Tuesday, March 29, 2011


From the back seat of the car...

Abby: Monkeys are really smart. They're practically human.

Amelia: They're not practically human. They just have hands.

Abby: No, they're really smart! I saw one sneeze and then wipe his nose with a tissue.

Abby: Octopusses are the smartest animals. They can climb into a box, lock it, and then climb into a smaller box, and then figure out how to get out again.

Abby: But monkeys can hold onto to trees with their tails! It's like having three hands.

Amelia: Whales are smarter. They have huge brains, and their own language.

Mom: Elephants are really smart, too.

Abby: I know. They can play soccer. I saw it on TV.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

An exchange with my new student, who I will call Sam...

Mrs. B: Hey, Sam, what did you have for breakfast this morning?

Sam: Granola Bar.

Mrs. B: Well, it made you even smarter today, because you're doing an awesome job on those comprehension questions. You should eat a granola bar for breakfast every day. Your brain likes them.

The next morning...

Sam: Hey, Mizz B...look! (Pulls three granola bars from his pocket.) I bought them with my own money. I'm gonna rock your world today.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Another student exchange...

Kate: Mrs. B, can I ask you a question?

Mrs. B: Of course.

Kate: How is your coffee this morning?

Mrs. B: It's fine, thanks.

Kate: I'm glad to hear that because I have some bad news...

Mrs. B: What's that?

Kate: I'm going to Harry Potter world and my parents said I can't take you with me.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Come on, Spring. Get on with it.

I have a very intense reaction to daffodils.

The sight of them fills me with optimism, admiration, and cheer. Their bulbs live under the frozen earth from autumn to March and then, just when they can't stand the cold for one more second, they defy the early spring chill and burst, dammit, and fie on frost. I admire that determination and respect that perseverence.

I read this in Yankee Magazine this month, which says the same thing, only more artfully:

There's a moment, tentative and bewildered. Somewhere beneath the snow, a bulb gets brave, stirs a little, cracks its skin, and begins to push through frozen ground.

Reaching toward pale light, it's a small gesture, but grand. Overhead the sky is brilliant, a jolt of cobalt blue. The calendar says spring, March 20, but this is New England, after all, where dates are merely suggestions...Really we're in the hands of the gods here.

Until the earth begins to move - literally beneath our feet. Tiny spears poking up everywhere, specks of green and knobby buds flexing themselves, and then, like a torrent, unstoppable, it spreads north. Early March, at the first hint of warmth, crocuses bloom - golden, purple and white - nestled in goblets of snow. Following in April by daffodils, tulips, and then, in May, blossoms of every kind: apple, lilac, dogwood. And now there's no turning back, a river bursting its banks, color seeping out of the snow.

I find spring frustrating, honestly. Spring in New England feels so reluctant and teasing. It knows how badly we want it, and it dangles its delights just out of reach, one sixty-degree afternoon at a time, until finally it just gives in, gives up, and gives lilacs. My favorite. I'm feeling all sorts of pagan right now about spring, wishing for rituals and things to light on fire.

This is our first spring in our new house, and I really have no idea what to expect. We moved at the start of May last year, so I found peonies which I thought were perfectly magical, lilac bushes with no flowers on them, and rhododendrons that really never fully delivered on their promises. (That was true of all rhododendrons in New England last year...I forget why.) I haven't found any crocuses yet, or daffodils, but they might be in some little undiscovered spot.

Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the day we were told that we would not get to have this house. It's over, the bank told us. It's being foreclosed, and you sold your little yellow house and wasted all this time for nothing. I cried and fussed and smashed dishes, and then found another house. One week after that, they changed their minds, and we signed a Purchase and Sale agreement on this, our House of Dreams with a Room for Everyone and a Dunkin Donuts on the corner. It's turned out to be even more wonderful than I had even hoped...which is saying something, because my hopes were high.

I have high hopes for this Spring, too, and the new ways this season will inspire me to grow and learn and stomp about in the mud, searching for daffodils and robins and all manner of buds below. Hurry! It's lovely here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


I'm feeling super bratty today. I'm personally offended that it's snowing outside, frustrated that my classroom vent is blowing out freezing air, and not entirely in the mood to sing and dance tonight.

I have a crick in my neck from falling asleep on the couch last night (again) and there's a boy in my class who is currently sniffing, like clockwork, every 14 seconds. I've timed it.

I spilled my vegetable soup all over the inside of my lunch bag this morning, and my coffee did not have enough cream this morning. I want to eat muffins and bagels and other carb-a-rific, sabotaging treats, but instead am nibbling dry Special K from a mug.

I want to wear sandals and go out to lunch. (This last from "Private Benjamin," one of my mother's most-quoted movies, and my go-to line for being dissatisfied with my current condition.) I can't find the new Jane Eyre playing anywhere around here, and even if I could, I have no time to see it, anyhow.

Now that I have released all of those toxins, I suppose I should balance it by some happy thoughts:

Summer's coming. My trip to NYC, my cruise, time on the front porch with a novel. All on it's way.

I read a poem today about how you can only truly know kindness if you've known deep sorrow. Now, I've had stuff happen to me, sure, but all in all, I've been incredibly blessed. My daughters are healthy and brilliant and getting more fun and interesting every single day. My husband still loves me. My mom is well and happy and while I've had sadness, I've been blessed to avoid the soul-crushing losses that would threaten to shatter me. So far. Knock on wood. I'm just feeling grateful for that today.

