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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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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In Memoriam: The Best Teacher I Ever Had

When I was a senior in high school, I had a lead role in the school play; I also had an emergency appendectomy. The latter resulted in the stage manager/understudy performing in my place. She happened to be a girl whom I had been “best friends” with, but like many high school relationships, we had drifted apart. On opening night, I sat in the first row of metal folding chairs and watched, silently mouthing each word she spoke, words I had been memorizing for months.

My love for theater was cultivated by Mr. Brennan, an English teacher at my small, rural high school. When I took his AP English class, I saw a future for myself that I had previously thought impossible, so when I told him that I couldn’t even afford to apply to college, he made me go to the best counselor at the school, a colleague and good friend of his. There, I told her what I had been too ashamed to admit to anyone other than Mr. Brennan. I left her office with a fee waiver to apply to four SUNY schools and renewed hope.

I enrolled at SUNY Oneonta as a theater major. After all, Mr. Brennan made me believe I had a talent, so much so that I had given up cheerleading to be in his plays. From rehearsals to cast parties, we were a strange tribe of misfits, but I never felt more at home.

Later, when I became an English teacher myself– one that directed the musicals at the school where I taught– it was all thanks to him.

To complete observation hours for my undergraduate degree, I went straight to Mr. Brennan. I hadn’t stepped foot in my high school since graduation, but if I was going to be a teacher, I wanted to be Just. Like. Him. Watching him with his students, I longed to be back in his class, participating in the discussions, reading the books–Well, most of the books. I never could make it To The Lighthouse, no matter how many times I tried.

Between classes, Mr. Brennan listened to NPR from an old stereo. When one of his students spoke, he leaned in close and wagged his long finger when he approved of what they were saying. His classroom felt like a stage set as a well-loved living room, complete with worn-in couches.

One time, he confessed that when he arrived at work earlier than usual, a custodian was sleeping on the couch in his classroom. Whether the man was homeless or just didn’t want to go home, Mr. Brennan quietly slipped back out without waking the man, refusing to risk embarrassing him.

You see, it didn’t matter who you were, Mr. Brennan afforded everyone their dignity.

On October 26, I left my classroom to head home for the weekend. As I was walking to my car, I checked my phone and saw a post on Facebook that stopped me. At the age of 76, Mr. Brennan had passed away. Immediately, I was filled with a deep sadness.

There isn’t much I can say about Mr. Brennan that hasn’t already been said. In the wake of his passing, innumerable tributes have been written in his honor. Every story shared captures exactly the kind of man he was. To many, Mr. Brennan was an inspiration, and I am no different. What he did for me, he did for countless others: He made us believe we mattered.

That time when I had my appendix removed, Mr. Brennan came to see me in the hospital. I remember waking up to him standing at the foot of my bed. But I wasn’t special. An article that appeared in The Suffolk Times in honor of him told how, “when Liz Casey Searl’s brother died at only 21 years of age, Mr. Brennan showed up at the 1995 Mattituck graduate’s home to ask how he could help.”

He did that sort of thing…for all of us. He showed up. And by showing up, you knew he cared.

For my final Senior project, I recited a poem I’d written about my father’s alcoholism. When I looked up, Mr. Brennan had removed his glasses and was wiping tears from his cheeks. Whether words poured from our mouths or bled from our pens, he made us feel like what we had to say was worth hearing. He didn’t discredit us for being angsty teens with too many hormones and not enough pre-frontal cortex.

As I worked towards becoming a teacher, Mr. Brennan told me that I should never take any grading home. It took him many years to figure that out, but, he said, it was better to stay at work till 5 in the evening than to leave with a stack of papers in hand. In the 16 years I’ve been teaching, I wish I could say I have heeded that advice.

These days, I often stay at work till 5. I don’t teach in the small, rural town I grew up in where you can’t find a class with more than 25 students, and the expectations of teachers grow with each passing year. Yet at the end of the day, the most meaningful thing we can do in our classrooms is to build relationships with our students, to show them that they matter.

I might not be able to keep my weekends free from grading, but I can show my students that I care. Mr. Brennan’s passing has reminded me of that. In many ways, he’s still my teacher.

