11 September 2014

The Flag

Our school had a flag changing ceremony outside today in honor of 9/11.  While I watched, several postcards of images came to mind.


One was me in my Algebra class, hearing rumors.  "A plane hit the World Trade Center."  "The World Trade Center was bombed."  "A plane accidentally hit the World Trade Center!"

The what?  I hadn't ever been to New York.  Hadn't ever paid enough attention to business or architecture to really understand what that meant.  Not wanting to appear ignorant, I talked about it along with everyone else in hushed tones.

After we said The Pledge, our teacher turned on the news.  I think he had it on mute.  I remember watching moments after he turned on the TV as a second plane flew into the second tower.

The rest of the day was a blur of watching the planes hit the towers on a repeated reel over and over and over again.  The school was buzzing with conversation.  Looking back, I remember feeling sick over the whole thing but not really understanding why.  Maybe it was my American confidence stepping in and assuring me that, in the end, none of this would matter because we would "win".  Whatever that meant.


After a few months in England, my friend Liz and I were exploring Paris.  While the rest of her family was at Disneyland Paris, we were determined to continue our cultural exploration no matter our youth or inexperience or the language barrier.  Liz with her virtually nonexistent French and me with my long ago two years of meagerly attempted high school French roamed streets without a map in search of art museums and churches.  We came across the US Embassy.  Perhaps it was the lack of hearing much English that day (which always makes me feel terribly claustrophobic and crippled), but I've never been so happy to see a piece of fabric in my life.


For several years I spent my summer playing make believe.  Dressed in period clothing, I would go sit in the school house of a local museum designed to teach about country life during the late 1800s.  Some were assigned to houses or stores and had people to socialize with.  I was the schoolmarm, left to my own devices until the replacement volunteer came along.  I didn't mind.  Armed with knowledge gleaned from years of obsession over Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie, I knew my duties.  The schoolhouse was set outside of the main part of town and, as a result, often forgotten by tourists.  As a result, I would regularly be left for hours without any connection to humans, but I would still carefully go about my responsibilities.  I would open each window in the hopes of a nice breeze.  I would sweep the floor and brush away cobwebs.  I would make sure that the slates were neatly stacked and the books organized by grade and the slate pencils put away.  Often I would write my name on the board.  (Often I would write "Ann" just so I could add the "e".)

The task I remember most was that of raising and lowering the flag outside the school at the beginning and end of each shift.  There was something peaceful about this task.

This is what I thought about most this morning.  I watched a group of scouts professionally and carefully raise the flag and felt a bit jealous.  Every year this task is carried out by boys.  My feminist heart protested, and remembered the way I would carry the flag outside each day and raise it alone, taking great care to make sure that it didn't touch the ground.  Later, I would lower it and fold it as well as I could by myself.  It wasn't as professional or formal as the ceremony today, but the reverence of doing this by myself felt important.

12 August 2014

You Are the Pan

One of the most entertaining and awkward experiences of my life is when I've talked with audiences after performances I've given.  I'm always slightly entertained and creeped out by the well meaning and enthusiastic people who have wanted to set me up on dates, for example, and I've had to smile and think "You know that really wasn't me. . .  I mean, it was - but those words and actions weren't mine.  You know that. . . right?"

In some ways it's a compliment to me.  That people who watch me are convinced enough that the person I was portraying had real emotions and motivations.  That's basically the goal of any actor.  But on the other hand, it's a bit awkward and can lead to some confusion when the line between my out of theater reality and in theater performance is misunderstood.


It's a strange thing to mourn the death of a celebrity - especially one that seemed to become everyone's favorite uncle, imaginary father, and most beloved teacher.  Like many others have said about the death of Robin Williams - it's like a part of my childhood, a very happy part of my childhood, was just snuffed out, and no amount of clapping can bring it back.

And what makes it so hard is that this time it was snuffed out by Mr. Williams himself.  It's no wonder people are reacting so passionately.  How could someone known for his humor and incredible way of diving all in to everything he did be so desperately depressed and everyone not know it?  What is wrong with this world?!

