Bring It!

It’s happening again.  Yes.  Again.  As a matter of fact, it will happen this, of all days, Friday.  I will wake up before the dawn, reacquaint myself with near-forgotten rituals such as doing my hair and putting on my make-up, leave my house as the neighborhood sleeps, cruise through my commute, unlock my classroom, and welcome students.  Yes.  It’s the first day of school.  And I say, “Bring it.”

After a taxing, trying 2012-2013 school year during which I experienced a mystery illness that left me weak, sore, and anemic; burn-out; and a strong desire to sleep– so much so that I would pass out at my desk on my prep period only to come home and pass out again.  I trained a student in each class to call the school secretary just in case I had to run out of the room for an “emergency”, and one day I had to run out of a meeting because of an “emergency” (as one student said, “You drove all the way to work just to vomit?  That sucks.”)  My response to my very good students, who I was very lucky to have during this time, slowly deteriorated to, “Me-no care-oh” (translated: “I don’t care what you do, just turn it in.”).  Doctor’s appointments and going home sick impeded my ability to be a good advisor to my book club and my Academic Decathlon team.  The kids had to rearrange their schedules and find other teachers who could take over for the day.  Once again, the AcaDec materials weren’t ordered correctly (cough, cough, district office, cough, cough), and we didn’t get our materials until late October.  Competition is in January. I questioned myself.  I knew I was not the teacher or advisor I could be, but I couldn’t muster the energy to be that person.

My questioning deepened after I attended a Common Core Conference in Monterey and the keynote speaker, Kate Kinsella, chastised teachers who had pictures of the Eiffel Tower and posters of kittens dangling by a paw from a tree that say, “Hang in there!”.  There is no place in the classroom for these non-academic distractors!  My co-workers gasped, glancing my way.  In lieu of the Eiffel Tower, there is a big poster of Central Park over my desk, next to my Kandinsky poster, over my Warhol Marilyn Monroe -inspired rubber ducky picture.  There are no posters of kittens, but there is one of a silly-looking frog that says, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”  This doesn’t take into account all of the rubber ducks that line my desk and cupboards, the student art, my travel postcards, and the cutouts of Toy Story characters that had been on a Kleenex box.  One of my TA’s cut them out once it was empty and made me a collage.  My room was clear, undeniable evidence that I was not A Serious Teacher.  Fortunately, Kinsella also alienated every other teacher in the room by telling us to do our “damn jobs” and implored Social Studies teachers to actually teach kids something.  However, once made, the wound was slow to heal.

It was a challenging year.  Too tired to be creative or care too much, I stopped blogging.  There was nothing really to say except express my own uncertainty.  I turned to my books and novels.  I read and read and read.  There just didn’t seem to be enough words that I could gobble up.  I did not want to write or create.  My book clubs with my friends were the  life lines that kept me afloat.  They forced me to not recede to wherever it was that I could possibly go.  My husband, stymied by the fact that I requested white bread, made me endless bowls of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.  During my two-week spring break, I broke tradition and stayed home.

Slowly, the universe shifted.  I learned that I would be teaching AP Literature the 2013-2014 school year.  The fact that I was chosen to teach it was a boost to my self-esteem as an educator, but I was still plagued with doubt.  I still smarted from Kinsella’s implication that I am not a Serious Teacher and considered ways to make my classroom more “academic”– befitting of an AP teacher.

The universe, it seemed, wasn’t done with me yet.  One day I sat reading my students’ personal statements, allowing me to glimpse into their real lives and thoughts.  One student wrote about her two inspiring teachers: her Spanish teacher and…. me.  She wrote about how much I encouraged her and challenged her, and blah, blah, blah.  “Is she trying to butter me up and get an “A”?” I asked myself.  The next line proved that she was not: “In Ms. L’s room she has a poster of Central Park over her desk.  I look at it everyday.  This inspires me to do well and be successful in life so I can go visit wonderful, magical places in the world like Central Park.”  With tears welled up in my eyes, I decided that Kate Kinsella could suck it.  My student, on the other hand, earned her “A”. And a hug.

As I was leaving on the last of school, I glanced in the mailroom.  There, on the floor, was a delivery from the US Academic Decathlon.  My materials for this upcoming year arrived– early.

After a positive end to the school year, gaining back my health and energy, much collaboration for cross-curricular teaching with a history teacher, much fun in Ireland, the UK, and Michigan, much learning at the AP training, and planning a curriculum that includes short stories, poetry, Like Water for Chocolate, Oedipus The King, Death of a Salesman, Othello, Pride and Prejudice, Their Eyes Were Watching God, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and John Trimble’s Writing With Style:A Conversation on the Art of Writing, I am ready for this school year.

