Sunday, February 22, 2015

Last week, I taught for 2 days with no voice. Why?

(I wrote this a week ago while recovering from the strep throat that my students gifted me. I suspect that I became sick while I cleaned up the snotty tissues that they left on tables. No worries, though. They also gifted me warm tea and chocolate to help me feel better :) )

I’m trying to teach class today with no voice. Why? Because I’m sick, but I’m also stubborn. I figure that even on a bad day, I’m probably better for my kids than a last-minute sub. Because I didn’t want to leave “busy work,” and we had something we absolutely needed to do today. Most of all, because I felt too lousy this morning to wrap my mind around creating sub plans and calling in. Too sick to call in sick: is this just a teacher-thing? I wonder.

My 7th period is (mostly) completing their collaborative and self-evaluations as instructed, so I thought I’d share my observations after a day of teaching with no voice. Here’s what I found:

  1. If you have successfully created a collaborative learning environment, students will work together to get class going. I had students passing out papers, guiding others to read the PowerPoint and follow instructions, and speaking to the class on my behalf. I rarely had to ask. Only a handful of students took the opportunity to be off-task, but those were the same students who are incessantly drawn to their phones even on a good day. Interestingly, other students felt that this behavior was somehow more disrespectful than usual, and they kept each other in line. Students largely reacted in a positive way toward the opportunity to take initiative.  When students know you are there for them throughout the year, they enjoy being there for you when you need it
  2. Teachers really don't need to talk as much as many teachers talk. Give the students what they need to succeed and then get out of their way! Of course, I don't really mean to get out of their way; they need us. We have vast knowledge in our content & in pedagogy. We have life experience that they lack. We see the big picture. However, if we really facilitate their ownership in the learning process, they don't need us hovering over them with the "correct" answer at the ready. If we create optimal conditions in which learning takes place and provide students with adequate support, they can accomplish an astounding amount on their own and with each other.
  3. Careful analysis of my observations has led me to reconsider the implications of missing a day of work. My students have shown that they can work well with minimal intervention if parameters are set. So why don't I trust that this will take place under the guidance of a substitute teacher? While it's true that the thought of creating sub plans was enough to exacerbate my illness, I should always have a clear back-up plan and materials in place just in case. In short, I should just take time off when needed.

Perception is Everything.

I hadn't been to the nursing home that housed my great-grandfather, Pappy, since I was a small child. As I left his daughter and my grandma there today, I noted just how much smaller it seems. Once cavernous rooms and long corridors have, through the magic of time and perspective, become cramped and confining. This place that once evoked feelings of freedom and exploration now seems more warehouse, hospital, prison, waiting room.

I often credit that nursing home with teaching me the patience that has come in so handy as a wife, mom, friend, and teacher. Visits there meant visiting not just Pappy, but a variety of other personalities as well. While Grandma gave her dad a haircut and a shave, Dorothy and I played ball. She dropped her arm down next to the wheel of her chair and rolled her soft, pink therapy ball to me. Sometimes, its trajectory was so far off that I would dutifully run down the corridor and fetch it before rolling it back to her. We played until I wore Dorothy out, and then I would visit Alice, who always had perfume sample bottles to share. I sprayed some of each on in turn, asking how I smelled. "Beautiful," she would respond, but I can only imagine the olfactory assault that resulted from the combination of inexpensive perfumes. Another dear woman whose name I can no longer recall saved her paper medicine cups for me. That was all she had to give, but she wanted to share something with the little girl who sat and listened to her stories. To me, the cups were amazing. I used them to "feed" my dolls, as course markers for Hot Wheels races, and for tower-stacking. Of course I fondly remember these kind people and the small gifts they gave me, but the greatest gift they bestowed was the ability to patiently listen to someone else talk about his or her experiences and learn from them. Their stories were incredible! Maybe, just maybe, my love of storytelling began in that place! Thank you, Dorothy, Alice, and others. While I brought a little light into your life with my visits, you gave me so much more.

Pappy didn't feel well enough to play ball or save trinkets as he approached the century mark, but he never failed to express his love for me. His charge to "be a good girl" resonates with me still. I sometimes wonder what Pappy would think of me now, or how upset he'd be to learn that my mom and I don't talk. My memories of Pappy are few. I know we ate chicken pot pies together when we both lived with Grandma, and I remember feeling sad when he needed to move into the nursing home. In my mind, I can still feel his rough whiskers scratching my cheek where he kissed me. I could never decide whether it tickled or hurt. I guess it was a bit of both, but it was sweet. He was a wonderful man who stuck by his family through war, economic depression, another war, and the years of ups and downs that followed. He was firm yet gentle, and the love he gave my grandma taught her to unconditionally love each successive generation. Grandma has always made me feel loved and secure, and my visit with her today was largely about me trying to return the sentiment. When grandma told me that she was "close to 100 years old" and that it was "time for [her] to go," I assured her that though I know she is tired, she will always be with me. I have always made sure that grandma knows what she means to me, but today, I wanted to make sure that I said it all again. What passed between us is private, but I will say that my heart could burst from the amount of love and admiration shared in that small room.

