31 December 2011

Year End Review

I remember reaching the end of 2010 and feeling completely overwhelmed with gratitude for the blessings I'd been given. 2010 was a good year. 2009 was as well, for that matter. I'd gone to England, started and finished my first year of teaching, got a new job and reached the half way point of my second year of teaching - I'd made some incredible, life-changing friendships and had the privilege of performing one of my dream parts on stage. I felt closer to the direction and guidance of the Lord than I ever had been in my life. Things were good.

This year. . .oh this year. My Christmas newsletter write up last year was way too long. This year it looked something like: "Joni worked. . . and worked some more. She hopes next year involves more theater and travel." Two sentences. That's it. I look at the end of 2011 and am quite tempted to spin the clock forward a few hours in an attempt to welcome a new year. 2011 was hard. It was emotionally and physically draining. A year of solid work with very few breaks, even during the summer. No theater. Only minimal travel. A seemingly endless battle with my own emotions and trying to conquer feelings of inadequacy and depression that were almost cruel at times. Not easy. Not fun.

But with all of this not fun-ness and depression comes the opportunity now for me to rest. To stop for a moment and look at how far I've come and realize the hard-won blessings and growth of the year.

For example, I'm learning for the first time in my life to love myself as I am. My talkative and confident public persona often hides a person completely unsure of herself. Combine that with a genetic born desire to please others and you have a recipe for a person easily confused and pressured into doing and feeling things to please others. I don't mean to say that this year has made me more selfish - but I do think I am leaving this year less easily swayed into trying to please everyone around me by being what I think everyone wants me to be. It's a valuable lesson. For the first time in a while, I feel peace with who I am now, not just focussing on who I want to be in the future.

For another, I'm learning to be happy with where I am in life. It is easy - so easy - in this part of the world to look around and feel behind. To feel as though where I am now is less important or valuable to me than if I were to be doing what everyone else around me seems to be doing. But I like what I do. I love teaching. (I love, heaven forbid, being single*.) And instead of seeing these things as temporary or unnecessary or of less worth to me than a life of changing diapers, I've seen the value in embracing the journey I am on, not the one Jane Doe across the street is on. I still have goals and dreams and desires for the future, but not having those things here, now, is no reason to feel guilty about being happy with things I have now that I really do like. I'm done feeling socially guilty.

So, 2011. . .you were a bit of a pain. One of those years that I'll look at years down the road and be really grateful for, I'm sure. But for now, I intend to blow an obnoxious celebratory horn quite loudly at midnight and drink a glass of Martinelli's in honor of your death. Then I'm going to cuddle with 2012 until it succumbs to giving me the theater time I am in desperate need of.

Happy New Year!

*Most of the time. On laundry/cleaning/shopping day, it would definitely be nice to have some help. Also when my bed is a little too cold.

13 December 2011

Ode to the Butterflies

Recently I was asked to Assistant Direct the school musical where I teach. (It's not the same as being on stage, and the show is one that I would do just about anything to be in, but it's a step warmer to the stage than I've been for the last year!) Auditions start today. This particular show will involve approximately 25 people - 1/3rd the number of the show from last year. You can feel the anticipation so thickly in the air you can cut through it.

I remember back when I auditioned for my first school play. I was a seventh grader, seasoned from years of pretending to be various characters in my living room and bedroom. I was sure that the director would cast me. Why shouldn't she? I was, quite obviously, the best choice. I remember watching the clock slug its way on all day, waiting for the cast list to be posted. A mere nine people in the entire school were going to be involved. I knew I was going to be one of them.

Except that I wasn't. My first (though certainly not last) great defeat. I was crushed.

The next year things went better. I managed to scrape by as villager number two and snagged myself three short lines by virtue of the fact that I went to every rehearsal whether I was scheduled or not.

Since then I've been involved in many shows and will, I'm assuming, add to that list. But I am very happy to say that my years of auditioning as a student in high school are behind me. Auditioning in community and regional theater is hard, but auditioning in school is worse. So, so much worse. You can't escape it. If you get the part you want, you're walking on air, but if you don't - and the odds are infinitely not in your favor towards getting what you want - then you watch another person do what you wanted to do, and, if you don't get cast, spend the next several months praying for the show to end so that you can move on. You're surrounded by it. Happiness you so wanted, but won't get. There's nothing worse.

So, dear auditioning students, know that I feel your pain. That I have been there. And that I do not envy you even a little. I too will be auditioning at least twice in the next few months. It's hard. It's embarrassing. (It's addicting.) But it is so, so worth it.

04 December 2011

A Thrill of Hope

I've always had a great love for Christmas music. As a child I don't think I loved any time of the year more than the time when the sounds of The Carpenters, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby and Mannheim Steamroller. There is joy and hope in Christmas music. (And a fair bit of annoyance when it comes to songs about hippos and Christmas shoes, but I digress.)

The older I get the more appreciation I have for the hymns of Christmas. What Child is This, for example, paints a beautiful parallel between choirs of angels raising "songs on high" while, at the same time, Mary sings a lullaby to an infant. I love the contrast in that. It's poetic. It's peaceful.

This year, though, I've been thinking about the first verse in O, Holy Night over and over again. I think in the midst of the opportunity for showing off and belting that song usually provides, I've never really paused to consider what the message of that song actually is. Look at the first verse again:

O, holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error, pining,
'Til he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

It's the last four lines of the song that hit me the hardest this year. Last year I felt was one of tremendous blessings from the Lord. I was given wonderful opportunities, new friends, and some wonderful, merciful experiences that were so perfect that I felt likely to burst out of my own skin. Life was so good that my family finally asked me to stop talking about the parts of it I was so happy about because it was getting on their nerves.

This year has been different. I've been battling challenges professionally and personally that have left me feeling trapped inside my own weakness. I've spent much of the year in great debate over much of what I hold most dear. I've battled against the bonds of depression harder and longer than I've ever done in my life. I've been holding on by the tips of my fingers, fighting to keep myself afloat.

It's hard to live the gospel. It is hard for me to be single in a church that doesn't quite know what to do with me all the time. It's hard for me to watch my friends go to the temple when I can't yet because of circumstances out of my control. It's hard for me to try hard to fight against the foibles of the natural man monster in me. But a friend reminded me recently that I am imperfect but not inadequate. I am full of sin and error, but because of the birth of my Savior, my weary soul has worth and great cause to rejoice. This song, then, speaks to me not just of the hope of the night the Savior was born, but the hope of a new year, the hope of Christmas, the hope of the gospel in my life.

23 November 2011

One for the Memory Book

When I was young, summertime meant a trip to visit the grandparents. Until the last half a decade, my grandparents lived within a handful of miles of each other, which was incredibly convenient. Inevitably, though, we'd stay with my mom's side of the family. It was a practical choice - they had more room, more toys, and a generally more kid friendly place to be. This meant that visits with dad's side of the family were always more formal, forced and - to a kid wanting a movie to watch that wasn't about airplanes or the history of Utah - quite boring.

It wasn't until I grew up a bit that I started appreciating visits with both sides of the family for the different benefits they provide. Mom's side of the family comes with impulsive trips, casual chaos, and lots of silliness. Dad's side of the family comes with intellectual stimulai, good food, and determination.

It wasn't until I went to college that I think I fully appreciated how lucky I was to have two sets of living grandparents. Even at eighteen they seemed, if not invincible, then at least young enough to not be in any real danger of death anytime soon. The majority of my friends did not have four living grandparents, or at least not four living grandparents who were all still independent and relatively healthy. Grandparents who travel and watch Napoleon Dynamite and buy iPads and Wiis (no joke.)

But in recent years it has slowly dawned on me that I would be naive and ungrateful to ignore the opportunities I have with my grandparents. They are limited, after all. I watch hands shake as they eat at dinner time. I see tables with medicine and hear about more surgeries and count my lucky stars that those days in my life are not in the immediate future. But they will be. Give me another forty years.

I say this because this Thanksgiving I've been with my dad's parents. I've not spent Thanksgiving with them since my uncle died twelve years ago. My dad's parents are particularly appreciative when I come to visit them. Unlike my grandparents in the north who have family decently close by to come visit them often and regular family vacations, my grandparents in the south live in relative seclusion from family. It means a lot to them when I come.

It's not a complete picnic. My grandpa shares my love of language but is often oblivious to the effect that he has on the people around him when he gets on a storytelling spree. The first day I was here, for example, a "quick question" turned into an hour and a half long string of stories and anecdotes. It can be utterly exhausting to keep up with him. He wants me to look at his stories and listen to his poetry and I would selfishly rather spend time quietly reading a book and relaxing from the stresses of my job.

