Sex Ed

“They should be paying you by the mile,” she said, as I flew by the office for the fifteenth time that hour. I had students in the library using the laminator, students in the copy room, students in the computer lab and students in my classroom. Supervision was impossible without superdupervision (which I don’t have). I had to settle for intermittent supervision and superduperspeed (which I can at least try to have).

The boys’ sex-ed class was meeting the library this week, and on one trip to the laminator, I overheard the following from the teacher:

If you know someone who’s having an abortion, you should talk to her. Ask her some of the questions we talked about. If she’s planning to have an abortion, that’s bad. She’ll regret it.

I almost hurled. I hate that I work for a school that allows these contractors to come in and pass off utter crap as information. I now wish that I had stopped and said something to them, even just “I absolutely disagree with the blanket statements that you just made. Reality is far more nuanced.” My kids deserve better, and I should have spoken up just to let them know that I’m comfortable with the topic and that they can come to me.

I’ve found kids reading flyers with the stunning title “Is Virginity What’s Missing in Your Life?” about how you can restore your virginity if you’ve lost it. There are five or six very unsettling things going on there.

At a bake sale this summer, two of my former students opened up to me a little about their sex-ed class. It’s abstinence only, and they don’t feel adequately informed. I asked them if they knew what “consensual sex” is, and  they said “is that when you have your parents’ permission?” We’re really missing the point here, folks, if kids are led to believe that abortion is always bad and that consensual sex is when you have your parents’ permission. I don’t know how much information those two (both were boys) had about birth control.

Some of Sean’s female students seem to have a lot of information about birth control (he overheard them comparing the pill, the patch, the ring etc.), but one of them explained that she doesn’t want to use birth control because she’s afraid she’ll get fat. Sean fields a number of fairly interesting inquiries about sex because he’s a science teacher. His badass feminist self handles them beautifully. A 7th grader once asked him if a baby could have more than one daddy. They were learning about reproduction in class, so the kid drew a picture to illustrate:

two daddies

My students don’t ask me those questions outright. Occasionally, in a quiet moment in the afternoon, they’ll ask me personal questions that relate to sex. It’s not hard to tell the difference between idle curiosity and a desperate need to know something.

The pregnancies that I’ve been closest to as an adult have been teen pregnancies: Girls growing bellies that no longer fit in the chair-desks in my classroom, standing by a bank of lockers holding their wondering friends’ hands flat against their tight-stretched shirts to feel the baby kick, and missing day after day of school for doctor’s appointments. A young mother that I teach bribed me with a cupcake to let the class share her birthday snacks a few weeks ago. She was turning sixteen. Another, a promising math student, dropped out of the tenth grade last year. It’s the same way for Sean. I remember him standing in front of a shelf at the pharmacy, reading labels and selecting prenatal vitamins for a middle schooler.

If I haven’t said something controversial yet, here it is:

Despite the misinformation and lack of information provided at school, I think some girls get pregnant not out of absolute ignorance (this is the age of the internet, and I know they know the basics of where babies come from), but out of emptiness. Accidents happen, but I think that girls are taking greater risks than they do elsewhere (Arkansas has the country’s highest teen birth rate) because they want to feel needed. They want to be of value to someone. It’s a pretty dismal outlook for girls here. They’re second-rate citizens, and they know it. A baby fills the void that should be filled with aspirations and plans and confidence and self-efficacy, all of which have been forced down or stunted by the time girls reach high school. Additionally, when a girl gets pregnant, there’s no great stigma. The hard conversations are for her family: at school, we try to be supportive and loving and excited about the baby. Besides, many of our students’ parents had children in high school. One girl told me that her mother was married at fourteen. Sean teaches a sophomore whose mother is only a few years older than Sean himself.

At homecoming last night, I watched for the boyfriends of the girls in the homecoming court. They followed the girls like devoted puppies, almost sad-eyed. They wouldn’t let the girls swish out of sight in those bright, flowing dresses.

