Mindfulness in 2016: A Silver Bullet Resolution?

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On this New Year’s Eve morning I spent some time reading the blog entry I wrote exactly one year ago today, “Mindfulness in 2015: A Silver Bullet Resolution.”  I liked what I read.  That’s a nice blog post, I said to myself.  I was proud of it, proud of the writing and of the sentiment expressed but very disappointed in myself. In the assessment of the previous year in light of this particular resolution, I had clearly failed. You can follow the link above, if you like, to read the entry in full, but for now, let me just quote the passage here where the actual resolution is made:

I resolve in 2015 to be more mindful and to find opportunities daily for meditation practice.  And to conclude, I want to make a short list of areas in my life where mindfulness may become particularly handy.

Simple enough, yes. And the short list of areas wherein mindfulness may come in handy? Last year I listed these: mindful drinking, mindful working, mindful parenting, and mindful creativity. Now, I’ve said that in the year 2015 I failed in my resolve.  That’s how I felt at first–on a gut level. Perhaps, that is not the best approach to take here.  Perhaps, it would be safe to say that I was more mindful in 2015 than I was in 2014. Let’s say it’s true, and that, by itself, is something, isn’t it? But I did not meditate daily or even find opportunities to meditate daily. My drinking was not nearly as mindful as I hoped it would be. My school year was as stressful if not more so than the previous year, and this school year is shaping up to be a stressful one as well. Take a look at “Against the Wall: A Teacher’s Manifesto” for an assessment of how things are going in this particular arena. It is possible, but not verifiable, that I had fewer struggles with my son this year than I have had in previous years. So there may be some gains in that area, and maybe mindful parenting resulted in fewer gaskets blown overall. As for creativity, my fiction writing has stalled and sputtered quite a bit, which is really the writing I want to be doing most, while my poetry and my blogging was quite successful in terms of words written and posts published.  Musically, it’s been a bad year.  The monthly songwriting has suffered. As part of a songwriting circle we’ve been writing six songs a month since 2004; this year, we were successful less than half the time at producing anything at all. But I guess that part of the practice of mindfulness around creativity would be about accepting what comes as a gift and not beating oneself up when nothing comes at all. It’s not a personal failure. It is what it is. Right?

To me, mindfulness has to do with being right with the world and being right inside the head, to simply be conscious and intentional about what it is we do, why we do it, and how we respond to the world, to our experiences, and in our relationships . It has to do with our relationship with and understanding of The Four Noble Truths: life is suffering; suffering has causes, those causes can be discovered, and through practice of the eightfold path there is a way to minimize suffering or at best transcend it. That’s the key, isn’t it, to understand what causes us to suffer and to take steps to minimize such suffering.  This is, at least, the way I understand it, and I envision a meditative practice as being helpful toward feeling more balanced, feeling unhinged less often, reducing stress, finding clarity about issues that bug me, and ultimately, suffering less.

So I just stole this blog post title from last year’s, changed 2015 to 2016, and then I added a question mark at the end. Mindfulness was not a silver bullet for me in 2015.  Perhaps, my expectations were too high. Maybe I was not thoroughly committed. When I was most successful, during a single week in July, I had companions, a sangha, if you will. And this might be a key element in finding more success with this resolution, which, I think, is worth trying again–even if I fail again.  I need to take a class. Go to a temple. Find a community.  Try yoga. It’s too hard, nearly impossible, I think, to go it completely alone. Let’s try a new and improved resolution for 2016:

I resolve in 2016 to be more mindful, to find opportunities daily for meditation practice, and to seek out a community, some companionship on the journey.

That can’t be so hard.  Happy New Year friends, readers, and strangers.

 

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T@B Diaries #1: Champoeg St. Park

  • in which Michael Jarmer begins a new blog series;
  • in which Michael Jarmer provides a brief history of his life as a camper;
  • in which his somewhat checkered RV history is revealed;
  • in which an experience camping solo at Champoeg State Park is described;
  • in which funny and archaic subtitles are used to arouse reader interest in the following blog post.

Here’s an idea, I said to myself: I’ll write a series of travel logs as I journey out into the world with my new travel trailer, a T@B, made by the folks at Little Guy, recently purchased and out just this last week on its maiden voyage to Champoeg State Park (pronounced Champooey) in the lovely Willamette Valley right here in Oregon.

Here’s a picture of my new baby right before it left the showroom.

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This could be interesting, or not. Time will tell. It’s worth a try. First, a bit of background.

