Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Habits

It dawned on me today that the better part of my life can be categorized by a single habit: I end each day curled in bed with a book and a pen, marking pages, jotting in margins, tracing patterns.  I remember the first time I read an annotated book.  My 8th grade English teacher lent me his copy of A Tale of Two Cities.  He'd read portions aloud and I became sort of obsessed with The Vengeance. (I should reread that book.)  I don't remember why, exactly, but I remember something rich about her character, about the description.  And, though I never asked him, I think he liked her best too.  The markings were plentiful when she made the scene.  But reading his book, ideas and insights scrawled in his hand -- the same hand that scrawled across my papers -- connected me to him.  It made me see him in a different light, I guess.  He became more human.

When I ask my students to annotate the text, there are those who leap in with wild abandon and those who gasp and hem and haw and dance at the edge, afraid.  It feels wrong to mark the book.  For many, it's an act of desecration.  It takes some time to teach them it's not desecration at all, but an act of love.  An act of commitment.  You're blazing a trail.  I always offer them Peter Stephens' explanation on the importance of marking books.  You can read his ideas here.  He's articulate and honest.  When I revisit a book I've read, I've left a trail of bread crumbs. I get to see who I was as a reader and a thinker.  Often I recognize myself.  Other times I meet a stranger.  Every time it's interesting.

We're reading Fences in class.  I'm rereading Act 2.  It's already marked.  I've already established a trail.  I've hung signposts.  But each reading is new, informed by experience.  What will I discover tonight?  What enclave will I explore?  What will resonate?  And the pattern continues.  How lucky to tuck myself into bed each night, book and pen in hand, ready to blaze trails, to light lanterns.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Important Lessons

Today was one of those days I felt so grateful that I've chosen this profession.  Teaching is so much more than content.  We also teach young people how to navigate difficult waters.  We teach them empathy and kindness.  We teach them how to handle missteps gracefully.  We teach them the importance of reflection and apology and taking responsibility.  We teach them agency -- they have powerful voices; they need to be thoughtful about how they use them.  We teach them love and forgiveness and pride.  Today was filled to the brim with those "soft" lessons.

In sophomore English, we're mired in an admittedly difficult unit.  We're spending several weeks working on a unit associated with incarceration.  I'll admit, I was incredibly resistant to it, but it's important to me to be a team player, so I acquiesced, albeit begrudgingly.  I was reticent on a couple of fronts: 1. We have an overwhelming number of students who've been affected by incarceration and I worry it might be difficult for them and 2. It feels strange to spend several weeks on a seemingly random topic.  However, I appreciate that it brings pertinent issues to the forefront.  It challenges thinking.  They have to learn to support a stance with more than emotion and passion, but with truth.

My student teacher, at the tender age of 21, has been leading this unit.  She challenges them to think about difficult and polarizing topics and to do so respectfully.  She's learned how to put out fires. She's learned how quickly teenage emotion flares.  She's learned that passion can be divisive. She's learned how to read the room -- to follow the non-verbal cues and keep an eye out for the ones who are struggling. And today she learned a hard and powerful lesson.

A student in our class (a clown on the surface, but a deeply sensitive soul beneath it all) stormed out of class.  The topic that set him off was the notion of white privilege.  He felt under attack and he didn't think he could say anything -- everyone in the room would accuse him of being a racist. Walking out was all he felt he could do.  I think now of that sweet boy -- 15, bruised, hurt, and defensive, armed with neither words to defend himself nor the perspective to see he is in fact very much privileged.  And flight was the only defense he could muster.  Because he was angry, but couldn't express it, and tears were threatening.

I could have let it settle itself, turned a blind eye.  I didn't have to address it.  But there were lessons to be learned.  So I sought him out.  I gave him the floor.  I let him lead. I asked the question and let him respond: "Why don't you tell me about what happened in class?"  And he pulled a typical teenage-boy-in-trouble: "Uh, what do you mean?"  And I was patient and kind and asked him again, emphasizing that it was important to me that I understand what happened.  I watched him vacillate between defensiveness and embarrassment.  He felt wronged, but also knew I was disappointed, which pained him.  He needed to be reminded that we're all human -- how lucky that we can experience both understanding and forgiveness? And finally, because he trusts me, he coughed out the truth: "She was saying things that weren't true.  And I couldn't say anything.  I couldn't say ANYTHING!  Everyone would think I'm a racist! And I'm not! I didn't know what else to do..." Rock and a hard place, poor kid.

