Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Portrait of the Teacher as a Student



Until this past year, I always introduced myself to my students the same way. I told them that I'd been an adjunct English instructor for (1-6) years. I told them that I was a huge nerd and that I'd started writing stories when I was seven. But - I added - I didn't expect them to be nerds for English. I expected many of them to feel about English the way I felt about Math - absolute hatred and disgust.

It was bullshit. I took for granted that it had been ten years since I had to take Math. And while I knew that bringing their interests into the classroom would invest my students in their work, I did not yet understand what it meant to be a good teacher. I did not know how to help them do well.

I had to take Math again first.

Let me explain my life. As well as an adjunct, I'm a writer, MFA grad, who returned to school for certification upon realizing I prefer the classroom to the writing desk. Pretty early in my first semester, I got the bad news - I needed three more credits in Math.

"Math?" said my mother. "But you're an English teacher!"

I just nodded, well trained in jumping the flaming hoops of academia.



The first day of Math class, I was late. I was late to the second class too. And the third. And the fourth. Back in the day - I wouldn't have dared be late to any class. But now, my life was too full. I had stacks of papers to grade. I had yoga. I couldn't go to Math class with my chakras out of whack and my third eye off center, now could I?

Every morning, I trudged in, head hanging, feeling like a jackass. The students - all ten years younger than me - looked at me like I was a jackass. I waited to hear my teacher, Prof. Nitica, reprimand me. But every morning, he said nothing.

Within a few weeks, I realized that was Prof. Nitica. He never gave anyone a hard time. Not the obnoxious music major rockstars-in-training that talked all during class. Not the dim-witted sports who gazed out the window instead of paying attention.

He was easy.

The material was not. It was all logic, truth tables, and these geometric anomalies called Euler paths - stuff I couldn't explain to you now if I tried. But I could do it. Because Prof. Nitica organized the material so efficiently that everyone did well.



We worked like dogs for the first few weeks. Then just before midterm, the homework and tests stopped. We completed small in-class assignments until midterm ended. One day in class, it dawned on me what he was doing. He was testing us when we were at our best.

In order to pass each test, I had to study for - at least - a full afternoon. That's really not asking too much of a student. That's a gift - compared to how things were when I was an undergrad. Thanks to those little in-class assignments and the practice tests, I knew exactly what was on each test.

This repetition helped me the most. In class, Prof. Nitica was like a broken record. He repeated himself so much, he sometimes dropped the tone of his voice, mimicking a robot. Nobody laughed. But I always shot him a grateful smile.

When it came to Math, I needed to hear the same lesson over and over again. It was as if I'd moved to Mexico and tried to learn Spanish by immersion. On the third try, I'd hear the roots of what I already knew and begin to make sense of the language.

By the end of the semester, I was skipping yoga to make it to Math on time. I had an A-plus in the class. On my desk at home sat a pile of scrap paper - notes I'd been taking on how to revise my English class.


Every teacher is taught the importance of empathy, structure and repetition in the classroom. However, it's hard to understand why these components work when you are a master of the subject. Most teachers are lucky enough to love what they teach. Most students don't love what they learn. That's a pretty big gap to fill in forty-five minutes.

Prof. Nitica taught me one way to bridge that gap. In his math class, he cared about what mattered most. What mattered most was that his students did well. Once I became one of those students, I saw how much it mattered to me too.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Home is Wherever I'm with You

Around this time last year, I ran into an old high school acquaintance at the gym.

"Hi Anney," he said. "Are you home from Boston?"

"No, I moved back. For good."

He stepped back and scowled "Why?" he asked. Like the idea of moving from a hip city like Boston to bumf--- Phoenixville, Pennsylvania was absurd. Like I was really uncool. Like we were back in high school again.

"Because it's my home," I stammered. It was the best I could do at that moment. Flustered and embarrassed, I walked away.

That was a year ago.

I still remember exactly where I was when I decided to move home: a train station in Leeds, UK. Out the window, Leeds looked like a crap town to me. But people poured out of the train. I saw moms and grandmoms, businessmen, teenagers, recent college grads on their cellies, even sleek pretty ladies in power suits. Why, I wondered, are these people here? They could live anywhere! Why here?

A voice answered from the back of my head: Because it's their home. Their family and friends are here. So what if it's an ugly town? Buildings can be torn down. It's people that make a place.

Oh my God, I thought. I am so lonely. I need to move home.

