Sunday, May 13, 2018

"Ten Years Ago"

*Over the last 3 years, there were numerous times I sat right here and willed the words to come to me. I longed to write, but was filled with such self-doubt and sadness that the words never came. For Mother's Day, this is my gift to myself. To just write and get it out. It's not very polished and there remains much hidden from it, but its a start. If I didn't start soon, the words were going to drown in me. It is true- sometimes you just have do something for yourself. 

"We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us." Joseph Campbell

Ten years ago.


In May 2008,  I was married. I owned a home. An almost 3 year old and 5 month old consumed my heart, my time, and most of my sleep.  I was a classroom teacher, still believing my career would mirror LuAnne Johnson's. I didn't have a Facebook or Twitter account, there was no such thing as Instagram, and my phone was not smarter than me. My camera was digital and I printed out nearly every single picture I snapped. My conversations weren't texted. My Netflix movies came in the mail, one at a time. Some of my favorite music was played on a MP3 player via Napster, but most I still skipped through CDs for.  I felt empowered by "change we can believe in" as Obama campaigned across America.

In May 2008, I was one year away from "that day in May." I was one year away from my life being completely and forever changed. I was one year away from the life that was waiting for me.

Sometimes, I think about that woman of May 2008  and how at that moment in time she thought the rest of her life would be. She thought that there would be a five, a ten, a twenty year anniversary. She thought she'd always have someone by her side to make decisions with, to talk things through with, to comfort her when anxiety consumed her. She thought  she would sell that home and buy a bigger one. She thought she might have more children. She thought she'd stay a classroom teacher for the remainder of her career. She thought all that technology would remain unchanged  until she could at least understand it. And she thought there was no other possible way that her life could be. It was a belief that if you asked her about then, she would adamantly support.

She never saw the change coming in her life. She never thought it would be something she couldn't believe happened to her.

Sometimes, I think about how that woman of 2008 planned a life that, in the end, wasn't meant for her. That woman had things planned for her life; its events fell into a logical sequence. And I think about how much that woman -so caught up in a plan that would never be- had somewhere along the way missed what her life was actually supposed to be.

The woman I am today found her strength in struggle and in the last 2 years faced her greatest struggles. A 13 year old and 101/2 year old consume my days and nights. I don't own a home. I am no longer a classroom teacher. Scrolling through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram is done on the daily. My phone is way smarter than me. It takes all my pictures. My conversations are held over text, Messenger, or email. Its often how I justify still calling myself a writer.  Netflix is the only TV I watch, my CDs are long gone, and I'd actually forgotten about Napster until writing this post.

The woman I am today  isn't one who has her life mapped out. There is no plan. I have absolutely no idea where we will be in 10 years.  I've learned that way of living no longer works for us. There is only a feeling. I know we will all be happy... and that is the life that was waiting for me. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Ten-agers, Tampons, & Testicles

I have been a parent for a decade. A decade. Double digits. I am the parent of a ten-ager.

A ten-ager is a ten-year-old that acts, moves, sighs, rolls their eyes, stomps, and wails exactly like a teenager. Yet, they are still technically three years away from all that. They don't seem to be at all consciously aware of this fact. and their parents certainly aren't ready for all that.

In only  a matter of weeks, I have gone from a parent who chats about the moon and ice cream flavors and Lego building plans to a parent who chats about tampons and testicles and how to properly shave your armpits. Seriously. All three- very real- conversations in my house. Because that is what happens when you have a ten-ager. Your conversations turn a corner. They take a leap. Actually, they hurl you off a cliff into an abyss of unknown (and sometimes uncomfortable) language.

Here's how it happens.

One moment we are a family of three lackadaisically  watching TV together. Because, for at least a half hour, we have found something we can all enjoy. At this point, there are only a handful of shows we can all watch. TV does not cater to a family consisting of a 40-year-old mom, a ten-ager, and a 7- year-old boy. We watch shows like Bizarre Foods America, The Goldbergs, Naked & Afraid (the 7- year-old is often kicked out of the room because he cannot stop laughing at the butt shots), Dangerous Grounds, and The Brady Bunch. That's about it. At one time these shows were safe from the aforementioned conversation cliff dives, but when you have a ten-ager, all bets are off. Because, damn it, they start to actually hear all the things their ears have been immune to for a decade.

One night, we were watching our very favorite show, The Goldbergs. Sidebar- This show is genius. I am constantly saying, "Oh my gosh! I had that!" or "Oh my gosh! I remember that!" My kids don't know it, but I actually watch the show for ideas to embarrass them when they are real teenagers. Thank you, Bevvy Goldberg, best "smother" ever.

