An Open Letter to My Students as Hurricane Irma Looms

Dear students,

I am worried about you. Whether you know what’s going on or not, your parents and caretakers are probably just a bit on edge. They don’t mean to be, but after waiting in 500 million lines only to be told there’s no water, they are going to be a bit cranky. That was hyperbole, you’ll remember from our quiz two weeks ago.

With all the preparations underway, I begin to question what it is I’m actually teaching. Are you going to feel more secure in this storm knowing that you can now tell a proper noun from a plural noun and that a pronoun is not a noun with a job? No, not at all. Are you going to maybe write in your journals or send emails? That one you might do. Please remember your salutations, closing statements, and body paragraph structure when you do.

I know you’re probably maxing out your data plans on your cell phones. Did you get battery packs for when the power goes out and you can no longer charge your phones with an outlet? I know you’re more worried about whether Tommy or Suzy like-likes you, and I can assure you that you will still have these concerns when the storm blows over.

I hope that you’ve been enjoying your time off from school. I have decided that the single most defining moment in whether or not you’re an adult is how you view forced vacation time like hurricane days. I wish that we could go back to school whenever it is that we return, secure in having just played for a quantity of days on end without any sort of consequence. My wish is in direct contrast to what I am seeing on my weather tracker, though. File this in your memory banks that adulthood is when you realize that forced days off aren’t free. Yes, you have to know this, and yes, this will be on the quiz.

Back to the worry. Please remember that when tomorrow comes, and it’s going to, the term “be safe” will take on a whole new meaning. It is no banal platitude (you’ll remember that from the vocabulary quiz). It is a desperate plea for your well-being. Student A, your mom is not trying to get on your last nerve when she asks you to help her; she needs your help. Students B, you will be fine. In fact, your ability to be fine no matter what everyone else around you is doing is one of your greatest strengths. Student C, if you could come over and hang out with us, I would have you here in a heartbeat.

When I see you next, you will wonder if I have slept. I probably haven’t. But the joy I feel at seeing you – right before you start asking me what we’re doing in class – will take away the puffy bags under my eyes more quickly than some cosmetic could.

Be safe. Listen to your families. Come back to school so that I can see you and complain that you’re too loud. Only this time, I probably won’t. Your noise will be the best tonic in the world.

Until then,

AlwaysLiz

 

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Replenishing My Bucket

Tom Rath presented a wonderful analogy of interactions and their effect on people in his book How Full Is Your Bucket? The premise is simple: either you have a positive interaction which adds to your bucket, or a less rewarding interaction that empties it a bit. You also do this to yourself through positive and negative self-talk. Big interactions reap big effects, sometimes filling that bucket up to overfull and sometimes emptying it till all that’s left are pieces of lint and rust — kind of like burning the candle at both ends and getting singed in the process. In the spirit of overextending metaphors as I do and using the bucket analogy of life, some people are bucket heads, some people put out fires with their buckets and some people share the water in their buckets until there’s nothing left for them.

This brings me to May. April is the cruelest month for T.S. Eliot and tax preparers; May is the cruelest month for teachers. We walk around like extras on The Walking Dead, shuffling with arms outstretched in an effort to catch that last little morsel of learning (braiinnnnnnnss) and prove to the students that they really can master the concept we’re teaching. Teachers are committed, desperately so, to the notion that our students are important. Their futures matter, their psyches matter, and their goals matter. I don’t have time for the argument about the bored teacher who gave up on the students; I only have time to be inspired, so I look for those teachers. They are abundant and cross all grade and subject areas.

As a buffer to the news, to the end-of-course exams, and to the students’ burn-out, I have devised a few strategies to keep my bucket full:

  • Thank you notes. I write positive notes to parents, to the students, to my teacher friends, to anyone who could use a smile. They include emoji stickers or scratch and sniffs because stickers are a universal smile inducer. If you don’t like stickers, I will stay away from you, I promise.
  • Candy. Yes, it is not healthy, and no, I don’t care. I share my candy. My friends at work know where I keep the goody stash, and unbeknownst to them, they are the ones I buy it for. Very rarely do the students get the chocolate; that’s an adult reward.
  • No surprise here, I keep a gratitude journal. Each day, I write down three things I am grateful for and three things I hope for. I don’t write a to-do list; those things get freakishly long and I do best focusing on one thing at a time.
  • Inappropriate lyrics to songs. I rework lyrics to songs when I need to regroup. Fortunately for the world, I keep it in my head. The cadence of Frozen is a good one to use: “F—it all, F – it all, stop passing notes in class,” will usually yield a smile wide enough to make the students wonder what I’m up to. That’s all anyone hopes for: curiosity on the part of their students.
  • Award certificates – I derive fiendish glee in making award certificates for ridiculous categories and giving them to people. It’s like a sticker, only more official looking.
  • Exercise. I hate it that I typed that, but it’s true. Exercise helps keep me from burning out.

