Let’s not be silly.
Of course I care who you pick.
That’s why I don’t ask.
All these cross-aisle vows.
Threatened lay-offs should Mitt lose.
Oh, ethics shmethics.
Cast your jaded vote.
Supersedes our doubt.
I am Beth Landau
And I approve these haiku.
(I had to do it.)
I caught a glimpse of him yesterday as I unloaded my grocery cart onto the belt. Five foot two inches and unable to see over the magazine display, I waited for the line to move up to see if it was really him. It was, though I checked his name tag to confirm. It had been at least five years since I’d seen Jack* in my tenth grade English classroom.
Jack was one of my Gens, a member of a General-level class designed for students who need more help than your average high school kid. You know, the dumb class.
That’s neither an accurate description of the class nor its students, but let us be frank. No matter how much teachers and administration do to decrease the stigma of being in a Gen class, no matter how successful the students are in that class, the kids think of it and refer to it as the dumb class.
“What type of class is this?” I’d ask. The dumb class, the stupid class, the loser class, they’d say. Many of them were convinced they were dumb simply on the basis of having been placed in a Gen class.
Never mind that some of them had been College Prep students until they leveled down because they thought it’d be an easy A. Never mind that some of them had long ago accepted that they had learning disabilities they could overcome with the right support. Never mind that some of them were literate in multiple languages but English wasn’t one of them. They were in a Gen class, so they, in turn, were dumb.
Most of my fellow General-level teachers fought this inaccuracy constantly. It made me angry, and I let my students see that. I was angry for them. I wanted them to get angry, too. Angry enough to push back.
I was a semi-nightmare in high school. Toward the end of my junior year I found myself moved to a study hall where the teacher basically barred the door with a chair and slept while the kids played Five Finger Fillet, that rapid fire stab-the-desk-between-your-fingers-without-stabbing-your-fingers game.
I’ve joked to those who didn’t know me then that I was voted “Most Likely to be Found Floating Face Down in a River.” If my life was based solely on my high school performance and behavior, that fate was not out of the realm of possibility.
But my life hasn’t been based solely on my high school career. That’s just one part of who I am. Who I was. It took me a while, but eventually I got my act together. Some of the most successful people I know tell similar stories.
Yet even if some of us knew our Gens were more than their current selves, more than their current crises or the ignorant choices some of them made, we feared for them.
It was a precarious faith we held in their potential for greater things.
Yesterday, as the cashier rang up my groceries and my daughter bagged them up, I watched Jack and waited for him to be done with his customer. It had been a long time. I look quite different than I did back then. Not every student whom I remember fondly remembers me similarly.
He looked up. Smiled. “Mrs. Landau! Hey!”
I asked how he was doing, how life was treating him. He’s busy, he told me.
“Working?” I asked.
“And school,” he said, grinning widely. Having earned his associates degree at a local post-secondary school, he’d gone back and was working on a bachelor’s degree.
A bachelor’s degree.
He’s working hard, he told me. Doing well.
I wanted to hug him, to jump up and down and say, “Yes!Yes! You did it!”
I didn’t. I’m sure my daughter is relieved I didn’t, but she could see my joy and smiled. I finished paying for my groceries like a normal person, but in the end I couldn’t help myself.
“I’m so proud of you, Jack,” I told him, grinning. “I’m so happy for you.”
“Thanks,” he told me, blushing just like he used to as a tenth grader whether he was being reprimanded or praised. “Thanks.”
Generally speaking, it was one of the happiest teacher moments of my life.
*name changed for anonymity.
I am still avoiding 9/11 themed shows, articles, and broadcasts. I don’t need them to remind me of the tragedy of that morning; it’s already indelibly etched into my brain, retrospective or not.
In August, I drove down Route I-83 toward Towson, Maryland to attend my first two-week residency for the Master’s of Fine Arts program in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College. After months of applications, waiting, and planning, it was time to dive into the graduate level writing program I had craved for over a decade. I was terrified.
At the residency, I was surrounded by real writers. Published authors and columnists, writing professors, Pulitzer Prize winners… and me? Most of my classmates work in the writing industry in some way, many of them as journalists. I was one of only a handful of high school teachers, and I spent over a week of the residency feeling like a wanna-be. Another first-year student, one who would grow to be a trusted friend, called it impostor syndrome. She felt it, too.
Several first-year students mistook me for a second-year, which baffled me. They said that I was confident and looked like I knew what I was doing. Ha! I was astonished; the absolute opposite was true.
I am more self-conscious than anyone will ever truly appreciate, and during the residency I escaped to my dorm room often, was outgoing and bubbly to hide my desire to run away, and participated in discussions simply to prove I belonged there. A confident second-year who knew what she was doing? Nothing could be further from the truth. I may be a fledgling writer, but clearly my ability to mask my true feelings and insecurities is spot on.
Even though I was a wanna-be and an impostor, and even though I hid in my room, cried to my husband on the phone, and lost my appetite entirely, each day I got to sit and listen to writers (and some editors) talk about their craft and read their own writing. It was surreal and spoke to a part of me that had long been asleep.
And yes, I’m talking about my classmates, too, not just the faculty. They read about running and feral cats, first loves and failed loves, pacemaker batteries and mid-make-up meltdowns. They read letters to ex-coaches and snide restaurant reviews. They exposed their souls in little ways.
