Sunday, August 23, 2015

Spending Some Time With Teacher Grief

Last Year's Class

Lately I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well my work life seems to be falling into place: I’m working at a steady clip on what I think is a sellable memoir, teaching gratifying poetry playshops for grownups, and I even have two honest-to-goodness creative coaching clients. For friendship, pleasant exercise, and routine, I have my job at Rosemont College Bookstore, and for teaching, I start back soon at the library afterschool program I always loved—which means weekly Apples to Apples Junior and probably starting up the kids’ blog again!

And yet, when my Perfect Life Friend (Do you have one of these? I think Instagram invented them.) posted a picture of her new classroom with exuberant thoughts about fresh pencils and (*shudder*) “Common Core Icebreakers,” the feeling of having failed as a teacher asked me for some attention.

In my relief and joy of coming back to the creative life, I often forget how happy I was this time last year. My classroom was so pretty, all sky-blue fadeless paper and flower border. The flowers were not just to remind me of the creativity and generosity of god, but to reassure me of the beauty, order, and patterns of math as I settled in to be the math, science, and (until test prep time started to eat the enrichment schedule and our souls) poetry teacher.

 I was absolutely in LOVE with my coworkers—with the intern principal who had a cat named after Rory Gilmore and praised my decision to teach “Such Great Heights” as one of our class songs, with my sweet but tough-as-nails 28-years-teaching and SO over it grade partner, with the cute-guy fourth grade teacher down the hall who’d end up hugging me so sweetly when I was crying at the copier by January.

My favorite teacher friend was a red-haired sasspot who would call out the bosses in front of everybody for time-wasting “organization strategies” meant only to impress the constantly visiting superintendant. She rode home with me almost every day, knew the best and worst of both my work and school life, but the trauma of last school year has meant I can’t stand the thought of talking to even the favorites who were part of it. Losing that friendship is one of the saddest, most unfair parts.

But back to last August—our school had extra grants for professional development so we started early and spent two weeks together. The cute intern principal had us write down our thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech and show-called me, so that I was the one who said “Yeah, but David Foster Wallace killed himself, so I don’t think mindfulness is enough. We have to prioritize self-care.” (Really, “This Is Water” is a way to try and push ourselves through a system that doesn’t support our embodiedness or make sense—actually the opposite of water, I’d say.)

We learned lots of Teach Like a Champion strategies, many of which seem totalitarian to me now, especially “100%” (compliance). The intern principal once compared a child reading with her head down instead of sitting straight up and down to Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Windows—that was the feeling: let one little thing slip, and it will all come crashing down. As optimistic and aesthetically pleasing as the beginning of the school year was, there was a desperation at its center: If I had the right classroom setup, the right folders, the right pencil strategy (If I could spend no more time EVER thinking about pencil strategies or the word “strategy” at all…) the right data-collection binders, the right rituals and routines, I could keep the chaos of the children’s lives at bay and make an island of safety and happiness where kids with even the most horrific circumstances could learn and succeed, where I could learn and succeed.

That was what I was tasked with doing, and I did do it for a lot of each day. I learned, would you believe, to get children who were overflowing with life and passion and creativity to walk silently in a straight line. I filled the classroom with plants and student work and inspirational sayings and more flowers. We had gorgeous room-to-room transitions where the only sound to be heard was my grade partner and I harmonizing to “Lean on Me.”

It was beautiful, and I felt so much love and accomplishment and heavy meaning in every day, so much connection to my fellow humans, connection to my soul. I have so much to say about what prevented order and beauty and love from winning, including (often starring) my own limits, but for now, I just want to acknowledge how much I loved my classroom, and honor the pain of letting it go.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Friday Like Poem: The Longwood Gardens Nightscape is Not a Place for Rational Decisions.

Haven't posted one of my own in a long while, kind of excited and super-vulnerable! Be gentle.

And remember, you can submit Friday Love Poems any time!