Suicide is a topic rather close to my heart.  Not all that long ago, I wrote about how there is always a better answer, a better way.  And I still believe that.  I still believe, and always will, that suicide of a loved one is one of the hardest things a person can live through.  I honestly can't think of anything worse than being close to someone who ends their own life.  The grief is unbelievable.

But after reading Matt Walsh's assessment of the situation, I feel the need to elaborate and add to what I originally said.

Do I believe that suicide is a bad solution?  Yes.

Do I believe that suicide is a selfish solution?  Yes - at least from the perspective of those left behind.

But I will never ever feel anything but incredible sorrow for a person who makes that "selfish" decision.

So if you are close to someone (or feel close to someone) who has chosen to take their life, be angry.  Be as angry and as sad and as hurt as you need to feel because that grief is real and justified.  But please don't dismiss or condemn the pain of the person who actually died.  I know there are people out there who have killed themselves for cowardly reasons or as a cry for attention gone wrong, but I also know that there are people out there who are suffering from depression and pain so keen that it absolutely changes perception of reality, and it is not my job to assess the motivations of others.  My heart just aches for people who reach a point of such despair and anguish that the only option that offers any possibility of relief is to just be done.  The mere thought of what it would be to feel that kind of darkness is suffocatingly sad.

Is their choice still selfish?  Perhaps.  But I pray that these poor souls find relief and freedom that they, I'm sure, spent years fighting to find.  I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that there is peace available and healing given to those who have suffered so keenly.

And Mr. Williams?

I didn't know you.  But I knew Mork.  And I knew Mr. Keating.  And I knew Peter Banning and Mrs. Doubtfire and a pretty lovable Genie and so many others - and I am so incredibly grateful for the influence they had (and will continue to have) on me.  It may seem trite to feel so tenderly toward this fictional stock of characters, but I am so touched and impressed and moved by your genius.  I didn't know you, but I know your work, and that work is beautiful.  I am so honored to have been one of millions who have been blessed to witness your incredible talent and I pray that you are aware of the great influence you had, and that you are finding the peace you so deserve, because no one, no one asks for depression - perhaps most especially those that love to laugh as much as you did.  And to me - you will always be the Pan.

Edited to add: I've struggled over the use of the word "selfishness" to describe suicide for a while.  I continue to use it because the word denotes caring for yourself above the caring of others, which is true of suicide, but I would suggest that selfishness as an attitude in this case (and in other cases of extreme depression) should perhaps not be given such a perpetually negative connotation.  I'm struggling with this because I don't want to glorify or justify or promote suicide in any way as a good solution, but I'm not sure what other word is appropriate.  What I'd like to do is to help people take their focus (or their dismissal) off of however much selfishness is or isn't in any given case of suicide, and instead help people to acknowledge and pity those who feel such despair, so that we can learn to help them better long before they even reach that place.  I simply don't understand what good comes from blaming and condemning any soul so deep in despair that they can see no light.

06 August 2014

Why I (still) teach.

I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.  Maybe it was my love of school.  Maybe it was my love of performance.  Maybe it was the fact that so many of the people in my family worked in schools, so it just seemed like what adults did.  Whatever the reason, it was always a part of my game plan.  So I paid attention.  I watched what teachers did that I liked and what teachers did that I didn't.  I saved assignments and projects that mattered to me.  I kept in touch with a handful of the best teachers I had in junior high and high school well after I left home.  I wanted to be prepared.

I think every new teacher goes into the job a bit starry eyed.  Some people fixate on their favorite Hollywood version of a teacher or an idealized view of their own past teachers, or, in my case, a combination of the above with the addition of some literary examples I admired.  I knew that I never wanted to be the kind of teacher that was just there for the job.  I didn't want my students to just leave with better factual knowledge of English.  I wanted to make them better.