But when I step back from my own selfish desires I realize that the inconvenience of now won't be around forever. I don't want to regret the chance to hear my grandpa's convictions about life and to miss out on the chance to collect some memories from him. So I tried a different tactic this weekend: I started asking him questions before he could ask me. I asked him about how he met my grandma (at a dance). What it was about her that he liked (she could dance well and is, apparently, a good kisser.) I talked to him about the town he grew up in and the traditions of his house. Slowly, I'm starting to get a glimpse of the personalities of my great grandparents, something I've never had before, and what my grandpa was like as a boy.

I can still say with honesty that three hours of conversation with my grandpa too many times in a row can be exhausting - but I can also say that I treasure knowing that my grandpa is proud of me, and cares enough to want to share his story with me. Who could blame him? Everyone wants to be remembered.

19 November 2011

Be Not Ashamed

I had the chance yesterday to watch an edited version of The King's Speech after school with the movie club I sponsor at my school. Although I rebelliously prefer the unedited version, the movie is still worth watching either way. I know I've written about this movie before, but each time I see it something new about it touches me. It's a powerful story.

This time I was reminded again of how much effort it took for Bertie to overcome his problems, which he never really overcame, by the way. He spends the entire movie fighting against his speech struggles and comes out of the movie a little better, but still struggling. He is able to gain more confidence in himself and he's able to get through the speech at the end, but he's never on par with his German counterpart, Hitler. That's what most movies would want to do. Pit the underdog against the champion and have the underdog either surpass or at least match the champion at the end. You don't have that luxury in real life. Sometimes there are wounds and weaknesses that never quite go away. Sometimes you have to fight.

I think everyone has a handful of these problems. For me it's a social life.

It seems contradictory, really. I'm very obviously quite verbal. I'm not (or, at least I don't think I am) hugely awkward in social situations. I just have never really liked them - particularly when it comes to dating. I have some kind of overwhelming fear when it comes to dating that I can't seem to get over no matter how hard I try. It always works in the same pattern: I start out excited for the first date, I go on the second date and have a good time, but between the second and third date my brain starts to panic, and by the time the third date call rolls around I'm looking for any excuse not to answer the phone or to delay returning calls or to run. Last time this happened I tried actively to fight against it by forcing myself to agree to a third date, only to spend the rest of the evening in my room with my head under a pillow, frustrated that I can't just be normal and allow myself to enjoy life for once.

I should be complimented, right? I should be flattered that someone deems me interesting and nice enough to take out more than once. I should be able to do what everyone else seems to do and to just have fun. But to be quite frank, dating scares the heck out of me. Just writing about it right now is making my shoulders tense and my stomach turn.

I can come up with all sorts of logical reasons for why I am this way, if I want. Fear of abandonment stemming back to the sixth grade. Few positive dating experiences in high school leaving me unprepared for the serious business of college dating. Too much social or internal pressure. Fighting against the chains of depression and feelings of inadequacy in general, not just in my social life. Circumstances that put me on the spot when I'm much happier when things are casual and I don't feel like I have to act a certain way or feel a certain way when I don't - guilt for not wanting to act a certain way or feel a certain way when I probably should. . . it's all very complicated.

I recognize that many of you who read this could quite easily either relate or think I'm being overly dramatic. I get that. I'm not exactly proud of this side of myself. It's a very conscious battle I'm trying to fight here. But guilt isn't really helping me move on, and pressure to get over fear immediately is only making it worse.

Back to The King's Speech connection - one of my favorite scenes is when Bertie is preparing for his coronation at Westminster. He finds out that his speech therapist (Logue) is not government certified and is frustrated, accusing him of lying and being a fraud, even though Logue argues that he never once claimed to be a doctor and has not advertised himself as such. At one point Bertie turns his back on Logue - when he turns around again Logue is sitting in Saint Edward's chair rather cheekily, which makes Bertie furious. Logue tells Bertie that Bertie himself did just say he's not king, so it shouldn't matter, when Bertie shouts that he has every right because he has a voice. It's a real turning point for Bertie, who has been feeling for what may have been his entire life up to this point that because he struggled with speaking, he could have nothing to say that anyone would want to hear. He believes in himself for the first time. It doesn't cure his problems, but it helps.

I'm not quite there yet. But I am, at least, very tired of feeling ashamed that this is hard for me. It feels on the outside like something very silly to struggle with that is all in my head because so many people around me seem to have the socializing thing down in spades, but feeling guilty is not helping me to find a way to heal. It's time to start being a little more patient with myself.

10 November 2011

For Bob

As a warning - I'm not really sure what the purpose of this particular post is. Usually I have some sort of goal or idea I'm focused on.

Today's a little different. It's November. This year marks another anniversary since the death of my uncle way back when I was in junior high. Twelve years.

To be honest, it isn't something I think about all that often. Bob and I didn't have a terribly formal or frequent relationship. I didn't know anything about his personal life and only really remember seeing him two or three times in my life, even though I know it was more than that in actuality. I remember the last time I saw him the Christmas before he died - how excited I was, and how excited he was, to see us. There's a great picture I have of him carrying me and one or two of my cousins all at once. I remember going home that night and feeling so terribly lucky to have an uncle as cool and fun as Bob.

I also remember how still my house seemed the night I came home from a babysitting job just under a year later. It was silent. But not silent because my younger siblings were sleeping - that awful slow motion type of silence. I remember my parents coming downstairs from their bedroom and my dad looking about twenty years older than I thought of him as being. I'd never seen him like that before. It was jarring. Dad never lost control like that - at least not to grief.

I remember going out to the funeral and gradually learning bits and pieces about what had really happened, according to my cousin, at least, who had either heard it from her parents (who didn't censor as much as mine) or made it up for shock value (both of which are very possible.) I remember feeling totally unsure of how to respond to everything, feeling in a kind of limbo because everyone around me was more sad than I was and feeling pressure to do. . .something about it.

In the years that have followed since Bob's death I've learned more about him. He was Bipolar - manic depressant, they call it. Active and reckless, never quite settling down. High on life one day and contemplating suicide the next. He was an avid sportsman and photographer - when I think of Bob, I think of the outdoors. It's kind of laughable to think of him at a cubicle, actually. In my mind, I don't ever picture Bob still. I think he'd be bored by it.

When I was younger I took up photography and my dad let me use Bob's camera. It was a beautiful piece of machinery that camera, and I took care of it like it was sacred and only gave it up last year when I could finally afford a digital camera that could perform as well as the old film one did. Every time I used the old one - and when I use the new one too - I feel like I'm stepping in where my uncle left off. This imaginary relationship I've built with him since his death that I never had with him in life always feels so close when I'm taking pictures. Maybe it is all in my head. But I think he'd like to know that I take pictures for him.

That wasn't all I inherited from Bob, though. I don't suffer from depression the way that he did by a long shot - but there are days every month or so, like yesterday, where I get a glimpse of understanding. Days when I have to step back from the lethargy and despair and recognize that, logically, nothing in the day has been that despair worthy. Days when I force my way through knowing that, for me at least, the next day will be better, because my "dark days" don't last nearly as long, or come nearly as often.

I don't think Bob would be, or is, happy to know that the legacy of depression still runs in the veins of my family. But I do think he would be happy to know that since his death, we have been able to put a name to it, and that makes it easier to fight. I know, now, how suicide rips at a family - but I also know the spiritual strength and care from the Lord that does come when tragedy strikes so unexpectedly. It is an awful way to gain that understanding, but I am glad that I have it.

So, Bob - this November as I spend Thanksgiving with my own brother and your parents, I want you to know that I am grateful for you. Because your memory has inspired me to fight. To not give in when days are hard. To get outside more and tell my family I love them more and - most of all - to love myself enough to tackle my weaknesses honestly and confidently.

07 November 2011

It's not a secret, right?

I had a chance to go to Disneyland recently on a whirlwind weekend trip that involved two glorious days away from school, approximately twenty eight hours in the parks themselves, less sleep than I have had in a long time and the best food ever. Given the novelty aspect of this trip and the summer of hard work it represented, I decided that I ought to get some kind of souvenir. Only. . . I don't collect pins. Or wear hats. Or need any more t-shirts. And if I want a Disney movie, I'm not going to buy one in the park, I'm going to buy one used online for half the price or less. So I found a cute ornament for my Christmas tree and. . . being me. . . a book. (That's right. Some people buy all kinds of assorted Disney memorabilia, and I buy a book.)

The book, Brain Storm, is written by Don Hahn, one of the executive producers on many of Disney's most successful films (including Beauty and the Beast.) I've not finished it yet, but it's broken into easily digested sections so odds are I will. His goal is to talk about the creative process and offers some practical advice towards gaining a greater understanding of creativity itself. Coupled with my reading of Ken Robinson's Out of Our Minds, my brain has been working overtime on this idea of creation over the last few months. Not just the idea of creation, but the common misconceptions of it.

For example, I had a parent request of me recently that I send home an example of a "perfect" essay. To be honest, I didn't really know how to respond. As an essayist myself, a "perfect" essay is something of a joke. No essayist that I know of (or have read) would ever admit that such a thing exists, at least not in their own writing. Writing isn't an art that is perfected, it is explored. But this parent didn't see writing as an art form - it was a checklist. Eventually I mailed home an essay from the internet that I didn't even read all the way through.

