Culture · Pandemic · Teaching

all for want of a puzzle

Well, team, here we are. Two months yesterday I got an email saying, “Pack up your laptop and essentials. You’ll be teaching from home next week.” Two months since life was something I recognized, and two months since Corona was just a crappy beer I didn’t like.

The past two months have been just plain hard, and being trapped on Emily Island has been no picnic, believe you me. Feeling off, being out-of-sorts, muddling along, and being a bit down have been common themes of “the new normal.”

I cried a lot. I was angry a lot. I wandered around aimlessly a lot. And I kept coming full circle, thinking, Why? I have no right to feel this way. So many other folks are so much worse off than I am. How can I possibly be so mad about the fact I am out of parsley? And yes, while this was true, knowing it did nothing to ebb the vague, gnawing sadness that seemed to color everything, or prevent me from feelings of cavernous loss. There are few things worse, I think, than mourning something you can’t quite put your finger on. It was terrible.

Then about two weeks ago, a horrible, cataclysmic thing happened that brought everything to a head:

Two puzzles I ordered on Amazon in the last week in March and which I had been awaiting for a month were delivered to the wrong city.

I know, you’re thinking, “Well, that isn’t so bad. I thought someone lost their job or died or something.” But let me tell you. In that moment, those puzzles were everything. I was so upset, I couldn’t see straight. In the span of about two hours, I found out that you can’t call Amazon right now (there is no one answering their help line), I couldn’t email them because coming from an “independent seller” I had to contact this party myself, and the tracking numbers told me that the puzzles were simultaneously on my doorstep, on their way to Madison, and still somewhere in Indiana (depending on which device I was on at the time). I was basically up a creek without a paddle. And I was furious.

After a rather…hm, shall we say…spirited exchange with the Vulcan in which he got a crash course in a good way not to try to console me (poor man), I was sitting on the sofa, sobbing about these puzzles and feeling really quite silly (which made me even more angry), and I was struck by a sudden epiphany. My meltdown was (shock of shocks) not really about my puzzles.

I was, at my core, upset, because I am terrible at everything my job is currently asking of me. I hate writing and replying to emails. I don’t know how to “digitally connect” with my students to make them engage and do what they need to. I don’t like staring at a screen for hours on end. I dislike not being able to interpret the subtext of what my students are saying in between the lines, because I cannot see their faces. No part of me is excited by the idea of being a part of (much less being in charge of) a virtual choir. I don’t like Adobe. I don’t spend much time on social media. I don’t like being in meetings when people I only know on a professional basis ask me how I am doing. Literally, I am good at no part of my job right now. And do you know what I did about that?

I mourned. I sat around and was sad for two days. I did nothing. I didn’t cook. I did the absolute minimum that everyone expected of me. I did nothing except eat tortilla chips and watch 5 1/2 seasons of M*A*S*H while I put together the giant, 2,000 piece puzzle the Vulcan brought me (the last one in the whole of Target because he is a good, kind, and also a very wise man). And I let myself be really upset. I sat around and thought about how sad I was. I reflected on the relationships I had with students which were just starting to blossom and which now will not be. I mourned the fact that I am not the kind of teacher who turns her house into a magical, virtual classroom, and I mourned that I didn’t feel bad about the fact I didn’t want to be. I. was. sad.

And let me tell you something. Allowing myself to go to the dark place–not to try to “keep moving,” or tell myself that other people were worse off than me, or force myself to be this person I am not–was unspeakably freeing. In acknowledging all of what I am not and cannot, I was able to accept that yes–this is okay. The things I am make my good at my job. And this is not my job. This is a crisis management version of my job. I am just surviving. And that is okay. It is okay that right now, I am doing my best and it isn’t the most amazing.

And after this mourning, this two day period where the Vulcan said he kept waking up in the wee hours with the M*A*S*H theme song in his head, I started to feel better. (I also finished the puzzle, so there was that). I started to want to do my best, even though I know it isn’t nearly as great as people who were born for this. I put away the tortilla chips and signed myself up for Noom (which is awesome, by the way). I made a color-coded calendar in my work planner. I put on my running shoes and went for a run. (It was slow and terrible, but I did it!) I signed up for a half marathon in August. I started baking things. I went and saw my family socially-distantly. And I started to feel like me again. And it is so exciting, I can hardly stand it.

And all of this got me to reflect on the nature of things. I was at a Bible study once, and it was talking about the importance of mourning and lament in the Bible. I didn’t really get it at the time. “Lament” seemed like a very remote word from my 21st century life. But I get it now. Lamenting has helped me move forward.

