“Hey Ms. O, what was that?”
“I’m sure it’s nothing, Darlin’. Don’t you have something you need to be doing?” I looked pointedly at his project.
Suddenly there was a whoosh and a crackle. I could see flames shooting up just beyond the windows.
“Let’s get out of this room and move into the hallway for now, guys. No, just leave it. Let’s go.”
The lights flickered and died and my kids scattered. I didn’t think to encourage them to make for the front door, away from the fire. Fire drill protocol sends them out the back, so some had gone one way, knowing the rules, and others had used common sense. I heaved a sigh, went back into my room to grab the stack of homework and watched through the window as Coach hit the fire with an extinguisher from the cafeteria. I chased the kids down, one by one, to give them their homework (by this time, there’d been an all-call for students to head to the front of the building, though some of mine had escaped out the back door and were watching the drama) and I made it out back just in time to witness another small explosion and the spectacle of Coach lighting out for the hill country.
My classroom has a nice view of not much on a good day, but it was a front row seat for the drama of a transformer blowing out at high noon on a Monday. The initial fires suppressed, the area was roped off and the kids lost interest and stopped being a nuisance. Workmen showed up quickly and looked over the problem. They left, and we learned that they’d have to cut the power supply to the school to fix it, so they’d deal with it after the last bell. After lunch, the kids went back to class. My room was dark, lit only by the projector, and full of the smell of that smoking hole in the ground.
I taught a full 55 minute lesson in there, and I nearly slipped in a puddle of my own sweat about halfway through. The kids dragged, but they were wonderful, graceful seniors and they didn’t complain too much. I inquired in the office and learned that the a/c was out all through the building. For the last two classes of the day, I taught an abbreviated version of the lesson in the hot-tub of my classroom. The smell of the 25 ninth graders oozing began to replace the smoke smell. As quickly as possible, I moved the class into the little air-conditioned gym in the elementary school next door. The echo was bad, but it beat the heat.
It’s been unbearably hot and humid for a week or so. We’re actually under a heat advisory right now (who doesn’t cancel school under these conditions? No lights+no air+heat advisory=sendthemhomedangit). Sean bravely goes out to the garden every day or two to harvest tomatoes and do the absolutely necessary chores. He planted potatoes, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips and beets yesterday like a freaking gladiator. There is no time of day or night when it’s cool outside. There is no “early enough” that I can get up to beat the heat and go for a run. Sunrise is sweltering. I hate sticking to the bedsheets. Our friends in town had balloons melt into their upstairs carpet over the summer. I burn myself on the metal fastener of my seat belt every afternoon, and I have to handle the steering wheel with care for the first ten minutes of my drive. Gladys (Carro’s a/c) whistles and groans to life after a while, but not before I’ve felt a few more brain cells explode like pop-cans all over the interior of my skull. The pigs lie in their wallow and squeal for fresh cool water. The cats don’t set foot outside the house. Bear creek is just a bathtub full of alligators and cottonmouths (at least in my imagination) and I bet they’re irritable from the heatwave too. Besides, the lake is as warm as the air, and getting wet is hardly worth it: evaporation can’t cool you when the air’s as wet as you are.
Wish me a cold front, folks.
If you’re not a math teacher, this probably won’t get you that excited, but if you are… BEHOLD! My brainchild!
The bulletin board behind me in the photo tracks students’ progress as they learn to simplify expressions with the order of operations and then, expressions mastered, to solve more and more challenging algebraic equations. It’s student-powered (they move their own stickies, which saves me work), it builds investment (overheard while waiting for the bus at summer school: “I’m on level three!” “Well I’ll beat you to level five!”), it differentiates assessments for me, and it provides me with useful data about which students and groups of students are where (The names on the sticky notes are color coded by class period).
Every few days at the beginning of school, then every week, I’ll give a level quiz. Each student knows his or her own level and asks for the appropriate quiz, which prevents a total organizational nightmare. As each student completes the quiz, I grade it. If the student answers three out of four problems correctly, he or she moves up a level immediately.
I’ve taught objectives that correspond to the levels for the last two days, so I’ve allowed students who have demonstrated mastery on their exit tickets to progress. Seventy-five of my students didn’t have a chance to take today’s level quiz/exit ticket, so the four kids who are on level two came from a sample of just twenty-five. All things considered, we’re doing well so far.