As I started working with other teachers and prospective teachers, I learned that I was not alone in that desire.  Nearly everyone I talked to spoke with frankness about how they knew that they would deal with large classes, with frustrating hoops to jump through, with long hours and the endless thumping of music from school dances and assemblies; but none of it mattered.  We shared a common dream: we wanted to be the kind of teacher that would change brains but would also change lives.  No one goes into teaching for the money or for the so-called summers off, or for the "easy" hours or "easy" job description.  No.  Teachers enter the field with gusto and with the desire to work.  Some are more or less prepared for exactly how much work it is, but no one goes in with the idea that they're in for something cushy.

I understood in theory (and now understand in practice) that teaching is far from a glamorous profession.  It is a job where the cards are increasingly stacked against you.  From No Child Left Behind to state testing and the implementation of Common Core, to endless meetings and stacks of papers to grade with as much equal attention and fairness as you can possibly muster no matter how many times you have to read about the symbolism of The Great Gatsby; it is a job only for someone who has an absolute love of what they do that overshadows the fact that the government (and many of the people you serve) no longer care about your opinion at all.

The very thing that makes teaching wonderful (that heart) is also a threat.  Teaching is a complete labor of love.  So much of what you do is because you care to.  The job description requires you to be in the building and in your classes for certain hours.  Requires you to get your students through their state testing intelligently.  Requires you to update grades on a regular basis and to take attendance.  Requires your adult body to tell students where they can and can't eat their lunch or when they can be in the halls.  But the art of teaching?  The decorating of your room or the creativity of your assignments or the way you communicate with students and their parents - that is where teaching really becomes something special, and it's also where you get the most grief.  For not communicating the same way as another teacher.  For not giving assignments the same way as their teacher last year.  For any number of things that are more or less legitimate to whine about.

I know many people who have left the job.  Capable, brilliant teachers who have not so much as burned out but stormed out.  The hours are long.  The job too thankless.  The art of teaching and the craft of it is too misunderstood and not so much under appreciated as not acknowledged at all to be worth staying in for many.  After all - everyone went to school, right?  So everyone knows exactly what good teachers do.  No amount of education about education can immunize a teacher from a person who is certain they know better.

In my time as a teacher, I have started to understand why people leave.  I have had parents harass me for every reason under the sun.  I've been praised for the same skills I've been bashed over - in one night of conferences I'll have parents thank me for entering grades regularly and parents state that I don't update grades quickly enough.  I've had parents accuse me of purposefully losing student work, and others praise my organizational skills.  I've had angry emails at all hours of the day and night, parents blaming me for their kid plagiarizing assignments, blaming me for being too hard on their children, for being elitist, for thinking I'm better than everyone else, for being unavailable.  I've had parents coming into my room without appointments to chew me out for extended periods of time (once even in the middle of class) and demonstrated behavior that, if I had worked in a normal office, would have probably led to security removing them from the room until they were ready to resolve conflict appropriately.

And that's just the parents.  I also lived through an abusive boss whose behavior still has me trying to find my feet.  Still trying to get that courage and feeling of safety and not of paranoia.  Nearly two years later and the depression of those months is still finding its way out the door.  And what about the government and politics of teaching?  The government (and parents) expect me to be the right teacher, the perfect teacher, for every kid in my room.  But I am imperfect, and my students are imperfect, and our personalities and habits will not always mesh.  What's a person to do?  Sometimes teaching feels like a no-win situation.  No matter what you do, you will do it wrong for someone.

Sitting in my classroom after a summer of preparation and goals for innovation today, I started thinking.  Why am I still here?  Why, when so many have left and with perfectly good reason, have I kept my job?  I am not without other ambitions or opportunities.  I would love to go back to school myself.  Wouldn't mind a job that leaves work at work.  I am a practical person - I do need the money - but heaven knows that if there is one thing everyone understands about teaching it is how underfunded my job is.  I could make more money elsewhere, probably doing a lot less and with a lot less bother.  So why do I stay?

I started to make a list.

