Quiet Afternoons

There are people out riding their bikes and mowing their lawns and it is Thursday afternoon. People are out walking, and making beautiful photos on Instagram, and cooking, and everything else. Everything else but….working.

According to the New York Times, 3 million people have filed for unemployment, the most people ever in one week. I don’t really know what that even means, it just sounds like such a big number. Never before have I been more thankful for my job: I am so lucky to have my job, that Cody has his job, and that we both are able to work from home and still be paid.

I feel that there is some sort of shift happening in peoples’ perceptions in terms of their own lives and livelihoods. So many parents have told me that they are so happy to be at home with their families. So many people are out on the streets walking around instead of inside, glued to screens. So many people are more kind to each other than they were. People seem to be sharing, pitching in, and working together. I am ignoring the government and all the crazy madness that seems to come spewing out of the executive branch each day: I cannot understand a president who places money over people. I do acknowledge that it is not just as plain and simple as that, and that we must of course think of the economy, too, but it seems not to be a choice between but a choice of both. Texas Monthly has a great article about this false choice .

The days are strangely long, but they pass into relaxing evenings and then into beautiful mornings, over and over, on a relaxed sense of repetition. I feel guilty sometimes about my peaceful experience of this pandemic, but I suppose it is just the way it is for me. So I send love out to the rest of you, and hope you are all ok.

Date: 26 March 2020

Cases: 529,591

Deaths: 23,970

Mortality Rate: 4.52%

Today the United States became #1 in infections

Today

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%

A Thousand People – Same Human Being

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AIDS Memorial Quilt, Washington, D.C. 1987

I am feeling a bit bleak today. I just took the dog on a very long walk through the old parts of Elgin, and I feel better, but still bleak. The news seems so odd, so full of danger and uncertainty. No one has any idea what is happening save that there is a rising tide flowing fast towards us.

Cody is outside gardening; he is planting cucumbers. I started a lot of seeds a while ago, mostly focusing on flowers but with a few veggies in there for good measure. We usually have a pretty and amazing summer garden, and this year feel a bit more pressure to step it up a notch.

Today we had a Digital Learning Team conference call to discuss how to help teachers transition to remote learning. People expressed the worries that kids won’t do anything and we then discussed the fact that a) we have no control over that b) we can’t grade anything and c) we have to abandon expectations and just do this for the sake of the kids who will do it. I think there will be many of them. I think, for me, my overwhelming sense is of worry for them. I worry that they won’t get to see their friends and their teachers and ask all the weird questions that teenagers ask. I worry about missing them and that they won’t learn anything and they will be sad. We don’t live in Austin, where kids can get out and walk around and look at things. A lot of my students live on big properties with a few tiny houses or house trailers on them and a whole lot of nothing for them to do. School is such an important place and outlet for rural kids.

My general bleak feelings come from fear, I think, and I know that fear is the mind-killer, but it is there nonetheless. I am worried more bad things will happen, bad things that I can’t even foresee since things seem to change every few hours. I feel terrible for the people who are sick and all the doctors and nurses that are taking care of them. I have this horrible fear of not being able to get food. I don’t think that one is super realistic, and I also know that lots of other people feel that same feeling. It is a horrible feeling and one I have never had before. I think that is part of the bleak feeling I have today is that the feelings/thoughts/passing brain impulses that I am having I have never had before, and so they are very disorienting.

My friends Kevin and Darrel went out for a walk in their neighborhood in Altadena this morning and found that their neighbors had made sweet signs for their yard, so I think I am going to go and channel these feelings into something positive and pretty. I think little things do make a difference, right?

Date – 23 March 2020

Cases – 329,862

Deaths – 14,378

Mortality Rate – 4.3%

6 Days In to Quarantine

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This map is cited below, in the last paragraph

I read somewhere, yesterday, that it is important to journal during times like these. We are ankle-deep in a pandemic, on our way to being knee-deep. For the first time in my life, my parents’ life, and even my grandparents’ life (who are all dead), there is a virus ravaging many corners of the globe. As it ebbs and flows, retreats here and expands there, the most common feeling of it all is a simmering panic based in uncertainty. It seems not even our leaders know what to do or what to say, so they talk about the stock market a lot, and we all feel lost.

