Tuesday, May 1, 2018

April: Middle school fumbles and poetry

Photo courtesy of Dave Young/Flickr

"You look like you haven't slept in days," a student told me the other day as he walked into science.

Probably, I should've felt deeply unflattered and maybe a little depressed. I should've told the student his comment was kind of rude. But the truth was I hadn't been sleeping well. And I was exhausted. I was actually kind of touched that this particular kid- who pretends he doesn't know my name (he calls me Fake Miss Murphy- the name of the teacher I replaced)- actually saw me and assigned some real human characteristics to me. Like he was acknowledging I was a person, like him, and not some nameless troll who periodically tells him stop talking and put his phone away.

It was a sign he was warming up to me a little even. This was confirmed when he wandered into my room during a planning period and chatted for a couple minutes.Technically, he was supposed to be in Home Ec, which was downstairs on the other side of the school. And technically, I'm sure he hadn't actually taken the long route back from the bathroom to visit me specifically. It was more opportunistic than anything. He couldn't say hi to his favorite teacher two doors down from me because she was in the middle of a lesson, and my door happened to be open. He's one of the many students around here who seem to float around from room to room like free radicals. I was in the middle of suggesting he get back to class when he spotted a friend outside and ran off like a dog chasing a squirrel without a backward glance.

It is ridiculous here. Every day.

Middle school has dramatically lowered my standards for what I would classify as normal person-to-person interaction. While there are plenty of students who will smile and say hi when I see them out and about, mostly, they avoid eye contact and ignore my greetings. 

This isn't personal. I know in the social hierarchy of middle school, a substitute teacher-- even a long-term sub-- is on the lowest of echelons. Luckily, I've already survived one round of being deeply uncool in middle school. 

And middle schoolers just by nature are at peak self-centerdness. Hehe. (I said "terdness." See "centerdness." Clearly, I've been here too long). This isn't judgmental or critical- just the reality of being 13, 14 or 15. I was the same way- completely engrossed in my own drama at the exclusion of all others. Just wallowing in all the emotions. And feeling as if everything that happened in my life was completely unique to me. That nobody else could possibly ever understand what it felt like to be 14 because nobody else had ever been 14. 

The kids here always have ear buds in, listening to music. As if they have a perfectly curated soundtrack to the movie of their lives, happening in real time. It's all so extra. 

Naturally, I meet their ongoing surliness and moroseness with relentless cheerfulness.

"You need to be meaner," I've had students tell me when they see their classmates being disrespectful. The truth is, I've tried to test drive a grumpy face. I've been stern. I've gotten mad and yelled. And mostly, it hasn't worked. Not coming from me. It's like they know I have no teeth. 

Someone once told me my spirit animal(s) was a koala riding a golden retriever. And I feel like that's kind of accurate.

So in order to gain traction with the students, I've had to just continue to be myself. Persistent. Annoying. Kind of goofy. I wear them down with proximity and obnoxiousness. 

While I don't recommend this as a go-to method for making and maintaining relationships in life, it seems effective in managing middle schoolers. 

I love that Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" (circa 1995) lives on in middle school artwork in 2018. 

In this recent On Being interview, Krista Tippet and Zen priest angel Kyodo williams explore the word "love" and its role in social change- especially in today's climate. Williams talks about how her own understanding of the word love has transformed from something she applied only to her family or people she preferred or those who are "aligned and in agreement and affinity." Who are reflecting back at her what she wanted to be reflected back at her. 

She says as she's come to understand love, this is very limiting. That love needs more room.

"It is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are- that that is love. And that doesn't mean that we don't have hopes or wishes that things are changed or shifted, but that to come from a place of love is to be in acceptance of what is, even in the face of moving it towards something that is more whole, more just, more spacious for all of us. It's bigness. It's allowance. It's flexibility."

Hearing this was sort of confirmation that I'm not totally off base in my approach at school. It's imperfect, I know. I come home many days frustrated and exhausted. But I think I'd be more frustrated, more exhausted if I viewed going to school as going into battle. Like I was an iron-clad force facing off against an army of belligerent, ignorant lilliputians who needed to be forced into submission. Learn ... or else. 

My students are humans just like me, at a time of their life of tremendous transition. I see the anarchy raging in their bodies and their brains. The people they are now aren't the people they'll be forever. Just like the person I am now isn't the person I'll be forever. I have hope and confidence that they'll sort themselves out and discover the beauty of empathy and patience and lovingkindness. 

Maybe I'm not much of a teacher. In fact, the past four months have been an ongoing lesson in my shortcomings in this arena. I committed to staying through the end of the year– and the students have finally stopped asking me if I'm going to quit. They expected me to quit, I think. If nothing else, I wanted to prove them wrong. To keep showing up for them and for myself I guess. To try to embody the hopes I have for them as people in this world. 

I don't know. I'm rambling again. 

I just ... I like the idea of bigness. Of allowance. Of flexibility. I think we could use more of that in this life.

April was National Poetry Month. Like last year, I Poemadayed with a group of women who met in my neighborhood. We were charged to write one poem a day for the whole month. As was with last year, I looked forward to each evening as poetry trickled into my inbox. They not only motivated me to finish my own poems when the day had worn me out, but I found solace and kinship in what they shared, too. We share so many of the same experiences.

