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#342: May 8, Soul Work

It’s May 8.
I sleep in an extra hour.
I make myself a kick-ass scrambler.
I pick my brother up
at 9 and we drive toward
I-84. There’s a bunch
of teachers on an overpass
wearing red and hanging
their banners and I honk
at them. My brother and I
make our way to the Gorge
to visit the retreat center
I have chosen for some
fall Courage work.
Afterwards, we drive
to the Vista House, and
yes, by god, it’s a vista
all right. On the way
home we stop at Edgefield
for burgers, beer, bourbon.

This day is for the kids.
My t-shirt says that I stand
for students. And I do. No doubt
about it. But I’m also struck
by the notion, the conviction,
that teachers can’t take care
of students if no one
is taking care of teachers.
I’ve had to practice self-care;
additionally, I’ve tried self-medication,
but I find I have to balance the two,
which is hard. I try to err
on the side of care.

So much about what happened
today I find totally inspiring,
all my colleagues out there in their
red shirts holding their signs,
thousands of them. But it’s also
exceedingly sad. It’s like if firefighters
had a massive demonstration to call
public attention to the dangers of fire.
People don’t understand in the way
they understand that fire can kill you
that ignorance and stupidity and poor
mental, physical, and emotional health
are just as deadly–even though it’s staring them
down every single day in the person of the
president of the United States.
Democracy is at stake and we are
well on the way to losing ours,
and losing our souls into the bargain.

Souls need tending,
They whisper their sweet nothings
into our ears, and if we can’t listen to that,
we are doomed. Soul, Jarmer, what are you
talking about? Parker J. Palmer tells us
that it doesn’t matter what we call it
as long as we call it something, as all the
great traditions have: the great mystery,
the spark of the divine, big self, true self,
inner light, inner teacher,
“the being in human being,”
the wild animal in us all, resourceful,
resilient, strong, yet shy–and in need
of the greatest respect and care.
You do that for teachers by making
the conditions of their work
as humane as you possibly can make them,
and give them not lists of standards
and administrative hoops of fire
to jump through and an impossible
student load, but the appropriate
space and time and creative freedom
to cultivate the minds, the bodies, and the
souls of their students, together.

I checked out the setting today for
some October soul work in the Columbia Gorge,
I spent time with my brother,
I took a nap, I had pizza with my family,
and I wrote this poem.
This is the best I can do.

 

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#348: On the Last Day of National Poetry Month, the American English Teacher Writes Several Minimalist Poems About Things He Finds in the Staff Lounge

Coffee

Made a single cup;
fuel needed after waking
at 4 in the morning.

Vinegar

There’s a bottle of balsamic
on the table, waiting to be
drizzled over someone’s
leftovers for lunch.

100 Hits

Here’s a copy of
Billboard’s Hottest
Hot 100 Hits, a gift to
the staff lounge
from an intern of mine
from two years ago.
His name was Chuck.

History Adoption

In an era that finds
the textbook mostly
obsolete, several choices
are on display on a table
in the staff lounge.

Vending Machines

Chips, candy, and soda.
Only one sugarless choice:
seltzer. These machines
keep humming.

Crap

There’s some crap in here
no one uses and no one wants:
desk organizers, empty binders,
old VHS tapes that Melanie left,
a 2016 copy of U.S. News &
World Report, the “Find the Best
Colleges for You” edition.

Who? 

Who will throw out the crap?
Who will clean the microwave?
It belongs to nobody.
It’s nobody’s business.

The Lounge

The principal before
the one before the one
we have now, maybe
15 years ago, bought
two burgundy love seats,
a matching chair, and
a coffee table that looks
like a box in order to
beautify the lounge
and make it  more
comfortable.

Dr. Rex Putnam Award

Candidate summaries. Please,
DO NOT REMOVE.

We Love You

in gigantic letters
taped up on the wall
from last year’s teacher
appreciation week,
maybe even from the
year before. It’s so hard
to keep track of the love.
We have to remind ourselves
by looking at this wall
every day.