But I've been doing this awhile.  I knew what he needed.  First, he needed love and acceptance.  I hugged him.  His eyes welled with tears.  It's a heavy load he's carrying. "I don't feel the same way you do," I told him, " but I did once and I appreciate your perspective. I would love to talk with you more about this.  Thank you for telling the truth, for trusting me with it."  Second, he needed acknowledgement. "I'm sorry you felt you couldn't use your voice when you felt attacked," I told him. Finally, he needed direction: "You're going to have to go talk to her.  You have to take responsibility. You have to communicate.  She cares about you.  You matter to us."  And he did.  He did the hard thing.  He apologized.  He acknowledged his mistake.  He shared his struggle.  He learned that she's human.  He revealed his humanness.

A few hours later, I taught AP Literature and Composition. We're reading August Wilson's Fences. So much of the meaning in the play hinges on our understanding of Troy, in all of his complexity. We opened with a journal, and I should mention that the "bro" quotient is high in that class.  But still, I put it out there: Journal for the next five minutes on what it means to be a man -- personally, socially, culturally.  And the bros were silent.  They wrote.  I called time and many were still scribbling.  I asked them to talk with table partners.  The conversation was interesting, authentic, profound, real. And then we analyzed Troy and the relationships he has with other characters.   We concluded with a return to the original journal: After analyzing Troy and his relationships, how does your concept of what it means to be a man reinforce or differ from Troy's ideas of manhood?  Again, silence and writing and thinking.  And these young men went out into the world thinking about identity and belief systems and what kind of men they wanted to be.  Powerful.

After school, the sophomore's mother called me.  We talked.  She cried.  She was embarrassed for her son's actions, but protective.  And I'm a mother, so I knew what she needed too.  First, explanation. Second, reassurance.  Finally, affirmation.  So I began:  here's what happened; he's a good kid and I love him; you're doing a good job, Mom.  And she thanked me, immensely.  And what a lesson it was that was reaffirmed for me -- the power of building relationships with families, not just the students we serve. Because we're all in this together.

Today was a teaching day.  Yes, literature and skills were there, but the lessons gleaned today were life lessons.  Powerful ones.  The kind that make me want to show up day after day.



Sunday, April 23, 2017

The End of the Notebook

I've been making a more concerted effort to write.  I've always kept a notebook with me, but I tried to be more intentional this time around to document the musings of my mind, to capture the world as I observe it ...  Sir Thomas Browne comes to mind: "We carry within us the wonders we seek around us." There's a lot in this little book.  I needed writing more these past few months than I think I have in years.

I wrote a great deal about the books I've been reading.  I generally move through a book in about a week.  Without taking care to write about them, it's easy to forget them.  Many lines were culled from their pages.  It helps me keep good sentences in my ears, to borrow from the great Jane Kenyon.

And there were writing risks.  I pushed myself to try new genres and step outside my comfort zone. I'm yet to arrive as an amazing poet, but I tried, and that's something.  Practice and time, like anything, will improve craft.

There are recipes, book recommendations, goals... There are celebrations and plans.  I see the early nudges that led to this enormous and terrifying leap into a new environment. I was a leading member of my school's MTSS committee -- my notes and questions and concerns and excitement are all in there.  The agenda and enthusiasm (and accompanying anxieties) for the writing retreat I hosted are there.  There are beginnings of writing projects I may pursue later. Poems that moved me scrawl across pages.  There's beauty there.