It was these readings that helped me relax and finally let me dive into the program. At first, only faculty, graduates, and second-year students braved the podium at Alumni Hall. But then a first-year signed up and read her work, shaming the rest of us first-years. And after verbally agreeing to read, and silently vowing not to, I found myself signed up for an informal reading at the dorm lounge during the second week of the residency (thanks, AM).
My old writing didn’t seem sophisticated enough compared to the work of my more accomplished classmates, so I wrote something new and committed myself to just getting up there and doing it. I agonized all day. I revised and revised my piece. I gave it to my amazing roommate, who offered spot on feedback and then let me read to her the “final” first draft – the one I eventually read in front of my classmates.
I was one of the first to arrive in the lounge for the reading, and I hoped that it would be ill-attended, since it was in the dorm, not Alumni Hall. Then, people began to trickle in, the couches filled up, and people began perching on wide windowsills and dragging over more chairs. The faculty was busy in a meeting elsewhere, but my classmates were there in full force, ready to hear more than a dozen of us bare our souls. I tried not to vomit.
Luckily, the readings prior to mine pulled me in and time flew by, so before I could puke or run away, my name was called, and I rose to face the crowd for the first time.
I’m not going to share what I read. It turns out it didn’t matter what I read. It didn’t matter how my classmates reacted. The only thing that mattered was this: As I pushed myself out of the modular bucket seat, grabbed my Mac, and approached the piano that served as a podium, the program washed over me.
Until this point, the Goucher CNF program had been an idea, a thing for which I hoped, prayed, and prepared, and in which I desperately sought a writing community, though I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant yet. Through the lectures and readings and late nights up writing, the program rushed by me, remote, a river I was watching from the shore with a fake smile pasted on my face. There seemed to be no landing, no entry point in sight.
But when I rose that Tuesday night to read, to offer a little bit of my own soul instead of sitting back to observe, I was at once absorbed into the river. With each step toward the piano, I waded deeper and deeper until I could feel the pull of the current through the whole of my body. I was awash with the feeling that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. The program was here, and I was suddenly in it. I belonged.
I floated through my just-over-four-minute reading. When I stopped and my classmates applauded, as I knew they would, as we do for everyone brave enough to read, I sailed back to my seat and collapsed, unmasked and new baptized 1.
The rest of the residency flew by, and I joyously paddled along feeling like I’d found my people. I stopped trying to look like I knew what I was doing and ended up making friends and “study hall” buddies.
I watched drunk writers argue about Nabokov in study hall and then listened to them continue their argument through the concrete walls of my dorm room. I laughed. I read. I wrote. People told me about their lives in minute detail. Multiple people exclaimed, “Oh, I DO like you!” Yeah, okay, that was off-putting, but I had masked myself so well, how could I expect people to know or like me?
On the last day, after getting people to planes, saying goodbye, and promising to keep in touch, I packed my car and headed back up Route I-83, home bound. It had been a long and exhausting two weeks, and I was happy and ready to return to my husband, my kids, my friends, and my life.
But I am changed. Though my writing sometimes feels rudderless, it is nonetheless moving forward with a force larger than myself. My fellow Goucher Gophers and I stay in touch via email, Facebook, and Twitter. We exchange writing, commiserate, and encourage each other, finding the current again and again.
And on days when my Muse is being stubborn or, worse, singing to me when I cannot listen, I feel the river still, and it buoys me up and carries me along.
1. A nod to Romeo in the balcony scene in Shakepeare’s “The Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet.”
The high school is crawling with teachers these days. We plan and prep, pile and stack. We shove desks in circles. Are they better in rows or in a U? We look for the arrangement that will capture what we feel right now, that “it’s going to be a great year” spirit that dissipates so quickly when bells begin to punctuate our lives.
We’ve had time to decompress, to let the cacophony of the classroom fade into cicada lullabies and crashing waves that remind us that classrooms and projects, grades and research papers are transient concerns when viewed from a proper perspective. And just as we let ourselves relax into the rhythms of the world, a new school year beckons.
Slowly, we ease ourselves back, visit our ghostly classrooms, open blinds, unpack books, and throw out things that seemed crucial in June. Some of us adjust with site visits first, filled mostly with greetings and hugs and how-was-your-summer exchanges. Then it’s back to our classrooms; there’s work to be done.
If I arrange my desks in rows, will that ensure order? If I arrange them in a U will it encourage constructive conversation?
I take down last year’s teaching tenets, developed last September by each class after thinking deeply about their beliefs about learning. “Students learn better when they choose their own groups,” they wrote, but did they? I know only that I held up my end of the deal, and I am leaving room for this year’s lists.
I hang up advice posters for this year’s freshmen, developed in June by each outgoing freshman class. “Mrs. Landau don’t play,” they wrote, and, “Stay out of the breezeway.” They are from experience, from the heart and genuine. Colorful and laminated, the posters pop as I push pins through.
I look at rosters, hopeful pictures of incoming freshmen whose stories I do not know, whose disciplinary records aren’t my concern. They present themselves with forced yearbook smiles, heads turned so slightly. They will show themselves differently on the first day of school. New haircuts, new wardrobes, and fewer smiles, their bodies restless with anticipation, perceived judgment, and the sneaking suspicion that, new building or not, this is looking like more of the same.
