The English Teacher

English teachers get a bad rap.  

When I meet someone for the first time, they usually cringe upon learning I had been an English teacher.  This especially happens with men on first dates. 

The general public consensus, with a few exceptions, seems to place English teachers in the first cousin category to the caricature of librarians…that we are rigid, have dull grey hair pulled back into severe buns, dress in frumpy clothes, carry red pens and rulers, re-read Jane Eyre every year and wear glasses.

Theteach glasses part may be true, a casualty of reading far too many essays every week.

I know a few — very few — English teachers who actually do re-read Moby Dick and Jane every summer break. I have no idea why. 

But the rest is simply not true.  Ask any principal.  It’s typically the English Department that gives administrators the most headaches, second only to coaches but they’re a breed apart from classroom teachers and don’t count.

Of course, English teachers are also the most innovative, the most creative and the most endearing of all teachers. That last descriptor was provided by English teachers.

I’ll share an example that was repeated over and over and over again.

I used to train schools all over the nation in emergency responses to a man made or natural crisis, often to an active shooter.  In that case, I always had a local police chief or subordinate there to answer questions and nod his head approvingly, which I knew he would do because (a) he had approved the training, (b) he was scripted and (c) he knew I’d do him great bodily harm with my red pen if he went off script.

Typically, a district would pull as many teachers, classified personnel and administrators as possible into a gym or theater. There could be fifty or a couple thousand in the audience. The superintendent would then cross his or her fingers, say a prayer and, relinquishing all control, turn things over to us for an hour.

It was critical to break up the rather intense training with humor in order to bring down the anxiety, so we had funny tidbits seeded throughout the presentation.

The final component was on evacuation and pat downs, a touchy subject for teachers worrying about kids being patted down.  If necessary, law enforcement does pat down everyone being evacuated in order to ensure that the evacuation area is secure and weapon-free.

I’d tell the true story of our first active shooter simulation, when 600 students, teachers, classified and administration were evacuated and everyone got patted down. 

The kids were all interviewed as part of the assessment. They all reported that the pat down was simply not an issue; the officers were all professional and courteous.

We did, however, receive numerous complaints from female teachers who thought the pat down could have been much more thorough…

(pause for nervous laughter and side glances of did she really say what I think she just said?)

…primarily from the English Department.

At which point, the entire room would break into wild laughter and applause, knowing full well that it was the absolute truth. We could always count on at least a couple female English teachers jumping up and doing a little oh yeah, baby, come and pat me down!! dance.

I rest my case.

The Cowboy and the Gun

His name has long left me, but I can still see him in my mind’s eye and occasionally wonder what became of him.

He was tall and skinny, a lanky cowboy in an upscale suburban school in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. Dark reddish-brown curly hair, freckles and dressed in a Johnny Cash style of black tee-shirts and jeans, he didn’t interact with the other students, all sophomores, most of whom were very talkative and social.  I suspected he floated on the fringes of high school life.

What I did notice was that he slouched in his desk towards the back of a college prep English class and did minimal, if any, work.  I tried to engage him, I spoke with him after class to see what he needed, what we could do to move the grade out of the D-/F range.  He wasn’t going to move.

Day after day, we engaged in a predictable struggle.  I’d try to draw him out; he’d resist. Occasionally, I’d get a weak smile.  As a novice teacher, I was at a loss as to what more to do.

One day when I had a few minutes, I walked down to the Women’s Dean and asked if she had a moment.

Absolutely.  What do you need?

I described my young man and my concerns regarding his grade and attitude.  She shrugged. She had been an English teacher for many years, so this was not completely out of her realm.  There were no words of wisdom other than to continue doing what I had been doing. 

It was the Keep Hitting Your Head Against the Brick Wall Solution.

A few weeks later, on one of those overcast days, the class was in the midst of a lively discussion about an assigned chapter of a novel, when there was a movement immediately followed by a series of gasps coming from the back of the room.