The Longwood Gardens Nightscape is Not a Place for Rational Decisions.

You will spend the early part of the evening in an Impressionist painting,
nothing but natural light on trees.

You will experiment with all kinds of sitting—
first-kiss-in-two-weeks under a paradigmatic tree sitting,
on the lawn in front of a froggy lake sitting
trying to stay awake while your hair is played with sitting,
all before it even gets dark. You will half-look for the beer garden
and give it up as lost.

Next, you will forget all you know about constellations,
you’ll forget all you ever knew, and
every configuration of stars will look like a present
waiting to be unwrapped, or having been unwrapped.

And oh, the fountains, you’ll forget what you know about water,
about class struggle and conservation, and wonder
how anyone gets anything done
in a world that has all this pretty water
arcing toward the sky.

When you get to the piped-in fireflies,
lavender and blue, you’ll realize you
were both once saved by suburban lightning bugs
one summer apart but in the same fields, in the same story,
give or take a misery.

This is right around the time you’ll remember
that you were once really good at dropping acid,
when the conservatory lights dim
and the flowers are at their most neon,
and the kids everywhere have glow bracelets
and you want one. (A glow bracelet, that is.)

Someone thought to project
vertigo patterns and supernatural music
onto the topiary garden
and what is left to dream of, after this?

When trees are lit up as blue jewels,
as those silver fireworks that look like bees,
as a phoenix taking flight,
and you are lit up with soft touch
which you usually don’t prefer
but in this case hits the spot,
with a beard brushing against your forehead, your neck,
you’ll forget to even judge the Apple watch
when its soft interruptions become a gentle heartbeat.
Yoko Ono said you should listen to a heartbeat
and Yoko Ono would never do anything to hurt you.

Once you have learned every bench,
you will both regret and find yourself glad that there are
neither couches nor beds.

You’ll decline a dewy hillside,
but agree to a shove against a tree trunk
suddenly and with all your strength.

You will not be able to resist mentioning
your dahlia colored underpants.

You’ll burn bright with the same lights
that confuse and awaken the trees.
You will forget your compass, your shoes, your water.
You will find and then lose
your nasturtium seeds from the gift shop.

Extravagant like the flowers, you’ll spend everything, all at once.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday Love Poem: Andy Bowen!

Photo by Marissa Johnson
This week's dreamboat was a contributor to the original FLP series, so he gets extra hugs!


In a thousand years they'll dig us up in Oklahoma.
They'll sort through our bones
At the bottom of that canyon
With furrowed brows and half cocked chins,
The incarnation of confusion.
They'll use their shovels and their brooms to undress us,
Finding femur by femur,
Humor by humor,
Jaw by jaw.
The young one will sit up on her knees, 
Stare at our tangled rib cages and ask,

"How did they die?"
The old one, standing behind her,
Noticing the geometry of the sockets of our eyes,
Will remove his hat,
Straighten his collar and say,

Andy Bowen lives alone in Northwest Oklahoma, where he runs a small city and drinks.  He likes to camp, read, swim and cry, and occasionally write down the things that come into his head.  He hopes you like his poetry, but if you tell him so, he'll get very uncomfortable and start to argue with you that it's not really any good.  He's a chore of a human, not least to himself.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Love Letter to the Yoko Show

(Some of the pictures are by Amy Lawson, who'll always brave NYC traffic for art adventures.)

When I was little, I was obsessed with the Beatles, and with John Lennon in particular. I loved him so much and I vividly remember that I was dusting behind the piano on the night that he died. So it was with a sense of reverence that I watched Imagine at age twelve, but I don’t remember anything about it but this: The day that John met Yoko, she showed him her art. He climbed up a white ladder to a magnifying glass that hung from the ceiling, held the glass up to the seemingly blank white painting suspended horizontally above the ladder, smiled and said. “It says yes.”

