Thursday, November 24, 2016

On making sense

When I posted the Kierkegaard quote to the right, I was thinking of my personal writing, which was based on looking back and how it had helped me to live forward in a happier way. But that was my life--which I have a modicum of control over. Then there's the world; no matter how much I talk with others, there is only momentary relief. I would like to have a fireside chat with Mr. Kierkegaard. For, looking back at yesterday (I'm talking Election, here) --makes today murkier; understanding shifts and gets lost with each new perspective.
Today is a holiday. Time out from all that disrupts me. And yet, my mind spins. My classes are suffering; we focus on our work. Research papers, which many scramble to update with election results, are hard to pin down. Their papers on such topics as transgender, immigration, gender roles, racism, will all be greatly affected by sweeping policy changes. And so will some of them, personally. We guess at what will occur, but how can we when each day rises and falls, tidal waves that never settle. Credible journalists wrap their pens around each new nuance; but what they wrote yesterday, flails today, will do somersaults next week.

In two of my classes we're prepping for a final exam based on New York. One of our readings, EB White's "Here is New York" is an ode to the possibilities in this city, he clearly loved and loved writing about. There are three New Yorks he says: the one belonging to the natives, people like me who have always been here--we take its offerings for granted. New York two is the commuter's New York--here for the day to work and get what can be gotten, and then leave it behind for neater quarters. And then New York three--White's clear favorite--the passionate, adventurous emigres who bring desire and poetry and longing and grit.

As we discussed this in class yesterday, I couldn't help but think will we revert to two New Yorks? Emigres  from only our US boundaries? Or, are there more than three? Four five six New Yorks? White's essay was written in 1949, two years after my parents arrived from Eastern Europe. Survivors of religious persecution, my mother eight months pregnant with my brother--their New York was bittersweet. It represented new life, new chances, tons of grit. But so much had been lost. Passion, adventure, poetry--years away.

Today, New York is a stranger in a strange land. Journalists look back and try to make sense of why we are on a ship with a mercurial captain, Yet we live forward at the same time. Will we get a pass to disembark? Nothing stays the same. I give up on making sense.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

On reckoning

I won't be going to the Goddard-Riverside Book Bash today, for I am having a sick day. However--if you are reading this today, I urge you to get there--brand new books from publishers at excellent prices, all to benefit the Goddard-Riverside Community Center. It's a fun event and a way to rise above what psychologist Jennifer Sweeton calls "Post-Election Stress Disorder."

I had a long conversation with a friend who has strong Buddhist leanings; she challenged me to think about recent events as an expression of a huge ache in the heart of the country. I acknowledge the existence of that ache, but how do I balance it with the heartache that  rises in my classrooms? Some of my students are concerned about immigration status--theirs, their parents and extended family. There was a walk-out at one college I teach at, and there are meetings on all campuses--administrators, faculty, students--lots of support, information, and, too, confusion. 

Where will they go from here? Where do I go? A few months back I wrote about taking yoga teacher training--today that immersion seems ever more right. However, my body tells me, not so fast. My days of contorting myself--at least physically--are done. I can study the tenets, live a yogic life of nonharm--and do so while the world around me flails. Nobody says that will be easy.

A neighbor told me I need to think about something else. He gave me a tour book of Prague. As I write "Prague" I can't help but smile. In the past weeks, I've forgotten how much I want to go back. I tuck the book on my shelf between my other awareness-raising tomes. I write mental notes: don't forget the world is huge. Don't take for granted the freedoms of this very moment. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

On disappointment

Eight years ago when Barack Obama became President, my classes were jubilant. It was pure joy to listen to my students, mostly Hispanics and African Americans, say that now they know they can do anything. That was a moment when I understood I had a job of meaning and worth. To be listener, as their faces and voices alighted with joy, was one happiness atop another.

Yesterday was a very different day. But, hey, this is New York City, and we expected--no hungered for--a different outcome--and felt a stark collective pain. I am veering from my decree to keep this blog a "safe zone" a non-election forum, I know. But I can't today, separate myself from the realities of the external world and their impact on my internal self and my teaching self.

Class began at 8:00, which means I left home at 7:00, filled with the night's revelations, not enough time to downward dog it away. We got right on task: research papers. I told my class, "please don't take it personally if I'm short with you. I'm very sad." They were sad, too. No one was short with anyone. My second class was not so mellow. "What do you want me to write?" a student asked, in response to a note that she needed to write a fuller introduction. She was exasperated; so was I. Another student told me "You're ruining my desire to write." We're not supposed to push grammar--It's hard to not take issue with confusing commas and periods. Maybe there's something deep there. Maybe I need to put a comma at the end of this election fiasco. A period is unthinkable. 

It's hard to teach when feeling despair. It's hard to tell students opportunities they haven't yet dreamed, still await. It's hard to tell students, it will be ok, when I feel so un-ok inside. But I did my best. I did my job. I retreated from commas and periods.