Homecoming

Homecoming

I intercepted a note at summer school, where I taught rising ninth graders, that contained the charmingly sexist phrase “I’m gonna put a baby in her.”
After school one day recently, a boy (now a junior) that I taught in ninth grade came to visit me.
“Ms. O’Connell, you know I’m gonna be a daddy?”
I glared at him, waiting. We’d had a conversation or two about the responsibilities of fatherhood last year.
“Okay. I was just kidding.”
“Good. You dink.”
“I’m gonna be a baby-daddy before I graduate, though.”
“You know I think you’re better than that. I think you’re father material. Don’t be a baby-daddy. Be a Daddy.”
On the flip side, one tenth grader expounded in my classroom during lunch (he had been debating the morality of abortion with a female student)
“If you’re not prepared to be a father, don’t have sex. I accept that risk, but I’d rather wait to have kids. That’s why I use a condom every time I have sex with my girlfriend.” The debate went on, but I stopped listening. I’d heard those two argue over that subject before.

What is there to say here? What conclusion can I draw? This is just one more spoke in the wheel that turns the world here. It’s connected to poverty and health care access and education and racism and environmental injustice and sexism, and you can’t repair one without stopping the wheel and fixing them all.

In the hallway of the schoolhouse at sunset

In the hallway of the schoolhouse at sunset

 

I’m not yelling!

It was sixth period. The noise level in my classroom slowly ratcheted up and stayed up. The leader of this particular, subtle coup sat with a smug little grin on his face and chatted with his friends while he tried (perhaps pretended to try) to do his work. I should have spoken to him sooner, but I was preoccupied by helping students who really needed help at the other end of the classroom. Have you ever noticed that they group kids with behavior issues and kids who need a lot of support together, to the effect that nobody in that period learns anything at all? by the time I reached the now loud and totally off-task child, I was frustrated and I jumped a rung on the consequence ladder. After an initial outburst before I reminded him of protocol, he kept his feelings to himself and stayed after class to talk about it, which is exactly what I want kids to do when they think I’m being unfair.

“Did you want to talk to me?”
“Yes I did. You treated me unfairly.”
“You were not following directions.”
“Neither was anyone else.”
“That’s because you’re a leader! You’re smart and respected! When you’re off-task, people think it’s okay to be off-task. Help me lead this class in a way that allows people to learn”
“Just because I’m a leader doesn’t mean you can treat me differently. I didn’t even get a warning!”
“I spoke to you several times, though.”
“What about [he named several students who had been talking]? They didn’t get detention.”
“I couldn’t hear them talking from the other end of the room. They didn’t start a shockwave of off-topic chatter”
“It’s not my fault I have a loud voice!” (he was yelling)
“Please don’t yell at me.”
“I’m not yelling!”
“You will be here for your detention on Monday” (I was yelling)
“Okay” (he stalked out with a look of total disgust)

By this time, my 7th period had come in. They were seated, silent and bug-eyed. My eyes welled up. “Get to work on the do-now, guys. I’ll be right back.” I stepped into the hallway and slumped against a bank of lockers with a clang, trying to keep myself from howling. Two kids stopped in the hall to ask what was wrong and to tell me they loved me. When I went back to my class, face all blotchy and puffy, a girl got up and hugged me tightly. I took some deep breaths and taught, but I felt sick with self-loathing, and every once in a while my eyes would spill over. That class was dismissed early for a pep rally, and I sat with the kids in the bleachers, trying to be inconspicuously devastated while the cheerleaders got fired up.

“We’ve got spirit, yes we do, we’ve got spirit how ’bout you?”
“…”

I spotted my young insurrectionist a few rows behind me, and when I felt I had some dry-eyed minutes, I nudged another ninth grader aside and sat down next to him.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Y’know, don’t worry about it Ms. O’Connell. I’m used to it.”
“That doesn’t make it okay. Besides, you were right; I should have given you a warning.”
“It’s okay. Just don’t worry about it.”
“I am worried about it. It’s important to me that I treat people fairly, and it’s important to me that you feel respected. I’ll do better on Monday, so be ready for those warnings. They’ll be coming down like rain. Forget about that detention.”
“Okay.”
“Have a good weekend”
“You too.”

