An Open Letter to an Audi Commercial

Dear Audi Commercial,

It is really cute how your beautiful, happy couple driving in your new insanely expensive car snubs a gluten free cupcake truck.  I really liked how the voice-over explained that Audi owners were too good for “trends”.  I think it’s just so special that you want to perpetuate the myth that anyone who is gluten free is doing so in order to be “trendy”.

Anyone who believes that sugary treats that don’t taste like a sweet version of dish detergent and don’t feel like chewing on a horse hoof are too good for them deserve to be snubbed anyway.  And how dare they walk into a restaurant and ask to order from a different menu?  Or expect a separate aisle in the grocery store?  And come on, already, what is with gluten free beer?  Like Anheuser Busch hasn’t already ruined beer anyway, now the damn gluten haters come along and start this nonsense.  In fact, I think you should have taken your commercial a step further, and had that car swerve around an EMS truck clearly carrying an undiagnosed Celiac patient whose intestines have shut down.

And to top it off, you added that absurd “Kale” truck too.  As if kale hasn’t done enough to America as it is.  What a ridiculous trend, America!  How dare you eat leafy green vegetables loaded with healthy nutrients! That truck deserved to be knocked over.  Your actors were nice to just cut it off.

So, thank you, Audi. Every Celiac in America who has to turn down Grandma’s gravy, or Oktoberfest beer, or every birthday cake at every birthday party for the rest of her life, thanks you too.  Because now, we get to explain even more to blank faces why we choose to be one of those damn trendsetters who refuses to stand out from the crowd like your Audi drivers.  Trendsetters do love to talk.

Cheers to you!

Damn Celiacs

Mama Guilt is Not What You Think

I’ve read quite a bit about “Mommy Guilt”, primarily because I’ve Googled it each time I let my daughters play on the floor while I spend hours on the computer creating lesson plans, or when I leave them right at the time they want me to read them a bedtime story to go out with friends or my husband, or even when I zone out for a minute and stare at a spot on the wall just thinking or just not thinking at all.  It plagues me every time I take time from them for something else.  It plagues me when I take time for them and ignore all that “something else”.  I can’t escape it, and apparently, I’m not the only one.

But ever since I read Tina Fey’s beautiful piece, “A Mother’s Prayer for Her Daughter”, I find that when I think about my relationship with my own daughters, I’m often actually thinking about my relationship with my parents.  I tear up nearly every time I read it, and I can’t shake the expertly crafted image she creates when she writes–

And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back. “My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans feces off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And she will forget. But I’ll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.

I don’t read that and think about my daughters with their possible future babies–at least not yet, not while they’re still babies.  Instead, I think about my past.  I think about my own helpless little body lying on the puke green shag carpet that covered the floor of the house I grew up in, looking into the eyes of my mom and dad who made silly faces at me and wiped the poop off my leg.  I think about those moments when my toddler reaches out her hand as she walks down steps, and when my infant lays her head against my shoulder because nothing brings on sleep more than the comfy pillow of someone you love.

I think about those moments when, while conducting her experiment in independence, my three-year-old tells me (true story), “No! I don’t like you. You stink!”  And I think about those moments when I get frustrated with my adult parents–when mom won’t respond to my texts or dad wants to argue politics.  Because, I try to remind myself, once upon a time they felt the way I do about my babies, about me.  And I feel guilty that I break their heart a little bit more every time I recognize that we are separate people.  Even at thirty-two years old, I still have a hard time accepting that I don’t belong to them anymore.

When I get a guilty pang after daycare drop off, or during a plea for attention that I just can’t give, or in the midst of an elaborate scheme to eek out just one more bedtime story, I empathize with my future self by empathizing with my parents.  I feel guilty because I know I’m on borrowed time.  I will one day watch my children choose a partner and choose a lifestyle possibly different from the one I wanted for them.  I will watch them raise their own kids and get pissed at me because I try to give them advice.  Or get pissed because I didn’t raise them the way they think kids should be raised.  I will watch them make decisions that I wouldn’t choose for them, and feel the tiny heartbreak that they didn’t ask for my advice.

