I live in a neighborhood
typically referred to as
a banana belt. Yes, we have
no bananas, but it’s sometimes
warm here when it’s cold
everywhere else. It’s also
April in the Pacific Northwest,
a month during which, in my entire
lifetime, I do not remember
a single day of snow.
It snowed last night and
closed our school district
down for the day. People
are posting pictures of two
to three inches in their streets
and yards. In my street and
in my yard, it’s just wet.
Really wet. There are puddles
everywhere and no snow to
speak of. And yet, my son
has the day off from school,
and I have the day off from
work. I don’t know about my
son, but I will likely work
from home, planning and
grading, getting caught up,
and I will listen to music
and maybe play my drums.
A casual poem on a casual day,
taking my time just goofing
around. It’s all right.
There’s no emergency.
I could even, if I wanted,
safely drive somewhere
on this snow day, but
I probably won’t go anywhere.
It’s fine, really. It’s just fine.
Tag Archives: school closure
I live in a neighborhood
As a high school English teacher, I believe that on Friday, June 12, 2020, I experienced the strangest last day of school in the history of last school days. I mean, on the surface, it was somewhat unremarkable. I got out of bed at 8:30 a.m., took a shower, didn’t shave, moseyed on downstairs in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, took my meds with a glass of orange juice, boiled some water for tea, and made myself a cheesey egg sandwich. By about 9:30 I was ready to read a bit of news, mostly bad, check the Facebook, and open up my work email. I checked in with my intern to see when she might be ready to input her grades, and she said 3:00 pm. I had some time to kill, during which I walked the dogs, did some writing, some household chores, listened to some music, and I made a goodbye video for a colleague who is leaving. My intern wasn’t actually ready until about 4:30, and it took us about a half an hour to finish that task. After 5:00 I started but did not finish the check out process in a google form, you know: what’s your summer contact info, are you holding on to your keys and your computer, is anything broken inside your “classroom,” have you turned in all of your shit, grades, fee reports, your professional development log, and a pdf of your semester grade book? And then I filled out Incomplete forms for the five (yes, only five) kids who hadn’t done any work before schools closed or afterwards.
I administered no finals. I looked at no student work. I didn’t even enter the schoolhouse. I saw or spoke to zero students. There were zero cheers of excitement from teenagers as the bell closed out their last final exam. There were no bells. No students were visibly stressing about their grades. I gave no grades. I said zero goodbyes. I gave beloved colleagues zero hugs. I attended zero end of the year staff parties. My final year-end conference with my supervising administrator didn’t happen. I submitted no student growth goal data. I didn’t clean up my classroom. I didn’t pack up my stuff. Almost nothing happened that would normally happen on a typical last day of the school year.
And today, Monday, in turn, was the strangest teacher work day at the end of the year in the history of end of the year teacher work days. We held a virtual staff meeting at 9:00 am, the purpose of which was primarily to say goodbye to four members of the staff who were leaving this year. So folks took turns saying nice things about them and it was lovely and moving, despite the sterility of the Google equivalent of Zoom. We couldn’t hug anyone or shake anybody’s hands, but in every case the sincerity of good feeling was palpable in the words of every individual who spoke about their beloved colleagues. After we said goodbye to our friends, distantly, our principal somewhat unceremoniously concluded the meeting, hanging around for a bit to answer any lingering checkout questions. I had a handful of things to do before I could officially wrap up the school year, you know: submit my summer contact info, let the head secretary know if I am holding on to my keys and my computer, if anything is broken inside my “classroom,” and whether or not I had turned in all of my shit, grades, fee reports, my professional development log, and a pdf of my semester grade book. Check, check, check.
I did not run around the building like a headless chicken. I did not spend most of my last days talking to good people that I wouldn’t see for two and a half months. I didn’t work my way through the last pile of final exams. I wasn’t the last one out of the door. I never even had to go through a door–at least, not that one, that big iron double door at the end of the hall by the parking lot. I didn’t stand there for a few minutes after those doors shut behind me wondering if I had forgotten anything. I did not, once I remembered that I had indeed forgotten something, have to put my stuff in the car and walk all the way around to the front of the building, walking all the way through the school again to pick up what I had forgotten, a thing, it goes without saying, that was likely not very important to begin with. One more time through the school–that’s probably what it was really about (but not this year), because really, as much as I love summer break, I love my schoolhouse, and truly, during the summer months, I miss it. I hope to return in September.