I grew up camping with my parents and extended family mostly all around the state of Oregon with a few excursions into Washington and California. My folks were trailer campers and as I recall, all through my childhood and into my early adult years, it was my family’s tradition to make several camping trips a year beginning late spring and into September. These trips as a family and with friends stand out as being some of the most cherished experiences of my young life. I loved the adventure of it, the way it exposed me to the natural world beyond suburbia, the various abundances of camp experience: riding in my uncle’s boat, fishing, crabbing, hiking, biking, beaching, site-seeing, the community of the camp-fire, and the coziness of the trailer or the tent, or, as I became a teenager and always had a friend along, the back cabin of my Dad’s truck. Camping was huge.  And as a newlywed, in my early twenties, camping was almost killed for me forever after I took my wife and my dog on a tent-camping trip beset with nightmare: bad weather, sick spouse, spastic dog, tiny tent, our first serious marital dispute–resulting in a silent and angry two and half hour car ride home at 3 o’clock in the morning.  This was the key factor, but other things as well kept me from camping: mostly, a commitment to finishing college, finding a job, finding some kind of economic security, and then the demands of working and keeping up with the needs of a house, our first foray into homeownership–not to mention the still serious effort to play music as much as we possibly could, searching for that illusive and perhaps illusory big break all through the end of the eighties and the nineties. We were too busy to even think about camping.

Fast forward to 2001. It took 15 years to convince my wife to camp with me again–and the inspiration came with our first RV, a Coleman tent trailer.  It kept us busy and happily camping for four or five years, but with the arrival of our son in 2005 and a new, very serious commitment and demand on our attention, some early and unhappy camping trips with an infant, and the need to make some money to make up the short-fall of the extra income lost to full-time parenting, we sold that little trailer to a Canadian and watched it ride off into the sunset. It turned out to be the first of two very similar experiences over the next five years. I was unhappy selling the trailer, but in my heart of hearts I had a very selfish reason for wanting it to go away: I had my eyes and my heart set on bigger and better fish–an Airstream 16 foot Bambi International. It would take three more years of embarrassingly obsessive plots and maneuvers before that little dream would come true.  And it did.  And we had two and a half years of joy in an Airstream before, again, a shift in the financial winds on several simultaneous fronts forced our hand: the Airstream had to go! I really mourned that loss. I went on and on about it for years. And perhaps, when I was finally ready to do the whole RV dance once again, I would have happily gone back to the Airstream if I could find one that I could afford, but we sold the tow vehicle that pulled the 16 footer and ended up about a year later with a mini-van with a significantly lower tow capacity. All of this is just to say that if we were to purchase a new trailer, it would have to be light weight; it would have to be tiny.

Here my son and I are after the “red carpet” walk-through before towing home the T@B, a truly light weight trailer, clocking in at about 1900 pounds:

That's really a red carpet.

That’s really a red carpet.

So, within a week of bringing the trailer home, and anticipating two weeks off for the holiday vacation, I booked myself a two night stay at a local and nearby favorite camping destination, Champoeg State Park.  I chose on this first expedition to go it alone.  The weather would not likely be good; my son, without lots of outdoor activity, would be bored; and my dear wife had working responsibilities at home.  And I may as well come clean about this now: as excited as I am about camping with my little family, I will likely, as I did with the  Airstream and the Coleman before, use the trailer as a writing retreat on wheels and will often be alone.

I used this little excursion to get to know my trailer, most of all. I did do a little writing and some reading of things I have written with an eye to finishing a draft of a novella and starting the revision process. I listened to a lot of music (not, however, in continuation of the A-Z listening blog project). I got a visit from my brother for a few hours (Champoeg State Park is close to where we both live). And in between downpours, sometimes torrential downpours, I walked. I took pictures in the day of soggy fields and raging muddy streams on the verge of flooding. I took pictures of myself and my hat. And I looked at the moon peaking through clouds. It was a lovely and successful first trip. I leave you with some photographic evidence of this first trip and hope to write another installment in a month’s time.

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Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume IX, Letter E

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Elbow, in the E’s for sure, and maybe right now in the entire alphabet, my favorite band.

Here we are with volume IX of a series of blogs about my attempt to listen to at least one compact disc from every artist in my music collection in alphabetical order. That is a mouthful. A mouthful for an earful.  I’ve been at it almost a year and I have worked my way through the first 5 letters of the alphabet–an alphabet which consists, I am told, of 26 letters.  It is Christmas eve, 2015, and I am  in the basement catching up on the writing about the listening while the family is upstairs watching “Elf” for the umpteenth time. There are some absolutely great things in my E collection–but they are slightly outnumbered by embarrassing acquisitions or some things that just no longer float my boat–or, they float my boat but I find little to say about them. You’ll see. Some dross, and then, among the dross, some of the greatest things ever.

The Eagles, “Desparado.” What a beautiful song that “Desperado” is, and what a lovely other thing is that “Tequila Sunrise,” but beyond that, beyond those tunes I heard over and over on album-oriented-radio of the 70’s when I was a wee lad, what a terribly boring record.  That’s just me. It’s a fault, I concede. I don’t appreciate, and did not appreciate as a youngun or as a teen, this thing the kids call country rock. Didn’t really begin to sing the Eagles’ praises until “Hotel California,” and even that was dispassionate and short-lived. This is a record I picked up out of an obligation to have at least one Eagles record, one that I knew was famous and for which I was unschooled. Okay. I’m schooled. I’m dropping out.     

