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28 October 2014

STILL WORKING

My hair has been going gray since I was in my thirties. But my age began to tell in my mid-fifties, mostly I think because of stress dealing with my mother's dying. I was forced to think about death too much. I was forced into the face of my own mortality.

I am not a death-denier and I am not sensitive about my age. I am 62. I look my age, maybe more these days. I've never been a good judge. But I am okay with aging.

At Parent Conferences last week, discussing her senior's work, a parent expressed dismay that I would have retired by the time her youngest was a senior. (Bless this mother, she made my day!) I said what I've said often lately. I would never stop teaching, but I need to slow down. I would teach to the end of my life if I could cut back to half time. There are so many other things I want time for, but I think work is what we are meant to do. Work gives our lives purpose, and though I feel other purposes, teaching is my profession, the work I am most proud of and the work I never quite leave. 


There is a great deal of evidence that working till you drop is a way to achieve a longer and more meaningful age. I am fairly certain that I would be happier and healthier if I continued to work until the day I leave the world. I have no reason to believe I will be allowed to do that, but I can hope.

This is about staying in the game, not winning it, not trying to remain young. I am way past young.

My husband, bless him, doesn't like the selfie above because he insists I am "prettier" than that. I think the photo is exceptionally flattering, much prettier than I am in real life, but still resembling me somewhat. I love that he thinks it's not good enough. Sweet man of my life. 

One way to feel good about yourself is to have people appreciate you. I am blessed. 

My advice: Appreciate someone for who they are in your life. Do it today.

27 October 2014

WEAVING SHAWLS

I will try something different in the last piece I weave on this warp. Maybe it will spool out before me in an entirely different way from this: the soft wool warp tight and even, the weft wound on shuttles, one shuttle with dark orange, the other shuttle with speckled pinks and reds and lavenders. The two alternate in the warp, dark and light, and then in the weft to make the pattern called log cabin. Horizontal and vertical bars I stroke with my fingertips, as if the color could be felt.

There is a moment when I am weaving a shawl and the world just falls away. I stop fussing about what I should have said or done the day before. I don’t plan how to explain a problem to my students or agonize about a student who should be doing well but is failing my class. I don’t fret about the leaking water heater or anything else. Instead, I am wholly caught up by the colorful work building under my hands.

I use mostly a yarn spun and hand-dyed in Canada from a small company called Koigu. It is two ply and soft wool, though not as soft while I work with it as it will be after I am finished and have washed it. The yarns vary in color along their length—sometimes a subtle change of value only, but sometimes a strand shifts from orange to violet to pale apricot or sage in the space of a few inches. Winding the warp takes time and involves making decisions about color. I still on the floor and wind the thread on a warping board, back and forth to make seven yards length. I usually play darks against lights, winding two threads, one pale, one darker, at a time. Warping always takes special concentration to choose what colors will go where. I need three hundred altogether. Next, I carry the warp downstairs and begin dressing the loom. One thread goes through each dent of the reed and then through an eye in a heddle in one of four harnesses. This is my least favorite part since it’s all about technical accuracy rather than choices or what comes next, the best part.

Once the loom is warped, I begin the actual weaving. I sit before the loom and weave a simple pattern opened by the treadles, stepping on the right that lifts the odd harnesses, one and three, and then on the left to lift the even harnesses, two and four. The weft yarn, also Koigu, will go over, under, over the warp. The wool wound on the shuttle feels cushiony in my hand, the shuttle itself is smooth and warm light-colored wood, maple I think.

I work with alternating colors for the weft the way the warp itself alternates dark and light. I press on the left treadle and pass a shuttle of dark yarn through the open shed: over, under, over. I gentling pull the reed toward me to pack the weft into a straight line, then I press on the right treadle to open the opposite shed and pass a shuttle of lighter yarn through: under, over, under. It is called tabby this over under over under. Each time I press down a treadle, there is a clatter of wood on wood, and the gentle clink of metal heddles in the harness frames which are all stainless steel. Before I open the next shed and again pass the dark weft through, I make certain the two wefts loop one another on the side, to make a tidy selvage.