The reason I write about the book and my strategies is that I needed every single one this past week. It was a whopper in teacher-land: students who didn’t want to take finals (like, who does?), colleagues who are overwhelmed, way too many social events and way to little sleep. Added to that, I will miss the students. There are plenty of memes and video clips out there about people counting down the last days of school, but I don’t. It makes me feel a little bittersweet. When we do our job well, our students leave us. With all the tribulations of testing and grading, the graduations and the celebrations (I don’t know why I needed three –tions, but there it is), my bucket’s wobbling a bit. I have to remind myself that the best part of this time of year is the hope. The graduates, the transitioning students, the parents: we’re all looking forward to a notion, an idea that the next great adventure is on the horizon and that the people who are important to us are ready for it. For me, that next great adventure involves sleep and a trip to the bucket store.

 

Jawline Journeys

 

Last Thursday I had my final appointment at my TMJ doctor’s office. TMJ, in all its acronym-istic glory, stands for the temporomandibular joint, a disorder of the jaw, where the joint is misaligned, misplaced, or gone fishing. For the last fiveish years, I’ve been treated for a case of TMJ so wondrous that my jaw locked and my mouth wouldn’t open all the way. While it wasn’t all that unusual to my doctor, it was weird to me, painful, caused headaches, and seriously impacted my ability to eat food. It wasn’t life-threatening, I kept reminding myself, but it was definitely life impacting. Initially, I realized I might have a medical problem when I began having to cut bananas because I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to eat one straight out of the peel. I figured the locked jaw would clear up on its own. When it didn’t get any better and, in fact, got worse, I went to the doctor. This was about six months after my jaw locked for the first time. I’m an idiot.

I have mentioned before that I adore this doctor and his entire office staff. They were professional, fun, pleasant, and tolerant of the fact that Italklikethisallthetime. They got used to the jokes I’d tell when I was nervous, and the fact that when I’m scared I will hold someone’s hand, doesn’t really matter whose. This only happened once, my first treatment, and then I was fine, mostly because they were fine and we could all be fine together. Their calm was sustaining.

My jaw tendons required a type of therapy that redirected the tendons back to where they were supposed to be. The tendons were stubborn, much like the owner of the jaw they were misbehaving in, but eventually they realized that my doctor was the boss of them and they’d better stay put. For the first time in ever, I followed directions. You want me to practice opening my mouth to the point just after discomfort but just before it feels like it has been hit by a jackhammer? Okey doke. You want me to wear an appliance that holds my mouth somewhat open while I teach middle school? Ummmm, okay. You want me to use warm compresses twice daily? You betcha. I’ll see those compresses and raise you one more. I would have attempted to stand on my head and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to my jaw if that had been prescribed. Thankfully, it wasn’t. I can’t stand on my head any more without a wall to stabilize me.

Eventually, the pain went away, the mobility improved, and then finally, I could chew big people food again. Do not underestimate how awesome it is to eat food with your teeth and jaws working together in harmonious tandem. It’s glorious. First, I could eat a banana without a fork and knife. Then ground meat. Then chicken. Finally, nachos. God, how I missed nachos. Once I could eat them again, I cried real tears of real joy over how great it is to eat without first cutting food into bite-size pieces.

I didn’t really think about the fact that there would come a day when I would no longer need jaw therapy, even though I joked that I was looking forward to missing them. This past Thursday was that day. My doctor measured my ability to open my mouth, checked the alignment of my jawline, and pronounced me good to go. As in leave. As in all done. While I was thrilled to be rehabilitated, I found myself wondering who was going to need their hand held, or who was going to give the office staff goodies to celebrate the wonders of chewing, or even who was going to like them as much as I do. Of course, I realize that there are already patients under their care who fill all of those categories. It’s just not going to be me.

With hugs to anyone within reaching distance, I graduated from the office. Like all good patient-graduates, though, I consider that place an Alma Mater of sorts. Every time I chew food without cringing or yawn without tearing up, I will remember them with thanks.

 

Seeing yourself through a different filter

A popular quotespirational phrase that people pass on to their daughters and loved ones goes something like this: “If you could see yourself through my eyes, you would know how special you are to me.” My first question is and always has been, why not our sons? Don’t they deserve to know how we see them? My second thought is that, while the sentiment is lovely, it’s still a little selfish. As in, you’re special to me … but you might not be special to that guy over there and definitely not to that other person over there. Wrong. Nope. Nuh-huh. Plain and simple, I will correct the other phrase for you and remind you of this simple fact: you are special.

