Awakening Persephone

No one notified me that the tall, slender, young tulip poplar trees outside my balcony were going to be cut down and turned into mulch right in front of my eyes.20170328_165312

I left for work agitated that the apartment complex hired a company to dismantle the tiny woodlands on my hillside in order to widen the mountain views for the tenants on the upper floors.  I did not realize the devastation left behind until later that night.  I walked my dog behind those very apartments where I like to catch glimpses of the moon and the few lights on top of the mountains, but mostly because I feel protected by and connected to these elegant, tall trees.

 

They were cut down in their youth, right as they were taking root and finding their place on this hillside.  Tenderness and sadness swam in the depths of my heart.  A soft whimper escaped my lips and tears fell from my eyes.

In that moment, I felt a shift.  A transformation snaking its way up through my spine into my heart.  A calling to go deeper into the reasons I felt called to these mountains.  My pain was directly connected to this landscape in front of my eyes.

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For the past few weeks, I have been dancing between flirtations and fun at work, sensual movements in yoga practices and classes I teach, and joy and lightness at my easy work and life schedule. I have been ignoring the whisperings of past hurt, resentment, and regrets I thought I had left behind.  I pushed away the worries of money and not having a definitive career.  I threw myself into hikes and flowed with the directionless winds of my life.  Yet, I also sensed that I would have to face the darkness and shadows I had carried with me to these grandmotherly mountains.

Then, a series of uncomfortable events happened in a few short days that came out of nowhere like the razing of the trees.  I felt vulnerable.  Naked.  Exposed.  There was no way I couldn’t look down the hill and see the dark soil, ripped up roots, mulched trees and their stumps, and the litter and waste left by careless tenants.  There was no way I couldn’t see my own pain and sadness.  Nowhere left to look but down.

And so down into the depths I travel.

Before me stands my 22 year old self.  She is beautiful with soft, olive-complected skin, long brown hair.  Her mouth is thin, but when she smiles, her straight white teeth highlight her lips’ natural red glow.  Staring out from under her jet black eyebrows are dark, liquid, brown eyes that look out at the world with wide eyed innocence.

She has graduated college and walked straight into her career as a teacher.  No break.  No gap year.  No time to explore and discover herself.  She is on a mission to share her natural gifts with other young, innocent children not more than 4 years younger than her.

As she is coming into her womanhood, she is fending off advances from 18 year old men that she finds attractive.  She is confused, so she builds up a wall around her sexiness, her sensuality, and steps up her authority figure identity.

The following year, a 35 year old male colleague begins paying attention to her.  He is attractive.  He seems concerned for her well-being and is interested in her life and what brought her to the big city of St. Louis.  He then begins showing up at her classroom in between passing periods, flirts with her in the hallway, and sits too closely to her at faculty meetings.  She begins to get uncomfortable because he is married, his wife recently giving birth to twin sons.  She is confused because she likes the attention, yet scared because she worries he will one day cross the line.  And he does.  He tricks and manipulates her by inviting her to a happy hour with other colleagues.

In the end, he was the only one there with her.  He takes off his wedding ring and says provocative things to her.  She is angry, both at him and herself.  She feels dirty and ashamed, and ashamed at the fact that she thinks she used her power to make him attracted to her.  He threatens that if she doesn’t invite him back to her apartment, he will follow her and show up unannounced one day.

After he walks into her apartment, he grabs her and kisses her.  She kisses him with anger.  He is more attracted to her because he thinks its a sign she wants him.  She regains her senses and asks him to leave.  He has a moment of guilt and stops groping her.  He then begs her for sex.  She refuses with a whimper.  He asks her to give him a blow job.  She refuses with logical reasoning.  He realizes she is not going to give anything to him, and instead of taking her by force, he lashes out his violence with words and calls her a slut and a whore and a cock tease.  He begs one last time for a little kiss.  She closes the door on him.  And she locks down her heart, and closes the door on her body, her sexiness, her sensuality.

And the years go on in that way.  She placates the women in her teaching circle by going out with their sons or sons of their acquaintances, yet she locks her passion and humor and sensuality and sexiness down at any hint of rejection or criticism from these young men.  She fends off single male colleague’s advances because of her past experiences.  She listens to her students when they come to her privately with their concerns of boyfriends wanting to have sex with them or offers advice to or gets help for young girls struggling with weight issues or cutting themselves or attempting suicide due to emotional or physical abuse by their fathers, step-fathers, or boyfriends.  She holds a space for the transgender teen who is mid transition and so confused and in need of love and acceptance.  She turns in a colleague for her inappropriate bulletin boards that have overt sexual references on them.  She fends off single fathers’ advances to take the parent-teacher conference out of the classroom and to dinner at a fancy restaurant and maybe a little dessert back at their places.

All the while, she continues to offer her teachings and protection as she sacrifices a little bit more of her youth and locks down her sexiness, her sensuality, her passion, her creativity and gives her whole heart and mind to her students, their youth, their education, their advancement.

I fall to my knees and bow down in front of this beautiful, young, warrior woman.

And I owe it to her to stand up and walk into my sexiness, my sensuality, my passion, my creativity.  For it is all holy and she has protected all of it for this ripe, tender time when it can come from the depths of the damp, dark, mysterious earth and meet the light.  And blossom.  And grow like the cherry blossoms and forsythia that line the ragged hillside, acting like monuments to the fallen tulip poplars.   And twist and turn like the vines and twisted limbs of the laurel trees on the mountainside.  And flow like the streams.  And shimmer like the glistening dew on the tips of the clustered ferns.  And take up space in crevices of boulders and on top of the rich humus like the lush green moss.  All of this is her home.  And I have returned it back to her by coming here.

