Back to School

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This year marks my 33rd first day of school. This year I had a new student in tears come in to my classroom a few minutes before the bell. She was accompanied by one of our guidance counselors. We exchanged a knowing glance. Anxiety is a real bitch. I smiled sympathetically and told her that even after 32 more or less successful first days of school, I still get nervous. I still have dreams where I don’t know my schedule or I can’t get the combination on my locker to work, or I’m paging through the course catalog trying to sign up for classes at the last minute. Ugh, that course catalog -it plagues me still. I told her about the dream I have where I’m all prepared for the first day except I’m wearing a towel instead of pants. She cringed. No one wants to hear about their teacher in a towel. Good, let her transform some of that anxiety into thinking I’m a totally inappropriate wingnut. Let her smile for a second and feel that pit in her stomach, that churning in her chest, ease a little bit. I know them both well and have for most of my life.

This year I posted a giant sticky for the kids to add their fears about the worst possible thing that could happen on the first day of 7th grade. They could be as realistic (my pants fall down) or unrealistic (zombie apocalypse) as they chose.

The Importance of Fantasy

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The Alanna of Trebond series by Tamora Pierce were without a doubt my favorite books pre middle school. I’m not sure if I actually read in middle school -it might not have been cool. (I totally read in middle school -I just don’t remember because my mind was eclipsed by the fog of puberty). There were a lot of books I loved in elementary school but these stand out to me because the Alanna series is a fantasy series. And although my love of reading has continued unabated into adulthood, I’m not much of a fantasy reader any longer. If I do read fantasy it’s never high fantasy and it’s always kid-lit.

However, in the last two books I’ve written, reading (and specifically reading fantasy) plays an important role in the lives of the characters. In WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE the main character reads aloud from the Lord of the Rings series with the girl he doesn’t know he has a crush on. His relationship with his best male friend parallels the relationship between Sam and Frodo. Instead of a ring of power, Ben and Tyler are carrying the secrets of their past. In Tolkien’s world there was a place for platonic love so strong that the character’s would sacrifice themselves to save each other and/or accomplish the quest. I wrote WIRED MAN as an attempt to understand love and friendship between high school boys but it’s funny to me, that the model I chose was from a fantasy novel. How does fantasy free us to experiment with relationships in ways that might be too risky in real life?

In the book I’m currently working on the main character reads and rereads the Harry Potter series as a way to make him feel safe. When a (well intentioned) teacher suggests that he takes more risks as a reader he stares through her as if to say, “Look lady, everything in my life is a risk right now, so don’t deprive me of the one landscape in which I feel secure -even if it’s full of death-eaters and dementors.”

I don’t want to trivialize other people’s connection to reading fantasy as pure escapism, although I think the best reading has at least a little bit of that no matter the genre. Who doesn’t want to get lost in a story, regardless of the genre? My daughter loves fantasy but I’m starting to realize that it’s adventure that she really loves and that’s what’s allowed her to transition to reading Bridge to Terabithia and The Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Could it all really be as simple as the hero’s journey? That what moves us as readers, is not the setting, but the epic importance of a quest ventured and a quest fulfilled? Is that why I love road trip novels and survival stories despite the fact that they take place in the “real world”?

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Possibly. Or possibly, the importance of fantasy is that it gives us permission to imagine things we are afraid of but disguise them as orcs, or dementors. We can follow along with a character disguising their gender to learn sword craft even as the drama of middle school forces us to grapple with or disguise our own identities. And of course there’s the importance of the quest; the desire to be a part of something greater than oneself. So read some fantasy, it’s a cheaper than therapy way you can find out what’s really going on in your life!

Less plastic more self awareness in 2019!

Normally I’m not a New Years goal/resolution type person. If you’re sifting through this blog you can totally call bullshit on that -I’m pretty sure I say that every year and then post some anyway. So I guess I’m a New Years goal and resolution person who doesn’t like to admit it? Or maybe I just like a little year’s end reflection. Last week I was hanging out with my brother and describing my TMJ issues which tend to get worse with stress.

“What are you stressed about?” he said. And he didn’t mean it in a snarky way.

I laughed. “Nothing, everything. The state of our country, the changing climate, whether or not I got my kids the right gifts for a holiday I don’t even really believe in. Whether or not my purchasing of the right gifts will result in them living happy and fulfilling lives.” So you know, the usual.

But his comment stuck with me because truthfully, most everyday type stress is a direct result of our own reactions to the events of our lives. I recently read Man’s Search for Meaning which is part of the Holocaust literature canon written by psychologist and death camp survivor Victor Frankl. The book is unique because it’s not a traditional narrative but rather delves into the psychology of suffering using the concentration camps as background. Light stuff, I know. His main point about suffering is that there will be suffering, and while we cannot often control the source of that suffering, we do have some say in our own reaction to it. I couldn’t go too far with this theory. I’m not someone who would try to put a smiley face on painful experience, but it does help with smaller daily life type stressors. Do they need to be stressors? Do I need to react to them in a stressful way? I’m talking to you TMJ!