Ultimately, my mother would tell me, as she has many times before, Guilt is a wasted emotion.  And I know she’s right, but for right now at least, it forces me to understand that I only get this moment.  Because it won’t be long until my daughters are the ones with “Mommy Guilt” when they find themselves feeling guilty about how much they never knew they really loved me.

Hey Mama!

Today I walked into the teacher’s lounge, and delighted to find a table full of freebie snacks, exclaimed, “Mama loves some snacks!”

My colleague in the room looked around a little awkwardly, smiled oddly at me, and slunk out, clearly hoping to avoid me for a while.  The weirdest part was that I didn’t even realize what was so weird about it until about an hour later because I have been referring to myself in the third person as “mama” for so long now that I do it as a part of my inner (and outer, apparently) dialogue.

Here are some examples of thoughts I’ve had in the past twenty-four hours:

  • Ooh, belly’s growling.  Mama forgot her breakfast biscuits.
  • Hey, what’s that noise?  Is Mama’s phone ringing?  Nope, Mama’s got some chocolate in her ear.
  • After being asked a question by a student, Hmm, let Mama think about that for a minute…
  • When the afternoon blood sugar drop hits it’s, Mama tired…
  • And finally, after putting the girls to bed, Mama’s wine time!

I have been a mother now for three years, and I have just now realized that this has happened.  I have no idea how long it’s been going on, but I guess it’s weird.  It will be especially weird when I start referring to myself as “mama” out loud and not realizing it…which has apparently already begun.

What’s really interesting as I think about this now, is that somehow even in my own head, I have morphed from one whole person who eats, naps, and has the occasional conversation and glass of wine, into simply a “mama” who does those things.  When did this happen?

My daughter has recently taken to calling my husband and I by our first names because she thinks it’s funny.  We laughed at first and corrected her jovially.  Then (as toddlers tend to do) it became a funny game, and we had to start correcting her a little more sternly.  Now we shut it down right away without any kind of pretense of a joke.  This is for real–it’s a matter of respect, after all.

But is it really?  Or would my daughter have more respect for me if I let her think of me as more than “mama” and as a woman named Ashley?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not likely to seriously let her do that, but I wonder if I did, would it change the way she thinks of me?  Or the way I think of myself?  Maybe if we let our children view us as whole people instead of just their moms and dads, we might build little humans who learn to see other people, especially those who take care of them, as more than, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it, a “single story”.  And maybe we might view ourselves in a new light too because, after all, “mama” really deserves that kind of love.

The Power of Just Shutting Up

I have spent the last two days not speaking to my creative writing class.

I’m not giving them the silent treatment; they just don’t really need me.  You would think that this would make me feel bad.  After all, if they don’t need me, then what exactly am I being paid to do?  But what has happened in room 411 these past two days is exactly what teachers should be paid to do.

I have now taught a creative writing course for a total of five years–two, many years ago, and three cumulative years now at my current school.  I have dreamed of recreating what I experienced a lifetime ago in workshop classes I took in college–the camaraderie that comes with baring one’s soul with strangers.  But after all this time, I had resigned myself to accepting something reminiscent of that world I left–the world that has become little particles of me that I carry around on my fingertips and in my hair.  Because once you have experienced what is possible in a creative writing workshop, you can’t deny its awesome power to transform everyone who walks away from it.

But I finally accepted that high school kids just can’t get there.  They’re too self-conscious, too anxious, too immature.  I thought I could just expose them to the amazing world of their own imaginations–the world they lost touch with somewhere around the time they started school–and that would be enough until they found their own voice and their own love of the written word then had a cathartic experience on some lucky poetry professor’s watch somewhere down the line.

I cannot believe how wrong I was.

