Goodbye, 2017 — Hello, 2018!

I know this is going to be a bit of an unpopular opinion given the nation’s political and social turmoil, but . . . 2017 was good to me, friends. Scratch that. It was great. Here’s why:

  • I became a mama to a beautiful, healthy baby boy whose smile is the rising and setting of my sun.
  • I spent a great deal of time with family members and even though the circumstances that drew us all together weren’t ideal, the days we had under the same roof were highlights of my year.
  • I celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary with the man who swore to put up with my shenanigans forever in front of God and everyone. (So far, so good.)
  • I started a Bookstagram page and have thoroughly enjoyed participating in the community of bibliophiles that Instagram plays host to.

Last night, as my tiny muggle lay nestled in his crib (and only woke up like, four extra times, ugh), I reminisced on my year as a reader (with the sound of Call of Duty: WWII and my husband’s muttered curses as background music). Overall, most of the books I read were 3.5 stars or greater, which is pretty satisfactory in my opinion. In the past, I’ve always believed in trudging through a novel — no matter how unsatisfactory — because there’s always some sort of remote chance the resolution will redeem any irksome qualities or shortcomings in the body of work. This year, though, I had to learn to let go of some titles after having a baby and discovering that hours of solitude for reading are few and far between. At first, I was reluctant to quit a book . . . but after several sleepless nights and days without even a moment to myself, it became easier to set aside novels that just weren’t doing it for me. Among that list this year: White Fur by Jardine Libaire, The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo, and Impossible Views of the World by Lily Ives.

Before I jump into 2018 with both feet, though, I’ve got a Christmas book haul to show off! In addition to the books pictured & listed below, my mother-in-law also purchased a 3-month BOTM club subscription for me and my mom gave me a B&N gift card, so, you know, it’s kinda the Christmas that keeps giving.

Christmas Haul 2017

  1. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (fiction, from my Litsy exchange)
  2. In the Woods by Tana French (mystery, from my Litsy exchange)
  3. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (classic/magical realism, from my Litsy exchange)
  4. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (fiction, from my Litsy exchange)
  5. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (historical fiction, gift card purchase)
  6. Caroline by Sarah Miller (historical fiction, from my brother-in-law)
  7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (mystery, from my parents)
  8. Beloved by Toni Morrison (magical realism, from my parents)
  9. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (history/nonfiction, from my in-laws)
  10. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (historical fiction, gift card purchase)
  11. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (fantasy, from my in-laws)

Plus a few BookOutlet purchases (Merry Christmas to myself?):

  1. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (historical fiction)
  2. The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan (fiction)
  3. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (fiction)
  4. Girl at War by Sara Novic (historical fiction)
  5. Lonesome Dove by Larry Mcmurtry (western)

Whew! What a stack! Needless to say, I’m far more thrilled with these acquisitions than my husband is, which brings me to my next point: 2018 Reading Goals.

I am generally not a fan of reading challenges because I read for enjoyment, and in my experience, challenges lead to feelings of constriction and just . . . general . . . displeasure. That being said, I have decided to participate in one rather open-ended challenge/goal for the year: The Unread Bookshelf Project. As evidenced above (and in this post), I have a bit of a compulsive book-buying habit which has resulted in a pileup of unread titles on my shelves. I usually feel at least a little guilt about spending money on more books, but let’s face it, guys — I have an addiction, and the heart wants what it wants. Which, in my case, is an endless mountain of novels to bask nearby all day, every day. (Is this an appropriate time to insert #sorrynotsorry?)

Anyway — 2018 is the year I’m making it a priority to enjoy the unread titles on my shelves before purchasing any others for myself. The one exception (of course! y’all knew there was going to be an exception, right?) is my BOTM membership. I should probably let it go, but I just can’t. There’s something just completely thrilling about receiving book mail (or really, when you’re my age, any kind of mail that isn’t a bill . . . ). So, without further ado, here’s a quick snap of my January TBR pile.

Now, it’s off to the armchair with a mug of tea and a novel for me! Happy reading, friends — and happy, happy New Year.