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{via Mattituck High School’s Reflector, 1991}

Mr. Brennan is remembered for his plaid flannels, his work boots, the mints he carried in his shirt pocket and sucked on throughout the day. He is remembered for the gas-station coffee he drank and for the way he laughed without making a noise. Head thrown back, mouth open wide, he found humor in so many of our adolescent antics.

When I graduated from high school, I drove to his home with a copy of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. In it, I had penned a heartfelt note. I no longer remember what I wrote, but I do remember the sentiment behind it. This was a man who had given me—had given all of us—so much, and he had asked for nothing in return. He gave us crowns to play king of the forest. He provided us with shade or a quiet place to sit. He was there for us as we grew. Even when we went off to start our lives, he remained. So much of what we needed was found in him.

I can only hope, that in giving us his all, he got something in return.

I can only hope that in the end, the tree was happy.

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{via Mattituck High School’s Reflector, 1991}

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#MeToo

It wasn’t rape. There was no penetration. I was not beaten, nor was I abused. I wasn’t a young girl. I hadn’t been drinking. There were no drugs involved. I didn’t wake up the next morning questioning my memory of the events that had transpired.

Every year in June, I remember. Every time I see that tailored dress from Banana Republic in my closet, I am reminded. The truth is, I won’t ever forget.

As a high school teacher, the two events I like to chaperone are prom and graduation. Both rites of passage, at prom I get to relive my own high school memories as girls kick off their high heels as soon as possible and boys offer their dates their tuxedo jackets to keep warm. Graduation is the culmination of all the work we do; it is the ultimate goal for both students and teachers.

Several years ago, I volunteered to work graduation; I haven’t done it again since.

I wasn’t thrilled to learn that I had been assigned to supervise the boys’ waiting area. Separated by gender, there are two rooms where students leave their personal belongings and put on their caps and gowns. They act as holding cells until the students are told to line up. The energy is high. You can smell it in the air. I would have preferred to be with the girls, holding mirrors for them while they reapplied make-up and fixed their hair. Instead, I was caged up with the boys, counting down the minutes.

When the time had come, this mass of young men assembled in the hall and waited for the doors to open to begin the procession towards the stage. The girls, positioned down another hall, would enter through separate doors. In alternate colors, they’d meet as they walked in. Purple, White, Purple, White, Purple, White.

It was in this hall, packed with eighteen-year-olds on one of the most significant days of their lives, that I experienced my Me Too. As I made my way through the crowd of bodies, a hand grabbed my right butt cheek and squeezed, hard. Then it released its grip.

It shook me. I stopped and turned towards a sea of purple robes. Panicked, I quickly exited the hall.

There was no way of knowing who had done it, but I still felt the imprint of that hand on my bottom. Finding a friend, I told her what had happened, but I was embarrassed and ashamed.

What if it had been one of my former students? The thought deposited my stomach in my throat. Yet I was aware of the statistics: most sexual assaults are performed by someone the victim knows.

I am a professional. I was professionally dressed. I was a couple of decades older than these boys. And yet, I was stripped of all of that by one faceless grope in a crowd. I felt dumb, and young, and vulnerable. I felt disrespected as a person, as a woman, and as a teacher.

Part of me wanted to get far, far away from what happened, but a part of me wished I could go back, grab that wrist, yank that pervert from the crowd, see his face, identify him, drag him to administration, demand that he not be allowed to walk the stage, pull his parents from the audience, make him explain to them why he was not able to get his diploma that day, press charges even.

That was what I fantasized because that would have given me back my power. But like all the comebacks I’ve never spoken, I didn’t react quickly enough.

I was powerless: a common denominator of Me Too.

I imagined this being some kind of testosterone-induced dare. How many other students were in on it? I envisioned the same boys next year as college freshmen, gang raping a sorority girl. I thought about how I’d never once walked a campus at night without practically running, holding my keys like a weapon.

As co-workers met after the ceremony at a local bar, I told a male colleague what had occurred. “I heard,” he said. “A bunch of kids were talking about it, but when I approached them, they all clammed up.”

My integrity was stolen and they were bragging about it? But I wondered, why hadn’t he done more? Why hadn’t he rounded them all up, made them confess? In my mind, I told myself that it was because no one thought it was a big deal. So a kid grabbed your ass. So what?

Someone suggested I take it as a compliment. Degraded, I left and went home.  

