Water

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I developed a strong thirst for water

on hot Laurentian afternoons

when we would swing our tender, round feet

off the blistered dock, skimming

the cool-blue waters of Lac Major.

The sound –

the sweet-licking sound of water –

would stick with me all day, pulling me back into the lake

to fill what always felt like an unquenchable thirst.

At night, after supper, a desperate feeling drew me back into the water.

That last dive in, as our mother called from the porch, pulling,

That last hand in the canoe, compulsively cupping,

the last curled hand of water splaying water on skin.

The Long Spring: Humidity and Humility

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Summer came into the weekend with a feverish intensity. High temperatures and humidity covered the Ottawa valley and environs with a solstice vengeance.

And now, we are hot and sweaty. Today was my third day to go back into school, help for a bit with locker-belonging retrieval and finish up the purge on room 201, my second home and experimental- learning pod for a very long time. An earnest walk to the school got me steps and a whole lot of perspiration that bubbled up for the first hour in the “close”, hot classroom. Looking like “22 Minutes” Raj Binder, I sweated and rifled through all of my paper files. Most went into the recycling bin except for some student work and photos. Oh, the faces of students from 2004, 2005, 2008, and on. And my crazy ideas! Such effort and intensity and energy!

Onto the ancient “craft and game cupboard”. Good God. I should have had a tetanus shot. Rusty compasses. Plasticene, sweating in the heat, dating back to Roman times, broken pencils and Scrabble tiles everywhere. Glue guns with snouts stuck to the wooden shelves. Recycled folders with lovely remembered names: Ezra (who cried when we went to Foreign Affairs and the Palestinean flag was not hanging); Nadia (who beamed like a lighthouse as she casually lifted supplies from my desk, and gave me a “Happy Christmas Great Grandfather” thank you card); Mario, (whose drawings were like music). My sentimentality mixed with a robotic need to get it done and not leave anything  cumbersome for my colleague moving in.

More water. Eat a banana from home, now riddled with fruit flies. Teaching is such a glamorous job. I labour alone because that is what we do these days. Find copies of yearbooks I helped produce with the kids. Great, hands-on projects that meant so much. Beautiful, mature faces staring back at me. Luke, Divine, Cameron, Curtis, Sarah. Faces and stories that would launch a thousand ships. The yearbooks are kept and put on my little trolley.

Three o’clock. Time to go. My internal temperature is approaching Vesuvian records. I wheel the trolley into the empty hall, the map of Canada grazing piled-up desks and cabinets. Our old tarp used for an outdoor activity crinkling as my entourage and I get into the old elevator.

Done. One more quick trip tomorrow to hand in my keys before coming back home for class meetings and on-line games to celebrate their end of a long spring. And that is that, and that is ok. Because this is what we have to do now. And, I think of my last high school days, looking back now, so casually spent in long hours gathered around outside, gossip interspersed in intervals of heat and drags on cigarettes. I feel for all the 2020 kids who looked forward to a natural end.

Teaching is the ultimate profession of mindfulness. The joy and energy are completely in the present. And an empty classroom is the past or future.

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The Long Spring: Last week

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Joni Mitchell was right.

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

It is the last weekend of school time, and in my case, the last weekend ever of being an employed elementary teacher. This weekend usually is a sweet spot in a teacher’s life. Report cards finally done, the frenzy of June almost done and the summer just beginning.

Your work this weekend typically is to rev up your engine and be ready with: game ideas; party plans; potluck and music lists; end-of-year cards; and a 12-inch strategic-freezie – storage plan in a school with no central AC, one working freezer and 700 students. Oh, and get the script ready and find some suitable clothes for the grade 8 leaving ceremony right smack in the middle of it all.

This last week can be very, very, very long, but am I ever missing it. I have thought about this week ever since I decided to retire – 8 months ago. What would it be like? Would I be emotional? Sentimental? Overwhelmed? Probably. But this last week is not ending school the way things usually end and I am missing it. Yes, we have activities planned for the kids, on-line parties and games, gifts for the grade 8s, and a new way to say goodbye. But not in person. And I am such a person-person.

I will miss the sharp promise of a June morning before the heat hits and soaks the building. The hurried call-outs and reminders to colleagues as we rush through the halls. The chaotic clean-ups of student work: paper, posters, shoe boxes and rolled -up art. Errant shoes and lunch bags, inevitably filled with old cheese strings and wrappers. Locker cleanouts and buckets and spilled water and unreturned forms and envelopes. “You need this, Miss? ” (IEP return form, term one). The half-hearted slosh and application of water and soap to locker insides. Shopping and garbage bags full of winter coats, locker shelves, gym clothes, papers, papers, papers. And, the groans as they descend the stairs with a year’s worth of living.

