Drawing closer

4 Mar

On Wednesdays, I only have one class: a 30-minute homeroom Advisory. Our counseling staff prepares lessons for us to teach, usually around Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Some of the lessons have been excellent, but it can be hard teaching a lesson some one else prepared and you see 30 minutes before teaching it. Some Wednesdays, I feel bad for my students. Yesterday, having looked at the lesson, I couldn’t take it any more.

First, let me say, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the lesson. It was sunny out and I felt an energy I hadn’t felt in months, and, after six months of SEL lessons, I wanted something fun. I threw out the lesson and decided we’d play Pictionary. We’d played the week before Winter Break and I laughed with my students harder than I ever had. Pictionary was what we needed today, not another slide deck.

Once everyone had arrived to the Zoom meeting, I asked, “Was there someone who won the last round last time, and I promised could go first?”

Silence at first, then a name was suggested. That person couldn’t recall, so I went to the list I’d prepared. “We have three birthdays this week, so I will offer it to the celebrants.”

Thursday’s birthday declined. I was worried.

Friday’s birthday declined. I was really worried.

Saturday’s birthday accepted and we had a Pictionary game up and running.

Suddenly, it was two minutes before the end of the class. I gave the word to the last drawer. She drew, They guessed and class was over. As I wrapped things up and we said our goodbyes, the comment that stood out to me in chat was We should do this more often. Yes, we should.

On this day last year…

3 Mar

On this day last year…
we were wrapping up our Mesopotamia Unit

Today
we are deep into our thematic unit about Ancient River Civilizations

On this day last year
parents were worried about going to Outdoor School the following week

Today
parents are worried about returning to school buildings next month

On this day last year
Lucy was snuggled on the sofa while I got ready for work

Today
Richard is snuggled on the sofa while I get ready for work

On this day last year
I was planning my route for the Rose City Yarn Crawl

Today
I visit the virtual crawl

On this day last year
I had no idea what was coming

Today
I wonder what this day will look like next year.

The Waiting Room

2 Mar

It takes about five minutes for all my students to make it to class. We’ve been remote since last March, so that means entering the Zoom room. Every morning I set up my waiting room with a question, a video, a cartoon – something to engage my 6th graders while they await their classmates. They can respond aloud or in the chat. At this point in the year, I can predict how each will reply.

Some students reply a lot, some prefer to read or listen to the replies of others. It is low stakes, so I sometimes hear from kids who don’t participate in more academic pursuits. I try to vary what I post, appealing to the wide range of interests of my students. Some like CNN10. Some like the Dean the Basset videos. Some like responding to a picture and a question. Some like talking about their personal lives. For each student who likes each things, there’s another who dislikes it.

On February 23, scrambling for what to post, I turned to an old favorite: The National Day Calendar. There are often multiple celebrations and February 23 was no exception – it was National Banana Bread Day, National Tile Day, and National Dog Biscuit Day. As a dog lover, I was tempted by the latter, but opted for National Banana Bread Day because there was a video, so I posted it. Above the video I asked students to tell me about their feelings for banana bread and bananas.

You’d think something as mundane as a banana wouldn’t elicit much passion. I should have used my own feelings as a gauge. I don’t love banana bread, but will eat it, especially if there are chocolate chips. I like my bananas with a hint of green in the skin and will not eat them if they are turning brown. It turns out my students had strong opinions too. The oral and written conversation, one of the best we’d had all year, revealed that my students were all over the banana map. Their comments led to stories. One student talked about baking with her mom. Another shifted the conversation to lemon bread and his grandma. I told students how my mother always said the bruises were the sweetest part and how I now wondered if that was just something she said to justify eating a rotten banana. She grew up during the Depression and hated wasting food.

It was our own little slice of life moment, revealing tiny things about ourselves. It had absolutely nothing to do with the lesson that followed, but it was far more important.

