Friday, August 7, 2015

Ten years ago I made the decision to become a teacher.  For my mother, it was eighteen years later than she would have liked for it to happen.  I majored in English in college.  I did that because reading and writing were my only true loves as I grew up.  I briefly tried majoring in Nursing, but I had no talent or affinity for it.  I loved the written word, loved poetry, loved everything about writing. My goal was to be a published writer.  And I had amazing mentors available to me at The University of New Hampshire - Charles Simic, Donald Graves, Tom Newkirk, who was even my advisor, but I didn't know how to access their prowess.  And, I felt neither deserving nor good enough to warrant it.  So I never approached my major as I would do now, looking back.  I wandered through it, touching on this or that, and trying to figure out where I should concentrate.  My parents thought I should naturally be a teacher.  I didn't know how to teach anyone, nor did I think that sounded like the foundation of a fabulous life, so I did not pursue teaching.

After becoming a mother to three amazing children and watching them go through their own educations, something clicked.  My oldest son was in high school and things were happening that I could not believe.  I suddenly thought to myself, "Well I could do a better job at this than some of his teachers are doing!"  And with that I looked into alternative certification programs.  I completed one, got a job teaching high school English at a large, rural high school, and finished my Master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction. There were teachers who had been teaching at this school for twenty, thirty years.  Of course, as a new teacher, I was doing remedial teaching to students who had failed the exit level state exam that is so coveted in the state of Texas.  Most of these kids were not thrilled with the idea of learning, and reading and writing were quite possibly lowest on their lists of things they enjoyed doing.  What's the fastest way to burn out a new teacher?  Give them the lowest students and make their job as difficult as possible.  Now of course we all understand that the "great jobs" go to those who have paid their dues, who have lasted longest in the trenches.  But sometimes those trenches are really difficult to last in.  One day in class as I was preparing my students for a midterm exam, I turned my back to the class to write something on the board and suddenly smelled something burning.  I turned and saw that in the very back of the classroom, my sweet, rough, struggling Lydia had taken out a lighter and set her midterm review sheet on fire.  I approached her, put out the burning sheet, and asked her to go to the office.  On her way to the office, she stopped in a girls' bathroom and set the waste bins on fire.  She was charged with arson and arrested that afternoon. And this was one of my favorite students.  I knew she struggled to fit in.  Her older sister was beautiful and every guy at school wanted to date her.  Lydia was overweight and I believe she questioned her sexual orientation.  She later told me that she felt like she couldn't pass at the regular high school so she wanted to get kicked out and sent to the juvenile detention facility because it was easier.  So that's just part of what I mean when I say it was not easy to work in this capacity.  Also, I was commuting twenty miles each way, carpooling with a teacher friend who lived near me, and I was falling asleep in the car on the way home each afternoon.  I wanted to work there for twenty, thirty years, but part of me just thought there has got to be something out there that is easier.  I ended up lasting three years.

That summer I applied for and was hired to teach at a middle school very close to my house.  It eliminated the commute, and I was teaching eighth graders, two full classes of which were labelled as talented and gifted, or TAG.  Suddenly, students who loved learning, loved reading, and wanted to talk endlessly about reading and writing! ...and their parents who thought every time their child misbehaved, it was somehow your fault.  My first two teaching experiences were hugh dichotomies of one another.  Would I finish my career at this school?  The teacher turnover was negligible.  Teachers were dying to work at this school.  They seemed to appreciate me.  Even the crazy loon British principal did stick up for the teachers, when she wasn't parading her own strategic agenda to the world.  She ended up ruining the moral of teachers throughout the school, and even though I spent the last two years of my five years at this school as the English department chair, I felt more unhappy  than I had ever been and quit this job to take a job working in the office of a very quiet, private company.

