Fat Heifers, Good Teaching, Happy Father’s Day

Rhode Island Black and White Show, Rocky Hill Fairgrounds, 1969. Me with Shelly; My dad looking on (with Tum-A-Lum shirt on).

Rhode Island Black and White Show, Rocky Hill Fairgrounds, 1969. Me with Shelly; My dad looking on (with Tum-A-Lum shirt on). I was supposed to be looking at the judge.

My mother carted me to swim lessons where I refused to get into the pool with other children, and to ballet when I quit after one lesson because the teacher said a word I didn’t recognize: recital. When my sister Barbara Ann picked me up, I asked her to define it. “You dance with all the other children on stage and we come to watch,” she said. End of my interest in that activity. While I cried, my mother packed my lunch for my two week stint at day camp. Around her friends’ children, I clung to her lawn chair and whispered in her ear to take me home.

Defeated, she finally left me alone with my dogs and my books.

Then, my father suggested 4-H. My father, who never suggested anything, really, who just came and went from the barns and the fields, a welcomed and beloved visitor into the everyday struggles my mother faced trying to get me to make friends.

“You have to try this 4-H thing,” my mother said, and then she added the words that sealed the contract: “For your father.”

*    *    *

“Pathways,” my principal said at this week’s faculty meeting. “This is a word you’re going to be hearing a lot about next year.”

Last year it was Successful Habits of Mind. Other years: Standardized Testing; Interdisciplinary Education; Data Driven Instruction; Rigor; Response to Intervention; Alternative Assessment; Collaboration; Project-Based Learning; Understanding by Design. What does powerful learning look like, we are asked? How can we integrate technology into our classrooms? What are some authentic tasks we ask students to perform?

Consultants arrive toting giant-sized post-it notes, markers, a powerpoint with clips to videos they find amusing. “We’re going to do some break-out groups, some pair-shares, a gallery walk, a table-share. We’ll report back.”

When I think I can’t take it one more second, a colleague who truly cares about me says: “Remember what a small percentage of your time in this career is spent in meetings like these.”

*    *    *

I did not quit 4-H. Instead, I learned a great deal. For example, everyone showed calves, not cows. In my father’s world, cows ruled. Clean-boned, pink-uddered behemoths who tested your arm strength and your endurance for a shoulder full of their drool when you showed them. These were famous cows, bovine divas. They were doing you a favor allowing you to clip their rosettes to your back pocket as you walked out past popping flashbulbs. But our calves, those poor progeny, were boneracks, pale shadows of their gorgeous dams and of the beefy calves, round-shouldered with massive throats, that my fellow 4-Hers showed.

Into the microphone, once he’d lined us up, the judge would say: “I’m starting the class today with this big, strong heifer, blah, blah, blah. At the end of the line, a calf that just can’t compete with the size of the animals up front.”

“How do you get your calves to grow so big?” I finally asked, humiliated. They fed their calves milk for the first year, extra grain.

“Grain?” I asked. Meanwhile, my crazy father asked me several times of day: Got that hayrack filled in front of your calf?

My 4-H friends snorted: “Hay doesn’t grow them.” Then they’d glance behind me at the hip bones of my feline-like yearling. “Obviously.”

Oh, the battles I waged to do what other kids did, but my father wouldn’t budge. Two months of milk, he said. Racks full of hay. That’s the way you grow cattle.

“You know what happens to those over-conditioned [farmer-speak for fat] heifers? They grow up with too many fat deposits. Can’t put up an udder. Don’t last. You want a dairy heifer, goddamnit. [By this he meant an animal that will grow up to convert her energy into milk, not meat] No matter what anyone says, that’s never going to change.” Then he stormed off to erect a silo out of a kit.

So I fumed, but I did not win. Not with him. Not against my peers and their decidedly un-dairy heifers.

4-H would be even greater, I thought, if my father would just butt out of it.

*    *    *

This past week, my seniors long gone, I have been preparing for my new role as mentor coordinator. That is, it will be my job next year to assign our new teachers an experienced educator to lead them through their first year in the profession. In an article about classroom management, I read that it’s important to understand what your own bottom-line is. What do you absolutely believe to be true about what is necessary in your classroom? Behaviors? Philosophy? etc.

I stare out the window. Good question, I think. Then: Thanks for asking.

*    *    *

A few years ago, I returned to the fairgrounds. It is both good to be back and heartbreaking. If there is such a thing as ghosts, my father’s is here every August.