Wind blows and rain drives against the window before me. I hear the faint patter of rain, the underlying roar of the ocean pounding onshore. I could see the ocean if I looked up, but mostly I watch the fabric I am weaving under my hands. The mistake yarns are always the most fun—the yarn I’ve ordered through the mail and that arrives looking quite different from what I thought I wanted—the orange and gold that turns out to be gold and green, the plum that turns out to be maroon. The pattern is of my making, but the rich variation in each skein is a help. These are the colors that create interest in a simple pattern of dark and light, the warp and weft that meet to make faint vertical and horizontal lines.

Outside the ocean crashes. Rain beats on the roof. Nearer at hand, the refrigerator hums, music surges during a movie on the television in the next room, and the dog rests her chin on the arm of her chair, watching me work. I hear all these sounds, but I do not pay attention to them. I have a cold, but I ignore it purposefully.

I press the left peddle with my left foot, pass the shuttle through, and press the right peddle with the right foot, and I exchange the shuttle loaded with light wool for the one loaded with darker colors. I do this again and again, moving back and forth across the warp, over-under-over-under, careful to angle the weft across the shed to allow slack in the weft threads and keep the tension even. The merino brushes across my hands, petting them, catching on a snag on my fingernail, soothing the pads of my fingers. The wool has no wooly sheep odor, but still smells of yarn, and as I perch on the weaving bench before my loom, my mouth tastes sour because of my cold. My eyes are puffy, like the lids were made of the wool I weave, and my throat is sore. I have already slept most of the morning. Weaving is my reward for resting, another sort of resting. There is no hurry. As I work, I slide forward and have to readjust my position on the weaving bench again and again.

The colors in this particular warp are mostly oranges with pale pink as the lighter shade. I have laid them out to make solid stripes of three-fingers width in oranges, and narrower stripes of dark and light threads to make the log cabin. One of the mistake skeins I’ve used in the warp has more purple than I expected, now that it’s rolled out before me. The pink in the log cabin stripes of the warp is so pale it reads as colorless, white. I pet the threads, to check tension, but also because they feel lovely.

The weft yarns I chose for the first shawl were variegated with the lighter pink and mauve and apricot played against darker oranges. The weaving is unexpected. It is an experiment that has not gone as I anticipated. Usually, I change the weft colors as often as I have varied the warp, but for this warp, I do something different, something simpler that does not require me to make choices as I weave. I use just three colors. There is already enough movement in the yarn to interest me as I work. I am happy with this, comforted. I stop frequently to run my fingers over the fabric I am creating. I swallow against my cold and promise myself tea, and then I continue weaving. 


24 October 2014

STUPID CHOICE



"Publish a front page advertorial for tech millionaires who are making print media obsolete. Assault career educators defending reading "TIME Kids" and "TIME" as an important part of a curriculum held hostage by tech millionaire test prep software. Hashtag competition, anyone? This needs something catchy."
Over at Badass Teachers, we are pretty upset about Time magazine's new cover. One veteran teacher shouted: Didn't they think we would see this? 

They don't care about us. We made a stupid career choice. 

The people attacking education today—and make no mistake, this is a war against public education—respect money and teaching is neither a well-paid nor a respected profession these days. 


We don't matter. 

Try getting rid of a bad doctor. Try getting rid of everyone who is bad at their jobs. Ever had a bad contractor or a bad plumber? Ever been angry at a clerk or a waitress or loan officer who seemed to understand less about refinancing a mortgage than you do? 

It happens in every field, and it also happens that people have "bad days." We expect more of teachers—that they will do wonders for every single child and consistently every single day. Most of us are doing our very best and no one feels worse than we do when we fail. 

The thing is, most genuinely bad teachers don't last. But it's also true that lot of great teachers don't last. If you get right down to it, about half leave the profession whether they were any good at it or not. A few more stay but decide that teaching is too hard and go back to school to earn better money in administration, whether they were actually good teachers while they were in the classroom or not. 