So beyond my personal goal to use less plastic in 2019, I’m also setting a goal around awareness. Awareness of the way I’m thinking and the patterns I can get into -just awareness. My goal isn’t to change, change will come or it won’t. I think change implies judgment and I’m not trying to judge myself. I’d like to be more kind to myself. So, awareness, presence and kindness. Bring it on.

Feel free to judge me by my colon

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On my summer vacation I read two books that turned out to be related for unforeseen reasons. The first is Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. The second was Roxane Gay’s Hunger. The two books strike remarkably different tones. Amy Schumer, as you might imagine, goes for hilarity in her essays, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much substance was mixed in with the laughs. Her words and life decry the rigid standards of beauty and “acceptable behavior” for women. Her writing is a celebration of her body; the pleasure and comedy it brings her through food, sex, and other random awkwardness.

Hunger; A Memoir of my Body by Roxane Gay is about a woman who is very much a prisoner of her body. It’s a beautifully written and deeply painful history of a body violated and then protected in flesh.  Both authors write about the connections and interactions between our self perception, our corporeal selves, and society.

If you follow me on social media you might remember that as I was reading my second-hand copy of Schumer’s book I got a surprise bookmark. The previous owner had left her detailed and full color colonoscopy report in the back of the book- though I wouldn’t put it past Schumer to include one of these in each copy.

As I pored over this random woman’s report (and come on, who wouldn’t? ) I approached these pictures with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion. So that’s what a colon looks like. It’s kind of a weird mix of reds, pinks and fleshy yellows. It reminded me of the Sarlacc pit in Star Wars where the characters are trying to avoid being sucked in and digested for all eternity. (Yes, I had to look up what it was called, and yes it gave me nightmares as a kid.)

The colonoscopy report made me think about Gwyneth Paltrow, because, yes I read that looong New York times magazine article about her health and beauty empire devoted to things like 5,000 dollar yoga retreats, vaginal steaming and anal bleaching. The thing is her colon looks like a Sarlacc pit just as much as mine, or Roxane Gay’s or Amy Schumer’s.  It also got me thinking about our bodies and how they are more similar than different and how a hole in your body is ultimately just that. All the other stuff we attach to it is mostly just a bunch of socially constructed hoo ha. So go ahead, cancel that anal bleaching you had planned and the next time you find yourself staring at someone and judging them for the size or attractiveness of their body, remember that your colon looks like a Sarlacc pit too.

 

 

What’s so funny?

And just like that, the number 69 is funny.

For the past 12 years I’ve been teaching 7th and 8th grade. This year I am teaching 6th graders. 6th graders (on the whole) are a lot more kid-like than young adult-like. 6th graders like to get up and dance when I have random disco dance breaks in the middle of class. 6th graders REALLY like to talk. They talk when I ask questions, and often when I don’t. 6th graders will tell you when it’s their dog’s birthday.

With 8th graders you’re lucky if you register a pulse before 11 am.

6th graders don’t think the number 69 is funny. At least until about 3 weeks ago. I can’t tell you how it happened but all of a sudden there’s a lot of whispering about locker 69, about page 69 in a book. And lots and lots of giggling.  I’m fairly certain there’s no detailed understanding here, but they know they’ve stumbled upon something. Puberty. It’s got to start somewhere.

Back in September, I thought I had taken a job teaching fetuses. They were so small, and so incapable of punctuation. But the other day a few 8th graders wandered down to our wing and my jaw dropped. “Are you guys from the high school?” I stammered.

“No. We go to school here,” they said. (While undoubtedly rolling their eyes and thinking, whatever, weird lady.)

They looked like adults to me.

I shut my classroom door and retreated back amongst my small people. “Who wants to tell me about their pet? Anyone have a good Halloween costume this year?” 6th grade conversation starters that can keep a class going for hours. At least until someone’s voice cracks.

So Much Depends on a Sweet Potato

“This sweet potato is burned!” my daughter said dramatically, holding up the offending bit of brown on her dinner.

“No it’s not, it’s just cooked. It tastes fine.”

“No, mommy, it’s really burned. I just ate some of it and it’s really burned!”

So I took it from her hand, ate a bite, and pretended to gag and fall out of my chair and die. Standard parenting stuff, right? Not tonight. Tonight my daughter decided that I am never to tease her again, about anything, ever. This is a childhood whimsy I’m not prepared to humor, not even for a night to get her to shut up and go to bed.

