Friday, August 19, 2016

Why I Want to Teach Middle School

I wrote this essay for a scholarship application which asked what makes middle school special.

I don’t know anyone who enjoyed middle school. Adults tell stories of bullying and confusion and a desperate need to both fit in and stand out. That’s why strangers gasp when I state my intention to teach middle school. “You’re a saint!” they cry. “I could never do that.” They can’t imagine submersing themselves again in the miserable stew of the early teen years. But their memories are incomplete. They leave out the true magic of middle school: it is a fantastic time of transformation and exploration. Middle school is when adolescents begin the process of forging unique identities, determining their values, finding their passions, and establishing agency over their own lives.

The most obvious and difficult aspect of the middle school years is how children try on personalities like coats – changing with the weather and the fashion. In their search for a tribe they can demean, ridicule, bully, and hurt those who seem different. This is the memory so often is carried into adulthood. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (a story of unsupervised adolescent boys lost on an uninhabited island who quickly devolve into savage, murderous clans) resonates more than 70 years after it was written because even today the schoolyard sometimes feels like that island.

Yet, even in the midst of this social turmoil, middle school students are optimistic and enthusiastic. With just a little acknowledgement and encouragement they can be sparked to become life-long learners and compassionate members of their community. All it takes is one good teacher to help them channel their energy toward a path of curiosity and passion. I’m not saying the teacher’s job is easy. In middle school the personal relationships a teacher makes are as important as the academic curriculum of the classroom, because only after building trust can the student’s interest be hooked and held fast. That is when a student’s passion to learn is ignited. It’s a delicate balancing act – pushing a student to think deeply, solve problems, and create their own understanding of a topic while supporting them academically and emotionally so they can do their very best.

The same adults who, when asked for stories of their middle school years, tell horror stories that invariably end with, “but there was one teacher . . .” That teacher may have created a safe lunch space for students who considered the blacktop a battleground. Perhaps the teacher pulled a struggling child aside and told her that she had great talent and potential. In my case Mrs. Roupp facilitated my participation in the Great Decisions program, which expanded my horizon from the borders of Colorado to the nation’s capital, where I earned a degree in history – and raised my voice in support of my political beliefs. All it takes is one good teacher to help a child transform into a courageous, curious, intelligent citizen.

Saturday, December 12, 2015


A friend calls it separation anxiety, this restless casting about for obligations in the sudden absence of pressure. I have things to do, wrapping presents and paying bills and cleaning a house neglected for months, but they are on my time.

What a luxury, to set one's own schedule! What a delight to know the alarm is off! Nevermind that I have woken at dawn as usual with lists scrolling through my mind. I don't resume classes until mid-January. For a month my time is my own.

This was the hardest part of leaving my job -- adapting to a different time scale. I had two markers for each day: the beginning and end of school. Everything else was arbitrarily set by me. True, my two year old required some structure, but the management of our household could be wrapped around visits to the museum or hours on the swing in our front yard. My world collapsed inward. I created tasks for myself to compensate for a missing sense of purpose. I signed Miss Awesome up for classes and I volunteered in The Fine Lad's school and I went to the empty grocery store at mid-day but still there was time in pools around me.

I have adjusted to the delicious timetable of a stay-at-home mom. The children require far less management now, and cleanliness standards in our home have been worn down by dogs and children and muddy boots. Instead -- an hour for coffee? What day? I'm free. I am profligate with my time, chatting with friends online and watching television every night with my husband. I stay in bed until 8 on weekends.

Then, when my classes start and I must shuttle back and forth to my school, the kids' schools, the kitchen counter where we do homework together between stages of suppermaking and afterward I must excuse myself from the dinner table to go study, then I panic, wondering how I'll ever adapt to the rigid schedule of the real world. I stare down the prospect of teaching long hours and grading grading grading into the night and finding myself at the occasional school dance as chaperone. I am so fortunate now! Why would I give up these quiet hours at my desk, these mid-day dog walks?

