Monday, November 28, 2011

Weighing In

I spent Thanksgiving in Tulsa this year.  I usually spend the week before Thanksgiving counting all of the things I am grateful for.  It really does take a week since I am very, very lucky and blessed.  Grey's family invited me over for dinner at their house and the day after Thanksgiving was spent at Patricia and Carter's. I was most excited because it's our first major holiday and I just knew it was going to be eventful.  I was right.

Grey's family was just lovely.  There were grown ups and kids running around and his brother surprised everyone by coming in from Atlanta unexpectedly for the holiday.  I made chocolate chip cookies, which turned out very well and earned the seal of approval from the nieces.  The youngest niece ate the most.  His Grandma was there too, which made me miss my grandma a bit.  I know it's been since March, but I did not take time to mourn and the pain is still fresh. Grey's Grandma said I was pretty and asked if I liked to cook.  Someone remarked that they thought it brave of me to just come to a family gathering and say hello.  It was not much of a risk, really.  Grey is a wonderful and kind person and he told me that his family is also wonderful and kind.  Doesn't sound much like razor wire and backstabbing to me.  The most traumatic event was getting slobbered on a bit by the resident shih tzu, who wanted me to play, play, play.  Yeah, pretty nice time.  We ate too much food and went home.

We Ate How Much?! 
And then the next day...

We showed up at Patricia's at noon.  I tried a new pumpkin fondue recipe which called for kirsch.  That's some sort of cherry brandy and the cherry brandy I bought turned out to be far too strong.  So the fondue was a bust.  But that's ok.  I hopped in the kitchen with Patricia and Grey did table preparations.  For about an hour and a half we did our thing and I helped her whip up a hell of a meal.  One of the 12 people is allergic to everything under the sun except for water and some sort of South California raisin.  Another is gluten intolerant and a third is just very picky.  Patricia did research and planned out a meal that everyone would be able to eat and also enjoy.  I do love cooking with her.  This is an art sadly being lost in the United States, where people cook together and prepare communal meals.  For women especially in the culture where I grew up, this is how we bond.  We kick the men out and talk and work and laugh and gossip.  It's good for my soul.  Perhaps this shows my age, but I pity a generation of women who do not know how to talk to each other face to face.  But with help from Grey and Carter, we fed everyone who showed up.  I think it was closer to 14 guests.

So we all sat down to eat.  Grey does not feel brave.  He has met the Hargraves before and he is not a shy person.  This would be the opposite of such an introvert as me.  It took me several years just to coax me to have dinner with them after karate practice.  And at the head of the table, Carter is making jokes about me because I'm full and it's about three bites into the dinner.  That's the other thing: cooks never starve.  So I threw my knife at him.  Everyone knows that Carter and I fight. It's what we do. I wasn't going to hit him with it. It was plastic. It landed near the three year old so Grey took my knife away.  I sort of smirked at that; there are at least 5 other knives much sharper than that one in the room where we were eating.  But alright.  And he thought I was being brave by going to his family's dinner...

Later I was washing up dishes and heard a call from outside.  The corg's were going at it with each other.  Welsh Corgi's are territorial.  If a new person comes along, each would claim that person as their own and these two always believe that the best way to settle disagreements is by biting the ever-loving shit out out of each other.  It was a duel to the death because of the guests did not know this. She took the three year old to the back yard to entertain him. I all but tossed the kid over the fence and set about separating the fang-locked lovers.  Carter ended up having to grab one and I grabbed the other and we pulled in opposite directions.

There was a clear winner and loser in all of this.  Bella, the little one, was also the loser.  She was bleeding from several spots on her ears and a few on her neck.  She was visibly shaken and breathing hard.  We put the bigger one, Camilla, in her kennel while I cleaned up Bella. Ears bleed a lot.  I had Carter holding her so I could clean the wounds and she shook her head, spraying me and Carter in the face with bright red drops.  At some point, and for no apparent reason as this is how my friend shows his affection, Carter kicked Grey in the butt.  Not hard and with a silly smile on his face, but still I was mortified.  Now that I think about it, that is probably why he did it. To mortify me. Awesome.  But nothing seems to ruffle Grey much. So we ate too much food and went home. I think he was pretty brave and also pretty affable to suffer the slings and arrows (knives?) of my kinda people.

