First Day of School

I stand in front of the mirror, a dry run for tomorrow, full-front, then turn to one side & then the other, smoothing out the wrinkles of my pristinely new dress. This will need to be ironed. Slipping the brown, flat, flip-flops on. No, the heals will look better even though they aren’t new. They’ll make me look taller. A taller teacher gives the impression of greater control. On the first days of school, it’s all about presence and tone. There’s something to be said about making a good first impression.

My book bag is ready. New multi-colored gel point pens. Folders of first week’s curriculum I’ve been reacquainting myself with. You’d think after eleven years of teaching the same courses, I’d have it all committed to memory. Not so. Mostly, I do, but I want to make sure I come off polished, not sloppy. Besides, I always change it up a bit to keep it fresh for me and, ultimately, them; if it isn’t relevant, it goes unremembered. New clips for holding large stacks of paper and plenty of white out (the school never supplies the good white out, it’s always the gloppy kind). And my IPad, including my rosters of names that usually take me no more than 2 weeks to learn. I direct my students to sit alphabetically, at first, to facilitate learning their names. Nothing more embarrassing than calling a student by the wrong name; I can literally see the expression on their faces, when I address them incorrectly, show signs of disappointment (eyebrows straight, eyeballs  dilated, no curve at the edges of their mouths) imagining their stomachs sinking, thinking I’m not memorable enough for her to know. The truth its, it’s easier to learn the names of the loud ones, the odd ones, the uber nice ones before the others who choose not to stand out; if there is guilt to be had for succumbing to responding to certain stereotypes, I own it in the first weeks of school. Also, on my IPad is this new Planbook app I piloted for our school; I’ve been working with a beta group to test the compatibility of the Windows version. I like to be a pioneer.

The first day of school is hardly about that first day. It’s about the planning that begins weeks before. It’s about constructing each course like building a house. You need to understand what needs to be conveyed through the big concepts before you can plan out the details. It’s about creating an atmosphere that is a stimulating learning environment and slightly different than the year before, so repeat students don’t become complacent. Two weeks prior, I went into school with my daughter to reassemble my room. It’s important for me to have spaces that reflect who I am as a person and a teacher, but it’s equally important to have students spaces, so they feel welcome and comfortable there. In particular, they enjoy the colorful touches. The whiteboard paint in neon colors. The Expo markers of Caribbean hues. The college board, inviting students to write where they plan on attending complete with hash tags. I’m always proud, at the end of the year, when students tell me their college board in my room has the most names on it. Not for a competition or anything, but more to acknowledge my efforts in inviting them to take ownership of their space in my room.

When I walk in tomorrow, initially it will be close to silent. What stands out at first are the shiny floors and clean lockers which are like arms waiting for me to come in. Slowly, the voices can be heard. At first a hum, then so loud you could hardly hear yourself think, but it’s comforting to hear the laughter and see all of the smiles reacquainting themselves with one another.

I will wait in my room, greeting each student with a smile. My name written largely and neatly on the board to help them be sure they are in the right place. A bowl of Skittles will sit at the center of the round table in the front of the room. About half of them notice it; their curiosity already piqued.

I anticipate reminding myself that through all of the business and dissemination of information that needs to be dispersed, today, the most important thing is to convey my philosophy of teaching. I preface this by stating, “On the first day, I feel as if I’m vomiting information all over you. I promise every day will not be like this.” Then I continue, “This will be a student centered classroom; after all, you are the reason we are here. My expectations will be high but not unattainable, and I will be here to assist you achieve your goals in whatever ways I can. I don’t see teaching English as teaching students to learn to read or write. While you will be doing that too, the focus will be on using English to become a critical thinker. I hope to impart you with ways to be curious about and question your world, using different kinds of discourse as a vehicle for discovery– to discover new things about not only your world, but yourself and your place in your world.”

Yes, the anticipation is mounting. I can’t wait to meet these new young people with whom I will share my year. I know they will have just as much an impact on me and my thinking as I hope to have on them. I can’t think of another job I’d rather do. Second only to parenting, being a teacher, I believe, is the most rewarding job of all.