If I arrange my desks in rows, will they feel comforted and assured that the order of things has not changed? If I arrange my desks in a U, will they feel ownership and recognize this invitation to participate?
I’m still moving desks, stopping often to survey my classroom, to envision it filled with people I do not know, to see if it will sustain a balance of control and freedom. So far, I’ve settled on the U, content to make myself part of the circle.
Throughout the building, teachers plan and prep, pile and stack as summer hums to a close around us. Though we may not admit it, we are aiming for a perfect first day that will lead us to a perfect year. One we’ll be proud of in June. Like the parallel play of toddlers, we move in tandem, alone but together in our desperate dance of hope.
It would be safe to say that Meghan Cox Gurdon really stuck her foot in her mouth with her Wall Street Journal article “Darkness Too Visible” (June 4, 2011), in which she badmouths a genre she clearly doesn’t understand. In fact, she makes clear that there’s a whole lot that she doesn’t understand about both young adults and literature in general. Read it HERE.
Luckily, readers and writers of all ages have used the article as a catalyst to begin a pro YA Lit conversation that went viral more quickly than you can blurt, “WHAT?!?”
Search for #yasaves on Twitter or Google, and you’ll find hundreds of voices rising to protest Gurdon’s misinformed anti-YA-Lit rant. I’ve read the article and waded through countless tweets, blogs, and comments, and the best shot-by-shot analysis of why this article should not be taken seriously (that I’ve found, anyway) is by Liz B. at schoollibraryjournal.com. Read it HERE.
Seriously, go read it – she covers many of the things I was going to rant about (then come back!).
Did you read it? Yes? Good reader (and thanks for coming back). No? Why not? [smack, smack] Do it.
Okay, then. My additions to Liz B.’s post:
First, statements like “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it” and “Yet it is also possible — indeed, likely — that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them…”are total crap unless you can back them up with data. You’re talking about human development and psychology here. There are lots (and lots and lots) of actual scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals about these things. Find some evidence of them and cite them if you are going to say them. Otherwise, they carry as much weight as any other nonsensical rant on the internet. A decently-worded sentence doesn’t indicate factual accuracy. Gosh, even my 9th graders know to answer the question “who says?” if they want their writing to be taken seriously.
Second, Gurdon writes, “How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear.”
Really? Darker than V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic? If I remember correctly, four siblings are locked in an attic when their mother marries a rich man but doesn’t want to tell him about her kids. One child dies of neglect, and two of the other children fall in love (and yeah, they consumate that love, too). Darker than that?
Perhaps that’s unfair. I don’t think many people have argued that Flowers in the Attic has a whole lot of literary value.
Okay, how about J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (which was actually before my time)? The protagonist fails out of yet another prep school, he goes on the lam, depressed and cursing constantly, lives in a grimy, crime-infested hotel, is visited by a prostitute, decides everybody but his little sister is a phony, and eventually ends up institutionalized. Darker than that?
Let’s go further back. Like back to the 1600s. Like Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet back. Bloody violence, hormonal teenagers, rebellion, sneaking around, underage (by today’s standard) sex, more violence, angry parents, sneaky clergy,more violence, and, eventually, a desperate and unnecessary double suicide. Darker than that?
Wow. You’ve got to view the YA Lit of the past with a pretty specific filter to believe that comment.And don’t call me “my dear.” It’s irritating.
Third, Gurdon compares today’s YA Lit to that of Judy Blume, calling to mind such classics as Forever. Blume’s books, she asserts, though they dealt with adolescent issues that were “then-daring,” were okay because, “(o)bjectionable the material may be for some parents, but it’s not grotesque.”
There are two problems with this statement. To begin (and once again), says whom? In the 1970’s, many people found the honesty with which Blume addressed such issues as sexuality, birth control, puberty, and loss offensive, much like Amy Freeman, Gurdon’s “46-year-old mother of three” subject, finds every single YA book at Barnes and Noble’s offensive. Blumes books have been banned and censored and even considered dangerous. (Gasp – teenagers having sex? Well, sure, it happens, but do we have to talk about it? It might convince otherwise innocent and asexual teens to start screwing around…. or so says Gurdon’s theory of entertainment creating taste.) Click HERE to read about it and HERE to hear Judy Blume talking about it herself.
Additionally, the statement means that current YA-Lit is grotesque, which means distorted, inaccurate, exaggerated, etc. This is an opinion, not a fact. Facts show that the “dark” issues addressed by YA-Lit are realities for many teens. For starters, check out childhelp.org and these publications from the CDC:
Sexual Violence (check out “College Age” and “Children and Youth” sections)
Keep in mind that the above data reflects only documented cases, and anyone who works with children or teens (or who reads) knows that so many cases are kept hidden or are never proven in court. If we are to believe the data, then the fact that YA Lit is “dark” is not grotesque, at all. That’s straying into anecdotal territory, however, so I should note that a stroll over to the memoir section of the store might have given Freeman a clue about why such topics are popular. How many non-fiction accounts of horror does one need to read to see that many young people deal with “dark” issues?
There’s irony here, too. The world is full of dark issues, and we – the grown ups – are responsible for almost all of it, yet many grown ups want to pretend that they don’t exist. Or, at the very least, avoid talking about them in any detail.