The other positive thing is that I spent some time in the Athenaeum last night organizing all of my scrapbook stuff, and figuring out which pictures I need to print, and getting myself all set up to go back to my albums. It's been ages, and it filled me with cheer. I know they're super corny, but I like knowing that I have a tangible tribute to my little family life, and a visible expression of how very much I am loving their childhoods.

Okay. I feel much better now.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's the Little Things...

Whenever I feel like writing something, but feel at a loss for what to say, my go-to exercise is a gratitude list.

1. I am super grateful for my new washing machine and it's little "Let's begin!" and "I'm done!" songs. I'm especially grateful that Patrick figured out how to install in when the technicial wouldn't do it on Sunday. I am further grateful to have three nights at home in which to wash all the clothes that have piled up for three weeks.

2. I watched Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince with my whole family last night, and I am ever grateful that HP has been part of my life for the past decade. I seriously feel lucky about that way more often than you'd think.

3. I'm grateful that when I pull up at the Dunkin' Donuts drive-through in the morning, the servers know my voice, and will ask if I want "the usual." It's nice to be known.

4. I'm so grateful for the coming of Spring. I'd be gratefuller if it would come a leeeetle faster.

5. My house-a-versary is coming up, and I'm daily grateful for my house. I am actually grateful for the week in which I believed I had lost it, because it makes me appreciate it all the more.

6. I am grateful for the poet Billy Collins, my favorite. Here is one I just enjoy:

And here is one I use every year in my classroom:

7. I am grateful to have been told this week that the Salvation Army is a hugely anti-gay organization. (Which others have evidently known for a long time...where have I been on this one? And what are some other ones I should know about, but don't, besides the Boy Scouts?) They fire employees if they find out that they're gay, and they give a lot of money to anti-gay causes. Now, I can bypass the bell-ringers without guilt and donate my money and old clothing elsewhere. And it's another excellent reason why Guys and Dolls can stay dead to me for eternity.

8. I am grateful for the hour I passed so pleasantly in the Athenaeum last night, drinking a glass of my favorite cheap chardonnay (Hacienda, if you're interested) and reading my Oprah magazine while Patrick made a delicious dinner. (Some sort of turkey stew and corn muffins, if you're further interested.)

9. I am grateful for all of my beloveds who came to see me in the show this weekend, even though it's expensive. Not that everyone should, because I hardly ever get to see people in things unless it's for work, but it was still so nice to know that there were people out there, loving me, and caring about my own little Maxi Fords more than anyone else's.

10. A friend posted a youtube poetry slam on my Facebook page last night about teachers, which I loved. At a dinner party, this poet/teacher was asked, disparagingly, "What do you make?" Instead of answering with his salary, he (poetically) responded: "I make a C+ feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor, and I make an A- feel like a slap in the face if you haven't given your best." Finally, he came to the answer "I make a goddamned difference." When I heard that, I remembered what I wrote in my high school yearbook under "Ambition." It was the cliched "To make a difference." And then this morning, in my Notes from the Universe, it said something about having achieved exactly what you hoped for. So, I'm grateful for that.

If you're reading this, go make your own gratitude list right now, even if it's just spoken aloud in your car or just in your head. It'll make you feel much better about your life.

Monday, March 21, 2011

In the Flow

In the past few years, I've spent a lot of time waiting for things to happen, especially when it came to my teaching life. I was waiting for a particular door to open, and I've only recently come to truly face the fact that it's just not going to happen. Rather than shaking my fist against the sky about it, I've decided to focus hard on blooming where I'm planted, and kicking my committment to 6th grade up a notch. The results have been...well, bloomy. My kids are doing great, we're smack in the middle of the most fun unit of the year (Greek mythology), I've just done a ton of cleaning out and purging and organizing, and I'm finding energy to create new things, make old things better, and just generally go along with the positive flow.

My new little guy is transitioning well. He's fighting against doing work, which it seems has not really been expected of him until now, and I'm using my Maria Von Trapp "firm but kind" mentality. (Insert lyrics to "I Have Confidence" here.) I'm finding little ways to connect to him, reasons to praise him, and on the one day last week when he didn't show up to school, I called the boys' home looking for him, got him on the phone, and basically told him to get his skinny little butt to school where he belongs. He hasn't missed a day since. He will, of course, but I'll deal with that when it comes.

In other news, my show is going well. It's hard to face three more weekends when I'm always done with a show in one, but it's a whole different ballgame being on this side of the process. When I'm directing, my work feels like it's never ever done. I dream about the show, I think about it all the live-long day, I expend tons of energy with emails, organizing, and all of the little tasks that come with being In Charge. In this, I do my thing and go home. And that's been lovely. The cast is all very nice, and I've remembered that really, the bulk of the "bonding" does actually happen during production week, when you're in the flow of the show and finding your patterns. You do a quick change next to the same person every night. You wait for an entrance every night beside someone else. You help the same person with a zipper at the same spot each day. That's how it all happens. The personalities are all very different in this cast, but I'm really fond of them all now. The funniest line of the week was from my favorite of the "sassy gay boys," describing a particularly zany and clueless, but immensely talented girl: "She's a heart of gold wrapped in a mess. But not like a dirty mess, a mess like a kitten all tangled up in too much string."