But there's a great deal of darkness in it too.  I have enough sense to recognize that this is merely a season among a thousand other seasons in life.  Some seasons are joyful.  And there has been joy, but that's not what I wrote down.  And it's not the primary emotion of this stretch.  33 is the year I've aspired to reach since I was 13.  I've always wanted to be older than I am. I think I associated age with stability and balance and the security of really knowing oneself.  I thought 33 would be the year I'd pull it all together, the year I finally arrived in myself.  I should have known better.  This year has been anything but stable.  There have been few answers and a host of questions.  In some ways, I understand myself better than I did before, but in others I am a stranger -- I often don't recognize myself and wonder who the hell this self is that showed up.  Get your shit together, I want to tell her. It's embarrassing.  I want to embrace Rilke and "live the questions now," but I've never been terribly patient. Living the questions requires so much trust.  So much faith.  Answers.  Answers inform action. That's been the hardest part for me lately.  The uncertainty.  And the wild vacillations that leave me with a sort of perpetual emotional whiplash.

It's strange to think about how things might have been different if I didn't turn to my notebook. Though I am certainly not moving into the next season with anything reminiscent of clarity, in writing I do come to recognize what is true.  It doesn't mean that what's true is constant, but the desire for truth is. And I try (sometimes poorly and misguidedly, often impulsively -- urgently and without reflection) to tell the truth.  Like Marlow, I detest a liar.  So the notebook is there to remind me of the truth, though pages may tell very different truths. As we know, the truth isn't neat or tidy.  It's often painful and ugly and monstrous.  But it's important, all the same.



I'm starting my new notebook tonight.  I can't be positive the next stage will be any easier, but I take solace in paper and pen and documented truths I can revisit.  There is comfort in that.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Showing Up

I've always wanted to grow a family.  I love the idea of a house filled to the brim with children.  A bathtub full of laughing, splashing boys is a beautiful thing.  I have three of them, so I'm well on my way to the family I've always envisioned.  They will grow up together and tell stories of their crazy parents.  They might remember the noise and the chaos. They might laugh when they recall that, most times, the first name wasn't enough to get the job done -- it was always Oliver Matthew, Levi Finn, and Milo Augustus!  I have a lot of love to give.  I don't easily wear out.  And as much as I crave a few moments of quiet, nothing comes close to matching the fullness I experience when my boys are piled up and laughing or when they come sweetly to snuggle in or when they want to share their observations of the world.

But I'm a teacher, too, and there I take on additional mothering roles.  I listen and I scold and I guide and (if I'm lucky) I teach them a thing or two.  And of course there are the friendships to nurture. It's easy to become consumed and exhausted with all that giving,  the ceaseless flow of love.  In many ways, I have to confront the fact that  I've neglected some relationships.  I put them on autopilot and trusted they'd manage well enough until I found some time to give them.  But we never find time, we make it.

I've been trying to make more time for myself lately.  This is complicated for women.  We're expected to nurture and give without reprieve.  Taking time for ourselves is rarely what it should be -- relaxing and recharging and healthy.  Instead, it's laden with guilt.  We feel selfish.  We feel like bad mothers. We feel like there's something wrong with us for harboring the desire to escape for just a few hours.

Growing up, my mother did it all.  She ran the household.  She cooked a meal from scratch every night.  She made lavish breakfasts on Saturdays and Sundays.  She drove us from activity to activity. She did all the laundry -- washed it and folded it and put it away.  She even cleaned my bedroom, for God's sake.  They were thankless jobs, and like the speaker in Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays,"  I knew nothing of "love's austere and lonely offices."  I didn't bother to try.  But there came a point when I realized that my mother sacrificed her personal identity to be our mother.  This is harsh and judgmental and probably cruel, too, but I didn't respect her for it, I begrudged her.  When my brother and I left, what would remain for her?  Who would she be?  I didn't want to be like her.  I wanted a strong identity of my own; I didn't want to be pared down to the singular role of mother (though it's an important part of my identity, it's only one part of me).

I've started running again.  I've never been an impressive runner, by any stretch, but the practice of running has a miraculous way of offering some clarity.  Pushing a bit more each day, watching the distance grow, and picking up speed reminds me that I am in control of much of my life.  I am the shaper, not merely the shaped. When the body wants to quit, the mind can speak firmly to place one foot before the other.  Progress is made. And running helps the writing come more easily -- it gets the wheels turning.  It helps me notice.  And it brings me outside.