I will miss our school clap-out after the grade 8 dance in the big gym. The whole school lined up in the downstairs hall in a hot crush of excitement. The PA system blasting “Celebration” and the rush of the “big 8s” as they parade down the hall, high 5’ing the little ones and dancing. The looks of the few who feel this is the last thing they want to do. For many of our students, this walk represents the end of 10 years at one school.

I will miss the crush of bodies as the grade 7 orchestra in white shirts nervously commandeer their string instruments through the hall with calls of “careful with that bass”. The hot procession as we all head over to the high school auditorium for our leaving ceremony. The harried plans for the 7s left behind: movies, water bottles, popcorn and warm freezies. Testing of the mics and the wooden podium, adjustment of giant fans to keep us cool, all the 7s in the orchestra pit below squeezing out the last practice of “O Canada”. The 8’s and their families coming into the foyer. Young women in teetering heels and wide smiles, clutching at each other; young men, some with shirts still tucked in, lining up for the procession. Former students coming for hellos and hugs and teasing about how tall they are now. “You are so short, Miss, you STILL teaching?” Parents and families filing in, the wheeze and hit of auditorium folding seats. Rising heat, students crossing the stage, laughter when someone does a flash dance move, a few tears, the valedictory, and the hot flush of relief when the recessional starts and we have completed another ceremony.

I will miss the last day that never seems to end. Rushed coffee and treats early in the morning with colleagues who are trying to sign report cards without coffee spills, make last-minute plans for 35 – degree outdoor play, securing freezie space. The grade 8s who come to school on Thursday and don’t really know what to do with themselves and how to leave. Yearbooks traded and signed and inevitable shouts of “OMG, I hate that picture of me!” The 2 – 3 pm party with hotly-contested playlists and chips and enough cherry coke to sink a ship. Hugs. Glances. Spills and shrieks. Paper plates and napkins smashed into overflowing recycling bins. Tears, smiles, looks down, hands brushing faces. And the length of the year and the length of the day and the heat turn you into the always practical technician, directing, re-directing, reminding, nagging the crowds. And then they are gone, many not knowing how to say goodbye. This is not a Hollywood movie, this is real life. Adults rush out to the front to wave and cheer as the school buses pull out into traffic. Small faces at windows, hands waving and a rare middle finger. Then it is quiet (once the office realizes that “School’s Out for Summer” in on its 7th go-around). And empty, quiet schools are the loneliest places.

So, I will miss the last typical week of school despite the heat, fatigue and chaos.

But I will always know what I had: an incredible school that gave me the chance to teach and learn. A humbling every day.  Talented, supportive, funny colleagues. So many laughs. So many tears after 3 pm dismissal. Beautiful faces and so many, many stories. This week, faces and voices on screen. What a way to go for the grade 8 students and those of us retiring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I have the wherewithal to pause and review the landscape before the emotional roller coaster starts up once again

The Long Spring: (2) Teens on screens/Co-VOID -19

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It took us a while but in week 5 or was it 7 or was it November, we got into a Google Meet semi-groove. Class meetings are now scheduled after 11 am so our Teen Van Winkles can be awake and responsive. They are finally getting the sleep their bodies and brains need. And, they and their teachers are finally getting into the Google grid-groove. We are learning to show our faces (and not our Minecraft avatars) for at least two minutes to greet each other. We now know to turn off our mics when others are speaking or presenting, and have learned that sliding private notes through the very public chat line doesn’t work. We are all enjoying the smaller group meetings where people, including the adults, are more relaxed and able to converse. We are playing Balderdash and Kahoot. I still hugely miss the real-physical world mode of teaching, but I am learning a lot.

I am also laughing a lot – now. Not so much in the first few weeks of the Long Spring as we were scrambling to get tech out to families, re-engage kids and configure learning into something we hoped was manageable and compelling.