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Phantom Children

Sending a child off to college is what I’d imagine severing a limb is like. You feel phantom pain long after it’s gone; though in this case, it’s more like a sense of longing than actual pain.

I recall telling my mother, during my first pregnancy, “I just can’t wait to get this A.F.P. screen done because then I can stop worrying.” My mother laughed a very throaty guffaw and replied, “Honey, once you’re a mother, you will NEVER [strong emphasis on that word] stop worrying.”

Likewise, I recall my girlfriend, who is about 10 years older than I and has two children from a previous marriage 10ish years older than my children, who wisely stated, “The older they get, the bigger their problems.”
Two very profound pieces of advice/information. I’ve heard their words more than several times throughout my child rearing years, and suppose I will continue to hear them ringing in my ear like a reminder— I am a mother. Who said letting go would be easy?

I just never thought it would be THIS hard.

My first son left for school, being admitted for 2nd semester after being put on a wait list at initial acceptance time. Ahh… I thought, more adjustment time for me. No so, really; instead, just prolonging the inevitable. You know people say that children have a way of behaving unbearably before going off to college to subconsciously help them with the letting-go process. I do believe in the trickle-down theory, and while, immediately, I think it helped– that “I can’t wait to get you out of my house”- feeling subsided the moment he wrapped his arms around me, said “goodbye Mom,” in his sweetest most affectionate voice, and the long journey home, trapped in contemplative thought– where I’d forgotten every curse word, temper tantrum, missed curfew, banged-up car, roof jumping, new tattoo, bong finding, ten-nine, break-up, principal calling, passed-out stupor incident that had led up to this moment.

“Goodbye, Mom.” CHOP. SLASH. KAPUT. Limb gone.

I return home to an eerily quieter house, his neat (bed made, empty floor, everything in it’s place) room. I look at the clock and think, hmm, he isn’t home yet… OH, that’s right, he’ll be home in about three months.

After the second child, it isn’t any easier. It’s just that, now, I know what to expect.

One thing I’ve learned with the first is that I haven’t lost him, which is what I feared initially, but our relationship has morphed into something else– something very different.

I have to concede that I will not talk to him everyday, and I’ll miss a lot of the little things, nor can I take for granted that he is just there when I want or need him to be.

I learn to set aside time to call him, or drop everything when he calls me. I have to be content that he’s eager to share all of the big things, and savor every moment we can share in person– like stocking up on my hugs and listening to him, really listening to every single thing, and living in the moment.

I have to push my worries aside, not focus on those, and hope that all of the big lessons they learned at home will prepare them for all of the lessons they are about to face on their own. I put my trust in God to keep him safe, happy and healthy.

Keeping my mind focused on the big picture helps. I’ve created this child to love, teach, nurture, enjoy in order to set him free to become his own person one day. While it all seemed so very far away 21, and  again 18 years ago, it’s here, today and everyday, now.

And I have one more left before the nest is empty.

 

UM: Atonement

In an earlier blog, I wrote about the Summer of Repairs, literally referring to the many things that have broken down and needed fixing this summer. At the time, I didn’t realize how figuratively that title/entry applied to my summer.

I see my life in chapters… time periods of themes, such as the playgroup period when I was all about making mommy connections simultaneous to facilitating connections for my children, or the volunteer period when I spent countless hours devoted to being room parent or P.T.A. co-chair or spear-heading a scholarship program for my children’s youth hockey association. In particular, summers lend themselves to chapters; for a teacher, they are the chunks of time in between the rhythms of the realities and routines of life. There was the summer of block parties and neighbors, the summer of completing my first novel, the summer of panic attacks, the summer of attempting to publish my second novel, the summer of college visits, the first summer of letting go.

This summer has been about atonement.

Like untangling a mass of soft, beautifully colored, balled up yarn, I’ve been weaving in & out of the last four years trying to “find” myself.

