Time Traveling

It all started with Mr. Yousef on Thursday.

Or perhaps, it had been percolating for a few weeks, and Mr. Yousef crystallized it in my Principal’s office, on that Thursday.

I sat at the conference table with him, talking about attendance and truancy and COVID, and I realized how many years I have been serving students in schools like my current one. I thought, in an instant, about how confusing and terrifying being new can be: you have no idea what the schools really do, or what they are like, or how the beauty at the core of them, the children, MUST be our core commitment, despite all the pitfalls and policy changes.

The thoughts led me back to Gus Garcia Middle School, in the fall of 2007: 15 years ago.

Gus Garcia has been popping up lately as it has come to my attention that a large number of those of us who taught there and who opened that school are now administrators in Austin ISD and Elgin ISD. It is definitely true that the difficult experiences at Garcia led us to leadership.

Let’s do a roll call….Dr. Melvin Bedford, once AP, is now Principal at Austin High School. Chara Harris, once a math teacher, is now Principal of Murchison Middle School. Brandy Gratten, once an English teacher, is the Principal of Martin Middle School. Ben McCormack, once an English teacher, is the Principal of St Elmo Elementary. De’Sean Roby, once Instructional Coach, is Principal of Bertha Sadler Means Middle School. Tasha Bedford, once an English teacher, is Assistant Principal of Bertha Sadler Means Middle School. Kalandra Williams, once a math teacher, is Assistant Principal of Neidig Elementary School. And me, Patience Blythe, once a science teacher, is Assistant Principal of Booker T Washington Elementary School.

As I sat in that room with Mr. Yousef, talking about attendance policy and telling him that I am known for being very, very, very aware of student attendance, I thought about those years, and why so many of us became administrators.

For many years, I have shied away from writing about the experiences I had at Gus Garcia. My issues with understanding life-work balance while working there were definitely contributing factors to my divorce in 2009. although I do believe that our marriage wouldn’t have worked no matter where either of us was working. I have shied away from it because the experiences were so intense, and so of their moment. We went through the financial crisis at that school and the election of Barack Obama; these events fundamentally changed public schools. They perhaps felt too close for real examination; I also didn’t want to upset anyone in the retelling.

But here we are, 15 years later, and schools have changed so much. In many ways they are better, and yet, the results for poor children remain the same. I wonder why that is. I have some ideas, which I will share here as the year progresses. This is my first year as an Assistant Principal, and my mentor has asked me to remember to write about it. I will.

But to go back to that meeting on Thursday afternoon with Mr. Yousef; it was one of those meetings that sends you back in time, and through time, and provides you a deep reflection on the present: that everything you have done has brought you to that exact moment in time. At that moment, we talked about truancy and withdrawing students, and I sat in that beautiful office, in that school building, and again realized that I am so lucky to have so many years of experience with which to refer.

On the day before, I was in a training for SAMA, which for those of you who are not in schools or institutional settings, is a practice of de-escalating crises that works very well. I mentioned to Wednesday’s instructor that, at Garcia, all of the teachers were trained in SAMA due to the level of need at that campus.

In other words, all roads in my mind are leading to Garcia at this moment.

It is time.

When I returned to Austin ISD in 2015 after a four-year absence, the gentleman looking at my paperwork said, “Oh. You were at Garcia. There were a lot of problems there.” I said, “Yes, there were. Whose fault do you think that was?”

Let’s dive in.

Garcia Middle School was built up on a hill, in East Austin, on the east side of 183 off Loyola Lane. It is a beautiful building that looks like a community college. The first time I went into the building, it was just a shell, and we wandered through it being told where this would be, and that. We had planning meetings in the construction trailer out front. Most of the staff had come over from Porter Middle School, which had recently been closed in South Austin.

When the school opened, it was beautiful. Huge windows let the light shine in on the east and west side. Each grade level section was painted a different color: orange, blue, and yellow. Each classroom had a plasma screen television (these were the days before Promethean boards). Each area had its own workroom with its own copier and its own computer lab (these were also the days before Chromebooks). There was a patio off the cafeteria that was planted with native plants. I was the most experienced science teacher with one year of teaching experience.

