Thursday, November 9, 2017

On being better

Photo courtesy of Edna Winti/Flickr

Ever have a week when you're feeling a bit– stretched? 

Like you try to land on a thought for a minute but immediately feel tugged to the next thing and the next thing before the first thing was ever completed? Your brain a whirring assembly line racing to build a rush order of poorly made whatevers. And that's just what's happening in the gray matter. 

Simultaneously, there's external input. The dog barking. The incoming work assignments. The questions about what's for dinner. The subsequent complaints about what's for dinner. The dishes piling up in the sink. The laundry piling up in the baskets. The requests for chocolate milk, for playdates, for a visit to the book fair, for help putting on socks, for helping tying shoes. The fighting about hair brushing and tidying up and who got to pick the last TV show. 

This is, of course, how life always is. It's always like this. The difference this week is me, I think. You know, my ability to deal with it all. That and maybe the weather. After the most mild fall ever this week it finally turned. It's overcast and rainy and cold. I can't get warm. 

Last night, after the kids went to bed, I'd planned to write. But instead, I sat down on the couch, wrapped a blanket around me and sat bundled in the silence. The assembly line shut itself down. Sometimes our brains override our own best intentions.

So here I am today instead. Still trying to land on just one thought. But coming up with a billion.

Brad and I started watching "This is Us" last year, hoping it could be a substitute for our beloved "Parenthood." We don't watch a ton of TV, but once a week we like to veg on the couch together watching something we can both agree on. It's no "Parenthood," though. I mean, we watch it every week and all and it's fine. It has its moments. But it's just not the same. Brad says the only character he really likes is Jack. He says Kevin belongs with Caillou and Map from "Dora the Explorer" on a list of TV's most annoying characters. I don't totally agree, but I know what he means.

People write all the time about needing entire boxes of tissues to get through an episode of "This is Us," but except for the episode where William and Randall took a road trip to Memphis, I really haven't teared up. Even without saying anything, William's gentle presence always has a way of warming a scene.

I kind of get annoyed that every episode seems to be a compilation of well-written monologues– the characters constantly sharing platitudes about life to anyone who will listen– unborn babies, the guy selling ceiling fans at the hardware store, strangers at a coffee shop or an urn of ashes. I joke with Brad that every week the director must assemble the cast shouting out, "You get a speech! And you get a speech! And you get a speech!" Like Oprah giving away cars.

These characters are all flawed and damaged in their own way, sure. But you wouldn't know that to hear them speak. They're constantly figuring out life for our benefit. The way they speak just glows. All the time. They seem to have wisdom the rest of us don't have. So I feel removed from them. 

In journalism we're trained to show, not tell. To find ways to illustrate what is happening in the story using words without explicitly spelling it out for the reader. Instead of saying a kid was being obnoxious, for instance, write about how they ran into your room at 5:45 a.m., jumped on your bed and demanded Honey Combs. RIGHTNOW!!! And then proceeded to shove their face in yours and lick your nose while meowing like a cat until you got up. It puts readers in the action. Makes the story richer, more relatable.

Anyway, sometimes I feel "This is Us" does more telling than showing. And I find myself wishing the characters were a bit more human. I miss William– who said so much just with his eyes. I miss the Bravermans from "Parenthood" or the Taylor's from "Friday Night Lights." They always managed to convey a deep well of emotion without having to say much of anything. 

But I was pleasantly surprised this week when we sat down to watch "This is Us." 

In the episode, Randall took his foster daughter to visit her mother in prison, only the mother refuses to see her daughter. With this as the premise, I immediately rolled my eyes– assuming the story was going to be about how lucky their foster daughter is that she landed with Randall's beautiful, well-heeled family. How terrible the girl's mother was. I mean, it's not hard to create conflict and shape heroes when you have the black of white scenario of prisoner versus foster parent. Good guy vs. bad mom.

These days I find myself struggling with these roles we create in society. This whole good vs. evil dichotomy just isn't serving us. And we see it so often in entertainment. And it's so tempting to organize our worldviews along these lines. 

I see this playing out in school, too.