It sounds cheesy, I know, but I feel like I'm moving into a new stage of my life. I want to move confidently toward it, but in doing so, I need to think about how my identity is evolving.  I value stability and constancy, but I refuse to be stagnant. Honesty is incredibly important to me, which means I need to muster the courage to be honest with myself -- something that can be hard, ugly even.  And then I can't merely confront it, but I need to take a hard look at it, assess if for what it is,  in order to make a plan, in order to take action to support that identity.  And running's helping me do the work.  We have to show up in relationships if we want them to thrive and one of the most important relationships we need to foster is the one we have with ourselves.  So I'm taking time.  I'm showing up.  I'm figuring it out.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Soul Mirror

Every time I meet someone who's been to Decorah, various iterations of how magical a place it is are bound to follow.  I had the privilege of growing up in a part of the world that's one of the most beautiful I've encountered.  The bulk of my adolescence was spent outdoors.  In a small town, children entertain themselves.  We'd traipse along the bluffs; we'd gather old inner tubes and float down the river; we'd build shelters in the woods from salvaged wood and tin; we'd wind down gravel roads, hair blowing, sipping warm Peter Vella chardonnay we'd siphoned from my friend's parents' box in the fridge and stored in mason jars; we'd make hot chocolate and pack blankets and lay supine in the bed of a pick-up and watch meteor showers.  We entertained ourselves, but we did it together. It's far from typical, but many of the friends I made in elementary school continue to be some of my best friends today.  See?  There's something magical about Decorah, and it isn't merely the natural beauty of the place -- a waterfall here, an ice cave down the road, a gorgeous look out point a half mile further...  It's connection.  The roots are deep.

I had a difficult time finding friendships in college that rivaled those I'd built growing up.  I found them eventually, but I didn't realize how lucky I'd been until I was challenged to build new relationships.  Most people I met seemed to lack depth -- they were interested in surface friendships. Perhaps they hadn't grown up walking the woods and talking and getting to the deep-dark stuff. Maybe they were handicapped by a city rife with distraction and entertainment.

And then I graduated from college and made my way into the real world.  I was challenged again to build friendships.  Unfortunately, the way I like to spend the bulk of my time doesn't exactly generate community.  You don't meet a lot of new friends wandering wooded trails or leisurely playing disc golf or reading.  So my colleagues became my friends.  And many of them are rich, true, wonderful friendships, but it took a long time to find them.  I still long to be surrounded by the large group of friends I was blessed to have in high school.  Perhaps that's why I seem to require so much love, even when I should feel satiated by all I'm given.  I was spoiled by such excess love growing up, anything less feels like a shortage.

As adults, I think it's hard to meet people whose soul seems to mirror our own.  There's so much distraction.  And maybe so much damage.  And maybe people have found a way to make-do with what they've got.  They aren't terribly eager to give much energy to nurturing new friendships.  They have families and careers that require care; friendships become secondary.

Zora Neale Hurston said, "There are years that ask questions and there are years that answer."  This is an answering year. In the last few months I've discovered a handful of people whose friendship felt immediately close and immediate.  I've found people who like to wander the woods and who write and who get me.

Sometimes timing is funny.  Missy has become one of my closest friends, but we should have been friends years ago.  We both went to UNI.  We're the same age.  We had overlapping friends.  But we never crossed paths.  If we did, we don't have any recollection of it. And then we were in our Master's program together, but we didn't connect there either, oddly. In fact, I'm not entirely sure when the connection was made -- ICTE Board stuff or an IWP course...  But aren't those the greatest friendships?  The ones you don't remember even beginning?

The best friends nudge us.  They encourage us.  They offer us empathy and understanding.  They call us out when we're being dramatic.  They give us time and energy and love again and again and again without question or hesitation, even when we don't deserve it. Missy is that for me.   It's bizarre and unlikely that we didn't connect sooner, given the overlap, but maybe the universe holds people on reserve for the moments in life when we desperately need one of those soul mirrors who'll walk with us and confront the deep-dark and will understand us.  The universe always knows best.  It would behoove me to trust it more.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Poetry Around Us

It's National Poetry Month, so naturally poetry has been on my mind.  It has sort of been falling into my lap recently, which is lovely and unexpected and a gift.