The tangible artifacts that represent my grandmother's life now fit on the top of a small dresser. Clumsily arranged photographs and a couple of knick-knacks serve to remind Grandma of her family during the hours when we cannot be with her. They aren't her favorite photos or knick-knacks, but this is just an example of how my uncle doesn't know his own mother as well as I do - because I have always enjoyed speaking with her and listening in a way he has not. I would have known which items should decorate her new home, but no one asked. She was moved last week while I was sick, and her apartment has since been ransacked by greedy relatives more focused on things than on sentiment. I think that grandmothers share parts of themselves with granddaughters in a unique way that no one outside that relationship will ever understand. It was this way with both of my grandmothers, but perhaps it was also because I saw them as wonderfully interesting people and got to know them as such that they have meant so much to me. I hope that I have grandchildren one day, with whom I can share my stories and the stories of my ancestors. Maybe they will visit me in a nursing home one day, but I admit that the idea of living in one depresses me. 

Grandma shares her 10' by 10' room with another woman. Two antiquated hospital beds, powered by hand-crank, anchor each woman's "living space" and leave little space between for living. That point might be moot, since my Grandma and many of her neighbors are not so much living as they are surviving. My grandmother told me that she was "bored," "didn't have a reason to know what day it was," and that she was "exhausted". She is preparing herself for the inevitable, and she is also preparing me. She wants me to be okay with her leaving, and though I don't want that day to come, today, I had to make her feel that it is okay to leave when she is ready. Being a grown-up sucks sometimes. 

In retrospect, I can see that the life and energy I brought on my visits as a child was in stark contrast to the death that hung over the nursing home like a winter coat. Most families are pretty lousy when it comes to visiting regularly. They're busy, and visiting is depressing. As a little girl, I didn't see the nursing home that warehoused the elderly in their final years; I saw a wonderland where I was free to roam the hallways without fear of being kidnapped. I had friends everywhere I turned, and while they were happy to see me, I was excited to hear their stories about a time before television, a time before Barbies for Christmas, and a time when school meant one room, heated by furnace, where each grade sat on a different row and students ate leftovers for lunch out of pails. 

I am desperately trying to see the nursing home in that light again. I want to replace the sorrow I feel for my Grandma being in that place with contentment. Though she shared the sentiments I listed earlier, she also said that she "has never been around nicer people" and that the "nurses here are the best." She said she has everything she needs. But I cannot deny that it is cruel that we warehouse our elderly. There are reasons, of course. Many of our homes are ill-equipped to provide a safe environment, and most nonagenarians require nursing care around the clock. We want them to be secure, but how do we reconcile the fact that they spend their last days separated from the very family that loved them enough to place them in a care facility? 

As it turns out, Grandma has already shown me the way: she loved her father, my Pappy, will all her heart. She reached the point where she could no longer take care of him. She moved him into the very same nursing home where she herself now resides. Grandma knows that we love her, and I'm sure she also knows that I am struggling with the same feelings that she grappled with almost four decades ago. So I will follow her example. While I won't offer her a shave when I visit, I will offer her all the love and patience that I have. I will point out the positives about her new home and encourage her to roam the hallways and share her stories with any who will listen.

My grandma, Mary, among wildflowers c. late 1930s to early 1940s.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


“Gotta make a move to a town that's right for me
Town to keep me movin', keep me groovin' with some energy
Well, I talk about it, talk about it
Talk about it, talk about it
Talk about, talk about
Talk about movin'”

I can feel the sweat pooling in the small of my back, but the breeze created by sheer speed blows my hair back from my face. A whistle sounds.

“Slow down!”

I keep skating, slowing my pace just slightly – enough to keep the skating rink monitor from making me sit in time-out again for moving dangerously fast through the other skaters. I won’t run into them though. This is what I’m good at. This is my domain. Here, I escape the outside world. Music and movement meld together to create a euphoric high.

Rollerskates are natural extensions of my legs. They make me taller, faster, and more coordinated. No one can catch me when I’m on skates. I’m invincible. Incredible. So, so fast. I secretly enter races with the older girls because I know I can beat them. I can dance on my skates; “Funkytown” generally calls for a two-step or cross-over legwork. I try to remember to move my arms, too, but I have to keep my elbows tucked in and movements small to avoid hitting any of the other skaters who are in my way.

“Gotta move on”

The other skaters are merely obstacles. I have a love-hate relationship with them. Weaving in and out of slower skaters is a game that is simultaneously annoying and exhilarating. Their feeble attempts at skating – really skating – reminds me how powerful and fast I am. Until the whistle blows again.

Fine! I’ll slow down. A little.