This morning, I went to the grocery store because I have been unable to get sugar for a few days, and my two new beehives still need to be fed as there aren’t quite enough flowers to sustain all those little, buzzing creatures. I waited in line for an hour with a garbageman on my left and a pastor on my right; we discussed the state of affairs, laughing to keep from crying. When I finally made it inside the store, all looked mostly normal except there are still no potatoes or onions. It is a mystery.

I found a 25-pound bag of sugar, grabbed dinner for tomorrow and Monday (as I aim not to go to the store for a few days), and went through the line with my 4 items, being blessed by the manager along the way for only buying what I needed. The boys running the check-out are in high school and looked a bit winded and rough-trod. I asked them if today was another day of adventure and they whinged at me a bit, then talked to each other about the line around the building and the one person who tried to jump the line (I saw her; I am going to assume she just didn’t see all the people standing in the great big, huge line).

When I am home, on my property, it is almost possible to forget all of the madness that is happening, especially in the cities, around the Western world. Around me, as I walk with the dog, are the singing sounds of birds just returned, the breeze caught in spindly branches with, as yet, no leaves, the snort of the horse next door, the strange cry of the neighbor’s guinea fowl, or the incessant barking of Chomps, the next door neighbor’s pit bull who spends her life in the backyard, alone.

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Student-created coding art 

But the reality is that on Monday, I will wake up at a normal time and call all of my students in my 2nd period class on the phone, try to reach them, see how they are doing, and ask how ready they are to learn remotely for a while. They say now that we will go back to school on April 6, but I am highly in doubt of that. We start on March 30. Why would we do all of this work for a week? I miss my students and am thankful that my 2nd period is one of my favorite classes, and the one in which we have studied the Coronavirus since we first started hearing about it, back in the fall. My 2nd period class has learned about the virus, about epidemiology, and has designed proof of concept apps to help people or HHS workers with an outbreak. Little did we know that we would be here now. This year, we have also spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting Chinese and American cultures and our different approaches to authority, privacy and liberty. In other words, that class (and its 7th period counterpart) are well-versed in where we are at this exact moment.

I looked at the Times this morning and there is a video about how New York City is shut down and 100% of its workforce (except essential workers) have been ordered home. My friend Kevin texted from Altadena the other day that California, too, is in lockdown. The garbageman in line this morning had a card in his wallet that his employer had given him because the City of Elgin is worried that it will be soon illegal to drive and leave your home: the card is to show policemen that he is an essential worker.

How did we get here and so fast? How were we so woefully unprepared? How is our economy so supposedly powerful but yet is crippled by debt? Do businesses not keep cash on hand anymore? Why are so many people losing their jobs in an instant? Why are so many people buying so much food at the grocery store and where has all the toilet paper gone? Why is this only impacting the western world? We hear almost nothing from Latin America, South America, Africa, Russia, and now it seems that the Asian cases are almost finished.

I have been thinking about how to teach students in times like this. What do we focus on? Can we focus? What are the most important messages that need to be communicated? I wonder if the most important things for students to do are creative, real-world and involve them being able to choose what they want to do, or how, at least, to express their learning.

I feel like I am rambling and don’t have a “flow” today to my writing. I had something brilliant the other day, but of course didn’t write it down. So, for today, I am going to go. But I will be back, maybe later today! I wonder what people thought 100 years ago when the Spanish Flu began to creep in around society’s edges. I was just looking at my favorite COVID-19 map and remembering when we were talking in CS class about how the cases had risen to 1,000.

Date – 21 March 2020

Cases – 287,239

Deaths – 11,921

Mortality Rate – 4.15%

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Student-created coding art – focusing on the meaning of loops – Apple Keynote

The Noise

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all pictures in this post are by the wonderful Maxfield Parrish…what a dream to dream!

It is late, dark, and quiet. Next to me, someone is sleeping sweetly, curled against a pillow and under a blanket. To my left, the air conditioner blows on and off, and to my right, a fan oscillates slowly back and forth. It is the quiet time, when no one and nothing stirs: if I go outside, all I can see is the guard light shining its amber glow, stars that flicker but remain in position, and occasionally, a passing car.

