oh, Suzanna…

IMG_0226We began as colleagues and grew into Sisters, ten women with a close friendship of almost forty years.  Mimi was the first to leave, almost five years ago. and we suspect she has spent a good deal of the past five years re-decorating the Pearly Gates, and whatever lies beyond, in a Country French theme.

Last week, Suzanna joined her.  Mimi would have no doubt been among the first to greet Suzanna, ready to show her the ropes for this new adventure.

Suzanna probably had some pithy observations to add to whatever Mimi might have shared.

Suzanna was a formidable woman with a moral compass set solidly to True North. She was down to earth with a quick wit and a heart as big as the great outdoors she so dearly loved. 

Suzanna was quick with a smile and good counsel, a comforting and stabilizing presence. Her tidbits of sage wisdom are still shared with novice teachers:  If the choice is between your sanity and theirs, always choose yours…Have an arsenal of quick comebacks for those very special moments with those very special students…Practice Teacher Conservation.

Suzanna kept an old fashion paper fan on her desk and when she told the occasional risqué story, she’d quickly fan her face to ease the bright Irish blush that was sure to follow. As our conversations thrived on innuendo, we knew a beet red, laughing Suzanna would soon be crying Where’s my fan? while frantically searching for it under piles of student papers.

Peggy and Dianne would visit Suzanna’s classroom with a subtle reminder from an ongoing office conversation, such as a piece of chocolate, an aspirin or a metaphor, and, without a word, hand Suzanna the token and her fan. They’d leave, with Suzanna in full blush in front of thirty students.

One year, Suzanna and Dianne decided to swim laps in the school pool before classes began. Of course, the kids got word of it.  Keenly aware of the teenage gawkers, Dianne hesitated. Suzanna just shrugged, They look at us; they turn to stone before plunging into the pool.

And when Jane and Carla were newly single and contemplating a brave new dating world, Suzanna shared her one and only dating rule: Date men half your age with twice your income. 

Suzanna was generous in sharing her love of nature, taking us kayaking and to Hume Lake. Once, with Mimi and Alice and their kids, Suzanna was determined to share the full outdoor experience and had Blaine leave a little something on the porch for a bear. The bear showed up and wanted to join them in the cabin. Suzanna said she looked in those eyes and the small amount of space where the brain might be, and declared she would never do that again.

Suzanna was fiercely proud of her husband, Reece, and their children. She found joy in their three young grandchildren and, as her health failed, Suzanna delighted in listening to their kids and grandkids laughing and talking outside her open window. She was so very appreciative of Reece’s love and especially the care that he provided in her final months.

While we are finding it difficult to imagine a world without Suzanna, sisters sharing in celebration, heartache, laughter and adventure ~ all while creating lifelong bonds and memories ~ our comfort is in knowing she is now without pain, hopefully enjoying a fragrant flower garden or kayaking in clear, calm waters. 

Caution: Hard Right Ahead

IMG_0366Back when I was teaching, when we actually had to write on chalk boards, I’d patiently wait for the kids to offer their predictable September insight.

Ms. H,  do you know you never write in a straight line?

I’d stand back, survey my scribbling that always ended taking a hard left, heading upwards.

Yep, you’re right.  It means I have a positive attitude.

Of course they believed me as they believed most of the non-English nonsense I shared with them.  Teenagers can be a very gullible group.

I remember one very hot summer during one very tedious summer school session, when the air conditioning failed and we were collectively dying.  I gave up the ghost of the lesson and showed the kids how to hold energy in one hand, then move it from one hand to another.

It was an act of desperation.  There were only ten minutes left in a four hour class with thirty teens repeating an English class they didn’t like in the first place.  The kids immediately focused on holding energy and forgot all about the oppressive heat.  One young man was still struggling when the class ended, but burst into my room the following September.

Ms. H, Ms. H, look!!!  I can do it!! I can move energy!!  I am now a man!!!

I’m at a loss to know what moving energy has to do with be a man as opposed to being The Man, but back to writing in a straight line.  I failed at it.  Even on paper, my writing still takes a hard left upwards. 

