Hands

My hands are a book of stories, a criss-cross of scars, both seen and unseen. The scar across the back of my hand reminds me of my clumsy, carefree childhood, chasing my brothers through the house.  Stomping, yelling, running when running was just for fun.  Then the acute pain of catching my hand on my dad’s wire bristled sanding wheel, the bristles, like porcupine quills catching under my skin.  And then my mother’s tender hands, silky smooth bandaging my own small hand.

My cycling gloves have drawn tan lines across my wrists, a promise that adventure is mere pedal strokes away.  Steering my bike up mountains, beside rivers, through waves of wildflowers bowing over the plains.  My bike is escape.  My legs turn circles while my hands brake, shift, and guide almost without thought.  My mind moves beyond the daily clatter.  It is my space to think about big things and small things all under the careful guidance of my hands.

My left hand wears the promise of love.  Love in all its joy.  Love in all its pain.  Love without condition.  Love like I thought I didn’t have the capacity to give.  Or receive.  How my lovely hands took care of me this year.  Wiping away tears, both his and mine.  Our hands clasped in the spare doctor’s office, trying to hold onto light and hope.  If we just entwined our fingers tight enough, maybe our life together would not slip away.

My hands twisted medicine bottle lids, rubbed his back after lonely nights, and threw my raw prayers up to heaven.

The skin of my hands began to peel, as if my heartache had descended into my fingers and my hands could only respond by peeling away the layers.  It was painful, the forced exposure of new skin before it was time.  And still my hands continued to do all the required jobs just so I could make it from one day to the next.  Soon one day became many days and we’d held on long enough, tight enough, that our life together did not slip away.

My right hand wears another ring, the promise of eternity, of peace beyond my most vivid imaginings.  We cling to this and it clings to us.  It is here in our morning prayers, hands folded that we rediscover our life together, cognizant of the fact that we balanced precariously on the edge of it all and didn’t fall.

Stories balance on the tip of my tongue and the callous on my finger reminds me of my childhood spent holed up in my room, poetry spilling out, filling pages with graphite.  Now, my fingers tap at the keys of my computer.  It’s the rhythmic tapping of letters becoming words becoming paragraphs becoming the story of my life.

So far it is a story of joy, heartache, and healing.  I think of fairy tales and that phrase “They lived happily ever after.”  It always comes at the end of the story.  In my life story, we are living happily ever after.  We are living happily ever after right now because we are aware, so very aware, of just how precious now is.

Clipless Pedals

Clipless pedals.

The name itself is totally misleading. Clipless pedals are the kinds of pedals you clip your bike shoes into so you are in essence attached to your bike. This can be a really good thing when you’re pulling up a hill and want a little extra power. It can also be a really bad thing if you come to a stop and forget to clip out. I’ve spent some time making asphalt angels after realizing I stopped and didn’t disengage. As if it weren’t bad enough, I’d look over and see the driver of the car next to me cackling.

It turns out bruises, scrapes and humiliation are pretty efficient teachers in my cycling life. After a couple of falls, I was vigilant about unclipping my right leg so I could come to a stop and stay upright.

This left me with one more pedal issue to resolve. After clipping out to stop, I needed to learn how to clip back in without swerving all over the intersection while the light changed from green to yellow to red with me still stranded in the middle. I called on the expertise of a far more experienced cyclist. He told me not to worry about trying to clip my foot in right away. One foot was still clipped in and I could use that leg to pedal across the intersection. Once in a less trafficked area, I could look down and clip my other foot in. It was definitely one of those “Why didn’t that occur to me moments?” From that day forward, I’d stop confidently and start up again with my one legged pedaling.

A year later, I was leading some new cyclists on a ride and we came to a stop. One newbie tottered back and forth, clipping out just in time. When it was time to start up, she tried without success to clip in her dangling foot. She made her inaugural asphalt angel and from the ground asked, “Can you help me figure my pedals out?” I helped her up and smiled because I’d been there. I’d so been there. We spent the next few miles stopping, unclipping, lopside pedaling, and clipping in. Over and over again until she got the hang of it.

I won’t say that I’m an expert or even that I possess any expertise because I’ve spent way too much time on the ground for that. I will say this, it takes humility to ask for help. And when asked, I’m always willing to share my experience.

Now if someone will just explain to me how I can avoid crashing that would be great.

The Escape Artist

Brian was on the taller side. Well, as much on the taller side as you can be in first grade. He had downy blond hair and eyes like clear morning sky. His smile was easy and he’d not yet lost his first tooth.  He came to me on the first day of school, shirttails tucked into pants pulled up way too high. He beamed when I commented on the gel in his hair and the shine of his new shoes.

As I came to know Brian, it became apparent that reading and writing were already a struggle.  His kindergarten teacher noted that he was behind in language arts, but proficient in math and science.  While most incoming first grade students could recall 20 or more letter sounds and read short words like “and”, “the” and “can”, Brian retained only 12 letter names and when encountering the written word, labored over each sound.  While others were writing words and constructing basic sentences, Brian was penning strings of letters and random symbols.  Together we began by studying letter/sound correspondence.

