Permission

Not long ago my staff and I shifted gears and set aside a chunk of our planned professional development to allow ourselves some time to connect. Once we were there (well, on the Zoom together anyway), people listened and I think heard the overwhelming truth that while we may be stressed, while we may hold on more to worry than we’d like, and while many of us (at least by a show of hands) aren’t sleeping as well as we wish we were, we are not alone.

Along with our stories we shared some laughter, hardly a surprise with our caring staff, and some ideas about how we can continue to adjust things as we start the new semester. Most of all it felt like the alchemy of this adjusted day made something better than gold out of our very raw and real emotions. I think many of us felt something almost akin to hope.

It was nice to have permission to feel that too.

Comprehensive distance learning has been hard. It’s been hard on students, on teachers, on staff, and on families. We try our best and work with purpose and professionalism, and sometimes the results are pretty great. Other times, well, comprehensive distance learning is hard.

So for that professional development, after listing a menu of options for a variety of topics I added one last option for my staff.

“Finally,” I wrote, “I’d like to add one more: permission. If you need to not attend one of these, if you need to go for a walk, snuggle with your pet, or call a friend, then please give yourself permission to do so. You matter so much, and taking care of yourself, showing yourself kindness, and giving yourself grace, all these are important too.”

As educators we are givers. We give to our students, our colleagues, and our school community. We give of our time, our hearts, and sometimes our pocketbooks. We give to everyone who needs us, except (all too often) ourselves.

Few staff members took me up on that final choice, though the responses I got to that PD email were as kind as they were heartfelt, and I like to imagine that the willingness to shift gears and focus on engaging with one another might have helped too.

And then I got an email from one of my amazing teachers who I’d asked for ideas about future PDs. She wrote some very kind words about including that final option and then offered some suggestions that made me smile:

“That’s a  long intro to some ideas,” she wrote, “and I don’t know what boxes you have to check so that site PD is indeed site PD, but….

“Permission to relax. Permission to laugh. Permission to learn from our mistakes and from each other without a heavy title/subject attached.

“Kemba-led-yoga

“Mark-led drawing

“Remote Teaching BINGO (have had a silly autocorrect in Zoom chat, have typed an angry email that you didn’t send, cried during Zoom, cried after Zoom, stopped everything mid-Zoom and pivoted because it clearly wasn’t working, is feeling your eyesight go downhill because of all this screen time)

“An option to read/listen to/watch all these lovely “we’re not alone/here’s someone who loves teachers giving you advice” articles, clips, etc. that staff members share and I, for one, would love to read/listen to/watch, but honestly… when? If you TOLD me to pick one, sit back and watch it? I would.

“Break out rooms to share something that you’ve been doing that’s totally unrelated to remote teaching. Something human that brings some joy and reminds us that we’re all still living lives that are rich and don’t include a screen. 

“Having said all this, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re ALWAYS ON A SCREEN. It’s simply exhausting. And it’s always there. Before, during, and after class… grading, planning, meetings. All of it. For many of us, the only thing stronger than our desire to be with our co-workers and friends is our desire to watch screen time die a quick death. If you could get us all hazmat suits and/or accelerate the vaccine so we could mingle on the blacktop… that’d be great!”

I can’t afford hazmat suits, and I doubt Risk Management would smile on that anyway, but I can weave some of her ideas into future PD. If working with my amazing staff has taught me anything during this strange, strange, strange time, it’s the importance of laughter, of love, and the importance of allowing ourselves permission.

To the Ball Game

“Take me out anywhere” would be as apt a hope as going to a baseball game these days. We’ve been sequestered by the pandemic for a long time now (educators like me and our students have been at home since last March 13th) but even as winter looks at us through eyes narrowed by icy winds and brows as furrowed as storm clouds I find my spirit roused by three words, as familiar to old baseball fans everywhere as spring, words whispered from places with palm trees and sunny skies miles from where I’m writing this post: “Pitchers and catchers.”

For anyone coming to this blog for something related to education, I’ll have to invite you to return in a week; once a year I allow myself to shift gears and indulge in an appreciation of something that has filled my soul since I was a little kid: baseball.

I grew up in Oregon, which in the 1970s and 1980s was like Switzerland for sports fans. Sure we had the Trailblazers, a basketball team that dominated the landscape while wearing a red sweatband and hoisting the 1977 NBA World Champions trophy (for the only time in its life), but for those of us who preferred our sports out of doors, we were blessed with a neutrality that allowed my dad to be a Tigers fan, my friend to like the Twins, and me to choose the bums from Los Angeles who kept losing World Series to the Yankees, my LA Dodgers.

My own high school baseball team wore pinstripes like the Bronx Bombers, but that didn’t dampen my own love of playing. As a catcher, I studied the game, scouted opposing teams, and fashioned myself a young Steve Yeager.

I collected baseball cards, of course, not for profit as some would in the late 80s and early 90s, but because I loved baseball. Boxes of them have now found their way into my own garage, some co-opted by my youngest son, and others discovering a second life as bookmarks. Nostalgic? Sure. And I’m okay with that.

Because while I know that the game has changed since I grew up, and seems more like a business now than ever before, I still feel an organic, illogical, and welcome sense of hope returning to thaw winter, at least a little, when spring training starts up in February. 

That first step toward sunnier days begins when pitchers and catchers arrive to camp first, a couple of weeks ahead of the other players, and about a month before the first spring training games. This year “pitchers and catchers” is more welcome than ever.