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My home is very quiet. A few weeks ago, a nice woman who is in Chinese medicine school but who moonlights as a phlebotomist came by to do some medical tests for our life insurance policies. She took her shoes off at the door. They were so small, black tennis shoes, that I thought they were a child’s shoes! She remarked how quiet it is here, and that was during the day.

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Lately, I find the external world so very loud: so much noise. News, social media, and people driving on the highways just seem to be shrieking, screaming, pushing, prodding, yelling: the common theme, fear of…..what exactly? Fear of the unknown? Fear of the inevitability of change? Fear of the direction in which our society finds itself? Fear of not having enough, or too much? I can’t put my finger on it, but I see examples everywhere.

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Currently, I drive 3 hours round trip as my commute to my school: this is about to change. I drive with hundreds of other people to and from Austin. I find that at least 10 each day drive so aggressively that they scare me, and I worry about finding myself in an accident like the ones I hear about every day. People chase around me in their cars, cut me off in their cars, drive just behind my bumper in their cars, and every time it happens, I wonder why. I hear teachers at my school yell or complain: I hear students do the same. I see article after article online and hear article after article on the radio about the President. Its as if the noise is catching: once it starts, it has to keep building to some mad crescendo.

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The presence of the noise makes me thankful for the quiet. I find that I catch myself in its moments rarely, and so, I try to cultivate them. Today I walked in the garden and checked in with the cotton and roselle plants, gazed at the sunflower seedlings. I pet the neighbor’s dog. I sit here, typing. I find the quiet helps me understand that the noise is just that: noise. Meaningless, temporary, distracting: the reality is the moments of quiet, the moments that I catch the mockingbird sitting on the garden’s arch, the arc of a cotton stem, the funny way that sunflowers bend toward the sun, the way children look when they are distracted and staring off into space, breathing. I suppose the task of the moment is to change the focus from the noise to the quiet: otherwise, where shall we go?

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To Thine Own Self Be True – Happy New Year 2017

Musings on a new year are forthcoming. It has been almost six months since I have written here: a place that used to be an almost daily practice. But things shift, and change, and priorities, too. Change, as I said to the man in Home Depot about how to heat houses in Texas, is the only constant that we can count on.

So let’s dive in to a new year. It is 2017, which makes it my lucky (to me) 37th year on planet Earth. For as long as I can remember, 37 has been my lucky number. I can’t tell you why or where it came from, just, that as a small girl, I noticed the number 37 all over the place and began to associate it, and foxes, with luck or, perhaps, an awareness of the magical influences in my life.

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Being that it is 2017, it means that I graduated from high school 18 years ago, and college 13 years ago. That seems like an awfully long period of time, and one could, I suppose, wax and whine poetic about the passage of time, but here’s a thought: my life since those two major life events has involved travel and art and love and friends and being a grown up, all of which add up to the ineffable truth of my life: that life post education is the richness, the soup, the delicious Caesar salad with anchovies of existence. Adulthood is beautiful and fractured, delicate and stressful, colorful, moving, changing, solid, long, and, for me, quite happy. My tune has changed quite a bit since I started this project about four years ago.

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South Philly’s Magic Gardens by Isaiah Zagar 

 

I have a couple of themes for 2017. Last year I focused on having a Year of Patience, and worked on what felt right for me. For the most part, it worked out very well. I established some boundaries, I was very creative, I was inspired by and inspired many young people, I lost a great friend, gained some new ones, and reconnected with some old ones, I moved out of the city, and I thought, a lot. The themes for 2017, so far, are clarity and staying the course: in other words, to thine own self be true BUT also, check in with that self regularly because, as adults, life moves very fast and it is very easy to get in the habit of moving and working and doing so that you don’t actually know if the path you are on is the right one for you.