Echo and the Bunnymen, “Self-Titled, 1987.” This record marks the first year of my marriage. It marks a transition into real adulthood.  Also, it marks the move towards trying to be a serious musician in a serious rock and roll band while graduating with an English degree from Lewis and Clark College, also serious.  A big time in my life, no doubt, and this record, a big serious record.  I think it’s safe to say that this was Echo and the Bunnymen’s breakthrough. It’s a terribly groovy, dance inducing, sexy record.  Not all of the tunes are “Lips Like Sugar” memorable, but they’re all worth listening to, and while I haven’t spun this disc in forever, I think it’s a worthy record of more favorable rotation, a record I could  totally see sucking up into the computer for a cool 80’s dance mix.

Eels, “Beautiful Freak.” I don’t like to say it, but I think one of the reasons Mark Oliver Everett (E), the man behind Eels, has had such a long-lasting, wonderfully multi-faceted career, is that one of these tunes, “My Beloved Monster,” was picked up for the “Shrek” film. Perhaps, (but I don’t know, cuz it’s never happened to me) this is a thing that can catapult a career–or at least, give one license to do whatever the hell one wants, which is the thing that Eels has been doing for almost twenty years now. The song that struck my attention on this debut album was the opening track, “Novocaine for the Soul,” which, for my money, marries perfectly the two things I love the most in music: pop sensibility and weirdness.  “Life is hard. And so I am I.”  What a great, perverse, funny first line! This record is full of the kind of characteristics that Everett would continue to exhibit throughout his career: sardonic wit, self deprecating humor, a touch of romance (only a dash), a wide stylistic musical range, an interesting marriage between tradition and innovation, and perhaps most importantly, an emotional depth at which most pop artists only scratch at the surface. And then there’s this bizarre personal connection.  I heard this record maybe 10 years after I made my first professional recording of my own music, and on that record a friend of mine, Allen Hunter, played bass. And then, I don’t know, maybe 5 to 10 years after the release of “Beautiful Freak,” Allen would get a bass gig touring with Eels around the world, a gig that has continued for him up to 2015 and has rewarded him with a musical experience that is THE DREAM for most  of us slugging away in the trenches of small local music scenes. I’m exceedingly happy for Allen and have enjoyed seeing him play with Eels, and finally, in 2015, seeing and hearing him perform with Mark Oliver Everett on the “Royal Albert Hall” concert film and record!

Elbow, “Asleep at the Back,” “Cast of Thousands,” “Leaders of the Free World,” “The Seldom Seen Kid,” “Build A Rocket Boys,” and “The Take Off and Landing of Everything.” That’s right. With this band (and this may be a first in this entire enterprise), I could not help but listen to every single record, in chronological order, from start to finish. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if  I was stranded on an desert island and could only choose the entire catalogue of ONE band to listen to for the rest of my days, it might be Elbow’s catalogue. Guy Garvey is one of the greatest pop singers I’ve ever heard, and he’s English, and he’s literary–his lyrics are artful and poignant and at least once on every record the combination of these words and this voice are apt to reduce me to tears. And the band, my god, this band is phenomenal and their production choices nothing short of wondrous. They can rock, for sure, but much of the music feels way underplayed, sometimes trancelike, quiet, while usually something crazy lurks under the surface. On that point (and another reason why I hold these guys so dear), one of their records, “The Seldom Seen Kid,” was perhaps the first rock album to really capture my son’s attention–then, only three years old. And I remember vividly the day it happened, when we were driving together in the car, just the two of us, and I put this cd into the player.  The opening tune on this record, “Starlings,” begins with this quiet synthesizer arpeggiation just percolating in the background.  It’s so quiet, your tendency might be to turn up the volume. The drums come in, again, quiet, a simple bass drum, hi-hat, and tom on two and four pattern. And in creeps, again quietly, these voices melodically chanting, almost gregorian, and then, and then, wait for it, wait for it, this intense and extremely loud, hair-raising horn blast on one. Blam! The first time I heard it I jumped out of my skin.  The first time three year old Emerson heard it, he busted out laughing uncontrollably. And again, every time it occurred in the tune, he just absolutely lost his shit in the very best possible way. And he would request this tune almost every time we drove together. This record, from start to finish, was a record he and I listened to at bedtime over and over again during that year. A pivotal moment–for me as a dad, for my son as a budding appreciator of music.  This record, and all the others, are nearly perfect from start to finish. I could not name a single bad song.  They are, Elbow, at this point in my life, my absolute favorite band. I hope they never go away.