Yesterday I came across a story on NPR about a man who bicycles around town leaving handwritten poems for people.  A delivery service for poetry!  How wonderful!  Isn't that just the most beautiful simple thing?  Listen here, if you'd like.

Luckily, I have many people in my life who are readers and thinkers and poetry lovers, people who have a line at the ready when something is particularly perfect for the moment.  That's something I try, perhaps unsuccessfully, to pass on to my students -- the power of knowing poetry by heart.  A beautiful line can help usher in calm when the seas of anxiety threaten to drown.  It can remind me to breathe and find rhythm when my world feels off its axis.  Jane Kenyon urges us to keep good sentences in our ears. She is wise.  Often poetry rescues me from myself.

Last evening was perfect for a walk.  It had rained for the better part of the day, but by evening the sun emerged.  I love the smell of the woods after a fresh rain.  A friend I often ask too much of indulged me with an evening trail walk through the woods.  I'm always surprised by how much light there is in the darkness.  Even when it's cloudy and overcast, the moon spills through.  The gravel path was illuminated.  Silhouettes of deer against the backdrop of the glittering lake were poetry in their own rite.  On our walk, we crossed paths with a runner who stopped to warn us about some nudists he'd encountered up ahead.  He was so kind in his warning, describing the whole experience simply as startling.  It was hilarious. There's poetry in everything.

Later my friend shared Robert Bly's "Wanting Sumptuous Heavens," a poem I'd never heard.  Again, it is apt.  I am rarely the oyster, the lobster, or the heron.  I strive to control and shape my existence. The walk and the poem remind me that the world is beautiful and perfect and heavenly even, just as it is.  Perhaps it's time to worry less about what opposable thumbs allow me to do and practice more contentment with the small perfect miracles that can be found each day, if only I'm willing to look.


Wanting Sumptuous Heavens
by Robert Bly
No one grumbles among the oyster clans,
And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer.
Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want
Heaven to be, and God to come, again.
There is no end to our grumbling; we want
Comfortable earth and sumptuous Heaven.
But the heron standing on one leg in the bog
Drinks his dark rum all day, and is content.


This is very much a time of transition for me.  I experience a host of emotions each day as I think about the next stage.  I look out my gorgeous wall of windows and see students gathered on the lush front lawn, pick-up games of frisbee forming organically. Students at random intervals sigh deeply and tell me they're going to miss me.  Former students, adults now, reach out to express their devastation that I'm leaving Roosevelt.  Even when it doesn't impact us, a disruption to our sense of comfort in things remaining as they've always been can be a bit of a jolt. Coworkers come to offer silent hugs.  I'm trying to take it all in, to fully appreciate the beauty of the many things I've taken for granted, they've been part of my landscape for so long: the speckled terrazzo floor, the richness of the wood that lines the halls, the sounds of chatter and friendly teasing and laughter that reverberate during passing period.  I'm being intentional about practicing gratitude and appreciation for each of my students, grateful for the ways in which they shape me.  It will be hard to leave such a beautiful place filled with so many beautiful people, but I'm trusting that, with time, I can be the heron and find comfort and beauty everywhere.

I came across Luci Shaw's "States of Being" and it brings solace and lessons, too.  I think it speaks to the cycles we experience, often in a day for me.  We can be all these things.


States of Being
Better to be soft as water,
easily troubled, with 
at least three modes
of being, able to shape-
shift, to mirror, to cleanse, 
to drift downstream,
to roar when he encounters
the rock.


This morning I am grateful for good friends and walks and truth, for the moon and the deer and poetry.  I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow and to take risks, even when its scary.  I don't know how the future will unfold, but I know that poetry will be there.








Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Recipe for the Day

3 heaping teaspoons rain
3 cups brilliant sunshine and warm weather
1 Tbsp stir-crazy
6 cups of Mondays left in the school year
1 1/2 cups senioritis
a dash of hope to finish the semester strong

Combine rain and sunshine.  Simmer.  Fold in stir-crazy.  Bring to a boil.  Slowly add Mondays and stir.  Remove from heat.  Add senioritis to the pan until all progress is haulted.  Top with a dash of hope.  Serve.

