"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Friday, September 23, 2011

Shreds of the Sun

Driving away from a Friday morning coffee date with Walt, my eyes were drawn to one particular cloud in the predawn sky. A pure glowing white-gold, it sat on the eastern horizon just above the hills that embrace this area. The light was so clear and bright it was as though a piece of the almost-risen sun had broken off and flown over the treetops on its own.

My heart lifted. I was reminded of other shreds of sunlight this week that somehow managed to sear away the darkness of exhaustion, a suffocating workload, and enduring shadows of grief.

A friend stopping by school at the end of the day, just to visit with me, to see how I'm doing. We both knew I could have used that time to chip away at the massive pile on my desk. However, those fifteen minutes of laughter and connection mattered much more than a batch of corrected papers. Patricia's words about remembering to have fun helped me refocus. When we walked out together my step was much lighter than it had been all day.

There was a parent night this week. One I didn't want to attend because of the time: 7:00 to 8:00 P.M.—my bedtime. We go to outdoor school next week and this was the informational meeting. I had no part in the program beyond being a familiar face for my families. The energy in the packed gym was intoxicating. Families seemed genuinely pleased to visit with me before things officially started. My kids came up to me beaming, as though we hadn't seen each other for days instead of hours. More than once I turned to a tap on a shoulder into the grinning face of a former student, and savored the warm unrestrained hug. I smiled the entire drive home, even though it was close to 9:00.

A morning in my classroom. The day hadn't officially started and I was checking to see who was missing. The desk next to Joy's was empty. Grace hadn't yet arrived. I said something about hoping she'd be there soon. Joy said, "I hope so, too. We'll all be clumsy and falling down if she doesn't come." It took me a minute to get what she was saying.

When I did, I laughed and replied, "You're right. Which means you can never be absent, because we couldn't get through a day with no joy."

These shred-of-sunlight moments don't drive the darkness away, any more than my bright cloud this morning was responsible for ending the night.

But they do fill my eyes and soul with hope and life when my principal asks me at lunch if I can have my data matrix done the by the next day even though no due date had ever been stated, and I'd never done one before, and it would not be a short task. Or when a team meeting is co-opted by a special ed teacher full of advice so disconnected from the world of a regular classroom we might as well have been from different planets. Or when I spend hours collecting data to be told I need to do it over because the directions I was given were wrong.

Today is the fall solstice, when darkness begins its season of domination. I love this time of year—have always loved the soft quality of the lingering light and the colors of dying leaves that imitate summer sunsets. More than anything I love the promise held in the air—a smell, an energy—that leaves no doubt that light will never be completely extinguished no matter how deep the darkness.

A single golden cloud. A caring friend. A child's brilliance. Shreds of sunlight in the darkness. Promises. Reminders of where the power truly lays.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teacher Toby

My early morning routine has changed little since the beginning of this school year: I'm up at 4:00, greeted by a wriggling, grinning Toby who acts like we've been apart for much longer than a night. He goes out, gets fed, then I put water on for tea. By then the cats are letting me know they just might expire if they have to wait another minute for their food.

Once they've all had their breakfasts, my tea (turmeric ginger green) is ready and I settle into my rocker to journal, read, and meditate. That's where the routine has taken on a new twist. Until earlier this month Toby almost always went back to bed until Walt got up, leaving me a lovely space of quiet time with which to start my day. But because of the long lonely days he faces now with both his humans at work, he considers every minute I'm home to be his.

It's challenging to be prayerful and meditative under the weight of his beseeching eyes. It's hard to write in a journal holding a tug toy in one hand while Toby does his best to pull me out of the rocker. It's almost impossible to follow a thread of an idea in whatever book I'm reading (Brene Brown right now) with the background music of his soft insistent growls for attention.

So we play. Sometimes that's all I get done. Sometimes Toby will wander off after a bit and leave me to my time alone.

As I get ready for work, he's never far away. Usually he ends up sprawled in the hall outside my bathroom while I do hair and makeup. Or he'll lie on the bed halfway between his two humans. When I move from one room to the next, I feel his eyes follow. Frequently I'll turn to leave my closet (originally a very small computer room) only to find the way blocked by 80 pounds of sad-eyed dejected retriever, looking for comfort.