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Image of neurons in the brain under activity from the Franklin Institute’s exhibit “Self Reflected”

 

There are some things that I am doing this year that, I hope, will help with flying along the migrational path of these themes. I have recently become reinvigorated in the jewelry department after a couple of craft shows around the holidays, and have decided to up my game a bit and try to get some pieces in galleries that I would like to see them in. I gifted myself 10 opals to help in this process! They are beautiful, and will become two bracelets that are inspired by internal structure, structural integrity, and the warrior’s spirit.

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Some of the opals are here displayed by the stone cutter who cut them especially for me!!! Everyone should check out Mountain Song Jewelers

 

Also, I am gifting myself a plane ticket to England. I decided it was time to put up or shut up about going to England, as I have said every year since 2009 that *this* is the year that I am going to go, and then I don’t do it. This year is the year. I am flying out around the 20th of July, and will come back around the 20th of August, to start another school year with flying colors and, hopefully, much inspiration. I will see family, tour gardens, watch the ocean, go to museums, drink tea, go mudlarking, and get in touch with my roots. I will see what happens after that, but I became so excited about this the other day that I became teary-eyed and that was what cemented the decision. I was daydreaming about landing at Gatwick, getting in a black taxi-cab, and traveling through the streets of London to my aunt’s house. I was looking up and around out of the windows, watching the comings and goings of the city. My heart swelled, and I decided I would just make it work.

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Kynance Cove on The Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall, England…just looooooook! 

 

That is really it in terms of plans: jewelry-making and traveling. I want to travel as much as I can, get out there into the world and take some chances. Also, I am becoming deputized to register people to vote, and will have my Deputy Patience face on every day at school to help teachers and parents and students understand how to register and how to vote. I think it is something that I can actually do in these strange times in which we find ourselves. One question that keeps coming back to me is: what do I do? I think I have an idea, which is to wait. Wait and listen. Listen and wait. Think about the goals, and work toward them. Allow everything else to be nebulous. Stay the course, but remain flexible. Someone told me that the mark of a successful person is, when confronted with something not exactly as you would like, you make do anyway. I think she is right. She was commenting on my disappointment in a lack of plain milk chocolate bars in her store, and so I took a risk and bought one with pretzel bits in it. It was her observation that I was a successful person. I took the compliment, and the chocolate, with delight. It was delicious, by the way.

The Seer by Andy Moerlein, 2012 – sculpture of bent branches at the Hulls Cove Tool Barn

 

I was back in Maine in November for Thanksgiving, but I ended up spending about half the time in Portland with friends. We went to restaurants and bars and drove around a lot. Meg and I met a really funny Maine Guide in a gas station somewhere between Brunswick and Bar Harbor who told us he was writing a book that was a cross between Hustler, 50 Shades of Grey, and Downeast Magazine. I went to a bar called the Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box that had a magical mural painted behind the bar, and all the menus were framed in old brass thrift-store frames. I ate dumplings a-go-go and drank delicious special cocktails with things like Cymar and Frenet and egg-whites and lavender in them. I went walking with my friend Tony to Two Lights Park on a very cold and sunny day and we looked at rocks and the ocean. We were talking about relationships and people and life and memory, mostly, and we met some people who were walking their long-haired whippets along the same path as us. They remarked on the beauty of the day, and I too, was struck by the blue of the water, and the shiny brown undulating forms of the rocks at its edge.

Oh Maine, you beautiful place, you. Two Lights State Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

 

Maine water is the deepest blue, so clear but yet so cold and deep: like a sapphire that stretches and moves out to the horizon, dotted by boats, glinting in the sun. I miss Maine, and decided at that moment, that I’d like to be there, again. As my friend Carolyn has said, it looks good on me. I miss the people, the ocean, the trees, the seasons, the natural beauty, the enveloping environment, the quiet, the peace of it. I know now that nowhere is perfect, and I know now that I love Texas at its heart and soul, and I love Maine, too. Over the last few weeks, I have realized that I could work with and teach refugee and immigrant children up in Maine, in Portland or Lewiston-Auburn, and keep working on the mission that I started eleven years ago, as a baby teacher, at the young age of 25. Little did I know then that I would end up, 11 years later, an art teacher at a girls’ school, aiming to inspire a sense of art, of criticism, of laughter, of bewilderment, of creativity, of capacity, and of resilience in a band of young girls, embarking into their own adult world. Their world seems different than mine was at the age of 18, but perhaps it truly isn’t. I suppose I will have to ask them in almost 20 years.