Sunday in the Park

1 Mar

These days, I generally avoid the park on weekends because I know it will be busy – and avoiding people has been my norm for the last year. But yesterday was so beautiful and Spring-like, I couldn’t stay away.

I usually take Richard to the park after my last class ends. As we walk, I see the regulars: the woman with the burnt orange tam, the man whose shirt stretched tight across his torso revealing he has no six pack, the elderly gentleman in the green puffy coat. We went a little earlier yesterday and, as I suspected the park was packed with interlopers.

There’s a strategy for navigating the park in COVID times. My eyes continually scan what is happening in front. My ears are attuned to anyone approaching from behind. Richard helps a lot with what is going on behind, frequently turning as someone approaches, hoping to meet a friend. Richard is really the wild card. He mostly trots along my left side, but is prone to veering off the path, into the underbrush looking for treasures. In these post storm days, he has become obsessed with sniffing downed branches, analyzing each fir needle for important details and messages. I often step off the path with him. back turned to any maskless person approaching.

Yesterday’s sunshine put a spring in Richard’s step and generosity in my heart. Even before we got to the park, he had admirers. Three young women walked parallel to us on the opposite side of the street and, despite their masks, I heard giggles and the word “cute”. I smiled behind my mask, knowing they were talking about Richard. It happened again and again as we walked the loop around the pond. Most just oohed and ahed from afar, but as we approached the junction where four paths met, we met a superfan.

We had walked past a cluster of masked people, moving onto the path that would lead us home. I knew someone was behind us because, although he was moving forward, Richard kept looking behind. I stopped to let the person pass, but the little girl stopped, too.

“He is so cute!” she enthused from behind her mask.

“Yes he is,” I replied, looking for a parent. “Would you like to say hello?”

She put out a tentative hand and started chatting, “We have a dog. She’s a lab.”

“What is your dog’s name?” I asked.

“Lily,” she replied. “He is soft and his ears are so long!”

“This is Richard. You can touch his ears ears if you like.”

“Oh, They are very soft!” she replied.

Usually, this is the extent of a conversation with a Richard stan, and I started to move away, but she followed. Still no sign of a parent. I didn’t want to keep moving without knowing her parent was near. Time seemed to stand still as I scanned the area. Then, her dad appeared, almost apologetically. He and I chatted for a moment and then they turned to go back the way we had just come. Richard and I continued on our way home.

As we walked, I thought about that small girl, so unafraid of strangers, so at ease with conversation. So unlike me at her age.

Heroes come in all forms

23 Feb

The reminder email suggested patients arrive five minutes early for COVID vaccinations. It is more in my nature to arrive a lot earlier, so I made a plan. the first step: start the car to be sure I can get out from the snow that encircled it. With that in mind, I donned my coat several hours before my appointment and went outside.

tick, tick tick

After sitting idle for two weeks – an unexpected consequence of last week’s snowstorm – my car would not start. I tried again, went into the house for the spare fob, and tried again.

tick, tick tick

No luck. My heart started beating wildly. This was the worst possible day for this to happen. I returned to the house, feeling shaky and dug my AAA card out of my wallet and called. Then, I paced until the robocall came, telling me that Roadside Assistance was five minutes away.

I waited in the street and saw the truck down the block. I walked to the middle of the street and waved. The masked man who exited the truck was a sort of hero to me at that moment. He hooked up the cables, but the car didn’t start. I deflated a bit.

“Let me adjust the connection,” he said gruffly. This was a man of action, a man of few words.

Relief flooded my body as my car roared back to life. I gushed my thanks, then asked, “I need to drove for 15-20 minutes, right?”

“More like 30,” was his terse, but kind, reply.

I thought for a moment. My Advisory class started in 20 minutes and I needed to drive for 20. This was a dilemma, so I explained my situation and made a plea for further assistance.

“I need to send an email to my students telling them I am cancelling Advisory, but will be there for Humanities. Could you watch my car while I do that. I’ll be back in less than five minutes.”

