Saturday, January 13, 2018

a few words about the girls in room 212 this year

For the last couple of years graduation has loomed on the horizon and I've thought, "I'll never enjoy a class of girls as much as this year's." Caps and gowns get donned and summer passes, fall arrives and in files in a brand new class of seniors. I find out I do like the next crop of senior girls just as much as the previous year's.

But this year--this year these girls make my day job such a pleasure. They are smart. Nerdy delightfully brilliantly smart. They make clever observations and thoughtful insights during class discussions. They've pulled out subtleties in the assigned readings I've never caught before. They text each other pictures of the books they're reading over the weekend. They know all the words to Hamilton and have strong opinions on the founding brothers, the power of leading with a concession in an argument, the behavior of Abigail Williams in The Crucible. One girl spent hours researching breeding habits and temperatures for the Round Goby to complete her informative essay. Another switched her paper from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson because "I hate Jefferson, so I figure this will push me." (For the record, she ended up in love with Jefferson, too.) None of them require hounding after for missing assignments, the consistent effort they put towards English class impresses me. A lot of these girls read the commentary and footnotes. Yeah, they're that kind of girl.

They build each other up and blend together with less regard to cliques and social grouping than any previous year I've taught. They write poetry and play sports. They tease and admire each other's haircuts, performances, test scores and class discussion points.

Their long hair brushes the edges of trigonometry and psychology worksheets as they lean towards all the things they might know. They carry three-ring binders to class, this particular school supply is all the rage this year. Their binders are decorated and personalized with artistic expression and make me smile. Clip art, sketches, stickers and graphic designs bring flair to their organization.

Did I mention how they read? And they press these read books into my hands. "Have you read this yet, Ms. W? I'll loan you this one!" Young adult, history, poetry, murder mysteries, J. R. R. Tolkien.

And they laugh. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that my 7th hour in particular, which is all girls and only one boy, sounds like a party cruise when they enter and exit the room. This year's girl power blooms and throbs with energy. And they are fearless. They ask tough questions, blunt and honest questions. Most notably, after reading this article by Mark Edmundson, they prodded that poor sole male in the room about guys and their attitudes about homosexuality. (To his enormous credit, he enlightened us all.) These girls talk about failures and frustrations with so much frankness, their confidence makes me tear up. I think about how much self-loathing and insecurity I harbored at their age. How can they trust each other, love themselves, lack embarrassment to such extent? I don't know the cause, but if I'd have had a fraction of their moxie at age eighteen I think I'd have entered adulthood less damaged. God, if I could have believed in my self-worth more and doubted my prospects less!

I watch these girls--softball players, dancers, runners, clarinet players, drummers, singers, waitresses, cashiers, cattle-raisers, sisters, daughters, volunteers, sculptors, mentors--they gather together every day in room 212, brushing up against each other with so much mutual respect and humor. They wave and call across the room, giggle over their phone screens, puzzle out Spanish IV assignments. They settle into desks, some wearing sweats and Crocs, some wearing boho tops and rhinestone earrings. The bell rings. Phones get tucked away, those lovely three-ring binders hit the desks and those gorgeous faces, so bright and promising of a future run by strong, empowered and enlightened women, look up--ready to keep achieving.

Thursday, December 28, 2017


First, The Holy Eclair is heading to Common Household Mom! Carolyn writes often and beautifully about matters of faith and God and spirituality. It's a match made in heaven, right?

It's halfway through Christmas break and my oldest is on the couch recovering after having all of his wisdom teeth pulled yesterday. He's never suffered pain well, this experience is proving to be no exception to the rule. I made him mac and cheese from scratch for breakfast this morning since he can't chew food or suck it through a straw. Lest I impress you with the "scratch" part, do understand we had no boxed version in the pantry.  It's -10 degrees and I didn't fancy another trip into town in a freezing cold vehicle so while noodles boiled I made a roux and added milk and cheese to make the sauce. This process didn't take much longer than making mac and cheese from a box, I was happy to discover.