Sure there was exercise during the course of the five day weekend, but seriously, I consumed too many calories.  So this week is a weaning back to regular eating and lots of good exercise and fresh air before gearing up for the Christmas season, which will bring graduation, my sisters in town for their first visit in ten years and hopefully, a joyeux noel.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I've written about clothing before.  Truthfully, it fascinates me the way our clothing affects so many facets of our lives.  How we feel, how we act, what role we are playing at that particular moment; how others perceive us and how we think others perceive us.

On Thursday I dressed as professionally as I could. Black and neat, with my hair in a bun and my nerdy librarian glasses.  My department and I were meeting with the assistant superintendent for the school district.  I imagined I looked a little like Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter books.  She is, after all, the English professor of the magic world, with the ability to transform and to show others that way.  Loved, feared, respected and sometimes unexpected.  That's what I was going for, only without the stage makeup. I'm not saying that clothes make the man, but the meeting went well.  I feel as though we have won a battle in the curriculum war.  I offered her the instrument I created to gauge teacher's reactions to the AC curriculum and she seemed pretty excited.  She referred to the Pearson company as "the vendors" and assured me that in no way would I have to listen to them in accordance with classroom visits. Probably the best scenario I could hope for.

Friday I wore jeans- it is Jean Friday at our school and the students and teachers wear jeans and a school tee-shirt.  I am often mistaken for one of the kids on these days.  It cracks me up.  I zipped home after school and took Eleanor to the vet.  He never knows what to think of me.  Sometimes when I come in, I wear my professor clothes. Sometimes it's sweats and Friday, it was middle school togs.  And honestly, even if my vet were wearing a suit you would still guess his profession from his burly bearing, high crewcut and the giant scar across the face.  Yeah, he's got character.  And he always remembers me and my friggin' old cat.  I think he secretly wants to do a case study on her but doesn't like to write.

Friday I also went to my doctor.  Yeah, with 20 minutes to spare from closing time.  I am going to put this in polite euphemistic terms on purpose so as not to over-share or embarrass myself. I've been having girl problems for about three months and it's gotten worse.  As it turns out, the clinic didn't have the equipment to look properly under the hood, and I have a bad history, so he recommended that I go to the emergency room to make sure I wasn't dying, then to come back next week to order regular tests.

I don't like going to the doctor.  I don't like being sick. I intensely dislike hospitals and dislike even more when I'm the one who has to be poked or prodded or subjected to cold instruments and drugs.

A regular person might have gone straight to the emergency room, post haste, tout suite, no delays whatsoever.  Not me.  I went home. I called Grey- who was coming down anyway- and discussed the situation.  I did not want to go.  I didn't know what to wear, what costume to put on to give the right impression to medical personnel.  Frankly, I didn't have the right clothes. No scrubs, no latex gloves and nothing like a lab coat to lend me credibility in that venue.  Plus, I knew they were going to hit me with needles and ask me questions that my own mom doesn't ask.
"I'm leaving here in a few minutes. I can meet you at the hospital."
"Really? I don't want to go. Can't it wait until Monday?"
"You'll be freaking out about it all weekend if you don't do this."
"Sigh. Alright. But I'm taking a shower first."

And I did.  I put my hair up and took a long enough shower that I was only at the hospital for half hour before he showed up.  And when he walked in the room, I was ready with my costume: floral green/blue unbuttoned in the back hospital gown, clean ankle socks and a pretty argyle scarf around my neck to keep me warm.  The nice nurse provided me with a heated blanket so that I wouldn't get too cold.  Grey held my hand through all that fun stuff and said comforting things.  We made jokes and talked until the doctor came back in with test results.  He wore what he always wears; a pair of black jeans and a tee-shirt.  I found out that he owns four pairs of identical black jeans.  The khakis and collared shirts are for work. This man is exactly as he appears.  He is straight forward and says and does and wears what he means.  In all, it wasn't a bad date, given that I had an IV stuck in my arm the whole time.

The doctor said I wasn't going to die right away.  She didn't know what was wrong with me but she knew what wasn't wrong and that's just as important.  She gave me prescriptions for pain and sent us on our way with a stern admonition to see a gynecologist next week.  Fine. I will go. Glad I'm not dead yet.