Here are some of the lessons I have learned with teens on screens (and middle-age teachers on screens):

  • No nasal shots: I now know I have to prop up my monitor so my face is at screen-level. One kid told me he could see up my nose, um, after 4 meetings
  • Frontal lobe shots: in the first few weeks, most of my students looked like the pictures my mom took of us when we were young – all forehead, no eyes, no nose, no mouth. Sit up and show your whole head
  • Overexposure: when you are learning to “Present” on screen, don’t leave the potential for your on-line chequing account to appear
  • Leave your Doritos and trail mix (at home?): crunching on an open mic is really loud and distracting
  • Lounging bed shots: propping your monitor on your stomach and attempting to rest on your parents’ bed while in a Class Meet – not great for future job practice (that was not me!)
  • Leave family out of it: calling out to your mom or brothers during the meeting? Close the door.
  • Using the screen as a mirror: we “gridsters” can all see you when you are fixing your hair or examining your face with your screen image
  • Watch your mic: whispering loudly to your hovering mom that “this sucks, how long do I have to stay on?” when your mic is on – not great for your teachers’ self-esteem
  • Background check: all might want to position themselves in neutral backgrounds. No backshot photos of teachers reclining with large glasses of wine in hand
  • In the dark: use some light to illuminate your human form or the class looks like a bad poker game, or a “B-movie” drug deal
  • vertigo on-the-go: stay in one place. Travelling with your chrome book to get a snack or reaching down for your phone while on a class meet induces nausea in the elders
  • Grid lock: take your turn speaking and no heckling, or the grid does lock and the screen starts to smoke
  • Saying hello and goodbye: However, screen-shy you are, remember, just like at “real school” to say hello and goodbye. Talking into a silent screen of avatars feels like Co-VOID for your teachers.

Teens on screens. Tune in.

The Long Spring: (1) Blank verse

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The word “screen” looks a lot like “scream” and it rhymes with quarantine, and that is No coincidence.

I love to write. I usually write frequently and easily. But that was when I used to go out. When I wore button pants. Now, I still have a lot to say but no apparent way to convey it. My brain swirls with ideas, impressions, fears and questions. I am now a teacher of, and an expert in blank verse – writing nothing for my blog, nothing to express my thoughts on these very strange times, nothing imaginative.

If my pen were a tongue it would be stuttering right now.

No, the writing I do in the on-line school world comprises cheery, mouth-straining-smiley, weekly letters to families. Tactful e-mails to parents asking whether their child has been, um, using the school board Chromebook because there is no evidence of their existence. Brief – now templated – notes to students explaining once more how to submit an assignment into Google Classroom. Requests on Classroom comments that “woop woop” and “na, I dont get this” be rephrased. Short phrases on Google Meet chat lines like “Hi there”, and “Of course!” Careful notes to kids and families I am really worried about.

Fluency is in short supply and fancy is in quarantine. All my energy goes to the screen. The Silver Screen? The Silent Screen. Like everyone else, I am trying to find a way to make virtual personal, and engage across spaces that are physical, emotional and existential. By 4 pm, I do not want to even see a screen door. I do not want to see my phone.  I do not want to write.

This is my first attempt, on a beautiful, actually-springy Sunday afternoon of the long weekend of the Longest Spring. Excuse the fumbling phrases and the lack of energy. I will try harder next time. How do I submit this?

 

Love in the time of COVID-19

Yesterday was my 60th birthday.  Born on the 19th of March in 1960, I was not unaware of the numerical coincidence.  Many plans were made beforehand: a week-long trip to Cuba; family gathering in Montreal; visits to our moms with cake; then a return to work to finish my last “trimester” of paid, full-time work. Some “treats” to compensate for the tough, labour action times this winter. All designed to mark time and observe a significant landmark. All based on the assumption that all is possible. The anticipation had a delicious energy.

And then, COVID-19 arrived in Canada. Quickly, with little planning and big consequences. Staying put and social distancing the new normal.

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I will admit I was in a TERRIBLE mood last Friday, the last day of school before March break. That delicious anticipation caved into dark anger and anxiety. The Cuba trip cancelled early that morning. An announcement that school would be closed for an extra two weeks. And a day of crises for students dealing with their own huge issues, and wondering how we could help them from away.  A dark, dark day.

The next day and the day after that the sun shone. On a Sunday hike in Gatineau Park we turned our faces to the warmth and March-blue sky. Chickadees and blue jays swooped among the evergreens. Streams were starting to flow under ice’s thin veneer. It was not a Caribbean beach but it was beautiful. And we were outside. For a while, I forgot myself and my anger.

As the news of COVID-19 became darker, we received our instructions. No contact and strict social distancing. All news was of rising contagion numbers, deaths and the plummet of the financial markets. No understanding of when this would end and very, very dark.  But the sun still shone.

