This wandering, weaving path of 457 days–from “early quar” to mask mandates and sanitizer shortages, from no soccer and Zoom school to today’s in-person last day–it’s been a lot. I’ve lost seven people I loved (though none from Covid). I told some friends that I feel like I’m only held together with skinny rubber bands and scotch tape.
But it’s also been full of dinners at home and sitting on the porch, playing with our birds, and watching new Marvel worlds on TV, daily walks in the neighborhood and paddle boarding at Lake MacBride, ASL lessons with Amy and VCFA video chats.
There was a chrysalis invitation in there somewhere. I don’t want to ignore it. I don’t want to just get down to business or go “back” to “normal.”
So I’m taking a summer pilgrimage to find my way to a new normal.
Starting June 14, I’m going to wander my way through 457 km. In the spirit of wandering, I’ll walk or skip, run or paddle, bike or dance through it. Also in the spirit of wandering, I will update irregularly, if at all.
If you’re looking for a way to reflect and move purposefully into what comes next, to mark the end of this season and the start of the new, feel free to come along in whatever way makes sense to you.
Born severely hard-of-hearing due to a bulid-up of fluid in my ears as a newborn, I underwent a fairly simple surgery at the age of five that mostly corrected my hearing, and a repeat of that surgery at age six. The story my family told me was that I learned to speak largely through learning vowel sound combinations and lip reading consonants, much as Gerald Shea describes in his book, Song Without Words. As a result, I was always curious about sign language–I felt it “would have been my language” if the surgery hadn’t work or if my hearing challenges had another cause.
Then, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago watching Linda Bove on Sesame Street–so I learned my ASL ABCs almost as soon as I learned them in English. Plus, there was a CODA named M—- in my class in my elementary school, and her older brother was a few years ahead of us. We all signed any little scrap of a word M—- would teach us. Mostly we fingerspelled, but sometimes she taught us words that were funny to all of us, like “cheese.” At winter concerts, her parents sometimes came to teach us a song in ASL. I remember most vividly learning “Let There Be Peace On Earth” in third grade.
By sixth grade, I was an avid learner who’d already done a year of French and a month-long exchange program in France. It had convinced that language learning was my path in life–I intended to become a “philologist” like C.S. Lewis before me. I was also fully addicted to summer soap operas with my Aunts and my Grandma. That was right around the time that Kayla went deaf on Days of Our Lives, but long before the internet. So I went to the library, figuring I could learn “sign language” through books.
Although I read Cathy Rice’s careful explanation of how ASL grammar was different than English grammar, she also made it sound as if that was a defect in ASL rather than a feature. My best memory is of her explanation for how a Deaf person would say “Me deafy, you deafy?” instead of “I’m deaf. Are you deaf too? So I “corrected” ASL grammar with words from Signed English, inventing a pidgin sign language that would have been completely incomprehensible to my classmate M—-, let alone her parents!
But I had no idea what I was doing. I was 12. I did NOT understand conceptual signing. I did NOT understand ASL as a visual language. I got frustrated so easily because there often were “no signs” for words I wanted.
I also didn’t have a teacher OR a systematic way to learn the language, so I decided to approach it the same way my French teachers had approached our “crash course” year with us before going to France:
Learning basic introductory conversations and manners
Learning objects and common phrases for my daily life
Learning a series of songs, stories, and poems
Studying the culture
Studying the culture? That’s how I came to be reading Deaf Like Me on the bus to day camp.
Learning songs? That’s why I spent the interminable minutes with my parents at the car dealership “translating” the pop songs on the speakers into my strange pidgin-sign language. The man who sold my parents the car asked my parents if I was Deaf. “No,” they said. “She just does that” [they found it kind of weird and annoying].
His daughters were both Deaf, he explained. He and his wife had been looking for a babysitter. Did my parents think I would be interested?
As a bonus, he and his wife offered to pay for me to attend a sign language class with them.
Their sign language class required the purchase of a textbook called Signing Exact English by Gerilee Gustason. And so my work with SEE-II began. I studied in the class and then I babysat Brandi and Samantha on weekends. I did this for about a year. In the process, I learned it was *not ASL* and *not trying to be* and that I had to keep the two systems separate in my mind. I kept up with SEE-II on and off over the years, but only ever met one other deaf person who used it. He expressed a lot of regret that he hadn’t been taught ASL because he felt SEE-II shut him away from his peers and the Deaf community.