Earlier this week I was in the library at the middle school with a class full of kids with learning disabilities and/or emotional needs. There were a couple students in the class who stuck out more than the others because of their quirky ways of speaking and behaving. One of the boys in the class–one who by outward appearances seemed more "normal"– was picking on one of these students, another boy. He'd mock the way the boy spoke or get into his personal space trying to provoke him. 

Generally, just being your typical seventh grade asshole. 

The kid who was being picked up got fed up and told the other boy to "fuck off." I had to take him aside and tell him that language wasn't appropriate. He told me that one of the ways he dealt with frustration was swearing. And while I totally related, I also maintained that profanity was not allowed in school (except, I thought to myself, for maybe in the teacher's lounge or in an empty classroom where teachers on their lunch break lament unfinished stacks of paperwork or when you have to ask a kid for the 20th time to put their shoes back on and to stop blowing on their classmates).

I also took the other boy aside and told him to back off. I asked him if he'd ever been picked on. He said, "no." But I didn't believe him. Not for a second. He was posturing. I told him I knew he wasn't a bad person and that I expected him to be better than the person he was being. That I knew he had a good heart. He didn't seem convinced. In fact, I wasn't entirely convinced either. 

The previous time I'd been an instructional assistant in a class with him he'd spent the entire period rolling around the room on the teacher's chair, periodically tapping the Smartboard to mess with the PowerPoint presentation that was on. He'd already talked to an administrator once that class– since the other students didn't seem particularly fazed by his behavior, the teacher and I let it go. I know this probably sounds crazy. But you have to understand, just about every kid in the class has behavioral issues. We're often in survival mode. There's a lot we roll with. Literally.

He is not an easy kid to teach. But my job as a substitute teacher is to teach him. And while it would be easy and probably justifiable and probably really satisfying to tell this kid (who I know nothing about outside of his behavior in this one class) about himself– what purpose would it serve? I don't know that his having one more person calling him a bully would make him want to be any less of a bully. Labels are really hard to escape. Especially the labels we get when we're 12 or 13. I don't think he needed to hear that he was a jerk. It think he needed to be reminded that it was never too late to be kind.

At the end of class that day in the library, he yelled an apology across the room to the other boy. It wasn't entirely sincere– but it was a step in the right direction. I made sure he knew I'd heard him, and that I appreciated the gesture. 

Watching "This is Us" I was relieved when Randall returned to the prison to talk to his foster daughter's mother. And while he started out with a kind of self-righteous, "I'm on this side of the glass" speech, the girl's mother– the one on the wrong side of the glass– got to have her say, too. She made sure he knew that life was messier and more complicated than he knew and that she loved her daughter and would fight for her. 

That's right, she got a speech, too.

I loved, too, that they returned to William. Sharing the story of his drug arrest and how he went in front of a judge and told the man he had nothing left to live for and that he was the most disappointed man in the world. Seeing the broken person in front of him, the judge opts to give him a second chance. 

Somehow these things– "This is Us" and the kids at school– somehow they go together. In my head anyway. 

We just can't give up on people. If we give up on the possibility of goodness in others, assuming they're just inherently bad, then what are we even doing here? Why are we bothering? 

Each of us is one poor decision from being the person on the wrong side of the glass either literally or metaphorically. And each of us has to potential to be better. Every day we do.

I'm working on a story for the United Way of York County about New Hope Christian Ministries, an organization that provides aide to people with all varieties of need in York, Pa. 

I just got off the phone with the ministry's executive director. I asked him what inspired his work. And the good Christian he is, he shared the story of the Good Samaritan, which is probably obvious and maybe cliche. But we all need a go-to story for being a better neighbor.

Why did he think his work is important to the community?


"I don’t know that there’s a better answer than just trying to be a good," he said.

I don't know that there's a better answer either. We just need to try to be good. Even if we bumble along at it.

As I'm sorting through the remaining detritus on the factory floor of my brain this week, I keep tripping over this incident from yesterday.

I was at the middle school (because it seems I'm always at the middle school). I was running an errand as an office aide when one of the special ed teachers, muttering something about Lady Godiva, nabbed me in the hallway and asked me to come with her.

One of her students had experienced some gastro-intestinal distress in his pants during gym class. He'd responded by stripping down in class and running through the hall. She asked if I'd go to the resource center to get him some clean cloths and deliver them to another instructional assistant waiting by the boy's locker room.