For the weekend, I wore the costume I like best: sweats and a tee, with a cup of coffee and my nerd glasses so that I can be as comfy as possible and not worry about who I am impressing or how I will be perceived.  I know that some days I have to dress up.  I'm going to meet Grey's family for Thanksgiving and when and if I ever get an interview at a university, I will need to worry about wardrobe and hair and make up.  And Saturday, I picked up my gown, doctoral hood and tam at OU.  The mom waiting in line to pay for her child's sweatshirt and travel mug seemed very impressed and congratulated me.  That night, I watched my roommate and her niece get dressed to go dance at a powwow.  She took out a suitcase and said "I've got to put on my Indian clothes." And indeed, she looked beautiful and regular and very different than her "other" life as a librarian with her hipster glasses and layers of twinsets and knee boots.

I don't think these things we wear change us.  I mean, I'm 38- what more can you change at this stage of the game?  We wear specific clothes for mourning, for church and religious functions, for getting married and in many cultures, for coming of age.  Rather, I change clothes for a purpose and use the idea that other people perceive me based on my appearance to my advantage.  Costumes both mask and express who I am, shows aspects rather than defines and most of the time, playing dress-up is just plain fun.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

21st Century Women Revisited

I've often made the point to my students that revision is writing. I knew that when I posted my last blog, I'd need to add something. There was just some point I hadn't made, some note that didn't ring the right note. Hmm. So I talked to my editor about it and bounced some ideas off of him about what I'd written. Grey is my editor/boyfriend/collaborator/friend. He observed that I had written something about what did not qualify me a 21st Century woman, but not much on what it means to be one. How would I recognize other members of this tribe? What, if anything, did I think of as "woman's work"? To put it differently, is there anything a man might do that would make me feel as though he was infringing on my domain?

That made me think. I guess there isn't much. I think men who clean house are pretty sexy, and since if I'm ever going to live with a man in an egalitarian sense, he should probably do his fair share of cleaning. In the home, I do prefer to be the one who cooks breakfast most of the time, and the one who cleans the bathroom. I suspect, and perhaps someday science will fail to rebuff my theory, that men do not see dirt the way that women are able to do so. Women always love it when men do dishes and to tell the truth, I have one more dirty little secret: I hate dealing with finances. I would clean every toilet every week for eternity if I didn't have to worry about money and what we do and do not have. I care that if I want a new dress, I can just go get one. I care that I have reliable transportation and money for food and maybe something shiny once in awhile. That's it. Seriously, I couldn't give two shits about money unless I didn't have any. But I'm pretty sure that this is much more about laziness than it is about gender roles.

Likewise, I think my upbringing wasn't really so much about gender roles than it has been about necessity. Women and men both can hunt and fish and work like dogs on harvest crew. It's more likely to find men in jobs that require outside work or dangerous work, but it's still pretty common for women to be in those roles too. I have snowmobiled quite a bit, jumped off of cliffs, spoken to audiences of over 2,000 people and stepped into a prison to try to make a difference there. And yet, nothing about me is particularly manly.

Maybe the things about being a woman that I like best is the ability to slip into a nurturing role, a mom-type of role that offers comfort, guidance, support and help. I usually can tell when one of my kids is upset or hiding some emotion. They don't seem to mind speaking to me about personal issues or asking advice. I like being a care giver. I dislike that Grey is sick and hope he feels better. If he isn't better when I get home from Louisville (I'm here for a conference), then I will bring him some cold remedies and cluck over him like a chicken until he either passes out or pretends to feel better so that I will go away.

Speaking of conferences, I happened to end up in a workshop with the Assistant Superintendent of the school district where I teach. I stepped out to take a phone call, and in my absence, my assistant principal told her we were having difficulty implementing the America's Choice curriculum. When I returned she asked "What do you think of America's Choice"?

In my defense, I was far more polite than one might think. I strongly believe that as a for-profit company, Pearson does not have my student's best interests at heart. Their curriculum is for 1 hour classes and I have only 45 minute classes. Furthermore, this year none of the grade level teachers have ever seen or had training on the curriculum. We have since had a one-day workshop wherein there was a group grump session at the organizers. They suggested implementing adaptations tot he curriculum that the teachers in the district often were gotten in trouble for doing. In fact, the Pearson "coach" for my school threatened me several times by telling me that her report would go to the very woman who was standing before me, asking for my input. I almost quit over the unsupported mandates and the coach barging into my classroom, writing reports about me that I was not privy to, reports that did not cast me or my teaching practices in a positive light. This from a non-district book company. A corporation.

