A Little School of Citizenship

img_1292I became loosely aware of politics in the third grade. President Johnson came to our church. And another time his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, came. I stepped forward to say good morning and that moment stands still in a newspaper clipping. Dr. King had given his “I have a dream” speech, and Betty Freidan wrote The Feminine Mystique that year. These were people asking questions about how to make the world a place that was fair for everybody. Yet none of these people was mentioned in school. This didn’t surprise me. School had nothing to do with the real world; my elementary school was not the school of “what’s happening now.” My school was stuck in another time with its own language: cloakroom, wraps, galoshes, lavatories.

While the sixties raged in a blur outside my classroom window, we sang songs about happy wanderers, kookaburras, and that song about Dixie. I could never figure out who Dixie was, where she was, or why she should look away.   When I asked my mom who Dixie Land was she laughed and shook her head. My mother did nothing to clear up the mysteries of school, an oppressively close place that smelled like a mix of floor wax, lavatory soap, the incinerator, and hot rolls.

My friends wanted to be teachers. Not me. Why would anyone want to go to a school if they didn’t have to? Third grade was simply a waiting room for the life that was waiting for me at home—a life of books, imagination, ideas, siblings, and endless time outside with the York River behind our house and a vast field in front of it.

My teacher told me that although I needed to concentrate on “collecting my belongings,” I was a good citizen. Citizen. Finally. Here was a relevant word that was used with reverence both at home and at school.

I was raised in a patriotic household. My father was making the world a better place though diplomacy and my mother helped him do it. And so did the four of us. We were clear on that. When “we” were assigned to the American Embassy in Cairo, I knew that I was expected to represent my country as a good citizen.   Under date trees, bands played patriotic songs at embassy Fourth of July parties and I was glad to be a part of a bigness of something I could not name or even fully understand.

Later, I knew that my life’s work would be part of this bigness. As we continued to move from place to place, I wondered what that work might be. School became more relevant and enjoyable, but never did I think I would spend my life in a school. And yet…

I am a teacher. I teach my third graders that to be good citizens we must be kind, fair, and responsible; that we must include others and respect the rights of all; and that as thoughtful readers and writers, we can make a difference. Every day when we sit in a circle on the carpet, I remind my students to widen the circle to make sure that everyone will fit.   I am teaching them about the bigness that I felt in the air when I was a third grader myself…it is called Democracy.

In every election I teach about the candidates as fairly and impartially as I can. I highlight that which is kind, fair, and responsible about each one. That was harder to do this year. I did not want my children to remember me as silent when a presidential candidate held a broad brush of insult toward women or religious groups. Children saw snippets of news wherever they went. They were confused by what they heard.  I was not silent.

After processing the election, I have reminded my students that the presidency is worthy of our respect, no matter who is in office. Democracy is a beautiful ideal and it works.

I met Hubert Humphrey at church at just their age. I met justice, grace, mercy, and lovingkindness there too. As a woman of faith and as an Episcopalian, I continue to learn about these things so I might live them in the world. Every time someone is baptized, the priest asks this question, and I am reminded of my job description:

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

 Respect the dignity of every human being. All people. Every human being. Every student. Every parent. Every candidate. Every voter.

Last week a young man came to see me. He was one of my former students. He stopped by to let me know that he was in college and that he had just voted in his first election. He said he knew I would want to know.

He was right. And he was kind, fair, and responsible.

 

 

 

 

 

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October Truth

My first real teaching interview was in Stafford County, Virginia.  It was still rural then and there were only a handful of elementary schools. Everyone knew that if you were from Emporia you would get a job; the people in charge were from Emporia.  I wasn’t from Emporia– I didn’t even know where it was– but I’d done my student teaching in Stafford.  I was applying for a first grade position and hoping for the best.  My father, having interviewed hundreds of people throughout his career, had given me solid “insider’s” advice. I was ready.

I don’t remember much about that interview, but I remember the end of it. The Assistant Superintendent seemed to be scratching his head about what might have been an unanswered or unasked question.

“Don’t interview the interviewer,” my father had warned.

“Is there something else?” I prompted.

“Well, yes, there is,” he said. But he paused and seemed reluctant to go on. I nodded, encouragingly. I wanted this to be over. The interview had gone very well. But now I was getting nervous. What was this?  Had he seen through my well-rehearsed performance of “22 year-old confident teacher?”

“Don’t speak into the silences,” my father had warned.

