it took me years to write.

classroom.

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.

Quiet.

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.

Quiet.

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.)

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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.

 

 

tweet tweet. tweedle-lee-dee.

oh, the tragedy.

I sit at the front of the classroom, introducing The Tragedy of Othello, when I see one of my students attempt to stifle a sinister giggle from the the right side of the room.

“Susie (names have been changed to protect the guilty), what are you doing?”  It’s more of a statement than a question, though, because I know what she’s doing.  The tapping finger, the downcast eyes, the angled backpack hoarding the desk space before her.  These are telltale signs.

“Cyberbullying.”  Oh.  We all chuckle because we know she is (mostly) not serious.

And then the classroom erupts into a frenzy of the five Ws (and an H) and frantic digging for phones because of what is happening right now, during fourth period, on Twitter.

I sigh. Clearly, I am not as exciting as Twitter.  I don’t move as fast.  I’m too wordy. Each of my sentences doesn’t end with some witty summative phrase immediately following what used to be known as a “pound key.” I get that part.

But here’s the part I don’t get:  I am a working mother of three and my phone, which is not quite educated enough to be considered “smart”, is tucked safely inside my purse, hidden away in my desk drawer.  The sound is off.  When I remember, I glance at it in the four minutes between classes.  But I don’t always remember.

the phone.  In the five classes I teach daily at a local private high school, there are six students without smartphones.  Six.  Why on earth does a teenager need a smartphone?  If I, a working mother of three, don’t need a smartphone, then why do they?

I’ll tell you why.

They need it for texting (I kind of miss the days when all they did was text).  They need it for Ruzzle.  They need it for Snapchat (Pictures that disappear?  Brilliant idea.  Really. I’m not even going to tell you what teenagers are doing with that.)  They need it for Fun Run.

And when I polled my second period class full of sophomores concerning what, exactly, they use their smartphones for, the answer was a resounding, simultaneous:  “TWITTER!”

Oh, Twitter.  Forget Facebook, my friends (and fellow parents).  They’re over liking and commenting.  They’re tweeting.  And retweeting.

Let me take a moment to say that I’m not some kind technology-and-social-media-hating curmudgeon.  I have a Facebook, I have a Twitter, I have a blog.  But what concerns me as a classroom teacher is the behavior I’m starting to see that seems to be a direct result of the overuse (to put it lightly) of smartphones, of being continuously plugged in.

They can’t keep themselves away.  And though some of them may use this handheld piece of technology appropriately (I had one boy tell me, “I like to use my phone to tweet.  tweet.  read sports articles” — be still my heart!), a great majority of them don’t. They use social media to gossip, to complain about their teachers (and their parents), to arbitrarily use foul language, to cheat on their school work, to post compromising pictures of themselves (I won’t tell you what they’ve shown me), to recount each event of each period of each day.

And they use it to gang up on each other.  To bully.  To be ugly and hateful. Just this week, a few of our girls participated in a Twitter cyberfight, slinging quick and disgusting insults at each other during the school day.  Things they would never say to each other’s faces. Things that would horrify the very people who gave them the smartphones in the first place.  And even though the fight was between two or three girls, the majority of our student body saw the exchange and even went so far as to involve themselves. (I used to work for a principal who told his students that if they stood around and watched a fight happen without doing anything about it, they were just as guilty as the fighters.  In my opinion, this is worse.  The bystanders keep it going.  They promote it by retweeting.)

And even though they’re probably going to hate me for it, I’m going to tell you, parents, that they use it to broadcast all the pieces of their lives that they want to keep from you.

In the minimal research I did for this post, I found enough to make me nervous, as their teacher, and as a parent.  So I told them that.

“You crept, Ms. Lavelle?”

“I did.  I crept.  Did you guys know that your Twitter profiles are basically public?  That even though I don’t ‘follow’ you, I can see what you tweet?”

the boys.  Their eyes widened, not out of concern for the publicness of their lives, but for what I might have seen.

Then one of them said, “But if you make it private, you can’t retweet.” Oh.

The truth is, I love these kids.  But what I’m seeing is starting to get downright scary. Every moment of their existences is fodder for social media, every thought they have needs to be put on display.  Even when some of those things should be kept quiet.  Especially when some of those things should be kept quiet.  How will they ever learn to discern?

The tragic flaw.

“You guys know enough about Shakespeare to know what happens in one of his tragedies.  Othello’s tragic flaw will be his downfall.”

“Hashtagspoileralert, Ms. Lavelle.”

Hashtagsigh.

I suppose, though, that there’s always a glimmer of hope.  That it’s not quite doomsday yet.  I leave you with a recent post made by a former student of mine on Facebook (yes, I’m old, so I still check Facebook):

facebook.  “Lost my phone today.  Thinking about going a semester without one if it doesn’t turn up.  If anyone has to talk to me or contact me for some reason, just Facebook me.  I’ll check it every now and then.”

Yes.  Every now and then.