When my husband asked how graduation went, I told him what happened. His first response was a chuckle of sorts. With tears welling I looked at him, and for the first time, I saw him as one of them. How could you laugh? I was sexually violated. He quickly apologized and admitted that he had the wrong reaction; he wasn’t sure how to react. Of course he was upset by this. Of course he was angry. I believed him if only because I couldn’t fathom the ramifications if I chose not to.

This past Sunday, when I started seeing the posts on Twitter and Facebook of friends and family members who were writing Me Too, that memory surfaced. It’s always there, but I hold it down until something triggers it to rear its head, take another gasp of air, and sink back to where it continues to dwell.

 “And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me…”            

                                                                                              –Richard Wright

Earlier that same weekend, my book club met. We were discussing Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Four white women, we quickly turned from discussing race to discussing gender. Often our book talks veer off-topic, but we hadn’t been sidetracked. This was how we could relate. We are not black, and we are not black men, but as women, we all knew fear, and much of what Coates writes about is fear.

In Between the World and Me, Coates is speaking directly to his teenage son. He tells him, “You have seen so much more of all that is lost when they destroy your body.”

When they destroy your body…

That when, I read, as inevitable. It is bound to happen. When you are born black, they will destroy your body. Coates was speaking to his son with the knowledge that one day, he too, would be destroyed. Perhaps that is why this line made it hard for me to breathe.

As I look at my beautiful daughters, I know in my heart that a day will come when they each will face a Me Too. I can hope it won’t happen, but I know the statistics: because they are female, because they are girls, because they will grow to become women, it probably will.

Soon, I will need to have a very real, very painful conversation with each of them about the risks they take just by existing in this world.

In the meantime, I pray: Let them not be raped. Let there be no penetration. Let them not be beaten. Let them not be abused…

I may not have posted it on my Facebook feed. I may not have Tweeted it to the world. I couldn’t bring myself to like anyone’s status, nor can I share anyone’s story but my own though I have been witness and confidant to many more. But for each post I saw, I thought, Not you too.

I went to sleep that night and with great sadness, those words replayed in my head: Me Too. Me Too. Me Too.

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In Their Own Words

I get a ton of emails at work, many of which get deleted without ever having been opened, but when I received an invitation from Goodreads asking teachers to “Join the Conversation,” something told me I should read on.

Goodreads and Netflix had partnered up to promote the adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed My Father, a soon-to-be released Netflix Original directed by Angelina Jolie. They were asking teachers to share the trailer for the film with their students, to open up a dialogue with them, and to submit an essay that captured their student’s thoughts.

Since my classes would be reading To Kill a Mockingbird in the weeks to come, and since genocide is intolerance at its worst, I figured we could use this opportunity as another lens through which to look at discrimination.

The Khmer Rouge took control of the Cambodian government in 1975. I was born in 1978, roughly around the time this genocide came to an end. Only 40 years ago, the mass murder of two million Cambodian people took place while the rest of the world did nothing to stop it. In the twentieth century alone, we have experienced several more genocides: Rwanda, Bosnia, Dafur. Yet in classrooms across America, children are largely ignorant to these suffering. They have all been taught about The Holocaust, but when some of them realized that the more recent genocides took place around the time they were born, they were shocked.

As I shared with my classes some background information and then the trailer for First They Killed My Father, a boy questioned, “Why is this the first time I am hearing about this?”

Yet if we only rewind a few weeks, images of hate flood our screens: the angry faces of Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, the Alt-Right. Their expressions are illuminated by the same tiki torches that shine on my children on warm summer nights as they roast marshmallows for s’mores, their innocent laughter filling the evening sky.

While the riots in Charlottesville have certainly been mentioned in my classroom, there hasn’t been a direct discussion about them. Perhaps it is easier to talk about The Scottsboro Boys as it relates to a work of fiction than it is to look in our own back yards.

So what did my students think after first learning that there was a genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, and then after watching the atrocities of it viewed through the dark, attentive eyes of a 5-year-old? What follows are their own words, collectively woven to express why it is important to learn from stories of hardship like that of Loung Ung’s.