It was impressive how quickly he got through the surgery, less than an hour and a half, that includes the time it took to get him out of sedation and wheeled to the car. Times have changed since I had mine removed. I recall my jaw locking wide open as it had taken nearly two hours to extract those teeth--and I was NOT under sedation, merely numbed.

Meanwhile, the middle kid has been living large this break, sledding in negative temperatures while wearing his new winter gear, practicing wrestling, hunting, building a sled, going to movies, shopping with Grandma's Christmas money--he never takes a break. The youngest has killed a fair number of virtual bad guys, shot basketballs and hung out with his buddies.

I've shuttled people to and from appointments and practices and got retested for Lyme Disease. I took my final antibiotic for that last weekend and my body is happy to get back to its usual medication-free state. Some of my dearest friends came over the day after Christmas and we sat around catching up, drinking coffee, eating, and basking in each other's presence. That was a great gift. 

My other great gift was season one of Stranger Things, my new favorite thing ever.

Image result for stranger things 

Have you seen it? You must. It's fantastic. Plus it came packaged as a VHS tape, which cleverly threw me for a loop when I looked at the box. Sneaky! It was really DVDs in a VHS-sized box. Mr. T watched with me and I convinced Mr. D he might like it. He agreed to try it, the following night sat down to pop in the second disc and today announced he'd buy season two for us to watch over New Year's.  I would watch the first season over again, though, because I feel like there were lots of little things I missed. A lot happens, plot intersections and so forth, plus I feel like season two will reference the first one a fair amount. I can't decide which character is my favorite, I've always had a soft spot for Winona Ryder, but the sheriff grows on you by the third episode and the children are delightful. It's scary without being dreadful or gory (which I can't stand), kind of a mash-up of The Goonies and The X Files.

Now I'll tell you about my greatest gift. This Christmas I made a deliberate choice to not do anything I didn't feel like doing. Not in a selfish way, mind you, but in a sensible way. I decided I wouldn't burn myself out in some kind of frantic Christmas Race to Fabulousity and Perfection. Now, this seems obvious, I realize, but moms and wives do experience a particular amount of social pressure to DO IT ALL. Bake, wrap, shop, decorate, plant surprises, plan parties, stage elves and photo shoots, attend events, etc. etc. I know for a fact that God did not give us Christmas so I could end up resenting it by making the entire celebration all about work and a to-do list seven miles long. Forced labor completely defies the entire gift of grace through Jesus, specifically presented so that we do NOT have to work, but just take the salvation and rejoice. When did humans pervert this great holiday and make it all about busyness and work? For that matter, WHY? (Let's face it, the busy-work-work-work of Christmas intentionally distracts from the real focal point of God sending His son to earth as a living sacrifice for us.)

I talked this over with God one afternoon this fall while hiking in my favorite local spot. He assured me the world wouldn't fall apart and I'd probably enjoy the holiday a lot more if I approached it this way. So I did. I decorated until I felt satisfied, then I put the rest of the stuff away--or boxed it up to donate. Our tree is regular sized and I like that it doesn't take up half of my living room. I'm not cursing and feeling crowded and anxious with the extra clutter because there isn't much extra sitting about. I hung some wreaths, set out a few items and that felt perfect. It's December 28th and I'm not feeling frantic to get it all put away, which is a nice change of pace.

I didn't bake a single cookie, didn't make a single candy. We popped a ham in the crock pot for Christmas day and I bought some of those frozen eclairs and cream puffs for dessert. Everyone liked it. No one cared that I didn't make "special" recipes and fifteen side dishes. Maybe I'll feel like it next year, maybe not. 

I bought exactly what I wanted to give. No one seemed dissatisfied with their presents, I didn't tear my hair out having to wrap stuff, agonize over what to get who, and track various packages' progress online. I mailed cards because I like to do that. Someone from the home and school group sent me an email explaining that they decided teachers should get a little gift each day of the last week of school.  As the 7th grade room parent rep I decided not to scramble for last minute little gifts and to stick to my original plan with one big gift on the last day of school and G's teacher probably wouldn't feel upset. To my knowledge she's fine.

