Monday, August 18, 2014

A Balancing Act of teaching...writing...and being a family.


This summer, I have spoken a lot about balance and sustainability with Roger, my husband of 12 years. We are both writers and teachers, me for 17 years and him for 15, with big plans for what we feel we want to accomplish. And we are parents to 4 children: two sons, aged 26 and 25 who are off and on their own, and two girls, aged 10 and 7 who are still in the need of having parents who prioritize them. Our seven year-old is also a stroke survivor who has mild cerebral palsy, vision issues, cognitive delays and speech delays.

Balance is not something either one of us feels we have done well in the first 12 years of our lives. Our married lives anyway. So now, before we head into another school year, we want to have a plan.

He has just experienced a week of the Freedom Writers Institute with Erin Gruwell. A week he feels empowered him, surrounded him by people of a variety of ages and backgrounds and teaching levels, all searching for what I consider the Golden Ticket.  A way into making their teaching magical and powerful and everlasting. He immersed himself into the program so much so that we barely heard from him: he barely responded to texts; said goodnight to his children or me; and rarely checked in just to make sure we were all breathing. Sure there was a 3-hour time difference to contend with but it would have been nice to hear his voice more often anyway. And this is something he has always struggled with anyway … during the school year, he leaves for school often before the girls wake up and gets home shortly before their bedtime, most nights anyway. And summers he fills with professional development opportunities, curriculum development and overall “thinking about” school rather than recharging and reconnecting with family as the main priorities. It is something many teachers struggle with…balancing the need of your students with the needs of your family. 

He came out of this latest experience feeling he ‘found his smile’ like Billy Crystal in the City Slickers movie and that this experience surrounded him by a legion of people who made him feel like he was ‘not alone’ in his classroom anymore and that he was ready to use his new-found anger to make the changes in his inner-city school in a more powerful, aggressive, meaningful way.

I, of course, feel jealous and hurt that he had to find his smile elsewhere but he assures me that though he found his smile elsewhere, his happiness is with me. Aren’t those words sweet?

We met as teachers. In a Shakespeare workshop. What a surprise, right? Our first conversations were all about our philosophies in the classroom. One of his first statements that we laughed about was when he said, “I hope to see your room one day!” after hearing about how I described my classroom. He meant my classroom. I thought he meant my bedroom. And that symbolizes us. He is more about furthering his career and I learned from a failed marriage that I need to work on being there for the people who I treasure. Neither is wrong.

I have struggled with the balance of family and career as well, but maybe because I have had family before my career it is a different path for me. I had to go finish my teaching degree and master’s degree part time while raising my young boys, working and going through a rough soul-ripping divorce. I made sure I cooked a real meat and potatoes meal every night possible (now I’m okay with occasional cereal and sandwiches because I am around much more). I went to every one of the boys’ games and events that I could, even if it took me longer to get there and drive back than to actually stand there watching. I drove to pick them up from Ski Club –out of state—when it would have been easier to pick them up from their school after the bus dropped them off, and it would have given me time to do some of my schoolwork. Then I remarried and when we had the girls I stepped down from my full-time job and job-shared my position so I could be home to raise our children. When Kath was diagnosed I hunkered down and focused every waking moment into making sure she had what she needed---therapy-wise, attention-wise (she choked often when eating too) and then I tried to make sure my other children did not feel like ‘my other children.’ My classroom teaching was far from what I consider being an excellent educator … especially because I took forever reading and commenting on assignments, grading tests and so on. My interactions with my students were solid, I paid attention to the humans in front of me, I had good plans and ideas, but my follow through with turning back assignments was horrible because when I came home … I was Mom. I leave my school every day after school, no matter what by 3, so I can be the girls’ pick-up, I don’t stay until the students decide to leave. I have come to the realization that I will never be the Teacher I once thought I would be. I can’t be that person I dreamed of … because I cannot put my career ahead of my family. They need me even more than my students.

Even in how we handled our anniversary shows how we have grown to value different things. I worked for a week on a 5 page letter to him, re-dedicating myself to our marriage and our lives. He gave me flowers, let me nap, and cleaned the area in the garage where I need to go to reach dinner prep stuff. He had planned to make me a trellis for my garden but wasn’t able to get the saw and the wood he needed because he didn’t look for them until the day of, and after the hardware store had closed. We move differently and prioritize differently.