My home life, though it's been busy with all of my rehearsals this week, is definitely continuing to improve with the coming of spring.

All in all, life is very good right now. This doesn't do much for creative or interesting things to blog about, but honestly...I'll take it while it lasts.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dear Parents of Sixth Graders

Dear Parents of Sixth Graders,

As we enter into spring, I know our year is on its downward arc. I have had a lovely year, really, and there are so many of you who are doing a spectacular job raising kind, industrious, respectful, and altogether delightful human beings. It is an honor to know them, and a true pleasure to spend each day in their company.

Some of you, unfortunately, are creating some challenges. While I know that your child's whole persona is not always a result of your parenting, much of it is within your control. So while I am not terribly far from bidding your precious cherubs goodbye, I feel that there are just a few small requests I'd like to make to ensure that our remaining time together is productive, peaceful, and as pleasant as possible.

1. We have a big project coming up on Ancient Greece, which includes a diorama and a written oration. Please do not go to Michael's Crafts, spend $83, and tape the receipt to the project, "just so I know." If you are stupid enough to spend $83 on one foolish school project, then the likelihood of your child earning an A is slim. (Reference any sort of apple/tree metaphors here.) Furthermore, I have been working with your child every day for seven months. I know his work. I also know a Mommy-made diorama in a split second.

2. Please make sure your child bathes. His/her hormones are tap dancing exuberantly throughout every bodily inch, and showering should really happen every day.

3. Please do not email me about your child's bowel movements. Constipation is not an acceptable excuse for why your child might not be focused in Social Studies class. On the same subject, please don't tell me that your child is clearly advanced because he was potty trained at two and a half. That does not necessarily correlate to his performance in 6th grade. Oh, how I wish it could.

4. If you write me an email with multiple misspellings, I will, unfortunately, judge you. Use the freaking spell check. And don't use the word "freaking" in your emails to me, nor any thing resembling "lol" or "jk." Punctuation is also greatly appreciated.

5. If I tell you that your daughter is "too focused on socializing," or "ahead of the developmental curve," that is teacher speak for boy crazy. You've got a problem on your hands. Read her texts if you need to (since you pay for them), pay attention to her email, and please, talk to her about her life. More importantly, listen to her.

6. If you are ultra-conservative and offended by gays or the issue of homosexuality, or the tentative awareness of sexuality in general, get yourself a different 6th grade teacher for your child. Statistically, two students in each of my classes will be gay. I will give them a voice, a haven, and will daily send the message that "it gets better." I'll do the same for every geeky, disenfranchised, still-searching-for-a-tribe awkward bunny. I may not make a difference, but I will try. It might be uncomfortable for everyone, but I'll bust through it anyhow, because it needs to be done.

7. If you write me a note and fail to put the "e" on the end of my name, I will absolutely take it personally.

8. If I offend you, and you offer, as retaliation, to "trash my name" to your friends and neighbors, my response will be... "Bring it." I am not afraid of the likes of you. If I don't like you, chances are your friends and neighbors probably don't like you either.

9. I try very hard to find reasons to praise your child, as often as possible. When your child is wonderful, I look for any opportunity to let you know. As you can see, I generally hear from parents when something is wrong, or when they're mad at me. And little word of pleasantry or kindness makes such a difference. Just send a one-line and tell me your child likes school...that alone will make my day and fill me with positive energy that will shine directly back onto your child.

10. And this one is the most important of all...if you make constant excuses for your child's work ethic or behavior, or if you blame me for his lack of effort and investment, or if you trash me as the "authority figure" in front of your child, you are doing yourself a major disservice. I only have your child until 3:00 each day. You get to keep him all night, and you get to be the one who gets him out of bed in the morning. More importantly, come June, he's aaaaalllll yours. And guess who that "authority figure" will be when your child is 14 and running around after curfew? That would be you. While I will honor and do my best to teach your child for these ten months, the truth is, when she leaves me, I won't think about her very much again. I will your child's name on a piece of paper and light it on fire on the last day of school. (Nothing personal, of course.) And unless we are kindred spirits, or unless there has been some major significant event between us, your child's face will fade into a sea of thousands who have come and gone before. You, Parent, get to keep her. Good luck with that.

Thank you for your consideration. Happy Spring!

Your Child's Teacher

P.S...If your child is a public nose-picker, please do not send in baked goods. I will assume your child has helped make them and they will go into the trash. Sorry.

Monday, March 14, 2011


** Did you know that when Gene Kelly filmed the title scene for Singin' in the Rain, he had a 103' fever? It took three days. The filming of the movie was months and months long. It blows my mind that our Don Lockwood in our show has to do all of those song and dance routines all in one night, like 30 times this month. I'm his dresser, which is fun because it's another thing to do so I'm not standing around just waiting, but my biggest fear was that he was going to need me to tie his shoes, which scared the dickens out of me. I can only imagine watching him tap dancing on a desk with a shoelace flapping, ankles in peril, and it being all my fault. He doesn't, though. Thank goodness.

**There are days when I come to school and feel like I can't possibly face one more day of reading Greek mythology plays. The very idea makes me want to curl up and cry. But I know that everyone feels that way about their job sometimes, and that I'm so lucky to get to work in a clean and stable place, in a classroom that I decorated myself, surrounded by stuffed Kermit the Frogs, wonderful books, Mary Englebreit posters and kid art. Things could definitely be worse...and will be, a few weeks from now, when spring comes and the boys all get really smelly.

