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.

In Which I Feel Something Needs to be Avenged

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what books to add to our library’s collection. There’s quite a bit to consider, actually. Informational texts that support the curriculum and standards. Replacing outdated stuff and filling in holes. Fulfilling student and staff requests. Getting the latest installments in popular series. Award-winners, notable books, things the kids really ought to read but probably won’t, things the kids are dying to read but arguably aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

This involves reading: publications like School Library Journal, review websites, publishers’ catalogs, authors’ social media outlets, even stuff like Entertainment Weekly. It involves chatting with teachers, kids, parents, fellow librarians, and other members of the Tribe of Avid YA Readers to find out what they and their kids/friends are loving.

But the best way to find good new stuff, as far as I can tell, is to actually get into the trenches and spend a few quality hours in a bookstore. This is especially true of books that are going to fit into my “guilty pleasure” category: books that will fly off the shelves, that aren’t going to win any awards or teach any Valuable Life Skills, but that will be falling apart from the sheer force of frequent circulation by the end of the year. It’s your Minecraft novelizations, your Ever After High, your Adventure Time graphic novels and variations on the “1,000 gross things you didn’t know about _______” theme. They’re not going to show up on any of the websites or magazines, but they’re must-have items in a middle school library.

Today, while on a quest for junior adaptations of high-difficulty classic novels, I took a break to browse the new middle-grade fiction and found something that immediately caught my eye. Before I even opened the front cover, I knew it had to go on my wish list. Behold:

hulk

 

It was a perfect cream puff. Very popular movie/comic book tie-in. Library-bound so it’s durable and easy to process. Just under 200 pages, in a friendly font that would make it accessible for all but our weakest readers. Marketed for third through seventh grades, ages 8-12. Right around $10, not counting my educational discount. Perfect, perfect, perfect.

Ah, I thought. Where there’s Hulk, there might be….

Sure enough, a little ways down I found Hulk’s not-quite-as-puny-god friend:

thor

Excited, I wrote down both ISBNs for future purchase consideration and returned to my intended business. About an hour later, parsing the differences between illustrated adaptations of Great Expectations began to get to me, so I took another walk. And I found the other half of the series:

iron man

 

and

9780316383523

Dear reader, I am incensed.

Let me show you something else. I just Google Image Searched “Avengers t-shirt kids.” Here’s a screen shot of the top page of results. Click it to see it a little bigger and see if you don’t see what I don’t see.

ss

Let’s make it a little more obvious, shall we?

 

Here, what about toys?

Hmm. Funny, but I seem to remember that there was a woman in the Avenger movies. Well, more than one, obviously — Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, and Maria Hill are all important elements of the films as well — but there’s an actual member of the Avenger team who happens to be female and who also conveniently vanishes when it’s time to print a t-shirt (or, apparently, write a junior novelization).

I’m not the only person to notice this trend. Take a peek at …But Not Black Widow, which points out that Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise is also conspicuously missing one green-hued heroine. The Geekquality blog, with its byline that “all geeks are created equal,” saw it at Target. Mommyish found the gaping absence running rampant throughout the wide world of Disney paraphernalia. There are lots of websites, lots of blogs, wondering the same thing I’m wondering, but what you really need to read is this article from Business Insider. It’s talking specifically about Gamora but I guess it answers the mystery of the missing Black Widow, too. For those of you who don’t have the time to read the article, I’ll grab the important bit:

tcp

Ah, I see. Superhero stuff is for boys, and it would make their little boy parts shrivel up and fall off if they wore a shirt with a female superhero on it or had a female superhero among their action figures.

Come on, guys. We’re officially firmly in the land of Joss Whedon here. Surely we can do better than this?

(I’m not even going to get into the whole “sexist girl’s Avengers shirt” thing. It’s similarly fantastic.)

I’m sorry, but Black Widow kicks ass, and it’s not only girls who think so. She’s a fascinating character with her uncertain alliances, believable vulnerabilities, and refusal to fall into the obvious romantic story lines. She’s witty, assertive, and possesses more common sense at times than the rest of the crew put together. I want to know more about her. I want to read her library-bound middle-grade origin story. I want to wear a shirt with Black Widow on it, and not in some ridiculous “check out my butt” pose.  (Iron Man and the other guys — hey, I’m permitted my biases — kick ass too. I’d also like to read their origin stories. And I do wear shirts with them on them.)

