10 Tips at the School Year’s Start

schoolroomI guess we’re ALL back to school now, so how about this: How about we pretend I’m the teacher seated on one of those pint-size elementary school chairs and you guys are on the floor in front of me. Pretend we’re sitting in a sunny classroom where dust motes from the chalk lazily circle. Pretend everyone’s tummy is nicely full and we’re thus all feeling peaceful enough to take in some words of advice.

In that hope, I offer the following:

One, sit up front, whether your classroom is a literal or a figurative one, and let yourself be known, by both your teachers and your fellow students.

Two, if the teacher writes something on the board and you’re at an age where note-taking is the norm, then copy when s/he has said in your own notebook, even if it’s just a few word. If your teachers are going to the trouble of setting down something large and neat enough to be read from 30 feet away, then you should go to a little trouble too.

Three, make sure you actually LOOK AT this notebook after class. Even just glancing at what your teachers said and what you heard and copied down will help you begin knitting things together in your mind. I know someone who, for the Con-Law class she took in college, copied out all 27 Amendments to the Constitution and taped them at eye level around her dorm room, then read them twice a day as she brushed and brushed her waist-length hair. Does that sound old-fashioned? Maybe, but who can sniff at the reward of  a Magna Cum Laude served up with a side of Phi Beta Kappa? I can tell you the effort felt worth it to her!

Four, don’t wait ‘til the last minute to write that term paper, composition or Compare-and-Contrast paragraph. Doing so will cause you to become unduly fond of what you have finally managed to get down on paper, just because it IS down on paper, and falling in love with your first draft is like growing fond of your shortcomings. If we are very lucky in life, the people who love us will grow fond even of our shortcomings over time, but that’s for them to do, not us.  Waiting until the last minute will also cause you to panic and freeze as the deadline approaches, leading you to decide not to complete the assignment at all and take the F.

Five, never give up and take F. Making the effort in life counts way more than you can imagine at this stage of things.

Six, stay strong, as the saying goes. Remember who you are. Be mindful of the dignity of your family and of their struggles, and the dreams that have been dreamed for you.

Seven, about ganging up on others, even “in fun”: Do not participate in such behaviors, ever.

Eight, Don’t engage in gossip, or listen to gossip. Ugly speculation about others harms everyone. It withers the soul.

Nine, since sexual gossip is even worse, there is corollary: Do not speculate about what other people may or may have done or be doing in the sexual realm. If there was ever a topic that was none of your business this is it.

And finally, Ten, never laugh when someone asks a question.  We’re here to ask questions, the little questions and especially the big ones. So ask away and think hard with your well-rested post-summer minds. Then come back and teach the rest of us what you’ve learned.


A Miracle All Right

the miracle workerYou go to school to learn, of course, but how much learning takes place outside school? A lot, that’s how much. Only think of all you have learned outside the classroom.

Think how you struggled to turn the idioms of that new language you were taking in school. What on earth did the French phrase ‘to sleep on both ears’ mean? It took a while to understand that it meant to sleep soundly.

Think of the time you first tied your own shoes. Maybe you were four or five and sitting on your back steps, working away at the wobbly loops of those laces until, almost on their own, they executed a sort of pirouette and resolved into: a bow!

Remember the moment in William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker when young Helen Keller finally understands that there’s a relation between what is spilling over the palm of one of her hands from the pump and the movements being drummed into the palm of her other hand? When she ‘sees’ at last that one signifies the other? That this lovely cool stuff has a name, and the name is water?

Helen Keller speculates in her autobiography that she made the connection in part because, as she learned much later, ‘water ‘ had been one of her first words at age one, just before a sudden illness robbed her of sight and hearing both. But in large part too it was the tireless repetition of the signs worked into her hand by her dedicated teacher Annie Sullivan.

We learn language through repletion, by big people leaning down toward us like gods from their tall high world, cooing the words we will soon enough speak: ‘Baby.’  ‘Mamma.’  ‘Blankie.’