The warrior is now a goddess.  And she will walk this earth and give of her sexiness, her sensuality, her passion, her playfulness, her creativity, her love.  Because she is holy.

 

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The Cracked-Open Heart

On nearly a daily basis, I have moments when I ask myself a series of questions: “Why am I here in Western North Carolina?  Why did I leave my old life behind?  Is this the right thing to do?  How will I know when I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing if I don’t even know what that is just yet?”

A series of serendipities this weekend delivered me a piece of the mysterious puzzle I have been trying to solve.

On Saturday, at the suggestion of my new neighbor, I went to the literary festival in Burnsville, NC.  The drive to Burnsville was thirty minutes of glorious scenery of undulating two lane highways towards a soft, rolling, layered backdrop of gentle mountains.  The trees are beginning to yellow and already there is some type of brush that has turned a fiery orange and yellow.

img_2642I walked up to the old brick building of Yancey County Public Library at 8:45 a.m. and watched the last of the fog peel away from the distant mountains and reveal a glowing sunlight on the tops of the trees.  I was there to attend a writing workshop hosted by local writer and teacher, Jennifer McGaha.  She is a lovely woman with a sense of humor and really challenging and interesting writing prompts.  By the time the nearly three hour session was over, I was fighting back tears of tenderness I had unlocked in my writing, most of which I didn’t share with a single soul but my composition notebook.

Across the room at another table facing me was a beautiful woman who had snow white hair, a sweet face, and the cutest red shoes that I coveted all morning long.  She shared a piece of writing with the group that was so descriptive and emotionally moving that I knew I had to talk to her afterwards.  I felt so drawn to her (and I wanted to know where she got her shoes).  She invited me to lunch with her and Jennifer.

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Through their kind words, listening ears, and probing questions, they validated me as a writer and as a teacher of writing.  I soaked up everything they said and internally I was fighting back tears.  Not of sadness but of sheer gratitude.  Here before me were two women gently mentoring me and holding me accountable to my dreams.

fullsizerenderLater that evening, I attended the ending lecture of the three day festival.  The speaker was David George Haskell, biologist and writer who is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his beautiful book The Forest Unseen.  I had only read two pages of his book the day before when I purchased it and my ticket.  Something inside of me told me to forgo my cheapness and spend the money to listen to him talk about the natural world.  He spent one entire year observing a square meter of forest in Tennessee.  What he learned and what he shared resonated so deeply within me that I cannot even begin to articulate it.  Just imagine Charles Darwin meets Charles Dickens meets Mary Oliver.  This man has the mind of a scientist, the master craftsmanship of a novelist, and the heart and soul of a poet.  He reminded us that the beings in the natural world are relational not to just one another but to us as well (they’re our “blood kin” literally if we believe in evolution).  His message was that we must pay attention to the particular so as to be able to see our part in the universal.  Through this practice, he learned:  1.)  that there is an opening for everyone to experience the unspeakable beauty in this world; 2.)  that there is a sense of the fathomless brokenness in things – from a sense of feeling so lonely to trying to understand the universe and humans inability to communicate with their natural kin; 3.)  that the pain in just one square meter of forest is extraordinary and we must learn to live and appreciate the duality of the beauty and the suffering and not try to create a resolution between the two.  (See?  My words are incapable to do his justice.  I mean, we gave the man two standing ovations, for God’s sake.)

At the end of the lecture, I noticed no one was clamoring around him to bend his ear or have him sign their book (I realized later I missed the pre-lecture book signing).  My knees shook and my heart fluttered.  I knew I must go over to him and thank him for being my teacher this evening.  When I spoke, tears alighted to my eyes.  My heart was overflowing with so much gratitude and incomprehensible desire to know more about myself through the natural world and his understanding of it.  Why did I uproot myself and plant myself hundreds of miles away from the rippling cornfields and blue skies of my Midwestern world?  Why am I in these mountains, sometimes alone and lonely, overstimulated and confused, or peaceful and laid back?  Why was I almost crying in front of a stranger who spoke his truth and his beauty not more than 10 minutes earlier?

I collected myself and he was so moved by my tenderness that I saw him put his hand over his heart.  He pursed his lips into a smile and he lowered his shoulders and became very humble when I asked him to sign my book.  Another impulse came over me and I told him about my time last year spent in Colorado where I “attuned to the particular to see myself in the unversal.”  He became very excited and he noted down the name of the psychologist (Bill Plotkin) and his foundation (Animas Valley Institute).  He assured me his work was now on his radar.  We both discussed how it is important to start re-wilding ourselves as a society and learn again how to talk to nature and let nature talk to us.

Which leads me to today.  My two new yoga friends suggested I go to Warren Wilson college so I could spend some time in nature and write and attune to the particulars of my chosen world and path.

I spread my blanket in the shade of the glorious meadow that was covered on all sides by these divine, feminine, graceful mountains.  I began to write, hoping to capture some sense of beauty and inspiration.  What happened instead was that I became agitated and annoyed.  Out of nowhere, tiny insects began biting me and buzzing my head.  A big black ant came marching towards my thighs.  A tiny green spider crawled over my foot.  My dog strayed too far away from our sitting area and I had to stop writing and call her over.  I held on to her leash and she pulled and strained and walked around me as I tried to balance my composition notebook on my lap.  She spilled her drinking water and frustration welled up inside of me.  Birds started to pick up on my frustration and they became noisy.  I was ready to call it quits, when I heard myself ask, “Why must you always try to orchestrate everything with your mind?  What if you just sat here and tuned in to what is happening in and on your body, in your surroundings?”img_2663

 

I put my pen and notebook down.  I closed my eyes.  I took a breath.  Then another.  And then another.