It all reminds me of the ending of another YA novel (back when they weren’t called YA novels), William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. (SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read it, go get a copy and read it right now… it’s 12 action-packed chapters – you can read it in one sitting!) In those 12 chapters, a group of young boys is marooned on a deserted island as they head off to boarding school while war wages all around them. Accidentally bombed and stranded, they find themselves with no adults, no supplies, and plenty of time. Golding’s vision of what would happen in such a situation paints a grim picture of the nature of man.
By the end of those 12 chapters, fear and violence have prevailed over reason and generosity, blood-lust is encouraged if not mandated, kids are dead (both accidentally and intentionally), the island is aflame, and our doomed protagonist, Ralph, is a moment away from being intimately acquainted with a stick sharpened at both ends. In the nick of time, Ralph is saved by the arrival of a Naval officer. The officer surveys the wreckage and the once civilized children, and expresses his disapproval:
“’I should have thought that a pack of British boys—you’re all British, aren’t you?—would have been able to put up a better show than that.'”
This officer, this grown up, this military man, one of the participants in the very war that stranded the boys in the first place, chastens the boys who have turned out just like the adults who have failed to save them from savagery.
Open a newspaper and take a look at what the world looks like. We are the grown ups. We are responsible. It’s neither strange nor new that it makes us uncomfortable to face the issues reflected in the literature that seems most compelling and relevant to our young people.
But YA Lit does bear a closer look from its most severe critics. For an honest look at YA Lit (and as a bit of redemption for the Wall Street Journal), I encourage you to read “It was, like, all dark and stormy” by Katie Roiphe, published in the Wall Street Journal Online on June 6, 2009. Click HERE to read it.
Now, what about you? What’s your view?
Self-made deadlines are funny, aren’t they?
I’m always a bit behind my own deadlines. As I rang in 1990, for instance, my friend and I decided that 1990 would the year. The year things would happen. We’d figure it all out. We’d our acheive goals. We’d find love. True love. Yeah, man. It was going to happen.
1990 wasn’t the year. Not at all. Not for either of us.
It turned out 1991 was the year. Nothing major happened, and I didn’t figure it all out. I did, however, achieve a goal (straight As in college), and I found love. True love. January 2011 was the 20th anniversary of our first kiss. I gave my husband another one to mark the occasion. Two decades of love is something to celebrate.
So maybe when I celebrated my 40th birthday in September and silently noted that I’d missed my deadline, I should have told myself to cheer up, as my arbitrary deadlines are often a bit elastic.
A new poem of mine, Fury, went live on Zouch Magazine today. This is the first time that my work has been published with a byline (other than newsletters, other byline-free work, and my own blog), and though it didn’t happen before I turned 40, it happened, which is really the point, anyway.
Please check it out at Zouch Magazine (http://zouchmagazine.com/poetry-fury/), and if you like it, like it, share it, and get the word out that 40 isn’t the end, it’s a beginning for this girl.
Welcome back to the series that reminds you that there are other people in the world, and they’re just as important as you.
We return to the parking lot to discuss the value of holding on to your valuables. The living kind.
Hold onto your children.
Wait, I need to say that again more emphatically: HOLD ONTO YOUR CHILDREN.
Unless you subscribe so vehemently to the theory of survival of the fittest that you are ready to sacrifice your own kids, you must maintain physical control of them until they have proven themselves to be savvy navigators of crowded parking lots. Failure to do this risks their lives and gives other people heart attacks. The drivers with whom you share the parking lot should not be paying closer attention to your progeny than you are. Unless you don’t give a crap, though I’m betting that’s not the case.
Oh, and walking two steps behind them is not the same thing. Especially if you’re busy looking at your phone or the receipt from the store you just visited.
More than once I’ve fought the urge to roll down my window or get out of my car and call, “Hey, you are the adult here. Teach those rugrats how to behave in the parking lot so they don’t get run down.” I don’t do that because I can’t see any good coming from it, and I don’t think I get to be rude just because you’re being a bone head.
Know, however, that your lack of control of or attention to your kids in a busy parking lot does make me look to see if you’re going to buckle those kids into car seats or if it’s a free-for-all straight down the line.
Your kids need you to hold onto them and teach them basic parking lot survival skills, and those of us driving in parking lots don’t need all the negative karma that does along with mowing down children.
For instance, you know how we know that those white lights on the backs of cars indicate backing up? They don’t. Plus, they are small. People can’t see them in their rearview mirrors, particularly if there is no (taller) adult with them.
And you know, little kids are also unpredictable and impulsive. If a child lets go of a balloon, he’s going after it without hesitation, car or no car. So, don’t forget that drivers can suffer from hedupyerasis, too. Why are you counting on everyone else in the world being on the ball when you can’t be bothered to guide your little darlings back to the car?
Listen, I don’t want to run down your kid. I don’t want to run down anyone. I’m going to need some help from you on that one, though. I realize it’s a pain in the rear to hold onto squirmy, impatient kids, particularly if you’re carrying whatever you just bought. I have two kids who are less than 2 years apart in age. It’s not always fun. When little ones do that “I don’t want to go where you’re leading me so I’m just going to go limp” thing, it’s terrible, but that doesn’t excuse you from protecting them. The first step is realizing, “Hey, we are not alone in this parking lot.”
Help us not run down your kids. I’m begging you.
