☕️ A School Week

A Saturday Caesura

Students filled the desks in my classroom again after almost three weeks of emptiness related to spring break and COVID-removals to online teaching. We were happy to be back, to see actual faces and whole bodies, to feel the comforting illusion of normalcy.

On Monday a few students needed a reminder that English class is for English, not for Bio or Math or CALM or Duolingo or searching for truck parts online. But mostly we read our books and experimented with odes and word sonnets and parsed gerunds and crafted truisms and raged at the unjust treatment of Jutta and cried real tears when Werner died and WHY WOULD THE AUTHOR DO THAT ANYWAY!

We talked about iambic pentameter and the plums no longer in the icebox. We practised the art of paying attention to our world and shared grad photos. We vented about COVID and named our aspirations for the future. We wondered why Monday always comes after Sunday and determined that we would never be careless people like Tom and Daisy. We blamed the masks for our shortness of breath after coming upstairs to Room 210 because farm girls could never be that out-of-shape. We made excuses for unfinished work and tried to complain about the sub in another class and satisfied the burning need to talk about how that novel ended.

About mid-week I realized that my plan to retire in three years (maybe?) means I would no longer have this messy delight of teenagers in my life.

I already feel the shape of emptiness forming in my heart. It is heavier than I ever thought it would be.

☕️ Adventures in Learning

A Saturday Caesura

Cold settled to the bottom of the sky this week, left glitter hanging in trees, spread a generous helping of white over autumn’s abandoned and decaying glory. The night the cold arrived, a stray kitten found a warm hideaway shelter, curled its baby tail around its pink baby nose and settled into that deep, world-abandoning sleep recognizable in babies of all shapes and sizes. In the early(ish) morning, the little kitten, a soft-grey tabby, went on an unplanned, very un-kitten-like adventure — to school.

The stowaway was not discovered until the student pulled into the school parking lot and heard something other than the usual purr of his truck engine. And so it was that kitty, smelling slightly of engine oil and still oblivious of the dangers of fan belts, found himself tucked into a flannel-lined jean jacket and smuggled into Room 210. Not that the secrecy part of the smuggling operation was particularly successful. The teacher, somewhat experienced with reading student body language and quite knowledgeable in techniques of interrogation, was quick to spy the bulging jacket, ferreted out an equally quick confession, and further declared that if kittens were going to attend English class, then she, as the teacher, would exercise her authority by being the first to cuddle it. Which she did. Of course.

And so it was that kitty found new warm shelters in various laps, explored an intriguing maze of legs (human and non-human), left tiny paw-prints on papers and desk tops, tapped a few Chromebook keys for good measure, and purred and purred and purred (and meowed), and then, oh glory of all glories, lapped up a dish of goodness made from three creamers smuggled (successfully) from the staff-room fridge, the contents mixed with a bit of water, and, once that was gone, munched on a generous scoop of tomato-basil flavoured tuna graciously donated from someone’s lunch. Oh, that all un-kitty-like adventures could result in such bounty, such an embarrassment of riches.

Any suspicions about how much school-work was actually done that class are probably warranted. Kittens are magnets and there is nothing in the high school English curriculum about magnets. Or kittens for that matter. Nothing. Nada. However, there is an entire general outcome related to collaboration and group work, and if one were to assess the class ability to collaborate based on their collective responsiveness to kitty’s frequent meowing and their ability to offer lap-space in an equitable manner without any squabbling, then it could be argued that, even in Grade 12, having a kitten in class is conducive to learning. And if the quality of learning was gauged by the full, round kitty-belly and the steady, rumbling purr, then the class certainly achieved a standard of excellence that day.

☕️Just Keeping In Touch

A Saturday Caesura

Sneaking into my classroom is nearly impossible. With the door situated near the front of the room, everyone sees who arrives late. So it was obvious when one of the grade 12 boys tried to slip in unnoticed. As if that was ever going to happen. That it was not me he was concerned about was also obvious because we made eye-contact while he skulked just outside the doorway. Still, his behaviour was uncharacteristically fearful. I know English is not everyone’s favourite subject and this particular student would certainly choose friends and farming over fixing sentence fragments, but really? Get in the classroom and sit down already.

He would take a cautious step, peek into the room, and, turtle-like, retreat to the hallway. This continued for too long. I told him (again) to come in and sit down. The whole class told him to come in and sit down — one voice in particular rising above the others, overly inviting, almost taunting.

I’ve been a teacher long enough to catch on to student shenanigans fairly quickly, but the truth behind this little scene surprised me — not because of anything overtly serious or sinister at play, but because it was so blatantly simple.