A gentle breeze picked up and evaporated the sweat off of my upper lip, my armpits, and behind my knees.  The breeze acted like a balm and suddenly all of my itching went away.

I focused my attention on the particular area of my heart.  The breeze picked up and blew steadily against me.

I said a prayer of gratitude for all of the goodness that has been happening to me.  And without warning, I began to cry.  And more than cry, I started to sob.  My mind wanted to start to rationalize why I was sobbing, but my body stopped it and asked it to be silent and just let this wave of sadness pour over me.

That’s when I felt a lot of compassion, more than I have ever felt in all my life.  Compassion for my dog who was hot and tired.  Compassion for the ant that I had chased away.  Compassion for the birds that were searching for food.  Compassion for my friends and family who have their own fears and obstacles to overcome.  Compassion for the constant struggle we all have to just stay alive and thrive.  Compassion for these mountains that are ancient and weary but ready to nurture and give more life to their space on this planet.

In that moment, the wind enveloped me.  The birds began to sing even louder.  And right before I pushed through the other side of some type of release, I remembered to include myself in this chain of compassion too.

I do not need to know the answers as to why I am here.  If I only came here for this pure moment of utter gratitude and compassion that cracked open my heart and allowed my tenderness to pour out with no shame or embarrassment attached to it and no need to withhold it, then that was enough.  A piece of the mystery was revealed in that moment when I chose to give my tenderness and practice a second of compassion here in this world where I am a tiny leaf on this great tree of life.

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Love Is Tough

Witnessing someone in pain is difficult.

You aren’t sure what to do.  What to say.  Exactly how to act.

You provide a moment of safe space for that person to simply vent his frustration.  You think you are just being there for him, but then you walk away realizing his funk has now become yours.  Or his anger is stuck on you.  Your hips ache.  Your shoulders are tight.  It feels like some type of green slime has been smeared over your body and you feel sticky and stuck.

What do you do?  You’re now in pain.  Someone’s suffering has become your suffering.

Offer him tough love.  Or love yourself enough to get tough and shield yourself from the green goo of misplaced emotions that is starting to ooze in your direction.images

What does that look like?  It all depends, I guess.  I watched a friend give some tough love to his students today.  He was so angry with a group of freshmen students who made fun of someone’s “weirdness” yesterday.  They mocked him.  Teased him for his differences.  And my friend spent 2 hours of his work time counseling this student, getting him some help, watching this student rage, curse, and cry his way to a physical, mental, and emotional breakdown.

My friend was drained and needed to eat lunch so I agreed to spend the first part of my lunch hour in his room so he could eat.  I walked in the room and he started his class with a powerful, passionate, articulate speech about the treatment of a person who is going through a difficult time.  He reminded his students that it is his job to protect and take care of his students, and that means not just each of them individually, but students at this school collectively.  I can’t even begin to capture his words he so eloquently said to them, but by the end students’ heads were hanging in shame and you could feel how their emotions shifted from animosity to embarrassment to love – love for the individual who was mocked and love for their teacher who cared enough to be so bold and straightforward with them while revealing his authentic emotions in the moment.  It was beautiful.  And it was tough love in its fiercest and purest form.

I left his classroom later that hour with an open heart and a desire to be authentic.

I also knew that if my heart was open, I needed to carry an imaginary shield to fend of the emotional goo of others.  I didn’t want to get sucked into a deep, dark hole of someone else’s suffering, fear, rage, or sadness.  There’s enough of my own pain that I must tend to on occasion anyway.

I didn’t want to do battle, but I didn’t want to be in an open field during hunting season either.

How can openness and protection go hand in hand?

I guess it comes with acknowledging the other person, first and foremost.

After subbing for my friend’s class, I ate a quick lunch and joined another teacher for hall duty.  We stand out in front of the cafeteria during a lunch period and keep the herd from going out to pasture before the bell rings.

One student needed to go to his locker.  He was of Middle-Eastern origin and was wearing a black sweatshirt that read “Palestine vs. The World.”  He was not in dress code, so I asked him to remove his sweatshirt.  He was visibly angry, but decided not to test us, so he removed it.  I told him I would escort him to his locker (kids aren’t allowed to leave the area without a pass from another teacher).  He tried to antagonize me verbally.  I put up my shield and smiled genuinely at him.  He didn’t really know how to react to that.

He asked about my sweatshirt I was wearing.  It has our school’s diversity club logo on it.  Our club is called “Harambee” which means “Let’s all pull together” in Swahili.  I mentioned it to him and that I am one of the sponsors of the club.  He asked a bit about it and I told him some of the fun activities we do and our annual show we put on for the school and the public.  I then asked him about his sweatshirt.  He got embarrassed and said he wasn’t really sure what it meant, but that his older brother wears it and his brother is angry all the time and very political.

We talked about the possible connotations of the sweatshirt and how others may view it as well.  He said, “I really didn’t know what it could mean.  I guess it seems a little aggressive, doesn’t it?”  I said, “Probably at this time in the world’s trials, yes, but it is also a statement of pain and misunderstanding.”  He just shook his head in contemplation.  We started our walk back to the cafeteria after he grabbed what he needed from his locker and put his sweatshirt away.  I asked him if he had family from Palestine, and he told me he was born there and goes back every year to celebrate Ramadan with his grandparents and aunts and uncles.

