Thursday, September 22, 2011

Letter To a New Teacher

In teaching you are only really new for the first five minutes. There are so many problems to solve in every moment in a classroom that by the first day you've learned enough to make the next better.

By the first eight weeks you are already experienced, if you are paying attention. If you are working hard. If you are open-hearted, generous, humble and smart.

And you are.

The first year is difficult. You'll never work harder in your life. You already know this. But please remember that the first year is also sacred. You'll never forget it. You'll reference it five years from now, ten years from now. Twenty.

In my first year of teaching I taught fourth grade. I spent my weekends prepping elaborate science experiments. I commented on every page of their journals. I wore high heel pumps on my first day.

High heels pumps were a silly choice. My feet were killing me by nine o'clock in the morning. But I looked sharp and my students noticed. A few of them drew pictures of my various outfits in their journals. I was so young, only twenty-two. I had to dress to impress.

You dress to impress and you might not know it but the students notice. They notice the high regard you have for them. You express your respect for them in your professionalism, your enthusiasm for your subject, your showing up day after day. You hold them accountable for their work and their actions, and you hold yourself accountable too. You are impressing them and impressing your colleagues with how hard you are working, your willingness to make mistakes and to learn.

I hope you are impressing yourself.

These are bad years to be a teacher. No one wants to pay us properly. People who couldn't last for those first five minutes in our place in front of the classroom want to blame us for everything wrong in education.

Bring it on, I say. They can't do what we can do. It takes a certain kind of courage to stand witness to our kids.

Kids are coming to us not just unprepared for our curriculum. They are coming to us gunshot, traumatized, angry and hurt.

But not hopeless. Our students are never hopeless.

You take their hope and give the flame a little air. You do the same for your colleagues. I'm old but not too old to learn, after all.

You are naive and you teach me to take kids at their face value. You are trusting and you teach me to think the best of my own students. You build new curriculum out of thin air and you teach me to innovate. You come to work on Saturdays and you teach me to prepare for my classes as best as I can.

You care too much and you teach me to care enough.

And it's working. Our students read and write better than they did before they started our classes. They are closer to their dreams of college. They'll make it, too. We'll make sure they do.

Our students will change the world, thank God. They will combine their innovation and good hearts with the communication skills they learned from us. I can't worry too much about the future when I know this generation of students coming up. They are capable of so much good.

I can't worry about the future of education when I know this generation of teacher. You are already doing so much good.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Zoos Freak Me Out

I don't like zoos. I'm claustrophobic and it is impossible for me to be around that much lock and key without getting the anxiety.

But then my seven-year-old had the day off from school and we needed to do something. The pools are closed and the library wants my head for a desperately overdue book. The zoo it had to be.

The first clue that the zoo was going to be existential trouble for me happened in the reptile house. There was a terrarium of bullfrogs that looked just like the frogs you see in fairy stories. They were huge. I couldn't stop staring at them. Then I started staring at just this one. I swear to God he started staring back. His little arms looked like person arms.

I tried to read the expression in the bullfrog's eyes. Maybe he needed help. Maybe he was really a trapped person and if I kissed him a spell would be broken and he could be free. Is that what he wanted me to do? It would be unpleasant, but I like helping people.

"Mommy," my little girl said. "Time to move on."

We headed out of the Reptile House and to the Australian Outback. The Himalayan Forest. The Serengeti Plain. The animals looked okay. Happy enough. Sleepy. The habitats were clean.

But when I'm at a zoo, I can't stop thinking that maybe I should do something about all of that captivity. Don't they want to get away?

There was an exhibit of Burrowing Owls. There was no need to have an exhibit of Burrowing Owls. Burrowing Owls are indigent to the Central Valley. I see them all the time while I'm driving through the delta.

The tiny owl fellows bobbed and winked. "Hey lady," one of them said. "Can you spring a brother out?"

"I think the owls are telling me that they want to be free," I said.

"Owls don't talk, Mom."

We moved on to the Big Cats. Everything was fine until I got trapped into a staring contest with a jaguar. Did you know those things have yellow snakey pupils? I think he wanted to murder me. At least I lost the itch to let everyone loose.

