Balancing Act

“Ms. L, are you on your feet all day long?  I swear, I’ve never seen you sit down.  Do you even know how to use a chair?” asked one of my students as they did their self-assessments– a written reflection of their participation, preparedness, and how they felt in class.  I wondered how he would respond if he learned that I often snuck away or a mile-long walk during my prep period.

His perceptive question led me to my own self-assessment. I was on my feet all day long– walking, running, pacing that follows the staccato rhythm of go go go. Sit down?  Who sits down?  My participation last week was one of a grouchy teacher; my preparedness was defined by the seat my pants; and how did I feel? Tired, emotional, worn-out.  Granted, I had a busy week that began with an upsetting real-life episode of The Twilight Zone right in my classroom.  But I knew it wasn’t just the busy week; it was also the two busy weekend before grading essays and doing other work; it was the lack of time to prepare; it was my new biological clock that decided to pare down my hours of sleep every night to six; it was me not having the motivation to eat prepared healthy meals, but eat Twix instead.  But I also know that every week is going to be busy– there will be the same amount of students, classes, and clubs, and I am the same, too. I am the one who, like many others, struggles to balance the rigors of work with the rigors of having a life.  Last week I was resentful because I didn’t have any of my own time, but it is ultimately my own fault because I didn’t make any time for me. My students deserve better than to have a grouchy teacher, and I deserve better than to feel that at any moment my emotional dam will burst.

My goal this weekend was to do the things I enjoy, plan for next week to avoid the mad scramble, and reflect on everything that went well.  So I read, baked a cake (a Thai inspired Pineapple Upside-Down Cake that uses coconut milk), made three small appetizers, had dinner with friends, spent time with my hubs watching our new favorite show The Newsroom, practiced yoga and kick-boxing, and went for my morning walks.  Right now I am blogging.

One of the books I read is Carol Jago’s With Rigor For All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature.  Jago asserts why it is so important to teach the “classics” to our students and how we need creative ways to get them “into” those stories.  Her methods of teaching, dislike of objective tests, and reasons for unconventional assessment reaffirmed my teaching values and gave me the impetus to teach Othello the way that I want.  My current curriculum involves analysis of plot, character traits and motivation, theme, blah, blah, blah. This knowledge is important, but my students have spent the last 11 years of their school career identifying and analyzing the literary elements.  None of my seniors are planning on majoring in English in college (at least none have publicly admitted to it).  I chose Othello because it connects to their lives: cultural conflicts, bi-racial relationships, haters, rumors, jealousy, loyalty.  If this doesn’t connect to high schoolers, then I don’t know what does.  So why, then, if I want them to connect to this wonderfully juicy and tragic story, do I implement lessons that strategically disconnect them from it?

My students will still discuss and analyze plot, characters, and theme, but this time much of their knowledge will be shown through creative writing (a process that is rarely touched on in school).  For example, borrowing an exercise from Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, my students will write “What’s Behind the Door of Room 101?”.  This prompt will make them think about what’s behind the door, which is the thing that a character most fears, but they cannot write about the fear in abstract terms.  They have to write a scene in which the character watches his/her worst fear acted out and how he/she responds to it.  This requires a detailed understanding of the characters in the play, their motivations, and the themes.  My students can be creative and apply their understanding, and I can have (hopefully) entertaining student work to read.  It will be very easy to see who gets Othello and who does not– plus it prevents the cheating often found on worksheets.  My students will also have a compilation of creative stories that are a reflection of themselves.

My point– before I went all “teacher” on you– is that I gave myself time to explore my interests, and now I am energized to begin the next unit with my seniors.  Just so you do not think that I lie on my couch reading trade books, I am also reading Natsume Soseki’s turn-of-the-century novel, Kusamakura, a story of a nameless narrator on the romantic quest to find beauty and simplicity in nature and rise above the “vulgarity” of the common world.  Dense and quietly funny, it’s definitely a book to read with a pencil in hand.

Ultimately, the trick is how do I make sure that every weekend allows me the time to do this?  Right now, it’s a mandate: have fun or go nuts.  How do I make balance a habit?

Readers: What do you do to maintain balance in your life?

The English Teacher Gets New Glasses

The bearer of bad news came in the form of a teenage girl wearing a stained baggy hoodie, track pants, and socks with slide-on sandals.  I greeted her as she walked into class, and she paused as she noticed my glasses that I wore in lieu of my contacts.

