it’s all takin’ and no givin’.


Recently, I sat at a faculty meeting concerning the upcoming school year (though we’ve just reached the halfway threshold of this one), and a colleague of mine said, “Folks, we’ve got rigor.”

Yep.  There it was again.  Academic rigor.  And though it’s been an education buzzword for years, our teacher-ears perk up every time we hear it. We take it as a compliment.  We give it a positive connotation.  That’s a good school; it has a rigorous curriculum.

But after that meeting, I went back to my classroom wondering if I really knew the true definition of the word.  Because we’ve been studying so much Sylvia Plath in my classes, a copy of The American Heritage High School Dictionary sat nearby on a student desk, and out of curiosity, I took a look.

Here’s what I found.

Rigor, n:  1. Strictness or severity, as in temperament, action, or judgment.  2. A harsh or trying circumstance; hardship.  3.  A cruel act.  4. Shivering or trembling, as caused by a chill. 5. A state of rigidity in living tissues or organs that prevents response to stimuli.

This is a word we use to describe a student’s school experience?  This is a word we use to describe learning?

What’s even worse, I think, is that we’ve transformed an already unpleasant term (rigor mortis, anyone?) into something else entirely.  We’ve determined that the simplest interpretation of the concept is this:  rigor=work.  We think that by giving them more to do, we are making the curriculum more challenging.  It doesn’t take higher level thinking to determine that more work doesn’t necessarily provide higher level thinking.

I started a dialogue with my students about their own learning.  One of them said, “At some point, I think it was around sixth grade, school became a big pile of work.”  And he motioned with his hands to show the size of the pile; it was almost as tall as he was.  And it continues to grow.  They feel like they will never reach the bottom. They wonder if the bottom even exists.


We’ve decided that if they can, they should.  They should read before they leave pre-K. They should have nightly homework in kindergarten.  In first grade, they should have independent reading goals that require them to read forty books at a fourth-grade reading level in a nine-week quarter.  If the curriculum is rigorous enough, by high school, they should be having nervous breakdowns.  (If it were an exaggeration, it might be funny.)

Rigor isn’t making our kids smarter.  It’s not turning them into thinkers.  It’s turning them into machines.  They work.  They ingest.  They regurgitate.  And we are concerned only with what they produce:  standardized test scores and, subsequently, school grades.

But they do not learn.  They do not think.  And they do not learn to think.  So what are we really teaching them?  This:  education is a cruel act that causes shivering and trembling and prevents a response to stimuli.

The second part of my colleague’s statement at the meeting that day was something like this:  “We need fun.”

We do.  And we need to give them back all of the things we’ve taken away.  Recess. Field trips.  Art, music, physical education, library time.  Pats on the back.  Empathy.

When my first-grader climbed into the car after school this week, she told me that her favorite part of the day was “Brain Break,” when her teacher turned on music and the students were allowed to leave their seats and move their bodies.

Maybe that needs to be part of the curriculum.






it took me years to write.


I teach high school English.  At the start of every school year, I write a letter to my students and read it aloud.  For the older ones, it’s all about how life doesn’t tend to go according to plan, that where you see yourself down the road isn’t always where you end up.  And I use myself as the example, which always leads to this question:  “But, Ms. Lavelle, if you wanted to be a writer, why didn’t you just become a writer?”

Aren’t they wonderfully inexperienced and idealistic little darlings? Clearly, they miss the point of my letter.  But, in their defense, one time I did use a metaphor that involved a not-so-easy-to-fold road map before remembering that their only understanding of a road map was made by Google.

“Well, guys, I am a writer,” I say, but then I reconsider.  Am I?  Am I really?  I’m not even sure I know what the term means anymore.

When my original plan (and I won’t divulge the original plan because, after all, I was once wonderfully inexperienced and idealistic) didn’t want to pan out, I tried to adjust.  At some point along the way, I became a teacher and thought, Yes!  I can do this (for now)! There are summer vacations and holiday breaks!  I’m done by 3pm!

left.And so I repeated the mantra I had learned in college and graduate school: The writing comes first.  Be disciplined.  Make a schedule.  Stick to it.  Fifteen years later, I can say that I have tried.

There have been many early mornings, before work, squinting through the quiet dark, watching the window lighten with the minutes.  I’ve spent planning periods (meant for planning, grading, making copies, contacting parents, checking my mailbox, eating lunch, performing lunch duty, using the restroom and breathing) frantically trying to finish a single paragraph. But then there’s an essay on Plath I forgot to grade. Or a recommendation letter I need to finish.  Or a knock on the door from the kid who keeps falling asleep in seventh period.

I had my first child at twenty-eight, a week after I finished writing my first novel.  A few years later came another baby, and two years after that, one more.  Life seemed to hasten its pace.  But I tried to keep some of those early mornings (if I had slept at all the nights before) and just as their bedroom doors closed for afternoon naps, the laptop opened.

But no matter how hard I have tried, I have never succeeded at putting the writing first.

Putting the writing ahead of my children makes me a not-so-good mother.  Putting the writing ahead of my students makes me a not-so-good teacher.  Putting the writing ahead of exercising makes me a not-so-healthy person (and — let’s be honest — just plain fat). My children deserve my attention, my students deserve my attention, and my mind and body deserve my attention.  And so the writing becomes the reward for fulfilling all of the other obligations.  I never meant for it to be that way, but that’s the way it is.

(But, then, it works the other way, too. When I’ve gone too long without writing, everything else suffers.  Because life is all about some kind of balance that I haven’t figured out. Yet.)