While delivering the clothes, I passed by the school's crisis resource teacher, whose job is, as far as I can tell, to race from one student meltdown after another. All. Day. Long. 

The teacher told me he had to deliver a student to a class but would be right behind me with some wipes.

When he arrived at the locker room door, wipes in hand, he asked who was going to clean up the student (while he was technically in seventh grade this particular student was developmentally much younger– just so you can understand why a 12-year-old boy might need assistance cleaning up after himself). 

The IA and I looked at each other and shrugged.

"Me," the resource teacher said. "I guess the answer is me."

He sighed, bowed his head and walked into the locker room.

While he hardly used any words, this teacher said so much. 

He told me what compassion looks like. 

He told me that it commands us to do the things we'd rather not have to do. It gives us a primer for how to be good. 

Life is complicated and messy. 

We are complicated and messy and imperfect, too.

We're stretched thin and it's noisy and everyone is whining. We're tired and annoyed and definitely don't want to be the person called on to clean up after the next disaster. But we do it anyway. And when we do– when we do we become better than we were before. 

That's the beauty of being human.

That's who we are.

This is us.  

Monday, October 30, 2017

That time lice taught me about happiness

I'm going to be all over the place tonight. I know this now. The last couple weeks have been kind of nonstop and full of stuff. Work stuff and school stuff and friend stuff and sibling stuff and kid stuff and spouse stuff. You know all the stuff. 

When I sit down to write any thoughts, it's as if they're dollar bills swirling around one of those money-blowing machines. What's the thing I want to say? What's the thing to share? What can I hang on to?

Today, oddly enough, I find myself clinging to the bills marked "happiness."

And, oddly enough, I think it started with the lice.

Yeah. You read that right. 

The lice.

As in the lice we found casually crawling around both girls' heads a couple weeks back. The lice that required the application of some pretty pungent shampoo followed by hours and hours and hours of combing through their hair in search of wayward bugs and eggs.

I now have an intimate understanding of the word nitpicky. Up until a couple weeks ago, I'd never describe myself as being particularly nitpicky. I've always felt pretty laid-back a little bit more loose-y goose-y when it came to details. No, it wasn't until I was literally picking for nits that I realized just how nitpicky I can be. It was a real moment of clarity and self-awareness. 

But that's not where the happiness came in.

That came from all the time I got to spend with my girls. All the hours they had to sit in front of me as I sorted through their hair section by section. I haven't studied their scalps so closely since they were infants. And it brought me back to those moments of their babyhood– when I had to be so careful and so gentle and so thorough. How I had to invest so much time in them. As they've gotten older and more independent, those moments are becoming fewer and further between. It filled me with a sense of peace almost that I could still be that sort of mother to them. Who could embrace them and care for them in their ickiest moments. 

Nitpicking. It's both humbling and kind of empowering. 

And also amusing.

Because then I got to experiment with fun hairstyles the girls would never, ever, ever let me do otherwise.




And then there was how nonplussed the girls were by the whole thing. They weren't freaked out by the bugs. Weren't embarrassed either. We told them that until we'd done the second RID treatment, they shouldn't hug any of their friends. We practiced this whole routine where if a friend was going in for a hug, they'd hold out their hand and say "Stop! High five!" 

Lily went off script a little on the way to school one morning when she ran into her friend and shouted proudly, "Stop! High five! I have head lice!" 

As Brad tells it, her friend's mom (our friend and neighbor) did a double take and might have gone a bit pale before asking Brad if she'd heard Lily correctly. To be absolutely clear, at this point, she had no living lice on her head. Still. The mention of lice living or dead would make anyone a bit cringe-y and a bit itchy.

Good news though. We're officially lice free. 

Big win. More happiness.

This whole lice episode happened just a week before I was schedule to spend five days in middle school subbing for a special ed teacher. I'd agreed to the job a while back. As it neared I found myself kind of regretting that I'd signed on to do it. Middle school hasn't become any less anarchic since I first started subbing. And special ed is its own unique brand of chaos. A unique brand of chaos that I've had zero training for. I worried that I was way in over my head. 