**You know what's fun? When really annoying, unpleasant people do stupid things, right in front of you. It's such a gratifying feeling. I know that statement does not come from my Higher Self. It's just me being snarky, which we all have to be sometimes.

**My Mom very kindly did our laundry this weekend, because our washer is broken. And we are currently dealing with the situation by just kind of putting our fingers in our ears and going, "Noooooo! Nononnnnooooo!"

**Today is Pi Day, 3/14. Everyone should celebrate this by eating pie. Whyever wouldn't you?

**My favorite time of my teaching day is from 12:15 till 12:45, the half hour before lunch when kids go either to band or chorus, and whoever remains just reads, and I read, too. Because, you see, a hallmark of a good educator is to model what you want your students to be doing. That's what I say. But really, I just want to drift away for a half hour under the guise of "working." It's a way to take a breath in the midst of an intense day of business. Sometimes I read school things, novels I might use for my class. Usually I don't, though. And when I'm reading something saucy, I cover the title with post-its so the kids don't know.

**There is something I very much enjoy and even respect about very pretentious people, as long as they are sincerely deep into their characterization, whether it be "Hair Stylist" or "Designer" or "Serious Educator." If they're really into their role, and use their vocabulary and terminology with gusto and verve, I find myself willing to say, "You go for it. You be that Writing Consultant with all that you've got. I'm on board." While I think I have as much temptation to be pretentious as anyone, naming rooms after Greek goddesses and things, I don't think I have an all-out Persona like that. I think if I had to pick one, it would mostly be "Frantic Working Mother." Or maybe "Theatre Dork." I don't even know.

**Someone gave me an unexpected compliment this week, and said that I have "elan." I had to look that up in the dictionary, but it means "dash and vivacity," or "enthusiastic vigor and liveliness." It was really such a lovely compliment and something I want to strive to be. Wait...to have. How exactly do you use that word? Anyway, it was awfully nice and made me feel glad that someone who doesn't know me well would detect that I just like life so much. Now that I've written this, I am thinking that it's probably bad manners to post a compliment about yourself in your blog...or pretentious, anyhow. So now I can change my title to "Pretentious Blogger."

And that is all I have to say for today.

Friday, March 11, 2011


My new little student is an interesting case. Today was his 4th day of school, and according to his records, 4 days might be the longest consecutive time he has been in school in at least two years. Over the past few days, he's done a little testing of limits, typical 6th grade stuff, but we've steered him toward some very positive role models and he seems to be catching on. He has taken to just sort of...standing next to me, for no reason. Or it will be towards the end of class, and he'll come up to my desk and just...touch things. My cowbell, the spikes of the cactus (a gift that I hope he doesn't get too attached to, because like anything living I touch, its days are totally numbered.) He looks at my photos of my girls, and asks for Altoids, which I totally give him, even though I'm probably not supposed to. He reminds me of a kitten I'm trying to coax out from under a shed, tentative and still suspicious, but eager for the light.

Today he came to school with what was obviously a migraine, and because he's not yet 12, the people at the group home were not "allowed" to give him tylenol, even though he is obviously suffering, and it's not like he has a parent they can call to ask permission. So they sent him to us. Like that. I sent him to the nurse, who called everyone and sundry to get permission to give him medicine, and then he came back to me, where I just let him sit and read (He says he doesn't like to read, but I gave him two graphic novels, which he has devoured in the past two days.) He didn't want to sit with his group, so he sat at the desk attached to mine, which is considered Andrea's desk. There he sat, while the other kids did their work, reading his graphic novel, listening to the new agey Celtic Flute music I had on to muffle the hum of literature circles...and he fell completely asleep. Right there in the middle of the room. No one noticed, and his face was to the wall, and the kids were all working quietly...so I just let him sleep. For, like, an hour. And I don't even care. I do not care if this kid can tell the difference between a metaphor and a simile. I don't care if he ever learns all the Greek gods of Mt. Olympus, or how to properly construct a topic sentence. I just want him to know that somewhere he goes, there are gentle people who will meet his basic needs as much as we possibly can.

I feel a strong sense of purpose toward this child. And I'm not quite sure why, but I do know that when that happens, when my gut tells me to pay attention to someone, I have to follow through. I'll keep you posted.

In other news, production week starts with Super Sunday on Sunday...and I am not in charge. Just the knowledge of that fact alone is tickling my fancy today.

Thinking of the people of Japan today, and Hawaii and California. And, incidentally, all of the news of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, fires and tornadoes lately does nothing to asuage my secret insane fear about the world ending in 2012. Just me?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I Did it Again!

I fell in love three times today.

First, with the delicious soup I made in my crockpot on Sunday. It was Mexican chicken and corn chowder, a recipe from a very good cook at my school. And, even though every episode that involves my cooking could be subtitled, "What did I screw up this time?" it turned out surprisingly well in the end. I loved getting to enjoy that soup while reading something that made me laugh at Annoying People. The whole of that moment was number one.

Number two was the scene on Glee with Kurt and his dad talking about sex. I want to be that parent so badly. He was brilliant. I am trying. I rewound in three times.