Tonight we went several rounds with her lashing out at me and then demanding a hug in her angry voice. Telling me that it seems like I don’t care about her and then having a hysterical crying bout in her closet.

“It seems like you might be ready for bed,” I suggested. This was not well received, as you might imagine.

Oh, and did I mention it’s the first night of Hanukkah? Whether or not you have children it’s impossible to miss the dramatic rise in the emotional barometric pressure this time of year. If you do have children, you can enjoy the fun of watching tiny little emotional pressure gauges explode right in front of you.

And who can blame them really? Everything about this time of year is about anticipation, excitement and potential happiness in puppy-sized packages. This is the happiest, happiest, happiest time of year and it’s everywhere! No matter how low key your holidays might be, the world is essentially a giant three year old drinking red bulls and snorting pixie sticks.

I haven’t figured out a way to translate this into language my seven year old will understand, assuming she’ll let me speak to her that is. But I think it’s important to find a way to explain to her that we are all spinning in the holiday maelstrom, at least until January 2nd.

What are you trying to win?

I recently read the amazingly funny book You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein which led me down a rabbit hole of reading other funny things she produced and wrote. Klein is the head writer on the Amy Schumer show and the writer of this sketch about a group of pregnant women sitting around trying to one up each other about how natural their births are going to be. If you don’t watch it I’ll give you the gist here:

Woman 1: I’m giving birth into a tub of organic quinoa

Woman 2: Oh, yeah, I’m giving birth on top of a high peak in Nepal to get away from western medicine. My doula is a Sherpa.

Woman 3:My doula is a 3 month old baby so she really gets it.

You get the idea. Klein mentions this in light of a friend of hers who asked her once when she was complaining about something child or career related and comparing herself to others -what are you trying to win? I think it’s a good question to ask oneself any time you get overly worked up in comparing yourself to others.

I thought about it a lot this summer when I was on the beach observing teenage girls and young women taking photos of themselves. I work with middle school kids. I’m well aware of the influence of social media and selfie culture. But I was still grossed out by the number of young women I saw spending all their time on the beach getting the perfect shot.

Who am I to judge?

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I included this picture that I’m sure a friend took of me in my bedroom at age 16. The poster, the hair, the come hither expression. I have no doubt that if I were a teenager today I would have posted this. Ugh, it grosses me out to even think about it. But that’s what the kids do. They work hard at posting. The various groups of young women I observed spent almost their entire beach time  working on getting the perfect -casual, sexy, good time image. If I were a kid not included in this outing, I would look at that picture and think, “Everyone is having a good time without me. My life sucks.”

As adults we’re not immune to this either. How many times have you looked at the photos someone else posts on instaface and thought to yourself, “Their vacation is so much better than mine. My life sucks.” A friend of mine recently posted pictures of her camping trip with two young kids. As a caption she added that the pictures did not include her driving home because they forgot the sleeping bags or the time spent chasing their fire-obsessed one year old away from the campfire. I really appreciate these attempts at realism. It made me appreciate and more fully understand her experience.

But why shouldn’t we curate our best lives on social media? No one wants to go to a museum and see all of Picasso’s crappy failure paintings? Right? Maybe not. I was recently given the gift of The Moth -a paperback version of 50 stories from the storytelling podcast. In the introduction I came across this gem, “The number one quality of great storytellers is their willingness to be vulnerable, their ability to tell on themselves.” Maybe it is in fact our rainy days, our toddler meltdowns, our flabby bellies that make the better story and endear us to those we love.

When we curate and photoshop our lives the way advertisers photoshop women’s bodies do we make ourselves as unattainable and unrelatable? Are we losing the present moment because we’re so busy composing the perfect shot? And to what end?

What are we trying to win?

I don’t know. I do know that I spent last weekend away from my family with plenty of time to mull these things over. I went for a walk on Sunday morning down a long scenic country road. At one point a deer walked out right in front of me. So of course, I reached for my phone.

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The Importance of Representation

You can know a thing and not really know it. I knew representation was important. I knew it’s important that Doc McStuffins exists and that baby dolls come in all colors. But I didn’t really get it until it changed the way I thought about myself.

This week I was teaching a unit about genetics and in doing so was discussing the meaning of the word “generations”. I did this on two different days. The first day, my slideshow featured these images:

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There were no unexpected or unusual comments as we discussed the meaning of the term. The next day as part of a review, my slideshow featured these pictures:

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In two of my classes there were comments from the male members of the class. “Where are the boys?” they wanted to know. One student even went so far as to say, “Hey that’s discrimination.” He was joking, but that’s hardly the point. The boys noticed when they were absent. They noticed when there were people in the pictures who didn’t represent them. They noticed, and they complained.