When Toby needs comfort, he'll butt his head into the tops of my legs (or the legs of anyone else who will stand still for what at first seems very weird behavior). He stands that way for as long as I'll allow, often breathing like an asthmatic Darth Vader, pushing against me if I try to pull away. He never ends this stance first. I have to hold his head and push him away, or say "treat" to break the hold.

I love those times with him because he's incredibly sweet then. I can lean over and hug him hard. I can play in his fur and inhale his warm toast scent to my heart's content. The cost of all that loving is dog hair and slobber on the front of my legs. Which is not a problem unless I'm dressed for work.

So I accept his love. Sometimes I change clothes afterwards. Sometimes if he's not too liquid I can brush the hair off and be good to go.

Toby has the power like nothing and no one else to keep me from getting completely lost in the demands of a teacher's life. I make myself leave school close to the actual end of my workday, knowing he's waiting at home. His needs are a priority in our weekend planning.

He simply doesn't accept no when he needs attention. I come home in the afternoon foot-sore, heart-weary, and ready to curl up like a sowbug against stresses that follow me home no matter what I do. And there he is, ball in mouth, tail going gangbusters, ready to romp and run and receive enough love to make up for the empty hours he's just slept his way through.

So we walk, and I'm renewed. Sometimes that's all I have time for before dinner. Sometimes Walt takes a shift and I can get some housework done first.

One of the hardest things about being back at work is enduring the tight box of scheduled days. Every minute counts, and there are not nearly enough minutes to be an effective teacher and continue the very full life I was living before mid-August. Much that I love—most of my writing life, leisurely visits with friends, antiquing with my brother, taking a day to read a book, time to just be—has taken a huge hit.

Toby keeps me connected to what really matters: play, love, the spiritual and physical energy that walking creates for me. When we brought him home almost four years ago, I could not have imagined what a powerful teacher he would become in my life. Or how much my heart would soften and expand in response to his headstrong loyalty, and simple exuberant joy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Vulture Encounter

The honeymoon ended on Thursday. Right on schedule. Except it was one of many things I'd forgotten about, and caught me completely off-guard. So instead of feeling like a normal part of the process of beginning a school year, the day felt like a confirmation of all my fears. Fears I'd kept at bay during the happy sunny beginning as I fell in love with my class.

I went home Thursday night shaken, my limbs leaden, my heart protesting. Sad that the new self I'd brought to the classroom seemed to last only last six days. Wondering how I was going to get through the next 174.

Then, as I have so many times in the last weeks, I decided to take fear on.

Yes, the kids wouldn't stop talking. Yes, I spoke to them sternly. No, nothing I did seemed to work.

However, I have good systems in place. I wasn't using them because I didn't want to seem mean or too strict. Too many chances, too many warnings, with the result that we were all frustrated.

Yes, it was a long day for us all—three hours without a break in the afternoon. Yes, it would have been better if I'd taken them outside for a bit. No, I didn't think of that because I was too busy trying to push through.

So the bigger problem was a too long stretch of time without respite. Easily solved.

Yes, I'm behind in just about every way possible. Yes, the workload is unrelenting, two new demands appearing for every one I manage to meet. No, I'm not going to be able to live this way for an entire year.

I brought work home for the weekend, and spent most of yesterday slogging through the piles of tests and standards and unfinished curriculum maps. Walt made forms for me, and self manager badges for the kids. He got groceries. He held me. At the end I could feel my breathing ease and my whole self loosen.

Friday was as good a day as Thursday was not. Returning my focus to having fun and building connections (as opposed to the pressure to catch up, to teach more faster, to do it right), I planned a day of community building. We did math, but we also had our first auction and the kids got to change their seats for the first time. We practiced vocabulary, but it was a game. The silent ball game we always end the day with might have been a little longer than usual. Everyone left for the weekend smiling.