I give this example because it is a nice symbol of a common problem I see (and others see) cropping up more and more often in the way parents and students (and people in general) talk to me about the way they approach learning. It is a series of things to check off a list. Skills are things that you used to not know and then, after a lesson, you have mastered, and you can move on with "real" life. The "art" of gaining an education in any field, whether it be math, science, English or the arts, are being sacrificed in favor of fake rewards that don't mean much and "skills" that are forgotten within days. Teachers don't assign homework because students won't do it and parents won't make them. (This is, incidentally, one reason why the arts are so valuable in schools - you can't fake your way through the arts. If you can't sing well, everyone knows it.)

In Hahn's book he points out how easy it is to be intimidated by the great thinkers of the past - men like Edison or Disney himself - men like Steve Jobs and DaVinci who seem to have that creativity thing down in spades. But, Hahn argues, the great thinkers of history (with the possible exceptions of Disney and Jobs) didn't have access to the same tools we do. We have the world of information available for free to us so long as we have a computer with the internet on it. In under ten seconds, I can find out nearly any fact I want to know.

But that's part of the problem. It used to be that having knowledge of a subject guaranteed you a job, because having that knowledge alone was rare. But not in this world. To enter any field that involves creative thinking - everything ranging from engineering to graphic designer and back again - employers want people who can come up with ideas and follow through on them. The world is moving too fast for any business to stop evolving, and it takes people to make that happen.

This is good news, really. What it means is that anyone with the right set of skills can find success, college education or no. The tools you need to be successful are pretty simple: it takes hard work, and a passion for what you do that is not swayed by setbacks.

But somehow in our "Occupy ______" nation, those skills are drowning in a sea of excuses and people lazing around from one task to another. Here in the valley, I'm not sure how this functions elsewhere, "stress" has taken on the label of "overwhelmed", which means that parents are now requesting students be excused from assignments or late work (and then wonder why their kid doesn't know how to do basic tasks at the end of the year.) If a student doesn't know how to do something, or has a learning disability, or has problems at home, then all of these things (sometimes combined) become the barrier that keeps a person from even attempting to try. Which is fine. Everyone's got problems. But it's no secret that if you don't do the work you don't get the reward.

Unless, of course, you whine about it long enough that someone gives you a gold star or a cookie or an "everyone wins" trophy to make you feel better about it.

02 November 2011

Pay Day Part the Second

Remember all those blog posts I've done recently demanding that teenagers are better than we give them credit for?

I was right.

I've been frustrated for a while by the way one of my classes has been going. The students in the class are great, but something just wasn't registering. Part of the problem was quite clearly in my obsession with organization and inability to just relax and enjoy what I was doing. But that wasn't the entire solution.

Then, today, my wonderful class council did exactly what I've been hoping they would do all year by taking class into their own hands. They were as aware as I was that something wasn't right. And they've presented a perfectly reasonable and well thought out solution that is exactly what the class needs. They were right. And they presented themselves in a way that was very clearly with the intent of working as a team - the whole class, me included. This isn't students against evil teachers who won't see reason or teachers against lazy students just trying to get out of work- this is good, rational human thought from two sides of a problem both trying to reach the same goal: a class that is both fun and challenging and not a waste of time (or a burden of time either.) This is trust on both sides that we can address problems instead of ignoring them. This is maturity.

Class today went better. Students left feeling understood and I'm leaving today feeling a huge weight lifted. I am so very proud and impressed of the way they have handled this. We're pointing in a good direction. We're going to be better because of this. And I'm teaching the best students ever.

26 October 2011

Teacher Pay-Day

The universe must know I'm about to go on vacation, because today was rough. Opposition in all things, right?

Today was rough. A particular parent who has been making my life a kind of hell for a while sent (yet another) personal attack email that left me shaking, angry, and thoroughly discouraged. A million angry retorts came into my mind in one boiling flood that I had to stem rather quickly to preserve the professionalism for the class I had to teach. (Side note: I, apparently, need to stop responding to emails in the middle of the day.)

So today it was time for the Teacher Pay-Day folder. Now that I teach mostly high school classes, this folder hasn't been added to quite as often, but I taught junior high English my first year of teaching and the folder got lots of use. This is a hanging file folder where I keep particularly nice notes or artwork or other (paper) trinkets students drop by my desk. I pulled it out today and rifled through a few years worth of letters and cards. The notes - some funny (the girl who wants to be an actress and was inspired by me? She used her acting skills to promote her hypochondria. I kept that note for a laugh), some sincere (the boy who told me that he never liked to read until he came to my class), to heartfelt (the few who told me that I made them feel important and loved.) It was exactly what I needed today. I love that folder.

So it's time to put the frustrations aside and start actively loving what I do, not just saying that I do in an attempt to convince myself. I'll let the school handle this abusive parent, and turn my attentions instead to the things that matter. Like relaxing. Taking some time in the day to enjoy what I do and not worry about the paperwork. To compliment students more often and have fun with them regularly. I'm a better teacher when I do, and they're better students. All the baggage and frustrations and accusations are what they are - but none of them should be allowed to take away from the satisfaction of a room full of teenagers who actually listen to you, trust you, and want to be better because of the time spent with you.

20 October 2011

How-To Guide

Sometimes I feel like all I do on this blog is gripe and complain about my career. I swear, I love what I do. 97.4% of the time, my job is wonderful. Part of that 2.6% of annoyance comes in the morning when my alarm goes off too early. Some of it comes in the form of students who are just draining in their pestering. The largest portion comes in the form of parents who seem to misunderstand their role in the relationship of teacher to parent and what the goal of that relationship actually is.

One day I'll write about how much I love what I do.

(Today isn't quite that day.)

What I have for you today is a "How-To" guide of sorts on Parent-Teacher relations:

1) Most important: parents and teachers are on the same team. Both want for the student to succeed. The problem comes when parents and teachers have different ideas of "success". These problems, if they do come up, should not be handled in front of the student.

2) If a parent feels as though the teacher is not a good one, they should either move the student to another class or, if that isn't possible, find ways to compensate for the teacher's deficiencies at home. One of the things that baffles me most about a parent is when they seem to find something I do inadequate or unfair (usually when their student doesn't get a good grade), but they still keep the student in my class. If you don't like the teacher, then find other options. We're not offended. We're actually relieved, usually, to get us off our backs so we can focus on students (and parents) who are doing well with us.

3) That in mind, just because a student doesn't respond to a teacher does not mean that the teacher himself/herself is incompetent. Teachers are human. Students are human. Neither of us are required to get along with everybody.

4) When dealing with a teacher, please remember that we are professionals. Whatever your beliefs about education or educational degrees, the majority of teachers I know do their job because they care about what they do. We have our different personalities and strengths and weaknesses, but we are not ignorant or naive about what our job entails. Please do not treat us like you know better. (If you believe you know better, then refer to rule number two.)

5) While we're talking about professionalism, please keep in mind that a teacher has the right to tell you "no" if your requests are unreasonable or being resolved in other ways. Most teachers are willing to help you, but telling teachers how that help will be given is rarely the best way to get the job done. We respect that you know your student at home, but we see them as students and know that side of them quite well. You may request something of a teacher that is already being done only in a different form. You may also request something of a teacher that doesn't really solve the problem or would make our lives much more difficult than they are already, which brings us to. . .

6) Most teachers are teaching at least two different classes (or preps) these days, often more, depending on the school. At a charter school, I am currently teaching six different classes, four of which involve creating curriculums that I have not taught before. I see around 100 different students a day. (In a public school, this number is likely to triple for your teacher.) Whether your teacher is working with a large number of students or a large number of different classes - we have a lot to remember. We have individual needs of students to keep in mind (particularly those with IEPs.) We have lessons to plan and prepare for and grading to do. I answer dozens of emails a day, and I answer them efficiently. But the strength of our organizational balance often comes from routine and a good deal of practice. This means that if you ask for a teacher to go out of their way to do something - it is no small request. The task itself (sending another email, printing an extra copy, etc.) may seem small to you - but adding it to a lengthy list of things to do is not as easy as it seems for us. Please be patient and reasonable in your requests. If possible, find out what the teacher is already doing, and see if you can come up with a solution that works within the system already in place.

7) Remember that the goal of school is, on its most practical level, to prepare your student for independence, whether in college or in a job. Individual subject matters are secondary to this goal. (We know that not every student will love our subject. We don't love every student - it's only fair.) But this means that every time you turn in an assignment for your student, and every time you request notes from class, and every time you argue a grade on behalf of your student - you are enabling that child to be weak. Teachers know that students need to be led to responsibility occasionally. For some students it does not come naturally. But as a parent, please find ways to make your student accountable for the work that they do and encourage them to take care of problems themselves. If you have to walk them into the room, that's fine, but they should turn in the assignment. If you need to bring them to my room to talk with me about needing more time on something, that's fine - but let them do the talking. Unless you want your student living with you forever - you need to get them used to functioning in the adult world. Doing all this work for them is crippling. (And usually results in requests to me to describe everything we do in class already - I'm not going to re-teach the class to you.)

