“writing assignments for bad kids…”

Hmmm.  Well, that’s what showed up on my wordpress dashboard yesterday as the search terms that led someone to my site: “writing assignments for bad kids.”  Nothing like promoting the idea that English is torture. 🙂  Give ’em some grammar exercises, too, why don’t ya?!

I have a student this semester who is so far beyond being a bad student that he is a caricature, a cartoon.  Yet, I’m not sure for all that I’d call him a bad kid.  Compulsive liar?  Sure.  Morally repugnant?  That’s a given.  Passive aggressive?  Duh, of course.

But I hadn’t stopped to think maybe he’s just bad to the bone.  I was more thinking that his lack of any sense of personal responsibility for his own learning has led him to get absolutely nothing out of college.  And his lack of work, any writing really of note, is what led to the F on his midterm that I just passed back.

I tend to find that the worst students are the ones who are NOT writing, not doing their work.  So my answer to the person who queried about “writing assignments for bad kids” is to say the problem is not in the assignment but in the student’s work ethic or attitude or study skills, etc.  “Bad kids” or “good” — they all need to write.  Motivating a kid to write, well, if you figure out the answer to that, I’d like to know!  I already discovered long ago that grades rarely motivate struggling students.

On bravery

BRAVE (adjective):  “having or showing courage, especially when facing difficulty, danger, or pain”

Bubby is a brave boy. I need to remember that and not worry so much.

I admit that the fact that he still cries easily at eleven years old and is very sensitive emotionally sometimes makes me worry that he is wimpy.  I shudder to think of where I got this highly gendered notion of appropriate behavior.  I guess for all my feminism, I am, after all, still a product of my time and place.  I try hard not to let that influence too much how I respond to my son.

But the thing is…he is really so incredibly brave. He feels a lot.  He gets anxious and worries too much, and he can really exercise that imagination of his to come up with all sorts of potential disasters.  But time and again he’s shown himself to be stunningly brave.

For example, last night. He lost his first molar.  Big deal, right?  Well, when was the last time YOU lost a tooth?  It hurts, and when you’re eleven and a sensitive kinda kid, it’s a little scary, too.

“I think something’s WRONG, Mom.  This isn’t normal.”  He went on to describe the perfectly normal sensations of losing a stubbord molar that is half out and half in, digging into the tender flesh of the gum line.

He had tried several approaches to getting it out, but nothing had worked.  Finally, I said to pull it down as far as you can and then twist it.  He repeated the instructions aloud, and then he just reached in his mouth and did it.  I watched him closely as he began to twist the tooth and his face became distorted with pain. He kept twisting and then SNAP it was out.

Nobody likes to see her kid writhing in anguish.  But I tell ya, it was an amazing thing to me to observe him push right through it, tears in his eyes, pale skin but not letting go.  Where did he get that strength?  How can he be so brave when he is so fearful?

I admire his pluck.

Why my son is sad… :-)

“I’m sad, Mommy.” (Yes, he still calls me mommy though he has now turned eleven.  For a while he wanted to change to mom and I said fine, but it was too hard for him to make the shift, I guess.)

“I’m sad, Mommy. I’m going to have to wear glasses and have braces and… be BALD!”

Sweet little guy.  “Not all at the same time, honey.”  Yeh, like that helped.

Bubby is myopic, it turns out.  We bought his glasses on Tuesday night and will pick them up Friday after school.  It will be an adjustment.  They are nice glasses, dark blue rims with open bottom, Ray Bans, featherweight lenses.  But it will be strange to see him with glasses on all the time.  I suppose we will all get used to it.

The braces, well that’s not until next year, says the orthodontist.  Have to correct an overbite.  No big deal.  He has told me that he wants orange braces.  Hmmm.  That sounds pretty gross.  And it’ll clash with the blue glasses, won’t it?

As for the baldness, we were chatting along one day and me an my big mouth — I mentioned that baldness is actually passed down through the mother’s father.  My dad hasn’t had much hair since he was…hmmm…when did he start losing it, exactly.  Ah, well, bald is beautiful.

My son has the loveliest face and beautiful blue eyes, and he is tall and strong and has a killer smile.  I know he has nothing to worry about.  But he has become a tweener and suddenly these things matter. On the other hand…

Yesterday he told me he was “really excited” about getting his glasses.  He’s sure a trooper!

Remembering why I teach…

Because students like B. come to my office and are confused when they sit down and shakin their heads and looking at the floor. And when they leave, they high-five me. Seriously. High-five.

Because students like M. write an essay about how their mom was just diagnosed with lung cancer and they are terrified of losing a loved one, and I can write back how sorry I am and make them feel as if college is not some impersonal place where nobody cares.

Because when students like C. whose cell phone went off in class for the SECOND time in five weeks now has to bring me chocolate as payment for disrupting class, and I get to come off as the funny professor for at least half a second instead of the mean lady who is always making us work so hard.