All eyes were turning towards our cowboy and desks were starting to inch away from him.

He has a gun.

I steadied myself.  Teacher training had not addressed this issue.  There were 35 kids in the class, give or take, and I had two of my own at home.

Probably like a fool, or maybe just like a mother or teacher, I walked back to his desk with measured steps, a composed demeanor  — certainly not disclosing that I was frantically trying to find a possible option, any possible option, filed somewhere in my brain…

Give me the gun. Probably not the best plan, but it was all I had.

I looked at him. He looked at me. Our eyes locked.

I was still holding the open novel in my left hand so I extended my right hand, palm up.

I. Mean. It.   Hand. Me. The. Gun. Now.

I used my best stern I. Have. Had. It. Voice that mothers use when They. Have. Had. It.

He handed me the gun and we all began breathing again.

Let’s go. Let’s get you some help.

The rest of my students sat frozen at their desks, silently staring at their closed books. 

The two of us walked out of the room, my right hand on the cowboy’s arm while the other gingerly held the gun by the handle with my index finger and thumb, barrel down, out in front of me. Any idiot could have grabbed the weapon as we walked across the campus to the Men’s Dean.

I later learned the gun was loaded.  It was then that everything became far too real.

My student was depressed, like an estimated 20% of all students. And, like most teenagers, he didn’t have the life tools to seek help or to even know that he was depressed.  I had spotted the signs, and 30 years too late, knew exactly what they meant.

But even  if I had recognized the signs, services to address these issues were not found, are still not found, at most schools. I know I’m not the only teacher who has faced a loaded gun held by a depressed student.  In a recent national survey, 20% of high school students thought about committing suicide and 8% had attempted to kill themselves.

School guidance counselors are not trained mental health professionals. Counties and agencies funded by public monies typically see only Medi-Cal eligible clients, even though depression and suicide are not limited to those living below the poverty line.

There is still little if any professional help available in schools where kids can be referred or access services on their own. Despite the suicides, despite the school shootings, most schools and counties still can’t figure out how to get minimal professional mental health services to all kids in all public schools.

Instead of saying we can’t, perhaps it is way past time that we start saying we must when it comes to getting kids the mental health help they need.

The Project Linus Update

As many of you may know, California has been burning — the last two large fires in Northern California destroyed over 1,000 homes.

Last week, I dropped off five rag quilts for Project Linus and just received a wonderful email — all five quilts are on their way to five young children whose families lost everything in the fires.

IMG_2396So, for those of you who have been thinking about jumping in, stop thinking and do it.  These don’t have to be rag quilts (although they’re awfully fun to make and, believe me, take no talent at all — they’re very forgiving!!); any kind of handmade blanket will do.

A couple of websites:

http://www.projectlinus.org (the national organization that can link you to a donation point in your area)

http://www.sacprojectlinus.org (the Sacramento group that my area feeds into; they’ve got a great video you may want to watch, in case you’re wondering if the blankets make any difference!)

The Elbow and the Surgeon

continued from The Queen Bee meets Attila the Hun…

It was Day Two at home with an elbow replacement and two broken bones in my forearm.  I was already getting bored and realizing that life in general was growing a bit more complicated with my arm and hand confined in a splint.  I was not looking forward to Day Seven when the arm was going to be put into a cast.

I was doing Attila the Hun’s light physical therapy, basically isometrics to keep the muscles from turning to mush, when Sister Dianne called.

Have you thought about acupuncture?  Herbs?

No, but I’m game. Dianne made an appointment that very day with her acupuncturist and drove me up, up, and up a very steep, winding road to a small cottage on the top of a mountain with views of the entire valley.  The needles didn’t hurt and I left with a bag of herbal drops, teas and something that resembled a cigar. I was to return in a few days.

The cigar herb, also known as Moxa, was lit and then held over my elbow and the breaks.  I could feel the heat go right through my bones and it felt surprisingly good.  The herbs didn’t taste nearly as good, but I got them down nevertheless.