In high school, I saw dozens of Dramatic Duets that used a famous scene from Children of a Lesser God, and I became a huge Marlee Matlin fan. But none of the actors ever knew any sign beyond what they needed for their scene.
When my son was diagnosed with a significant speech disorder/delay (we didn’t know which at the time), and sign language was going to be helpful, I went straight to ASL–but it was an honest relief when we discovered we were dealing with a delay that would likely be remedied by speech therapy over time. Not because I didn’t want to continue to learn ASL, but because the learning was overwhelming with two toddlers and a full time job teaching high school!
But I never stopped WANTING to learn ASL.
Then, right as “early quar” began, I came upon an article about brain science, focused on preventing or delaying dementia as long as possible. It said there are two highly effective ways to expand our brain’s plasticity and promote cross-network connections. One way? Learning a new language.
I started following Deaf folks, interpreters, and outspoken CODAs on TikTok and Instagram. By August, I started to understand that “hearies” like me learning ASL is a useful way to promote access for all people. As a teacher who bases my classroom practice as much as possible on Universal Design, that made good sense to me.
SOLD. In September, it was finally my time to learn ASL.
I read the above letter from former president George H.W. Bush today. I teared right up. It’s the kind of sentimentality that gets to me.
You might be displeased to know that in 1992, I campaigned for him. I believed that he would make the world a better, safer place for unborn babies. I really believed what my church laid down about politics, and I prayed for our president regularly. When he lost, my friends and I grieved. We thought it was the end of the world as we knew it. We suspected the U.S. had elected a used-car-salesman of a President who completely lacked character. We believed that all sorts of sinful, “bad,” or even evil things would soon be standard practice in our country.
— You’re waiting for me to get to “Imagine.”
I know, but I share that bit of history because you must understand I have fully occupied both sides in the American political conversation. I am a Democrat today, but I was a Republican yesterday, and I proudly voted against my current party every time our 2nd District Representative, Jim Leach, was on the ticket. Who knows but that I may be a Republican again tomorrow?
Now for my rewrite. See, as I read this letter to “Bill” from “George,” I started doing some imagining of my own. Nothing against you, of course.
It started like this: Imagine if every politician came with the perspective of most former presidents. Something about that role engenders a wider, more generous view of “us.”
Imagine Senators and Representatives could say to their colleagues, like George H.W. Bush did, “Your success is now our country’s success,” and really mean it. That alone would mean seeing success not in terms of “winning” a party vote, but in terms of raising the waterline on safety, health, education, economics, and happiness for all Americans.
Imagine how such a view could make room for all the freedoms to that so many of us cherish and all the freedoms from that so many of us long for. Those freedoms could begin to coexist in the natural flux of things. We could make data-based decisions informed by science and reason…but also account for one another’s faiths when needful or appropriate. We could look for ways to compromise and succeed in governance rather than stoking drama with stark rhetoric.
Imagine how, on an issue like abortion, we could say “What seems to work to reduce abortions?” — and then do that, instead of fighting over whether they should be legal or not.
Imagine a world where we could vociferously protect the 2nd amendment right for hobbyists and hunters and those who feel a weapon makes them safer at night…and still embrace common sense gun laws that could help to prevent gun violence.
Imagine that we negotiated on voting laws, congressional districts and the electoral college. We would only make changes or adjustments by consensus from both parties, instead of basing such pivotal elements in our democracy on whoever has the “might” in a given year or election term.
On the Supreme Court, we would likewise make mutual decisions with representation from both parties. (FWIW, This is actually what Bill Clinton did when he nominated RBG. This is also what Obama tried to do by nominating Merrick Garland, a moderate).
Imagine that such a posture would mean tending to our environment and to our international relationships with balance and a sense of our long-term tenancy on our beloved little planet.
This utopia I am imagining wouldn’t fix racism or poverty or any of the entrenched realities of life in the US. But it might make it POSSIBLE for us to work on them together.
