My big gay soapbox part I

yay dykesI  have a good friend who likes me to update her on what the middle schoolers are wearing -mostly so she can update her closet with the latest choice items from Forever 21. But I do feel a certain general responsibility to update all of you who live in 24-7 adult world on the latest happenings in teen and pre-teen nation. Otherwise most of my friends get their ideas about young people from Mean Girls or Scared Straight.

Speaking of straight I was recently told by a student that our middle school was a pretty homophobic place. What I was most surprised by was my own reaction. Aren’t they all? Was what I thought to myself. After a certain amount of reflection I realized how sad it was that I would accept this as the status quo. Me. Liberal banner waver, daughter of guitar playing kumbaya singing parents, former Oberlin women’s rugby playing drag ball attendee. If I accept homophobia where I work than everyone will. I realized it’s not enough to be the teacher who barks at the kids when they say something is “so gay!”  I need to do something pro-active so that all my students have a safe, comfortable place to go to school.

Alas, I don’t think I can wave my rainbow wand and make my school the beacon of tolerance I would like it to be, but there are things I can do if I care to.  And I do care to.  Generally speaking  middle schools are more conservative places than high schools. I long for the day when talking openly about sexuality will be as accepted as discussing different religions. Until then I proceed cautiously.  When I mentioned my frustrations to another good friend she gave me the idea of putting a little sign up; a rainbow or pink triangle as a kind of a friendly flag to students. She said that, though she would not have been comfortable approaching a teacher to talk at that age, it would have been reassuring to know there was an ally nearby.

So my first step has been to place a few small signs around the room. I downloaded these safe space stickers here.  And I’m working with our school guidance counselor to create a Tolerance Team, kind of a middle school version of a GSA. We’ll see how that goes.

In the midst of all this I found myself up at our high school for an assembly.  I ran into a former student who gave her girlfriend a big ole smooch right there in the halls as I stood by talking to another teacher. I’ve never been more pleased to see someone break the high school rules on PDA. I was happy that she felt so happy to be openly and proudly herself. So happy that I ran out and took a picture of myself with the nearest poncho-wearing lesbian I could find. Not really -this is from Portland Pride a few years ago but I’ve always wanted an excuse to use it in a blog post. Dream realized.

I teach because I love

Monday was a weird day at my school, and I would imagine at most. Our hallways and classrooms were the same. The homework, books and lockers were all there, but the elephant sitting on our chests was the tragedy in Connecticut.

It’s one thing to practice a lockdown. We all do it. But it’s another thing to know, to really know, that we practice for a reason. When we looked around at each other on Monday morning, I think we all felt just a bit more vulnerable and exposed.  It was a hard day to be a middle school teacher, but I was never more glad for middle schoolers undying self-centeredness and love of drama -the good kind, like who likes who. By mid-morning everything felt pretty normal.

But I did tell them this; I told them about the woman I heard interviewed on 60 minutes, the teacher who said she told her class repeatedly that she loved them because she wanted that to be the last thing they heard. And I looked around at my slightly embarrassed, somewhat uncomfortable group of 8th graders and I told them that it was true. That we, teachers, do love them. That this is a job one does from a place of love and because of love.

And while I’m heartsick about the losses in Connecticut, I am so proud of teachers for loving and caring and protecting children. Because that is what we do every day, not just on extraordinary days.

Empathy vs. Evil, Bonk!

Lois Lowry recently published her 4th and final book in a loose collection of YA novels called the Giver Quartet. The Giver is the most famous and beloved of the four and the one which most frequently appears on middle school required reading lists (including mine). Many people credit The Giver as being a more subtle and artful predecessor to more violent dystopian novels like The Hunger Games.

Regardless, she’s been interviewed a lot lately with the release of her new book. And she had this to say about the main character of her new book who fights evil with empathy.

“The ability to understand other people’s feelings,” Lowry said. “As an encompassing gift that a kid could have — or a human — that could be the one that could save the world. If we could all acquire it to the extent that boy had it, no one would go into a movie theater with a gun.” It’s a powerful lesson, and one that I’m eager for my children — so often so quick to think only of themselves — to learn. It’s surely one I still need to learn. Perhaps these books are for adults after all.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot because empathy is such an important thing to have and such a difficult thing to teach. Sometimes, like last week –when I had to deal with a group of girls who were being mean to each other — I wish I had a giant foam empathy hammer and I could just bonk them over the head with it. So that they could see that the crappy way they feel on the inside is a direct result of the way they treat each other. Until such a tool exists I’ll keep listening and talking and being the best grown-up-type-person I know how to be.