If I Had A Garden…

… these are the plants and flowers that would be in it.

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These are a mere sampling of the beauty I saw on my trip through Ireland and Great Britain. The plaque is from St. Paul’s Cathedral, which like the Phoenix it bears, reminds us to rise above all things. This would be in my garden, too (granted they would let me have it).

What places inspire your garden?

My Rack

My blogging buddy Jilanne Hoffman has been demanding requesting that I bare it all. But before you get too excited at my big reveal (and if your mind is going where I think it might–don’t get your hopes up– there’s nothing to see here), I am going to expose one of the most personal parts of myself to you: my book shelves. These shelves contain my lifelong friends enclosed in pages and mementos from my childhood. Enjoy!

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Some things you might have noticed:

1. I like ducks.
2. I have busts of Jane Austen and Thomas Jefferson (the only busts I’ve got).
3. Fiction is alphabetized by author; history in chronological order.
4. I have travel, poetry, and art sections.
5. My current area of study is WWI.
6. Reading is sexy.

So now that I’ve shown you mine, why don’t you show me yours?

The Sad State of the One Star Review

I have been warned many a time by many a friend that Amazon reader reviews should be taken with a grain of salt.  I suspect this is good advice.  These reviewers are unknown to me and their credentials suspect, even if their screen name is “Professorofeverything”, “books4life”, or “LiteraryWizard”.  Who knows who these people are, their backgrounds, beliefs, and everything else they bring to their readings of a text?  However, there is an industry of Joe Schmoes parcelling out advice for the Amazon Vine program– high-rated reviewers selected by Amazon and who receive benefits from said company– to the community who make up GoodReads.  Obviously, there are those who are taking this with more than a sprinkling of salt.

But like the explorers before me, I use the stars as my guide, and it is with some star snobbery on my part that books that garner only three and a half give me pause.  Are these books that I really want to read?  Those that couldn’t muster an average of a four-star review?  At this point I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and puff away at my pipe to determine if these reviews written by strangers to myself about a book I have yet to read are valid.  Some questions that I think about as I read are: how well does the reviewer know the subject or the author’s work?  How balanced is the reviewer’s tone?  What biases does the reviewer reveal?  Like Sherlock, I also look for the telling details such as the smudge of jelly on the reviewer’s tie that discredits everything he has previously said.  Jelly smudges in writing include words that are not capitalized, like “I”; or words that are in all-cap; or rampant misspellings; or the use of “gonna”, “wanna”, or “I seen”.  Poor use of grammar undermines the message, no matter how balanced it is.  The last thing I look for is the prevalence of the one-star review.

Finding a one-star review worth its salt is a particular (and peculiar) quest of mine.  Mostly it reveals that I need a new hobby.  It is easy to give a book a five-star review, but it takes a certain amount of bravura to award it with only one.  This means the reviewer better have solid evidence as to why the book is THAT bad, why it doesn’t even deserve a “mercy” two star rating.  Giving a book a one-star means that the book is not worth being read; the book is worthy of being ostracized. It draws a hard line.  While the five-star review is superlative, the one-star is dogmatic: “Do not read this!” it warns.

However, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what the one-star is for, and it seems that they should be peer-reviewed before they are instantly published to the web.  If a one-star review fell under any of the following categories, it would would be kicked back to the reviewer for revision:

1.  It’s a complaint about the Kindle edition.  If it didn’t download fast enough, cost more than the paperback, or was full of grammatical errors, learn the lesson, drop the technology, and move back to reading paper books.  The author who slaved over the writing of the book should not be punished for something outside of his or her realm.

2.  It’s a complaint about the UPS driver.  Contact UPS.

3.  Misuse of literary terms.  I have read reviews of non-fiction texts where the reviewers complained of there being too many facts, too many characters, a non-linear story line, and all of this makes the plot really hard to understand.

4.  You’re rooting for who?  Reviewers who complain that a book made Hitler or Trujillo “look bad” or that Abraham Lincoln “deserved to be shot” should have their reviews kicked back with a nice note suggesting “soul-searching”.

5. Inability to determine good writing.  One reviewer of Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain suggested that Stegner learn how to write.  He then posted an example of the passage he found difficult: “The train was rocking through the wide open country before Elsa was able to put off the misery of leaving and reach out for the freedom and release that were hers now.”  This is the first line of the novel.  It went downhill from there.