Because when students like S. act like idiots I can rise to the challenge of how to reach this immature young person who has no clue about appropriate behavior and maybe I’ll get through to her and one day people will actually begin to like her.

Because students like L have figured out where to put the comma because I showed him how the rule actually makes sense. Yes, punctuation, usually, makes sense!

Because of students like C. who asks me what I’m teaching next semester so she can take another class from me.

YES. That’s why I teach. Well, and it pays the bills, too. 🙂

When I had cancer…

When I had skin cancer, I thought a lot about what would happen to my family if I died. I also thought a lot about what I would change immediately about the way I was living my life. How would my teaching alter? Would I even be able to continue teaching? What would I tell my students or would I even tell them? Would I finish those scrapbooks of my son’s last eight years that I keep meaning to get to…just in case? How would I complete Grandma’s book?

I had gone in for my annual skin check at the dermatologist and asked about a suspicious mole on my back. It was irregularly shaped and was two-tone. Uh oh. So when the doctor asked if I wanted her to take a biopsy, I jumped in with a resounding YES. Then I pretty much forgot about the whole thing. I had other matters to attend to.

A week passed and then I was supposed to call to get the results. But the nurse refused to speak to me about it, and in a grave voice said she would have to have the doctor call me back. So for two hours I panicked, thinking, oh, great, now I have cancer.

The nurse called back, not the doctor, and said the doctor told her, “There’s no cancer, nothing abnormal. The cells were absolutely clear.”

Wow! That night at dinner when my family did our little ritual thing we do every night now where we each share three things for which we are grateful, I kept saying I’m grateful I don’t have cancer. 🙂 Then…

The next day I got a call from my regular doctor’s nurse about my recent mammogram. She said, “Well, the technician said that it was ‘questionable’ but that there appears to be an emerging mass on your left breast.”

Stunned silence. Oh, shit! That’s what I get for gleefully reveling in the no skin cancer diagnosis. Now I have something worse.

“We’ve made your follow-up mammogram appointment for September 11th, and they’ll also do an ultrasound to investigate further.”

“Yeh, okay, 9-11. But you said they said it was ‘questionable,’ right?”

So then I waited for two weeks further before my appointment. Mostly I was able to move on with my life, but the sobering realization that this time there really could be something wrong made it hard to dismiss the whole thing out of hand. Once more I went through all of the questioning and reevaluating, which made the start of this school year just about the most bizarre ever.

My cousin reminded me, “Nothing’s happened yet. Try to remember that.” And mostly I did. Then the day of the mammogram re-do came and with it all the gloom of remembrance for the great tragedy on that day in 2001. I was fine until the technician had to re-do one of the pictures she just did. Then I lost it.

At first I couldn’t speak as the tears flowed. Then I squeeked out, “Usually these things are nothing…right?”

She handed me some Kleenex, ignored my question and instead replied, “Everyone feels this way. Whether they show it or not, everyone feels this way. It’s perfectly normal.” She took the re-do of the re-do and then showed me where the bathroom was so I could calm down privately.

I sat back down in the waiting room, trying to grade some student’s essay. I have to get my mind off of this…. Then the radiologist came out and told me that there was something, indeed, on the mammo and that she was going to take me over to ultrasound right now. “They will determine what it is and you should get the news today. Nine times out of ten, these things turn out to be nothing serious.”

Waiting in the ultrasound area, I was too stunned to cry anymore. I had convinced myself — at least it was my party line — that the original pictures were just flawed and that there was nothing at all to see in my left breast. But now there was confirmation that something WAS there. I felt a sense of dread mounting.

By the time I was stretched out on the ultrasound table in a very dark and very large room, I was crying again. Then the ultrasound technician, whose cheerfulness I will never forget and for which I was immensely grateful (for, who would be so cheerful if the patient in front of them had cancer, right — so it must be good news!), chirped, “Oh, that’s a cist. Don’t worry!” She took a few more pictures and added, “The radiologist will come in and say the same thing in a minute. I’ll go get her.”

When she arrived after a long while (where WAS she that it took that long to come and confirm that I will live to see another day?), she took a quick look and said, “Clear cyst.” But I wanted to know HOW she knew that and how SURE she was. I was not content after all I had been through to sail on blithely through this experience as if nothing had happened. I had cancer, damn it. If I NOW did NOT have cancer, the story had to be as convincing as when I DID have it.

So the stately radiologist lady explained all about ultrasound technology and the way that tumors (solid masses) block the ultrasound waves from penetrating and thus can’t imagine the breast underneath, but how with clear cysts the waves pass through and show the breast tissue on the other side. She showed the cyst on the screen, my cyst. And there was the breast tissue on the other side. Okay. I bought her story.