This episode had Bevvy loving Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No to Drugs" campaign. At the very end of the show, the actual Adam Goldberg 1980-something footage showed him pretending to hold a giant joint, which he labeled, "Not drugs, a tampon." It wasn't even said aloud, it was labeled on the screen and...

Years ago, I'd gone & taught my kids to read. Damn me!

They read it. Aloud.

And then, screeching voices. "Mama! What's! A! Tampon!"

Suddenly, I became very interested in the couch cushion. To no avail. They just repeated themselves, only this time a little louder. Sometimes they think I am actually deaf.

There were only two choices by this point. Lie or jump off that cliff.

I jumped. Well, more like lolloped. And bucked. And plummeted.

There is a fine line when answering children honestly. You have to give them just enough information for their age and yet not too much information for their age. I think I am pretty good at knowing where this line is. I can't remember all of my hasty answer, but whatever I said sufficed for the most part. My answer had key words, such as "girls, puberty, necessity." There was a calm after the storm, so to say. The kids looked at me, slightly doe-eyed. They peeked at one another, and hastily turned away.

Then my daughter asked, "Mama. How do you know when someone is in the puberty? Because I think there are some kids in my class in the puberty."

To that I simply said, "You don't put an article in front of puberty." Some nights, you just have no more answers for a ten-ager.

The next time a cliff-diving conversation came my way, I was (unfortunately) no more prepared.

This time we were contently watching Bizarre Foods America. This show has a little bit of everything- geography, nutrition, and the gross-out factor. Trekking through the deep south, Andrew Scott Zimmern discovered a quaint restaurant that served "legendary"lamb testicles.

And... you know what came next.

"Mama! Testicles! What's! That!"

Now, this question is really my fault. Yes, I am the mother of a boy. And I am a teacher. You'd think that we'd have covered all the body parts and their names. But, until that very moment, I realized we'd never mastered testicles.

So, I sighed that cliff-plunging-conversation sigh and said, "Well, boys have them, but girls don't. Testicles are the things (I KNOW) on the side of your peep. (I KNOW!)"

One eyebrow cocked, my son looked at me and said, "Those things are testicles? I call 'em my brains!"

Stifling laughter, I inquired, "Why do you call them that, Bud?"

Very matter-of-factly, he replied, "Well. I can't see my real brain. And I just think these are what my real brain looks like, so I call 'em my brains."

Some day... some day... he will know the irony of his statement.

Conversations with children, especially as the years creep by, aren't always neat and simple and wrapped up with a pretty bow. But, I firmly believe we all need to take the plunge and have them. As uncomfortable as I might be (possibly even near panic attack as when my ten-ager asked me to teach her to shave her armpits... but I am not recovered enough to write about that one) you have to put your best words forward and steer your own course down that conversation plunge. Kids, even the ten-agers who think they don't, need to have sound advice and the correct information given to them. If you're lucky enough, you'll get a sprinkle of humor with those conversations. Kids gain understanding, confidence, and moral direction even, and most of all, they know we are there and we love them, no matter what question they might have.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Grind

Here it is. One of the greatest things about childhood. Summer vacation. 

We are officially 40 minutes into it. And, I have not one thing planned. Or scheduled. Or thought out. 

Over the course of the past few weeks, many moms and I have a conversation that went something like this:

Mom: "So, summer. It is almost here. What do you guys have planned?"

Me: (in a blind panic, thinking- What the hell? Summer? Already? I do not even know where the brochures or the camp flyers are! Did I recycle them? Crap.) "Oh, you know. We are still checking things out."

Mom: "Oh, good for you. We are all signed up for swimming lessons and art camp and sewing class and math enrichment class and the library reading program and space walks..."

Me: (Did she really just say space walks? Can people do that now? I really need to go through the recycle bin.) "Ok. Good. Sounds great! We will see you there. For sure!" (Shit. And a whole bunch of my other favorite swear words.)

And then I'd do something like the Walk of Shame from college all the way home mulling over in my head how much of a failure of a mom I was for not getting on the whole space walk thing. There were nights I'd lay awake tormented by my lack of signing up; my mind seized by thoughts of my children doomed to be adult failures because I did not sign them up for a summer camp or yoga class or origami in the park. 

At some point, my thoughts shifted. 

I do this thing. I try to do it at least once a day. I learned it from someone who told me to do it on the day of my wedding. Each day, at some moment- just an ordinary moment- I stop and take a  very deep breath and take in every single thing about that moment. I try to implant in my brain the things I see, the feelings, the sounds, the colors, the words- everything about that moment in time that will never be again. I do it because I truly want to remember the moments in life that matter. It makes me feel alive. 