8) Finally - and this last one may be a bit selfish - but if you appreciate what your teacher is doing for your student, tell them. Silly gifts at Christmas that we can't possibly eat all of are nice and we appreciate them, but not nearly so much as an email during the week that lets us know specifically what we have done that was well received. It helps us to be better teachers, and it encourages us to do more when we know that our efforts are working.

12 October 2011

The Perfect Storm

Once upon a time the perfect storm came and tried to ruin everything.

It involved about forty hours of grading essays in a week, doing everything possible to have them done before a trip home.

It involved putting off projects and readings that needed to be done in favor of pushing forward with every last inch of sanity to finish those essays and get them back to students before their next essay test.

It involved death bed repenters and desperate parents wanting to put bandaids on gaping wounds.

It involved a frantic Friday after school rushing to get things done and make it to the airport without falling asleep at the wheel. Boarding a plane and feeling like - finally - I'd have an excuse to relax.

It involved a delayed - and then cancelled flight. Followed by a missed airport shuttle. Followed by a sleepless night in a cold and kitschy hotel room. Followed by a way too early morning. Followed by a flight in the world's smallest airplane. Followed by a two hour ride home instead of a fifteen minute home.

It involved a not nearly as relaxing and enjoyable trip for me or for others in my family as it should have been. Long week + long weekend = an unfortunate conglomeration of out of control events (translation: I was not in the world's most enthusiastic mood. Further translation: I think the weekend was a disappointment for those, including myself, who like me slightly better rested and fed.)

It then involved returning home to an individual blaming me for purposefully grading hard to prove a point and more or less claiming that I am not intelligent enough to do the job I have.

It involved me wanting very much to throw up the proverbial white BANNER of surrender. To yell to the world that I cannot possibly be everything for everyone, or do all the right things, or please anyone, and that I may as well not try any more, because what was the point? My imperfections felt so very close to the surface and frustrating for me and inconvenient for other people, and it was beyond my mental and physical stamina to handle it any more.

But then. . .


I drove home and saw a sight that looked almost identical to this.

I took a little time to visit . . .

(She's been missing me lately. It's been mutual.)

And suddenly life doesn't seem so unconquerable any more.

I'm still imperfect. I'm still overworked. And stubborn. And maybe a little delusional sometimes. But mostly, I think, I'm like the majority of people in the world trying to get by the best they can - sometimes meeting success and sometimes not. Rough weeks happen. Sometimes weeks are more overwhelming than others. But they end. And we move onward and upward and, with any luck, gain more than just some sore muscles by the time we reach the top of the peak.

05 October 2011

Dear Students. . .

You may not believe this when you get your first set of essays back, but I believe in you.

I mean it. I see your potential. I see the good that you are doing and the good you have within you to do. I'm not making things up when I tell you you're great. I'm not making things up when I tell you that you should care about your life and do something about it. I wouldn't lie to you about that. It would be cruel.

The world is content with you being substandard, lazy, and self-obsessed. They'll encourage it, actually. It'll be on every magazine and in every teenage drama that focuses only on cheap jokes and "self discovery" that doesn't end up leading to a place of value at all. In fact, the world expects you to be rebellious, lecherous lumps of flesh that only ever look for ways out. Now. . . some of you are. Some of you seem to spend most of your time working to get out of work. You do it magnificently. But most of you - and you know who you are - actually care about who you are and who you are becoming. You have dreams and ambitions and goals that are more important to you than any party you might go to, for example. You have direction and purpose.

I think the thing that amazes me the most as your teacher is the way that, every so often, I see more of your potential than your parents do. I don't mean to suggest that I know you better. Your parents, after all, have lived with you for upwards of thirteen years. They've cleaned up your vomit and taught you how to spell your name and instructed you on how to be a good, functioning human being. But sometimes I think they might love you so much that they're afraid to let you fail. It's why I tell you not to take your writing to them for advice. Most of the time they tell you it's wonderful and you don't learn anything from it.

That's where I come in. See, I love you too. In my own way. Not in the "please add me on Facebook" way, because I won't let you. But in the "I want you to succeed in life, but if you fail you aren't my financial responsibility" way. It's the separation between us that allows me to critique you honestly. That allows me to fight for you to have the opportunity to learn what it is to make a mistake and pay for it. That wants to tear you down a little every now and then because there's no other way you can learn.

Your parents are wonderful people. They care about you and want you to succeed. But they will, every so often, want you to find success in excuses. Excuses don't solve the problem. Knowing you're not good at something doesn't make you good at that something. Relying on weakness to get by will never make you stronger.

(To be honest, I wonder sometimes if this is why God set up the universe the way He did. Giving us parents here that love us and care for us to a fault at times where He - in His wisdom - is able to teach us more honestly because of a slight separation.)

So please - tell your parents that we're all on the same "cheering for you" section. But remind them I'm not in the stands like they are. I'm on the front lines. I'm your coach. And it's my job to fight for you to have the chance to be wrong every now and then, or being right won't mean anything to you.

Love -

Me

04 October 2011

Some of Someday

The last few days have been mentally and physically taxing ones for me. I'm drowning in approximately 175 essays to read (in addition to the rest of the homework I need to grade.) I have an online class I need to film for and grade. I have friends who want to spend time with me. I have a bed who dearly misses me. I have a handful of very needy parents to deal with. I have a somewhat neglected spiritual life that I have been making strides to enhance again. I have personal insecurities and outside pressures to somehow conquer or, at least, learn to put up with. My life, at least right now, feels a bit like the trash compactor in Star Wars and I'm doing everything I can to try and stop it, or at least get the trash out, but I've been fighting to stay on top while I do all this and it. is. hard.

Then I read this.

It's written by a good family friend that I knew growing up. I've been a long-time reader of hers because she has such a way with words that I can't help myself. Today she said exactly what I needed to.

Because - the thing is - in the middle of all this cultural pressure, I find myself looking at my own "someday" and feeling, on the whole, quite satisfied with what I have.

It used to be that someday I would graduate and have a job and teach and be financially independent and be married and have a family and do everything well. Now a good portion of that is here. I did graduate. I have a fantastic job. I teach. I am completely financially independent. I'm not married and I don't have a family and I certainly don't do everything well, but I am happy.

And, if I were being perfectly honest, I think I would be absolutely suffocated if I were home right now with children who couldn't speak yet. I'm not ready for that. I'm content with my room full of noisy teenagers who can mostly take care of their own body fluids. (Though, to be fair, this is likely the partial result of a stomach flu going around school that resulted in a hallway mishap recently. I don't hate small children. I'm just glad I don't have any right this second.)

So much of what I've written about in the last several years of having this blog has been about my convictions on love or dating or social lives in general that, for all my trying to escape the pressure, I've only ever been stuck in a world where I have felt inadequate and unappreciated as a single woman. As though my marital status has been a deterrent in my value or worth, or, if not a deterrent, then not as important. It has left me feeling torn and pressured into doing things for the entirely wrong reasons, just to attempt to relieve that pressure. It's no wonder I can't have fun when I go out on dates: I'm not dating to please myself, I'm dating to please others or to meet some cultural standard.

It sounds selfish, but I don't mean it to. I only mean that my mind has always been in the wrong place. It hasn't ever been: "someday I'll find someone that helps me be happy" - it's always been, "someday I'll find someone and that will make _____ happier with me." Or, "someday I will find someone and then I can have a life like ______."

What I'm trying to say is. . . I can wait. I'm ready to shed the pressure and just be for a while. I like where I am. I'm happy where I am. I don't want to live someone else's life. And I think, for a little while, before I dive back into the fray, I need to take a bit of time to appreciate the life that I have. I do look forward to my "someday" when I am not single and have all it entails in my life, but I am, for now, content with the "some" of "someday" I have.

25 September 2011

"You with the camera?"

I am an out of the closet theater snob.

I'm actually quite blunt about it. Hopefully not in a way that drives people crazy, but when I go to the theater - even the community variety - I find ways to let the people that I'm going with know that I dress for the occasion. This was something that was instilled in me both by my parents and my high school drama teacher who set the standard. When I saw my first big broadway show (Phantom of the Opera in second grade), my mom made me a new satin dress for the occasion. My high school drama teacher was the one who talked openly and frankly about respect for the arts, and how, even for auditions, you come dressed professionally. To this day, I tend to go to auditions dressed more formally than those around me who come in jeans and a clean shirt instead of the skirt and nice top I tend to wear.