I stay because although I used to work under an abusive boss, that is no longer the case.  I now work with an administrative team who supports me and lets me be myself.

I stay for the kid who came into my class after leaving a school where he was bullied.  For months he could hardly get up the nerve to say anything.  Every assignment was terrifying.  By the time he left me, he was able to give a presentation in class in front of everyone and make it through in one piece.

I stay because of the kid who came into my room as a socially awkward rather gangly teen who was not a natural academic but learned to be a natural workhorse.  I've never seen anyone work so hard for such great reward.

I stay for the kid who came in knowing that my class was too big for him, but also not knowing where else to go.  He stayed, we worked to find ways to make him comfortable, and he thrived.  The gratitude in his face when we found the right solution to a challenge for him was beautiful.

I stay for the kids who cared about me enough to go hunt down an adult in the school to substitute my class so that I can join them on a field trip.

I stay for my fellow teachers.  I am so fortunate to work with the staff I do.  They are vibrant, interesting, engaging, opinionated people who are so willing to work and develop and grow.  I love that when I give tours of the school, I can talk about the unique things that go on in each room.  I love that my school is not an androgynous mush of rooms differentiated only by subject - we have teachers that try to be their best selves.  It's marvelous.

I stay for the parents who kindly let me know what a difference they see in their child.  This is particularly amazing when I don't know the extent of the struggles in a child's life to see how far they've come.

I stay for the emails I get from students who have moved on thanking me for this lesson or that book that has changed them, or made their lives better.

I stay for the students who see me as a retreat from their problems.  Who will come and sit in my office let me know what they are thinking or feeling because they aren't sure how to safely share themselves with others yet.  I honor those connections and pray that the advice I give isn't damaging but uplifting and encouraging.

I stay for the days in class when discussion is awesome.  When people groan after the bell rings.  When people stay behind to chat because they're not done yet.  When students are passionate enough about what we are reading (either because they love it that much or hate it that much) that they can't even express themselves with words any more.  When students email me asking for book recommendations.

I stay because I too love to learn.  Because I love the opportunity I get a thousand times a day to try something new.

I stay for the office supplies.  It's true.  It's petty, but it's true.  I love new pens and post it notes and gradebooks organized into neat little rows like vegetables in a garden.

I stay because I love laughing with my students.  I love when they say or do things that are so interesting and unique and awesome that I can't even contain myself.

I stay because my students challenge me to see life in new ways and from new perspectives.

I stay because, for me, at least, it's the right thing to do.  I will not always be what people want me to be or need me to be.  How I run my classroom, how I grade papers, the papers I assign in the first place, the books I recommend - I will never please everyone.  I will never reach everyone.  There will be days ahead of me where I, again, listen to parents express how furious they are with me for not doing x or y to their satisfaction.  Who will refuse to believe, no matter the evidence, anything other than what they want to believe about me - that I am a truly awful person put on this earth to be the trial that must be overcome.  That I would do what I do for the sole purpose of hating their child and destroying their life.  Parents who will hear their children admit that they did x or didn't do y and look at reasonable evidence of sufficient effort on my part and still blame me for whatever they're upset about rather than try to come up with a good solution.  But I intend to keep working hard and to do the job I believe is right for me to do.

I stay because the world needs great teachers.  And while I will never claim the "great" for myself, I will proudly continue to claim the title of teacher, and continue each year to try and strive toward greatness, no matter the obstacles in my way.

02 July 2014

For Andy

When I was young, one of my favorite shows to watch when we got our free cable promotionals was Road to Avonlea.  It's based on some of the other books written by Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery and, being the costume drama obsessor that I was (and certified Anne fanatic, even as a wee thing) I loved this show.

(Now, Andy, I know you're probably already cringing because "Anne" is your "Humperdink" but bear with me.)

