

It reminded me of a small moment; a conversation I had with my friend Amber. My husband and I were deciding if we were ready to have a baby and I was pretty sure it was hinging on how well we were prepared to do the whole “sex talk” thing. (I have really weird ideas about what it means to be a parent, hang with me here.) Since Amber is a mom I respect, I asked her how she broaches such important topics with her children and she said, “The same way we deal with every other issue. We talk about it, we’re honest about it, and we answer the question that is asked.”

Basically, they talk to their kids, listen to their stories, and share their own. It seems so simple, and yet…

When my student found out about the lyrics of “Dark Horse” her first comment was, “I have GOT to tell Lana about this. That’s her favorite song. She knows all the words. And she don’t even know what she’s rapping.” Then the three of us had a long conversation about being afraid of people like Jeffrey Dahmer, the shooting in California, and what it feels like to be women. And it wasn’t just my stories, it was their stories, too.

It’s kind of amazing what happens when you answer the question that is asked.

Mary Oliver says that the instructions for living a life are: “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”

I find that when I’m overwhelmed with the news, it’s often because of what I’m paying attention to.

It’s been a rough month for women. But that’s not the only story.

There are women sharing their #YesAllWomen stories. There are post cards being sent to politicians saying “Not One More”, we’ve had enough of the killing. Neko Case is challenging people’s ideas of what it means to be a musician who also happens to be a woman. And my fourth grade helper is telling her friends why its important to understand the lyrics of the songs they listen to.

It’s not everything, but it’s something.

I’m over it. But it isn’t over. It’s been a tough month for women, but we keep marching along, and “still we rise.” We have to.

And so I keep paying attention, I keep telling my stories, and I try not to forget to let the good ones astonish me as much as the bad.

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The Many Shades of Appreciation

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s the week when teachers get catered lunch and are brought balloons and homemade cards by their students. The week rife with platitudes like: “I touch the future, I teach.” And, “I teach, what’s your superpower?”

It’s not that I dislike those phrases or want to take away from the hard work we do everyday, but it’s just those phrases don’t really capture the day to day monotony and ordinary-ness that it is to be a teacher. Most days I am much less aware of my permanent impact on the future, and much more aware of how my teacher training did very little in the way of preparing me for how to handle a student who leaves the room Jerry Maguire style, pointing at each of us in the room and calling, “You’re a butt cheek, and you’re a butt cheek, and you’re a butt cheek.”

Or reflecting on how I never really figured out the right response on my first day of teaching to my seventh grade student, who looked me up and down at 2:45pm when school was finally dismissing (after an excruciating six hours)  and said, “Nice ass.”

And I’m not really thinking about my “superpower” when I am screaming at my students because the fifth stupid pencil sharpener has fallen to the floor, scattering dusty lead and wood chip shavings all over the floor, and five boys have rushed the broom in an effort to be helpful and are now arguing over who is the sweeper for the week. The answer is almost always none of them.

What I do as a teacher definitely matters. But I don’t generally get to see the impact of what I do.

However, there’s a very good chance that this will be my last year in the classroom, at least for awhile, and those sorts of monumental changes and decisions leave me reflective, ruminating on what has been and thoughtful about my legacy. These sorts of goodbyes have a way of crystalizing moments as they happen, recognizing that they may be the last of their kind.

Which is how I felt the moment on Wednesday when Lenaeya walked into my room before school and asked if she could tell me something she hadn’t told anyone.

I closed my computer, looked her in the eye, and said, “Of course. What’s going on, Lenaeya?”

“My dad is in jail. He just got sent to jail.” Her eyes were sad, vulnerability evident in her voice.

I asked her what happened, what details she knew. She didn’t know much. Just that her summer plans to stay with her father had been cancelled. After only five minutes of talking she was already late for class. (Schedules do tend to get in the way of the important things in life.) So I asked her if she wanted to have lunch with me so she could talk more and also write her dad a letter.

At lunch I pulled out the notecards I keep handy for emergencies such as this one and took out the special inky pens I keep sacred and hidden and let her write her feelings and thoughts for her dad. I found myself thoroughly enjoying my shared lunch with my ten year old friend, fully engaged in her concerns about her father, her classmates, her friendships. I helped her spell the words she didn’t know and we sealed the envelope with the message for her dad.

Two days later Lanaeya and I were sitting in my classroom again when Alex, my favorite kindergarten student, flung open the door, breakfast in hand, tear-streaks on his face, wailing at the top of his lungs. We both turned to him as he crossed the room and flung himself into my arms. I asked him what was wrong and he just shook his head. Meanwhile Lanaeya, ever ready in crisis, left to the bathroom to get him some tissue.