We learn so much through repetition: The multiplication table. The names of the state capitals. The principles that together build the precisely balanced scales that is mathematics.

But other things we learn in other ways. We learn both by sudden insight, and by a slow sort of dawning.

Take insight. Take the first time you really understood that poem you had to analyze for English class. You went along reading the thing, often distracted rather than helped by its rhythms, your eyes scanning along until – bang! you slammed into a word you did not expect. You thought ‘huh’?  Then ‘ahhhh’! Because suddenly the poem’s tight little bud of inscrutability had opened like a flower, revealing fold after fold of meaning, layer after layer of beauty.

Then take slow dawning, the things you learn by degrees:

  • As in the way you come slowly to realize that when you dislike someone almost on sight it is because of something you see, or think you see, in that person that reminds you of a part of yourself you have split off from or tried to deny.
  • As in the way you come slowly to see that not hate, but a willed indifference is the opposite of love.
  • As in the way you slowly recognize that love is not a feeling at all, despite what all the songs say. It’s more a decision, love is. When I think of the people I love it’s as if I am saying to them with every thought and deed, “I’m for you, kid. I am in your corner.”

Why live at all if not to learn? What would separate us from a pot of plastic daisies were we to stop even trying?

I get so excited when the school year starts. We still have so much more to understand!

Now, under this picture of the real Helen Keller and her teacher, is the ‘water scene’ from that great 1962 film.

annie sullivan & helen keller

The Sky is Falling

IMG_2013It was a full year ago when this place on my kitchen ceiling began billowing downward, but in such a tiny way I thought I was dreaming it. Then one day a circle some 20 inches in diameter ceiling had visibly swelled down to occupy more and more of the air-space above the kitchen table.

“Hmmm,” I thought. I looked over at the wall, mentally measuring the distance between it and this strange growth of plaster. I went upstairs and stood in the spot I judged to be directly above it. Sure enough. I was standing by the shower just off our bedroom. 

I walked over to the bed I share with my One and Only, still snoozing away at 8 in the morning. “The kitchen ceiling has a tumor,” I said to him.

“What?” he said, coming slowly awake.

“Well it LOOKS like a tumor, or maybe a breast. Kind of an androgynous breast, but still….”

He got up with a sigh and let me lead him into the bathroom. “I think the shower might be leaking,” I said.

“Nah” he said. “Somebody just left a cup of water on the lip of the bathtub once and it spilled and seeped through the floorboards.”

“Somebody who?”

“I don’t know, one of the cats.”

One of the cats? Our last cat died in 2010!”

“Somebody,” he repeated. ‘You,” I knew he was thinking, but it couldn’t have been MY fault. How could it be MY fault when the only things I ever leave on the lip of the tub are back issues of old New Yorker magazines that then fall into the water and become a kind of pulpy baklava.

“Let’s wait and see,” he went on, because that’s his answer to most things. I’m having the phrase chiseled onto my tombstone once I’ve finally choked to death on that last bite of healthy kale.

And so we waited.

And so we saw.

And the tumor grew as the ceiling lowered, then lowered more – until finally I was allowed to call the fix-it men who came and sawed a big square hole in the kitchen ceiling so that now you can look right up into the bathroom while you’re eating your meals.

With the ceiling laid open like that, the boss fix-it man made his diagnosis:

“It’s the pan,”  he said somberly. “Your shower pan has failed.”

So the following Monday in came the pick-axes. Out went half a ton of tile and concrete so thoroughly busted apart that every picture on the walls went crooked from the pounding.

“Two more weeks and you’re set,” the boss fix-it man said. “In the meantime, take all the baths you want. Nothin’ wrong with your bathtub!”

cAnd so we’re doing our best to muddle through, me with my baths and my soggy magazines.

It’s true that there are pieces of the shower stall all over our bedroom. True too that just this morning a fresh fall of water began dropping like the gentle rain from Heaven once again on the kitchen table, only this time from the tub and not the shower.