When I think about Garcia, I don’t want to enumerate its flaws and faults or describe all the things that went wrong there. To me, there is little point in dwelling on those things, and I don’t want people to feel I am pointing fingers or blaming anyone for what happened. I find it comforting and inspiring that so many of us who were young teachers there are now administrators at high-needs campuses in this area; this shows that we all learned a lot in those years, and decided to take a path that would make sure the things that happened at Garcia would never happen again under our watch.

But despite the desire to not talk about the problems, the formative aspects of my three years at Garcia keep popping up. Why is that? Is it because my time at Garcia was my first experience of true leadership? Conversely, my first experience at understanding what lack of leadership can do? Perhaps.

At Garcia, we went through three principals in one year. The first one left us in December. Before she left, she held an assembly in the gym and yelled at everyone in a voice I will never forget: it was a voice of desperation, sadness, defeat, and acknowledgment that what she had done had not worked. She was replaced by an amazing changemaker who came into that school with his giant gold rings, announcements on the PA, reward systems for students and teachers, and songs in the cafeteria. He changed everything in mere weeks. The third was a principal that no one liked; she divided the cliques and friend groups. She was challenging. She broke the staff apart to rebuild it. She was the only person in my three years there who could get the students to listen to her and only her simply by asking. She could talk to them. When I decided to leave, she asked me, “So….how is Bedichek Middle School?”. I told her that I had to learn how to teach; that all I knew was how to control classes but I needed to learn the other aspects of teaching. She and other administrators there told me that there are kids who need help everywhere. They were, of course, right.

One of my takeaways from being in Title 1 public schools for so long is that people with years of experience have opinions and observations that are priceless; they are diamonds. You may not agree with everything, but there is a truth that resonates and is useful to apply to your own situation. Ultimately, experience gives us perspective so that when big changes occur, like what is happening now, we remember and know that we will make it through this, too. Younger teachers don’t know this. I didn’t know this back in 2007 at Garcia Middle School.

I had two rooms at Garcia: first one without a window, and later, one with two gorgeous windows on the second floor that I often opened each morning because the fog would roll into the classroom and I loved it. It was a very foggy place; a hilltop that was covered in cloud in the early mornings and backed up to a greenbelt that was never named as such due to where it was in the city. In the back of the room, I had a coffee maker that some other teachers used. When I wasn’t at school, which was rare, students would open the windows and throw textbooks onto the roof of the first floor.

During transitions, why do we drift backward into memory? Does it ground us somehow? Remind us that if we survived then, we will survive now? Do the memories help us interpret the realities of this moment? It is hard to say.

I don’t know what stories from Garcia will pop up here. Will it be the time we made cricket houses in the science elective and I didn’t realize that crickets eat cardboard and all the crickets escaped to be found by the custodians? Will it be how the 8th graders self-segregated in class every time you turned your back on them? Will it be the city gang truce meeting in the library? Will it be the time that student brought a giant knife in a Jordans box to kill me? Will it be the time the two boys got in a fight and one shot the other one in the face (both survived)? Will it be how the kids stashed drugs in the upstairs 7th-grade boys’ bathroom ceiling tiles and sold them at lunch? Will it be the time I was observed by the district and a boy was walking across the tops of lab tables while another was hiding in a cabinet, and others were making and sending darts into the ceiling tiles and yet, I still received a positive evaluation? Will it be the time that I wrote a blog post about advisory that somehow was picked up by a national publication and ended up on the front page of the Austin American Statesman? Or will it be completely different memories? We shall see.

If I could share one truth about serving students in Title 1 schools with anyone who would listen at this exact moment in time, it would be this; if you are not in the schools, you have no idea what happens within them, and you do not understand their importance. The importance of the schools is critical; it is key to the future of the country as a whole. The more they get broken down, under-funded, criticized, or have unfunded mandates applied to them (I am looking at you, HB 4545), the impacts on the children and adults in the schools are massive.

