My Children Will Never Know

When I was in junior high, my mom saw a bunch of boys that I was friends with buying Trojans in the local grocery store. Even though many of those pimply faced teens would never get the chance to use those condoms until long after they had expired, my mother panicked.

Deductive reasoning told her that if the boys in my grade were purchasing rubbers, then…

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We hadn’t had “The Talk” yet, and so, like a mad woman, she raced home to find me, only I wasn’t there.

As any bored thirteen-year-old would do on a Saturday afternoon, I had hopped on my bike and pedaled to a friend’s house. I’m sure I left a note of some kind, albeit one that didn’t reveal my destination since I often didn’t have an exact end in mind, but these were the days before cell phones, the days when it wasn’t unusual for kids to spend whole afternoons in the fresh air. Yet seeing how I didn’t live in a neighborhood so much as in the middle of a potato farm, my boundaries were less-defined. My mother could yell for me till the cows came home, and cows might literally show up before I would.

In this instance, my mother had only two choices: to wait for me to return (mind racing, envisioning worst-case scenarios) or to track me down like a bounty hunter.

With the determination and paranormal instinct that only a mother can possess, she got in her car.

I was a whole town over when she pulled up alongside me. By the time she had stopped and rolled down the window, my mother had worked herself up from a low simmer to a full boil.

“Get. In. The. Car.”

I’d heard that tone many a time: I was in dangerous territory.

“But my bike.”

I didn’t know what I had done, but I reasoned if I could ride back home, I’d buy myself some time. Hopefully, it would allow for my mother to calm down enough to realize that killing me wouldn’t benefit either one of us; instead she popped the trunk.

I struggled to fit my ten-speed in the back while she waited inside the vehicle, and once I had buckled up, it didn’t take long before she broke the silence.

“I saw those boys you’re friends with buying condoms at the store today. Condoms! What were they buying condoms for, Sara?!”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“Mom, I’m not having sex if that’s what you think.”

“I know you’re not having sex. You know how I know? Because I’m your mother. I know everything.”

“The Talk” ended up being fairly short– the gist of it being that I was never, EVER, to have sex with those boys. I was able to reassure my mother of my virtuous ways (“Ew, Mom, gross!”), and seeing as how she didn’t really want to have “The Talk” any more than I did, we dropped the whole conversation, that is, until my sister came home later that evening and I got to retell the story over dinner in a dramatic rendering that left us both laughing. (Mom did not find my reenactment all that funny.)

Still, this is more than just a story about my mother’s psychic abilities, which I still believe she possesses today. Rather, this is a story about an experience that defined my adolescence.

Last year, my oldest daughter began sex-Ed in school. She was traumatized by some of what she learned, refusing to play with the boys at afternoon recess that day because, as she put it, “It’s just weird now, it’s like, I know their secrets.”  After she came home, and in the weeks that followed, there were lots of questions. I guess, in many ways, we’ve already begun “The Talk.” Still, if they are fortunate enough, my children will never know what it is like to have me hunt them down and find them with only sheer will, maternal instinct, and a little bit of luck.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of all the experiences that today’s children will never have.

Fewer and fewer kids are making mud pies or playing outside till the streetlights come on. When my children start roaming farther from home and I want to know where they are, I’ll probably just send a text. And by tracking their phones, I could know exactly where they are, letting a GPS take me there turn by turn, a thought that terrifies the teenager I used to be.

On the flip side though, my children will also be able to text me when they need a ride. They won’t sit outside the dentist’s office for hours plucking at the grass and wondering when their mom will finally remember she was supposed to get them. They won’t wait outside after play rehearsal watching one by one as their friends leave, the occasional mom or dad calling out from a minivan, “Do you need a ride?” They won’t hoof it home after swimming at a friend’s house, walking for miles in damp jean shorts that chafe the inside of their thighs, turning them an angry red. No. With phones at everyone’s fingertips, my children will probably Uber before they’ll scrounge for a ride.

Technology has made it so my children will never know what it is like to go to 7-11 in order to find out where the party’s at. When the parking lot of Sevs was empty, we didn’t get FOMO. We got Big Gulps. Then, we got back in our cars and drove from beach to beach trying to find the party for ourselves.

When I was a teen, we didn’t have group messages, we had three-way calling. If you were lucky, your family had a portable phone. If you weren’t, you stretched the cord from the kitchen to the bathroom to talk in privacy until your mother picked up the other line and told you to hang up.

We weren’t drug dealers or doctors, but nevertheless, we carried beepers and sent our boyfriends the first numeric text message: 143. And when our best friend stayed home sick, we took a quarter to the pay phone in school and dialed one of the many numbers we knew by heart to find out how she was.

We waited all night for the radio to play the perfect song to record on the mixed tape we were making for our Boo, and waited all week for our pictures to get developed at Genovese Drug Store. Out of an entire roll, we were lucky to get two or three good ones, pictures that wouldn’t go on Instagram, but ended up in our scrapbook next to collages we had made from Seventeen magazine. That was our #aesthetic.

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My children will never spend the first week of school making covers for their textbooks from brown shopping bags. They’ll never know card catalogues or what it’s like to find information without Google. They’ll never peck out their first papers on a typewriter, feeling the agony of every mistake. While I would much rather write a research paper today than when I sat at a microfiche machine, there are some things I experienced growing up that I hope will remain the same.

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I hope my children will know what it’s like to have someone ask them out face-to-face. I hope they will know what it feels like to hold a sweaty hand in a darkened movie theater, wondering if tonight will be their first kiss.

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{via Gifer.com}

And even though I work in a public high school and vomit a little in my mouth each time I witness a make-out session in the halls, I hope they will have someone who waits at their locker and walks them to class someday. They don’t need an elaborate promposal, a grotesque gesture designed to get the most likes on social media, but a simple, heartfelt request that makes their cheeks blush and their heart flutter before they answer yes.

I want my children to see their friends’ faces illuminated by bonfires, not screens. I want them to know what it feels like to spend hours on the phone talking with a loved one. I want their relationships to take place in real life, but fewer and fewer these days do.