If my life was a movie, the credits would've rolled as I planed back to the states. There would be a montage of scenes, showing me starting over. Packing liquor boxes with books and candles. Driving Yoshi onto the Mass Pike, headed south. Dragging my bags up my parents' driveway. Walking across Molly Maguire's to hug my friends hello. Driving to Phoenixville Hospital in the rain, and stepping into the room where my BFF of 22 years just gave birth to her daughter. "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros would play. "Home, yes I am home, Home is wherever I'm with you." There would be the prevailing "happily ever after" feeling, like everything would be fine now.

My life is no movie.

Shortly after I moved back, everything went to shit. Jobs disappeared. Next, money. I couldn't afford to move out of my parents' house. Try living in a house with five other adults. Scratch that. Make that five other adults that are part of your family. See how much you get done. Answer: Not much.

Our house is a four bedroom Colonial. For the past year, I've camped out on my sister's floor. The fiction book I've been writing has lay in scraps of paper, piled up under her bed. My clothes, balled and wrinkled, in a Tupperware bin behind the door. To be fair, my sister was incredibly welcoming. She treated the room like it was ours, instantly. She was way more gracious than I would've been. But still. It's hard to get your life together when there's nowhere to organize it, besides the floor.

All over the house, there were signs of it being overcapacity. The fridge door never closed right. Inside, there were four different kinds of milk. Mom's lunch chicken. Matthew's rice. Moira's yogurt. My tofu. Racks of clothes hung along the upstairs hallway. Almost every night, I'd get up to use the bathroom and stumble into one of the racks. All the clothes would fall to the floor. Every morning, we fought each other for the shower. Sunglasses and keys were lost. Nobody ever got their mail.

So, yeah. Be careful what you wish for. In four months, I became the polar opposite of lonely. I couldn't get a peace of mind.

From time to time, the question resurfaced. Anney -- Why did you move back home? With it, came this awful shadowy monstrous doubt. What if I made the wrong choice?

Last winter, I got proactive. I started taking classes to get certified to teach secondary ed. Classes rejuvenated me in a way that story publications never ever could. Yet I continued to stress out. It was impossible to cram all of my new interests into a single day. I started to wonder if happiness was impossible too.

Then, this one horrible day, it came to me.

It was late last January. I was rushing around in the morning, late for class. It was snowy out. I was racing back inside from scraping off my car, when my one leg flew out from under me. My right leg went one way, my left, the other - 'til I was breaking a split in the middle of our front hall. I got up and realized that I'd pulled muscles from the sole of my foot up through my calf and thigh, to my ass.

Did I email my professors, telling them of my injury? No way. I drove the snowy thirty minute drive with two feet. I hobbled around campus. I held up lines of people on the stairs.

Halfway through the day, I found out that I'd been denied financial aid. This meant that I had to pay for five classes straight outta my pocket. Then, I failed a test. Spilled food on my favorite shirt. Broke my ipod. You name it, it happened. Driving home that night, I got pulled over on route 113 and was given a ticket for speeding five miles over the limit.

When I got home, I lumbered into the warm kitchen. My dad had Bill O'Reilly blasting and was screaming "Screw you" at Obama. My youngest sister, who hates my guts for moving home, shot me a glare from the family room, as if to say: Don't you even think of coming in here. My mother was doing school work in the living room. Upstairs, I escaped to my little bit of floor, where my other sister was on the phone with her boyfriend, going, "Squeeeeeeeee!"

There was nowhere for me to go.

I dove into the shower. Turned it on as hot as it would go. Then I squat down in the tub and bawled my head off. I squished my eyes together so hard and grit my teeth and squeezed the tears out of me as hard as birth. When I was done, I straightened up, finished washing up, got out and went back to the room.

My sister was off the phone and reading a Yoga magazine.

I said to her: "I just had the worst day of my entire life. And I'm still happier than I was last year."

"Good," she said.

I opened up my journal and wrote down one of my favorite quotes: "Home is where you move fluently through darkness." It's from a story by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. When I first read it, I committed it to memory, just because. I don't think I understood it completely until now.

Yes, I'm banging into the racks of clothes in the hallway. Yes, I'm getting pulled over on 113. Yes, I'm crying in the shower. But I'm home.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Shut Your Mouth

I went to the recycling center today in a dress. This didn't seem odd to me. But upon walking through the gate, this guy called out, "Hey, you're over-dressed!"