That worry was not unfounded. I kind of lost track of the number of times I had to ask myself what hell I was doing– like during garden club, when I watched in horror as one of my students nearly decapitated a kid planting seeds during some especially exuberant hoeing or all the times I had to pray that the kid who just ran out out of the classroom shouting bathroom would actually return. 

They kind of run you around in circles, these kids. Completing two worksheets on mixed numbers seems straightforward enough, but doing it with students who wander the classroom reciting entire episodes of "The Littles" or who spend a majority of the class making fart noises on their arms while their classmates groan in annoyance or who refuse to even look at the work in front of them because they're already convinced there's no way on earth they can do it– trying to get work done under those circumstances is nothing short of a miracle. 

Part way through the week I was forced to accept that it was OK that I had no idea what I was doing. That there was no one single formula that would work in these classes– except for patience. So much patience. And the willingness to plow ahead through the absurdity. And to laugh about it even. And to celebrate any win, no matter how small.

I felt pretty good about myself when I remembered to hide the Play-Doh before the class with a habitual Play-Doh eater arrived. My pride was quickly tampered when said Play-Doh eater showed some problem-solving skills and grabbed a glue stick and ate a chunk of it. I mean, they are trying to teach these kids to have some flexible thinking– so, if you think about it, it's kind of a win.

(I made a note to myself to hide the glue sticks, too.)

But this same student– a boy who rarely talks except to ask repeatedly for an iPad (he liked to watch "Sesame Street" during downtime)– surprised me when he started singing "Here Comes the Sun." I sang it back to him, "here comes the sun" and he did the "doo, doo, doos" and then I sang, "and I say" and he sang "it's all right." 

And then he asked for an iPad (uh-gain).

But I didn't care. Because my heart was smiling. 

You know, this what you get in this life. These moments. This is it. That's what special ed has taught me. We're all fumbling through this life in our own ways. Whether we're the (substitute) teacher trying to show students how to add fractions or we're the student who's overwhelmed by fractions and who just wants to listen to the theme song for "Strawberry Shortcake" 15 times in a row (she may be small, but no task is too tall). We're all kind of winging it. Instead of panicking– maybe we just need to go with the flow. 

Don't worry, be happy.

This is hardly revelatory, I know. Boy do I know.

I have an entire page-a-day calendar about happiness that keeps reminding me of this exact thing almost every day.





There's a whole self-help industry that's centered on teaching all us broken people how to be happy. And in the end the message is always the same, it's the little things. 

At the start of the year, under advisement from Liz Gilbert, I bought a jar that I was supposed to fill with notes about what made me happy each day. That jar is far from full. Not because there haven't been things that have made me happy every day, but because I haven't made it a point to write them down. To acknowledge them as more than just an isolated passing thing. 

The thing is, while these moments that make us happy might be fleeting and finite, strung together, they strengthen the fabric of our lives. And anyway, they're only fleeting because we forget them so quickly. We don't allow them to become more permanent in our brains. We allow them to run off into obscurity because we don't think they're important enough. But they are.

They are important enough. They're the most important.

"And I say, it's alright."

This week as I'm grabbing at the bills swirling around me, I'm aware of so many more moments that are worth noting. Like instead of staring at the night sky polluted by the lights of the suburbs, I'm staring at the sky in the middle of nowhere. There are so many more stars. All the stars.

Here are some from the past week:


  • Taking the girls to see my friend Stephanie's dad, who I hadn't seen in years, and listening to he and Lily exchange terrible jokes (he was always known for the dad-est of dad jokes. i.e. "What do you call a bear with no teeth? A gummy bear." Har. De Har. Har. Har. Lily has met her spirit animal.)
The girls, posing with anthracite coal, shortly after Stephanie's dad says,
"Come over here! I'll show you what anthracite coal looks like!"


  • The girls making dying cow noises back and forth with my 17-year-old nephew Finny as we pulled away from their house. To be clear, the dying cow noises were awful. But engaging in obnoxious shenanigans with their cousin? Priceless.
  • Listening to one of the students last week ask another teacher for a ride home because he didn't want to ride, "the junky bus." Because what kid doesn't think the bus is junky?
  • Getting a surprise package with Stephanie's handwriting. The same handwriting she's used for letters and packages to me for the more than 20 years I've known her. How lucky am I to have such wonderful friends for so much of my life?