Nowadays, we are more likely to pay attention to our own first-world problems. This, in turn, leaves third-world countries to basically do whatever they want. That’s why we learn about the Holocaust and not about more recent acts of mass murder. The same goes for mass terror. We’ll never forget 9/11, but we’ll easily forget the war on terrorism happening in Syria.

The Holocaust was one of the most horrendous genocides. When Holocaust survivors saw the white supremacist groups in Virginia carrying the Nazi flag, they were horrified. A dark-skinned reporter who was sent to interview the Ku Klux Klan was threatened to be burned alive on a cross.

Everyone has scars.

Stories like Loung Ung’s allow people to experience their pain, it forces people to remember. Forgetting the victims is probably the worst thing we can do, because if you forget, it’s like their struggles, and even their lives, never existed. At the same time, stories like Luong Ung’s allow us to appreciate our own lives more fully.

Humanity is losing its empathy towards people because society doesn’t want to read a book. These stories are what teach us to be empathetic. The main thing pushing us to read and learn about the history of our country and the world are our teachers.

Learning about genocide educates us on humanity—and it proves what some people are willing to do out of fear and blind hatred. But just because we learn about the past does not mean that we will prevent it from happening again. People have the power to be cruel, and some will—unfortunately—take that opportunity.

We need to realize that our world today isn’t perfect, it isn’t always a nice, beautiful place. Today, people are still vying for power. Today, people are still unkind. Today, our country is still fighting the same battles we fought in the past.

If it is true that history repeats itself, then we must be prepared for when it does by looking at how we could have prevented previous tragedies.

It is always possible for some dictator to reign over the innocent. If enough people with the same beliefs got together today, and they had the proper resources, they could control anyone; we can’t let awful, horrific ideas pollute the minds of others. With biological and chemical warfare, another genocide could occur tomorrow. Mass murder could come at the click of a button.

There will always be evil people in the world who believe that the only way to remedy a situation is to completely start over. Genocides happens for many reasons, and none of them are good. None of the people who start them are good either. And the villains who lead these events don’t disappear as history moves on.

We should have learned to not let a horrific person rule, but it is 2017 and we are letting history slowly repeat itself. If power is in the wrong person’s hands, then the most unimaginable things can happen; unjust and corrupt government leads to destruction. All it takes is a careless leader and hatred for the human race.

Racism, political beliefs, and religion all divide us. We need to accept people for who they are and not make judgements. The world demands that we learn from past mistakes so we don’t fall further into a hole of corruption, greed, and abused power. As a country, we need to stand up for unjust acts.

The most important lessons to learn are how to treat people, how to stay courageous, how to stand together and protect others against torture and discrimination.

When we learn about the past, we are forced to think about what kind of future we want to have. We can learn to become better people and to bring different countries together peacefully.

Everyone is making history right now.


Whether discussing the Luong Ung’s of yesterday or The Dreamers of tomorrow, the words of my students emphasize the importance of having courage in the face of adversity. With kindness and empathy, there is hope for a better tomorrow.

 

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Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

In Oklahoma, a third-grade teacher by the name of Teresa Danks stood at a highway intersection panhandling for money to buy school supplies for her class.

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Not long before I heard about Danks, my friend and I had joked about doing the same thing. We envisioned our colleagues uniting–holding signs and strumming guitars–as we found a creative way to raise money for things like paper, printer ink, and toner for the copy machine.

While Oklahoma ranks 49th out of 50 states in terms of teacher pay, Nevada is 49th out of 50 in both education and per-pupil spending, so I understand the frustration that drove Danks to wave that sign at passing motorists.

Here in Northern Nevada, the economy is on the rise, although our schools face a 13-million-dollar budget shortfall. Despite whisperings of teacher layoffs, early retirement incentives, and increased class sizes, the district is still looking for ways to make ends meet.

In the week before the school year began, custodians wheeled additional desks and chairs into my room to accommodate the bodies that would soon sit there. In my classes of honors freshmen, there are 38 eager adolescents. There are 38 students raising their hands. There are 38 kids who have questions they’d like answered. Thirty-eight of them are trying to share their writing or present to the class, and there simply isn’t enough time.

The day I looked at my rosters and saw 38, tears of frustration pooled in my eyes. For me to lose composure at my workplace is rare, but in that moment, behind my back, I felt the ropes tighten around my wrists.

Yet this is just one of the struggles I’ll face this year. Like every year though, I will do my best.

