New Growth (New House)

Just weeks after moving into a house for the first time, we had to take down a massive Sweet Gum tree that stoically stood in our front yard. It’s large branches stretched across the front of the house, providing shade and privacy. While previously, my sense of appreciation for the forest was tied beauty and ecosystem support, it was now tied to utility: cooling the house in the summer heat, shading the office, creating a sense of seclusion from the streets.

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Despite being new residents, my roommate and I both bore a sense of loss for the tree. We were looking forward to gardening for the first time. Helping things grow. Digging in the dirt to reach some sort of primal feeling of stewarding the earth. Catharsis when we felt discouraged about the growth of our students; encouragement when growth occurred. To have something ancient and living removed from that experience so early on was disheartening: a foreboding metaphor for the closing of the school year. A literal turnout for our gardening ventures. A reinforcement for many of the negative feelings I was having at the time.

 

Oh, how narrow-minded I was.

 

A few days later I walked by the tree stump and noticed two saplings whose growth stretched towards the new-founded sunlight. This light, provided by the absence of the Sweet Gum, would allow these trees to grow. Not only that, but it provided an entirely new area for us to plant things that required sunlight: a rarity in the woods of north Georgia. New growth from old. Healthier. Stronger. Though, it will take a few years.

 

They say that forest fires are necessary. They clean up dead or weakened plants and undergrowth to make room for the new.

 

They prevent more vicious fires from occurring by ridding the forest of debris. Again with metaphors.

As summer approached, and the school year came to a close, I attempted to find my footing: what I lost of myself this year. I had known for a while that I was not me. The (often) overzealous confidence and pride that I normally carry gave to demure shyness, anxiety, and lack of certainty. The extroversion I base my joy around submitted to isolation (I am still apologizing to my friends for that). I think much of this was because my life became focused on surviving the school year. I went from being a Type A perfectionist in my work to navigating the foreign rituals and ways of high school teaching. And just navigating. Just that. Not steering well. Not growing. Not fulfilling a leadership role that I typically strive for. Not paying attention to the needs of my students. Stagnant on some floatation device. Not helping. And that pained me so much. I was more than that.

 

I am more than that. And I knew I needed to sit down and reflect on my year to prove to myself that despite all of these feelings, this forest fire, this loss of a tree, growth occurred for both myself and my kids.

However, my first few weeks of summer disputed my attempt to stabilize and reflect. Reflection, after all, requires you to step outside of yourself. But high cortisol levels tattooed to my brain kept telling me that I had to prepare for next year. Plan to avoid future stress. Be anxious about the future. You have so much to do. You will never get it done. You will never have time to do the things you once loved in your life anymore. This is adulthood. This is real life. There are no such luxuries.

 

And yet now I find myself sitting in my sunroom, a coffee cup steaming next to me and the summer rain pattering on the leaves of trees, writing. Not writing for school. Not making an assignment. Not writing a journalism piece. Writing for me. And my thoughts evolve as words enter and leave my head and I realize that this is how I reflect. Pen to paper. Cursor to blank screen. It took a while, but I am finally at that point. I gave myself permission to not focus on school for a while and do other things I love. I hiked. Paddle boarded. Rode horses. Had dinner with friends and reconnected with loved ones. Sat with a glass of wine and a book on our porch swing I so longed to use. Gardened. Wrote. Ran. Relished in nature and in the present. And those little pieces of me. The extrovert. The optimist. They came rushing back… or maybe they were never truly gone.

And, just like a piece of writing that you walk away from to gain a new perspective, I returned. The trails only lead to improvement. I was ignorant to think that I would be an expert within my first year. And so, as I sit here, I am not stressed or overwhelmed at the thought of this past year and my future… but humbled. There was a purpose in everything; there is a purpose for most. But, that purpose is what you make of it: a tree stretching for light. I know I wrote in my last post that I am hopeful for next year, and that hope has grown because I have found myself again. Perhaps my reflection was delayed because I needed that first part of summer to realize the importance of balance. That teaching should not be a sacrifice of identity outside of the classroom. That the best and most sustainable teaching comes from maintaining yourself so you can focus on your students and listen. To meet them where they are. To do what I love with what I love… to push for change and work in a collaborative creative setting. God, I cannot wait for next year.