The episode I remember the most from watching it as a kid was an episode where the parents of the main family leave for a few nights to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary, trusting that the kids and house will be fine in the care of their oldest daughter Felicity (who isn't quite yet fourteen  Times have changed!)  One thing leads to another and eventually Felicity is in charge not only of her younger siblings Felix and Cecily, but also her cousins Andrew and Sara.  It's a disaster.  Felicity is horribly bossy, strutting around the house with cleaning schedules and keys to the kitchen cabinet and dietary restrictions that are particularly irksome to Sara and Felix, the most headstrong.  Sara fights back.  Felix mostly just laughs (which makes Felicity more angry.)  The whole thing ends with pies in faces, and accidental haircuts, and a visit from a woman they all think is deaf but really isn't - it's a great situational comedy.

The funny thing is - when I was a kid and watched this episode, I didn't quite catch the comedy.  I felt so terrible for Felicity.  Why wouldn't they just listen to her?!  She was clearly in charge and clearly the most responsible and I loved her name and her hair.  And the worst culprit of all was definitely Felix, the obvious villain of the show because he laughed instead of got upset when Felicity was trying to punish him!

It wasn't until a few years later that I saw the episode again and realized that what I was seeing in that episode were projections of myself and my younger brother Andy.  We share a lot in common with those two fictional characters (though he'd never know it because he'll NEVER watch it.)  I was Felicity - the one who never wanted to be a child.  I knew what I wanted: I wanted adults to think I was capable and responsible and smart and had little interest in things I perceived as childish.  Nothing was worse than feeling as though I wasn't being taken seriously.

Andy, on the other hand, seemed to me to be everything I wasn't.  Where I was always too afraid to get in trouble and thus tried to avoid it, Andy pushed limits and laughed when people got upset - laughed so adorably that he'd not get in trouble at all half the time.  He was just too dang charming.  We have this great family video of him in his high chair with the remainder of his dinner, ramen noodles (I think), on his plate.  He's leaning over and holding the plate over the edge of the tray but not quite dropping it.  You can hear mom telling him not to, and you can see a sparkle in his eye and a dimple on his cheek.  He couldn't have been more than two - but he knew.  He knew he wasn't supposed to.  You can also see that he knows he can (and will) get away with it.  You can see it.  And then, giggling, he lets it fall to the floor.

The result of these two stubborn personalities?  Many many years of near constant bickering.  Over anything.  Time on TV or the computer.  Who got last bowls of cereal or bites of cake.  Where we sat in the car.  Time in the bathroom.

Like my relationship with my father and my sister, moving out changed my relationship with Andy.  Or maybe it wasn't really influenced so much by my moving out as by our growing up.  Either way, I remember coming home for Christmas one year and realizing that even though my brother still got away with more than I did because he was still more charming, and even though he was still a bit spazzy and messy, and goofy - he was awesome.  I had fun with him.  We liked enough of the same things that we could do things together and enjoy it.  We actually wanted to spend time together.  It was wonderful.  Suddenly I didn't feel so much like his big sister as his friend.  I stopped caring so much about telling him what to do and started to listen more and just enjoy him as he was.

(You see?  That charming, happy personality of his eventually wore me down too.)

What I didn't ever anticipate was how much I'd grow to admire and look up to him as well.  Andy's life and mine have, in some ways, exchanged places from what people might have expected.  I started by living the life everyone wanted of me and Andy started by testing his limits.  Now he's married, weeks away from becoming a father, and I am living a life that no one really expected and have discovered that I, too, am brave enough to push a little bit on the limits I perceived for myself.  I have a huge amount of respect for the man he has become.  I treasure the opportunities we have to talk and appreciate his unwavering support and encouragement.  We have a bit of an unspoken pact, the two of us: We are going to get along.  Come hell or high water, we will support each other and we will support our younger two siblings, because it is so, so much better when we do.  We are determined that our family will always be one of love and care.

So Andy, on your birthday, I want you to know how very much I love you - and how glad I am that we have both grown out of the extremely childish states of our early years to be the great friends we are now.  You are an incredible example to me of the power that Christ has in our lives and I am so, so excited for the adventures this new year is going to bring for you.