For example, I did it today while we walked home in the pouring rain. Lugging all the leftover school supplies and paper scraps, my children walked in front of me partially hidden by a giant golf umbrella. Fat drops of rain slid off the umbrella. They skipped. Their shoulders touched and their worn out backpacks bumped behind them. They talked silly talk- the kind of silly talk only siblings can talk. The air was cool and echoed with their giddy little laughs. I wanted so badly to stop them and hug them and tell them to stay just like that. Forever. 

I don't know when summer became yet another thing in life to be scheduled. I remember my summers as a child. My mom had us in swim lessons and an occasional class, like mime. (Really, a local college offered mime classes for kids and on the last day you "performed" your mime act. Mine kinda sucked, truth be told.) Mostly, my summer was playing in the yard, playing in the house, playing with my friends, talking to myself (seriously did this a lot as a kid), reading book after book after book, looking for worms or ants or roly-polies, and coloring (maybe on the brand new cement driveway). It was filled with what people today might consider- a whole lot of nothing. 

And guess what? I absolutely loved each and every summer vacation of my youth. I would not trade those days for anything. 

A few weeks ago, we visited our cousins. During this visit, my thoughts about our scheduled- summer- to-be were solidified. Lazily talking with my cousin, mom of 4, the conversation once again turned to what our summer plans were. I sighed this extra long sigh and admitted to her that I had not yet signed up for anything. And then I went so far as to almost admit it... aloud, but she stopped me. She said, "I know. You just can't do the grind anymore, can you? Me either."

I should have jumped up and kissed her. That was exactly it. I could not- can not- do the grind anymore. For me, it is endless and taxing and exhausting. The grind sometimes causes me to not do that thing, where I take in a moment to remember forever. The thought of being so scheduled this summer was making me neurotic. And sad.

What I was really longing for- for me and my children were endless days in which daylight stretches into night. Hands are constantly sticky from gooey ice cream and neon Popsicles. Water-logged afternoons at the pool. Digging in the dirt and weeding around our flowers. Playing games in the driveway. Reading good books on the porch. Enjoying the days of nothing together before they are gone. 

Now mind you, two months into this summer vacation, I may be singing a different tune. But, there is always sangria in the summertime. Afterall, I have this theory that prohibition was actually ended by moms two months into a summer vacation who just couldn't take it anymore.

But, for now, I am off to design  and color a giant TARDIS so that my children can play Dr. Who and have adventures- of the summer kind