I also have a rough time walking in a straight line, but have never really focused on whether I am veering right or left.  Most of the time I am just trying to stay out of harm’s way.

We won’t talk about my driving; my daughter is already terrified that her kids may one day find themselves in a car with me behind the wheel.

So it wasn’t a complete surprise that my sewing — I know, I know, those of you who knew me in my past lives might be very shocked to find that I am now a struggling novice quilter — also takes a turn towards the end of a seam.  The surprise is that it takes a hard right.

I’ve never taken a hard right in much of anything.

I figured that out over the past couple of rainy days, standing at the windows, watching yet another downpour and musing over the quilt squares that needed to be ripped out.  Again.

It began last week when I thought I was putting the quilting away until next fall, but first there was a trip to drop off my stack of quilts to the monthly Project Linus meeting (for those of you new-to-this-blog quilters or knitters who have no one remaining to give your projects to, check out the projectlinus.org website)

Kathy, our fearless local leader, invited me back into the Stash Storeroom.  Oh jeez. It looked just like our old department offices, loaded with stashes and stashes of lesson plans and handouts, only this was all fabric. 

I left with with a very large bin filled with what one might generously call strips of fabric and another armload of charm packs of thousands of five inch fabric squares.  The internet, thank the goddesses, is generous with patterns for novice quilters who only sew in more or less straight lines and don’t do corners or reverse.

I thought I was in relatively safe territory.  Sort of middle of the road, staying on the straight and narrow stitching course and coming up with a few acceptable quilts for our next get-together.

It was going fairly well, with both quilts for a teenage girl and boy progressing nicely. Then I opened a charm package of plaids and stripes squares and began making a Disappearing Nine Patch pattern for a baby quilt. Nine lousy squares.  Should have been Easy Peasy.

It all looked marginally fine until I started stitching the squares together. That’s when things got very ugly, very quickly, and I discovered my hard right sewing tendency creates havoc with plaids and stripes. 

So I’ve been back to the sewing table, so to speak, ripping out seams and now determined to sew in a straight line forevermore. 

I suspect it’s going take some mighty strong will-power to see this through to the end.

 

 

 

The Students and the Headmistress

bookI had moved from teaching high school English to a couple of non-teaching assignments before landing, after Columbine, in Safety.  

I loved it. I was working with the administrators and the local police, including my two new BFF’s, two very large officers — one African-American; one Hawaiian — who were quite imposing, incredibly funny and coached middle school and high school sports in their free time.

Then, six weeks into the first semester, I got a call:  We need you to teach two periods of English. 

Were they kidding?  I hadn’t been in a classroom in years. 

I called my Sister Peggy at the school in question and asked about the two classes.

Oh my God, she sputtered, those are all the reject kids from every other English II class and have had one sub after another.  They’re out of control and have even thrown desks at the regular teachers who’ve gone in there. Is it too early for you to retire???

ah geez…

The next Monday, I showed up in the administration building to say hello to the principal, who was new and already unhappy with me because  a few of her decisions had been overruled due to safety considerations.

She told me she had no idea what work the kids had done (ah, not much), but that they followed standards (except when she was called down to reprimand them).  I asked if that included desk throwing before heading to the classroom.

She avoided me after that.

The bell rang, the kids slowly meandered in and the mutual stare-down began.

Yes, I am a real teacher and, yes, I’m here til the end of the year and, no, I won’t put up with anything. Don’t try it.

They looked at each other, no doubt taking bets on how long it would take before I, too, disappeared.

We had gotten through the first couple of days, still feeling our way, when the doorway suddenly darkened.  There were my two BFF’s, smiling broadly, and holding a grande Starbucks.

They could barely conceal their grins as they walked in like they owned the place.

Well rehearsed, the officers read the kids the riot act.

Give her any trouble: you deal with us.

I sipped on my latte.

It was hard not to laugh. By the time the two had left, the kids were positive the officers were SWAT, their teacher was SWAT and probably packing heat, and that there was no hope of the students regaining control.

Whatever worked…

By second semester, we were settled into the academic routine, the kids were doing very well and preparing to read A Separate Peace — a novel set in a 1940’s eastern prep school about the loss of innocence.