A Return from the Depths of Early Motherhood

So, it’s been a minute, friends. Or ten. Or 319,680. But who’s counting, right?

I’ve had every intent of updating my blog since that last book review in late April; truthfully, I still have an unfinished entry in my drafts folder titled “Reading Roundup: April and May.” Woof. Turns out, having a kid is more time consuming than one could possibly anticipate.

Or maybe just more than one very disillusioned reader wanted to admit to herself . . .

Anyway. My little miracle baby was born at the start of June in Kansas, when the sunsets begin their migration toward the later hour of moonrises and take on the vibrant golds and scarlets that only come with the ends of days in the simmering summertime. He became the rising and setting of the sun to me the instant he was carved from my belly, no small token after months of growing inside my burgeoning stomach. He became the very reason for life itself; a reason I didn’t know I needed until I saw his gaping gummy mouth and intent steely eyes beckoning — Hey, You. Blobby thing. Feed me, please. And perhaps nestle me close, yes, like that. Oh, that’s nice. You’re cushy in all the right places! Oh, please, won’t you love me forever?

Challenge accepted, Little One. Forever.

And now, as I type this, my squinty-eyed boy has become a gurgling six-month-old squawking at me to put my toes closer to the jumperoo, please Mama, I need to grab them and — oh — yes, these belong in my mouth . . .

I’ve been thinking often, lately, about those early days of first-time motherhood; in part because I am missing those squishy little baby snuggles, and in part because I have so many friends nearing that milestone (or past it). Man, those first days — weeks, months — are tough. Here’s a few things I discovered about becoming a mother:

  1. You will never feel more inadequate. Ever. In your entire life. I mean, obviously I haven’t lived my entire life yet, but I feel pretty confident that you’re never going to feel more incapable or out of your league than those first several weeks with an infant who’s speaking — jk, screaming — a different language and won’t latch on to your damn boob and fortheloveofGodcan’thesleeplongerthanthirtyminutes? It gets better with time, but I’m not real certain the feeling ever dissipates completely.
  2. You will stop caring who sees your boobs. My first few days in the hospital, I really, really didn’t want my mother-in-law to be around while I was nursing. It felt like some sort of violation of a line that needed to be drawn in the sand. Fast forward a few weeks: I’ve become a pro at nursing in parking lots, church pews, and McDonald’s booths. I’m as discreet as possible, but let’s get real, guys — it’s damn near impossible to finagle the nursing bra while holding the increasingly-squirmy and often-screaming child and trying to lift the shirt while also keeping a blanket over your chest and aforementioned screaming infant. Yeah. It’s been 6 months and I still haven’t mastered the art.
  3. You will feel like you might actually die of exhaustion. Yep. Not an exaggeration.
  4. But you won’t. Just keep drinking that water and eating those granola bars. . . . two at a time . . . or three, that’s fine, too.
  5. You’ll pray to God, Allah, Buddha, Mother Nature, the Abominable Snowman, and the Kool-Aid man for baby to start sleeping through the night yesterdayThis kinda goes back to #3, because let’s face it — really all you can think about in those first few weeks (or months) of baby-rearing is sleep. And how much of it you’re not getting.
  6. But by the time baby is only waking up once a night to feed, you’re going to feel a little sad. . . . because the realization is starting to hit you: he’s not going to need you someday. Yeah, yeah, you’ve got a few years until that’s a reality . . . but it starts with the nighttime feedings and it only goes downhill from there, friends.
  7. You’ll probably be a “bad” wife for a while. Home-cooked meals? Swept floors? Laundered clothes? Unless you’re Wife of the Year, those things probably aren’t going to get done regularly (or at all) for a while. Maybe a couple of months. It’s okay. You’re not a bad wife. You’re a badass who just expelled human life from your loins. Any time someone tries to make you feel guilty about not getting dessert made (or really, for anything in those first several months), simply hoist the fruit of your womb and tell ’em to suck it.
  8. You’ll reminisce on all those times you were a shithead to your own mother and experience deep and lasting remorse. Go ahead, call your mom. Apologize. Cry if you need to. She gets it.
  9. You’ll feel disgusting. Unless you’re one of those weirdos whose body returns to pre-pregnancy form two days later, you’re going to be squishy and quite possibly covered in stretch marks and incapable of turning down anything chocolate or cheeseburger-y. I’d like to say the feeling evaporates by six months postpartum, but it hasn’t for me. That being said, I do take some relief in watching my offspring smile dazzlingly as I whisper to him, You did this to me . . .
  10. You’ll never get these moments back. Already, I’ve forgotten the heft of my boy in his first few days of life as he curled up against my chest. I’ve forgotten the exact sensation of his tiny tuchus nestled in the crook of my arm with his tiny newborn head smooshed against my shoulder as he slept the sleep of the dead. The general memories remain, but I feel an aching remorse in my belly every time I can’t vividly recall a detail from those early weeks. I remember wanting each day to just pass so badly — Please, God, just let me make it through one more day — and now I am desperate to draw out each hour, feeling the impermanence of my station here in life now more than ever.