And it is the job of administrators, I will say yet again, to help teachers become better at their jobs or move them out of the profession. Tenure can't protect bad teachers. Let me say it again: Tenure doesn't protect bad teachers. Only bad administration can do that. I can't speak to the situation in New York City or Silicon Valley, but in my community while we still had tenure in the State of Oregon, some teachers were shoved out of their jobs and others allowed to stay and helped to do a better job. It takes a while, but it can be done. It's not my job to do it. 

In the mean time, a national news magazine has joined the bandwagon in doing their best to disrespect and damage my profession. There is some danger they will destroy public education in the name of reform. 

There's money in education these days: testing, textbooks, charter schools, online programs. For profit has given up complaining about what is spent to educate children and begun to find ways to carve out their piece of the pie. It's all about the money for some people. 

Educators look weak and foolish to some business people. We look vulnerable, as vulnerable as the children we teach. If we had any sense, the reasoning seems to go, we would have taken our education and talent and work ethic to a profession that would pay us better. Because to some people, money is the only thing that matters. 

In the mean time, the number of college students pursuing education is dropping (by 53% in the last few years in California, for example). I wonder why fewer talented young people are choosing to become teachers anymore? 

[In case you wonder, that's a rhetorical question I ended with there. My third one in this post. And fragments, I have fragments. Rhetorical questions shouldn't appear at all in a formal or academic essay, and they should never be used to end one. But heck, sometimes I just get all irritated and I do whatever I darn well please. Try to stop me.]

23 October 2014

LET THEM SUFFER?

Over at Bad Girl Chats, Nicole Hollander wonders if personal experience is the only way conservatives can develop compassion. She cites Dick Cheney's support of his lesbian daughter and her grandchild. Most of us make exceptions for family, but I confess I was impressed that Cheney could. He has never struck me as a particularly compassionate person. And I value compassion.  

I think having a personal experience can open any person's eyes to the pain of others facing a similar situation. The challenge is allowing that empathy to inform your entire world view in a more generous manner. 


This transference doesn't always happen. 


I have former students who have experienced and overcome substantial challenges of poverty, neglect, and abuse, who managed to grow up with the attitude that if they could overcome their past, everyone should be able to do that. And I have other former students who have experienced none of that suffering and assume that such issues are either nonexistent or the fault of others. Either way, others' troubles are not their problem. 


This is at least partially a peculiarly American attitude derived, seriously, from the American Dream that we can be whatever we aspire to, and that those who fail have no one but themselves to blame. Culturally, we are not so generous as we like to paint ourselves. We would rather punish failure than prevent it to begin with. 


A rather unexpected example to me was the revelation that it would cost taxpayers less to make public universities and colleges free than to fund them through the grants and loans system we currently use. I find a common response to this news is: "People won't value what they don't have to pay for." Yet, in order to be admitted, public school children have spent years in a free system, doing the work and earning the education and grades to qualify for admission. Does a college education require crippling debt to be valued?


Let them suffer. Suffering is good? 


Our prison system is another example. We would rather spend money punishing criminals for crimes over their entire lives than rehabilitating them for a life as decent citizens. They deserve it, we say. 


Let them suffer. 


Some of us who wonder what would have happened to such failured lives if we'd done more. What if, way back at the beginning, we'd supported their parents in providing better guidance, safe and comfortable housing, healthcare, education, a living minimum wage, and so forth? We better get used to being labeled unrealistic, bleeding heart liberals. 


We all pay for our judgement. 

Anyone in American can be anything they want, the saying goes. Do people really believe this anymore? Research proves overwhelmingly that it's untrue. Some of us start with advantages, and those advantages serve us throughout our lives. Others among us will never recover from a poor start that has absolutely nothing to do with "trying". The Horatio Alger myth of a child rising from nothing to plenty is pretty much impossible and with very few exceptions, it always has been. But the myth persists among a sizable minority of Americans that the major reason there's an income gap between rich and poor is because the poor do not work hard enough. 


An educator, who should know better, gave me that line the other day: "The poor should work harder and get out of poverty—or they deserve what they are getting." As if a five year old daughter in such a household could "deserve" her suffering. 

Raising the minimum wage would remove any motivation for gaining an education and pursuing a "better job," she further argued. 


