So Long, Seniors: Twenty Years of Goodbyes

1222044_news__students_throw_mortarboards_-_july_14__-large_transth3h5bemkyhxfkdcxjgxv7c8h33cqspnmpifi37zqx8How impossible summer seemed when I was a kid. Climbing off the bus on the last day, heading down the lane towards our house, I couldn’t believe another year had ended and that what stretched before me were nights and nights and days and days of no school. That kind of freedom paralyzed me. Along our lane, laurel bloomed, deer flies swarmed, the brook ran, invisible beneath the skunk cabbage. In the pastures, cows found shade. In the fields, corn sprouted flimsy as new grass. Unlike my own children, I had no camps to attend, no friends with pools in which to float away my afternoons. We had no vacations planned; no jobs off the farm awaited me. I had a calf to get ready for fair season. My father would no doubt need someone to rake hay or finish milking so he could bale hay before the rain started.

But the list of things that would disappear for a few weeks: homework, early mornings, lunch table awkwardness, rote practice with long division and sentence diagramming — my God. What to do with the kind of joy I felt?

Today is the first day of summer vacation, too. Twenty years of teaching are behind me. I still look forward to summer, but not with the same joy, nor with the same paralysis, either. For someone who hated school as much as I did, the only surprise for me now is how much I love teaching. And how much, in so many ways, I dread June.

My friend Blake graduated from UNH the year before I did. During the final few weeks of his time there, we gathered, probably at a table beneath the low ceiling of the Catnip Pub, and Blake talked about what it felt like to be finishing up. “It’s not that I worry about seeing all of you,” he said. “I know we’ll keep in touch, but I’ll miss all those other people you pass on campus every day: the guy who lived across from you freshman year or the kids from the study groups we had for anatomy. I’ll miss the community, you know what I mean?” We said we did, but we didn’t. Not really. Not until it happened to us: that all those people who had been part of our world were suddenly in places that we were not. And for teachers, it happens at the end of every year.

We’ll come visit, they say, and they do. Always wonderful to see them (even if they’re off to South Africa and Prague and Barcelona for a year abroad or to Thailand for an internship or to China to teach poetry and I am exactly where they left me a few years before). But I no longer see them in context. They aren’t the students who gather in front of my desk during directed study anymore to show me pictures of the puppy they’re getting or to collaborate on a giant list entitled: Why Florida Brings the USA Down. They will never gather at the door just before the bell and show me how they intend to dance at the prom that night. We won’t meet to discuss “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been” or to do Friday read-arounds from our weekly writing warm ups. They aren’t in the class that makes more allusions to pop culture than literature or the one that randomly brings in cakes to share. Those communities have dispersed permanently. They’ve joined other groups, and I have, too.

Oh sure, we re-connect on social media. That’s a modern day bonus. Some of my former students are in their 40’s now, but in their faces, I still catch a glimpse of the teenagers they used to be and I remember stepping in between one of them and a kid who arrived outside my classroom door to fight him about some long-forgotten girl, or getting my car rear-ended by one when we were out looking for prom venues and laughing so hard, I couldn’t get out to examine the (minor) damage, or hearing one of them tell me about the girl he’d asked to the prom who, all these years later, is his wife.

These memories are fun, but they are also the reason why I refuse to look at yearbooks: Because they seem to capture all the hope teenagers have that they are on the cusp of becoming who we were really meant to be, that life will only get better. That optimism, that naivete, is my undoing. I can’t explain it anymore than I can explain my aversion to the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. Perhaps it’s that, at least in the case of yearbooks, I don’t like knowing what’s ahead when once upon a time, we were all filled with such promise.

Sometimes, I think I see my former students in the halls. A familiar posture. A similar profile. A hair color. A shirt I recognize. But no. They won’t be here again peering into their lockers or climbing the stairs to the science pod. They have moved on, exactly as we are all meant to do.

This year, my own daughter’s image might haunt the halls of her high school, a community she also left this June with the attendant pomp and circumstance. She is so excited for what’s ahead, so ready to be done with high school. And I? I’ll be here, of course, exactly where she left me except in a very different world.

Weekend Write-In: Onion Skin and Bleaching Fields

view_of_haarlem_with_bleaching_grounds_c1665_ruisdael

Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields

 

Remember getting assigned a research project when you were a kid? In the 1970’s, this meant heading downtown to the Westerly Public Library, a setting more awe-inspiring to me than any cathedral. Despite the library’s grandeur, it’s circular children’s room with windows that looked out onto Wilcox Park, its glass-floored fiction shelves, its winding staircase that led who-knows-where, the reference room was a dingy place full of thick-spined volumes on metal shelves. The reverence I felt for this institution took a serious hit as I considered the work ahead. We’d unpack our backpacks onto solid oak tables, flick through the card catalog and return with some barely totable tome from which we’d completely plagiarize our material until our hands cramped so much, it was time to head to BeeBee’s dairy for a hotdog on a buttered roll.