  • Randomly giving a mom and her 12-year-old daughter, in town from Arizona, a ride to the Metro station and learning that the girl is a near pitch-perfect incredible singer after she serenades us.
  • Jovie as Poppy from "Trolls" and Lily as Elena of Avalor.


Subbing in special ed last week was exhausting. I came home every night wanting to sleep forever. My brain hurt. So did my feet. But on Friday, when another special ed teacher asked if I could come in for her on Monday, I said, yes.

Because they're teaching me about how to be a better human. 

A portrait of me. Drawn by one of the students I taught last week.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Being a girl

Photo courtesy of Ian D. Keating/Flickr

Last night, after reading stories about Harvey Weinstein and Mayim Bialik's New York Time's Op-Ed and then criticism of Bialik's Op-Ed– I felt agitated. Disgusted, too. Angry. But I had this itchy feeling that I get under my skin when I'm trying to find clarity on an issue and can't quite sort out my thoughts.

I started writing in my journal* hoping to figure out why it was I felt so angry and frustrated about everything I was reading. Part of it, of course, was that someone could amass so much influence and wealth while systematically and habitually abusing women for three decades. It's disgusting and disturbing. But it's not new, is it? We can't honestly say that we're surprised that someone would leverage their name and their money and their power to take advantage of a person or a situation, can we? 

It's infuriating, but not because it's anything new. Maybe it's that bang-our-head-against-the-wall fury we feel when these stories are unearthed every few weeks or few months or few years. Now do you understand why women feel so angry? Now do you understand why women feel so marginalized? Now do you understand why women feel so vulnerable? Now do you get it? 

Now? 

NOW?!

Except that even now as we're tar-and-feathering one Jabba-the-Hut-sized lothorio parading himself as a champion for women, there are others doing the exact same thing at this exact moment. And who will continue doing the exact same thing. Because we don't demand more of our CEOs, presidents, generals, heroes, leaders.

Even as I'm writing now I'm recalling another Washington Post story from the past couple weeks– this one about an Air Force Colonel who trapped a female subordinate in an office and forcibly kissed her after months of sending her lewd and harassing texts (including a video of himself masturbating). Instead of being courtmartialed, sent to prison and being registered as a sex offender, he was disciplined for "minor offenses."

And you could click the "related links" in this story or the Weinstein story or the Cosby story or the Fox News stories or the stories about sexual harassment at Uber or the stories of sexual assault at [insert name of NCAA men's sports team here] back to the dawn of the internet and still not scratch the surface of the problem.

And these are only the stories of the wealthy, influential and famous. This doesn't even account for the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of incidences we will probably never know about. The ones involving regular people going about their regular lives. 

Remember Nabra Hassanen, the 17-year-old Muslim girl beaten to death just miles from my house? The man suspected of killer her was indicted today, not only for her murder, but also for rape

My Facebook feed today is filled with "Me too's." All these women I know posting that they've been sexually harassed or assaulted. I'm certain there are plenty more who chose not to raise their hands. And I'm angry for them. Angry that they feel their hands were held to the flames of just ... nonstop, endless, forever assault and that the only possible way they felt they could change the status quo was to face the demon yet again. The one they don't get to escape from ever. 

Who are we as a society that this is what we require of our most vulnerable?

I've hesitated about posting a "Me, too." Not because I'm all that shy about exposing my fleshy underbelly, but because I'm not sure my experiences quite qualify. Maybe they're on the spectrum. Maybe that's enough. I'm not sure. 

This again is where I lack clarity. But feel that itch. Right under my skin.

Last night I found myself writing in my journal, "I feel dispossessed of my body." I'm not really sure where that comes from. Only that I've felt that way for years. That I really feel uncomfortable in this body. That it's not really mine. That I'd prefer not to acknowledge it or deal with it in any way. That way nobody needs to have an opinion about it, least of all me. 

It's not about feeling like I'm in the wrong body. It's not a self-esteem thing. Just that when I'm alone, out in the world, I feel like a balloon head with all its thoughts and ideas floating above a body that isn't about thoughts and ideas. And that I'd rather just be the balloon head.