But I was polite and I was diplomatic. And at the end of our long discussion- I think it was productive- the Asst. Supt. decided to come visit my school in the next two weeks. I offered to create an instrument to help gauge district teacher's attitudes towards the curriculum and immediately went back to my hotel room to construct a survey. As I exited the workshop and overheard my assistant principal exhale loudly and say to his friend "Well, the Assistant Superintendent *did* ask. What was she expecting?"

This guardianship of my students, fighting for what I believe is their best interest, and being willing to speak my truth and not back down- this is what a woman does in the 21st century. I could get fired. My principal may get into some trouble and life could become more uncomfortable than what it is right now. It's a risk I am willing to take. And man or woman, you had best step aside when in that particular arena.

I am a 21st century woman; articulate, adventurous, athletic and sometimes brave. I am not good at mopping floors or mowing grass, but I can split an infinitive or demonstrate the correct of the pluperfect subjunctive on short notice. Usually I'm ok for a laugh. My very romantic relationship is multi-platform and highly engaging with a man I like, respect and find to be more than qualified to handle a woman such as me. And handsome. Perhaps that's what I like best about being a woman. Maybe It's as simple as great sex and emotional connection; feeling safe and cared for and knowing that the one you care for in a healthy relationship also cares for you. Yeah. Glad I'm a woman.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Women in the 21st Century

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Since I am a woman, I had help with that one; Grey and I brainstormed ideas since he is a guy and all. But this idea of cultural influence versus biology is fascinating. You are a man or a woman based on biology and chromosomal factors. Not much, barring surgery and regular hormone injections, will change that. Given our current culture, state of technology and climate, what does it mean to be a woman in the 21st century?

For me at least, there are several factors to consider. There are the expectations I grew up with, the choices I made and what I expect for the future. As a girl in Dayton, Washington, I visited with my guidance counselor at school exactly one time and that was a few weeks before I graduated from high school. I had taken four years of business classes, agriculture courses and the regular high school rigamarole. I was the state Vice President for Future Business Leaders of America and an FFA officer. I was a Columbia County Fair Hostess and had spent four years in the musical plays at school. But I was sick or gone a lot and my grades weren't so hot. She never opened a file or asked me my hopes or dreams. She suggested I take a few secretarial courses at the local community college. "Let's face it", I heard her say, "It's not like you're going to be a brain surgeon". I hated hearing that. But I did sign up for the community college courses. I dropped out because I couldn't write the 10 page term paper for history class.

As an 18 year old drop out, I secured employment in many ways. I worked at US West as an operator and in the winter at the local ski resort. I made very little money and lived with my boyfriend. I cooked and cleaned and felt angry most of the time. I knew how to drive trucks and shoot rifles and fish. I had a vague feeling that my employment wasn't a very important part of society's expectations for me, that my job was somehow to get married and have children and cook Sunday supper. Frankly, I like that idea. I think it's important for a parent to be home with their child if at all possible. I would love to have that option. I would love for all people interested to have that option. But I also subscribed to the idea that the man in the relationship should be the one who makes the decisions and that the woman should be "taken care of" by him. My problem is that I think too much. I heard that many times as a child and a young adult. "You are too sensitive" and "You have got to stop thinking so much".

Oh, and I'm stubborn.

In my 20s, I tried a number of careers- fast food, the Air Force (I have asthma and got kicked out after 7 weeks of basic training), bar tending, hotel (front desk- sexual harassment anyone?) and secretarial work. I sucked at all of those things. I read quite a bit and anesthetized myself with television. It seemed that most of my life was a distraction for the million miles an hour that my brain traveled at. It took years and years before I discovered teaching. I'm good at it. It brings the light to my eyes. It helps my students who need to know the things I can teach.