The girls, when looking at similar pictures, said nothing. They did not think it was strange to look at pictures representing a term that should include them but didn’t. Their absence or lack of representation was not a new or unusual thing.

I thought about writing a post like this after I watched the first few episodes of Girls, starring Lena Dunham. I loved the awkward and uncomfortable way she portrayed sex. But after the first few episodes I realized it was more than that. I loved watching a woman with a less than pencil thin body being portrayed as a sexy and sexually desirable being. The character of Hannah Horvath is in many ways an awful human; self-centered, narcissistic, etc. But one of my favorite scenes involved her riding her bike down the road in her bikini. When one of her friends suggested she put on some clothes she dismisses the idea, claiming that she’s in a beach town.

The humor in this scene doesn’t come from the fact that she’s hanging out of her bikini six different ways. It comes from her own delightful lack of self-awareness and social mores. It’s funny because she doesn’t care. I didn’t realize how much I liked watching someone with an actual human-looking body on TV until I saw it. I’m embarrassed to admit how much watching a TV show has made me feel differently about my own body. And I’m equally embarrassed to admit how much I didn’t really get about the importance of representation until I did.

There’s a fantastic organization in the kidlit world called We Need Diverse Books. I’ve followed their progress in social media but now I understand their mission in a new way. It’s not called “Diverse Books Would be Nice” or “Diverse Books Would be Helpful”. There is a need for diverse books because of the way representation can fundamentally alter the way we see ourselves and envision our future. If seeing Lena Dunham parade around in her altogether can change the way a 40 year old woman thinks about some very entrenched ideas about body image, imagine the possibilities for kids seeing themselves in the pages of books and on TV as doctors, lawyers, ninja super heroes, rock climbers, athletes, professors, and so on. The possibilities are truly infinite or at least they could be.

 

The Importance of Friendship

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I became a mother almost 7 years ago but it took my daughter’s first sleepover with a friend to make me really feel like “a mom”.

The sleepover itself was smooth sailing. Lots of giggling, pizza for dinner, more giggling, extra cookies, giggling at a movie that as far as I can tell was not a comedy and then more giggling before passing out a good hour after bedtime. All standard stuff.

It was a really weird feeling to be the one creeping up the stairs only to hear the giggling stop. But this isn’t a post about getting older or getting more mom-like, it’s about friendship. Because what I didn’t expect was how teary I felt watching my daughter and her friend create this world that is just about them. This was an extended look at a relationship she has with another human that has very little to do with her parents.

I never doubted my daughter would have friends. Both of her parents are pretty extroverted social people. Our community of friends is like a second family for both of us. But there’s something about seeing those relationships form that made me grateful, both for her friends and mine.

The book I’m currently writing/revising is considered middle grade fiction; the protagonist is eleven. And the theme of the book (kids get your pencils out) is the importance of friendship. The main character has a tough family, but learns that his friends can hold him in the world much like a functional family does.

There are a lot of young adult and middle grade books about romantic relationships because adolescence is the age of discovery as far as what those bits and pieces mean and do. But discovering friendship and the role it plays in our lives is equally important and the lessons last well into adulthood.

As a side note, I’m exhausted and now understanding why my parents were never quite as thrilled at the idea of a sleepover as I was.

Resistance and Rage in Period 5

Oh look, I’ve neglected my blog since early November….like many of you I felt sucker-punched in early November. The rise of Voldemort has left me feeling rather lacking in the words department.

In the last few weeks I’ve felt more consistently angry than I can ever remember feeling. I have felt torn between wanting to run out and join whatever guerilla revolution would have me, and wanting to hide with my kids in a blanket fort. Guerilla revolutions offer full health and dental coverage right?

I’m afraid to continue with my life as though things are normal and yet I’m struggling to know how best to resist being squashed by the pavement roller of patriarchy and oppression that is rolling across our land.  I’ve always felt like the work I do as a middle school teacher is less about kids learning science and more about kids learning that there are lots of different ways to be a healthy functioning adult in the world. But right now that doesn’t feel like enough. I suppose I feel more helpless and powerless than I ever have in my life before. It’s kind of scary to stand in front of a class of 13 year olds when you’re feeling that way about the collective future of the country.

I’ve been told that tomorrow during our school-wide viewing of the inauguration “personal emotions/beliefs/views will not be communicated/shared”. I understand this in theory; no one wants Ms. Kaufman to launch Dumbledore’s Army during 5th period, and yet there is so much about this that is troubling. I don’t want to be passive and accepting. I want to channel my rage into something productive, into something that makes a difference and I want my students to know the importance and power of resistance. But mostly I want my students to know that 3 million more people in this country voted for love and acceptance over hate and division. I want them to know that this is not a “normal” election even if it is a peaceful transfer of power. I want them to know that what they do with their lives matters so I guess I have to practice what I preach.