I will sit for hours on a weekend grading essays. I will meet with students before school and at lunch to give them the one-on-one attention they cannot get during class. I will answer their questions via email and text throughout the evening as I cook dinner for my family and make sure my own children get their homework done. I will find innovative ways to arrange my desks so that we can get up and move around without tripping over backpacks and books.

I will give my all till I am completely depleted.

I will vent to colleagues and I will vent to my husband. I will sit in meetings where the mission of “every name and face to graduation” is spouted, and then I will walk back into a room filled with 38 names and 38 faces and I will try to develop relationships and build rapport with all 38. Every day, each time the bell rings, I will do that again for another 38, and another, and another.

The contradictions in education are exasperating. We want students to achieve, but we limit available resources. Despite endless research supporting the correlation between smaller class size and student success, we continue to pour pupils into desks. We are expected to be twenty-first century teachers, yet it is suggested we reach into our own pockets to buy bulbs for projectors or audio equipment that might enable our students to listen to a TedTalk or take part in a Skype session with a guest speaker.

Come May, my wrists will be rubbed raw.

Here is where I could talk about teacher burnout. I could share with you the statistics on how eight percent of teachers walk away from the profession every year, and how hundreds of thousands more aren’t even pursuing it to begin with. Even though I know why they are leaving, and even though I don’t blame them when they do, even though I see how other career paths would be more desirable, I have never regretted my decision to spend my days in a classroom.

Much like Danks though, I have been driven to a place I never thought I would go. I am panhandling for my classroom. Rather than on the side of the road, I have taken to the internet, to DonorsChoose.org.

donorsThrough DonorsChoose, I am asking for contributions towards books for my students. My project, if met, would allow me to place high-interest texts of both fiction and non-fiction into the hands of all 38 students in both of my honors classes. Books that deal with issues like the cultural and social impact of technology on the adolescent psyche, mental health, racism, the immigrant experience, and the achievement gap. Books that they can relate to that will help them to build empathy for others and to make sense of their world.

Because, let’s face it: often our world doesn’t make sense. When I look at education in this country, it most certainly doesn’t make sense. But at the end of the day, I can complain about it, or I can work towards a solution.

DonorsChoose is my attempt at a solution. It won’t change the number of students in my classroom nor will it affect the district’s budget, but what it will do is allow me to wiggle my wrists ever so little, to help this teacher to burn on rather than burn out.

To contribute to my project, visit DonorsChoose.org

 

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My Reasons for Watching 13 Reasons Why

One of the things I love about my job as a high school teacher is that it keeps me young. Most of the time, I find out about the latest trends before my own children do. I learn the newest slang, and my students think it’s funny when I’m able to work it into my own speech during class. Dealing with teenagers on a regular basis reminds me what it was like; it helps me to remember, including those parts that I’d rather forget.

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Teaching English, my students confide in me through their writing. These windows, in particular, let me see some of their darkest moments. It didn’t surprise me then that when 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix, my students were abuzz. There was a resurgence in kids that wanted to read the popular novel by Jay Asher. As a representation of what they experience in high school, it resonated with them.

My students are participating in book clubs right now and I have six groups reading 13 Reasons Why. Others have chosen it as one of their independent selections for the semester. I’m stoked for anything that gets kids reading, but some of the students who have picked it up have had to put it down, unable to stomach the sadness. All the attention the title has received piqued my interest, if for no other reason than to form my own opinion, so in addition to buying a copy of the book, my husband and I recently cued it from our Netflix list.

If you haven’t heard, the show has been criticized for glorifying and romanticizing suicide. I’ve read pieces that talk about how the producers did the exact opposite of what one should do when dealing with this subject matter, warning anyone who might be suicidal or prone to suicidal thoughts not to watch. In contrast, I’ve read other works that praise the piece. Not to mention the press that surrounded this group of high school students who started an anti-suicide campaign: 13 Reasons Why Not.

I knew going in that it wasn’t going to be a show I could binge-watch. Each episode was heavier than the next, and several of them required additional warnings for their explicit content. However, in the end, I was glad that I viewed all thirteen episodes, not just as a teacher, but as a parent. While my children are only five and nine, startling enough, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-24.

Did you see that? TEN.