We are, as a society, not the best at mourning. We’re good at wallowing, at blame, and at anger, but not necessarily mourning. When people are sad, there are a million things to distract you, to fix you, to remind you that you’re better off than some other poor slub. And yes, there are times when we just have to go nose-to-the-grindstone and get things done because we have to. And in this rollercoaster of emotions I’ve been on in the past six weeks, I’ve done all of these things. (I went a bit Amazon crazy that second week of quarantine…) But I didn’t really start to feel myself coming out of the fog until I just took the time and acknowledged the sadness and the loss. I didn’t belittle it for being kind of lame, because it didn’t change how I was feeling.

And I can’t help but think that right now, everyone is mourning something. Some of them are big, “real” things (like death, for instance, or life milestones that have been taken away–weddings postponed, graduations cancelled), but some are little things that nonetheless remind us that we are not now who we once were. Baseball didn’t begin in April. Spring concerts didn’t happen. Wandering around the store without an agenda is now a thing of the past. Hugs you don’t get. Faces you don’t see. There is a whole lot of loss around for a culture of people who don’t do mourning. I think we may have to learn how to do it.

And if you are, might I recommend tortilla chips and M*A*S*H?

Happy or sad, stay well, my friends. I’ll see you tomorrow!


“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” –Matthew 5:3

Life generally... · Teaching

One Day More

Tomorrow is the last day of school before we begin our (well-deserved, in my mind) spring break.  Only one more day of waking up, one more day of kiddos climbing the walls because they, too, know that break is almost here.  Only one day more!

After the kids got on the buses and the hallways were clear, I treated (tormented?) my colleagues with a chorus of One Day More, the Act I finale of the musical Les Misérables, because I am a choir teacher, so this is what I do.

I love the night before the Last Day Before Break.  I love it because I feel like I can stay up later than I should because I’ll have time to catch up on missing sleep.  And even though things come up and it always ends too quickly, the night before, the whole glorious nine days of sweet freedom stretch before you like a pristine, snowy morning.  There is time for everything to get done on the night before.  It’s magical.

On Saturday, I head off for three days in a cabin for my “Light A Fire Under It, Already, Girl” write-in.  I am going incommunicado and it’s going to be marvelous.  Time to focus on things that I’m always “too busy” for.  I am excited for the chance to breath and step away–something I don’t do often enough.  Excited for time to reflect and thing.  Excited for the change of pace.

Half of the joy of things like vacations and breaks and mini-vacays is the anticipation of it.  The final countdown until you board the flight, get in the car, or turn off the alarm.  I love to revel in it, and sometimes I feel like my instant-gratification life robs me of the chance.  But nothing can take away the excitement surrounding a day like tomorrow–

One more dawn! One more day! One Day More! (It’s not exactly the French Revolution, but I teach middle school so it very well could be!  Haha!)


Calling in

So, today, I called in.  If you have a traditional corporate-type job, this probably doesn’t strike you as anything worth sharing, but I am a teacher.  And my fellow teachers can attest, calling in as a teacher is a big deal.  First off, sub plans are such a pain to write , and second, we feel this sort of moral obligation to never be sick–to never miss a day because our students need to learn, and I, for one, will drag myself into work on death’s door because I feel guilty if I’m not there.  There’s always something coming up–a concert, an assessment, a meeting I can’t miss, etc. etc. etc.

But I called in today.  And I didn’t do it because I was sick (of body, anyway,) but because emotionally and mentally, I have nothing left in me.  My house was in desperate need of a good cleaning.  I have laundry that needs to be done before I go out of town this weekend. I have to get my oil changed. I needed to actually cook something, because a girl cannot live on tortilla chips alone.  And I was so frustrated by the end of work yesterday, I just didn’t really like anyone or anything.  So that’s what I’m doing today.  All these chores.  Little dumb errands.  Not talking to anyone.  Having my faith in my profession and humanity in general restored.  De-stressing.

If you had told 19 year-old me that I would ever consider doing laundry and cleaning a bathroom “de-stressing,” I would have told you that you were insane.

And that got me thinking.  We are all like this.  My colleagues.  Friends in other districts.  Friends who teach in other states.  Friends who teach in other countries.  We are all, always, stressed.  Every teacher I know seems to function in this constant cloud of stress and pressure.  Some of it’s external, put on us by districts and parents and society.  We are required, now, to teach more content at a faster pace to more children while additionally teaching the character and ethics and social behavior that was once the realm of families and homes.  We are under pressure to get our test scores up (or keep them up.)  We are pushed to be a part of more committees and teams and collaborations and professional learning communities.  There are learning plans and development models and new curricula and a thousand other things.