Then, Christ have mercy, it was time to go home and type. On the way, you prayed you had an ancient, water-stained box of onion skin and that the ink ribbon had not dried out since you last attempted to hunt and peck your way through this particular brand of misery. And if the gods were with you and everything worked out just fine, there were still those moments when, clicking along at secretarial pool speed, you looked up only to realize you had long ago run out of paper and had committed several lines to the typewriter rollbar. This, of course, meant you had left no space for those bottom-of-the-page footnotes. So you sobbed hysterically and considered dropping out of school. You imagined your teacher with his feet up eating out of a big bag of Lays and watching Wide World of Sports (and then you imagined him as an Agony of Defeat example) and finally, tragically, hopelessly, you began again — only to realize you’d run out of onion skin. No worries. The store at Clark’s Paper Mill, which was the only place within a four hour radius that stocked the stuff, would be open on Monday. Same day the paper was due.

This crisis would fire my mother up considerably. Why had I waited so long to start? Why hadn’t I checked to see what I needed to complete the work days ago? She’d proceed to tear up the spare room where we kept a desk and a blizzard of papers in the world’s worst filing system. When that turned up no supplies, she’d start calling her sisters, her cousins, her friends, her friends’ sisters, her friends’ cousins, until finally, at the home of one of the people you felt least comfortable with in the world, someone coughed up a sheet or two of onionskin.

“Okay, goddamnit,” she’d say. “Now go get it.”

Did I mention I was paralyzingly shy? Social awkwardness was something I longed to attain one day as it would have been a step in the right direction.

After a few more hours of me pleading with her to come with me and then, worse yet, my mother’s chilling Silent Treatment, we would climb into one the old Impalas or another and she would peel out of our laneway, hellbent on a mission to get the goddamn paper or kill us both trying.

Anyway, I guess it all got done. I graduated high school. I never turned an assignment in late.

All of this is to say, however, that I wish I had known then how fun research could be. For example, a few weeks ago, my friend Brian requested a poem about Dutch landscapes. This led to me doing several Google image searches and discovering a world of bleaching fields and tulip trading. It also led me, not to the stuffiest room in a library, but to the Museum of Fine Arts on a Friday night before a long weekend in the company of a real-live landscape painter. We were among the last visitors to the Museum’s special exhibit, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

I brought along a notebook and scribbled some of the following:

  • Dutch scientists discovered Saturn’s rings
  • Dutch women had much in common with Nantucket women; wives of merchants and wives of whalers were often left to run things at home
  • In Haarlem you would have smelled the breweries
  • Bleacheries soaked linens in buttermilk for three weeks!
  • A Herring Buss = a ship on which you can gut and salt the catch
  • Fishmongers were mostly women who kept baskets floating in rivers to keep the fish fresh
  • In Salomon Van Ruysdael’s River Landscape with Riders on a Ferry, one cow is scratching her neck

I have no idea which of these details, if any, will make it into Brian’s poem. But I have been immersed in a world that will surely lend itself to some inspiration for a poem. I aspire to paint life-sized portraits of my loved ones in poses that will make them laugh. I can’t get the image of Rembrandt’s illuminated ruffles out of my mind, nor do I ever hope to. Also, my hands aren’t shaking. No deadline looms. I didn’t cry once. Somewhere nearby, my mother is donning her Steelers sweatshirt and awaiting today’s game, her love for me blissfully unconditional.

My research ended, not with a real-life model for a summer blockbuster chase scene, but with a root vegetable torte and a glass of pinot grigio that I raised to evolution, and to the utter extinction of onion skin.

 

Weekend Write-In: The Difference Between a Talented Writer and a Talented, Published One

During their final days in one of my senior writing classes, my students sit down for a brief conference with me. This year, I asked James the same thing I’ve asked a few other gifted young writers: “Do you know the difference between you and people who have published poetry in literary journals?” James, like his peers, did not, so I told him: “They kept writing once they left high school.”

Seems simple enough, right? And, god knows, with the proliferation of writing programs at the undergraduate, graduate, even PhD levels, plenty of people call themselves writers these days, but in my nineteen years of teaching, only one of my students so far has come back to visit me, Bachelor’s degree in hand, and said, “I want to be a writer.”