I gave my students an experimental assignment–no real direction, no explicit instructions, no standards, no rubric.  I simply told them to take a song they loved and create something inspired by it.  That’s it.  I wanted to see what would happen if I just gave them the space to create, so I gave them three days to work on it.  Some of them cranked something out quickly and worked on math homework on the last day.  Some listened to music on their headphones the whole time and never wrote a word during class time.  Some sought feedback for their ideas from me and from their peers.  Some wrote, scratched it out, started over, wrote again.  Someone else might have entered my room and at first glance, thought it was a complete waste of academic time.  It did not look the way we as educators have come to believe rigor should look.

In fact, just last week a colleague pointed out that, “no offense, Ashley, but if we took away these electives, you could have another English class and all of our class numbers would be lower.”  She has a point, really.  Many of our core classes are overcrowded, and it is truly hard to reach each and every one of those 31 minds and hearts and bodies sitting in our classrooms every day.  I don’t fault her for her opinion; it’s the opinion of most people who know a thing or two about education, and even of those who know absolutely nothing about it at all.

But here is what I saw these past two days:

I saw kids come into our room, happily put cellphones away, and start sharing and responding to each others’ work without any direction from me whatsoever.  I actually had to interrupt them to take attendance.  I don’t think they even knew I was in the room.

I saw each and every student in our room show up with a piece of writing that they had spent time crafting.  No one forgot it at home.  No one had excuses about why it was incomplete.  No one asked how many points it was worth.

I saw a room full of teenagers raising their hands to comment thoughtfully on the work of their peers.  They weren’t raising their hands for me to call on them; they raised their hands to be called on by each other.

I saw one hundred percent engagement.  Every person in our room shared; every person in our room responded.  I didn’t require it.  I didn’t even ask them to do it.  They just did it because they cared about the work being done.  And they cared about work of their community, not just their own.

I saw students who had taken every AP class in the book, students who could and might go on to Ivy League colleges interact respectfully and intelligently with kids who had never set foot in an advanced class of any kind–kids who had failed classes, been labeled as “lazy”, heard every label in the book as a reason for why they just didn’t get it.  I, nor could anyone else, tell the difference between these students.  And neither could they.  Or if they could, they certainly didn’t care one way or another about it.  They respected each other as intellectual equals.

And, truly, the most amazing thing I saw was kids sharing traumatic experiences, feelings of waiting, feelings of not being good enough, feelings of distance, heartache, funny stories, imagined worlds, and images so clear and so perfectly placed that in the span of 48 hours, I lay with them in hospital beds, felt bored with them in high school classrooms, fought battles with them, desperately tried to put the pieces back together of a broken heart with them.  There was no mumbled laughter.  No awkward silences.  No one slunk out at the end of class embarrassed, hurt, or ashamed.  In fact, they bellowed, “no!!!” at the bell that ended our hour together.

So in response to the world who peeks into a classroom like the one I got the good luck to inhabit and believes it should be replaced with a core class, or more rigor, or more standards, or more assessments, or all the mores that are plopped onto kids and teachers and schools these days, I would like to politely disagree.  Instead, I would like to offer you a seat in our circle because I wish that every student and every teacher got to do every day what I got to do these last two:  Just shut up for a little while, and let kids show you what they are capable of.

I’m back!

Hello blog-i-verse!

It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve recovered from pregnancy, labor, and the months of juggling an infant, a toddler, and life as a teacher.  It’s been exhausting and truly amazing.

I’m just going to skip over the whole I’ve-been-neglecting-this-blog-and-I-feel-guilty thing, and just get to it.  So here goes…

I’m back!

Hiatus

So it’s probably really late coming, but I had a baby in November and have since spent my days glued to a couch breastfeeding while birds build nests in my greasy hair.  I’d love to say I’m writing, but I barely have the brain capacity to turn on the television and stare at it blankly.  Please forgive my absence and I’ll see you when normalcy returns.  In the meantime, enjoy this awesome article from Ashlee Gad that a friend sent me to make me feel better.  It totally describes my world right now.  I’ve read it many times over already.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ashlee-gadd/you-just-had-a-baby_b_6439326.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000037

Why single mothers make great dads

257IMG_5404

We all complain about our spouses.  It’s just a fact of marriage.  And God knows, I’m as guilty as the next person of focusing on my husband’s flaws rather than the millions of gifts he possesses.