But it’s not just “them.”  It’s also “us.”  Speaking for myself (but a pattern that I’ve seen time and time again from my fellow educators), I feel like I need to constantly prove myself to the society around me that doesn’t know what happens everyday in my classroom and believes that my job is “easy” and that I “don’t really work.”  I am always working to prove them wrong.  (Our district extended the teacher work day to 8.5 hours because the superintendent didn’t want parents to see us leaving the building, because they would think we “don’t work.”  No joke.)  But that’s just part of it.  I believe in what I’m doing.  I believe education matters.  I love my subject area and I want to help my kids love it as much as I do.  I believe that for many kids, I and other teachers are the only adult connection they have–we are the only adults that are not playing on our smart phones while we talk to them.  I want to be a better teacher.  I want to help them grow as people and students.  I want them to succeed.

And all of this stress is exhausting.

There is something wrong with my life if, at the end of the week, all I’m up to by the time I get to Saturday is binge watching something on Netflix while I obsessively crochet a blanket, rather than doing the usual Saturday chores and errands.  There is something seriously wrong with me when I don’t want to see people or do anything social ever because I have given every single atom of people-skill to my students.    Something is wrong here.

And we can all talk about how it’s society’s fault, or our administration’s fault, or whatever, and I agree, that’s a huge part of it.  But I can’t control that.  I can control me.  As I’ve been cleaning this morning, I thought about that.

I need to accept my humanity.  I can only teach the best I can.  I cannot do everything–even if something is good for kids, I cannot do all of the good things for kids. I am not God.  I cannot save these kids.  I have to do a little bit less if I am going to survive in a career in education.  I have to do what I can do, but also be okay with knowing when it’s time to stop.  Because when I don’t stop, when I am everything to everybody, I lose myself.  I don’t have the energy for being “Emily,” because it gets lost in the sea of “Miss D.”  I am not the only person in these lives that walk through my door.  I can’t be.  All these kiddos have families, parents, churches, clubs, and other people who are also have a hand in raising them. I admit, this is a hard pill to swallow.  I know a lot of you teachers reading this are thinking how wrong I am.  And maybe you can do it.  You can teach and be the perfect made-for-T.V. movie teacher and still go home at the end of the night and have a spouse and children and dog, and volunteer at church and run twelve miles a night…and if that’s you, I’m impressed.  I wish I could be you.  But I’m learning that I can’t.  I have to “make cuts” to be a better teacher, to make sure I don’t end up here repeatedly–taking sick days to clean my bathroom.

And for all of you in my boat, I’d encourage you to take a step.  Leave something less-than-perfect.  Go home.  Make dinner.  Breathe.



Mozart be lit.

So, my choir kids had a concert today.  It’s a big deal.  First of all, because we are still a baby program (when I took over two years ago, the program had a membership of twelve kids), so anytime we manage to pull anything off, people are still kind of surprised.  But, more importantly, because I teach middle school so literally EVERYTHING is a big deal.  My fellow M.S. educators know where I’m coming from.  Just watch the greeting ritual of two seventh grade girls who haven’t seen each other in ten minutes–let’s just say there is a lot of squealing and hugging.  You’d think one of them had literally just come back from the dead.

It felt like an accomplishment to me, too.  I have high standards, and (unlike my colleagues) I understand where a middle school choral program should be.  I look at where we are and can only think of how far we have to go.  There is so much they don’t know.  In so many ways, I am sending kids unprepared for high school choral programs out of my program.  We have such a long road ahead!  It is easy to be overwhelmed by what is undone, how many times I feel like I’m failing them as their teacher and not doing the job as well as I would like to because of the simple fact that I am a One doing the job of Two.

I feel the constant pressure from my students to sing music they already know.  (Not sometimes.  Literally ALL THE TIME.)  Middle schoolers, unlike their high school counterparts, have very little interest in trying new things.  They want to do what they know.  If they don’t know it, well, then just forget it.  It’s probably garbage, as far as they’re concerned.  So doing the music that I know is best for them is the musical equivalent of trying to convince your average six year old to eat spinach.  It is a losing battle.

But there are victories, small ones, when I force feed them enough real choral music that they actually hear the potential that is there–how what sounds best in a choir is not what sounds best on the radio.  My 8th grade girls choir is in the middle of an Epiphany Month.  Every few days, it’s like a new light bulb comes on, and they become a little bit more like the choral singers I hope they will be.