Like I said: It’s tough becoming a mother. Some women seem to be born with an innate knack for the task, somehow knowing from day one how to soothe and entertain and discipline and nourish. Many, like myself, aren’t born with that knack, and we find ourselves circling the motherhood drain and wishing we could knock a few back, but baby’s still eating every two hours and I’m still a human-milk dispensary, so . . .

Here’s a little secret, though: knack-full or knack-less, we all start our motherhood with equal footing in one capacity. We are born with the instinct to love.

And, you know, it might be a bit naive, but I’m certain that no child can thrive without boundless, unconditional love. So go ahead, mamas — rely on that instinct to love, and a quick Google search for the rest.

A Moment of Truth

This entire year has been a mental struggle — never more so than lately. I find myself wondering more and more frequently why I ever signed up to teach the subject I love so much. Each day feels like a battle to protect my passion for reading & writing, a battle to continue believing in the power of education when my students and the world have so little good to say about my profession and my content area.

On almost a daily basis, I hear students disparage teachers — She doesn’t do her job. Her class is a waste of our time. This isn’t what we really should be learning. I watch friends post articles and memes mocking the shortcomings of public education, the blame for most of which — let’s face it — is ascribed to teachers. I witness other teachers devaluing colleagues’ teaching methods, subject matter, and general place within the curriculum in front of students and parents.

In short, it often feels that most of my days are spent fighting others in an attempt to desperately convince them that writing has the power to save lives; that a good book can transport one from a reality of depression and heartache to worlds of wonder and adventure; that the ability to articulate a fully-formed thought will never, ever go out of style.

Truth be told, I’m tired. I am tired of being told that I am not valuable. I am tired of being told that my job and subject matter are outdated, replaceable, and generally poorly executed. I am tired of being shamed by society and colleagues and students for doing the best that I can — which is never, it would seem, enough.

But some days — I’m reminded of these little humans. Of their joy for good stories, their hunger for learning, their trust in me to do right by them. And I tell myself that one day, things will be different.

Not every year can be a good year.

Not every class will be a good class.

Not every blithering idiot on Facebook has the brains to do my job — despite what they might think.

And maybe — just maybe — not every person deserves a piece of my mind.

I’m not giving anything up for Lent.

Every Ash Wednesday, my social feeds fill with the same tired hubbub: What are you giving up for Lent? I’m giving up soda and sweets. I’m giving up beer. I’m giving up negative thinking. And every year, without fail, the jokes come two days later: Yup, just ate a donut. I’ve already fallen off the wagon!

We’ve all been there — hasty to make Lenten resolutions with sacrifice at the forefront of our minds. However, in true consumer form, we’ve made the season of sacrifice just another season of ill-fated resolutions. (I say we because I, too, am guilty of these same shortcomings.) We laugh off our inability to abstain from chocolate for more than a week, joke about our failure to get through March without a soda, and engage in public self-deprecation when we slip up two weeks in . . . then give up giving something up for the rest of the Lenten season.