Patience and Balance

Patience and balance are two things I actively seek in my life.  And at this point I think seek is an appropriate verb because though they are reached at different moments, the quest is on-going.  The only thing that has reinforced the importance of patience more than my experiences with the publishing world, is my experience as a mom.  No matter what I do, my daughter shows me again and again that she will do things in her own time. I can be supportive or throw temper tantrums of my own. I can try sleep interventions or potty interventions or picky eating interventions, but the only thing that is guaranteed to work consistently, is patience and time.

I’m thinking about balance because I’ve just declared myself done with my first round of revisions for my first ever editor of my first (soon to be) published book. Over the summer I completed a solid second draft of a new book. I’ve gotten feedback from beta readers and I’ve been sitting on that feedback while I worked on the revisions for Go West.  I could have jumped right in this weekend. I’ve had opportunities to begin. I’m blogging right now, when I could be revising my way to 2nd book greatness. But I’m not. In fact, I’m enjoying not writing for a few days. I’m taking a breath.

School is back in full swing, and by this I mean we’re done meeting and greeting and I have actual papers to grade and lessons to plan.  The days are shorter and my outside time is getting more and more limited. I’m taking a breath and it feels good. I know what I need to do on book two and I’ll get there in a reasonable amount of time.

I recently read parts of the NY Times magazine on inspiration. I especially liked the interview with Junot Diaz who, in addition to being a great writer, swears a lot. The interviewer compared Diaz’s writing process to trying to distill the ocean down to a glass of water. These things take time and patience.  Which reminds me of one of my favorite Rilke quotes.

“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.” (You can read the whole thing here)

So I’m trying to not force the sap, take a breath, be silent and vast.

Okay, maybe not silent and vast. It’s not really my style. But the rest sounds good.

Response to the Ants

I have some YA writer heroes out there and one of them is A.S. King. In honor of the paper back release of Everybody Sees the Ants, I’m going to tell you why you should read this book and why it made me want to be a better teacher/grown up/human being. At least I’ll try to.  You should really just read the book.

You can read a synopsis of the book here. But I’ll summarize by saying the book is about a young man who’s being bullied.  It’s also about the adults who are well intentioned but unaware of the extent of the abuse he’s experiencing. It’s also about his Grandfather declared MIA in Vietnam and the magical realist dream sequences in which he interacts with his lost Grandfather. It’s a badass book.

Beyond its literary merit Everybody Sees the Ants reminded me that we don’t always see the abuse. As hard as teachers try to be in tune with their students, as hard as parents try to know their kids, as hard as friends try to be there for one another, sometimes things slip through. The result can be disastrous and scarring.  After reading this book I vowed to try harder and follow up when I see students joking, pushing, shoving, and teasing. I have  made more of a point of checking in with students about the true nature of their interactions, and maybe I’ve prodded a little more than I have in the past.

Are you guys really friends?

Are you sure he’s just kidding?

Did she mean that?

Are you upset by that comment?

I try and give kids multiple chances to let me know what’s going on, and then I remind them that I’m here and I’m always willing to listen.  But still I know it’s not going to be enough. Nonetheless I try because I know sometimes that’s all you can do. I try, and books like this one are good reminders of why it’s important to keep trying.

Back to Middle School

A couple days ago I was back in my classroom when the “Sneak Peak” sixth graders were coming through the middle school to check it out in advance of their official arrival.

Here’s what I saw:

Curiosity, sure.

Anxiety, definitely.

Fear, somewhat.

The farther we get from middle school (just in time, some people kind of camp out there emotionally for the rest of their lives) the less likely we are to remember the turmoil that is adolescence.  It can be a time of intense loneliness for many young people. They don’t know who they are, or who they’re supposed to be, or who they want to be. What I wish most for my middle school students, aside from supportive involved parents, food and shelter,  is one good friend.  That’s really all you need to make it through.  But unfortunately there are a lot of kids who don’t even have that.

So for those kids I hope they can find a good book, preferably a lot of them. I hope they can find a book with a character they relate to, or idolize, laugh or cry with.  Because sometimes that’s all it takes to feel less alone in the world.  This has nothing to do with English class or curriculum or meeting state standards. This is about making connections, the kind of connections that can get you through a rough patch. It’s about opening your eyes to new experiences and knowing that the world is a big place.

The editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature were recently interviewed here about the 50th anniversary edition. At the end of the interview both were asked why study literature? Their answers are best read in full but here are a few quotes I liked:

“It broadens you, it makes you more human.”

“It expands you in every way. It illuminates what you’re doing.”

I want that for my students. I want that as a teacher, a reader and a writer.

What I’m Grateful For…

It’s the first day of my summer vacation and as the G-ds would have it I have a nasty head cold. I would not have even gone to work yesterday if it were not the last day of school. So apologies right now if I wrote something unintelligible or profane in your yearbook kids.