Still, when I recently chaperoned the homecoming dance at the high school where I teach, I realized, as more and more kids showed up to dance the night away, that it hasn’t all changed. As I watched the awkward encounters of boys and girls and listened to the shouts as the DJ played a favorite song, their movements becoming more frenetic, the gymnasium hotter, the air less sweet, my friend yelled over the music to me, “I’m glad they still do this. I’m glad that technology hasn’t taken away everything.”

Looking out at the sea of bodies on the dance floor, I thought about my oldest daughter who in four short years would be here, singing along with her friends to the song that marks the end of every dance. As the students swayed, belting out the lyrics of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, I couldn’t agree more.

 

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Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

When it comes to our neighbors, my nickname for my husband is Mr. Wilson. Even though the original Mr. Wilson was the cantankerous next-door-neighbor to Dennis the Menace, the Mr. Wilson my husband more accurately resembles is Wilson Wilson, the next-door-neighbor who peers over the top of the fence in episodes of Home Improvement offering advice to Tim Allen.

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Either Wilson, my husband is the “hidey-ho” neighbor who will venture into your garage if you are working in it, will help you shovel your driveway in winter after he’s finished with ours, and will deliver the homemade Christmas treats he asks me to bake for the half dozen neighbors whose homes surround ours. When watering the lawn, he waves at each car that he recognizes as belonging to one of our neighbors, one hand held in the air, a salute to our block. Mike’s the reason we get invited to Labor Day parties across the street where our children swim and I make small talk until it’s time to walk back home.

I, on the other hand, am not like Mike. While I like my neighbors very much, I also like fences.

Don’t get me wrong. You are more than welcome to borrow a cup of sugar from me and I too, will do the obligatory wave should I see you walking out to your mailbox, but whereas my husband thinks we should invite you to a BBQ, I prefer for you to just smell the hamburgers I’m grilling as the smoke wafts over the fence.

Some might call me stand-offish, but there are healthy boundaries to every relationship. My home is where I relax. Barefoot and braless, I experience a jolt of panic when my doorbell rings. Who is it? Why are they here? What do they want?

Not my husband. Ring our bell and he’ll stand on the stoop shooting the shit for a good half hour while I peer through the blinds.

In the decade that we have owned our home, there have been relatively few changes to our neighborhood. For a few years, we had one house to the left of us that was vacant after a foreclosure, and when we finally got new neighbors, they were less than ideal. Their dirt backyard grew weeds taller than the fence. Here, they kept their son’s two monstrous dogs after he moved out. Since they owned cats too, the dogs were not allowed in the house. Living in the junkyard that was their backyard, no one ever picked up the piles of dog poo or told them to stop barking. In the heat of the summer, and with the right wind, we’d suffer through the flies, the smell, and the dust. One time they put a couch in their backyard, right next to the (broken?) elliptical machine and the two dozen bikes, which became a giant chew-toy for the dogs. I always wondered whether they got the sofa for the intended purpose of letting the dogs destroy it, but soon enough, they put their house up for sale, and I wasn’t the least bit sad. We lucked out with the young couple that bought it. They immediately planted sod and neighborhood equilibrium was restored.

Recently, however, conditions on the right have changed. New neighbors have arrived and we are already mending the wall.

I was headed to my car when I first saw them standing in the road talking to our neighbors from across the street. I would have just said hello, but my neighbors waved me over to meet them. The first thing I noticed was the window decal on a very large pick-up truck: a picture of Donald Trump urinating on “LIBERALS.”

Great, I thought. He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

The wife, in a three-minute conversation, was able to overshare several tidbits of their life; from job layoffs to nasty custody battles, the largest red flag came when she mentioned their last house had burned down.

I tried to keep a smile on my face, but inside, my thoughts were spiraling. Was it arson? Did you leave the iron on? Were you running a meth lab in the basement?

They seemed nice enough, but one thing was for sure: I wasn’t going to wear my Obama tee-shirt to the block party lest I find them dropping trou on my front lawn. Also, I needed to pick up some extra fire extinguishers. Stat.

Mr. Wilson wasn’t home when I met the new neighbors, but I made sure to fill him in on all I had learned. A week later, he finally got his introduction when the new neighbor came over to thank my husband for returning his dog when earlier that day, it broke through a fence post and ventured into our back yard.

As the two stood talking on the front porch, I thought it might be neighborly of me to come say hello. I listened to my husband espouse how great our neighborhood is when the new neighbor told us the reason they purchased the home next to ours.

“When we came to look at it, it was just after the fourth of July and every house had an American flag flying. I knew then that this wasn’t going to be a neighborhood full of Liberals and Communists.”

Mike chuckled as I turned and walked back inside wishing that the Democratic Party would conveniently call for my husband at that very moment. If only it was dinner time. 

When Mike found me hiding in our bedroom, he took one look at me and laughed.  “So I guess Liberals don’t fly American flags?”

Since Trump’s election, I’ve witnessed a country divided in ways I have never seen before. I’ll be honest, I’ve clicked that button to hide the political posts of friends and family on social media, but I’m not sure how to hide my new neighbor except by building a taller fence.

Yet for as much as I believe that good fences make good neighbors, I know that for better or worse, he is my neighbor, and maybe, rather than mending walls or building walls, what we need to do is start taking them down.

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In an article published in the Los Angeles Times, Alexander Nazaryan writes, “To wall off is an ancient human impulse, and there is no use in pretending that we’ve transcended that desire. It’s what we do with that impulse that matters.”

As I settle into the different sounds coming from across the fence, perhaps it’s time I take a clue from Mr. Wilson and invite the new neighbors over for a BBQ.

After all, boundaries, like some window decals, only serve to alienate one another. After so much division, it’s time we started coming back together. Conservative or Liberal, we all fly the same flag.

“[S]ome do not love walls, but others do, and always have,” Nazaryan writes. “A demagogue like Donald Trump will use it to his own hateful ends. An artist like Robert Frost will take the same and, listening to the complex rhythms of the human heart, create a thing of beauty.”

It probably will do no good to write my new neighbor a poem. I’m not naive enough to wonder if I could put a notion in his head. But I bet a plate of homemade brownies wouldn’t hurt. After all, we’ve still got a few years till 2020, and I’m hoping we can make the best of them.

