Another One Gone

When I was in high school, our student body experienced a string of suicides. Within a matter of months, several students attempted or completed suicide. This was before the age of the internet or cell phones, so word-of-mouth was the only avenue for students to learn about and mourn these deaths. Consequently, rumors sparked and took off. The administration was totally silent. At the end of the school day following each death, there would be a quick, fill-in-the-blank announcement that a student had died and that counseling was available. No information, not even the basics to quell the most absurd stories. I know now that schools are in tricky positions with situations like this, and it’s possible that they didn’t even have the authority to deviate from their one-sentence script. But at the time, it not only seemed counterproductive but cruel, heartless.

So I wrote an editorial for the school newspaper. In it, I criticized the school’s policy of silence and made the argument that by allowing the rumor mill to run wild, they were actually causing the suicides to be romanticized and possibly worsening the problem. It was carefully written, not offensive, not especially inflammatory — I wanted to inspire change, but I’ve never been very good at throwing caution to the wind. I submitted it to the editor of the school paper and heard that it was slated to run…

…and then the administration put on their censor hats, vetoed it, and had it pulled from the paper.

I guess I had a few different options at that point, but this is the one I went with: I submitted it to the state newspaper. Like, the real newspaper. And they didn’t reject it. The next week, my editorial ran in the paper complete with my headshot and byline, and was distributed throughout the entire state.

I don’t recollect there being any real effect at school, beyond a few people congratulating me on getting published. So I went on with the business of being a high school student, graduated, and went to Boise State.

And at Boise State, a communications professor named Peter Wollheim tracked me down after reading my editorial. He was working with the Idaho legislature to try to get funding for a suicide prevention hotline and asked me to come down to the Capitol to listen to the arguments and possibly testify. I didn’t end up testifying, but a local public radio reporter interviewed me afterward. Then Peter asked me if I’d like to work for the college newspaper. It seemed like a great opportunity, so I applied and got hired.

My experience with the college newspaper was mixed. I recognize now that I was being lightly hazed by the more veteran reporters and columnists, but I was ultimately given a great deal of freedom to choose how I wanted to contribute to the paper, and I ended up doing some work I was proud of and some that was merely being thrown together to meet the deadline. After about a year I concluded that journalism wasn’t for me and became an academic advisor instead. But in the meantime, I came to know and like Peter and his sad-eyed smile. Even though it wasn’t the right door for me, I appreciate that he had opened big doors for me in the university. And as time went on and our paths went separate ways, I still paid attention to his crusade to curb suicide, especially teen suicides, in our state.

Peter Wollheim was a nice man with a big, worthy mission.

And yesterday I learned that he had died. The beast he’d fought, ostentatiously on others’ behalf, finally turned the tables and devoured him.

I wasn’t close to Peter in the same way that I was close to Dave, Tom, or Mary Ellen, but he definitely falls into the category of “professors who had a big impact on my undergraduate career,” and now he also falls into the category of “people who died too soon.” It sucks. He was doing good work in the world, and now he’s gone.

Peter Wollheim read the newspaper one day, sixteen years ago, and saw that some idealistic kid was angry about the same thing that angered him. He remembered her name, and did who knows what kind of detective work to track her down so that he could give her a platform, give her opportunities. He didn’t know that kid, didn’t have any reason to help her, but he did, because he saw something in her that made him think that she might make a difference in a world that needed differences made.

I didn’t end up using his tools. I may be a writer but I’m no journalist; I may be passionate, but I’m no lobbyist.

Instead I became a teacher. I’d like to believe that teachers, if they can keep their hearts on their sleeves and their eyes and ears open, can make a difference to young people who are struggling with depression… and certainly to those left behind when the worst happens.

I’m grateful to Peter for hunting me down and giving me a shot. I’m grateful to him for his years of fighting to make Idaho a better place for those fighting suicide and depression. And I’m very, very sorry that he is gone.

Building a Better Yearbook

Last year I took over as the yearbook advisor (adviser? This is one of these words whose ambiguous spelling haunts me) for our middle school.

I love graphic design and bookmaking and yearbooks. I do. And I was once the editor of our school yearbook — our middle school yearbook, when I was in eighth grade. (I started to do yearbook in high school, but the story of that disaster is a whole blog post unto itself.) So sure. Definitely qualified.

Well… let’s just say that we ended the year with a yearbook. And honestly, it’s not bad. Some people even thought it was good. I love the cover art, I love that there are few enough mistakes that no one has brought any to my attention yet (I’m not so crazy as to assume there really aren’t any), and I love that we got it done on deadline.