That’s all for now, folks. Next time I think we’ll move on to other settings. There’s just so much you can read about parking lots before you realize that you’re, well, reading about parking lots.
Until next time, remember:
We’re all in this together. Act that way.
Let’s move on to the parking lot pedestrian code of conduct today.
Watch where you are going because you are not the only person in the parking lot.
This seems so basic. I’m a little sad I even have to write it. However, so many people seem to be struck by hedupyerasis in parking lots that it seems to be necessary to remind people to be aware of their surroundings, particularly because they are often populated!
First of all, stay on the side of the lanes. You know those big things, just like the one you just parked? Those are cars. They go in the middle. You go on the side. Cars, middle. Pedestrians, side. Got it?
Second, walking out in front of moving vehicles seems to be an issue. I wouldn’t say anything about this, but it happens every time I am in a parking lot. It’s epidemic. Sometimes I suspect it’s aggressive. You know, “I’m gonna walk here and you’re gonna slow down,” even if the driver is going slowly. Other times I’m sure it’s a simple case of hedupyerasis.
So what’s a pedestrian to do? Simple. You can tell what to do it you pretend you are 6, you are going to cross the street, and your mommy is watching.
- Look left, first (the goal here is to look for the car that’ll hit you first; if they drive on the left where you live, look right first).
- If there are no cars, look right. If there are no cars coming, go.
If at any point in this process there are cars nearby and headed your way, don’t go.
Drivers who are following the speed limit and observing all traffic laws should not have to jam on their brakes and come to a screeching halt because you don’t have the will to see if it’s safe and your turn yet.
In terms of self-preservation, consider how many people are on their phones, texting, or reaching around to hand kids juice boxes as they drive. Stepping in front of a moving car and thinking, “They’ll stop,” is a gamble. Also, remember that in parking lots, many people take painted lanes and signs to be optional, so look before you go, even if you have the right of way. Just be patient and follow lane crossing protocol and you’ll make it to the shop alive.
That’s it for now. Look for the next edition of WAITT in which I’ll continue to rant and hand out ridiculously common-sense-based advice for parking lot pedestrians. In the meantime, remember to be aware of others.
We’re all in this together. Act that way.
If you ever want to be here, now, take a three year old to the park.
Normally, shortly after getting home from work, I rehash my day and immediately begin thinking about what I need to do next to be ready for the following day… and then I wonder why it feels like work never ends. On Mondays, I do make the time for a yoga class with my favorite teacher (her name is Jen Yost and you should buy her book, Bring on the Joy! ), and I am reminded to try to be here, now. I seem to live in the past and the future, so being here, now is difficult. But with breath, movement, and funky sitar-filled music, I do.
It was Wednesday, not a day I’m normally able to truly be here, now. I was tired from a long day at work (freshman research projects, you know), but my friend’s three year old son was waiting for me as soon as I got out of the car. “It’s warm, Aunt Beff,” he called. “Will you take me to the park?” Read More
Welcome back to the series that reminds you that there are other people in the world, and they’re just as important as you.
Yes, I’m absolutely merry on a Monday. It’s unusual, but I’m going along with it.
The response to my last post, “I Don’t Say This Lightly,” featuring the work of a former student, and the two previous posts (in the “We’re All In This Together”[WAITT] series) has been fabulous. I’m hearing from people all over the US and beyond, and I seem to have hit a nerve with the WAITT series. This is fine by me because I am enjoying writing the things I hold back in person. Usually. I’m from New Jersey, after all. Occasionally something slips through the filter.
Meanwhile, there are 34 days left to our school year (no, I’m not keeping track–several people told me this, unsolicited), I’m knee-deep in freshman research projects, cyber-summer school looms on the horizon, and my muse keeps whispering in my ear way too late at night. I shouldn’t complain about that one. It’s lovely not to have to seek her out.
Much of my writing has been about my childhood, so expect a poem or two since that’s where those memories seem to settle. I’m working on the next installments of WAITT, too, though, so you won’t have to WAIT too long! (Sorry – I had to do it. It’s my blog and I’ll pun if I want to.)
In the meantime, it’s nearly yoga time, so I’m off to stretch, breathe, and shuffle some prana.
One of the negative sides of being an English teacher is that I have to force kids to write. Sentences, paragraphs, essays, research papers… even poems, and most kids fight it the whole way. Every now and then, however, I have students who like to write. I always encourage these kids to keep it up, to express themselves, even if their writing shows very little sign of voice, talent, or individuality because I think it’s an important outlet. Besides, who am I to be the sole judge of their talent?
The frustrating ones, though, are the reluctant writers who have that thing. You know that thing. It’s voice, it’s talent, it’s individuality, and it all clicks together, audibly, in the writing they care about. When that happens, I share this with the student. “You are a writer,” I tell them.
I had a teacher in 9th grade, which was in the junior high school back then, I think her name was Miss Andrews (it’s been several decades!), who took me aside one day and told me, seriously, “You are a writer. I can hear it in your writing, even if your handwriting is shameful.” I already knew that I was a writer and had horrible penmanship, but her endorsement make me feel like I’d been selected, knighted even. So when I tell a kid, “You are a writer,” I never do so lightly.