 

Our new house, while quite the upkeep, is filled with reminders of this sort of renewal. Our basil and porch plants are currently providing nests for finches and wrens. The orchids I clipped are displaying new stems. A yearling often accompanies its mother in the meadow out back. Lightning bugs flutter in the evening light. Nature is not always calm like this. Always quiet and peaceful. It can be violent and cruel; but, that cruelty creates life. Creates peace. Humanity is part of that fulfillment of contrasts and growth. That shift from shade to light. Happiness and sadness. Hopelessness to hope or purpose. Those contrasts, when juxtaposed, highlight each other. They fill us with gratitude and drive–part of the experience unique to humans. Every now and then I have to remind myself of that. That we need to be uncomfortable. New teacher advice: balance and grow. You will find yourself in a good place again. I definitely have.

First Years and Appreciation: We Are Not Falling Apart

‘The Learning process is something you can incite, literally, incite, like a riot.’ This is what happened that year. We read and talked and disagreed, and the world, so very much world, began to shake inside us as we found our humanity in all this inhumanity, found empathy and compassion, found moral compasses, as we learned to hold history accountable, to hold the newspaper headlines accountable, to hold each other accountable. And all this in English class, not at home, not at church or temple or mosque, but from reading novels with Ms. W. In one year, she turned us into thinkers. I began to understand reading and writing as a revolution, thinking as being a profoundly active verb. I began to understand that a person writing quietly in a room might be burning down the world. And then rebuilding it, word by word, into something magnificent.” -Audre Lorde

It’s a damp, muggy, beautiful July morning in Charleston. I am doing yoga beneath the ancient oak tree that sits by my apartment. From my twisted angle, the sun flickers a honeyed-yellow light between the pieces of Spanish moss. I inhale slowly and close my eyes, forgetting the last of the moving boxes I have to pack. Imagining myself at the front of a high school classroom–finally achieving my purpose: making a difference. I love my college kids, and I am still so passionate about teaching them, but the mentality of the ivory tower drained my idealism within my teaching philosophy.

Fast forward. It’s 6:45 a.m. and I am getting ready to head to school. Coffee and oatmeal in toe because I never have time to eat at home in the mornings anymore. A sharp pain in my lower back because I can’t remember the last time I did physical therapy or yoga.

My mind, ignoring the calmness of the sunrise and the dew it once so embraced with gratitude, is dwelling on the unrelenting task list ahead for the day. The lessons. The grades. The meetings. The emails. The parents. The students.

The students.

And it’s that last thought that pushes me onward.

It’s 1:00 a.m., that same morning. I am staring vacuously at a cursor on a blank word document, a metronome waiting for thought–a paper for my online special education course. I couldn’t finish earlier because I had to grade, and plan, and fill out paperwork for an observation. And maybe eat and indulge in self-care. I also thought about ordering a new driver’s license since my wallet was stolen over the weekend; but, I didn’t have much time to dwell on that. Personal matters pushed aside. My identity and idiosyncrasies lacking a space both in time and in my head.

You have a Master’s degree and are highly qualified in your field? Have a few years of teaching and curriculum design under your belt?  You still need to take these courses, pay these fees, go to this training, fill out these plans, and watch these videos. Answer these questions and spend your Saturdays inside of an almost windowless room. Spend your precious weeknights doing homework instead of planning for your classes brimming with 170 hungry minds.

Exploit the other aspects of your life that you once loved.

Abuse the attributes of a career that you love.

Never mind the fact that stepping in front of a classroom is the best way to learn. That nothing can prepare you for the blunt force of teaching in the public education system except for actually doing it. Nothing can teach you to balance teaching, attending meetings (504, PLC, Parent, Faculty), preparing curriculum, giving feedback, grading, emailing, data collecting, hand-holding (and then letting go), writing recommendations, giving detentions, disciplining, filling out paper work, inspiring, pushing, motivating (attempting to)–all within a system that offers an ineffable lack of appreciation or support.

This is the first time in my career that I feel as though I am not being treated as a professional within the system of which I work. “Teachers lack a voice,” friends would tell me. “Don’t do it.”  And, as always, my optimistic brain cried hyperbole.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with professional development. It is vital, especially in a field that is ceaselessly evolving progressing or changing. But when professional development obstructs growth rather than nurtures it, there is an issue.