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Linguistic Autobiogaphy

            My fondest memories of language are of being curled up on the couch, snuggled into my mom and my younger sister listening to my mom read us a story. Growing up in a time when there were only 5 channels on the TV, rotary phones, and no computers in homes meant we read- a lot.  My mom read to us all the time- morning, noon, night- it did not matter. At a very young age, my favorite stories were from the Golden Book series; I loved the gold bindings, the vibrant drawings, and the fact that you could write your name in the front of the book.  The Poky Little Puppy was my very favorite and I would request it be read over and over… and over again. I drank in my mother’s prosody- her beautiful sweet voice; words flowing like a calm stream at times, rising like a rapid at others. I embraced the expressions I would copy later in life- “Now where in the world is that poky little puppy?” (Sebring-Lowery, 1) and marveled in the figurative language, “He ate up all the rice pudding and crawled into bed as happy as a lark,” ( Sebring- Lowery, 10)- remembering later how impactful a simile could be in a story I was writing.  I believe my own foundation of linguistic knowledge began with these memories; the memories of being curled up with my mom- being read to. I believe my acquisition of language continued to develop through literature- either being read to or from being a reader myself.
            In kindergarten, Ms. Brown, my tiny 90 year old teacher (maybe she wasn’t really 90, but she was old and to five year olds, anyone past the age of 50 is really old) taught us phonics. Obediently, we would mimic her pronunciation of the all the vowel and consonant sounds from thin books, similar to the popular Dick and Jane series. We practiced our short vowels and long vowels, our consonant blends, and our vowels diagraphs in a rhythmic pattern until we’d mastered the correlation between print and sound. Once I mastered this; a book was always in my hand. I went home and read every Golden Book in our house, crossed out my sister’s name in the front of any she’d claimed as hers and claimed them as my own. (This did not go over well, but that is a story for a different paper.) I was a proud reader.
            I read my way through grade school. Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, and Ramona series were among my favorites. From the books in these series and others, my knowledge of semantics blossomed. “Even a small present was appreciated, because presents of any kind had been scarce while the family tried to save money so Mr. Quimby could return to school” (Cleary, 14). I acquired vocabulary when presented with words not found in every day  grade school conversation, such as appreciated and scarce. These words would one day become my own, finding their way into my conversations without me even realizing they’d gotten there.  I also acquired a broader understanding of the world around me. From the book, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, I found solace in a character whose parents had little to give her except a simple pink eraser, much like my parents who never flourished us with gifts because of their financial situation. I learned there were other families like mine, with one parent going back to school and making sacrifices because of it.
            By the time I was in sixth grade, I’d read a lot- a lot- of books. My verbal language was exceptional, my understanding of the world around me was as broad as it could be, but something was missing. I’d yet to find a book that made me love books. I’d yet to discover a  book that would encompass my whole being and stay with me forever. I’d yet to find a book that would change my life.
            That year my teacher, Mrs. Mundell, read us The Lottery Rose. This was the only (and I mean only) positive thing to happen in sixth grade. Mrs. Mundell, who was otherwise awful, read like a dream. Her voice was as fluid and soft as the flutter of a fairy’s wings. It rose and fell like a slight breeze through the trees. She read us The Lottery Rose every day after lunch and it completely hypnotized me. Irene Hunt’s tale of an abused little boy named Georgie and his beloved rose bush drew me into a world of beautiful syntax- where the words, phrases, and sentences had been composed in such a way they brought tears to my eyes. This book has stayed with me since I was 11 years old. It was the one that made me want to be a writer.
            Though I kept reading after sixth grade, I would not find a book that would stay with me until I reached adulthood. Between this time, I was acquiring language- developing it at rapid speed- through non-fiction text. Bombarded with journal articles, textbooks, magazines, and encyclopedias in high school and college, I read now to be able to communicate about the world around me with others.
The year I turned 18 was very important to me because I could vote. I am one of the countless Americans who consider this a rite of passage to adulthood. If I was going to vote for a candidate, I had to know about the candidates. I had to learn about Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush and even Ross Perot. Everyone on Concordia’s campus (yes, I did my undergraduate program right here at CUC- which at that time was CURF, Concordia University River Forest) spent the first 3 months of school debating the election. Armed with information from Time, Rolling Stone, and probably even Cosmopolitan, I sat in the KCC discussing who the best man for the job was, where we thought our country was headed, and our hopes for its future. Siding with Bill Clinton who believed, “This is not about good government; this is about doing different things,” (Wenner, 1992)), I too believed our nation was on the brink of great things. Having acquired enough facts in our heads and passion in our hearts, motivated to change government- our discussions were lively, spirited- sometimes heated. And I loved it. It was here I developed my love of argument.
By the time I had my own classroom, I considered myself a reader, a writer, and a debater. All three roles played a distinct part in my classroom discourse. I read my very first group of students The Lottery Rose, hoping they would also love its literate beauty.  We discussed child abuse, gardening, friendships, and being a good person- sometimes all afternoon. When I taught eighth grade Language Arts, I shared passages from Al Gore’s Earth in Balance and we debated environmental issues. As the years went on, my classes would read such literary classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, A Christmas Carol, Flowers for Algernon, and Night. We would discuss social injustices, share moral viewpoints, and discover the power of being moved by a piece of literature together. Through readings of poetry, such as Langston Hughes’, “I, Too” and Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”, we’d develop our prosody. The countless non-fiction articles we’d read about research topics would broaden our knowledge of the world around us, so much so that I’d often hear students talking amongst themselves about immigration, war, the Holocaust- and how they felt about it. What more could a teacher ask for?
With each thing we read, our vocabulary would grow, too. The acquisition of new words- just as it was important in my educational career- became one of my main goals as a teacher. I must fill my students’ head… and hearts with new words. Whether it was me or the students highlighting, circling, locating new words- we’d practice their pronunciations, their meanings, and their usage until each word could be owned by the students.
With all of these things, behold, my students became sophisticated young adults, and I a stronger teacher.  Just as it happened while I sat on the couch listening to my mother read numerous stories, it happens again in my classroom. As ones’ language develops, ripens, strengthens- so does another’s.
Today, I still consider myself a reader, writer, and debater. There is nothing more satisfying than a book that stays with me- the words becoming a part of me- like those in The Red Tent, Unbroken or the many education articles I devour when I have the time to. There is nothing more satisfying than composing something whose words stay with someone else- my words becoming part of them. And still nothing gets my blood flowing like a lively debate over politics or social issues. I hope by the time I am 90 (like little old Ms. Brown) I can still refer to myself in this way.

Cleary, Beverly, and Alan Tiegreen. Ramona Quimby, Age 8. New York: Morrow, 1981. Print.
Sebring Lowrey, Janette. The Poky Little Puppy. Racine, WI: Western Publishing Company, 1942. Print.

Wenner, Jann. "The Rolling Stone Article: An Interview With Bill Clinton." Rolling Stone. 17 09 1992: n. page. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. <;.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

You Have to Hear This Story

Allow me to tell you a story.

There are many parts to it, but if you give it a chance, you'll see how they all link together.