Number three is about to happen...I have never turned on the new Conan O'Brien show until today, and the one time I do, he happens to have Gary Oldman as a guest on his show. I looooove Gary Oldman. We all have our lists of our top five "if you get a chance to sleep with this person, go for it" people. (Oh, shut up. You have them too.) Anyway, he's the top of mine. Plus Colin Firth, but only now that he's older. And the guy who played Gilbert Blythe. And, like, three dead people.

Patrick has them too, but I will be honorable and not tell you who they are.

Anyhoooo...Gary Oldman is about to be on Conan O'Brien, and I just happen to be up past my bedtime to be able to see it. I am awake because I'm waiting for the fire in the fireplace to go out...which, when you think about it, is a very delightful thing to get to do.

How Much it Matters

I got a new student today. He came with dark forewarnings - troubled past, foster care, group home, history of running away from school. He showed up today on a bus from the group home with a "dew-rag" (did I spell that right?) and a gigantic chip on his shoulder. It took me one second to look in his eyes and know...he needs us. He is supposed to be here. There is a light in this child's eyes, and I have work to do. Work worth doing. I have no idea, yet, what his exact story is, and I don't yet want to know. I'll find out soon enough.

Several years ago I had the most troubled student I have ever taught. He came to me just released from juvenille detention, having been placed there for trying to strangle his mother with a telephone cord. For good reason, actually, as it turned out. This child's story was the most horrifying I had ever heard, and his parents were beasts. I looked in his eyes...and saw only pain, fury, and raw rage that I never managed to soothe. He was like a dog that had been kicked and beaten and starved, and knew no other recourse than to bite anyone that came near. That child made every single day difficult for me. He was viper-mean to the boys, disgusting to the girls, dark through and through. And while I did my best with him, I didn't feel, at the time, that I had a chance in hell of making any progress with him. I chose, instead, to just try to make it through, be as gentle as possible with him, but to make protecting the others from him the higher priority. I felt like a failure every day, because I never felt like I succeeded with either goal.

On the second to last day of school, though, one of my team-mates in my class asked the students to write an answer to the following question: "What will you bring with you into the future from this class?" His answer was scribbled and hasty, like everything he wrote for me during that year: "I will take courage and happyness because Mrs. Browne helped me with my all of my problems and she will not know how much it mattered." He tore the paper, and pressed just that sentence into my hands on his way out the door. He didn't come back for the last day. That torn scrap of paper hangs on my bulletin board still, and always will. I look at it every single day. I still don't know what will become of that boy, but I know that whenever I have another one remotely like him, I keep that one sentence in mind..."she will not know how much it mattered."

This whole concept fills me with both shame and determination every day. Shame that I didn't do more, do better, and determination that given the chance again, I will do better. I will do more.

This boy might not have the same level of damage as the other one, and he might not stay. And I might read this in a month and want to slap myself for my plucky "I Have Confidence in Sunshine" attitude today. But I know that I will do the best I can with this new challenge, and that part of being a teacher is the simple fact that you pour your soul into your kids the best you can, and with a very few exceptions...you'll never know how much it matters, or if it matters at all.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Question Only

As I make my way back into blogging, I have found that I am kind of operating more like a public journal than a topic-driven blog right now. Just so you know. This is what my actual brain sounds like.

Here I am in the week-before-production week for this show that I'm in, and the lessons continue to deepen for me. Lessons about committment and focus and tone and operating under pressure. I realized two things tonight...one, that for better or worse, I take every single group note totally personally. And often, it is personal, because I am personally not where I should be, despite my cheat sheets and highlighted index cards in my pockets. Sometimes it's not personal, though, and I still can't keep from internalizing everything, just like I do when I'm on the other side of the process. I eat, sleep and breathe the shows that I direct, as these directors do, and just being *in* the cast does not seem to change that fact. It seems to be built into my wiring now. So, this is a great reminder to me that when I direct, there are very likely cast members like me taking things on their shoulders that may or may not be theirs. And...that getting legit pissed off from time to time and telling people to get heads in the game is an effective tool to light a fire under people's arses.

And... I still can't dance. Even with remedial Maxi Ford for Dummies lesson from a super nice dancer this evening. Not even kinda. Hopeless case.

On Wednesday, I have to go to this Teachers Write writing workshop, and I have no idea what to bring. I've been sifting through some past writing - blog entries, a bit of a chapter of something I wrote about my grandmother's brother and sister in law, a thing about being beaten up by bullies in 5th grade. I have no idea what to share, or even if I should. No one at my school knows I have this blog, and I can't imagine that my "Dear Sixth Grade Boy" posts would go over so well with the administration, should they stumble upon it. I mean, I don't think I have ever posted anything totally inappropriate, but still...in public education, one does have to err on the side of caution. Not sure what to do about this.

Which leads me to the concept of censorship. Both my own self-imposed censorship, and that which is imposed upon me by outside forces. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I ever really let loose...put out into the world everything I write...decided that there was, in fact, no such thing as an "acceptable level of truth..." except the raw truth itself.