I’m not you, John Lennon.
I don’t want to get rid of religion or race or culture or possessions. Those things make us individuals, they give us stories, they make us human. Your “Imagine,” as beautiful as it was, lacked a certain — je ne sais quoi.
Don’t worry. I know game theory says this is all a pipe dream — the ex-president view is wide in part because it is rare. But I’d sure like to live in a society where we all shared George H.W. Bush’s end-of-term openness, his willingness to listen to the voters who did not re-elect him, his eagerness for his opponent’s success, his belief that our country is bigger than any one view or one person.
And even though no president will get us there — many of these moves require a functioning congress, something we haven’t had in a long time —I know we will never even get anywhere close to it with our current president & his party leaders.
So, this version of “imagine” is why I’m voting for Joe Biden & Kamala Harris this fall and why I endorse Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s wish that the next president choose her successor.
It’s not because I want to “win.” It’s because I want to imagine.
A High School English Teacher in a Midwest “Flyover” State
This post originally published on Medium Sept 26 2020 to absolutely no fanfare whatsoever, so I’m reclaiming it for my own blog. If it’s not going to be read, it might as well belong to me.
This are about to change here. Monday we go to hybrid learning. I’ll still be online for 3/5 classes, but hybrid for 2/5. I figured I should document at least one day of this before it’s over, so today I pulled up my photo booth. I took a picture any time I thought I might have just made a “paradigmatic” face. Here’s what I got.
We do a lot of thumbs ups to communicate, and when the camera goes off, my sighs come out. At 4:15, my nap starts.
But my classic is #3. This is the expression that means: “I can’t hear you on the zoom meeting, and your audio is a garbled mess, but I’m leaning closer so you know I’m trying.”
This weekend, my dear friend Michael said that teaching online is harder than first year teaching because every day is like a fireworks display. When the day is over, we’ve burned up all the tricks, everything we had…then we have to make a new display for the next day. Something about that comparison made so much sense to me.
At first I couldn’t figure it out. Why am I so used up every day? Why am I collapsing into sleep on the couch at 4:15 every day? Why do I feel time and responsibilities slipping through my fingers no matter how many lists–and lists of lists–I make? I am not unhappy. This is good, meaningful work. I like it. It’s just a LOT.
It reminded me the happy dead-tired busy-ness of being in a theatre production. Like during tech week.
But then I realized: In a show, when opening night is over and all the actors go home, there is a LOT left for the next performance. The company still has their script, their sets, their props, and their costumes. The light and sound cues are still set. There is a veritable army of beloved techies who can things over and make any minor repairs.
Teaching is usually more like that. After a few years, you earn a general sense of the scripts, sets, props, costumes, and light/sound cues you’ll likely need for any given day. You have to pull the right thing out of the storage closet, dust it off, and update it. You have a team of teacher besties who are in your corner. They ALSO have a storage closet. You share. You update and design things together. You try stuff out together and you help each other solve problems.
Yes, dedicated practitioners clean out their teaching closet on the regular. That means sewing some new outfits or building a new set. But we work those projects into the flow of a school year. A new set might need to be built over the summer, but a couple of new props we can grab and integrate on the fly.
I have no storage closet for online teaching.
After running that day’s show, I’m faced with a few blurry-eyed hours to write a new script, find new props, sew new costumes, and build new sets. I have to set up new light and sound cues for the next day, and there are no techies working alongside me (unless you count Google or Canvas).
Somewhere in there, I should exercise, play with the kids, check social media, spend time with my husband, see some friends, eat dinner, and take out my contacts.
I do not hate teaching online. I’ll be the first to say that Zoom audio doesn’t always work. Tech connections are harder to forge than in-person ones. Discussions are missing some human-ness. Many kids have never shown me their face even once. I miss the embodied-ness of school.
But there are lots of good moments–good days. Days that, as my friends say, “feel like teaching.” There was the boy who changed his voice to sound like Mickey Mouse and then pretended he didn’t know–so we all cracked up. There was the time we played the alphabet game and Hannah used “hairy toad” as her description–so literally no one could get through the alphabet afterward without smiling. There are the virtual rooms students have built and invited me to visit. There is my own virtual room, which was a delight to make.