I wonder what kind of teacher this new climate will make me. I feel a protest song coming on, something by Woody Guthrie, a name I haven't thought of in years. I saw Beautiful finally--Carole King's early life story. The soundtrack to my young life enthralled me, brought me joy and tears. I need to see it again, asap. Return to hope, to a cleaner time. I'm not ready to move on.

Friday, October 28, 2016

On practice

My community college students are beginning their research papers. As a community college grad, I feel a kinship to them. In my own educational journey, I had planned to get a job after high school and be done with the whole thing. But all my friends were going on to college; I felt lost and confused. And so, with a not-so-great standing in my high school years (save for English), I applied and was accepted into Kingsborough as a secretarial major.

Many of my CC students are struggling through our English Comp class (fyi, 4-year students struggle too), which is the last class on their agenda of what they want to study. I understand struggle in those years, to wonder if CC is the first step or the last. For me, it was the last, until ten years later when I returned for a BA, the most challenging endeavor, because I wasn't an academic. I was just an unfinished girl/woman who wanted a degree.

My students and I slog through lessons on how to write a thesis--something that took me hours (and hours!) to learn. We repeat these words parrot-like: a thesis isn't a question; a thesis goes at the end of an introduction. And then I get papers that have a thesis as a first sentence, sometimes with a question mark, and I pause to wonder, how did this happen?

Then I took a watercolor class last Saturday. My goal was to paint a scene of birds, something I was copying from a Trader Joe's greeting card. My birds were a labored mess. I turned to my teacher, Joan, and said, I bet you can do this in one brushstroke. She smiled, and said, two. Then she showed me. Tip of the brush to the paper, lay it flat and brush up, like a leaf stroke. So simple. And yet, I had practiced tons of leaf strokes in Joan's absolute beginner class. But there I was: leaf stroke?

After a terrible attempt at copying the exact image, Joan told me to use just one color. And she said: leaf strokes. I was relieved. Basic steps that I could successfully do. After dozens of blue strokes, I attempted birds, all in blue. Then I attempted colors. In the photo above, Joan's bird is lower left. The last of my dozens follow, until ultimately a pretty decent rendition, lower right.

I brought my practice-birds to class on Monday. I passed them around and the class laughed. They also saw where I was going: I'm terrible at watercolor, and when I leave my teacher, I'm lost. Even though I watched and listened, carefully. And so, I practice. I try not to get down on myself, although if you look close you'll note I tore out Joan's bird. I was going to keep that and throw all my terrible work away. And then I saw the lesson in my lesson.

I'm reminded of Anne Lamott's classic book on writing, Bird by Bird. One at a time. Whatever it is. Leaf strokes. A thesis. A lesson. Demonstrate. Repeat. And again.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

On being real

A friend is at home, recovering from knee surgery. The culprit--competitive yoga, I needed to do the full expression of the pose, he said.  And I said--if it caused you pain, then you weren't doing yoga. He is now persuading me, in my pursuit of a studio to study at, be careful!

Careful I was, last night at a studio on my list of places to take my teacher training. Because I was there, not just to practice, but to check them out, I was competitive in a completely different way. It began with the teacher not asking if anyone had injuries. I could have tried to get her attention and mentioned my right shoulder cuff issue, which eliminates "the full expression" of numerous poses. Instead, I noted her lapse on my imaginary list of "how I would teach differently." 

It's not a bad idea to note what is missing from my particular brand of a good class; my English teacher-self was formed by doing the opposite of my grad school teachers. Two, in particular, spent half of each class talking about themselves and their books. That set me up to almost never say anything personal, including my own writing. A student once told me "You have no ego," and that was my greatest teacher compliment. Slowly, I loosened the reins; at my community college classes, it's to my students' benefit to know I was a community college grad. Ditto on being the daughter of immigrants--so many of them are first generation. We have much in common, likely why I am a different teacher there than at my other schools where I'm more buttoned up and formal.

But I digress. As class went on, I began to crave the teacher's attention when my lower back issues (let's call them being-a-yogi-of-a-certain age) made any sort of expression a bad idea. I heeded the call of the present moment and got her attention, pointed at my back. She nodded, continued with her script (did I mention she is also a yogi-of-a-certain age?) My yoga-teacher-self crystallized as I pictured myself walking over to a yogi in need with props, suggestions, kindness, as most teachers do. The point isn't to cuddle, but to make a practice accessible to everyone. The alternative, sitting it out, shouldn't be the only solution.

It's good for me to remember that, when I'm in English teacher mode. Students who leave the textbook home, the assignment in the wrong notebook, a writing implement in the other backpack, and on and on, may be conveying something other than disinterest. How good am I at accommodating them? Two weeks ago when one-third of a class was unprepared, I told them the view from where I sat was dismal. I was relieved when at the next class, the view improved.  