 

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#347: A Prose Poem Meditation on the Penultimate Day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in His Potentially Penultimate Professional Year, Ending in a Rhyming Couplet

Andrea Ngyuen

The natives are restless, the 9th graders are rowdy, won’t stop talking, interrupt almost every teacher phrase with chatter, and because my intern has the class, I am completely unruffled. It’s the penultimate day of National Poetry Month and this is my penultimate poem in prose in the April of my potentially penultimate school year as a classroom English teacher.

Over the last three days, I wrote three poems, each about travel, each ending with the same sentence. You are here. I’m reminded of that saying, wherever you go, there you are. Or the Player’s line in the Stoppard play, something like, every exit is an entrance somewhere else. Coming and going, with perfect equanimity, you are always, and I am always, right here.

After next school year, in this moment, I am almost certain that I will not be here. But uncertainty is a constant companion. I said, it feels like jumping off a cliff. Or standing on a cliff, and maybe I’m looking down at a precipitous drop or looking out on some astounding vista. It really depends on the moment. I prefer vistas to drop-offs. In this moment, I choose vistas.

I notice what this poem is doing. Without my being conscious of it, paragraphs are landing in this draft in nearly identical chunks of five lines, four that move all the way to the end of the margin, and one, the last line–two, three, and then four words long. Now, I am conscious of a pattern, and I am planning to end this stanza in prose with a short line of five carefully chosen words.

It all depends on the margins. Type this poem up in a Word document, or publish it on your blog, and things will shift. Our margins shift like this. The only margin that doesn’t shift is the first one–our births are non-negotiable; on this day, December 4, 1964, you were born. Our careers begin somewhere in the squishy regions of early adulthood, and, if we are lucky, very lucky, they end 30-some years later.

My brother worked over 40 years at a job he didn’t really like. His retirement at 62 or thereabouts was an escape. He said good riddance and walked away. And he walked away so late because there were no other options. Again, I have been stupidly lucky. Luckier, and not so lucky, as my father, who retired, like I hope to, at 55. He had full health care from the moment he left work.

But I have loved my job, and I don’t know that my father loved his. He never spoke about it. I could hardly even tell you now what it was that he did for a living. It was a government job and he worked downtown and once he took a computer class and brought home a bunch of punch cards. My son knows what I do simply by virtue of his being a student in a public school classroom. What your teacher does–that’s your Dad.

God, look at all of these books, file cabinets full of 30-years worth of handouts, lesson plans, readings, exams; check out all of this student generated art that I’ve never tossed, that quilt for The Color Purple, the portraits of the family from Geek Love, portraits of Virginia Woolf, the beautiful and huge broadside of William Stafford’s “Your Life”-the treasured haul of an English teacher’s career.

If I take all of this home my wife will murder me.
Health care will no longer be an issue, ironically.  

Abbey Nims

I don’t know who made this. A team of students. Circa 1995ish? 

 

Abbey Hayes

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Time On Our Side?

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Synchronicity, as Jung described it, is a meaningful coincidence, an “acausal connecting principal.” Things happen back to back that seem to be meaningfully related; even though the first thing could not be said to have caused the second thing, we still feel the buzz or the chill of revelation, usually in a thrilling and positive way. We’ve all experienced these, but some of us experience them more often than others, some of us perhaps experience them all the time. I tend, when I am feeling inspired or especially creative, on the cusp of the next big idea for writing or teaching, or in the company of inspiring friends, to experience synchronicity in pretty heavy doses. Like now.

Last week, wrapping up my study with 9th graders of e. e. cummings, I shared with them a poem I wrote a couple of years ago about time, or rather, how we live within it, and whether or not, as cummings is constantly asking, we are being or unbeing in our experience of time. Today, at my bi-weekly meditation group meeting, time was the subject and the theme, our relationship to our past and future selves and the way in which we might have dialogue with those selves on our way to a spiritual goal. Then I got in the car to drive home, turned on NPR, and began listening to the TED Radio Hour, and guess what the topic was at noon? Time. I’ve been writing a blog series titled “Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year.” There have been two penultimate years now in a row, hence the “Redux” in the current title. Both the words “penultimate” and “redux” are inextricably time-tied words. I don’t know how many more years will be penultimate ones, but it strikes me now more than ever that I am increasingly aware of keeping track, counting up, remembering, thinking about, appreciating, and playing with TIME. I don’t know that I have anything wise to say about it. Let’s find out.