Here’s a question.
What motivates a person to do a thing,
especially a thing that is purported to be
good for a person–let’s say, eat right,
exercise, learn an instrument, learn
an instrument well, dance, sing, paint,
or act well, and while we’re at it, add into the mix
all the academic endeavors:
write well, read well, understand
history, compute effectively, think
scientifically, abstractly, metaphorically,
not to mention the soft skills (a phrase
I hate), of building and fostering
strong and healthy relationships
to self and others?
Why would anyone do these,
all, admittedly, difficult things?
Our system of education is
designed to reward individuals for
doing these things with gold stars,
praise, and grades. We have conditioned
generations of students to do
purportedly good things for themselves
so that they can achieve a carrot
or avoid a stick. But we all know,
there are healthy people, musicians,
dancers, singers, painters, actors,
writers, historians, mathematicians,
scientists and philosophers who did
not get where they are because
they were afraid of the dunce cap
or the chair in the corner or the
C minus. They got good at their craft,
whatever that craft may have been,
because they wanted to, for its own
sake, because they knew it to be good
without anyone ever telling them
it was good. And here we are,
in Oregon, about to embark on
the grand experiment: learning
for the sake of learning. And we’re
doing it now, not because we have
had some grand epiphany about
the supremacy of intrinsic motivation,
but because we have no other
choice if we are to make the end
of the pandemic school year as
equitable and as fair as we can make it,
so as not to make a terrible situation
more heinous than it already is.
Some people will be helped
more than others or will grow
more than others, but no one will be
punished or hurt by frowny faces
and failures, and maybe, without
the kind of risk or peril they typically
experience in schools, they may plug in,
not because they have to,
but because they choose to,
because they see the value of the thing,
in this case learning, for its own sake.￼￼
I saw two human beings
in this building that, on a
typical school day, houses
thirteen-hundred. I saw
our head secretary, Dee, spending
her Wednesdays from eight
to noon on site, and the head
custodian, Dan, spending a couple
hours a day doing odd jobs
until the crew can come back
in May, he hears, to do a deep
clean. If there were only two
people to see, they’d be the two,
two sides of the same coin,
the life-blood of the building.
Only the second time
I’ve visited the school since the
shutdown, less forlorn now,
but only because of Dee and Dan.
On the first visit, weeks ago now,
I found this deflated happy birthday
balloon all by itself in the
abandoned cafeteria, what we
call The Commons. That balloon,
two or three weeks later, has
somehow left the building.
I don’t know why, but I was
hoping to find it again.
Why did I come back today?
I collected a few things that
belonged to my intern;
I picked up books of ancient
Chinese poetry; I gathered
the last of my LP records, the
ones that were important
to my collection (The Mountain
Goats, Death Cab for Cutie,
Destroyer, Grizzly Bear);
I grabbed my Shakespeare
action figure, my action figure
librarian, and my magnetic
James Joyce finger puppet;
I picked up a stuffed frog
I’ve used as a talking stick,
but decided against bringing
it home. None of this stuff
was essential, but I drew the line
today with the stuffed frog.
It must have taken me all
of about 10 minutes to gather
up these things, but I was there
much longer, just standing
around, looking at the student art
on the walls and the furniture,
the tables in their pods,
taking pictures of this or that,
listening for the voices of
the hundreds upon hundreds
of kids that have inhabited
this space, trying not to cry.
I recorded myself singing
in an empty hallway (one
of the best things to do in a
ghost school), and I filmed
myself coming and going,
as if I wanted to remember
what that was like. Ridiculous.
I’ll be back here. I will do this
again. I will make this journey
hundreds of times. Things will
return to normal one day.
No matter. The loss here is
palpable and real and echoes
through these hallowed halls.