In a calf class, I watched the children — even grandchildren — of my former 4-H friends leading their animals around that hot ring. When they lined up, the biggest calf did not win. Instead, the judge chose an angular calf, sharp-shouldered, leggy. Her over-conditioned competition stood much farther down the line, in a spot I was very familiar with.

Into the microphone, the judge said, “I’m starting the class today with this dairy heifer.”

Okay, I said to my father, who, if his ghost was there, was leaning on the rails beside me, sunglasses on, hands clasped before him. He would have picked the winner as the animals milled about outside the ring but he would have waited anyway, see if the judge knew what he was doing. He wouldn’t say, I told you so. He would have looked at me and smiled (he had a beautiful smile) and remind me: “I told you, honey. Your daddy is always right.”

*    *    *

Distilled, my teaching philosophy is this: I want kids to understand the power of language. Maybe this means to love a book, really love a book. Maybe it means to write a poem they didn’t think they could write. Maybe it means listening to a peer read aloud from something so powerful, or so funny, or so honest, that it stays with them long after that stupid tone sounds to end the class period. Tell a story, listen to a story, love a story.

And I want them to love being in my class, to feel safe, valued, a part of the community we get to inhabit for only a few days out of what I hope will be our very long lives.

So this is for you, Dad, who taught me to understand what lasts beyond all trends, to develop an expertise by listening, by watching, by cultivating patience, and then, in the face of all those people who insist they have a better idea, to cling quietly to your own understanding of what will always work.

A Thank You Gift to my Readers

Let me write you a poem. Let me try at least.

Let me do this because a year ago, when my publisher suggested I start blogging, I cringed. What would I write about and, more importantly, who would read it? It felt like an English 401 assignment from my first year in college: 5 pages typed, double-spaced, topic of your choice, every week.

But it hasn’t been like school at all. it’s been FUN. That’s right, I used the F word: Fun. F-U-N. I’ve loved trying to think of people I’ve met and times I’ve spent with people on this journey so far. And I’ve really loved, really appreciated, really been humbled by, you checking in.

So, again, let me do this: let me do my best to write you a poem.

This is how it works (perhaps you read my blog about the Poetry Stand — Free Poetry, Really): you tell me what you’d like your poem to be about and I’ll try writing it. In the past, I’ve made this offer to friends and have written poems about swingsets, the fall from innocence, sheep, Plum Island, what it feels like to be stuck in a life, what would happen if we could make movies of our dreams, etc.

Think about it: what do you want your very own poem to be about?

And then, reader, let me know, and I’ll do my best to deliver you your one-of-a-kind creation.

With my thanks and with hopes that you keep reading.


You Can Get There From Here

It began with Westerly High School Class of 1971’s yearbook. Began with how old yearbooks depress me. Even current ones. (Yearbooks and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Don’t ask.) Anyway, those black and white photos of other human beings who considered themselves It. Off to take on the world! Our whole lives ahead forever and ever and ever and ever! Endless effing summer of being the envy of every old woman sniffing cantaloupes at Sandy’s Fruit Stand, of every old man walking into Danny’s for a beer after his softball game. Prom queens then, and prom queens now, class clowns then, and class clowns now. Don’t we all believe (and maybe dread and maybe celebrate) that we’ll always be The Generation? We don’t listen to graduation speeches but we know that, in essence, what the speakers are telling us is that we hold the future in our hands. We always knew this, of course,  and we are selfish with our birthright. We wouldn’t give it away to just any old Most Likely to Succeed to come along. And we look good all polished up for a studio portrait (most of us; again, don’t ask). This is the most important moment to us so far and we can’t imagine others quite so big. We picked out the right sweater, the initial pin clasp; we chose a quote that made us sound either philosophical or like the most inebriated member of our species. Aren’t we clever, we thought, or: Aren’t we sticking it to the man?

The yearbook started me thinking about the music of this generation or that. This reminded me of Mr. Brightside, that song by the Killers which is definitely NOT a song from my generation (I remember someone blasting Hotel California from a boombox powered with several D batteries in the back of the bus coming home from an away football game senior year; I remember kids in study hall (I remember study hall) fighting over the correct lyrics to Stayin’ Alive.) But when I tried to teach one poetry class how powerful disruptive rhyme schemes can be, I told them to listen to Mr. Brightside. Try, I said, to predict what the line that follows “And it’s making me sick.” See what unstated things a real poet can make you hear? I love this song even if it isn’t my generation and even if, had the wrong kid been sitting in that room, I could’ve been called to the principal’s office and subjected to a slightly embarrassing recap/justification of that particular lesson.

