First Day of School Eve

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.

Ta-Da!

  • 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.

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Making Soap from Lard and Lye

This week, thanks to the leisurely summer school schedule, I’ve tanned my coon hide, dug potatoes, cleaned out the fridge, put up garlic and corn, and rendered something like four gallons of lard. Today, I aim to get a batch of soap curing. Soap making is a process that, for us, starts with a half a hog laid out on the kitchen table.

Butchering

When we butchered our pigs, we just heaped the lard up in piles to deal with later and focused on the cuts of meat. At the end of the day, we threw the heaps of fat-chunks in grocery bags and stuffed them in the freezer. This was a poor choice because 1) it was a waste of the high quality lard that we should have saved for pastries and the like and 2) we wound up with 25 pound “lardbergs” to contend with when we finally got around to rendering. I spent hours yesterday trying to cut a greasy fat-glacier into chunks that would fit into the food processor! Next time, we’ll sort the lard by quality, then freeze the (strategically sized) chunks on sheet pans and bag them once they’re frozen.

Meet Lardberg

Meet Lardberg. The fat never really freezes solid, so it quickly becomes slippery at room temperature and attempts to slime its way onto the floor like a snail with a shell made of fat.

Rendering

Rendering is the process of turning the chunks of fat that you’d find on the end of your porkchop into the buttery, smooth, shortening that you’d cut into your pie crust. We do it by grating chunks of frozen lard in the food processor and then putting the resulting shavings in the crockpot or in a pot on the stove over low heat.

Sean is grating the lard and rendering it in the two pots.

Sean is grating the lard and rendering it in the two pots.

The lard has to be very frozen to grate well. While dismantling the lardberg, we had to refreeze the chunks to get them to run smoothly through the grater. If you process enough lard this way, you’ll notice a buildup of white goo on the grater that resembles nothing so much as twinkie filling. The melting takes a while, but you don’t need to stir or monitor the pots. Most of the lard will turn to liquid and you’ll be left with floating, gray debris. At this point, strain the lard and set it aside.

yummmmm... If you have chickens, they'll love the fried McHeartattack Glop left in the strainer.

yummmmm… If you have chickens, they’ll love the fried McHeartattack Glop left in the strainer.

You can use it immediately if you’re making soap, or store it for later use in the fridge or freezer. It’ll solidify when it’s cool, but ours is liquid at what we call room temperature in Arkansas.

Mixing up the soap

You will need:

  • a couple of hours, most of which is wait-time
  • lard
  • lye
  • water
  • essential oils, herbs, whatever stuff you want to put in your soap
  • an accurate kitchen scale
  • kitchen supplies that you’re willing to sacrifice to soapmaking: a jar for mixing lye and water, something to measure lye into, a pot to mix the soap in, and a spoon to stir the lye and water mixture
  • something to use for a mold: a cardboard box lined with a plastic grocery bag works just fine
  • vinegar. SAFETY TIP: While mixing, know where your vinegar is, and have plenty. Vinegar will neutralize the lye if there’s an accident. Sean and I have made soap twice without a problem, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

We’ve used the process and recipe described in this article from Mother Earth News. You weigh your lard, then calculate and double check how much lye and water to use. Add the lye to the water (NOT the water to the lye – this could splash lye around, which is dangerous) and let it heat up by the magic of chemistry and then cool to room temperature/slightly warm. This takes about an hour and it will get HOT, so make sure that you mix the lye and water in a place that you can count on to remain safely undisturbed for an extended period of time.

Measure carefully, then pour the lye into the water.

Measure carefully, then pour the lye into the water.

Carefully add the cooled water-lye mixture to the warm (95 degrees if you have a thermometer, warm when you touch the pot if you don’t) lard, plus any essential oils or goodies that you’d like to throw in there. We have used lavender oil and flowers to great effect, and we’ve just guessed at the amounts. Stir stir stir until the soap reaches the trace stage. This takes FOREVER. If it is at the trace stage, a drizzle of soap stays on top of the mixture. At this point, it’s ready to be poured into the mold. Don’t do it before it reaches trace: we made that mistake and had quite themess to contend with.

Shaping

When we have made soap in the past, we’ve lined cardboard boxes with plastic bags, poured and scooped the soap in, then let it sit overnight. By morning, it had stiffened up enough to cut.

behold my cunning use of a feed back as a box liner!

behold my cunning use of a feed back as a box liner!

The first time, it was still soft and we were able to cut it with dental floss. The second time, we let it sit too long and it was harder and more brittle. We had to cut it with a knife, and the bars cracked and split. We’ve only made rectangular bars, but I think I’d like to try different shapes this time if I can find appropriate objects to use for molds. I might cut the top and bottom off of a plastic bottle and try to make some round bars this time, or use a pringles can.

Cleanup

Carefully rinse anything that had lye in it with vinegar, then wash it normally. Some sources recommended that you label your soap making supplies and use them only for soap making. I leave the mess in the pot that the soap was mixed in, set it aside in a dark and ignorable corner, and wash it out when the soap is declared cured a few weeks later.

Curing

Lye soap must cure for at least two weeks before use, or it can burn the user. Some sources recommend waiting longer. I have laid out cardboard on the floor of the spare room or the dining table and spread the bars evenly on that, flipping them from time to time during curing. We haven’t had any hiccups in the curing part of the process: I think it’s pretty foolproof as long as you have some airflow and keep the soap away from children and pets (our cats were fine, but unlike dogs or children, they are very discerning about what they eat).