Plus, I get teach from what used to be my home studio. For now, it’s a classroom, and I’m cool with that. I’m not managing bodies or behaviors in the same way I would be in-person. I love going upstairs for lunch with my family and getting to see our birds in the middle of the day. I like that I mostly get to teach barefoot, drink tea whenever I like, and put ice in my water when I want it.
These are small pleasures that I don’t have in my brick-and-mortar classroom, so I’m savoring them for now.
I mean, it cant be wrong that I LOVE being able to go to the bathroom whenever I need to go.
Today I’m sending LOVE to my students, but looking REALLY tired after each class. Checking in with kids on the “scale of cat” and finding most of us are a 3 or a 7 (completely exhausted or utterly wired from sitting still too long), meanwhile my loving teacher-coach checked in with me using a BIG feelings wheel–and there are lots of big feelings, especially today, on 9/11. On my agendas today, I wrote this reflection for my students:
A REFLECTION ON WHAT 9/11 MEANS IN 2020
I was working as a spiritual life director at Coe College. One of my students called me (a student who later served honorably in the military as a result of that day), and said “Are you watching this?” I asked “What?” He said, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” I turned on NPR and listened. By the time I got to campus, the second tower had been hit. We grieved as a nation that day–every one of us–and for months afterward as we learned exactly how many people had lost their lives.
That same number of people is dying every three days from a pandemic virus that most other nations have actively contained through masking, social distancing, handwashing, and avoiding crowded indoor spaces. The U.S. hasn’t been doing those things very well. Let today renew our commitment to doing what we know can help curb this mess. For lots of reasons, but at least for us, so that we can all be together again in our schools. ♡
I am reading this statement in each of my classes. Already, a student who is NOT in my class currently wrote me an email saying that she’d heard about my “non-negotiables,” and she wanted to thank me.
In this classroom, Black Lives Matter, no one is illegal, LGBTQIA+ students are welcome. Scholars who live with disabilities as well as those for whom English is a second+ language have the right to receive the support they need to achieve at high levels. We respect and lean on each other’s strengths and capacities, and we do not scorn the deficits or challenges our peers face. We embrace both challenge and failure as the path to learning,
At the end of the statement I added two things.
First: “I know some of these phrases can sound political or might feel a little scary for some people. If that happens for you, please reach out and let’s chat or email. I don’t want anyone to be intimidated in here. It’s totally okay to say, ‘Hey, Mrs. BG, what did you MEAN by that?’ — I promise to explain!”
Second: “I’m serious about keeping the promises that are built into those words. If you ever find my class is not an equitable or welcoming space for you or some part of your identity, call me in. Call me out. Send me an email. I want to know, and I want to fix it.”
This is me hopped up on enthusiasm and sleeplessness. Today is the first day of school–though we don’t start until noon (because scheduling). I am excited to meet my students, nervous about doing that online, hopeful they’ll let me see their wonderful faces (because Zoom), and most of all, so aware that The Long Pause is at an end (for good and for ill).
While getting ready for today has been a lot of work (my family jokes that I’m on “airplane mode” these first few weeks of school), it’s been joyful work. I love planning and preparing for the year. I love the feeling of possibility and hope. I have not been frantic (except one time, just one phone call with one friend), and I’m holding to my aspiration of staying grounded and centered.
The Long Pause helped me discover that very little of what I do is actually essential: Breathe. Feed myself and my family. Connect with loved ones. Take care of my spaces, my little birds, and my plants.
So what’s essential in my teaching? The exact same things. Feed myself and my students (metaphorically). Connect with my learners and my colleagues. Take care of my spaces and my scholars.
Feeding: I used to have a note over my desk at school: “Did my students read today? Did my students write today?” Anytime I could answer “yes” to one or both of those questions, I called the day a success. This year, I’m adding “Did actively work to make learning equitable for everyone?”
Connecting: I’ve had long phone calls with my colleagues over the last few weeks, chatting with H, who has been “Sweating to the Oldies” this summer, reconnecting with C, whose daughter is starting senior year of high school, and touching base a zillion times with M, my teaching partner in AP Capstone, whose daughter is starting freshman year at UIowa.