People keep posting
their senior pictures￼
in solidarity with
the class of 2020,
as if this will make
whose proms and
who may or may not
have had their own
senior photos taken,
feel better about
I don’t know.
If I was 18,
I might be pissed;
all these old people
rubbing their beautiful
faces in my face.
On the other hand,
I might find it useful
to know that
everyone, pretty much,
looked kind of stupid
in their senior pictures,
especially the boys,
and it would make me
think twice about
how valuable an artifact
the senior picture
might be after all,
and it might become, then,
one more thing I could
let go of, freely, willingly,
among all the other things.
Most importantly, I will not be able to BE with my seniors in IB English, not even remotely. I won’t see their faces, hear their voices, read their writing, laugh at their good humor, be in awe of their intelligence and kindness. But additionally, I will not be able to formally finish the Hamlet unit with my seniors. ￼I will not be able to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with them. I will not be able to read Death of a Salesman with my students. I will not be able to read Waiting for Godot with my students. I will not be able to ask them, what is your dream, what are you waiting for? ￼I will not be able to explore with them the six tenants of existentialism: existence precedes essence, time is of the essence, humanism is at the center, freedom and responsibility are key, ethics are paramount, and integrity is all. I will not be able to share with them the names that many of them will have heard for the first time in their lives: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. I will not be able to share with them the poems that would prepare them for Paper I. I will not be able to share with them the random questions about drama that would prepare them for Paper 2. I will not be able to commiserate with them as they prepare for and then spend four hours taking these brutal IB written examinations, which, while brutal, are still so much fun and provide so much rigorous reward. And afterwards, they will not be able to tell me how they felt well-prepared for the task, how they felt confident about their work. ￼Finally, I will not be able to see them make fools of themselves as I ask them for a final exam to write and perform a play of their two-year IB English experience.￼￼￼ I will not be able to do these things with my seniors. And all through the staff meeting this morning on Google Hangouts, I was fighting back tears, unsuccessfully.
For today’s poem, (#9), inspired by the NaPoWriMo website, I offer up a concrete poem, which is not really a concrete poem, but a poem about concrete, and improvised into a voice memo, and revised only slightly, because, god damn it.
#353: Concrete Poem
stupid and orange,
like my driveway.
You play ball
on the concrete,
in the park
or in the
If you fall,
inside your knee-
This is a concrete poem,
but it doesn’t look
anything like what
And finally, yesterday, I wrote a poem that stole a first line from Emily Dickinson, but today, that poem still haunts me, so I read it here–because I believe it helps.
We saw it coming. In fact, it’s not at all surprising. Nevertheless, I was surprised (!) to hear our governor’s announcement today that schools would remain closed until the end of the year. Distance Learning would be the modality that would take us through to the end. What I found most distressing in this news–and maybe this is just selfish of me–is that seniors, the class of 2020, so long as they were on track to graduate on March 13, will receive passing grades in their classes for the second semester. If I understand this correctly, it means that I am not expected to offer them any more learning opportunities. I am to teach no new concepts, I am to give and assess no new assignments. Essentially, we are done. Wait a minute, I say. We were not even finished with the unit! Can we not at least finish the flipping unit? I don’t have an answer to that question yet. I will ask it, but I predict that the answer will be no, you can’t even finish the flipping unit.
Meanwhile, it’s still national poetry month. I find myself looking through Emily Dickinson for a good first line to steal, as per the optional prompt today from NaPoWriMo. It wasn’t difficult to find the right one.
#352: A Poem Beginning with a Line from Dickinson
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
when I Learned I might never See
these young People again–
when I counted them in my head
and tried to Remember,
to record their little Lives–
what I knew of them–into
Long Term Memory, and I tried
to hear their Voices, too, as if we
were still in that Room together–
where we might be able to Say,
while looking into each other’s Eyes–
our Sadness, our Goodbyes.