My daughter was tardy to kindergarten every day. Every single day.

The irony of this is that I am a teacher. And for eighteen years, I've given detentions to students who are tardy to my class.

I did not even realize it was a problem until parent/teacher conference time came along. Her teacher handed me the report card and my eyes could focus on nothing but the attendance box. Under "Days Tardy" the number 36 had been boldly written as if the teacher had pressed her pen down ever so slightly more when entering it.

The teacher's mouth moved, sound came out, but nothing registered. I kept staring at that 36. Heat rushed to my face and my legs began to twitch. Certainly, she must have made an error because if my career in education had taught me nothing more- the teacher is always wrong.

Once my mouth opened, words stumbled out. First, inquiry- "Are you sure this is right?" Oh, she was. She kept very accurate records because the state requires her to keep such accurate records and it would be against the law for her to not report attendance accurately. Then, challenge- "Well, is this hurting her learning?" Long pause of silence. Not exactly. Moving onto, a plea- "If you tell me what she is missing, I will do it with her at home." No, absolutely not. Calendar can only be done in kindergarten. Until finally, shame- "I just don't know what to say. I am trying." A glare.

The truth of the matter was, I was trying. For my entire life, I'd sucked at mornings, seriously sucked at them. I was the kid who often had to be dragged out of bed with threats and demands and a few times- physically dragged out of bed. I was incorrigible until after 10... or 11. I waited until the last minute to do everything- shower, eat, brush my teeth- so much so that once I started driving, some tasks just got done at stop lights.  In college, I missed more than a few... more than  a lot... of my 8 AM classes, to the point that a visit to the dean's office was necessary. By the time my daughter was in kindergarten, being an only parent was still quite new to me. There I was, the girl who sucked at mornings, now trying to get a herself, 2 small children, a dog and a cat all ready for the day. (Ok, the cat doesn't really count, but he is one more living thing who took up moments in my mornings.) And, the bigger truth of the matter was- I still sucked at it.

My daughter being tardy to kindergarten became a bone of contention for pretty much the rest of the school year. There were days when everything went just right- picture the merry scenes in Snow White or Cinderella when all the little animals come to help- and we were all smiles and on time, but most days- most days were what my son would now call "epic fails." Someone was missing a sock, the milk spilled all over the kitchen floor, the dog ran away, I turned the alarm off instead of hitting snooze, traffic backed up for miles- whatever the matter, we walked in 5 or 10 minutes late many... many... more times that year. The teacher never got over it. In fact, I heard from other teachers at the school that she complained about it in the teachers' lounge. (Even more irony- I was the one being talked about in the teachers' lounge now.) Finally, one of my daughter's preschool teacher's told her, "You know. That mom is doing the best she can. There's more to it than you know."

But, you know, I don't think she wanted to know. She did not want to know my story. It bothered her immensely that we were late and missed the calendar activity every day. She took it personally, when, really it had nothing to do with her and everything to do with me. Our tardies were becoming part of my story.

My story was unfolding and shaping and ripening. Just like yours is.

Allow me to continue my story.

The other night I had the distinct privilege to attend a lecture given by Alex Kotlowitz.

In case you just heard crickets, Alex Kotlowitz wrote the award winning biography, There Are No Children Here. For one of my education classes many years ago, this book was required reading. We had to read other similar books including, Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol and Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder. There Are No Children Here so engrossed me, I read it in a day. The same happened with the other books. What so hooked me, what so moved me were the stories. Stories of people, some who lived not so very far away from me, yet seemed to live a million miles away from me. Their lives, their struggles, their hopes wove their wave into my heart. Because stories do that.

Alex Kotlowitz's lecture was about storytelling and how much it is fading from our culture. He spoke of how many people have stopped listening to other's stories, how maybe, they don't even care to know their story.

Could that be true? Have we become a society that no longer values its stories?

Sitting there, becoming downhearted, I thought of the world around me. That world you live in- the news you hear or see, the people you interact with, the things that bother you, the things that elate you- thought of all of it and how often examples of the lack of stories had been a part of it.

Just a few weeks before, I'd had one of those days as a teacher- a day with no plan. Really, it happens. You might be in between units or waiting for another round of testing to be over or stuck in a time of great attendance lows (think the days before winter or spring break). Moments before 130 students storm through your door, you find yourself with absolutely not one thing for them to do. For me, these are sometimes the times when the best lesson plan comes into play.

Common Core contains an oral speaking standard. By the time a child leaves public school, they should be proficient in public speaking. Therefore, teachers must provide ample instruction and opportunities for oral speaking. (For the record, this is easier said than done. And the next person who tells me teaching is so easy a monkey could do, I am going to assign them this task- teaching eighth graders about public speaking- and then sitting there while they do it- all 130 of them.)

