Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Best Thing My Mother Ever Did for Me

I was fifteen when my father died.  Spring Break was a week long and my he took a turn over the weekend before I was supposed to go back to school, so my mom kept me home the day after Easter.  We just didn't know what was going to happen.  He died the next day, Tuesday, so I was home that whole week as well.

The following Monday I got out of bed, my feet each weighing a million pounds.  I dragged myself into the shower, forced myself to put on clothes, and sat in the living room.  When my mom came in, dressed for work, I summoned my courage and told her what I'd decided: "I don't want to go back to school."

She nodded, which I found odd.  My mother was a person for whom no excuse was good enough to stay home - except for a fever, menstrual cramps, and ear pain (trust me, once I learned that, I began a career of manipulation that lasted well through high school).  But she didn't tell me I could stay home.  Instead she said, "I don't want to go back either.  But you're never going to want to go back.  If I let you stay home today, you won't want to go back tomorrow.  If I let you stay home this week, you won't want to go back next week.  Life does go on, and we have to too."

So we went - me, to school; her, to work.  She had shared her grief with me and, even at the selfish age of fifteen I could see that it was harder for her than it was for me.  I knew she wasn't being mean or spiteful, but she was teaching me a lesson I could learn no other way.  It's okay to take some time for mourning; it's necessary.  But there is a time when mourning becomes wallowing, which benefits no one.

My mom laughs at me now because of what I say when I face a crushing disappointment - a job I lost out on, a bad grade, a romantic prospect that doesn't pan out - "I need a day."  Unless it's cripplingly bad I really do just need a day, and she's the one who taught me that.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Better Days

Back in December, I was feeling pretty smug (as is my wont).  There are lots of little phrases that are supposed to get you through your first few years of teaching and one of them is that you aren't really a teacher until you've cried.  I hadn't cried, though, and I was cruising right along toward a tear-free year.

Along came Zahava.

Zahava is generally a good kid.  She's a freshman with some learning difficulties and she can get snippy but what teenage girl doesn't on a regular basis?  One day during class, the ninth graders were so wound up that I finally told them that their talking told me that they already understood what I was trying to teach them so I was going to quit teaching and they could get started on their homework without my help.  I meant it, too; they had been having behavior problems all week and I'd had enough.  Something about the situation struck Zahava the wrong way - maybe it's because she struggles with focus and often needs individual help, which I was denying her.  Maybe she was already having a bad day and she took it personally; I don't know. Whatever it was, she just completely shut down on me.  My intuition told me to lay back, to let her process the problem on her own and not prod her; you can't force someone to like you, especially as a teacher.  Sometimes kids hate you, and you deal with it.  Until then, Zahava had been on my side, though; she was the first kid to flip on me.

After a couple weeks, her attitude started to affect her grades.  Kids who think they're punishing their teachers by lacking effort fascinate me.  I sat her down and said, "Look, I know you don't like me.  And that's okay.  You don't have to."

"Who told you that?"

"No one.  You've made it very clear."

"It's not that I don't like you.  You're just annoying."

It stung, I'll admit it; "annoying" was the descriptor of choice for me during my middle-school years (and those kids were not wrong).  But this was the end of the day, and I tried to put it out of my head as I checked my email quickly before I left.  I found a message from a professor responding to my request to raise my grade, which he had denied.  Then when the bell rang, I went to the office to find out that I wasn't getting paid on time.  I started to tear up and then a colleague asked me what was wrong.  There is nothing on this planet that will make me cry faster than someone being nice, so I lost control and started sobbing.

I never forgot that day, but I forgave Zahava because if you can't forgive high-school students for hurting your feelings then you have no business being a teacher.  As much as I love adolescent kids, they can be mean as scorpions; that's just part of the job.  Zahava did eventually come around in her own time, and is one of my favorite faces to see every day.

Today, those same ninth graders had about 10 minutes of downtime before the bell rang.  We were talking and laughing and someone mentioned that, if they were still in eighth grade, they would have been bouncing off the walls.  I told them that it someone had told me in August that this is what they'd be like in May, I wouldn't have believed them.  "You guys have matured a lot," I said.

"If you had seen us in eighth grade," a girl named Ahuva said, "you wouldn't have wanted to teach us.  We made teachers cry all the time."