But there are so, SO many things that I would have done differently. Fortunately I get that chance this year. Some of my thoughts as I forge ahead:

  1. I still am not sure what to do about my staff, but at least I have my applications in hand. I have too many good 8th graders applying and too few good 7th graders, too many girls and too few boys. I can take them all and have an enormous staff; I can cut some excellent applicants in favor of a smaller, more manageable group. I haven’t decided and I’ve had months to do so. Sigh.
  2. I’m not going to ask the staff about the theme. I know what our theme is going to be, I know approximately what the yearbook is going to look like, and I’m not interested in reopening a yearlong debate with fourteen-year-old girls. They’ll still have creative control of their own pages, within reason, but I’m seizing creative control of the cover, dividers, etc.. Someone may complain now, but they’ll thank me in May.
  3. REALLY hoping I can have my yearbook staff at least 1-2 times a week during Advisory… please oh please… will make such a big difference in terms of communication and organization.
  4. I want to highlight some of the previously overlooked groups and activities in the school. There’s a lot going on that gets skipped in the yearbook due to other, “bigger” organizations and lack of pages. But I think I can address that this year.
  5. I need to figure out how to teach rudimentary design to really young designers — specifically the idea of working off a grid instead of plopping down pictures willy-nilly. Last year, I was really in the “let’s just get it done” frame of mind. This year, I want to get it done well. I want them to have learned something by the time they finish it. I want them to have designed something that they’ll be proud of when they graduate high school.
  6. Definitely going to be more conscious of and deliberate about photography. I’m going to do some direct instruction on photography, and now that I’ve unraveled the mystery of the yearbook cameras we’ll have much better equipment. Last year’s photography was a fiasco. This year, I’m going to be proactive and protective.

Speaking of photography! We have one big D-SLR with some good lenses that will probably rarely be in anyone’s hands but my own. Then we have a set of Nikon CoolPix cameras that are sturdy and surprisingly good. I found the Nikon interface a little confusing, so I took the newest one with me on a family vacation to master it before trying to teach its use to students. I’ll tell you what; for a smaller digital camera without the ability to swap out lenses, the CoolPix was pretty impressive! I loved playing with the epic (yes, epic) zoom capabilities; when other people reached for binoculars to spy on distant sea lions, I grabbed my camera instead.

Here’s an example. Check out this sunset photograph I took on August 7 in Bandon, Oregon:


You may not realize it, but there’s a boat in that picture. Here, I’ll circle it for you:


See it yet? You can click on the photograph to enlarge it, if that will help.

Anyone who has ever tried to photograph the moon knows that objects appear much smaller through a camera lens. I could see that boat with the naked eye, but it certainly wasn’t clear — just an obviously manmade object, moving slowly along the horizon. I decided to use my camera to get a closer look.


From this vantage, I had about as much detail of the boat in my camera as I did with just my eyes. So I zoomed in closer. (By the way, none of these pictures are cropped or zoomed in after I took them. They are original files straight from the camera.)


I love this picture, but I knew I could see more because I hadn’t even started to play with digital telephoto yet.

I kept zooming and got this:


Look at the detail, kids. Look at that. Just look at it. Wow.

And the thing is, I think I could have zoomed in until I saw the people on the boat, if I’d had a tripod. The problem with super duper zoom is that you can’t keep the subject in your viewfinder without steadying the camera, and in this case I had the added problem of a drifting subject. This is one of several different shots I took, each with the boat careening out of view, except this one.

So yeah. I’m pretty happy with these cameras. I think we can do some really good work with them this year. I’m especially looking forward to some good sports and performing arts photography.

And no, Nikon didn’t tell me to write this. But if someone from Nikon reads this and wants to adopt my yearbook staff and give us new gear, I’d be delighted to review it. 😉

Anyway, wish me luck with my yearbook staff and with doing a good job with yearbook on top of my other responsibilities. This is my year when I’m going to kick things up a notch, or at least when I’m going to try. Lots of ideas, lots of blank slates…. whee!


Yearbook 2013-14: Mischief Managed




As of about 4 PM on April 1, the 2013-14 yearbook was complete and sent to the printers.


Custom cover art by Meredith Fern Messinger:



Spreads by a staff of fifteen, plus Ryan and myself:

yearbook thumbnails


At the very last minute, I discovered extra space in the 8th grade section, so I ran a report of 8th graders who had no candids in the book and went on a mission. I pulled as many of them as possible from class, convinced them to do funny poses, and took their pictures. Then Ryan used his Advanced Photoshop Ninja Skills to cut them out from their backgrounds, and I stayed up until after midnight making the page on the right below. Glad I did. They’re going to like it:


This was definitely a “building year” for yearbook, at least for me. I got off to a late start, didn’t do the best possible job acquiring staff, and really did a lot of last-minute learning on the job. Now that it is behind me, and I have some breathing room, I have SO many ideas for the future. And I just found out that we have some money to work with, so I’m excited about updating our equipment and getting some new “toys”. I want to add a signature to our book so we have some room to design instead of just cramming as much as possible into the space we have, and I think we want to buy or build some sort of green screen for cutouts. We need a telephoto zoom, too, for sporting events. I’ve started collecting ideas on a Pinterest board and am going to get all my foundations taken care of this spring, instead of next fall, so that we can hit the ground running and do an amazing job with the 2014-15 book. That said, I’m very pleased with the way this one turned out, all things considered!

Back to School

Well, I survived my first week (technically a week and a half, but only four days of that was with students) as a middle school librarian!

This past Monday we didn’t have students, and because of an annoying scheduling fluke with day care (H will go to an actual day care center on Mondays) he ended up coming to work with me that day.

Lucky duck gets to make spreadsheets in his jammies.

Lucky duck gets to make spreadsheets in his jammies.

You're fired!

You’re fired!

He definitely has a village that loves him and wants to help raise him! Between all of the ladies at church, and everyone at school, he’s a very cared-about little kiddo.