I've gone down a rabbit hole, I realize.

It's these memories that pop up. Like being nicknamed "Piggy Sue" and "Fridge" (after William "Refrigerator" Perry) when I was little. Little, little. How my hair was always too wild and untamable. And that time those boys in elementary school followed me, barking as I walked home from school. And how these guys in high school called me a feminazi– which somehow made me feel less attractive, less feminine, which probably means I wasn't a feminazi, but a high school girl, like so many other high school girls, who was profoundly disappointed by high school boys. How by college I had the sinking feeling that while I'd go out of my way to validate men, they weren't going to go out of their way to validate me. I had the sense that men see the world as theirs already. That I saw the world as something I needed to fight to have a piece of. How I got to a certain point in life– maybe mid-high school– and I had this thought that what made me attractive was that I was a certain type of shape. Like it all came down to geometry. 

I know, I know, this doesn't make any sense. 

I can and will only speak for myself. But I thought of this analogy the other day while trying to get to the bone of my thinking. It was this: That I feel like a rock that's been tossed around the ocean for millennia. That my whole sense of self has been shaped by the perceptions of the things I've bumped into and scraped against. 

That's probably not particularly original. Or even enlightening. 

But it feels kind of true to me. 

So when it comes to conversations about sexuality, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, my attitudes about it, its affect on me– that's where I stand. I've been thrown around waves of our day and age for almost 36 years and the result is I don't spend much time in front of mirrors, I hate selfies, I hate (most) pictures of myself, and even if I do like the images of myself I hesitate to share them for fear of what sharing them might say about me. 

It's less about disliking how I look– I feel like I'm a pretty standard-issue person– but that I hate the idea that I have to look any particular way. And that people react to it. And that people might have an opinion about it. And that it might put me in a vulnerable position.

I was subbing recently, making small talk with another sub. I mentioned I had two kids. The sub (a male) reacted in surprise and commented that I didn't look as if I'd had two kids and made some mention about my body looking one way or another and I wanted to disappear. I wanted him to stop talking. I understand he meant to be flattering. But instead I felt flustered. 

I understand it was probably an innocuous moment. No big deal. But for me, it felt hugely uncomfortable. 

I feel uncomfortable, too, reading reactions to Mayim Bialik's piece. It's not that I'm a diehard "Blossom" fan or a diehard" Big Bang Theory" fan. But she went out on a limb, wrote from her heart and from her truth and I admire that. As imperfect as it might have been. And it frustrates me that so many people were so quick to be critical of her. You know, because she is us, too. A woman who has shaped how she moves about this Earth by her experiences with all the others on it. I get that. Me too.

I admire the women sharing about the harassment and the trauma they've faced. They're brave and resilient– even though maybe they just think they're regular people. I hope it makes an impact.

But it's an enormous ocean we're all in here. 

Last week in middle school, I reconnected with my feminazi roots. A couple of boys were teasing another boy because a girl had scored a goal on him playing soccer in gym. Not only were they flabbergasted that a girl could be good at soccer, but it was a "shocking" enough incident to antagonize another person with. 

I felt the blood rising. "Seriously, guys? Why is it an insult that a girl scored on him?"

Their response: "Because she's a girl."

I found myself gearing for a fight, like I might have at 14 or 15. But they were back on their phones. I'd lost them already. 

Forgive me for feeling a little cynical. 

*Which will never not make me think of Paul Rudd in this scene of "Wet Hot American Summer."


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Now can we talk about gun control?

Photo courtesy of Malmo/Flickr

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

The five stages of grief

After
Columbine
Virginia Tech
Sandy Hook
Charleston
Orlando
Las Vegas

After all the others
(And there are many, many others.)

Round after round of denial.
This can't happen here,
We say.
Again and Again and Again.

Round after round of anger.
This time. This time. THIS TIME. 
ENOUGH.
We say.
Again and Again and Again.

Round after round of bargaining.
We don't want all of your guns.
Just the ones that fire bullet after bullet after bullet in seconds.
We just don't want them to get to the people
Who fire bullet after bullet after bullet
into innocent people
We just want some control.
We compromise.
Again and Again and Again.

