Category Archives: New York
has been greatly exaggerated. I’m feelin’ you, Mark Twain. All my posts lately are about how busy I am, and how that’s what’s keeping me from doing any real writing for you… but there will still be plenty of writing next year, and much of it related to education, too. More on that late-June-ish. And if what brings you here is not the education stuff at all, there’ll be who-knows-what dropped at a dark barker. If all goes exceptionally well, there’ll even be pieces published on real, tree-killing, high-gloss paper.
But yes, it is goodbye to teaching. Or at least, goodbye for now. TMAO says it’s a false promise to leave indicating one’s possible return when that might just be a rationalization or a fantasy or something. But teaching science has been good to me. It’s been full of challenges, adventures – dead lobsters, dead crickets, LEGO robots, homemade musical instruments, and more, and let me meet a few hundred interesting people who are fast on their way to becoming adults.
I ran into one of those young people on the bus the other day. He was in our school, perhaps illegally, in the very first year. Illegally because he was supposed to get services that we couldn’t provide. He was kind-hearted, didn’t read or write all that well, loved science but could be infuriatingly lazy, drove us up the wall, and thrived at the same time. He’s a junior in high school right now, teaching chess to little kids at a camp this summer – he always was a super-star chess player – and was talking about taking the SATs and the Chem Regents and starting college visits pretty soon. He wants to be a chemical engineer. How do I capture what it feels like to sit on a bus next to this young man, talking about his future, thinking back on the three years that I taught him, knowing the long odds for a kid from the South Bronx, a Dominican male with special needs, becoming an engineer, and yet knowing that he is already far along that path and can now see it unfolding in front of him. This kid is going to make it, and I played some role in that, and what’s simultaneously remarkable and reassuring about it all is that among the students who have graduated from my school, he is not an exception (I don’t have any data to back this up, just a few anecdotes and a sense). (The fact that he wants to go into a science-related field is just icing).
But it’s been a hard year, and the eighth hard year in a row, and at a certain point this winter, every cell in my body was telling me it was time for a change, physically, mentally. Time to make space in my life for healthier relationships, for the trazillions of interests that I have besides education, for pursuing writing in a serious way, for slowing down and redirecting my energy, at least for a while. I’m turning 30 next week: I guess that’s part of it. And then I saw an opportunity, and soon there was a job offer, and then I accepted, and then I told my boss, and then I wrote a resignation letter, and here we are. My new team met yesterday for a few hours, and reality got a bit realer, some initial planning was sketched out… well, I really can’t share more than that but be patient!
Still, I wish I could annotate this post in multi-colored post-its and add all the things that I’m leaving out (for now)… thoughts about why teachers stay and why they go, about my own personal reactions to stress and whether the problem is me or the job or the particular version of the job that happens in certain kinds of classrooms and schools in the city, about where I hope life might go next and the ten-thousand things that might come as next steps. I’m leaving, but I’m not going anywhere.
Saturday night, a friend and I attended the Music & the Brain event at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The gospel choir sang several numbers that got your hands clapping and head bobbing. The minister of the church gave a short introduction, followed by Brian Greene (of Elegant Universe fame, and the organizer of the World Science Festival, of which this was a part). Greene was the first to say that though now he is a Jewish physicist, he hopes to be reincarnated as a Baptist minister.
Several first graders from the Thurgood Marshall Academy gave short presentations about important African-American scientists and doctors and the prejudice they had faced or overcome in order to do their work, and then there was a libation ceremony, pouring libation to the ancestors. A member of the church explained the ritual and invited us to respond ASHAY (sp?) as the libation was poured, and then to call out the names of ancestors who have been important in shaping who we are. People started calling out names. Quietly, because I felt both drawn to and shy about this ritual, I said my grandmother’s name. She went to Wellesley College and would have been proud to see how far her grandchildren – but perhaps especially her granddaughters – have come in our lives. She would be voting for Hillary Clinton, for sure.