I remember when President Obama was elected, when Dr. Helen Johnson became principal, when TEA came in to audit our campus, and we began to talk about this new test called STAAR. It all happened there, at that campus. So many things happened there, and I can remember so many of them vividly; they were that intense and meaningful.

At that school, I wore striped knee socks every day; I had probably 10 or so pairs. The students asked me why I wore them every day, and I told them it was because I had prison tattoos on my legs and I couldn’t show them. Would I say this today? Definitely not. But the kids loved it and thought it was hilarious. They called me “Colorful” there, not Ms. Blythe, and never once questioned how someone who had been in prison could be their teacher, let alone this tall, weird, white lady. In fact, those students *insisted* that I was not white. At the time, I didn’t understand what they meant.

What is happening in the schools this year is heartbreaking: how can there be so many openings? One of the biggest things I learned at Garcia is how I cannot solve the world’s problems; I can only hope to influence a small group of people in front of me. I learned about the importance of the students in my care, and the teachers that I could help. As our year begins, my current campus has the lowest turnover rate in our district and only has one open position. That tells me a lot about our school. That tells me we can grow; we have a whole crew of caring people who chose to stay after the hardest year I have ever experienced as a public school educator.

I wish I could take you all, the general public, the Texas state legislature, the US Congress and Senate, and bring you into the schools. You would see the needs; you would meet the students and you would see how much they need access to a high-quality education delivered by caring adults. School is another form of nutrition; anyone who tells you it isn’t critical to every child has some hidden agenda that I am not interested in understanding. I wish I could bring you into these classrooms; like the time at Garcia, when I had the most bonkers class I had ever had up to that point. The students never stopped talking: I didn’t know how to help them calm down then, and I randomly, in desperation, put on a video of Charlie Chaplin. Almost instantly, they asked, “why is no one talking?” They then completely calmed down, and from then on, Charlie Chaplin videos were rewards in that class. To that end, one day I told the students that I had lost my voice and could not speak, and they had to find ways to help me communicate. All of a sudden, everyone could raise their hands before speaking.

Schools are magical and majestic. But mostly, they are critically important to the lives of children. Throughout the pandemic, the lives of children have been an afterthought. They have not been our priority. Government leaders seemed to think they would just bounce back and be fine after all of the time away from school. Those of us in the schools understand that this concept is a false assumption; the time away was damaging to so many of them, in many ways that we, as adults, will probably never truly understand.

I thank you for joining me here and reading my ramblings about grief, life, schools, and our country. I do love it so. I love its children most of all. I hope you do, too, even if you don’t have any of your own. And I do hope you think about how important school was for you, and act in kind.

Charity

Today, a friend told me that her sister’s name was Charity. I laughed a bit and said, “oh! She is a fellow virtue!” My friend agreed, and I started telling her a story from where I grew up, in Salisbury Cove, about the graveyard.

The graveyard sits at the top of the hill, and we “discovered” it as small children, crouching and crawling up the hillside that felt as big as a mountain in those days. At the top of the hill was a large pile of old timbers which we had to scramble over and were always afraid of falling between. Beyond the gravel drive was the small glen in which the graveyard lies.

All the old residents of Salisbury Cove are buried there, from the 1700s to two present-day people. My friend’s mention of her sister reminded me of Charity, one of the old citizens of the Cove, as well as Thankful and Eben, her husband. There are small gravestones and large ones. There are tiny ones for the babes that passed before they were even named. There are gravestones for men who fought in the Civil War, many miles away from this island in Maine.

The graveyard is always quiet, and the light is always dappled. If you go there at night, the quiet is amplified, somehow, as if the only sounds reverberate between the lichens on the stones, muffling them into a soft whisper that, I think, is mostly the movement of the needles of fir trees.

I have spent so much time there, tracing the names with my fingers, clandestinely smoking and thinking about my friends there buried, some for over two-hundred years! Someone comes and cleans the site, mows it, keeps it maintained and beautiful, although it always seems untouched and trapped in time.