But at least the tumor is gone – and as I eat my daily tangle of kale I look up and think to myself Hey but really: what’s nicer than a room with a view?

The Ones Who Hurt Kids More Than Help

Let’s talk about teaching then. Let’s talk about my kindergarten teacher Miss Keller as I’ll call her, who looked like Woodrow Wilson and was forever calling to us children   “Attention, children! Children!” in her fluty Brahman voice.

She was nice enough I guess– except to our classmate Francis Christmas. whom she punished.

Francis was one of only two Black children in the class.

I fervently hope that was not why she singled him out but he was forever being punished. Once she forced him to stay behind the piano, trapped by it bulk in one sealed-off corner of the classroom, while the rest of sang our songs about bluebirds and apples. All the while, he had to stay back there in his isolation.

I remember him yodeling away, singing his own songs, in what I see now might have been  a cheerful effort to keep his spirits up.

He wasn’t afraid of her I don’t think, even though she also brought him to the cloak room sometimes and secluded him there. I remember seeing him when we gathered there to suit up for Recess, his shirt collar suspended from one of the old brass hooks. She didn’t actually affix him to the hook, did she? Let me be remembering wrong!

And yet I have this visual still in my mind after all these years. Did he pretend to be hanging himself, again in some valiant pretend-jolly way that helped him save face?

I can’t say for sure that she did these things,  busy as I was trying to eat all the nice salty white glue I could get my hands on, those little dabs of the stuff that she passed out on little tabs of yellow paper when it was time for Art.

No, I can’t she ever made me feel afraid.

My feeling-afraid came later, as I said yesterday when we kids had to watch as our chums the boys were being paddled by our middle school teachers. The sound of the paddles whizzing through the air was bad enough, and the resounding slap when it hit the open hand that the boy was ordered to open wide and hold out. Worse yet: each boy’s effort to smile even as tears of pain sprang to his eyes.

The feeling-afraid came again to me again when we kids heard tales of our older cousin who began at this Catholic high school for boys where all the teachers were monks. The he lived in fear of was Brother James, let’s call him, who when he caught one boy searching inside his desk when he shouldn’t have been, took its wooden lid , opened it as wide as he could and slammed it down hard on the child’s head. My cousin told his parents about this and the news percolated down to us younger kids. He left the school shortly after.

Dark thought indeed.

A reader named Jacqueline said in a comment on my school-related post from yesterday that “if we are to learn then we need to be inspired, not shamed.”  True words, Jacqueline-from-Scotland and very well stated!

Tomorrow, some more positive tales I hope

Learn Something

A weird thing, fear: it’s what we knew as children, alone in our beds, terrified that the monster beneath would jump out and eat us up. It’s what we courted as older kids, on roller coasters and in speeding cars, or at scary or violent movies.  Even as adults, fear made us feel more fully ‘alive’ in a way we didn’t often feel in our safe American lives.

We love this manufactured fear, the way it keeps real fear at bay, but tell ya what: It does nothing for sadness, in whose dark kingdom we seem to have been dwelling for this whole last decade.

There’s a great passage in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a coming-of-age story of the legendary King Arthur, once an ordinary boy called Wart. That Wart is the rightful heir to the throne of England nobody knows, except the wise old wizard Merlin, who appears one day, with his pointy hat and his moon-and-stars cloak, to walk him toward adulthood.

Later in the story, he comes upon his young charge in a state of sadness and tells him this:

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then: to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting… 

Me I’d like to learn  Italian, like my friend Bobbie is doing. Or Physics, since I somehow missed Physics in high school.  Or maybe embroidery which I haven’t done since I tried stitching my 5th grade teacher’s initials onto a pretty handkerchief for her and ended up sewing them tightly to the lap of my skirt. 

But I love the idea that learning focuses you outward – not inward toward your own small self, but outward, toward the intricate beauty of this world, and all those other worlds beyond it.

How many were there did Carl Sagan used to say?  “Billions?” We made fun of him but he was a cool guy who died too young and Cosmos was a really wonderful show. Remember it?