Christmas was very pleasant this year. I burned candles and listened to music, I drank hot chocolate and spent time with my family. We went to church. We went bowling. I thanked God for the peace I felt mentally and in my heart. Why haven't I always celebrated Christmas by taking it more instead of making it more? It's silly how we pressure ourselves and complicate what should be simple. But that's human nature, I suppose. We think we're improving upon something when we add more to it, when really we should dial it back and quit distracting ourselves from stuff that really matters. 

I did what I wanted, I didn't do what felt burdensome and my cup overfloweth. Spill it, reader. What have you decided NOT to do this holiday season?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

blessings in a book!

My friend Becky Ramsey wrote another book!

I adored her first book, French at Heart, so I was super-pumped to learn she has written MORE about her years living in France. Don't we all indulge in that fantasy of living in another country for a stretch of time and learning how to become nearly "local?" Thankfully people like Becky let me have that experience vicariously. I assure you, reader friends, Becky does not disappoint. Her description of being the odd duck American learning how to live the French way is charming and self-depreciating. Characters from her first book return, including my favorite, Madame Mallet. Here's a little excerpt to give you a taste:

"Who is that handsome man that stayed in your house for two hours and six minutes?" asked my neighbor, Madame Mallet.
"He's my French tutor," I said. "He comes once a week."
"That's good," she said. "I would teach you myself, but you clearly need someone who can explain your mistakes in your own language. Don't you think he should come more often?"

I declare, Madame Mallet is France's most passive-aggressive neighbor lady.

Becky's humor, insights on faith and culture, and appreciation of la vie Francais delight. You could classify this book as a devotional, a travel memoir or humor, but however you slice this baguette of awesomeness, you need to get your hands on a copy.

Here's the good news--you can BUY ONE HERE or WIN ONE HERE! I'm giving away a free copy of The Holy Eclair to one lucky commenter. All you have to do is tell me your favorite saint (when you read the book, you'll understand why).

Spill it, reader. Who's your fave saint?   I'll announce the book winner next weekend and you'll have your copy in time for holiday reading!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

one incredible chapter

Four years ago Mr. T started high school cross country. I remember how those upperclassmen on his team took him under their wing--guys like Ben, Matt, Kevin, Sam, Travis, Adam, Jake, Seth and Ramsey made him feel welcome and part of the group. T ran race times in the 22 minute range and improved gradually. Now he's the old guard and heading into his last races of his high school career. He wants to break into the 17's at Sectionals in Waupaca this Saturday. Yesterday his team swept their conference meet and he made 2nd team all-conference while getting a PR.

In four years I've had to move faster and faster across the courses to watch him run past and cheer for him.
In four years I've bought him five pairs of trainers and three pairs of spikes. (A shout-out to Runaway Shoes for awesome support!)
In four years we've acquired lots of FHS cross country T-shirts and sweatshirts.
In four years I've sweated, dripped, shivered, yelled and smiled on the sidelines.
In four years I've learned the jargon of this sport, terms like "running strategy" and "kick" and "PR" are now part of our family's lexicon.
In four years I've contributed to team meals, lugged the chocolate milk cooler to meets, navigated course maps and listened to coach speeches.
In four years I've seen Mr. T battle injury and discouragement.
In four years I've seen him break through barriers and become a legit varsity runner.
In four years I've seen him get so excited and motivated and learn to lead.
In four years I've watched his self-discipline and confidence bloom. 
This year Mr. B joined the team and it has brought me so much joy to watch these two brothers share the sport. They've bonded as teammates, trained and encouraged each other and grown closer.  My heart has been GLAD to listen to them talk about practices when they get home in the evening and watch them head out together to socialize with their "running group." It's so cool to see them connecting this way outside of our family unit.

It's been a hell of a run and I'm thankful for all the opportunities and memories cross country has given our entire family. I had no idea a sport could give anything to a parent, until this experience I only thought high school sports benefited the athletes. Watching Mr. T finish his career is giving me all the feels this week, but mostly the satisfaction of watching my son develop and reach his potential. 

