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In the Wake of Parkland: a Love Letter to my Students

February 15, 2018

Dear Students,

I set out yesterday to write you a Valentine’s Day letter, to accompany the chocolate I have shoved at you all week. However, in the wake of yet another school shooting, I lacked adequate words, and a simple letter about your greatness was the wrong tone.

Don’t read me wrong: you are great. As many of you have said (correctly) over the past 10 years, you are the children I didn’t birth. You live here; sometimes it feels like I do, too.  I’ve taught grades 1 through 12. I have kissed your owies. I have counseled your broken hearts. I’ve covered puberty and sexuality education; you’ve given me pink eye and strep throat. We’ve seen each other through migraines, bronchitis, linguistic milestones, graduations, hailstorms, and power outages. Your writing and artwork have been astounding and heartbreaking.

You are amazing.

Over the past 10 years, our school has changed a lot. We lock more doors, we have better alert systems. The teachers wear badges. Sometimes we practice fire evacuations.

Or the dreaded lockdown.

My worst nightmare as a teacher is a lockdown.

Last night, I cried when NPR’s Ari Shapiro interviewed students from Parkland. One of them talked about a staff member shoving students into a closet to protect them from the shooter.

A month ago, I woke up sobbing, and my boyfriend held me while I shook. I’d dreamed about a former student coming back with a gun. Through my tears, I said, “I couldn’t save them. I couldn’t get the door open. I couldn’t get to my kids.” He comforted me and said, “It’s just a dream. You’re okay.”

It isn’t just a dream. Parkland isn’t a dream. Sandy Hook wasn’t a dream. Columbine wasn’t a dream.

Every teacher has students that need extra: extra love, attention, concern, support. We all have someone whose needs are above our training. Maybe not this year. But if we have been teaching long enough, we have taught a student who needed more than we thought we had to give.

My students, I love you. I love you when you are sick, when you are demanding, when you are puzzling. I love you when you are triumphant.

I love you when you are in danger. I will throw you in a closet, behind a bookshelf, under my self if it is necessary.

I love you if you are dangerous, and I am sorry I cannot do enough for you. I am painfully aware of this fact. We strive to provide the resources for you; I hope it is enough, on time, something.

My dear, dear students… I love you.

Always,
Your Elle

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Can’t Handle the Hustle

I want to write. I want to make art.

No.

I need to write. to make art. to teach, to change minds and ways of thought. I crave input to generate output, but not in an industrial sense. I write better when I’m reading broadly, when I drink deep words and dream the books on my nightstand. I make better art when I hoard found objects and old books and bury myself in the work of James Castle and my former collaborator and artist-educator Troy Passey (both of Idaho).

My art, my writing, my teaching are a reflection of the world within and the world without.

and
I. Can. Not. Handle. the Hustle.

James Castle made books before bookbinding and bookmaking and altered books were a “thing.” My former elementary students (and some blind students within my school) made hand-stitched books last year, some of which have spent the last 12+ months touring the state of Idaho. I’ve been digging into these arts of late, and the more I learn, the more I feel crushed under the weight of performance, hustle, namedropping, and (dare I say?) circle-jerking.

I want to create, to share, to engage. I want to collaborate and build. Maybe I want to tear some things down in the process of creation. But I see my friends. The friends who put themselves into their art, whose souls I see on the page, the screen, the canvas?

Some of them are dying. We’re going broke in an economy that “corrected” itself this week, as talking heads talk percentages and investments and percentage points that are just numbers on a datastream of using money to make more money.  We’re going bankrupt in a morally bereft landscape trying to scream or throw paint into the void.

I went to the store for paint; that’s the only thing I really want to buy new. I had to wade through a lot of crap to get to the paint. I’m trying to learn from what I see, but I just sat through a 10 minute YouTube tutorial on a certain kind of bookmaking, and if I had made it into a drinking game for every time she had to a) Name drop another blogger/vlogger; b) name drop a product she “just loves”; or c) I don’t need C I am already dead.

My point here is that neither of those things were about creating art in community or collaboration. It was all consumptive affiliate linking and back-patting. Yes, artists need an audience, and hopefully we can sell a poem, or a story, or a painting, and I’d really like someone to pick up that chapbook I just poured my guts into. At the end of the day, however, I don’t want to do art for capitalism’s sake, or for the sake of consumption. I don’t do my job for the sake of the dollar, although I’d die without it. I don’t want to do this just so I don’t die; I want to do this because we live. I want to re-purpose this old shell of the Empire.