The current wisdom, one that I aspire to and espouse, is that one should try to live in the moment, to be fully present, but one of the Ted Talk Time Theorists was saying that this is a mistake, that only the past and future are real, that the present is illusory, that each moment is behind us in the instant we give thought to it. Maybe that is true, but I still think there are huge qualitative differences in the way of being present in the present–as everyone knows who has ever tried to have a meaningful exchange with someone who is looking at a smart phone, or has ever failed at a task in the moment because of anxiety about something in the future or in the past. I meditate, in large part, to mediate distraction, to ground myself in the moment, to have 15 or 20 minutes a day when my only concern is the breath going in and the breath going out. And while I say that, I know how sometimes excruciatingly bad I am at this–even in silent meditation, my mind is alway teetering between the past and the present, remembering and planning, remembering and planning. So, here are a few more takeaways about time that I gleaned from today’s meditation and today’s TED Radio Hour:

  • People tend to think of themselves as having “arrived” in the current moment–to see themselves in the present as the best yet version of themselves.
  • We feel gratitude toward our past selves, even if he or she was an asshole.
  • Our future self is very encouraging to us, mostly telling us to keep doing what we’re doing, that everything’s going to work out for the best.
  • There’s something really weird, special, and ubiquitous about 4 in the morning.
  • Our memory of our past is not very good–we should make some kind of record of it.
  • Time can make us simultaneously happy and sad: Exhibit A–finding yourself in tears when you look at a picture of your kid from four years ago. Exhibit B: being so happy in the presence of a beloved friend that you want to cry and often do.
  • Time is experienced differently by young people than it is by older people, creating the illusion that it passes more slowly for children and more quickly for adults. That’s because the older you are the more understanding you have of your own mortality.
  • We don’t know if time existed before the Big Bang. The universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate. The universe is a big place and it’s not the only one. We are hurling through space.
  • Time will tell.
  • Time after time.
  • It takes time. These things.
  • Time is probably not on my side.
  • And a joke I saw on Facebook today: What did Dickens have in his spice rack? The best of thyme, the worst of thyme.

In the not so distant future, I will write a poem every day in the month of April for the 7th year in a row. In this way, I will make a record of the time. I’ll close with a blast from the past, my 264th blog poem, the poem I shared with my students last week inspired by e. e. cummings and a prompt from the napowrimo website to compose a thing called a “bop.”  

#264: to be anywhereish

(a bop inspired by e.e. cummings)

to be anywhereish and everywhereish
all at once is to be at the mercy of somewhereishness,
and that’s a huge, unmindfulish problem.
someplace else is really no place and you
wander about sheepfully looking for anywhere
but where you are in the nano of the moment.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

you may have holdings in the future tense.
you may have findings in the yesteryearly nest.
but the problem is still that there is no now here
and there is not even there anymore, besides.
don’t look at me like that, you goat, not when,
not where. you sit there in your forward engine
and you, clueless, mathless, autocorrect yourself
until the starstuff between your ears spills outwardly.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

i think there’s an unsolution. Look deeplyish
at the center of anything and do what no one ever
tells you to do: that’s right, don’t eat that peach.
a friend of mine around sunday kept naming
a tangerine a nectarine. so in the now he forgot
everything, even names. Somewhere in there: that’s it.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Kids These Days, Part Deux