We took to the streets like so many of our neighbours enjoying the air and freedom. Children everywhere scrambling up what’s left of snow-plowed hills, spinning on their bikes and boards in winter gravel. Neighbours we have never seen before visiting our book lending library, talking in these strange configurations of distance.  We vowed to play loud music at the end of each day – porch blasts. We delivered food to friends, planned new projects and did ridiculous, sporadic workouts in our tiny living room.

On my actual birthday, friends placed cards and gifts on the porch (one a dozen rolls of TP and a coveted, small hand sanitizer). They called from the street, left messages on the phone and scrawled well wishes on Facebook. My family made a beautiful meal, a special Tic-Toc and we celebrated what we have.

Right now,  all we know is that we know nothing. We do not know where this will go and when it will end. It is not time to make plans and reward ourselves for what has passed. It is time to listen carefully and obey. To take care of others by living carefully and prudently. To find ways to be kind. To take care of our children and their colleagues working in the health sector. To thank the people working in grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations. Smile at delivery trucks, wave at bus drivers.

Time is still being marked but the landmarks are different. I think my most significant gift this birthday is permission, or an opportunity to get over myself. To see myself as one of many.  To understand the story will not be as planned but it is still a story.

This weekend, now spring, the waters will be flowing. Nature carries on. And so must we. My love to those who are struggling or are alone.

I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.

~ John O’Donohue, Conamara Blues

 

 

Next time

This poem, created in our writers’ group, is based on the beautiful Mary Oliver poem, “Next Time”. Our writing leader, Roanne, had us read the poem and then create our own poem about transformation over or across time. I had just returned from Montreal from a visit with my mother who has Alzheimer’s. This poem, since revised, is what came to me. It mixes regret with new starts, expectations with responsibilities. I think.

NEXT TIME – with appreciation for Mary Oliver

Next time, she would cuddle into the fold of her arm a bit longer lulling her longer into affection so they both could learn the comfort of a forever hug.

Next time, she would push her on the wooden swing and watch her mother’s legs break the blue of the sky back and forth, forth and back.

Next time, she would not walk so fast along that pathway by the sea so that her responses to the uncharacteristically personal questions would not be tosses over her shoulder, but considered.

Next time, she would not bury her head further into her book to appear unobservant when she heard the tap of the heels in the hallway, and the crunch of a green apple, and yes she would like a bite.

Next time, she would watch how her mother naturally relaxed in the gaze and laugh of her step-father and she would know great affection and appreciation much earlier. And, she would thank her mother for choosing him.

Next time, she would tell her that a sad thing can be talked about and it’s not “being too sensitive” to ruminate and seek what is needed.

Next time, she would bathe and wrap the swollen feet and slip on the pink, fuzzy socks, pat the toes gently and not mind the reaction; an act of love is simply that, requiring no response.

Next time, she would be with her as if the world stood still and all of this – was fine, ok – the silences, spaces, repetitions, rubbing of the fingers, delayed laughs.

She may act like time had nothing to do with this. They were just two people in a yellow-afternoon space with no past, just two people sharing a winter afternoon.

 

 

 

Wake up and smell the pickets

It’s Superbowl weekend. Lots of people up here in the north looking forward to getting together to watch football, cheer, groan and over-eat.  I won’t be watching the game (ADTS: attention-deficit-TV-sports) but I am looking forward to a good party. Any excuse to have Ranch dressing and a distraction from winter.

Superbowl comes right before the second Blue Monday (or is it the third?), in the middle of a season defined by gray, white and cold. It marks the end of interminable January and puts a bright slash in the stretch of nordic monotony. It propels some of us to take our heads out of our hoods and look around. Notice stuff. Pay attention.

It definitely is time for Ontario citizens to pay attention to what is going on in education in our province. This week, thousands of Ontario educators will be walking picket lines in communities across the province. On Wednesday, every elementary school in the province will be closed because of labour action; on Thursday, ETFO members in districts such as the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, will be out on the lines again. Schools, the hearts and brains of our communities, will continue to be closed in these rotating strikes. 

People have to ask: why are teachers striking? Why are educational assistants, early childhood educators and other workers striking? How has it come to this? Educators typically are people who love to do what they do, who care deeply about children and teaching. We know and depend on the routine of school, the stretches of time needed to build community, resilience and trust, so essential to learning. We want to be at school. We like coaching kids, running clubs, supporting students in class, holding orchestra practices, and conferring and de-briefing with colleagues. Kids, progress and change are everything to us. We also know, like lots of other people, that you also have to wake up, stand up, and give up paydays for what you believe in.