"Not really," I replied, in my snottiest voice.

Sometimes I really like myself.

It's true that the recycling center is kinda like a garbage dump. But whatever. It was hot out. When it's hot, I rock the dress. The damn thing only cost me ten bucks.

The comment didn't get under my skin. It amused me. The inability of proper attire is a talent of mine. The older I get, the more confused I get about the rules. No matter how much I try to pay attention to style and fashion and all that crap, I continue to miss the mark.

As a kid, I dressed as a rainbow. My favorite outfit included a bright orange Flyers t-shirt that hung down to my knees, turquoise stretch pants, a pink hoodie and pink Chuck Taylors. Of course - this was the eighties. Didn't everyone dress like that? We preferred big, loud colors. Most girls knew how to put those colors together.

In high school, I stripped my hair white blond and invented my own look. One of my boyfriends at the time dubbed it as the "I don't care" look. I disagreed with the name. I DID care. My clothes only looked like I didn't. My clothes all came from the thrift store. I wore ripped t-shirts with my old Catholic school uniform, Boy Scout socks, and combat boots that came up to half my shin.

Honestly? This was probably the most happiest I ever was with how I looked.

I do pretty well as a grownup. I mean, I do well when I'm not wearing dresses to garbage dumps. Although my BFF did tell me a couple days ago that my new pocketbook looks like something her grandmother would buy.

The best thing about the exchange at the recycling center had to be my reply. I squinted at the guy hard, shook my head, and spat, "Not really." Something stirred in my chest. My heart gave gave a kick. Then I knew. Rainbow Brite and Courtney Love are alive and well. Both take up residence in some quirky bitch corner of my brain. Finally, I don't have to let the world know they are in there.

It makes me wonder. How many of us actually change as we grow up? How many of us have simply learned to keep our mouths shut?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Slightly Revised Journal Entry from May

I've never had a perfect mother. By perfect, I mean, one whom I could say anything to. Of course, all mothers say to their children: "You can tell me anything." But they don't really mean it. That anything can be hurtful.

In my waking this morning, I saw that - like everything else - I don't really need a perfect mother. She is the Earth. She is, what Jung called, the collective subconscious. She is this new, second voice in me.

It is so nice to talk to her. Especially after a lifetime of trying to talk to "God" and hearing only silence. Finally, there's a voice. While it comes from inside me, it's not my own. I don't know how else to explain it.

This voice pulls ideas out of thin air that I've never thought before. This voice does not share the same color as my logic. If anything, this voice is VERY logical. We all know that I am not. This voice likes me, and a hell of a lot more than I like myself.

Some examples.

I have been swimming for thirty minutes. I have reached my twenty laps. I want to stop. The voice inside me says, "Ten more." I say, "But I don't feel well." The voice replies, "I know. But do ten more laps anyway." And I do ten more.

I am tired. I want coffee. I want chocolate. I want french fries and ranch dressing. I want Pizza Hut pizza. The voice inside me says, "But then, you will feel sick. You are worth it to feel well. Drink some green tea instead." And I do. And I bounce back.

After a few months of this, I had to come up with a name for the voice. I started calling her, Gaia. That's the Greek name for Mother Earth. I didn't have to think too hard on it. That's the name that came to me first. That's what she wanted to be called.

Gaia works for me, because my Catholic upbringing has me associating the supposed higher power with some heavy strong-sounding G-word. And while I've stopped believing in God over the last year (shockers!), I do believe that nature has a heartbeat. That heartbeat has a spirit. That spirit has a voice.

So eventually, I got to the deeper, soul-searching questions.

Today, at dawn, half between sleep and waking, I asked Gaia: Why does everyone like me better when I don't talk? Why does the room go quiet and uncomfortable when I speak? Why is it that when I speak, volcanoes explode, streets crack and crumble and bubble up with blood, winds pick up livestock and blow cattle off farms, and people run away screaming?

All of my life, I have the same answer for this question. Simply, I'm an idiot. I'm socially inept. I'm a dumb-ass who needs to keep her mouth shut.

Gaia replied differently. She said, "Because you have a powerful voice."

This is something I would NEVER say to myself.

Out my bedroom window, I heard a rumble. A plane gutted the sky overhead.

"Hear that plane?" said Gaia. "That's how you should learn to speak. Be like a plane moving through the sky. It makes noise as it passes through air. As should you make noise when passing through life. Speak when it's NECESSARY."