In the defense of author Alex Irvine and his publisher, he does say that these are the “first four” in the series. But why are they separated off like this? Why not release the whole gang at once? Why put Black Widow on the B-side?  And frankly, he hasn’t said yet what, if any, the subsequent books will be. I’m not going to be even a little surprised if Loki and Nick Fury get books before Natasha. Or maybe BW doesn’t even get her own book — maybe this “ensemble cast” book, scheduled to come out in March, is all she gets.

I just don’t get it. I don’t believe that boys really won’t want something that includes the whole team. And frankly, if that is the case, isn’t that something we should be pushing back against instead of enabling? I bet you that if their only choice was “Avengers shirt including Black Widow” (or “Guardians shirt including Gamora”) or no Avengers shirt at all, that they wouldn’t hesitate. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the “boys don’t want girls on their shirts” thing is an invention of adults who grew up in a different era.

I’ve got over a thousand kids who use my library, about half of whom are boys. I’ve got a lot of kids of both genders who love Marvel superheroes. I know a cream puff when I see it; these Avengers books are going to be wildly popular. And when — if — a Black Widow title is released, it’s going to be just as popular. Why? Because my kids recognize and respect fun characters who kick ass and would probably have all kinds of choice words to say if I suggested that they couldn’t read about a female superhero just because she’s a girl.

Hair Raising

Tonight, my baby boy is getting sleepy and fighting a runny nose, and as a result running at about half speed — maybe slower. He’s just bleary, you know? I was sitting in a chair and he was at my knee, so I picked him up for a snuggle. I expected him to grab my necklace — he’s a big fun of chain necklaces right now — but instead he kind of cocked his head, blinked at something just past my ear, and then reached up and touched my hair.

He ran his fingers through it, pulling them away from my head so that my hair strung out like coppery spiderwebs at Pippi Longstocking angles. As he moved the hair slipped from his fingers and he watched, enchanted, as it fall into new patterns. Then he reached for more, gently — oh so gently — tugging it different directions, feeling it run between his fingers, watching some strands fall quickly and others, charged with static, defy gravity.

Again, and again. Not hurting me, not even looking at me, just mesmerized by the sensation of running his fingers through his mama’s hair.

It’s not an easy time with him right now. He is twenty months old and if, I’m being completely honest with myself, really doesn’t have any words at all. Sometimes he’ll say “num” for food, and he says “no” a lot — to the point where it has become meaningless, just another of his many unintelligible sound effects. He doesn’t follow directions. He doesn’t point or give kisses. He used to wave but that’s dropped off badly in the past couple of weeks. He doesn’t hug; he does a “grab you around the knees” if he wants to be picked up, and when you’ve just walked in to the house that can feel like a hug, but it isn’t. Unless we’re playing a chasey game, he doesn’t really play with us or interact with us, and gets frustrated with us if we try to make him.

He can talk; the list of letter sounds and syllables that he regularly makes far exceeds those on the speech table for those commonly made by 2-year-olds. He can point and wave and hug. He just… doesn’t.

He climbs like a kid twice his age, plays with fairly complicated toys, dances to music, and has just triumphantly learned how to use a straw. He laughs and smiles and makes eye contact and is appropriately shy-and-then-flirty with strangers. He is the most beautiful little boy I’ve ever seen. When he plays piano — either reaching up to the real thing, or sitting down Schroeder-like at his Melissa & Doug upright — his noodling sounds increasingly deliberate and melodic.

I wouldn’t trade a thing. But what I wouldn’t give to sit down next to him and have him smile and say, “Hi mama.” What I wouldn’t give to have him point for something he wants instead of just angrily groping for it. What I wouldn’t give for him to want to communicate with me. My emotional strength is strained badly, between different facets of my life, and most days I’m not strong enough not to feel like I am failing at everything. I get a gold medal in loving my boy, but raising him? Teaching him? Failure.

