An Unexpected Gift of Poetry

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One of my favorite activities at the end of the school year is our poetry jam. We invite families to come in to the classroom, listen to poetry that students have written, and then create poetry together at a variety of centers. We inevitably have a great turnout, and the room is a happy hum of poetry celebration.

This year, the grandfather of one of my students stood by the doorway, a bulky, silent presence. I hadn’t met him before, but his granddaughter had mentioned he’d be coming. He’d slipped into the room right before the students read their poetry, and now remained standing (poised for quick exit?), while she was busy buzzing around the room without him, working with other students and parents. He seemed content where he was, watching the activity, but I suspected that he, like so many adults, was probably uncomfortable with poems and poetry writing. He struck me as the quintessential Mainer–hard-working, somewhat taciturn, with deep ties to the land and community about him. Quiet and strong. 

After glancing about the room to ensure that everyone else was happily occupied, I walked over to introduce myself to him.

We exchanged names and a few pleasantries, and then I asked, “Would you like to write a poem?”

“No,” he replied slowly. Almost thoughtfully.

“Well, have you ever written poetry before?” I asked, in full ambassador mode.

“Yes,” he said. “After I came back from the war.”

Then his voice shifted to a sort of dreamy cadence….”I wrote about lying on the grass under a big oak tree…looking up through the green leaves and branches above me… I wrote about wondering how many birds have nested in this tree…How many animals have made their home in its branches? …And how many children have played in those same branches? …And I hoped my own children and eventually my grandchildren would climb in this tree. …And then, I wondered, after I died, … how long would this tree live… and still provide a home and comfort.”

“Oh,” I said, after a brief moment in which I recalibrated my initial impressions, “that was lovely.”

He told me then about some of his experiences during his service: He was shot in the head, shoulder, thigh and ankle. To this day, it’s still uncomfortable for him to sit, especially in hard chairs intended for much smaller individuals, which is why he was standing.  

Then, at one point, his voice changed again, slowed and deepened, and he said,
I heard the thunder,
then knew it was gunfire.
I heard the screams,
then night fell.
When morning came,
I woke
and wondered
why I had survived.”

Clearly, these words were deeply etched within him. Their power echoed within me. After a moment, I blinked and cleared my throat.

“You’re a wonderful poet, ” I finally said. “Have you shared your poems with your granddaughter or with anyone else in your family?”

“No,” he said. Then he elaborated, in true Maine fashion, “I’ve been working.”

We talked for quite some time, about his school experiences (not positive), his work (long and hard), his family (much beloved). Later in the conversation, he told me that he had shared some of his writing with a veteran’s organization.

Eventually, I realized I’d totally abandoned my classroom responsibilities. I thanked him for coming and for sharing his words with me, and told him how much I’d enjoyed our conversation. Reluctantly, I wandered away to circulate amongst the parents and children, my mind still lingering on our conversation. On the inaccuracies of first impressions. On war. On poetry. 

Two days later, on the last day of school, his granddaughter handed me an envelope. In it her grandfather had enclosed some of his writing. It was about time and change and family. It was beautiful and thoughtful. Once again, I was deeply moved by this unexpected poet and his unexpected gift.

A Long Flight

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hThe end of school came in with a typical whirlwind of activity and a few delightful-but-tiring extras thrown in–an accumulation of a couple of weeks of nonstop activity and lots of people. I packed up my classroom on Friday and limped out of the school year. On Sunday, I took off for NYC and a wonderful, intense week of learning at Teacher’s College Summer Reading Institute.

By the end of the week, I was a limp dishrag, ready to hoist the white flag (and to mix a few metaphors along the way), and in search of solitary confinement. But it was time to head to Ohio for a visit with family and friends. 

I hate flying, and typically dread the entire experience, but as I boarded the plane, it occurred to me that this flight was going to be my last chance for solitude and relative inactivity for the next 4 or 5 days.

“It might even be nice!” I thought, looking forward to peace, quiet and some solid reading time.

Then my seat mate arrived.

She was a lovely, young woman, excited to be heading back from a trip to Germany to visit her parents and looking forward to her reunion with her boyfriend, and their new apartment, and the upcoming trip with his family, which she’d promised them a year ago that she would go on and it meant she had to leave Germany early, but…

Ding! 

She paused to glance down at an incoming text.

“Oh, my family just went to the vineyards without me! Why would they do that after I left!?”

She then burbled on at greater length about her family, her boyfriend, her recent trip, her upcoming trip. She was lovely and sweet, but oy!

She finally paused and asked me, “What do you do?”

“I’m a teacher.”

“Oh, what grade?” she asked.