And this led me to think about Frankie Valli’s Swearin’ to God song. This is the kind of sugar pop I used to love much to the horror of friends with more discerning tastes (and, yes, Karen Denham, I still stand by my Fifth Dimension fandom). Every time it played on WABC AM radio, I cranked it up and sang along.

The song came out the same summer as Jaws. Remember that summer?

Aunt Rita dropped my cousin Rob off early for the matinee. He was always over when we were kids, but now that was changing, too. I was twelve. He was sixteen. Maybe he had his license, but that wouldn’t have mattered. Who would ever have let us drive a car anywhere? So we walked from the farm to the Jerry Lewis Twin Cinema on Granite Street on a brilliantly sunny day when we should have been at the beach (one last guileless trip before we realized what could happen in an idyllic summer town like ours). I had never been to a horror movie. My friends had wanted to sneak into the Exorcist, but I said, Count me out. I’ll never sleep another wink. Nightstalker paralyzed me, made me a statue in my bed convinced that if the sheets didn’t move, a vampire wouldn’t know I was in there. But there we were, my favorite person in the world at the time and me: on our way to see Jaws.

If it was Rob’s idea to go, I wouldn’t have said no. Especially that summer when the stuff we used to do was out of the question: picnics on Turkey Rock, playing Shoot in the hayloft, reclaiming abandoned calf sheds as our forts. Look at us, all grown up and off to buy a ticket to a scary movie right in the middle of the day! When we got to the theater there were other boys, too. His friends from his neighborhood, one of his Shea cousins. I sat on the end of the aisle, a little heartbroken, and then absorbed, completely transported by the terror that Jaws inspired in a generation that had no idea what special effects could achieve.

Once the movie ended, the sunshine outside the theater did nothing to assuage my terror. The older boys got a ride home. Rob and I walked back towards the farm, a route where great whites might be hiding behind the stone walls and hedges that used to line my street. I don’t remember if we talked about the movie, but I do know I told my mother every detail that night as she stood at the stove and I set the table: And then the head rolled out! And the leg — with his sneaker still in it! — hit the bottom of the ocean!

Every time I hear that Frankie Valli song (, it conjures the first scene of the movie. The naked scene I watched at the end of a row of adolescent boys, boys whose voices had changed, who could grow beards. That song plays and I am back in that theater, wishing Chrissie would stay at the damn party, wondering how I will survive the next two hours, gripping the one armrest I don’t have to share, hoping I can resist screaming.

Rob and I went bowling last summer and, four decades later, it was the kind of fun I remember. There is something of those children left in us, something, too, of those people we were all buffed up for the yearbook photographer. Once, Rob and I swam in a lake where we later learned someone had dumped a pet alligator that had outgrown their bathtub. The state itself was full of cottonmouths. No adults supervised us. We never touched bottom, only treaded water for hours, at the center of our universe, no worries about whatever shared space with us, the future rippling from our young bodies, outward like a song.

The Places We Don’t Expect to Find Ourselves: Steve Irwin, Me

But for the annual book inventory, the tearing down of bulletin boards and locking up computer carts, teaching year nineteen is done. At a graduation party yesterday, a mother introduced me and a colleague and said, “Oh, these two get invited to a lot of parties.” Perhaps she didn’t record my surprise. Because it does surprise me: how happy I am here, how attached I’ve become to my Ipswich students. My first year here was not exactly auspicious:

It wasn’t the first thing that made me feel like an alien, but it’s the first one with a date assigned.  September 4, 2006. The Crocodile Hunter dies. I am sitting in directed study, my second day of classes. I have just returned to teaching after a seven year hiatus, returned to the profession, but not to the school where I spent ten productive years before staying home to raise my children. That school was too far away from where my daughters attend elementary school. I couldn’t spend hours stuck in traffic if my family needed me.