7th period was 45 minutes of the best class time of my life. During the lesson, I burst into happy laughter when a boy in the front row said “oh. Oooohhhhhh! I get it!” You can’t fake that lightbulb. It happened twice today! During practice, I had a girl stand up from her desk and shout “YES!” at the top of her lungs when she simplified an expression correctly. I got a bad case of the joy giggles, but my kids couldn’t hear me anyway over the roar of thirty 9th graders making purposeful MATH TALK. It felt like all I had to do was open the gate and let them stampede. They asked for time to work in groups to analyze their mistakes, so I let them. WHAAAAAAAAAAAAA? I had volunteers explain their errors, and doled out star stickers for courage and helping others learn, (I had to move on without calling on all of my volunteers!) then just turned them loose on another problem. I hardly said a word after the first twenty minutes of class. It was un-friggin-believably awesome.
Bonus Kid Joke, courtesy of W.
I’ve been anticipating tomorrow for weeks now; I’ve had that sour porridge of dread and exhilaration churning in my gut since July ended. At 7:30 tomorrow morning, kids will be eating breakfast in the cafeteria, their backpacks smudging the waxed tile floors. Everything that the kids bring to the table, the mischief and brilliance and voltage and personality that I’ve been missing all summer will be back, and with it will come heedless cruelty, angst and funky smells (Simmons says that on stormy days, ninth graders smell like wet dogs) not to mention my own sleepless nights and daily failures.
The dread was at its most ferocious on Wednesday. The high school had professional development all afternoon, and a former colleague was leading the session. It was an awesome session, but it knocked the breath out of me for a minute. “Think of what you most like to teach – that lesson that gets you most fired up, every year,” he said and I drew a complete blank. I love kids, and on good days, I love teaching, but I don’t love my content. I’m a math teacher by happenstance. “I’ll give you a little longer to think about that. Think about what fires you up about that objective. Why do you love it?” My mind was like a clear blue sky. “We all love what we do, that’s why we’re in this room: we want to give what we love to kids! If you can’t come up with something, get out of my profession.”
All the air came whooshing out of my lungs and I felt like crying. It was intended as a reminder that we got into this because we’re passionate about education, but for me it was a reminder that I’ll never be an exceptional math teacher because I will never be able to teach math from the heart. My placement in math was an arbitrary decision that some TFA person in an office somewhere made nearly three years ago. The consequences of that decision are shaping the rest of my life, and I’m sick with frustration over it. Math is the most sterile subject that we teach in school: there’s little art in it at the high school level, and it’s hard to create a math project that is aligned to the curriculum and has a practical application or a community impact. I asked to move, at least for a part of each day, into a different discipline for this school year, but with the major changes our district has gone through this summer, no one has gotten what they wanted.
The school isn’t putting its best foot forward this fall: teachers still don’t have rosters for tomorrow, and the schedule isn’t finalized yet. Our building, which held four grades last year and felt full, will now host six grades. My 18 crappy old desks were replaced with 29 nice new ones the other day. The electives have been moved into trailers. Somehow, though, I’ve let it all go for this evening. It was a great day, and I have never been so prepared for a Monday. Here’s a Ta-Da! list, which is the opposite of a To Do list, in terms of both its meaning and the feeling that it elicits in my breast.
- We did tons of laundry today, and innovated by drying hanger clothes on the hanger. This saved space on the line, clothespins, and work on the tail end of laundrytime!
- I made four little jars of pesto and stuck them in the freezer
- Sean made a week’s worth of curry for lunches with our amazing homegrown lemongrass and thai basil.
- We picked another batch of paste tomatoes
- We ran three miles before breakfast
- I made a gallon of dish soap, which should last us months.
- We ordered Red Ranger chicks and arranged to sell some chickens to our friends in town. Super exciting!
- I created a class jobs system
- I finished setting up my classroom (this counts because it was after midnight last night before we left the school, right?)
- Sean made a cheeseless pizza with arugula, prosciutto, and homegrown tomatoes that was to die for.
- Lesson plans were completed by all.
- Sean planted greens in the lower garden.
- We both did countless small things for school. Really and truly countless.
- We left the house clean. This never ever happens!
There’s an agitated part of me that thinks it’s all futile: there’s no front-end work that can make a whole year of school go smoothly. Preparing completely for just one week is an impossibility. There’s a different part of me that’s completely at ease tonight: There is simply nothing more that we can do before school starts except get in the car and crank up the radio for the sunrise drive to Palestine.