6. Inability to determine context of writing.  One review of Osa Johnson’s I Married Adventure decried how Osa and her husband, Martin, treated animals in the wild; they didn’t use today’s standards.  The Johnson’s traveled the globe in the first part of the 20th century.  Today’s standards weren’t invented yet.

6a. Using evidence against a writer without first determining its validity.  This most recently came up when I read Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.  There are 17 one-star reviews of that book– which surprised me because it’s Bill Bryson.  Who picks a fight with Bill Bryson?!  But when the topic is language, specifically, the English language, people can get a bit truculent.  It also doesn’t help that the book was published in 1990, and the information is more than 20 years old.  Some of what we know about language has changed or expanded since then.  But instead of reviewing all of Bryson’s work, which is cited, reviewers picked at his credibility through the use of small examples.  One criticized his etymology of the word “petroleum”, which he said that “petra” is a Latin root and “oleum” a Greek suffix.  The reader took offense and stated that it is in fact the reverse!  Therefore because of this and other mistakes like it , Bryson’s work should not be taken seriously, and definitely not as a work of scholarship at all. However, if one looks up the etymology in the dictionary (and the internet provides many dictionaries to choose from), one learns that “petra” is Latin, and so is “oleum” (a half point for the reviewer).  But upon further study, one finds that “ole” is a Greek root for oil. Bryson’s point was that words are created by making Latin and Greek hybrids.  Maybe he should have used the term “hypercorrection” as an example instead.

What I think bothers me the most about one-star reviews is how close to life they are.  We have all received such reviews in our lives, and they’re based on spurious reasons.  They’re unfair, and mostly (unless we’re major screw-ups) we earn them through no fault of our own.  It’s hard to deal with someone who misunderstands you, willfully or otherwise, and does not seek to understand.  Or one who could be corrected, but lets the rating still stand.  Or one judges us using different criteria (“Yes, she gave a knock-out presentation, but did you see the bags under her eyes?!”).  Like authors on Amazon, we cannot do much about what other people say about us.  Some reviews can be changed; our merits shine through and our reviewer sees the light.  But for those who dig in their heels, there’s no budging them.  It’s not necessarily the Amazon reviews that we should take with a grain of salt, but it’s the one-star reviews about ourselves.

Grateful in 2012

This time last year I anxiously awaited 2012, also known as the year of the Dragon in Chinese astrology.  As a fire Dragon, I fully anticipated this to be MY year.  Dragons are known for being rather lucky, and really, who can be luckier than a Dragon in its year?  However, the year of the Dragon is a tumultuous one, fraught with changes and upheaval. No one escapes unscathed… even Dragons.

2012 did give me a year of fortune and luck. I have a loving family and husband. I went to Palm Springs (three times), Michigan, Chicago, and New York; I took four students to London and Paris and brought them all back.  I started this blog, got back into writing, and met wonderful people from all over the world.  I have a job I love with an administration and staff that supports my goals.  I coach our school’s Academic Decathlon team and advise our Book Club, Health Careers Academy, and Adventure Club.  As a result, I spend a lot of time with students who give me a lot of hope for our future.  Then there are my own students who bring me many smiles and laughs.  In their reflections of the class, a few wrote about how they learned to love reading.  As an English teacher, is there any higher compliment?

2012’s upheavals served to remind me how lucky I am.  In February, my cat Toby fell ill and we were quite sure we’d have to say goodbye to him; fortunately, after a weekend at the vet’s, he came home more chipper than ever.  In April my MIL fell and broke her hip.  This resulted in a full hip replacement and pelvic reduction and exposed a whole host of other issues.  Anyone who has a stubborn, fiercely independent aging parent in complete denial about her bad health and habits knows what we’re up against.  There were many tense moments at home as my husband tried to acquire care for her even though he is 400 miles away.  Right now everything is “stable”– whatever that means.  Meanwhile, my health went bonkers with recurring bouts of getting sick (ie. vomiting) that landed me in the ER, my doctor’s office a few times, and the gastro-entologist.  We’re still pursuing tests to find the root of the problem.  Next up is my colon (yay.).  The most recent tests revealed that I am anemic, which helps explain my lethargy and constant need for sleep.  Oftentimes, I come home from work, take a nap, eat dinner, and go back to bed; hence, no blogging.

2012 taught me how to be grateful for everything I have.  I am grateful for my husband who takes care of me and makes me laugh.  I am grateful for my family who is always there for me.  I am grateful for my friends who all inspire me.  I am grateful for my cats, Toby and Molly, who melt my heart.  I am grateful for my job and my students.