He got so excited to share about his culture and was even more excited that I knew what Ramadan is and some of the customs that go along with it.  I asked him if he spoke Arabic (his English was flawless with no trace of an accent).  He smiled really big and said, “Yes.”  I told him I knew a few words, and he asked me what I knew.  I smiled and said, “Asalam alaikum” (which loosely translated means “Allah’s (or God’s) peace to you”).  He grabbed my hand in true Arabic fashion, pressed his other hand on top of mine and said, “Alaikum asalam” (“Peace be unto you as well”).

Before I sound too emotionally gooey here, know that after that a butthead freshman came along and tested my limits.  He was rude, crude, and obnoxious, and I wasn’t so open and understanding with him.  I got tough and let him get himself in trouble.  I wrote him up and realized that I couldn’t get through to him because he didn’t want to reach out to me.  Not my problem.  I chose love of myself for this one and put on my Wonder Woman bracelets and became a brick wall that he could only bounce off of.  The job of “getting through to him” would come later, from someone else.  Until then, he could go sit with his anger and animosity in the office, away from me and other kids who don’t have the skill to shake off his negative vibes.imgres

And the day kept rolling on like that:  open my heart, smile, use my words, protect with shield, or deflect with Wonder Woman bracelets.  Each student’s energy determining what form of love I would show to them, and to myself.imgres-1

 

 

 

 

I Don’t Know.

This semester is my first year ever teaching Early World Literature class to seniors in high school.  Honestly, I am reading texts and writing lesson plans the night before (and sometimes on my lunch hour) and walking in to class more like the lead student than the teacher.  It’s exhilarating, but daunting.  I never know if it’s going to be a “hit” or a “miss.”  Recently, I taught a lesson focused on a small excerpt of the Ancient Indian texts, The Upanishads.

The Upanishads
The Upanishads

The lesson went like this:

I had students write down a serious, thought-provoking and difficult question on a slip of paper and put it in a bowl at the front of the classroom.  They became very excited and the room fell silent for a few moments as they put their pencils to their slips of paper and started writing.  Interestingly enough, no one shared their questions with anyone.  They quietly walked to the room and placed their papers in the bowl, beaming with pride and giddiness at the mysteries we were about to unfold.

I then read the questions out loud to the class.  They were fascinating:

How big is the universe and is there a finite point where it retracts into itself?

If the Earth gets sucked into a black hole, what will happen to us?

If time stops, how will we know?

What is the soul composed of?

What does it physically feel like to die?

As I was reading them, some students tried to come up with answers and then fell short with statements like, “Oh man, I don’t know.  That’s tough.”  Others stared or smiled or shot serious, probing looks at me, while others commented on how good the questions were.  No one had their heads on their desks (always a good sign).

After I read the questions, I asked them  if they frequently use Google to answer their questions, regardless if they are valid questions with qualitative or quantitative answers or if they were unanswerable questions like the ones above.  I even asked them if they typed in questions hoping for a prediction of how some situation in their life was going to turn out.  Everyone’s hand (including mine) went up.

We want to know what we don’t already know.  Or we want to know what we already think we know just to know that we know it.  Or we want to know what we might need to know in case the situation or scenario we were imagining occurs so we will know what to do.  It’s human nature.

I then gave them a brief overview of what The Upanishads are:  Ancient Hindu philosophical texts that try to explain, through paradoxes, anecdotes and questions, the ultimate reality of pure consciousness, and the awareness of and the joining of the Self to Brahman (the essence of everything in nature and in man).  In Eastern philosophy, the questions are more important than the answers.  The journey to finding the truth by asking more questions and going deeper in your understanding of your questions and what they reveal (and don’t reveal) is far more important than the destination.  I told them this key phrase:  “You have to admit you don’t know in order to really know that you don’t know so you can work on knowing more than you knew before.  That is how you gain knowledge and therefore gain wisdom.”

I instructed them on what a paradox is:  a statement that seems to be contradictory but holds some wisdom or truth inside it like Oscar Wilde’s statement “I can resist anything but temptation,” or George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote, “Youth is wasted on the young.”  Once they understood this concept (and even came up with a few of their own), I told them as I read the excerpt, they were to write down 3 paradoxes so we could discuss them afterwards.

We didn’t make it that far.  Class was way too animated when I read the first lines “Who puts the thought into your mind?  Who draws in your breath?  Who is the radiant Being that puts sight into your eyes and sound in your ears?  It is Brahman which cannot be thought, cannot be seen, cannot be heard.  Brahman is not that which is worshiped by man.  Once you think you know, you don’t know.  You must experience it.  But soon as you experience it, you are no more closer to knowing because now you’re trying to explain what cannot be explained in words, in thoughts, in sight nor in sound.”  [FYI:  I’m paraphrasing the Upanishad here and you’re still probably scratching your head asking yourself, “What the hell did I just read?” or “What the hell is she teaching these kids?”]

The fun really began when hands went up left and right and in the back and the front of the room and a class dialogue similar to this erupted:

Students
Students

Student: “How are we supposed to know anything about this when the speaker admits he doesn’t exactly know who or what Brahman is?”

Me:  “I don’t know.  Is it more important to know who or what Brahman is or is it more important to seek by asking questions and trying to find the answers which will lead to more questions which will then lead to more knowledge and wisdom?”

Student:  “I don’t know that’s what I’m asking you.”

Me:  “Well, do you have a better explanation of that which isn’t seen but makes us see?”