Danny Elfman, “Music for a Darkened Theatre.” Don’t worry, when we get to the O’s where Oingo Boingo lives, I’ll go on and on and on about Danny Elfman and his influence on my life, but for now, suffice it to say how impressed I have been with him, with his move from punk new wave singer front-man to consummate composer of serious music for film. I consider his theme music for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, for The Simpsons, and for Batman to be absolute classics in the genre. Otherwise, unless I am listening to either of these three pieces or watching a film for which he has composed the score, this record is mostly skippable. It pains me to say this. Maybe I was just not in the mood, when I listened to this one weeks ago at the height of a professional meltdown, for movie music. I was not in the mood. But I do, just now, just thinking about it, have a hankering on this  Christmas Eve for a film scored by Danny Elfman.  Scrooged anyone? Nope, no one is interested. I’ll have to imagine it.

Electric Light Orchestra, “Afterglow” Boxset, Disc Three. Holy shit, these guys were great. Most of the time. Unable or unwilling to listen to all three discs in this box set retrospective, I go straight to the third disc. I find here a healthy collection from the two albums that, as a tween, I owned and listened to repeatedly: “A New World Record” and “Out of the Blue.” Both records are masterpieces. Both contain an abundance of truly great songs that nevertheless went on to become hits.  “Rockaria,” “Telephone Line,” “So Fine,” “Living Thing,” “Turn to Stone,” and my favorite, “Mr. Blue  Sky.” My cousin Nick turned me on to ELO and I have been forever grateful.  It’s hard not to think of him when I listen to this band. We were super close as young kids, our parents together often, camping trips together often–I felt closer to my cousins than I did to many of my grade school and middle school chums; but we grew further and further apart as we became adults, to the extent that we only ever see each other any more at weddings (less often) and at funerals (more often). So this music brings back my idyllic preadolescence and my friendship with my cousin Nick and it’s kind of sweet. But this music stands on it’s own and withstands the test of time. It’s superb pop music. The pre-Cheap Trick Beatles of the 70’s.

An Emotional Fish, “Celebrate” maxi-single. What the hell was this?  I have no idea why I bought this record but I am totally sure why I didn’t follow up and grab the full length LP, whatever it was.  This is a late eighties band trying to sound like a half a dozen different late eighties bands that were already in this territory. The “Celebrate” song is good in a derivative kind of way, but everything else on this five or six song “maxi-single” is completely skippable and immediately forgettable. One for the hopper.

Enya, “Watermark.” Sail away, sail away, indeed.  Music to nap by. I don’t know what turned me on about this either, except for that maybe I was trying to branch out into some new territory, a new age territory.  During the late eighties it was a record  that I could enjoy with my dad.  That was part of it, I’m sure. Don’t get me wrong. There are some really beautiful pieces here. But it’s so safe, so pedestrian.  She’s the Kenny G of eighties new age music.

The Eurythmics, “Peace.” Of all the possible Eurythmics records, this is the one I buy?! The only one? 1999? Used for $8.50–the sticker says, still on the jewel case–and that explains a few things. Annie Lennox, to me as a young lad, was so captivating and sexy, and I loved those early videos, playing as they did into some slightly perverse territory, which I dug; she’s so undeniably one of the greatest pop vocalists of the era, but this record (purchased on a whim because I thought I’d take a chance perhaps and felt a little guilty because I had never bought one of their records and should have, and while I dig the reference to “Sweet Dreams” in this first track)–this record is so unremarkable. I must  have listened to it once and then filed it away. Nothing is familiar to me here. It’s not bad. The vocals are stellar, the musicianship is exquisite, the production value is high. The Eurythmics, at their very worst, were probably never bad. This just does not float my boat in any way that would make me want to listen to it again. I know I’m not being fair to the material–and I accept that. If I forced myself to listen to this record on heavy rotation I would probably grow to dig it. I just don’t have the time. I apologize, Annie. Forgive me.

The Letter F awaits. I know there are treasures there and I’m am anxious to move ahead.  Merry Christmas, music lovers.

 

 

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Against a Wall: A Teacher’s Manifesto

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It has been coming on for a year or two, maybe longer, but I feel it now in my 28th year of teaching more keenly than ever: I have come up against a wall. This is the condition in which I find myself professionally. It may be that things have always been this way and I adjusted and made do because I was younger, more inspired, more energetic. But I rail against this supposition. I may be no younger, but I am hardly uninspired and I have energy to spare. No, I insist that things are in fact different now, that things are worse, harder, less forgiving, less supportive, less creative, less humane than they have ever been in the entirety of my career.

I want to be able to describe this feeling, this reality of mine. And I want to be able to unpack what’s causing it and to see if I can discover how much of it is systemic and how much of it is just me, and once I can discover its causes, see if I can’t do something to make things better for myself and maybe even for others. Personally, the stakes are high. I do not wish to go out of the profession kicking and screaming, anguished, embittered, embattled. I want the last years of my career to be the very best years of my career. And I fear that if I don’t do something toward creating this more positive reality, instead, the conclusion of my teaching life will be a train wreck, a professional, psychological, emotional train wreck, something I must escape from or survive. I do not want that. That is the last thing in the world I want.

