There Is No Why

© 2012 Whitney Reed

© 2012 Whitney Reed

Saturday morning, I made a quiet breakfast of scrambled eggs and grits with my own six-year-old. Just the two of us. She sang in her room just beyond the kitchen as I cried into the bowl of broken egg guts and cursed the bits of shell that fell in. I believe everybody was hit more than once, the words of the Chief Medical Examiner have been ringing in my ears. And because I can’t encounter any piece of news without taking it on myself, injecting it into my own heart, I could only imagine her little overalls, her hands, her sweet brave forehead, her perched on a bathroom sink by a teacher who barricaded her class into the bathroom while gunshots fired in the next room, across the hall, who knows where.

I’ve been so overcome, I took her to the aquarium today. Because, really, there’s nothing more peaceful than an aquarium. It’s otherworldly. Creatures floating in water all around, and people, swarms of people, sharing moments of laughter and wonder behind a sheet of glass. It was raining when we left. Who would know? On the way home, Ruthie asked me, “What’s it like to be a grown-up?” And I thought, THIS. This is what it’s like to be a grown up. It has something to do with knowledge, and loss, and love, and what to do with all of that, but I didn’t tell her this of course. I told her it meant you could eat ice cream for breakfast if you wanted to.

I remember when Ruthie was first born, our first outing. She was maybe 3 weeks old. I don’t know, maybe a month. I can’t even remember where we went, but there were other babies there with their own mothers, some of them crying. And I remember I could feel their cries in my gut. I physically reacted to them–looking to my own Ruthie’s peaceful face with panicked confusion. But you don’t LOOK like you’re crying. And this is what I feel like we are all doing about Newtown–we are owning their pain, their loss, because it feels like it is OUR loss. And it is unimaginable. That is one of the most painful, most beautiful things about us humans: It’s primal, our connection to one another.

We can talk about gun control, we can talk about how we should provide more resources to the mentally ill, how we should call our representatives, and how we should pray more. And, you know, I’m not saying those things aren’t important. But the truth is that bad things happen for no good reason. All of these articles about the shooter and his mother… and WHY. We’re all asking why. Why are we asking why? Because if we can understand it, then maybe we can control it. And, sure, there are things we could do, measures we could take, but the truth is that bad things do happen for no good reason. And this is what makes us hug our babies tighter and kiss their hairlines, breathing deep, thankful and sad at the same time.

I was a teacher for seven years and I can’t imagine what I would say to my students tomorrow morning if I had to face them. I’ve been a mother for just as long and, thankfully, I haven’t had to talk about it to my own little girl. It’s been a silent, very grown up kind of suffering these past few days. But if I had to explain it to anyone, I’d fall back on the wisdom of Mr. Rogers, which is really a good policy in any given situation, because I like his focus. He says:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

So what are we supposed to do with all of this? Holding someone’s hand is always a great place to start. Or tell the people you love that you love them. Sing the hero’s song. Cry a little. Send love. Good, human, hearty love. Pay attention to all the awesome shit that’s happening right in front of you. Maybe turn your phone off and admire the tower your six-year-old made out of 52 Jenga blocks straight up. Shore those fragments against the ruin, T.S. Eliot style. Or maybe just wash her favorite pair of overalls every night this week so she can wear them every day. I know in this house, we’ll be eating ice cream for breakfast tomorrow morning. With fruit, of course. It’ll be a few more days before I can bear another broken egg.

In Remembrance of Snow Days

© 2010 David Parker

Holding a cup of coffee in my hands, I’m standing in the hallway to greet the students as they come in. As the girl with red ribbons braided into her hair hops through the door, her blue tu-tu flouncing around her, the warmth of my coffee mug feels like it’s coming from another time and place. The girl announces to the class that she’s dressed in red, white, and blue to celebrate the addition of a new ride at Six Flags called The Dare Devil Dive in the USA section of the park. As she describes the ride, the way it pulls you to the top, stops you, and then sends you hurtling down straight into the ground, I’m thinking that this ride sounds a lot like my re-entry into the classroom after so many snow days. And I’m thinking that my coffee and its heat in my hands is a piece of those snow days lingering the way good food smells linger in the house after I’ve prepared and devoured something especially yummy like grilled cheese with basil and tomato soup.

Don’t Smile Before Christmas

[This is the second in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in this story.]