Student:  “Yeah, well, no, well, I don’t know.  Let’s continue reading.  I’ll have another question in a moment.”

Student:  “Why did students trust their teachers when their teachers didn’t know the answers to these questions either?”

Me:  “What are you saying?”

Student:  “I’m saying, do you know who or what this radiant Being is?”

Me:  “No, I don’t know, but I know that according to this text I, and every living thing in nature, have experienced it.  Does it matter if we can define it or not?”

Student:  “Yeah, it matters.”

Me:  “Why does it matter?  Isn’t it more important to keep asking questions and realize that you are on a journey to finding out the truth eventually?”

Student:  “Why are you being so frustrating?”

Me:  “Why are you so frustrated?”

Student:  “Ugh! Can we ask questions all the time and will you answer us?”

Me:  “You can ask as many questions as you want, as often as you want.  I might not answer them the way you like because I might not have the answers either and I might have to ask you questions.”

Student:  “So, if I admit to you that I don’t know what is going on in this text, then I will magically know because I told you I don’t know.”

Me:  “I don’t know because you might be fooling yourself into thinking you know just to shut me up and get this frustration out of the way.  But frustration is good because that means you want to know and understand.”

Student:  “So, being frustrated is good?  Why?  What good could possibly come out of being so frustrated?  I feel more confused about how to read ancient texts, or texts in general, than I did when I came in.  My brain hurts because it feels so full of information, and now I want to know what Brahman is so I can get a good grade on the test.”

Me:  “Oh, you almost had it.”

Student:  “Had what?  What did I have?  Did I have Brahman?  Did I know him and I lost him?”

Me:  “Now you’re getting somewhere.  You don’t need to know this for a test, you need to know that you’re asking questions because you want to know more about what you don’t know.”

Student:  “Oh, I know now what you mean.  I think.”

Me:  “Yes, you are thinking and that is the whole purpose of this text.”

Sighs of relieve, anxiety, frustration and amusement filled the classroom (and still no one had his head on his desk) and I was having fun.  I laughed when the reading was over and they were still buzzing from what just happened.  With a smirk on my face I said, “I hope you’re all a little pissed off right now.”  In unison they replied, “We are!”  I told them that was good because it means they want to learn and inquire more.  One boy asked, “Wait?  Did we learn something?  What did we learn?  I feel like we learned something, but I’m not sure.  This was good, I know that.”  Wanting to end their frustration and wrap everything up with the 2 minutes we had left,  I asked them why they wrote down their particular questions on the slips of paper when they knew they would never get an answer that would explain even a fraction of what they really wanted to know.  And a few kids said, “Because it is an important question and I still want to know it even if I know that I’ll probably never know the answer.”

I raised my hands and sang to them in an angelic voice “Cue the heavens opening and light shining down because you admit you don’t know but you still want to know, and that is all you need to know for today!”

Then the bell rang and I was exhausted.  I had only created this lesson plan yesterday evening and over my lunch period today.  I had no idea it would turn into something as wonderful and magical as this.  As they were leaving the room, I heard them still chatting about the the class discussion and how different it was than other lessons.  I started laughing as I gathered up my book, notebook and notes and I thought to myself, “If only they knew that I really don’t know anymore than they think they know right now.”

The Sunday Dreads

The Sunday Dreads.  I can’t shake them.  I’ve been suffering from them probably since I was in the 2nd grade and realized that school was there to stay.  I would have succumb to the teacher’s and my parents’s will and do classwork and homework.  I would have to overcome my shyness and learn to get along with kids on the playground.  I would have to pay attention to the teacher as she or he asked me to recite my alphabet or write down my spelling words or carry the 1 in arithmetic.  Little did I know I would make school my career nor that I would be battling this chronic malady well into my mid-30s.

The only way to deal with eliminating The Sunday Dreads is by doing my homework.
The only way to deal with eliminating The Sunday Dreads is by doing my homework.

What are the symptoms of The Sunday Dreads you ask?  I’m sure they vary for everyone depending on what job you do Monday-Friday.  I’m a high school English teacher, and so I suffer from the following symptoms (in no particular order):

  • a constant resentment that you have to go to work on Monday and that your weekend is soon to come to an end.
  • a nervous stomach that gurgles and sputters whenever you think about and begin all the work you have to do to prepare yourself for work on Monday (this pertains a lot to teachers).
  • a tightness in your chest and shallow breathing as the late afternoon and early evening set in.
  • anxiety over the amount of grading you have to do, but really don’t want to (again, this symptom is specific to teachers).
  • cracked lips from biting them or licking them because of your dry mouth (caused by “anxiety” or “nervous stomach” symptom).
  • a slight fear that you have to stand up in front of people and teach them to correct their mistakes or how to become better people (for supervisors, managers, teachers, or self-motivation speakers).
  • a ringing in your ears which is the far off buzz of the hum-drum work schedule you’re soon going to have to follow.
  • a clenched jaw that pops and cracks whenever you open it.
  • insomnia, interrupted sleep, or nightmares due to your over-anticipation of the day that is rushing to your doorstep too quickly.

How to treat The Sunday Dreads?

  • Get up early in the morning, drink a cup of coffee, read a book and watch CBS Sunday morning while sitting in your comfy chair.
  • Take a walk or 2 or 3.
  • Take a nap (if the insomnia, interrupted sleep or nightmares have not begun).
  • Eat.
  • Go shopping.
  • Watch a TV show on your DVR or rent a movie.
  • Pretend that you don’t have to go to work and that you’ve won the Lottery and plan a virtual vacation.
  • Or just do your homework and deal with it.