They were playing tag.

“It” was already in class, patiently waiting for his intended tag to arrive. In fact, this tag game involved several students, clandestine trips to each other’s homes and places of work, various levels of secrecy as to who was actually “it,” even a group chat to coordinate who was playing and who wasn’t.

Several days later, the game was still going. One morning as class ended, a harried shuffle and scuffle with giggles and shrieks somehow led to a perfectly executed quadruple play, several breathless (masked) students, and a new “it” resigned to her role as they tumbled into the hallway.

I’ve thought about the game all week. As sophisticated as they have made it, this group of grade 12 students are still playing one of the oldest, simplest playground-backyard-indoor-rainy-day games of all time. Tag. Touch someone and they are “it,” charged with the task of touching someone else. The game has twin but opposing objectives: touch and avoiding touch. I’m wondering if the game for these teenagers isn’t really about the avoidance though. They are, like all of us, inundated with messages regarding social and physical distancing. The length of a hockey stick, 46 Timbits, 2 beavers, 1 cow — however you measure the recommended distance, it doesn’t allow for touch. For good reason.

But there is also a good reason why we use phrases like, “Let’s keep in touch,” or, “I’ll get in touch with you later.” We use the language of touch when we talk about, long for, reach out for connection. We have so many tools at our fingertips for staying connected across the distance of time zones and continents, but this doesn’t take away or lessen the need for our fingers to connect with living, breathing humanity — even if it is only for the millisecond it takes to poke someone and say, “You’re it.”

The darting away to avoid being tagged back is more accurately an invitation to follow, to “keep in touch,” to extend the give and take of connecting into days and weeks and lifetimes.

Tag. You’re it.

Note: Lore Ferguson Wilbert wrote a thoughtful and articulate book on the whole concept of touch that goes far beyond a random game of tag. I recommend it! Handle With Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry

☕️ On Gratitude Calendars

A Saturday Caesura

Rain and grey defines this day. The few leaves left on the trees appear tired and waterlogged. Fall is fading towards a some sort of finale while winter lurks backstage. The drippy chill has not hampered the chickadees and blue jays cavorting outside my window, however. They appear delighted and energetic, as if rain is a thing of joy. The calendar may remind us to set aside this weekend for giving thanks, but my feathered neighbours remind me that gratitude can be written into every calendar day. Consider the past week:

Monday: reading through some brilliant-funny-wistful pieces my grade 12 students wrote about “the stories we wear” brings to mind a pair of hiking boots that have played a supporting role in many stories and adventures over the past 40 years. Gratitude for the miles and memories I’ve hiked in those boots spills over into gratitude for the man who encouraged me to buy them, then married me so we could continue to tromp through life together.

Tuesday: it is the season for glorious sunrise vistas from my classroom window. I turn off the lights and sit and absorb the rich colour, the majesty, the fading brilliance. I breathe it in and then breathe it out in gratitude throughout the day as students pull my attention away from windows and sun and clouds to books and assignments and forgotten pencils.

Wednesday: my evening walk or run is sometimes not much more than a forced routine I go through because I know my body needs the movement, the catharsis. But today I come home out of breath from both exercise and wonder, amazed at how the same routes and kilometres can contain such nuanced beauty that no two days look, smell, sound exactly the same.

Tiredness seeps in on Thursday. Lack of sleep, too many to-dos, the ongoing challenges of teaching in a pandemic restricted environment evoke a sense of weariness that clings to me all day. But weariness does not excuse me from being grateful: for the student who has a cup of hot tea waiting for me when I return from the photocopier, for the bowl of thick chowder for supper, made with fresh corn gifted from a friend’s garden, for a good rest at night.

Friday: just the thought of teaching a double-block of my most challenging non-academic class on the day before a long weekend puts me into survival mode. So I am not only grateful, but also pleasantly surprised when this rag-tag, rough-and-tumble group of mostly boys (only two girls — quiet, dependable) completely usurps my plan to have them listen to an audio-book version of the novel we are studying in favour of three of them, self-appointed, taking turns reading aloud to the rest of the class. Sixteen-year-old boys who would much rather talk about trucks, fishing gear (yes, one student brought his rod and tackle box – not sure why), quads, dirt-bikes, hunting, farming, skateboards, food, and all manner of shenanigans characteristic of such boys are actually reading a book together — without me. I watch and listen and breathe gratitude for what feels like a miracle.