“I’ll be glad to answer any other questions you have,” I volunteered with an ebbing perkiness.

Mr. Webb went on, “I’ve interviewed a lot of first grade teachers,” he drawled. “I’m curious about one thing….I’ve never interviewed a first grade teacher who didn’t say she loved children. Until you. You haven’t said it.”

“Reflect before you respond,” my father warned.

I didn’t reflect. I didn’t think. My face reddened and I just blurted out, “I know I love teaching, but how can I love children I haven’t met yet?”

I was horrified that I hadn’t given a more measured and perhaps less honest answer. I wasn’t sure that kind of honesty was the way to go.

Mr. Webb threw back his head and laughed. He stood up and put out his hand. What was happening here?

“You are going to make a great teacher. Welcome to Stafford County Public Schools.”

I teach third grade now. I’m in a different grade and different place. It is 38 years later, but I am still living out this story’s happy ending. On the first day of school I am matched with 25 children that I don’t love yet. They are sitting in the desks of children that I’ve just lost to the next grade. I don’t panic, because I know I will love them.  I move through September setting the ground work for excellence and relationship and community. I move through September waiting for my students and me to become ‘us.’ I move through September as if they were my favorites until ‘as if’ becomes truth. And it always does.

It happens on an October day that is crisp around the edges with fall and brighter in its burnished light. A child slips her arms around my waist and says, “You are the best teacher I’ve ever had.” I know that she may well have said that to her teacher last year and might easily say it to her teacher next year. She is not insincere. And neither am I. She, like me, is living the satisfaction and beauty of the hard work of September.  It isn’t about me. It’s about us.  By October, it is real for us. The hard work of September is the heart work of teaching. It happened on an October day thirty-eight years ago and it happened on an October day this year, too.  I love them.

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I Can See Clearly Now

Last February, just days after my sister’s memorial service, I noticed a shadow falling across my line of vision like a curtain. My poetic friends mused about the timing. Yes, I was living in the shadow of grief, but this was not that. Eyes, like sisters, work better in tandem, and it is startling when one has to suddenly work without the other. But this was not that either.  I looked my symptoms up on the Internet: “Call a doctor immediately, you may be going blind.” This wasn’t a metaphor standing in a barren field of loss. This was its own big thing.

I got an appointment the next day and was on my way to surgery an hour later. My retina had detached. I heard phrases like

“No guarantees.”

“Vision Loss.”  

“Risk of blindness.”

“Every minute counts.”

I was in the hands of the very best, but no one could help if I’d waited too long to come in. Only time would tell if I had. That was eight months ago. Eight months of adjusting to seeing the world through one eye. I found that I could no longer lose myself in the pages of a book. I had to find my way in a new way. Adapt. Adjust. Make do. And I did. But I really missed turning the pages of real books.

My sister and I grew up as voracious readers. Our passports and our library cards were our official documents. As sisters, we had our own built-in book club that spanned continents and decades. We approached her terminal illness the way we’d approached everything else: with book in our laps. We read about happiness, meditation, healing, joy, and serenity. We were creating a life syllabus that we referred to as the “Joy and Wonder Reading List.”

When I came back to school after the retinal detachment, I knew that I could make up for the time I’d lost by modeling for my students the joy and resilience that my sister had modeled for me. I did not have corrective lenses — the vision was changing too fast for that — but the font in children’s books was large and with magnifiers I could do it. Grading papers was hard, so I “spot checked” and found that I was able to get a very clear picture of how my children were progressing. Rather than reading their writing, I listened to it in small groups of children who became adept at giving tangible and targeted feedback with me. We helped each other and our sense of community deepened. I held on to what was most important in reading, writing, and math. We ended our year well and successfully.

In late August it was time for the second surgery. It would be much simpler and much more routine. I asked if I could wait until October– I knew how important setting up my classroom and building community with my new students would be. October came fast.

Two days ago I had the surgery. Yesterday I woke up and saw the world the way I used to see the world… with both eyes.

Later in the day I went for a walk without any particular destination. Suddenly I knew exactly where I wanted to go, to mark the occasion with my own private celebration. I walked to the Public Library. I enjoyed every step. I loved seeing the way the light lit the just-about-to-change leaves; I loved the squirrels running along the branches of oak trees. At the library I loved running my hands along the spines of the books waiting on the shelves, — finding, choosing, and checking out books that would be mine for two weeks.