Eight years of teaching under my belt and I thought that I was done.  I was ready to walk away and forget it all. Five months away from education and I missed it terribly, though.  I kept working for this crazy little company, but I was also still on Amazon, buying new books on educational ideas that I would never teach.  I was at a Project Graduation fundraiser one day in March (for my youngest child) when some of the teachers were griping about students and classes.  I finally verbalized that I wanted back in.  I didn't know where to look - I had already taught at opposite ends of the spectrum.  I threw my name in the hat and hoped for the best.  I was finally hired by a charter school - something new to me - that taught all low SES students who struggled to do well.  I welcomed the challenge.  I was a minority teacher - white.  The kids were 97% hispanic and 3% black.  There were two white students at the school.  They comprised less than 1% of students.  I worked my ass off.  I remember my friend Kirstin telling me that it doesn't matter how hard you work - the AP scores play out according to wealth factors in schools, the wealthiest kids doing the best and the poorest kids doing the worst.  I so wanted to prove her false.  In October, the superintendent left suddenly and took a large percentage of the staff with him.  It felt very disjointed.  Teachers complained that discipline issues were not being addressed.  The inmates were running the asylum.  Adding to the craziness, this was an extended day school (5 pm) and an extended year school (two weeks longer than the local school district).  Teachers were exhausted.  I was exhausted.  Leaving school at 5:30 or later and bringing home dozens of essays that needed comments and grades on them for the next day.  Yet, I cannot say I was all that unhappy.  The greatest frustration existed in the way the school was run and how confusing it often was.  I thought this might just be where I was to play out my remaining twelve years in education.  Until one of my tutors and I were talking one day and she told me about the progressive school her daughter attended.  She thought I would fit in there and love it.  So I applied...