“Fourth,” I replied.

She turned her body fully toward me, her face alight.

“Oh! My fourth grade teacher saved my life!” she exclaimed. Then she went on and on… about how she thought she’d wanted to be a teacher, and about an experience she’d had working in a classroom when she was in school in England (with a long detour to explain why she’d attended middle school and high school in England) and how wonderful it was but it just wasn’t for her, but the kids made her this wonderful book and she still has it and it was wonderful ….

Then she repeated, “I just loved my fourth grade teacher! She saved my life! Really, she did! She was the first person to bring my attention difficulties to my parents’ attention.” (Which, to be honest, made me wonder how much attention her parents had been paying. I also heroically restrained myself from suggesting that her prior teachers had probably noticed something as well.)

She continued, “We loved her. And she loved us.” She paused dramatically, then said, “She loved us so much that she taught us the next year, too!”

uh huh

Eventually, after I had a pretty good picture of the past year or so of her life, with some childhood details sketched in as well, she trailed off and we began taxiing down the runway.

Taking-off is the hardest part of any flight for me. My go-to strategy is to bury myself in a puzzle book of sorts, typically word games. So, I buried myself in my crossword, trying to pretend I wasn’t on a plane (my go-to strategy). I entered my zone of intense concentration.

Midway through our ascent, a voice penetrated my carefully constructed zone. I ripped my focus from my puzzle book and looked around.

“Excuse me. Excuse me…”

I turned toward my seat mate. Yes, she was talking to me.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I thought since you’re a teacher, you’d  have seen a lot of this and know.” She pushed her finger into her right eyelid and bent closer to me.

“Do you think I have pink eye?” she asked.

I stared at her, slightly bemused. “What?”

“Do you think I have pink eye?” she repeated, jabbing her finger toward her eye again.

Finally, I replied, noncommittally, “Well, your eye lid is slightly red.”

“I know!” she enthused. “It’s been bothering me all day and it feels funny. So I was wondering if you think it might be pink eye.” She looked at me expectantly, leaning closer.

I stared back at her.

“No,” I finally said slowly and decisively, still struggling to make sense of the moment, “it is not pink eye.”

“Oh, phew!” she said, exhaling, and leaning back into her seat, looking mightily relieved.

Phew?! Phew?! Like I’m the authority and this potential problem is now solved?

I turned back to my puzzle book and went back to pretending I wasn’t on a plane, hoping that she really didn’t have pink eye.

It was going to be a long flight.

On TC, Bathrooms, and a Little Bit of Magic

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hI’m at the TC Summer Reading Institute in NYC right now. It’s pretty wonderful. I could write about the amazing sense of community, the energy and the powerful learning. I could write about how excited I am to be here, and about new practices I’m dying to implement in my classroom. I could write about the long, rich conversations with my colleagues. But I’m still processing all of that, so instead, I’m going to write about a bathroom. Really. I’m actually totally fascinated by the bathroom down the hall from my morning session. 

Don’t dismiss this too quickly. Bathrooms are pretty important here. There’s a limited time to move between sessions, so knowing where the not-too-busy bathrooms are is pretty critical. The bathroom I’m focused on isn’t very busy, and I get a total kick out of it. 

The first time I walked into this bathroom, I thought, Oh, this is pretty small. It must be a one-person bathroom. (Again, this is important knowledge!) But then I walked further and around the corner a whole row of stalls appeared.

Oh! I stopped in my tracks. It’s like a Harry Potter bathroom! I thought (or maybe I said aloud.) It was love at first sight. Now, I use that bathroom exclusively in the morning, and every time I use it, I turn the corner and I’m thrilled all over again. (Clearly, it doesn’t take much to entertain me.)

I wasn’t sure if I was going to post today, but then I thought, Hey, I can write about the bathroom! Part of me asked, Are you sure about that? But the other fuzzy over-stimulated and a wee bit tired part said, Yeah! It’ll be fun! Then I thought, Oh. I should take a picture. Wait … Can I take pictures? What if someone walks in while I’m taking them? That would seem pretty odd, if not downright sketchy.

I thought for a minute. Hey, it’s all in the service of a slice! Why not? So, I finally whipped out my cell phone. I took my photos (which don’t give the full effect because I was not willing to hold the door open, stand in the hall and take the first picture) and opened the door to leave. A woman tried to enter at the same time.

“Oh!” she said, seeing the cramped quarters and stepping back. ” I’m sorry. This must be a one person bathroom.”

“No!” I said. “Look! It’s fabulous! It’s like a Harry Potter bathroom!” I gestured around the corner. Obediently she looked.

“Oh,” she said. Then she feel silent.