Without thinking, I said, "Ah, I've only cried once here."

"Who made you cry?" she asked.

"I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad," I responded.

Zahava came forward.  "It was me, wasn't it?"

I nodded.  "It wasn't all you, though.  It was literally the worst five minutes I can remember, with just one thing after another."

She nodded.  "I'm really sorry."

"It's long in the past.  It's long forgiven."

She smiled.  "Thank you."

Then, as a colleague and I walked out, Zahava stopped the other teacher.  "Mrs. Graff!" she shouted.  "Thank you for putting up with me."

Mrs. Graff turned to me.  "Did she really say that?"

I laughed.  "She's coming around."

Teaching's not about me.  But there are days when my instincts are borne out and I'm validated and vindicated, and I feel like jumping up and down.

Monday, May 5, 2014


My last graduate class is Thursday. I spent the day at the library today, finishing up a presentation and working on the last two papers I'll ever write for classes.

I am terrified.

I never embark upon anything with joy.  My baseline emotion is consternation and generally it gets worse from there.  I have been a student for the last six years; for the most part, my highs and lows, my victories and defeats, have centered around school.  Of course, since my exit from undergrad three years ago, you can add job worries to that but even so, I always felt like a student (except when standing in front of my own classroom).  This change in my life has made me miss everything that is gone in a more acute way than I ever have.

Suddenly I find myself longing for trivia nights again.  I don't really want to pick that job up again (hell, I don't even like to attend trivia nights anymore) but I wish now that I'd enjoyed it more while doing it.  Along with that, I miss Jamie fiercely lately.  Maybe because 5 years is momentous; maybe because this is the biggest change in my life since he died.  Maybe sometimes you just miss the people who are gone.

I miss undergrad, even though I realize that I can barely remember it.  I feel like I worked a lot harder during undergrad than I did in grad school, but I think that's because instead of taking two classes at once and reading and writing my ass off, I was taking five to six classes at once and doing, like, thirty assignments per week.  I do better with my work divided up into small pieces, so I think I miss that fact.  I'm tired of vomiting rhetoric onto paper.

Weirdly, I miss PostSecret, back when it spoke to me.  I miss sending in my own secrets and checking each week to see if they had been published (they never were).  I miss buying each book as it came out.

I think all these things add up to a really good reason for my joining a gym.  I am a person who needs to take classes.  I've been reading this blog and, though it may seem odd to have a blog devoted almost entirely to someone else's blog, the source material does a great job of showing people how not to live and I realize it's important for me to always be taking classes. Not that my intellectual education is over or anywhere finished (though it's likely that the degree-seeking portion is), but I need to take a break and focus on my fitness.

Each time I walk across the bridge that takes me to class, I think, "I'll only be doing this a few more times."  I don't know anyone who's happy in grad school, but I will miss it.  I've made some excellent friends and learned a lot in these last three years.  I'm desperately trying to be philosophical and optimistic about the next chapter of my life, but that goes against my nature.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Place to Call Home, Part the Second

My school is in the basement of an Orthodox shul.  There are four classrooms, a lunchroom, a library, and a computer lab consisting of outdated computers, some of which work.  There is a student bathroom and a teacher bathroom.  My room has a door to the outside (the purpose of which I am not entirely sure), which means it's ten to twenty degrees colder (or warmer, if it's summertime) than anywhere else in the school at any given time.  The main area was once walled off to make classrooms, which explains the support column right in the middle of my room, rendering it awkward and essentially cutting the room in half.

There are three couches and two armchairs in my room.  I hate them with greater verve than I ever thought I could put into an opinion of living room furniture.  For one thing, they're crumb catchers.  Students are not supposed to eat in classrooms, but the structure of the school is so laid-back it's an almost impossible-to-enforce rule.  I can't imagine wanting to sit on one of them, especially considering that, to a teenage girl, everything is "gross."  Well, everything's either gross or amazing.  Those are your two options, generally.  One of the facets of my job is to give them more words; it's a struggle.  (One thing I forgot to mention in my last post - know what got me the job?  It was the Menaheles and her admiration of my vocabulary!  And I thought she hated me...)