Caring for Spaces: I’ve reconstructed parts of my studio to be friendly for teaching. I got myself a ring light and am learning to wear contacts. I put away the projects from The Long Pause and pulled out my magic planning notebook. I restocked on post its and flair pens and stickers (they make me happy). That’s taking care of my space (at least until we go back to in-person learning).
All that’s left now is caring for my scholars. That starts today, and I can’t wait.
Community Spotlight – Delivered at Sanctuary Community Church in Iowa City, IA – August 30, 2020
A little later than usual, Back to School time has finally arrived. In an ordinary year, many of us would be part of the big mob in that back section at Target, buying notebooks and binders and mechanical pencils. Yellow busses would practice their winding routes through our neighborhoods. Cross Country runners would fly across First Avenue in their lithe groups, and the sound of football players smacking into one another’s pads would echo across Bates field.
Parents would breathe a sigh of relief while also getting ready for bittersweet photos on front stoops. Kids would be dressed up for the first day, and even the schools would be polished & extra fancy with waxed floors and fresh paint, empty lockers and clean desks.
But this year, there’s no mob at Target. The Cross-Country runners don’t flock. And in Iowa City, we learned yesterday that our district will begin with two weeks of all-online learning. There will be no sigh of relief—and none on the horizon for many parents and students who actually need (or just could really use) that sigh.
For teachers—or at least for me—this moment feels like cancelling Christmas. Sure, I knew it wouldn’t be the same this year. Definitely not as social. Six feet apart, everyone in masks. I wouldn’t actually see many of my students’ faces until spring, if even then. It would be face-to-face without faces.
I mean, this is my season! We start the magic! We have the first discussions and solve the first problems, act out the first scenes, and set up the comforting routines.
Instead, it’s a time of chaos. In fact, this summer has been so chaotic and uncertain on the teacher side that I didn’t find out WHAT I was teaching, WHERE I was teaching, or even HOW I was teaching it until the day before yesterday. My schedule for first trimester is a wonky, color-coded nightmare, and just this morning I realized even the color coding is wrong.
Meanwhile, our state “leadership” has determined “metrics” that will send us all back to in-person school well before the World Health Organization or the CDC recommends. And the funny thing about that is—as much as I want to be back in my familiar classroom, back with my beloved students, back to any kind of normal—that was never actually possible this fall. My teaching friends who have gone back say its unnerving and terrible to see chairs filled with masked teenagers who aren’t allowed to talk much to each other for fear of spreading illness. Their students prefer online days—just for the chance to see one another’s expressions.
Pretending that any of this is normal creates another kind of chaos: fear.
While I know statistically most of my students will be okay–they’re highly unlikely to become severely ill–losing even one of them fills me with unshakeable dread.
But I’m also afraid for myself and my colleagues. We are the adults, those most at risk, who will be spending our days with large groups of humans in poorly ventilated buildings using common bathrooms and eating spaces, while having little access to handwashing.
So I’m doing back to school — differently. I’m buying scrubs and shirts that can be washed in hot water. Face shields and masks and ear protectors and headbands. I’m still debating about a voice amplifier, since I don’t think students at the back of the room will be able to hear me through all the PPE.
I’ve also done some other, more personal, things to prepare for the eventuality of face-to-face school. I updated the file with all of my passwords and logins, compiled detailed instructions for how to take care of our parakeets, and wrote a final letter to my family.
I know that’s a little gloomy and macabre. But so is sending students and teachers back to in-person school in the middle of a global pandemic.
Still, if I pause…
…if I stop and think about just this moment, just this day—it’s good-ish. Here in Iowa City, we have two weeks of online learning guaranteed, and it’s possible that the worst of this terrible wave in our county and state will be over by the time we are face to face—or mask-to-mask—with our students.
I’ve got exciting plans to make online learning dynamic. I know lots of teachers do. Many of us spent our summers anticipating online learning, studying tech tips, and figuring out how to mobilize our imaginations for a different kind of school.
But what it really comes down to–at least this morning–is this: part of me is utterly delighted that (at least for these two weeks), I’m going to see all my students’ faces, even though it’s just on camera.