That’s where the exhilaration comes in: when you’re whipping up a two-lane highway through fields of cotton, screaming some silly pop country song at the top of your lungs, trying to chase the anvil-weight of nine months of responsibility off of your ribcage and out the window, and dancing like a fool in the driver’s seat where no one but the rising sun can see you. The exhilaration comes when you’re listening to another boring (sometimes alarming) professional development presentation (“You’ve got to crack down on them. When they graduate from here, they’re gonna at least know their manners. Doesn’t matter if they can read or write as long as they say ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ and know not to wear their hat in the house. That’s what will set them apart”) and you’re working on your syllabus and laughing at your own corny joke of putting a thinking cap on the supply list (not that I’d allow any sort of cap in the schoolhouse, no sir!). I get a rush when I think about learning the names on my roster (which will exist someday) and letting myself be smitten with a new group of kids.
Tonight I bid the summer adieu, but I’m welcoming with open arms another opportunity to fall ass over teakettle for a crop of quirky, sensitive, ruthless, ingenuous, imaginative, terrified kids. I’ll love them even on rainy days.
If there is a picture of homecoming that is etched on my heart, it’s the sun setting over Belfast harbor on an August evening. I see one set of lights like the ones you see when you come around the bend in a road and catch sight of your city, illuminated, and your heart lifts up, but then I see another set of lights in the trembling reflections in the water, bursting as we pass and disappearing in our wake.
If I have an anthem, it is the thrum of a motor, the seashell swish of the murky water (quieting for the evening as the wind lies down) rushing by the hull. It is the deep clanging of the red bell buoy by the ledge as it rocks in our wake.
Happiness tastes like salt on my skin, in my hair, in the warm shore breeze, in the very fabric of the comforter wrapped around my shoulders.
It’s a sunburn, the rocking of the earth when you come ashore after days on the water, salt ocean stinging a barnacle-cut foot, a three-strand dock line passing over a palm.
We spent last week in Maine with my family, mostly on the boat. Dad said my eyes got bluer with every passing day, and I could feel the cotton clearing from my chest cavity, the fog clearing from my mind. Summer in Maine is a pure shot of light.
Incidentally, as my father was snapping the above picture from the bridge, he was running the boat aground on a sandbar. The tide was outgoing, and it was a bit of a disaster.
Bre, Tim, Sean and I invited my folks to join us for dinner, and we had a spare tent set up for them in no time. We wrapped potatoes and corn in foil and roasted hot dogs over the fire. Bre played her ukulele and we sang along. The sunset, the smoke, and the sound of waves on the beach were soothing, and we soon retired to our tent. Mom and dad didn’t sleep: they spent an anxious night hoping Islander wouldn’t roll and then waiting for the tide to come back in to float her again.
I woke in our tent at midnight to the sound of the waves of the incoming tide burping through the swim platform. I unzipped the door and looked out at the great hull, glittering in the moonlight. Dad was rowing the dinghy around on captain’s business, and mom stood on the beach, watching. I threw some wood on the embers of the fire and walked down to the water. Glowing algae was spilling off dad’s oars like smoke. I splashed my hands in the water and they glittered.
We dragged the kayak down the beach, and I woke Sean up to paddle around a bit. It was eerie, coasting behind the beached trawler, lit only by the helm LEDS. It felt like a ghostly shipwreck: the only sound was the slapping of wavelets against the hull and the swish of the kayak pushing aside the water. It was beautiful though: the campfire glittered at the high tide line, the wake and every dip of a paddle lit with bioluminescence, and the sky was full of sparkle. I stood on the beach with my mom and watched for shooting stars. We saw a few, and before long the tide had lifted the boat back to a float and my parents took off to anchor nearby for the night. I sat by the fire and watched for a few more shooting stars.
In the morning, we had breakfast tacos, which consisted of scrambled eggs and bacon stuffed in pancakes. No plates needed! It’s been a while since I’ve been luxury camping. How delightful to have a frying pan and a cooler! We went swimming and paddling and gathered sand dollars on the sandbar, and in the afternoon we said goodbye to our friends in Buck’s Harbor.
For the next few days, we explored Merchant’s Row. Sean and I dinghied into Stonington for a few more jugs of water and some lobsters, and we anchored off of McGlathery, which is reputed to have a wild sheep population. We didn’t run across any woolies, but the island was beautiful, and Hell’s Half Acre, our next anchorage, was, if anything, more beautiful still.
On our last night, I stepped out on deck to brush my teeth. The tintype moon hung in a fog sky, and my heart cracked. Maine is my native country, and it’s beautiful, and I will go back someday to my home by the sea.