In a week I will be starting a job at a progressive charter school whose goal is to educate the whole child, socially and emotionally.  They use all project based learning, aiming to create confident critical thinkers and problem solvers through relevant lessons that include gardening and weekly hikes through the 214 acres that envelop the campus.  I love their love of nature and their intent to think beyond readying kids to take a test.  I'll also be teaching mixed grades of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders - something I've never done before or even thought of doing before.  But this school has been around for eleven years and has a great reputation.  And it understands that the traditional approach does not always work and is willing to try something else.  I want to say I will stay here forever, that I will retire from this school.  I hope it is the best school I have ever seen and I love most of the job set before me.  I don't think any teacher ever loves everything about a job and I think it's ridiculous to expect that.  I don't think anyone loves everything about their job, no matter how happy they are. There are always problems, right?  This will be my fourth teaching job in ten years. My closest friends that I got certified with have all been at the same school for a decade while I have bounced around.  I'm trying not to take it as a sign that there's something wrong with me.  My daughter says she thinks it's awesome that when I am not happy, I look for something else that I believe will make me happy.  I do think life is short.  Too short to pass up experiences that may not only help you grow as a human being but in turn help others grow.  Ten years in, I have a broader view of who kids are, whether they are struggling learners or unmotivated learners or talented and gifted kids.  They all have a place at the table of life.  They are all wonderful people.  They have all helped shape who I have become as an adult.  And I believe I have helped to shape them.  My parents are gone now, but boy would they be excited to know how much I love being a teacher.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On December 9, my bffl Oprah posted "The Eleven Questions Every Woman Should Ask Themselves."  If Oprah tells me to consider something, you know darn well that I will.  She is THE person I hold in the highest esteem for her wisdom.  So here goes:
1) What would the younger you like about the present you?  I believe it would be my still miniscule, but ever growing set of balls.  I have classic doormat syndrome.  I was born with it.  I have let countless people walk all over me and internalized the pain from that.  It has been a very slow evolution, but I believe I'm finally beginning to grow a pair.   Of course I STILL wish that the three times my former principal took great happiness in saying to me, "Susan, your students love you but they don't respect you," that I would have responded with, "Well not many LOVE or RESPECT you, so what's your freakin' point??!!"  Ok, so I'm still secretly hoping for the opportunity to say this to her, but since we've both moved on, not likely to happen. 
2) The Watched/Read It List.  In answering this question, you are supposed to list what you are reading now and the last movie you saw.  Let's start with the reading.....currently reading Ann Patchett's STATE OF WONDER and really enjoying it.  This does not seem like a book I would typically read, though I just adore Ann Patchett and some of her earlier works like The Patron Saint of Liars and Truth and Beauty.  But thank God the ladies in my book club choose books that are often outside my comfort zone, or I'd still be reading Nancy Drew and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  As far as movies go, I saw two on very opposite ends of the spectrum just this past weekend.  Hearing that American Hustle was generating Oscar buzz, I had to go see it.  I don't know what fool started that rumor, but it was only mildly entertaining at best.  On Sunday I saw Philomena.  This is based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith.  The trailer looked like it would provide that reassuring happy ending.  Not so.  I have never cried so much through a movie in my life, yet, what an absolutely beautiful film.  It proved two things to me:  times have changed and that is not always a bad thing, and my dad would have felt completely justified in his feelings about the Catholic Church had he seen this movie.  It made me wonder exactly when we began to associate God with love.  Certainly not in the 1950's!  I would feel incomplete if I did not mention that when I think back on what truly affected me in 2013, what first comes to mind is the movie Blackfish.  I saw this film last summer, but I had no idea the effect it would have on me.  If you have not yet seen the documentary about the orca/killer whale that killed Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau a couple years ago in Orlando, Florida, take your happiness blinders off and sit through it.  And then feel free to join me in sign-making or picketing outside any of the Sea World locations, or parent company, Anheuser Busch, to try to right the wrongs of the world.  At the very least, stop feeding the money machine in the name of entertainment for your children.  I don't give a rat's ass what your kids are learning about sea life when the big money in charge is doing terrible things to further line their pockets and causing painful reverberations in their wake.
3) The Mistake You Never Want to Make:  This one really stumped me, because I truly think I've made most mistakes that can be made and lived to tell about it.  However, my sweet husband would be so happy to hear me say "I never want to make the mistake of not budgeting and over-spending again."  He's a good man and has put up with me for a long time, so I'll give him this one!
4) Your ideal outfit.  What a stupid question.  Is this asking me what I'm most comfortable in?  Is some fool going to answer this with "in a string bikini on a beach in Maui....???"  Yah, well not me. Perhaps I should just say jeans and sneakers, because this is what I wear when I walk my dogs every day, and walking my dogs every day is a spiritual practice that makes me happy.  They love it, I love it, and what better to way to start each day?
5) A deep, dark, secret - and does it make your inner life feel brighter or darker?  A lot of you know my deepest, darkest secret - at least if you were friends with me towards the end of my years at UNH or when I lived in Florida.  My first marriage to a man I truly loved ended in divorce.  And while I initiated it, it was far from what I wanted.  But to say that marriage was a horrific disaster is to underplay what it really was.  It was a nightmare.  To protect the privacy of certain people, that is all I will say.  However, I never thought I would end up in a situation like that, always thought I was smarter than that, and still bear scars from it.  So to people who've said things to me over the years such as "you are my only friend who's every been divorced," I would not wish this pain on anyone.  It definitely does not make my inner life feel brighter.
6) The most unexpected compliment you ever got.  Easy.  My parents were in Texas visiting and I had made dinner.  My dad suddenly said, "Susie, you are a good cook."  That was it, but it meant the world to me, even though the comparison to my mom's cooking is a ridiculous thought. 
7) That one quote:  "Realize that true happiness lies within you. Waste no time and effort searching for peace and contentment and joy in the world outside. Remember that there is no happiness in having or in getting, but only in giving. Reach out. Share. Smile. Hug. Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.   -Og Mandino
8) The best surprise you've ever had.  When I think back over my life, I have to say that it was each time I saw what one of my babies looked like for the first time.  Bryan - tiny at 32 weeks in his prematurity but that sweet, innocent face.  Katie - everything I had hoped for with her bright red hair and angelic demeanor, and little John - the child that came out with wild black hair and looked like a monkey.  I told John he had brought me the wrong baby at first - but no, this one is mine, that's for sure!
9) Your true happiness.  I have always known that my true happiness was in creating things - writing, painting, sewing, taking photos, but have denied myself this pleasure because there is so much else to do in life.  I also thought for a long time happiness was found in a job or given to us from other people, but know now that happiness is something you can only be responsible for yourself, and while a job can make you miserable, the opposite is not necessarily true.  Everyone has to figure this out on your own, folks. 
10) Your favorite failure - your biggest, most glorious, crashing-in-flames failure in your life.  *See #5 - clearly marriage #1 can be categorized in the same fashion - "crashing in flames" pretty much sums it up.  But until today, I did not realize that I have what I would consider two failures - and much for the same reasons.  So my first marriage, and my eight year attempt to be a teacher.  Yes, there were good parts in both of those failures, but in both instances, I was unhappy and frustrated for LONG periods of time, always questioning if things would get better....always working so hard to make things work, but alas, that was not to be in either case.  There are days when I miss teaching, when the potential lesson plans spin through my head and I long to be in a classroom again, but the whole thing is such a mixed bag of emotions for me.  Added to this question was the sentence "...evidence of having taken a great risk and not only survived, but learned."  Well, I can clearly say that on both fronts, I did survive, and boy did I learn!  While some days I feel like I should have a framed PhD in shitstorm hung on my wall, what I really hope is that people who know my heart see that I have learned some lessons really well and see that reflected in my actions.
11) Bucket list amendment:  Well now we've come full circle.  I never even had a bucket list until said principal ("Susan, your students love you but they don't respect you...") strong-armed us into making one.  And truly, at the time the only thing on my bucket list was attending an Oprah Show taping, which I have now done and SURPASSED, folks, but vacationing in sunny Australia with my bffl!  The only other thing on my bucket list is to write a book and see it published.  This is something I've always wanted but never allowed myself to feel capable of doing.  I can hear certain people's voices saying, "Do you think you could REALLY do that?"  And my answer is I don't know, but it's my bucket list, and not for you to judge. Time is of the essence, so go forth and conquer, folks!  Big hugs to you all and a very blessed 2014. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013 one