After our concert today, they showed up for class ready to watch a movie.  “Nice try,” said I, their mean, cruel and generally nasty director, “We only have two months until our last concert.  We have work to do.”  They groused.  I preened their egos about their great job a bit, and then I let them choose between two different (non-pop) pieces.  The one they picked (which I really hoped they would) is lush and full and truly choral.   We listened to a recording, and at the moment in the music where I first fell in love with the piece, one of my girls breathes, “Oh, this is awesome.”  Little tittering whispers around the choir, as they write on scraps of paper which song they want to do.  The vote is so far in favor of The Lass from the Low Countree I don’t even have to bother to properly count.

My school has a strong minority representation–which is really cool, because there is a richness in having so many different backgrounds in my classroom.  I have had many (administrators, mostly) who don’t know music well, who insist that choral music doesn’t have a place in culturally responsive education.  I point out that Mozart is just as foreign to my Caucasian students as Spirituals are to my African-American students–both are important, and both help make them better performers.  (I site candy–eat too much candy, your teeth will fall out and you will get sick.  Too much pop music makes it hard to breed a good and healthy young singer. But this is a soap box for another day…)  

Anyway, so we are doing a choral arrangement of a piece from Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute,” titled Papageno-Papagena.  You don’t need to know about it, really (but it’s an awesome piece, in my unbiased opinion…), but you just have to know it’s Mozart.  It was written by some Austrian guy over 200 years ago.  It is light years away from my 8th grade choir and their American ideas and smart phones and instant gratification culture.

But we worked on it today, because I’m “mean” and expect them to sing in choir, like, all the time.  (The nerve, I mean, really…) But we started going, and guess what?  Lo, and behold, it sounded pretty good.  “Why?” you ask.  “Because Mozart wrote music for real, human voices without any digital help,” say I.  Well, that and because my girls are finally starting to listen to one another and are singing as an ensemble, rather than a bunch of soloists all singing at the same time.  They are finally beginning to make music.

We finish the section–at the same time, in the right key.

One of my girls, “Aria,” does a quick improve dance off of the dab.  “Awww, yeah,” she says, “This be lit!”

You heard it here first, folks.  Just remember, the next time you hear a piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart…he may be a lot of things, but for some Midwestern, middle school singers, he be lit!

Faith · Life generally... · Teaching

Bag Lady

My friend, “Abby,” is our school’s art teacher, and never, but never leaves work with any less then three bags–and I’m not talking about little “fits three pieces of paper bags.”  Oh no.  I’m talking about those giant, metal reinforced Thirty-One bags with monograms and stuff on the side.  Even her purse weighs about a ton because it’s made out of seat belts.

But Abby is not alone.  My mother, also a teacher, has a bag with those suitcase wheels because it’s so big, and half the time, I think my dad has to get it out of the trunk for her because it’s too heavy.  I have secret theory that one of our sixth grade teachers converts each of her children’s old diaper bags into an additional “for work” bag–needless to say, I think she’s got four kids.  My male colleagues (not enamored of the Thirty-One fad of their female counterparts) still walk out of work with a bulging messenger bag or backpack.  Not even I, myself, am immune.  In my defense, I only have one teacher bag…and that bag of music for my voice lessons…and the bag with all the scores for choir rehearsal…and the reusable grocery store bags in my trunk…Okay, okay! So I have a problem!

Conclusion?  Teachers are bag junkies.

I don’t know why, really, since the common thread I glean from most teachers is that we never do any of what we bring home in those bags.  We choose to do other things, feel mildly, naggingly guilty about it, but we don’t actually do it.  You think we’d get wise–leave it at school for when we head back into work where we will actually do this stuff.  But no.  We keep lugging the same seventy-five pounds of student work and professional textbooks and school laptops back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  Maybe it’s just that we’re eternal optimists, who truly believe that this time, this time, we’ll decide we’d rather dive into those forty essays on Of Mice and Men than go out to coffee with our girlfriends.  Or go to the grocery store.  Or sit in a semi-catatonic state on the sofa and binge watch Parks and Rec for the fifteenth time.  Seriously.  What is wrong with us?

Mostly, I just think we’re nuts.

I’ve been reading a lot about minimalism and the minimalist movement lately.  And while I think some of it is kind of extreme (skip having a bed frame and just have mattress on the floor…don’t have anything hanging on your walls anywhere…) there are some things I really think resonate.  The theory behind minimalism is that the more stuff you have in your life (the more stuff on your counters, in your closet, in your head, in your heart) the more stressed and the less happy you actually are.