Jesus, I wish the sun would come back out. The weather is still shitty, and it is Monday, March 30, the day we would have returned to the classroom after Spring Break had we no pandemic. Even in the early stages, the first school closure only included the five school days preceding the break and a few days after, meaning that school would have resumed on April Fool’s day. Then, only a few days into our extended break, the school closure was extended for students in Oregon until April 28. I’m curious, and I honestly don’t know: are there any states in the Union that have not shuttered their schools? Thanks to this world wide web, and according to Education Week, 47 states have closed their schools. I am still trying to wrap my head around the strangeness of these crazy days, and the enormity of it all.
Tomorrow morning at 9:00, somehow, teachers will remotely converge into some kind of google hangout meeting with our principal. I’m trying to imagine a zoom meeting with 35 to 50 people all floating around on my computer screen. Or maybe it’s just that our leaders will simply address us while we sit at home listening or watching or both; maybe they’ll let us know what the next steps are and give us some tips about how to use our 6 hour work day and how to log those hours. At any rate, we’re going back to work, one way or another, tomorrow. It does not feel that way. Unreal. Surreal.
I have intermittently in my journal of the plague year made references to the numbers, as they climb, of cases and deaths in Oregon. Often, what immediately concerns us is what immediately surrounds us, and, in our case, we’re in danger of developing a false sense of security. Our numbers are relatively low, but still alarming, but not nearly as alarming as the numbers from our neighbors to the North and to the South. Looked at globally, the numbers are terrifying. And looked at comparatively, the numbers in the United States are also terrifying. Dr. Fauci, our voice of reason in these crazy times, predicts that the death toll in the United States alone could range anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 by the time this whole thing is over, and these numbers, I understand him to be saying, could be accurate even if we do everything right from here on out.
Taking a wide view and then narrowing it down, according to The Washington Post at one o’clock this afternoon, there are 766,336 known cases and 36,873 deaths caused by COVID-19 in the entire world. In the United States, respectively, those numbers are 153,246 and 2,828. And then according to KATU, a local news outlet, in Oregon, 606 cases, 16 deaths. Numbers are insufficient to tell any kind of story here about the pain and suffering caused by this pandemic. Most of us have trouble, perhaps, seeing it as more than a pain in the ass–but thousands upon thousand of lives have been devastated by it. It is incomprehensible. It is unfathomable. I can find no way to express a suitable response. So I turn to literature. And I go way back, all the way back to the 17th century to John Donne. Meditation 17:
Who casts not up his eye to the Sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.
Within Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, if one who is not necessarily religious can move a little bit away from all the God talk, or at least take the God talk in its broadest possible metaphorical sense, there is wisdom for the ages. To my knowledge, I don’t know personally a single soul who is ill with COVID-19 or who has died from it, but nevertheless, I feel diminished, I feel the earth is impoverished by the loss of every one of those “numbers.” The economy will one day recover, but those that are lost in this battle with coronavirus never can be recovered. So stay at home, damnit.
In closing, and back to the front, regarding teachers going back to work tomorrow without classrooms and without students, I think of this great poem by Marge Piercy, expressing for all educators this deepest hope that we can, in these the strangest of circumstances, continue “To be of use.” And it’s impossible not to think of our heroic health care workers on the front lines, “who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,/who do what has to be done, again and again.”
It’s Saturday here in Portland, Oregon. More likely than not, it’s Saturday where you are as well. I don’t have a lot to report today, except to say that we are two full weeks into our extended Spring Break. We are all healthy here. A little stir crazy. I have been behind the wheel of an automobile two times in two weeks. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the dogs have had walks at least 12 days in a row. The dogs report that they are loving the new normal. Ruby tells me that there is someone living inside the wood pile. Every time she goes out there she stands in front of it and whines, roots around with her snout at the nooks and crannies between logs and whines some more. Then she’s happy to chase balls around. Whoever they are, they’re in there good and proper, are not vulnerable to dogs in the day time.
