The Author

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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Four days more...

      The lyrics to "One Day More" from Les Miserables are running through my head as I build my proverbial barricade and try to survive the next four days and somehow win this battle.  Let's hope it turns out better for me than for the students' revolution. 

     Thursday is opening night for Much Ado About Nothing.  I also have two papers due that night.  Fortunately, after spending six hours on it last night, one of them is essentially feeling done.  Thank God it was a paper on the benefits of the arts in education. Somehow writing about the intense language learning that happens while rehearsing Shakespeare made me actually believe that, even though I will pretty much not see my daughter until Saturday, I am doing something worthwhile with this next week... not just yelling at teenagers to "PROJECT!" 

     If you look up "Hell Week" on urban dictionary, you will find that the first explanation refers to that point around finals when college students experience various stages of distress and anxiety.  The third explanation referred to it as "the week of a theatrical performance, when the cast and crew practically live at school and communicate with their family members through notes." This made me laugh, as I glance at the jambalaya recipe I have taped next to the stove (annotated to remind my family of the pre-diced veggies in tupperware in the fridge). Like I said... building my barricade, since this week is "hell week" for me by both urban definitions. Ironically, I don't particularly like the term "hell week."  When Marc made reference to it yesterday, I commented that it isn't a term I normally use, since "hell" indicates "bad," when the results of hell week are often rather good.  Some of the best work gets done when you turn up the heat (no pun intended). 

     And so, this weekend, I have attempted to build the barricade by making dinner plans and stocking the fridge and freezer so my husband and kids don't resort to drive-thrus, by straightening my hair so I don't have to think about how crappy it looks when I wake up in the morning (although it inevitably still will), by attempting to finish the papers early, by setting all the bills that are due to pay automatically, and by watching Smash to remind myself that even theatre professionals feel like everything is falling apart. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

At the center of what it means to be human

      Have you ever had that moment of realization where you come face-to-face with your finite nature and realize that your season for something has truly passed?  I have had many of those moments lately; they can be truly depressing.

      When I was little, I wanted very much to be an actress.  (Okay, when I was four years old, I went through a stage when I wanted to be a doctor, and I went through a brief stage where I thought I wanted to be a physical therapist, but mostly I wanted to be an actress).  Growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, for me, that meant, of course, I wanted to be a movie star.  Until I got just a little older and realized that I hate watching myself on camera. Like, seriously, hate.  I still do. So, I went with my heart and soul and became a teacher. 

      Not that I don't love being a teacher. And sincerely, I am called to be teacher. Looking back, I've known it all along.  There is this book by Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, in which he talks about how who we really are at the core is who we were as children, before we started adapting our passions and dreams to the worlds expectations. When I look back at myself as a child, I was a born teacher before I was even a students.  When I was like 3, I lined all my stuffed animals up on the porch swing for a "class picture," my dad, the amateur photog, of course obliged with his fancy camera.  He even blew the picture up and framed it.  But that is besides the point.  I just know that I have always, at the core of my being, been called to be a teacher. 

     But then, there is this other part of me, the part that, in my teenage years, discovered the stage, that is  still so enamored with the stage. I love acting on stage so, so, so much -- it is like a drug.  The rush I get from performing for a live audience is like nothing I could ever explain to someone who has not experienced it. Those of you who have know exactly what I am talking about. In November, when I went on a cruise with my in-laws, I auditioned for this show they have on the last night where some of the cruise guests get to be in the show.  I ended up getting to perform on stage as Gloria Estefan.  It was so cheesy and the costume was, well, horrific (don't expect to see clips of it -- I will NOT be posting them, as I said, I don't like myself on film), but I hadn't felt that good in a long, long time.  There were hundreds of people in the audience, and I just totally gave it my all, and it just felt, well, phenomenal. 