Though we don't really want to compromise.
We always want more.
But we'll settle for anything.
Anything.

We sink into depression.
in round
after
round
of moments
of silence.
The seeping realization 
That no amount of surgery
Can repair our shattered hearts.

What stage is next? 

Acceptance?
We can't accept this.

Can we?

We can't accept that it's acceptable
For men, women and children 
to be gunned down 
in classrooms, at concerts, on campuses 
in movie theaters, in dance clubs, in churches.
That it's OK for them to be collateral damage
for our right to bear arms.

We can't accept that it's acceptable
For kindergartners to have to do lockdown drills.
Cowering in the same corners
They play pretend
As their teachers tell them, "hush, hush."
Pretending there's an armed assailant nearby
Because of the times there was an actual armed assailant nearby.

We can't accept that it's acceptable
For there to be a rush on firearms and ammunition
the day after the slaughter 
of one or tens or 20s or 30s or 40s or 50s.
That even though the common denominator 
in all shootings is guns, we should battle for our right to own them.

We can't accept that it's acceptable 
For 315 people to be shot each day by guns
For 93 people to die each day because of guns
For 46 children to to shot each day by guns
For seven children to die each day because of guns
For 114,994 people to be shot each year by guns
For 33,880 people to die each year because of guns
For 17,012 children to be shot each year by guns
For 2,647 children to die each year because of guns.

We can't accept this.

Acceptance is complicity.
Acceptance diminishes our humanity.
Acceptance makes us something else.

There can't be acceptance. 
Because this is unacceptable.

Source for gun violence statistics: BradyCampaign.org

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Two days back in middle school

Photo courtesy of Turinboy/Flickr
My brain on seventh grade.

I spent two days subbing in seventh grade this week.

My brain feels as if it's been repeatedly crumpled up like forgotten homework and tossed into a trashcan like a makeshift basketball (a pastime seventh grade boys still seem to relish, by the way). 

My memories of seventh grade are hazy– though I can say with confidence I don't recall that stage of my life with anything bridging on fondness. Mostly, I remember crowded hallways. Really crowded hallways. And giant backpacks. And everyone pushing against each other. And loud, spazzy adolescent boys who always seemed to be running or bouncing off walls and other people like pinballs. And equally loud adolescent girls with long hair and even longer judgmental stares. 

But mostly it was loud. The school always felt as if it were, like, a doublewide trailer careening along some poorly maintained, winding mountain road in the Himalayas. Just one wrong move from tumbling into an anarchic abyss.

Based on my brief foray back to romper room– it doesn't seem like much has changed.

I mean I've changed. Mostly. My go-to outfit no longer consists of a T-shirt featuring the Animaniacs and carpenter jeans (why would a seventh-grade girl needed a hammer loop on her pants? You ask. For style. D'Uh (double aside, the kids don't say that anymore)). I no longer carry around a rubber frog named Newton in my pocket or a bedazzled Orange Tic-Tac case named Bob. And whatever. As if you had it all together in seventh grade.

Also, I've changed because I didn't totally dread going back to middle school this week. It was exhausting, no doubt. But I get it. I get these kids. The ones stuck between wanting to make sure their Marble Composition books were totally covered in unicorn stickers and wanting to make sure their hair was styled just so (side note: The boys were the ones sharing hair product). You're just figuring out you have all these huge thoughts about life and the world and all its injustices (and all these thoughts must be shared at high volumes) but you're still also kind of freaked out about dressing out for gym. You still find yourself doodling Pokemon characters on your English notes or fawning over pictures of puppies. 

It's a time of transition. 

Your whole life kind of feels like that four minutes between classes– all rushed and harried and thrilling and scary.

I was subbing again as an instructional assistant, this time helping out teachers in classrooms with kids who had learning disabilities or emotional disabilities. This meant I spent a lot of time trying to get antsy, easily distracted 12 year olds to focus on their lesson or reminding them (again and again and again) what the instructions were from the teacher or asking them (again and again and again) to stop looking at their cell phones. I don't know how teachers teach when there are cell phones in the vicinity. If you've ever found yourself wondering, what would a seventh grader be interested in more- the Reconstruction Amendments or Snapchatting pictures of yourself with dog ears– the answer is always Snapchat.  