If you want to read “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, click HERE

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A Kinder World

I was at the water park with my family when my step-mom called to tell me that my grandfather had just passed away. He was 94 years old when he died and had been ailing for some time, so the news didn’t come as a shock to me. There was relief in knowing that he was no longer suffering and was finally at rest.

Pop (as we called him) was always jocund, always smiling, and spent much of his life volunteering his time. Everyone would say that Pop was the nicest man, and he was. By being kind to others, he lived the way we all should—and in doing so, he’d had a happy life. 

In the wake of that news, I thought about my family. I especially thought about my own father who had just lost his dad and wondered what that must feel like. No matter the age, it can’t be easy to be without a parent. And even though I was sad, what I felt most was gratitude. I was grateful that Pop had lived a long and joyous life. And here I was. It was a beautiful day. My children were splashing in the lazy river under a cloudless sky. I watched them playing, and thought about how I would tuck them into bed later that night, kissing their cheeks made pink from the sun.

Just then, a woman on a blue tube floated by me. Tomorrow is never guaranteed was tattooed across her foot.

The day before my grandfather passed, Melania Trump boarded a plane to visit a migrant detention center wearing a coat that told the world that she really doesn’t care. I’ve had a hard time stomaching the political news this summer especially around issues of immigration. There’s been an ache in my heart unlike any I’ve known before, and I found myself unmoored by my emotions.

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{Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP, via TimesUnion}

As I struggled to make sense of it all, I realized that many people in America—myself included—cannot fathom living in a war-torn country or getting sick from a lack of clean water. Many people will never know what it is like to be denied access to doctors and medicine. We take for granted that our children will be afforded an education, that they’ll grow up in a country that is, for the most part, safe. We suffer our first world problems and falsely equate being better off to just being better.

Here in America, we are privileged.

Around the same time my newsfeed was flooded with the tear-stained faces of migrant children, I was reading Strength in What Remains. In it, Tracy Kidder narrates the story of an African boy, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, who barely survives a civil war in his home of Burundi. As his name suggests, with thanks to God, Deo escapes the genocide of his country. Arriving at JFK with two hundred dollars in his pocket, knowing not a single person nor the English language, in a matter of years, he goes from sleeping in Central Park as a homeless man to attending Columbia University as a pre-med student. His tale is remarkable and it is courageous.

The writing depicts gruesome scenes from his homeland that continue to haunt him long after he’s left—a baby crying at his dead mother’s breast; dogs running the dirt roads with severed heads in their mouths; an entire family murdered, the husband’s genitals cut off and shoved in the wife’s mouth. Still, this is no work of fiction. I kept reminding myself of that as I read.

“I know I have these unrealistic beliefs and thoughts, that the world can be peaceful, can be healthy, people can be humane. But is it feasible?”

This is a question that Deo asks as he returns to Burundi after the war to help build medical clinics for his people. This summer, it’s been a question I have struggled with too.

Regardless of one’s political beliefs, regardless of one’s religion, regardless of imaginary lines drawn in the sand—beneath everything, we are first all human.

“That shared humanity, like it or not, doesn’t end at our southern border, nor any border. It’s the same humanity that understands there is a risk in entering another country illegally—possible consequences, some severe and difficult to bear, though none as unbearable as knowing that your child and family are in certain danger …in many cases because a father or mother or child has already been killed,” Oscar Cásares writes in a piece titled, “A child doesn’t cry in Spanish or English. A child simply cries, and we respond.”

Warsan Shire addresses those same risks in her poem “Home.”

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

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When I return to teaching in August, I will start off the school year reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my classes. Like Atticus, I will ask my students to stand in someone else’s shoes and walk around in them, and while we will finish Harper Lee’s book and move on to other works of literature, I will never stop trying to teach them to have empathy.

We may never come to a consensus on how to fix the problems of our world, but if we could start with our shared humanity, I believe we’d create a kinder world…the kind of world I wish for our children.

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{via Instagram @justinteodoro}

My grandfather cared. With his affection for cardigan sweaters and helping others, he reminded me of Mr. Rogers. He raised three sons and a daughter who each would hold up a torch and welcome a stranger to supper. They’d open their door and invite them in, especially when it seemed they had nothing to offer in return.

When I was younger, I was often surprised to see faces I didn’t recognize at our table come Christmas Eve. I didn’t understand why a person I’d never met was living in a camper on my uncle’s property. When a man who I deemed “crazy” approached my father in public, invading his personal space, I watched as my father looked him in the eyes, shook his hand, and asked him how he was doing with such sincerity that I immediately felt ashamed of the judgement I’d passed on him.

I believe what Pop showed us is that, “first and foremost, we meet as human beings who have much in common: a heart, a face; a voice; the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, the capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). It’s what I strive to teach my own children and the children that I teach.

As often happens in the wake of a loss, I regret that I didn’t spend more time with Pop when I had the chance. When I learned that there wasn’t an obituary for him, I desperately wanted to write one, but I realized, sadly, that I didn’t know enough about his life. If only I could sit by his side and ask him questions. If only I could listen to his stories and hold his hand.

Sometimes we need a reminder, like the passing of a great man or a tattoo on a foot, to remember that tomorrow is never guaranteed.

If we want to create a kinder world, we need to begin today.

Maybe I couldn’t write Pop an obituary, but I could write this. Like everything done with a giving heart, I know it would make him happy.

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In Loving Memory

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Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, 

I know we haven’t met. In fact, we won’t learn your name till the end of the summer, and even then, chances are I won’t know who you are. However, as my daughter’s teacher for the next school year, there are some things I’d like you to know.

My daughter was never one of those children who cried on their first day of school, not even in the early years when she was dropped off at Pre-K. She’s always been eager to learn, eager to play, and eager to please. Every day when I would pick her up and ask her how her day was, she would tell me, Great! Amazing! Awesome!

Even if she couldn’t articulate why, her enthusiasm spoke for itself.

This last year, however, things changed. Many a day I would hear her describe school as boring. While she still never complained about going, come morning, it was a little tougher to get her out of bed.

On the return from Spring Break, a glorious two-week reprieve from school, we sat in the car at 7 am outside in the parking lot as I prepared to drop her off.