By the time the leaves turned crunchy and brown, Brian had transformed into a functional reader and a lover of writing.  He was reading simple, repetitive stories with multiple sentences on each page.  During writing time, Brian used the words he’d mastered in reading to create stories of his own.

Each day, our class devoted an hour exclusively to the purpose of writing.  I’m not talking about handwriting practice, fill in the blank workbooks, or copying the teacher’s writing.  My students viewed themselves as authors with important things to say.

As a beginning teacher, I was clueless on how to teach writing, so I let my students select their topics and go from there.  As they worked, I would assist and answer questions when needed.  Our class was a hive of activity.  As students worked, I would stroll around the room, often interrupting the class to reading snippets of their writing.  Despite my miniscule knowledge on teaching the craft of writing, my students bubbled with excitement at the opportunity to record their thoughts and above all, create books of their very own.

On Friday afternoons, my class would cluster on the carpet to read finished pieces.  Without exception, when a student climbed up into The Author’s Chair and read aloud a story created by their very own hands, their face shone with pride.  The children on the carpet were rapt as they listened to and applauded story after story.  When a student would scoot down off the chair, a flurry of hands would shoot up, eager to be the next reader.  Most of my students chose to leave their books in the safe haven of the classroom.  Consequently, our classroom was brimming with their books.  There were books sandwiched on the shelves, leaning in the windowsills, stacked in cubbies, spilling out of desks, overflowing out of book boxes, and just when I thought we’d run out of space, we started tacking them up on the walls.

Brian especially took pleasure in writing about his family. He wrote about his mom, his grandma, his sister, and his rowdy horde of cousins. His stories were predominantly retellings of exciting vacations to every place a kid could dream of.

Several times that year I’d sent notes home and left phone messages to tell Brian’s family about the tremendous progress he was making. My attempts to connect with his parents went unanswered, but hearing the stories about his close-knit family set my mind at ease. Parents are busy. I understood.

So, each Friday in the Author’s Chair, Brian would sit up straight, clear his throat, and read his latest adventure with his family.

To describe what happened next as shocking is like saying the ocean is slightly damp. One day the principal asked me to escort Brian to the office during lunchtime. Brian was not a troublemaker. In fact, he befriended everyone and avoided conflict at all costs.

Lost in conversation about his recess plans we walked hand in hand up the hallway, oblivious to the police cruiser in the parking lot and the possibility that it’s presence was linked to Brian. As we stepped through the office doorway, my eyes met the gaze of a police officer. A CPS caseworker stood beside her.  My heart dropped like a stone. The caseworker spoke with Brian privately while the officer filled me in on the details. Brian’s father was in prison and his mother had just been arrested for possession of methamphetamine. According to the officer, this was an ongoing case, which included prior arrests and visits to the home.  I was blindsided.  My mouth gaped as the officer succinctly informed me that Brian was to be relocated to a foster home and a new school that very day.  His little sister would be placed in a separate home.

As he returned to the office with the caseworker, Brian cried from a deep and broken place. I held him, rocking him like a baby, feebly assuring him that he would be loved in this new home and at his new school. He was adamant about returning to his mom.

“My mom is a GOOD mom! My mom is a GOOD mom! I want to go back to MY HOME!” he wailed, sucking in his bottom lip, struggling for breath.  After forty minutes of rocking, crying, and desperate screaming, Brian caught his breath and paused.

“Can I do Author’s Chair today even though it’s not Friday?”

I was speechless. I would have wrapped the moon in a silver bow and placed it in his small hands had he asked.

When the lunch bell rang, the class sat at the carpet.  Brian sat in the Author’s Chair, straightened his back, cleared his throat, and through red-rimmed eyes began to read.

He read about a trip he’d recently taken with his family to Disneyland.

I knew it wasn’t true.  He knew that I knew it wasn’t true.

In that moment I knew that all of his stories about his family were untrue.

He finished reading and with my heart in my throat, our class said goodbye to Brian. Our paths did not cross again.

On that tear-streaked day, it was starkly apparent to me that writing had become a survival mechanism for Brian.  Perhaps his stories were a bundle of wishes he’d hoped would come true if he scratched them out on paper.

I’ve always known that writing has the power to whisk an author away to unknown and exciting places. What I learned from Brian is that writing can also sustain a person in places that are painfully real. His fictitious life created a safe space of normalcy. Pencil in hand, Brian scripted the life he both craved and deserved.

I often wonder what became of Brian.

At night, between the hazy edges of dreams, I glimpse his face amongst other lost children who have come and gone too quickly.

I regret not seeing beyond Brian’s eager smile and bright eyes.  I regret not hearing his real stories, the ones that were too hard to tell.

That day was a turning point in my life.  It changed who I am as a person, who I am as a teacher.  I pursued parents with regular phone calls and when they didn’t call me back, I called them at work, flooded them with notes, and even dropped in on them at home.  Shiny new shoes, freshly gelled hair, and parents who appeared “too busy” would never again fool me into assuming a loving home existed for any of my students.

Most of my digging into their lives produced discoveries of yards littered with bikes, parents who were eager to hear about their child’s school life, and above all, families with deep love for their children.