Finish strong, Mr. T. You should be proud of yourself, I'm quite proud of you.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

summer of sloth

I didn't take any classes this summer, nor did I teach any. (Except for 3rd grade Sunday School, but that doesn't really count--spending time with those kids was a blessing.)

I planted a fraction of my usual vegetable garden, and most of the flower beds are so established that I rarely pull weeds.

I didn't sign up my kids for a bunch of activities. Partly because they are now TOO OLD and uninterested. No one needs to learn how to swim or take music lessons now. (Wow, when I look back at our old summer schedules I feel exhausted). Mr. T worked, ran and played video games. Mr. B went to a couple wrestling camps, worked out, fished and hung with his buddies. Mr. G played baseball, messed around with his buddies, went to a basketball camp and took speed and agility training. I barely had to drive anyone around it seemed.

I hung out in the hammock.

I bought bags of Cheetos and boxes of toffee crunch ice cream bars and hid them from the other people living in my house so I could eat them all by myself.

I swam a lot of laps.

I read many books.

I finished writing a book.

I went to Oregon with my writing group, where I learned that my book was nearly finished.
In Oregon with these fine women.

I repainted and cleaned out the library. That was kind of a big job. I unloaded 3 tubs of books and threw out a bag of random crap.

In July Mr. T and I took a trip of a lifetime together to England and Paris. I've told each of the boys that I wanted to bring them wherever they want to go in the whole wide world before they graduated. Mr. T and I have planned this trip for months and it went without a hitch.

We started in London for a few days (with day trips to Windsor, Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick Castle), then moved to York for a night at England's longest-running convent (medieval walls, towers, York Minster--such a great city). We returned to London to see Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe, then took the train to Bath. From Bath we traveled to Bristol, caught a flight to Paris and saw all the Parisian sights, from the summit of the Eiffel Tower to bottom level of the Saint-Chappelle.



Mr. T taught me how to take a proper selfie.

We rocked.
I didn't drive at all during this trip, instead we took trains, buses, subways, planes and hitched a ride with a friend for one leg of our journey. We walked over 100,000 steps. We ate a ridiculous amount of fresh pastries. We discussed politics, social issues, the benefits of public spaces and how cool it would be to live next to really, really old stuff, like Hadrian's Wall. We sorted strange currencies, admired people's dogs and debated the merits of living in a city. We watched fancy-dressed people on their way to a horse race, rugby players practicing, heard musicians rehearsing in St. Paul's Cathedral and saw many, many statues of naked and half-naked people. We were asked to pose for a newspaper photographer beside the River Ouse in York. There was an art market on the Dame Judi Dench Walk and we stood and admired the paintings of the featured artist.

When one sees a Dame Judi Dench Walk one certainly takes a picture. And walks.

We traveled light, a backpack for each of us. This allowed us to easily move around and made airline travel a cinch. The weather was mostly in the 60's in England and since we didn't get too dirty while sightseeing, we packed very light and did laundry when we spent the night in York (our halfway point). I can honestly say that on this trip I didn't pack a single thing I didn't need or use, nor did I forget to pack anything vital. I packed: 5 shirts, 1 jacket, 1 pair black capris, 1 pair jeans, 1 skirt, 5 pair underpants, 1 extra pair of shoes, 1 pair of pajama pants and sleep T-shirt, 1 cardigan, a small bag of toiletries (Mr. T and I shared toothpaste and shampoo), 3 paperback books, a packet of confirmation numbers for hotels and attractions, my purse (with passport, insurance card, sunglasses, money, chap stick and other essentials) and an extra duffel bag for souvenirs on the return trip home because you are allowed one bag and one carry-on item.

Mr. T appreciated the bakeries, ice cream vendors, pub grub, public transportation, history and culture lessons. He likes design elements, architecture and weapons, which we saw at every stop along the way. His views are broader, his imagination piqued and his point of reference is expanded thanks to the experience. And my firstborn and I made some pretty great memories. We get along well, but 11 days of uninterrupted time alone with one other person really allows a deeper connection to develop.