“Whoa, I didn’t know you wore glasses, Ms. L!” She clucked her tongue and shook her head, “Man, those frames are DAY-ted.  You should get yourself chic new frames.  Be modern.”

I tried my best to not let my sarcasm come through as I thanked her for her completely unsolicited advice first thing in the morning.  The day of knowing that I wore frumpy, old-fashioned frames that the Tyrannosaurus Rex wore before he met his end loomed ahead.  “Could I make it through a day without seeing?” I wondered.  Everyone’s looks would improve.  If I could teach without my hearing aid, I could teach without my glasses…   The very same glasses I use to read my students’ lips.  Damn it.

My husband will tell you that I tend to hold onto things for a bit way too long.  In 2009 I finally replaced my sunglasses that I purchased in 1995 after someone asked, “Who do you think you are? John Lennon?”.  My search for a new pair was long and hard (I know Michael Scott, “that’s what she said”), and no sunglass display was left unturned.  It wasn’t until I made a “what-the-hell-why-not?” trip into a Honolulu Sunglass Hut that I found my new pair.  Yes, I plan to get another 11 years out of them.  In the meantime, I still wear the red sweatshirt I stole from Steve gave to me when we first started dating (also last century).  The collar and cuffs are beyond frayed and there are big, gaping holes along the seams, but it’s still the first one I go to.

Today was my annual eye exam, and I knew it was time to retire my old, not-quite silver, wire frames.  This pair was my second set of the same frames; the first set broke, and my ophthalmologist found the very last of pair available in the country to replace them.  These are special glasses.  I packed them into their case and took them with me.

Arriving early to my appointment, I used the extra time to survey the wall of bright, shiny, and “modern” frames.  Fred, the man in charge of the glasses, greeted me.  He looked dapper in his neatly pressed striped button down with his sleeves rolled up, his long silver hair pulled back into a pony-tail, and his frameless, sparkling spectacles perched casually on his nose.

“Can I help you find a certain pair?” he asked.

Overwhelmed and not quite sure what I was looking for, I responded, “No, I’m just trying to find a pair that won’t make me look completely like an English teacher.”

He raised an eyebrow, “Why not?  The kinky look is in right now.”

My reflection caught my attention in the mirror and shot me a look that said, “Oh God, he did not just say that.”  We appraised each other’s looks: wash-n-go hair that said “go” more than wash, minimal make-up, brown sunglasses, a shapeless brown polo atop a shapeless brown skirt,  chewed fingernails, farmer-tanned legs in need of shaving, brown flip-flops on feet with unpainted toes, and one inner ankle that sported a freshly opened blister.  This added up to kinky, how?  Not to mention the fact that I now work in a kinky profession?  It’s sentence diagramming, not diaphragming.

Wait… do I need kinky glasses if I teach Like Water For Chocolate?  Gertrudis does mount that horse and the soldier riding it.  Othello?  “An old-black ram is tupping your white ewe”?  “Making the beast with two backs”?  Breathing deeply and channeling Regency England, Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth Bennet (never mind Lydia and Wickham’s illicit elopement or the fact that Jane and Bingley go off alone into the bushes– who’s tupping who?), I reminded myself that I am not Tina Fey sexy-cool and finally chose a small brown, tortoise-shell frame.  They would match anything and last me a decade.

I put them on and showed Fred.  He appraised them shrugging his shoulders, “Eh.”

Eh?  Now I really didn’t care what Fred said.

“Let me see if I can adjust those,” and he took the frames, returning quite a few minutes later smelling of orange chicken.  I put them on again, and they did fit much better.  Fred and I entered a conversation about people who have more than one pair of sunglasses; one woman I know has a pair to match every outfit.

“Some women have priorities,” replied Fred, “For some women it’s sunglasses, others it’s shoes, and some collect purses.”  Hm.  No, no, and no.  Was Fred insinuating that I lack priorities?  Did he think I needed to unleash my inner-Carrie Bradshaw?  And I had to wonder, when it comes to shopping for glasses that really define us, how do we really see ourselves?

Fred painted a clear picture of what he saw.  “These frames don’t really stand out. They just blend in.”

I leaned over the table that separated us and stage-whispered, “Sometimes I must travel incognito.”

“I-Spy, huh?” he chuckled as he wrote up my order.

Yes, oh yes, Fred.  I spy a blog entry, and I will unleash my inner-Carrie Bradshaw– the one that writes.