He agreed and I was in and out in a flash.

Bu the time I settled into the driver’s seat, my hero had driven off. I shifted into drive and followed suit.

Al Purdy’s Snow

16 Feb

In my last year of high school, a wonderful English teacher introduced me to the poetry of Al Purdy. My favorite poem, “Snow at Roblin Lake” came from his book The Cariboo Horses.

Snow at Roblin Lake

The exactitude of snow is such
that even the Eskimo
achieved mere mention of the stuff
with his 20 names for snow:

the woodpile slowly disappears
all colours blur to white
the shorelines fade to infinite
distance in the white night –

In fifteen minutes more the house
itself is buried deep
in half an hour the world is lost
on a lazy nebular dead end street –

My little lake is not a lake
but endless ocean where I’ll fish
some cosmic Tonga Trench and take
Leviathan on a bent pin –

We had a very different sort of snow experience in Portland over the weekend and that inspired me to reflect on how different my experience was to Al Purdy’s.

Al Purdy’s Snow

Al Purdy’s snow
was gentle –
falling softly,
slowly,
blanketing the world
in a layer of time
and silence.

My snow comes
in a rush,
covering a layer of ice
then, itself,
covered by another
layer of ice.

There is no silence
the next morning
as limbs fall from trees,
ice snapping,
sliding from roofs
in the sudden rush
of a rapid thaw.

In his snow,
Al Purdy saw the
infinite,
the cosmic.
In mine,
I see only
the transient.



Best laid plans

2 Feb

After a year at home, everyday feels the same. I get up at the same time, and follow the same schedule. I live, teach, and relax in my living room. I take Richard to the park at the same time everyday. That’s why any change to the schedule feels almost celebratory.

Despite the sameness of every, I use my school planner religiously. I was thrilled last week to see “10:00 Library pick-up” written in Friday’s planner cell. I looked forward to it all week. Because I only go out when necessary, I try to consolidate trips out. I added to Friday’s to do list:

mail packages @ USPS
get groceries
pick-up library holds

I left home and ticked off the first two items without at hitch. I timed everything perfectly and arrived at the library a few minutes before it opened. A few people were in line, and by the time I arrived to join them, standing on the designated spots, the doors had opened. As always, the line moved quickly and soon, I was at the doors.

“Last name is Gillespie,” I said, smiling behind my mask.

Behind the table in the lobby, the librarian scanned her clipboard. She flipped to the next page. And the next.

“Did you say Gillespie?” she asked. I don’t see it here.

Suddenly, doubt stabbed my heart. The appointment was in my planner, but had I actually made it, I wondered. It’s amazing how many thoughts can pass through you mind in an instant. I remember thinking about making the appointment, weighing the pros and cons of each option, wondering if I should wait until more books were ready for pick-up. Had I written it in my planner, but not made the appointment?

“It’s not a problem,” continued the librarian. “We can check those out to you today. I’ll be back in a moment.”

I stepped out of line for the next person to give their name, and raked through my memories again. Beofre long, the librarian was back with my stack.

“I’m so sorry,” I said as she placed my book on the tray used to pass the books from librarian to patron. ” I guess I thought about making the appointment, but didn’t actually schedule it.

“We’d rather the books were going out instead of just sitting there,” she replied with a cheery smile in her eyes.

I thanked her and left, still wondering about my error.

Yesterday, I received a holds notice from the library. I scanned the appointment options, considering the most convenient time. I scheduled a pick-up time, and recorded it in my planner. I also saved the email message confirming my appointment.

The Call

26 Jan

My term serving as Chair of YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults is almost over. There are still a few things to do. I will host two online celebrations – one for the winners and one to highlight the vetted list of nominations. I am excited to do this, but the most exciting event , The Call, happened a few weeks ago.

I was supposed to be in Indianapolis last week, locked in a room with the other committee members. We should have selected our winner on the weekend and then, make “the call” to that person. COVID changed everything.