The beat of the music pulses not only through my eardrums, but also through my veins. My heart beats in sync with the bass. Each stride is calculated to coordinate with the tempo and mood of the music, selected by the D.J. in his elevated booth, played through speakers hidden in dark corners. Each song becomes a familiar and comforting friend with a unique personality. Joan Jett reminds me that it’s okay to be edgy and love rock ‘n roll. Peter Schilling’s account of the perilous Apollo 13 mission is riveting and profound every time I hear it, and, most importantly, it has a good beat. The J. Geils Band, Gap Band, Joe Jackson, and Journey are just some of the companions who accompany me on my journey along continuous counter-clockwise ovals. Music is key in transforming the roller rink into another dimension and transporting me to another plane of consciousness.

“A-won't you take me to Funkytown?
Won't you take me to Funkytown?”

“Alllllright, lovers…it’s time for couple’s skate. You know what that means! If you’re all alone, cleeeeear the floor now. This is for all you lovebirds out there!”

                I am shocked from my reverie in an instant. The total freedom, the sensation of flying, and feelings of self-confidence are abruptly taken from me as I am reminded that I am utterly alone. I wonder if I will ever look as happy as the couples moving closer together, interlocking fingers, careful to skate side by side without bumping skates and tripping one another. Others place hands on their partner’s shoulders or hips as one skates backwards so the pair can gaze into each other’s eyes as they move in sync. I want that. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to couple-skate.

“Won't you take me to Funkytown?”

At least I exit the floor in style. As I round the last curve before my preferred launching zone, I smirk when I see a girl’s inept attempts to stop the rolling wheels under her shaky legs. She skates right into the step and falls, face-forward, onto the carpet. A boy nearby successfully hops the step but can’t slow his momentum. He crashes into the carpeted wall. Why do they carpet the walls? Does it help with acoustics? Maybe it softens crashes like this one. He laughs it off, of course, but carpet-burn hurts.

A little girl, skating so slowly that she almost isn’t moving, finally makes it to the carpeted step and simply walks off of the rink floor. Her skates are more heavy, awkward boots than they are means of enhanced transportation. My path is clear and my departure imminent. I smoothly step onto the carpet with my right foot, glide a few feet, and then sharply turn my feet, leading with my heels, for a quick stop with a flourish. I realize I’m thirsty and head to the snack bar to wait out the slow songs.

There’s only one drink to drink at the skating rink. Suicide. Pepsi, 7-Up, and Big Red in one cup. It looks like cherry cola and tastes like magic. At 50¢ per cup, I can only afford two on a typical night unless I win a race and get a free drink. I count on winning a race later, so I use my leftover change to buy Chewy Sweet-tarts. Three of the flavors in the pack combine the perfect ratio of sweet to sour, but I throw the lemon away because it’s just too lemony. It’s clear that Journey’s “Faithfully” is winding down because Steve Perry has switched from actual lyrics to “whooa, oh-oh-ooh, whooa, oh-oh-ooh, oh, whooa, oh-oh-oh, oh-whoooooa-oh,” so I skate back to the edge of the rink, ready to reenter as soon as the announcement is made that skating rights for all have returned.

“Gotta make a move to a town that's right for me
Town to keep me movin', keep me groovin' with some energy”

“We now return to all-skate. That’s right, it’s alllll-skate. Everyone, make your way back to the rink!” I don’t need to be told twice. I’m already a quarter of the way around the rink before “Freeze Frame’s” first note. I spend the next couple of hours in a blur of light, sound, and heat. The sound of a race’s starting whistle, the lack of cheering when I win the race, my timid request for the D.J. to play “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough,” and an offer from a stranger to buy some red and blue capsules in a Ziploc baggie that I quickly decline are the only uncomfortably real moments in my evening. Though songs come and go, it’s “Funkytown” that defines my spirit and connects me to this place. Its refrains repeat in my psyche:

“Gotta move on
Gotta move on
Gotta move on”

As the clock on the back wall nears 10:45, my heart sinks. Eleven o’clock is my curfew. Like Cinderella, I’ll return to the mundane. To lonely silence. To poverty. My self-esteem ebbs in preparation for the real world as the minutes tick by: too fast now. Though I can accurately gauge time by song length, I sneak furtive glances at the clock anyway until it’s time to leave. This time, I exit the floor slowly. Mournfully.

I pull my shoes out of their cubby and unlace borrowed skates. Dirty knock-off Keds with small holes forming over my big toes replace the wheels that take me away from a reality in which I wear shoes like this. My walk to the skate-rental counter is uncomfortable. I am 3-inches shorter than I was a moment ago, and my feet feel too light. Skating in high-speed ovals for the past several hours now creates the sensation that I am moving faster than I really am. All sense of my body’s motion in relation to the ground under my feet is distorted.

This feeling dissipates and is replaced by a throbbing ache in my feet as I steel myself along the walk home. The air is crisp, but the leaves are still in the breezeless night. Loose rocks and asphalt feel like knives underfoot as I walk through my apartment complex. A few lights are on in windows, but my unit is pitch-black. Wishing I could fast-forward to next Friday night, I open the door and step inside.

“A-won't you take me to Funkytown?
Won't you take me to Funkytown?
Won't you take me to Funkytown?
Won't you take me to Funkytown?”

Song lyrics from “Funkytown,” by Lipps, Inc.