But lately, I just can’t help but explode with gratitude for this man with whom I’ve chosen to spend my life.  I watch him right now, pushing the lawnmower on a crisp, fall morning wearing basketball shorts and a hoodie pulled up over his head, while my daughter sits in a chair by the dining room window waving to him and singing, Daddy, Daddy to herself.  I smile each time he charges back up toward the house, making a grid in the grass, as she says, Daddy hold you, Daddy hold you, and waits patiently for him to come in and do just that.  Because he will.

I think about Friday night, when I thought (thank God!) that I was finally going into labor with my second child and we went out for our own version of The Last Supper (PS, I’m still pregnant a day past my due date as of this writing–ugh!).  I pinch myself when I picture my daughter eating his sushi tempura while he ate her cheese quesadilla instead, and the two of them danced together by the front door of the restaurant as I took twenty minutes to lift my pregnant self from the chair.

This man is an awesome dad.  And I say this not because my brain is a soup of pregnancy hormones right now, but because it is the honest truth.  And to top it off, he’s a pretty damn good husband too.

It occurred to me last night while I tossed and turned in the bed that there could very well be some sociological explanation for how well suited he is for these jobs.  I’ve heard a lot lately about “the millennial man” and I do think there is something in the air that has pushed modern men to play more domesticated roles, but I think in my husband’s case, he is such an amazing husband and father because he was raised by a single mother.Father's Day 2013 (23)

His father died when he was an infant and his image of what a man was supposed to be was a single woman raising three children alone, while dealing with the sudden and tragic death of her husband.  He has no illusions that “men aren’t supposed to cry” or “such and such is women’s work, not men’s” because his male role model cried often and would at once mow the lawn and have dinner ready by six.

I know my husband, his siblings, and his mother wish more than anything that they didn’t grow up without a father and husband, and I know they miss him still.  But I think about many (many) of my students who are raised by single parents and the supposed negative psychological and sociological impacts of this experience, and I have to respectfully disagree.  I think that strong people who are missing someone so pivotal in their lives often fill that void by becoming more of a whole person than others.  I never pushed myself to be both yin and yang, masculine and feminine, because I grew up with clearly defined boundaries about what that entailed.  I never needed to be both.  But his mother did and what she produced is children who don’t define themselves by those roles.

My husband cooks dinner every night (and he’s a hell of a better cook than me).  He cleans most of the time.  He cuddles, hugs, and kisses our daughter ceaselessly.  Every day between 9 and 10 am, I get a text telling me he loves me.  And he also always takes out the trash, mows the lawn, and kills the occasional spider.  He is everything to and for us.  I wish every woman in the world should be so lucky, and I thank my lucky stars day after day that I am.IMG_4254

Hopefully I will have this baby and not be pregnant for the rest of my life, and when our new baby girl enters this world, God-willing, she and her sister will grow up with a male role model who is both protective and nurturing.  A mother could not ask more for her children.

 

 

Why every writer should hang out with kids

patched face

Image found on Google Images.

My freshmen are writing short stories right now–flash fiction, actually, which has been quite an interesting challenge for them.  But what has been the best part of teaching them how to do this, is hearing their ideas.

Man, they can come up with ideas that make me what to kick myself for not thinking of them first!  This is why it hit me today that every writer should find a writing group of kids.  It would be pretty easy even if you weren’t a teacher–just pull up at a park and offer pizza to the ones you find there.  It would be a great session until the police showed up.

Yesterday a student told me that she wanted to write a story about a girl at school who kills other girls and wears their skin (we read a lot of Poe, don’t judge).  Her original idea was that this Carrie-like outcast would one by one pick off the popular group of girls, but they wouldn’t know what was happening although the outcast would be showing up to school in these skin clothes.  I knew that would be a lot to deal with in 500 words, let alone suspending disbelief long enough to make it work.  But we starting talking about building to tension peaks before the ultimate climax, and we came up with the idea that the outcast comes to school with strange bandages every day, meanwhile the girls in the popular girl group are having attendance problems.  Ultimately the climax is the final girl is left at school and the outcast pulls off the bandages to reveal that the girl’s friends’ skin has been slowly added to the face/body of the outcast.

The student got a mischievous grin at the end of this conference and my skin crawled.  It was a great idea for a story and we both walked away knowing it.  I couldn’t wait to see what she did with it, but I found my fingers itching to write it myself.  This phenomenon happened conference after conference with these kids.  They had unbelievable ideas that just needed a bit of tweaking, questioning, or guidance.  Ideas that could turn into stories that Stephen King himself would be pissed he missed.

I guess the muse speaks louder to kids.  All of my “experience” that I’m using to help them is nothing without that raw idea that they sit down so jazzed to tell me about.  I miss those raw ideas.  I don’t get them as much as I used to, but like I’ve said before, I’m grateful that I get to hang out with young writers long enough to find them where I can.  I can only hope the muse whispers loud enough while I sit beside them, and every writer should be lucky enough to do the same.

Acceptance at last!

857772_10100506771932164_221268741_oYesterday will go down in the history of my life as the first time I received an ACCEPTANCE letter.  Critical rejections, I’ve had.  Personal, encouraging rejections, I’d come to kind of enjoy.  But an acceptance was new and thrilling.

Except that it was also kind of scary.

I found myself immediately starting to doubt.  If this magazine actually accepted me, it must not be a good one.  Or don’t get too excited, lots of writers better than you are getting accepted left and right all the time.  It’s funny how I have been putting such an optimistic spin on rejection, but hand me the first acceptance and suddenly I can’t see the good in it.

I turned to a handful of other creators–a professional writer I’m acquainted with, the art teacher at my school, the playwright teaching my creative writing class–in an attempt to pacify my spinning mind.  They all told me essentially the same thing:  This is an opportunity to let go of old work and make room for the new.  Because the bottom line is that it’s all about the work.

A similar illuminating moment came this summer when someone suggested that I quit worrying about the outcomes and focus on the process instead.  She was referring to teaching at the time, but I have turned those words over and over in my head when it comes to teaching, writing, marriage, motherhood, friendship, and the list goes on.  I find that it soothes just about any anxiety I have in most aspects of my life because as cliche as it may be, life truly is a journey, not a destination.

So I woke up today with the plan to celebrate my acceptance.  I told a couple of people at work about it, even though I usually try to keep my writing life and my teaching life separate.  I replied to the acceptance email with gratitude and wrote the “third person bio” to include with my piece (a truly strange experience).  And I made a (gluten-free) chocolate cake after dinner tonight and stood in the kitchen with my husband eating it with my hands.

A small celebration for a small–but really important–moment in my writing life.

Why are so many teachers on antidepressants?

FPX57439A few years ago I flew Korean Air on a flight from Honolulu to Bangkok with a group of teachers from all over the country.  To date, Korean Air has been hands-down my best flight experience, but that’s neither here nor there.  What was most memorable about this flight is how it compared to a subsequent flight that I took coming home.

On the way to Thailand, one of the flight attendants came on over the loudspeaker and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, flying with us today is a group of educators who have devoted their lives to teaching young people.  Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.”  This announcement was a welcome surprise, as I had never before experienced such open gratitude for what I do for a living from strangers.

While in Thailand, we were treated like royalty.  Literally.  Children threw flowers down at our feet and hung leis about our necks as we entered schools.  People greeted us with smiles and even small gifts in boardrooms, meeting halls, and auditoriums.  We experienced life as a teacher in a culture that values educators above most other professions.  In fact, professors and teachers in Thailand are given their own special honorific separate from the rest of the population.

It was an interesting experience to be treated with such respect, especially because upon return to my classroom at my old school, I was called a “motherf-ing b*tch” by a student on my first day back.  But before that even, on our American Airlines flight home, sitting amidst soldiers returning from deployment, a flight attendant came on the loudspeaker and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, flying with us today is a group of brave soldiers.  Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.”  An odd coincidence, but true nonetheless.

I don’t begrudge those soldiers their applause.  And I clapped with everyone else, as I have time and time again on flights, in assemblies, and the line at the post office.  But these moments have led me to note that who we applaud represents what we value as a society.

Fast forward three years later to a copy room in a great school with highly qualified educators running classrooms of intelligent, hard-working kids.  A few days ago at this school, I had a conversation with two strong teachers about what type of antidepressants they were currently or had been on in the past.  I realized that I had had this conversation in the good schools and the bad ones, with the kids who wanted to learn and had every resource to do so, and with the kids who hated learning because they had never been given resources or opportunities to love it.  And everywhere you look, in “good” schools and “bad”, teachers are being prescribed drugs for depression and anxiety or self-medicating in surprising numbers.

I think if the general public knew how much being a teacher takes from a person who works as a teacher, it might stop advocating taking so much and give a little more applause.  I’ve known teachers who drink six to seven beers or half to full bottles of wine each night, and teachers who’ve had to take leave of absences in order to check into rehab.  I’ve sat among teachers as we each discuss all the types of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications we’ve gone through in order to find one that works, so that we don’t feel like screaming at the end of the day.  I’ve been on the verge of those screams myself and found myself wondering if something from a bottle were the best answer for me too.

I’m not saying that teachers are addicts.  I have found myself in each of the aforementioned situations and have fortunately never struggled with addiction in my life.  But what I am implying is that a lack of respect for teachers embedded in our culture pushes good educators to doubt themselves.  And this self-doubt promotes overwork in order to achieve approval and “success” in all its forms, and the overwork leads to lack of sleep, anxiety, depression, anger, resentment, and any number of stresses that can cause a person to break down emotionally.

My previous school had a 90% free and reduced lunch population, was audited for many years by the state, experienced excessive teacher turnover, and was eventually closed down.  I worked with many talented educators while I was there (many of whom I consider war buddies to this day), and I felt my heart go out to hundreds of students.  But I also worked with some people who couldn’t take it because of some (and eventually most) of the students who ran completely wild with no consequences to any actions.  One of those colleagues found herself in the news and facing a suspension for throwing a chair at a student.  To be fair, I will admit that the teacher did have some questionable mental faculties at the time, but I found myself feeling sorry for her knowing full well the abuse she endured for months from that student before the incident.  But when she finally lost her cool, she was the enemy.  And everyone in town, even fellow teachers, were ready to burn her at the stake for it.  I’m not excusing her actions, but I am suggesting that the more we hear  and talk about these “horrible” teachers, the more we create them.

A friend of mine just began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher at a pretty needy school.  My advice to her before her first day, and to all new teachers I meet, is to find something far from the realm of teaching to help you get through it.  My first year of teaching I started a jewelry business and sold jewelry at craft fairs.  At the time, it just felt like a hobby–a way to sit in front of the television at night (after not getting home until 8pm and then eating microwave popcorn for dinner) and let my thoughts go while twisting wire with tiny pliers.  But in hindsight, I see that it was much more than that.  It was an escape, a release, a way to be normal in a day filled with unbelievable abnormalities–a much healthier antidepressant.  And the funny thing is that I got more validation from making jewelry–customers complimenting the earrings at a show, coworkers sending emails with orders–than I ever did from teaching that year.

The value our culture places on educators does not compare to the value educators place on their own role.  Teachers feel the world atop their shoulders, and the world refuses to admit the support it receives there.  This dynamic leads to teachers who work hard for validation that rarely comes, like the kid who works hard for a B only to be questioned by a parent as to why it wasn’t an A.  I’m not advocating for flowers thrown at our feet on our way to work, but until our society changes the way it views teachers, we will continue to have teachers who suffer in secret until they make the news for finally losing their cool.

Image taken from Google Images.