A friend suggested that I write a book about my experiences in an Orthodox Jewish school for girls.  I won't, and I won't get into here the struggles I have encountered along the way.  I have cried, I have shouted, I have laughed, I have rolled my eyes (oh, how I have rolled my eyes); first of all, that's teaching.  Secondly, that's first-year teaching.  Thirdly, no matter where my career takes me, this will always have been my first job.  These will always be the people who gave me my shot.  They saw something in me that no one else did and decided it was worth the gamble and that is not a favor easily repaid.  I would never dare to do so with disrespect.

But the fact is, as much as I love the girls (and I do; I really, really do), this place is not my home.  My values and the community's values are irreparably misaligned.  It would be so much easier if I or they could be more middle-of-the-road, but then we would be unrecognizable.  In fact, if they were different or if I were different, I probably would not have gotten this job.  I thought my affinity for the Jewish faith and its practitioners would carry me through; my negative experiences with religious people had always centered around Christians.  But a friend (who also works at a Jewish organization and is not, herself, Jewish) said, "No no no no no!" Her Jewish coworkers raised their eyebrows right into their hairlines when they found out I was working what came to be known, affectionately, as the OJs.

It turns out, they are every bit as right-leaning as the most conservative fundamentalist Christian sect.  I guess the knee-length skirts should have warned me?  Yeah, to be fair, probably.  And along with their general restrictions comes what I can only describe as an incomplete curriculum.  I literally have no books to teach my seniors for the next two months because in their four years at the school they have exhausted the books they're allowed to read.  My students often ask me why everything we read is depressing and I tell them, "Literature is either depressing or smooching and we're not allowed to read smooching."  It cracks them up that I call it smooching but they do know what I mean.  For the most part they are as frustrated with the curriculum limitations as I am; what they don't know is that even if we were reading smooching books, they would complain about them.  It's the nature of being in high school.

So, I'm looking for a new job.  Looking and looking and looking.  Leaving no stone unturned, no online job listing unanswered.  And yet, my prospects for next year are so grim that I think I will be back here again.  Not that this is the end of the world, not by a long shot.  I am fully aware of how lucky I am to have a job teaching English; there aren't many and we English teachers are.  But student loans are coming due and I will have to defer, which makes me cringe.  I want to get those suckers paid off ASAP, but unless something falls into my lap, repayment will not start this fall.  Maybe next year.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Healthy Living, Y'All!

I don't know why exactly but I like to talk about eating more healthfully in Paula Deen's voice.  Irony, I suppose.

At any rate, I joined Weight Watchers in October 2012 and lost forty pounds between then and May 2013, when I found out my aunt had cancer.  When my mother and I took her for chemo treatments in June, I took it upon myself to beneficently walk over to the cupcake shop, or Einstein's, or Panera, or all three maybe, depending on my aunt's mood.  And I also ate all that crap myself - considerably more than she did, even.  That was the beginning of my major backslide.  So, from June of last year until last Tuesday, I gained nearly fifty pounds.

You will note that that's more than I had ever lost in the first place.  Crap.

So, I'm back on the Weight Watchers stick, and I even joined a gym near my house that has a cardio theater, yoga (which I've been dying to do for a while), Zumba, and this crazy-ass jungle gym for grown-ups.  I got a "discounted"  (they're such shady operators) rate because I was one of the first 200 people to sign up for their new location, which doesn't actually open until June; in the meantime I'm going to other locations.  I would love to walk to the gym (it's less than 2 miles away), but there are some hella huge-ass hills and I don't think I'm up to that yet. Google Maps claims it would take 37 minutes to walk it, but I bet I could double that.  Maybe I'll work on that between  now and June.

I'm working up the nerve to go to my first Zumba class.  A friend said Zumba intimidates her but yoga intimidates me more.  I have a picture in my head of Zumba being a bunch of fat ladies in a room wearing hot pink tank tops and dancing off-beat.  I of course could be way off on that, but it's a much more comforting picture to me than what I think of when I think of yoga, which is a bunch of 90-lb. women with rock-hard abs twisting themselves into pretzels and saying, "Namaste."  I'm pretty sure I'm right about that one.