I often write about the difficulties of parenting, yet I know raising an adolescent will be the most trying of all. This is only the boot camp for the eventual war of the teenage years. And as parents, we sometimes forget what it was like to be young, which only intensifies the conflict. Even if I find it easy to empathize with what my students go through, I might find it more challenging when it comes to my own children, when my love for them and the storm of emotions I feel clouds my understanding.

After the final episode, Netflix included “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons.” In it, the cast talks about how teenage brains don’t function the way that adult brains do. I’ve done enough lessons with my students on this very topic, usually in conjunction with our study of Romeo and Juliet, another suicide story. We watch some TedTalks about the adolescent brain and listen to podcasts from NPR before deciding whether Romeo and Juliet would have made different decisions if they each had a fully developed pre-frontal cortex.

Suicide is a subject that is a part of most teenager’s reality whether they have thought about it themselves, or known someone else who has. Just as Shakespeare didn’t shy away from it, neither does Jay Asher, which is why many students of mine find both works so intriguing.

The creators of the Netflix series hoped that the show would spark conversations between parents, and in my home, it did just that. I confessed to my husband that this scared the shit out of me long before we viewed the episode where Hannah’s mother finds her in the bathtub. (I had to shield my eyes from the graphic nature of the actual suicide.) My husband and I shared stories about the people we knew—friends and friends of friends– who’d taken their own lives. We discussed their reasons, and the impact it had on others. As a teacher, sadly, I add to the list alumni from schools where I’ve taught who didn’t choose life.

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In one episode of the show, Clay imagines telling Hannah how he feels about her. Her response: Why didn’t you say this to me when I was alive?

In “Beyond the Reasons,” the producers advise parents not to ignore what they went through as teenagers, to be honest with their children, and to talk to them without judgement. They implore people to tell others, “You matter to me; I’m glad you’re in my world.” These small steps, they say, can make a big difference.

As a teacher, I appreciated 13 Reasons Why. Not only did it remind me about many of the issues my students face, but it also reminded me there are consequences for our actions, even when, as in the case with Mr. Porter, the action is inaction.

As a parent, it reminded me that what I say to my daughters can make a difference, things like, “It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to not be perfect.” Most of all though, it reminded me to take every opportunity to tell my children what they mean to me, to tell them that they matter. They’re not only in my world, but they are my world, and I love them no matter what.

 

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Accepting Them

As a veteran English teacher, I found myself in some new territory this year. There were several students in my classes who identified with a gender other than the one they were born with. This, in and of itself, was not the problem for me; however, grading writing where plural pronouns were being used to identify one person was.

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One of my best student writers submitted an assignment where “they” and “them” replaced “he” or “she” and “him” and “her.”  A creative piece, otherwise near-perfect in its composition and execution, I struggled with my role as teacher and grammarian versus liberal and humanitarian.

In the end, I gave the writing the grade it deserved: an A. I had seen enough of this student’s work; they clearly had a strong foundation of grammatical constructs, so instead I wrote a note at the end of the paper. It read:

I think the writing in this piece is very strong. As a teacher, I struggle with the pronoun use in it though. “They” and “Them” gets very confusing when you are talking about one person. I get that pronoun choice is part of the battle of gender dysphoria/transgender/gender fluid et al.—but I think a singular “he/she,” “him/her” would help. Unless there is a reason for “them/they” that I am ignorant to, in which case—Please educate me. 

I was all set to return the paper to the student at the start of the new semester; unfortunately, they moved to another school and I never had the opportunity; I would have to educate myself.

The book Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout was suggested by a friend/colleague after I had discussed the pronoun dilemma with her. She had seen an interview with the author, Laura Jane Grace, a transgender woman, and thought it might offer me some insight.

Another book I read was Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family. In it, the author discussed gender as a spectrum, and some of the research behind the human brain and gender identity was truly fascinating. I read the book in a day.

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As I was reading, my oldest daughter asked me about the book. I explained to her that it was about two identical twin boys, one of whom felt like a girl, and so the title Becoming Nicole is because the boy, originally named Wyatt, becomes Nicole- a girl.

My eight-year-old nodded her head sagely. When I asked, “Does that make sense?” She said it did, and it reminded me of something else I had read: an article by Janet Mock which was published in The New York Times shortly after Trump rescinded Obama’s rules on bathrooms for transgendered students: “Young People Get Trans Rights. It’s Adults Who Don’t.”