But we are dying. Our world is on fire; Idaho rejected (AGAIN, I might add), the science standards related to climate change and human impact on the environment. I don’t want to add to the demand for resources… even though I recognize my preferred media are paper and acrylics.

I can’t handle the hustle. I submit cover letters with no website, because I can’t keep up my blog enough. My health has prevented me from completing my thesis. I’m sick. I’m tired fatigued. I’m pissed, and yet I’m in a good enough place to make some noise. I just have to be my own writer and artist and teacher. Whatever the hell that means. I recognize the privilege I have to NOT hustle. And I will give credit where it is due, but I can not go in these circles where we keep blog linking and back-patting other Crafty Cathy types for making pretties.

James Castle made his ink out of spit and charcoal. We can make our revolution art out of something other than Pinterest-pretty faux-ephemera. Screw your capitalist bougie YouTube branded hustle. That might be the worst sentence I’ve ever published. It’s ok; I’m on steroids. You’ll forgive me.

Migraine Monday: the unCommon Cold

I caught a cold. The Cold. The cold that had been spreading around the secondary department, and likely the rest of the school.

Eh, no biggie. Au, contraire. This cold knocked me on my proverbial and literal butt. I spent two days in bed. The head cold triggered a migraine, which was preceded by the oh-so-interesting Alice in Wonderland aura.

Interesting sidenote: I first learned the name of this aura when listening to an audio book of Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations. I nearly had to pull my car over to the side of the road. What he described was a sensation I’d experienced as a child, but never shared with anyone. Hearing my self described to me was so jarring. It turns out “children who relay the features of Alice in Wonderland syndrome are noted to have … a very high likelihood of developing migraine headaches as they get older.”¹ Until that point, I thought my migraines were a new problem that emerged in my late 20s; it’s more likely the underlying neurology was always present.

Anyway, after my first sick day, I thought I would be able to return to work. I crawled into bed, and then my pillow became my tongue, my head was inside my mouth, and gravity no longer applied to my body. If this happens, it happens at night. It passed in a few minutes, during which I was lucid and aware that this was bogus. It’s neurological, after all, not psychological. I called in sick the next day; my head was not alright.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, as these auras are known, is more common than I knew. I have at least a half-dozen friends who have it, or had it as children. When I shared a NYT piece about it on Facebook, several friends piped up. Even Lewis Carroll himself is thought to have had it, as he kept journals of his migraines.²

Today I’m back at work, much healthier in body and mind. I hate missing work. The cold has made its way through most of the department by now. I have so much catching up to do. I hope my brain holds out, or the Queen will have my head…


¹http://www.neurologytimes.com/headache-and-migraine/alice-wonderland-syndrome

²https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/23/alice-in-wonderland-syndrome/

Migraine Monday: Everything is (not) fine

I’m teetering on the edge of hope and absolute nihilism. I guess that makes me a Millennial, amiright?

Life in the two years of blogging silence has been a glorious shitstorm. Phrased otherwise, some things have been glorious, and others have been shit. I couldn’t write, though. Every time I tried I was too angry, too traumatized, too defeated. My world was on fire, and I was impotent.

this is fine

Image description: “On Fire” from Gunshow by K.C. Green. Full comic available at http://gunshowcomic.com/648 Frame 1: Question Dog sits in a burning building, with a cup of coffee on a table. Frame 2: Question Dog says, “This is fine,” with flames behind him and smoke above him, ignoring his peril.

I have enough distance from some of it to know I was in a constant state of emotional abuse and gaslighting at the professional level, and varying stages of grief in other areas of my life. My feet weren’t on a strong enough foundation of reality to form a coherent narrative of, well, anything. 

I tried to act like everything was fine, while I felt like I was going mad.

Maybe going mad is the only way to stay sane in a mad world.

I know some may see this language as ableist, but I do not mean it colloquially or glibly. My college religion professor Dr. Haar ended each class meeting with the words “Stay sane out there,” and he meant it quite seriously. How do we maintain our grounding in a world that organizes genocide, kills black men and women indiscriminately, pushes queer children and teens out of their homes, and attempts to cut health coverage for the disabled?