I am grateful for this beautiful sunny day even if I can’t enjoy it the way I might like to. I did go outside to wash my sandals! I am grateful for daycare which means the wee one doesn’t have to put up with my snuffling and general grumpiness.

But I am especially grateful for my students. I read this article this morning in which teachers were interviewed about why they think kids drop out. And teachers, I must say, are an optimistic bunch in general. At the end of the article they were each asked what it is that keeps them going.  They all attributed their positive and hopeful attitudes to their kids and their love of teaching kids. Teaching is all about connections. If you can’t connect with someone why on earth would they want to listen to what you have to say? (I could probably go on about that ad nauseum)

It’s pretty traditional for kids to get my end of the year gifts and while these are always appreciated, my favorite part are the cards. Getting a middle school student to sit down (even if forced by parents) and write you a note of appreciation is a minor miracle. So I’m especially grateful for any words of appreciation and feedback that come from my students. By the by, my cards usually say things like “You are weird and funny.” Comments that might have upset me when I was actually in middle school now make me beam with pride.

So maybe the final thing I’m grateful for is perspective. Perspective allows me to remember that this head cold will not last forever and there will be plenty of days to enjoy the sunshine. Perspective allows me to create meaningful connections with my students but also to understand that it is right and natural that they move on and so do I.  When I’m doing my best at keeping things in perspective I can enjoy all the wonderful parts of my existence without feeling anxious about what may come, or not come. So I’m grateful for those moments too. Dayenu!

 

Dirty Monkeys

This year I purchased a magnetic poetry set for my classroom. I set aside a corner of the white board thinking it would be a fun thing for students to do -make sentences and poems in between their assignments, during homeroom, etc.

Some magnetic poetry sets have themes but this one, which I purchased at a yardsale, seemed to be pretty general. I scanned for any blatantly inappropriate words and then let them have at it.

Quickly I developed a secret little corner of the board where the “bad words” were banished. Some were obvious. “Blow, Butt, and Breast,” quickly made their way to the corner. What I didn’t anticipate was the students’ diligence and creativity in finding ways to make ordinary words dirty.

The bad word list grew longer:

Blow

Butt

Breast

Sausage

Kiss

Hole

Sweat

Slam

Meat

Rocket

Brown

All these words are innocuous enough on their own, but put together they say things like “Blow my brown meat rocket.”

The words that are left are pretty much rated G. However, every once in a while they come up with something truly unique such as yesterday’s contribution.

“I remember tall wild monkeys tongue fiddling him.”

I left it up there. After all, it’s poetry.

When I Grow Up I Want to be Harry Potter

Today in school, apropos of I can ‘t remember what, a student asked me with disbelief and maybe even a tiny bit of disdain in his voice, “Did you want to be a teacher?  I mean like when you were younger?” I laughed out loud at the tone in his voice and the utter skepticism that anyone could choose this profession intentionally.  And there are moments when I wonder similarly, but regardless the answer is no.

I liked school.  I liked the structure and the tasks with neat beginnings, middles, and ends.  I loved to read, I was curious and had a great memory for facts.  So school was a relatively fun place for me.  But I never dreamed of being a teacher.  Even when I decided to go back to school and get my teaching certification, it wasn’t because I wanted to be a teacher.  I did it because I never wanted to work at a desk.  I did it because I wanted every day to be different.  I did it because I thought I could be a consistent adult for kids who might lack one in their lives.  I did it because adolescents make me laugh and think.

But never because I wanted to be The Teacher.  When I see little kids playing school or teacher, they inevitably end up bossing their friends or stuffed animals through a series of tasks.  Unfortunately, I know teachers like that too.  They are teachers who want to be The Teacher.

Which brings me to one of my favorite Harry Potter quotes.  It comes from the King’s Cross chapter in the final book of the series.  Harry is talking to Dumbledore about why he never pursued the position of Minister of Magic.  Dumbledore (also a teacher incidentally) answers him by saying, “It is a curious thing Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.”

Curious, and true.

Middle school existentialism

I’ve been reading The Giver every year I’ve taught 8th grade English.  And every year I love it.  I love the conversations it provokes from my students; conversations about the importance of making your own choices, about safety versus freedom, about the meaning of life itself.  And inevitably we talk about death.

Those who live in the sheltered world of the Giver’s community know nothing of death.  They believe that people are “released” from the community and go to “Elsewhere”.  In my class we talk about denial, about grief, and about the role of religion in explaining the unknown.  It’s heavy stuff.  Today it provided this little gem of a conversation between two students.

Kid 1: Death is totally going to suck.

Kid 2: Yeah remember before you were born, it’s like that, nothing. Totally boring.

Kid 1: Yeah, it really sucks.

I’m sure there are scholars who could say it in a more complex way, but not nearly as entertaining and probably just as enlightening.