I was now doing light PT, herbs, had round I of acupuncture, round II scheduled and thought what more? Indeed. 

A healing circle. I belonged to a very informal group that did energy work. I should have called them before 911. But, better late than never, they put me in a middle of a circle and began to send healing energy.

Hopefully, all of these paths would find the road to a quick recovery.

Day Seven and I was ready for the surgeon.

How are you feeling? he inquired a bit cautiously.

Fantastic!  And you?

He raised the single eyebrow and sat down to look at the arm that had been unwrapped from the splint by the nurse.

I held my unwrapped arm out for him.

Good Lord. Don’t do that.

I looked down at my arm.

It’s not healed! It needs support!

oh. It felt fine to me, but if he wanted the arm supported, I’d support it.

Now, tell me exactly what you been doing. He was trying very hard to reclaim control.

I rattled off my routine: isometrics, acupuncture, herbs, moxa, a healing circle…

He glared at me.  I don’t believe in any of that stuff.

I met his glare.  You don’t have to; it’s my arm.

With that, I was marched down to X-ray, still holding the injured arm even though it felt fine on its own, and then sent back to the exam room to wait.

The surgeon re-entered, sat down with shoulders slumped. He sighed.

Tell me again what you’ve been doing.  Your arm is completely healed. You don’t need a cast.  You don’t even need that splint.

That’s great, I responded, a bit oblivious to his obvious pain, Can I start real PT now?  I wanted to get the recovery moving farther down the road.

I don’t know what to tell you. Do what you want. It’s working. Come back in six weeks and please bring the herbs and a list of what you’ve been doing.

Six weeks later, I returned with a healthy arm that had regained full range of motion, even though it wasn’t supposed to, and was taken straight to X-ray.

The surgeon walked into the exam room and shook his head, sighing.

I have to show you something.

And he brought out a large, heavy textbook and three X-ray slides of my elbow. He pointed to a well-marked page in textbook.

That is a photo of an elbow replacement.  It is textbook perfect.

I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking at, but I nodded and said, hmm.

He pointed to the first X-ray.  That is your arm right after surgery.  Not textbook perfect, but close. Very close.

He pointed to the second slide.  That X-ray is a week later.  It’s textbook perfect. It shouldn’t be.  The new joint couldn’t have moved.

And, this one, this one…

He looked at me as though I had arranged for someone else to provide their elbow for my X-ray. 

Today’s X-ray is better than textbook perfect. I don’t understand. I just don’t understand what happened.

There wasn’t anything more to say so I smiled, thank him and patted him on the shoulder with my hand that was attached to the arm that shouldn’t have been able to stretch out to reach him. 

Then, as I was meeting a friend to swim laps, I left him sitting in the exam room, shoulders still slumped, still sighing, still shaking his head and looking at the three X-ray slides, the textbook, the herbs and a piece of paper listing the healing circle, moxa, herbs, acupuncture and physical therapy. 


The Queen Bee meets Attila the Hun

continued from The Brick and the Elbow…

There were twelve of us. We met while teaching.  We socialized, confided, supported one other and then, over time, realized we were Sisters.  Our numbers have ebbed over the years, from moves and death, but the bond is still strong especially when one of us is in need.

It made perfect sense that the Sisters would immediately connect once word spread that I had injured myself and was in surgery. The doctors were having a rough time bringing me out of the anesthesia and sent in Sister Jane to rouse me.

I could hear her voice. She sounded just like an English teacher, which she was, reprimanding a class. 

Do you hear me? Wake up. Right Now. 

I could hear her. I was trying to wake. I couldn’t move.  Couldn’t speak. Couldn’t see. I was trying, but all I could do was hear her.

And then her voice changed direction as though her head had turned away from me while she continued to speak.

What the hell have you done to her?