Tomorrow I will be back at school with my third graders. Today I am celebrating by losing myself in a good book — a real book with pages. I can see clearly now.

 

 

 

 

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Don’t Forget to Look

fullsizerender3My memory is stored in touch, sound, sight, smell, and story. The places I lived and visited as a child are working stage sets for the truth-story mix that fuses my Once with the unfolding Now.

That didn’t happen by itself. I remember because my father asked us to tell a story about our day. Every. Single. Day. Every morning he sent us out into the world, telling us to take notes and bring back some stories. We did. We learned to pay attention to the world around us. We didn’t know we were becoming writers or developing a deep understanding of narrative arc. We were just trying to outdo each other at the dinner table.

When I read the writing of my third graders I remember. Children speak of ordinary moments with matter-of-fact reverence.

We are going to cook out tonight.

We saw lightening bugs.

There was frost.

We got a new fence in our backyard.

We are going to Golden Corral.

We had movie night.

We made pizza.

I rode my bike.

My soccer team won.

I got a library card.

I saw a possum.

We don’t create memories, we live life. Beautiful memories are the fruit of creating life together in the most ordinary ways. Celebrating small moments together makes the big moments sing across time. A trip to Disney is special, but don’t think for a moment that the magic of childhood is contained in a magic castle.  The kind of magic I am talking about is not in the castle. In fact, it is more mystery than magic because it won’t be controlled or manufactured. It  fleetingly waits to be discovered.

As their third grade teacher, I am teaching my young writers not to miss the majesty of the the moment they come in talking about. I am teaching them to see the story of their lives. I am teaching them to fall in love with the world. The weekend homework has been the same for for over thirty years: Look at the world with the eyes of a writer.  Don’t forget to look.

 

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Who is Your Inner Editor?

If you write, I am pretty sure you have one.  And if you don’t  write, I know you do– and I know they’ve had the last word.  So far.   Some people call them inner critics.  I have two and they have names.  Wise Guy and Breathless.  They both smoke. I don’t.

Wise Guy is fast talking, with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. He is impatient, and suffers no fools. Over and over he says, “What! are you kidding me.?” He sits at huge desk in a newsroom surrounded by the thunder of  clacking typewriters. His world is in black and white.

Breathless, on the other hand, hardly says a word.  She raises an eye brow, sighs, lifts her gloved hand toward her mouth and takes a slow drag on a cigarette held in a mother of pearl and onyx  holder.  And then she shakes her head.  Slowly. And as she mouths the word, “No…” smoke rings float above her head.   And I pull another piece of paper out of the typewriter, crumple another page  and toss it over my shoulder.  This is all figurative, of course.  I don’t own a typewriter.

What is not figurative is the crumpled paper,  the deleted paragraphs, the discarded worked and reworked drafts.  This innervation of inspiration by criticism that isn’t really there is real.  And those crumpled pages are food for Wise Guy and Breathless.

I haven’t been writing and Wise Guy and Breathless are getting bored.  They are loud this morning.  But it is different this time.  Wise Guy says, “What? Are you kidding me?  If you want to write, write!

And Breathless surprises me, too: “Darling, such fuss!  Just put something down.”  So I do.  They shrug.  Nod.  Link arms and walk  away.  It was all just  smoke.

 

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Love’s Signature

Is there room for a eulogy on a teaching blog?  In this case, I think there is.  I learned so much about writing and living and loving and teaching from my sister.  I have written about her on this blog many times.  Katherine Elliott Joachim died on February 2, 2016.  It seems right to honor her here.   

IMG_9266I am Elliott’s sister, Annie, one of the Hopkins girls. I am the Annie of “Annie and Katie” (Elliott’s childhood name).  She was my sister and as little girls we developed a little school of love and friendship that we would later take on the road as we learned to love and befriend others. I think you all will agree that when it comes to love and friendship, Katherine Elliott Joachim was an expert.  We know.  We are here because we loved Elliott Joachim and she loved us.  And we, all of us, are better for it.

I am a teacher by profession, but my sister was a teacher by nature.  Ever the teacher, she planned this service so very carefully today. She asked me to do the eulogy.  I took some notes as we talked.  Later when I picked up the notepad, I noticed that she’d drawn a big heart on the paper with these words: “I’ll be watching from heaven.” No pressure, right? She was a purveyor of truth, hope, joy, and courage.  She did everything well, and when she found out she was going to die, she was determined to do that well, too.  It turns out that she had a head start on this.  I was present when her doctor told her that he too had become her student because she was facing death so bravely and with such determination.  But this did not surprise him. He said to her: “We die as we live.”  And it turned out to be true.   If you want to die well, live well.  If you want to die bravely, live bravely.  If you don’t want to die with unfinished business, don’t live with unfinished business.  