We are standing up for education. There is no space for cuts. We know: we work in schools! There cannot be any more cuts to special education resources – we don’t have enough resources now to meet current, growing needs. We can’t increase class size when, in many schools, we struggle, really struggle to properly meet the complex needs of students with learning and language challenges, behaviour and emotional issues, traumatic backgrounds, high anxiety and stress levels.  We need MORE resources in our schools to be there with kids. Not less. We need presence and meaningful person-person time. That is when learning happens. Not on-line. And we are not walking out for money. Good God, I would not have gone into teaching, changing careers in mid-life, to make more money. I have a Master’s degree and enough skills to make more money in other jobs.  That is not why I teach.

So, before this becomes a rant, and it is feeling that way, this is what I am asking my friends, associates, fellow citizens to do. PAY ATTENTION. Read the articles. Review the issues. Reflect. Think about what you wanted for yourself when you were in school, for your kids, your family. Write or call the Minister of Education. Think about why education is important, and what you want for kids overall.

Think about what it might be like when you cannot do the job you want to do. Think about the times when you went out on the limb for something you believed in, or didn’t agree with. Maybe it didn’t involve moving as a collective or carrying placards outside your place of work. Maybe you find the idea of striking uncomfortable. Well, get over it, please. We are taking job action to protect and defend education.

Poke up your head. Read some countering opinions. Measure the weight of numbers and stats behind the arguments and decide what is important. Take a look at what educational assistants and early childhood educators earn. Find out what they do. Read educators’ accounts of what goes on on a typical school day. This is about all of us, including you.

 

frozen solid; warmth in the lines

Image result for frozen solid school  It is now officially the dead of winter. A Saturday snowstorm shellacked the capital in cold and white. Errant snow clumps not caught by city ploughs are now frozen blocks. Unmoving. Impenetrable.

It is also the ‘nth month of negotiations between the Ontario government and education unions, including the OSSTF representing educational assistants, ECE teachers, office administrative staff and custodians, and, my union representing the elementary teachers of Ontario, (EFTO).

Any promise of movement in negotiations seems intractable at this point. Sadly, there has been no discernible progress. After three graduated phases of withdrawing services (while still teaching and coaching students within the school day), we now are on rotating strikes.  Tomorrow is day one. Five schools of teachers will gather at our site to walk the line to protest ongoing cuts in public education and to show solidarity in education.

In education, the essence of pedagogy, teachers are taught and encouraged to be flexible, to change plans mid-stream when the lesson is just not working, to moderate voice, stance, position when dealing with a nervous or reluctant child, to try to understand behaviour, resistance, background and underlying issues. A good teacher is fluid all of the time. 

A good teacher, however, needs support and resources. Our classrooms are changing. There are more children struggling with mental health and behavioural issues, trauma, and substantive learning issues.  The negotiating table agenda includes concerns and requests for action regarding increased class sizes, decreased support for children needing extra support, and the real and rising crest of violence in the classroom. Yes, compensation is also on the table, but not at the front of the line by any means. Asking for financial recognition of the cost of living, not addressed since 2007, does not qualify as the primary concern of educators.  And, anyone who says it is is manipulating the truth.

If you listen only to the Ontario minister of education, you would think teachers, as represented by their unions, are unmoving, reluctant and greedy employees of the provincial crown. In there for the bucks and the benefits. 

The people I know in education are incredibly caring, multi-tasking and flexible people.  They have an unending warmth and intense interest in children. They create and search out teaching materials to reach kids. They thrive on the almost blinding energy of children, they endure and navigate through teenage angst, they seek out the ones who are scared or resistant to ask for help. They use their own money to pay for kids’ supplies, extra-curricular activities and things like extra clothing for summer camp. They never stop moving or thinking about the people they teach. In my many conversations with colleagues, salary is never an issue of discussion. Never. Really.

I know what my colleagues will be like tomorrow on the line – on what promises to be a very cold day. There will be thermoses of coffee and tea handed from mitt to mitt. Arms clamped around shoulders. Hot pads passed between the lines. And, calls out to anyone honking or calling out in support. There will be solid solidarity.

In my last year of full-time teaching (I plan to retire in June after 35 years of being in the workforce), I am sad that this is happening. But, we have to stand up and walk for what we believe in.

 

from shore

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for my mother

At first, it was a gentle tug 

of rope laid square on wooden quay.

And then, it was a forced release 

as the boat drifted slowly, slowly out to sea.

 

I squinted in the interim light

still able to discern

the shape of love and our shared life

in the figure on the stern.

 

And now, I, myself, adrift

with voice caught in my throat

witness the person who loved me most

fade slowly – while afloat.