Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Will You Do the Fandango?

I'm also thankful to have stumbled across this .

Thank You For Lettin' Me Be Myself . . . Again

(Sorry. I just couldn't bring myself to go the Sly and the Family Stone route in my spelling.)

Yes, friends, it's Thanksgiving -- or nearly so -- a day when we are to stuff our faces full of coma-inducing food, plot our shopping strategies, and take some time to reflect on life's graces. It is the accepted cliche that we should be prepared to identify all for which we give thanks.

Lest I come across as too cynical or flippant here, let me just say that Thanksgiving is honestly my favorite holiday of the year. I love to cook and for the past several years, I've really enjoyed holing up in my kitchen to put together a feast. I love the foods that are associated with Thanksgiving -- turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing. I love that it's a holiday where there is no gift-giving (or receiving) stress, that it really is just about the food and the thanks ... and the shopping the next day.

So for what am I thankful this year?

1. Having a Job: As I read more and more stories about people struggling in the face of double-digit unemployment rates, I am grateful that I not only have a job with a pretty high level of security (between tenure and seniority, I'm in very good shape), but I also have a job that I love. It challenges me in new ways every day. I love working with my students and sharing my love of literature with them, even if they're not always as receptive as I'd like. I am also thankful to work with some pretty great people. I have a nice group of friends at work who make me laugh, support me when I need it, let me vent when I need it, and are generally just great people. I look forward to lunch if only to spend 25 minutes or so visiting with them.

2. My Sister: It's been a tough year. My mom's death in May (on Mother's Day) was a blow that left me dealing with a lot of grief and regret. The fact of the matter is that my mom and I had a fractured relationship in the months leading up to her death and while I take some comfort in the fact that our last couple conversations with each other were positive ones, I still struggle with remembering the shouting matches and the hurtful words that we hurled at each other before that. What has gotten me through all of that, though, is my little sister. She is a pretty awesome person. Yes, there are times when we drive each other crazy, but there is no way I could have survived the month of May without her by my side. She's been my rock, even though I know it hasn't always been easy for her to be.

3. My Friends: On a similar note, I would include my friends in that. When my mom died, my friends flew to my side and held me up emotionally. My best friend Danielle came all the way from Ohio and played the Mel -- making sure things were taken care of, giving comfort, bringing booze. My friend Gary sat with me and my sis in the waiting room outside of the ICU the morning my mom died, showing up at 6:00am to sit with us. I would throw into this mix, too, my students who sent me encouraging notes, came to the visitation, and rallied around me when I came back. Talk about blessings!

As tough as this year has been, I have a hard time labeling it as a bad year. Life is about ups and downs, good and bad. With all that I have for which to be thankful, how can I think of this year as bad? The bad stuff played an important role in helping to illuminate all the good, and so I give thanks for the bad stuff, too. I've faced trials, and I've survived. Who could ask for anything more? (Oh, and a Wii. I'd like one of those, please.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

This Is Why I Do It

Yeah, this is going to be another "this is why I teach" stories. For those of you who don't cotton to those kinds of stories, just keep moving -- nothing to see here.

In the teaching world, some days are better than others. For every high of a class groaning when the bell to end class rings because they don't want the class to be over (yeah, that's happened to me), there is a low of a kid calling you a "bitch." There are days when I come home riding a natural high that comes from feeling like I'm truly making a difference, and there are days when I come home in the pits of despair, sure that I am failing my students. There is a lot about teaching that can be frustrating -- the miles of paperwork, the apathy of students, the ridiculous demands of parents, the lack of administrative support, the lack of funds to really do what you'd like to do in class.

And yet I admit that I wake up just about every day excited to go to work. (That's my big secret. And I should insert here the caveat that I am excited about going to work NOT about getting up at 5:45 to do so. I've long said that if my job could start at, like, 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning, it would be absolutely perfect.) When it comes right down to it, I made the decision to go into teaching because I wanted to help kids become better people. I saw teaching as my own little contribution to save the world.

This brings me to yesterday. I had a very long (but good) day at work. My freshmen are digging Romeo and Juliet, my Drama class has discovered the joy of Oscar Wilde, and my speech class was having fun with the challenge of creating speeches discussing the denotative and connotative meanings of the words of their choice. Add to that a pretty productive round of speech team practice after school, and I was feeling in the zone.