I got to work a few of the kids one on one. They were funny and smart, also overwhelmed and forgetful. They just wanted to go. Go to the bathroom. Go get some water. Go sharpen their pencils (again and again and again). Go to sleep. Go home.

One student was having an especially rough day– she wished she could go back to her elementary school. She walked into English class yelling that she just wanted to go to fucking lunch (her words, not mine). The bastards (her words again, not mine) weren't letting her. She slammed a water bottle to the floor, splashing her teacher. I waited with her in the hallway for the administrator. Just suggesting that she take some deep breaths, acknowledging that switching schools is hard. She did look particularly calmed.

But I got it, you know. I mean, obviously, the water bottle and the swearing was inappropriate. But she's a different sort of kid, too. And, hey, we've all been hangry before. And seventh grade is hard. It's the worst, if we can be honest.

There's this funny thing I noticed about swearing in middle school. It's like this new toy. The kids kind of know they shouldn't be playing with, but they just can't help themselves. And the "F" word is especially shiny and enticing. I'd hear it shouted in the hallways (followed by teachers shouting that they should not be shouting the F-word in the hallways). I heard it mumbled by annoyed kids in class. During some downtime in one class, I asked a student if the book he was reading was any good. He didn't volunteer much information about it– instead asking me if I ever read books with curse words in them. "Sure," I told him. "Sometimes." His glittered and he smiled a little. "I like books with the f-word in them" ... OK ... that's not quite accurate. He actually said, "I like books  that have the word fuck in them." But at least he wasn't shouting, it right? It was used in context... sigh.

I had no idea how to respond. How do you respond to that? I think I said something lame like, "Yeah, it can be fun to read books that have language we don't usually use... especially not at school." 

One girl came into class complaining that she felt discriminated against because it seemed like there were groups of kids in school who could get away with cursing in the hallways, but that she got in trouble for it. I later learned that she didn't get in trouble for saying a bad word between class among friends. But that she may or may not have dropped an expletive or two while arguing with a teacher. Po-tay-toh, po-tah-toh, amiright?

Another teacher helped her draft an apology letter. Then helped her re-draft the apology letter because the student seemed to be suggesting that it was the teacher's fault that she was arguing with and swearing at him. I wanted to take this teacher home and sit her down to have a similar discussion with Lily about why she can't blame Jovie when she chooses to pinch her sister. It seems I'll be repeating the "we have to take responsibilities for our own actions" from now until forever.

These teachers that choose to go into special ed– you need to know they're amazing. I've only been subbing for a few weeks, but it's mostly been in these classrooms. These teachers are charged with educating children with a wide variety of needs and abilities, who are sometimes mixed into a single classroom. Teaching them to read or write or learn history seems to be come secondary to just offering them acceptance, support, steadiness and structure. The goal to just help them function in a world with all these other humans. It's tough. They're so patient. And not begrudging. There's grace in how they interact with these kids.

The teacher in the class with the swearing, water-bottling throwing student had such positive energy. I could feel the kids relax in her room. She used an old Bugs Bunny cartoon to illustrate a lesson on characterization. She lip synched along with the Bugs. Poked fun at Elmer Fudd. She processed the onslaught of requests and needs and questions with patience and ease. When they pointed out that she had a lot of gray hair, she joked and named each hair after a different student. She also took the opportunity to share a lesson about being mindful of the comments we make. She told them that while she laughed about her hair, she was kind of self-conscious about it. One student apologized for pointing it out. Not that she was looking for an apology.

It's delicate with these kids, I think. With all kids, really, but especially these kids. Having to balance a certain amount of tension that allows things to get done, being loose enough to give students the space to relax and feel safe. So that they can learn. It's an art form. A ballet. I've gotten to watch some masters. 

***

A P.S. to the parents who attended back to school night. We really tried to help your children fill out their schedules with their teacher's names and room numbers for you to follow. For real. A month into school, this sounded like such a straightforward task. But asking a kid to remember both where they are from one minute to next and the name of the person standing in front of them was kind of like asking them to recall what the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments are. Maybe they should just Snapchat you a picture of teacher wearing a flower crown or spewing rainbow vomit ...