“Isn’t it great!?” I enthused.

She nodded silently. Somewhat disappointed by her apathetic response, I moved around her to leave the bathroom.

In retrospect, she may have been aback by my enthusiasm, but perhaps she was simply awed by the wonder of the bathroom. I prefer to think it was the latter.

Either way, I’ve discovered my own little piece of magic at TC.

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Observation

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As evening approached, something nudged me to look out the window. Sure enough, there in the misty field, a deer foraged. Grabbing my camera, I tiptoed outside, easing the door open and then closed.  

I rounded the corner stealthily, but as I had sensed its presence, so it sensed mine. It raised its head. Our eyes locked. We both stood still. My hands froze around my camera, stopping its ascent.

Time seemed to stop and swell, to ripen, as we stared at each other. I felt the weight of the camera in my hands, the hard ridged plastic of the telephoto lens against my motionless fingers. The catbirds sang back and forth in the nearby trees, and a woodpecker drummed. From far away, I heard the faint whine of a lawnmower. Still, we held each other’s eyes.

A minute passed.

Then another.

Finally, one of the deer’s ears twitched. It took a big step backward, easing out of the thicket of shrubs. I held my breath, remaining still, my camera clenched by my side. Motionless.

DSC_1032.jpgThe deer suddenly exhaled a loud warning “Huff!”, turned and bounded across the field, its white flag of a tail flying high. I quickly raised my camera and snapped a few pictures, expecting it to disappear into the trees. Instead, to my surprise, it stopped at the edge of the field, turned and looked back at me. I froze, camera raised to my eye, as it stared at me.DSC_1035 (1).jpg

After a long minute, I retreated around the corner of the house. Perhaps if I left, I thought, the deer might return to peacefully eat the shrubs. I stood for a moment or two on the front deck, then carefully peeked around the corner. The deer was still standing there, silently staring in my direction.

Once again, our eyes met.

As I backed away slowly, I wondered just who was observing whom.

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Turtle Guilt

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hDriving to work recently, I noticed a turtle crossing the pavement on the other side of the road. There was no place to pull over safely, so I kept going. As I drove on and up the curving hill, I glanced back over my shoulder.

Hurry up, little guy!

The distance between us was growing.

Maybe there’s somewhere up ahead I can stop…but it’s probably a snapping turtle… Ugh!

Still, I should really pull over, walk back and move it…

I looked at the edge of the road. There still wasn’t a great spot to pull over. I looked down at my sandal clad feet. Clearly nudging the turtle with my foot (which I have done in the past) wasn’t an option.

If I try to pick it up, its head is going to whip around, its jaw will open and SNAP! that’ll be the end of my finger! Darn it. I should have clicked on that video link I saw on Facebook the other day. Then I’d know how to move it safely. 

While my internal monologue droned on, I continued driving, each moment moving farther and farther away, from both the turtle and from the likelihood of moving it.  Just stop!  I told myself, beginning to feel like someone who abandoned a puppy, or didn’t call 911. Guilt spread on me like a greasy stain, but I kept going, rationalizing why I wasn’t stopping — It was almost to the edge, wasn’t it? It wasn’t safe for me to pull over. I have so much to do at work! My fingers! The next driver will surely stop.

The next driver.

When I drove by that spot the next day on the way to work, I slowed way down. My eyes scanned the pavement, searching for a tell-tale smudge. Nothing. I’d like to say I felt relieved, and I did, but mostly I still felt guilty. I should have stopped. 

Even now, weeks later,  I still feel uncomfortable that I didn’t stop, though I have that defensive queue of excuses lined up tidily in my head. But most of those excuses are pretty thin. Really, I chose not to act because it wasn’t convenient and because I was scared–of a small snapping turtle. Ultimately, I hoped that someone else would do what I should have done. But, as one of my colleagues is fond of saying, “You don’t want to be that guy.” And I don’t. I want to be the driver who stops, not the one who keeps going.

So, after writing this, I decided to go back to Facebook and watch the video to eliminate at least one of my excuses. Honestly, after doing so, I’m not sure I feel much better about moving a snapping turtle, but at least I’ll have a starting point.

I’d Rather Not Take “Fun and Games” for $500 or How Jeopardy Tipped Me Over the Edge

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hBack in college I had a good friend whom I began to avoid. I loved him dearly, but at some point during our years together, he went through a prolonged Eeyore phase. Every time I approached him, I learned to anticipate doom and gloom.

“How’s it going?” I’d ask tentatively.

“Not good,” he’d inevitably reply (and that was on an up day!).

Then, he’d elaborate. Whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses is, he was wearing them, and he never hesitated to share his pessimistic world view.