I know, now, why teachers quit. And that breaks my heart because I also know the reason we stay.

Purpose. The future. The students. All of which we have the possibility to act as a catalyst towards: something greater and good. It’s something we fight for that is bigger than ourselves. And, despite all of the lack of respect or authority, there is a possibility we can still enact that change. A small pin drop and a ripple.

Luckily, I breathe in possibility. And so do many others.

There have been monuments within moments this year–those that will become permanent… still under scaffolding, but continuously constructing the foundation of my life. Of my identity as a teacher. As a woman. As an academic. Some have splintered with the temptation to renounce my dream–that the grass is greener where I was; it seeps into the crevices of my flaws. But the splinters have been filled by those around who inspire me on daily basis. Who continuously fight because education is relevant. Because our students are relevant. Because every single day is our present stretching towards a future of limitless possibilities. I see you all here, every single day. I see the immense strength you carry in confronting emotional exhaustion every single day. I see you change hopelessness to hope. I see you lead and develop despite hardship. And I cannot thank you enough for guiding me through the growth of this year and for guiding the minds of your kids. You, and my students, are the reason I am coming back.
In 10th Honors we have been focusing on Brave New World and the concept of happiness and suffering…  what a way to end the semester. That perhaps instead of happiness our goal is purpose. Fulfillment. Enacting change. Benefitting society. That perhaps happiness is an occasional by-product of those things instead of an end-goal, and we are better off pursuing our passions and purposes instead. Of embracing all of the trials and emotions that come with life (or working in education), instead of avoiding them–and letting those magnify their other.

Yesterday I sat at my desk, opened a book, and flirted with the upcoming year. Ideas. Creativity. Critical thinking. Analysis. Language. Writing. And suddenly, I realized that I am where I need to be. As my first year as a public high school teacher comes to a close, I am exhausted, but brimming with gratitude for those around me, and hope for how these experiences have fueled my soul and developed my mind.  Soon we will brush the chalk of our hands and begin again.

On Time and Floating

It’s 6:30 a.m. and I am standing in an open pasture. The grass, coated in dew, makes my journey out to its center all the more difficult in my damp sandals.

But regardless of difficulty, it is beautiful, and as I slide from side to side in attempt to keep my ankles from rolling, I cannot help but admire the peace of the mornings here. The earth coated in natural glitter, which reflects and dances as the summer breeze swims through. Outside of the morning doves cooing, there is a still silence in the air. In the distance, a black and white mass gazes in my direction, flicks her tail, and puts her head back down to graze. I approach slowly, put my hand out, and wait. She walks over, and presses her nose into my hand, her large nostrils inhaling deeply and breathing steam into my palm. I rest my head on hers for a moment, before we make the trek back to the barn to start our day.

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The Bright Side

If aliens, thousands of years from now, looked over the data we place on the internet each day–I think they would all agree upon the theory that the world ended in 2016.

“Look at all of those Facebook posts,” they would scoff empathetically at our misery.

“The tweets,” they would say. “They literally destroyed themselves from within.”

And there, within the reflection of us, will lay pessimism alongside fear, anger, and hatred. Gone will be our great inventions. Our ability to forget the shackles of our feet and fly. To break barriers and tear assumptions asunder. Oh no, we did nothing. We have no grace. Humans are barbarians. Cannibals.

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The Balancing Act: Teaching Openly in the Humanities

One of the hardest things about teaching is the acting.

When you have a weekend, or even just a night, where certain situations push you to emotional exhaustion, or even go so far as changing you, putting an eternal dent in your identity. And then, you suddenly find yourself sitting in front of a class, wondering how to bring the pieces of your mind together. How to convince them that you’re okay when a rush of thoughts are occurring in your head, and your heart sinks into your chest. When you have to remain in the present for them, but the sensation of falling is pulling you backward.

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Washington D.C., A Love Letter (1)

The smell of sweet maple syrup brushes my nostrils. A molasses-like sip of coffee touches my lips. I am staring out from my screened-in porch at a towering Live Oak who’s Spanish moss drapes like a spontaneous work of modern art.