I wondered if she'd ever done one of the really grinding minimum wage jobs in her life when she had no opportunity or hope for a different future? That teacher kept telling me how she worked herself up from poverty, bettered herself because she wanted more than minimum wage. The poor wages, she explained, were the only reason she had ambitions to become a teacher. There are a number of objections to that sort of rationale for entering my profession, but one truth is that I know she received grants and support and she had family support while "working her way up" from a family with a second home in a tropical location, so excuse me if I have doubts that she actually understands about poverty. 

My students who work in kitchens and change beds to get by will tell you it's not something they would continue to do if they had a choice, not even if it paid better.


And of course, the kitchens still need staff. The beds still need changing in local hotels. It seems heartless to me that in addition to asking people to do menial, physically exhausting work, that they should be punished for it. 


Let them suffer? 


I don't think the attitude is purely the prerogative of either end of the political spectrum, but it is home grown.


This notion of punishment over support is at the root of our failure to address many American problems, it seems to me. 


I have gone rather far afield from dear old Cheney and tolerance of his lesbian daughter. Maybe it's true that I see that attitude of "they made their bed, let them lie in it" too often on the right. I know liberals with issues about fairness too. 


…and there is the complication of the all-mighty American dollar. We forgive terrible crimes if the result is enormous financial gain. The pursuit of wealth can excuse cheating, lying, and danger to the public. We have little sympathy for "mistakes" made in achieving any other goal. When a rich person is caught breaking the law, someone is bound to cry, "He's suffered enough!" 

I don't think so. 


I am on the side of the underdog, the struggling, the barely making it, the young, the ambitious and kind. I am more likely to forgive the person cheating to get a bed than person cheating for a second home in Belize. But I do understand that whenever we do not receive what we feel we need or deserve, we suffer. 


Though I believe we must pay with more than embarrassment for our darker sins, I am not in favor of suffering.


It is possible to move from feeling another's pain to wanting to do something about it. That's compassion, what you feel when your child fall down and hurts herself. What many of us feel when anyone's child falls down and hurts herself.


21 October 2014

STILL SICK

The other day, I received an email from a teacher I don't know well. I could not understand what she was asking me, since I am sick, have been sick for three weeks though I am now on medication that is not making me well fast enough. I finally emailed back to ask what I could do. She responded very kindly that she was merely venting and I should go back to sleep. 

We all need to vent sometimes. She has over 120 middle school students, a lot to track. I have not quite that many high school students (113, I think) plus my 18 Study Lab kids who I only see twice a week. One year I had 205 students all told, and thought I might die by Winter Break. I cried in the principal's office in January. I was advising yearbook that year too, but had just quit coaching Xcountry. My mother was ailing. I was pretty much a basket case. The amazing thing is that my yearbook students I worked with closely had no idea it was a hard year for me. I can't believe I didn't look shattered every single minute of every day. It's how I remember feeling. Ha! Teacher-powers! 

I think my teacher-friend was looking for advice about what to do when her workload was hopelessly backed up. In times when I have been fully pressed and felt most students had completed a particular assignment that I absolutely did not have time to grade, I might give them all full points (though make the assignment worth fewer points). It is an act of desperation and I probably have not done this for seven or eight years, though for the first ten years of teaching I allowed myself to do it probably once most years. 

What I do now when I am in trouble with grading is: review quickly and mark a portion of the assignment and then plan better for next year. That doesn't help in the year, but it might make things better the next year. I train my students to peer edit, which saves me now and then. Not so much at others if students think telling one another "great job" is more useful than the truth. Anyway, these strategies don't always apply.

That's not much help for my own workload at the moment. Since I've missed four days of school, the work piled up. I had several senior research papers (done), three sets of exams (only one is done), a partial set of make-up quizzes (just about 15—done), and a set of essays to grade (soon, maybe). There is no shortcut for any of this and although I have responded to parent and student emails and posted on FB and shared education and literature essays and revised and printed off scoresheets for the research papers and corresponded with colleagues who have issues with my department or questions about assignments, these are relatively mindless tasks completed from bed with a laptop. I don't have to do much or think too hard, or even make measured judgements. It's like writing here—mostly rambling and I can set my laptop down and come back two hours later after a nap to update my progress and continue where I left off. Maybe someone has a secret for how to do that with essays or essay-exams? I have never been able to stop in the middle when grading papers. I have to complete grading an entire class's assignments in one go to maintain consistency. There might be a way around that, but I haven't found it. Once I start scoring essays, I read and mark them all in a row. 