Then Oliver Sacks spoke. He writes incredible books about neurology, for those who don’t know, and has a new book called Musicophilia which I very much want to read but haven’t bought or borrowed yet. First he said that he, too, wouldn’t mind being a Baptist minister. Then he talked briefly about different ailments and how music can help people – from freeing people with Parkinson’s disease to move and communicate, to helping Alzheimers’ patients, and others with memory loss, to unlock memories. He talked about singing Happy Birthday during his first meeting with patients with aphasia – loss of language – and how they can often sing along with it, even those who have not spoken in several years. Music can be used, though it takes a long time, to encourage neuroplasticity in patients like this, so that other parts of their brains take over the lost functions. There are musicians who have lost their memories of everything but music, those who move with a jagged gait but can play sonatas on the piano.
The evening was a strange and fascinating mix of religion, science, art, bringing together people with diverse interests and making connections between us. Most of the audience had probably never been to the church before. Many of those who were from the church primarily to hear the choir might have been introduced to Oliver Sacks for the first time. I learned about the pouring of libation and a bit of the history of Gospel music.
Lingering question: there was a guy in the audience, near the front, whom I could see clearly from my seat in the balcony (the church was packed to overflowing; we sat in the windowsill). He was probably in his thirties, longish, wavy red hair, thick black glasses, reddish beard. I am so certain that he’s someone I’ve heard of, perhaps an author whose books or articles I’ve read, perhaps an up & coming young scientist whom I’ve seen featured in some article or another. But I can’t for the life of me figure out who he is. My friend agreed that he looked familiar… anyone?
June is the only month I keep a calendar, that is, a written-out datebook. All the other months of the year, I am fully capable of keeping everything in my head. I rarely forget appointments July through May, but in June, it’s all about iCalendar. The month is filled with half-days, professional development days, graduations, award ceremonies, field trips, endings and beginnings. The image of Janus, the two-faced god who faces both forward and behind, seems more appropriate to this month than any other.
This year, I move on June 1st, living in Brooklyn for the first time in 8 years in New York City. I am surrounded by my belongings packed in cardboard, with more still to pack. I’ll be living with a roommate again after two years on my own, and I’ll be moving into a smaller space again, the better to save money as I start a new lifestyle. It’s a bit complicated – I’m moving into a share for two months, then the roommate will move out, I will take over the lease, and I will need to find a new roommate. If you know anyone nice, smart, and sane looking for a place around August 1st, let me know. I’m really excited to get to know the new apartment and then try my hand at studied re-decoration. The bathroom is TINY and cluttered with shelves, so I think I need to take a good look at it and the solutions available at IKEA, ContainerStore, etc., pull out all the shelves – come August – clean & repaint in a color that feels spacious, and then install shelves in a more thoughtful way. The kitchen storage situation also needs a little work, so that’s another project. And my bedroom is currently painted red and green – it’s better-looking than it sounds – so I’ll have to live with that for a while and see if I like it or want something else.
I told some of my students that I wouldn’t be coming back next year – it came up naturally as part of an end-of-year events conversation. I spun it as reaching out for new opportunities, which is true, though being really, really tired and ready for a lower-stress job that still means something is also part of it. When I said I was leaving to become a writer, one girl asked if I was going to write a book about them.
It’s time to revise curriculum maps. I annotated mine and color coded standards based on whether we covered them or not and how well I think the kids learned them. We only completed about 1/2 to 2/3 of the city’s curriculum, and one part of me feels like I failed in some way, and another part knows that I did important work with them that simply took a lot longer than the time budgeted by the city. Thinking about how to revise the plan for next year is hard and a little sad when you know you won’t be teaching it next year. I’m committed to my new job but will confess to having doubts about whether I should really be leaving teaching altogether. It is a job I’ve loved.
We took the sixth graders who qualified – about 40 of them – sailing on the Pioneer yesterday, down at the Seaport, and we filled the ranks with 7th and 8th graders. It was a sunny, beautiful day, and after some initial trouble due to mechanical problems with one of our buses, everything went just as planned. The kids were tired and happy when we dropped them off outside school – and so were we.
This Thursday was the last session of my personal essay class. My group really bonded, and people’s writing improved a ton, and we’re organizing a schedule to continue meeting, sans teacher, as a nonfiction writing group. It feels good to have compatriots as I try to launch this aspect of my writing career, clip-less wonder that I am at the moment. We range in age from 23 to 72, have advertising, teaching, non-profit, photography, editing, banking, and several other forms of work experience among us, are published or not, have something like gender balance, are married or single, with kids, without, desiring of them or not.