It’s Migraine Monday, and the only thing I have a grip on is my migraines. At least that’s something. It’s a start. I can wake up to face the day, the battle, the world. I can see out of both eyes.

My fistful of meds and I are ready to write again. I hope you’ll join the conversation, add your voice, and and your feet, and your hands.

 

Work, Pay, Power

I have never asked for a raise. At least not a raise in salary. I work in a state with a weak union and “at will” employment. My contract is symbolic more than anything; my first year of teaching, we laid off ten staff members as we faced three separate budget holdbacks of two percent each. I actually took a pay cut on my contract for the following year. I was just happy to get a contract. My base pay is still roughly the same as it was my first year of teaching, although I make more because of extra-duty contracts. Teacher pay in this state is abysmal. We deserve to make a better salary. But I’ve never asked for a raise.

A few times in college, I negotiated for a higher grade. I didn’t really deserve a better grade based on my performance. It was my sophomore year. My anxiety and depression were out of control. My meds were maxed out. I was hardly capable of showering, let alone doing any of my work. I explained my situation and my professor gave me an extension to complete the work. Not only that, she did it twice–for ASL III and ASL IV. I eked by with a C instead of an F two semesters in a row. A couple friends were really angry because I hardly showed up for class, still passed, and then scored high enough on my proficiency interview to continue in the program and student teach as scheduled. I don’t blame them. The teacher had the power to let me fail and did not use it.

There is a very common habit among teachers, administrators, and school reformers to refer to schooling and learning as students’ jobs. To compare the grades they earn to a wage or a salary. This paradigm is used to justify dress codes, “no excuses” styles of discipline, and draconian grading practices. It’s used to make arguments in favor of homework and grade point averages. I’ve met a lot of people who are miserable in their jobs. Why would we want to push that same economic misery down onto younger and younger students? Do Kindergartners really need to think about being career ready?

I conversed with a friend recently about work. He said he hates asking for a raise, even though he thinks the work he does and the increasing cost of living warrants an increase in salary. We talked a bit, and like nearly every conversation I have these days, our conversation turned to issues of power.

In school, the teachers have the power and the students do not. The students do the work, the teachers give the grades. Often, participation, homework, and attendance are incorporated into those grades, which may seem arbitrarily decided. What is the difference between an 85 and a 90 anyway? And why is an A- better than a B+? I served on a committee at ISDB to overhaul our grading system. We delved into the work of Ken O’Connor and developed a standards-based system. We ditched letter grades and replaced it with a numeric system–0, 1, 2, 3, 4, with 3 being the target achievement of mastering the learning goal. We separated behavior reporting from the academic reporting, so attendance and homework no longer factor in to final grades but are reported separately. I say all that so I can say this: changing the power dynamic upset the hierarchy, and it was a tough transition. Not all the teachers liked giving up that power over their grades. They didn’t like the transparency. We quibbled over the wording of the rubrics that explained the numbering system, but that was just a distraction from the fear of giving up too much power.

If the purpose of schooling is to prepare our future drones, grades are a good way to prep them for the power of the paycheck. We are so conditioned to work hard and harder and even harder to prove ourselves and earn a grade that we automatically do the same for our paychecks. Homework is training for overtime. Extracurricular activities are preparation for “other duties as assigned.” And the untouchable grading scale posted on the wall? Or the stress of waiting to find out if someone “blew the curve”? All part of the power game.

I know plenty of people who have asked for a raise. But I know far more who have sweated and stressed and agonized about how to ask, and when to ask, and even if they should ask because it involved breaching that division of power. And the divisions get deeper when issues of gender, race, language, or disability get thrown into the mix. How does a black woman effectively ask for a raise from a white man when they are both entrenched in the system? Or a white disabled woman ask from a Latino man? Power overlaps, intersects, multiplies and divides. And we all have varying degrees of internalized Patriarchy left in us. Everything is about power. And the more I see it and try to dismantle it in my tiny corner of this tiny building, the deeper the divisions seem to run. I need more minions. I mean, I’ll start with the four I have. And I’ll be a co-minion instead of the overlord. But still: I need more minions. We have a lot of work to do.