Actually grading demands high energy and fine attention that I haven't had in the last week, which is how I got behind. Tomorrow I will have 27 more six-page assignments I must mark and hand back the next day. Maybe. That one is actually the least of my problems since I only have to mark them up, not grade them. Grading is such agony at times. 

Open Library will keep me at school for twelve hours tomorrow to help with students and Parent Conferences are the next day until 8pm. Parents are understandably expecting current grades, and most of my classes are a week behind because I don't have the stamina to catch up in time. By Friday I will be in bad shape. 

A friend was going to visit from Seattle this weekend and I've had to cancel. No time for company. I will be scoring student work all weekend. That's how it goes. It's not an excuse, but it's all I've got.

20 October 2014

DRIVEN

The tea party on Saturday.
Years ago, poet and novelist Marilyn Chin told me I was "the most driven writer" she had ever met. I took it as a compliment. 

Maybe not. Sometimes I do not know how to stop. I do not know how to rest. I am always trying to accomplish something worthwhile. Nothing huge, I am not capable of huge things, but little things. A long list of little things. When people ask me how I get so much done—I think they do not want to do it the way I do. They do not want to be so driven. 

I scoot back down in bed, put my head on the pillow and rain patters on the skylight. Downstairs I hear Ruby trotting from room to room, the harmonica, she sings and Gary tells stories, Gary yells at the cat, the cat yells back. I have only had the half hour each evening before her bedtime when we watch an episode of Fraggle Rock. Gary has done the rest all the past week while I went to work and then came home to bed. I think of the things I should be doing, all that should have been done this week while I pretended I wasn't sick. How I measure the worth of my days. 

Something must be accomplished, it seems to me, every day. Whether I make the list in my journal or not, each accomplishment is ticked off in my brain. Even tiny things warrant recognition. The past two weeks and more, I have been sick, with all the symptoms of a cold or the flu, mostly just in my head. My temperature is below normal at 97° and something, my sinuses are infected. I hurt all over. 

But I still wish to get things done. 

In the past three days I wove for a few minutes sitting at my loom and then I had to lie down. I posted blogs that existed already as drafts. I am writing this now. I read the last two chapters of a collection of essays. Students have called and emailed with their questions and I have answered. I wished happy birthday to a dozen friends on Facebook, clicked "like" and whined about being sick, and reposted articles, including a couple I struggled to finish before falling asleep again. Ruby and I watched our show each night. I made a tea party for her on Saturday because I'd promised her I would. She does not seem to have caught my cold.

I have not completed the homework I brought home with me—SRPs, class essays, two sets of exams I need to post before Parent Conferences on Thursday. Something else, too, that I can't remember. In the past few days I've received two emails from people who clearly know me and are continuing a conversation I began somewhere with them. I can't remember who they are or figure out what they are asking me. Maybe when I am well . . .

The letter of recommendation I promised three weeks ago is finally done. This was for a former student who I greatly appreciate, and the writing should have been a pleasure, but I had to send it four times before I got it right. I hope it's right. My head aches from the effort. 

In the past days, I did not finish the weaving or grading or the fancy sleeves for Ruby's dress. I did not make a new costume for the red-haired Esmerelda doll. I am now a week behind in grading. This weekend I did not write a chapter of the memoir I am working on, as I have tried to do each weekend for months. I have not started reading a new book—it was too hard to finish the last one. The Netflix video went back unwatched. I haven't gone for a walk or cooked one single thing, not even the waffles I make most every Sunday morning. Too much undone. 

I managed to make three sandwiches for Ruby's picnic in the "cat room". I managed a trip to the walk-in clinic but forgot what I was doing in the pharmacy. I stayed awake and coherent long enough to write lesson plans for my sub and to forward the mess to the school. I hope it's not a mess. 