I am also grateful for all of the readers who read my work regularly and those who stop by every now and again.  Thank you for making this so much fun.

Happy New Year!

What I’ve Been Up To

Over a week ago I sat in my doctor’s office, she and I trying to determine the cause of the recent bout of illness I had.  In spite of the nausea, vomiting, and aching joints, I was a completely healthy person; all of my tests came back negative.  Looking at the pile of school work I had brought to grade in the waiting room, she put two and two together and said, “I’m going to ask you some questions.  Don’t analyze the questions or the answers, just answer the questions.”  She proceeded to barrage with me thirty questions tied to anxiety.  The only one I answered “no” to was the one about suicide.  At the end of her questioning I burst into tears.  I knew what this meant.  We had a long discussion about anxiety, depression, and stress, and I couldn’t deny  that I had been feeling anxious, on edge, and had a limited focus.  Everything had become TOO much.  She recommended a low dose of anti-anxiety meds and suggested I seek counseling.  I agreed.  I needed a break from myself.

Back in college I attended Humboldt State– a school and area renown for its pot use– one of my roommates remarked on my non-smoking habit, “You know, Amy, even if you were willing to try it, I wouldn’t give you any.  It would make you stop thinking, and you might like that too much.”  My husband has often told me that I’m always “on” and should learn how to “turn off”.  I once had a student put his hands on my shoulders and told me to calm down and others who asked me if I am okay.  I wake up at odd hours, my mind running and spinning, worrying over trivial issues that seem enormous in the dark.  My dark passenger takes over, and I feel on-edge, ready to snap.

It’s been one week, and to be honest, it’s nice to have a break from myself.  Last Monday I felt like myself for the first time in a long time; my positive outlook and sense of humor returned.  On Tuesday I voted and was relieved by the outcomes.  In class there were some stressful events that always tax my patience, but I was able to handle both calmly.  One was the collection of my seniors’ research project, an event that is always time consuming and nerve-wracking since none of my students are ever prepared.  Typically they take 20 minutes of class time putting together their drafts, peer reviews, annotated articles, speech drafts, and what-not in order.  This is seriously a huge waste of time and aggravated me to no end, since I needed to go through all of their stuff to make sure it’s complete.  This time I gave them their envelopes to turn in everything two days early and told them they needed to turn them into me complete and in order at the beginning of class at the door.  Never in my history of teaching had I experienced such an orderly turn-in, nor had I had such a high rate of organized and complete packets.  Because of this I could quickly go through them and had time left over to watch the ending of Pride and Prejudice with them.  Instead of being angry and annoyed, I was thrilled and they were thrilled.  In my US History class, I gave them less daily work, but instead gave them a project to work on all week.  They had to create museum exhibits for the 1950s, and the quality and creativity of their work blew me away.

On the home front I’ve been doing more of what makes me happy– predominately reading and sleeping.  Even though I have all of those research essays to grade, I spent yesterday on the couch reading Michael Steinberger’s Au Revoir To All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, an interesting look at how France lost its claim as the culinary capital of the world.  Steve catered to this lazy whim of mine by making me both lunch and dinner and taking off my glasses when I fell asleep. I haven’t been blogging– mostly for having nothing really to report.

My goal lately is to do not all that much and to decide how I can cut back on things at school.  The biggest harbinger of my fatigue, besides my recent illness, was during our trip to New York.  In the city that offers so much to do, my greatest desire everyday was nap time and bed time; all I wanted to do was burrow into the pillow-top mattress, down pillows, and down comforter.  It’s not right to want to actively sleep in the city that never sleeps.  Another revelation was a day a few weeks ago when I was able to leave school at 2:30.  I got home at 3:20, when normally I get home at around 5.  I was in shock.  There was still the majority of the day left to do what I wanted to do (for someone who goes to bed at 8, an extra hour and a half is not insignificant).  Getting home earlier is something that I want to cultivate in my life.

So I’m using this time to replenish myself, figure out what I want to do, and scale back.  I’m taking a break from myself to find myself again.

If You’re Not A Bottle Of 7-Up, Then I Don’t Hang With You

I have been fortunate to have had good health throughout my life.  I’ve never broken a bone nor had surgery or had to stay in the hospital overnight.  Friends have described me as “hale, hearty, and healthy.”  My sick days at work equal two months.  Doctors visits find me “normal”, and I can count on having a head cold and losing my voice once a year.  On the survey at doctor’s offices where they ask about past problems, I draw a straight line through the column of “None”.  I don’t smoke, do drugs, and only have one glass of wine when I drink.  I’m sickeningly healthy.