Several years ago I had a student called Dan Whitely. He hated writing. His formal writing was hit or miss, largely because he didn’t really give a crap. Every now and then, though, when he was trying to be a smart ass, and he’s been a champion smart ass at least since his freshman year of high school, I’d catch a glimpse of that thing. He didn’t care. It wasn’t his thing, you see. Science was his thing, and he didn’t see that one didn’t exclude the other.
When it came time to pick a college, he very happily told me that he had chosen a program in which he would not have to take an English class. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was going to be writing, writing, writing regardless of that, but I did groan and chastise him for running away from writing. “You’ve got voice,” I told him. “You’re a writer.” “No,” he said confidently, “I hate it.”
I think this is why he tagged me on his latest Facebook note – a beautiful poem that made me literally cheer and post, “Ha! Double HA! I love that I was right about you and writing. Beautiful!” I love being right about these things, and I couldn’t be prouder of him.
Therefore, with his permission, I present to you, “The Likes of Angels” by Daniel Stephen Whiteley, who swore up and down that he wasn’t a writer, he was a scientist. As you will see, he is surely both. Author bio follows poem:
- Keep your cart to the right so others can pass by while you study canned peas, which are a bad idea, anyway.
- Lines are there for a reason. Take turns.
The other night, I tweeted the following:
Attention shoppers: Please keep your cart to the right so others can pass by while you study canned peas, which are a bad idea, anyway.
Most of my tweets go unnoticed, but this one attracted immediate attention because it touches on a much larger issue–people increasingly fail to acknowledge that they are not alone in this universe!
Matt Hunter, Editorial Director of Zouch Magazine, enjoyed the tweet and suggested that there was room for expansion there. I agreed, said I’d already begun, pointed him toward some of my earlier posts (Three [Simplified] Rules for Attending School Performances and the original Three Basic Rules for Attending School Performances), and began making lists.
It’s been super busy, and I haven’t had a whole lot of time to write (freshman research season, you know), but I thought I’d briefly revisit the “how to behave in a grocery store” idea to give you a taste of what’s coming and try to build some momentum. I think I’ll call this series “We’re All In This Together.”
So, here we go:
Attention shoppers: Please keep your cart to the right so others can pass by while you study canned peas, which are a bad idea, anyway.
If you made it to this suburban store, chances are you drove here and are familiar with the concept of staying on your own side of the road. The same applies when you’re pushing a shopping cart. When you park yourself in the middle of the aisle, other people (yes, other people) cannot pass by.
Most of us are not there window shopping; we’re there to find what we need and get out. We do not want to wait three minutes while you study the nutritional information on the side of canned vegetables or breakfast cereal, or while you calculate whether it’s financially sound to by the “family size” brownie mix. We want to keep moving, get what we need, and get on with our lives.
We all forget to pull our carts over sometimes. It happens. But when people are lined up on either side of you, it’s not because we want your autograph. You’re blocking the aisle–get out of the way.
Attention shoppers: Lines are there for a reason. Take turns.
It’s happened to all of us. You’re standing in a long line at the grocery store, when the light comes on in the aisle next to you. However, before you know what’s happened, three people who had not even been on line race over and clog up the newly opened lane.
I know that some people feel that an open lane is fair game, but I disagree. Think about what that says to the folks who have been standing there for ten minutes while their ice cream melts. Were they not on line already? Does it not count because they weren’t on that particular line? And more to the point, is your time so much more valuable? What are you rushing off to do that’s so much more important than what the rest of us have going? I doubt highly that you’re not (basically) cutting the line because you’ve got to pay for your frozen broccoli on your way to do an emergency heart transplant.
Even my kids know that when a new lane opens up, you do the decent thing: give the people who have been waiting longer than you if they’d like to scoot over to the new lane. They aren’t cheating or getting away with anything if they change lanes. They’ve done their time already.
I’ve played this game enough times to know that as long as a doctor begins a conversation by looking me in the eye, I’m probably going to be fine. When the doctor starts speaking to me while he or she examines a lab report or scribbles in my chart, I know something potentially bad is coming. The same is true about pediatricians. Eye contact is a good thing.
This is why, when my son’s pediatrician looked me in the eye to tell me that the one tonsil was still hugely swollen, that some lymph nodes were involved, and that he was ordering some blood tests, my alarm bells did not go off.
“It could be a number of things,” he told us. “Nothing to worry about.”
In retrospect, though, I should have noticed the other indicator that a doctor is worried–urgency.
That was on Friday afternoon, and we were told to go immediately to the lab with the quickest turn around time to have blood drawn. We did. Saturday morning the office called to say that the blood tests showed nothing. They said to call the office first thing Monday morning to get set up with an ENT, emphasis on first thing. That’s when the alarm bells started ringing.
My husband’s alarm bells had alerted him to a potential problem as soon as I told him about the lymph nodes, but enlarged lymph nodes can be caused by all manner of things and are not, on their own, cause for alarm. “It’s going to be nothing,” I told him.
After that phone call on Saturday morning, though, I started to wonder. Why the rush? Anyone who’s been on a medical odyssey knows that the hardest part isn’t getting bad news; it’s the snail’s pace with which the medical system works. Need a referral to a specialist? Want a test done right away so it’s clear what to do next? Plan on a flipping a little further through your date book (or phone) to check dates two or three weeks from now. The “test on Friday, results on Saturday, referral Monday morning” thing was disconcerting, so I did what any self-respecting person would do. I went looking online.