There’s a really valid point here, I think.  So many people I know live in these crowded worlds.  Dresser drawers crammed with clothes they can’t find and don’t like, rooms cluttered with the dross of a “them” that vanished years ago,  minds crowded with regrets about pasts they can’t change and worries about futures they can’t control.  I find myself doing it, too.  I take home work I “should do” sometimes.  I let myself get talked into doing things that absorb the few precious hours of free time I had earmarked for “me” in the week.  I pray that I will be less stressed out about X-Y-Z, and be able to just allow God to do His thing and be in charge of it.  But then, rather than trusting the God I purport to believe implicitly, I find myself lugging all my little worries around with me–just like my bags.

It’s really exhausting being a bag lady–the physical or the emotional kind.  So lately I have been trying to not be one.  Throwing out that stack of old papers on my desk.  Actually folding the blanket I’ve just used (even though I know I will use it again tomorrow.)  Sticking to my guns and not letting myself stress out about things I can’t control, and I know that God’s in charge of, anyway.  Not feeling guilty for saying no to things I am too busy (or don’t want) to do.  Looking at the things in my teacher bag and think, “Am I actually going to do any of this?” And when the answer is, “No,” just leaving it at school.  Because it will keep.  The sun will still rise.

So take the challenge.  Stop freaking out about the stuff that you have no control over for just the time it takes you to drink your morning coffee.  Clear out one dresser drawer of all the clothes you keep “just in case” you need them, but secretly hate.  Just for one night, leave the teacher bags at school.

Try it out.  You might just like not being a bag lady.


The Gift

I have a student who we’ll call “Jordan.”  Jordan is a sixth grader who began our relationship by walking up to me the first day of choir and informing me that he “hated singing” and “didn’t like music.”  I talked him into waiting two weeks before he quit.  He told me that was fine, but he was still going to be out of there as soon as he could.

Let me try to build you a visual of Jordan.  He’s as cute as a bug’s ear, a little pip-squeak of a kid whose voice change and growth spurt are nowhere in sight.  (As a choir teacher, one comes to think of puberty strictly in terms of the effects it has on the human voice and how many part threes one’s likely to have by June.)  If he were an animal, he’d be a squirrel–cute and likable with a certain manic energy than can overwhelm you if you’re not ready for it.  He can be frustrating, but I just can’t stay mad at him for long because he’s so earnest and hard-working and he’s so darned cute.

Obviously, Jordan never quit choir.  In fact, he is one of my choir officers now and one of my “specials”–the kids with whom you feel that special, Teacher-Student bond.

Hanging on my wall, I have a Darth Vader he made me out of those little plastic beads you melt together with an iron.  He hangs around at the end of class to talk to me.  He tells me about how he leveled up in his favorite video game.  (I understand zero percent of what he’s talking about, but I listen and congratulate him, anyway.)  He asks me about what he should do if a girl likes him, what should he do to tell her he doesn’t like her because he likes someone else?  He tells me about he’s going to see The Force Awakens for the fifth time.  And today, out of the clear blue sky, in the middle of a conversation about how his mom is “making him do X” because she is a good mom, and that’s what moms do, he says, “Well, my first mom wasn’t doing a good job.  That’s why I have my new mom now.”

“Oh,” I say, not quite prepared, as so often is the case with kids, for the suddenly deep water we’re treading.  “I didn’t know you were adopted.”


“Well, I’m glad you have a good mom now.”

“My brothers and sisters weren’t doing good things, either.  That’s why they live so far away.”  Far away, I later find out, is Oregon.  I don’t ask what he means by “not good things.”

“So, how old were you when you were adopted?” I ask, figuring he must have been four or five, since he clearly has some memories of his biological mother.

“I got adopted when I was eleven.  That’s why I moved to Wisconsin.”

My heart hurts for this little guy, always so earnest and excited for class, trying hard to follow the rules of the rehearsal and expects them of the people around him.

“Is that weird for you sometimes?” I ask.

He shrugs, “A little.  It was kind of weird because my mom, I used to call her ‘Tracy,’ but now I just call her ‘Mom.'”

He doesn’t elaborate further, and two minutes later, he’s pestering me to get him a frappe at McDonald’s as I write him a pass to his next class, telling me all about how his sister in Oregon bought him a new video game that is in the mail, Miss Donaldson, and it’s killing him because he has to wait for it to get here.  He’s told me what he wants me to know, and now he can move on, as he bounces out my door and down the hall.

As I listen to the door close behind him, I pause.  As a teacher, I can check the records and could probably have figured out Jordan’s history, but that’s not the same as having a student confide it in you.  I think one of the reasons I like Jordan so much is because he is a student who really needs me, the way my overseas students did, and in a way my American students do not.  He needs me to listen.  He needs me to know he’s adopted.  He wants me to tell him he can do it, that he shouldn’t give up.  He wants me to be part of his little life.

And I know that is a gift.