This attitude leads to a healthy amount of frustration in me when those around me don't keep the same standard. To me, a night at the theater (or symphony, or other formal occasions) is something special. It costs a lot of money, it takes a huge amount of time and focus in performing no matter how professional the production, and it's an event that demands a different level of refined behavior.

Granted, I often find myself somewhat alone in this. I remember seeing The Lion King years ago with a friend who had invited me to come and see the show with her on the third row of the theater. You don't get seats much better than that. The man sitting down the row from me? Yeah, he came in a budweiser t-shirt and ripped jeans. I remember seeing a show last spring at a local high school in which a member of the audience had a camera and tripod out and took approximately 43 pictures with flash (not that I counted on my program or anything. . . ) in the second act alone without anyone telling him to stop. Clearly, the "night out to the theater" mentality is not shared by all.

(I suppose I should mention here that very horrible, dark, embarrassing part of my past in which I, as a traveler to London, found myself with tickets to Wicked and no time to take the Tube back to my flat to change before the show started. I attended the show in jeans and heard - because irony is like that - the couple behind us talking about awful tourists who attend shows in jeans. I wanted to jump up and shout "I'm not normally like this!! I'm so embarrassed!" but refrained. . . )

Really, though, I think it all stems back to the honor and love I've always had for the arts. For that time I have to turn off my phone (good luck trying to reach me - ever - if I'm rehearsing for a show) and to dress up and feed my soul. I don't understand why a person would spend upwards of $50 for a night at the theater and then spend it with their nose in a Facebook feed on their smartphone (re: girl next to me last night at the symphony.)

But if you're still reading - this is where it gets good. Last night I witnessed something truly awesome. I've heard of things like this happening (and have felt tempted to do it myself - re: the woman who came to the front of the stage when I was Wilbur in Charlotte's Web and took pictures with a disposable camera), but have never actually seen it until now. It was fantastic. It was so choice. I wish I had a video of it - but that would be somewhat counter-productive, as evidenced by the following:

I went to the symphony last night to hear one of my favorite pieces (Beethoven's Emperor Concerto). The guest artist had just started playing the first movement when I saw him turn his head toward the audience and glare bullets right at. . . something. Couldn't tell what. He mouthed something, but I couldn't tell what it was. I was just looking for the smoke from the ash remains of whoever had just burst into flame under the power of that glare. After the first movement ended, the guest artist paused, turned and looked right at the audience member again, and said quite sternly: "You with the camera? What we are doing is very difficult and takes a great deal of concentration, and you are distracting us and about two thousand other people who are here."

Oooooh yeah.

I clapped along with the rest of the hall and thought rather haughtily that I sincerely hope that said audience member (who had to have been sitting somewhere in the $50 ticket range) was embarrassed. And I hope - one student at a time - I can find a way to make a dent in the culture of theater going. "You will see people there dressed in jeans," I tell my students. "But it will never be you."

But maybe I'm just a snob.

20 September 2011

Revisiting Gatsby

I feel like all I write about lately is my experience in my classroom. It is true - much of my life right now is dedicated to what goes on at school. I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about and preparing for the hours I spend with my students. I love it. I remember being told that if you could get through the first three years of teaching you could do anything - and while that may be true, I've found it to be a complete joy.

Well, almost complete.

I find that - even more so than when I was in college - I spend more time reading for school than I do for myself. Case in point: I started reading Harry Potter again last spring with the intent of finishing before the last film came out in July. These wonderful books that I finished in under 24 hours each the first time through. . . yeah, I'm stuck in Prisoner of Azkaban.

Not that I haven't been reading. I read (or re-read) several books over the summer in preparation for teaching. I read The Sword in the Stone, Treasure Island, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Anthem, The Hobbit and others. The latest re-read comes in the form of The Great Gatsby.

When I was in high school, I took Early American Literature instead of Late American Literature with the sole intent of escaping Gatsby. I heard absolute horror stories about this book and put up with The Scarlet Letter instead (what was I thinking!?!) I think, though, that I'm glad I didn't read Gatsby until I got to college. I don't know that I would have appreciated the magnificence of Fitzgerald's language until later.

As it is I am absolutely devouring this book. C.S. Lewis said once that words phrased well sound like music, and he was right. Gatsby is symphony. A beautiful, chewy sort of symphony full of more description than a person would ever need, but not nearly as much as I want right now. I am loving this book.

12 September 2011

Vivaldi vs. Ives

You'll have to forgive the lack of posting recently. The start of this school year has been a particularly challenging one where time management is concerned. It's a good thing I have a closet full of time turners and an endless supply of energy, right?! (Ha.)

I've been reading Boyd K. Packer's book on teaching recently in an attempt to refine my personal teaching methods so I can more confidently inspire my students to become better, not just to remember facts. A good portion of the beginning of the book (I haven't finished yet) has been about the usefulness of metaphors and similes in teaching difficult, intangible subjects. One symbol he uses is the piano.

The gospel, he says, is like a large piano. If a person were to play only one key (say, the doctrine of faith) without the help of the other keys (works, for example), then that one key would grow out of tune with overuse and the individual playing the key would not benefit from the range of sounds offered by a piano when more keys are played in harmony.

That was the word that stopped me. Harmony.

Small change of topic: I've grown up listening to classical music in my home, and considered myself decently well versed in who composed what and when until a friend of mine started introducing me to the musicians rarely found on your average compilation CD. I went from a love of Vivaldi's soothing, harmonized seasons into the world of Mahler and Charles Ives, a man influenced by what happened when different marching bands played at the same time - a far cry from the typical use of a stringed instrument. Ives is excited by noise. He wants lots of it. He's interested in experimenting with what happens when two things that don't normally belong together are suddenly forced into the same space, and the results are often incredible and inspiring (and insane in the best sense of the word.) And my Ives education is only beginning.

Going back to the word harmony. If the gospel is like a piano, and people want things to be harmonized pleasantly, is there room in the gospel (or, perhaps more specifically, the culture surrounding the gospel) for the Ives' of the world? We are very comfortable and accepting of those who harmonize in normal ways - the Mozarts and Beethovens and Vivaldis and Strauss' of the world but are we as comfortable with the Mahler's and the Ives' who play the gospel piano, just differently? Should we be?

I know my answer.

04 September 2011

Broom Cupboards and Ballrooms

I've been thinking a lot this week about an article by Hugh Nibley called "Goods of First and Second Intent." It was from an address given to a group of retired teachers more than twenty years ago, but it is still true. The article discusses the different desires that we can have - goods of first intent that are what make life worth living and you can never get enough of, and goods of second intent that are good for you, but only if you use them to obtain goods of first intent. If they are not used properly, you can become addicted and harmed by them. (Money, for example, is a good of second intent.)

At one point in the article, Nibley points out that most people spend far too much of their time pursuing goods of second intent and neglect the things of eternity - he refers to Arthur Clarke's description of a man who had inherited a magnificent palace but instead preferred to spend all of his time in a broom cupboard.

I've been thinking about this because of an experience I had this week with a parent who, to save you all the frustrating and ridiculous details, pulled her child from my class because I was being too effective. I hold an optional mentoring/study session once a week for students in this class that her son would not be able to attend because of other commitments. After a very interesting conversation the result was pulling the child from the class entirely because she didn't want the child to miss a single breath of what went on in class. (I believe the phrase "I am having difficulty with this 'students are to be responsible' concept" was used.)

This is such a typical attitude in certain circles of my community. They imagine things they way they think it should be, and then one thing shifts or changes or moves the cheese, and the solution is not to adapt, but to throw out everything. The baby, the bathwater, the bathroom, the whole house or neighborhood if necessary - but it all goes.

It baffled me. It still baffles me. It baffles me that this woman would, presumably, have been happier of the study period was a waste of everyone's time instead of a valuable asset. It baffles me that her solution to missing part is to miss all, when her child - as far as I've been able to tell - would be perfectly capable in this class with or without the extra reminders on assignments. It reminds me of an experience I had last year when a student was pulled from my class in the first few weeks of school because the student was stressed about doing well - but mostly because the parent just wanted the kid at home more often. (The kid wanted to stay in class, and would have done well.)

These examples are of parents - who should be the greatest advocates of their children learning and growing in independence and skill - secluding their children away into broom cupboards by force. That makes me feel sick enough as it is. But how often do the rest of us voluntarily turn away from new opportunities or places for growth and stay in symbolic broom cupboards for the rest of our lives? Seems downright claustrophobic to me. There is a world of truth and light out there just waiting to be explored, and I, for one, look better and feel better in a ball gown than I do in rags.

27 August 2011

Uplifting vs. Clean

I stumbled upon this article on the Deseret News this morning. It reminded me of this article that was recommended to me by a friend a few months ago, which also reminded me of some discussions I've had with parents and students in the past about media/literature which meant I had to write about it.

