Monday, October 31, 2011

A Month of Writing

Several years ago a couple of my high school students came to me and introduced me to National Novel Writing Month. The name is misleading since people from all over the world participate. The goal is that for the month of November you write 50,000 words. That is about 1,666 words a day. Everyday.

Of course I thought this terrible idea was a wonderful idea.

I invited all my students to join us. I even created Gaboury's Novel Writing Month which is to write 8,000 words. Between NaNo and GaNo we have classtimes filled with talk about writing...from the inside. I hear students talk about 'my protagonist' and "I wrote last night until my mother freaked out and told me to shut down and go to bed, she doesn't believe I'm writing my novel, she thought I was on Facebook!"

This year one of my old students said we needed a midpoint goal. So we named it after her and 25,000 words is the goal.

I love how kids gets excited about writing, how some of my old students come back and want to participate even though they won't be exempt from other writing assignments. I allowed my students who participated in the writing month to be exempt from certain assignments. They also receive an A in the place of the exempted assignments. If they reach the new VaNo, they will received some baked prize from my old student. And if they reach NaNo's goal they get a hand made scarf from me.

I explain the word count. I tell them how insane it will make them. And I tell them they can't edit (believe it or not that really bothers them). And I tell them their name goes on the wall in the back of our room and they have to update it as they write. I tell them they can write about anything. The story they have festering in their head. A daily rant of their lives. I tell them about the A for trying, the baked goods, the scarf.

You wouldn't think they'd want to go near this challenge for what seems like 'little' prizes for the outcome. But they can't wait to start.

As they begin to write some find the voice they silenced many years ago. Some find a voice they never knew they had, as well as a confidence. Some find writing can be therapeutic. Then they come back next year and even though they have to do this writing in addition to their regular English work, if they don't have me as their teacher again, they throw themselves back into the melee.

I think that for the month of November some of the society walls are taken down. Kids look at each other as fellow authors, writing to tell stories, be it their own day to day stories, or the fictional ones living in their head. A few students, once they crossed those barriers for November, leave them down for December and beyond. Once they were able to communicate as writers, once they realized the person they thought fit in a certain clique...also fits into their own world...they realize that impressions are not always accurate. What is more telling is how a person deals with life when it gets hard and stressful (and believe me solid writing for a month IS stressful!). They find they count on one another more than their regular friends during this time because their friends just think they're nuts.

Amazing things happen in my class in November. We all end up a little crazy. Overwrought. We learn more about what we are made of and what others are made up of.

Some of my most struggling kids choose to participate and find success in ways they never thought they could.

I always tell them you can always edit SOMETHING but you can't edit NOTHING. You have to get things out and onto paper or a screen...then you can readjust it, reorganize. But you need to get it out there first, you need to stop being afraid it won't be perfect. Give yourself permission to flop, to hate it, to make your ideas go wild. You have control. For one month you are the Controller...of at least your story/writing.

And you can edit in December. But for November just dream the impossible.

When they see that happen for one is easier for them to buy in for more...they are the controller of their own LIVES. And they can make the impossible come true.

When I see my students so thrilled about writing, so jazzed up about what is going on in their head, or finding peace through their writing, I rediscover the power of writing in a fresh way. Alex, my 7 year-old wants to do it this year, so she is doing MiniGaNo, and her goal is 2,000 words.

So, for the month of November I will trying to write my novel. Dreaming the impossible. Wish me luck!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Being broken...otherwise known as Mosaic

A mom at dance class asked me about some of Kath's swallowing issues and opened up the vein of memory from when we worried continuously about Kath's swallowing. We don't have to worry in the same way anymore, though of course we watch her eat and when she coughs I stop breathing until she breathes normally. Otherwise some of the other panic feelings have abated. But all it takes is the 'right' mood and the 'right' question...and wham I feel the weakness in my knees and my gut starts wrenching all over again.

This time, because the conversation was brought around to the mom of a child newly diagnosed with health issues, and how she was handling things, I was brought back to the not-so-distant past and of how I first felt when Kath was diagnosed (we are coming up on almost 4 years ago). I looked around the dance studio waiting area at the other moms watching their daughters practice and I realized that I still felt an 'otherness' from them. Since Kath's diagnosis I never fit back in with other moms...or at least moms who don't have children with some sort of disability or health issue.

It is as if when I was told of Kath's stroke diagnosis I broke. I shattered. I remember that feeling, I remember exactly how I felt, and even just by pulling back the little piece of that scab, I find I still bleed. I remember how I vainly tried to cover up my brokeness, how I tried to hold my seams together and not just scream. Scream. Scream. I had sharp, pointy pieces inside of me; whenever I breathed, it hurt. I could only take short, pant-like breaths. I could only get enough air into my body to survive. Some days only barely.