I went back to my seat and, mercifully, the pep rally ended. The kids trickled out of the bleachers to their cars and buses and I sat alone at the top of the stands, letting the scorching sun dry me up. When it got too hot, I walked across the grass and unrolled a yoga mat on the floor of Vanessa’s classroom trailer, and she and the color guard said sweet things and soothed me. A student of mine found me there. He got down under the table next to me and asked if he could have his confiscated phone back.  I told him where it was, and his casual manner and good humor made me laugh. Soon I was vertical, and after a while I went back to my classroom, fed Buggy (the baby mourning dove that I’ve been looking after), visited with A (my second little brother from last year) and hopped in the car to go home.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t muddy up the dusty dashboard with some tears on the road.

I can think of a hundred ways that I could have prevented or defused the situation with the loud young man, but I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and I didn’t have the presence of mind to stop digging myself a deeper hole. I think I did right by apologizing. I don’t feel sick when I think about it, and I’m not dreading seeing the kid tomorrow. I know he’s clever and I know he has a strong sense of right and wrong. If I treat him with dignity and respect, I think I’ll have a great ally, and I think he’ll learn more from me than he would if I just smashed him flat with my consequences every day until he behaved out of fear. I hope he won’t take my apology as a show of weakness. I think humility takes considerable strength, and I try to recognize that in people, but that’s a realization I came to well after ninth grade. We’ll see.

I love teaching, even on days when I don’t get to eat my lunch because I’m tutoring, or I’m on duty, or someone has challenged me to a Stratego show-down. I love it even on days when I can’t find time to pee so I have to hold it for half the day, and on days when I can’t be alone to bawl for a five minutes, so I spend two hours pushing down sobs. I love it on days when it feels like no one else is doing their job, and I love it on days when it feels impossible to do mine.  I have the chance, every single day, even (especially?) on the worst ones, to humanize and to empower and to be humanized and empowered in return.

DSC00313

I have taught and loved every cheerleader and football player in this photo; the fellow with the sousaphone, too. Thanks for the hugs on Friday, guys. You don’t know what it means to me.

How to Sprout Grains for Animal Feed

The library is a wonderful thing. There, I found Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, and within, inspiration. I read about Parma ham and the special diet these pigs eat (including lots of acorns), that some say is the secret to the extra divine end product. I spent the next few hours researching everything from acorns to peanuts, looking for the perfect addition to our finishing ration. The perfect something to give our pork it’s own regional-specific je ne sais quoi . What I settled on was a mix of sprouted grains and sunflower seeds; the grains produced and sold locally here in the Arkansas Delta.

Here is a rough guide to doing what I have done here for the pigs. I’m not really sure how much they like the sprouts, but between the pigs and the chickens, they’ll all get eaten.

 

Materials:

Five gallon bucket

Grains and or seeds to sprout

Some sort of trays to keep your sprouting grains in

My makeshift sprouting set up.

My makeshift sprouting set up.

1. The first step is soaking the grains. Put the desired amount of grains in your bucket, add water to more than cover (the grains expand when they absorb water) and add a splash of hydrogen peroxide to help prevent mold. The first couple of times you might want to measure your grains into your sprouting container. The ideal is to have a layer a couple grains/seeds thick. Mine starts out typically about an inch thick. Soak seeds 8-12 hours. You can experiment with soak time to find the ideal for your specific grain and climate.

I mix everything together, but if you soaked and sprouted things separately you could have more control over how much foliage you get from the different components.