The truth is, I thought I’d found myself when I decided to marry the love of my life and again after my second child was born which marked the moment (and it was literally a moment, in the wee hours in the morning, that I held my second newborn– his head resting warmly on my shoulder, in the crook of my neck, and I could feel his breath on my skin and his heart beating against mine) when I recognized a newfound confidence in myself as a mother (something I was only able see in comparison to how unprepared, and scared, and inept I felt with my firstborn). I’d found myself again when I earned my master’s degree (while being a wife and a mother of 3, working thirty hours a week, and completing a graduate teaching assistantship) in only three years, and once again when I’d found the full-time English teaching job in my hometown– the dream job, the Shangri-La of teaching. I’d thought I’d fully evolved, that I had arrived at my destination and could coast.

But things began to stir inside me. Not the way you suddenly feel your stomach turn; it was more of a slow process creeping up on me over a period of years, and, then, suddenly attack. At first I didn’t recognize it as a mid-life crisis, for the term had always seemed to me just a label for bad behavior. Withdrawal was my primary symptom. I felt myself slipping away, sinking deeper and deeper into an abyss I couldn’t identify other than simply being in the middle. In the middle of my life. In the middle of mothering. In the middle of my marriage. In the middle of my career.

I even felt the wide open spaces closing in around me. Suddenly, what had always been a comfortable size home began shrinking and shrinking. My kids took over space. My husband took over space. For the first time, I embodied Virginia Woolf’s sentiment that every woman needs “a room of her own.” And I felt I didn’t have one. I was losing myself and, instead of fighting, giving into to the feeling.

I’d become tired of being a mother, unsatisfied in my marriage, disillusioned at work– feeling like I was treading through my life, sometimes as if I were keeping my head just above the surface. Other times, disconnected, I was a mere observer, on the outside looking in.

The catapult that eventually enabled me to become a conscious participant in this stasis, that I hadn’t– until this point– recognized, was when my firstborn son left for college. It took some time to grasp how difficult that transition had been for me.

For the first time, in too long, I looked into the mirror and saw a stranger staring back at me. I didn’t know who she was. She was changing and questioning in ways she never had before. She was allowing all the things that mattered most to her to fringe and fray.

And it would take the next two years to work through.

This summer, I began on- the- mend, aware of the path, in search of an end to this mangled ball of yarn. While I had been patiently awaiting a moment, not sure that I would even recognize it as such when it arrived, IF it arrived, I approached my summer, not as a project which has sometimes been the case, but more fluidly, taking one day at a time. My girlfriend shared her current mantra with me, “I will be fully present in this moment,” something I heard my conscious self whispering in my ear time and time again.

In addition to being the Summer of Repairs, I have referred to this as the Summer I Lost My Daughter. When Alexa was eleven, I’d attended a summer girl party where the host had hired a psychic who told me to cherish my daughter that summer, for that would be the last summer she would seek me out to spend time with before being all encompassed by her friends. Well, it’s taken her four years, but this is the summer she’s out all day, every day hanging with friends, announcing that suddenly she doesn’t enjoy going out on the boat with her father and I, reneging agreements to join us out for dinner, brooding over visiting relatives, preferring to catch up on The Kardashians instead of swimming and sunning with me in the pool (all things she previously loved)… I knew it was inevitable. I thought the sting, since she is my daughter and friend– my sweet protégée, would be a little sharper than it had been with the boys. But it wasn’t, which came as a surprise to me, for I was dreading it since that afternoon when the psychic heeded me with a warning. Likewise, with Tyler, my second child who I’ll be sending off to college, I’ve been savoring the moments with him instead of dreading his absence and the gap that will be left in the wake of it.

In working through that period of adjustment, letting Ryan go, I have learned to finally enjoy the quality of time we do have together instead of focusing on the quantity. This brings a sense of calm– a sense that it will all be okay.

I’m finding ways to reconnect with my husband, every day, to insure that we remember how and why we fell in love, in addition to  continue nurturing that bond. In recognizing that, although ours lives can change, our relationship can and will grow stronger to adapt to and deal with those changes together.

At work, I’ve decided to focus my attentions on what really matters– educating my students to become lifelong learners (of not only the knowledge they attain from outside themselves, but also the kind of knowledge they attain from within), cultivating professional relationships that matter, and standing up for what I believe in.