What the hell have they done to me?  I still had no voice, couldn’t move and couldn’t see. But I could hear. WHAT DID THEY DO TO ME?

Panic should have ensued except that I faded off once again.

When I finally awoke, body swollen, bandaged and well-tubed, I did a brief limb check.  Everything was still there. Wiggled all ten fingers.  Toes. All there.  Moved the non-injured arm. Still there, so I assumed they operated on the correct arm.

I drifted in and out of consciousness until my daughter arrived and then the surgeon appeared somewhat later to explain that they didn’t realize I meditated so there was something about lung capacity, deep breathing and morphine that is counter productive.  Had they not caught the falling blood oxygen levels, I probably wouldn’t be writing today.

My daughter, a soft-spoken physical therapist, asked about beginning light therapy.  The surgeon raised his eyebrow.  It was not standard procedure, but given the past 24 hours, he wasn’t going to argue with her.

Whatever you think is best.

Then he looked at me and counseled to not get my hopes up.  Even with Physical Therapy, I’d never be able to put my hand behind my head, twist my arm, touch my lower back or do a myriad of other things. Full range would never happen.

And, with that, my daughter took me home, settled me in and then left to get the items she knew I would need.

In her absence, the Sisters began gathering. They had already divided up chores, meals, me. I was going to be well cared for and pampered beyond anything I had ever experienced.

I had become the Queen Bee.

Ten minutes later, I was just getting settled into a pile of pillows on the couch and sipping tea when daughter walked in the door, packages in hand. She surveyed the room.

We have your mom covered. We’re just making some lunch.  Do you want some?

Stop. Right now.  My sweet, soft-spoken daughter had somehow morphed into Attila the Hun and spoke in a voice of total authority.

Mom, here some large clothes. Get into the shower and get dressed.

I was watching my Queen Bee status crumble before my eyes.

But my arm…

I have 80 year old little ladies with one arm. They can shower and get dressed, including a bra. So can you. Get going.

The Sisters stood at attention.  It was now obvious who was in charge.

If she is going to get her arm back, there’s to be no pampering. She will make you meals. She will get up and get anything she needs. No pampering.  She will take care of you. Got it?

And with that, I showered, washed my hair, got dressed including the bra, and made everyone lunch.

The Queen Bee had been officially de-throned.

to be continued…

The Brick and the Elbow

Once upon a time, there was a brick.  It was just hanging around in my back yard, waiting for me to find it. I didn’t know that, even though a dear friend who is a professional astrologer had cautioned, Watch out for August and accidents. Pay attention.

I wasn’t paying attention as I was chatting on the phone with my daughter-in-law that August morning and, multi-tasking,  walking through my backyard.  It was then that I tripped and found the brick.  It was actually my elbow that found the brick as the two collided.  

Scrunch.  The elbow shattered into too many pieces to ever be put back together.  It no doubt felt a bit like Humpty Dumpty after his fall.  Two bones in my forearm also joined in the fun by breaking.

Despite common lore, there is pain worse than childbirth. This particular pain was hitting about 150 on a scale of 1 – 10.  Exposed nerve, shattered funny bone and you have a general idea of the pain level.

Despite the pain, ensuing nausea and sliding into shock, I attempted to straighten my hair and makeup before help arrived. 

Some things never change.

An ambulance arrived in short order. The paramedics were less concerned about my appearance and more concerned with the injuries. In short order, I was wheeled into the ambulance and a morphine drip begun.  The pain immediately subsided and I floated off into a la-la land, only marginally aware of the ride and transfer into the hospital.

It was 24 more hours before an elbow replacement surgery could be scheduled. Although no one knew it at the time, another complication was developing.

Between the morphine drip and injuries, I was in no condition to answer any questions, much less volunteer information that, under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have known they needed to know.

And, no one at the hospital thought to ask the one question for which they needed the answer.

Do you meditate?

I still don’t quite understand the why but the what became quickly evident in surgery.