I’m not proud of myself, and perhaps I could have been a more stalwart friend, but sometimes I avoided him and his unrelenting negativity–a quick duck into the student center, a turn down Main Street, whatever it took. Not all the time, but sometimes.

Unfortunately, it has occurred to me recently that I might be becoming that person.

This past week, there was a non-mandatory Open Enrollment Health Insurance meeting after school. I decided to go because I had a few questions. My oldest is getting kicked off my insurance (aged out!) and I’d received a confusing form about that, and my middle daughter is on better insurance through her new job, so I needed to delete her from our plan. 

After school was over, I straightened up a few things, then rushed upstairs into the meeting, hoping to ask my two questions and be on my way. Unfortunately, the presenter had other plans. My heart sunk when I saw that she was busy setting up the overhead projector to display a Jeopardy-like screen.

What?!?! I thought we were just asking questions!

I’ll take “Deeply Concerned” for $200.    

“Someone recently told me that when I start talking about benefits, they fall asleep,” she said. “So, I decided to create a Jeopardy game.”

While I sat there, my jaw on the ground, my to-do list making like rabbits, and the clock ticking toward my meeting with a parent in 23 minutes, she proceeded to divide the room into teams.

“This isn’t happening,” I thought. “This can’t be happening. I know her creativity is admirable. I really do. But I don’t have time to play insurance Jeopardy. I don’t want to play insurance Jeopardy. I have two questions. Just two questions.”

I’ll take “On the Brink” for $300.

Next, she went over the categories. Honestly, I don’t remember what they were. I think I blacked out temporarily. When I came to, the first team had asked for some category or other for $400. They seemed to be entering into the spirit of things.

I’ll take “Who Are These People?” for $400.

“OMG,” I thought, “I am feeling incredibly antagonistic about this whole thing and I need to leave before I blurt out something awful…or simply scream. But really…how is this reasonable? Health insurance? Jeopardy? In May?? AHHHH! Please just tell me what I need to know so I can cross one more ridiculous thing off my list and move on to the next one!”

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Edward Munch’s The Scream

Ten minutes later, we had uncovered three squares (out of  30!!) and learned about open enrollment dates, health plan choices and vision benefits. None of which helped me. I muttered something to one of my team members. It may not have been intelligible. It may have been a subdued guttural scream. I don’t really remember, but I knew I had to escape. I literally felt like my head was going to explode. So, I left, aware that my degree of distress was irrational, but still feeling extremely frustrated, and with my two questions unanswered.

I walked downstairs and into my colleague’s classroom.

“How’d it go?” she asked, turning from her computer.

“It was a torture chamber!” I announced dramatically.

That’s when it struck me. I realized that I might just be becoming that person–the one others are ducking to avoid. Here’s this nice, motivated HR woman going out of her way to make educating us about health insurance fun. And how do I respond? Practically antagonistically! It was just one more thing taking up too much time in a long list of one more things. And then I had to interrupt other people’s valuable time to tell them about it. I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine here. Clearly, I have to work on this.

But for now, I need to e-mail the well-intentioned HR person to get my questions answered. I guess I should have just done that in the first place.

I’ll take “Hindsight” for $500.

 

Time Traveling With John Smith

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Captain John Smith sits on my desk. To be more precise, he stands there. I found him a while back, tucked in a closet corner, forgotten. I picked him up and assessed his condition. He was missing some accessories–his helmet and one leg protector were gone, and the sword I dimly recalled was nowhere in sight–but overall, he seemed to be in fighting condition. He must have fallen out of some haphazardly packed box of my son’s childhood ephemera. I carried him downstairs to place him on my desk.

On our journey downstairs, I idly wondered about the original historic John Smith. What did he really look like? Was he tall, blond and muscular? Did he have all his teeth? What did Pocahontas see in him? I imagined the real man was probably vastly different than this bold Disney-ified version. 

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It’s been a couple of weeks since then, and John Smith is still standing on my desk. I like him there. He strikes an interesting note amidst the writerly clutter, and I stop and look at him from time to time. I never did google him. I don’t wonder about his appearance or his life now. I don’t think about his story. Instead, when I look at him, I always think about my son. I remember him playing with this treasured figure, and oh-so-many others, devising elaborate scenarios of derring-do and rescue. I remember his small hand clutching John Smith about his trim waist, moving him to and fro and his young voice artificially deepening to create his version of an adult masculine voice. It never fails to make me smile.

Note: I saw my son this past weekend. He’s 25 now, almost 26, and I mentioned to him that I’d found his John Smith figure. He immediately grinned. I could feel the sands of time shift for him as well.