I find that I need to talk or write about this. I’ve thought about therapy. I’ve thought about a sit-down with my principal. I’ve thought about early retirement. Generally speaking, I love teaching, I love my colleagues, I love my school, I love nearly all of my kids (nobody’s perfect), I have a good time doing my job and until very recently I have never been the kind of person that counts down days, weeks, months, or years until the next Friday, the next break, the next summer, or retirement. But now I find myself doing it often and I don’t like it.

What’s the problem? Let us first describe the problem. I have been, perhaps for the last two years running, in a constant state of feeling absolutely overwhelmed. There is simply not time enough during the workday to do all the aspects and complete all the responsibilities of the job, and as a result, some important things are in perpetual neglect.

It has seemed to me that, in a kind of hierarchy of what’s most important for a teacher, the first thing on the list beyond determining what students need to learn and how they should grow academically would simply be to figure out what it is I’m going to do with students for 87 minutes in 3 different classes of which I have 6 different sections (3 preparations, 6 groups of students). Planning takes the priority because one of the worst teacher fears ever is to face a group of between 25 and 40 students with absolutely nothing to do for an entire period. And so I find, that for three different classes, two of which are pretty much brand new for me, I spend my entire preparation period planning, designing assessments, creating handouts or visuals, making copies, gathering materials, answering and writing emails, and composing letters of recommendation for seniors. It is a pretty regular occurrence that just as I finish the work to get ready for classes, the bell has rung and students have begun entering my room.

And then, in the course of the work I’m doing with the curriculum, I ask students to produce things: log entries, dialogue journals, exit notes, graphic organizers or illustrations, poems, on-demand essays and formal papers. These are the items that typically form a picture of each student’s progress and ultimately result in final grades. So here’s the question: if all or most of the time I have during the work day for preparation is spent on the nuts and bolts of planning and getting ready for 6 meaningful 87 minute class periods, when does the grading get done? Aye, there’s the rub.

I know I’ve talked about this before in previous blog posts, and I don’t want to be a broken record, but this is a math problem. I have 180 students (a number which, over the last 28 years, has exploded from 125—no small potatoes, I might add, and I would also add that among English teachers in my building, my load is nowhere near the largest). I try to stagger the work so that my three different classes are never all turning in work at the same time. But here’s the reality. My 70 sophomores do an essay exam on To Kill A Mockingbird and turn that in to me. But because I’ve been spending all of my time during my prep period planning, I don’t start them right away. I find 20 minutes here or there to get started on them in the days to come, but I’m nowhere close to being finished, and then, suddenly I realize that a couple of weeks have gone by and then, lo and behold, my 80 seniors are turning in written commentaries on various poems by Seamus Heaney. I’m still not done with the 70 sophomore Mockingbird essays; I’ve been sitting on the Seamus Heaney Commentaries for a week and a half; and then, oh no, but yes, it’s true, my College Writing students, all 30 of them are turning in an Expository Essay! Even though I have staggered the work, I end up with a stack of 180 things to grade—and if, god forbid, I’ve asked students to turn in anything else, there may be another few stacks of things to get through. I begin to feel thankful for the students who are neglecting to turn in their work! And I begin to hate grading, period.

The simple but insane solution to this problem is to just do the grading at home! How easy is that? Plan at work, grade at home. Well, when you consider that it might take me an entire day, the equivalent of an 8-hour work day on a Saturday or Sunday to get through ONE group of formal essays, about 30 papers, attempting to give students meaningful and substantive feedback, you can begin to see the problem. The fix here would be simply to NOT give meaningful and substantive feedback. And this is what it really comes down to most of the time, because to deliver meaningful and substantive feedback to student work takes time. If I were to do that for each student who turns in a formal piece of writing, I would never sleep, I would not eat, I would not socialize, I would not write fiction or poetry, I would not pay any mind to my wife and my son, I would not play music—I would not be doing anything to take care of myself or my loved ones. And I cannot do that. So the stuff piles up. And the anxiety grates and grates. And I lose sleep. The stress of the workday compels me to do mindless things at home. And I eat less or poorly, the social calendar is empty, I spend less time with my family, I play less music, I write little or no fiction, and I drink more than I should, all while I’M NOT WORKING AT HOME—or at least, working as little at home as is possible.

The voices inside my head tell me: So minimize your grading work load! Stop telling your kids to write! Stop asking them to turn things in! Whenever I confide with students about the enormity of the grading task, this is the advice they give also—even though they know it’s ridiculous.

