Friday, May 31, 2013

Wild Thing

I wrote this for Open Salon two years ago. It seemed timely for graduation season, so here it is again.

I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
Without ever having felt sorry for itself.
            D.H. Lawrence

I thought of the D.H. Lawrence poem “Wild Thing” today while my Advisory student Issac gave his senior portfolio presentation.

Before you think I’m smart, I only thought of this poem because one of my favorite actors  (Viggo Mortensen) quotes it in one of my favorite movies (G.I. Jane). The poet evokes the thoughtless courage of a bird losing to the elements without complaining.  The poem implies that while birds do not complain, people do, and complaining is neither brave nor useful. At least that is what Viggo and I got out of it.

The senior portfolio is a series of reflective essays, college acceptance letters, awards and other evidence of the four-year walk across the childhood-to-adulthood bridge that is high school.  Many of our students have been through so much crap that the stories they tell during presentations can make their teachers cry.  Panels get boxes of tissue along with the folders of rubrics and schedules.

I admire my students more than they know for their perseverance despite drug-addicted and/or incarcerated parents, gunshot wounds, homelessness, crushing poverty, family members lost to violent death or suicide or disease.  I’m not as strong as they are and never will be, but I’ve been teaching long enough that I thought I was immune to the boo-hoo.  Tears don’t help anyone anyway.  Tears are embarrassing and misplace attention onto the crier.  I am most helpful to my students if I model the example of the poet’s bird.  I am stoic and I hold on to the bough. 

Enter Issac, the last of my Advisory students to present today.  All of my guys did a great job. I was ready to enjoy Issac’s final presentation.  He is an accomplished scholar, an exemplary school citizen.  We live in the same neighborhood so I see him at the pool looking after his brothers in the summertime.  I know that he has spent the past four years recovering from getting hit by a car, and that his college acceptances will have to wait while he works to make money to support his six siblings.  I know Issac’s parents have abdicated their responsibilities to an extraordinary degree.  I know Issac.  I do.

He looked handsome today in his pressed shirt and tie.  He opened his portfolio and started with the story about the day in ninth grade when he walked with his friend along a busy street.  A speeding car lost control and the last thing Issac remembers seeing is a “flash of white”.  After that all he remembers is pain.  His femur was broken in half.  His face was shattered.

His friend remembers that day differently.  He remembers walking with Issac along a busy street.  Then Issac pushed him out of the way and took the full force of that speeding car onto himself.

Issac rarely tells this story.  When he does talk about it, he does so with no trace of self-pity.  I know it’s hard to imagine.  I feel sorry for myself when my lips are chapped.  Meanwhile my student Issac suffers daily physical discomfort from an act of courage he doesn’t even remember and yet he never once feels sorry for himself.   

Issac works hard in school and he is a highly capable student.  He deserves his college acceptance to a university two hours away from his hometown, and the financial aid and scholarships that come with it.  But he is staying home to care for his siblings.  If he doesn’t, they will surely be scattered to the vagaries of foster care. He will go to a community college then transfer to the local university.  As his Advisor, I would love to be able to tell Issac to cut ties and follow his dreams. Yet I admire and support his decision to keep his family intact.

There won’t be fraternity rushing or years studying abroad for Issac.  He isn’t getting any carefree young adult years.  He hasn’t even had a childhood.   His brothers are having theirs, though.  I’ve seen them at the pool.  They are healthy and playful and reasonably happy.  Issac pushes them free of the path of out-of-control destruction every day of his life.

Issac shared his portfolio with the panel while I sat in the back of the room.  He loves his family. He is proud of his accomplishments and he looks forward to graduation. He isn’t humble because he doesn’t see his actions as special enough to be proud of in the first place.  He clings to the bough of life with a stoicism that finally, after he left the room, made me break down and cry.

Many of my students go about the functions of their daily lives with a selflessness and devotion to family that I hardly every think about because if I did then I would lose hold of my own bough.  My guys don’t need my tears or even my admiration. They need me to edit their essays and bring them donuts and remind them to tuck in their shirts. They need me to be as wild as they are.

I get just tonight to reflect on Issac and his Advisory brothers.  Tomorrow, I will nag them about their grades.  They will make inappropriate jokes and I will yell at them for being gross. 

I will hold in my tears.  I will hold in my sorrow that life was not more just and fair to these young men who deserved better.  I will shake hands on graduation night and I will smile.  I will say congratulations and I will say good-bye.

I will be the wild thing too

Thursday, May 30, 2013

On Self-Reliance

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was called Out In The Wilds: How To Look After Yourself. It was a slim paperback full of dead serious survival instructions. The premise was that if you kept your wits about you and were prepared, independence from grown-ups was yours. The very idea was intoxicating.

The houses across the street where I grew up backed into hundreds of square acres of private ranch property. Barbed wire marked the border between the suburban backyards and wild lands, a border which my parents forbid me from crossing. It was land riddled with rattlesnakes, guarded by horned bulls, protected by ranchers with guns. Though my friend lived across the street and her backyard accessed wild rolling hills that went on forever, I was an obedient kid. Despite my fascination, I never ventured into those wilds.