The answer comes on weekends when Miss Awesome goes on sleepovers. There is an absence. For now it is a relief, but all too soon it will become a wound. My home time will no longer be marked by morning goings and evening returns. The pools of time will spread and drown me. The bright world of clocks and routines will be my salvation, even if it does mean I have to get dressed every morning.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The King of Sciences

Physics is the most magical of the sciences. If chemistry is the science of creation, and biology that of transformation, then physics is the wondrous confounding science of interaction. Physics describes how everything relates to everything else, starting at the subatomic level. From there comes chemistry. From chemistry, biology. Physics is the root of it all.

This strange music of the spheres is not simple. The concepts seem obvious: drop a ball and it falls. Push a box and it slides across the floor. These are measurably predictable actions. The magic of physics comes with identifying that which is not intuitive and taming it with numbers and symbols. An entire mathematical language, calculus, had to be discovered in order to explore the seemingly basic concepts of action and reaction, push and pull. What we know when we first stand – the pull of the earth on our bones – is only half the story. Physics uses numbers to tell how we pull on the Earth, how the ball gives energy to the ground, how the box pushes back.

Physics is the science of the parted curtain, of seeing into the darkness beyond and understanding what strangeness lies in the unknown. To be a physicist takes creativity. It takes, I believe, a little bit of madness to walk the fine line between this world and some other that exactly overlays our own. I imagine the physicist’s world to be filled with lights and arrows, but that is a writer’s conceit. I am not a seer. 

Still, I try. Being a student is a humbling experience. Each class spreads a map of the vastness of ignorance, and lays a tiny guideline to the next waypoint. Mine is generally a joyful journey of discovery; I am delighted by just how much there is to learn. This semester has been more difficult. Numbers and formulae have floated before me like balloons. I have desperately attempted to tie them to the concepts which we are discussing, but they are slippery and transform. Most agonizing is the sense that I _almost_ get it. I know how something is going to work, but am unable to connect the language, the trigonometry, to the action.

Last week a combination of particularly difficult homework and a baffling lecture brought me to my knees. Between classes I hid in a bathroom stall and wiped away tears. Afterward I slumped to the lab, completely dispirited and wondering how I could ever teach this material to students when I can’t do it myself. My benchmate, who is in the same lecture section, griped with me as we did the performing-monkey part of setting up the experiment. We settled down to the routine of measure, test, record, measure, test, record. Then our third partner came in and asked me to explain what we were doing. 

They say teaching is the best way to learn. I outlined the basics of what steps we were taking, then showed her the diagram of the numbers we were collecting. After attempting three different explanations relating events to numbers, we achieved the a-ha! moment. You are a good teacher, she told me. I hope so, I replied.

In that moment of grace I was reminded that not everything can be explained by science. There is always hope.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


I spent yesterday morning in a dingy beige government facility, waiting with a friend, E, for his parole hearing. He has been in a halfway house for a year; we won’t know for a day or two if he will be released. If not, he expects it will be many months before he gets another hearing.

E’s isn’t my story to tell, but some parts of our friendship are. We met through one of DH’s laborers, himself a halfway house resident. By the time we met E, the crew had solidified, becoming as much family as employees. They joined us for supper many nights, grateful to avoid eating institutional slop. We traded stories. Our “white picket fence” existence was a source of amused bafflement to them – mom, dad, two kids, dog, sit-down supper every night. Even our food was different. Friend M was shocked when I told him the vegetable he had just enjoyed was broccoli. “I didn’t know broccoli could taste good!” We were as foreign to their experience as someone from an exotic country. Their histories were peppered with abuse and drug use and family cobbled together from whoever stuck around. 

E joined us for supper a few times. He was quiet in the midst of our laughter, and gentle. My children adored him. He was struggling a bit, we were told. No safe place to stay. Any place affordable enough for a con was full of drugs and hookers. Temptation. We helped a little, buying his tools when he needed cash, letting him crash on our floor for a few days, but he slipped, and was sent back to prison. 

We corresponded. E wrote every couple of weeks, signing off each time with gratitude for our continuing friendship. My letters were intermittent, full of cards and drawings by the children. Some were rejected by censors. No stamps, I learned. No colored paper. Rectangular letters only. Books or magazines had to be new and sent directly from approved booksellers. The prison system is a joyless place and privatization has monetized any attempts at kindness.