One.

It’s not easy to profess yourself a writer, I know that. And it’s not easy to say to anyone (read: parents) faced with coming up with the kind of Monopoly money required for college tuition these days to say you’re going to use your education to become a poor poet, but people do survive in this profession. They may be hungry, but they don’t starve to death. They may not be ready for the runway at Goddard Park, but they’re not naked in public (usually, though there was that one couple at Bread Loaf . . .). But I’m not really suggesting my students dedicate every minute of their professional lives to writing; I’m not even suggesting they go to school for it. I just want them to know: you can do this if you keep on doing it and by this I mean publish, I mean keep writing.

One of the many wonderful things about teaching is that I get to witness the earliest stages of real talent. So many kids can write (especially poetry), but only a select few have an innate, instantly recognizable gift. When I see these kids again, all grown up many years later, and they tell me they are lawyers or computer technicians or architects, I think: but what about your writing? Because it’s hard for me to believe that they could set that gift down on the table and walk away from it towards something any old talented person can do.

Kurt Vonnegut has said of writers,”We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” This doesn’t seem like such a bad way to spend at least part of your waking moments.

So here’s to all those kids (and all those who used to be kids) who think writing is what you do in your angsty adolescent journal and in one elective class you could finally fit into your high school schedule: keep going. And, when you do, let me know you’re out there, wing buds at the ready, toes over the edge of that marvelous cliff. Let me come cheer you on.

Tell Us Something We Don’t Know About You

He could have been modeled after Alex Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s character in Family Ties. A shorter than average young Republican who roamed the halls of UNH’s business school toe-walking in his Docksiders. At a dorm party, when I told him what my major was, he snorted. “English?” He said this the way some other soul who never stumbles into anything might say: You stepped in dogshit. “What are you going to do with that? Teach?”

I snorted right back at him. “No,” I said. It was not a lie. I had no earthly idea of pursuing that profession. I wanted to be a writer, but had no idea how one went about that, so I just moved off towards the garbage pail of spiked punch. He wanted to be an actor: he confessed this after a few more glasses of this particular poison, but he thought it too impractical. I shrugged. What do you say to someone who feels forced to make that decision? We were nineteen years old.

He became an international businessman. I’m sure he’s very happy. I did become a teacher, of course, and despite the anxiety a new school year inspires in me, I’m pretty sure once again: I’m happier than he is.

I don’t resent his long-ago derision (Okay, I do, but it was the 80s. Who didn’t want to make a soulless billion or two?). But I do remember it often.

The next few months, for example, the memory will surface as the seniors in my school (and in my house!)apply for college admission. By the time we set the clocks back, I will have met with a succession of apprehensive young people wielding what they hope will be the college essay that convinces their heart’s desire school to fall in love with them. They will follow me into my room every morning as I unlock the door and take off my coat, knock on my door during lunch, hunt me down during my prep period, write their names on my whiteboard during study, find me after school just as I’m digging my keys out to lock the place up. “Do you have a second?” they will ask, their parents will ask, their guidance counselors will ask.

Some will need a pre-writing conference. They will sit with me to brainstorm ideas. Many of these students will be kids I have never met before, but they will confess vulnerabilities, delineate their failures, share with me descriptions of vacation homes, grandparents’ hands, how it feels to be powerless in the face of tragedy. I’ll ask probing questions: I’ll have to. But they will answer. They will do the work of fleshing out an idea with someone who is almost a total stranger.

Some will slide an early draft across my desk and then sit quietly as I read it. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll note how their hands are clasped; I’ll hear them sigh; I’ll feel the desk move as they jiggle a leg.  I won’t necessarily look at the writing at this point, but at the ideas. Where is the energy? What’s this really about? More discussion follows. They discover something they’d forgotten. The general idea becomes a specific memory. We’re not brainstorming anymore; instead, they’re telling stories.

They’ll come to me with essays their parents suggested they write, things that don’t sound like them at all. They’ll come to me after the professional their parents hired to help them has finished his work. “Where are you in here?” I’ll ask, and often, we’ll start over.

They’ll email me late at night: One last question. How’s this look? What if I added this?

They’ll drop by so I can double check the spelling, their use of apostrophes.

“I really want to get into Brown/Middlebury/UMass Dartmouth/a nursing program/my mother’s alma mater, etc,” they’ll say, imagining I’m holding the magic lamp in my hand instead of their laptop.