That is until recently.  A couple of weeks ago I wrote about getting sick before my trip to New York and the grilled cheese that brought me back to life.  When I wrote that post I was confident that it was a random case of food poisoning or the stomach flu.  What I didn’t count on was for it to come back the next day after I hit “publish”.  Again I was sick and waylaid on the couch. I had the exact same symptoms as before: sore throat, nausea, vomiting (and other stuff that is really TMI).  The next day I recovered and felt fine.  Another fluke, right?

I woke up the following day with the sore throat again.  My stomach felt heavy and nausea rolled over me in waves.  I called the advice nurse and followed her advice: urgent care.  With Steve by my side, the doctors took my vitals, swabbed my throat, and tested my blood.  In the meantime I grew progressively worse– to the point where they gave me my own room, a bucket, and my very first anti-nausea injection.  My tests came back normal except for the CBC; my white cells were elevated.  They determined that I needed more services than they could offer and packed me off to the ER.  They let me keep the bucket.

At the ER they performed more blood tests, gave me another dose of anti-nausea meds (the first had done little to ease it), and hooked me up to an IV, another first.  Instead of a private room, I had a bed in the hallway that allowed me to watch the parade of patients going here and going there.  Again my tests only revealed elevated white cells.  This suggested an inflammation or infection, and they sent me for a CT scan (another first).  I learned how painful it was to try to move around with an IV hooked up to my arm.  The CT scan revealed nothing, and the ER doctor basically said, “Your body’s fighting something somewhere.”  He wrote me a prescription for anti-nausea pills and released me.

A day later I was back at work teaching, not knowing what I had or when it would it attack again.  Anxiety shadowed me whispering “what if, what if, what if…” in my ear.  Over the course of the week I lost three pounds.  The only thing I could do once I got home was sleep.  However, I made it through the week without an incident and by Friday gained my appetite back.  Saturday broke sunny and clear, and I felt great.  I  took a brisk two mile walk, went to the foothills with Steve, my sister-in-law Lisa, and some friends, and fed my growing appetite.

The next day I woke with a sore throat– the precursor to hugging the toilet– but I didn’t feel sick and ate breakfast.  Around ten in the morning, it started.  This shattered my confidence.  Normally the sickness would begin around six or seven in the morning, but this time was later.  It couldn’t be counted on.  So when I woke up this past Wednesday with the worst sore throat yet, I really had no idea what was going to happen.  I drove to work visualizing what I would do if for some reason I had to run out of class.  My contingency plan was to give the principal’s secretary’s extension to a responsible student in each class with the instructions that if I were to run out to call her.  During one class I had to step outside to talk to a student who was having personal issues, and when I came back in my designated student was on her way to the phone, seeing that I had stepped outside.

But whatever it is attacking my stomach took a more sinister turn that day: it attacked my joints.  My ankles, hips, shoulders, elbows, the back of my neck, and my jaw were all sensitive and tender.  Each move agony.  But all of them combined did not equal the pain I felt in my knees.  Walking was laborious and taking the stairs near impossible.  I went from someone who usually skips down the stairs to clutching the railing and using my arm strength to guide me up and down.  I normally avoid the elevator, but this time I used it.  By the time I got home from work yesterday,  I had to lift my left leg out of the car.  Last night using a can opener was a herculean effort.  It crossed my mind that I might wake up this morning as a board.  Fortunately it didn’t happen, I was still stiff and sore, and my knees still screamed, but somewhere along the day most of the pain eased off.

My doctor thinks I have an inflamed stomach lining (she doesn’t know about the joint pain), but Steve and I think I have a virus.  Whatever it is, it gave me much more empathy for those who are chronically ill and who have severe (or any) arthritis.  These past few weeks have been full of uncertainty, have chipped away at my confidence, and depleted my energy.  Those who have to work consistently through pain– especially those who work with others and have maintain a positive and chipper attitude– have to rely on physical resources that are often just not there.   This has been a real mental exercise that required me to put my positive attitude and patience to the test.  The joint pain was worse than the stomach ailments.  Eventually that would go away and life would be “normal” again, but the joint pain prohibits me from doing what I love: walking.  The ramifications of not getting enough exercise and relieving stress reverberate far beyond a stomach ailment.  It showed me the frustration and disappointment that people who have rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia or any other kind of pain must go through.