We’ve had two evaluations with the Infant & Toddler program now. He’s qualified for speech therapy; he’s behind in three different types of speech, although the only one whose name I remember right now is reactive. Maybe adaptive? And… whatever they call it when you’re talking without prompting/reacting. We were supposed to have appointments every two weeks starting in the new year but we haven’t been contacted by our provider yet, and work has been so hard this month that we haven’t remembered to call until after their offices have closed for the day. And so it’s a cycle: Tell him good-bye, go to work and get caught up in the whirling maelstrom that is life in a middle school, get home, remember that something isn’t right, reach for the phone only to see the time, and then spend all evening irritated that I forgot to call (and that they fell down on their commitment to call themselves).

Except this evening, I’m not irritated. My baby is sitting in my lap, adjusting his seat for a better angle, facing me with a rapt look on his face. He’s got a fistful of hair in each hand and is gently, so gently, pulling them until I’ve got enormous wispy wings unfurled on each side of my face. He pulls the hair forward, curtaining my eyes. He grabs more hair before the first handful slips away and shakes his hand free of the resulting loose snarls.

From this angle, his face looks thinner, older. Every few minutes I catch a breathtaking glimpse of what he’ll look like when he’s old enough to be one of my students. He is breathing through his mouth because of the stuffy nose, and making soft little puffing sounds with his rosebud lips. His eyes are pink-rimmed but so bright. His nose, his chin — God, how I love that chin. I steal kisses from his cheeks when he turns his head to consider which lock of hair to seize next. He is mesmerized. I am bewitched. We could both sit here for hours.

I duck my head a little so that I’m in his line of sight, say his name, and am rewarded with a moment of distracted eye contact. He’s in the middle of playing with his new favorite toy, but he pauses to look at me with a look on his face that I crave like the cliched drowning man craves oxygen. It looks like love. It looks like he loves me.

Threadbare

Two weeks ago today, someone turned in one of our copies of Allegiant. I checked it in and, as expected, saw that it was on hold for another student. I printed out the hold notice, then got one of our narrow sticky notes and wrote the student’s last name and the date on it. I remember thinking, as I sometimes do (because I’m a nerd about names) that I liked the look and feel of this student’s name as I wrote it down. Just had a pleasant combination of consonants. Like I said: nerd.

I then looked up the student’s class schedule, found out where she was at that moment, and wrote the room number on the hold notice. I handed it to one of our student library aides to be delivered. Later that day, the student came to the library, got her book off the holds shelf, and checked it out.

We check out Allegiant a lot. It’s the recently-published finale to a very popular trilogy; the movie based on the first book is still in theaters. So I don’t remember, honestly, if my memory of this transaction was for this student, or for someone else checking out the book, or how many different kids I said the exact same thing to. To some girl at about the right time — perhaps to this girl — I smiled as I handed her the book, made a comment about how she must be excited to finally get it, and then recommended that she have some kleenex handy as she read it.

This particular copy of Allegiant was due today. The girl with the satisfying last name is dead. She was hit by a car while riding her bicycle on Easter evening and died last night.

When you work in the schools, you end up knowing an awful lot of people — especially in a smallish community like ours, where you have a pretty decent chance of recognizing any name you see on the news. A lot of educators develop the habit of half-consciously scanning arrest records and news stories for familiar names. Our student’s name hasn’t been released by the media, but when I saw that evening that there had been a bike-car accident involving a 13-year-old, and saw the location, I knew that this was almost certainly one of our kids. The following day that would be confirmed. I’d learn that she was one of my husband’s students. Other devastating details came to light. For two days we held out hope, and then we learned that it was over. Queued up the emergency phone tree at about 9 pm. Spread the word. Picked out a blue outfit to wear in her honor because it was her favorite color.

As far as I really know, the entirety of my relationship with this little girl was that I processed a hold for her, and I put her picture and name in the yearbook. She was a fairly regular library patron, based on her circulation history, but not one of the ones who interacted a lot with me.

Still, I feel heartbroken. It feels deeply personal to me. I don’t know how (or if) people avoid thinking about all of the connections. My head and heart are full of her parents, her siblings, her friends who I see red-eyed in the halls at school today, her teachers who are trying to seem strong. I am thinking about the driver. I am thinking about the adolescence and adulthood she won’t have, about her infancy and all her family’s hopes and dreams for her. I’m thinking about the book and wondering if she finished reading it, whether it will come back to the library, what I should do with it if it does. I’m thinking that is a stupid thing to be thinking about.