Yesterday morning as I sat by the river while Toby dived for rocks, I watched a vulture sit uncertainly at the top of a tall snag on the other side. While I couldn't see clearly enough to know for sure, he seemed young. Maybe it was the way he kept throwing his wings out for balance. Or the way he edged himself gingerly out on a branch before flapping himself to the next snag over.

I enjoyed his antics for a long time, thinking as I often do with vultures, how misunderstood they are. They symbolize and live on death and decay. Yet they're highly social and curious. On the ground they look like giant pin-headed chickens, but if you don't look too closely at their heads they are incredibly beautiful, especially in flight.

Maybe fear isn't so much different. It definitely peddles death and decay. No one's happy to see it arrive. But examined more closely, confronted and studied, fear's just another bird with a job to do. It's not nearly as powerful as its appearance would lead us to believe. Information is provided. I have the power to choose what to do with it.

I'll go in early again tomorrow. As I sit here writing I remember I need to do my parent letter first thing, plus there's copying and setting up for the day, and, and, and. And my stomach contracts—fear, sneaky and silent in its approach, does a fly-by. I breathe, enjoy the beauty of its black wings, and allow it to soar out of sight. Today is for playing. Tomorrow is for work (with generous helpings of play). I can handle both.

Monday, September 5, 2011

At Home

Sitting on a mottled mossy rock by the river, Toby diving for rocks and a pair of pintails paddling in the eddies, I find myself thinking of home. It may be the utter stillness: only the faintest hint of water rushing over stones farther up the river stirs the air. It  may be the annual autumnal longings stirred to the surface by the tiniest hint of chill in the breeze. Or it may just be these thoughts are born from what feels like a new open space in my heart.

Open House, the night before school started, was packed, chaotic, and deeply satisfying. I felt completely at home greeting and shaking hands with my new families and gathering hugs from former families. But something was different this time. I've always loved this night, loved the celebrity aspect of being the center of so much attention, as well as discovering the first chapter of all the new stories to be written in the months ahead. This year, even though my room was full of people curious about their new teacher, it didn't feel like any of it was about me at all. I was able to let go of worries about how I was going to be perceived, and to focus completely on my kids.

From the moment the kids walked in on the first day until I sent them home on Friday, I felt at home. As though I'd never left the classroom. And my first priority was to make sure the kids felt at home—safe, happy, cared for.

Those were things I did not feel in my own childhood home, especially at ten. Instead I was afraid, sad, and certain I was the reason our family was so broken. School was the closest I came to feeling at home. But even there, because I knew in my bones I wasn't acceptable to my own family, I felt I had to be on guard to present what I thought was an acceptable version of myself.

It's taken years of work, and most likely my mom's death in June, for me to make the connection between my belief in my acceptability and my sense of home.

So as the first week of school passed in a blurred series of snapshot moments, I knew with each one how at home I was feeling. I realized the person who left two years ago was no longer present. She's been replaced by someone with serenity and optimism and faith; someone who laughs easily and ruffles almost not at all; someone who can and does choose to release resistance.

The eyes of this new person brimmed with tears repeatedly as love for my deliciously varied crew of ten-year-olds swept over me time and time again.

Lovely names, each a prayer: Angelina, Sterling, Joy, Grace. Shy smiles and dancing eyes and invitations to conversations. "Hey, Mrs. Shucka, you know what?" An offering of a homemade peanut butter cookie. Hundreds of questions: one boy needing to ask every minute or so with great sincerity and intensity. A girl hiding under her desk, separating herself at lunch, wearing a winter coat zipped to the chin. Another child wearing dirty hole-spattered clothes, and smiling at me through grime that would require some serious scrubbing to conquer. Playing games, celebrating our first birthday, setting a strong foundation for this new nine-month family.

I am at home in the world of ten-year-olds, in the classroom, in school. In going back, I've discovered I'm at home in my own skin, my own soul, where true home exists. While I still prefer the home of sharing a sweet September afternoon with Toby, or wrapped in Walt's arms, or in the company of my brothers, or sitting at my kitchen table watching goldfinches feed, I can't help but think feeling home wherever I am is one of the greatest gifts I've ever received.

Photo by Walt