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Apparently, for $16.36, you can buy a tub of communion wafers from Amazon. And I know this because a student of mine came to class the other day with a tub of communion wafers. He was passing them out. Snacks for his classmates. At first, I was just sort of dumbfounded. It was a brand new what-the-hell classroom moment, one that I admitted was a career first. In 30 years, no student has ever brought a tub of communion wafers to class. He offered me one, as he offered one to anybody in the room who was interested. I declined. Still in disbelief, I asked to look at the plastic tub: Cavanagh Altar Bread, 1 and 1/8 inches, white, made from only flour and water following historical liturgical guidelines in a gas fire oven, a thousand pieces. He bought them, I’m sure, because he could. It could have been worse. He could have pretended to be a priest, moving around the room from student to student, offering up a wafer to each tongue, speaking “the body of Christ,” to which each tongue would reply, “amen,” before taking the wafer fully into the mouth, chewing it or allowing it to dissolve before swallowing. He didn’t do that, (I want to say) thank God. I assumed the boy was not Catholic. His friend knew a little about the tradition, what it meant, its symbolic significance, the notion of transubstantiation, maybe he even said something like, “You’re eating Jesus, man.” I just remembered my childhood. 18 years of Catholic mass every Sunday whether I wanted it or not, a ritual about which I have since decided, not. And yet, there is still a Catholic roaming around inside of my bones, my heart, and my brain, and part of me was, or knew that I should be, deeply offended. And I knew, also, that there would be students in the room who would be, and would have every right to be, deeply offended. So, the party ended shortly after it began, maybe the whole thing lasted less time than it would take a person to read this paragraph out loud, and I said, “Put them away,” and a student in the back row looked at me; she nodded in approval.

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#317: On Not Being Able to Remember a Student’s Name

Question-mark

She sat right in front of me, in the first row, as it were, and I called her by name, the wrong name. She looked at me. She said, “Who?” And I thought, and maybe I said out loud, “Oh my god.” And even while I knew it was the wrong name, for the life of me, I could not remember the correct one. She took it in stride, even laughed about it, which, of course, set me a little bit at ease. Other students in the room, though, a couple of dudes, thought they’d have a little fun with their teacher by pressing him for the right name. “What’s her name, Jarmer?” To be sure, an asshole move. But still, her name would not come. One of my boys, when the girl stepped out to use the restroom or for some other business, kindly whispered the name to me. There it was. The name I knew but for some reason in those moments could not recall. One worries about the mind. And one makes up explanations for the lapse. She does not look like, exactly, but shares some of the characteristics of the girl in my other class whose name I called her. Yeah, that’s it. Or I was tired this morning (true). Or I was flustered that so few students were prepared with the reading done (true). Or I was further stymied by the boys who decided in that moment to be cruel to their teacher, and maybe to a degree, to the girl whose name I had forgotten (true). No matter. Whether the mind is faltering or not, whether it was just one of those things or not, and while no real harm was done, it still is, and I confessed this to all of them, one of a teacher’s worst nightmares to forget the name of a student three months into the semester.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: It’s Raining and I’m Flying By the Seat of My Pants!

Yesterday I made a video blog so I could test my new microphone, and during part of my little talk there I kind of bemoaned the fact that it had been so long since my last entry, months, in fact. Afterwards, I was struck by this single observation: It took me three and a half minutes to make that video. I tried afterwards to see if I could do a better job, but the two takes I took after the initial one were disappointing. The one in which I flew by the seat of my pants was leagues better. I thought to myself, what if I flew by the seat of my pants more often? First take. No edits. No do-overs. So I tried it again today. This could become a thing.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: June 12, 2018

Please excuse my absence. After 30 poems over the 30 days of April, one needs a little rest. But on top of all that, I’ve been having a transformative experience. On Sunday, May 20, I came down from the mountaintop. My hair turned white and now looks blown back by a great force of energy (see photographic evidence). I have seen the fiery bushes and received the tablets. I will present them now to my people.

I’m only being silly in part (in large part, yes, but nevertheless, in part). I am no Moses. And Pendle Hill is no mountain, despite its prodigious distinction as the intentional Quaker community which, during the 70’s and early 80’s, gave rise to the work of Parker J. Palmer. And he is no god, certainly, but he is (and his work is) exceptional to say the very least. I can think of no single figure in the literature of educational philosophy and practice that has made anywhere near the impact that Palmer has made on my career and on my life, frankly.  And I’ve been able to be with the guy for about 10 days between the retreat in January at the Oblate Center in Texas and the experience this May at Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia as part of my facilitator preparation program for The Center for Courage and Renewal. So I have been dying to write a blog post about this experience and this work, but it has taken me some time to digest and compost and winnow and recover from April’s poetry festival and my time at Pendle Hill.