24 June 2014

For Alli

I'm not really good at remembering things relating to the nitty gritty details of my life.

I'm great with useless trivia.  Ask me what floor in Hogwarts Harry's (x) class is in and I'll tell you without the aid of Google, but when it comes to my life I forget lots of things.  I listen to my grandparents recount stories of their childhood and think: "Yup.  I'll never be able to do that."

But I will be able to tell them one story with utter clarity:

I'm eleven.  I'm sitting at the kitchen table on a chair facing the living room and right next to the doors leading to the patio, holding a hand-made card I found at the end of a scavenger hunt mom arranged for us letting us know that the last, surprise baby in our family would give me a long awaited sister.  I burst into tears.  (Jared, across from me, does the same, but for completely different reasons.)  A girl!  My sister!

I have lots of memories leading up to when she was born.  I remember sitting in the basement and voting on what name we would give her (only stipulation: It needs to start with "A", as the pattern of naming Newman children to that point had coincidentally ended on a J-A-J pattern thus far, and that would be cool.)

I remember picking out fabric to make her baby blanket (which I insisted on making) and, consequently, also remember feeling utterly annoyed at every other blanket gift she was given.  She could have all the clothes and toys and diapers she wanted but she had to like my blanket best.  She just did.

I remember driving to the hospital to go get her with my grandparents, both of whom got increasingly frustrated as they tried to navigate down town (which isn't that big but made more complicated by one way streets).  We could see the hospital, we just couldn't GET THERE.  I was in the back clutching her blanket on my lap.

I have memories after she was born too.  Like the timer we had to set at home to take turns holding her because everyone wanted to.  Like one of the first times I was left to babysit her and how much I loved the time I had to just sit and be with her.  Like watching her in her first dance recital.  Like that time mom accidentally shaved a patch in her head (oops.)  Like endless rounds of "In the Mood" and "Shipoopi".  Like Blue's Clues and the curious little "uhhhA?!" and "All gone!"

Things get a little foggy after that - because I moved away.  And a thousand miles is a long distance to travel for a weekend visit.  My long awaited sister and friend was here, and I left her.

I remember the first time I came home, seeing her down at the end of the hall in the airport.  She immediately burst into tears and ran towards me.  We're going to be fine, I thought.

And we were, for a while.  It was easy, at least for me, when Alli was little.  It wasn't until a few years ago when I realized she wasn't so little any more that I felt the pain of lost time.  I missed it, I thought.  She grew up and I missed it. 

The last few years have meant trying harder to get to know the young woman that Alli has become.  We're a little different - she's far more emotionally open than I am.  I have a hard time lying about what I'm thinking, but I bottle it up.  Christmas morning is a series of polite thank you's from me, even if it's a gift I'm particularly excited about.  It means that sometimes people see me as cold or aloof when I'm really not.  Alli leaves no one in doubt of her emotions.  She feels deeply and openly - squealing with delight and crying over the pain of someone else.  She's as soft hearted and kind as they come in how she loves and reaches out to others.   She's more giddy-girly than I ever was.

What's been so rewarding to see as Alli has grown up, though, is utter relief that we may not be quite so different after all - home for Christmas this last year, I saw her roll her eyes at jokes from Dad she didn't like the exact way that I used to.  She loves music and performing.  She has a deeply ingrained desire to do what's right and good.

So, Alli - on your birthday (especially since I can't be there), I want you to know and never forget that it kills me that I'm missing so much time with you.  It's cruel, really - that I waited so long and only got six precious years with you before I left home - years you probably can't even remember.  Cruel that now we're old enough to really enjoy and get to know one another, you still live so far away.  But your being older does come with perks - I'm so glad that we're both getting better at calling and talking and texting each other.  I love that time.  I'm excited that we get so much face to face time this summer.  I'm proud of you and how hard you've worked to overcome the challenges you've faced.  You are a great example to me, Alli - and best of all - you are mine!  Happy Birthday, sweet sister.  I sure love you.