that’s what you taught me

thank you, meg.I never meant to be a teacher.

Fifteen years ago, I sat in an interview with the head of the English Department of a large public high school in an elite suburban district south of Boston for a job I knew I wouldn’t secure.  At the end of our meeting, she said that she felt I was a “natural teacher,” but that she couldn’t hire me because I hadn’t had any formal training.  She was right.  I had worked as a Starbucks barista.  My undergraduate degree was in Creative Writing.  What did I know about teaching?

It’s been more than thirteen years since someone hired me to stand in front of a classroom of students and act like a teacher. I’m still learning.

In August, I started over.  After seven years at the same school, I left, only to become “the new teacher” again. I gave up the comfort and stability of teaching the third and fourth sibling in a single family, or sometimes even the same students three years in a row. My campus of 200 became one of 2,000.  I’m no longer in Room 24, I’m in room 0-9-1-0-something.  And, unless it’s to the cafeteria, the media center, or the office, I rarely have any idea where I’m going.

But something recognizable arrived with the students.

oh, connor.

After the first day, their faces were familiar.  I felt like I knew them, but didn’t know why. I watched as they interacted with each other and with me and suddenly I understood:  they were showing me tiny parts and pieces of the past.

Jared’s voice reminds me of Chandler.  Alex is so similar to my other Alex (but not quite as tall). Riley’s running makes me miss Emily. I almost call Amanda “Grace” almost every day. When Nevada reads Horatio’s lines in his not-exactly-Scottish accent, I remember Adam battling Myra at the end of Macbeth.  (It was an epic cardboard-sword duel that started inside the classroom, then went outside, then came back in.)

That’s not to say that my students are not individuals, or that I see them as the same.  That’s not it at all.  But it is to say that many of my new students connect me, through some barely noticeable and unintentional attribute, to former ones from two or ten or thirteen years ago. There’s a kind of comfort that I find in that, and I’m grateful for it.

Dr. James Comer said it, and every teacher has heard it (most likely in one of those new-teacher trainings like the one I attended this summer): “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship based on mutual respect.”  I scribbled some version of it down in the margin on one of the pages of my how-to-be-a-good-teacher manual.  But what I’ve learned so far is that it’s absolutely true.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the “good teacher” thing down.  And I don’t know what a “natural teacher” is.  But I know where I fall short and I know where I suffice.  And sometimes, I’m surprised by the things they learn, the things I didn’t know that I was teaching. This past week, a former student of mine, who was in the midst of a devastating tragedy, found a way and a reason to tell me what I taught her.

I haven’t yet found the student who reminds me of her, but I’ll keep looking.

Because what she taught me, what I learned from her, is that maybe, after thirteen years, I’m starting to understand what it takes to make a significant relationship — something that’s bigger than formal training, and can’t be measured in numbers or percentages.  And yet, it’s the most significant part.

 

 

run run run run run run run away.

1466088_10152064659053534_734765049_nLast year, a day before the Boston Marathon, I decided that it was time for me to start running again. Now, don’t get me wrong; I was never what one might consider a serious runner.  But my husband and I had dedicated ourselves to running up Wollaston Hill in the ice and snow during our graduate school years (before children, before real jobs, when we were still dreaming of palm trees and sunscreen).  Our first race took us out onto Castle Island, back through South Boston, and into the Seaport District.  At the finish line, we were handed two beer tokens to use at the Harpoon Brewery (I’m still a true believer in the power of running and beer).

So the idea was there on April14th, 2013.  But then, after the Boston Marathon’s abrupt and tragic end, I felt even more compelled to run.  So I started that Tuesday.  I went again on Wednesday. I didn’t know what I was doing.  I didn’t have any training. But I kept going. On the morning of my 36th birthday a few months later, I ran ten miles without stopping. For the first time.  Ever.  In the year or so that has happened since that April, I’ve participated in eight 5Ks and two half-marathons. There’s still a lot I don’t know, like how to not hate myself during speed workouts or what those compression socks actually do.  But it’s the things I’ve learned that matter.

And these are those.