While Lanaeya was gone, Alex stood crying. I was finishing some paperwork I needed to get done when he sobbed, “My dad is going back to jail!” The pain in my eyes must have been evident because when I closed my computer (which seems to always be open) and turned to him to say I was sorry, he broke down all over again. While helping him dry his face with the tissues Lanaeya had brought back, I mentioned that he didn’t have to talk to her, but he might want to share what he was going through with Lanaeya because she had been dealing with similar things.

At first he shook his head no, but then stopped and said quietly, “My dad is going to jail.”

Without missing a beat, Lanaeya said, “My dad is in jail, too. Here Alex, do you want to write him a letter? That’s what I do when I’m feeling sad.” Then she took out some extra note cards from our lunch and wrote while he dictated a letter to his father. They talked together about what it felt like to have a father in jail. And I became completely unnecessary, getting out of their way, as a good teacher does.

And that’s the thing about teaching. Most days are just days, like every other. But then the platitude becomes real, the hackneyed phrase shows up in your classroom in the form of a girl extending kindness to a young boy. Every once in awhile a lesson sticks. And if you’re lucky, it’s an important one. And if you’re really lucky, it happens enough to keep you teaching even when the air conditioner is broken in your classroom and the sewage system has backed up, necessitating bag lunches for a week. (Yes, these things have actually happened.)

After Alex finished making his card for his father, I said, “I know this is a really hard time, Alex, but sometimes it helps me to know that even when I’m going through hard times I am not alone.”

“Yeah, like I have my brother and my mom,” Alex agreed.

“And you have Lanaeya and me,” I added.

“Are you my friend, Lanaeya?” Alex asked, turning shyly to her.

“Yes, Alex, I’m your friend,” she said. She grabbed his hand and walked him back to class.

Being witness to these moments doesn’t make me a superhero. But these moments are what I love most about teaching, what I will miss most when I leave.

And maybe sometimes I do have the privilege to touch the future.

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Hugs, Duct Tape, and Learning to Be Brave

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I met David while teaching the youth group at my church. He was a freshman in High School, just starting to figure out who he was and what made him tick. But two things were certain: he loved duct tape and hugs.

I really liked David, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t really get him. Or maybe, I thought he was a little weird. Or maybe he made me a little uncomfortable.

While other kids were talking about movies and video games, David was making wallets and flowers and his tux for prom out of duct tape. And did I mention that he was hugging everyone all the time? Maybe it’s just my neck of the woods, but it is kind of rare to find a sixteen year old eager to hug adults.

But David did not allowed being different to stand in the way of being himself. He took his dream of giving hugs on the road, writing a book and using the money to travel across the country to give free hugs, over 50,000 hugs to date, tracking each with a counter hanging from his belt. He even has his own website, “Duck Duct Dave“.

I think he made me so uncomfortable because I was so miserable being a teenager. I worked hard to disappear, wishing I could blend into the crowd. I didn’t try out for the school musicals despite the fact that I love to sing and dance. I was too fat. Or at least, that’s what I told myself. I couldn’t imagine flaunting that fact in front of my graduating class of 500 students. From time to time I imagined myself trying out for the musical, applying for student council, or going to the extra curricular events, but in the end I stayed at home, convincing myself I didn’t want any of that anyway.

Why is it so hard to be seen? And why does it make me so uncomfortable to see someone willing to leave it all out there, heart on the sleeve, and dive headfirst into their dream?

Oh that’s right, because people can be jerks and the world can be mean.

David estimates that while standing on the street with his free hugs sign, about ninety percent of people walk past without giving him a hug. That’s a lot of rejection. I did a catering gig once and I felt rejected when I couldn’t convince the wedding goers to take the bruschetta I was offering.

Rejection hurts. When I hear ninety percent rejection a big mama piece of me wants to usher David into my house, feed him some chocolate chip cookies, hug him, and protect him from all of that.

But I’m pretty sure David is right and I am wrong. At least insofar as there is a right and wrong here.

I think in High School I thought there would come this magic moment when I would no longer be afraid to walk out on that stage. Or better yet, I hoped to avoid the fear altogether by having someone notice how amazing I was while I was sitting camouflaged in the corner.

But David has taught me a thing or two. LIke, don’t wait to be seen, just hit the streets with a loud neon sign. Maybe ninety percent of people won’t give a damn, but show up for the ten percent who do. Or better yet, just show up.

David is in college now so I don’t see him as often. When I do, I make sure I hug him extra hard, and I find it really satisfying to watch him click his counter and know I’m helping him live his dream.