When I asked her what she wanted me to say in this eulogy, she said simply this: “Say that mom is my monument and my legacy from my mom is my charm.” We laughed at the irony of this: My grandmother once said to my mother, “I’ve sent you to three finishing schools; it is not my fault if you are not done.” Elliott talked about how my mother’s charm could not be contained by convention. How she was so aware of our talents and made sure that we had lessons and opportunities to develop them—for Elliott that was art and dance. And glamour. She talked about the dinners of our childhood—lovely meals cadenced with stories shared and how they always ended on just the right note.  It was from our mother that Elliott developed her beautiful gift for language, leaving a trail of pithy poetry in the air and in her wake. She talked about how we were taught that good manners were to make the people around you more comfortable.  She said that mom taught us to laugh at ourselves but not at others.  (By the way, laughing at one another, as siblings, counted as laughing at ourselves—but we were not to take that out into the world.) We were taught to laugh WITH everyone.  I promised Elliott I would say these things.  And there are some other things I want to say.

Her truths were hard won, but she never imposed her them on others.  She assumed that the rest of us were working on our own hard-won truths.  She was a work in progress–a beautiful work in progress–and she knew this was true for all of us.  Elliott knew Grace. She knew forgiveness.  She traveled with a stack of “Get out of Jail Free Cards,” and knew that resentment was a blind alley to nowhere.

As teenagers, Elliott and I were devoted to magazines, especially Seventeen Magazine and Glamour Magazine.  We especially loved the “How to do Anything Better Guide” in Glamour Magazine. Elliott became a walking “How to do Anything Better Guide” — the queen of self-improvement–because she knew life could be better.  She could be better.  We could be better.  She read countless self-help books—each one ‘life changing.’  Elliott was brilliant.  

I was six and she was three and we felt like peers.  When she was three and said to me, “I would say you were stupid, but Mommy says you are getting an inferiority complex.  I went out and asked my mother what an “inferiority complex was.  She responded with, “Katherine Elliott Hopkins come here right now!”  I still didn’t know what an ‘inferiority complex’ was, but I knew I was at risk.  

Yes, she was brilliant.  She was creative.  And she was highly sensitive:  The perfect storm for addiction.  Addiction provided the backdrop for a duel between joy and torment that lasted for years and took her away from us for a long time.  Ultimately Joy won.  And the Queen of Self-Improvement found the ultimate self-improvement program: Alcoholics Anonymous.  

For Elliott the “Anonymous” was very important… but really only when it came to other people.  For Elliott, Authenticity trumped Anonymity.   In AA she found release and recovery; she reclaimed her life and family. And eventually she also found true love.  In an AA meeting at the United States Capitol, Elliott met Bruno Joachim, the love of her life. “Are you sure?” I asked.  “Are you sure AA is the place you want to meet someone?”  There was no question.  He was the one. She fell in love with the man and then fell in love with his four children: Kathryn, Alex, Curtis, and Max. . She never wavered in this love, which grew to include Anna, Curtis’ wife and Ollie, Kathryn’s fiancée… and the mother of his children, Kathy Ahearn.

And then Elliott met her second great love: Mexico. Ground zero for magical realism.  A perfect fit.  She and Bruno went there for a vacation and bought a house.  They never looked back.   Mexico was Elliott’s victory lap.  A good long victory lap.  Love in slow motion for a place, a people, and a community.  She lived well and she loved well.  She gave well.  The regional head of Cruz Rojas (the Red Cross in Mexico and her favorite charity) said that her philosophy had benefited so many: “Have fun. Do good. Raise Money for others.”  She loved her life and she loved her family and she loved her friends.  Mexico was the final destination in a circuitous search for home.  Having grown up around the world, home had been a nomadic notion of the heart.  Home was family…. But finally, in Mexico, home found a place.