Obviously I have self-diagnosed and treat my condition as my figurative albatross that I have chosen to live with since I’ve chosen to be an English teacher.  I simply can’t seem to shake my routine that has been in place since I was 8 years old.  The Dreads were never present the rest of the week.  It didn’t matter if my school day  was great and I got an ‘A’ on any given assignment, or if I got beat up by the neighborhood bully and would have to face her every day at the bus stop, I would come home, eat my after-school snack, watch 3-2-1- Contact, Sesame StreetBugs Bunny, The Flintstones and then go outside and play before I had to do whatever little homework I was given for the night.

Things remained somewhat the same in junior high school, but the bullies were now mean girls and puberty was rampant.  My Sunday Dreads occasionally spilled over into Monday, Tuesday, and sometimes Wednesday, but were gone before the weekend came.  Then, when I got my braces off in high school, my concern over my looks and my perpetual gauge on where I ranked on the popularity scale blended into a whole other form of anxiety that looked similar to the Sunday Dreads symptoms.  Still, I knew there was an end in sight because I was accepted into my university of choice and that would take away all of my school anxieties for good because I would be “free” (whatever that meant).

No one told me about the Saturday Drunks I would experience in college that fueled an ever heightened case of the Sunday Dreads, especially when finals were looming.  Then, once I got my teaching job, I thought everything would settle down and I would feel normal and less anxious once I had been teaching for awhile.  Once I was “in the groove” and had all of my classes, lessons, activities, worksheets, PowerPoints in order and all of my #2 pencils sharpened and sitting on my nicely organized desk.  Now, 15 years in “the biz” and I’m still anticipating that ideal which will be my “cure-all” for these Sunday Dreads.

Until then, I guess I have to do my homework and take a few antacids.

Homework is just so boring.
Homework is just so boring.
Stick a fork in me.  I'm done.  I've succumbed to the Sunday Dreads.
Stick a fork in me. I’m done. I’ve succumbed to the Sunday Dreads.

Glory Days

Welcome to high school!

As a high school teacher, I get to relive many other people’s “glory days” year after year.  The biggest of those days culminate the week of Homecoming.  The entire week is dedicated to creating school spirit and getting the student body excited about the first home game.  On “dress up” day, I look forward to watching kids dress up by class, whether it be freshmen as “hippies,” sophomores as “nerds,” juniors as “rock stars,” or seniors as “senior citizens.”  After reading the announcements to my 2nd hour class, I am supposed to tally up how many students did the dress up that day and then pass out a “tootie fruity” candy to each one.  (Like the candy addict I am, I always save a small handful back and snack on those during breaks.)  Homecoming week is also an excuse for me to dress casually and wear my “spirit gear” (e.g., school t-shirts, jerseys, sweatshirts, etc.) and pair it with jeans or khakis.   The week ends with the Homecoming Assembly where students participate in games on the gym floor. There are dance routines performed by cheerleaders and other clubs, and teachers and assistant principals get a pie in the face as a way to boost student morale and raise money for charity.

Oh, and then there’s “Sliders.”

“Sliders” is a tradition that goes way back.  The concept is for  kids (and teachers) to do a dance routine to popular songs, and at the change of each song, they slide into formation to spell out the school’s name:  WEST.  Ok, I understand the appeal when it gets paired with the homecoming’s theme like this year’s “superheroes,” and the entertainment comes with each participating group’s spin on that theme.  Oh, and it is also exciting to watch the male teachers do their “Sliders” routine because there is something inherently funny in watching grown men dress up in costumes (most of the time one is at least dressed like an ugly woman) and try to perform an organized and cohesive routine.  They always knock it out of the park as far as humor and creativity go.

The female teachers’ sliders team is great as well.  They’re clever, organized, energetic, and well, really good.  I always enjoyed watching the sliders from the sidelines.   It’s fun to listen to the roar and cheer of 2,000+ students cheering on their teachers and peers.  But, as far as participating in the event, I’ve gone “under the radar” for 12 years now. I’ve always lived by the phrase, “I teach high school, I’m not in high school.”  Until this year.

I won’t get into the specifics on why I chose to do the routine this year (peer pressure); but I finally said “yes,” simply because our new administration has given our school and our teachers a much needed boost in morale.  I figured in the end, why not contribute back to this place that has given me so much?  Oh, and did I mention “peer pressure”?  😉

Anyway, at our first morning practice before the beginning of the school day, I decided to go for a good first slide and ended up getting two bad floor burns on my forearms.  I laughed it off when inside I was in some serious pain.  It didn’t help when I took a shower later that evening and felt the sting and burn all over again.  But, I survived and showed up every day at practice with enthusiasm.  I also enjoyed the camaraderie with my fellow science, math, English, German, French, art, and Learning Strategies teachers.  They’re great women, and it was refreshing to get to know them better all for the sake of having fun and wanting to make memories for our students.  The routine was easy too.  I just had to show up and practice my sliding.  Everything else was well-organized and under control by two well-organized, calm, yet energetic women.

Ouch! My war wounds!

On the morning of today’s assembly, I started to get “pre-game jitters”.  “What if I mess up?” I thought.  But it was all under control after a half hour practice at 7:45 a.m. and 10 run-throughs of the routine that left us all sweaty, hot, and stinky.  As soon as practice was over, I rushed across the school, ran up 3 flights of stairs while lugging my satchel and other miscellaneous items, and arrived at my locked classroom door at the end of the 2nd bell.  26 students were piled up outside of my classroom asking me where I’ve been.  “Sliders,” I said breathlessly as I tried to balance my large load while fishing my keys out of my pocket as my students stood by in annoyance.  “Ms. H, you’re bleeding,” one girl said.