Both of the above linked articles mention a very similar principle: lack of questionable content is not necessarily the best indication that a work is worth your time, though it is often marketed that way. Just because a film/book/song is void of bad language or illicit sexual relationships or otherwise immoral behavior does not mean that it will teach you anything valuable about life or be anything but Wonder Bread style entertainment: not bad for you, but not exactly nutritious either. (The example used in the second article is "The Waltons". Think 50s style entertainment where conflicts are easily overcome and challenges are silly or not really challenges.) There is media that is (what I would consider, at least) perfectly clean and more like whole grain bread, but it seems to be in the minority.

On the other hand, media that does contain bad language/immoral behavior isn't necessarily evil or bad for you, though lots of it is. It doesn't take long to look through the programs on TV, browse through Netflix, visit a bookstore or listen to the radio before you realize that much of what is presented now is complete, wasted garbage. Immoral people being praised or excused in their immorality, destructive lifestyles being laughed over, fantasy escapist worlds that distract from reality - it's all there. But there are many examples of books/movies/shows, etc. that contain uncomfortable material that are still highly moral and contain valuable lessons. But they are also in the minority.

So what's a consumer of media to do? Many (at least in this area of the world, it seems) try to hide from media altogether. As though escaping it is the answer to the problem and if you avoid it well enough it will, eventually, go away. This is a little ridiculous in my opinion. Media isn't going to go anywhere, and not learning how to use it for good is irresponsible.

On the flip side, I have a number of friends who - out of rebellion for those who are afraid of media, I think - will watch and read anything they wish just to prove a point. I don't think that's quite the solution either.

Douglas Callister's speech "Your Refined Heavenly Home" argues that if we are to be refined, then we need to be aware of creations that have stood the test of time and been long respected by educated, refined individuals. Orson Scott Card's article (see above) claims that everyone approaches a work differently and that some will find spiritual upliftment while others will find the opposite - all from the same work.

Does this mean that one person is more righteous than the other one? Can a book/movie etc. be in and of itself either evil or good and if a person interprets that incorrectly the fault is in them? Particularly if one person would consider something evil and another finds spiritual enlightenment from it - has the one receiving the good had the wool pulled over their eyes, or can the spirit actually teach one person through ratifying the media and another through the condemnation of it?

What do you think?

22 August 2011

Be Ye Therefore Perfect

I was up this morning listening to the news when one particular story caught my ear. Today is the first official back to school day for most people across the state, so they had a brief news story on not overbooking your student. Fair enough. There are lots of opportunities in schools and it's a good idea for a student to balance themselves so that they have time to take care of all their responsibilities. I get that.

But then the person they were interviewing said one thing that made me a bit chagrined. She said that it is a myth that every student is exceptionally talented. "Exceptionally talented students are the exception," she said. Instead of trying to expect or encourage exceptional things, we should expose students to a wide variety of activities, she says.

Huh.

First of all - isn't exposing people to a wide variety of activities what often leads to overbooking?

Second: I hate that many parents will listen to this and use it as an excuse for not having their students commit to the tasks they agree to do. I've seen this at every school I've taught at in the last three years - parents model a kind of behavior in their students that encourages partial commitment to any task and end up using church activities as an excuse for that partial commitment.

Third: If said woman belongs to the same church that I do, then a phrase that says "Be ye therefore perfect, even as I (and your Father and Heaven - depending on the location of the quote) am perfect." I'm fairly certain that the idea of perfection could more or less be acquainted with the idea of excellence. In fact, I think they're probably pretty good friends. I seem to remember LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley saying, "Mediocrity will never do, I am capable of something better." But this woman seems to be encouraging parents to expect their son or daughter to be only normal.

Well, that's a load of junk.

I'm not a parent, but I am a teacher. I agree that "exceptionally talented" students are rare, but "exceptionally capable" students are not. So often people use lack of talent as an excuse for mediocrity. But this is not good enough. The LDS church teaches that we are, through following Christ, capable of becoming like God. This life is not a time for us to accept our own mediocrity but for us to learn how "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" ("Ulysses", Tennyson.) So why are we encouraging this in our youth? Why are we satisfied with letting them - or ourselves - be given symbolic trophies for little or no real accomplishment? Gold stars and stickers are all well and good - but if we are to become truly great, then we need to seek for a better world - and that takes focus, hard work, and determination.

16 August 2011

I am. . .

. . . a teacher.

And I am not ashamed of this. Nor do I regret it. In fact, I think I have the greatest job in the world, because I get to work with the greatest people in the world.

When I tell people I'm a teacher I get very mixed reactions, usually leaning on the "oooh. . . well, that sucks. . . " side. I get the "you're so young to teach high school!" and the "Oh, I'm sorry - I'd never be able to teach teenagers, they're so awful," and the "Well, SOMEONE has to do it." Every time I wish I could let these naysayers see what I see.

I remember being a teenager. I got sick to death of hearing people saying that I would understand when I was in the "real" world. (What about my life wasn' t "real"?) That I was part of a selfish/entitled generation. (I had a job, turned in assignments on time, and helped make sure my house stayed clean, among other things.) That teenagers were rowdy, rebellious and underdressed. (I was none of these things.) I didn't like the stigma of irresponsibility, and nothing got up my gander more than people ignoring my opinions or patronizing me. I see the way people look at teenagers this way still.

But it isn't what I see. It never was.

I see a group of people who are full of possibilities. Who don't need to be pitied or pandered to or appeased - but a group of people who, even in their most disillusioned and jaded attitudes, don't want to be in a class that is boring. I see a group of people who want to learn and take on real-world problems. I see a group of people who are fun and smart and capable of so much more than people think. They come with limitations and baggage and inexperience, but when they come - and their time is not wasted - most of the time they will grow and excel beyond what any awful bureaucratic system would be able to measure with a scantron sheet.

Today I greeted a variety of students and parents at back to school night. Some of them I knew from past classes. Many I did not know. Several people from both groups - the known and the unknown - have come to this school because of the class that I team teach. People who are coming from as far as 30 minutes away, every day, because they believe in this class. It is humbling, a huge honor, and further proof to me that I have picked the right career. I love it. I love being a force for good. I love the reassurance I get from students and parents that what I do is valuable. It is an absolute honor to have been blessed with the chance to work with so many who believe so much of me, instead of so little (as seems to be common in schools any more.)

So, new school year? I'm ready for you. Not with all the materials I need and units prepared, perhaps - but with enthusiasm and determination to do great things.

14 August 2011

Grasshoppers and Ants

Embarrassing personal disclosure time:

My mother gave me an excellent book of essays by Louise Plummer recently called Thoughts of a Grasshopper. She thought I would enjoy it since, I, she says, am a grasshopper.

The title refers to the old Aesop tale of ants who spend all summer working (ha!) and then, when the cold winter comes, they are prepared. The grasshopper, on the other hand, spends all his time singing and dancing and playing on his violin and when the winter comes is hungry and left out in the cold by the selfish ants (Aesop), or welcomed in after a lecture by the ants (Disney.)

Given my work situation this summer, I wasn't quite sure how to take this. But I continued reading the article and found that, although I am not wholly grasshopper - I'm far too responsible and afraid of trouble for that - there were some definite comparisons. On my study abroad to England I preferred to hike alone in the back of the group - I revelled in the hours of free time I had to spend day dreaming and letting my thoughts imagine whatever they felt like. When I was a kid I took great pleasure in being the last one at home so that I could put on whatever movie I wanted and, for a little while, pretend to be Anne Shirley or Jo March or Maria Von Trapp or whatever other character I was obsessed with at the moment. I preferred books to recess and writing to socialization. In general, my favorite things involve little human interaction.

Which, perhaps, explains some of the difficulty I have in relationships, romantic or otherwise. I lose interest quickly and move on when the effort doesn't seem worth it any more. Friends move away and I lose touch almost before they leave. I am not unkind to people I don't find interesting, but I don't exactly seek out their company either. I'm not a social recluse, but I'm not a social butterfly either. I'm happiest with a small but close group of friends.

I only say this because it was after I thought about this part of myself that I realized that I do have some grasshopper in me after all. I may be a more prepared responsible grasshopper, but when it comes to relationships, I'm maybe a little too independent for my own good.

This isn't to say that I don't like people. I do. I just - perhaps unfortunately? - seem to approach relationships in the same way that I do books and movies and plays. A friend of mine put it this way, "You just don't want to be the smartest one in the room." This was almost a completely true statement for me. When I'm with my peers, my favorite mode of conversation is intellectual banter. I'm a talker. (Those of you who know me well will be shocked by this, I'm sure. . . ). If good conversation were a "love language", it would be mine, hands down. I'm not as interested by acts of service (and certainly not touch) as I am in a good long conversation. If I perceive that a person can't keep up with me or doesn't want to, then I get bored and move on, or at least don't seek out opportunities to foster a lasting friendship. If a person does enjoy that kind of conversation, that friendship will last a lifetime.

Probably not the most Christlike thing about me, in retrospect.