As this is my last official weekend before work as a high school English teacher begins again, I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around a remote 6 hour work day without classrooms and students. Luckily (I think), I have been using the google technology that allows me to assign stuff, share stuff, and read stuff my students write–all in the digital realm, in real time, using the magic of the inter webs. So I really don’t have any problem imagining a world in which material is prepared, instructions given, assignments assigned, and feedback administered within this realm, without ever seeing the whites of their eyes. I don’t like it, but I can imagine it. And I can imagine how, if everything was cooking on all cylinders, and if every one of my 170 plus or minus students was playing along, I would definitely have 6 hours of work to do every day. But again, as I understand it, the material that we will be giving to students is in the spirit of “providing an opportunity.” It follows that many of them will just not take the opportunity we provide. And I’m not recording or grading? And the semester credit will be given based on what? Less than half a semester’s worth of the stuff they did before all this went down? Anyway, I have lots of questions. I am hopeful that most of them will be answered in the three days worth of preparation we have next week before the intended roll-out. I think about how in a few days I’m going to be walking into my son’s bedroom while he is knee- deep in some game play to tell him, “Hey son, stay here and go to school!” Best case scenario, I imagine, is that the Governor’s school closure until April 28th does not have to be extended. Then, at least, we would have a month with students in a physical space, in community, where we are able to see and speak to them, laugh with them, and learn.
I was dreaming about this poem last night, a playful meditation on loss by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” a villanelle, btw, if you’re interested in formal structures. And it’s a friend’s birthday today, Tracy Youngblom, a terrific poet, and I asked her if she had a poem she’d like read on the occasion, and she chose a poem called “Lilies” by Mary Oliver. So today we get two poems for no extra charge. And I was thinking about how, of the 10 poems I’ve read, 8 of them were written by dudes, so I thought it was time to get some more women up in here. I hope, wherever you are, that you are well, that you stay well, and that you enjoy these two readings. Thanks for being here. It means a lot.
Are we having fun yet? That, in case there was any confusion, is a rhetorical question. We are not having fun on this Friday of Spring Break, 2020, the year of our plague. Are we bored? Some of us are bored. You know what they say, though? Whoever “they” are, I am told that they say that boredom is good for us. Out of boredom, often comes creativity and problem solving. The state of not knowing what to do often results in things being done. The Old Guy in me says, that’s what’s wrong with kids today! They don’t know how to be bored, surrounded, as they are, by a hundred and one distractions, a thousand different ways to be entertained, all immediate, all at their grimy little finger tips! To a certain degree, this is true. Maybe it’s wrong to generalize. Maybe there’s no maybe about it. As an educator, in every year, I find that there are always a decent number of young people who are not addicted to their devices, who are super creative, and who do not have grimy finger tips. When they are bored, they read, they write, they create, or they cozy up to their boredom like a lover. I wonder how they are all doing with all of this unstructured, unvaction-y, shelter-in-place time.
Soon, I will find out. Soon I will be back in touch somewhat with my students. In recent emails from our union president and from our district superintendent, we learn that on March 31st, we are all returning to work. Sort of. Although we are told we might be able to stop in to pick up materials we need from our classrooms, we won’t be returning officially to our buildings. We will work remotely. We will attend google hangouts, we will develop some kind of remote learning opportunities for our students, we will attend IEP meetings, PD meetings, PLC meetings, meetings about other acronyms and abbreviations, and we will log in our hours, a certain number of which will be mandatory. We will roll out some remote learning program for students within three days of our “return” to work. What I find fascinating and weird and oddly intriguing about this preparation for High School Remote, is that, as I understand it, students will be held harmless for all of it, meaning that none of the work they might do as a result of instruction and assignments given will be graded, recorded, or figured into a final mark for the semester. Part of me thinks, a ha! Here’s an opportunity for an experiment in an educational fantasy I have harbored throughout my career: the grade-less classroom! Another part of me is doubtful that students, out of desperation with their boredom, will flock to The Google to continue getting an education, you know, for its own sake. One can hope. One can only hope that they are THAT bored.
The dog is bored. She keeps bringing me her soggy, slobbery tennis ball to throw. And while we’re on the subject, today’s poem, happily, is about boredom. One of my favorite poems of all time, so much so, that I don’t need my reading glasses for it–because I have it committed to memory! John Berryman, #14 from the Dreamsongs.