But, I digress in my storytelling...

So, it is minutes before the 130 students ram their way into the school door's and I had a few thoughts. First, I'd been thinking lately how this year I feel like I don't know my students. There has been so much shift in education discourse that the student- the people- in front of us have been lost. Then, I remembered we hadn't done an oral presentation in a while. And finally, I thought it best to combine these two problems. So when my gifted class walked in I informed them they would be turning their personal narratives into a storytelling presentation.

They groaned. They moaned. They slammed their books and binders onto their desks and then they said, "Ok. How do we do that?"

So, I taught them about storytelling- what it is, how you do it, the best tips for it, shared examples of it (even one of my own) and gave them time to practice. All the while, it was never far from my thoughts, that this... was never going to work. 35 students had to get up in front of the class, no notes, and just... tell their story.

But the magical thing was, it did work. It worked so well that we laughed. We cried. We cheered... really for one student who gave such compelling tale of his experience with a kindergarten bully, we cheered and gave him a standing ovation. We learned that one girl nearly drown and still fears the water, one girl felt the freest she ever has while zip-lining in Hawaii, one boy helped a homeless family in Mexico, and another boy had recently become a proud uncle.

The thing of it is without those stories, we might still only see that quiet boy who sits in the back and never adds to the discussion, the boy who never does his work, the socially awkward girl who doesn't really fit in, the beautiful girl who nobody thinks is smart, or the boy who constantly goofs around.

Without the stories in Alex Kotlowitz's biography, you might only see the young boys from the projects doomed to continue the cycle of poverty. Without my story, you might only see the mom who can't get her children to school on time.

And what of the numerous people who pass through our lives every day, the ones so easy to judge-that mom didn't show up at the grade school classroom party, or that guy from the office who always keeps his distance, or the people standing in an unemployment line, or the... people around us with stories to tell.

Everyone has a story. And everyone's story is worth hearing and knowing. But, let my students convince you because after that storytelling experience, they told me it was awesome, the best thing that had ever happened in school. Through their stories they had become a family. And to think, it almost never happened.

What if we never heard another person's story? What if we stop listening to each other's stories all together? What would we be then?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Language of Me

My mother has so often and so fondly told the story of my first sentence it is embedded in my brain. Even though I was there and I said it, I have no actual memory of it. However, her recall is enough for me to feel as though I do.

We were outside one warm summer afternoon. My mother chatted in the backyard with our next door neighbor, Colette while I scampered about delighted by the vast yard and green grass tickling my feet. I was twelve months old.

Colette had two teenage sons, Donny and Ronny. As any teenage son will do, they often annoyed her with their mischievous antics. On this particular day, Donny had driven Colette to the point of grief and she hollered at him. Pausing my play, I turned, looked at the adults and said as clearly as this is typed, "Damn Donny, anyway." Colette, Donny, and my mom hooted with laughter as I had perfectly mimicked one of Colette's favorite phrases. (Some might also consider this sentence a prelude to all the swearing I would do later in life, but I do not.)

I have not stopped talking since.

My memories of childhood are laced with memories of conversation. My family was always talking. Always. My mother and grandmother sitting at my grandmother's kitchen table, steaming cups of hot tea in front of them, talking. My mother and her younger sister in her lilac bedroom, talking. My mother, father, and younger sister gathered around our dinner table each night, talking. My entire family- aunts, uncles, cousins- sandwiched in a living room or family room during the holidays, talking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations of my youth. I loved the banter back and forth, the hushed tones when the topic became not one for young ears (like mine, always listening), the rise and fall of the voices, the words- big, long, fancy, hard to pronounce words or simple, sweet, musical words. I loved the hand motions and facial expressions matching the words. The hands in the air when someone was exasperated, tears in the eyes when someone was sad, the arms that would open for a hug when someone would hear happy news; I simply loved it all. I took it all in and let it fill me up. Conversation meant comfort.

Besides being part of conversations with my family, my language developed through play. My sister and I played our way through childhood. Barbies, Legos, house, school, church, dollhouse & restaurant were among our favorite pastimes. When playing, we "talked" for the Barbies, the Lego people, the pretend mom and daughter in our pretend house, the pretend teacher and students and pretend patrons at our basement restaurant. Each pretend person had a voice. I remember the stern tone for the teacher and the raspy-from-cigarettes tone for the cook at the restaurant. The dialogue grew more sophisticated as we grew. We mimicked the dialogue of TV shows we watched and of people we came across in real life. Our play was endless and thus our language developed greatly.

Having been talked to and read to all my life, grade school was relatively "easy". Therefore, I talked. A lot. At many parent/teacher conferences, my mother heard, "Sherri needs to stop talking to her friends." I didn't talk on purpose, I talked because I craved the interaction it brought.