But is there room in this world for socially reclusive but still talkative and confident intellectual grasshopper types? And - here's a better question - where are all the rest of them? Am I just too much of a snob to find them, or are they really that hard to find? (Could we perhaps focus on the talkative and confident intelligent single male variety grasshoppers?) Then I could have a socially reclusive chatty grasshopper party and make my parents (and myself, for that matter) feel better about my social prospects. . .

07 August 2011

Cohesion vs. Anarchy

I've been getting materials put together to teach Treasure Island this next school year the last several months. It's a great book that can be enjoyed on several levels. Most people teach it as an adventure novel, but teaching it alongside the Revolutionary War, I'm focusing most of the discussion on the two political organizations presented in the book. It's had me thinking all week.

In Treasure Island the hero Jim is presented with two potential groups to follow - the English Captain and his crew or the charismatic Long John Silver and his mutineers. The English are organized, uniform, and predictable. They follow orders, get the job done, and are always aware of what their roles are. They're also boring. The pirates have absolutely no order whatsoever, and little control over their own minds thanks to large quantities of rum - but they live in an environment where people can do what they are excited about. Because they have no clear government telling them what to do, they can pursue what they're interested in. The result of Jim's adventure is unclear - you're never really sure which world he chooses, if he chooses either of them.

Thinking about this in context of a blog post I read recently on The Mormon Child Bride, I've been thinking about how, like Jim, we are faced with many opportunities to decide which "world" we are going to pick. Are we going to actively choose the comfort, security, predictability world or the world that is more lawless but full of creativity? How do you take the strengths of both groups and insert them into the world of religion, education and politics? Is it even possible to have a world that is organized to promote creativity, or is creativity by its very nature best served outside of the world of organization?

I don't believe so. I still believe quite firmly that creativity can thrive in an environment that is organized. In fact, I think an organized society is best for a creative environment because of the stability that comes from organization. Aristotle would, I think, call an organized world the business that needs to come before leisure can be truly obtained. Hugh Nibley would call it honest recognition of goods of first and second intent. There are very good examples of businesses (like Pixar or Apple or Google) who do a particularly good job of organizing creativity. But the balance is precarious.

In education, for example, it becomes quite tricky to encourage a student to discover what they are best at when the state (and now the nation) dictates how and when a student should achieve certain skills. The state also dictates which classes a student must take in each subject with only one or two periods a day available for "electives". The organization is set up to squash out creativity and individualization.

The culture of the church occasionally has the same problem. A mother who works is a sinner. A father without a traditional job is frowned upon. Come to church dressed differently and you risk being a social outcast. Decorate your house wrong or watch rated R movies or have a strange hobby and people wonder about you. I wonder sometimes if people imagine Zion as a place like the community in Lois Lowry's The Giver - everyone has the same house, the same number of children, the same allotment of food each week.

I don't know the answer to this. Robert Louis Stevenson doesn't give any answers. But I do think that we have a responsibility as people to fight against systems that squash opportunities for creativity and individuality to grow. I also think that we need to resist the temptation to become an anything goes lawless society. I think the immediate application means following the advice of church leaders in avoiding judgment of the lives of others.

30 July 2011

Shameless Self Promotion

Several of you have asked me lately about what I've been keeping myself busy with all summer. I've spent a decent amount of time this summer mourning the loss of the arts in my life and alluding to the fact that I'm busy working on other important things, but have not actually expanded on what that means. For those of you who are interested: Here's the break down.

Teaching:
I am still teaching. I will be teaching live classes next year at a new school which I am very excited about. (New school to me, not to the world.) I will be teaching Shakespeare and Literature and Film for fun, but will also be taking the seminar program as well. The seminar is a class I started teaching with a friend of mine (Greg Duffin) last year. It is a combined English/History class with emphasis on developing culture and personal responsibility for education. It's a wonderful class that is an absolute honor to teach. Our emphasis this year is on Modern US History and the theme "Who Are You?". All of our literature this year will focus on developing your individuality and then making a difference to the community. (Books like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Anthem and Warriors Don't Cry, plays like The Glass Menagerie and Pygmalion.)

Online Classes:
Greg and I also own a company called Vigilance Media. We produce the online equivalent of our live class for homeschool families. Our model is something of a mix between an exercise video, Sesame Street and Facebook: Our classes are meant to be accessible to the entire family (there are separate classes for elementary, junior high and high school - but all cover the same basic material just at different levels so that families can learn together). The upper classes (that we actually teach), are based on short lessons and communication between students - we don't want anything push button or lazy - we want students engaged with the world around them. Last year we produced a class focusing on the Ancient World (Egypt-Greece) and applying ancient values to a modern world. This year we're doing Early American History (through the Civil War) and the Hero's Journey. It involves lots of short instructional videos, discussion boards, and interaction between student and teacher. You can find out more about those classes here.

Website:
One of the last projects I've been working on this summer is a website to house information about all the things I've been working on. Vigilance Media, then, is also a website with suggestions (primarily for teenagers, but for everyone as well), on articles, movies, books and other things that people should see if they want to build a culture of refinement around themselves. This website is still a work in progress but will be updated approximately once a week with new suggestions.

So there you go. That's what's been cooking up in the bat-cave all summer. It's been a lot of work. I'm excited to see real live people again when school starts. But I am also very much excited about these projects. Hope to see you around the website - we'd love suggestions on things to showcase that have influenced you.


22 July 2011

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 7.2

This is a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 7.2. (Duh.) It contains spoilers for the film. If you haven't seen it, go.

I have long been a fan of the Harry Potter films and the books. This, for some people, seems contradictory. I've heard people fight adamantly on both sides. Most commonly, you hear people who say that they liked the movie well enough but they'll never stack up to the way they felt about the books. I suppose all of these are fair responses, but as an avid student of adaptation theory, I've liked some of the films, and loved others of them in similar and different ways to the books, and I'm ok with that.

For example, one thing I really loved about the sixth film (Half-Blood Prince) was the way the film was able to parallell the journey of Draco and the journey of Harry. The books, by necessity couldn't tell Draco's story as he fought to find a way to complete the task given to him by Voldemort. The books are narrated from Harry's perspective, and, barring a few chapters at the beginning of the last few books, if Harry isn't there, the audience can't see it. But films are different, and the sixth film allows us to see the parallel journeys of Harry and Draco. That particular telling of the story gave me a different perspective on a story I already knew.

This means that when I go into a film adapted from a book I've read, part of my brain is turned on to comparison (what is different from the book, and why did they make the change), but most of my brain is dedicated to following the story that the movie is telling. That long-winded introduction in mind, this is what I thought of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, parts one and two. I already wrote my review of the first film (albiet, hastily.) This review will be more conclusive about the impact that they have as a pair.

I realized a long time ago that the Harry Potter films were going to select which stories to tell based almost entirely on the impact that storyline had first on Harry, and then on the friendship of Harry, Ron and Hermione. You can see this in the way that (almost all) of the movies end with the three of them looking off into the distance. This meant that other storylines that were important in the books were scrapped in the films. Dumbledore's background. Many of the Voldemort memories in the sixth film. Hermione's political activism with SPEW and Rita Skeeter. Ron's Quidditch experiences.

This made, I think, for more angry fans in the earlier movies who saw some of their favorite book plots scrapped. It did, however, make it slightly easier for them to adapt Deathly Hallows. I remember thinking that Jo wrote a pretty daring final novel. While so many people would have been tempted to make the last novel an adventure tale a pure detective novel with one explosion after another, Deathly Hallows is, for the most part, a remarkably quiet book. In fact, the destruction of the horcruxes - which everyone thought would be the focus - was almost entirely an afterthought. Harry doesn't witness the destruction of one of them. One horcrux gets destroyed by accident. He is only personally responsible for the destruction of one of them. Deathly Hallows is a book first and foremost about the power of friendship and fighting for those that you love.

I was a little afraid, I think, that the films would forget this. Hollywood, being Hollywood, would be tempted to make a bigger deal out of the action than they might have needed to. We saw this in Goblet of Fire, for example, with the fight Harry has with the dragon. I was a little nervous that the intellectual focus required for the first half of the film would be sacrificed with long intense fights. I was worried that the second film would be one big long explosion.

Instead, I was relieved to find that the writers and director David Yates were daring enough to make the movie that ought to have been made. A sincere and dedicated duo of films on the power and challenges of friendship and relationships of all kinds, healthy or not.

One thing that the movie brought out that I hadn't ever quite connected after reading the books was something a friend of mine noticed that we had a really great conversation about afterward. We talked about the symbolism of each horcrux and the individual most related to each object and the lessons learned from each object. Each horcrux and it's purpose/destruction/relation to an important person in Harry's life became a pretty great symbol that I suppose I could have picked up on through the reading of the book, but the visual element of the film brought it out even more.