 

2. Pour your seeds in water into a perforated container in which they can sprout. I used metal pans (3 gallon?) from Tractor Supply.  I took the stack of six that I bought and drilled about 50 holes in the bottoms, all at once. Rinse them thoroughly with fresh water.

3. Store sprouting grains in an “ideal” location. Various internet sources would have me believe that you want relatively high humidity (around 75%), and air flow for good success. I leave mine on the porch where they can get some light.

4. Rinse sprouts a couple of times a day, roughly every 8-12 hours. This keeps them hydrated and clean.

5. Soak a new batch of seeds. If you want to have a batch of sprouts ready to go every 24 hours, start a new batch to soak that often.

Here are some pictures of the sprouts in various stages of development.

Sprouts just barley popping out. This is 24 hours after soaking.

Sprouts just bareley popping out. This is 24 hours after soaking.

You can clearly see the little sprouty. Two days after soaking

You can clearly see the little sprouties. Two days after soaking

3 days in.

3 days in.

Five days in and there is lots of green.

Five days in and there is lots of green.

DSC00351

Lots of green after six days. This is what the pigs and chickens will be eating for dinner from now on.

Close up of the roots and shoots

Close up of the roots and shoots

This is what our steps will look like for the foreseeable future.

This is what our steps will look like for the foreseeable future.

You can see a pretty solid root mat forms. Also, a good view of the drainage holes.

You can see a pretty solid root mat forms. Also, a good view of the drainage holes.

 

The pigs ate a good bit of it. They seem to favor the grainy bits, believe it or not. They sure had a good time tossing them around though. Given a little time and hunger, the pigs would eat anything.

The pigs ate a good bit of it. They seem to favor the grainy bits, believe it or not. They sure had a good time tossing them around though. Given a little time and hunger, the pigs would eat anything.

A few things to consider:

Mold can be an issue. Make sure you clean out your trays and bucket. I clean the bucket every few days with a bleach solution and do the same for the trays in between uses. Also, if you don’t have enough air flow or too much moisture, mold can take hold. I tried using some old flats for starting transplants. They had drainage and seemed sturdy enough, but I was too lazy to clean them out. The corn I had in these puppies got nasty. It was moldy, slimy, and eventually full of maggots. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Seed cleanliness (how clean it is in the bag) can also be an issue, but since I don’t have many options or any control over the matter, I don’t worry too much.

Mold can produce myotoxins which can be harmful to pigs (and probably other critters, but I haven’t done much internet research about them). Myotoxins can kill small pigs and reduce growth rate/feed conversion rates and cause other more serious health issues. Do some research. With my current system, all my sprouts have looked and smelled fresh enough for human consumption, though I wouldn’t recommend it.

Know that everything you buy will not sprout. Some grain is heat dried, which may cause it to not sprout. I had no luck with the Tractor Supply Oats, but great success with the sunflower seeds I bought there. Also, when selecteing grains/seeds, think about what season those things typically sprout. Some things like it warmer, like corn.

 

It has been a great experiment. It feels awesome to take more control over what we are feeding our animals. If you have any questions, post them in the comments or do some googling. There is plenty of info out on the net, but I would be happy to reply with a more personal touch.

Good luck, and happy sprouting!

Advice From a Not-Quite-Rookie Butcher

There’s a nip in the air today, bizarrely. At the football games these past two evenings, we’ve been grateful for the picnic quilt that’s always somehow left in the back seat. The cool night air got me to thinking of friends in Maine who are planning to butcher their own hogs for the first time very soon. We have to wait for colder nights before we tackle Levi and Sizzle, but it’s a good time to start mentally preparing.

This is the list of things we need to find, clean, sharpen and jury rig before the big day:

  1. A variety of knives
  2. A butcher’s saw
  3. A fairly level location with running water and something to hang the carcass from
  4. An indoor (bug and possum free) space to hang the halves
  5. A barrel and plenty of dry firewood
  6. A (working, ahem) vacuum sealer and plenty of bags
  7. Clean containers to sort sausage scraps and lard chunks into
  8. Trays for freezing or chilling chunks of meat and lard before grinding
  9. Plenty of freezer space
  10. A comealong
  11. A shovel
  12. Several heavy duty (200 lb+) zipties for hanging the hog.
  13. The gun

These are the things I wish we had known mistakes we made when butchering our hogs last fall. With a little preparation, this year will go much more smoothly.