It wasn’t until we were in college that all four of us realized that each of us had heard the people talking at the top of the hill. Each of us thought we were mad, or tired, or making something up, until all four were talking one evening about how, when you walk at the base of the hill at night, you can hear their whispers on the wind, rushing down the hill into your ears. You never hear what they are saying, just that they are saying it. Who is it to say that those that speak are they who are buried: perhaps it is their friends, visiting. Either way, it is a strange comfort to feel so many people around you, knowing that they walked where you are walking now. My favorite epitaph that I have ever found lies in the graveyard, and goes like this:

Behold, you strangers passing by

As you are now, so once was I

As I am now, so you may be

Prepare for death and follow me.

Let Me Tell You About My Day

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Today I was given a task: something new and novel after 7 days of nothing, of stewing, of worrying and brooding. Here we were: back to work. I was asked to call every student in my 2nd period and try to talk to them and their parents. I started off the day in my seemingly neverending quest for flour, but that is another story. Flourless, I began the phone calls at about 10am.

I have this theory about education; the theory is that public education, but K-12 education in general, gets a bad rap in the press, but in reality, people love their local schools. I spent hours today talking to kids and their parents. I spent time laughing and listening and commiserating and checking that they were all mostly ok. I listened to moms so worried their kids were going to miss out, to a dad who said his son was very sad to miss school (a revelation since I didn’t know he liked it at all), to a student who told me, in his typically friendly and nonchalant way, that everything was all right and he understood what he needs to do next week.

The calls took hours: much longer than I thought they would. Even though at times I became tired, I was thankful to reach out and talk to each and every one of those people. Sometimes, I took the calls outside on the patio when I needed some sunshine, and sometimes I just sat at my kitchen table and laughed and laughed with fellow moms of teenagers. One mom told me that I am the first teacher who has ever given her child a B and she likes me for it because it taught him to work harder. One mom said she was so worried about her three girls that she felt panicked but would do her best to make sure they walked over to pick up free breakfast and lunch and did their work for school. Her daughter, fellow nervous spirit, is so worried that she doesn’t have enough hours for NJHS (she has 46 out of the required 10) and that we wouldn’t be able to host the fundraiser for the cafeteria manager who has breast cancer.  I asked a dad of a student who wants to be in Early College High School that he talk to his extremely gifted child about the importance of being flexible and open in the face of uncertainty. As I write, another child’s father just called because he received my message earlier and wanted to check about the plans for next week.

I teach in a district with 87% poverty. Let that roll around in your brain a bit. There are all sorts of assumptions about students who come from under-resourced environments. Data says they don’t achieve, that they don’t have the grit of their wealthier peers, and some folks even say that they are un-teachable. With these attitudes come years of classist and racist prejudice that are unfounded; I have done this for 14 years and I have very rarely found a parent who does not want the best for their child. Even those two moms I can remember saying so were only speaking out of their own pain, anxiety, and fear.

I started today by looking at news that said we are facing 30% unemployment. This afternoon, I spoke to a dad who clearly was very worried about getting food for his wife and himself, and was relieved to hear that there are free meals available for his children. When I listen to parts of the daily press briefings, it is abundantly clear to me that the people in government have no idea what a dollar costs. They don’t know the price of a gallon of milk, or the choices parents have to make between eating themselves and getting food for their children. When I think about these things a lot, I become very angry.

I ended today by speaking to so many parents and students; the majority of my students said they missed being in school. The majority of their parents were very carefully listening to exactly what they needed to do to connect their child with the academic expectations of their teachers. All the people I spoke with were kind and said they were doing fine and that it was important that resources went to people who really need them.

In other words, I had a very positive, human experience. No matter how angry our government’s response (or rather, lack of response) makes me, I have to remember that in order to move through this experience, whatever it will be when we get to a place of reflection upon it, will depend on the actions of each other. We will listen and laugh, and cry, and find solutions, together. We will remember that each of us is trying her or his best and that each person cares so much it is incomprehensible and indescribable.