     Aside from the rush of the huge audience, there's this cathartic element to acting too. The energy, the escapism, the chance to completely dive into a fictional character's life and problems. That part of acting is therapeutic to a person's soul.  A few weeks ago, when a scene I am directing was falling flat, I got up on stage and took an actresses place so that she could see where the energy was falling. I rarely, rarely do that, but in this case, it worked.  When I got off stage after, I was shaking and out of breath from the intensity of the scene.  I had almost forgotten what that felt like. 

      When I do things like that... when I watch shows like Smash (which sometimes manages to hit me right at my emotional center and leave me breathless), I find that part of my soul aching.  I recently did a research project on the arts in education, and I found this quote that defined the arts better than I had ever been able to define it in my own head: theatre "[taps] into deeply cultural and expressive aspects of people's lives that are at the center of what it means to be human."  

    When I am acting is when I feel most in touch with what it means to be human. On stage, I am in touch with parts of my innermost being, and those parts are so terribly out of use these days that they almost physically hurt. 

     And then I have those moments where I think to myself? Why not? Is it ever really too late to chase a dream? Why not chase the Broadway dream?  I've always been a dreamer.  I've always believed that, if you can dream it, you can do it. But who am I kidding...  I would never, ever, ever leave teaching to pursue a career on Broadway, and even if I wanted to, even in my most optimistic moments, I could never fool myself into thinking that it was even close to a reality. I am, in Broadway terms, old, and terribly inexperienced.  And I do not really know how to dance. Even learning simple choreography takes me a long time. And I have a career... as a teacher. I'm a teacher. 

     I rarely feel old.  I usually look at my life and think, "I'm not even 30... I've got my whole life ahead of me," but when it comes to certain things...  that's just not true. 

    But, the passion in my soul longs not for Broadway fame and fortune. I long only for the drug-like delight I find on stage. And so, as soon as I finish this darn Masters degree, I will pursue my passion again.  I will audition for community theatre. I will not give up so easily. I will not make a million excuses for not auditioning. I will return to the jazz class I had started taking in January, so I don't always get rejected because of my lack of dance training.  Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

Thursday, April 18, 2013


      At around nine o'clock this evening, I dragged myself from class to the parking lot, thinking of nothing but my pajamas and a glass of chardonnay. As I climbed into my car and turned the key, the CD player awoke to blast the album that has pretty much become the theme of my life lately: Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown.
     And then it hit me. Tonight is Green Day's LA concert. As I looked at the clock I thought, they probably just took the stage. The past six months flashed before my eyes -- buying tickets to the Las Vegas concert, realizing we were too broke and too busy to afford it, selling back the tickets, Green Day announcing the LA concert, Marc asking me about buying tickets, me checking my calendar and saying, "No, we can't, I have class until late that night and it's the last one before the paper is due... besides, we can't afford it."


     Like the fact that I haven't even met my new niece yet. Or that I didn't even see Tiana's beautiful face at all today. And that I am not taking a personal day tomorrow to spend with Marc and the kids (Vinny has no school tomorrow). Priorities.  There is just too much to do.
      So, as I pulled out of the parking lot, I pumped the volume up to an intensity that would allow me to feel it in my bones, and pretty much cried the entire way home.
      Ironically, as I pushed the knob towards a certainly dangerous decibel, a providentially appropriate chorus filled my soul:
"Well I, I just want to see the light
And I, I don't want to lose my sight
Well, I, I just want to see the light
And I need to know what's worth the fight." 

      What's worth the fight?  My students are worth the fight.  The obvious progress they make each and every day -- worth the fight.  My education is worth the fight.  The impact my masters program has had on my teaching -- worth the fight.  Finishing strong and keeping my commitments -- worth the fight. Pushing my drama students to strive for excellence in exceedingly difficult endeavors... like performing Shakespeare -- worth the fight.