There’s a little gizmo — a pulse oximeter — that measures the oxygen levels in the blood.  Most of us have seen them:  a probe that looks like a modern version of a clothespin is placed on your finger, and the amount of oxygen being carried though the blood is instantly measured.

Once in the operating room, the anesthesiologist slipped the oximeter onto my finger. A range of 95% to 100% is considered normal. Below 85%, and medical attention is required.

My level was 30%.

Hmmmm. He was a well seasoned doctor.

Another oximeter was put on my finger.

30%

He took the meter off me and placed it on his own finger.

98%

And, with that, the surgery was halted while they focused on re-oxygenating me.

To be sure, at the time I wasn’t aware of living, dying or the surgery.  I was just aware that I was being brought back out of a free-floating, pain-free blackness.  A voice, a light, a color….a question for me but no voice with which to answer…and, finally a strange sound trying to form a “yes.” 

There was a sudden awareness of a dull pain, a reassuring word from the doctor and darkness once again.

The surgery had begun.

To be continued…

Four Women and a Cute Red Convertible

It was in the midst of summer break and an August heat wave. Everyone was baking. I had planned on staying right in front of a fan and window air conditioner, reading a light novel, when the service department at my car dealership called.

We’ve had a cancellation and can take your car.  Can you bring it in late this afternoon?

Sure, but I’ll need a loaner.  I grimaced at the thought of going out in the heat but my car was overdue for its service.

When I got to the dealership, there only one loaner available, a cute red convertible. 

oh, what a shame.

I drove home and into the driveway as Sabra pulled up behind me.

A convertible? In this heat? Beach!!

We threw a couple of sweatshirts in the trunk — this is California weather, after all — jumped in and took off.

Let’s get Jane!

Jane had an out of state girlfriend visiting so we kidnapped both and they hopped in the backseat of the cute red convertible.

Do you want to grab a sweater?

Nah, it’s hot. 

Uh huh.

By the time we hit the freeway, top down, something had happened.  Our hair was blowing wild in the wind, we were laughing and we were singing loudly, if a bit off key, to the songs on the radio from the 60’s. 

It was magical. Suddenly, we were young, we were single, we were free of responsibilities, we were driving in our cute red convertible during an August heat wave and we were headed to the beach.

Jane started flirting with men in any car without a woman.  We joined in the fun. The men were younger than our sons, but it didn’t matter. Most just smiled or ignored us, but a few waved, whistled and flirted back.  We laughed and sang just a bit louder.

Let’s go to the Boardwalk!

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk has been there forever.  The rides are legend and, here we were, four single women in a cute red convertible on a Hot August Night, getting younger by the minute and ready for fun.

Almost immediately we found a parking place with no meter.  Things were definitely going our way.

We jumped out of our cute red convertible, locked it up and headed in.boardwalk 2

Let’s go on the Giant Dipper…

Let’s get cotton candy…

Let’s…

We were right in the thick of things, the crowds, the excitement, the carnie barkers when, one by one, we realized something was amiss.

I was the only one with a wallet.  It held my driver’s license and 32 cents.

Not one of us had brought our purses. Not one of us had a debit or credit card. We were four single women with a cute red convertible on a Hot August Night at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk with, after digging deep into our pockets, a grand total of $1.87.

It wasn’t enough for an ice cream cone, much less a ride on the Giant Dipper or cotton candy, so we pooled our funds and each got our fortune told by an ancient mechanical Grandma.

She wasn’t very good. Then we got hungry.

So we left, getting back in the cute red convertible with the top still down. We were midway over the hill when the heatwave suddenly broke. Fog and cold air poured over the mountain road, as is apt to happen in California. With nowhere to stop to put up the top on our cute red convertible, we froze. Even in our sweatshirts, we froze.  The kidnapped pair in the backseat, without sweatshirts, huddled together, their teeth were chattering. The drive home seemed to take forever.

Sometimes reality can just be so cruel.