I have written about this subject before here in the land of Blog. I will try not to repeat myself. We call it “Courage Work” for short. The elevator speech for work that defies elevator speeches is this: we try to live with integrity, and that integrity can only come when who we are interacts with and is in harmony with what we do, when soul meets role. It’s inner work, but it requires community. We do not go it alone. So at the center of the work is the paradox of finding solitude within a community, a community whose sole (soul) responsibility is to honor the stories and inner teachers of each of its members–without judgement, advice, rescue, or fixing of any kind.

The work that I am preparing to do may take any number of forms: sessions that last a few hours or a day, a full-on weekend retreat, or a series of seasonal retreats wherein the same group reconvenes four times over the course of a year. My clients might be teachers, they might be other professionals in the helping professions, they might be neighbors, they might be young people. What began as a program specifically with K-12 teachers in mind has expanded over the last 20 years or so to include school leaders, psychologists, physicians and nurses, elder care professionals, and clergy, but what strikes me about this work is its potential universality: if you are interested in living more consciously, more reflectively, more deeply in touch with who you are and more deeply connected with a community, then this work should be extremely relevant. It’s interesting to me to see if a process geared toward groups of professionals might be tested in new places and with more heterogeneous groups. Neighborhood Courage. Courage for Kids. What transformations might be possible for folks who have traditionally been out of reach of the Center for Courage and Renewal? These possibilities have been racing through my penultimate-year teacher-noggen over this entire nine months. And where will I do this work? Also a mystery. Do I stay on and integrate these principles and practices in my school building and in my district? Do I contract with some other institution familiar with and supportive of Courage and Renewal work? Do I build a retreat center in my backyard?  Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I’m wrapping up my 29th year as a public high school English teacher. After the seniors have flown the coup, I gave my first remaining final Friday to a group of sophomores. Three to go, today and tomorrow. Friday morning I felt a kind of giddiness. It wasn’t the caffeine. And it wasn’t excitement about sending the rest of my kiddos home for the summer. It wasn’t about my own summer break. Maybe it was about all of these things, but it felt more amorphous–simply a deep, abiding gladness, a sense of gratitude to this place, these kids, these people I work with, and my principal–who retires this year. Super happy for her, and sad for our loss of her. She’s worked really hard and shown some super fine leadership, the kind only possible from a principal who started out with a couple of decades in the classroom as a master teacher. I have huge respect for her and will miss her. In a little goodbye ceremony on Friday there were lots of laughs and a good number of tears, a big bbq, and the festivities continued after school hours at a teacher friend’s house on a big covered deck in the rain.

I’m finishing this blog entry, having graded everything I could grade from my first finals yesterday, while my 7th period sophomores are taking their final essay exam. It’s my most difficult class, only because a number of them are anything but serious about academics, but today, for the most part, they are quiet and working hard on their essay on the novel Frankenstein. One little guy, super frustrating, is playing video games on his phone, claims his final is finished, pulls it out of his bag as proof, and I have to remind him that he wasn’t supposed to work on it at home. Here’s a kid who is absent mostly, does nothing when he’s present, and then miraculously shows up weeks late with work completed. Of course, I have no way of verifying that it’s his work and doubt that it is. Another guy shows up a half an hour late to the final. Also super frustrating, because here is a kid with a good mind and decent skills who believes he can’t think and can’t write. Instead of completing part one of the final the last time we were together, he writes a note to me, sincere, well-written, impassioned, basically begging me to fail him for the semester, saying he’d rather take the class over again to learn what he was supposed to learn during his sophomore year than feel like I allowed him to squeak by. Ironically, he comes into the final at 64%. Some energy toward doing his best work could conceivably bring him to a C. But he’s convinced he can’t write. He’s convinced he’ll never be a good student. His please-fail-me letter belies both of those claims. Now, though, it appears that instead of giving up, he’s giving it the old boy-scout effort. He’s writing and I’m happy. I think I will have to defy his wish for failure.

One of the things my experience with The Center for Courage and Renewal has done for me is to make me question most things I do as a teacher of English Language Arts, except in cases when I can defy a student’s wish to fail. It has changed my work, certainly, made me a more reflective practitioner, made me more authentically human and more authentically ME in my work, but I long for a classroom that somehow transcends evaluating, sorting, fixing, ranking, testing, grading and competing, the way every Courage experience I’ve ever had has transcended these evils. How could the classroom be not those things and equally rigorous and valuable? Could it be, that in my 29th year in the teaching profession, that I have finally come to understand the true purpose of education, or at least, the true purpose of an English Language Arts education, and that maybe I’ve been doing it backwards all along?