For the past few years, the sacrifices my friends and I have made have seemed less and less like True Sacrifices, and increasingly like Good Conversation Starters. I find myself wondering each year — What is the point in giving up Pepsi each Lent, if only to resume drinking it with fervor Easter morning?

Isn’t the point of Lent to sacrifice something that truly causes us discomfort, and in turn, makes us better individuals? More Christlike?

How can we become better individuals if we turn to the same creature comforts, time and again, after a short 40 days of abstinence?

What is the point in sacrificing something we love if we know we won’t take the sacrifice seriously enough to see it through to the end?

Over the past few years, Lent began to lose its significance for me. Not simply because I knew I wasn’t doing a proper job of it, or because I had a few slip-ups here and there; rather, I felt an absence of import. The sacrifices I attempted felt halfhearted and superficial, or geared toward some sort of personal body goal that had little to do with my growth as a Decent Human Being.

* * *

This past week, I jokingly told Zack that I would be giving up worrying for Lent.

With some pretty major life changes coming down the pipe in the next few months — career and family — I’ve been morphed into a whirlwind of ceaseless, furious anxiety. My nights are only partially filled with sleep; most bedtime hours I spend awake, panicking about things well beyond my control: birth defects, breastfeeding, SIDS . . . my Alzheimer’s-stricken grandpa in the wake of his wife’s death . . . my sister and her career struggles . . . the enormous financial stress that is going to be my life for the next many years . . .

Needless to say, this constant state of insecurity and — truthfully — uncontrollable anxiety has not merely worn me to a frazzle; Zack, too, is exhausted with the ceaseless questions and fears I wake him up with at three and four and five in the morning. Of course, he jumped all over my Lenten sacrifice with unrivaled enthusiasm. 😉

The next day, I contemplated my half-sincere offering. How peaceful it would be to give up worrying for forty days. . . . And yet, when I looked deep within myself, I knew that such a task wouldn’t be possible. I would fail a few days into the start of Lent and, frustrated but not surprised, attempt to convince myself I’d made a good run of it.

* * *

Instead, I decided to do what should have seemed obvious in the first place: I’d take something up for Lent. Instead of attempting to stop worrying for forty days (which would be akin to the Hulk giving up fits of rage for forty days), I will do something that actually has an impact on the kind of wife and person I want to be: I will take up a simple prayer to accompany my worries.

I know, I know — some of you are probably thinking What an idiot. Isn’t that something you already do? and I’d love to pretend that yes, I say a prayer every time a worry crosses my mind; but I don’t. (This shortcoming has to be some sort of logic that stems from the idea that we should give thanks as often as we give praise; being a pessimist, I generally find far fewer things to be grateful for on a daily basis, and as such, haven’t been a big fan of bothering the Big Man Upstairs with a rather unbalanced barrage of concerns with a sprinkling of gratitude.)

Instead of spending my 40 days halfheartedly trying to resist carbs and sugary sodas (or tackle the impossible), I will work on forming a habit that contributes to the development of the kind of wife, friend, mother, person I know I am intended to be.

I guess it’s as good a place as any to start, by praying — Lord, help me find peace.

Ode to the Matriarch

First she was a daughter and a sister. Then, a wife to a hardworking blue-collar man for sixty-odd years. A mother to three children, one of whom left her arms far too early; two who live on, bearing their own stamps of her personality like badges of honor. An aunt. Each of these roles prepared her to fill the shoes I selfishly like to believe she loved most: Grandma.

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When we were small (enough that three of us could squeeze into the cab of the Blue Bomber alongside Dad), we loved traipsing along for chores in the mornings. Mom would fix up a hard-egg sandwich for each of us, which we’d scarf down at the table in our cowboy boots and t-shirts. Dad would fill a mug to the brim with coffee, seemingly in pursuit of some sort of daredevil quest to see just how much jostling and bumping his steady hand could withstand before a drop could slosh over the top and onto my leg (or his).

Without fail, minutes after breakfast each morning, Barrett wanted to know: “Is it time for snackies?!”