Although it is a vastly different situation, I’m thinking about my student M—-, who died on May 12 of last year. She was upset about a break-up and ended up throwing herself under a train. I was on maternity leave and all I could think was whether things might have been different if I’d been at school that week instead of at home with my own baby. M—- and I had been relatively close; I’d been her English teacher for a few years, and had tried to help her with some bullying/bad friend issues in the past. Given the dynamics of the failed relationship, I probably would have been one of the first people she would have come to talk to if I’d been there. I’m reliving my feelings of guilt and regret.

I’m thinking about the baby I held, hugging him close to me as M—-‘s name hit the news, and my solar plexus, that day. I know one day soon I’ll have to let my little boy get on his bicycle and ride out of my arm’s reach, out of my sight. I’ll have to trust that he’ll be safe, that he won’t trust a crosswalk with his life, that he won’t ever let a broken heart stop beating. It’s hard to fathom having the strength to let go on a day like today.

I’m thinking about how my coworkers must be reliving the loss of another student, just a kid, who took his own life last year. Loss is tied to loss. Our principal reminded us this morning that this week’s tragedy might stir up pain from unrelated events, that we should look out for our colleagues even if they didn’t personally know the deceased. It was a good thing to say. I didn’t know how hard this would hit me. It is good to remember that in all of the different reactions people have to something like this, none are likely to be unique.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.” C. S. Lewis wrote that in A Grief Observed, following his wife’s death. It seems like a perfect description of today. He goes on to describe a sort of juxtaposed need for isolation and company, wanting others to be nearby but finding conversation too much to bear: “If only they would talk to one another and not to me.” It’s true that I want to hide under my desk with a box of kleenex, but simultaneously I want to walk, want to be in the back of a room where other people are talking. I want to be sleeping or perhaps just staring at a wall, but I also want to be doing something, anything, to feel like I am in some way helping. I feel wrapped up, muffled, in Lewis’s invisible blanket of sadness. It isn’t a warm blanket, but it is well-worn and widely shared.

Stands With a Fist

There is a lot of good literature and art out there, but I think the real test of how great something is is whether you don’t immediately love it, but find that it wriggles into your brain and takes on new life there, growing connections from it to other things in your mind and in doing so, illuminating them. By that measure, the best thing I’ve read/seen recently is this comic by a Canadian schoolteacher who anonymously web-publishes under the name Lunarbaboon:

"Dress" by Lunarbaboon

 

I don’t know if this cartoon is based on the artist’s real life, or was inspired by this news story, or whether it just came out of his imagination.

What I do know, though, is that I love it, because I love that dad’s love for his son, but more importantly because I understand why he is clenching his fist in the last panel. Not because he’s angry at the taunting boys, or because he’s embarrassed — but because he’s ashamed of the first four panels.

I’ve never been really great at the whole “friend” thing. That may be an understatement. I was way too bossy as a child, and am too hermit-like as an adult. And in the middle, as a teenager and young adult? I was entertaining. I was smart and full of energy, and I loved my friends, and loved making them laugh — and as anyone knows, the easiest jokes are those made at someone else’s expense. So I poked and teased at my friends. Everyone had a great time. After all, the things I teased my friends about were patently ridiculous, right? So it was harmless, as harmless as someone teasing me about having green hair or being a great athlete.

My very best friend got the worst of it. Stupid jokes and pranks. Things that were calculated to make him blush because he did it so beautifully. Things that goofed on his masculinity. Things that I thought he found funny, too, until a few years passed and it turned out that none of it had been funny, because I had been hitting far too close to home and — completely obliviously, but still inexcusably — adding to a chorus of bullying that he suffered from people who weren’t his friends. I realized that while I had thought of him as my best friend, I had been his worst friend.

The thing is, when he wasn’t around, I was his staunchest defender. For example, I remember vividly a day in a senior class when I overheard some boys I didn’t even know making fun of him, and I made a big scene. But what good is someone who has your back while they’re stabbing you in the front?