Outside my window the water in the bird bath has frozen. The clouds are thick and snow is threatening. Well, in Oregon that threat is more that we’ll need to scrape ice off our windshields than shovel our sidewalks. But in states south of here baseballs are coming out of boxes, cleats are being laced up, and the first of the ballplayers are taking the field.

What that means in the greater scheme of things, well, nothing much I suppose. But if this year of COVID-19 has taught me anything it’s to be thankful for the small pleasures that can help to offset the weight of the world. We’re still months away from change, I know; we’re months away from baseball’s opening day as well, but…

With pitchers and catchers we’re on our way.

“If you don’t got Mojo Nixon…”

The earworm in my head today is “Punk Rock Girl” by The Dead Milkmen. It’s a catchy and (in retrospect) hardly punk anthem to young foolish love, tongue firmly, it seems to me, in cheek. Playful, silly, and echoing through my mind, as I get ready to start a day of work I’m humming: “Punk rock girl give me a chance / Punk rock girl let’s go slam dance / We’ll dress like Minnie Pearl.” 

You and me, Punk Rock Girl.

Now I am not advocating jumping on tables and shouting “anarchy” or driving off in cars that are not our own, but that freewheeling spirit that implies that anything can happen doesn’t seem too far off the mark right now.

As we all do our best to navigate the choppy waters of this time of pandemic, remote learning, and ongoing political stress it sometimes feels like every day or two we’re given the challenge of adapting to something new. Smilingly? Well…

It helps me to try to keep some perspective, and sometimes that perspective comes from unexpected sources. Three recent inspirations, other than The Dead Milkmen, that I’ve leaned on lately.

The Hobbit. That old chestnut from Tolkien, more a children’s story than the Lord of the Rings, has long been my favorite read aloud book (and as a dad I’ve had more than one chance to read it at bedtime to my kids). Not long ago I stumbled on an audiobook of the novel and, taken in small bites, it has become a touchstone of comfort to hear it again, temporary comfort anyway, and the inspiration to do my best to be like Bilbo leaving the goblin cave: “Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all a patter and a pitter.” We’re all a little flummoxed from time to time, hearts “a patter and a pitter” and hearing a story we love helps, even if it’s just a little.

Helping more than a little, and more than I could have ever imagined when she joined our family a little more than a year ago, our dog, Luna, is an ongoing force for good in our house. All that unconditional love stuff people with dogs talk about? Yep. And… when she gets muddy and filthy after a walk, she gets a bath. When she gets woken up and reluctantly goes out for morning ablutions, she does what she needs to do and then runs back to bed to make a nest in the covers. She doesn’t love baths or cold mornings, but she handles them more patiently than I do some of the things I don’t love. Inspiration there. Would that I could live up to the example set by my dog. 

Of course I seldom chew up boxes of cookies. 

Seldom.

Watching Studio Ghibli movies with my teenager has helped too. This winter we’ve revisited Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Dreamy, unexpected, and more than occasionally bizarre, these amazing entertainments do for me what great art often does: allow me to see my own world a little differently than I saw it before. As I think about how crazy the last few weeks have been, how easy it is to be justifiably frustrated, and how important it is that I find ways to accept reality and move forward, I’m happy to look toward Miyazaki’s heroes like Sophie, turned from a child to an old woman and launched into an adventure that takes her inside the wheezing, shambling castle of the film’s title. She faces obstacles both sinister and bureaucratic, threatening and as mundane as a messy house, with poise, pluck, and amused curiosity. All this, told through astounding images and a soundtrack so moving it feels like poetry, touched my heart when I needed it to. 

And Princess Mononoke spitting blood, yeah, that too.

Finally, a bonus inspiration, but one I return to. It’s that line from Leonard Cohen: “If you don’t become the ocean you’ll be seasick every day.” With tides rising and falling, waves up over my head, and undercurrents that I can hardly understand it feels like that line ought to be a mantra.

To everyone out there doing their best to hold on, I offer support, hope, and the notion that maybe we all ought to just dress like Minnie Pearl. As hard as this is, we can do this. You and me, Punk Rock Girl.

“The horizon leans forward”

February is Black History Month and on the heels of Amanda Gorman’s amazing poem at this January’s inauguration, I was reminded of a time, now long before any of the students at my school were born, when Maya Angelou delivered an inaugural poem that echoed in our collective consciousness and included the still relevant lines:

History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

“On the Pulse of Morning” is still fresh in my memory, though I heard it first in 1993. I used it in the English classes I taught that year, and for years afterward, alongside poets like Alice Walker, Rita Dove, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Their words told stories my students needed to hear.

They are stories and perspectives that we still need to listen to; too much of Angelou’s call to action has been left unfinished. As the years move forward, however, and we as a nation recognize systemic and deep rooted injustice, I’m hopeful that we will hear and act on the words of the artists who push us to change.

Those voices are many and varied. While Amanda Gorman’s beautiful poem and exquisite performance of “The Hill We Climb” reverberated with the energy of youth, when Maya Angelou stood on that cold inauguration stage she was a poet of great renown, respected, celebrated, and familiar. Angelou brought both passion and gravitas to her reading, and hers is a poem I’d encourage us to revisit as we are inspired by Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” to know that poems sometimes transcend the occasions for which they are written. Years from now it will not be the inaugural speeches by any politicians that are remembered, but the poems.

As a nation, and world, are still learning to face history with courage, still struggling and still would do well to hear Angelou’s words: 

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

It is important for all of us to strive to lean forward, and live up to another line from Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” I believe that poetry can help us do just that.

I encourage us all to embrace the spirit of “On the Pulse of Morning,” show kindness, and have the courage to change our world for the better.