This illness has also shown me how lucky I am.  I have friends who have checked up on me.  The staff at my school has been wonderfully supportive– their care and concern has made it easier to be at work knowing that if I did get sick, everything would be taken care of.  Then there’s my husband who has made numerous runs to the store to pick up 7-Up, crackers, and chicken noodle soup and then comes home to prepare it for me.  He stayed by my side through my visit to urgent care and the ER, making sure I was comfortable.  He’s picked up the slack on the nights when I’m too tired or sick to cook.  He has also been making me really good grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup.  I know that this is what husbands are supposed to do, but it doesn’t stop me from being blown away by it.

Right now, I have no idea what tomorrow or the next day will bring, but if I’ve made through the recent bouts, I will make it through whatever my body throws at me next.

Nine Years And Counting

I met Steve in August of 1996 when I was 19 years old.  We both attended Humboldt State and majored in History.  We sat in the front row during our Early Modern European History class with Professor Sundstrom, and we both wore Converse. He furiously took notes as I struggled to stay awake during the mid-afternoon class with the windows that let the warm sun shine on my sleepy form. I wish I could say our Converse lead to conversing, and have the rest be history, but it was a year and a half before we started going out. During that time I had other lessons to learn besides Robespierre’s influence and how the printing press changed the world, but Steve would see me around town and offer me a lift or ask me out.  My response was always a chipper “No, thank you!”.

Despite my rejections, he still bought me drinks at Toby and Jack’s — even after the night when he gave me his number as did somebody else.  All our bar meetings allowed me to see him interact with his friends, and there was one thing I noticed: they were always laughing.  There was mutual respect and camaraderie among them; all of them were having a good time.  About a month or two later, it finally occurred to me to call him.  I left a message.  He called back and we talked for an hour and decided to do the Nineties pseudo-date of going for coffee.  When I met him at the coffee shop, I still saw him as “friend” material.  He was, honestly, not my type, but then again, my “type” wasn’t quite working out for me.  That night Steve humored me and let me read him his tarot, as I dutifully referring to my How To Read Tarot book.  The last card I flipped, the one one that reflects the passage of your life, was a two of cups.  I read from my book and it said something on the lines of “someone is interested in you for reasons that aren’t clear to you.”  Immediately, my face grew hot as I realized that that someone was me.  This threw me into a state of panic.  Could he see it was me?  Was it written on my face?  What should I do with this newfound knowledge?  Should I swing open my arms and yell, “Surprise!”?  I sat on it instead.  Two more weeks passed.

You would think that by what happened next that that would have gotten the ball rolling.  It was finals week, and my first opportunity to go get really drunk afterwards (the first and last time I participated in this lively tradition).  I even told my landlady.  She didn’t quite know how to respond when I told her, “By the way, I’m going to get really drunk tonight.”  My mantra on the way to the bar was, “Don’t make a fool of yourself and hit on Steve.  Don’t make a fool of yourself and hit on Steve.”  I was a good little drunk that night.  I stayed on my barstool and everything.  And I didn’t hit on Steve.  I just rubbed his arm every time he walked by me or stood next to me or asked me a question or turned to talk to someone else.  Taking this as a sign of encouragement, he walked me home.  Now, now, now, don’t get any ideas.  There were too many eyes and ears out for me to cause any shenanigans.  Before leaving the bar, Steve was grilled by two sets of friends about his intentions.  When we got to my house, my landlady had stayed up to make sure I got home.  She said she heard a male voice with me, and slyly followed us down the hall (it was a 7 bedroom Victorian mansion that allowed for stealth) to find out if he was “friend or foe.”  Then there was my housemate Katie, who also was on patrol.

Steve, however, was a gentleman and helped me with my “routine”: twenty minutes of flossing, brushing my teeth, washing my face, and taking out my contacts.  He was a bit amazed that someone so inebriated would still do her nightly routine.  Then he made me drink a lot of water, listened to me tell long teary stories about my grandpa, tucked me in, and left.  I woke the next morning to find a note with two ibuprofen.  What I didn’t tell you about this evening was what happened in front of Everett’s bar.  That’s for me to know.

Winter break passed.  The spring semester started.  We went on our first official date to Mazzotti’s in Eureka.  He dropped me off, patted my knee, and said, “Thanks for coming out with me.”  I was confused. I had a vague recollection of him kissing me in front of Everett’s.  That did happened, didn’t it?