So yeah. It has probably been ten years since I last pulled any of that crap on my friend, but I’m still haunted by it. I’ve apologized, and he’s told me that it’s okay, but something like a fist clenches inside me whenever something reminds me of the “hilarious” things I said or did back when I was a dumb adolescent attention-seeker. I work in secondary schools, so trust me — something reminds me a lot. It’s a vastly different world now than when I was in secondary school; even teaching in very conservative areas, I’ve had many openly gay and bisexual students. Still, I regularly see and hear things that make me cringe — and more often than not, it’s a “friend” (or worse, a teacher) instead of a bully who does it.

Depending on what study you believe, between 4-10% of Americans are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. I taught for five years with 120-200 students each year, which means that I’ve been an important adult in the life of between 32 and 80 LGBT teenagers (not including whatever ambiguous relationship I now have as a middle school librarian). And even though things are better for young LGBT people now, compared to when I was growing up, it certainly isn’t easy. Hell, is middle school easy for anyone? Tack on doubts or fears about sexual orientation, and you’re talking about a hellish few years.

Now, wearing a skirt isn’t exactly going to be an earth-shaking gesture for me. There’s precious little on a visual level that a female educator can do that compares to a dad in a dress. But every day I feel like I’m readying myself to put on that metaphorical skirt. I work in a field and in a part of the country where you don’t exactly feel at ease about acknowledging the existence of non-hetero orientation around kids, much less starting up a GSA, but I try to do what I can to be an actual friend for the kiddos I work with when they need one. I can’t afford to lose my job (and it’s dreadful to think that’s even a possibility, but any of my friends who work in public education know it is) but I’d like to think that if called upon, I’d be standing on the right side of the line. I know I’ve tried to be there on the smaller occasions when the occasion presented itself. Little things. Quietly ordering and distributing rainbow armbands. Doing presentations on literature with LGBTQ protagonists and putting those titles on the shelves of my classroom library… working towards getting them on the shelves of a school library… gently working to shift the perspective of colleagues who have seen the world move too fast for them to keep up. Smiling and “loving on” the kids who may not know it yet but who are pulling a strong 5-6 on the Kinsey scale. Thinking once, twice, three times before making that joke or that remark. Moving quickly and firmly to correct students when they are less thoughtful.

A lot can change in a decade or so. You get older, often taller, usually wider, and sometimes — if you’re lucky enough to have your eyes pried open — wiser. Although, now that I say “wiser,” I hate that word in this context. After all, it was being a wise-ass that causes me my shame.

Instead, I am reminded of my favorite moment in my favorite movie:

For years, I was smart. I recommend pleasant. I recommend being kind, open-hearted, loving. I recommend thinking about how your words or actions might be hurting someone you love before you inflict them, rather than years later. And yes; you may quote me.

 

The Difference a Year Makes

One year ago, all I knew for sure was that our most recent attempt to summon the stork (thank you, Piers Anthony, for enriching my collection of euphemisms at an early age) had been unsuccessful. As I geared up for another school year, my emotional strength was analogous to the physical strength of someone just completing physical therapy; our lost baby had been due July 4, 2012, and it hadn’t been the easiest of summers, but time and the power of writing therapy/talking therapy courtesy of the Boise State Writing Project summer institute had done a lot to glue me back together.

At the beginning of August, I knew that I hadn’t been pregnant a few weeks before.

But even though I hadn’t taken a test, by this time last year, I had a pretty strong feeling that the stork had finally checked its messages. And it wasn’t too much longer before my suspicions were gleefully, fearfully confirmed — fearful because I was so scared that we were in for another heartbreak.

Nine months of pregnancy lined up with nine months of teaching. There was a scare early on with some bleeding that cleared up. There was a point at which I really just didn’t know what to do with the idea that this little miracle inside me was going to be (duh duh DUH) a boy. There was exhaustion and terrible heartburn and the weirdest appetites. Some afternoons I’d have to pull over halfway home, not to throw up but to desperately scarf down potato chips or crackers or whatever else I could find in the car to stem the tide of stomach acid.

We were due April 25; I squirreled away my sick and personal days and began my maternity leave a few days early so that I could feel well-rested and ready. What a funny joke. By the time this baby — my baby — my son — arrived, it was four days into May, I was so exhausted I almost couldn’t remember how to use a toilet, and I felt just about as prepared as I had for weeks before. Not that I wasn’t ready — I was no more ready. I was so, so ready to be a Mama.