“What?  Huh?” I mumbled while balancing my bag on one shoulder, my sweatshirt and jacket in one arm, keys in the other hand, and papers in my mouth.  Once we were inside and everyone took their seat (and I had tossed everything haphazardly onto my desk), I looked at my arms and saw blood trickling down.  “Oh, gross,” I thought, and grabbed a Kleenex and wiped myself off right before I handed out the papers for the day.

I played the “sympathy” card the rest of the shortened schedule day and begged my students to cheer me at the assembly.  For whatever reason, maybe because I was going to be up in front of a large crowd of hormonally challenged teenagers later that day, I began reminiscing about my “glory days”.  I was not a popular kid.  I was a middle-of-the-road band geek who had crushes on boys that didn’t know I existed.  I played basketball for the majority of my high school years, but sat most of the time on the bench.  I wore braces for my first 2 years and a retainer for my last two.  (After a late night of “cruising,” I once retrieved my retainer from a McDonald’s trash can after having taken it out to eat my quintessential teenage meal of cheeseburger, fries and a Coke.  But, I digress.)

I went to assemblies and played in the pep band.  I marched at football games and went to dances.  And, though there were happy times interspersed in those 4 years, the majority of the time I worried.  A lot.  I felt like a big microscope was on me, and I feared that everyone would notice every single mistake I would make, and then later judge me for it.  I worried about my looks, my clothes, my grades, my homework, cute boys, and mean girls; and I worried about where I would sit in the cafeteria, and with whom I would be sitting.  I thought I was abnormal because I was having more of these “worry days” than I was “carefree, glory days.”

Now that I’m a high school teacher, I see the reality of high school and teenagers.  Even the popular kids, the bully, the mean girl, the freakishly quiet kid in the corner, the jocks, the band nerd, and the drifter worry about the same things I did.  Back in my day, I was searching for my true identity.  I thought it existed in how I decorated my locker, how I styled my hair, what catchy words and phrases I used, and with whom I decided to spend a majority of my time.   I questioned why I was feeling lonely, melancholy, crucified, mortified, embarrassed, awkward, angry, or confused one minute, and giddy, happy, confident, pretty and smart the next.  And though there were happy moments and fun times in my life as a high school kid, and though I enjoyed a majority of my classes, teachers, and classmates, there was that nagging feeling that I was waiting for my “real life” to start.  I didn’t know that it had already begun.

As I was recounting my “war wounds” to my senior writing students this morning, I saw myself in their faces.  An odd thing happened to me too:  I got “school spirit” and I wanted to let them know that today is a good time in their lives.  Tomorrow or Monday, or three weeks or a year from now might not be, but today is because they have a chance to cheer, to act silly, to dress funny, to laugh, to take pictures, and to enjoy a fleeting moment of a fading childhood.

Keep The Change

Ever have one of those weeks when every day is a comedy of errors?  That’s been my week.

It started last Sunday.  In my defense, I had been awake since 4:30 that morning; so everything that came out of my mouth didn’t always pass through the in-brain edit button first.  And, my friends Jamie, Mary and I had just hiked 3 miles up a river bluff and down under a train trestle at Castlewood State Park outside of St. Louis, MO.  So, when the waiter brought us our check as we sipped our iced teas at the quaint restaurant “Home” in Maplewood, MO, it didn’t register that I really didn’t pay enough for my meal (which cost $14, but we all had added a large cup of $6 soup to our order as well).  All I heard was Mary saying, “It’s $20 for us each.”  I delicately repressed a  yawn after having loaded up on carbs, and thought to myself, “Geez, that’s a lot for a tip.”  But, I was having fun and thought I would just spend my cash instead of having to figure out a tip on my debit card.  I tossed my $20 bill onto the tray and told the waiter, “Keep the change.”

Jamie left the table to use the restroom.  Mary politely said, “It’s your birthday celebration.  I’ve got the tip.”  

I was confused.  “What?” I said.  I couldn’t understand why she was going to leave more money to an already generous tip from each of us.

Mary asserted that it was “OK”.  She wanted to do a nice thing for me.  “It’s really no problem,” she smiled and began writing out her bill.

“What?” I asked again.

Again, Mary delicately said, “We ordered soup.”

I leaned back in my chair and quickly recollected the tasty, warm white bean soup with squash and spices.  “Yeah,” I sighed.  “That was good.”

Then it dawned on me.  I had short-changed the waiter and with a cocky attitude I had told him, “Keep the change.”  My friend was trying to save face and not hurt my feelings.  I began to freak out.  I insisted I pay her back.  I volunteered to walk over to the cash register and ask the waiter to stop the transaction. Mary laughed.  I even debated going over to the waiter and apologizing for my gaffe.  I was embarrassed.  Jamie came back to the table and I told her what happened.  She laughed and said, “I wondered if you would figure it out.”  I hung my head in shame.  Mary started laughing and said, “It’s OK.  I still like you, even if you are an asshole.”

That was Sunday.