A week passed, and finally it was all too much.  We were back at Toby and Jack’s sitting near the darts.  I asked him, “Did you kiss me?”  He finished taking a swig of his Rolling Rock, placed the bottle on the table, folded his hands, and said, “Yes, and when I’m done with my beer, we’ll talk about it.” After a few minutes we left the bar and talked about everything.  He was concerned about starting a relationship because he was graduating in May and moving in August, and I was graduating in December.  He was also working on his senior thesis, and that would take up a lot of time.  Was it really viable to start a relationship now?  I thought so.  I hit on a scheme that really made a lot of sense to me: let’s casually date and then break up in August. How perfect was that?  He agreed.

The trouble with that plan was that we didn’t specify which August.  August 1998 found us in a long distance relationship.  August 1999 found us in our first year of living together.  August 2001 found us living our last month of pre-9/11 life– an event that prompted Steve to propose in October.  August 2003 found us in the midst of last minute wedding plans.  Steve even flew my best friend and maid of honor in from Texas, so she could attend my bridal shower.  On September 13, 2003 we got married.  Now it’s September 2012.  It’s been nine years.

A photo from year six in the foothill wineries.

I’m still with the man who still takes care of me and supports me and makes me laugh.  Here’s to the next nine years.

Fighting The (Good?) Fight

My blood is still boiling.  My breath seethes. I may look like I am smiling, but really my teeth are on edge. For over a week, the conversation– that began innocently enough– has run an endless loop in my brain.  With each new loop comes a swift kick to my butt.  I had had a rebuttal, but I didn’t give it.  Now it jabs, bobs, and weaves in my mind, waiting to be let loose on my opponent.  It screams for justice, for victory, for the declaration of “I AM RIGHT!”.

What was this conversation that got my panties in a bunch?  That has had me on edge all week?  Alright, I’ll tell you.  It will be a relief to declare my evidence– so unwillfully withheld and stewing in my cranium: “Of course Charles Dickens had class consciousness!  His dad was sent to a debtor’s prison, and he was pulled out of school to work in a factory to pay off his dad’s debt!  Dickens would have to be a complete knucklehead to NOT have class consciousness!  AND it was this experience that drove him to be rich and successful!  Jane Austen lived a life of relative comfort and wanted for nothing!  It’s not like there was an Occupy Steventon or Occupy Bath when she was growing up!”

Whew!  That was like cutting open an infected wound and letting all of the puss slide out.  Oh, the relief!  And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is what my friends and I argue about.

Why didn’t I give my rebuttal when I had the chance?  A variety of factors: I haven’t thought of Dicken’s childhood in a very long time and didn’t have that information right at the tip of my tongue; I was exhausted and recovering from a headache; the conversation moved quickly; I think associatively, and my rebuttal at the time was, “Comparing Austen to Dickens is like comparing Dickinson to Whitman: both lived during the Civil War, but one wrote about it and the other didn’t.  Should we fault Dickinson for not writing about soldiers and battles?  She wrote about private stuff and her home life, as did Austen.”  I think, also, I felt a bit personally on the defensive.  In defending Austen for not being class-conscious, I was defending myself for liking her novels and gleefully watching Downton Abbey.  So the class structure was awful in England.  People were butlers and second lady’s maids.  There were rich people and middling rich people.  It’s how it was. Should I not watch Gone With The Wind because it has slaves?  Should I not watch Dead Poets’ Society because the prep school didn’t admit girls?

How did Dickens get in the mix?  I was agreeing to the fact that Austen is not very class-conscious in regards to the lower class, but was for people who were just below her station, at her station, or above her station.  However, her way of life didn’t really call on her to be aware of those far beneath her.  My friend retorted, “Dickens did, and he lived at that same time.  This is just as bad as saying the Founding Fathers didn’t know that slavery was bad.  They knew.”  You can imagine how that got steam coming out of my ears.  This is why I wish I had said what I wanted to about Dickens.  It would have nipped that line  of thought in the bud.

But I am serious when I say that I’ve been stewing over this for a week.  It has become my internal soundtrack.  All it does is make me mad.  And frustrated. Why is it so important that I get the last word on this one? Why have I been unable to let it go? Why do I have to rehash all of this all of the time?  I have tried to end the discussion in my head, letting myself know that I can take quiet joy in the fact that I am right and that she doesn’t know that much about Dickens’s life if she’s going to make that hasty comparison.  I have killed many negative conversations in my head before, because, really, there’s nothing that can be done about them.  The conversation is done and over with.  To go back and say, “Um, Dickens grew up in poverty…” makes me petty, holding onto something that has fallen off everyone else’s radar.  This conversation, however, will not die.