In the background Ray Charles is banging on the piano. Cardinals flirt with the introduction to spring.”Y’all” twangs off the tongues of people below me.

And I am home, mostly. Back in the south, near nature and the people I love.

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Spot right next to my new apartment 🙂

A year ago, my view couldn’t have been more different. And while I miss that place in many ways, there are things that have validated the choices that led me here, as well as the choices I have made for my future. But there are also experiences and emotions that have validated my choice to live there.

When I lived in D.C., a step onto my balcony would amplify the sound of sirens. With a wipe of my finger I could remove the soot that settled on my plants from the cars below. My view across the street was a busy hospital. My nostrils flared at the smell of car exhaust and rubber.

I’m not ashamed to admit that say that my idealism got the best of me when I first moved. I was excited about working in the government, a place I thought I would make a direct and tangible difference. I’d maybe wiggle my way into the Department of Education and change things there, and then go into my role as a teacher. I got to don a suit and wear a cool badge. James Bond style.

When the excitement swayed from moving to a new place, the fear set in. My view narrowed. I knew no one there, and having moved from a place where I was constantly surrounded and stimulated by the people around me, I felt isolated. My life, recently filled with so m
any exuberant and challenging experiences of love and life and knowledge in graduate school and journalism left me sitting in a cubicle. And slowly, I began to ignore the dissonance between words and action of the people around me.

And that was that. That was it. All of my time and all of my work in graduate school, in journalism and traveling, led to this. Had I lived through the most climatic parts of my life already? Was it done? Was it flat or down hill from here on out? The perverseness of these thoughts wore down my spirit. As an optimist, depression isn’t something I encounter often. Sadness, yes. But the inexplicable feeling that something was wrong was new to me. I wasn’t happy.

There were. however, brief moments when I left my shell for a while. When the snowstorm hit D.C., and the violent sounds of the city became muffled, I would walk around the National Mall and embrace the newness of this environment. I sat on benches and watched families as they sled under the shadows of the Washington Monument. Everything  covered in white, the Potomac completely Frozen. I brushed my hands over the Vietnam Memorial and cried a little as older veterans brought flowers or badges for the companions who fought beside them. I even began a monthly tradition of stopping by Arlington Cemetery after work to watch the changing of the guard. Families from all over the world, people of all ages, silent, sharing a moment that somehow tied us all together in honor and respect. It was inspiring.

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These brief open moments all begin to tie together in the spring. My parents gave me a beautiful hybrid bicycle for my birthday, and I began to bike commute to work (I dreaded the metro, despite its convenience, and I think many D.C. residents share that).

My first few days adjusting to bike commuting were difficult. Arlington and the basin of the Potomac did not make for easy coastal riding. The trails were hilly  (one hill, returning from work, was about three miles long), with large ramps and bridges. Often times the chilly spring breezes were strong enough to push me backwards. But I was sick of being stagnant in my life. I needed to face a challenge. So I biked. And as I winded my way through the twisty trails, I realized that there was nature within feet of my apartment. It was never separate from me. Biking was the cathartic catalyst I needed. Funny, because I used to hate it.

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Part of the new work commute. 

The Arlington Loop and Custis Trail are gorgeous. A few miles into the trail and you hit the Potomac river and bike along its shore for the rest of the trip to the Pentagon. In the morning, I’d bike right next to Georgetown’s crew team as they silently muttered their chants, their rhythm fueling my peddling.  I’d bike under Memorial Bridge and look across to see the capitol’s monuments. In these sights, I couldn’t help but beam with something other than sorrow for myself. Gratitude, probably. Weeping Willows surrounded the path and  I’d greet them by standing and brushing my hands against their drooping branches. Osprey would fly over me, fish in their talons, wiggling like a shaggy wet dog to shake off the musty water. Grass and flowers and green and everything my eyes craved to see surrounded me each morning. Greeted me with an awakening similar to the first smell or scent of coffee.