This little blip on the screen looked huge, by the way, but it was only .83 centimeters. I had not even caught it on a self-exam. But the diligent technicians did. And I am grateful for their caution and care.

I have a big imagination. It’s generally a good thing. Sometimes, though, not so much. Yes, of course, I did not ever really have cancer, thank goodness. But in my mind, I did. I really did. And the experience — just a tiny taste of a much more shattering reality for so many others, I’m sure — did make me stop and think, once more, about what matters, about my priorities.

A sobering reminder not to take any second of this precious life for granted.

…and to get regular mammograms and complete regular breast self-exams.

P.S. I asked for a picture of my cyst from the ultrasound machine so I could put it on my blog! They thought I was NUTS and were ultra concerned about my privacy — really freaked out, actually. But I assured them I would only put the picture itself up without any identifying info. But the printout I did manage to get from them was too dark to scan, so I’ll just have to leave it to your imagination. For the life of me, I can’t think of a good reason not to post about this experience, though the way those two women freaked out gave me pause and delayed my posting by a couple of weeks. Ultimately, though, I decided it was an important story to share. I want to remind women to get those mammograms and do those self-exams. It’s really important. And though it was a scary experience, nine times out of ten everything really is okay!

Back to School: Has it really been twenty years???

Yeh. It has. It’s been 20 years. I first stepped foot in a college classroom as an instructor in 1988, as a first-semester TA at California State University Sacramento, where I was studying for my MA in English. I didn’t actually throw up that day, but I almost did. Made it all the way to the bathroom but ran into a prof. there. Couldn’t let myself throw up in front of her. So I sucked it up and went back into the hall and continued to my room.

That was a crappy semester. (Yeh, I’ll bet you thought I was going to say it all got much better after that first day! Honestly, it was a very painful introduction o the profession. They ate me alive.)

Second semester teaching was a world apart. I was so much more relaxed and confident. Whew!

Here I am now after a year break from teaching, back in the classroom again. First class I felt like throwing up. Surprised myself! But I was feeling much more comfortable by class #2 and fully back in the swing of things by class #3.

So I’m off and running. NOT at all able to follow my proposed schedule yet, but it’s the first week and there are all sorts of “fires” to put out (like the bookstore ordering the wrong book for one of my classes — of course a book the students need to read for Monday’s assignment!) I’m NOT supposed to be blogging right now. Instead, I should be asleep. I’m going to go take care of that right now!

P.S. They put AC in the room where I teach…and a beautiful new AV system with LCD projector. They remodeled the whole floor of the building. I feel like I’ve come back to a different school!

On Gratitude…

I’ve read two unrelated articles in the last day that have really made me stop and think. I’ve been in mega self-improvement mode for the last year, and two weeks from tomorrow my sabbatical ends and I go back to teaching full time, so I’m trying to tie up some loose ends.

Looking back over the last year, I can see that I’ve made a lot of progress in several areas of family and personal life. There have been some lingering issues that are unresolved, of course, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how far I’ve/we’ve come:

1) My husband and I have a one-on-one meeting each Sunday to discuss any relationship or personal issues and devote some time to maintaining the health of our marriage.

2) On Saturday mornings, the three of us (me, hubster, and son) hold a family meeting to give each of us, and especially our son, a chance to air concerns or make requests. We also use that time to go over our week’s schedule.

3) I lost twenty-five pounds and have kept it off for months now. I have finally recognized that I have a weight problem whether I am currently overweight or not. So I need to be vigilant and keep my physical health front and center. Stress eating is most likely to occur if I do not take time to plan and cook decent food. So I absolutely must make time for planning and preparing. So far, so good. But I continue to go to weight Watchers each month and weigh in and attend a meeting.

4) I started reading again. Not for my job. I read as an English Professor a lot. But I mean reading for pleasure and for enlightenment. I started a book club at my church, killing the proverbial two birds with one stone by forming this club within our “Women’s Group.” There was such a women’s group at our church in the past, but right now our book group is it. The best things about doing the book group this year are getting to read and discuss some terrific books and getting to know these awesome women. I’ve never belonged to a book group before. I highly recommend it!

5) I am exercising more. Okay, not as much as I’d like to or need to, but more than before. And I’m okay with that. It’s improvement. I’ve added regular walking into my fall schedule (along with time to plan, prep food, and read), so I am sure to have the time to exercise if I merely stick to the plan.

6) I have become a writer. Early on in this blog I wondered if I were a “real” writer if I did not write every day. The funny thing is that the more I wrote on this blog, the more I felt like a real writer. The more I wrote, the more I thought of my life in terms of what I would write about it. I love writing now as never before. I’m not sure how I’ll fit blogging into my schedule this fall. But I’m going to try to find a way because it keeps me thinking in terms of words on the page and helps me produce raw material. I have not scheduled time in my week this fall for blogging, but I have, however, scheduled in time for my creative writing. I’ve NEVER done that before. When school started, I used to stop all creative or scholarly writing. I’m not willing to do that anymore.