Here are some of my favorites written by my fellow poets this month.

A simple procedure.
The nurse’s lavender sweater
made me smile 
as she escorted me back.

The exact shade of lavender my Granny loved.
Her way of reaching out to me today
letting me know she is always with me.

The simple signs
sent from our loved ones
that have passed
bring such peace.



The pads of his ‘toe beans’ form the shape of a heart
tail lights transform into faces
trees form animal shapes
as do the clouds
life all around us
Do you see it? 



To the child eating pudding with a finger: 
Would your mother approve 
Of that slurping sound you’re making
Or of the goop that is dripping down your wrist
As you lick your hand and slurp some more?
Does she wonder why 
The plastic spoon comes back clean 
And the napkin unused?
Will she pack me ear plugs and a blindfold 
The next time she sends pudding in your lunch?



I think I have the man-flu 
Because I’m definitely dying;
My head pounds, I can barely breathe
And I just feel like crying 

I’m lying on the couch 
Wondering if I’ll make it 
Maybe this is all there is
Before lying in a casket 

As I start to pen my final words
To bid my beloved, “Adieu”,
I’m reminded I haven’t the parts
To have the fatal man-flu

So tomorrow I will wake up 
Feeling sick and feeling old
Making breakfast, doing laundry 
Despite my ordinary woman-cold



Go gently, my love 
For I no longer have the strength
To bear the pain
Of life unfiltered
Like an old foundation
I am cracked
Infiltrated by seepage 
Sinking, slowly sinking
Into the morass 
I am flawed, my love
So please go gently 
Else I disintegrate before your eyes



If I had a gift for words, I'd write about my little girl.
I'd paint her picture with lyric and style, 
So you could see her in your head.

The fullness of her body,
Beginning to shed its baby-fat,
But still dimpled and soft.
Oh the weight of her.
When I'm adrift in the ether she tethers me,
Cocooning me in her snuggles.

The splendor of her eyes.  
Not just their cesious color,
But the joy they radiate,
The fierceness they reveal.

The halation that spreads out from her brightness.

If I had a gift for words, I'd help you to understand,
The meaning of her name.
In the divine sense of the word:
A being marked for honor and esteem.

All I have is the gift of her,
The greatest gift of all time.


That little slip of a girl.
Our Tiny Miss, our mouse,
Decided to play hockey
Gonna rock the ice house

She can't take notes in chemistry,
Or study to save her life,
But here she has a list (A LIST....that SHE WROTE...BY HAND!!)
Of sage hockey advice

Never gets up on time
(To move her takes a chisel)
But MUST get to the game
An hour before the whistle

Convinced she has every malady
That ever did exist
But gets hit by a puck in the ribs, 
And doesn't miss a shift

I don't know why it's hockey
That's helped her find her grit
I love it that she loves it
Enough to strive for it.



And here are a few of mine ...

As a substitute teacher
I don’t flatter myself
With the title
Even teacher.
But rather a facilitator-
A practitioner
Of many other ers
Roll taker
Eye roller
Note writer
Door locker
And finally,
(According to certain students)
An imposter.

To er
Is my day job.


There’s a howl from the next room.
What’s wrong, what’s wrong?
I don’t want to turn six
My five year old wails on her birthday eve, eve.
I lie down next to her
And rush to console
Listing out all the things that won’t change overnight
When she turns six.
Like her two hands and her two feet,
Her blue eyes and her blonde hair.
Her dog and her cats
Her mom and her dad
Her sister and her best friend, Lucy.
The bed she goes to sleep in
The room she wakes up in
Grandma and Grandpa and Nana and Papa.
Her aunties and uncles and cousins.
How much we all love her. 
But she can’t be consoled.
I don’t want to have just one more day of being five.
She gasps for breath 
As tears roll down her cheeks.
It’s the number of letters in her name
It’s in the middle to 10
It means she’s still gets to be little
I wrap my arm around her shaking shoulders
She wraps her arm around my neck
And I stop talking
And try not to cry, too
Because, of course, she is right
Five becomes six
Six becomes seven
Seven becomes eight
And so on and so on and so on
Until she’s grown up
And I’ve grown old
And this moment-
Holding on to each other
In a bed surrounded by stuffies
In the room filled with glitter and tulle
In the house containing the things we love most-
Is just the story I tell her 
When one day she tells me she can’t wait to leave
And the story she uses to soothe her own children
And then just the pale memory
Of a lifetime ago.
When she was five going on six.


The end of the month
Arrives with a gasp.
Thirty days nearly gone
And all I’ve seen is a blur.
Like the view from the backseat
On the road trips I took as a kid
With my head leaned against the window
And the countryside a pastel streak.
I’ve stretched around the surface of each minute 
Like Saran wrap.
The thinnest layer of living.
I guess this is how it goes for now
The sprint and the crash and the sprint again.
Always handing the baton off to myself. 
Maybe after the next lap I’ll limp off the track
And sit in the grass and bathe in the sun,
And allow the birds to remind me to listen to them
Instead of all the rest. 
Maybe, maybe, maybe,
my brain sings. 
But with May pounding at the door
It sounds more like 
later, late, later.

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