Speaking of being loved, I’m a pretty lucky lady. R, who (for those of you who might not know) teaches at the same school as I, has always surprised me with flowers on the first day of school when I go to a new school. Tuesday was no exception as he employed two of the school’s administrators and various other staff members to distract me so that he could load up my desk with welcoming gifts:

Beautiful flowers in our school colors.

Beautiful flowers in our school colors.

School-colored watch straps!

School-colored watch straps!

School logo jewelry! Apparently our school shares a logo with Burberry, and R found an Etsy artist who repurposes Burberry buttons into jewelry!

School logo jewelry! (Sorry for the terrible photo quality.) Apparently our school shares a logo with Burberry, and R found an Etsy artist who repurposes Burberry buttons into jewelry!

The only word I can come up with for not being a classroom teacher is “surreal.” The first day, in particular, was a little bizarre to me; I kept feeling like a guest in someone else’s school, like I was just visiting and helping out before going back to my own classroom. The children seemed so tiny and young. I ended the day without having lost my voice. Nothing about it felt like the first day of school to me. I really loved being a classroom teacher, and it’s going to be quite an adjustment to slip into a role that feels a little bit more administrative.

As the week went on, things got busier and busier, and I found my rhythm. It’s still weird, but it has gone from feeling surreal to feeling pretty nice. I’m getting excited (all over again) about some ideas and upcoming events. I love my coworkers. And let me just say how nice it is to be going BACK to a school I already know, rather than going to an entirely new place. I always struggle to find my place socially, and here I feel like the worst of that is over.

One of my amazing assistants, B, came up with the idea of highlighting the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington in our end-cap displays. I found several MLK biographies and books about the March and about the Civil Rights Movement. I’m not sure if any of the kids got it, but I thought it was pretty neat and a subtle way to bring current events into the library.

We also made a display of some of the newest books in the library, which gave me some practice in reviewing past orders. I’m having a lot of on-the-job, on-the-fly training in different programs and systems and databases, and surely am thankful for my staff and their expertise and patience.

new books

There’s SO much to learn. As the Library Media Specialist, I’m not only the “book person” but also Level One Tech Support for the school. Everyone comes to us with their basic technology problems. One day, for example, we had four distinct problems with document cameras; we have frequent printer problems, issues with projectors, and — thanks to a district-wide software update — questions about how to use Microsoft 365. And it’s not as if we have consistent equipment from one classroom to the next, so I have to learn 3-4 different solutions to every problem. On top of that, of course, there’s just simply all of the details of working the library. No chance to get bored here!

It could all be a little intimidating, but honestly, nothing else is quite as intimidating as the faculty restroom nearest the library. What if it occurred unexpectedly? Are there alarms? Consequences? Such anxiety!

Even if I didn’t love my job (which I do) it would be worth it, though, to be able to walk in my front door at the end of the day and be able to spend my evening with Henry instead of grading mountains of papers or planning hours of instruction. I guess I ought to feel a little wussy or something for saying that, and I certainly don’t mean to downplay how surprisingly difficult librarianship is, but you know, I’m just at a different point in my life right now, and I’ve never believed in prioritizing work over family.

I don’t have to explain “leaving my baby to go to work” to anyone who has ever had to do it, and if you haven’t, I’m not sure I could do it justice. It wasn’t quite as hard as I’d feared, probably because he was staying with family — we are SO lucky. But it wasn’t what I’d call easy, and it made for a less enthusiastic back-to-school on my part. I’ve also found pumping to be (predictably) a PITA, but I might write more about that later. One thing about it: I’m a lot better about getting my work done within contract hours so that I can leave on time, now that I have a baby to get home to!


Final verdict: I’m happy. It is different, and I miss CHS. But it is different in good ways, and it is right for me right now. I’m going to be challenged, I’m going to get to know a lot of great books and great kids, and hey, maybe I’ll even do some good for the universe. I’ve already decided that in addition to my Nerdfighteria mantra (don’t forget to be awesome) I’m going to bring in a little Jeffiness and make it my mission to make the library a place of sweetness and light for my students (all 1,000+ of them!) and my fellow staff members.

Oh, and I’m going to be eating my elephant one bite at a time, too. Mmmm, elephant. 🙂

Ch-ch-ch-changes, or, How I Unexpectedly Became More Like Noah Wyle

Noah Wyle is The Librarian

As I approached the beginning of my maternity leave at Columbia, I negotiated with my administrators to take a 2/3-time contract the following year. This would allow me to come to work every other day (we’re on block schedule) teaching four classes instead of six; I could then stay home every other day with my baby, saving on child care costs (but more importantly, being with my baby).

(Because, you see, as it turns out, I wish I could just stay home with him entirely… I’m a wee bit addicted…)

Everything was all good to go. Then, the creeping blackness that is my district’s financial situation reared its ugly head, and the new new superintendent (three in one year! ah ah ah) put the kibosh on all 2/3-time contracts. This left me between a rock and a hard place: take a half-time contract, which would constitute a significant cut to my pay (because, on top of fewer salary hours, my benefits wouldn’t be subsidized as much), or take a full-time contract and make alternate arrangements for child care. I couldn’t really afford the former, and the latter — especially when I faced the specter of teaching five different high school classes, all but two of which would be entirely new content (and new lesson planning) — made me despair.