That shattered feeling lasted a long time.

A long time.

What helped to make that time last longer and feel even more despairing was that I lost 'friends' who either misunderstood or couldn't handle what I was going through. I lost friends because I couldn't pay attention to their needs when I was so shattered---I felt that I needed all of my energy to remember to breathe and that I had to be there for Kath and the rest of my family. I couldn't spend time with others, away from Kath. I had to be near her every chance, every second I wasn't working. I felt like everything was so fragile, so delicate, that I had to be there if anything else broke. I still sleep in the girls' room...but that's probably a whole blog unto itself. :)

One person made the comment on her way out to the effect of something like this, as if life is some bumper sticker, "You'd find the time for me, if you really wanted to."

That is false. And so painful to have thrown at you--as if life was just that easy. As if my life and my time was/is my own.

Those types of comments made me feel that not only was I somehow a failure at being a parent (why else would I be going through all of this?), but I also was horrible at being a friend?! Just at the time I needed friends, it felt like they were leaving and scarring me on their way out.

More pointy edges. Further withdrawal on my part.

On the outside, I smiled, got up and dressed each day, taught, embraced the students who could weave through the brier patch into my heart, ...and I watched my old life disintegrate. A couple of times very publicly and always most painfully.

Then something very magical did happen. I began to realize that there were still people around. I didn't chase them all away! Those who did weave through the thorns I was protectively cultivating, let me lean on them so I could regain my footing. I had started to build up a wall so I wouldn't ever shatter again (as if one can ever truly prepare for that). These people didn't expect anything in return. They just stood beside me and waited for me to catch my breath. They gave me hugs. They smiled. They let me frown and cry and they weren't scared away by my intensity. And even though it has taken a few years, I can feel it happening, I'm finally starting to catch my breath.

I have a few friends, my mom and my sons, who I can text on a Friday night at 9PM. Most of my people know I don't like to talk on the phone. I'll text, but talking is akin to opening a vein some nights and I just might not be able to stitch it back closed by the time everyone wakes up and needs me in the morning. So I text short blurbs and swallow the rest. And they understand. They are still there as the smoke settles.

Many adults seem to think that if you share a problem they have to help fix it, kids don't have that misconception. They know so much is out of their control and that sometimes, without even knowing the specific problem, just saying "Hey" ...sometimes that is enough. "Hey, are you okay? I'm thinking about you." I think teaching the groups of kids I had the past few years (many of them, maybe not all! haha) helped me to get back on my feet too. They too live with the thorns and broken glass of their own lives and yet they come to school and try all over again every day.

There were a few friends who may not have known what I was really going through, or may not have wanted to face the fear and pain that I'm sure I reflected in my eyes, but they waited. They stayed on the sidelines and instead of making me have to start from scratch with them or walk away to find new friends, they have reopened their arms and said, "Hey."

Ah. My hemimoms. I'm crying as I write this because these are the moms I have shared my Life with even though I haven't met most of them, probably won't ever either. But I have shared so much with them, as they have with me. As heavy as it all gets, these women inspire me and help me to share my burden. These moms understand the triumphs better than most, sometimes better than my husband, and they feel the anguish as deeply as I do. We breathe the same air. They laugh and they sob as if they are right by my side, which of course they are, in our virtual Facebook commune. I only hope I have been able ease some of their burdens a bit along the way sometimes too.

And of course there is Kath herself. Her joy. Her laughter. Her love of life. Her curiosity. Her smile. Her abilities. My amazing gift. One of the five amazing gifts I have been granted.

I have started to pick up my shattered pieces. With much time, energy, patience and assistance; I've started to glue myself back together.

I'm not the same as I was before that bitter day in February when I was told Kath had a massive stroke.

I'll never be the same.

What I'm finding, as the mending and healing continues, is that the pieces do not fit back into the the same places they came out of.

And thank God for that.

Some of those edges needed to be worn down so as not to puncture my lung or make me bleed out. The edges are smoother ~ like rocks and shells churning in the ocean for hundreds of years. Some parts are even shinier than they were before. I am a better mother. I am a better teacher.
Those are the spots I pull most of my energy into and I'm glad at least those two spots are improved.

I'm not some vase to show to company. I'm not working towards some kind of show. I'm for use, this life is my show. I can't 'fake it' as well as I used to, I don't really feel like I need to have that curtain shielding and providing a boundary like I used to.

I'm me. This is it.