I loved college because nobody knew me there. I could let my inner nerd come out to play. I applied to vet school. It was ok to be smart. I aced most of my classes, including the upper division English courses I took for fun and stress relief. When I settled on teaching, I couldn't just go with the bachelor's degree I had. I got a master's in education. I started to see myself as something different than the way others had seen me. I found my groove. I found myself. I was still angry and it took years for that to dissipate. I paid a high price for where I am now. I made huge mistakes with my family and friends, sometimes alienating relationships beyond repair. I pushed back on society and its expectations. I said I was sorry to people I loved and hurt. I carved my own identity and was at times forced to confront the woman in the mirror to ask "just who are you are you? Just who do you want to be? Is this course of action getting you there?" When the answer was no, I was to blame. Nobody would or could take responsibility for me. I was both terrified in those moments and exuberant. I got used to it. I am still getting used to it.

To tell you the truth, I do not know what it means to be a woman in the 21st Century. I think of the women I know who focus on family and the women I know who focus on career. I know women who are retired and loving every minute of it. I know women who are married to other women and are still happy after 15 years (Happy Anniversary, Jen and Jen!). I know women in tough situations with college degrees just trying to make ends meet on a pathetic teacher's salary. I know and admire women who get to be stay-at-home moms. I have to have two jobs to keep financially afloat. I made amends for my regrets and continue to keep those amends. Hopefully, I have stopped trying to impose my own ideologies on others. And I get to teach. If you had asked my grandmother what it meant to be a woman, she would probably concentrate on actions taken in and around the home. She was a cook by profession her whole life, starting when she was 15 and cooking for harvest crew.

I know that as with manly-ness, womanly-ness isn't just connected to what's between the legs. It's tied to culture and the decisions I make. Yes, I can cook. I can clean the hell out of a house or give comfort and build up or break down the hearts of others. I can do secretarial work, though I'd rather starve to death rather than to ever bring my boss a cup of coffee again. Actually, that's not true. I could do secretarial work, but it's really hard work that I am not good at. Thank God I cannot un-be a woman because to tell the truth, I like it. Grey said to me the other day, "I love how sensitive you are".

And I am still stubborn. Apparently that does not change.

But I would not want to be a young woman right now, not with all of the conflicting messages sent to young women these days about sex and education, literacy and math and what sorts of jobs we can do and cannot do. I know it's part of my calling to help other women make sense of things. As I try to make sense of this, I will keep you posted. If you have ideas, let me know.

Friday, November 4, 2011

What Students Can Teach Me About Kindness

Today I loved being a teacher. I haven't been able to say that much this fall. Between administration, the state department and basic trust issues with my kids, we are now sort of at the point where we can move forward. I've now got some buy-in with my students, some street cred, as it were. It occurs to me that I know so little of the true lives of my students that it would be a mistake to make assumptions about what they do or do not know. So I ask them to write their lives, their experiences and their opinions. We all have notebooks to write in and they have the option every day to either do my writing prompt or their own.  I love it when they choose to share with the group.

Ninety-five percent of my kids are Hispanic and most of those are Mexican. The remaining 5% are African-American and White, in that order.  Many are Christian and Catholic; a few are Jewish. It may surprise you to think that I see the races, religions and ethnicities of my students. There are those who follow a philosophy of color-blindness when it comes to children and teaching.  They report that a student's background is has no bearing on the classroom environment.  That since Standard American English is pretty much the status quo and since English teachers teach SAE in the curriculum, it is best to ignore any other issue besides the curriculum. I think this is done out of love and a desire to give students the best chance they can.  But it's not effective.  To refuse to see the world in color, to not see children for who they are and to not acknowledge or honor the lives they live is not only a mistake, but it is irresponsible of educators to do so.

As a teacher, as a woman and as a White person, I have a background in my subject that some of- ok, many of- my students are not privileged to have. The pathways of their lives and mine only intersect in a few ways.  Instead of laying my curriculum, my pathway, over the top of my student's heads, I find it a much better fit, and a more productive one from a learning standpoint, to find some of their pathways and offer them augmentation in English. The students and I come to agreements about how the class will run, what sorts of privileges they can earn and what sort of work they will do.  And they do work. They sometimes work their guts out. In return, I attempt to serve them, not from the tippy-top of a mountain pouring down a dominant ideology, but instead from a little creek that bubbles alongside their own experiences. And sometimes they surprise me, because what they learn and practice has little to do with the stated curriculum, but instead speaks to the hidden agendas I purposefully demonstrate.