And like all the best teachers, I am sure he has no idea how much he has taught me. But I am part of the ten percent who are thankful he has had the courage to show up and have the audacity to be himself.

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261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Lessons Learned While Teaching the Alphabet

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This past week, I witnessed a miracle.

Let me back up. Last November I returned to work after spending the first three months of my son’s life figuring out how to keep a human alive, while also making most of the recipes I had pinned on pinterest. (But not the crafts. Why did I even pin those? I have been looking for a needle for three weeks now to sew up the hole my dog chewed in my pants and I can’t remember where I left my needles. Why I thought monogrammed anything was a possibility is beyond me.)

I sat down with my principal to make a schedule for working with small groups of students, my position this school year. I mentioned off-hand that I thought I should work with some kindergarteners because I believe in early intervention. Also, I’ve never worked with kindergarteners before and I wanted to know if it really is as hard as my kindergarten teaching friends say. (The answer to that question in a word: yes. In three words: I love it.)

I started pulling a group of three kindergarten students who did not know their letters. I very quickly fell in love with Alex. I already knew he was my favorite when he looked up at me after three weeks and said, “Ms. Wanson, you really meant it when you said you’d come get me every day!” Then he crawled into my lap for our read aloud.

This group quickly became the highlight of each day. When rearranging groups to prepare for our standardized test, my assistant principal looked at my schedule and asked why I was working with a K group. (Kindergarten not being a testing age.) Before she could say anything else, my principal said, “You can’t take away her K group. That’s why she gets out of bed in the morning.”

And it is true. When I cried about going back to work most days in December, my husband would say, “But what about Alex.” And he was sure to get an earful of Alex’s crazy antics from that day. Alex isn’t exactly a well-behaved student. My favorite students never are.

Last week it was my job to give Alex his reading test to see if he moved reading levels. He came to me in November without being able to pass the pre-reading test. In January he passed pre-reading (indicating he knows some of his letters and rhyming words) but threw a crying fit when I asked him to try spelling a few words.

I gave him the test. He knew all but three of his capital letters. He knew all but three of his lowercase letters. He knew all but eight of his letter sounds. He could match the beginning sounds of words. But then the miracle happened. I asked him to watch me read a book. I tapped on each word as I read. Before I could tell him it was his turn, he started reading.

And reading some more. He turned the page. And he read that page, and the next, and the next. And even when the pattern in the book changed, he ended the book with, “I like school.” The three words printed on that page.

I’ve always been an intermediate and upper grade teacher. I have never witnessed the moment when a child first starts to read, when the words are no longer sticks and circles but have suddenly become thoughts and ideas.

It was magical. It was this sacred miraculous moment. I am not exaggerating. My heart raced and the tears started forming. And all the while Alex just kept going, wanting to know what came next, not stopping once to think about the fact that HE COULD READ!

We finished the test and it turned out he can spell, too. Or at least enough to pass two more levels. I high-fived him and congratulated him. He grinned and jumped up and down. And asked if he could get a colored pen because he had passed his test and it was the nearest object to him. Who can blame him for being an opportunist?

Then he turned to me and said, “Am I not gonna come to you anymore?”

He realized what I had already known. That my time of working with him was ending. I had taught him and he had learned. He was ready to move to the next thing, and I wasn’t part of that next thing.

And it broke my mama heart.

Letting go. I am really not good at goodbyes, in whatever form they take. I am of the mind that every goodbye could be the last one, so make it count. Or better yet, avoid it altogether.

But the problem is that I can’t avoid it. And sometimes I get stuck in the goodbyes, near and far. It brings up the fact that I am not, despite my every best effort and a whole lot of wishful thinking, in control of those goodbyes or when they come. Which frankly pisses me off. And the people who console me by telling me that those feelings are hormonal can take a trip off a cliff as far as I’m concerned. Maybe my feelings are hormonal. But they’re also real.

And yet, today I pulled a new group of kindergarten students. Without Alex. And there was little Joel, waiting to be loved, his pants nearly falling off and his nose dripping with a cold, eager to climb into the lap that Alex left empty.

Saying goodbye to Alex left space for me to say hello to Joel.

Does that seem worth it when Alex comes up to me in the hallway and says, “Are you going to come get me today? Don’t say no.”

To quote Anne Lamott, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

What I know is that Alex wasn’t able to read and now he can. And that’s a miracle. And by the grace of God, I got to be there to witness it. So if goodbyes are a reality I cannot avoid, then I’m glad that at least sometimes they come served with a side of miracle.

And I’m extra thankful when those miracles are packaged up in the form of kindergarteners.

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