Each summer, I tell myself I’ll have the time.  And so here is another July — the first week gone, and I haven’t accomplished very much.  Not writing is very very hard. I don’t know how else to put it except to say that it aches.  I keep at it, working in bits and pieces, in moments, here and there.  There is no vivid and continuous dream; though the hours in my day may be vivid and continuous, they are not quite conducive to writing, no matter the height of my effort or the width of my intentions.

them.Just last week, I managed to draft a poem.  An entire poem.  But the process always goes something like this:

I set my alarm for 4 am so that I can get some work in before my run (it’s July in Florida — morning running is the only option).  At 3 am, my son comes for a visit.  You know, just to make sure I’m still there.  And then he gets in my bed. In his sleep, he inches closer and closer to me until I turn off the alarm and move to the couch.

During the day, I escape to the porch, but the screech of the sliding glass gives me away. And there they are.

“Can I have a Luigi’s?”  Yes.  Two minutes later: “Where are the spoons?”  You might want to check the drawer.  Where the spoons ALWAYS are.


Then comes another one.  “If I poop in my pants, you’ll yell at me and tell me I can’t play games.”  Right. Glad we’re clear on that.


The oldest stops by for a visit.  She sits on a tricycle she’s far too big for, and faces away from me.  She’s bored, even though we’ve already been to the playground and for a hike on a hidden boardwalk today.  I explain that I’m trying to get some work done.  The tricycle stops, and she stares ahead of her through the screened wall.

“But what is your work, Mommy?”  It’s almost a whisper.

Before I can answer (not that I actually have an answer), this comes from inside: “WHERE ARE MY ORANGE GOGGLES?!”

Sigh.  Because, really, what is my work, anyway? (And I know exactly where the orange goggles are.  That’s the kind of space I seem to have in my brain.)

I scribble things down in a notebook, then forget where they came from.  There’s something about dragons, about houses on fire.  There’s something about the yellow-green glow of these afternoons.  I hope it comes back to me someday.  Or I come back to it.

aw.On Sunday, I helped my middle child ride her bike for the first time without training wheels.  The air was thick, and our efforts left us sweating. She took off up the hill in the mid-afternoon sun, and her image was melted still at the top of the street. And I realized: this is my work.  And I can’t discount it.

I’m not complaining.  I’m not trying to make excuses. I’m trying to be realistic.  I’m trying to remind myself that all of this work is valuable, not just the writing. I need to tell myself to keep at it, and it will happen, bit by bit (the same way my hair is growing gray). Maybe there’s another mom out there who didn’t get to write today.  Or yesterday.  Maybe she hasn’t written anything substantial since her first child was born more than nine years ago. And maybe she needs to hear this.

Yes, I’m a writer.  But what I’ve come to learn is that right now, the writing can’t come first. And that it will come very slowly, if at all.  Right now, this — this family, this classroom, this one-line-at-a-time — is my work. This is the work that makes my life. And maybe, someday, this life will make my work.

(But right now, I need to clean up the trail of crackers he’s left that stretches the length of the living room.  He licked off the salt, so they’re soggy and starting to stick to the floor.)

pinned to the spokes

tricycle.  “You can let go now,” she said.  She was right; she had already learned to balance, and I was holding on too long.  I gave the bicycle’s seat a final shove and watched her take off up the street, the road’s slight incline lifting her toward the sunsetting sky.

The day she learned to really do it by herself, my husband and I high-fived so hard our palms stung pink.  And I knew what was different about this milestone; we had finally taught her something we could see. There was her concentrated gaze.  There were her forward-facing knees and feet.  There was her death-grip on the outside edge of the handlebars.

There she was.  On two wheels.  And she hadn’t done it by herself.

It had taken entirely too long, of course; she was just a week away from turning nine years old.  Even I, a late-to-the-party bike rider, managed to ride my second-hand hot pink Huffy down the smallest hill on Chestnut Street by the end of second grade.  But that’s the way things are with her.  She’s cautious about these rites of passage. She’s cautious about coming of age.riding.

That’s not to say she’s not mature. She is.  In fact, most might even call her precocious. But something inside her little body wants it to stay that way forever.  She wants to resist growing up.

About a month ago, I had a stressful week and to quiet my mind before helping the girls with their homework, I put on The Weepies‘ Hideaway album.  As soon as the first notes of “Can’t Go Back Now” began, she spun her head around to find me.  “Oh!” she said.  “This reminds me of Jane when she was little.”  And her whole face filled itself up with sadness. Not a crying kind of sadness, exactly.  But a kind of sadness that made her wince. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “Jane will never be little again, and I miss that Jane.”

The next week, as we were walking out of daycare with her younger brother, I commented on his height, and how he was suddenly so much more little boy than baby.  She looked down at the pavement and did that wince again.  “But I like that he’s little,” she said.

littleAnd I realized that what she was feeling was similar to the sensation I have whenever I find a baby bib or blanket that has hidden itself among the doll clothes or a rubber-tipped spoon stuffed behind the silverware. There’s a momentary pull in the center of my heart. And it’s not because of what’s gone, but because of what will never be again.

It’s not that she’s especially upset about her siblings losing their littleness.  It’s that she knows that as they keep growing, so will she.

Of course, the evidence isn’t always as tender or poignant as her reaching out to touch the top her brother’s buzzed head (without him fighting back).  Recently, on the ride home from a Saturday morning filled with soccer, the word “puberty” somehow graced us with its presence.

“What’s puberty?”  she said.

“That’s when girls get boobs,” I said. (Cut me some slack.  I was put on the spot and something more profound just didn’t spring to mind.)

“Ew.”  She rolled her eyes away from me and back toward the window.

On Thursday night, she sat beside me on the couch, her knees hugged to her chest. “It’s my last day of being eight,” she sighed.  I knew she was concerned, contemplating what kinds of things might come with nine.

You can let go now, I almost said to her.  But I couldn’t yet bring myself to do it.

there she is.