  1. We usually always (we’re four for four on this) underestimate how long boiling water to scald the pig will take, especially since we use a metal barrel on an open fire, and there are a lot of variables there. It’s a lot of water, and it’s important early in the process, so give it a couple of hours. We haven’t successfully scalded and scraped either of the large hogs we’ve butchered (I suspect we haven’t gotten the water hot enough), but we’re going to try again. Sean has some particular cuts he’s hoping to get for charcuterie projects which will require that the skin be left on.
  2. I’ve twice found myself standing beside a wheelbarrow full of viscera, beating back exhaustion while chipping away at the ground with a shovel after dark. Dig a hole for unwanted guts and, if you aren’t scraping, the skin, well in advance of butchery. It’s awful doing this after dark, when you’re exhausted from manhandling a carcass, knowing that if you don’t take care of it, the coyotes will, and they’ll create a really truly disgusting mess, then eat your chickens.
  3. We once moved a 250-pound, mud-and-blood-covered hog into the pickup and then up a steep grassy hill, though our truck’s 4wd is questionable at best. If the hog is sizeable, shoot and stick it as near as possible to where you plan to hang it for evisceration.
  4. It’s hard to get the little bits of bark that inevitably fall from the tree off of the flesh and fat, so try to avoid hanging the carcass from a tree.
  5. When you halve the carcass, make sure you get a straight cut down the spine from the beginning. It’ll be hard to correct, and a botched cut will damage the loin (oh the pork chops!).
  6. Consider wearing a poncho or raincoat that can be soaped and rinsed with the hose to carry the halves to your workspace. They’re very heavy and awkward (Pinkie’s halves took three strapping farmers to shift) and you have to kind of hug them to your chest. You’ll get covered in lard, and it doesn’t wash out of winter work coats very well.
  7. I washed ground-in bits of raw fat out of the carpet once, and I hope to never do it again. If you’re butchering in your home, tape off a designated meat-free walkway through the room, and wear shoes that are easy to kick off and on for when you need to go grab the forgotten tool or hit the head or look something up on youtube. You will totally grease the area that you’re using, so plan ahead and avoid tracking chunks of flesh all over the house. Keeping the raw meat contamination zone contained did wonders for my stress level the second time we butchered.
  8. We made the mistake of packing soft chunks of lard that we couldn’t process right away into grocery bags for freezing, and that resulted in twenty-pound lardbergs that had to be thawed and refrozen before grating. As you process each half, set aside the leaf lard for pastries and cooking and the caul fat (my friend says this is delicious wrapped around cubes of liver, seasoned with herbs, and grilled, though I can’t speak to this myself), and use the rest for soap. You can grind and render it immediately or freeze it, then grate and render it later. If you freeze it, freeze smallish chunks on trays and bag them afterward.
  9. Sausage (scraps and odd bits) should be ground cold. We ground it straight off the carcass, by which point it was approaching room temperature. Grinding it at room temperature causes the fat to separate and escape during cooking, making a less-tasty, denser sausage.
  10. Don’t freak out. Everything is washable.

No matter what, in the end, you will have some of the best meat you’ve ever eaten. The process is forgiving, and even those funny-shaped raggedy cuts with a little dirt on one side are delicious. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on some chops as soon as the last bit of the last pig is in the freezer and grill them up right away. It’ll put a smile on your face.

Labor Day Week Photo Explosion!

According to Levi and Sizzy (who escaped today, to no one's surprise and everyone's exasperation) you haven't known true happiness until you've done this.