“Are you excited to go back?” I asked. “To see your friends?”

“I’m excited to see my friends,” she said, “but not to go back.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I thought you loved school.”

“I used to, but now all we do is test.”

Oh, Fifth-Grade Teacher, I watched as she walked away with her backpack slung over her shoulder and my heart sank.

Believe me when I say that I don’t blame her fourth-grade teacher. I blame the system. It’s a system that I know needs to be changed, and as an educator myself, I also know that in many ways, we are powerless to change it.

Still, there is hope, and that hope lies with the teachers who decide, every day, to teach students, not standards. Teachers who focus on creating relationships, who really get to know their kids, and who use that knowledge to make them love learning.

So, as you tackle the enormous task of taking on another class of students this next school year, these are the things I want you to know about my daughter:

Should there ever be a thunderstorm, you will find us sitting on the front porch to watch the sky; she’s been known to bring in facts about lightning that she’s researched and written down to share with the class. This is a girl who talks of one day becoming a meteorologist (that is, if she doesn’t become a veterinarian or a preschool teacher or an artist who lives on a farm). Her dreams stretch wider than the horizon, and I want nothing more than for her to continue dreaming.

When given the chance, my daughter still creates things out of Play-Doh and when she gets a Lego set, she doesn’t stop building till it is complete. She won’t let me sell her Lincoln Logs at a yard sale either, and it’s not uncommon for her to bring home treasures she’s found on the ground—a broken pen or scrap of metal—for what purpose, I’m not sure, but she collects them all the same.

I want you to know that she is good at math, but she doesn’t think she enjoys it. She’s been given packet after packet and she has told me, that when she has one, she stares at the clock and wishes time would speed up so she can go to lunch. Yet when she and her sister organized their Beanie Boos alphabetically by name, they created a graph of the data, and from her time spent in the kitchen with me, she understands fractions and units of measure, and she can tell you firsthand what happens to a sticky toffee cake when you mistake a tsp of baking soda for a TBSP.

If you take my daughter to the swing set, I know she could learn physics. If you allow her to build a bird house, she will learn about angles, but if you put another worksheet in front of her, I fear she could lose math forever.

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My daughter will tell you that she doesn’t like reading, but when a graphic novel is placed in her hands, she will devour it in one day, yet from the time she was little, she’s preferred non-fiction. Many a night we sat on her bed reading What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? As the child of an English teacher, my daughter will never want for books. Still, when I’ve tried to read the classics with her, beloved titles from my own childhood like Where the Red Fern Grows, we both gave up, and we only made it through the first of Harry Potter.

When my daughter began school, she was eager to learn about bones and bugs, and over the years, we’ve watched every nature documentary available on Netflix. When she asks a question we don’t know the answer to, like what makes a cat purr, we look it up. When we’ve had nothing but clear Nevadan skies, she searches for lightning storms on YouTube.

You see, in this world of technology, there’s another thing we will never want for, so it’s no wonder why she tires of writing her spelling words in ABC order week after week.

The other evening, we sat on the back deck and I asked her, “If you could learn about anything you wanted in the fifth grade, what would you want to study?”

I’d just finished reading What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith, a book I believe every teacher should read.

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{via Goodreads}

She thought seriously about my question for a few minutes before she answered.

“Animals,” she finally said. “Like the human body, only animal bodies.”

We talked at length about which animals she’d study and what she hoped to learn before she asked, “Wait. Do you know who my fifth-grade teacher is going to be?”

I didn’t.

“So how do you know I am getting to learn about whatever I want?”

I spoke honestly. “I don’t.”

“So that’s not what I’m doing next year?”

Disappointment shadowed her face. “Oh man, you had me all excited.”

This. This is what I want you to know.  

There are a hundred embers burning in my child. I’m trusting you to kindle them. Ignite her imagination. Watch as they turn into sparks that jump into flames. Make school a place where she can be on fire.

Between the tests, between the things we cannot change, make sure there’s enough oxygen to keep them aglow. Do whatever it takes to not let them die.

My daughter is counting on you.

We all are.

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The Time to Enjoy the Ride is Now

There are some expressions that you never truly understand… Until you do.

It took me until I was 29 years old and a weekend spent at Lundy Canyon during a freakishly cold June to understand what “not a happy camper” meant. Dressed in every article of clothing I had packed, I climbed out of my tent to warm my numbed toes by the fire, putting my feet so close to the flames that I melted the soles of my Ugg boots. The expression that I’d long been acquainted with, and had probably used on occasion, finally made perfect sense. I’d shivered my way through most of the night, barely sleeping, and trying to climb inside my husband’s skin when it dawned on me: I was NOT a happy camper.

Eleven years later, I think I finally understand what it means to be Over the Hill.

For the past three years, I told my husband that for my 40th birthday we were taking a trip to The Grand Canyon. I had never struggled with any birthdays before– I mean, aside from being still slightly intoxicated during college finals the day after I turned 21. Yet something about turning 40 seemed downright ominous. There were all those stories: suddenly requiring readers after a lifetime of 20/20 vision, the way the scale creeps up…and up….and up despite working out harder than ever before, and let’s not forget (I shudder to even say the word) perimenopause.

I suppose I figured that if I had any reservations about turning the big 4-0, standing on the rim of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, one that was millions of years old, could help put things in perspective.

And if I was wrong, I could always jump in.

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Visiting the canyon was a bucket list item for both my husband and me and it seemed like the perfect way to celebrate a milestone birthday. And it was. We got to take a road trip through the desert with our kids, spend some time hiking and taking in the sights, and catch up with close friends in Vegas on both ends of the trip.

Perhaps turning forty wasn’t a big deal.

That morning, I woke early and snuck out of our hotel room to watch the sun rise over the canyon. There were plenty of other tourists doing the same, but by walking a short way down the rim trail, I was able to find solitude as the sky was painted in breathtaking hues.

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I was officially forty.

That night we were back in Vegas. We met up with our friends at a Mexican restaurant to celebrate when I made the mistake of telling the waiter it was my birthday.

“And it’s a big one.” I joked. “Guess how old I am?”