That is not enough. I am not so sick, not quite, that I do not reproach myself for failure to accomplish all that I should. I do not feel I deserve to rest. I write a sentence here and then close the computer. I open it again and add more words. I imagine perfection I cannot achieve. 

Some of my students are writing idylls, descriptions of peaceful places they have been to only once when they were seven or where they hide from the world every afternoon. The happy place. This assignment is one of my most successful. I write a new one myself most years. Last year mine idyll described the tideline of this coast—the place I escaped to mentally when I was high school student myself. This year I am writing about weaving. 

Students write about floating out past the waves, waiting for a set to surf; riding home on the bus from a game; scouting deer trails with their grandpa when they were little; their older brother's treehouse; or on stage before a performance. They write about sitting on a log watching the sun sink into the sea and about walking in the woods. Their idylls are as individual as they are themselves. 

One year, at least twelve years ago, I wrote about having the flu. I lay in bed that long ago afternoon with a cup of ginger tea in my hands. I was too congested to smell it. I was so very sick that I didn't care anymore what else went on in the world or whether my sub was doing a good job with my classes. I didn't care about anything but the hot cup warming my fingers, the steam flowing across my forehead.

I am not quite that sick today, not sick enough that I no longer care. The NP promises I should feel better by Tuesday. I hope she is correct.


Milk curdles in Red Zinger tea.
The last sandwich. (The bears belonged 
to our sons when they were small.) 
The animals did not use their napkins.
And Ruby's pumpkin! I never carved her pumpkin for her. Gary says he explained that I was too sick, sleeping upstairs all day, and she said, "Okay." 

19 October 2014

MARILYNNE ROBINSON

The newest episode of Moyer's & Company, "Keeping Faith with Democracy," aired on my birthday, but I went to bed early that night and missed it. 

This afternoon I found the interview by Bill Moyers with Robinson, which was initially designed to celebrate her new novel, Lila, which rests on the shelf behind my head. But Moyers, like me, was more interested in speaking about morality and compassion and American than a single book. He cited several times from a recent book of her essays, When I Was Young I Read Books, which I also read and loved. 

Here's a piece from near the end of the interview where Moyers wonders how the impulse to do the best, to be the best, turned from people to money?

BILL MOYERS: "And you make the case in, When I Was a Child I Read Books, you make the case that after generations of attention to public education, public health, public safety, access to suffrage and equality under the law, those values are now under siege."

"ROBINSON: They are. These voter identification things, you know, the whole public education, these attempts at reforming public education that seem to me to be designed to model people into a kind of productivity again, making them useful for other people's purposes rather than making their education an end in itself. You know, I went, I'm a proud product of public education until college.

"It was probably a very eccentric little establishment by most standards. But I was taught very optimistically in the sense that people always conveyed the idea that they were giving me something really of value, something that would make me richer no matter what I did, you know, in life.

"That, you know, giving me my mind, you know? And I think that this is a spectacularly efficient model of education. I think that these assumptions that, you know, making everybody teach to a test, and so on, is valuable in some way. We're just destroying what’s the best impulse, the most successful impulse in our educational system."

". . . What do I fear? I mean, I fear for, there are things that I, you know, obviously I fear for democracy, for example. I don't know. You know, the oddest thing happened. I became 70. And I realized that in order to be 70, you have to have had basically 69 years of really good fortune and that, you know, what I mean?

"I don't feel as though I can lose much. I don't think I can lose much at this point. I've had a good life and a long life by world standards, you know. And this neutralizes many kinds of anxiety for me. If I can fail now, it will be a minor, minor event because I have such a short time to experience the fact of failure."

A few years ago, after Marilynne Robinson's second novel Gilead came out, we drove to Seattle to see her speak about it at the Richard Hugo House. The drive was worthwhile. Like Robinson, I feel I have been fortunate to live so long, and I am grateful for my life. I haven't started reading her newest novel, which Gary gave me for my birthday, but I continue to be impressed with the humanity of this writer.
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