According to Levi and Sizzy (who escaped today, to no one’s surprise and everyone’s exasperation) you haven’t known true happiness until you’ve done this.

Mud is bliss.

Mud is bliss.

We spent the weekend in Texas with Sean's family.

We spent the weekend in Texas with Sean’s family.

Sean taught his nephews some porcine wisdom about the joy of getting dirty

Sean taught his nephews some porcine wisdom about the joy of getting dirty

We came home and had a Wednesday cookout at the lake.

We came home and had a Wednesday cookout at the lake.

There was even some paddling, (not the kind we have in schools), and a swim and float with eyes full of the cottonball sky.

There was even some paddling, (not the kind we have in schools), and a swim and float with eyes full of the cottonball sky.

Our meat chicks arrived today, and, after spending the afternoon at school with Mr. P, immediately soaked themselves in their water and began to shiver. We don't have a hair dryer (they're not environmentally friendly or useful to people with little hair) so we toweled them off as best we could and stuck them under the lamp.

Our meat chicks arrived today, and, after spending the day at school with Mr. P, immediately soaked themselves in their water and began to shiver. We don’t have a hair dryer (they’re not environmentally friendly or useful to people with little hair) so we toweled them off as best we could and stuck them under the lamp.

They're all fluffy again, and adorable. No sign of spraddle or gunkybutts yet.

They’re all fluffy again, and adorable. No sign of spraddle or gunkybutts yet. These birds are destined for plates all over the scintillating metropolis of Marianna, AR. We ordered extras so we could sell to our friends, and people seem into it!

Boople and I adored them from afar. Neither of our cats has ever posed a threat to our chicks, but we'll leave the little critters in the spare room with the door shut, just in case.

Boople and I adored them from afar. Neither of our cats has ever posed a threat to our chicks, but we’ll leave the little critters in the spare room with the door shut, just in case.

Who could believe this cutie is a skilled killer?

Really though, who could believe this cutie is a seasoned killer?

Balance

I have thought a lot this summer about quitting my job. If I were to quit, I could stop slogging through variables and decimals amid the wails of the oppressed youth of America and do something that enchants me for a change. I could learn woodworking or go sailing or live abroad. Quitting wouldn’t cause any major financial hardship if I took on occasional substitute gigs and tutoring opportunities. I could lace up my boots and get my fingers all sticky and frown over art problems and remember what it feels like to be free.

We’re two weeks into this year, and already I can feel a growing knot of stress under my right shoulder blade. My stomach has stopped recognizing familiar foods and has turned gizzard on gravel over red onions and pineapple. School exhausts me: I come home tired, and I don’t sleep well. The emotional drain is a 72 inch pipe in the bottom of my reservoir, and my hundred and twenty kids are Dallas. I hate that even in a good week, I can only hope to fail well every day. In a bad week, the Sisyphean nature of teaching takes its toll and I get smashed flat as everything I’ve worked for unspools at the feet of a school system already so bewildered by bureaucratic inefficiency that it can offer up only the feeblest of support.

I haven’t quit yet, and the reasons why are all between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. This is hard, stressful, unsatisfactory, unsupported work, but it is a labor of tremendous love, and the kids make me smile, even on the worst days. Until recently, there could have been no question at all of my quitting.

For the past two years, my kids easily outweighed all of the hardship attendant with the job.

For the past two years, my kids easily outweighed all of the hardship attendant with the job.

Now, I’m teetering on the edge of a choice that I don’t want to make.

I'm not sure which weighs heavier on my heart.

I’m not sure which weighs heavier on my heart.

At what point do the personal consequences outweigh the value of the ethical work that I’m engaged in? At what point does self-sacrifice become needless and stupid? I love teaching kids, but I feel that I’m being asked to do it under untenable conditions, and that my willingness to go all-in is being abused. Kid-love is a variable, and some days it’s abundantly clear that it’s not enough. Other days, a sweet bit of graffiti blows the k-factor through the roof.modd