Then, in a beautiful Hollywood sort of plot twist, another window opened. Ryan’s school — LSMS, the first school I’d taught at full time — was going to need a librarian the following year, and they’d thought of me. It was a long shot; I lacked the necessary endorsement, so I’d have to weather in-district transfers, then officially-qualified applicants, and — if they still hadn’t found someone better — get approved by the district and apply for alternate authorization. I was hopeful, but didn’t dare set my heart on it.

To shorten a longer story: a couple of weeks later, LSMS called and asked me to interview. It was a good interview, and a couple of days later, I was offered the job.

So it turns out that I’m going to be a librarian.


This is pretty awesome in a lot of different ways. On the practical end of things, I will enjoy a pay raise and employment in a more stable district, not to mention one where the newly elected school board is pro-teacher and the community is pro-education. I won’t be lesson planning or grading essays, which means that instead of staying at work until 5 and then coming home and being consumed with my job instead of my home life, I can be done at the end of the day and go home to be a mom and wife. Additionally, I’ll be carpooling with my husband now, which means that we’ll save a ton of money on fuel/wear and tear, and that we can put off buying a second baby-friendly car for a while.

On the less practical side, I get to BE A LIBRARIAN. Now, I know there is a lot more to librarianship than the romanticized notion any bookworm nurtures, but at the end of the day, I’m going to be paid to play with books. I’ll get to pursue my passion of connecting kids with something that will capture their imagination and open up their worlds. I’ll get to build bridges between students and information that, hopefully, will support them through the rest of their education lives.

I’ll also be in charge of the school yearbook (awesome) which comes with a stipend (double awesome). I’ll have a staff of two wonderful women who will help me figure out what the heck I’m doing. I’ll have to (get to) take some classes over the course of the next couple of years. Another lovely thing is that I already know a great many of the teachers and staff at LSMS, so while I’ll still be transitioning to a new job, I won’t be completely at square one socially.

It isn’t all awesome, of course. It is really extremely hard for me to walk away from Columbia. I have been happier there than in any other job I’ve ever held; I will miss my friends there terribly. I mean, I know that I’m not moving to another state or anything, but it’s different when you don’t see each other on a daily basis. Friendships don’t stay the same. I will also miss my students; they’re only in my life for a short time, four years at the most, but I do love my high school kids and will miss working with them. I especially regret leaving behind my ITE students; it’s been a rare gift to work with that crew of nerdy, brilliant kids. And it kind of sucks to have gone to all that work to develop courses like my Science Fiction class, only to walk away and leave it in the hands of someone who doesn’t really enjoy the genre. (The teacher they hired to replace me is — word of the day — awesome and I couldn’t be happier that they brought him in. It’s just hard to hand off your baby to someone else.) And there’s a small part of me that worries that I am in some way turning my back on something I’m “supposed” to do — that I’m giving up on the (hopefully good) work I was doing with teenagers.

At the end of the day, though, this was the right thing to do and I’m so happy (and slightly amazed) that it came to pass. It makes my future less clear; twenty years from now, will I be a librarian? an English teacher? a _____? But right now, I’m pretty darn okay with that ambiguity because the most important thing I’ll be is a mom, and this career shift is the best thing for me in that role.

Of course, now I have to pack up my classroom — no small task — and store my things, begin to learn how to be a librarian, and try to get the contents of my brain handed over to my replacement at CHS… yikes! I’ve been Pinning ideas and resources, and probably need to make a dedicated Pinterest account that I can organize better for library resources. I also need to start thinking about updating/rebuilding the library’s website with a dedicated URL and a platform that works on mobile devices.

I also need to get a big ole print of this photo made for my office (yep, I have an office):

Henry with Shakespeare

(He’s about two weeks old in this picture… amazing how much more he is at two months!)

How to Have a Baby

birthing ballRyan and I spent Saturday with eleven other couples learning how to have a baby — or rather, how to watch videos about having babies, I guess. I don’t really think that they said very much that I didn’t know, but there were some good things that took place.

For one thing, I got to try out a birthing ball (which is just a slightly deflated exercise ball) and think I’d like to get one. They’ll provide one at the hospital, but they recommend them in late pregnancy for comfort, and it really did feel good to sit on it. I think I can get an exercise ball at Target or a similar store, at which point it’s just a matter of figuring out how much to inflate it for this particular purpose.

Another REALLY nice thing was that the class — led by a L&D nurse from the hospital where we’ll deliver — made me feel much better about the upcoming experience. I’d left the tour of the L&D wing feeling a little lukewarm about the whole thing, but everything that the actual nurse and class said made me feel much better. Talk about natural childbirth, immediate skin-to-skin and breastfeeding, and varied positions for labor were the default; I had worried that there would be pressure for a more “hospital-y” birth, but it looks like, if anything, the opposite will be true (which is fine with me!) They went out of their way to show us all of the options, including all of the different ways that the bed could be arranged. I’m feeling much better about our decision to use the hospital now that I know that the nurses assume and will support the kind of birth experience that I want.