You are present, powerful, awe-inspiring because you are you. Maybe you got distracted and forgot to pay attention to yourself. The other day you were quick to point out that you couldn’t bench press 200 pounds like some other person, totally ignoring the fact that your current bench press is up 20 pounds from when you first started. Another you was saddened by the fact that someone else got to be the keynote speaker at the event, while you got passed over; you didn’t know that this person has been trying for six years, while you’ve only tried this once. Give it time. Another you is jealous of how easy another person has it – they’re brilliant, stylish, popular, and you feel invisible. Do you see yourself? Or are you too busy looking at someone else?

Here’s the thing: I see you. I see you try, and I see you try again, and I see you smile, and I see you when you’re angry and frustrated. I’m not Santa Claus or the Ghost of Christmas stalker-land, I’m just reminding you that you’re pretty cool. No, I haven’t been watching too many Barney shows (is he even on TV anymore?) and singing “You are special” until my brain has become anesthetized; I just see how conflicted we are this time of year. Do we give a gift to the friend who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, do we share goodies, bake them/buy them, and oh my gosh can you believe that Suzee is going to France over the winter break? She’s so lucky.

That’s where we get off track. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to these other, more wondrously awesome-seeming people because we don’t know their whole context. We can’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (as a way to understand them) when we can barely make it a mile in our own shoes without taking a break to regroup. Like anyone, I tend to get distracted by what everyone else is doing, or at least what it seems like they’re doing, I lose focus on my own goals, my own sense of purpose, my commitment to myself and the people I love, and for what? So that I can compare myself to an idealized version of someone else? That’s not the recipe for contentment and well-being; that leads to envy over someone else’s presumed situation.

So, especially this time of year, please take a moment to look at yourself the way you would look at someone else you love. Do it often enough and you might even become a little more focused on all that is you, and less focused on whatever all those other people of awesomeness are doing. You have your own awesomeness to nurture.

Joy

Do you remember when you were young and you would spin in a circle with your arms spread out, whirling and whirling until you dropped to the ground from the dizzies? You’d watch the clouds spin from your ground-level vantage point, if it didn’t make you too woozy. Essentially, you were self-inducing the same feeling you would later come to recognize as drunk. The point is, though, that you would spin in the circles for the simple joy of it. No need for someone to correct your technique or tell you that you were spinning wrong, there was only this moment when you played with gravity and gravity may have pulled you to the ground, but you still won. It was wondrous.

Then you “grew up,” stopped spinning because you realized that it gave you an upset stomach, or too closely reminded you of being drunk and nauseous. Other activities induced similar feelings of ‘glad to be in the moment’ for you: maybe it was spending time with friends, or spending alone time with a special someone, or reading a book, jumping from planes – whatever it was, you did this thing for the simple fact that it brought you joy.

Being joyful is a tricky proposition during adulthood because there’s so much that threatens it. How can a person be joyful when there’s so much pain? Joy isn’t a constant, or at least not for me, but it is there among the other emotions and deserves its nurturing too. We do ourselves a disservice when we refuse to allow ourselves that small respite from everything else we’re supposed to be doing to engage in the activities we love. I submit that our capacity for joy is one of the few things that makes life bearable. It isn’t money, or 500 skamillion friends, or an overabundance of things to do: it’s an appreciation of the moment, a connection to the very things that make us glad to be hanging around on this planet in the first place.

I am serious about protecting my own joy. This is an awkward time of year for many people, and definitely for me. I don’t handle conflicting demands on my time very well and instead usually opt to behave in a zombielike fashion because it’s easier that way. That is until this year when I promised myself I’d simplify. So far, and I admit it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, I’m doing well at cutting the excess out from the to-do list so that I can enjoy myself (go figure).

One of the most enjoyable activities for me this time of year is sending holiday greetings. Even though I’m killing trees and spending money on postage, I like to send a happy hello to another person that they can hold in their hands – like a 49 cent hug, I suppose. I know email is quicker and the graphics on my social media are all cute and what-not, but I haven’t put my hand to pen to cardstock so it doesn’t give me the same happy feeling that getting paper cuts on my tongue from licking envelopes does. That’s my unapologetic nod to doing a thing that makes me happy.

The other nod is that I love movies. On the big screen, popcorn beside the point. I love hanging out in an alternate reality for a length of time so that I can feel the feels without any sense of responsibility for them or any need to make them better. It’s the same reason I like to read, but my more immediate circle of friends understands the reading more than the movies. Why would I love to go spend too much money for a couple hours of escapism? Well, because it’s fun. The movie I saw yesterday, for its entire 130 minutes, momentarily filled a place in that part of me that still believes there is no problem that can’t be solved as long as we have hope. I left the theater with the same feeling I had when I used to whirl around in circles until I fell: a little woozy, but joyous.