Because the video had to be produced early, we had to turn in our winner’s name early January 11 instead of January 24. Fortunately, the nonfiction award works a little differently from most other awards. We chose and announced five finalists in December. It was from those five that our winner was to be selected.

Making the call was a little more complicated than usual. Emails flew back and forth. Me to YALSA. YALSA to the publisher. Finally we had a date and time. The committee members and I arrived to the ZOOM call early as instructed, where we met the two publishing reps. They had told the winner we wanted to talk about the celebration. Not exactly a lie. We were all excited as her name appeared, then, there she was, Candace Fleming.

“Hi Candace,” I began, “I am the chair of YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults and I have some good news for you. Your book, The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh has been chosen as the winner.” I held up my copy book, still full of sticky notes, on which I had placed the gold winner medal. I was the first person to let her see her book with that medal on it.

Fall and rise

19 Jan

My mind must have been elsewhere because, as I descended the back stairs that lead to the street, I fell.

Did I miss the handrail as I took a mental vacation? Or did I take a misstep? I will never know, but I fell in slow motion. Fortunately, my life did not flash in front of my eyes. I was aware of my fall, and tried to grab the handrail. I missed and continued down. I ended up with my feet near the top of the stairs and my head near the bottom.

Once down, I took stock of myself. Nothing hurt and that was good. My position was awkward so I took a moment. A moment too long apparently because Richard, who knew I was supposed to be taking him to the park, tried to barrel through my mayhem on the stairs. So much for canine empathy.

My effort to get up from my position was not elegant. There might have been some grunting and groaning. Richard gave me more than one look of impatience. As I arrived, upright, at the bottom of the stairs, I looked around – no one on the street.

I looked at Richard and said, “Let’s go to the park.” He set off at his normal happy trot and I kept pace. Despite the mud on one knee, I knew I was truly fine. When your biggest concern is Did anyone see me? you know you are just fine.

Remembering big events

12 Jan

Thursday was a day of hard conversations with my students. Not only did we talk about the assault on Washington, we also debriefed our school district’s announcement that there is no projected return date for middle and high school students. They asked good questions and made thoughtful comments.

One student remarked that he thought the attackers were fools, taking photos and posting them on social media. “The police are going to find them,” he added. These digital natives know a lot about internet safety. I hope it stays with them as they get older

A girl was relieved about the news that distance learning was going to continue. “Why would anyone want to go back?” she asked. “It’s not safe.” I took this as an opportunity to teach my affluent, gifted students about the needs of those less fortunate than them.

These are probably the first big political, social, and cultural events of their lives. It all got me thinking about what was going on when I was their age and it brought back a memory of a day in August 1974. We had just moved into a new house. Now, this was a long time ago and events might have merged in my mind, but I remember being in the new living room, vacuuming the red carpet. This carpet was a source of pride and concern to my mother. It came with the house and she loved it, but it showed every piece of lint. It had already been vacuumed once, but I was given the task of revacuuming to be sure it was really clean and clear of debris.

The living room had big front windows. This was the newest house we’d ever lived in and the windows were a wonder. My father’s company paid for new curtains and mom had ordered heavy curtains with sheers – another fancy first for us.

As I vacuumed the living room, I remember noticing two things.

Through the window, I could see neighborhood kids crawling on the front lawn and huddling near the hedges, trying to catch a glimpse of “the new kids”. Little did I know that we would all become fast friends and spend hours together. At that moment, though, I was nervous about the prospect of meeting them.The second thing I remember is that the TV was on as I vacuumed. These were the years before the 24-hour news we have now, but I remember that regular programming had been interrupted to cover the moment Richard Nixon left the White House.

I wasn’t as interested in the events on the South Lawn of the White House as I was with those happening on the front lawn of my house, but both have found a place in my memory. I don’t know how the events of Wednesday will end, but I wonder what connections my students will make with their own lives.

Randy Ribay

YA author, teacher, nerd

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