I've only been on Weight Watchers two weeks and it's been a struggle.  My body is used to lousy foods, and I crave them constantly. I keep pushing, though; I keep trying.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Place to Call Home, Part the First

I applied for my current job on a whim.  I had beaten a path to the door of every school district in St. Louis and some outside; I had spent two (nearly three) hiring seasons chasing nearly every lead that I could track down and I was exhausted.  I had seen the posting on the site before but it was part-time, which was something I was not interested in (mainly because I was subbing in four different districts at the time and could easily score what equaled full-time weeks on a regular basis).  It must have been a late night, when all my insecurities come out to whisper, to cajole, to taunt.  I clicked the "apply" box and mentally filed the position with all the other fruitless leads.

At one point, at the beginning of my job search, I had begun a database of each job applied for; date applied; date rejected; in my naive optimism, there was a field for "date hired."  The database had long since been abandoned; I had applied, reapplied, fished, sought tenuous contacts through third cousins of acquaintances of my sisters... at a certain point a file detailing every move I'd made had become a monument to failure and I could not face it.  It was easier for me to picture a vague mountain of missed opportunities, regretful voice mails, and tersely worded letters not worth the postage paid to send them than it was to say, with confidence, "Ah, yes.  I applied to this school district seven times; three in 2011; two in 2012; and two in 2013."  All it told me is that that district wanted nothing to do with me, and that fact never deterred me.  I got discouraged, and sometimes I did want to quit, but perusals of job-search websites only led me down roads that led straight back to what I had quit in 2007 to become a teacher.  So the database was scrapped and I don't know how many jobs I applied for and how many interviews I got before I got the one at the tiny high school for Orthodox Jewish girls.

I got a call asking me to come in for an interview while I was at lunch.  My habit is not to answer calls from numbers I don't recognize but when you're looking for a job, you open every email, you answer every phone call, you begin to check pigeons to make sure they aren't carrying scrolls informing you of interviews.  The principal on the other end of the line was soft spoken and I had to move outside to take the call.  Embarrassed, I asked, "Is this the Hebrew school?" It was.  I was supposed to buzz at the door of the temple and be escorted into the school; I would wear a skirt that went past my knees and something that covered my clavicle and my elbows.

I owned nothing that met those specifications.  I have always been a proud pants woman and I have cleavage even in a turtleneck, so I embrace that and let the ladies breathe.  But off I went to Goodwill, to seek out cheap clothes to wear to an interview for a job that I probably would not get.  So frustrating was the search for high-necked tops that I declared to Facebook my intention to call and cancel the interview (said announcement was met with mixed feelings; some people said "This doesn't sound like the place for you anyway," but a couple people pushed me to go), but then I found a single faded navy t-shirt that was short-sleeved but high-collared.  I put it together with a green cardigan and ankle-length khaki skirt (I laugh every time I think about that thing; I have since hemmed it to just below my knees) and some brown flats.  My hair was newly short from a mental meltdown I'd had over trying to find a job, so basically I looked like a frumpier version of Maria from The Sound of Music.  And I didn't even have Julie Andrews's voice.

So I had the interview, with the principal of general studies and the Menaheles, which is essentially the principal of the Hebrew side of things.  It did not go well, at least not in my estimation.  The Menaheles clearly was not impressed with me and it appeared that the hiring power lay in her hands.  I hadn't had any experience, whether in student teaching or even subbing, teaching a block schedule (something I still struggle with, by the way), and I was given the standard "If you make it to the next round, we'll call you to set up a second interview."  I was waiting to hear about another job at the time, so I just let that "Don't call us; we'll call you" go.  I had had tons of other interviews that had gone far better, and I still hadn't gotten those jobs.  Ah well, I thought; every interview is good experience, right?

I went on with my summer and tried to ignore the pain that had developed in my foot from wearing heels on the two-hour drive to interview for the aforementioned other job.  I begged a friend's husband to squeeze my foot as hard as he could, but he deemed such an action "too intimate," and finally I broke down and went to urgent care, terrified.  While I waited to see the doctor, I emailed the principal of the Jewish school on my phone, asking him if he had made a decision; I had already added insult to the injury of my swollen, angry foot by finding out that I hadn't gotten the job two hours away, so suddenly the throwaway interview took on great importance.  The doctor came in, felt around on my foot, declared me the owner of a case of tendinitis, wrote me a prescription for anti-inflammatories, and sent me along; this all took about fifteen minutes, and by the time I got to my car and checked my phone, the principal had left me a voice mail.  I steeled myself for even more rejection or possibly a second-round interview but for once, even with a throbbing foot, the fates smiled on me.