The kids work in groups of four, where I have seated them. In one class, I have a table of four with Donna, Billy, Mary and Alaina.  These are not their real names. Donna is shorter than 4'11" tall.  She and Alaina are both Black. Mary and Billy are both Mexican.  Donna has a temper on her and I have seen her do a power punch that lifted her off of her feet in order to sock an older, much larger boy in the face.  But in my class she is a joyful kid and regular contributor to our discussions. Billy is a gentle giant kind of kid, quiet and studious. He loves to read to the point that I have had to ask him to put away his book to do a writing assignment- an assignment that involved another book we were reading. But Billy does not seem to have much family structure.  He never completes homework. His handwriting is atrocious and his personal hygiene is often questionable. He's usually got dirt on his arms and face.  The other kids pick on him.  He is a sweet kid too- always finds me in the hallway and says "Hi Miss Dieu!!!" One day he was crying in class. I pulled him into the hallway to ask him why. He had not done his homework and thought I'd be mad at him.  Oh no! No, no, just do it for tomorrow! I spent some time reassuring him and sent him to the bathroom to splash water on his face. I was taken rather aback that he thought enough of me to cry at the thought that I'd become angry with him.  Truth be told, that made a big impact on me.  I had a talk with his tablemates while he was away. I asked that they be kind to him and include them more than they had; that junior high is hard enough and it costs nothing to be gentle. At first, they just stopped being snarky.  Then, with my own reminders, Mary and Donna have said nice things to him.  Alaina is not convinced; she continues to make little digs.

Yesterday, Donna came in madder than a wet hen.  She picked up her notebook and wrote furiously for 10 minutes straight and read what she had written to the class.  She was angry; a boy she said she liked called her ugly and she had to resist the urge to punch him out.  She read the class the riot act about being nice to people and how she has feelings too.  She said she thought the teachers just didn't care (not you, Miss Dieu, I love you!) and that things were going to go badly. We all thanked her for sharing, which is what we do when someone shares their writing out loud. Criticism is saved for peer review. "Thank you for sharing" is reserved for those brave enough to read what they have read.

After class, I asked Donna to talk to me.  She admitted that there was more to the story.  Another boy, Todd (also a pseudonym) keeps threatening her.  He said that if she told anyone, he would have someone beat her up. I have Todd in another class.  He is a year older and is very smart.  It's just his modus operandi to get others to do his dirty work.  I took Donna to the counselor.  He art teacher came to ask me about her.  Donna had been confrontational and angry in class the previous two days and she was wondering if I knew anything that would help.  I relayed what Donna had said.  The art teacher said she would take a few minutes to let our student know that we do notice and that we do indeed care.

We had a team meeting with Todd.  That's when all of his teachers get together with a student to help them, to ask them to change their behavior and to hear what they have to say about their own education.  We also let Todd know that if anything- anything at all- were to happen to Donna, he would have to answer to us, the school and the police officer assigned to the school.  I don't think it scared him much, but I don't think he'll pick on Donna anymore.

Today in class, everything went as normal.  We were writing expository essays with the understanding that a 5 paragraph essay is not the be all and end all of good writing.  The students chose their own topics from the daily writing prompts we have done for the last few weeks.  But Billy still hadn't gotten started.  He couldn't think of what to write.  I offered some ideas and asked his tablemates to help him like they were helping each other.  Each of them had picked a season and were writing about it. Billy looked like he was going to cry.  I told him to take a few deep breaths and try again. That's when the girls jumped in. "You're a good storyteller!", said Donna. "Yeah, you always tell the best stories" "You remember the one you told us in math class about the vampire and his beard...?" And on and on.  They gave him ideas on what to write based on his own interests.  And I almost started to cry myself, but I smiled and busied myself with other kids who needed help.

Today I loved being a teacher. I loved being a human and I loved being a part of this community and playing my appropriate part in it.  I had to leave during 4th hour to go to OU and meet with my adviser. As I was dashing out the door (found a great substitute teacher, by the way!) I waved and said "Bye kids! I love you, have a great weekend!"  They yelled "Bye! We love you too!", and I smiled all the way to Norman.