1506398_654428204599198_472453258_nRunning is hard.  Not running is harder.  (The same has been said about writing, of course.) When I run, I’m not (as) stressed out. I sleep better.  My skin looks nicer.  I can see some of my muscles.  And I don’t feel as badly about my infatuation with a certain hop-centered beverage.  When I don’t run, I’m mean.  And tired.  And impatient. And bloated. And mad at myself.  Really really mad at myself.

Running has taught me things. All kinds of things. Shoes do matter and speed workouts actually work. A seventy-something-year-old woman can float across the finish line just steps before I come huffing and puffing and pounding. I really can hold my pee for thirteen miles if I have to. And when I race, there are all of these people (some with cowbells, even) who have no idea who I am and yet they decide to cheer for me like they’re my biggest fans. I’ve learned that tripping, falling, and bleeding are all part of the . . . fun.  (And sometimes part of my lack of coordination. I’m really not so good at running in the dark.)

Someone once said that “fate is a fickle mistress.”  (Ben Linus said it better.)  Well so is running. Sometimes three miles feels like fifteen.  Sometimes you can’t do physically what you can do mentally.  And sometimes, it’s just the opposite.

1970642_10152667636984046_1663929333_nSometimes, my knee will hurt so badly that I’ll hobble up that stupid hill, holding back the tears. And my runner-coach-friend will text me:” IT Band.”  And I will have to Google “IT Band.”  One Saturday, I’ll run thirteen miles, and two weeks later, I won’t finish five.  I’ll feel good when the speed workout is over (and so is that puking sensation), but I’ll want to die (or at least puke) while it’s happening. One weekend, I’ll get a stomach virus, and the long run is out the window.  A weekend later, I’ll get another one, and I’ll start thinking I’ll probably never make it to mile seven of that upcoming half.  There are soccer practices, soccer games, Girls Scouts, dance camps, papers to grade, nights when my children and I won’t sleep; there are all of these things that will try to keep me from running. But I have to keep going.

Because it’s so hard to start again once I’ve stopped.  And I’ll always wonder what I could have done if I just hadn’t stopped. If I just kept going.

The truth is, I don’t know that I’ve ever participated in anything with such measurable goals and tangible accomplishments. Even when I tried to take swimming seriously in my younger years, the accountability wasn’t there; I wasn’t ready, yet, to answer to myself. And maybe that’s the point of all of this: to feel like I truly did something. And have the t-shirt and medal to show for it.  

Because sometimes, you meet those goals.  Sometimes, you exceed them.

20140702_132638I don’t know, yet, if I would call myself a “runner.”  I mean, I run (if that’s what you call it). But I don’t know what my pace goals are. I don’t have my PRs memorized. I don’t know if I want to get faster or just keep going. What I do know, though, is that there is some connection, some understanding between those of us who like to run.  We’ll get up at five on a summer morning when the humidity has weight to sweat through a quick 5K just for the watermelon afterwards.  Even though we’ve never actually spoken, we’ll nod encouragements to each other when we pass on Campbell Road on early Saturday mornings. We get excited when others tell us they’re thinking of taking up running (my mom and stepdad are running their first 5K this weekend — go Mom and Jim!). And if you think of running as a solitary sport, you’re (mostly) wrong.  It takes an entire community.  (My coach would be happy to tell you how often I text him.)  And, honestly, I thought I enjoyed running alone, until I ran with a pack of teenage students this spring. While I still enjoy the quiet and solitude of a morning run, running with others changed my whole perspective.  In a good way.  

I know that I will never be fast, and, most likely, my husband will end up beating me. Soon.  But all that really matters to me is that I just keep going.  And, really, isn’t that all that ever matters, with anything?

P.S.  I ran enough to wear out a pair of running shoes.  I bought my second pair this week (thank you, Milton).  That feels like a serious accomplishment to me.  I think I deserve a beer.

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(don’t) get busy.