The man who grew his hair because I said I loved running my fingers through his long hair. The man who practiced a song for weeks to sing to me at our wedding. The man who surprised me with a horse drawn carriage from the church to our home reception ‘ran out of time’ to make me something or write me something. But he made sure he did things he thought I would treasure as a symbolism of our 12 years.

And I have decided that maybe that is our balance.

Balance. How on earth does one create a balance as a teacher---a job where one can easily get pulled into the lives of the 25-150 students in front of us…then come home and be mom and wife/father and husband in any real way? And write? And read? And keep individual dreams alive?

That is what my husband and I, as teachers and partners, are trying to understand. I contend that we need to understand what our goals are. And make a plan. I contend that we need to schedule and be merciless in that schedule and rigor … yes, in regard to our careers, but never to the detriment of our loved ones. We agree, at least until September. J

I don’t think that is possible for many of us—to really budget career and home. Yes, you see some teachers leaving when the bell rings, every day, and you know they are going home and not bringing schoolwork…but does that mean they are not attending to their students and their career in the same way? On the other hand, you see some teachers who leave late, lug home bags and lug them back…does that mean they are attending to their family?

Where is the balance?

Is it making sure to maintain eye contact, that visible connection, with family during dinner around the table every night? Is it in each parent trading off the responsibilities of planning and making the dinner? Is it in limiting the after school activities of the children so there can be time for homemade meals and sit down dinners with all of us? Is it in making sure each partner gets some time to explore their writing, their teaching, do their grading and planning…in a non-guilty take-turns way?  Is it in waiting for the kids to get old enough to swap in to take over some of the chores?

What if we…our family…could find a way to balance and take turns so that we can all achieve all of our goals and desires?

Is Balance sometimes deciding that maybe…just maybe…the balance is bigger? The balance is me stepping back so he can step up to do what he feels he needs to do and me stepping up in the home areas to take care of what I feel I need to do? Is maybe balance of family and work in a family of two teachers and writers…could it maybe be about reworking the boundaries and reworking the definitions so you can see if it can work and everyone can get what they want and need?

This year, with his new-found smile and legion-backing of the Freedom Writers and his desire to change the world, and my rediscovered storytelling world and desire to be Wife/Mom/Teacher and my desire to make my place, my here and now,a better place…maybe we can balance one another out, strengthen one another, not leave the other feeling disconnected and adrift? And at the same time strengthen our family? Maybe we can both reach our goals, sustain one another and balance our family out.

Stay tuned to see what we discover.

PS He helped me edit and clarify this post. :)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

August is like one long Sunday night, said someone, probably a teacher. (Snippet of my story included)

It has been a wonderful summer. We have played (Alex was in the play School House Rock Jr Live, her first experience), we have  swam, we have gardened, we have had dance classes, writing camps, and reading. We have had museum visits and traveling to DC to visit big brother Chris. Kath has gotten her leg brace (that's for another post, later). We went to Six Flags (girls earned free tickets through school because of their reading) with big brother Nick. Roger did raise the money to attend (he is there right now) the Freedom Writers Institute. We have two events still to attend with the Bus Stop Club (they pay) including a baseball game and another Six Flags trip, this time to MA. I have had many morning coffees on my beautiful front porch. We have paid off 3 more bills (it's amazing how in-debt one little family can get in a few short years and how it takes double that time to pull out of crisis, another post on that later too! It's probably not so amazing how Centered financial struggles are to how a family functions, but still very important) which will make our lives much easier--once we start getting paychecks again, but we are still going to squeak into September paycheck season on a wing and a prayer, as usual, though maybe a little harder-hitting this year (unless we win Lotto, haha). And I have found a powerful, inspirational on-line (open 24 hours a day and many write fiction) writing group to compliment my in-person (mostly non-fiction/teacher oriented writing) local one.

But it is August. For teachers that is like a month of Sundays (ie anxiety, nightmares, and feelings like time was not well spent).