After six years E earned release to the halfway house. He credits me, our family, with some of his success. I am embarrassed. I have offered nothing exceptional. We are friends. He joins us for supper. His gratitude for the simplest of gestures – food, help understanding health insurance documents, a ten-minute ride so he doesn’t have to spend an hour and a half on the bus – humbles me with awareness of my riches. I have grown up in an abundance of comfort and love.  I have money, and education, and opportunity. My life is full of blessings – one of which is his friendship. We talk, sometimes, about his childhood, or prison, or the other men in the halfway house. He is wise, and shares insights about poverty and class. He takes the shine off my privileged perspective, laughing and laughing when I am sympathetic. I’m told it boils down to stupidity and bad choices. That there are no excuses – not abuse or bad upbringing or rotten circumstances. I excuse his bad decisions anyway. He’s in a different place now, I remind him. A better one.

Which is why we spent more than three hours waiting in that nondescript building, subject to a bureaucracy careless with our time. I was there to support his plea to the state that they grant him parole. Not freedom. My glancing acquaintance with the criminal justice system has shown me that people who have run through that grinder are never free. Even after the ankle bracelets are removed and the weekly parole meetings are ended and regularly peeing in a cup is no longer a condition of their release, “criminals” carry the weight of public perception. Housing, employment, even relationships are tainted with distrust and disgust. 

That was clear in E’s interview with a parole board member. He spoke to E the way I speak to my children. “What were you thinking?” Subtext: be ashamed, be sorrowful, repent. “How can I trust that you will never do it again?” Subtext: you cannot make good choices, you are not trustworthy, the public is not safe. We sat, hands on our laps, as E was subtly chastised. In time I was allowed to speak my support, promising that E has good (read: stable middle class white) friends on his side. We are hoping my good fortune can be leveraged on his behalf. E is grateful. I am, too. It’s nice to have done something actually worth his gratitude.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Fight to the End

In a stack of old school work I found this story, written more than 20 years ago. It's not too bad, so I thought I'd share it here, with some editing.

The gunfighter arrived just after the telegram did. Both attracted the attention of the sheriff, who read through the telegram several times before dropping it to the floor and resting his head in his hands.

The gunfighter tied his horse to the hitching post, lingering a moment in its shadow to rest his head against her sturdy neck. Then, breathing deeply and pulling his face into its customary sneer, he sauntered into the saloon. His dusty boots, stitching creased with dirt, creaked with the exhaustion of many miles. His heels thudded on the floorboards. He called for a bottle of whiskey and a room. The barkeep grunted, reaching behind himself and fumbling for a bottle, not wanting to turn his back on the sullen man before him. 

The sheriff knew, even before the boy burst into his office, that it was time. The town had stilled when gunfighter's horse paced down Main street. In his office, the sheriff scrubbed wearily at his face, saddened by the job ahead, then, adjusting his gunbelt, he strode across the street to the saloon.

"Here already?’snarled the gunfighter.’I thought you might take a few minutes to work up your courage.”The barkeep snorted indignantly and then turned to concentrate on wiping the counter when the gunfighter glared at him.

"Yeah, well, not much courage needed. It’s only you. Now finish your whiskey and leave my town.”The sheriff earned several admiring looks from the drunks at the bar as he spoke to the gunfighter.

"I'm just making myself comfortable. I’ll leave later.’With that the gunfighter turned away, grabbing his bottle and heading for the stairs to his room. 

“I say you leave now. You have plenty of time to find a rock to crawl under before sundown.’The sheriff followed the gunfighter to his room and slammed the door behind him. The growing crowd in the saloon heard nothing for nearly an hour. Only their confidence in the sheriff kept them from barging into the room and attacking the gunfighter. Finally they heard vague shouting, and the sheriff stormed out, yelling, “I’ll see you at sundown then, you lousy bastard!“

The town grew increasingly quiet as evening drew on. Wary citizens began finding good vantage points to watch the shoot-out. The sheriff called on the town librarian to say a tentative good- bye.

“I, uh, just wanted to say, ma’am, that if something happens, I, mmm, am glad for the pleasure of the few moments I have had with you. They kinda make the rest of the time go easier.” He turned to leave, awkward at having said so much, but stopped when she confessed that she enjoyed spending time with him as well.

“You’ll be okay, won’t you?” she asked, after exchanging more awkward pleasantries. “I will see you again?” He stammered out a positive reply, not quite sure what to say, and then hastily retreated, stopping at the end of her walk to wave.