He didn’t even really pause to think about it. He took one look at me and said, “45.”

That’s right. Cuarenta y cinco.

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

There was an awkward silence that fell on the table as I added more salt to my margarita with my tears.

My husband quickly rationalized how women in Vegas all have “work” done and so many look much younger than they are. When I glared at him, he proceeded to insult the man’s intelligence, which only made me feel slightly better.

From that moment on, I was headed downhill.

Since turning 40, ironically, my hearing and eyesight have both improved.

One morning, I woke and noticed that the bed sheets had left strange marks on my chest. Hours later, the marks remained. If these small creases in my skin weren’t from my linens then…

Oh—Shit.

Suddenly, I recalled all those times as a teenager that I’d slathered up in baby oil and laid in the sun, sucking down Slurpees and chain-smoking Parliament Lights.

I whispered a silent prayer: Dear God, Please bring back the turtle neck this winter. And the mock neck the year after that. And then the cowl neck. There’d be no more décolletage for me.

And that’s when I heard it:

Tick. Tick. Tick.

I assume it’s the sound of the clock counting down what’s left of my life. Everything will gain momentum now as I race towards a finish line I’d prefer not to cross. Within a month of turning 40, my youngest will partake in her graduation to the first grade, my oldest has started saving money for her first car, and I have scheduled my first mammogram. My closest friends ask me how it feels to be 40, which only serves to remind me that they are still 39, and no matter what I do, I can’t seem to shake these five pounds that showed up around my midsection just in time for summer.

Every anti-aging cream, wrinkle reducer, fine-line diminisher, and work-out regimen are appearing on my timeline, and I’m questioning why I didn’t invest in these things sooner…before it was too late.

But truth be told, I know why. It’s because I wasn’t 40 and when you’re still headed uphill it’s a slow climb that feels like you’ll never reach the top.

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The other night, my husband asked, “Do you think you might just be having a hard time with the idea that you’re getting older?”

I hollered at the younger man I married, “Me?! Me?!”

“No. Me too.” (He stopped reacting to my histrionics years ago.) “I’m surprised I don’t wake you up in the middle of the night when I try to straighten my leg and groan.”

Huh. Maybe my hearing is going after all.

But then, I hear it again:

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Still..When you’re headed downhill, there’s really only one thing to do.

It’s time to stop pedaling so hard, let the wind blow through your increasingly gray hair, let go of the handlebars, and learn to enjoy the ride. 

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Human Connection: The Life Hack We Can’t Live Without

The fifth episode in the third and final season of the Netflix series Love written by Judd Apatow is titled “Bertie’s Birthday.”

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As the episode begins, we find Bertie waking up in the dark to Facetime with her family in the land down under. Bertie presents them with the illusion that she’s going to be doing lots of fun things with her friends in L.A. for her birthday. They’ll go to trendy bars and probably see famous people, but we soon learn that both her roommate and her boyfriend already have plans and Bertie spends most of her birthday desperately seeking someone to hang out with. Even her coworkers make excuses for why they can’t get a drink with her after work, and it isn’t until Chris, a friend of a friend, writes on her Facebook wall that she can get a free piece of cake at the restaurant where he waits tables, that she finds something to do.

Still, it’s a fairly sad picture when Bertie walks into the restaurant alone, sits at a table alone, and looks down at her single slice of cake with a single candle in it.

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{via Netflix}

So when Chris gets off work and invites her to join him for an underground wrestling tournament, obviously, she agrees to go. But first, they need to stop for gas.

For me, it’s this small scene at the gas station, this brief dialogue exchange, that made the episode memorable.

Chris steps outside of the car and closes the door. Popping his head back in through the opened window, he asks Bertie if she needs anything from inside, to which she jokingly answers, “Chewing tobacco. Lots of it.”

“Is this weird?” Chris asks. “I like to pay inside. I try to find human interaction wherever I can in L.A.”

Bertie tells Chris that she likes that idea, in fact, she might do it herself next time, to which Chris replies, “Right? Life Hack, Bitch!”

A few days after watching the show, I walked into the library to pick up a book I’d placed on hold that had come in. My husband had reminded me that the library called, which meant that there was an automated message on our answering machine from them.

I found the shelves that housed the holds, then searched alphabetically for the first two letters of my last name. Spotting the book, I grabbed it and walked to the circulation counter to check out.

I scanned my library card, got the book checked out myself, printed my receipt, and then said, “Thank you” to the two librarians behind the counter; one was doing something on her phone, the other was leaning against the wall, staring blankly at nothing.

Upon hearing my voice, the woman looked up from her device.

“Isn’t that nice?” She asked the other. “We didn’t even do anything and she thanked us.”

I smiled at them both, and as I carried my book in hand, I felt like I was in The Twilight Zone.

Was it really that unusual for someone to say thank you? It’s not just good manners, but it’s a part of our culture to thank someone when they are providing a service. True, they didn’t really do any of the work, but does that mean that we shouldn’t acknowledge one another? In fact, why hadn’t either of them greeted me?

Through the convenience of our digitalized world, we have become so inhuman that we fail to adhere to the norms of human interaction even when we are in one another’s presence.

We have self-checkout stands everywhere from the Home Depot to the Post Office. We have apps to make our dinner reservations and then we text our babysitter to find out if she’s free. We post our greatest joys and deepest sorrows on social media, and rather than picking up the phone, we IM or PM or DM. I teach to a room full of students who stare at a screen they keep hidden in their laps, and though sitting in the same class, they would rather send one another funny memes than actually talk.

In “Buddhism 101,” an episode of Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, Jack Kornfield, one of America’s leading Buddhist teachers, talks about what it means to live an awakened life, which according to Kornfield, means to be here in the reality of the present, in the now, which is really all we have. He says, “We can go through our lives kind of half asleep, or we can be more present for one another, for our life, for what matters in our heart.”

What matters? People matter. But the only way that people are going to know that they matter is if we tell them. So we have to start by seeing them. By acknowledging that they’re there, we communicate that they matter.

Kornfield says that, “Our Western culture has produced a society suffering from epidemic loneliness.” Sadly, I think he’s right. We’re all connected online, but we’ve stopped connecting IRL.