Our calendars don’t come with the particulars of thankfulness neatly typed into the allotted box for each day, but if we look closely, if we have the right heart-posture, we can see all the ways that minutes and hours and events and landscapes and people point us towards a grateful response to the Ancient of Days, the God who cannot be contained in boxes –calendar or otherwise.

☕️ The Almost Didn’ts

A Saturday Caesura

The first three weeks of school in the midst of a pandemic with all its uncertainties, regulations, and anxieties has left me feeling like the world and my words are speeding by, the shape, form, detail lost in an indistinguishable blur. One of the reasons I write is to pay attention and to notice things, to find beauty and discover wisdom and wonder. Lately, my eyes and ears and heart have found it difficult to focus on anything in the jumble of life zipping past the window. I’ve not noticed so many things.

So I’m grateful for the things I almost didn’t notice.

I almost didn’t notice the skies pockmarked with dusky clouds and reverberating with the animated chatter of hundreds of geese making travel plans, discussing weather forecasts, channelling the energy of young ones caught up in the excitement and anticipation of their first Great Migration.

I almost didn’t notice that the trees have shivered and shimmied out of some of their summer garb, letting it drop in disarray at their feet like a discarded memory.

I almost didn’t notice the gradual slouching towards darkness that cloaks the morning commute with mystery and evokes a comforting cup of hot chai tea.

I almost didn’t notice the shifting colour palate of the marsh, not so long ago a richly nuanced green, now a motley gold-russet-chocolate-lemon that flavours and textures this year’s marsh fall fashion.

I almost didn’t notice the tracks trespassing on the newly graded road a few hundred metres from our home — a young bear venturing out to leave his bear-foot mark on the edges of society. I wonder if he felt brave and adventurous.

I almost didn’t notice the tears forming above the mask. The voice behind the mask was trying so hard to be brave. Even in a pandemic, school is already the safest place to be for too many teens. I wish I could give hugs.

I wish I could list all the things I didn’t notice. They probably contained so much beauty and wisdom and wonder. But I missed them.

The Sound of Music

A Saturday Caesura

Working at home under self-isolation guidelines made for a quiet week. No bells. No hallway bedlam. No whispery undercurrent while I’m expounding the rules of subject-verb agreement. No bursts of laughter. No heated discussions. Just the ding dings of incoming mail and messages, my own voice the clatter of a Chromebook keypad.

Into this world of disrupted sound, I pause to listen. A train bellows its warnings (always 4 times). The neighbour’s broken-muffler car rumbles my sleep. Coyotes yelp at nothing and everything. Birds flutter and gossip at the feeder; geese honk on-the-wing. Water drip drips from the eaves, a gentle affront to the freezing silence of winter.

Into this percussion of life beyond isolation, I pause to play my piano (2 times), and the notes falter and trip, having endured their own long season of winter. My fingers search for a voice frozen by grief, hurt, discouragement. It’s a soft voice, hardly more than a pianissimo drip drip, but it is there and maybe spring will thaw this silence, too.

18. View From My Classroom

Being a teacher has hard days.
But today?
Today being a teacher meant

watching grade 12 boys
(as goofy as they come)
write caring, funny, meaningful messages
to our departing librarian.

enjoying a student
(from last semester no less)
randomly pop by to excitedly discuss
a book that deeply moved her.

listening to a student
(with warm tenderness)
share a plan for an essay about
her grandparents facing illness
and falling in love all over again.

seeing the pride and determination
(though sore and exhausted)
of my Block 5 ‘rugby girls’ who
collectively embody Shakespeare’s Hermia
“Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

observing a group conversation
(intelligent, insightful, respectful)
about the nuances of character and class
and setting and symbols
in a classic literary novel.

Today being a teacher meant being
on the front lines of viewing youth who are
Compassionate
Passionate
Sensitive
Resilient
Mature
Engaged
And simply amazing.

13. Friday

Foggy drive
Finalize lesson plans
Film study
Frequent reminders
Foster learning
Fiddle with technology
Flights of stairs
Photocopies x 1,052 (+\-)
Fast lunch
Find a document
Forward email
Foster more learning
Fix grammar errors
Forgot supervision (oops)
Feeling fatigued
Finally home
Flop on couch
Finished…for today

9. Absent

“So, what did I miss in class today?”

Well, a few things actually…

some poems about hands
that were really about relationships

some review of prepositions
that are all about relationships, too

some conversations about literary themes
like ambition and facing hardship-
either one can build or destroy relationships

I guess you (we) missed a chance for relationship today.

Glad you are back.