     And I do see the light at the end of the tunnel, I truly do. It's just that life is an insane marathon of work right now.  Much Ado About Nothing hits the stage on May 2nd, and we are far from ready, so there is much work to do on that front.  The next round of report cards is due May 7th and I have a huge pile of papers to be graded (and more on the way).  My graduate school work is all due May 9th.  I have this feeling of impending doom, like, if I let my guard down for a minute, one of my carefully cooking pots is going to boil over and burn past the point of salvaging.

Here's to friends willing to read a 32 page paper.
     And honestly, a tunnel is truly not the best description of my current situation. The light really is not at the end, but all around me.  The light is in friends from afar who post encouraging comments on facebook.  It is in my truly dedicated comrades who spent hours last Thursday sitting around my kitchen table, reading and responding to my thesis paper. The light is my devoted husband who arranged for his parents to bring my son home from youth group last night so I could have a few uninterrupted hours to work. It is in my daughter who understands that mommy needs to be on her computer and is willing to bond by just cuddling beside me on the couch in the evenings. The light is the friend who cheerfully gives of her last few days in California to help my students do Shakespeare well. The light is my incredibly selfless mother, who cleans my house and does my laundry and does whatever she can to make life... well... possible.  I see the light.

     And, I, don't want to lose my sight.

     Because it truly does take a village.  And when I get that ever-loving piece of paper on May 23rd... it is going to mean so incredibly much more than I had ever really imagined to me and to them.

Because that is the power of community.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Stiff Neck, OCD, and College Ministry - My Weekend in a Nutshell

I'd like to start off by saying that this blog is dedicated to my mother, whom I would be utterly miserable without. 

This was an interesting weekend.  Long.  You know all that stuff you hear about the physical effects of stress?  It is so true, and I wish I could just choose not to stress, but sometimes there just is no avoiding it.

Friday night, Marc and I spent hours working on my grading. He graded vocabulary homework and entered grades for hours, while I tackled the last of the essays I've bee trudging through for weeks.  Around midnight, exhausted from hours hunched over papers, we finally went to bed.

Those hours hunched over papers took a toll. I woke up Saturday morning feeling unable to move.  You know that feeling where, the second that you get out of bed you feel stiff and sore all over?  I felt it before I even got out of bed.  I woke up and went to roll over in bed for a little more sleep, and I couldn't roll as usual. My neck felt so stiff I had to try to roll my entire body in one slow, smooth motion to avoid any twisting. I laid there, contemplating getting out of bed, and could barely make myself do it. When I eventually did, every single robotic motion hurt. This happened to me last time I had grades due too.  The only difference is that last time, it happened literally THE DAY, grades were due.  It took me nearly two weeks to recover.

After several cups of coffee and many hours of cuddling with Tiana, I attempted to get up and grade papers or clean my house or something, but alas, all I could do was call my mom to complain.  In the process of complaining, my mom insisted that I take the pre-paid massage appointment that she had scheduled for that day.  I felt so guilty and refused until she absolutely insisted. 

Fortunately, this woman was amazing.  (If you need a really good massage therapist, ask me about her).  Within that hour, I regained some of the motion in my neck, which was fantastic. I was feeling good enough to actually enjoy my cousin's birthday last night, even if I did have to move my entire body to look at the people to my left and right.  I didn't feel completely better yesterday, and woke up a little sore again still today, but by this afternoon, I was feeling pretty much normal, which is AMAZING, considering the fact that last time this happened it wasn't nearly as bad and it took me about ten days to get back to normal feeling and range of motion.

Anyhow... moving on to the other elements of my interesting weekend -- 

For those who do not know, Vinny has OCD.  We have good days and bad days, but mostly we function alright. The saddest part of all is that even the months in therapy did not help us to overcome Vinny's super protectiveness of his bedroom.  It is his space and his sanctuary, and I respect that, but at the same time, the feelings of panic he gets really ruin things for him, and as his mom, I want to see him live life to its fullest, so that's hard.  Today, he was setting up his stuffed animals as an audience for his show. He is always putting on a show. Tiana says, "I want to be your body-ence!" but he shoved her out.  I tried to talk him into it, but he wigged out and was all upset simply because she was looking around his room at his stuff. You could tell that in his head he was afraid she might misplace something simply by thinking about touching it. I ended up putting her down for a nap and taking Vinny aside to talk.