“When you look at our culture… you see one person in a car, big houses with one person in a room. Instead of having extended families, villages, communities where people are really engaged with one another, we’re engaged by texting one another…[Our] distance from one another has grown over the years…In some ways we’re much more prosperous, but in other ways, we’re really more lonely and isolated.”

A few weeks ago, we hosted Mary Latham, a former student of mine who is traveling the country collecting stories of human kindness. For the five days she stayed with us, we talked…and talked…and talked.

We talked while on a walk in a spring snow shower. We talked in the car as we drove to Lake Tahoe and Virginia City and home from dinner. And on Saturday night, we talked on my couch till one in the morning.

My husband, who had gone to sleep long before us, asked me the next morning what time I had come to bed.

“Wow. When was the last time you did that?”

It had been far too long.

I remember being in high school, attending a youth group ski trip for a church I didn’t belong to. All of us stayed up late into the night talking about things I thought at the time were deeply philosophical and profound. It was real conversation—without awkwardness, without judgement, without offense.

I remember spending hours upon hours on the phone with my high school boyfriend. I’d wake up with the receiver still cradled under my head without remembrance of the last thing either of us had said.

Growing up, I remember the playful banter between me and my girlfriends—over bonfires, in a college dorm room, at the beach.

Long before LOL and the emoji face with tears of joy, there was real laughter, real tears, real joy.

After Mary left us, she went on to talk to more people. In California. In Oregon. In Washington. Her entire mission revolves around connecting with people through talk. And while I hope that she got some good stories from visiting Reno, the person who really benefitted from her visit was me.

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Author Steve Almond said in one of his Dear Sugar podcasts that, “your purpose in life is to establish human connection with people who are important to you.” But I’d argue, that our purpose is just to establish human connection. Period.

The other day, I got a text from a friend I work with. Not a super close friend, but a friend nonetheless. I knew I shouldn’t text her back since I was already driving home, but I also knew that she’d recently experienced a loss, that she was going through a lot, and so, I did the unimaginable: I called her instead.

As may be expected these days, she didn’t answer, but I left her a voicemail and she eventually called back. The next day, she popped her head in my classroom and we chatted some more. Before she left, I told her we should get together one of these days. Take a walk. Talk.

“I’d like that,” she said.

A life hack can be a way to do things more efficiently, but it can also be a clever solution to a tricky problem. If, as Kornfield says, the problem is epidemic loneliness, then the solution—the life hack—is human interaction. Luckily, people are everywhere. All we really need to do is get them to look up. Sometimes, that’s as simple as going inside to pay for your gas, as simple as picking up the phone, as simple as saying Thank You.

at the end of the day all this
means nothing
this page
where you’re sitting
your degree
your job
the money
nothing even matters
except love and human connection

                                                                                        -Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey

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We Took Our Kids to a Fancy Restaurant, and Here’s What Happened

Our oldest daughter was turning 10 and this seemed like cause for a celebration. As parents, we had managed to keep her alive and well for an entire decade. I haven’t been able to keep a houseplant alive that long, and they require much less than a child, so as my husband and I exchanged high-fives, we were likely feeling a little smug which would explain the momentary lapse of judgement we experienced when we suggested going out to a “fancy” restaurant for her birthday dinner.

Our children eat at restaurants frequently enough. At ten and six, they possess a modicum of self-control and basic table manners. Sure, they fart and burp during dinner at home, but we’d remind them enough times to act like princesses. And this was a special occasion, after all.

In my mind, we were all going to dress up nice, have a delicious meal, and make a wonderful memory. But over the course of our parenting, there have been a lot of those Expectation vs. Reality moments, and this was no exception.

Red flag number one appeared when I was leaving work and mentioned to a co-worker that we were taking our daughter to the steakhouse for her birthday dinner. He commented that she must have a sophisticated palate, and I chuckled.

No. She’s quite picky, actually, I answered in my head, but it was too late to second-guess our decision. Our reservation was in a few hours and I wasn’t even home from work yet.

I guess the next red flag should have been that my youngest daughter didn’t even have an appropriate coat to wear. I might have remembered the last time she dressed up for the daddy-daughter dance and we made her wear her velvet cape from her Little Red Riding Hood Halloween costume. I might have remembered that her winter jacket was a puffy neon-pink hand-me-down from her sister that was two sizes too big and that most days she ran around the house naked. As we were all scrambling to get out the door, I didn’t notice her choice in outerwear till we were already in the car.

“You can’t wear that jean jacket to the restaurant.”

“Daddy said I could.”

“Well, you can’t. The sleeves are filthy. And what’s that green stuff?”

She looked down and answered matter-of-factly, “Avocado.”

“You’re just going to not wear a coat, I guess.”

“But I’m cold.” She whined.

“You won’t be cold in the restaurant. Daddy will drop us off out front.”

As it turned out, she was cold in the restaurant, and she didn’t fail to remind us of it. All… Night… Long. 

After arriving at the steakhouse, we were led to a round table in a candlelit corner of the restaurant. It had booth-style seating that circled around half of the table, and the bouncy cushion pleased the birthday girl to no end. She promptly plopped herself down on it again and again. I had a flashback to my old roommate’s waterbed before I gave her my best mom-glare to get her to stop.

In fact, I spent most of the evening telling my children what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. Don’t grab the parmesan cheese with your fingers. Put your napkin in you lap. Don’t put your elbows on the table. Use your knife. Be careful. Don’t spill that drink. 

I was tense and it wasn’t relaxing. Then the waiter came over to greet us.

“Would anyone care for a cocktail?”

Me! Me! Me! I was going to need one a few.

As is their custom, because we were celebrating a special event, a photographer snapped our picture.

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After which, the birthday girl leaned toward me and whispered, “This isn’t what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” I asked.

“I thought it was going to be like that place we went before the basketball game where I got that burger.”

The sports bar?

“Yeah, that place. Do they have any burgers here?”

They did, in fact, have a burger on their menu. The Wagyu beef burger topped with a short rib served with bone marrow butter, truffle brie, and bacon onion jam. It was 24 dollars and that’s what she ordered, minus the bacon onion jam, which I asked them to put on the side and ate with a spoon. It was seriously the best condiment I have ever tasted in my life.