The endings are sad, but liberating. The beginnings feel risky, not-yet-thrilling though I think as the endings pass one-by-one, I’ll have more space in my head for excitement. I wonder about the people I work with, with whom I’ll remain friends, with whom I’ll fall out of touch. I wonder about the new people I’ll meet.
I can’t find my way to my closet through the huge pile of laundry, nor can I get anything done in the living room thanks to the boxes and half-packed piles stacked everywhere, the strewn-about packing tape torn off of boxes to be replaced by new tape once packed. Dishes need boxing, pots and pans need boxing, baking stuff and small appliances need boxing, tupperware needs sorting and boxing, dry goods need boxing, clothes need boxing, toiletries need sorting and boxing, office supplies are mostly sorted but need boxing, My plants are parched and dying behind the wardrobe boxes but I can scarcely reach them to give them water. The next two (one) weeks need to be planned, chaperones found for Friday’s sailing trip, quizzes graded, resignation letter printed (time to turn it in formally), transition to new job planned, OPD license applied for (so that I can coach robotics and help out here and there at my old school). I cooked food for the entire week so that I can start packing my kitchen, but now my fridge seems to be dying (all week I noticed things going bad unusually fast, but I didn’t put it all together until I felt the ice cream slosh around inside its cardboard pint). I have a final essay to write for my writing class, a lot of things I want to say about Emily Gould (then again, maybe there’s nothing to say), essays I want to revise and submit to magazines, a camera that seems to have disappeared into the bowels of CanonUSA again. I’m trying to figure out which order of events will energize me most… where do I start to make this a productive day?
(The fridge kind of makes me want to cry… when am I supposed to deal with that? Maybe I’ll just take all my lunches to school tomorrow… maybe I’ll take all my dinners, too).
It’s just a love that you can’t get back
It’s just a tale of a heart attack
You feel alive, but you’re sinking fast
Just close your eyes, this won’t be your last
You wanna lift somethin’ up, you gotta pin it down
You wanna pull somethin’ in, you gotta let it out
You wanna light something up, you gotta burn it down
I wanna feel the sun, I just need some air
The only word that you know is please, please, please
The only life that you see is from your knees
I wanna feel the light, I just can’t receive
Don’t wanna leave the ground, I just need some air
I need some air
-Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Yesterday, we took a wonderful field trip to the Liberty Science Center. They warned us at the start of the film “3D Sun” that chaperones should prevent students from screaming and jumping out of their seats. It sounded a bit harsh, until charged particles started drifting towards us, accelerating, until we zoomed over the horizon of the sun, past coronal arches and loops…. wow. When the satellite called Stereo floated out towards me, I’ll admit I reached out to touch it.
The only bad part of the trip was a peanut allergy scare, which ended with no problems at all but made me realize several things about my experience teaching:
1. We are very lucky nothing too awful has happened given how poorly informed we are (by parents in the first place, and then by the school once the parents do inform us) about our students’ potentially serious health issues.
2. The incident calls into question so many things – the standard of care our children receive at hospitals and health clinics, the organizational systems within our schools, the levels of trust between parents and children, the potentially dangerous issues that arise when all of a student’s emergency contacts speak only Spanish, and you are in an emergency situation where no adult speaks Spanish. And so many other issues. We got a serious lecture about the need to carry an Epi-Pen from the staff at the Liberty Science Center. And I sound like an idiot saying, But this allergy wasn’t even reported to the school! A colleague cited some statistic or another (no idea where he got it) that peanut allergies are more prevalent in large urban areas – yet this is the first – or maybe there was one other – I’ve encountered in 8 years. So, where are these kids? Do our kids not live on PB&J like a lot of suburban kids? Is the allergy hidden within an asthma diagnosis? (But these are such different things!) Are there tons of kids out there with unreported life-threatening allergies? I want to find out more about this one.
Meanwhile, we have another trip coming up which was supposed to be the sixth grade end-of-year trip. It was supposed to be really fun. We set a pretty high standard of attendance, behavior, etc. to attend, and then our administration raised the bar to what we knew was pretty much unattainable (ours was already going to be very, very hard), but what could we say? Now only 25% of our kids qualified. We didn’t succeed in motivating them to work extra hard this month to get to go, because they really quickly figured out they’d never make it. The culture of the class has, if anything, turned against the trip. We are filling the spots with kids from other grades… I don’t know, it’s just not the trip I want to take at all anymore. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I feel like I was put in a really bad position by others who won’t really have to deal with the long-term impact on student motivation or the immediate backlash when the kids who get to go are announced.