We talked about how a lot of the things that he says to her when she goes in his room are really mean and hurtful and most importantly, how he is missing out on a really cool relationship that he could be having with his sister. He actually agreed. He compared it to an episode of a cartoon he watches, where a brother and sister used to share a room and then they fought and stopped sharing a room, but they ended up missing each other and wanted to share their room again. I said, "See, you could have to share a room with her, but you don't."

His reply?   "Actually, that might be kind of fun."

I was shocked at this openness, which he has never exhibited about his room, particularly not in regards to Tiana, so I decided to run with it.  I suggested that he and Tiana temporarily share a room so that he could see what it was like. He was thrilled with the idea, even though I insisted that he would need to let her just be herself and do what she wants and not follow her around grabbing everything she touches. He excitedly agreed, so we went about clearing a space for her. 

This change in attitude meant a great afternoon for the two of them. They played happily together all over the house and yard, two peas in a pod. He let her see his pet fish and play his keyboard and didn't bat an eye.  Okay, he probably batted an eye, but he let it be, and that was the goal.

Until bedtime tonight. Things were mostly okay, but the meltdowns started. I think it was the thought of him not being able to control her in there if he fell asleep before she did.

During the meltdown period, Marc was pretty upset. "Why are we doing this again?" 

It was hard to explain, but I was, in some ways, doing it FOR the meltdown.  I knew that sharing his space would mean that Tiana would disrupt his order and his routine, but he somewhat needs to experience these disruptions, and then see that nothing terrible happens. Before we went to therapy, we used to spend all of our time trying to meet Vinny's demands -- illogically zipping zippers that were already zipped and putting books back in the same exact spot as before -- but out therapist explained that this is terrible for someone with OCD because it reinforces this emotional sense they have that disaster will strike if they don't (fill in the blank).  By doing whatever it is that the OCD sufferer wants done, you actually reinforce the thought that something bad would have happened if it hadn't been done, which makes the urge that much stronger the next time. If I can just get Vinny to see that nothing terrible will happen if Tiana touches his stuff or disrupts his routine, then he will hopefully learn to relax and allow himself to enjoy her company as much as I can tell that he wants to. Sigh. Tiana isn't sleeping terribly well in Vinny's room, but even a day or two of this will probably be enough to help Vinny make some progress.

Tonight was also interesting because Marc and I had the first meeting of what we hope will become a regular college ministry. We used to lead a college small group Bible study at our last church and we really enjoyed it.  Our new church is small, but we started to sense the need for one. 

College ministry has a special place in my heart.  It's interesting to me that most churches actually don't have a college ministry, despite the fact that college age people, in many ways, have the most freedom to really live life together in the way that the people in the first church did. College is when my faith became my own and when I truly realized the importance of fellowship, and I credit a strong college ministry.  Even through rough times in my faith in future years, I never desired to walk away from the church -- even if I felt rejected by it -- because I knew that fellowship could be life changing and faith sustaining, so I refused to walk away. Even when it was hard.

Today was so not the ideal day for this though.  I don't know what I was thinking, but I told Marc to schedule it for today.  With how crappy I felt yesterday, my house was a disaster and grades are due in two days, so my plate was full to say the least.  But, again, Mom to the rescue. My mom rushed over and spent an hour cleaning my house. As my mom commented, and I unfortunately must agree, she can do in 45 minutes what would take Marc and I two hours together.  I am a remarkably effective grader when sitting in my kitchen watching my mom do my dishes. Why is that?  I got SO much done. Now, if only the grade system wasn't down so I could enter all this stuff...