And now, I am the Mama of a beautiful, hilarious, so-sweet-it-gives-you-cavities three-month-old little boy. This kiddo wrinkles up his nose, snorts, and lunges like a hungry wolf puppy if he loses his grip on his dinner. He sleeps with his arms thrown over his head, just like his daddy, and his feet together and knees sprawled like a little froggy. He’s ticklish. He can sit up for a long time if he’s supported by a person or his Baby Snug, and when you put him on his tummy he holds his chest and head up practically forever, or until he remembers how to roll over onto his back, which is usually within thirty seconds. He has finally decided that it isn’t the Worst Thing Ever to be carried facing his carrier, which means he gives all kinds of great baby hugs. He tries constantly to fit his entire fist into his mouth, and currently likes the taste of his fingers or his little blanket-bear better than his pacifier. We had to remove the cushy newborn insert from his car seat, and now he fusses and squalls when we put him in it unless we can adequately distract him with funny faces and baby talk. He still loves having his diaper changed — Nakey Baby time, or Pants-Off Dance-Off — but has gotten a little nervous about his baths for some reason. He smiles and flirts at anyone who catches his eye and smiles at him. He babbles and hoots and has started to really delight in seeing how high he can crank the volume when he “talks” to his lambies or to us. Sometimes he sleeps for hours at a time. Sometimes he’s up every two hours on the dot whining for food. He lifts both legs at the hip as high as he can and then drops them, simultaneously, with a crib-shaking thud that helps him rotate a few inches at a time until he ends up 90 to 180 degrees from his original position on the mattress. We still can’t decide what color his hair is. His eyes are so blue, it’s astonishing. He likes music, from raucous hip-hop to meandering lullabies with misremembered lyrics. Sometimes, when I’m holding him, he lies there and stares at my face with the most adoring look in his eyes, for what seems like hours. I can’t tear my eyes away.

IMG_4538

My husband and I are both employed, full-time, by the same school.

Things that had fallen apart have come back together.

We are parents. We are a family of three. We have him. It’s like, you thought all the lights were on in the house, but it turns out there’s a dimmer switch and you’d never had your lights on all the way before.

What a difference a year makes.

“More Like a Paid Vacation”: A Reaction

One of the several factors impacting my decision to leave my district was the news that we would be taking fourteen furlough days the following year. Contrary to popular belief, teachers aren’t paid for 365 days of work; we’re paid for 180ish days of work, spread out over twelve months so that we can pay the bills in the summer. As a result, 14 furlough days represents a not insignificant reduction to pay — equivalent to being unemployed for three weeks.

Our local newspaper is currently drawing attention to the fact that those employees at the bottom of the pay scale wouldn’t be financially impacted, because it’s against the law for a teacher’s salary to drop below a certain point in Idaho. So while these teachers (myself included, due to the multi-year freeze in advancement based on experience and education) would have fourteen days during the school year when they wouldn’t be at work, their pay wouldn’t be impacted. In an apparent effort to fuel resentment between teachers and in the community, the newspaper article characterizes this in the worst possible terms:

“For nearly half the teachers in the Nampa School District, a planned 14-day furlough aimed at balancing the budget will be more like a paid vacation. They’ll get the days off and won’t lose a dime in wages.”

In fact, this is a gross misrepresentation of what will actually be happening. The fourteen furlough days include one collaboration day, six teacher work days (including the two immediately before the start of the school year), two professional development half-days, one parent-teacher conference day, and the compensation day immediately following parent-teacher conferences. There are only four regular school days amongst the 14 slated for furlough, and three of those are the last three days of the school year, when there are finals to grade and classrooms to clean or pack up. The fourth is the first day back from winter break; every teacher I’ve ever known has spent the end of their winter break prepping for the next half of the school year.