Technology was a long, long way from smart phones, social media sites, and interactive video games, so my friends and I had nothing else to do but actually talk to each other. Face to face. Aloud. Every day. Therefore, because of language and the interactions I had with it, I became a social person.

By the time I was in high school, the phone was my favorite household appliance and it was the first time I remember discussing social issues. Through long... long phone conversations, I developed ways to articulate the beliefs I had in my heart and head. I learned one must support their beliefs with facts and therefore, I slowly became more interested in the world around me. I learned you could not just spew out emotional rants, but rather must argue with a sensible tone and a wise mind.

This knowledge and language development would deem very important in college. At Concordia, I was an outsider. My beliefs, words, and ideals were constantly challenged. My language was often considered offensive. It wasn't until my senior year of college that I realized I did not really know how to listen.

My senior year of college had enough room in my schedule that I was granted permission to take graduate level psychology courses. One course was a counseling course. With the exception of my education classes, it was the college class I learned the most in . I learned how to listen to people. I learned how to not just hear the words they were saying, but the words they weren't. I learned how to read their body language. I leaned how to ask them better questions, ones which would allow them to give me better answers. All of these things paved the way to better conversations and a better understanding of my role as a teacher.

I have to admit, part of the reason I became a teacher is because I like to talk. I am paid to talk. All day. I love it. Throughout my career, I have learned a teacher must have the perfect balance of simple and sophisticated language when speaking to their students. A teacher must be able to articulate the rudimentary steps in a process with a hint of challenging vocabulary so the student is always growing, always striving for that next bit of knowledge.

Early on in my career, I realized my students' language was... well, not very stellar. Many of my students lacked the knowledge of and appreciation for conversation. They also lacked vocabulary- they had no words. This is still true today.

It deeply saddens me at the end of the year when a student tells me, "Ms. Hope. You were like the only teacher to ever just talk to me. To us." I've heard it too many times.

From the first to the last day of school, I talk to my students. Sometimes I ask them what they had for dinner last night, sometimes I ask them what they did in a certain class, sometimes I tell them an anecdote about my own children. Other times, I share a news story with them and ask what they think of it. Or we talk about incidents that have happened in our school. Or we just talk about what celebrities they think are really cute. I really don't care what we talk about, I just want them to talk. I want them to feel that their voice has value. I want them to know that their words matter.

We also do weekly vocabulary challenges. The students are given ten words to learn on Monday. They have a worksheet with practice exercises that is due on Thursday. They are tested on the words on Friday. By the end of the year, my students are exposed to over 200 new words. (Admittedly, some of these words were "new" to me, too.) As we learn the words, I post them in pocket charts. They can see their learning. Their vocabulary worksheets are filed in their English Reference Folder (a folder kept in class which contains all the class handouts). The words are always available to them. For each and every writing assignment, the students must correctly use a certain number of Challenge Vocabulary words in it. Mid year, I start telling them the words they most often use (elated, dejected, gregarious, admonish, etc.) will not count for points. They must select other words, thus forcing them to expand their word usage. They all groan and gasp in horror, but they do it. However, this is not my favorite part of their vocabulary knowledge and development. My favorite thing is when students rush into class gushing, "Ms. Hope! So, I was reading my book last night and, Ms. Hope! There was a Challenge Vocabulary word in it!" or "Ms. Hope! When I was watching TV last night, they said a Challenge Vocabulary word!" My response is usually, "Get out of here! or No way!" But, nothing makes me more proud than that.

As for my future language development, I do not want to ever stop learning to be a better speaker, writer, and listener. I hope to always embrace new words and terminology. I hope my love of language is passed to my daughter and son. Maybe one day my love of language could be shared with college students- potential teachers and the next generation of students will come to appreciate this thing we do sometimes too little- talking.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Best Day of My Life

Ten years ago this coming July, I got married. Let me tell you about my wedding day.

It was a day I waited twelve years for. Twelve years. That is a long time to wait. And that day was worth every second of the wait. I still think that with all my heart and I have been divorced for five years.

As for the planning and the details, I was anything but a bridezilla. I did not care so much about the color scheme or of flowers for my bouquet or about the center pieces on the dinner table. My bridesmaids could wear their hair up or down and the only requirement for their shoes was that they wouldn't hurt their feet after a long night of dancing. We had one thing we wanted our wedding to be- fun for everyone.

That year July 31st fell on a Saturday and I was overjoyed because that is both of my grandmother's birthdays. I couldn't have imagined a more perfect date to begin a new chapter of my life on.