It'll never happen. I believe in relative truth...and that some things are for certain eyes only. I have written plenty of things that I would not want my mother to read. I have written plenty of things that I don't want ANYONE to read, all the manic ravings and shameful confessions of my dramatic, hormonally imbalanced spirit. They're in my journals, but don't make it here, generally. In flipping through these blog entries this afternoon in search of something to bring to the workshop, I'm struck by the rosy, optimistic, upbeat sort of personality that is so prevalent in these postings. I'm also aware, though, that it's only part of the story, and I can only hope that people who know me...or even readers who don't...will know that just like everyone else, I have so many shadow sides. I'm cranky and petty and jealous and snappish and lazy and moody. Sometimes. But I don't want the world to read all of that. Is that a gross lack of authenticity, then? If my blog sounds like Mary-Freaking-Sunshine all the time, is it actually a portrait of a real person, or just a caricature of the person I want everyone to think I am?

The optimism is real. The gratitude is very, very real. The appreciation of my friends, my amazement at my daughters, the sense of mission and purpose I feel in my life as a teacher...all real. But that's not all of me. Not nearly all. What is my "all?"

I have no answer to this. Just pondering the question.

Yellow Brick Road

The following little classroom snapshot is random and possibly not at all interesting, but I'm trying to be dedicated to writing often, if not especially well, so here goes...

I've started really working to integrate more writing into my classroom curriculum this year. There's a picture book I read to my students to inspire them to think about place, and there's a line that says, "Our stories live in all of the places to love." In one classroom lesson, I have my students brainstorm their favorite places, as specifically as possible. (So, not "the beach," but "the big flat white rock on the middle of the jetty of Plymouth Beach.") Then, I have them go through the list, and using an plastic overlay sheet, they jot a phrase to remind them of something that happened there. ("Where my dad slipped into the bay while we were fishing," or "where I lost my favorite ring.")

After that, I have them take the list and choose one particular place where many of their stories hide and create a map. One girl wrote about her summer camp, for example, and drew out a map of the place and labeled it with things like "where the horse sneezed on Katie" or "the tree that Jake and I ate lunch under every day." They all got the concept (rare to have 100% clarity on anything in 6th grade), and the results were very detailed, and have served as a springboard for lots of narrative writing in the past few weeks.

When my students draw, I draw. When they write, I write. Because I tend to tell them stories of my geeky, disenfranchised middle school existance (the moral of the story ALWAYS being "It Gets Better") I decided to make my "place" the auditorium of my middle school, where I performed both middle school musicals and a couple of high school ones as well, being a larger facility and one with removeable seating.

Here is my map:

Now, I draw as well as I dance...which is to say, like CRAP, but in case you can't read it, some of the captions include "stairs where the scenery collapsed under me while I was singing a solo" and "backstage, where Pauling caught me making fun of her to other people."

The kids all had to choose a spot from one of their story maps to work into a finished piece, and I let them vote on which story from my map I would write alongside them. One class voted for falling down the stairs (obviously) which is just a stupid embarrassing story, one that I still haven't managed to laugh about yet. (And the impetus for many sleepless nights worrying over my Noises Off set last month.) Another class voted for "upstairs dressing room where a boy asked me out for the first time."

Here's that story, and it's true, though two events were combined to make it more streamlined. In my story for the kids I used the real names, but here I have changed them, in case any of the people google themselves or something and find their way here.

On the Yellow Brick Road

“Did you really get a note from Billy Anderson?” Chris was leaning his shoulder against the dressing room door frame, hands in his pockets, cheeks flushed. Traces of eyeliner from the Scarecrow make-up just scrubbed off left waxy lines on his chin.

“News travels fast around here,” I stammered, stalling. Of every person in the whole cast, of the whole 8th grade, in fact, he was the last one I wanted to have this conversation with. I shoved my ruby slippers into my duffle bag, zipping it fiercely, trying not to meet his blue eyes.

“Yeah…well…Kristin Fairbanks.” Ah. The Town Crier. If she heard you sneeze on the bus, by first period five people asked how your cold was. In truth, it had only been that very afternoon at the start of dress rehearsal that Billy had pressed a carefully folded piece of wilted yellow school writing paper in my hand that said exactly this:

I like you. Do you like me?
If so, would you go out with me?
Check this box:

__Yes __No

I had made the mistake of opening it with Kristin Fairbanks sitting directly behind me as we listened to the opening rehearsal announcements. The hissing from behind me immediately spread like pancake sizzles, straight down the row until I watched with horror as Billy, in his lime-green Father of Munchkinland costume, received the news and dropped his head into his hands. Damage done in sixty seconds flat.

That had been hours before. We’d all been up and down the Yellow Brick Road for the past four hours, and I had yet to check a box, yet to even decide how I really felt about it. I had known Billy since we were four. He lived two blocks away. He had once hit me in the eye with a rock at a beach. We’d barely had a conversation since the fifth grade. But now he had asked me to be his “girlfriend,” whatever that was supposed to mean, when no one had ever asked me before. Was I ready?

And to further complicate matters was Chris, my best friend of the past two years, Daddy Warbucks to my Annie last winter, tall and gangly and tousle-haired…and the one I secretly wished to get a check-this-box kind of note from. We had spent every afternoon together that fall learning lines and choreography, doing our math homework together between scenes, and I had only just started to think of him as anything more than just a goofy, clumsy, science-nerdy sort of brother. I had tried to keep my feelings only in my diary, stuffed safely under my mattress, terrified that if he found out, all of our comfortable friendship would turn awkward and muddy. I felt just like Dorothy, stepping from a black and white girlhood into a Technicolor land, beautiful but startling, trying to gain my footing in sparkly new shoes.