By the age of seventeen I was gone off to college. My parents paid my tuition and in a few short years I equipped myself with a degree, a teaching credential and a full time job. I took the education they bought me and turned it into a life. I knew how to support myself in the world, and incidentally I knew how to backpack and survive in the wilderness as well. The power of self-reliance meant everything to me then and it still does.

So of course my daughters are self-reliant. It shouldn’t surprise me. But the shadow side of having independent kids is that you become obsolete as a parent pretty quickly.  My daughters do almost everything for themselves. Have you ever heard of the term “helicopter parent”? Here is the opposite: I don’t know my teenager’s Powerschool code. I have never checked it, not once in three years. I’ve also never once contacted a teacher to “advocate” for my children. They advocate for themselves.

Both of my kids can cook their own food, do their own laundry, complete their homework without my help. Now that the older one can drive, the only thing they really need me for is to make money for the mortgage and tuition, but soon enough that won’t be the case. The older one already makes her own spending money and more of it than I could ever provide.

My nine year old found she was having a hard time getting to sleep at night so she decided to get in the habit of making herself a cup of chamomile tea at bedtime. She made one for me too last night, urging me to try it. “It’s good for you,” she said.

At least a helicopter mom is aware of her role. The helicopter mom is the advocate, the grade checker, the tea-getter. My own way is less clearly marked. Perhaps my job is to sit quietly and listen to my children, accept their gifts of tea, and remind them that they have always had what it takes to survive in the wilds.

Out of print now, but one of the best books for kids ever.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How To Find Time To Do Other Things Besides Write

A nice, reasonable lady at work asked me how I find time to write. After all, I am a full time English teacher and a mother of two daughters. How can I possibly find the time to write?

I answered with a question: How do I find time to do other things besides write? She blinked at me and I blinked back. I can be a pretty poor conversationalist when I’m in the middle of writing a novel. And guess what, I’m always in the middle of writing a novel.

It was a good question, however. Finding time to write has never been my problem. It's finding time for the areas of life that I signed moral, social and legal contracts for like mothering, being a nice wife and functioning in society that pose the difficulty.

As most poor conversationalists will do, I came up with an answer to my own question a month later. The lovely work friend who is a great conversationalist has probably forgotten that she ever opened this can of worms, but here are five tricks I pull in order to find time to do other things besides write:

Trick #1: Find two for one deals.

Find a way to kill two or three or five birds with one stone. For example, I think about my problems while I clean my house. This avoids the time suck of therapy. By cleaning my own house I also avoid a cleaning lady which would cost money which I would then have to work to make, which would waste time.

Walk the dog and get your exercise while taking care of your pet. Call going to Costco together with your spouse a date night. This covers romance and groceries for the entire month.  Wear a pajama shirt that doubles as an actual shirt. That way, you can dress yourself for day and night with one garment.

Trick #2: Have two kids eight years apart.

If you have your kids eight years apart, the first kid will raise the second one for you and she’ll be nicer than you ever were with her anyway. Kids eight years apart don’t clog the airwaves with a bunch of crappy sibling rivalry. They like each other and would rather walk down to the 7-Eleven together than bother you when you’re getting things done. It’s been such a great idea for me that I’m thinking of getting a patent.

Trick #3: Limit your kids’ screen time.

This has been the best time saver in the world. I can’t say I thought of it on my own. When we moved our youngest to a Waldorf elementary school, they asked us to follow their rule of no screen time (television, ipad, etc.) during the week. At first I secretly thought I would let her break it when I needed to write. That would have been a mistake.

Kids who watch television and play video games are constantly bored and asking you to entertain them. You get peace and quiet during the fifteen minutes between commercials or when there is something good on or when the game is fun but besides that, screen drunk kids are high maintenance. They’re always telling you to look at what’s going on in the game or in the show. Also, electronics are loud and annoying. 

Right now my youngest is outside picking berries and putting them in a basket. She’s been at it for hours without needing any input from me. It’s awesome.

Trick #4: Find work you like that makes money.

Find work that makes enough money so that you don’t worry about money. Money worries take up too much time. Also, find work that is easy for you to like. Work that you hate makes you tired.

Whatever happens do not be a teacher. Stephen King says that being a teacher is like going around all day with battery cables attached to your brain and at the end of it you have no energy to write. This is true. However, if teaching is the only thing you like that makes enough money so that you don’t have to worry about money, then go ahead and be a teacher if you have to. Just find a nice school community that doesn’t kill your soul like a blood-sucking incubus of soul death. It’s hard to find time for anything when that’s going on.

 Trick #5: Find a crowd that doesn’t care too much about your appearance.

You can save hours of time by hanging out with people who find your messy hair and thrift store clothing a fascinating emblem of your creative inner world. Mall shopping and trips to the salon are much more time consuming than growing your hair out white and wearing flip flops for shoes. You’ll find it saves time in the long run to find people who think you’re cute in your pajama shirt than it is to change out of your pajama shirt every day.
                   Children can double as exercise equipment, saving the busy writer both time and money. Also, that was the shirt I wore to bed.

When I was at Squaw Valley Community of Writers some years ago, author Janet Fitch said to us,  “Life supports art. Art isn’t meant to support life.” I never forgot her piece of wisdom and it has remained the most liberating tidbit in all of my writing education.

Of course I have time to write. It's changing my shirt that I have to find time for.