20140630_195931I was stuck in midair, on my way to a funeral I had prepared for my whole life but never thought would happen. (When someone lives that long, it’s like a trick; you just go on thinking she’s going to live forever.) It was the first time I had flown in years and the space was smaller than I remembered: a screen just inches from my face, and with each movement, I elbowed my neighbor. From my purse, I pulled what I thought was the most recent copy of The New Yorker because I had been anxious to read that article about John Green being a teen whisperer, but realized that I had grabbed the wrong issue when I left the house in a hurry and the dark that morning. So instead I flipped to a review of a new book (Overwhelmed Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time) concerning our culture’s obsession with busyness. And I have to admit that I identified with the content, the “busier than thou” attitude and “the glorification of busy”  that pervade our lives and Facebook feeds.  It’s everywhere.  And it’s true. We are too busy. We fill our time with to-dos and obligations and activities; in our calendars, there’s scarcely space to breathe.

too much busyness.I’ve been there (most people have, I think); I’ve picked my kids up at aftercare, pulled on their soccer shorts and shin guards and laced up their cleats on the school’s bathroom floor. My husband and I have met in parking lots, traded keys and kids. Then another costume change and on to the basketball court to round out a thirteen-hour day. We’ve performed ballet recitals with fevers and swollen glands, a Christmas show with strep throat. One night I completely forgot to give my daughter dinner before Girl Scouts. (Or was it First Communion practice?) And so we stopped at a 7-11 for some Combos. Yes. Combos.

I don’t glorify that kind of busy; I don’t even want it. But, sitting there, fastened to an airplane seat, unable to get up and go, I realized that I was guilty of a different kind of “busy.”

And here it is:  I am at rest when I am in motion.  It’s genetic, really.  A recessive trait that I have only seen in my maternal grandmother’s side.  But my mother got it, and nana.so did I.  It centers around an inability to sit still, an insistent urge to do and do.  For my grandmother, it was cleaning. When I was young, I assumed that she was a neat-freak. We joked about how much she loved to clean, the way she looked forward to the piles of laundry and the carpets in need of vacuuming. But that was never the case. It was the doing that she loved. The fingerprints on the mirror disappeared with a swipe of her paper toweled-palm. For my mother, it’s cooking. She thinks of what’s for dinner days before. She runs to the store to buy vegetables for the gazpacho. Then she runs back because she forgot the tomato juice. After the chopping and measuring, she stirs.  She stirs and stirs. (And she won’t let you stir, even if it’s your gazpacho. She’ll take the wooden spoon right from your hand.) The chilling overnight is torture for her.

For me, it’s working (which strikes me as a slightly less beneficial affliction than cleaning or cooking).  The writing kind of work, the lesson-planning kind of work, the grading-papers kind of work. I get up too early in the mornings to make my days longer, to make it all fit. In the evenings, after the kids are bathed and the day is almost done, I can’t watch a movie without doing something else.  As soon as my butt hits the couch, I pop back up to work on something.  (The World Cup is on while I type this. I-believed-that-we-would-win!)   When we finally sit together, my husband sometimes puts his hand on my leg not to be romantic but to stop me from moving.

one hundred years . . . It sounds funny, I know.  But lately, I feel like it’s not.  There are days I rush my toddler off to nap so that I can write, and I sometimes cringe when I hear that he’s awake. When my five-year-old asks me if I remember the story she’s recounting, I say, “yes,” even though I couldn’t have been listening with my mind in seven different places. When my eight-year-old goes through a month-long sleep disturbance pattern, I remind her almost nightly that I need to get up early and run.

Right.  Because guilt is going to help her sleep.

And, truly, I’m the one who’s guilty. Of pushing them aside to make the most of my minutes. Of not stopping to watch. Or to listen. Or to breathe.

At some level, we (both the busier-than-thous and the busybodies) have attached a sense of worth to all of this busyness.  Our lives have more value if we’re busier, if we’re utilizing every inch of every day. And what it comes down to, what all of this comes down to, I think, is a misinterpretation of “full.”  So I have to ask myself:  do I want my day to contain as much as possible, or possess a rich quality?

What struck me most about seeing my grandmother in her casket was her stillness.

Before she was two, my middle child earned the nickname “Janey Waney Wiggle Worm” from her teacher. She’s got it, too.

I don’t want her to have a calendar that’s full.  Or a day that’s full. I want her to have a life that’s full.

full.