If you’re not a teacher, you may not catch the implications of the above list. The thing is, a furlough day is supposed to mean that you don’t go to work and you don’t get paid. Or, if you’re one of us “lucky ones” who don’t earn a living wage, you get to stay home and get paid. BUT THAT IS NOT WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN. Just because we’re not being paid for a work day doesn’t mean that we don’t have to do it. If we don’t come in those days before the school year starts, we won’t be able to teach on the first day of school. If we don’t use the work days at the ends of quarters to grade finals and end-of-term projects, if we don’t collaborate with our departments and teams, our students suffer. And if there is one thing I know about teachers, or at least the many teachers I’ve worked with who deserve the title, it’s that they care too much about their students to let the district (or the legislature, etc. etc.) screw the students over. And so on those furlough days, the schools are going to be filled with teachers, doing what they always do: whatever they have to do in the best interest of their kids. For free.

I have been teaching for five years and have earned a 4.0 in the seventy-five graduate credits I’ve taken. (A masters degree is typically around thirty credits.) I’ve written grants that bring in thousands of dollars to my school, have volunteered countless hours to extracurriculars and professional development opportunities, and have never had less than a stellar performance evaluation. And in a field where the only paths toward a pay raise are years of experience and credits on your transcript, I’ve been frozen in at the same pay scale as a first year teacher with no post-graduate education.

So sure. I’m lucky that my pay — which, if I’m looking at this chart correctly, does not qualify as a living wage for an adult with a child — isn’t going to be whittled down any further. I’m lucky that, when I work for fourteen hours on one of those “furlough days” trying to provide each of the children in my tragically overloaded classes with constructive, timely feedback, I’m not actually doing it for free.

No, wait. The reason I’m lucky is that I don’t have to be in that situation: a situation where my colleagues, my friends, end up resenting me because an unhealthy and laughable schedule of “furlough” days drove a wedge between teachers on different places on the salary schedule. Thank goodness I got out… I only wish that all of my friends there could be as lucky.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

One of my former students shared this image with me when I asked Facebook for a map back to my comfort zone after my third of three interviews.

One of my former students shared this image with me when I asked Facebook for a map back to my comfort zone after my third of three interviews.

Today I accidentally left my comfort zone in a big way… teach me to open my big mouth on Facebook! 🙂

It all started this morning when, in response to this story, I posted the following on Facebook:

I am one of the 150. While I have multiple reasons for leaving, the BIG one is fear that my district has not only become a sinking ship but that no lifeboats have been provided for its students and teachers — none of whom contributed to the crash. For too long we’ve tried to do more and more with less and less, with only the promise of more hardship in the future. As hard as NSD teachers and admins are working to try to provide a good education to children, at a certain point it fails to be possible. Eventually, there is no more milk to squeeze from the stone. I LOVED working at Columbia, but how long can I go on working 50-80 hour weeks on an insultingly low salary without enough photocopies to make two assignments for every one of my students? How many more “oops, another missing million” announcements should I weather, knowing that in the end the ones who will suffer for these “oops” moments will be those in the classroom?

And the idea that, in this day and age, a TEACHER in AMERICA should be denied six measly weeks of 2/3-pay maternity leave… it is criminal. Six weeks of paid maternity leave is laughably stingy on a global basis, and has mothers returning to work at a crucial stage in infant development — but at least it was a nice token. If NSD takes away short term disability from its employees, the message is pretty clear: it no longer thinks of its employees as human beings, and is no longer a suitable place for teachers — and is increasingly no longer a suitable place for students.

Teachers aren’t asking for anything more than the basics they need to take care of their children — those in their classrooms and in their own homes. Anyone who thinks that robbing teachers of basic human dignity won’t affect the students is ignorant at best.

I guess that was the equivalent of calling a press conference, because my friend at Channel 6 and then my friend at Channel 7 both contacted me, wondering if I would go on camera and talk about why I was leaving. As I’d already planned to be packing up my classroom that afternoon, they were pretty excited to catch a teacher actually in the act of leaving.

(I felt weird talking to two different channels! Not only did it feel like a press conference, but I worried a bit about whether exclusivity was an issue. To be fair, I didn’t know I’d be contacted by Channel 7 when I talked to Channel 6, and I warned Channel 7 that Channel 6 got to me first.)

You know, I’m not the least bit intimidated by public speaking. Give me a microphone and an auditorium full of people and I’m just fine. But put me in front of a video camera, even when it is manned by someone I’ve known for over a decade, and I turn into a hot mess! I was so sweaty, felt like a moron, and had an upset stomach after it was all over. And then I spent most of the evening worrying that someone was going to be angry at me. I am definitely not cut out to be a politician….