Part of the reason I think it remains on life-support is that my friend is very intelligent and confident.  I constantly feel like I need to prove myself. She is also very quick with a retort, while I need time to process my information, to weigh the validity and veracity of my response. She has passed start and collected her $200 a few times while I’m still on St. James Place.  I kind of feel like a dunce.  The thing is, I don’t think she realizes she does this.  I also think that she probably doesn’t see me as a dunce, but it’s how I feel.  My little nugget about Dickens is my redemption, my “Get-Out-Of-Jail Free” card, but unlike that card, Dickens’s childhood will not get played.

Shooting Star Or Falling Star?

The traffic moved steadily down the highway yesterday morning as the sun made its ascent from behind the Sierra Nevadas.  It’s a dramatic sight to see the rugged silhouette edging above the mist-laden countryside.  The sky lightened into its pinks, oranges, and periwinkles.  The scene allows for quiet reflection of how lucky I am to witness dawn’s arrival– it’s a time to embrace a new beginning.  Yet, I was not embracing new beginninings; I wondered instead if maybe I should have called in a sub and stayed home.   Did I really have the energy to make it through another day?  Fatigue and exhaustion creaked in my bones.  News of my friends’ personal tragedies, setbacks, and questioning weighed on my mind and heart.  In the past two weeks I shared tears with three friends and colleagues, and many of my students were also on the verge of tears.  Many of us, it seemed, were barely hanging on.  In that moment on my drive a meteor shot across the sky.

Meteors are also known by the more fanciful names of shooting stars or falling stars.  After watching its bright light pierce the sky, I wondered if it was an auspicious sign of fortune– was it something I wished on?  A sign of hope and potential of shooting towards goals and destinations?  Or was it an omen? A sign of falling , burning out, extinguishing from shining so bright for so long?  It symbolized the crossroads that many of us are in.

A broken clock greeted me as I walked into my room.  My failing LCD projector that I need to use my clickers and document reader, to show film versions of Othello and Pride and Prejudice, and to have my students present their power point presentations, said “Hi ya!” from its defunct perch on my ceiling.  My sluggish computer groaned its greeting as it half-heartedly opened my grade book.  The stack of essays panted like a hyperactive Pomeranian jumping at my heels, “Read me! Read me!”  As always I restrained my impulse to kick them.  My whiteboard petulantly demanded the opening activity, and I resisted throwing my dry-erase markers at it.  My overhead projector gloated over the fact that it was the only piece of technology that actually worked correctly; we all know how riveting overhead transparencies marred with my messy handwriting are.  I won’t even go into  the mechanizations that are happening outside my classroom and campus that are working to change our school.  Do I sound bitter and burned out?

There’s one factor that can save teachers from burn out: students. Teachers can list all of the things that suck about their job: lack of technology, aggressive/indifferent parents, poor morale, testing, grading, etc.  There is always one big BUT that saves us: the “but my students are great.”  Yesterday it was my students who carried me through.  They have been working hard for me all year, but yesterday was just one of those special days.  My history students embraced the Spanish-American War news-cast assignment.  They excitedly planned their roles, asked if they could bring in props (including a fog machine), one group wanted to borrow my swords that I use for Othello, and one student, who is the most disengaged, proudly told me that she was going to be Commodore Dewey.   They wrote me nice notes in their self-assessments.  My TAs made me a nice poster and hung it on my cupboard doors as a surprise.

My seniors used their time to review for their exam by reading their notes quietly.  One came up to me and verbally told me all that he had learned (which turned out to be everything).  As some began to finish early, I wrote a quote from Othello, which we will begin next week, on the board and asked them to write a reflection on it.  They quietly got our their pens and paper and uncomplainingly responded to: “Oh, monstrous world!  Take note! Take note!/ O world, to be direct and honest is dangerous!”.  I walked around the room, read some of their responses, wrote my response and questions to their thoughts, and they continued writing to answer those questions.  The amazing thing about this is that I said not a word– all of this happened in silence as we all showed respect to those still taking the exam.  Those who used the entire class time for the test scribbled down the quote to respond to it over the weekend.  It was a teacher’s dream.

Their actions showed me that while I was tired and worn-out, I was not yet burned out.  How could I burn out when my students still burn brightly for knowledge and thought? When they still strive for improvement?  It was one of those days where I saw myself and my students as a meteor shower of shooting stars– reaching, striving, ready to make our mark on the world.