We’d drive the half mile to Grandma’s, each of us a Real Cowboy reporting for duty, and hop out of the bumbling old pickup and race to the front door, yelling the traditional “Knock! Knock!” before we were even within hearing range. As politely as snackie-minded children could manage, we’d burst through the doorway and into the kitchen that never changed even once in my lifetime. There, she waited: dark eyes glittering, soft wrinkles intersecting on her joy-mapped face, lips stretched upward in a teasing grin. In her soft hands, empty Ziploc baggies waited for each of us.

I’m not sure, anymore, who loved morning snackies more—us kids, or Grandma. She’d shovel fruit snacks and chocolate chips and Gushers and peanuts and orange slices into the baggies until Dad firmly said, “Okay, that’s enough, Mom,” for the second time—and with a wink, she’d drop in just one treat more. The price was all but free: a kiss or three and a tight hug before whoosh!—we were out the door, off to feed cows and check fences and revel in the dynasty that Grandpa and Dad had built: Simon Angus Ranch.

* * *

During summers, we wore the road thin between our house and Grandma’s, riding our bikes with squeals down the Big Hill (and groans up the Bigger Hill). It was there, in the comfort of her sunken living room, that we learned of Oklahoma! and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz. She cherished these classic musicals and fostered a love of theater in the heart of my sister, who later became Grandma’s favorite actress. In this same space, I also learned to appreciate Dirty Dancing—though it didn’t strike me as odd that she allowed a 12-year-old to watch this until just a few years ago. It is here that Barrett spent an entire summer—nearly every single day—watching Miracle and discussing the Cold War and hockey plans with Grandma, who had never seen a game of hockey in her life. While we reveled in the classic films that came from the treasure trove that was Grandma’s TV cabinet, she’d perch in her armchair with a magnifying glass, reading some article or completing a puzzle; or she’d disappear into the kitchen for a while, from which savory fragrances would emanate later on.

Mom felt guilty sometimes, I think, for all the days we pestered Grandma; but I know Grandma loved these unsolicited visits. Sometimes we’d call (forced by Mom in an attempt to establish something resembling manners), but even when we didn’t, Grandma was somehow never caught unaware. I think it’s safe to say our daily visits were more valuable to her than gold.

* * *

Grandma is most often tied to memories of food and family in my mind, and with good reason: summers and school in-service days meant lunch at Grandma’s. We children would salivate with anticipation in the hours leading up to lunchtime, usually abstaining from breakfast in order to more fully appreciate the glory that would come at precisely 12:15.

In the small, dark wood-paneled dining room, a crowded table waited: decorative seasonal napkins on each plate; glasses filled to the brim with sweet tea any Southerner could appreciate; serving bowls piled high with corn on the cob and heavenly hash, roasted potatoes and her famous cherry Pepsi Jell-O. We learned self control at that table as we waited, squirming, for Grandma to bustle in with the main dish—if we were lucky, tater tot casserole; if we were luckier, pot roast—and beam at the faces that she so loved. Grandma’s table was a bit like those of the dining hall at Hogwarts: even when Tyler and Jacob and Barrett were all three present with their formidable appetites, food somehow continued to appear in dishes until all were stuffed to the gills.

Those who were fortunate enough to join family at that table (most often Jacob’s buddies, come to haul hay or fix fence in the summer) never left hungry—Grandma made sure of that. She made it her top priority on those beloved lunch days to ensure that we were fed like a troupe of the Queen’s finest soldiers, even if that meant we left to work cattle with our pants unbuttoned and pleasurable groans escaping from our lips. (We also may have learned a thing or two about Gluttony at that table. . . . )

* * *

We could all count on Grandma for a few certainties in life. First, her front door was always open to visitors—and you’d better yell “Knock! Knock!” on your way in. Second, she’d always have a pile of lemon crap prepared when Jacob visited from college (we used to think this meant he was the favorite, which I’m sure he’d love to believe, but I’m also sure is completely inaccurate). And third—the most certain and meaningful of all—Grandma could be depended upon to never miss a game.