This was the recipe for the day.  Memory is a funny thing.  It conveniently fails to capture the more painful aspects of life, like childbirth and administering Iowa Assessments.  We look back on those events with a dulled sense of reality.  Childbirth wasn't that bad, right?  (Cue flashes of very numbed memories.)  I think spring is the same way.

What's not to love about spring?  The sun is shining, the days are long, children's laughter echoes through the neighborhood, butterflies float on the breeze, flowers bloom.  It's so easy to forget all the challenging bits of spring, especially spring in the world of education.  The days vacillate between rain and sun and heat and cold with wild abandon.  We're thrown off by the unpredictability, which serves as a larger metaphor for the emotions many teachers experience. We are anxious as we attend meeting after meeting to learn what will change with the coming school year. There is stress over the master schedule, classroom relocation, newly formed collaborative teams.  Teachers resign or take new positions.  Building cuts require restructuring.  It's all just kind of a mess.  Nothing is clear or straightforward or certain.

And then there are the children. I have the (mis)fortune of teaching seniors in AP Lit and this time of year is a doozy.  Do your damn homework!  Discuss!  You know what's expected.  Why haven't you taken a single practice test?!?  The exam is less than a month away!  No, you can't have an extension. Seriously?  You want me to offer sincere empathy about your failed prom plan?  In a mere 3 months this will be a meaningless blip among a thousand other meaningless blips you obsessed over.

And the sophomores with their laissez-faire attitude.  They'll get to it when they get to it.  No biggie, Ms. Moehlis.  It'll get done. So I call home.  I email home.  I practically show up at their homes.  And the parents have had it, too.  They've lost their gumption.  Ground him, I beg.  It's too much work, they sigh. We just have to get through it, and they defeatedly resign.

And then there's the odd energy, the tension.  Fights are rampant this time of year.  Tempers flash, oil in a hot pan.  Words fly.  Punches and hair pulling and profanity ensue.  Crowds gather.  Help is far slower to arrive than in September.  Often the only hope that a fight will dissipate is that some semblance of connection and respect will wash over the face of a kid when she's about to throw a punch, when she's got a fist full of hair.  Her former teacher is standing there, disappointed and tired and witnessing.  She sees her.  She is embarrassed.

And that was today.  It began as a slow simmering but was left on the burner so long it eventually bubbled over. The sophomores showed up unprepared and nonplussed.  I spoke sternly.  I made them write me explanations.  I told them I was disappointed.  I pulled a few to the hall.  I made 15-year-old boys cry. They emailed apologies.  I single-handedly broke up a girl fight (a ridiculously foolish and often futile act).  Luckily, I suppose, I knew one of the girls.  She likes me.  Miraculously, my stern words, simple and firm, made her assess the situation: Enough. I said. This is not who you are. Make the right choice.  Sometimes walking away is an act of courage.  The relationship I built with her was an asset today.  She eventually caved: Only cuz it's you, Ms. Moehlis.  Otherwise I woulda blazed that ho!  But she didn't.  Not today.  Not at school.

Today was exhausting.  I worked hard.  I was reminded often that hard work is often a reward, just not one we reap in the moment.  The day wasn't a loss.  There were many bright spots.  Students heard me.  What you're giving isn't enough.  I'm disappointed in you.  Give more.  Boys cried.  They cried because they respect me. They know I love them.  They know they let me down.  They don't want to.  They'll work harder.  Three AP students came in to work on their papers with me.  They're smart. They're tackling complex issues in literature.  They're striving.  Students look at me in a time of crisis and passion and emotion.  They remember breath.  They remember pause.  Sometimes, thankfully, they walk away.

It's springtime.  It's challenging.  But today I was bathed in the warm white light of the sun that poured through my beautiful windows.  The grass greened.  Students filed in after school to work. We laughed and talked.  They made progress.  This too shall pass.  Summer's only 6 cups of Mondays away.