I could write about my critiques of our current political situation, of the current political situation in Texas, but I won’t today. Perhaps later. For today, this is simply a forecast and a casting of wishes like dandelion seeds out into the ethers for a new year. Here we are. Hope *is* a verb, as I have learned, and clarity is my mission. Stay true to myself, and remember to have a lot of fun. Human connections, art-making (which this semester includes puppets!), and food with friends are what stave off the cynicism and the despair that creeps in at our society’s edges. Hold it at bay with sword in hand!!! Whatever your sword is, wield it with love not malice. To win, we stay peaceful and present and we bring light into dark places, understand that each day is new, that nothing is permanent, and that our friends are what help us mark the passage of time, not things, or money, or calendars. These are my wishes for our new year. Happy happy to you. May all your wishes come true, allowing for the almost certainty that what you wish for will change.

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7th Grade Girls

7th grade girls are sweet and funny oddballs who change so much in nine months it’s almost bewildering. This year I have heard all range of things, like:

“Ms Blythe. I was fine until _____ destroyed my life!”

“Ms Blythe, why do you know everything?” answered with, “Because she’s secretly a goddess who has lived for thousands of years.”

“Ms Blythe – do you like me?” I answer, “yes of course I like you!” Answer, “no you don’t.”

“Ms Blythe, Ms. _____ hates us.” I answer, “no, she doesn’t hate you.”

If 6th graders are bundles of raw emotion and sweet happiness, transitioning into teenagerdom, then 7th graders are bundles of raw emotion, anxiety, confusion, tears, and absolutism, albeit momentary.

I have taught 7th graders for most of the years that I have taught. I think, in fact, there has only been one year that I haven’t taught them. My friend Jackie coined 7th grade “The Crying Year” because most of them, at some point, will break down crying, sometimes for no reason. One of my favorite memories of The Crying Year was one day, several years ago, when we were listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bookends while drawing botanical drawings of pinecones. I looked up and noticed a child had buried himself in a fortress of binders. I went over to him, knelt down, and asked if he was ok, to which he replied, “this music makes me so emotional”, in his strange, monotone voice. Later I coaxed him out from underneath the fortress by changing the music.

We just ended our year, my first year of teaching 7th grade girls, as opposed to boys and girls together. I also taught 6th grade girls, but as I said above, they are still bundles of light and joy and excitement. They scamper everywhere. 7th grade girls can be sullen, funny, energetic, silly, disrespectful, lazy, and philosophically challenging. This year, one asked my coworker if she wanted to always be a teacher. She answered yes, and the student asked, “don’t you have any aspirations?”

It is an adventure working with middle schoolers, but in a single-gender environment it is almost as if the daily emotional toil is concentrated and ever-brimming at the surface, apt to boil over. The dramas are similar to the infighting of a small town; alliances shifting and changing daily, for very small and insignificant reasons. It is as if 7th grade girls exist on an emotional see-saw, perpetually tipping the balance in the direction of interpersonal dramas for a day or a week, and then reverting the see-saw to equilibrium once more.

I learned this year that this is the year in which kids stop talking to their parents and they seem to grow an almost adult concept of not wanting to burden their parents with their thoughts and fears. They seem to not want to add stress to their parents’ lives (a mark of their growing maturity) but also desperately need people to listen to the contents of their worried minds. Perhaps this is why we all glommed on to our junior high school friends so intensely, but I cannot tell you the amount of times I said this year to different students: let yourself be a child for a while longer, and tell your parents you love them and need them.

On Thursday, when we all said goodbye and ushered them into cars and buses, there were many, many tears and marker-signed shirts and yearbooks with “H.A.G.S.” written all over the inside pages (Have A Great Summer). I giggled at them and hugged them, telling them they are fine as they are coming back to the school in a couple of months, but it was to no avail: “Ms Blythe! I love you so much. I am going to miss you!”

I am going to miss them, too.