When taking attendance on the first day of school, I routinely ask students to tell me if they have a nickname or something else they prefer to be called other than the name on my roster. Last year, I had a boy I called Batman for the entire year. Often I get Alex for Alejandro or Nick for Nicholas. Occasionally a student will go by their middle name or first and middle initials. But this year, the names some students preferred weren’t simply nicknames, they were self-selected names that match the gender they identify with. Over the course of the year, I have forgotten these students’ birth names; I accept them for who they want me to see, who they really are.

Yet when students in my creative writing class were deciding who their partners would be for workshopping their latest writing assignments and one student said that he would partner with someone else because “they” were going to use the restroom, and then gestured towards another peer, I was confused.

“Wait. Who is going to the restroom?”

“They are.” And again, the gesture—a point at one individual student.

Because it is a small class, we openly discussed the use of they as a singular pronoun. I expressed my struggle with it, especially when used in writing, or in the case in which it had just been presented. “As the teacher, I need to know how many students are leaving for the restroom. When you say they, I assume there is more than one.” I shared with them the last two books I had read, and they shared with me who they felt they were.

“I’m a male” one student told me, matter-of-factly.

“I know.” I said, even though the student’s records report otherwise.

However, when the class ended, I still felt conflicted. I didn’t want my student who preferred “they” to think that because I felt the pronoun use was wrong, that they were wrong. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that for people who identified as male or female, a he or she pronoun made sense. But if you’re smack dab in the middle of the gender spectrum, which pronoun should you use? My research continued.

The first article that I came across was published in the San Diego Gay and Lesbian Newsletter (SDGLN.com), titled “Is ‘They’ insane? The awkwardness of using plural pronouns to address one person.” Authored by a transgender woman, it captured exactly how I felt about the issue. Holly Maholm wrote, “This was not just a change in ‘gender’ in the grammatical sense, but a change of ‘number’…I found this change befuddling. I could make the ‘gender’ change in conversation, but the change in ‘number’ absolutely stymied me.”

Yes! I thought. But then I scrolled through the comments. A few attacked the author as “transphobic” but even more mentioned usages in the English language where they was singular, referencing authors (Shakespeare amongst them) who had used it in their writing.

Maybe I was wrong.

Then I came across The New York Time’s “Who’s ‘They’?” and my ignorance was confirmed.

Amanda Hess wrote, “central to the appeal of the singular ‘they’ is that it’s often deployed unconsciously. It’s regularly repurposed as a linguistic crutch when an individual’s gender is unknown or irrelevant. You might use it to refer to a hypothetical person who, say, goes to the store and forgets ‘their’ wallet. That casual usage has a long history — it has appeared in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen and Shaw. It wasn’t until 1745, when the schoolmistress-turned-grammar-expert Ann Fisher proposed ‘he’ as a universal pronoun for a person of unknown gender, that the use of ‘they’ in the same circumstance was respun as grammatically incorrect.”

Respun.

Yet another article “Pronouns Affect Transgender People—And All of Us” published in the Chicago Tribune quoted Carolyn Schneider, a counselor of transgender people, who makes the case that, “A pronoun is part of our core identity.” If my student identified with they, who was I to deny them? The author of the article, Mary Schmich, concludes the piece by saying that learning how to use the correct pronouns is, “A journey, a negotiation and an education that all add up to one word: respect.”

In my classroom, it has always been about respect. If my students feel less respected because of my discomfort in using they as a singular pronoun, then I needed to become more comfortable with it. I knew I was going to make mistakes, but if I could acknowledge those mistakes and show them that I was trying, then I could maintain their respect.

The next day they was absent.

“Where is they?” … Where are they?

This was not going to be easy.

As one of our daily writing prompts, I asked my creative writing students to write from the point-of-view of two non-binary characters using “Pronouns—A How To Guide” from the University of Milwaukee’s LGBT Resource Center.

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They all struggled with the prompt, but afterwards, a few of them shared what they had written. Even the student who had successfully used vever, and vis in their writing found reading it aloud to be a challenge.

One student commented, “That was hard, but I think we should try it again.”

They agreed.

I did too.

 

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