Better late than never.

I know I’m being hard on myself. I know that I’ve done good work. For the most part, I’ve done the best I can. But I also know there’s another way, one that through all the years of my long career I’ve been grasping at and reaching for, always just out of reach for a variety of both good and stupid reasons. I would like to lay my finger on it, to experience it, to arrive, at least in brief, before I walk away. I’m on the verge of something.

I can feel it.

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#311: Warning

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Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate
anything in this room.
This bag is not a toy.
This thing right here: do not eat.
Watch your step.
If symptoms persist,
consult your physician.
I am out of band-aids.
Men below, please don’t throw.
Slow children.
This hand sanitizer is
flammable. Think about
that for a minute.
Do not flush.
Pull only in an emergency.
Do not spray your perfume
in a crowded classroom, you idget.
Listening only occurs when
your mouth is closed.
Reading only happens when
your eyes are on the page,
and even then, sometimes not.
Sometimes Y.
Failure to listen and read
may result in abject stupidity.
Don’t tell me it wasn’t you, or
that you weren’t doing anything.
The first part is undeniably false,
the second may be true, but
that’s the whole problem.
Duck and cover.
Don’t look for hidden meaning.
There is no hidden meaning,
only meaning that you can’t see,
which is an altogether different thing.

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#284: The American English Teacher Tries Not to Be Afraid While Doing His Job

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Two nights ago I woke up at 3 a.m.
and could not go back to sleep.
It was not a nightmare that woke me.
Just some disturbance in the force
that momentarily stirred me from slumber.
Immediately upon opening my eyes, though,

a waking nightmare:

I was thinking about those kids in Florida,
and I was thinking about those kids in Newtown,
and I was thinking about those kids at Columbine,
and my heart raced, thinking of my own students
in my classroom in a similar situation, or my son
in his teacher’s classroom, in a similar situation,
and I could not sleep.

Even my morning’s meditation, while I worried
that my lack of sleep would find me
dozing off on my cushion, resulted in this
kind of thought-struggle: the focus on the breath,
in and out, in and out, fighting against the thoughts
of making sure both doors into my room were locked
and lights were out, of huddling with students
inside a darkened classroom, of listening
for the signs of safety or of imminent danger,
wondering if I could take the risk to open my door
to let other students in, wondering what I
would do, what I could do, if a shooter
somehow entered my classroom.
These kinds of thoughts would have been
inconceivable to me in my first years
as a teacher in a public school.
Now they are ever-present, hiding in
the shadows of every waking moment.

I walked into my schoolhouse yesterday, a place
that I love, a place I consider another home,
a place that houses over a thousand
human beings that I love, young people
and adults that I consider another family,
as I have done every day since Columbine,
and I try not to be afraid while doing my job.

When I’m there, in that building, doing the work,
it’s easy. I’m immersed. I’m present. These young
people bring me the gifts of their minds and their
personhood, their presences, and I do not feel alone
and I do not feel afraid. It’s when I’m not there
that the fear kicks in: in the middle of the night,
in meditation, at meals, on a walk, and in particular,
reading the internet news, which seems invented
for the sole purpose of cultivating fear.
My only complaint yesterday morning was that
I was exhausted from sleep deprivation,
but I was having fun with my students talking
about Hamlet, and then it began to snow. The district
decided, as a safety precaution, to close down the schoolhouse
two hours early. And as much as I wanted to see
my fourth period 10th graders after an extended absence,
I was happy that I could go home a little early to rest,
and heartened too by the news from Florida:
these kids have had enough of our shit and are fighting
the good fight for the future of our nation and for the
safety of our young people: one and the same fight.
I have more faith in them than I have ever had
in the Republican Party, in any Party, to send us on
the right path, away from harm, away from fear,
toward something like real freedom, a thing that
nobody else seems to recognize any more on either
side of the aisle. Our children are reminding us
about what this word means. They have to be
our heroes now.

They are rising to the occasion.

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