When Elliott was diagnosed it was horrifying.  She was a quick wit with a silver tongue, and her voice harmonized with her powers of keen observation.  That silver tongue and distinctive voice were compromised by her illness.  But she kept on living.  And she kept on loving.  She gave recovery every chance, even though every chance made life harder. She stayed charged with the possibilities that life holds. She helped us hope because hope helped us.  She helped us hope even when her hope was rapidly diminishing—not because she was losing her ability to hope, but as a realist she knew she was losing her life.  We scanned the horizon for the miracles we wanted.  Elliott just scanned the horizon for miracles.  And I can tell you that she found them every day of her life.  We had one name for miracle: “cure.”  She had so many names for miracles and she counted the names of her family and friends—your names– among them.  We wanted faith that would move mountains and end this; she wanted faith that would sustain her through the end.  And that is the kind of faith my sister had.   Together we learned that faith is not controlling the outcome; it is living fully in the face of the outcome.

My sister lost her life to cancer, but she did not lose her battle.   Facing this mighty foe, and fighting valiantly, she sharpened her focus and her faith.  She said to me once, “We are all terminal; most of don’t know what it is that is going to get us, but I do.”  There was nothing defeatist about this.  There was something victorious. The fight was going to be worth it, no matter how it came out.  She lived her life out in the world as much as she could. A day out meant days resting at home… and to Elliott it was totally worth it.
She died as she lived, with courage, grace, exquisite manners, and yes, with the charm that she learned from our mother.   As people talk about Elliott, one phrase comes up over and over:  Elliott lit up the room.  She did.  But she was lit from within and she learned how to tend and cultivate that holy fire.  To paraphrase the poet Steven Spender: “Born of the sun, she traveled a short while towards the sun, and she has left the vivid air signed with her love.”

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Learning Joy

I know that a lot of learning takes place in Room 204; the children learn from me and I learn from them. These twenty-five students are twenty-five teachers. We teach each other and, as a result, I live a life of perpetual learning that is infused with joy. I don’t have a choice over the learning—life itself is an insistent teacher—but I do have a choice about seeing and experiencing  joy. One the most important lessons I will ever teach my students is a joyful life is a choice. Joy can’t be mandated, but it can be cultivated.

The joyful classroom is not a “happy all the time” classroom, any more than a joyful teacher is a “happy all the time” person.  Joy is not a switch that can be thrown or a smile plastered on a face. Joyful learning is not formulaic in the sense that one size fits all. But as an intentional practitioner,  I have learned that there are some patterns in the joyful classroom (and life).

  1. Joy is about keeping it real when life hurts. Joy isn’t about smiling through the tears. It is an insistent reminder that our tears are not the whole story. Feelings are not right or wrong and it helps to name them and have them acknowledged. Sadness is real, but it isn’t the last word. The fog lifts. The sun breaks through. In life’s hardest moments, love and laughter knock at the door as life’s unexpected guests. It is okay to let them in—even in the midst of complex feelings and circumstances.
  1. Joy is a about keeping our eyes open to life’s small celebrations. I use a book by Byrd Baylor in my classroom called I am in Charge of Celebrations. I love this book and its simple, but radical message. We are in charge of our own celebrations. How do you tell when a moment is worth a celebration? This book has the answer: “You can tell what’s worth a celebration because your heart will pound and you’ll feel like you’re standing on top of a mountain and you’ll catch your breath like you were breathing some kind of new air.” In Room 204 we learn to cultivate these moments and celebrate them in our writers notebooks. We mark the moments that are surprising and the moments that are beautiful and the moments that are just plain fun.
  1. Joy is about saying yes: We say yes to the risk of learning something new. Yes to new friendships. Yes to possibility. Yes to reaching out to someone. Yes to hope. Yes to stepping up to a challenge and stepping forward when others may pull back. Yes.
  1. Joy is about honoring the inter-connectedness of life. Every morning we sit in a circle and greet each other. We connect. As we study the protagonists in literature, we find that we connect to them and to each other. Patterns in math and science sift into patterns in our own lives. Over time we find that the dots are already connected and they connect us.
  1. Joy is about wonder. Or, more accurately, joy consorts with wonder. Mary Oliver tells us to “pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it.” There is no better place to be astonished than in nature. Every Wednesday morning, we go outside for “Outside Science.” We pay attention. We breathe. We connect. We are astonished. Nature is the loveliest of teachers and she teaches us to look.

Finally, joy is knowing we are each a star on our own map, but we are not the center of the universe. We are the hero of our journey, but we have a place in the bigger story of life. Joy is not folly, but taps into a deeper truth. Joy works best in the present tense–joy is in the acceptance and celebration of now. How do we teach and learn joy? We live it.

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