I've become a mosaic. I am broken and in pieces, but I've been rearranged to show a different beauty (a different perspective to life, a different purpose, perhaps?). Bits and pieces of brokenness put back together, sometimes with an eye on creativity, but mostly just glued back together in a quick fashion to stop my insides from pouring out and landing in a puddle at your feet.

So you see, I can't really worry if the pain in my eyes makes you feel uncomfortable, I have too many other things to deal with each and every moment. So leave if you must, but be sure you tell the truth to's not because of me that you go. It's because of you. The people who left me will probably never read this or begin to understand and though negative perceptions hurt me, I really can't do anything to fix them. It's their problem, afterall, not mine. And it has taken me awhile to come to that understanding.

My mosaic is the art work of my SELF--A Work in Progress-- of my healing and of my living. I'm actually more than I was before I was broken, even if it doesn't always seem that way, even if I have more wrinkles, my hair is thinner and grayer, and I cry quicker. I also laugh and love deeper, I understand students better, I believe in grace and I give good strong hugs. I see brighter colors. I understand how quickly things change from worrying about silly things like your credit rating, to worrying about whether your child will choke if she swallows too much while trying to breath, or god forbid, even laugh.

I could have handled things differently, better even, but I do the best I can with what I have. Every day I have to be aware and conscious in a way I never was before. Now the path I chose is not to wallow (most days), but to take my Elmer's, my thread and needle and a few pieces of beach glass and continue forward creating the new path, redefining and fixing who I am, as I go.

I'm broken. I'm mosaic.
But I'm still here, trying.
I'm here for the long haul.
I will be worth the wait when I catch my breath.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

I want to be the teacher for my students...that I want my girls to have in their lives.

I had a student today ask me why everyone comes and talks to me. I said, "because they know I love them" in a flippant, quick way. But when I thought about it I DO think that is one of the reasons some of them come to see me even when they don't have class with me. I have kids in my room from the moment I open my door in the morning (sometimes earlier if I forget to lock my door the night before!); they come just to check in and say good morning, or to vent about something bugging them in their life, sometimes occasionally to even turn in a late assignment! I have lunch in my room because I share that time with students, too. I often share my prep blocks with students who 'need somewhere to go.' Students often bop in while my current students are working, to check-in, grab a lollipop and reset themselves. At the end of the day when they could be running to hang with their friends, they come in and tell me about their day, their life and then bop out saying, "Have a great night, Gabs!" (No wonder I am always behind in my grading!)

When I look at my Katharina and I look at her horrible test scores on her neuro pysch evaluations I know that what is absolutely KEY for Kath is for her to have a teacher who is so tuned into her and her way of learning that she (most of Kath's teachers have been female) can guide her along her path, not just lead her, but allow Kath to set the pace at times, nudge her other times and sit back at others. Alex works her the path and she gallops down it with occasional looks back to make sure she's going on the right path. So my goal this year is look at each one my kids (I consider my students my kids), even the ones who I can't get to sit still for 10 minutes at a time, and try to figure out how they learn; how they think; then to figure out how can I guide them to go-at-their-own-pace. How can I make it so they can understand who they are at their core and where they want to fit in in this world?

I'm not sure exactly how I will do this without being completely exhausted. I have just about 100 students in my English classes and another 45 in my study halls. I found this year that even my study hall kids need me. One student said to his friend who was confiding a rough life history to me, "Why are you telling her all of this?" "Because she listens," was my study hall student's answer.

I think I am pretty good at teaching grammar, teaching literature meanings, teaching writing. But I think what my students get the most from me Old fashioned eye contact. An ear that listens. A smile that warmly says, "Hi, how are you?" Then patiently waits for the answer.

I don't think I'm special or different. I think having my own kids and not doing the 'right' stuff over the years has taught me a little about how to do things better. I think I'm a better teacher now than I ever was. I wish I could recall those students from the past 14 years and try again. I think having my children in two sets has helped me to have time to learn hard lessons. I think having a child with a different-abilitied life in front of her has made me try to think differently about how I approach all children. It impacts how I approach the ones who walk past me in the hallway and those who stop to talk and those who I teach English to...and those I corral in a study hall.

I am trying to be the teacher I hope my own daughters get as educators. The kind that shows 'care' through the teaching. The kind that embraces the child in front of me, not the ideal student I wish I had, the ones who listen and learn fast and easy. I want each student to feel success, have a goal and be ready to step out, even if it is not in my subject matter. I want each student to be ready to find their place in the world, the place they want to be in, not what others have relegated them to.

I want the students in my life to find their voice, their callings, their joy just as much as I want the Katharinas and Alexandras to find their places. This world will be such a great place if each person could find a place they feel good about themselves. And I try to be the mother and the teacher who helps my kids try to find that place.