Don’t smile before Christmas. Don’t make too much eye contact. Rules. You need rules. Make them think you’re crazy: Slap a stack of papers off of your desk and then yell at one of the students to pick them up. If there’s a fight, take a step back and say Stop. You are the one in charge. YOU are. Not them. Lock up your purse.

In the week before school started, I received lots of unsolicited advice from my colleagues who, ever since I threw up in the tip jar at Subway, loved to reference my “delicate condition.” As in, “Oh, you can’t ask Miss Reed to do that! Not in her delicate condition.” I was a 22-year-old white girl who had never worked a day in her life. I had just graduated from college. I drove a fancy new car. My whole life had been handed to me. If I had to work with my 22-year-old self, I would hate her. Thankfully, my colleagues were more gracious than I would have been.

On the first day of school, the first student to shamble through my door was Trevonte Harris. He smiled when he saw me, and I, being a human (and a Southern one at that) broke the first piece of advice I’d been given and smiled back. Then he asked me the first question I would be asked as a teacher. “So! MISS Reed, huh? You married? Kids say you pregnant. You married?” Before I could answer, Demarcus had come up behind him. “Yo, you Miss Reed?” And then three young women joined us: LaShonda, Janecia, and Star. All looking at me. We were crowding the door. Everyone was looking at me. They were waving over their friends. I slipped out of the group, mumbling something about homeroom, and into the hallway so packed with students that I couldn’t see any teachers. Panic.

The shrill sound of the bell was met with the heavy closing of doors. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! All the way down the hall. Then quiet, save for the rustling of a dozen or so students shuffling to their respective classes. A boy and girl kissed on the mouth before separating to join their homerooms across the hall from one another. I turned to walk into my own class. No one acknowledged me. I managed to take roll. The announcements came on. When our principal started speaking, I heard Bitch! emitted from a young man who was too large to sit in a desk. He was sitting in a chair at the front of the class with his head rested on his chest in a way that made him look like a fat bird sitting on her nest. I said, “Excuse me?” He stood up, reeking of smoke, and looked down at me. “I SAID Bitch!” He said the word like he was spitting, but his face registered no anger or resentment. He said it like it was a fact. I snapped back that he was headed for a referral. “Well let me just go then.” And off he went, sauntering down the hallway before I could even remember where I’d put my referrals. I scampered down the hallway to my friend’s class. I could hear the class falling out behind me as I slipped through the door. Peels of laughter and the echo of stomping feet followed me down the hall to Tanesha’s room. I asked her what to do. “Write his butt up!”

By the time I made it back to my room, the bell was ringing. First period. I was very proud of my writing prompt on the board. Write about your summer vacation. Students came in talking, sat down with their friends. I can’t remember if anyone spoke to me. What I do remember is that no one had any paper and no one had anything to write with. My mouth was hanging open. “How did you not bring something to write with on the first day of school?!” They weren’t expecting to do work the first day. Once everyone got something to write on, most of them wrote one word: sleep. Going over classroom procedures was about as successful as the writing prompt. I talked for most of the rest of class since no one had anything to share from the “writing exercise,” so by the end of the day, I had watched nearly 70 kids sleep with their eyes open and I was forced to confront a hard truth: I didn’t know these kids. I got their jokes only well enough to understand that they were mostly about me. “Hey, Ms. Reed. Is your daddy a window?” I had never heard students talk to teachers like this. I had never seen kids come to school without backpacks, without paper or pencil. By the end of the day, the trash can was filled with all of my brightly colored handouts balled up or ripped in half.

The Calling

[This is the first in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories.]

The day began like every other that summer: I woke up wrestling with nausea and lost. Twice. However, unlike every other day, this one was marked by a job interview with a school board in very rural Alabama. After heaving what was left of my first-trimester stomach lining into the kitchen sink, I wriggled into a butter-yellow pencil skirt and a freshly-starched white button down, grabbed an apple and ran down the three flights of stairs adjoined to our pitiful excise of an apartment building, careful not to look through the spaces between the stairs where the ground so far below made my jaw tingle. Ten minutes later, whizzing down a country road I’d never known, captivated by the landscape of vivid Alabama green blurring by my window, I was already pining for the commute through foggy fall mornings to a school where I would really make a difference.

Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the hormones, but about halfway into the drive, something about the texture of the apple I’d been eating caused me to pull over and retch on the side of the road beneath a romantic canopy of trees. There was nothing cool to lean against and there was no one I could call. I had no choice but to shamble back into the car, my fresh butter-yellow skirt smeared with red clay, and attempt to collect myself for the interview. Any illusions I’d had of myself exhibiting grace and mental composure I left there, mixed with spit on the side of the road. From this point on, my memory of this day is marked by extreme heat and profuse sweating.