Now, I realize this can be a stupid, stupid thing to do (I once convinced myself that the twingy pain I had in my leg was Deep Vein Thrombosis and I was going to end up dead from a blood clot to the lung… it turned out to be just a weird twingy pain), but done right it can be educational and helpful. My checking it out was a little of both.
I’m an excellent online researcher. I don’t stick to WebMD or (heaven forbid) Yahoo forums. I find the right terminology and go see what the professional journals have to say. In case you were wondering, the proper way to say that your kid has one swollen tonsil and some enlarged lymph nodes on that side only is “unilateral tonsillar hypertrophy with lymphadenopathy.” Apparently, it’s not that swollen tonsils are alarming. It’s that only one tonsil and the lymph nodes on that side are enlarged. That’s when they start needing to rule out lymphoma.
But that’s the problem with going online, right? You start with a puffy tonsil and end up with cancer. I turned off my computer, stopped researching such silly long-shots, and tried to remain calm for the rest of the weekend. The key word is tried, but that Sunday I forgot my mother’s birthday for the first time ever (daughter-of-the-year, no?), so apparently trying to be calm is different than being calm.
On Monday morning, I called the pediatrician at about 9:00. The office didn’t open until 8:30, so I figured that was pretty close to first thing. When I called, they put me through to their scheduler who informed me that they’d already made an appointment for that Wednesday with the ENT.
More urgency. How did they even get through so quickly? I tried to keep it together, but the first free moment I got, I hopped back online and did some more research. Now, before you criticize and say I brought this upon myself, let me explain that I went looking specifically for information that would de-emphasize the lymphoma worry. Unfortunately, the consensus seemed to be that the only responsible way to treat unilateral tonsillar hypertrophy with lymphadenopathy was to excise and biopsy the tonsils.
In my head, the visit with the ENT doctor went like this:
The doctor looks at his chart and examines him, nodding his head as he does so.
“Ah,” he says, looking us right in the eye, “This looks like (something I’ve never heard of). We’ll send him for a blood test to confirm, but we’ll start him on an antibiotic in the meantime – fix him all up.”
“That’s great,” I say, leaning forward in my seat, “But don’t you think we should excise and biopsy them to rule out big scary stuff?”
He nods. “We will have to take those tonsils out eventually, but let’s get that test to confirm the (thing I’ve never heard of) and see him back after the course of antibiotics before we worry about that.”
“Is that advisable?” I ask. “The medical literature clearly indicates that excision and biopsy are necessary with this presentation. I’d feel better if we got that ball rolling.”
The scene fades away there, with the doctor being responsible but laid-back and with mama-bear pushing for a more proactive approach. In my experience, medical professionals never share the patients’ urgency, so I was prepared to push.
Here’s how the visit on Wednesday evening really went:
The doctor looked at his chart and examined him.
“Hmmm,” he said, putting down his tongue depressor. “I’d like to put a scope up your nose and down your throat,” he told my son. “You up for that?”
The scope came out, went in and up and down, and the doctor said, “Hmmm.”
The scope scope came up and out and away, and the doctor said, “Hmmm.”
The doctor’s fingers worked busily around his jaw and neck, poking, comparing, first on both sides, and then on just the one side. They rapidly worked down his neck to his collar bone, to the right, to the left. Then they stopped. Moved right again. Poked and squeezed.
“That hurt?” he asked my son.
“No,” my son said.
“Hmm,” the doctor said. He stopped examining him, turned back to his chart, picked up his pen. As he scribbled in his chart he said, “We’re going to need to excise and biopsy those tonsils. Sooner rather than later. My next surgery date is on Monday. We’ll do it in the morning.”
My husband and I looked at each other. It was responsible and followed the exact protocol I’d read about. It also scared us senseless.
What happened to the part where I had to convince the doctor that this was urgent? In no part of my scenario did the doctor, without hesitation, book him for his next surgical day. Nothing happens this quickly around here. I was simultaneously relieved and terrified that I didn’t have to push for this.
It seems that I wanted the doctor to share my urgency until he truly did. But there we were, getting the paperwork set and discussing the reasons we needed to do this.
The weekend passed semi-tortuously. Our son was off to a youth group convention (which he’d been anticipating for three months), and our daughter was busy both Friday and Saturday evenings. Their social lives have eclipsed ours, obviously. This meant that there was no monotonous chauffering to keep my mind off of the impending surgery and biopsy.
Still, I managed to keep busy. Maniacally busy. Scarily busy. Please get me a glass of wine right this very second or I am going to spin out of control busy.
I hadn’t gotten the chance to use my energy pushing the doctor to share my urgency, and it needed to go somewhere. My main target was the pit that my son calls a room. I spent an entire afternoon cleaning, sorting, doing laundry, and saying, “Oh, my god. What the hell IS this?” I’ll spare you the details, but I had three teenage brothers at the same time and I had never seen anything like this. Open, half-filled soda cans in the nightstand drawer? What?
I picked up my son from his trip, and he began getting nervous immediately. The weekend was over, surgery was on the horizon, and the possibility of cancer loomed large in his mind. Luckily, the sight of a floor in his bedroom shocked him out of it for a while. Meanwhile, I just kept moving because any time I stopped, I remembered the doctor’s urgency and the feeling of drowning gripped me.