There was a horrible roar from another exhibit. In a moment of complete and total anti-instinctual thrill-seeking, my daughter and I ran towards the roar. We checked in first with the lions. They were fast asleep. Then we hopped continents to the tiger den next door.

The Sumatran tiger paced the area. Gave us the stink eye. My daughter and I were joined by this time by several other mothers with toddlers and babies in strollers. All of the racket had attracted a crowd.

The tiger opened his enormous mouth and roared again. The two-year-old in the stroller next to me dropped his sippy cup in astonishment. Babies are closer to their normal human instincts than the rest of us. This kid pursed his lips and gave me a look that said, "Hey, shouldn't we be getting out of here? Aren't we, like, this guy's food?"

It was high time for a peaceful giraffe encounter. The exhibit is actually called Giraffe Encounter. We went there and I watched a giraffe eat leaves. Well, he was chewing something. I'm assuming it was leaves. That's what they eat on T.V.

My daughter called me. There were some turtles up to something across the way. I needed to check it out.

I went over to see, annoyed. Giraffes don't look anything like people and because of this I find them very soothing. I never get to stare at giraffes as long as I want to.

I looked to where my little girl pointed. Two big desert tortoises were doing it.

I want to say doggy style, but who says dogs invented it? Weren't reptiles around long before mammals? Maybe the dogs stole the tortoises' moves and then took all the credit.

The tortoises weren't even embarrassed. In fact, they were making quite a lot of noise. Maybe they were hoping to attract the stroller and sippy cup crowd, give the tiger a run for his money.

"That's so gross," my daughter said.

"Yeah well, it's their house," I said, steering her away. "We're the creepers in this scenario."

She thought that was hilarious. Then she forgot about it and ran toward the chimpanzees.

Luckily the chimps weren't up to anything but eating lettuce. Which is the same thing I was doing back at home an hour later, only in the privacy of a home I can enter and exit when I feel like and with nobody staring at me while I am chewing.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

My Witch Baby

My eldest daughter is fifteen. She is the queen of our family. She makes healthy choices. She gets all A's in all Honors and Advanced Placement classes. She cooks for us, takes care of her little sister. She takes care of everything. She is careful about the things she does and says. She knows how to have fun, but she's definitely an eat-your-broccoli-before-your-ice-cream kind of person. I wish I was more like her.

My youngest is a different kind of girl. She is still smart, studious, polite to strangers, helpful, kind, irreverent and silly, all just like her sister. But not just like her sister.

I call my youngest Witch Baby because she reminds me of Francesca Lia Block's character Witch Baby in the Love is a Dangerous Angel series. Her hair is crazy. She makes it crazy. She slept last night with a tiny wet ponytail in her bangs so she could wake up with a cowlick. It gets so tangled in the back that wild faeries could be living in it and you would never know.

Witch Baby is seven. On a drive today her sister tried to discourage us from going to McDonald's for dinner. Witchy ripped the headrest off the top of her seat.

"You don't deserve a headrest," the Baby said. "You're not the boss."

"Your sister is the queen of the family," I said.

"She is not. Nobody is the queen of the family. Well, maybe Daddy is," the Baby said.

After dropping off her sister, Witch Baby climbed into the front. When Gimme Shelter came on the stereo I explained about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. I thought it worth noting that Kieth Richards and I have the same birthday.

"Are you the same age as Keith Richards?" she asked.

"No, he's about twenty five years older than me," I said.

"Woah," the Baby said. "So he's ninety?"

I changed the song. We sang at the top of our lungs all the way home. The Beekeeper. Tiny Dancer. Ring of Fire. Witch Baby knows all the words.

Flo rida's song came on. You know the one. "Oh hot damn / this is my jam."

"Woah," the Baby said. "This song requires lipstick."

She went into my purse and took out a shimmery pink. She applied it in a mirror. Someone swerved in front of us on the freeway.

"Christ," I said.

"Don't use the Lord's name in vain Mommy," the Baby said.

"I can if I want. I'm grown."

"No you can't," the Baby said. "That's like saying a person you really really love's name in a really mad way. It's not nice."