And the bank accounts are depleted.
And there is a big chance my friend who has watched my girls since shortly after I started back to work after Alex was born will not be able to take care of them this year (Defcon RED has been reached).
And I have not completed all the projects on my summer list.
And I have not read all the books I wanted to read.
And I haven't gotten in shape (though the girls and I ran/walked a 5k yesterday!).

And first draft isn't done.

I told myself at the start of the summer that if I didn't finally get out a first draft of the story that has been bugging me for years, that I was going to put it down and move onto my other stories, other pieces of writing. I have made a ton of progress, but I am not there yet. So to push me towards that final sprint of August  I decided to Shame Myself into sharing a bit of what I do have. Is that okay? I did, afterall, start this blog 6 and a 1/2 years ago as a Writing Blog, but it morphed into a Life-ish blog when Kath was diagnosed. is me, challenging myself to Disclaimer...still in rough rough stage.

Here it is:

I hadn’t been in the woods for a bit. At first it was because of what happened to my grandma. Even though no one found her body, it was a pretty mysterious way for a 60 year-old to disappear. When the police first came to investigate, they asked questions about grandpa’s and her marriage and they asked us if they had been arguing. It was clear that at first they expected something strange had gone on between grandma and grandpa, which anyone who knew them knew that they loved one another greatly. Grandpa would rather die than to have anything happen to her.
At first I was mad at the woods because that’s where grandma went missing, and no one would let us kids near the trails, but over time, no one stopped us. But also none of us tried to go back into the woods. Why would we? I’m not sure what they decided happened to grandma, but no one seemed to think there was anything sinister in the woods. Honestly, I was a bit embarrassed, because I couldn’t seem to remember things like I used to, like the day that grandma disappeared, I was with her, but I couldn't remember anything. My lack of memory was a bit scary, but I didn’t want anything else to be wrong with me so I pretended I was fine and went about my days as usual. I didn't tell anyone.
Shrugging off my negative thoughts again, I grabbed my backpack which I always had stuffed with my notebooks, pens and granola bars and headed towards my door. With any luck, everyone would still be sleeping and I could slip out unnoticed and be back before anyone suspected I had gone. Hopefully my parents would just think I was sleeping in.
As I began to pull the bedroom door closed behind me, my eye caught a glimpse of the picture on my wall. It reminded me of a picture from the children’s book grandma read to me a child, Goodnight Moon, even though the view was not of the quiet sleeping room, but rather it was of a gothic looking house with two huge stained glass windows. It had the same green walls and a red balloon floating in the background. Even when I was a kid, I always did a quick double check on that balloon, it always appeared to be coming through the frame and into the room, or at least moving around.
But that was crazy.
And I saw a shrink once a week to stuff that kind of crazy back in.