There is fabulous news at the end of this story, by the way.
It started with my son handling the surgery well (though he’s still recuperating and is as bored as you’d imagine a housebound 14 year old to be). It continued when the tonsillectomy, anticlimactic in its brevity–a mere 15 minutes long–yielded great news: his tonsils were less asymmetrical than they’d appeared. This meant we could take the “unilateral” out of that horrible medical description, and without the “unilateral” part, there wouldn’t have been the terrifying urgency. This finally led, a stunning three days later, with a phone call from the doctor’s office: the pathology report was clean: no cancer.
“Whew,” one of my colleagues said upon that news, “Somebody pushed that through quickly.”
She’s right. I’d always been fearful of the no-eye-contact conversation, but it turns out that it’s even more terrifying to watch doctors worry enough to move with lightening speed (I’ve sighted a few new gray hairs I’m going to blame on this experience). But it was that shared urgency, which I’d desired and then cursed, that had moved us so rapidly toward a glorious happy-ending.
So, here we are, just a couple of weeks into this saga, and instead of still pushing doctors to share my urgency, I’m busy pushing my son, my baby, to eat ice pops to soothe his painful but cancer-free throat. (Can I get an amen?)
Here’s another poem in the series I’m writing about my childhood home. Actually, it seems to be developing into a series about my childhood, though everything is linked to that awesome blue split-level.
It’s still hugely cathartic. This one turned a sad little weight into a victory for me. It’s still in progress, but here is goes:
I Sat on the Deck Railing
I sat on the deck railing before school that spring morning.
The air felt like it was not there, just
Scents of new grass and possibility,
Sun on my skin.
Lingering on my way to school, noticing my breath, I
Shocked myself with an urge to walk past Wilson School and
Into the day. No rule-breaker at 10, I
Let that drift through my mind like a cloud.
The cool darkness of my school’s
Cavernous foyer, vast and formal,
Steep stone staircases lined each wall,
Another wider, shallow one straight ahead.
It was not beautiful to me then, while
Spring beckoned through wide wooden doors, and I
Grieved that I could not grasp that perfect morning.
Yet here it is in my head at 40,
Tactile snippets from my backyard, my slow trek,
The plunge from the sensuous morning into the cinder-block
Reality of school.
Where is everyone else?
At home my three brothers,
My mother must have scrambled about.
Gangs of kids surely lined the sidewalks en route to school.
Voices undoubtedly echoed riotously off foyer walls, but
They are gone.
Three decades later, I stop grieving and find
I’ve won. I’ve kept only the gist,
The perfection of that spring morning:
Weightless air, scents of a world reborn,
Serenity of a solitary moment in my old backyard.
In many circles, including the one in which I grew up, a bar or bat mitzvah means a Jewish religious service, led by an adolescent who is ready to assume the role of an adult in the Jewish community, followed by a big party. Literally, however, bar mitzvah means son of the commandments, and bat mitzvah means daughter of the commandments. So technically, my daughter didn’t have her bat mitzvah yesterday, she became one.
She did have a big party after the service, though. And there’s the rub. I suck at party planning–totally suck at it.
One of my duties was to write a speech that my husband and I (okay, I) would present to the congregation and our daughter on the bima (pulpit). That should be no problem for me, right? Wrong. It was tough. I couldn’t figure out how to get started. Should I go the “detailed retrospective of her life” route? Or should I dive right into the “study hard and be a good Jew” routine?
C’mon, I scolded myself, you know how to do this! Start with a decent hook that leads you to the essence of your desired message. My goal was to say something meaningful that neither bored people to tears nor took the spotlight away from my daughter, that wasn’t trite, and that was no more than one double-spaced page.
I stared at a blank screen for hours, but I couldn’t find my point of entry. Eventually, it occurred to me: start with the good stuff: chocolate. Whew! I was off and writing, and it was with great pleasure that I tucked a double-spaced printed draft into the back of my siddur (prayer book) yesterday morning.
My daughter did beautifully. The prayers, the Torah reading and Haftorah, the cues to the congregation, her speech–all lovely. Then it was my turn.
On the rabbi’s cue, I slipped the paper out of my siddur, and my husband and I approached the podium. Friends, family, and miscellaneous congregants watched expectantly as I unfolded the paper. I looked down, ready to read the speech on which I’d worked so hard.
Unfortunately, I found myself staring not at my speech, but at series of poems for a candle lighting ceremony at the reception. I looked up and the audience. Down at the paper. Nope, still not the speech. For a split second I considered just reading the little poems my daughter had penned:
Right. There was no way I was pulling that off. In one fell swoop I had demonstrated that my daughter was not only a daughter of the commandments, she was also the daughter of a doofus.
“This,” I announced, holding the paper up for inspection, “Is not my speech. It’s poems for the candle lighting. Looks like I’m winging it.” And I did.
After the ceremony, some guests asked about it, and when I said the one I’d written was better, they said, “Blog it!” So here it is. It’s not the best speech ever written, and it slightly exceeded the one double-spaced page rule, but it’s honest, heartfelt, and still folded up in my purse.
Here we are, 13 years later, watching you read from the Torah. You’ve grown into a beautiful, sweet, and smart young lady who takes life’s challenges head on, who speaks her mind, and who pursues her interests. Daddy and I could not be prouder.