As for me, I appreciated knowing how to work all the things when we got home. I am particularly fond of England and had a total blast on our trip, but by the end I was happy to return home, where I know how to operate a shower, make change and get from one place to the next without THINKING about it all the time. There's a certain ease we enjoy with familiarity.

Oh, and one more thing happened this summer:

Find a stray, keep a stray.
Team Testosterone found a stray kitten in the back yard late July. He was pretty beat up and bedraggled, flea-and-worm-infested and hungry. Of course they brought him in, gave him food, water, litter box and bedding. Of course we've since spent money on vet care and named him Thorn. And of course Mr. G is calling me "Crazy Cat Lady" even though I had absolutely nothing to do with this cat business--aside from setting up the vet appointments and paying the bills. But he's a friendly little guy and very affectionate and Rose is tolerating him.

Sloth indeed. I feel grateful that I had time to do so little and so much.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Wisconsin has evolved from white to grey to muddy brown and at last it turned green and yellow all around--daffodils, forsythia, grass and spikes of tulip bulbs shoot forth. Ducks, geese, robins and cranes are chirping and whooping it up from the tree branches and the wetlands. I lay on the lawn after wrestling out the wasted peony stalks from last season and watched the clouds drift by. A hawk sailed past. Then a bald eagle slowly circled overhead. A huge toad jumped past my feet when I opened the gate to the vegetable garden. I moved out of its way and admired the clump of rhubarb coming back to life. I scowled at the mess in the asparagus bed and decided to save that chore for another day.
obligatory show-off shot of one healthy clump of daffodils.

The countdown for the seniors in Room 212 has begun. The weeks that remain will be regularly interrupted with Advanced Placement testing, the class trip to Great America, the local fire chief's annual safety talk and various concerts and sporting events. How this year sped past--the class of 2017 is one of my favorites to date and of course time flies when it's a good year. My "spring break" (the quotes indicate that it's a couple days off, not a full week as most folks enjoy) gave me the opportunity to catch up with all the grading (a temporary state) and track down black thread for the Vietnam simulation activity coming up in two weeks. English 12 exits the stage after a unit of war literature, which everyone enjoys and one boy told me, "Fallen Angels is a great book. I just wish you'd teach it earlier in the year when we're all more into it."  I agree, but what to replace a high-interest unit with when Senioritis kicks in? Shakespeare? Research writing? So we end on the sobering note of wars fought and lives destroyed, but in these times history lessons should guide us as our misguided and ignorant leaders rattle their sabres and point proudly to their weapons caches. Bear this unit in mind next election, the one where you all can finally vote.

And the AP kids kick and squeal about Walden, but gradually come to comprehend the lessons it offers them before they take the leap to college life. Carpe diem! Simplify! Live deliberately and swim upstream if you must! Follow your own path! Go to the woods!  My one regret with them this year is that I didn't make copies of their first writing assignment so they could see how much they've improved. Next year.

Speaking of improvements, we had a brand new toilet installed upstairs. That wasn't on my wish list (neither was a new starter for the truck the previous week), but last weekend I noticed a discolored circle on the kitchen ceiling. By Monday morning we had a small puddle of water on the kitchen floor, dripping coming from the upstairs bathroom. The hero of the week, our plumber Andy, had the whole problem diagnosed and treated by the time I made it home from work. When I count the reasons I feel grateful, I am always listing "I have a guy for ..."  Plus the new toilet is sparkling white and not encrusted with a decade's worth of missed shots. You also need to know, dear reader, that I sprinted upstairs after school that day and beat Mr. G to be the first person to use it. I almost never use that upstairs bathroom--it's boy territory, fraught with issues. 

New toilet, new blooms, new energy. And a new book and author festival that yours truly is participating in at the end of the month. I gave a reading yesterday at a kickoff event (okay, reading is a generous word--I really blushed and stammered my way through chapter two of Across the River) and will teach a craft workshop on injecting humor into writing. I'm also cajoling and wheedling some of my Write Club kids to get on the stage and share their work to a broader audience that weekend. Can you believe Margaret Atwood will be there? And Wendy McClure! And Michael Perry, Sherman Alexie and A.S. King (who is my new favorite author)! If you're in the area, you have to check out UntitledTown.