Anyway, I’m on Channel 6 here: http://www.kivitv.com/news/local/214994641.html

And I’m on Channel 7 — with Henry and Ryan for a moment! — here: http://www.ktvb.com/news/More-teachers-leaving-Nampa-School-District-than-years-past-214996611.html

Fear

Two nights ago, I had a stressful dream. I was out in a park with my entire family, plus a lot of other people, and it was very windy. Because dreams are always very logical, the reason I was in this windy park was because I was prepping to go into surgery. I had all of this paperwork that I needed to have in order before my surgery, and it kept blowing away in the wind. No one could tell me what I needed to do — whether I needed to eat, when I should go to the hospital — but everyone wanted to tell me their opinions on the subject. I was incredibly stressed out.

One need be neither Jung nor Freud to figure out where that dream came from.

I suspect that I dredged up that particular twist (surgery rather than childbirth) because I’d recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about surgery. She’d planned on a vaginal birth and had undergone many hours of labor before it was discovered that the baby was breech, leading to an unplanned caesarean section. She had been trying to describe how it felt, how cold and shaky she was going in to the c-section, because of the shock of the news and all of the adrenaline, fatigue, etc.

I immediately knew what she meant. Last year (which is the euphemism I use for the miscarriage, because no one likes the m-word, even though it was actually in 2011), lying there in the emergency room, I really believed that I was going to be able to go home before long. I believed that the hemorrhaging would stop and that my blood pressure would rebound. Part of me, I suppose, knew that surgery was a possibility — but between the denial that had led me to delay going into the hospital in the first place, and the vague reassurances of the rotating cast of nurses and doctors I’d seen through the night, the idea had just faded away into the Land of the Theoretical. And then, suddenly, I was headed into the operating room, being informed I’d have a breathing tube thanks to half a candy bar, being told to hand over my wedding ring and glasses to my husband.

I was so cold, so scared. I remember thinking about dying (they don’t tell you to remove all metal from your body because they don’t like accessories). I am pretty sure I prayed; I probably tried to bargain with God, but I don’t remember what I promised. As they wheeled me into the room with the blinding lights and moved me from the stretcher to the table, I was shaking from head to foot so hard that I’m pretty sure I was coming off the table. And sure, part of it was sheer fear of the unknown; I’d never had any sort of surgery more serious than a wisdom tooth extraction. But a lot of it, I think, was being hit with the unexpected — the unimaginable — while already drowning in exhaustion and pain.

I’m within days or weeks of giving birth, and I don’t feel scared about that at all — I really don’t. (At least not on a conscious level.) I’m not planning on a surgical birth, but I know it could happen. These things do, sometimes. And if you asked me, I’d tell you that I’m at peace with that possibility, that I’ll be okay with it — and that’s true, on a philosophical level. Ultimately, whatever needs to happen for a healthy baby is fine, and I’m not going to beat myself up if I can’t deliver naturally, or if I can’t breastfeed, etc. etc. etc. But I’d be lying if I said that the thought didn’t scare me, on a much less rational level. I reckon it’s something in the same ballpark as PTSD — not that I’m trying to compare an emergency D&C to being in a war zone, of course, but I bet it’s a similar sort of thing. Heck, the bright light at my dentist’s office gave me the heeby-jeebies. I’ve read enough books with wounded-warrior archetypes to recognize that sort of thing when I experience it.

Any book or website about this whole birth thing will tell you that it’s best to be mentally prepared for a lot of different possibilities. The part of my brain that thinks has paid attention to this advice and has rehearsed for the possibility of a lot of things I’m not expecting. I’m not sure if the part of my brain that feels can really get that memo ahead of time.

No matter what, though, I think I can probably rest easy knowing that I’m not likely to be getting prepped for surgery on a windy playground. 🙂

[Ed. note: I was going to put a thumbnail of some OR lights in this post, just to add a little visual pizzazz — but I kid you not, when I ran the Google Image Search, it gave me a stomachache. Good grief. It’s been sixteen months. You’d think I could get over it already.]