So I started over three miles from home. And when I overheard yet another student I didn’t know say the Crocodile Hunter had died, I hoped he was kidding. Those long days at home with three girls a little over two years apart, the Crocodile Hunter entertained us. Outside, rain drilled pavement or humidity inspired swarming mosquitoes, or someone had a fever, day three, or someone needed a nap and wouldn’t take one. I longed, instead, to be teachingTennyson, or monitoring critique sessions with the literary magazine, or picnicking with a group of my seniors after a Hamlet performance at a local theater, but those outlets disappeared with daughter number one. So here was Steve Irwin, another person who loved his work no matter how crazy people thought he was. My girls screamed and squirmed but stayed put beside me on the sofa, gripping my arms, fighting over my lap as Austin wrassled crocs, hoisted venomous snakes and deemed the most seemingly unloveable creatures, “gorgeous.” The girls and I sat transfixed, safe in our own world of non-poisonous snakes, lakes filled with nothing more threatening than the antediluvian bulk of timid snapping turtles.

Now, I sit in another teacher’s classroom because I don’t have my own (no view of soccer fields, no scrawling in my teacher’s edition: Ms. Panciera, 207, no adorning walls with posters collected from ten years’ worth of yard sales). I labor to learn the names of students who glare at me if I get their first name (Chelsea) right, but confuse their last name with one of the other three Chelseas before me. And the Crocodile Hunter, a man as vital as if he had ushered reptiles into our living room, is dead?  Where can I turn for confirmation?

Students have their backs to me. The teacher whose room this is discusses play costumes on her desk phone –her very own desk phone and not one shared with several twenty-something colleagues with whom I divide a small office space. She hasn’t spoken to me, just calls over me where I sit at a desk trying to manage my laptop, stack of books, paperwork, and takes attendance:  Welcome back, Trista.  Justin I love the haircut – imagine being able to see your face this year. Darcy, you must tell me about Colombia.  Students ask me for tape; I refer them to the teacher behind the desk. They ask if the computers work; I shrug. They ask me a question about their schedule, a document as unrecognizable to me as the faces of my colleagues. Not my planet, not my planet, not my planet.

In this profession, there is little reward for experience if you can’t stick it out in one building. It makes no difference that I advised one of the best literary magazines in the country. Someone else produces the magazine here. I am a published in over fifty journalswriter, but someone else teaches creative writing. I’m assigned a mentor with half my experience and am expected to attend meetings whose topics range from classroom management to modifying curriculum for special education students. Forty-four years old, anonymous, I wander between five different rooms, the halls so crowded, I give up trying to push a cart and strap two bags on my back instead.

My other first year teaching, I was twenty-six, the youngest faculty member on a veteran staff.  I had novelty on my side. I knew my students’ music, I shopped for clothes where they shopped. Now, I don’t even have those things in common with my colleagues.  I don’t wear jeans. I don’t let kids say, “This sucks.” I have nothing to offer the lunch table conversation topic: how many tattoos do you have?

The directed study room is hot, the day outside buzzing with insects, flushed with sun. I didn’t get to put my kindergartener on the bus for her first day, and so far, no one has expressed horror or shock or sadness about the Crocodile Hunter. The months stretch before me. How long the year can seem!  Endless October, a March that must be sixty days long. One of the Chelseas asks to go to the library. Can I send her? Who is this lady, she says to the class who has no answers for her. I squirm in my new sandals, the skirt I bought imagining my triumphant return to a job I loved. If I had a key, I’d excuse myself and go to the bathroom.  Stay there.  See what happens, Steve Irwin, when we venture into a new element?

Class ends. Even the bell here is different, a three note tone that moves me into another stranger’s classroom, a Spanish one this time.

“It is not going to be cool to have English in a Spanish room,” one of my students says.  At least I think he’s one of my students.  “Why did they put us here?”

Beyond the teacher’s desk piled with textbooks, folders, pictures of his family, I see parking lot, not soccer fields, my own car, its interior strewn with gum wrappers, stray socks, Happy Birthday pencils. I bought the car the year our oldest daughter was home, loaded it up with boxes of files from that other school and drove off. The driveway wound through the football field on one side, a strip of wetlands on the other.  Mornings, hawks perched on streetlights; fall, we walked out with a new group of seniors for their class picture on the bleachers; spring, snapping turtles snarled traffic as they headed out to lay their eggs; June we filed out for graduation.

Overhead in the Spanish classroom, pennants that introduce students: Hola, me llamo Jorge.The tone sounds. The Spanish teacher says, “Bummer about Steve Irwin, huh?”

“Who is she?” I hear someone say.

Homesickness is a dart, unexpected, lethal.