My students were from a lower socio-economic neighborhood, 40% on free or reduced meals, primarily minority and many immigrants or first generation Americans. 

Prep school? Boarding school? They hadn’t a clue.

I took time to explain the concept.  I asked if they wanted to role play prep school for a day.  They did.

The following Wednesday, my students showed up dressed in black pants or skirts, crisp white shirts neatly tucked into waistbands, black ties and looking very sharp. They all stood when I walked into the room, saying in unison Good afternoon, Ms. H,  and then quietly sitting down when I nodded my greeting.

They sat up straight, raised their hands, stood to ask or answer questions.  I had asked some colleagues to visit during the two classes.  The kids promptly stood up, saying Good afternoon, Mr. or Ms. —.

Then, someone grabbed the principal, who was showing the campus to a new vice principal, and directed them to my room without sharing what we were doing. The two walked into a class of uniformed students who, without prompting, stood in unison saying Good afternoon, Ms. G.,  before being told to resume sitting.

Both administrators looked shocked.

I asked in anyone had a question for our “headmistress” — one student did. He stood, politely asked his question, said Thank you after she answered and then quietly sat back down.

The principal looked at me and started backing into the whiteboard.  She had no idea what to make of it — an entire class of of former desk-throwing, out of control, defiant students now in sitting bolt upright in black and white uniforms, eyes front, hands properly folded on their desks, no wiggling, no talking, on task and perfectly well-behaved.

I just smiled and quietly said, If there’s nothing more, we do have our lesson to complete.

They left, and when they were well out of earshot, the students and I broke into laughter.

I could be as big a pain as my kids.

 

A Little Bit of Magic

crt_logoRegardless of our professions, we all hold memories of special people and events. That is especially true when teachers start to share their stories, usually about individual students and sometimes about classes that, if we were lucky, were pure magic for the entire year.  Those classes were few and far between, but they were the reason we got up and raced to work every morning.

I was recently chatting with my Sister Suzanna and we got on the subject of kids and classes.  She recalled a magical class from her early years in the profession.  When June rolled around, the students complimented her with you’ve been just like my sister.  Fast forward and another perfect class appeared, this time with the closing appreciation of you’ve been just like my mother.  In her final year of teaching, yet another special class appeared and her kids surrounded her voicing, you’ve been just like my grand —  Stop right there, there is no need to finish that sentence.

I remember both individual students and some very special classes. I still recall one young girl who walked into our Healthy Start/School Linked Services offices late on a Friday afternoon.  She was leaning on her sister, crying and seeking help. I ushered her back to a young therapist, who quickly came back to my office and said this was out of her area of expertise.

The four of us sat down in my office.  The girl was pregnant, certain her parents would kill her and wanted an abortion. We calmed her and made her an appointment with Planned Parenthood, knowing that she was well past the point of any abortion. We also up future appointments with a therapist in our center so she could be supported in the future months.

Four months later, she gave birth to a beautiful little boy and, in large part due to the expertise at Planned Parenthood, had the full support of her family.

I wish her story had ended there, but it didn’t. Six months later, I received word that the young girl and her boyfriend had been killed, bound and shot execution style in the back of their heads.  I recall something about drugs or gangs, but that’s all rather vague.  I just remember thinking that it was such a loss, especially to their infant.  I have no idea what happened to the child, except that he’s now a grown man and, hopefully, on a much better path than his parents.

Those are the students that continue to haunt — what didn’t we know and what could have we done?

Those memories are balanced by the classes and students that made every day magical. There was one very special Sophomore English class where every day was a delight. Alas, I had arranged to take a leave of absence the second semester to join the soon-to-be ex in Pennsylvania. The kids and I grew more heartbroken as moving day loomed. 

The class had a surprise party the last day before the winter break and my leaving.  They had food (of course), thank you cards, speeches and gave me a beautiful delicate gold bracelet that I still have.  We were all in tears.