Today was my first "official" day of summer.  I always start the summer with the best of plans and intentions.  1) I'm going to write every day 2) I'm going to read every day 3) I'm going to figure out what I truly want for my life and make a plan on how exactly to achieve that.  The problem is, I always fall short on all three.  1 and 2 are easy....3, not so much.  I will be 48 years old on Friday.  One would think I would have my life figured out by now.  I feel like there are some parts left unattended to, or overlooked by the craziness of life.  Contrary to my last post, teaching has made me happy at the end of the year.  The amount of grading I had to do was still not something I could keep up with.  That is a constant problem.  Part of what I need to "figure out" how to handle.  

I began the day by sleeping in till 9:30.  9:30!!  For someone normally up at 6 am each day, this is an amazing luxury.  We start each day by walking the dogs.  Then it was off to Starbucks for coffee, off to a credit union to close out an account for Katie, then to Z Gallerie and Target, with lunch from Cheddars.  Once home, I did laundry, cleaned the back porch, played with the kitties, napped, then off to the dog park to get eaten alive by gnats and mosquitoes.  I would like each day to be less "busy."  I would like more time to read, garden, and just "be."  But was I happy today?  Yes, I was.  It was all very lovely, and I look forward to tomorrow.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Happiness at what cost?

At what cost do we live happy lives in 2013?  Think about that.  Are you happy?  If you were not happy, what would you be willing to change to become happy?  Your marriage?  Your job?  Your location?  Who you call family?  

I was raised by people who I can easily label "deniers of their own happiness."  Married after World War II, and three children born in the three subsequent decades, my parents were hard-working providers.  I doubt they thought much of their own contentment on a daily basis.  What they thought about was saving money for their kids to go to college, planting a large garden each year in order to feed us the original "organic" veggies, and doing what was societally required of them.  

So why do I have this sense of entitlement?  And are we even "entitled" to be happy?  I have one more child to put through college and lots of bills to pay, like everyone else.  Perhaps the right is not mine to even seek happiness, but I beg to differ.  It's hard to go through each day questioning whether or not you're the biggest idiot in the world for sticking with something that truly does not bring you satisfaction or happiness.  This, my eighth year teaching secondary English, causes me constant distress.  I wish God would tell me that I've affected my quota of children and I can move on.  Of course I probably haven't, but some days I just don't know if that's the most important issue anymore.  The politics of schools has become so much more complex, and the players involved often seem like robots that have had both their hearts and their brains removed.  Today I was called into a meeting to basically be told by the principal how stupid I am.  I am not perfect, I'll admit, but neither is anyone else.  So exactly how long does one subject themselves to what feels like a constant beating?  Do you change schools, or do you change careers?  What do I owe myself?  And what am I afraid of?