The diary and its connection to Ginny brings up the element of where you put your trust and who you put it in. The ring and Dumbledore remind both Dumbledore and Harry not to dwell in the past. The locket and Ron remind us again about trust, but more specifically the trust of those things you hold most dear and being more open about what you feel. The trophy is Hermione's, and Harry's, possible temptation into the world of recognition and accolades and fighting against the threat of pride. The diadem is, I think, one of the more interesting connections because it is not really finalized - it's connected with Draco and the shared position Harry and Draco have as only sons and privileged children with many opportunities. Its accidental destruction showcases the relationship between Harry and Draco that won't ever be settled or more than cordial. Neville's destroying of the snake Nagini is a nice symbol of the way he stepped up to fill Harry's place in his absence - he destroys Voldemort's right hand, so to speak. Most important, of course, is Harry's destruction of himself - his symbolic conquering of his own weaknesses and foibles to protect the ones he loves. Wonderful. It was a fantastic conversation, and I have the films to thank for it. (This friend hasn't finished reading the books. Yet.)

There were a few things changed from the books that I missed, but the substitutions in the film were good. I appreciated the moment where Harry said good bye to Ron and Hermione. I thought the presentation of Snape's memory was a masterpiece (HUGE shout out to Alan Rickman, who was brilliant.) I even thought the final battle between Harry and Voldemort was good - it was a good visual representation of the mental battle they have in the book.

Ultimately, though, the real test for me on this film was that it left me feeling almost exactly as I had when I finished the book - utterly bewildered about what to do with myself. I felt as though I had just been through war. I felt as though I, too, had accomplished something great. And now the world expected me to do something as simple as closing a book or leaving a theater and . . . what. . . sleep? Eat? It didn't seem big enough. I didn't want to say good bye. I wanted to honor a story that had meant something to me - both through written word and through a final film pair that was everything it could have been and more. I can't wait to see it again.


The "Opening" Night

As has been made abundantly clear in just about every post I've written this summer: I'm not doing theater. I wish I was. I almost did. Nothing's worked out. It was part conscious decision not to put myself in that world, and part result of a myriad of shows in the area that I don't want to audition for anyway. Rotten, terrible, no good combination.

But I've come to terms with it. (Mostly.) Funnily enough it was Harry Potter 7.2 and a biography of J.K. Rowling that did it. I was reminded that what I have been doing all summer instead is something I am passionate about, that I believe in, and that takes full attention and energy. There will be shows again, but the time I've had to dedicate to this project may never come back in such a way again, and I've needed to devote myself entirely to it.

And that's ok. It's more than ok, actually. But even the best of things come with a price, and the price for me this summer involves putting off travel and stage until another time.

It's still left me a little morose, though, and yesterday could have been the most difficult of those days. It was opening night for a good portion of my friends in a show that I didn't audition for by choice but ached for anyway - if only because I missed the rush of theater for the sake of itself. I kept watching the clock.

5:00. (I should be going to the theater now to get my hair done and mic on and props set.) 5:30. (I should be finishing my hair and stretching right now. Eat a banana and a granola bar.)
6:00. (I should be running through scenes and dance steps. I should be standing on the stage, staring out at the empty seats, taking a breath, and being grateful for what's coming.)
6:30. (I should be getting makeup done.)
7:00. (Last minute check of everything. Brush teeth. Director notes.)
7:15. (Dressing room prayer, followed by listening to music and pacing the dressing room alone, personal prayer.)
7:30. (Curtain. Heart starts rushing a bit. Pacing continues and I think again about how lucky I am to be where I am again. How glad I am for the talents I've been given. The joy they bring.)
7:45. (iPod away. Grab book. Go backstage right. Wait for end of song. Take a breath - showtime.)

I had to do something. Something to honor the opening night I wasn't having. I got together with a friend, and watched scenes from a show we were in. I was a little nervous about this - I don't like watching myself on stage under the best of circumstances, but this particular show had been very important to me, and it was the only thing I could think of to do.

And you know what? I was good. I don't say this to brag - I say this out of genuine surprise. I watched this show and remembered the hard work and hundreds of hours I had spent preparing for this role, and was proud of the result. It was a relief. I actually enjoyed it. And it was healing. It reminded me that when all of this is over, my talents and gifts in the arts will still be there and can still be used for good in the world.

So today it was back to the bat-cave to continue work on this project for the last few weeks before school starts. Only today I came feeling again that rush of knowing that I am a capable, talented person. And my life, for all its frustrations right now, is still wonderful.

14 July 2011

Dear Mr. Potter,

The following is an admittedly sentimental tribute, but one that I felt needed to be written anyway.

I always hated how long it took for books to come when I ordered them from a book order. Now when I order books as a teacher, they come in less than a month. The benefit of online orders, I suppose. But when I was in school, a teacher had to wait for all orders to be turned in, mail the order, and wait for the books.

I don't think any wait was quite so long as the wait for you.

Maybe that's just because now that I know what I was really waiting for, the wait seemed extended. Maybe it was actually longer. (I did, after all, turn my book orders in as soon as I could. I'm a bit anal that way.) Either way, real or projected memory, the wait seemed interminable.

I have to be honest, though. I ordered you because of your cover. There wasn't much in the book order that time that looked interesting, but as an early teen without a job and only a small allowance, buying my own books was something of a luxury. I have another confession: I didn't read the first story first. All three were, I think, available in the book order - but it was less expensive to buy the second and third books in a set than it was to order them individually, and I couldn't afford them both. So I missed out on that story until a bit later. Luckily, it didn't make any difference.

By the time I discovered your story, I was too old to believe that Hogwarts was real. I didn't, like I had as a child that knocked on the back of wardrobes, start writing furious letters to Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall demanding to know why I hadn't been admitted to your school - but for all the time I spent in your world, I may as well have been.

Because that's the thing - whether it was real or happening in my head, that world made a difference to me.

For one thing, it made me see that answering lots of questions and getting homework in on time and loving to study were not bad things. I loved school dearly and always had, but knew that I was often the butt of jokes about being a teacher's pet or being too smart for my own good, or being a nerd. But I wasn't trying to be a teacher's pet - I genuinely loved and admired those who opened my eyes. I didn't think I was too smart for my own good - I thought I had so much to learn that there wasn't time to waste not asking questions. As for being a nerd, well, that was probably true. And while you weren't really like that - Hermione was. From her I learned that a girl can be both smart and kind, passionate and vulnerable, independent and reliant. I'm still learning from her.

For another thing, I learned how to look at life for the meaning it held. When things were hard, I was able to step back and see myself as the hero of my own story to try and figure out what to do next. I remembered the wise words of advice from Professor Dumbledore when he said that our choices matter more than our abilities, and that who we are born doesn't matter as much as who we grow to be. As a person often insecure in her own strengths and even more afraid of her own weaknesses, I gained perspective that allowed me to not be so hard on myself. To allow myself room to improve.

But, to be fair, I learned these lessons from other stories as well. I did learn them, perhaps, more potently from you, but I did find them in other places. There is, though, one lesson that I think can be directly linked to the years I spent waiting for your stories to come, and it was probably the most important lesson of all. Your books linked me to my family and to my friends. They gave me memories. See, I can be a pretty solitary person. I like people, but I don't often get attached to them. When life changes and people move on, I let them. I don't hold on to something that doesn't exist any more, or that I've grown out of. This is, perhaps, a virtue and a vice. But your books are connected to some of my most precious and treasured memories. For example:

-The first time I went to a midnight showing of your movie with a group of friends who, after a rocky few years of being very lonely, liked me for who I was.

-Waiting for your stories to come and spending hours discussing what we thought might happen to you or what things might be important with another group of friends. We eventually branched out into doing this not just about you, but about everything. It taught me how to think.

-Waiting up all night for the release of the fifth story, reading in the living room of my friend, and getting up early the next morning for a matinee performance of a play I was in. She got to read backstage and I didn't - I was horribly jealous.

-Perhaps most treasured of all - going to get the last book with my younger brother. It was one of the first times we really, honestly spent time together as adults, and I wouldn't have wanted to share that night with anyone else but him. Later that day our entire house was silent - everyone was reading. We had four different copies of the book at once, so that everyone could read. In a technology happy house like mine - that silence was one of a kind, and really special.

Your books didn't make a reader out of me - I'd loved to read since before I really knew how. But your books did make a scholar, a friend, an adventurer, and a more determined person out of me. I may not have attended your school or been there in reality - but I felt like I was - which means your story changed me.

Tonight I'll gather with friends and dress up and eat pumpkin pasties and drink butterbeer and, for the last time, trek to the theater to watch a midnight showing of a movie about you. It's hard to believe it's nearly over. I'm going to miss it terribly. Our journey started more than ten years ago. And I think it's left us both better off. Now all that's left, I suppose, is for both of us to take the lessons learned and do something about them. Make the world better.

So thank you, Mr. Potter - and you, Jo - for the honor and pleasure of your company. It's been an incredible ride. Thank you for including me on a journey that included millions, but felt so very personal.

-Me