On Monday, I walked my dog in the wee hours of a rainy morning.  When we got inside, my house immediately smelled like wet dog.  I tried to Febreze away the odor, and even added a few extra pumps of expensive perfume on my clothes.  It was to no avail because when I dropped my dog off at the kennel, the lobby area smelled like wet dogs, and that smell soaked into my clothes.  I got back in my car and noticed my meticulously straightened hair had been frizzed at the roots from the humidity, and the ends had been burned and split by the straightening iron.  By the time I walked into work, my heels had been rubbed raw from my cute, new flats I had purchased the evening before, and my hair looked like Monica from the Caribbean trip “Friends” episode.  

After a long day of teaching high school students, my friend and fellow English teacher, Andy, stopped by my classroom to vent about his truly horrible day.  I tried to sympathize with him but I had a blister on my foot from my flesh-eating flats.  I didn’t want to interrupt his story, and so I wheeled myself in my chair and scooted to the trash can near my desk.  I realized that the band-aid was all gooey and bloody and so I didn’t want him to see it.  I leaned over delicately and tried with stealth-like skills to drop it into the waste can.  In slow motion, I began to lean a little too far to the left.  I tried to correct myself, but my foot slid out from under me (damn flats), and down I went, with my chair toppling over me.

I stood up and couldn’t look my friend in the eye.  I could see that his shoulders were hunched up, and he sat motionless.  He did manage to ask, “Are you alright?”  While picking up the chair, I continued to look at the floor so as to avoid eye contact.  “Yep,” I said.  “I’m a moron.”  I sat back down pretending like nothing happened, and my friend acted the gentleman and did likewise.  He continued on with his story.  I giggled a little bit, and he said, “You don’t have to be embarrassed around me.  We’re friends.”  I shook my head and put on my poker face.  He then continued on with his rant about dumbass kids who can’t even complete a simple, dumbass quiz correctly.  Humiliated, I was on the verge of tears.  I started laughing some more.  I barely could contain the laughter, and this seemed to pull Andy out of his story and he asked, “What’s so funny?”  I laughed harder and loudly said, “I fell out of my f—ing chair, dude!”

That was Monday.

On Tuesday, my mom (who was staying with me for the week because she had a doctor’s appt. in St. Louis) needed my car.  She had to drop me off at work.  She dropped me off at the circle drive, and at the end of the day, she picked me up there as well.  I had to stand out in front of the school for 15 minutes waiting on my mom to come and pick up her 37 year old daughter from school.  My high school students honked and waved at me as they drove by, and the cross country track team whizzed past me as I heard a few say, “Hi, Ms. H.  What are you doing out here?  Waiting for the bus?”

That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday, my mom needed my car again, so she dropped me off at the circle drive.  As I walked down the long corridor to the mail room, I realized I had forgotten my purse which had my classroom keys in it.  The English department chair had to let me in my classroom, and other colleagues had to unlock and lock the English computer lab for me when I took my 2 writing classes in there.  Not too bad of a day thus far until my friends asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with them.  I thought being out in the sunshine and fresh air would do me good, so I said “Yes.”  As we were walking out to the parking lot, I asked if my friend Katie wouldn’t mind driving me.  She agreed.  When we got in her car, I asked shame-faced, “Would you mind buying my lunch?”  I explained to her my dilemma, but I promised her I would gladly pay her tomorrow for a chicken quesadilla today.

That was Wednesday.

On Thursday, my mom needed my car again, so she dropped me off at the circle drive, again.  In the afternoon, I was on lunch hall duty near the cafeteria.  I had to stand guard by the double doors so students wouldn’t try to leave early and roam the halls. A group of them had gathered near me the last few minutes so they could make a mad dash to their lockers at the passing period.  As I was instructing them to move back, two students flung open the door from behind, and I was smacked in the shoulder by the heavy wooden door.   I was tossed into the throng of hormonally-challenged teenagers who had tried to warn me to move out of the way.

At the end of the day, my mom picked me up at the circle drive and we drove into St. Louis to go to the hotel where she was going to meet my Dad and nephew so they could go to my nephew’s doctor’s appointment early the next morning.  My mom was “starving,” and hadn’t eaten anything all day except my dark chocolate M & Ms and Wavy Lay’s potato chips. As we crossed over the Eads Bridge, mom suggested we eat at the buffet at the Casino Queen in East St. Louis.  It wasn’t my first, second, or third choice, but she insisted on buying, so I decided to not pass up a free meal.  One greasy chicken breast, a platter of bean salad and romaine lettuce, 3 crispy and dry crab rangoons, and a tart lemon square later, we waddled out of there.  Mom said, “Well, there, I fed ya.”  Like her good little ducky, I followed her out to the car.

When I finally left to go home, I drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic for over an hour, and had to detour onto another interstate to get back to my home sweet home where I prepared for my final day of the work week.  I let my dog out to use the restroom, and had to chase after him because he caught scent of a skunk that was obviously nearby.

That was Thursday.

On Friday, I drove myself to work.  I jammed out to my favorite tunes on my iPhone, and I was looking forward to an easy-going day.  When I got out of my car, my sunglasses fell and the lens broke.  I bent down to pick them up and was knocked in the butt by my car door.  By third hour, I had been berated by a belligerent student who swore I lost her final draft of her paper (which I did not, and which I later found, unfinished by her).  After hall duty, I saw my friend Andy standing outside his classroom door.  We chatted for a few minutes.  I briefed him on my crazy week, and vented about how upset I was that a student felt the need to humiliate me because she was embarrassed about her own error.  He smiled and patted me on the back and said, “Well, at least you’ve been upright the rest of this week.  That’s an accomplishment.”

What a full week of blunders, bloopers, gaffes, falls, fails and faux pas.  Someone please pass the egg.  I’ll rub it all over my face and save myself and everyone else the trouble.