And so it was that I found myself sweating on the front steps of the Chambers County Board of Education. Despite my lack of experience in education beyond my years as a student, I was confident–it was the kind of confident only a young person can feel as it’s the kind of confidence that comes from never having failed at anything significant before and never having endured much of anything challenging (that is of course, if you don’t count breaking the news to my parents that their unwed daughter was going to have a baby). This kind of confidence might also come from having very little to lose.

First impression: This place is a dump. The city of Lafayette reminded me of Miss Havisham’s wedding gown. Its old, lacy Victorian homes were depressing—they were falling in on themselves, old furniture stacked to the porch ceilings and prickly signs nailed to their trees. NO TRESPASSING. The Board of Education was nestled among those houses like Miss Havisham’s rotted wedding cake on her banquet table. To the right of the Board there was a grassy hill that led up to the high school. As I began to climb the steps, I was very aware of people sitting on their porches across the street. Watching me. I became aware of how bright and clean and pressed my outfit was in comparison with my surroundings. What was I doing here?

The front door felt greasy and, as I pulled it open, seemed to stick the way the soles of my feet do when I’ve just stepped in gum. The air inside felt thick and humid, like walking into an open mouth. The large black woman seated behind the desk to my left directed me to wait in a plastic chair along the wall. More sweating. By this time I’m sure the shirt under my arms was completely transparent. A man with a preacher’s face and a politician’s smile led me to a room where I wrote an essay about what, I can’t remember, but I accomplished it and placed it back in his outstretched hand with the same kind of knowing satisfaction that I’ve always had upon turning in work to my teachers. We went into his office where he conducted an interview alongside the principal from the high school at the top of the hill. Throughout the interview, most of my attention was directed towards the amount of perspiration that was accumulating on my upper lip and how long it had been since I last licked it off. Since I’ve always been able to talk my way into or out of anything, answering questions came naturally.

There were two concepts that have stuck in my mind since that interview: “The Age of Accountability” and “Highly Qualified.” The first came from a question that the principal asked me. She was asking what kinds of things I would do in my classroom since we are now living in the Age of Accountability. I assumed that this had to do with holding students accountable for their work. In the past six years, I’ve discovered that this has more to do with teachers covering their asses than with teaching or learning. THe other term, “Highly Qualified,” turned out to be what I was. Me. The girl with NO background in education and no prior work experience in anything. Apparently, a certain number of courses in English (Literature) made me achieve “Highly Qualified” status as an educator.

So I got the job. And the signing bonus. Signing bonus? Signing bonus. $3,000. Or something like that. Because it was July and their 9th and 10th grade English students (99% of whom were receiving free or reduced government lunch, 99% of whom were minority) desperately needed a teacher. And the job came with benefits. Benefits! Health insurance! My feet were singing and dancing their way out of that office, down the cracked front steps, and I was practically waltzing in the streets across from those people sitting on their front porches looking deflated and indifferent. Hopped up on adrenalin, I called everyone I knew and practically vibrated home. I was going to be a teacher! I was going to make a difference.

Faith and Baby Steps

© 2010 David Parker

About a month ago I met Faith, and ever since, I’ve been carrying it around like a new born baby swaddled up in mind-maps and golden tickets punched by me. I’ve discovered that faith (in people and in my own ideas) takes a lot of trusting and a hell of a lot of baby steps.

Today I counted and I have about eight projects in the works. Several of them will appear here, as baby steps. The first is a series of installments about how I became a teacher. Last year was a very discouraging one for me as an educator. I started off this year feeling frustrated with the educational system in general and defeated in particular by the experiences I’d had in my classroom. I used to feel like my career choice was meaningful, that I was accomplishing some truly humane purpose, but as I met people in industries outside of education (especially artistic ones), I became increasingly disenchanted with my profession.  From this disenchantment came the founding of an interdisciplinary arts organization and the beginning of a writing project. Because I’ve only ever understood anything through story, and because I can’t do anything well that I don’t perceive to be meaningful, I decided that the only way for me to make sense of my profession and find the meaning I have been missing was to go back and tell the story of how I arrived here. You can find those installments under the category “Becoming Ms. Reed.”

Home Sick & “I Believe the Writing is Someplace” & If So, Then Where?