There’s more – our entire Science department is leaving this year. Right now there are no candidates to replace us. I might squeeze in a few hours here & there consulting for the new teachers next year, because otherwise they’ll be starting from scratch.
We were grading science exams after school today (this is the third day we’ve stayed after, at least one or two more afternoons before it’s done), and another teacher quoted the song above… she was talking about a relationship but it feels right for everything. The pressure’s all right, somehow everything is getting done, it’s tiring but under control, but with a little more space to breathe things could be done so much better…. my cat never sees me anymore, my house is a huge mess. I’ve scheduled my moving truck for June 1st, a birthday event for the following weekend, and I have a cake commission (for someone else, it’s a longish story) for the actual day of my own birthday… I’m running twice a week and went to a yoga class for the first time in months (it felt great, even though the teacher was not awesome… it’s so nice to realize that after months away, I’ve at least got the muscle-memory if not the strength or flexibility). Busy is the way I like life, but hey, I could use a little air…
I find myself taking so many leaps of faith, small ones, perhaps, but still requiring trust. Most require trust in myself, that I can do this new job, that I will find it fulfilling, that I can do the kind of writing that editors want to pay for. Some require trust in the universe, the system, or in others, that the job will launch successfully and people will read what we write, that someone will trust me with a reporting piece so that I can begin to prove myself with clips, that my new apartment is what the current occupants said it is, that I can manage a few tricky months of moving out, keeping some stuff in storage, moving into a new place, and then, eventually, moving all my stuff into the new place and finding a more permanent roommate. And then there’s trust in other individuals. It turns out that several of my closest friends are moving away from New York this summer, some in only a few weeks (for most, grad school beckons). I could despair at the big hole this might leave in my life here, but I can’t despair: what a waste of energy. I can only enjoy the time I have to spend with them while they’re still here, do my best to stay in touch when they’re away, make certain they know that they always have a couch to crash on when they visit, and trust that new friends will fill that hole, perhaps not in the same way, but that people come and go, and yet I am never alone here. That is, I think, the hardest leap of faith of all.
is that many of us move around a lot, from neighborhood to neighborhood, small crappy apartment in a great neighborhood to big, really crappy apartment in a less great neighborhood, to… well, we’ll see. A chance to free oneself of attachments to stuff comes with each move, and so, today, I’ve started going through my things. I’m particularly motivated to lighten my load this time. Folders full of never-used science curricular materials and other pieces of paper that some workshop host generously thought we might need or want: recycling. Imagine if, over 8 years, at each workshop attended, I had acquired just one simple folder (or, better still, digital file) containing one paradigm-shifting piece of curriculum or method of instruction, rather than folders and folders full of ideas that made sense in other teachers’ settings, for other teachers’ kids, for other schools’ curricula, and which, even when useful, would have to be organized, stored, then modified, retyped, finally to be photocopied and used.
It is amazing how much stuff I acquire, year by year, and how I hold onto it, thinking that I might just use it next year. Sometimes, to my credit, I do. Last weekend, I dug out rollerblades last used three years ago, thinking I’d do a loop around Central Park. Sadly, I need to replace the brakes and can only order them online, so I have yet to take them out for a spin yet – but I’m not ready to give up the rollerblades yet, because I used them a lot once and really do plan to use them again. There’s a half-knit sweater that I haven’t worked on in years, except for one brief foray this winter when a few of us gathered in a cafe with crafts projects. I’ve largely forgotten the harder parts of knitting, but I know I can learn again and finish the sweater (which will fit no one, I fear). There’s a crate full of images torn out of magazines and saved for collages for mix-tape liner notes. I think I’m going to let that collection go. It’s been a long time since I’ve made a fancy mix-tape, and there will always be magazines when I want to go back. A friend is offering a collage-related enrichment class this marking period, and I think I’ll pass that folder on to her.
It’s time to go through the old towels, the tupperware and plastic containers saved after I ate whatever came inside them, the novelty t-shirts, the office supply doodads, the piles of paper… my stuff is making me feel heavy. It’s time to simplify.