Then, I cried a little. Cos for the first time, everything was starting to make sense.

I got out of bed. The hallway smelled like my sisters' skin. I inhaled, wondering if their future husbands and children will notice it, or appreciate it like I do. It's a lovely smell. Not fresh, but not dirty. A little sweaty, dewy, summery. It's just bits of them, bits of their cells, loosening up into the air. It's the sweat of their dreams. Air prayer.

When they wake, they are too dopey to smell it. Distracted by the day ahead, they wonder: Where are my glasses? What time is it? Where is my phone?

But if they took a second to linger, could they smell it? Or is it like knowing the sound of our own voices, the look of our own expressions? We are buried too deep in the caverns of ourselves. It's impossible to truly know how amazing we all are.

We need a mother to tell us.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fred

I drank this water today. It reminded me of vodka. Or shampoo.

It was the bottle's fault. The clear taste of water didn't quite match the shape. Long. Thin. The lift and pour into my mouth felt so off. It reminded me of something.

Mad Dog.

Remember Mad Dog? Probably not, unless you were a teenager in the nineties and you grew up in Pennsylvania. It was like the Starbursts of alcohol. Like Kool Aid left out on the back porch for a couple days. Mixed with fluoride treatment & Novocaine. What you drank when you had enough in your pocket for two forties of St. Ides or Old English, but wanted to get more bang for your buck. And by "bang," I mean "effed up."
I never had that kinda money back in the day. I had to wait 'til college to try Mad Dog. One night, some friends discovered a way to make it taste good. We mixed it with Gatorade. Passed it around. Our eyebrows collectively shot to the ceiling.

"We have to tell everyone about this!" I hollered to my college boyfriend. "This is OUR NEW DRINK."

Taste good? Yes. Like liquid Jolly Ranchers. Or whatever candy makes you taste sugar fruity-licious heaven.

Good for you? Absolutely not.

Consider the mixers. Mad Dog: Alcohol and chemicals. Gatorade: Electrolytes and sugar. Put the two together. Electrolytes rush that alcohol all over your body as fast as possible.

Within a span of two hours, the party went schizo. We drank. We sang. We fought. We screamed. We cried. We puked. We said, Never again.

And for once, we meant it.

You know you've got a bad beverage when college kids won't touch it. The next day, we went back to our six packs of Beast and Schlitz. Boxes of Franzia. Icehouse. Bongs. Bowls. CO2 tanks. Whatev. No more hard stuff.

Fast forward ten years. Today, I am afraid to touch tap water. Splenda scares the bejesus out of me. When it comes to alcohol, I'm like Stanley from "The Office." In an old episode, he says, "I drink a glass of red wine once a week for the antioxidants."

When it comes to getting wasted, there's just not enough time in the day for it. There's more important things to do. If getting wrecked was really worth it, 99% adults would be walking around drunk and stoned every day.

Sobriety isn't just a simple convenience. The older I get, the more and more I've become the kind of person I hated as a kid. A listener of Classical music. A fan of public radio. A patron of libraries. A grower of plants. I think going to the farm is fun. Vegetables are incredibly cool.

Maybe grownups are, as a species, nerds?

Maybe it's just me.

The older I get, the more I realize that nerds are the lucky ones anyway. 'Cos with the drinking and the drugs comes drama. I've had enough of that for one lifetime.

Now when I drink, I drink to my health. And yours. Thanks, Fred.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I Plead the Fifth

If you haven't noticed, I haven't been blogging. Like, at all. But I got a good excuse.

I went back to school. This semester, I'm a teacher and a student, teaching two classes and taking five. If all goes well, I will have my secondary ed certification in two years.

It's something I've been putting off since... forever. I kinda knew since I was very young that I was meant to be a high school English teacher. Teenagers fascinate me. So does literature. In front of the classroom is the only place I've found where I can stand and feel completely at ease with being a total dork. Plus, I like to think I'm pretty good at teaching. Not that I feel like I know what I'm doing. Seven years as an adjunct has left me with lots of questions, but no answers. But when I enter the classroom, I bring those questions, because I know there are no solid answers. That's why I get up every morning. Because I want to keep learning.

They say, those who can't do, teach. I think it's true, sometimes. Toni Morrison might have some beef with it. For me, becoming a secondary ed teacher is less about giving up writing, and more about giving myself a base.