“So?” he pressed. With my dresses hung on the rack and my bag all packed, there was no where else to look but into Chris’ eyes, which immediately darted from mine.

“Nothing yet,” I answered, with what I hoped was a casual shrug of my shoulder.

He stared down at his sneakers, the laces untied. “What are you going to say?” he muttered.

“I don’t know.” He looked up at me then, and there was a different expression there, an urgency and a flicker of determination I had never seen before, a look that sent the blood rushing to my cheeks.

“Say no.” A low tone, almost a whisper, but those two words contained a hundred others yet unsaid, expectant and hopeful. Our eyes held for just a moment longer before the Mayor of Munchkin City hollered up the stairs, “Kelly and Chris, Mr. Donnegan wants you for notes.” Kelly and Chris. Our names had been said together so many times before, but there was a new note in them now. He turned and fairly sprinted down the stairs as I gathered up my bag and followed him through the backstage and toward the closed mainstage curtain of the auditorium, where the rest of the cast had already gathered. Chris stopped, turned back to me, and smiled his old crooked, goofy grin, at once the best friend I had known and someone entirely new to me, just revealed. He held the curtain aside for me and I stepped through it, smiling back at him, knowing what my answer would be.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Gratutitude List

Ten Things I'm Grateful For This Morning...

1.) Amelia brought me coffee in bed this morning. After doing her hair for the feis, I was able to get back into bed, read Facebook and PostSecret, and linger over the Today show. This is a lovely way to start a day.

2.) My registration has been confirmed for the Broadway Teachers' Workshop again this summer. I will turn 40 on Broadway with Mom and Auntie. We were suppposed to see Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed, but our performances are postponed because of publicity for the last Harry Potter movie...but I still might be able to see it on the first night I get there before it shuts down for the weekend. I'll also be seeing Spiderman if no one sustains some horrible injury between now and then.

3.) I had a nice at-home date with my husband last night, even though the take out food was kind of gross (Mamma Mia's - usually great) and the movie was depressing. (Love and Other Drugs...even a naked Anne Hathaway wasn't quite worth the price.) I love our ginormous TV and reclining couch.

4.) I had a delightfully relaxing afternoon yesterday hanging out in the Athenaeum. I got to read Patrick's book, listen to Accuradio Broadway, sort through some photos, and gather images for my new vision board, which I will make today.

5.) I started a new project in my classroom this week and it's going really well. It's been a while since I infused something really new into my teaching, and it is making me feel more connected and committed to my work. It's been a while since I've felt that way.

6.) While folding laundry in my bedroom yesterday morning, I put on the DVD of Anne of Green Gables, and started with my favorite scene, the one where Matthew buys Anne a dress with puffed sleeves. I love that film so much, and feel about this the way I feel about Harry Potter - that the books were a gift in my life, and the films, made with love by people who appreciate them and impeccable casting, were art inspiring art. (With the exception of the casting of the "new" Dumbledore, who I loathe. I just pretend it's Richard Harris still all the time. Or Bill Nighy, who I thought should have done it all along.)

7.) It has taken this whole entire week for the "done-ness" of the Busy Six to penetrate my soul. (The six Thayer months, from September to March.) Rather than just a Pajama Done Day rest-fest, it has sunk in slowly, one deep breath at a time. I love my work there, but I love when it's done and I have some head-space back.

8.) The spring is full of many fun family things this year. Abby has a piece featured in an art show and a solo in the 4th grade chorus concert. Amelia has a bunch of feissana and St. Patrick's day exhibition dances. We are watching American Idol all together as a family this year. Patrick has made some changes in his life and even in just this week, our family is taking on a different energy. I'm really happy about it.

9.) I read a fabulous book for middle school kids this week called The Misfits by James Howe. (Yes, of Bunnicula fame.) It was funny, poignant, and so well crafted, and helped me know better the kind of book I want to write. My first book will be for middle school kids. I finally know that.

10.) Getting back into blogging and journaling has invigorated me this week, as I knew it would. I hope that this energy will be a launch toward some of my other goals as well.

Life is full of blessings, and I am very grateful.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Chemical Change

Last night, I spent the wee small hours of the morning journaling in the Athenaeum, a pretentious name for the very humble space that is my watermelon-slice-colored sanctuary, but a name that has stuck all the same. I wrote a lot about theater, and worked through some things. Some of might make it into a blog entry, but one discovery really struck me.

In a life already very full of theater, I’m actually IN a show right now. It struck a lot of people as insanity that I would take this on in addition to everything else, but I am very grateful that I have for three important reasons.

First, there are four people at this theater that I adore, and being in their presence lifts me up, inspires me, and makes me want to work harder to be worthy of their affection. There are certain friendships that are nearly impossible to retain with very hard-working people, unless you actually become a part of their work. I know this better than anyone, and I’ve been very glad to be able to reconnect.

Two, because I have learned once and for all that there are certain things in life that I cannot do. I tell my students all the time that we are all smart in different ways, and I educate them on the multiple intelligences and sing the praises of every different kind of learner. I cannot dance. My feet do not do what I tell them to do, ever. In the midst of this intricate, carefully constructed dance routine, I know that a maxi ford is coming…16 counts from now, I will have to shuffle-hop-step-something or other, and every single time, while I tell my feet “Shuffle, goddamnyou!” they ignore my directive. Probably because I’m simultaneously thinking, “Right arm up, and make sure you step left before the Charleston...or is it step right?” I am not wired to do all of these things at once. It makes me feel so frustrated and embarrassed, and like I’m letting down all of these people who are working so much harder than me to successfully do things that are so much easier for them than they are for me.