The adversaries faced each other across the corral, waiting for the sun to set. Someone from the crowd began to count backwards, and gently the rest of the town chimed in, ticking off the moments until sundown, until the two men would draw and shoot.

“Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen.” 

The gunfighter nodded, a half-smile on his face, and loosened his gun in the holster. The sheriff grabbed hastily at his gun, loosening it in turn, caught off guard. He reached for his handkerchief, wiping his eyes, clearing them of dust and tears.

“Five, four, three.”

Suddenly there was movement and noise and the gunfighter lay dying. He didn’t try to move. The sheriff ran forward, crouching over the fallen man, resting his hand gently on the slowly heaving chest. One final rattling breath, and the sheriff called for the undertaker. Slowly standing, he ordered a funeral prepared at his own expense, then went slowly to his office. He sat, elbows on knees, tears falling onto the telegram forgotten on the floorboards.

The sheriff didn’t hear when the librarian came in. She put her hands on his shoulders and began to make gentle consolation noises. He snatched the telegram from the floor and thrust it into her hands, then stood with his back to her. She read it, and laid a gentle hand on his back.

“He used to be a good man, you know.” He sighed. “He had cancer. He was afraid. He asked for my help.” Tears coursed down his face, faster and hotter, digging channels through the dust of the corral. “He wanted to die quickly, with dignity.” He chuckled wryly. “Thought he might help me, too. Make me look good, he said. He choked up, unable to say more. She stepped to his side and rested her head on his shoulder, hoping her sympathy would be enough. 

Finally he spoke. “He was my brother.”

Friday, August 21, 2015


A trip to the store was just an excuse. I knew that as soon as I tapped the accelerator and my car jumped forward, as eager as I was to eat the road. We, my Amelia, my Pilot car and I, went straight for the highway, fast fast nimble between the slowpokes left and right. The sky glowed with citylight, we were guided by paired tail lights, and the wind circled me with enticements. Drawing into the parking lot felt like a temporary submission. Thirty minutes and a basketful of school supplies later I caressed her hood and climbed back in.

Dear god, make me a bird so I can fly far far away

We rode the margins of safe and smart. The wind grabbed my hair and flung it about, promising more, promising freedom, if I would just drive drive drive. I saw the first sign for my exit and moved a lane left, avoiding the gravity of family and obligation.  A second sign flashed by. A thousand miles of road lay before me, winding between mountain passes and then furrowing straight through a layer cake desert. I could be a state away by morning. The car purred and leapt past a granny hanging out in the left lane.

A third sign, a quarter mile left, and I sped past a slow semi which had trapped a stodgy line of minivans in the slow lane. I looked ahead to where the mountains were shrouded by a smoky sky. I could climb five thousand feet and breathe starlight before the quarter moon stood high.

Sighing, I cut right, and right again, waving goodbye to the little sports car that had been testing itself against my madness. Slow, slow, calm at the light, my impatience swallowed and tamped down with thoughts of todo lists and laundry that needed folding. Someday, I promised myself, I will be reborn a hawk, so I can truly fly.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Saga of the Orange Truck

Written 2007, revised 2015

My Darling Husband takes great pride in being a logical, reasonable, and efficient person. He's also, well, cheap. He says "practical and frugal", but really, he likes doing things on the cheap. Which is why, when my grandmother died last year and I inherited some furniture, he didn't want to ship it. Initial estimates were $1800 to ship the dining room table (seats 12 with all the leaves in) and chairs, and a child's bedroom set (two twin beds, desk, chair, dresser, bedside table, dressing table, and carpet) plus random other stuff from Grandma.  Personally, I thought $1800 was a good deal, considering they'd bring the "pod" to us, we'd pack it, they'd deliver to the door at the other end.  But no, it was too much money. Fortunately (?!) Auntie P in Massachusetts had a storage pod in her backyard (don't ask), so we hired a truck, moved the furniture, and there it has sat for nearly a year.  Now with us conveniently close this summer, DH figured we can just hop down to Massachusetts to get the stuff, and he'll haul it back when he comes home.