“Try it,” I begged her.

She refused.

Her father and I were fighting over it now.

“It’s bacon. You love bacon. Try it.” He put a small schmear of it on her plate.

She pursed her lips and shook her head.

“How’s your burger?” I asked.

“Meh. I prefer In and Out.”

FML.

I looked towards my youngest who had stopped eating her special order of pasta, since ya know, there wasn’t a children’s menu.

“How’s yours?”

“There’s too much sauce. I don’t like it.”

I rolled my eyes and downed the rest of my wine.

For dessert, we were served Bananas Foster. We watched the rum catch fire and the orange flames leap higher as they prepared it tableside.

Our daughter doesn’t like bananas.

Or caramel.

My husband and I devoured it while the birthday girl picked at her complimentary cheesecake. (She doesn’t like cheesecake either.)

Throughout the meal, I kept wondering why we hadn’t hired a babysitter for the night. Then I’d remember that this wasn’t our date night. It was her birthday and we’d done this to ourselves. We could have been at Red Robin with balloons and crayons and a kids’ menu that includes Kraft mac and cheese, but we were foolish and naïve.

Still, it wasn’t a total fail. During the evening, an elderly woman came over to our table and complimented us on our well-behaved children. She even paid the photographer to take another photo of us.

I whispered to the birthday girl to make a funny face, and aside from palate cleansing sorbet and the hot hand towels, this is what they’ll have to remember.

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the little one finally managed to snag her sister’s coat

In the wake of that compliment (and my second glass of wine), I looked at my children and realized that they are pretty amazing little humans—but they’re still just kids. Filet mignon and lobster tails aren’t their thing just yet, and that’s okay.

Of course, the next time we’re in the mood for fine dining, we’re leaving the kids at home.

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and just like that, she’s 10

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What They Don’t Teach Teachers

Recently, I administered the writing portion of the End-of-Course Exam for my Sophomores. A few weeks later, I stood before a room of Juniors to proctor the ACT. If you haven’t guessed, we’ve entered that fun time of the school year where one attempts to teach in between all the testing that takes place.

When you are training to become a teacher, proctoring exams is not something they teach you. You don’t practice reading aloud mind-numbing scripts or circulating a room for hours ensuring that kids are bubbling in the right section, that their number two pencils are sharp, and that nobody barfs on his exam.

There are many things they don’t teach future teachers—things that, if they did, might make them reconsider the profession long before they start posting their paychecks on social media.

And maybe that’s why. Still, I can’t help thinking that novice teachers might benefit from some realistic preparation for the career they’re about to embark on.

Here’s what else they don’t teach teachers:

They don’t teach you how to breathe through your mouth when you are stuck in a windowless classroom that reeks of B.O. and where the use of scented fragrance items like Glade Plug-ins and perfumed sprays have been banned by the district because it might trigger a student’s allergic reaction.

You know what I’m allergic to? Overactive pubescent sweat glands and a lack of deodorant, and you might be too. Better to find out now while there’s still time.

They don’t teach you how to pee on a strict schedule. Much like Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell, teachers hear a bell and it signals their full bladders that it’s time to go, so it would make sense that during any teacher preparation program, future educators were not allowed to use the restroom from 7:30 AM till 3 in the afternoon.

A fun side-effect to this kind of rigorous urinary training is how often you’ll exercise your right to pee at free will when you aren’t at school.

This feast-or-famine mentality isn’t just confined to the water closet though. Follow a herd of hungry teachers to the local Port-of-Subs on a professional development day, and you’ll see what I mean.

They don’t teach you how to pack your lunch. Every. Damn. Day.

If you thought living off PB&J and Top Ramen ended in college, you were mistaken. There will be weeks when you survive on half a package of saltine crackers and dried out baby carrots—and not because it is a new diet trend.

In the week leading up to payday, teacher lunches get very, very sad.

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{via sad desk lunch}

I’m sure there’s a few wanna-be teachers out there who naively think they’ll just go down to the cafeteria for the hot lunch special. But with only thirty minutes, you’ve got to make sure you call that parent; answer that email; run a few copies; explain to those five kids who just walked in what they’ll be missing this afternoon as they leave early for their baseball game, track meet, or dentist appointment— And make sure you get a chance to use the restroom.

Shit. Was that the bell already?

On the flip side though, consuming that expired yogurt from that back of your mini-fridge might help you ward off whatever flu/virus has been circulating the school for the past six months straight.

Or… it might give you diarrhea.

If I was in charge of preparing teachers for the job, I’d make sure that each time they were about to teach, none of the technology worked.

I love sitting in on interviews where the applicant shows a sample lesson plan they developed in their undergrad program.

“It says here that each student gets out his or her Chromebook. Can you tell me what this lesson would look like with a dried out Expo marker and a copy of Huck Finn where the last 30 pages have fallen out?”

But just to be sure that they knew what they were getting into, if I was working to prepare teachers for the job, I’d make it like that one episode of The Cosby Show where Cliff Huxtable tries to teach Theo a lesson in financial responsibility by giving him Monopoly money and charging him rent. I’d make sure that rookie teachers knew how they’d live on that first-year salary once the student loans started rolling in. It wouldn’t take long before they realized why I ate a brown banana for breakfast and have a hole in  my shoe.

Of course, not everything would be designed to discourage teachers from the profession. There are many perks to working in education.

Shoot, it isn’t every job where you still get to take those awkward school photos straight into your fifties. Year after year, you can collect proof of how this job has aged you.

And let’s not forget summers off! You know, the summers that every non-educator wants to remind you of each time you mention your career.

Summer sure does come in handy for working a second job, lesson planning for the next year, taking professional development classes, and getting rid of that relentless twitch that developed after putting in the average 10 hours a day that most teachers do.

With a return date of July 31st this year though, I might still be twitching.

Now that I think about it, maybe they should leave teacher preparation programs alone. I guess there’s plenty of time to learn how to break up fights and prom grind sessions whilst on-the-job.

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Why I Teach

Yesterday I hung “Tearable Puns” all around my classroom and outside my door. My freshman students are reading Romeo and Juliet and these free printables from Laura Randazzo make my students chuckle more than William Shakespeare does.