I have never in my 28 years given a single test that could be graded by a scantron machine or by a student aid with an answer key. I feel that in order for students to become better writers, they must write. In order for students to become better thinkers, they must write. And when I can give them substantive feedback, I do, and when I can’t, I say to myself and to them that the thing was worth doing in and of itself, that the very act of going through the process was instructive and caused learning to happen. I believe this. But then, there are the exams in IB, the state tests in The Common Core Standards, the PSAT, the SAT, the grades, the student growth goals and the accompanying exhaustive paperwork, the burdensome record keeping we’re expected to do in order to track student learning based on data—all of these factors clamoring for student proficiency instead of learning for learning’s sake. Much of this is new to the profession, and, as well-intentioned as it might be, it is sucking the life out of teachers. At least out of this teacher.

Did I mention that I am legally responsible to keep track of and make sure I am accommodating every student of mine out of 180 kids who might be on an Individual Education Plan, or who have been graced with a 504 accommodation, the numbers of which seem to grow exponentially every year? Did I mention that? Did I mention the expectation that I initiate contact with parents by email or by phone when their children are in academic danger or are disruptive in class? Did I say that I almost never write referrals for behavior or lunch detentions for tardiness, that I almost never write up a student for chronic absences, not because all my students are angels and always present and on-time, but because the labor involved to follow up on each case would be more trouble than its worth, or rather, the trouble might be worthwhile, but the exhaustive nature of the one hundred and one other responsibilities makes taking the time for the trouble well-nigh impossible? That’s another anxiety producer. Jarmer doesn’t care—that’s the judgment from students or from colleagues that I fear most—and even though I’ve never heard it, except maybe from kids regarding minor infractions like tardiness, the nag of that imaginary criticism still tugs, the fear that I will be caught and called out for negligence, for ineffectively dealing with student accommodations or for being permissive around issues of discipline. I cannot win for losing.

Regarding this tenuous and crazy balancing act between planning, grading, accommodating, and general classroom housekeeping, I’m sure there are master teachers out there holding PhD’s and working at teacher-training colleges who have written books during their research sabbaticals who can tell me exactly what I am doing wrong. But I don’t have time to read them, to study them, to gather advice or research about best practice because I am consistently and overwhelmingly swamped. Even staff development, when it is not delivered in house during the two to four days given up for it in an entire school year, has been offered only in sessions after the work day hours, or in sessions that require one to have a substitute (the preparation for which is always more labor intensive than delivering the lessons oneself), or in evening classes. And these staff development activities are often about NEW stuff to do or new expectations to fulfill or new ways teachers can become the Super Human Everything to Everyone kind of person the universe wants us to be while the media demonizes us for constantly falling short of expectations.

And this talk of the potential goodness of teachers (despite the bad press) and the nobility of the profession, brings me to the honorable and good work our district is doing around issues of equity for our students. It is our district’s primary goal that NO student in our classrooms gets less educational opportunity because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, socio-economic status, physical disability, or learning disability. So we have begun, really for the first time ever in my career, to look closely and deeply at disadvantages caused by the institution or by individuals that may be obstacles to any of the above students, whether these obstacles are blatant and systemic, or whether they are micro-aggressive and barely conscious. And while every fiber of my being believes in this work, internally I am struggling mightily with the dissonance between what ideally we would love to do for kids and what in reality can actually be done in this current climate. It is a fact of having 180 students assigned to me that there are a great number of kids of mine representing these disadvantaged groups above that I hardly know. They are virtual strangers to me. And this is wrong. It is wrong that I don’t know my students well, and it is wrong that I am expected to eliminate or minimize educational barriers for children that I cannot reasonably get to know well. And while I do love most of my students, there are some students, a good number of them, actually, that are difficult to love; they are resistant, defiant, unwilling, disinterested, apathetic, anti-intellectual, and sometimes just nasty people, people whose disregard for the work we’re trying to do for them makes teaching especially difficult, disheartening, frustrating, demoralizing. In this sea of 180 humans, my natural tendency (and the wrong one) is to help those most who are receptive to the help and let the others try to figure it out and hope they do. They need far more than I can possibly give them, and perhaps, they really don’t need (at least now) what it is I have to offer. But there are no options. And the idea of differentiating for them in a setting that defies differentiation is absurd. My only method, the best I can do toward individualizing my instruction for them is to be as flexible as I can be—but this is, I think, a far cry from the kind of differentiation and individualization that could truly approach equity of opportunity for all students.

And how can we seriously talk about equity for students when clearly there is no sense of equity in our buildings between teachers. Some teachers have permanent computer labs in their classrooms. Other teachers must race to sign up for mobile labs or classroom labs that must be shared by the entire staff. Some teachers have a load of 200 students. Other teachers have 140 or less. Some teachers, by nature of their discipline, must work at home in order to fulfill their professional responsibilities. Other teachers, also a feature of their discipline, NEVER take school work home and earn the same pay as the teachers who are working the extra hours. It is often true that beginning teachers are given the most difficult classes to teach, classes that require the broadest teacher skill set, because veteran teachers do not want those classes. And when it comes to cultural diversity, our district teaching staff does not represent our community. In my building, which employs maybe 45 teachers, there are two individuals of color.

