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.

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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