Occasionally, I’d uncover a family without electricity, a kitchen with hollow-eyed cupboards, or a parent undone by addiction.  Knowledge is power and I did my best to use the intimate knowledge of my students’ lives to help them attain whatever resources they needed.  Digging beyond the surface allowed me to see the real stories of my students and maybe even ensure that some of those stories had happier endings.

Eight years have crossed the calendar since my time with Brian.  Eight years and not a day has passed without his story rising to the surface of my mind.  Over the years my shock over his abrupt departure gave way to grief.  Grief was shoved aside by guilt.  And guilt became the catalyst for change.

I recognize that some children have tumultuous lives outside of school.  Lives that I cannot always understand.  Lives that, to my dismay, I cannot always change.

The guilt I feel lies in this one lingering thought: If I’d shown Brian powerful words, words sturdy enough to bear the weight of his reality, maybe, just maybe those words would have given him the courage to write the heartbreaking truth.

Yes, Brian demonstrated tidy handwriting.  He applied correct sentence structure, but that was not enough.

That is not enough.

I wanted Brian to have the power, or at least the choice, to write honestly.  While fiction can be a captivating vehicle, fiction under the guise of truth is hollow.

In his keynote address to the National Writers Workshop Donald Murray said “The more personal I am, the more universal I become.”  Writing that comes straight from the heart is what I want my students to strive for.

What I did not know eight years ago, but am sure of now is that young writers need familiarity and practice writing with compelling words.  They need to roll words around in their mouths just to see what they sound like, to sandwich them side by side in unlikely metaphors, to appreciate the expression in a vivid verb.  As J. Patrick Lewis puts it, I want my students to experience the joy of  “uncovering that elusive verb or metaphor that one hopes will make a reader stop, ever so briefly, in wonder.”

Reflecting on my second year of teaching, the year Brian entered my life, I feel grateful for his impact on the way I teach my young writers today.  I feel honored to have witnessed the preserving power of writing in Brian’s life.

Yet, there is a tender place in my heart that still pulses with sorrow because this was a lesson too callous for a six-year-old.  

Even for one on the taller side.

Big Voice

Along the way
Saying yes to some.
Saying no to others.
Effort on what is essential.

Honor the sense of adventure, responsiveness,
Improvisation, opportunism, experimentation, alertness,
The possible contagion of topics.

Rich, tacit understanding
Intuitions about form, language, dialogue, voice.
The dazzling particularity of individual performance.

Toward invention, toward generation,
The infinity of connections and associations,
Of excess, of fullness, of having a lot to say.

Tip the balance.
Develop hope for the future.
Be daring.
Have a big voice.

Elvis Has Left The Building

After 31 years of teaching, my mom turned in her yard duty whistle in exchange for a well deserved retirement.  My step-dad invited her closest friends to join her in celebrating her devotion to children.  The house was brimming with long time friends, parents of former students, family, and Elvis.  You heard me: Elvis.  Some random Elvis impersonator, at best an acquaintance of my mom’s, was mistakenly invited by another guest.  (Social Skill Note:  It’s only okay to invite people to a party if you are the actual person throwing the party.)  Thankfully, Elvis did not sing.

As I coast into 70ish days of summer vacation, my mom steps into doing whatever she wants for the rest of her life.  No more early morning yard duty.  No more parent teacher conferences.  No more lesson plans.  No more staff meetings.  No more worrying about budget cuts.  No more calling me and talking about the funny/outrageous/heartwarming thing that happened in her classroom that day.

Sure, I can still call her and tell her about the goings on in my classroom, but I will miss the reciprocity.  My mother dreamed of being a teacher since childhood and so did I.  We have shared this beautiful profession my entire adult life and it’s a bittersweet feeling knowing that come August, only one of us will be sharpening pencils and writing out a new set of desk nametags.  I now live in a world where I teach and my mother taught and it’s kind of a lonely place.  Elvis has only just left the building and I already wish she’d come back.

Six Bucks

Tomorrow is the last day of school.  Each year it is bittersweet.  Saying goodbye to my kiddos and many of their parents is tough, but, oh, how I love, love, love summer followed by a fresh start every fall.

The last day of school is also tough for my little ones.  They, too, love summer, but don’t want to leave our daily life together behind.  There are tears.  There are tight hugs around my legs and lots of tender I love you’s.  And there are gifts.

I’ve received many lovely gifts throughout the years.  Bookmarks, photos, cards, bells, books, bike stuff, and much more.  It’s the little things that mean the most to me.

Today one of my lovely families gave me flowers, a gift card to our brand new Trader Joes, and six dollars.

You heard me, six dollars.

I was a little confused by the last part and I’m sure my sweet little girl could tell because I do not possess a poker face.  At all.  So I asked her what the six dollars was for.  She smiled sweetly and said that since she is six, she wanted to give me six dollars of her own allowance.  I know she does chores to earn her allowance and understood what a generous gift she’d given.

I can say with absolute sincerity that I love each of my students and I’m proud of all the ways they’ve grown.  Even the tough kids.  Maybe especially the tough kids.  Tomorrow I know my inept poker face will reveal my true feelings.  And on our last day together, that’s exactly what I want.