And then, finally, and strangely too, in a different direction and on the broadest possible scale, the very unraveling fabric of American culture and society, specifically, that of political and ideological gridlock and divisiveness unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, where politicians who might one day lead our country seem to be the stupidest people to ever run for office and whose ignorance of global warming may one day be the cause of the demise of the human species; that coupled with the more immediate and terrifying preponderance of gun violence in America—these things have created a very subtle but nevertheless toxic environment of future uncertainty and fear for our safety in public education. I am not always aware of it. But the necessity of doing a lock down drill in a classroom with kids where we pretend that there’s an active shooter in the building who wants to kill us, where we lock all the doors, turn off the lights and find places in the classroom to hide, undoubtedly creates psychological damage. On these occasions and at other random times in my waking hours, as I’m sure students and their parents do and other teachers do, I find myself having these morbid fantasies about how this might go down, how I might behave and what it might be like to die in my classroom or to watch students die or even to survive such an event. Never mind that it’s statistically unlikely to ever happen. Never mind that it’s a fact that most schools are likely some of the safest places on the planet. That’s no comfort to the people who have suffered through one of these tragedies. And it’s no comfort to us when we see a new mass shooting unraveling somewhere in the country on what seems like a weekly basis, or as some media outlets have claimed, on more than a daily basis. It takes a toll.

Such are the conditions in the schoolhouse and in the country that have caused me to feel like I’m hitting a wall, coming finally face to face with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, obstacles to successful teaching, obstacles to a sense of accomplishment in my work, obstacles to a sense of joy that teaching has given me in the past and continues giving me to this day, but now only in fleeting moments, most often when I am with a group of students and the learning and excitement is palpable in the air, or when we’re sharing a good laugh, when it feels like we are together in something significant and meaningful, in community. But at all other times at work and at home I am burdened by the sense that I am running on a treadmill that will never cease spinning,

Are the problems systemic or is it just me? The answer: both.

What can I do about systemic problems? After all these years it’s difficult not to feel a little bit helpless. There seems to be little or nothing I can do, except to vote, maybe, and continue doing this kind of writing and talking that might raise awareness somewhere about what it is we’re asking our teachers to do, as if people didn’t already know. I don’t have a lot of hope that within the last two or three years of my career radical changes might be made in the way that we fund schools, the way we treat teaching professionals, and most importantly, the way we take care of the minds and the souls of our children. I am not without hope entirely, because that would truly be a defeat. But if I have noticed anything in the way that school systems change over time, it would be “not very much,” or “at an exceedingly slow pace.” And I would also note that the changes, while many of them have been progressive, most of them have been rather backwards, and they have failed to produce significant evidence of success. The last to benefit from them are the students. The beneficiaries have mostly been test-developing corporations and media outlets, who can publish meaningless numbers in the newspaper to “objectively” measure how schools are doing compared to other schools in order to satisfy our hunger for competition and to see how we are “measuring up.” The most positive developments along the way have almost all been dropped because they were too expensive and could not be staffed.

If I have brought on to myself a good deal of my current difficulty, what can I do about that? The time I took to write this I could have been grading papers! Lots of them! But how would I feel about the weekend I spent writing this, if I would have instead been grading papers? I would be miserable. I would have felt a sense of relief at having just that little bit of grading work off my plate, but it would be a temporary relief, lasting only moments before coming face to face with the next pile of stuff to grade. And I would still have all of these words you see on this page or on some screen scrambling around in my brain looking desperately for a way out. Walking away after 28 years does not seem like an option, or at least, not one that appeals to me. Making demands of my administrators to fix things they themselves have little control over seems counter-productive. To make demands of them that I be assigned certain classes that would lessen my workload seems unfair to my colleagues, insofar as whenever an English teacher gets a cushier assignment, somebody else’s assignment becomes more difficult. Continuing in this state of feeling constantly overwhelmed would be unwise, unhealthy and dangerous.

How do we survive and thrive, then? Notice this use of the first person plural. If I assume I am not alone, and I do, this might be the best way to conclude. It seems to me that we will need to keep making unwelcome concessions, that we will continue to make undesirable compromises, that we will continue with the notion that students need to keep doing meaningful, significant work, even if we cannot give it the attention that it deserves. And until our student load becomes humane, we must not simply continue to work harder and harder. We must refuse to be martyr teachers. We see it all the time and it makes us sad and it makes us feel guilty all at once. And in that last bit, I think, might be the key to our future happiness and success. It’s not that we need to care less, but that we need to forgive ourselves that our capacity for care has its limits. We need to let go of the guilt we feel when we “fake grade” or when it takes us two months to grade for real. We know it’s not the best way. And we know we would do it differently if we were given the resources to do it differently. We must let ourselves off the hook for the things we cannot do: we cannot save every kid or individualize for every kid; we can’t always make that phone call or fill out that paperwork; we can’t serve on that committee or attend that workshop from 4 to 7:30; and we can’t make the violence of the world disappear. And we must hold on to and foster anything and everything about the job that still brings us joy and makes our classrooms joyful places. Meanwhile, toward the day when our politicians and governments, and our citizenry figures this stuff out, we must advocate and we must speak and write for change. Taking it up. Breaking down the walls. Building cadres of equity. The phrases and slogans we have come to know so well in the push to make us better educators must actually mean something for everyone working and learning under the glorious and unwieldy umbrella of the institution of public education.