As a warm-up with hopeful carryover beyond the New Year, I encourage us all to engage in the activities that bring us joy. They aren’t less important than our other commitments; that’s like saying our commitments to other things are more important than our commitment to our own health. That said, with all movie-going, card-sending joy in my heart, I encourage you to do the things that bring you joy. If it’s spending time with people, go do it. If it’s sitting around the house eating Cheetos, bring extra napkins to wipe that orange-y goodness off your fingers. If it’s writing your story, or telling your truth, or walking the dogs, go. You deserve the joy.

Just Checking In

In my previous post I mentioned that the death of a friend sent me into a bit of a mental fog so I needed to follow my routine in order to get myself through the grieving process. It has helped, and going to the funeral allowed me to celebrate her and thank the universe that she was in my life. The church was full – as in, standing room only. This was a quiet person who habitually checked in to see how people were doing. She wasn’t obtrusive, didn’t need to be the center of attention; she just cared about other people – and she let them know.

She called me once a year, usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to find out about the kids and tell me she loved me. She didn’t believe in social media, preferring a phone call or sitting around a coffee shop talking face to face to a post on a website. She made a difference by working hard and being kind.

In fact, she so fervently believed in working hard that, for reasons that are still unclear to me, she had me washing walls one day in the classroom we both served in. She told me there was nothing that a good bleaching couldn’t get rid of (this was in the days before we knew bleach was a problem) and that the classroom needed a good cleaning. She was also the boss of me in personality if not officially, so I swallowed my snark and got busy. While we washed walls, we chatted about the students, our own kids, the teacher we worked for and adored. When I left that classroom to teach in my own, she reminded me to keep the classrooms clean and bright. I know she meant that both metaphorically and literally. I have not washed walls since then, but I do believe in the joy of shared effort.

I looked forward to those annual calls, whether we’d seen each other the previous week or not for a few months. Sometimes I even called her first, but not often enough. “I love you, keep working hard,” she’d say before she hung up.

I love you too, my friend. I will.

Celebrate Yourself (and keep going)

My friends tease me that my catch-phrase is “I celebrate you.” I celebrate names on papers, first trips after getting a driver’s license, and winning Nobel prizes with equal amounts of congratulatory gusto. Yes, equal. I have noticed, however, that I’m doing much less external celebrating lately, and the reason is simple: I can’t celebrate for you or with you if your fervor in drawing attention to yourself far exceeds any measure of congratulations I could offer.

I’m not just talking about selfies. I think they’re fun, spiffy, and contain just the right blend of self-congratulation and attention seeking to be mildly annoying and occasionally excessive. What I am referencing is the attention seeking that validates one’s reason for the effort. Did you really just get an A in Chemistry so that I could celebrate you? I surely hope not.

I hope, for all our sakes, that our reasons for exerting extra effort don’t rely on someone else drawing attention to that effort. If you want to run a marathon, that is awesome, but your joy should come from the fact that you lived through the experience and not from the fact that I will hug your sweaty, electrolyte-depleted self and say congratulations.

People who succeed at whatever endeavor they undertake don’t attain their goals so that someone can shout hurray from the mountain tops or so that they can prove someone wrong. They may begin that way, but they succeed on blood, sweat, and grit because that journey becomes more about themselves and less about others. Their successes are mental, not public. Of course people like knowing their efforts are appreciated and will work harder in response to that recognition, but at some point don’t we have to put on the Adult Pants and celebrate our own selves without the validation from the multitudes?

I am reminded of a video clip I watched recently about a person who lost 70 pounds in her quest for a more healthy lifestyle. That’s awesome and I would hug and celebrate her if I knew her. The thing she mentioned having to come to terms with is how little people cared about her weight loss, and how sometimes people undermined her efforts or gave her negative attention for it. That made me sad at first, but then she pointed out that she began to understand that her healthy eating journey was hers. In other words, the things that are most important to you are most important to you, not necessarily anyone else.

We definitely need to do a better job of celebrating others, but we also need to do a better job of recognizing that our own efforts are ours, and not for someone else to celebrate. I am reminded of the phrase that “You have to toot your own horn.” Well, good, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else is obligated to sing along, or that you’re any less worthy if you don’t get a parade in your honor with confetti and balloon animals. It just means that we should all build some internal motivation to be a better version of ourselves each day without seeking permission or acknowledgement from others. It’s time to get out those Adult Pants, get to work on whatever thing of awesome we’re passionate about, and let the confetti fall where it may.

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