Unfortunately, our big blue truck holds only three people, so we can't use it as the family vehicle in Vermont. My beloved Honda Pilot doesn't really have the power to haul a trailer full of furniture back to Colorado. DH's solution?  Buy another truck! Okay, we've been talking about buying a replacement truck, one that can be a backup vehicle if the Pilot is in the shop, and one that doesn't require so much maintenance. So DH went out and bought an EVEN OLDER truck (1978) that has been sitting unused in his friend's yard for about three years.  

You see, DH figures he is SAVING money this way. The idea is, we buy this truck, fix it up some, he drives it across country and uses it as transportation in VT, then we buy a trailer and pick up the furniture. When we get back to Denver, he sells this truck and the trailer for the initial price, and that way we don't have to pay the $1800 to ship the furniture. MUCH more reasonable, practical, and efficient than taking our Honda Pilot and shipping the stinking furniture, which was my silly plan.

Before I go further, please take a moment to picture the "new" truck. It's a 1978 Ford. It is BIG and orange and has a brown plastic-wood interior. There are rust holes through the bed in at least one spot, and one side is more Bondo than metal. True, it has an extended cab, so it does have room for us all.  Sort of. The jump seats behind the driver are perpendicular to the road, and are little more than low boards with brown naugahyde on them. Even better, for safety reasons the kids have to be in the front seat (sitting sideways makes for dangerous head bouncing, plus their car seats can't be buckled into the back). But their car seats are kind of permanently installed (again, for safety). Since DH does the driving, this means I get the back seats. Of course, to get there I have to crawl over the front seat. 

I am NOT the smallest or most graceful of people. Imagine a slim hippo wallowing over a bench seat, trying not to kick the kids in the head, or tangle feet in the seat belt or step on the horn (It happened. I hit my head on the roof. More than once). Plus - 4/40 AC (that's 4 windows, at 40 miles an hour). From my huddled perch I recently discovered that the driver's end of the seat is held up by a stack of washers held roughly in place by a bolt. You know -- flat, round, hole in the center. I counted 15, but we were bouncing so I'm not sure how accurate that was . . . Oh, and the radio is AM only.  No tape deck, not even FM.

Can you see where this is going?

DH put in about 20 hours of his own time and paid someone else a couple hundred dollars to fix up the Orange Truck (fuses, gauges, patches over the rust holes). I got him a wonderful new iPod-ready stereo and loaded his iPod with audio books, and he declared himself ready to go. We cheerfully waved him off.

Four hours later I got the first call from the beside the highway just the other side of the Nebraska border. Possible oil leak, may have seized the engine.

Yeah, okay.  I gave him the Auto Club info (honey, the card is in your wallet -- remember?) and told him to let me know whether I should strap the kids into the faithful (and practically new) Honda Pilot Car and come get him.

In the second call he told me a mechanic took a look, added 6 quarts of oil, now it seems to be running fine.  

Third call - truck's getting 7 miles a gallon, he's filling up the oil almost as much as the gas tank, but it's running fine. Really. And oh, the speakers have gone out, so he has to use the headphones to listen to the iPod.  I resist pointing out that the Pilot has a good sound system.

Next call - May actually be as much as 9 miles a gallon! I resist pointing out the Pilot gets 22.

Next call - truck is "running a little hot" so he has to drive with the heat on.  Through the Midwest. In summer. I resist pointing out that the Pilot's A/C works really, really well.

Next call  - gas continues to be more than $3.00.  He figures gas and oil will cost him more than $800 heading east, probably more on the way back because he's be hauling a load. I resist pointing out that he's spending an awful lot of money to save $1800.

Then I call my mother and say "I told you so I told you so I told you so" because it's never a good idea to say that directly to my spouse.

After three days DH did get to Vermont safely. Now, however, he's not sure the orange truck can get him back to Denver, especially pulling a load. So, he's found ANOTHER "new" truck. It's the youngest truck he's ever owned (a 2001 - only six years), and only has 171,000 miles on it. And at $7500 it's "cheap". This doesn't, of course, account for the fact that the current owner estimates that he'll need a new engine in two years. DH keeps saying "it's only $7,500!"  I have expressed my reservations, but  the fact that we can buckle the kids into seats in the back and I get a door has pretty much won me over. We're going to try to sell the orange truck for $2000 -- a loss of only $250 in the end.  

Next, we acquire a trailer . . .  Oh, joy.