Towards the end of my ride, I would stop by Gallvery Point,  a park near Reagan airport. My dad always told me stories of he and his brother kayaking by the airport and watching the planes take off or land right over their head. I would sit there and watch the planes, thinking of that. That I was able to sit in a spot my father did when he was my age. A place where he developed his future passions for flight. Giant jets would fly feet above my head, and I would sit on my two wheels and marvel at mankind’s capability to persevere in the face of impossibility (wi-fi on airplanes, obviously).

My weekends became filled with hikes with friends in Virginia. Concerts. Dance-a-thons. Kayaking and camping. Encounters with people filled with passions and a zest for life. And that zest was contagious. I, yet again, was in awe of simplicity. Of the little Cardinal who nested in the one tree on our block and sang it’s song. To the man who couldn’t see, and his loyal dog. To the store clerk downstairs who always gave me a square of dark chocolate. To the blooming flowers in windows and the fingers touching at coffee shops. To my dear friends selling their Street Sense news papers to help fight poverty. I want to embrace all of this. I have embraced all of this.

It can be undeniably  easy to see horrible things in D.C. Four small walls and a cork board. People marching in apathy, brain waves closed off to the world around them, eyes aloof as they walk past the homeless or hurting. Concrete walls. Soot. Debris. Politics. Ladder climbing. Pollution. Those aspects are still very real, and I am guilty of latching onto them . But I think, in retrospect, I have lifted the blinders I placed upon myself in fear of the unknown.

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Gallvery Point

My staying in my small little world, my underground commute to work, my concrete view from my porch, my perception, kept me from realizing all there was here. This truly was our nation’s capitol, filled with culture, history, and nature. I just had to step back outside of myself to realize it.

Funny how perception changes things. Funny how life, and our reaction to it, changes who we are. Something to be embraced. To be torn apart and reassembled with a greater understanding of identity and wanting. Growth, I think that’s what they call it.

 

 

 

 

Practice and Preach

 

I write this stricken with a tinge of guilt on my shoulder, wondering if I still can. Wondering if I should. And then ultimately realizing that the wondering is simply a manner of coming up with excuses not to.

“Don’t compose this sentence,” the backspace beckons. My finger reaches for the key. It’s impulse. You haven’t written anything in a while. You’re not a writer anymore. Probably not good enough.

The mind can be SUCH a jerk sometimes. So can whiteout. And the backspace key. And those really chalky erasers. And fights against the Arkham Knight in the Bat Mobile. Moral: lots of things are jerks.

Though despite my guilt, I write this in happiness and contentment. I’m starting to grow and snuggle into a career field I see myself pursuing for the long-haul. One that I am optimistic and passionate about. I am also in a place that allows me to be in nature, work with wildlife and horses again, and open up to the idealistic identity I thought I lost for a little while; though, I think I prefer the term under-construction as opposed to lost.

It’s been ages since I’ve written in this blog, or really written anything outside of a class syllabus. It’s been ages since I’ve poured my time, experiences, memories, and moments into something that was both professional and personal to me. Teaching, in many ways, can be personal, but it is also inundated in connections and social interactions. Teaching at this point, consumes most of my thoughts. How will my lesson plan go tomorrow? What creative activity can I have my kids do to emphasize a point? What do I want my kids to learn? How can I help those who need more assistance? Does this material make sense for multiple intelligences? How is this going to tie in later on? How can I make sure my students are learning at all? What do I need to grade? How can I grade fairly? These questions are never easily answered, and when they are, their answers change. I love dwelling on these things, in the space of ambivalence and creativity.

But I think I’ve gotten to the point where I need to take time to separate my life from my career–a concept that I think is foreign to most who are in or have recently finished grad school. And ideally, that’s what getting back to writing will help me do. Reflection is sometimes the best of teachers… and as an English and writing teacher, I feel like I should probably practice what I preach. So my goal, is that once a week, I will have a piece up on this blog again. It might be an article I’ve recently published, an interview, a reflection, a story, an idea, a blurb, a recipe, an independent clause. I can’t guarantee what it will be, but it will have words. Beautiful, meaningful, fulfilling words.*

*I’m not saying I write beautiful words, I’m saying words in-and-of-themselves are beautiful, and might actually be made less beautiful in the context of this blog (RIP words: thanks for being useful). But it’s still pretty mind-blowing to me that symbols can carry emotional meaning with them. Carl Sagan uses them real good.