The best part of the class? Definitely the hand massage. 🙂 I’m inspired to go find some really good hand lotion now… it’s funny how good something so simple can feel — kind of like when someone plays with your hair. They say it’s a rather helpful thing for dads to do during labor.

Because it was such a large class, none of us really interacted with one another. I know that we were all due in the same range of time — I’m guessing all April/May babies.

I’m having a hard time resisting the urge to compare my body to those of other women due at about the same time I am. Twice now I’ve had slightly uncomfortable conversations with women who are due the same week as I am. The gal I spoke to on Saturday was clearly indignant that I was smaller than she was. I guess I ought to enjoy it — I’ve been overweight for some time; it’s been a long time since I’ve felt petite!

This Wednesday, and the following one, we have another class that focuses on natural/non-medical pain relief strategies.  (The hypnobirthing class was super expensive and time-consuming, but I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the basic concepts from reading the book.) I hope that the class has a lot of good information in it and that it is time well-spent. If nothing else, it’s kind of nice to feel as though we have done something to prepare, even if it isn’t the most mind-blowing information in the world. I’m also glad that it’s two short sessions, instead of one marathon class; I was happy to get it over with in one day instead of several evenings, but that was a very long day (especially considering we had to go from it almost directly to an orchestra concert).


Today I feel kind of grumbly (and, not coincidentally, crummy). I think I may have a little bit of a cold; I’ve been trying to convince myself that it’s just allergies or swollen-up nasal membranes, but after enduring a sinus headache ALL DAY Saturday, and developing a mild cough, and feeling so unbelievably sleepy even when I know I’m caught up on sleep… I think it’s time to accept the probability of a germ.

I’m also grumbly because I’m fighting the overwhelming impulse to fret.

On October 1 — the day I got sick at work — my symptoms shifted. (At that point I was almost 11 weeks.) I’ve had a hard time defining exactly how they changed; in general, I started feeling better…ish. My digestive issues didn’t completely clear up, but they improved. Before October, I would be ravenous until I ate, and then would feel like I ate WAY too much for about two hours, at which point I would abruptly be ravenous again. Now, I never actually feel hungry — I just know that I’m hungry because I start to feel sick — and NOTHING sounds good to eat. I don’t feel like I have indigestion any more but I’m still belching like a 16-year-old boy. My legs, which have always suffered from inexplicable itchiness, now itch so badly that I’m sometimes afraid I’m going to scratch them clean off. (They’re fine for a day after I shave, but the moment there’s even a hint of hair, I’m scratching holes through my pants.) Some nights I only wake up once to go to the bathroom; other nights I’m up practically every hour. The main change, and the one that has been the most difficult for me to really nail down, is that my mind feels… clearer, somehow. It’s not that I’m not exhausted anymore (I am); it’s more like… like I had been going around with dirty glasses on, and when October hit, I cleaned them off.

As I near the second trimester, I’ve been warned not to worry when my symptoms change. And I know, of course, that they are going to do that. I wasn’t really expecting it until week 13 or so, but I know that every pregnancy is different. And it’s not as if I don’t feel pregnant anymore.

Still. I am very, very uncomfortable with change. On the outside, I’m cool and calm and happy and positive. Inside, I’m an increasingly frayed ball of stress. I can’t stop myself from imagining problems, from comparing this shift in symptoms to the drop-off in symptoms that prefaced the miscarriage. Last time, the symptoms subtly changed WEEKS before I knew anything was really wrong. Rationally, I know that getting past that 8-week mark was significant — that there’s no reason to believe things aren’t going well — that this time is vastly different than last time. (And for what it’s worth, if I can quiet down Crazy Voice enough to listen to Intuition Voice, I really do feel like everything is okay.) Unfortunately, as folk wisdom informs us, there is rarely much about a pregnant gal’s mind that can be defined as “rational.”

One week from today, we get to go back to the doctor for another ultrasound — one where they’ll check to make sure the yolk sac did what it was supposed to do and that the baby is doing what s/he’s supposed to do. I wish like crazy it was today. I know that we’ve been very lucky to have already had a couple of ultrasounds, but it feels like an eternity since I had proof that everything was okay. I keep fantasizing about an at-home doppler or something; again, my rational brain (not to mention R) knows that it’s not the best thing for Bébé to subject it to regular blasts of sonic waves, but my crazy preggers brain rationalizes that surely it would be better for him/her than swimming in Mommy’s stress… (Then again, I think they only work in the third trimester anyway, so it really is just a fantasy. Maybe I should switch my daydream over to breaking into the doctor’s office and using their ultrasound machine in the middle of the night….)

Okay. Breathe. It’s only seven days. I can make it.

Let’s talk about something fun instead.

On Saturday, I finally got to tell my BSWP buddies. That group of people had been really helpful to me in working through some emotional scar tissue related to the last pregnancy, and I wanted to tell them all in person. I’m not very comfortable with making big, personal announcements, so I was relieved when I saw on the agenda that we’d be telling a partner what was up with our lives, and then we’d share for each other. My partner was Angie, and she was awesome. We were the second-to-last table to go, and as people shared their partners’ “what I’ve been up to” stories, Freudian slips and unintended innuendo kept popping up. Then we got to Angie, and this is what happened:

ANGIE: “Well, I’m really not even sure how to say this, but Kate’s been being quite scandalous! To start with, she’s sleeping with a first-year teacher…”

[Hoots and applause.]