She became something of a fixture at Flinthills High School, always arriving to games at least 45 minutes in advance (which became a bit of a running joke in the family), her cushioned #1 Fan! seat settled in prime viewing location for the activity at hand. During football, that seat could be found as far as possible from the “Ding-a-Lings,” whose cowbells were Grandma’s archnemises. During basketball games, her stark head of curly black hair could be spotted smack dab in the upper-middle section. I often marveled that she didn’t bring high-focus binoculars—all the better to see her grandchildren with, of course.

No matter the distance, Grandma was always there, decked out in red and black and gleaming saucer-pins from which our faces beamed outward. On weekends, she’d follow Courtney and Brianne’s volleyball teams to day-long tournaments, scribbling notes from the game in her program in that loopy calligraphy so unique to her. When the boys were in high school and lost most of their games by the 45 rule, Grandma didn’t care—she was still in the stands an hour before, watching warm-ups with her eagle eyes; often driving hours to watch forty-five abysmal minutes of football and offer a few hand-squeezes and whispers of tender encouragement before hopping back in the car for a long drive home. She braved long trips and ninety-degree afternoons on sun-baked golf courses for fifteen-minute cross country races, during which she was lucky to catch a few fleeting glimpses of me running.

Distance did not matter to this woman—only Family. Nothing was more important to her than ensuring each of us were adored to full capacity.

* * *

Grandma’s fridge is a testament to her greatest love. It is a collage in the truest sense, papered from top to bottom: newspaper clippings from Jacob’s college games, ticket stubs from Brianne’s performances, photographs of Seth’s matriculation and Courtney’s family (and Grandma’s first great grandchildren), Mother’s Day envelopes with Dad’s signature hidden “MOM” heading. Over the years, the collage changed to reflect her family’s newest accomplishments; the fridge eternally a billboard of all that she held dearest.

She is gone, now, and those words leave a hole in each of our hearts. Decades of matriarchal devotion to her children and grandchildren have come to a close, but she’s left each of us something far greater than material wealth or tangible objects.

Grandma never missed an opportunity to make it clear just how dearly she loved each of us. With each return home, she’d grasp us in a tight embrace, peppering our heads and cheeks and shoulders with kisses as she’d squeak out in that high-pitched, excited squeal of hers, “Grandpa and I have missed you so much! You’ll never know how much you mean to us . . . we think of you every single day.” Her soft, thin hands—surprisingly strong—squeezed ours tightly at every opportunity, as if she could somehow transmit this fierce passion to us through touch.

It worked. She is gone now, and there is a hole in each of our hearts. But over that aching gap, Grandma is already at work, papering a new collage of old memories to tide us over. A Christmas stocking here, a snackie bag there, and nearly-world-famous chocolate brownies filling in all the spaces between.

A Letter to My (Disgruntled) Students

To My Students (the Disgruntled Ones):

When I first started teaching four years ago, I was so excited. I relished the idea of sharing my passions — literature and writing — with the minds of the future; I looked forward to having a positive impact on your lives, lives that would touch so many others. I worked diligently to obtain licensure; frenetically worked to meet college deadlines; wearied myself writing a teaching portfolio that was some 50-plus pages filled with data, research, and observations.

I desperately wanted to be good enough for each of you.

The first year was tough. I left for school most mornings before 6:30 and stayed long after 8:00 most evenings. My weekends were consumed with countless hours of lesson planning, and my first year of marriage took a backseat to 67 kids I’d only known for a handful of weeks.

Mornings were for preparing myself, mentally. Mornings were filled with fear and nervous anticipation — Is today’s lesson what they need? Am I helping them to deepen their knowledge?

Evenings were for grading and planning. I saw each of you for 50 minutes daily (when you didn’t have ball games or special masses to attend or school assemblies or confession or bake sales) and was expected to teach grammar, writing, reading, vocabulary, and spelling. Evenings should have been for family and rest and four-mile runs, but they weren’t. They were for work.