Websites, how-to manuals, advise them to tell the admissions office something they can’t know from the rest of the application, something not listed in their resume. The essay prompts ask them to describe a failure, or what defines them, or the place they feel most content. And guess what happens? They do. They write down things they won’t show their parents – things they don’t want their peers to see. They take the kind of risks they can’t take in essays of literary criticism or informative papers for any school subject. And they hand them to me.

My days will have little time for planning, correcting, overseeing make-up work, socializing with colleagues. Instead, I will sit at my desk with their essays in my hand, and I will ask myself: “Who am I that I get to do this?”

You’ve most likely jetted all over the world; I’ve sat behind my desk. But, my god, the worlds I have seen from there, the glimpses I have had into people’s lives, those invitations that humble me, that make me grateful for where I ended up.

So how about you, Mr. International Businessman? What can you tell us that we don’t already know about you? Perhaps it begins with that dream you once had of being on stage? If you wanted to figure it out, I could help you, once the early application deadline has passed, that is.

Webs

Webs. Everywhere along the dock. Elaborate, fantastic, larger than large hands unfurled. Sunset and I’m trying not to think of the spiders who made these, who might, as we sit admiring the colors, cloud formations, be waiting beneath us, who might be looking for a way back into the fading light. I’m listening to my friends, but I’m watching the webs. One spider appears, repairing the day’s damage before the night’s insects arrive. A healthy specimen, not the pale dust spiders I’ve learned to share my space with, but not the enormous dock spider I feared, either. Conversation continues. I sip my Magic Hat. Colors change, deepen. Ospreys hunt and so absorb me that, by the time I check again, every web is busy with spiders preparing for their evening meal. The dock narrows; the sky darkens. Time to leave, I say, meaning: time to leave this space to them.

We move to the outside deck and, as we open the sliding door, an even larger spider scurries in and loses itself in the dark space behind a wood stove. Someone tries to catch it and free it, but it is gone, and really, truly, not gone at all. I hear what I’ve always heard: spiders do good work; spiders won’t hurt you; spiders are more afraid of you than you are of them. Oh, Logic, you are lost on me. My fear distracts me the rest of the weekend. Despite that I am surrounded by three of my closest friends for a rare weekend together, I am always wondering where that giant arachnid is lurking.

My husband, Dennis, has been extolling the benefits of spiders for years now, usually as he is ushering one of them out of our house and back outside per my request, while I watch from a few feet away to make sure he is not lying when he says it’s gone. He also tells me that certain people and certain things are put in my way intentionally. That they will become obstacles until I learn how to accept them. And I have learned to accept many spiders, most of those I encounter anyway. I also have a snake-y yard, live with the knowledge (and the shed skins) that snakes winter in my basement. Beetles, I love. Moths (except my arch nemesis the pantry moth), worms, many creatures fascinate me. But a large spider defeats any evidence of my evolving tolerance.

So do some people.

I have to say it: that there are those (few) people who, just as that giant brown arachnid scuttled into my perfect weekend, creep into my life and undo some serious work. I’ve saved the vitriolic emails from one of them under the title: Shit I Don’t Get Paid Enough to Deal With. I’ve researched ways to block people’s Facebook posts and Goodreads updates so that they won’t be able to confirm what they might already suspect: I don’t really want to be their friend. I have (and here I’ll use the word as it is intended) LITERALLY crossed the street to avoid passing too closely to the obstacle who lives next door and frequently shows up on MY walking route.

My husband, Zen master, says to be thankful for these people who remind me to be empathetic (necessary prompting for me, I admit), to be tolerant (ditto), to understand that the universe is not laid out for my ease and amusement. I say, “Can’t you just wrap them up in a piece of toilet paper, open the screen, and set them outside the way you do with spiders?”

This weekend, we played Cards Against Humanity (I took a seat that afforded me a view of the corner into which the spider had hidden itself), and I thought: if I was a heroin addict, this would be like bellying up to a large vat of the poison. I didn’t win, in part because other players, overdosing on the disgusting suggestions, often opted for the tamest (rhymes with lamest) responses. Those people? Those who matched Alternative medicine has just embraced the healing powers of ___ with Saying I love you, they’re put in my path, too. Thank god.

So I came home, inspired to continue working on being a better person. I started (small) by taking my hot and bored dogs for a swim. I’ve ignored them recently, busy as I’ve been avoiding certain people. When I have a nastier impulse, I ask myself: What would someone who was excited to get the Cuddling card in Cards Against Humanity do?

My metamorphosis is far from complete, of course. For example, the very first thing I did when I walked in the door? I unpacked my suitcase directly into the washing machine without touching any clothes into whose folds a spider might have traveled, knowing full well, no creature could survive a wash cycle.