ANGIE: “I’m really not sure that’s very professional!”

KATE: “It’s mentoring!”

JEFF: “That’d be visible mentoring!” (We’d been discussing invisible vs. visible mentoring earlier.)

[Much laughter.]

ANGIE: “And as it turns out, she is in fact facing some pretty serious consequences for her conduct… she’s knocked up!”

[Yays, etc.]

Now that I’ve spilled the beans to that group, I feel like I’m pretty much ready to begin telling everyone — which I guess is good timing, since I’m almost at the second trimester milestone. Still not 100% sure how/when to tell my students… I’m kind of thinking of just telling all of my Facebook friends, which will include some students, and let the news spread from there. Not sure.

But I’m definitely going to wait for that until after next Monday’s appointment.

Where I Am Now: An Autobiographical Triptych

The following post is a slightly modified version of an essay I wrote and presented for the members and coaches of the Invitational Summer Institute for the Boise State Writing Project. The “assignment” was, more or less, to compose and share a piece that introduced ourselves to the group in terms of who we currently were as people and educators, and what factors played into that identity. The pieces that resulted were a bouquet of robust metaphor, one bloom — flower or weed — of which was this essay in three parts.

* * * * * * *

Part One

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

from “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth

This is a story about hubris, the over-confidence or arrogance that pops up as a tragic flaw in many of our great heroes, leading them to believe that they are invincible, that they are smart enough to control or even master their own fates. And if I am going to tell a story about hubris, I need to give it an epic setting, so I’ll begin my story on a pyramid…


You probably remember this from your ed psych classes. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which basically says that if your fundamental needs like food and shelter aren’t being met, that you have very little hope of nurturing friendships or building self-confidence or creating something beautiful. We run into it with our students from unstable homes who consequently don’t do so hot when we ask them to explicate Emily Dickinson; you can’t analyze poetry when you’re busy worrying about the fact that your mom is dealing again and your dad is going back to prison and you don’t think there’s enough food in the house to keep your little brothers fed over spring break.

I was a lucky kid. My parents wanted, loved, and took care of me. I didn’t know that we didn’t have much money. I was happy, confident, secure. Early on I made my nest on a kid’s equivalent of the peak of Maslow’s pyramid. I had every reason to believe that I’d live happily ever after in the land of self-actualization. And why not? We’ve talked about tracking in schools, about Dinosaur Group and Eagle Group, and since this is a story about hubris I’ll admit that I was Queen of the Eagles. Thinking about Johnston, I realize that being so bright turned me into a fixed-frame thinker – not the sort who assumes she can’t, but the type who assumes that she is so smart that everything ought to come easily. And my assumption panned out – and kept panning out. Music and math came easy to me. Writing, reading – I was reading chapter books in kindergarten. I typed 100 wpm in sixth grade, which is the year I first took the SAT and scored highly enough to go to college.

Sure, I couldn’t kick a ball or climb a rope – what purpose was there in that anyway? (You see now how fixed in place my view of my own abilities were. I would never climb a rope. I was not a runner. I was no good at soccer. I was born that way and would always be that way. It wasn’t worth trying to change, because it was unchangeable. If I had video of my panicky tantrums as my parents tried to convince me to keep trying to learn to ride a bike, we could all have a good laugh right now.)

Picture1Sheer smarts took me through school, into college on scholarship, to national conventions where I gave keynote addresses and won awards. People told me I was so good at things, that I was so smart. I demurred, finding the polite words to downplay and deflect, because I’d learned long before that being a smart girl didn’t tend to win you many friends. I’m not sure I ever worked at anything, and when I got bad grades in tough college classes, it was always the professor’s fault. If you’re finding me a bit distasteful now, you can join the club; I’m president, of course.

This is what I believed in my early 20s: I believed that I would marry my best friend, that we would do our student teaching and both become teachers, that we would wait a respectable number of years and then have four children, that we would live in our beloved home until we outgrew it, at which point we would rent it out as an investment property, that we’d live a good life surrounded by both of our families, that we’d likely never be rich but that we’d be comfortable and happy and have many grandchildren. I believed these things would transpire because everything I had ever wanted had been easy for me to get in the past.

Part Two

The saddest painting I ever saw
was on the carpet in my friend’s hallway
where he tripped one night
carrying a gallon of red.

from “The World as Seen Through a Glass of Ice Water” by Dobby Gibson

I married my best friend. We did our student teaching simultaneously, sucking all the equity out of our home to do so. I got a one-year job and then was lucky enough to get the job I have now. He was passed over for job after job because he didn’t have coaching experience. The economy crashed. We tried to scrape by on my salary and whatever makework he could get. There are a dozen different really hard stories tucked into and beneath this paragraph but I’m going to set all but one of them aside for now.

For a dozen reasons that seemed excellent at the time, we waited and waited to try for a baby – and then when we finally got around to it, it didn’t work. It was supposed to have been easy; after all, if some of my dimmest students could get knocked up without trying, surely a pair of dedicated smartypants like us could make it work, right?