Before I can feel at ease to write, I need a place to live. I need a dentist. I need to know that I can go to the hospital if I slip on some ice outside and break my leg. I need contact lens solution. Blankets. Hot water bottles. Trees outside the window. Paper in the printer. Veggies in the fridge. It may sound superficial, but without all that stuff, I feel like I'm writing FOR it.

Stephen King said it best: Writing is not a support for life. Believe me, I've lived it. For the past seven years, my future well being hinged on every single word I put on the page. When I wasn't agonizing, I was rushing through everything, worried that there wasn't enough hours in the day. It's just not worth it.

So... yeah. I'm out. For now. Hopefully I'll be back in the summer.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Old Fake Fever

I had my first Valentine's Day with a boyfriend when I was in the 7th grade. It's a memory that has stayed with me. I didn't really like the guy.

For the sake of minimal privacy, let's call him Rabbit. He looked like one. He was the nerdiest guy in our class. I was the nerdiest girl. We were straight out of the "Nerds" movie with greasy hair and glasses and rabbity front teeth.

It didn't stop at looks. He was obsessed with the TV show "In Living Color." He liked to come to school with a stuffed sock and beat younger kids over the head with it. He prefaced all the boys' names with "Uncle." Except he pronounced it "Unca." So Chris was Unca Chris. Nick was Unca Nick. After getting a free poster of a kitten from the Scholastic Book Club, he drew a Hitler mustache and swastikas on it and hung it from the front of his desk, without a word of explanation to anyone.

Me? I talked without thinking. I was obsessed with Nickelodeon's "Hey Dude." At recess I sat on the blacktop with a notebook and wrote poetry and stories.

Really, who else was going to be my first boyfriend?

Now, when you have a boyfriend or girlfriend in the seventh grade, it doesn't mean much. You smile at each other. Sometimes you swing side by side on the playground. You write notes.

In the beginning, it was easy. Like having a boy for a good friend. Despite Rabbit's sock abuse and unintentional anti-semitism, he was a nice guy. Sometimes he told me that I was pretty. The compliment made my face hot and my nose smell like burning. I thought that meant that I liked him back.

Then came Valentine's Day.

The week before, Rabbit told our class that he planned some big surprise for me. The boys, being Catholic School boys, joked that the surprise was fellatio. On the bus, they told porno stories, starring Rabbit and me. I quickly grew tired of shouting at them to "shut the hell up" and sunk down low in my seat.

It suddenly occurred to me what it meant to have a boyfriend.

The morning of Valentine's Day, I pulled a trick on my mom. The old fake fever. Kids on TV were always trying it with a lamp and failing. I had discovered the right way. With the thermometer stuck in my mouth, I clutched my fist around it and gripped it TIGHT. Mom came and checked the digits, and wouldn't you know? I had a slight fever.

All day, I watched "In Search Of" with Leonard Nimoy and ate butterscotch krimpets. The morning wore on. I felt sicker and sicker.

My best friend Nikki called an hour or two after school let out. It had been her job to tell Rabbit that I didn't want to be his girlfriend anymore. 

"He came to school with this gigantic heart-shaped box of chocolates," she said. "When I told him it was over, he opened the box and threw the chocolates up in the air. All the boys were diving around, trying to catch them."

"I feel so bad," I gasped. "But I don't like him."

"You can't help how you don't feel," she said. "He just wasn't 'the one'."

She said this, as if it meeting "the one" was possible at twelve-years-old. Only nerdy girls think this way.

We wanted to meet "the one," because it would help us feel good about ourselves. Once we got boyfriends, we'd transcend all the mean things the boys at school had ever said about us. We'd love ourselves too. We'd know that deep down, we were okay.

Or so we thought.

The next day at school, Rabbit treated me as if nothing had happened. Instantly, we went back to being friends. I felt so grateful. But not so grateful that I saw the forgiveness for what it was. (Validation, maybe?) Some of the boys in our class called me a cold bitch. They said it with a smirk. I smiled proud. I liked it. It was better than being called a dork.

And then, I tripped through the rest of the non-Valentine's days of my youth to arrive at now. Here. Thirty years old. Single on Valentine's Day. What can I say?

I still feel as ugly, weird and self conscious as I did back then. I just care about it less. Today, I can see forgiving and forgetting for what it is. Someone saying, Hey, you're okay. I like you.

Thank God I don't need that anymore.