Unlike many of my students, I have the luxury of crossing that studio-school off my list.  (Photo: view from the studio I won't be seeing) There are tons of others that I can choose from. And then there's the ultimate question I must get very honest about: am I up to the physical demands of this discipline? Did someone once say I had no ego? Not so. I understand why my friend (70+) pushed himself to the point of needing knee surgery. I hope I heed his message to be careful, and my own, to go forward--in yoga-speak, mindfully.    

Sunday, September 25, 2016

On living simply

Timing is everything; this morning the chaos of student papers to grade makes me want to hide. And so I grab my yoga mat, go out into my building's courtyard and take cover. (Photo: view from the mat)

As the choreographer of my life, I own the fact that I messed up big time--note to self: never again have papers from four classes due at once. The good news is that this work sent me to the mat and (capital And) drew me from a chaos far worse, the election nightmare. I will say no more, dear Reader; from hereon consider this blog your safe space.

Deep sigh. I have once again (this is a biyearly event) begun seeking out a teacher training program for yoga. Each time I enter this phase, I'm called by a different yearning: learn the poses perfectly, an income source, philosophy immersion, injury management. Today, it is an amalgam of all the above, plus my yearning for knowledge. I want to throw myself into a fresh subject, one I'm already intrigued by, removed from my English teacher self, my New York City self, all the selves and personas I've inhabited in life and on the page. And this calling feels the realest.  The one, hopefully (it is dangerous to post this, I know), I will heed.

Once upon a time, the thought of teaching on a college campus sent shivers through me. I still recall the first morning I walked across a leafy campus--it was all I'd imagined--sprawling lawns, benches filled with students clustered in conversation (pre-texting mania), and me, holding my books, a hazelnut coffee, inspiration! I was incredibly happy. My first weeks unfolded in a breathtaking dream-come-true way. And then. So many (many!) and thens. There were all the Academic writing rules I hadn't learned in grad school, rules that are anathema to creative writing innocents. There was the grading itself; how in the world (in my world) did one figure that out? Ah...did the paper have a workable thesis? (Thesis?) That first college, first class, they go down in my book as one of my most grueling lessons in learning on the fly. (Not Always Good.)

Today. I still carry into school (not aforementioned school) my coffee, my books, my inspiration (note: no exclamation point). I know the rules. I understand, give or take, my students. My job has a reality to it that could never match the dream of a person who never thought she'd go to college, much less teach at one (actually three). I like it (minus the papers). Especially those magic moments when we're learning from each other, when I'm not always the expert. Students delight me when they have insight into a piece of writing I hadn't seen.

And then there is my need to learn more. The long arm of Yoga reaches out to me. My mat is one of the places I go to settle. To stop the whirl of papers, of must do's, of self-recrimination (my greatest flaw). I almost write it is a place of healing, but truly, it is a place of living. much to say this gorgeous Sunday morning. Thoughts of Prague, of returning to a place that felt simple and easy. (Photo: Bridge Band on the Charles Bridge.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On being a teacher nerd

This semester, I won the English class lottery--four good classes! And yesterday, while teaching a lesson on conjunctions (those pesky ands, buts, yets), I had a sacred moment. In fact, several, as I heard:  I get it. Ah...I see. And in my students' seeing, I saw, too. I'm a different teacher this semester, and it is paying off. More patient, moving slowly through lessons, repeating, repeating, repeating. It's not always the demon texting that has students' attention; sometimes, they simply need to hear a concept twice, three times, and more to grasp it. When I took classes last summer, I churned new ideas around and asked often, "Can you repeat that?"

Yesterday, I was all set to leave home early for a Professional Development workshop, when I opened my email.  It's been cancelled. The day before, at the same workshop, only one person showed. But I'll show, I wrote. Cancelled came back, with the handout emailed to me. In a sea of nerdy English teachers, I hold the title. I Love professional development!

When I first began teaching, each time I wrote my day's agenda, I learned. In fact, writing an agenda was similar to writing an essay. I began by thinking on the page about how to discuss a book; Frankenstein was my text du jour in those days. I didn't know where I'd take it, until my fingers were on the keyboard. Is knowledge dangerous, was a question I loved exploring. As I wrote, ideas and beliefs exploded on the page. I discovered what I didn't know I knew, deep in a place I'd never explored. Today, my agendas are set, except for the few stray readings I may select, that are fresh. But, usually I go with what I've done. It's easier. I choose easier, often. Learning-by-agenda has lost its glow.

Yes, I love to learn. But i-confess. I printed out the handout that was emailed and put it somewhere without looking at it. Maybe what I really like is the feel of the classroom, with me as student, watching someone else do the work. I love the way I can regress to fifth grade or not "get it" and then get it! I love to pick up a trick or two, to talk English teaching talk, to engage face-to-face, rather than technologically. Is learning fun because I'm long past my school days when it was required? Now, it's a choice. Or, do I just feel young and alive, still taking on the world?

One of my classes is situated right beside the glass doors opening to campus. I love to arrive early and go outside, sit on the steps, gaze. It's not the Ivy campus where I had many years ago hoped I'd teach. But that's not important anymore. What is important is the world that looms up at me, what I can reach for.