With love and appreciation tonight, I am going to go and eat chicken and rice, and not worry about the fact that I still can’t find flour.

Date: 23 March 2020

Cases – 378,679

Deaths – 16,508

Mortality Rate – 4.359%

Uncertainty

This morning, as most of the school was walking to morning assembly, two 8th graders bounced up to me and said: “Ms Blythe!!!! It’s been SO long!” These two were my students when they were 6th and 7th graders, and I came to know them from when they were very small to when they were very awkward to when they were almost teenagers, and now, they are on their way to high school. It is amazing to bear witness to the growth of children, and to be a person they trust with their feelings: both fears and joys.

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Robert Indiana, first day of issue January 26, 1973

One told me about a drama about a friend, a fight, and head lice: the fare of middle school experience and friendship. As we were walking into the gym together, the other one said: “Ms Blythe? If we go to war, will it be like World War III?” I said, “Well. I need you to look at me while I say this.” She said, “ok” and looked directly at me. I put my arm around her and said, “I have absolutely no idea. But if it is, we will go through it together.”

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Ali Cat Leeds of EntangledRoots.com

It’s been ages since I wrote here, and really ages since I documented my last public school teaching experience in inner city Philadelphia. This school year is so trying: the students are dealing with so much stress, and so are the teachers. What is funny (the type of funny that is tragic, not laugh-out-loud) is that, in the public education sphere, or at least my public education sphere, no one is speaking out or with each other about the stress that the outer world is causing in our hearts and minds.

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Hope by George Frederic Watts, 1886

I taught a professional development yesterday on how to teach good quality projects. At the beginning, I asked teachers to play by working 6 feet of wire into something that represented what was going on with them yesterday morning. Most jumped into the task, a few fought it at first, one point-blank refused and left. After a few minutes, it was fascinating to watch a group of 30 adults playing with wire, bending it, shaping it, talking to their friends, laughing, wondering: bemused at their own inner-workings. A few spoke about their sculptures, but most just left them on a large table, much like children do. I realized during the second session that the vast majority of my adult students were overwhelmed, tired, sad, confused, stressed-out and hollow-eyed. They didn’t know what to do in terms of developing a project. I realized at the end of the first session that we really should have canned it all and done something else, but it was too late, and there was no Plan B.

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Candles burning in a Buddhist temple: photographer unknown

When that student asked me about World War III earlier today, I almost cried then and there. Later, we had a tornado drill and I envisioned my portable being picked up and carried by a giant tornado that would drop us on our side somewhere down the road.

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Teachr, Teach Peace – his Facebook is here

I watched a video by Robert Reich the other day in which he explained that stress, feelings of trauma, dread, despair, are all common-place in our current state of affairs. I think we can see evidence of that from before this president was elected in the opioid epidemic: we are the only country in the world who is dying in huge numbers of hopelessness, sadness, and desperation, however, I will say that those feelings may be experienced currently by more people than pre-election day 2016.

America, poor America! You sick culture of racism and of classism, and of feelings of not being good enough, smart enough, rich enough. As adults, we can try to dismiss those fears or at least cloud them with exercise, working in the garden, cooking, drinking wine,  and eating too much dessert. But our children: my question is, what can they do?

My students are in 7th grade. They were born in the year 2005, four years after 9/11, and after the beginning of what is now America’s longest war. They have never known their country in peace-time. During their lives, America has increased its prison population, and the awareness of the murder of African-Americans by police has become commonplace thanks to social media. Their media life is one of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Paris bombings, Orlando and now Las Vegas shootings. Their governmental life was one of hope with President Obama, shot down by the election of Donald Trump, and colored by his rants about North Korea, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Iran.

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Unknown, brilliant Twitter cartoonist

Most of my students are immigrants or children of immigrants. Most of my children are economically classed as “poor”. Most of my children have parents who are working so hard just to give them what society demands is necessary: tiny mega-computers that broadcast this information-propaganda-fear into their pockets, into their living rooms, into their eyes, into their minds at night when they are alone. How frightening is this? How more frightening is it that we, the adults, are so scared that we do not know how to discuss it in a pro-active, assertive, and hopeful way?