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At the end of the school day, I sat at my desk and heard several students giggling outside of my classroom door as they took a pun or two.

This is why I teach.

Today, I walked into a colleague’s classroom in the morning to say hello. As I was getting ready to leave, a student I had taught last year walked in. He was just as happy to see me and I was him and we hugged. I remarked that he is “a true gentleman” and his current teacher agreed. In the wake of that compliment, he beamed.

This is why I teach.

I’m teaching Animal Farm for maybe the second time, the first being many years ago. I rely on the AP History student in the class to make connections to Stalin and The Great Purge for us. I am no Russian Revolution expert, but he is, and he becomes the one we all turn to for clarification.

This is why I teach.

A hard lesson in plagiarism. An essay that makes me cry. A student who says something new about the content I’ve taught for over a decade that has me consider it in a whole new way.

This is why I teach.

From the occasional happy hour with colleagues where we commiserate over our frustrations in education (of which, there are many) to sending a parent a positive email on a Friday afternoon—getting a response filled with gratitude and knowing I just made that kid’s weekend.

This is why I teach.

The untapped potential of every student, our world’s greatest natural resource. I spend my days trying to draw the possibilities out of them and get them to see the power and hope and wonder they possess.

This is why I teach.

In my class, we hold Socratic Seminars where students learn to use accountable talk, to listen to the ideas of their peers, and to disagree without starting an argument or placing blame.

But, they also learn how to craft an argument, one where they acknowledge the counterclaim, and then refute it.

This is why I teach.

Fake news stories? We analyze them. Logical fallacies? We study them. Credible sources? We find them.

I teach my students to think. I teach them to dig deeper. I teach them to know when to call bullshit.

I teach, “Enemies to peace…throw your mistempered weapons to the ground.”

And, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

And, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

I teach my students to yield their words and I show them how to use them, for I believe that “The Pen is mightier than the Sword.”

 Yet, you want me to teach while armed with a gun?

That—is not why I teach.

That—will never be how I teach.

That—is not the solution.

Those students? That’s why I teach.

Those students. They’re the solution.

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Gym Subs vs. School Subs

Minutes before my Saturday yoga class was scheduled to begin, I ran into a colleague at the gym. The class she was in had just let out and as we chatted, she mentioned that it was terrible.

“We had a sub. Hope yours is better,” she called over her shoulder as she made her way to the locker room.

I got into class and rolled out my mat only to realize that we also had a sub that day. A man walked up to the front of the room and I noticed the regulars around me start questioning, “Where’s Kim?” But before long, we were meditating and there was no more time for questions.

After a challenging yoga class, I thought about the role that substitute teachers play.

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{photo courtesy of @musclesmusicmotherhood}

How is it that the expectation for subs is higher at the gym than it is at schools?

My yoga teacher didn’t have to write out a plan for her sub. She didn’t have to tell him how to spend that hour of class time. He came in understanding it was a power yoga class and he taught one.

He didn’t come in and say, “I can’t find the plans, so you can talk quietly amongst yourselves.” He didn’t try to get rid of us by sending us to the library elliptical machines. True, it was not the same experience as when our regular yoga instructor is there, but I still left with the benefit of a power yoga workout. In fact, I had a personal best when it came to my crow pose and I enjoyed experiencing a different teaching style that day.

For teachers, it’s almost not worth it to stay home sick or take a personal day. I spend hours writing out detailed plans, making sure all the copies are there, and labeling with sticky notes which stacks of papers are for which classes. I make sure there are instructions on how to use the technology in my room, instructions on what to do if the lesson doesn’t get completed, and instructions for what to do if there is remaining time. I even include who to go to in my hall if there are problems and send them an extra copy of my plans, too.

Just because I am out for a day, shouldn’t mean that my students stop learning.

Yet despite this, there are still days when I return to work after having been out and the plans haven’t been touched.

I think the worst was when I was teaching a class of juniors. We were studying Macbeth at the time, but someone in the office had mistakenly handed the sub a DVD for another teacher in the school who taught history but shared the same first name as me. That day, my students watched a documentary on The Civil War. I wasn’t sure what annoyed me more: that the sub didn’t question the content of the film versus the content I teach, or figure out that the plans I had meticulously written (assuming he read them) didn’t mention a DVD, or that my students never said a word.

Imagine if this happened in the gym?

The sub for yoga comes in and sees the exercise bikes in the corner of the room.

“I guess you guys are supposed to spin today. You brought shoes, right?”

It doesn’t help that there’s a shortage of substitute teachers out there either. You would think that having a colleague cover a coworker’s class might help matters.

It’s sad to say, but often it’s worse. Many a teacher prep subs grudgingly. Regardless that they are getting paid to do so, mentally they are still on prep. I get it though. We need our prep time. Still, when the “lesson” doesn’t include some busy work or a film, they get miffed.

Let’s take it back to the gym.

You ‘re stretching on your yoga mat waiting for class to begin when, at the last-minute, the aerobics instructor walks in. There’s a sheen of sweat on her brow from the class she just got done teaching. She saunters to the front of the room, tells the class to get into Savasana, then sits down with her protein shake to crochet a new pair of leg warmers.

Many a teacher has gotten so tired of their plans not being followed that they stop writing them. Instead, they leave a movie because it’s easier—but I still can’t bring myself to put my student’s learning on pause just because I had jury duty or my kids got the flu. Even if the film connects to our content, I know they won’t watch it. They’ll silently Snapchat while the substitute sits at my desk and naps.

If the subs at school were like subs at the gym, I wouldn’t have to write plans at all. What the sub taught might not be what I would have taught that day, but they might come in with their favorite poem—a poem that I may never have included that year, one that might spur a student to check out the complete works of Cummings or Dickens or Giovanni. Or maybe they’d bring in The New York Times and get my students writing opinion pieces on current articles. But whatever they had them do, it would be something they loved about literature or writing, something that would challenge my students’ minds, and something that might actually give the “real” teacher a break.

Hey, a teacher can dream, right?

Actually, I can’t. I need to start writing up my plans for when I take my personal days come May.

Hopefully, I’ll get a good sub.

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