Breathing in deep I could she smell bacon. Mom was making Saturday morning breakfast. That usually meant the regular chores would not be completed. Chances of my hike just improved greatly, everyone would be in relax-mode.
I heard sounds from my brother’s room, but they stopped when I paused by his door. Latham probably woke himself up to play video games but didn’t want mom and dad to know because they would make him do his chores or homework first.
I continued down the hall to the stairs, but it was right there as I took my first step down that I finally realized what was wrong, what felt different when I first swung my legs over to get out of bed. It shook me so much that it was as though I was being pushed from behind. I grabbed the banister so I wouldn’t fall.
I wasn’t limping.
I wasn’t tight.
I didn’t struggle with pulling up my jeans or pulling my shirt over my head.
I just did it. It was as if I woke up and didn’t have CP, or at least this is what I *thought* that would feel like.
Not knowing what to make of this all I decided to just keep going and try to figure it out as I hiked. I had felt like I needed to be alone today; now it was imperative. Maybe I was really just starting to go crazy. What was it that Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451 said, "I'm 17 and crazy"? Well, I'm only 16 but maybe crazy starts sooner in the country.
I knew my father was awake because the coffee was brewing as well the bacon was sizzling, he was the coffee maker. But he wasn’t sitting at the table nor was he between me and the door. No one was tending to the bacon, so I got to the mudroom and grabbed my boots. I didn’t even want to take the time to lace up them, I didn’t want to be stopped. I grabbed the boots in my hand and slid out the screen door into the early Indian summer morning and headed towards the small, almost invisible to the eye, opening in our berry bushes.
I walked across the yard, my socks getting damp in the morning dew, but I kept going. If I made it without being noticed I could sit on the bench at the start of the trail and pull them on, unseen by anyone looking by chance through a window in the house. If I didn’t, well…I didn’t want to think about that, I already was feeling insane, being caught walking in wet socks wouldn’t make me look any saner.
I looked back once I made it to the bush divide and I thought I saw the curtain in Latham’s room shift but I turned and continued on. He’d rather play his games then come for an actual outdoor adventure. He wouldn’t want to get cold or wet or use real muscles. He also wouldn’t want to risk telling on me and having to follow me out here today. So I knew I was safe as I headed down the hill to the bench.
Maybe I was dreaming. This was all just so weird. Maybe I really was still in bed with Buffy laying across my legs pinning me to the bed, stealing my blankets. I had that weird feeling that time was moving at a strange pace so maybe I should just go with it and maybe I’d find that it was all okay. Just a dream. A pretty elaborate dream...but a dream.
I started walking the path. The leaves were so thick on the trail that I shuffled through them, making quite the noise emission as I went. I’m sure every woodland animal heard me coming from a mile away. The rustling of the leaves were such that I never even heard him until he tapped my shoulder and I screamed, turned and punched him right in the mouth. Latham's eyes flew open and he held his hand to his jaw with a shocked expression.
“What?! Why would you do that?!”
I ran to him and tried to touch him but he backed away, now starting to get angry. “I’m sorry Latham. I was just so surprised! I was in my own thoughts, the leaves were loud…I was thinking about grandma….”
His look softened as he rubbed his jaw. “Ok, but still. I had no idea you could move so fast!”
I bit my tongue because I didn’t really want to tell him about my weird feelings…feelings like the cerebral palsy I was born with had gone away when I woke up this morning. That would sound so weird and he would drag me back home to tell mom. And I felt a pull, a need, to continue on.
“Yeah, well. Don’t scare me.” I turned and continued on. I expected that he would just turn around and leave me alone, but nope, he followed me.
“So where are you off to today? You haven’t hiked in a long time,” he started to try to bring a conversation into our walk.
I didn’t really want to talk, I had been looking forward to this walk all week and now he was ruining it…making twice as much noise and trying to talk to me. I could not catch a break. I just wanted to be alone to try to figure things out. ‘It’ being the lack of muscle tightness. And ‘it’ being the cafeteria fiasco yesterday and my crazy friends. "It" being everything in my life that didn't make sense. Everyone said that your teenage years were supposed to be your best years, but if this was 'good'!? Oh boy. I just wanted some time away from everyone, time to think.
But when the albino deer stepped into the path and stared at us both, I was suddenly very glad Latham was by my side, even if he took an extra step and walked into me before noticing the deer. The way the deer stomped its front right paw, lowered its head and stared without blinking was not very deer-like. It was more aggressive than any deer I had ever seen in my woods before.
“Shoo…go along now, shoo,” I said to it. I was tired of everything getting in my way today. Now a deer?? This was just ridiculous!
“Are you trying to be scary,” said the deer, “or just dramatic?”
Now it was my turn to take a step back. How was this deer talking? If I felt like I was in a dream before, now I knew I had to be! This had to be a dream and I really was just in my bed snuggled in. That idea helped me not to panic and run away screaming.
But there was another part of me that felt almost like this was déjà vu. Especially when the man dressed all in black stepped out from the curve of trees.
“Were you really just talking to a deer? That’s kind of cute.” The deer stamped his foot again like he was angry at those words, turned and walked back down the trail a little more, then it stepped off the trail and disappeared down a ravine. A steep one judging from how quickly it disappeared from my view.
“You both need to come with me. We have been waiting a long time for you.” And with that the man swirled around and his long duster swirled with him, miraculously not catching on any brambles. It was almost like he was a hologram because I kept getting caught and had to pull thorns out of my skin, which lead me back to realizing this was now my number one reason for knowing this couldn’t really be a dream-- I was bleeding. But the insanity of the moment was too much to process so I decided to pretend anyway.