The second year was better (I hit some sort of almost-effective stride), but I still stayed up at night wondering: Did I teach them anything of value today? Should I have handled that situation differently? Did I make a mistake that will leave a lasting impression on them?

Last year, I began teaching high school. I thought I would love this. I thought, Finally! I’ll get to teach the novels I cherished as a high schooler! and These students will be much more capable of complex logic and reasoning, and They will be more independent. I thought you would be more like the student that I was: driven, respectful, curious.

And above all, I still desperately wanted to be adequate.

For all of those hours of anxiety and fear and fervent planning, you have gifted me with contempt.

You have told me to f*** off, you have cursed me in the hallways, you have posted hateful remarks about me on Twitter and Facebook and even your locker doors. You have told lies to your parents, who then took to Facebook to further berate me.

You have refused to participate or listen in class. You have refused to attempt reading and writing assignments, to study vocabulary terms, to come in after school to make up missing assignments; then blamed me for your failing grades.

You have lied to me. You have disparaged me in other teachers’ classes. You have criticized my teaching methods, whined about my expectations, and questioned my curriculum choices.

And still, I lie awake at night thinking about all of the ways I have failed you. I stare into the darkness, dreaming of ways that I can become more Enough for each of you.

I cannot accept that I have done all that I can. I cannot accept that this is the best I can do for you, and because of these standards for myself I am miserable.

But that is not all. Here is a list of other things I cannot do:

I cannot make you understand the weight of your choices. I can only foster opportunities for you to learn that your actions have consequences, whether you like those consequences or not; and hold you accountable for those choices, hoping that one day you will appreciate what I have done for you.

I cannot make you realize that when I ask you to read books on or near your ability level (rather than 5 levels below), I’m not doing so as a punishment, but because you will only develop your vocabulary and ability to cognitively reason at a higher level if you read harder. I can only continue to set forth challenges and hope that you will rise to meet them.

I cannot make you want to work hard; I can only encourage you to, and hope that you respect yourself (and your teachers) enough to do so.

I cannot make you appreciate the doors that will open to you when you become fluent writers and speakers; I can only bear your complaints, time and again, as we struggle through essays and blog posts and presentations and classroom discussions, and hope that you someday communicate in a manner that beckons others to bend their heads and listen.

I cannot make you see that the sun does not rise and set from between the cheeks of your arse, despite what you may have been led to believe by your parents or your own egocentrism. I can only hold you to the same intensive standards to which I hold each of my students and hope for the best.

You see, students, teaching is all about hope. There are no certainties, no infallibilities, no Definite Absolutes. When I teach you, I do not do so with the assumption that I know everything or that my methods are the best or perfect or even always okay. When I teach you, I hope that I am doing something right, amid all the wrong.

Teaching is rarely a rewarding gig. The moments of illumination and gratitude that educators talk about? Fleeting and far too sparse. But we trudge onward, arms swinging in a march-like cadence, because we hope.

Please — don’t take that from us.

With a fervent heart,

Your teacher

 

A Reflection on Identity

In the third grade, my teacher was Mrs. Bagel*. She had pale blonde hair that curled at the ends and sharp angles at all of her corners; I remember thinking she was very birdlike. Her bones seemed frail and tiny, like a sparrow. Or a meadowlark. Something dainty like that.

Mrs. Bagel had a voice that could boom over the classroom like a football coach with a megaphone; but mostly, I remember her as quiet. She didn’t speak unless words were necessary. Most of the time, when she wasn’t using her Teacher Voice, her little bird mouth would open and she would softly chirp out some petite rebuke or encouragement or observation.

Mrs. Bagel and I were opposites.

My mouth could not stop opening like an out-of-control faucet that has no hose attached, only a gaping end where words splashed forth with vigor while onlookers watched in a sort of curious panic — Can this damn thing even be turned off?