It was a hot July day, but not one so hot that no one wanted to move. It is hard to recall everything I did that day leading up to the ceremony and reception, there are only snippets of moments lodged in my head. I remember slipping into my dress in the hotel room. It was absolutely simple purchased for less than one hundred dollars at a quinceanera store, bedazzled with a few sequins at the top and bottom. I remember taking a few pictures with my sister and a few of my bridesmaids before leaving for the banquet hall. Once at the banquet hall, I remember waiting in the bridal suite with all the bridesmaids, who were decked out in white satin blouses and long dark peach skirts, toasting with champagne and the chef who would soon cook our delicious meal. I remember watching every single guest come in the doors, as the bridal suite overlooked the parking lot. I remember being amazed as each person showed up, even though their reply card had told me they would, I just could not believe they had actually come- for our day. I remember being happy. Every single inch of my body, mind, and soul was in harmony.

When it came time for the ceremony to begin, I remember having to wait an extra few minutes because so many guests had come that more chairs needed to be set up. I was overly anxious to just go out there and see everyone. Then, just as the coordinator gave my parents and I the final nod to begin, a voice spoke to me.

Go ahead, snicker if you must, but a voice spoke to me. I heard it just as I'd hear you say something to me. My parents lifted their feet to begin the walk down the aisle and I momentarily pulled back wondering if I should actually listen to the voice.

It had said, "Do not go. Do not do it."

It was firm and loud and deep.

At that moment, I did not see or hear or feel anything else except for that voice. It engulfed me. And I panicked. My heart raced and my mind spun and I wanted to yell out for time to stop so I could think.

This probably lasted no more than 30 seconds, but it felt like much longer.

There was a part of me that nearly turned around, not quite understanding why, but today, I wonder was it the part of me that would someday become... me... right now. The girl who was going to be cheated on, see her husband led out of their home in handcuffs, divorced, left with two very small children... the girl who would be alone. Was she there that day, possibly ready to avoid the hurt and grief and sorrow?

But, instead, I shook the voice away and marched down the aisle, trying to make eye contact with every single person there so I would remember them forever... remember that day forever.

When I made it to the end of the aisle, I remember holding my husband's hand and it felt as it always did, warm and right. It swallowed mine up and eased my racing heart.

Our ceremony was brief, covering all the things a wedding ceremony does. It was invigorating to stand in front of all the people we loved and become a unit, a team, a family. I loved it. I loved saying my vows and promising them forever. There was not a moment during that ceremony I doubted what I was promising. When it was over and we were husband and wife, my entire faced ached from smiling so grandly.

The rest of the evening, the reception, was indeed the best night of my life. There was never a reception as fun as ours. Again, I remember only snippets of it as it passed so quickly. I remember being told it was time for dinner and looking around for a way to tell the crowd gathered for cocktail hour to move into the dining room. My cousin, whom I had babysat and now towered over me, grabbed me and lifted me high above his head so I could call out to everyone. And everyone stopped and looked at me. And they were smiling right along with me.

Taking the advice of someone (I now forget who it was that told me this), once dinner was served, I put down my fork for a moment and forced myself to pause and take it in. I breathed deeply and peered around the room, taking in each face of my loved ones, watching them smile and laugh and talk. I took it all in and filled myself up with that moment in time because it was the only time all the people I loved would be in the same room together and what it is more grand than that? And even though my marriage ended as it did, I still can feel that moment if I close my eyes.

We had given the DJ names of couples that were attending the wedding and he called out their names during dinner. They had to show us how to kiss and we'd repeat what they had done. This became a competition! I wish you could have been there to see the antics and the guests' creativity and competitiveness!

I remember the dance floor, always my favorite place to be at a wedding. Guests crowded our dance floor all night. All night. Friends "performed" "Rapper's Delight" and my cousins did the dance to "Bye, Bye, Bye". It was like a show! I remember laying down on the dance floor at one point, so exhausted, and asking the DJ if it was all over. He laughed and told me I still had a long way to go. I remember jumping up, not missing another beat.

We posed for countless candid pictures, slung back shots of whiskey, and covered every single inch of that reception room with fun. That night, that room, our family and friends was the definition of joy.

As everything does, the wedding came to an end. My final memories are of driving my husband's car out of the parking lot, him in the passenger seat telling me that our wedding was the most fun- the best wedding ever. I remember grinning and knowing he was right. It was.

It would be weeks before I would remember the voice that almost stopped me from having the best night of my life. And when I remembered it, it had become so faint, I wondered if I'd ever heard it at all. I thought of it and that moment it spoke to me from time to time throughout my marriage and always asked myself the same question, "Why?" Why did I hear it?

I know the answer now. But, with all sincerity, I am entirely glad I did not listen to it. If I had, I would have missed the best day of my life, and who wants to miss that?