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Almond botanical drawing: in the language of flowers, Almond is for Promise

Hugs do a lot, but they do not do enough. As a teacher, as a step-parent to a 7th grade child, it is up to me to shield where I can, but be willing to talk when the questions come up, because the shield that my parents had for me no longer exists. The courage lies in looking into the dark and understanding that we know very little more than we did when we were 7th graders, and the courage comes from the very thing itself: courage to believe, courage to speak, courage to love, courage to hope.

I hope to write more here. I hope to hear from you. With love, P

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Ali Cat Leeds from EntangledRoots.com

 

No More Leaving

No More Leaving
 
At
Some point
Your relationship
With God
Will
Become like this:
 
Next time you meet Him in the forest
Or on a crowded city street
 
There won’t be anymore
 
“Leaving.”
 
That is,
 
God will climb into
Your pocket.
 
You will simply just take
 
Yourself
 
Along!
– Hafiz

 

It has been a couple of weeks since my last post and since my discovery of what had been bothering me all these years. I feel as if some dark glasses or horse blinders were torn off my eyes and thrown across the street when that discovery hit me. It is so strange to me that we can tell ourselves these stories about ourselves for so many years without actually being forced, by our minds and hearts and new experiences, to reflect upon them in an active way.

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For the last several years, I have been looking into the effects of traumatic experiences on myself and on others. I have discovered that many of us, especially as we get older, in our mid-thirties for example, have developed elaborate defense mechanisms and intimate pitfalls. So many of these are not obvious to anyone, even ourselves, until, if we are lucky enough, our eyes are opened and we can re-open the Pandora’s box of emotions to see whether what is in there is serving us, anymore.

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When I think of the delicacy of the human heart, I like to think of the Egyptian mythology of, when one dies, that one’s heart is measured against the weight of a single feather. I do think that the human heart is just that light, just that easy to shatter. But, the other side of the coin is that we, too, are remarkably resilient, like the trees that I spend so much time gazing upon. Despite the myriad fractures and sometimes breaks in the surface of the heart, we keep on keepin’ on, living from day to day, month to month, year to year. Perhaps the scarification of those fractures are what the defense mechanisms are, the fears, the caginess, the aversion to risking one’s poor, suffering heart.

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It is like crystal, like the petals of a poppy: translucent, and easy to bruise.

I think the sadness of being out of touch with one’s emotional pitfalls comes from the realization that most people are genuinely good, and want to love and care and protect and enjoy one another’s company. It’s almost as if adults live in the center of a long, winding labyrinth with doors along the way. All the doors must open, eventually, and whatever obstacle that lays beyond them must be acknowledged and explored. For if not, I would imagine, you end up rather like someone whose fears have become her/himself, and the real person inside is just lost.

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An unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

 

Three Things

Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.

Clementine Paddleford

How do we know when it’s time? Is it something that occurs to you on a cold spring day whilst walking through the woods? Is it a hidden message in the wind on a fall evening? Is it a discovery, during the eating of ice cream on a walk along the shore? Is it just, finally, paying attention?

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The Funny Bone

I am sitting in my bedroom, listening to the soft sounds of skateboarders coasting under my windows, having just returned from another lovely weekend at Haystack: site of creative encouragement and exploration on an approachable yet massive scale. Two weeks ago, for three days, I helped others learn how to make machines out of wood and metal, I encouraged peoples’ senses of their own creativity, and helped them develop an aesthetic. I listened to people become frustrated, I watched people remain calm, I taught people how to solder and how to raise bowls from copper sheets, I supported our wonderful teacher rise to the occasion of others’ creative urges time and time again. I helped someone make a robot that walked, and an Icarus who flew. I listened to a poem read aloud once per night, and also listened to peoples’ encapsulated memoirs read early on a Monday morning. I witnessed dedication and laughter, struggle and success. I grew physically tired but mentally inspired. I sat at dinner with strangers and with friends, and I felt a part of something larger than myself: a fleeting feeling that when one gets it, one has to hold on to it, note it, and pay attention.