Even when the faucet was tightly clamped shut, sound found its way out. Within the pockets of my soft round cheeks, I developed the ability to make crackling, croaking noises like a dolphin might make (or so I imagined). In what was likely a moment of silent boredom (compounded with rebellion), I also taught myself the art of making ripply near-farting noises by pushing bubbles of air through the space between my gums and upper lip. This not only made a pleasing sound, it also produced a tactile distraction for my mouth — and annoyed the ever-living wits out of Mrs. Bagel.

In the third grade, I became a Problem Student.

Initially, I think it’s safe to say I truly couldn’t shut the faucet off — as a younger-middle child, I had an innate need for attention that could only be achieved by running my mouth at the speed of light (so I thought). Over time, though, the inability to stop talking became a signature. It was my trademark. It was also my downfall that year of third grade.

At the time, my mother did not teach at the school that I went to. (That came later, when I was in 5th grade.) So the first that she learned of my Inappropriate Behavior was probably at parent-teacher conferences in the fall. I didn’t attend conferences with my parents, so I’m not really sure what was said, but I can imagine about how things went down.

Mrs. Bagel: So, I’ve noticed Renee is a bit of a talker.

There it is, talker: my main identifying noun.

Mom: *chuckles* Yeah, she’s our little chatter-bug! She’s quite the storyteller.

Mrs. B: *mouth tightens in a firm line* Well. She also likes to make noises.

MomNoises?

Mrs. B: *nodding firmly* Noises. With her mouth. All the time.

My mom came home that night and asked me to “recreate” some of the noises I regaled Mrs. Bagel’s classroom with. Beaming proudly, I puffed out my third grade chest and delivered a top-notch series of bubbly, nearly-farty noises and sharp, dolphin cheek-squeaks. It was my finest work.

My mom, a teacher, gazed at me with a burning sort of intensity while my dad stifled a chuckle at her side. I was sharply reminded of my obligation as an Honorable and Hardworking Student Representative of the Simon Family and sent on my way.

As the year played out, Mrs. Bagel and I remained amicable enough; as pleasant as Taciturn Teacher and Loquacious Learner can be, I suppose. . . . That is, until The Incident.

You see, I was standing at Mrs. Bagel’s desk, probably asking for her to look over my cursive or math sums, and the faucet had been pretty well-managed all day long. As with any weak pipe, there was bound to be an outburst at some time. (This probably followed a 24-hour pledge to Not Talk So Much.) I teetered on my tiptoes at the edge of Mrs. Bagel’s desk, where she sat perched in her chair looking down her sharp beak — I mean, nose — at the work I had submitted for review. It was at this crucial moment of silence (think Inside-an-Egyptian-Tomb Silent) that the dam broke. With a sudden desperate urgency, I began a series of dolphin squeaks — softly, at first, but crescendoing with every unchecked moment of noisy freedom.

The (bird)shit hit the fan.

I don’t think I’d ever been loudly reprimanded by a teacher before, and though this certainly didn’t classify as “yelling,” my cheeks burned with shame as Mrs. Bagel delivered the dressing-down of the century. (Okay, it wasn’t really that bad; but to a third grader . . . who never got in trouble . . . )

I vowed to be a Better Student. I did my work relatively quietly, sat in a sort of sulky silence, and visualized duct-taping my mouth shut whenever I had the urge to chime in. I was devestated when this resolve weakened and completely dissolved within a matter of days. I berated myself over and over.

Why couldn’t I be more like Jamie? She was quiet; she never spoke unless spoken to, and teachers seemed to prefer that.

Why couldn’t I be more like Bailey? She never made weird sounds . . .

Why couldn’t I be more like . . .

Every year, at many different junctures, I asked myself the same questions of myself. I compared myself to my much more meek and soft-spoken peers; you know, the ones who knew when (and how) to simply exist in peaceful reticence. As an adult, I sometimes still find myself longing for this piece of identity that does not belong to me.

Most of the time, though, when I am honest with myself, I can admit that softness and silence and serenity are not components of my identity. No, I am a faucet with the handle cranked wide open, a torrent of words and noises spilling forth without reservation.

I am the Bubbly Fart-Noise Maker. I am the Dolphin Cheek-Squeaker. I am my own Self.

*This name has been changed.