© 2010 David Parker

Last night we spent some quality time reading Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride on the bathroom floor between the hours of 1:30 and 4:00 am. Ruthie had her head propped up on her little hands that were folded one-over-the-other on the edge of the toilet seat. “Waiting on the throw up,” she calls it.

The morning came too fast. In anguish, I scribbled out my lesson plans for today and made the mad dash up to the school to make ready for the sub. I returned home to find myself on the brink of a day that spread out before me like a glass lake. Ruthie spent most of the day sleeping and coloring. (She’s particularly keen on drawing “machines” that do things like “suck up all the bad people.”) This means that I had a great deal of time on my hands to read and to write and to do laundry and to scheme up schemes that make me excited about teaching. But especially to read. And, of all the things I read, this one has me coming back to it again and again. I don’t know how I landed there, but it’s Wendy S. Walters writing for About A Word about writing “In These Times. For me, her words are daunting, mesmerizing, captivating. Her message resonates with me even though I don’t exactly understand just what it is that she’s saying. (I think) she’s talking about how writing helps us make sense of things we can’t make sense of. And how (maybe) going out and looking for a poem is less about arriving at the poem and more about how you get there.

As I’m writing this, she’s sleeping in a chair next to me, her face flushed with a fever of 103. I just got finished Cloroxing the white-tiled bathroom floor, which left my finger tips feeling squeaky and dry. Since the fever has not yet broken, it looks like I’ll be another day at home. Here’s hoping a poem is hidden for me someplace in the geography of tomorrow.

High School English Afternoons

© 2010 David Parker

This afternoon is turning out to be a tease. From the looks of it, I should be able to open my window, but it’s too hot and the pitiful puffs breeze are just enough to blow my papers around. And there are so many papers. So. Many. Papers. The moment I catch up is the very same in which I fall behind. By the time my planning period rolls around, I’m over it. I’m already thinking about walking with my face turned up to the sun so bright, so blindingly bright I shut my eyes and wind up running into something. But I grade papers instead with my feet propped up on the windowsill. Somedays I can’t even stand music. Today, with my tests for tomorrow made up already, and a fresh stack of classwork that I can grade at home, I chose to write.

No one ever tells you about working inside all day and what an underwhelming bummer it can be. How you could lose your stomach from the force, the fall of a sugar crash. How you can read so much that the text begins to lift itself off the page, meeting you halfway.  Newly acquired job skill: I can actually read aloud and think about something entirely different, which is kind of like taking a vacation in the midst of the most boring piece of your day (imagine reading the same piece of text three times a day for 30-minutes to students who feel like they’re really out-doing themselves by halfway listening). The problem with work is that I don’t have time to get so totally absorbed inside of myself that nothing exists but the words I’m generating on the page. 70 teenagers come and go from my classroom throughout the day. And I love them. I do. But I can see why so many people put off writing their whole lives: because it’s demanding. Almost as demanding as 70 teenagers in five hours.

Whenever I pick up Ruthie from school, I always say, “I missed you all day!” Sometimes I feel that way about myself.

Rubber Band Writing

© 2010 David Parker

From morning to mid-afternoon, my classes and I brainstormed all of the things you can do with a rubber-band. Inspired by a comment posted here, I decided to try this little exercise with 9th graders, and it was absolutely magical. When they walked in the door, I had a rubber-band waiting for them on each of the desks. They had to divide their paper into three columns and, in the first column, list all of the things they could think to do with a rubber-band. Then we shared (and I wrote our collective list on the board). Then they had to write more things to do with a rubber-band (that we didn’t already have on our list) in the second column. Then we shared and I wrote again. Then they had to do the same thing in the third column. EXHAUSTING! We spent an hour in each class with this activity. And every time, the kids whined about how there was nothing more they could possibly say about rubber-bands. But each column got longer than the one before it. And by the end, I was having to cut them off because we were out of room and out of time.

My favorites:

Take it to Wal-Mart.
Ask it how your butt looks in these pants.
Get mad at it for not talking back.
Lasso a rhinoceros with it.
Put it in your game day pants for good luck.
Insult it.
Measure it.
Forget it.
Tell your mother she can’t have it.

We talked about how our writing should be third-column writing. We figured out that it takes the first and second columns to get to the third, that you can write about anything if you want to (or have to), that you never feel like you have anything to say at the very beginning, that it’s sometimes easier to write if you have someone you can talk to about it.