We emptied our very tiny savings account into an appointment with a fertility doctor who didn’t even look at us for the first twenty minutes of her sales pitch for in-vitro. They gave me pills that almost gave me a stroke and had me inject myself, tearful with nerves, with syringes directly into my gut. I had tried to tell the doctor that I was extremely sensitive to medications and should start with a lower dose; when she didn’t listen, I ended up hyperstimulated, which means that you simultaneously produce enough eggs to become Octomom three times over. I remember sitting there with an ultrasound wand wedged in an uncomfortable spot, reading failure and the waste of 23 potential babies on the display screen, while they tried to press me into trying a treatment that would cost half a year’s salary.

They prescribed a round of cancer medication made from the urine of postmenopausal women but neglected to mention the astronomical cost or the tremendous risk of fatal birth defects. We walked away, took a couple hundred bucks and drove to Seattle. We watched the Broncos play the Bulldogs on a tiny Red Robin television and joked that if Kellen did well, and we got pregnant on the trip, that we’d name the baby after him. If it were a girl, we’d name her Ikea.

And then we got pregnant.

And then, on the day before our first prenatal appointment, on my 31st birthday, we became abruptly not pregnant.

I know we’re not the first couple to have a miscarriage. I know I share this grief with some of you, and that some of you have much harder stories to tell. But this is the hardest story I’ve had to tell so far, though, and now that I’m six months out (I would have been 37 weeks today) I can see that this is the chapter of my story in which I finally started to learn some things.

What have I learned?

I’ve learned how much I hate euphemisms. It is bad enough to lose a house, which we did last summer – but to lose a baby? That’s just careless.

I’ve learned how good hope tastes after months and months of despair, how light you feel when you know that you are going to have a baby, what a delicious secret it is to have.

I’ve learned about changing your prayer midway through as you sit white-knuckled at the red light before the ultrasound clinic — knowing, even if you don’t want to admit it, that there is no longer any point in praying that everything will be okay, and that all there is left to pray for is strength.

I’ve learned about a level of physical pain that I never imagined existed, and how the emotional pain lasts far longer than the memory of the physical.

I’ve learned how long it takes for lost blood to replenish itself, and how your head will pound and spin after climbing the stairs to your bed or your classroom long after your colleagues have forgotten that you were ever sick. I’ve learned how lonely recovery from an essentially invisible injury can be.

I’ve learned that regardless of how smart you are, you cannot will yourself to stop hemorrhaging. I’ve learned that regardless of how smart you are, you cannot will yourself not to pass out in the emergency room corridor when the nurse steps away. I’ve learned that regardless of how smart you are, you can still end up with frighteningly low blood pressure on a gore-soaked gurney with a steady stream of strange men peering at your private parts. You can’t smart your way out of seven or eight IVs, a breathing tube that scrapes your throat raw, the blinding lights of the OR. Regardless of how smart you are, you can’t make yourself stop shaking with terror as they slide you onto the operating table.

I’ve learned that I am not smart enough, or strong enough, or good enough at anything, for this. I do not know how to deal with this… yet.

I am broken. I need to be a teacher. I need to be a supportive wife for a beloved husband in crisis. I need to be a supportive daughter and sister for a family that has always leaned on me to provide their levity. I need to have thoughtful discussions about agency and learning models and inquiry. But look, I’ve fallen all the way down the pyramid…. I have no security…. How can I dream? How can I philosophize? How can I be the strong one when my substance is as compromised as a novel dropped in a hot bathtub?

Part Three

I can’t sing with the other animals. Because it’s
hard to know what an animal will do when it
stops singing. It’s complicated, you know; it’s just

complicated –

from “Dear Lonely Animal,” by Oni Buchanan

These are the things that I want to do:

  • curl up on a sunlit couch and read a bad book
  • be a small child again (or, lacking that, perhaps a horse or a bluebird or a housecat…)
  • sleep until someone wakes me up and tells me that they have solved my problems while I was away
  • wander quietly on a beach, collecting white pebbles

I do the first thing – often, too often probably – and I do the fourth thing, last weekend.

There are many things dotting the gritty sand that stretches out to meet the Pacific on the far side of Oregon. Driftwood, bits of rusted litter, alien uprooted plants, broken seashells, belly-up corpses of crabs so small I could hold a dozen in my hand. At certain times of day, there are mollusks and starfish and squishy green things that look like mold but that swell shut to protect their centers if you poke them. At other times of day, ruffled lines of sea foam arch along the sand like tidal rickrack. And, depending on the beach, there are pebbles – little bits of agate and quartz and basalt – that have been beaten and battered and ground up by the sea until they are perfectly smooth, rounded coins of stone.

I cannot be a small child again, no matter how hard I wish. But like a small child, I can gather my treasures. And so I take a 35-cent thrift store jar, and I roll up my pants to keep the hems from getting sandy, and I hunt for white pebbles.

For every several hundred pebbles there will be a white one. For every dozen or so white pebbles, there will be one that is perfect in color – no black veins or yellow spots. And every so often, one of those will be just the right size and thickness to become a worry stone like the one that my grandfather, whom I never met, found on the Gulf of Mexico while in the Coast Guard at the beginning of WWII. He carried it in his pocket when his first marriage failed, when he met and married my grandmother, when their first infant daughter died, when he told his employer that he had cancer and was fired, when his brothers said they’d take care of his family – lying, because as 1950s Catholics they never acknowledged his second family as legitimate, when he moved his family to California in a last ditch effort to find work, when he knew that he wouldn’t live to see his daughter – my mother – turn eleven.