7) Most recently I’ve also gone a long way toward helping my family to reduce its ecological footprint in terms of food consumption. We had already joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm a couple of years ago. We enjoy getting a share of fresh veggies direct from the farm each week of the growing season. Now I’ve also signed us up for a pasture-raised meat CSA and a fruit CSA. I also just discovered that not five miles from us there is a local dairy (with organic cows) that delivers milk in those old-fashioned glass milk bottles! I still haven’t figured out a good source for other food products like grains, but I’m getting there. It feels SO good NOT to feel guilty about contributing to global warming by eating non-local, highly processed and over-packaged food. We’re not yet where I want us to be, but much improvement on this front!

Now, back to some things left unfixed and the two articles I read.

A lot is unfixed. Such is life. But one thing that I have noticed this year and that really bothers me is a certain bitterness I have been feeling about some things that have happened to me and to loved ones in the last few years. I have also, the more I learn about the state of the world, become more anxious about our planet’s future than I ever have been before. I have been working hard this year to try to find a way to let go of the rancor and fear and to embrace a sense of peace. I am naturally optimistic and positive, but I’ve become less so in recent years. This sabbatical year I have been looking for a way to regain my healthier outlook on life, to restore balance.

So, anyway, yesterday I read this article in the Sept. 2008 issue of Body and Soul magazine: “Thank-You Therapy” by Terri Trespicio. The title may sound like it’s a trite essay, but it contained the right info to help me. Here’s what I learned:

(a) A study showed that people who wrote five things for which they were grateful each week in a journal felt better about their lives than people who kept track of their problems or just kept a record of events. The gratitude group also was healthier physically and, get this, spent more time exercising — up to 80 minutes more a week! Further, people who kept a daily gratitude journal for two weeks were more likely to “offer emotional support and help to others” than those keeping the other journals.

(b) A study showed that the earlier truism that people have a set point for happiness (a predetermined level of happiness that pretty much stays the same over the long term regardless of circumstances) is not exactly true. In fact, they found that about half of a person’s happiness comes from genetics (their set point) and 10% from circumstances, but a full 40% comes from “intentional activity,” our habits, essentially. The author makes the point that you can actually “bump up your happiness set point” if you commit to a regular practice of gratitude. Gratitude can be learned. We get better at it if we practice it. Hmmm.

(c) The article gives a lot of examples of how to practice gratitude. Here are some of the ones I most liked: “enjoy a mindful meal,” reflecting with gratitude on the people who helped bring that food to your table; “start a gratitude wall” by writing things for which you’re grateful on stickie notes and putting them on a wall (I’m thinking of doing this on my office window); “pay a thank you visit” to someone you appreciate ; “flip your complaints” (i.e., every time you complain stop and think of something for which you are grateful); “set an alarm” to go off during the day and when it does, stop what you are doing and focus on something for which you are grateful; “count blessings, not sheep” before bed; for five minutes write “a bliss list” of as many things that you can remember for which you are grateful and keep the list in your purse or pocket to look at when you are waiting in lines.

The other article appeared in the UU World in Spring 2007, but I just got around to reading it this morning: “The Heart of Our Faith: Gratitude Should Be the Center of Unitarian Universalist Theology” by Galen Guengerich. This article clinched the whole gratitude thing for me, providing another reason for cultivating gratitude in my own and our family life. Here’s an excerpt that hits at the heart of gratitude as a religious principle:

… A sense of awe and a sense of obligation, religion’s basic impulses, are both experiences of transcendence, of being part of something much larger than ourselves.

The feeling of awe emerges from experiences of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine. We happen upon a sense of inexpressible exhilaration at being alive and a sense of utter dependence upon sources of being beyond ourselves. This sense of awe and dependence should engender in us a discipline of gratitude, which constantly acknowledges that our present experience depends upon the sources that make it possible. The feeling of obligation lays claim to us when we sense our duty to the larger life we share. As we glimpse our dependence upon other people and things, we also glimpse our duty to them. This sense of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude, which takes our experience of transcendence in the present and works for a future in which all relationships—among humans, as well as between humans and the physical world—are fair, constructive, and beautiful.

Gratitude. Yup. That’ll work, I think. When one is filled with gratitude, there is no room for bitterness. When one is deliberately grateful, one turns away from fear. When one feels ones extreme good fortune, one works willingly and gladly for the good of others. When one is thankful, one is FULL of thanks, not rancor or fear. Not that I am FULL of rancor and fear, but I’d rather squeeze out those emotions and make room for thanks.

Now, I’ve got two weeks before school starts to try to get a habit of gratefulness started!