My neck is sore, my arm feels bruised, and my back is all messed up, but, damn! It was one of those I’m-a-Teacher days, where you know you’ve just blown their minds (and yours). And the kids were buzzing about it in the halls. And, from now on, when they hand in shitty-first-drafts, I can say they need to work it into the third column and they’ll know what I mean and how to do it. But what made the day was that they valued each others as writers and thinkers. It’s not often you see 15-year-olds, or people in general, valuing each other’s ideas.

‘Flicted with the Hubris

© 2010 David Parker

We started reading The Odyssey today in my AP class, and it’s got me thinking about quests and tests and challenges and nostos and hubris. Especially hubris, which is really a necessary flaw if you’re going to be an epic hero. I mean, being successful at anything requires a certain amount of ego, so if you’re going to be a fucking hero, I would imagine that you’d need maybe just a bit more hubris than the average guy. But in the end, the hubris is what brings the big boys to their knees. Well, hubris and fate.

The Odyssey was the first nail in my literary coffin. I read it my sophomore year of college in a Great Books class. It was the first time I realized that literature was about the human experience. It may have been the first time it was ever brought to my attention that there were certain universal aspects of being human. Except for the fact that Penelope never leaves the home, I love the narrative structure of The Odyssey: We begin with ourselves, our home; we go out into the world for a reason, on a quest; nothing goes the way we’d imagined it might; it takes a hell of a lot longer than we’d planned; we encounter challenges, battles, obstacles, monsters that test who-we-think-we-are; we eventually make it home (under strange sail and in exchange for a story); and nothing is as we remember it—not even ourselves. We thought we knew everything (hubris), we thought we were somebody (hubris), we bragged about how much of a somebody we thought we were (hubris), only to have our spirit sticks broken by the gods (fail). Just one big circle that begins and ends with me. And we arrive alone, without even our trusty hubris.

I think that’s why so many people experience success in their forties: it takes a long time and a lot of failing to get over the hubris. My twenties have been marked by arrogance and entitlement, and that too seems to be a universal piece of the human condition. Everyone is kind of an asshole in their twenties. We’re like Odysseus, messing over our accomplishments with our bragging. And my generation of braggarts is surely the worst yet as we proudly proclaim our cleverness from the tallest peaks of the Interwebs. Our status updates and tweets have a willingly captive audience and people like us. Social networking’s got us ‘flicted with the hubris. *heavy sigh* #kidsthesedays

As Though I Knew What I Was Doing

© 2010 David Parker

The short prose poem of yesterday totally ruined me. I wrote like six of them and they were all pitifully dramatic and try-hard. It made me wonder why I’m doing this whole write-something-everyday-for-a-year thing. I thought by now, it might come easier to me, but it seems to be getting harder and harder. And I think it’s getting harder and harder because I’m kind of still expecting to be struck with the magical Something-to-Say. And today, when I subjected my students to the prose poem assignment, I realized that maybe this task has been so arduous for me because I haven’t been following my own advice.

Two things I always tell my students: writers keep notebooks, and writing is thinking. I haven’t kept a notebook since I started this project and I’ve spent a great deal of time staring at my screen. If I were in my own class, I’d be failing. So when I started today’s Writing Workshop with my students, I followed along with them and probably got more out of it than they did. For instance, the very idea of a prose poem forced us to analyze what makes a poem a poem when there are no line breaks (we came up with concrete imagery that shows an emotion, idea, or experience). Then we started building our poems together. First, choose a major life event that you can remember very clearly. Next, freewrite about a specific moment from that event that captures how you felt and why that moment was important, focusing on the five senses. Then take all that crap you wrote down and find three or four sentences to scrap together.

At the beginning, the kids were reluctant. The thought of writing for five minutes without stopping was unthinkable. But no one was ready to stop when I called time–not one out of nearly 70 kids. And most classes wrote for another ten. Then, because the space was so limited, it forced them to think about all kinds of lovely things like sentence structure and using strong verbs and how to choose an image so that it does something in a poem. They can’t wait to share their stuff with each other tomorrow, and I’m kind of proud of the work that we generated together as well. Win!

So my challenge to each of you readers is to post a three– or four–sentence prose poem here. So we can all see it. I dare you. Here’s mine from today (about my first teaching job):

The room smelled of chalkboards, dust, old papers–like the inside of a drawer that had been shut for years. Empty desks were pushed against the walls as though they’d been in a wreck. Behind the teacher’s desk was an old wooden student chair that looked like it’d been chewed up and spit out whole. I collapsed into the chair and began scratching out lessons as though I knew what I was doing.