His pebble was black; I don’t know why I am hunting white ones. Probably because black sea pebbles often dry to reveal they’re actually gray or brown, but a white pebble is white wet or dry. Probably because white pebbles are hard to find but easy to spot. I have always liked the illusion of a challenge.

The pebbles were supposed to be a metaphor. And they are, but the problem is that they are a metaphor for too many different things right now, so I can’t finish connecting the dots. Depending on my mindset, the metaphor is one of survival or despair. It fits both patterns. The thing, though, that sticks in my mind now as I tell myself to stop picking at the scab forming over this draft, is this: as I meander down the beach collecting pebbles, the ocean fills my ears and I lose track of time. And when I look up, I see that I have covered far more ground than I imagined. I have been looking so intently at the ground beneath my feet that the distance has vanished before me, and I am so, so far from where I began.


Good Moments

Things that are pretty dang cool:

  • You ask a class full of male IT and engineering students what they thought about the end of Great Gatsby. There is a moment of silence before the entire class erupts into outrage, underlined by one student saying that he threw the book across the room the night before.
  • Juniors arguing over whether Gatsby’s swimming pool should have been ringed with daisies instead of roses, or whether that would have just been overkill.
  • As you read “When I Have Fears” (John Keats) to a class of seniors, you look up and see a young woman listening with tears standing in her eyes.
  • In between scribbling down notes about William Blake, a student looks up at you and says, “I have a feeling that I’m going to be obsessed with this guy.”
  • Being asked if the green light installed in the corner of the classroom is for Green Lantern.
  • After discussing Daisy’s culpability in the car accident, and why Gatsby would have let her drive, a student remarks that Gatsby shouldn’t have let a woman drive… at which point the one girl in the class, who sits next to said boy, hauls back and slugs him.

Reading, Rainbow

One of the nice things, for me at least, about being gloomy is that I get a lot of reading done. Some people, I’m sure, turn to controlled substances; I turn to escapist fiction. 🙂 I’d committed to reading 75 books this year through Goodreads, and have already made my way 26% toward my goal. Of course, the books weren’t exactly the most intellectually challenging ever:


This collection of book covers is generated automatically by Goodreads, and is arranged from most recently read (top left) to first read in 2011 (bottom right). You’ll see that I started off the year in a mad dash to wrap up the Ender and Bean series (serieses? what the heck do you do with that plural? serii?) by Orson Scott Card. (Still trying to track down a copy of First Meetings so that I can put the series to rest, at least until the new book comes out.) I re-read Night with my class, took a couple of little detours into COMPLETELY RANDOM LAND (i.e., True Grit and Bishop Blackie), and read Lives on the Boundary for a class.

NOTE TO SELF: There ought to be another for-class book up there, but there were disasters. So yeah, I may be in deep trouble with my grad class this time. I did so love that 4.0…

I picked up the Parasol Protectorate series (Soulless, Changeless, Blameless) and was initially underwhelmed, but then got wrapped up in it enough that I’m dying while waiting for book #4 to emerge. I stumbled upon a used copy of Briar Rose and fell in love; I bought a $4 copy of a book about roller derby and enjoyed that pretty well, too. I finally finished the audio book of Life As We Knew It – easily one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, I think, which is something considering it’s YA – and made a second tentative step back into the world of science fiction with John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and sequel. (I just checked out the third book from the library and am excited to read it… so far, so good.) And then, curious about a much-hyped YA post-apocalyptic dystopia series, I read and am reserving judgment on Gone and Hunger. They’re good, and I want to know what happens next – but the hype, it is too hype-y.

Right now, I am splitting my time between behaving and escaping with the following:

reading2011currentThe two yellow books are for classes; the one with the saxophone is as clear as mud and as dense as bricks, but it makes me feel smart (except when it’s making me feel dumb), so that’s something. The one on the far left is actually pretty interesting, for a bunch of short pieces about teaching developmental writing. The Jack book is another adult/modern retelling of a fairy tale, in the same series as Briar Rose, and so far I’m quite liking it. It reminds me of Emma Bull’s urban fantasy, which is a very, very good thing. There’s not nearly enough of it to go around. And finally, Princess Academy is my current “listen while commuting” pick. I don’t tend to pick very challenging audio books – YA is just right, neither too tough nor too juvenile – because I’m trying to listen to them at 7 AM while not yet awake, and at 5 PM while trying to stay awake. This one is a “full cast” recording, which means that there’s a different voice actor for every character instead of a single reader. Jury’s still out on that one; I’m not a very audio-capable person (world’s biggest understatement) so any sort of audio recording challenges me, and the multitude of voices actually seems to make this a bit tougher. We’ll see.

I wanted an excuse to make this entry’s title “reading rainbow,” so here you go: You should join the Rainbow Delegation and get a free wristband and wear it. And then you should tell me how likely it is to get in trouble at my workplace if I ask around  about starting a GSA. I don’t have job security yet, but if the legislature has its way I’ll never get it…