Who knew it would actually get better?

I got home, crawled into a pair of pajamas, and hit Facebook. There, on my profile page, was a message from a former student. Natalie graduated several years ago, but Facebook has allowed me to keep in touch with students like her. They find me and add me -- my policy is to turn none of them down. Over the past couple weeks, she's had a rough time as she was facing the likelihood that her college career was about to come to a halt because of financial problems. I had sent her encouraging messages, knowing how disappointed she must be but trying to remind her to hang in there. I knew she had been doing so well in college (and had been a strong student when I had her), so I sensed that compounded her frustration and grief as she realized all that she stood to lose. It was one of those times when I wished I had this huge amount of expendable cash to just send her, but, well, we all know how poorly teachers are paid.

Anyway, Natalie's wall post last night was one of those reminders for me that it isn't about the money. She wrote me to thank me and tell me how much she appreciated all she'd learned in my classes, how those skills have served her so well in college. It was a very simple, honest post, but it meant the world to me. Later that evening, I saw a status update from Natalie telling her friends that a grant had come through and that she would NOT be dropping out after all.

And that is why I do this.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Depth of Kindness

I think a lot of my regular readers (gee, that sounds rather arrogant -- "regular readers" -- like I'm Maureen Freakin' Dowd or something!) know that this has been a tough year Chez Mel. My sis was struggling to find work in a DOA local job market. Our mom died very suddenly and unexpectedly. Slowly, things have picked up -- my sis has a job that she seems to really love (or like a great deal), and we're working through our new status as orphans as best we can. My sis and I are from tough Irish and Swedish stock with some stiff upper lip British thrown in for good measure, and that genetic coding has gotten us through a lot. Another thing that has been a continual source of strength for us has been the love and support of our friends. We've been blessed with some pretty great people in our lives.

We were reminded of this last night in a pretty great way.

It was a typical Wednesday night. We had just finished dinner and my sis had headed back to the den to get ready for another installment of The Ford Show. I was in my holey but totally comfy sweats watching a DVRed episode of Melrose Place. (I had to see Amanda's return! And I have to say FINALLY -- age is NOT treating Heather Locklear so kindly. Either that or her plastic surgeon.) A friend of mine (Anne) popped online and asked if we would be home in about 15 minutes. I said that we would, and she told me she and her husband were popping by.

My immediate thought was, "Um, weird." Anne is a good friend that I've made through doing theatre locally, but not a friend that typically "pops by." When they arrived, both she and her husband came in. I grew concerned. Anne has faced numerous health battles in the past several years that often require surgeries and painful rehab. I worried that maybe something huge was going on.

Sort of. Anne told me that she did have to have a medical procedure done right after Christmas, assuring me that it was pretty minor although inconvenient. Inconvenient in that she and her husband had made plans for that day, plans they now had to change, plans they were instead gifting to me and my sis. It turns out that the plans they had made involved tickets to go see the pre-Broadway run of The Addams Family in Chicago, starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. I had mentioned the show to Anne about a month or so ago, telling her I was thinking of getting tickets for my sis and I. I had not yet had the chance to buy the tickets due to some logistical snafus like transportation and where we'd sleep. Anyway, Anne handed me an envelope containing two tickets to see the show. Her only caveat was that we go, have a good time, and tell her all about it. It was her gift to us. When my sis and I looked at the tickets, we were floored. We were holding two pretty pricey orchestra level tickets to see a show starring two people we've idolized for years -- and one of our mother's absolute favorite actors, which makes it seem all the more fitting. Anne said to us, "After the year you two have had, we thought you would be the perfect people to enjoy this and that it would be good for the two of you to go have just a great, fun time."

My sis and I were literally floored. It takes a lot to render either of speechless, but we truly were unable to speak. Crying -- now that was something we were able to manage. Of course the flurry of preparations now begins as we address the logistics, but suddenly, that seems meaningless. Because we don't have a ticket expense to worry about, the train and a hotel room seem much less extravagant. It will be a nice way for the two of us to wrap up our annus horribilis and hopefully begin a new annus mirabilis.