Curing

Curing! Our soap has lavender flowers in it: that’s the speckles.

The Product

The soap we make lathers wonderfully. The bars are hard, but the soap is smooth and creamy. I use it to make liquid hand soap (meaning I grate my bar soap and add warm water, then stick it in a dispenser) and dish soap, and when the huge container of laundry detergent I bought a year ago runs out, homemade laundry soap will replace that too.

If you’re planning to make your own soap, good luck! I can’t emphasize enough how rewarding it is to have all of our household soap coming from our land, animals and kitchen.

a long post about a short weekend

Friday Evening:

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Sean bravely accepted the cold water challenge and took a sunset dip at the confluence. Kathy and I didn't join him, to the disappointment of the guys camping out to spend the weekend fishing.

Sean bravely accepted the cold water challenge and took a sunset dip at the confluence. Kathy and I didn’t join him, to the disappointment of the guys camping out to spend the weekend fishing.

Saturday:

At pro-sat, they started calling my cohort “TFA alums.” It was really weird. Aside from the crappy veggie wraps and the long haul to Jacksonville, the day was a solid. I got a great vocabulary tool from another CM and had some thought-provoking conversation during a session on identity. During that same session, Sean let fly with some feminist discourse that had me swooning.

At pro-sat, you are required to make this face.

At pro-sat, you are required to make this face.

Art teachers lookin' cool.

Art teachers lookin’ cool on a hot day.

Post-pro-sat dinner with friends in Little Rock.

Post-pro-sat dinner with friends in Little Rock.

9:00 a.m. Sunday

Sunday Strawberries: almost there!

Sunday Strawberries: almost there!

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I think this guy likes pigs: note the belt buckle, t-shirt, and hat.

I think this guy likes pigs: note the belt buckle, t-shirt, and hat.

Sunday Afternoon:
We planted sweet potatoes, ate our first broccoli, moved the piggies to greener pastures, and went to a birthday party. While moving the pigs, we discovered that pigs can indeed scale walls and leap high buildings. Pigs are not supposed to be able to jump at all, but Levi somehow scrambled over a waist high wall to freedom when we thought we had her cornered. They are truly astonishing creatures.

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homegrown broccoli!

homegrown broccoli!

Daisy's getting bigger!

Daisy’s getting bigger!

They like to take baths in their water trough. We should start charging for refills.

They like to take baths in their water trough. We should start charging for refills.

4-square at Mel's birthday party!

4-square at Mel’s birthday party!

10:30 p.m. Sunday
We just about hit these little critters on the way home. There was no house nearby, and when we stopped, they marched right up to us. They’re part Siamese, so they have a very elegant bearing and slinky gait. I’ve named the mama Audrey after the Hepburn human she resembles. If you’re in Arkansas and looking for a cat or kitten, let me know. Sabine and Rucifee aren’t interested in new roommates.

Audrey and the babies.

Audrey and the babies.

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1:10 p.m. Monday

C brought in a baby turtle, no larger in diameter than an oreo. K found it in the mud, apparently.

5:30 p.m. Monday

Monday strawberries: ripe, warm, and heavenly.

Monday strawberries: ripe, warm, and heavenly.

Country Living Challenges: Laundry

We moved from Waters Road with a washer and dryer. This house didn’t come with laundry machines, and we couldn’t imagine carting our clothes to and from Marianna (which actually seems to have a laundromat) so we purchased ours from our old housemates. There isn’t exactly a laundry closet with a convenient water hookup. In fact, running water is exclusively found at the back of the house and in the tiny kitchen and bathroom. We set up our washer and dryer on the screened in porch, which worked out fine since the washer leaked.
Pros: the laundry area didn’t clutter up our house with dirty laundry and loud noises, and the leaky washer wasn’t a big issue because the back porch floods when it rains anyway. What’s one more flood?
Cons: doing laundry when it’s really cold or windy outside is a real bummer and sometimes the washer freezes so we can’t do laundry at all. Because of constant flooding, our back porch is pretty icky. It isn’t a nice place to be.

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This winter, the washer froze solid and then completely crapped out, spilling water constantly. I’ve done laundry at friends’ houses for weeks, once in the middle of a St. Patrick’s day party. Sean and I make a lot of laundry because school is dirty and so is gardening when you get home. It’s been a pain. Sean Pulsfort, that heroic amateur handyman, got the washer fixed up yesterday, and it works better now than it ever has.
It’s a breezy, sunny day, so I put our clothesline to work. Sean and I try to line dry our laundry whenever we can. It’s a free, solar powered alternative to an expensive electrical draw. In the winter, I usually go for the dryer, so I haven’t line dried anything since fall. I had to detangle the clothesline from the fallen limb that had crushed it, along with our chicken fence, during an ice storm, and tie it back up, but it was worth it:  we actually have more line space now than we did with the old arrangement.

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I love line-drying. It makes me feel righteous, yes, but it’s more than that: I like the fresh smell and stiffness of line-dried clothing; I like folding my laundry into the basket as it comes off the line and dusting off the seeds and spiders that have caught on the seams; I like walking up and down the line, looking for a match for a single sock; I like the colors and the movement in the corner of my eye, and I like feeling the sunshine teasing out a smile while I do a usually tedious job.

Bonus pictures of chickens! Freckles is sitting on eggs right now, so keep your fingers crossed for chick photos in three weeks!

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