Writing this blog has been cathartic for me, in that it’s given me a vehicle to make sense of the reflections I see in the mirror: wife, mom, teacher, friend… This summer has provided me the opportunity to take a good hard look at, not only the past four years when I was stuck in the middle, but what lead up to the feelings, and more so fears, that stirred within. It was in analyzing the unraveling, confronting my demons and making amends where I needed to that I have gained a newfound perspective only possible in hindsight.

I realize, now, that a certain age is not a benchmark, in the sense that one has arrived and can stop to rest, and that I will never really be able to coast except within the moments I allow myself to become lost in. “I will be fully present in this moment.” I hold out my arms to welcome many such moments.

The Other Place

Every summer it beckons, like a calling. The few summers we didn’t respond didn’t seem like summer at all. I smell the salt water in the air when we arrive, feeling the familiar heat like a tattered, cottony, smooth blanket, each tear marking a memory. Our car wades through the traffic like taking baby steps which makes the anticipation mount. We pass the ferry docks with a bustle of happy people coming and going, then the J.F.K.Memorial park on our left reminding us of the Kennedy presence in this town, next the Hyannis Yacht Club where boats of all kinds align the docks, some fastened to buoys in the water. And finally we arrive to our Cape Cod home, our other place, for we’ve been coming here for 28 years.

Our first trip, before we were even married, was a mistake of sorts wanting only not to vacation in a dump like we had two years before. I picked it out a AAA Travel Guide. It sounded decent enough: new, fully furnished condominiums, 5 levels, 3 bedrooms, 2 & 1/2 baths, living room, dining room, kitchen & den, ocean side or pool side. I just prayed it wasn’t like Sylvia’s. There were four couples renting this first summer. When we arrived, it looked, to us, like we’d stumbled into something that was beyond our means. We circled the stairway to the top where there was a deck with the most splendorous view I’d ever seen. At the bottom of the stairway, looking up, the various balconies peered out with a clear skylight at the top which emitted light throughout, all day.

That first year, we played house. Four couples on the cusp of engagement, the edge of living hard and living purposefully. This vacation brought a little of both.

Now, 28 years later, who would have thought we’d only stray a handful of times, only to return again. This place is a book mark noting all the significant chapters in our lives. From before marriage, to learning to vacation with in-laws; from our first child’s first vacation to the three of our children building sand castles together as young adults; from marital highs when we were inseparable to marital lows when we contemplated the fate of our union; from sharing our time with relatives, healthy and vivacious, to returning with out them — only present in our memories.

I could write a book of the summers spent here at our Other Place– the nuances which make each year distinct to itself. While we are never conscious of the moments that make the memories while we are in them, they are the highlights we return to in our minds once we’re home and the rhythms of life return, making our happy place seem like a dream. Perhaps, I will write them down one day to make sense of them– to realize how the sum of the years all fit together into one purpose.

After toting all of the necessities from home (those that have become fewer and fewer over the years), situating everything in it’s familiar spot, the moment vacation begins is when I open the slider to the back porch, taking in the beauty of the view: a grassy ledge, 4 stone stairs leading down the crystals of sand, hot on my tender feet, a sprawling beach that loops around the bay, ice blue water that when the sun hits looks like a sheen of diamonds, boats rocking in the current like cradles, all under a vast blue sky where the sun’s arms open up, welcoming.

Summer of Repairs

Every time we turn around, something is falling apart.

We began the summer preparing for Tyler’s high school graduation party. Having invited 80 guests, we rented a tent, hired a caterer, I prepared some dishes myself, decorated with balloons and streamers– classy grey, black and white theme– and stood back, ready for the guests to arrive. Only when the guests arrived, so did the gusts of wind, the driving rain and the hail (yes, hail, in the beginning of July). We scurried the guests inside to watch the streamers come undone, the plastic cloths flying off the tables and the balloons sagging to the ground. Once it appeared to break, we bustled outside with a team of beach towels to dry the tables and chairs. As soon as we were done, another driving rain came thundering down. I said, “Fuck it” and thought, what can I do? let it ruin the day? I think not. I placed a dry pile of towels by the door and proceeded with the party.