I went to Haystack two weekends ago with a decision in mind: one that is rather large and means uprooting, change, and new beginnings. I went to Haystack with one thought in mind, and that was to sit with this decision and listen to its comings and goings until I had an answer. Through teaching people how to make automata, mechanical toys, and watching them persevere, learn, grow, and begin to know each other, and as I sat at a distance, next to a large yellow anvil in the center of the studio, I spent my time thinking about changes, and “going back”, and going forward. The only thing I made this weekend was a cutout in copper of a rather important idea, I think:

What are you really thinking about right now?

As I cut this out of copper, over about two and a half hours on a Friday night, I thought to myself about all the meanings of this question. I gleaned it from the Oblique Strategies, a pet project designed to help creative types overcome blocks in their processes. I found it related it to my life and probably, the lives of others in my life. I am really thinking right now about the course my life has taken, where I am right now, and where I wish to be. For the first time in a long time, I feel the pieces of life are quite clear to me;  as in, I can see what I wish to be components of my life in a holistic way, and am now seeking to craft that life for myself. That craft-work of life-making, if you will, requires some significant changes in my day to day life and in my interactions with the world, while also requiring holding on to the huge lessons I have learned here in the two years since I started this writing project, with you, in the fall of 2012.

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The Backbone

Let me begin with a story from the fall of 2006, when I was a very new teacher. I taught a science elective for 8th graders and had the requisite crew of misfits who came to my room for an hour and a half every other day. One sat in a sink, one constantly drew pictures of knights and dragons, one was very tiny and giggled, two barely spoke English, one was a mathematically oriented super Goth teenager who counted things like floor tiles, and one was obstinate and charming at the same time. This group, of course, ended up being my favorite group of that year, mostly because they were so strange and goofy and would do anything I asked of them. We navigated through that year together doing projects  on pollution and archaeology and space and inventions, but the best day was one day when I brought a huge box of crap from my house and dumped it on a table and told them that they had to make something. The girl who sat in the sink immediately grabbed some sparkly fabric and made a cape and wore it, I think, for the rest of the day. The tiny one who giggled made me a tyrannosaurus rex out of parts of an old sewing machine and hot glue and delivered it to my desk the next day. Later, we invented fantasy environments that had to have all the components of actual biomes: shelter, water, food, etc. and I discovered that the boy who later lit a toilet on fire truly appreciated the ins and outs of colored pipe cleaners and pom poms, having created a fuzzy environment that was rainbow colored and bedecked with glitter.

Today, in the fall of 2014, eight years and what feels like a lifetime later, I am realizing the power of that class in terms of my teaching and my learning and what I create on the Earth. I am currently seeking a way to integrate my love for teaching with my current life as an artist. I miss teaching children: the children who I see as needing bridges into our larger cultural landscape, but didn’t know how to integrate all of these parts until a friend of mine and I were talking and he told me he felt that maybe I could just do it again: that I was hiding a set of skills and passions in an apartment that looms above a quiet street in a small town. For many reasons, I felt like I had to choose one or the other: the city or the country, the teacher or the artist, and in that conversation, I realized that I didn’t have to choose between because I could choose all.

When I took a step back and looked at all of the pieces, as a whole, I realized that I had devoted many years of my life to teaching and improving children’s access to education in disparate circumstances, and that I had a litany of experiences and stories of children who had impacted me in a meaningful way, and vice versa. As Maya Angelou said, these myriad stories are the rainbows in my cloud, and are all of those who I call up with me when times are challenging and troubled. To give them up would be a shame, would be a sorrow, and would not be acknowledging the power of all of those tiny rainbows, even the ones who I met during that hard experience in inner city North Philadelphia.