At the end of the day, I walked out to the faculty parking lot.  Standing next to my car was one of my students. He was the shy, polite student-athlete who sat in the back of the room and earned excellent grades.  He was on the cusp of becoming a very handsome young man and many of the girls already had crushes on him, although he seemed oblivious to it all.

I started to ask him what he needed, but he beat me to it, blurting out, But you can’t leave!  I’m in love with you!

 oh my, if he had only been 30 years older and a few years later…

 

 

 

Teaching Outside the Lines

Somewhere along the way, I realized I taught kids, not curriculum, which means I’d be a square-peg in today’s Common Core round-hole.

The kids I taught were fondly known as Retreads, from having failed and retaken so many classes. I loved their energy and insights.  Most other English teachers were happy they didn’t have my classes, administrators were happy because they didn’t have to persuade said teachers to teach said classes, and I was happy because I was pretty much left alone.  

However, one afternoon as I was prepping for the following day, I got a call from the Vice Principal of Attendance and Discipline. She was on a first name basis with most of my students.

Glad I caught you.  Do you have a minute?  she inquired.

Sure.

Are you taking attendance in your Mass Media classes?

Of course I’m taking roll.

Mass Media was a favorite class, designed specifically for the Retreads.  I had taken one look at the curriculum, which was little more than Shut Up ‘n Color pablum, tossed it in the curricular file and asked the kids what they needed to learn.  They were 18 years old, hanging on to school by a thread and many already had their own personal Probation Officer. The kids knew full well what they needed in order to survive.

The class put together a list of life topics, which made it easy to develop an appropriate curriculum utilizing basic psychology and sociology as the doors through which the kids could improve their reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking skills.

That said, they wouldn’t have recognized a gerund, intransitive verb or denouement if one jumped up and bit them on the nose, much less known how any of them function in grammar or literature. These kids would not have done well with Common Core standards.

We opened with Relationships, not that I have even a marginal expertise in the subject (see Dating Category). The kids first read the original Cinderella, courtesy of the Brothers Grimm, in which each of the stepsisters cut off her toes and heel in order to squeeze her bloody, mutilated foot into the glass slipper.  I would not recommend that anyone read this particular version to princess-enthralled little girls.

The kids then compared and contrasted the Grimm version with the sanitized Disney Cinderella, and ended with watching the R-rated Pretty Woman.  I could have been fired for showing the movie, even though it seems pretty tame by today’s standards. Then again, I could have been fired more than once, so in the grand scope of things, it probably wasn’t that big of a deal.

The girls quickly figured out and shared what modern-day Cinderellas give up/cut off of themselves in order to catch their Prince Charmings while the boys were equally vocal in sharing what happens when they fall into the Princely trap of assuming responsibly for keeping his Princess happily ensconced on her pedestal.  It was an eye opener for both genders. One young woman sought help and got out of an abusive relationship after the unit was completed.

In another unit, the students researched gangs like the Mafia and KKK.  These kids were incredibly perceptive: leaders got power; followers got to contribute and have their contribution valued.  They observed that dynamic is also a definition of family, which every one of us needs regardless of how we define our family members. The kids concluded a person couldn’t successfully leave one family without first finding a replacement family. Sociologists would have been hard pressed to be as succinct and on point as these students.

The discussion grew into a lively, loud debate around local gangs, whether it was better to stay or leave, because anyone leaving would be killed.  They knew this for a fact; many had been born into multi-generational gangs. Two young men later returned to say goodbye to me. Each shared that he wanted a new life so had enlisted in the military, his new family, knowing there would be no return to the old family or old life.

But, back to attendance and the Vice Principal.  The morning after our phone chat, the kids were in small groups, discussing, debating and involved in the assignment at hand when one of the kids nudged me and nodded towards the door.

Ms. C. is here.

I turned to see the vice principal standing in the open doorway, just watching, so I walked over to greet her while the class continued their discussions.

Hi! Can I help you?  I asked.

They’re all here.  It was a statement and I didn’t know quite what to do with it.

Well, yes.  They’re supposed to be here.

No. She looked puzzled. They’re all here and they’re all working.

ah, yes. It’s class. What else would you expect?

She just looked at me.

No, you don’t understand. This is the only class they attend.