 

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#188: On A Birthday Weekend Alone

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“Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?”—Henry David Thoreau

My brother asked me
through a facebook comment,
are you spending the weekend alone?
And I wasn’t sure what the question
meant, whether or not it contained
a sub-text of surprise or dis-belief:
really, on your birthday, you want
to be alone? I could just be reading
that in, because my brother the pastor
must understand how the creative
work we do needs the quiet
of solitude to bring it forth; but
perhaps, for him, a quiet study is
enough without miles and mountains
between himself and the world.
I tend to require the miles and the
mountains. Mountains aren’t
necessary, but miles, yes. It helps
to have distance, to have a space,
a space that is unfamiliar
and possibly even beautiful. Here,
after a weekend of heavy rain,
on the morning of my departure,
finally the sun peaks through,
beckons me outside before it’s time
to pack up and leave this place
after a birthday weekend alone,
not lonely, on a planet in the Milky Way.

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#187: On the Difficulty of Getting Here

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Friday afternoon,
trying to prepare
for a cabin retreat,
a birthday weekend
of solitude and reflection
and writing,
I stepped in a pile
of leaf camouflaged dog shit
in the driveway.
I didn’t realize I had done this
until I proceeded to go
into the house with shit
all over my shoe. I removed
the shoe, put on other shoes,
went outside to
hose off the offending poo,
went back inside to clean up
the mess I had made in the house,
then I went outside again
with the new shoes
to look for the shit.
Couldn’t find a trace of it,
but when I came back in
I realized that I had
tracked through it again.
And then later, only
because it was most
convenient, on the way
out of Walmart with
sugar and ice,
I slipped on some other god-awful shit
on the floor (was it peanut butter,
more dog shit, barf, who knows?)
but it was slippery as hell
and my feet went flying
out from underneath me
and my sugar went way up into the air
while somehow I managed
to hold on to the ice and my hat
and miraculously
not to fall on my ass
or throw out my back.
This other dude in the store and I
looked up at the sugar together
almost as if it was suspended in air
or as if time had stopped.
Finally, the sugar came
crashing to the ground.
Organic, in a plastic container
with a lid, the sugar seemed
to have survived. The dude handed
it back to me, asked, are you all right?
I don’t even know what I said.
What the hell was that—something to that effect.
What the hell was that?
I will never set foot in a Walmart again.
I feel a little lucky to have landed safely
at my cabin destination—
but I feel that these events
with the driveway shit
and the Walmart shit are
working as metaphors
for my fiftieth year
on the planet and I immediately decide:
51 will be better. I repeat myself
for good measure: 51 will be better,
and it begins with Borges and beer,
a cabin in the woods and the rain
and 48 hours all to myself.

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#186: On Writing Retreat

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On Writing Retreat,
December 5, 2015, L. L. Stub Stewart State Park, Buxton, Oregon

It’s raining so hard here,
it would be unthinkable
to go outside for a walk.
So I am stuck in this cabin
without internet access
and there’s only a few
things to do: listen to
music, meditate, read,
eat, or, the thing that I
have come here intentionally
to do, write. I am writing.
I will break now and then
to listen, breathe, read
from the one book I brought,
Labyrinths by Borges,
grab a bite to eat, and at
night, I will drink some
wine and write straight
through until I can’t do it
anymore. There’s no one
to talk to. My neighbors
in other cabins stick to
themselves and I rarely
see them. I am happy to
be able to stand myself,
to be in my own company
and not feel bereft or alone.
That’s a good sign, I think.
And on retreat I find
the necessary and absolute
lack of distraction and
freedom from responsibility
to be the crucial
ingredients that make it
possible for me to really
come to the page, to be
present with language
and thought in a way I can
never be or rarely be
in the routine of the
day to day. So here,
on a cliff that looks out
on to the mountain range
that separates the Willamette
Valley from the Oregon Coast,
in Buxton (a town in my
own state I never knew existed),
half way between Banks and
Vernonia, I forget about the
difficulty of getting here, and
I write about work,
I look into my new novel,
plan a course of reentry after
a months-long absence,
and I write this poem
in praise of solitude, in
thankfulness to my beloved
who made it possible,
and in wonder at having
another 24 new hours
to myself .

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