Let me tell you another story. This past weekend, I assisted my friend Sarah and we taught fourteen adults how to make automated machines using wood, plastic, metal, porcelain, etc. One of our students was a woman about my own age, who turned up looking a little unsure, but all of us show up to Haystack looking a bit unsure. On the first night, she carried in a giant suitcase full of stuff. She was a beautiful woman, shorter than I with dark hair under a knit cap. She had a strange air to her, as if she was distracted or not fully present,  a lilt and a slight lisp to her voice, and a dark scar under one eye. After she brought the case in, and opened it, she exclaimed how she couldn’t believe how she had made everything inside it. I asked her to explain and tell me what was happening with her as I had heard her earlier explain rebuilding an old cabin and living in a small town near Blue Hill. She told me that she had recently been in a serious accident and had broken her back and had had to relearn how to walk and take care of herself again, and had somehow found herself living in her father’s old cabin with broken windows and trash and tools half buried in the yard, and that she had to haul water daily and had replaced the roof and was wondering what she was doing and was slowly realizing that she wasn’t going to be able to stay there for the winter. I identified with her, and she reminded me of myself, broken apart, confused, and full of sorrow, when I landed on this island two years ago, and I told her that I thought I understood what was up: that her survival instinct had kicked in at some point and that her homeplace was her land and her project and that she was just reconnecting the parts that had been flung apart during her traumatic experience. Interestingly enough, after a day of confusion and no direction in her process, she ended up cutting out a backbone of brass, and building a ribcage of copper that she riveted to the backbone. Later, we soldered a sternum on to the ribcage, added a tube and made it a syringe ring that, when the plunger was pushed, springs shot out of a central tube and out and up of her ribcage. In a way, she rebuilt her back and her body out of shiny, beautiful metal: a model of what she was going through in her life, made by her hands, directed and coaxed and bent and heated and cooled, tumbled, refined, she created something so beautiful that it caused many people to draw their breath in sharply, even if they didn’t know her story.

thanksgiving_Wishbone

The Wishbone

What do I want?

I want to spend time remembering, here, with myself and with you, my audience, the many rainbows in my cloud, for I had almost forgotten them. From now on, for a while, I will spend some time recording my teaching stories, which are the backbone/funnybone/wishbone of my blogging. After all, I started blogging about my teaching stories way back in 2006 on LiveJournal.com, an outdated blogging resource but very interesting to reread 8 years on. It is amazing how one’s writing style can change for the better…thank goodness for time!

I want to teach kids who need adults who really care about them to build bridges with them to learn science and read books and create art in a supportive atmosphere that is stable and has a history and is run by a caring staff who is in it for the kids, not for their own self interest. I want to teach at places like Haystack, and Metalwerx, and Arrowmont, and Penland. I want to teach classes in my studio and bring the creative spirit out in anyone who crosses my threshold. I want to share with people the power of their own expression. I want to challenge myself to always express myself, too. I want to see different kinds of people every day, and occasionally, to hide out in a coffee shop late at night. I want to be able to bike some places, and walk some places. I want to go to community discussions on social issues that are important to me, watch documentaries in the dark, and to stroll through museums. I want to cease to be intimidating, but become intimidated and challenged by others. I want to be surprised by people, places and things. I want to take my love of my last two years, and my knowledge of the thirty two that preceded it, and combine it in a life in a place that is good for me.

I spent the three days two weekends ago learning and growing from fourteen strangers and a few friends. I purposefully didn’t really make anything, but just sat by that anvil and thought, when I wasn’t up and helping people make their automata. I sat on steps and thought, I lay in my bed and thought, I stared through trees and out at the ocean. I watched crows fly and coast on thermals over the tops of the studios yesterday morning with the glinting ocean stretching out behind them. I realized, here we are. Nothing really is right or wrong: our decisions are just choices, realities that we put into place, knowing what we know, recognizing imperfection, seeking a more holistic hold on life, one of people big and small, of the possibility that love means a myriad things, that being able to spread ones arms or wings or whatever you want to call them, may be something to consider, after all.