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.

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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…

Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

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.

Picture2

A Note for Emmy

A dog will break your heart every time. How can it not break your heart when it takes residence within it, turning around and scratching and tugging until it creates a form-fitting nest – stretching and enlarging your heart so that it has a greater capacity for love?

The dogs and cats who share our lives are not children, true; they hold a different, but not lesser, spot in our hearts. No matter what happens, they are always happy to see us. They greet us at the door (yes, even cats often do this) with glad posture, eager for our touch and the sound of our voice. They seek us out for company and security as well as for food and shelter. Even when we work long hours, forget to fill the food dish, neglect to clean the litter box, get angry and yell – they forgive, forget, and never stop loving. Their love is unwavering, unquestioning, and unconditional. Loving and being loved by a pet is probably the closest we mortals can get to understanding God.

Losing a pet is like losing a little part of your heart, and it is no easier when you get to name the time and circumstances of that loss. I daresay it is harder; yes, you get to say good-bye, but you have to bear the weight of an impossible but necessary decision.

Before Ryan and I knew each other very well, we were instant messaging one another. As I recall, he mentioned wanting to get up and get a Coke, but couldn’t because he had a sleeping puppy on his lap. Having not known he even liked dogs, I asked him about the puppy and he told me about Emmy, a little black-and-white poodle who was a spry 12-year-old at the time. This was one of the little moments in our relationship that tumbled together like gears in a lock until I suddenly found myself in love with him – can’t explain it, but it was. The gentleness and humor in his words as he talked about his “puppy” revealed a side of him I hadn’t known before.

I’ve always had a fondness for “spotty dogs” – what more sophisticated people would refer to as “parti-colored.” To my mind, Emmy was just beautiful: white with black ears and Snoopy spots along her back, a dark blaze running down to her black nose. Most of her colors were fading to shades of gray, but it was clear she’d been a real beauty. Her temperament was on the neurotic side, even for a toy poodle, but she surprised the Bakers by letting me hold her from time to time. I remember her super-sonic barking when people came into the house and the way she bounded, Pepe LePew-style, across the yard after a tennis ball (which she rarely actually retrieved). She would stand on her back legs to take a treat, even stealing it gently from between pursed lips. My favorite thing was when she would perk her ears just right and become Bat Dog, her black ears flaring out like goofy wings.

Yesterday Emmy had to leave us. It was hard to let her go, even for a relative newcomer to her life like myself. Loss is never easy to bear.

I read a story yesterday about a man and his dog on the road to Heaven. The story described Heaven as a sun-warmed farm without fences, behind a simple gate that looked as though it had never been closed, where both the man and his companion were welcome. I like to think of Emmy sniffing that gate, recognizing the smell of friends and family gone before her, and bouncing all bat-eared into a world where she will always be warm and young and eagerly waiting for the day when she can bellow her greetings to her mortal family.

Happy trails, Emmy Lou Baker.

Emmy and Ryan

July 4, 1991 – April 30, 2008