Friday, November 13, 2009


I'm in my ninth year of teaching. Over the course of those nine years, I've averaged roughly 100 students a year -- so 900 students have sat in my classroom and (I hope) learned a little something from me. It is sad to say that not all of those 900 students have left lasting impressions. There are many kids who I will see in the hall, I know I've had them in class before, and I cannot remember their names. There are, though, those students that stick with you long after they've left my classroom, long after they've graduated and headed out into the real world. Some of those students have stuck with you for negative reasons -- the first student to call me a "bitch" to my face, a student who left midway through the year to go to drug rehab, the student you KNOW came to class high as a kite and saw class as naptime. Most of the students I remember, though, have stuck with me for more positive reasons. Sometimes, it's whole classes that linger on even after they've gone their separate ways.

My second year of teaching, I had a particularly memorable class of English I students. It was a pretty small class -- 12 kids in all. The fact that there were so few of them allowed us to bond and get to know each other. I found myself a little more relaxed with them -- partly because I was more relaxed period as a second year teacher and partly because they were a more laid back group of kids. They were a lot of fun. They were eager, enjoyed learning, but also enjoyed having fun at the same time. They always found ways to insert a little humor into the proceedings, such as Justin who wrote an essay on the effects of not doing homework that ended up with him living in a cardboard box in an alley -- all because he'd blown off a math assignment. A year later, Justin would come home from a baseball game and drop dead of an undetected heart problem -- an event which shattered the school.

The most memorable of that class, though, was Jada. The best word to describe Jada was "spitfire." She was this tiny little thing, barely hitting five feet tall, but she had a huge personality to compensate for that lack of size. She had a voice with a permanent laugh -- and which could be heard clear down the hallway. Jada was sassy and opinionated. I knew Jada had escaped from a rough past that included being placed in foster care before ultimately being adopted by a single mom. You never would have known any of this, though, from spending time with Jada. She was constantly happy and outgoing, whether it was during class discussion or performing with the dance team.

There was a sort of happy-go-lucky air about her, best exemplified by the essay she wrote for me identifying her hero. Jada's hero was Spongebob Squarepants. She was OBSESSED with Spongebob. At first, when I saw Jada's subject, I was a little annoyed that she had, I thought, clearly not taken the topic seriously. As I read further, I not only saw that she had taken the topic seriously but that she had given it a tremendous amount of thought. Spongebob was heroic, according to Jada, for three reasons -- he was a hardworker, he was a good friend, and he always maintained a positive outlook on life. What isn't heroic about that? I realized, too, as I read that Jada had also described herself because the Jada I knew as a freshman was a hardworker, a good friend, and always positive. Over the course of the next several years, I kept in touch with Jada as she moved through high school, eventually having her in class once again her senior year when she signed up for Journalism. I was touched when she gave me a copy of her senior picture, a picture she had taken with her older sister that she admired so much.

After graduation, Jada took off for college out of state, and I didn't hear much from her. As a freshmen, she had dreamed of becoming a CSI investigator, so I assumed that she was off learning how to shine blue lights to find blood splatter.

I was wrong.

Last night, I logged into Facebook and saw a string of status updates from former students all saying roughly the same thing -- "RIP Jada." I noticed one of those students was online and we began exchanging messages that included her confirming that Jada had died and telling me to go check out google for the details. (She said a fellow classmate had called to tell her and she had done some investigating because she just could not believe it was true.) The details were shocking and heartbreaking. Not only had Jada died, but she had apparently committed suicide, hanging herself in her jail cell while awaiting trial for a double homicide. Jada had allegedly been involved in the murder of two men. If found guilty, she would have faced the death penalty. She didn't wait for a verdict.

I spent a lot of time last night crying, trying to somehow make sense of it all. How had that Jada I'd known, the girl who constantly was smiling and laughing, the girl who admired Spongebob ended up in a jail cell? What had happened? The fact of the matter is that we may never know. Her friends are left with all these questions that may be unanswerable. The fact of the matter is that we lost her somewhere along the line. That realization is maybe what hurts more than anything.

Today, I choose to remember the spunky little freshman who always made me smile and hope that wherever she may be, she's found some semblance of peace. I choose to remember the hardworker, loyal friend, and positive spirit that exemplified the Jada I knew. I will miss that girl -- no matter what her adult counterpart may or may not have done.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tech Week

A little local news coverage for our upcoming play. Speech season starts Monday, but I hope to be a little more active here in the blogosphere.