It’s the first summer with the new boat. One week into summer, we take it out on a cool evening night– Anthony, Alexa and I. Definitely a sweatshirt night, as far as the riding in the cool and constant ocean breeze, we set out for our voyage run on Long Island Sound. This boat is bigger, roomier around the center console with a wider bench for lounging at the bow of the boat. Alexa and I are sharing earbuds, listening to upbeat music, singing to our hearts content on the way out; we can feel the speed and hear the motor humming. The sun begins to set, and we snap pictures to capture the moment, on the way back. And suddenly, the boat stalls. Anthony starts it up, but can’t get past going 7 miles per hour, so what took us 30 minutes to get out, took us considerably longer to get in. We saw SeaTow on three separate occasions coming in– a bad omen, as we put-putted our way back to the dock– the darkness ascending rapidly. At one point, fear set in; it was becoming cold, we were wet from the waves and I imagined us waiting in queue for SeaTow to come get us, shivering, stranded out at sea. I prayed. When we reached the No Wake Zone, the motor seemed to be stuttering more and more and I prayed we’d get into the slip without hitting any other boats. As we turned left into “C” dock, we stalled again, Alexa and I on opposite sides of the boat in ready position in case we were to bump another boat. Anthony tried and tried again to turn over the motor, but nothing… we continued to coast. A man saw we were in distress from the dock and rushed to our dockside. The nose of the boat veered off to the left, bumping the dock, as the man, in waiting, grabbed hold of the back. I held onto the dock, walking it in with my hands as the man pulled. We arrived safely, but our motor was dead– and would remain so for the next three weeks while we waited.

Now, Ryan, is living on the Cape working (his externship) at The Chatham Bars Inn with no car. A good lesson for him, while his brother is home using their shared car to drive to an from work each day. We agreed to a compromise with Ryan, that he could have shared-said car when we come up to the Cape for our vacation in August (since Tyler will have only one week of work left when we come home before he goes off to school). In order to ready their 1999 Ford Escort for the trek to the Cape, we needed to spend some pretty hefty money for a complete overhaul to keep it working, for it wouldn’t even pass emissions in the condition it was in.

Fluke storm #2… tornado warnings, hail, buckets of rain, wind, thunder lightening… (Al Gore is onto something, I’m thinking). In truth, I usually LOVE storms like this (sans tornado warnings). I like to sit outside on my front porch and watch the light show in the sky, never flinching once at the loud claps above. Normally. Well, on this day– the thunder was so loud that it shook my whole house, and the lightening lit up the whole sky. It was so strong, you could almost see it touch the ground. But, instead of seeing it, we felt the ramifications of it when it took out my husband’s work computer and phone, the dog fence and the air conditioning unit.

On two separate occasions, we also had issues with the windless anchor we’d looked so forward to having, a feature in the new boat we didn’t have in the first one. This boat is three feet longer than the first, so it fits more snuggly into the slip. A period of adjusting the navigation in and out of the slip was necessary. At the start of one of our first trips, the stern of our boat swung out, from a strong gust of wind, and stalled simultaneously, causing the top of our motor to get stuck beneath the windless of our across-the-dock-neighbor, thus, making a dent in the top of our motor. Later in the season, our windless ceased working and needed repair.

My husband, not fond of the pool– he goes in it an obligatory one time per summer– perhaps because he is the primary care taker. He cusses it from Memorial Day until Labor Day. So, of course, as Murphy’s Law would have it, this summer, the pool filter is on the fritz. And because he is the handy man that he is– of course, he insists on trying to fix it about umpteen times (since we’d had the pool guy out earlier to fix a leak in the pool, which he informed us the “fix” would be temporary, getting us through the summer, but we’d need to replace the lining next summer in order to fully repair the leak). Finally, he had to give in and make a phone call, and the pool filter is finally running like a charm.

I don’t recall a season of so many repairs. Perhaps it’s where we are in our lives, and the status of our “things” and I keep reminding us that they are only “things”.  I am reminded of our family motto: