12 Oct

Despite a professional development day on Friday, Saturday morning found me grading papers. I’d intended to do the work the day before, but a new tool for scheduling conferences proved to be ore complicated than expected and 4:00 on Friday came before I’d finished the work I needed to do.

As I stared at the screen, a knock came at my door. Who could that be this early, I wondered as I peered trough the blinds. It was my neighbor, Sue, holding a rake.

As I opened the door she began explaining her dilemma with a simple, “There’s a squirrel on my porch.” It turned out it was an aggressive squirrel who would not leave despite the rake, and it was peering into her living room with malice it its heart. Sue needed help shooing it away.

“I have some squirrel issues of my own,” I said and explained about the vicious squirrels I used to encounter in Queen’s Park everyday as I crossed campus at U of T. But, two fraidy cats are better than one, so I put on some shoes and ventured out.

Standing before her porch, I looked for the wee beastie. He was under neither chair.

“I can’t see him,” I announced. “Maybe he left.”

“No,”she replied. “I see his head behind the chair.”

I raised my eyes and saw him. His little head poked up behind the chair that sat in front of the living room window. I reached for Sue’s rake and attempted to hook the chair leg. My first tug had no effect – on the chair or the squirrel. Realizing the chair was heavier than it looked, I tugged on the rake handle with both hands.

The chair moved.

The squirrel darted.

Sue and I screamed.

And then we laughed.

Booster Day

5 Oct

My first instinct was to judge the man who joined the line in the lower level of the Kaiser parking lot. There we were, a masked ribbon of humanity and this guy had the nerve to show up without a mask. He held a balled up hoodie over his mouth and nose, but still…

I took a breath and looked around to see if other people were giving him the stink eye. In that moment, my mind returned to a day a few months back when I showed up at Fred Meyer, intent on doing my grocery shopping. I stepped out of my car, pressed the lock button on my key fob and reached into my left pocket, where I always carry a mask, and found none.

I patted my back pockets and searched inside my car. Had I dropped it when I left the house, I wondered slightly panicked. My mind whirled as my heart raced. Should I go home and get a mask or just do groceries another day?

A heard the sound of car doors closing near me and the beep of a car locking. A couple about my age had parked not far from me. They wore those blue disposable masks. Dare I hope? Dare I ask? I opted to hope and dare.

“Good morning,” I said, maskless but warmly, as I approached them. “I seem to have left my mask at home. You wouldn’t happen to have an extra, would you?”

They sized me up for the briefest of moments, then the man said, “I think we do.” He turned, went to his car and brought me one.

The memory flashed through my mind in an instant, but that was enough time for me to let go of the judgement I directed towards the man. I continued to watch hime and noticed the anxious look in his eyes and the way he looked around. Was he worried people, like me, were judging him? When he reached the registration table, he took a mask from the box that sat beside the stack of clipboards and put it on. He seemed to relax.

I lost track of him as I was sent to the table for my flu and booster shots, but he has stayed in my memory, a lesson learned.

Poetry Friday

21 Sep

We have a new schedule that pushes our middle schoolers through eight classes a day on Monday through Wednesday, and nine on Thursdays and Fridays. By Friday afternoon, we are all exhausted, so I am opting for Poetry Fridays, low stakes lessons in which we examine a poem and students write one of their own. I am teaching two different poems , one in 7th and another 8th grade. In 7th grade, we looked at Another New Year by Janet Wong, and I challenged them to write a poem in couplets. In 8th, we were inspired by Roque Dalton’s Como Tu/Like You. With six ELA classes, I wrote six poems. Here’s one from each grade.

Back to School 2021

New schedule
Old room

45 students
Packed inside

Masks on

Backpacks full
Windows open

Door ajar

Familiar faces
New grades

Exhausted, sweaty
Middle School

Like you

Like you I
love walking under a canopy of trees
looking up
at the many shades of green.

And my heart sings
when I notice the first tinge of yellow –
signs of the changing season.

I believe the world is ever-changing,
moving forward,
in perpetual evolution.

And I hope
that this movement –
that I do not always embrace –
does more good than ill.


14 Sep

Forty-five students in two of my six ELA classes, an HVAC system that works intermittently, the myth of 3 feet of social distancing, two new grade levels to teach, and a new nine period schedule: these are not the worries that have me stressed.

What worried me most today were the messages from my car. The low tire pressure light came on yesterday afternoon. A few months ago, the low battery message came on for my key fob. After watching a YouTube video, I was able to change the battery. I usually carried one particular key fob, but after changing the battery I worried, so I started carrying both the main and my spare. But the low battery light came on again.

Before leaving home this morning, I re-watched the video and changed the battery in the spare key fob. As I neared the end of the job a car alarm went off on my street. I went out to see if it was my car, but it had stopped by the time I got there.

On my way to school, armed with a pill bottle full of quarters and wet wipes, I stopped at the nearest gas station to fill my tires. When I got to work, I puttered around in my classroom as I do when I first arrive, opening windows and getting ready for the day. My room overlooks the parking lot and through the open windows, I heard a car alarm again. Could it be mine again, I wondered.

I exited through the nearest door and, of course it had stopped by the time I got there. Another teacher had just arrived and I asked if she’d noticed which card had sounded. She thought she might have touched her door to that of the car beside her when she got out, but couldn’t say for sure which car had sounded. I wondered if I’d accidently touched a button – the one for finding your car in a parking lot – as I had put my school bag and keys in my closet. It remains a mystery.

The low tire pressure light had resolved itself on the drive to school. It will take a few days for me to know about the fob batteries. That light didn’t come on every day. Until I feel confident, I will continue carrying both fobs. And keep my fingers crossed.

Foot Care

7 Sep

It’s hard to explain to non-educators how your feet ache the first week back at school. Despite comfortable shoes with excellent support, my feet throbbed after my first full day of pre-service week.

Maybe it’s because I go barefoot in the house all summer. Maybe it’s because a concrete floor lies under my classroom’ thin carpet. Regardless, my feet were throbbing Monday afternoon when, after walking Richard to the park, I finally took my shoes off.

As I puttered, barefoot, in the kitchen, I thought back to my PHL 100 Into to Philosophy class at the University of Toronto. It was a survey class intended to introduce philosophy neophytes to some of the biggies: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Bentham, Nietzsche. It was taught by two professors, one teaching the Ancients, the other teaching the Moderns.

On the first day of the second half of the class, I sat in the lecture hall like my classmates, awaiting the arrival of the new professor who’s name I no longer remember. What I do remember is her entrance. The entrance was at the back of the hall. As we sat there, a small woman in a black robe descended the stairs towards the lectern on the stage.

The hall was part of Trinity College. U of T is set up like the British College system with small colleges within the larger university. You could take classes at any college, but each had their own traditions and one of Trinity’s was the black gown that students had to wear to dinner. This professor, attached to Trinity, also felt she should wear it to teach.

It wasn’t the gown that got our attention, however. She had a mop of grey hair reminiscent of Albert Einstein and, as there was no handrail, she ran her hand along the wall as she descended the stairs. As intriguing as this was, it was her feet that grabbed my attention. She wore fluffy bedroom slippers.My memory of this professor – who was rather brilliant – sparked an idea. After dinner I packed a pair of Crocs in my school bag.

For the rest of the week, after the morning meetings, teachers had time to work in our classrooms. Each day, when the time arrived to work in my classroom, I removed my shoes and donned my Crocs. My feet hurt less when I got home. Perhaps it was the Crocs, perhaps I was just growing accustomed to being back at work. in any case, I left the Crocs at school, just in case I need them once the teaching starts.


31 Aug

The email came in the early afternoon on Thursday:

With the opening of the new middles school that would drain off many of our students, I’d been wondering which of my former students I would get to teach again this year. I checked Synergy right away. Nothing.

A follow-up email came:

I had to be patient. It was hard. At 3:30, I took Richard to the park to calm myself down. It was after 4 when we returned and I logged in. Up popped my classes and I scrolled through. I won’t deny it, I was excited and audibly reacted to seeing some of the faces. There were a few faces that made me chuckle in a different way. Those were students who might not be that excited about having me again. I am looking forward to working with them again – even if they think I was a little hard on them.

Schedules were released to students at the same time. A few hours later, I received this message from a student who had been at outdoor school with me in March 2020, when the whole world turned upside down:

I am excited to be back.

The people in the neighborhood

17 Aug

With the return of better weather in the Spring, I started seeing more neighbors as I walked Richard around my neighborhood. Wet, wintery weather and Civid had kept a lot of people home, but now people are out and about, maskless in the open air.

But there have been changes. A white-haired man who walked daily with his wife now walks alone.A neighbor’s husband and two small dogs hav been replaced by a different man and a large dog. Their next door neighbors suddenly have a six month old baby. I want to ask about these changes, but good manners keep me from doing so. I send positive thoughts instead and wonder other changes have happened in the homes I pass.

A neighbor two blocks over is a school counselor. Over the course of my 15 years in the neighborhood, I saw the birth of her third son, her return to school, her first job as a school counselor. On my walks, she and I would compare how each of our schools and school districts were dealing with the pandemic.

I ran into her again yesterday. I had just passed her house when she came out, glasses on, armed with pen and paper.

“I’m finally reporting that car,” she said as she walked towards a white car parked in front of the house of the woman with the new man and dog. “It’s been there over a year.”

“I thought I was the only one who reported cars,” I laughed. “I am glad to know I am in good company.”

I had only noticed this car a few months ago, but I understood her frustration

“Be sure to let them know the front driver’s side tire is flat,” I told her. “They like those details.”

“The tags have expired, too,” she added.

We chatted a bit about the number of cars with expired tags we see on a regular basis before rolling into talk about the imminent return to school. We are both ready to get back to in person teaching, both comfortable teaching fully masked. We’ll be sure that we and our students are responsible about following COVID protocols, just like we make sure people are responsible about following neighborhood parking protocols.

Transitional thinking

3 Aug

Teachers know that August is the Sunday of Summer. At least, it is for those of us who start teaching after Labor Day. For me, it means that my brain starts having school thoughts.