Of course, I had gotten the job.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

At the Movies

April 5, 2013 was the 19th anniversary of my father's death.  I was 15 when he died, and I've always said that my one hang-up about being so young at the time was that I never knew my father as an adult.  I never got to know him as a real person, to buy him a gift that was a reflection of his personality and our relationship.  I realized this year that that void has slowly morphed into the belief that I never knew him at all, that maybe he was never even real.  I mean, there is empirical evidence that my father once walked this earth - I know my mother has his last driver's license secreted away; in fact, my own existence is proof of his.  No DNA test required - I look just like him in some ways, and my mother never fails to remind me when I do something the way he did.  But there are times when I could easily convince myself that it was all a dream, that I once had a dream that I had a father.

I made last-minute plans with an old friend (in fact, the first friend I made after my dad died) and her kids to see Jurassic Park 3-D on the anniversary of his death.  It didn't occur to me until we walked into the theater that I saw this film on the last Father's Day we had together, less than a year before he died.  I gave him a shitty fish statue.  That statue has lived in the acute corner of my brain where shame goes not to die but to malinger forever.  I saw the movie that Father's Day with my aunt and cousins, and they brought me home afterward.  My dad wasn't feeling great following chemotherapy, but he had enough spirit about him to bitch about the movie, which he had seen the day before.

That's right; this is a movie that has a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an 83% audience rating.  This is a movie that practically everyone in America loves, and not without reason.  It's not a craptastic action film that satisfies our bloodlust; it's an awesome action film that satisfies our bloodlust, and speaks to our emotions, and captures our intellectual imaginations.  It's a really good movie.  

But it wasn't enough for my father; it never was.  When he read Michael Crichton's book, he saw it as bigger, grander, more realistic.  My father wished that they had waited twenty years to make it to give technology time to catch up with the vision he had in his head.  This relentless pursuit of perfection (for other people, mind you) was the source of much friction between us.  During my elementary and middle-school years, I was a lackluster student, bored and frustrated.  I once ended up having to falsify data on a science project because I couldn't get a chicken egg to float in a glass of water, and my father admonished me: "Anything worth doing is worth doing well."

"I was not the one who decided this was worth doing," I responded.  I was nine; my fifth-grade teacher was forcing me to do the project which, for the record, was not worth doing.  But this was representative of the many lectures and shouting matches that resulted from my grades.  We argued about grades until the semester before he died - I had gotten a D in Geometry on a mid-term report card, but an A in Spanish.  He made me apologize for the Geometry grade en espaƱol.  

Twenty years ago I was fourteen years old, yet to begin my first semester of Spanish.  The Internet was not in widespread use, and I was trying (and failing) to save money for a peripheral for my computer but I couldn't decide if I wanted a CD-ROM drive or a modem.  The only people who had cellphones were pretentious assholes (doctors still just carried pagers), and those they carried weighed approximately half a ton.  Newspapers were how most people got their news.  Bill Clinton had just begun being the president.  Not only had September 11 not happened yet, but Oklahoma City hadn't either.  The point I'm belaboring here is that the world has changed in fundamental, significant ways.

Sometimes I look around at the way we live, and wonder what my father would have thought.  Cigarette prices and their attendant taxes would have enraged him, having been a lifelong smoker himself.  I don't know what he would have thought of having a black president - I remember him as being pretty racist, but my mother's own attitudes toward social change have mellowed significantly in the intervening years, so I wonder if his would have as well.  I think smartphones would have charmed him, but then I remember his attitude toward Jurassic Park and wonder if he would have all sorts of reasons why they weren't as good as they could be and how they could be better.

Seeing that movie that features high-waisted pants, "an interactive CD-ROM!," and Samuel L. Jackson smoking in an office made me fiercely nostalgic for something I never had.  It blindsided me; I hadn't seen the movie since its original theatrical release and was excited for it, but I hadn't expected an emotional reaction.  I hadn't known I could so fiercely miss someone I barely remember.