When I teach Buddhism to my 6th graders, I tell them a story about this ant who has to carry a stalk of grass. For me, myself to carry a stalk of grass is no big deal. But for an ant to carry a stalk of grass ten times his size makes him the greatest ant in all the world, because he has to overcome a great deal to be able to do it. (Not greater than other ants, mind you, but the greatest ant that he, himself, can be.) When my most exuberant and extroverted 6th grader makes his Greek mythology presentation successfully, I am proud of him. But when my most shy and insecure 6th grader makes his successfully, he is the greatest 6th grader in all the world for having made it through.

If I ever manage to make my arms and feet simultaneously go the way they are supposed to, I will feel like the greatest ant in all the world. If not…I will be grateful that I have the very next speech after the dance sequence and a really good excuse to plead with the directors to let me get the hell out of it before I utterly destroy the ending.

The third reason I am so glad I did this show is the most surprising to me…I have spent a lot of years feeling like theater has become nothing but a job to me. That I have lost all sense of inspiration and passion about it, because it is now all about having to be in charge rather than just creating theater for the joy of it. If I could only be in something, I thought, I would find my way back to that place of elation at just being a part of it all, the third second-soprano from the left, finding that funky b-flat note in the chord and feeling it ring with all of the voices around me.

That has not turned out to be the case. There is very little group singing in this show, which has been disappointing, because that’s my favorite part. And while I enjoy everyone in the cast save one irritating person, I do not feel incredibly connected and part of this tight community. I have the four people I am happy to see, and that’s pretty much it. The show is going to be amazing, and the two leads are a thrill to watch, and I’m proud to be a part of it, but what I have learned is that I don’t need this to make the other theater I do worthwhile. It is no longer about being “up there.” So while someday down the road there might a role that I would love to play or I’ll get a chance to jump in and be an understudy, or there will be a score that I would love to sing with a chorus, I have found that really…this part of my life has undergone a chemical change. I’m not that sixteen year old singing “Cockeyed Optimist” seven thousand times in my bedroom – happily – to prepare for an audition that’s four months away. I’m someone else now.

I am so grateful that I have done this, and will enjoy every moment of the process, knowing that is likely to be a certain kind of ending. I will try to master that effing maxi ford and step-hop-shuffle-toe, and smile big in the umbrella finale and drink tequila shots at the cast party, and then I will get back to the business of directing yet another production of Annie, with a thirteen-year-old in the title role who may or may not, somewhere down the line, make theater a part of her future. At the very least, she’ll have one of the best weekends of her life and make her mother proud.

That’s what theater has become for me now. And I’m okay with that.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Fall in Love Three Times Today

My classroom has been tossing little reminders at me in the past several days that it's time to get back to writing. The first came during a workshop yesterday designed to help me be a better writing teacher, maybe the 6th in a long series this year. They are geared toward creating a whole writing environment, which I have done to some extent. I'm trying to ride that inspiration into doing some writing of my own, which I have just begun. Anyway, during the workshop, I was perusing the presenter's books, and came across this quote about creativity taken from a letter from Martha Graham to Agnes De Mille...

"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique and if it you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how "good" it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."

This struck me hard, because like anyone who writes, I often battle the devil-on-my-shoulder, whose basic message is, "Who the hell do you think you ARE to yammer on about stuff and expect anyone to be remotely interested?" The song has different lyrics all the time, but the tune is the same. I also read, "A work of art uses the artist to get itself done; as I work, I am able to find out what it wants to be." I find this concept bolstering right now, though, to remind myself that it doesn't really matter, and whether or not anyone reads anything I write is not my decision to make, nor my matter to control. I just need to write it.

Although I do have one friend who threatened to throw himself into an electric fence if I didn't post soon. So, CTD, this one's for you...

I find that when I look at the world expectantly, looking for things to inspire me, the Universe never, ever lets me down. So I'm watching and waiting.

I also read today that a key to being a writer, and indeed a passionate creator of any kind, is to "fall in love three times a day." With a photograph, a perfect strawberry, a beautiful human, an expression of vulnerability from a 12-year-old-boy. Matthew Fox said, "If we fell in love with one of Mozart's work each week, we would have seven years of joy. How could we ever be bored?" Today, already, I fell in love with the sunset searing behind the winter trees, and the line from one of my student's poems. (In a poem entitled "How to Climb Mount Everest," she included the line, "Muster the last of your fading strength to finally reach the summit. If you have enough oxygen left, you can yodel.") So, I'm two out of three for my falling-in-love goal today, and it's not yet 3:00.

One last sign from the Universe...I had to fill out a choice form for yet another in-service workshop for next week, and the workshop titles were things like Fun in the Mac Lab and a bunch of other computer-y things I do not care about a bit, and one called "Teachers Write." We're supposed to just show up, and...write. Or share something we've already written. Nothing like this has ever been offered at my school before, and the fact that it jumped into my world has meaning, I think. Or rather, I ascribe meaning to it....which is essentially the same thing.

I hope this March is finding some crocuses poking through YOUR spirit, too.