So, John’s meeting Yoko became my little self meeting what art could really be. I don’t think any other piece of art has shaped me the way that the Yes Painting did, as a creative person and as a human. I got to see it once before, in a silent, near deserted basement gallery at the Laguna Beach Museum of Art. That day around fifteen years ago I spent probably an hour with it, drawing it, seeing every angle, squinting up to read the “yes,” feeling uplifted to be near this thing that had helped me to understand creativity the way I still do—as acts of love and affirmation, tiny but the strongest thing in the world: yes.

Yesterday, it wasn’t so quiet. The MOMA is free on Friday evenings and it was heartening but overwhelming to see people lined up around the block to get in. Amy considered me her personal hero for having bought tickets in advance so we wouldn’t have to wait. Even in a jangled, crowded room, the ladder brought me such a sense of stillness and joy, and I noticed something I hadn’t seen last time, or had forgotten: On the top step, in yellowed, old-fashioned label tape: Fly.

There was a sign on the ladder’s pedestal that said “Do not touch,” but for me, it should have said “Do not hug.” I love other artworks, but not with this much real, physical affection—it was like seeing a beloved friend after a long time.

In the next room, at the center of the whole exhibition, was “To See The Sky,” a black metal spiral staircase that reached the skylight at the top of the museum. 

I’d had it mildly spoiled by some New Yorker’s Instagram, but it was still breathtaking to realize that after all these years, I could climb Yoko’s art. There were four or five people ahead of me in line, so I watched them climb and saw this:

And this—Glass Keys to Open the Skies:

The folks ahead of me climbed the (gently, it seemed like) swaying stairs to the skylight, took pictures from various angles, and came down. They didn’t give any clues to what they were experiencing. It looked a little scary, but as I said to Amy, Yoko Ono would never hurt me.  Also, I was glad to be wearing leggings, as I was about to climb with an audience.

I’d been dreaming about ascensions and partial ascensions all summer: The glass staircase in the Des Moines Art Museum that always makes me nervous, a steep road to heaven that disappeared near the top into mirage and sky, a plane that was supposed to cross the ocean but instead landed in a beautiful field. Somehow I understood that if I took this staircase all the way up, those dreams would be resolved and I would move forward in some real way.

But it was much harder than I thought. This staircase was engineered to shake and sway as you walked up, and shook more as I went higher. I’d wanted to take pictures, but I had a death grip on both the railing and my phone, too petrified even to put my phone in my pocketbook. My heart was pounding by the time I got halfway up, but I knew that I’d be disappointed if I turned around too soon. I took a deep breath, kept my eyes on the skylight, and kept climbing. 
I shook with the art as I went up and when I got to the second to last step, it took everything I had to take the last one. I looked out of the skylight over the city, smiled down at the bystanders, and braved the descent.

“You can do it!” said a stranger coming in from the Yes Painting room.

“It’s really shaky!” I said.

“You’re almost there!” said the pretty girl who was next.

“That was so much harder than I thought!” I exclaimed once my feet were on the floor. I shook all the way through opening the little door to each “Box of Smile” hidden in the wall beside the staircase:

Back at the original ladder, I understood something I hadn’t before: it’s rickety. It isn’t very high, but to climb up and see the “yes” would be precarious at best. You would have to have a certain amount of trust to climb it. In The Courage to Create, Rollo May posited that creativity is always a little bit of a battle with the gods, and I could feel it in those last steps, in these two ladders—and I could feel myself winning.

There were so many other beautiful things to see. She once sold mornings: (forgive my blurriness)

And there was Grapefruit, the book of conceptual pieces we used in poetry class a few weeks back:
There were lovely Zen-moment poems everywhere:
and a room where everything was in half:
and this, which made us get choked up:
and "Piece to Be Stepped On:"
And "Three Spoons"
and a white chess set, to be played until players can't:
and a button in the gift shop that said this:
And I can, because I'm part of art, and art is invincible. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Thank You, July! And August Goals

I found jobs too quick to do much job hunting, but other than that it's been a checkmarkful month! Go me.