She's right about that of course. I turned up the music so we could sing along. It warms up our voices so that we can sing in church tomorrow.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Army Dreamers

Steven, one of my former advisory sons, came by my classroom to visit after school today. He graduated high school four months ago.

"I'm thinking of the armed forces," he said.

Steven is an accomplished soccer player and football kicker. He landed some poetic field goals in his football career. I cheered him from the sidelines while he did it.

This is a young man on his own. He has no support besides what he can rustle up for himself.

School was never Steven's thing. He hates the thought of going to college. He graduated on time but sitting in those desks all day was torture. Through high school he displayed a certain physical courage and a lack of fear of pain that freaked me out. He did jumping off of stuff tricks a lot. He hurtled himself through space a lot.

I yelled at Steven a lot.

"Why the armed forces?" I asked.

"Because I don't know else what to do," he said.

My pacifist heart yells at Steven not to go into the service. He might end up in war. He might come back broken into pieces, one way or the other.

My rational heart yells at Steven that the service is a great idea. At least the service will give him some direction, a place to live, regular income, some discipline, some skills, some training, some physical activity to do besides diving head first from one picnic table to another, aiming for the space between the bench and the table. Yes, he did this.

But I hate the thought of Steven or any young person getting skilled in killing, training for war.

"I'm confused," he said.

"Confusion is sacred at this time of your life," I said.

Steven blinked, clearly remembering why we always fought.

"Look," he said. "I can't even find a job right now."

So we made a list of options. He came up with Army and Army Reserves. I suggested National Guard and California Conservation Corps. We looked them up online and found some phone numbers for recruiters.

Meanwhile, a current advisee and the poetry club hung out in my room. My new advisee is a musician and wanted to show me pictures of his guitars on his phone. He loves guitars. He sings like an angel. My poetry club sat in a circle on the other side of the room and shared poems and wrote poems and talked about their next slam when they would perform their poems.

I'm thinking, will I be advising the musician to consider calling a recruiter in two years when he is out of high school? Is there a poet in that poetry circle who won't have a place to stay or a job to work when he graduates?

Steven finished up with the recruiting information on my computer, gave me a hug and left.

I wish for circuses, traveling shows, damn it even The Rockettes as an alternative for Steven. He kicks like an angel. Surely that must be good for something.

Young people who have limited resources have limited options. Maybe the Army isn't the worst thing for Steven. Then I look at the thousands and thousands dead in Iraq and Afghanistan and think maybe it is.

The world outside my classroom is not angels and guitars and poetry and hugs.

I hate that about the world.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

New Love

I love this stage of something new. Everything is pure and exciting. The entire world is a full sack of possibility. Every tree, every cloud looks extra sharp and pretty. Everything is possible. Everything is perfect and just how I want it to be.

I have not yet written a word.

I love myself when I am with a new project. As the writer of this book, I am thirty pounds lighter with muscled arms and a flat stomach. I wear black tank tops over loose trousers. My hair is long and perfectly white. I look smart on my book jacket.

My time is my own.

I give witty interviews to Terri Gross on NPR. I rule book signings in my old neighborhoods with a beatific smile. My 25th high school reunion will be the bomb. “I saw you on the Morning Show,” everyone will say, sorry they didn’t invite me to snort cocaine with them in junior year (I would have said no anyway).

The climactic scene in the desert is perfect. The imagery and the metaphor are perfectly interwoven to create a pathos that is not too pathetic, just perfect. When people ask about it I lower my eyes and say it just came out of me that way like an egg just perfect.

Other writers will wish they were me.

I’ll get a letter from an unsuccessful writer: I have written six novels, and no agents want me. I’m overworked in a stressful job that I need to pay my bills. All I want to do is write. All I do in my spare time is write. What can I do?

In my bare feet I will walk across the hardwood floors of the million dollar Berkeley home I just bought with my latest Hollywood movie option dough. I will look out the window at the Bay. I will send a message through the wire.

Keep writing, I will say. As if you could stop.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dead Battery

Stephen King said in an interview that teaching is not a good job for writers. He said that teaching is like having battery cables attached to your brain all day long.

This is the truest thing ever.