I’ve already checked my classes to see if the new ones have been populated. They haven’t. With a new middle school opening, I’ve been wondering who I will get to teach again. I can still see last year’s students, and since I am moving up with my 6th graders, I printed off my class lists and checked out their enrollment for 7th grade. I wish I had the previous year’s class lists, since I will also be teaching 8th grade ELA.

In 7th grade, we read Julius Caesar and Hamlet. In 8th we read Macbeth. I’ve borrowed various DVDs of each from the library to refresh my memory. I read Julius Caesar in grade 10 but still remembered some of the lines I had to memorize in Mr Cull’s class. There were whole parts I’d forgotten, too. I read Macbeth in grade 12 or 13 – I can’t quite remember – and I saw the opera version a few years ago. My first exposure to Hamlet came from Gilligan’s Island.

Last week, I bought an orange notebook and a green notebook, the exact sort and colors I’ve purchased every year since I moved back to middle school. In the past, I used the orange one for morning classes and the green for afternoon, but I’m thinking one will be for 7th and the other for 8th grade ELA. A lot will depend on the schedule I receive later this month.

I have an eye appointment next week. I might even get new glasses for the first time in four years.

I’ve been thinking about checking out some curriculum guides from the school library. It will be a year of learning for me as well as for the students, most of whom have not set foot in our building since March 2020. It would be nice to take a look at what I am supposed to teach. I’m not sure when the library will be staffed, though.

I need to unpack all the boxes I packed in June. August always means carpet cleaning and it can be a complicated dance to coordinate the custodial staff’s need to get the building ready for September with my need to unpack and organize and my need to suck the marrow out of the last days of summer holidays.

Kitchen drama

20 Jul

With a plethora of blueberries in the fridge, I decided to bake lemon blueberry bread. Now, I am an intermittent baker, and don’t like to turn the stove on in the summer, but a cool morning and the presence of all the necessary ingredients turned my idea into a reality.

Following the recipe, I first mixed the dry ingredients – flour, baking powder, and salt – and set them aside. I put the butter in the microwave to melt as I moved on to the wet ingredients. In a separate bowl, I combined the melted butter with sugar, then went to the fridge for the two eggs required. The shell of the first egg made a satisfactory crack as I hit it on the rim of the bowl. I pulled the shell halves apart and let the egg drop into the bowl.

I gagged almost immediately.

An overpowering odor rose from the greenish goo that sat atop the golden liquid in the bowl. I gagged again. And again. I gagged as I sloughed to offensive goo into a compost bag. I gagged as I carried the bag outside to the compost bin.

By the time I returned to the kitchen, I was back in control, but only just. And I had a big decision to make: toss it all, or start over? I’d already been thinking about biting into a slice of sweetbread, so I bravely picked up the egg carton, determined to start again. Uh, oh, I thought when I saw the expiration date on the egg carton. These eggs expired on December 28, 2020.

I pulled out a bowl and tentatively took another egg from the carton. It’s cracking refilled the kitchen with putridness and gagging. I tossed the remaining egg into another compost bag. As I took that bag to the compost bin, I tossed the carton into the recycling bin, gagging all the way.

Back in control once more, I pulled open the fridge door. I still had a full carton of eggs in the fridge, the legacy of my last baking binge. It’s expiration date was in early May. I paused for a moment, then pulled out the carton, and cautiously cracking an egg into a bowl. No odor emerged, but, twice bitten, I was wary. The color of this egg’s yolk didn’t seem quite right. Was that real or did I just imagine it? I decided to try another. If this egg seemed at all dodgy, I resolved to abandon my baking project.

Fortunately, that egg, and the one that followed were fine. I finished the mixing and as the bread baked, I cleaned the kitchen. That process included putting all the remaining eggs into a compost bag and disposing of them. Who knew when the baking bug would bite again. I did not want a repeat of the egg incident.

An hour later, I had a delicious treat to accompany my tea.

Bee butts

13 Jul

Everyday, I walk past a neighbor’s zinnia bed. It’s a little past the halfway mark on homeward leg of the journey. A rock wall surrounds the bed and Richard likes to stop and sniff the stones, eager to read the messages of his people. While he sniffs, I lean in, looking for bumble bees.

I have developed a fascination with bumble bees. One day, I noticed two bumble bees on the butterfly bush out my back door. Butterfly bushes are considered invasive species in Oregon and are very hard to kill, but the attract a variety of pollinators, including bumble bees.

Whenever I see a bee I lean in close. In college, a friend and I took a beekeeping class and set up a hive, which we later gave to a local beekeeper, as we moved on after graduation. I learned to be calm and gentle around bees and so I lean in when I see bees.

The butterfly bush hosted several bumble bees that day. I leaned in close and noticed that although they looked alike from a distance, the two bumble bees I leaned into, were very different. You think you know something and then you notice something and your world is rocked. This observation rocked my world. Not only were their stripes different, one of the bees had orange, in addition to yellow and black on its body. I did a little research and discovered the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas.

I had no idea that there was such variety. I have become an obsessed observer. Whenever Richard stops to sniff, I scan for bee butts, trying to see the colors and patterns.

Randy Ribay

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