Two nights ago I drove through town to drop off my son at his buddy's house. I glanced as one does through the windows of someone's lit-up house and saw a man and a woman move suddenly toward one another in an intimate way that suggested kissing or attacking would happen next. On my way back home I craned my neck to see inside that house--my curiosity had spiked--and there they were--waltzing!  The couple's clasped hands were raised to shoulder height and they moved back and forth in this terrific circle, I could practically hear Brahms, their bodies were so rhythmically dancing. Just when I think there are no surprises left in this place.  It was such a small moment to observe, but the idea that in this small town where nothing new ever happens something new and unusual was happening made my heart beat with more optimism than it has in months.

And then the daffodils bloomed a day later.

Sunday, December 4, 2016


Like Hillary Clinton, I've taken to regular hikes in the woods to clear my head and heart. I go to work Monday through Friday when it's dark, I leave work when it's dark, I spend my entire work day in a cinder block cell without windows. This takes its toll on a person.  Rumor has it that we might have a building referendum someday and I may just get a brand-spanking new high school to teach in--possibly before self-driving cars become common. Working in a room with windows sounds like such a luxury. I try to fathom the way a simple gift like access to daylight would make all of us feel at Happyland High.

Years ago in a previous teaching gig I moved from an old high school building to a brand new one. I had windows in both classrooms, but the new one offered storage in cupboards along the back wall. I don't lack for storage in Room 212, in fact I have so much space that I store other people's stuff for them. But a window! I told Mr. D that if we don't get a building referendum I might look into the logistics and cost of installing my own by myself. One whole wall faces outside, one runs along my neighbor, one borders the stairway and one leads to the hall. It was a sick, black-hearted person who designed an entire row of classrooms along an outside wall and denied them windows.  How could they not know people need light, daylight, sunlight, natural light? Especially in Wisconsin. Especially during winter. Especially when they're young and growing, but even when they're old and fading.

Speaking of Room 212, I decorated it this year for Christmas with the help of some students. People seem to really enjoy the gesture, it's the first time I've done this. One colleague stopped by and remarked that she liked it and it was "safe." I nodded and replied, "Yes, no paper hanging from the ceiling, not a fire hazard at all!"  She answered, "Actually, I meant that you hung red balls and snowflakes--it's not specific to any religion." That got me thinking about how much teachers have to consider, the line we constantly toe--what might offend? How far to push? Who might get pissed? If they do get offended or angry, do we get support or are we thrown to the wolves?

Yes, in a world where a self-declared white supremacist advises the president-elect, a high school English teacher must cautiously approach holiday decorating.  Then I turned around the next day and agreed with Sarah Palin.  Good grief, life has become confusing.

The first snow of winter came today. I made Mr. T drive us home from church so he could experience that with me in the passenger seat. New drivers and snow, I am cautious with my firstborn when it comes to the "firsts."

Second-born son and new kitten, Rose.

Kittens suck you in with their cuteness and make you give them a home.

Our cat, Rose, is a real slob with the litter box and water dish. Her gear is in the basement bathroom and I have to sweep up after her every single day. Violet was never such a pig (RIP, dear cat). I went to the store and bought Rose a trough for her litter, the kind one uses to mix concrete for bricklaying. It's much larger than a conventional litter box. No matter, she still kicks up a mess. I laid newspapers, they absorb the water from her dish across the room, but the litter ends up all over. Yesterday I bought a LED nightlight, swept up the basement, mopped the floor and reset the space for her. I theorized that maybe the cat was messy because it was too dark and she couldn't see.

For the first time since she moved in with us, I walked downstairs to find just a tiny bit of cat litter scattered across the tile floor. The paper beneath her water dish was soaked, but it seems I solved the litter box issue.Turns out that all Rose needed to function better with her litter box was a little light.

I just realized I may have written a metaphor here--something about a little light and solving problems and having hope.  Maybe that's enough if you think about it.