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.

Change is coming

22 Jun

I have not had to pack up my classroom in maybe two of the last ten years. The upside of this is that I now start early. Way back in May, when we learned we’d lose 20 teachers due to the opening of the new middle school, I started the process, packing my personal books and materials. We were told someone else would take care of the classroom libraries.

I was fortunate to learn that I would stay in my job. Last week, we learned the rooms we’d move to with the reorganization of our school. I felt good. Then, we got the news I’d expected: no one was going to pack our classroom libraries, we’d have to do it ourselves. I was in a good place and had it all packed up by the second last day of school.

The packing all took place early in the morning because, with COVID teaching, someone else was in my room. I didn’t want to impinge on her plan time, so I got to work early and tried to leave shortly after she arrived. We always chatted a bit when she was there. That’s how I learned that she’d applied for a job in another building. That’s how I found out she got it. That’s why I made an appointment with my principal to ask about looping up with my 6th graders.

Because I’d been on the scheduling committee, I knew that my job next year would be 2 periods of SUMMA ELA and the rest regular. I was OK with this, but got thinking. I find that, sometimes, when you have to do two things, it is easier of they are two distinctly different things. The teacher in my room, I knew, would be teaching 7th and 8th SUMMA ELA. My wheels began turning when she told me she’d applied for the other job.

I’d also been thinking about relationships. I didn’t have real closure with the students I’d taught last year, who’s end of the school year was hijacked by COVID. It took a lot longer to get to know this year’s crew of 6th graders and I wanted a chance to get to know some of them better.

In the meeting, I explained all this to my principal.

I figured I had a 50/50 chance.

I got the word yesterday, as I was checking out, that I would, indeed, get to loop with these two classes. I was ecstatic.

I would even get to stay in my room, where everything was packed and labeled “Move to A8”. I tracked down the custodian to find out what to do with the boxes. He is a new custodian this year and just terrific.

“Have I got an end of the year surprise for you, ” I joked as I entered his office.

He laughed when I told him about my predicament. I offered to put as many as I could into the empty cupboards.

“That’s not necessary,” he replied. “Just change the label to read ‘Keep in D4′”.

I was relieved at his suggestion.

“Should I do all the boxes, or just the ones on top?” I asked.

“How many are there?” he asked with a perplexed look.

“Fifty-one.” I replied sheepishly. “I have an extensive personal library.”

He laughed again.

Despite this unexpected task, I smiled as I changed the label on all fifty-one.

The other shoe

8 Jun

Teaching from home, I went shoeless.
It’s my preferred way of being.
I’d put shoes on to
walk the dog,
get groceries,
go to the library, but
for over a year,
I was essentially,
barefoot.

When we returned to
teaching in the building, it was
socks
and shoes
everyday.
I chose my comfiest shoes,
being unaccustomed
to a full day of footwear.

But Spring is turning to summer
and the days are,
mostly,
warmer.
We’ve had some hot ones, too.
The AC in my portable is unreliable
at best,
so I have transitioned
to sandals.

Sandals bridge the gap
between barefoot and shoed,
between Spring and Summer,
between online and in person.

We have two weeks left.
I don’t know exactly
what I will be teaching next year.
I don’t know
which room I will be in,
or who I will be working with.
But I do know
that in two weeks,
I will be barefoot once more.

It’s May so….

25 May

Since my library job was eliminated 10 years ago, I’ve had to pack up almost every year. There was a year or two when I didn’t have to pack, and one when it was my choice because I had a chance for a better room, but this year, we are all being told to pack.

A new middle school is opening and my school, which is closest and the one to be most impacted. We are set to lose 20 teachers. The upside is that we won’t need the 14 portables we have. The bad news is that our administrators have told us all to pack our personal belongings. We can leave school materials in place.

Sigh.

A few years ago, I was told I was moving on the last day of school, so I am grateful for the early warning. Knowing how stressful that was, I am going into my classroom early – someone else is teaching in there these days to limit cohort interaction – and tackling one box a day. I have also begun sorting and boxing the materials I still have at home and bringing in those boxes.

Right now, my goal is the bookcases. There are a lot. My goal is to box my personal books and leave the school owned books on the shelf. The last time I moved, it took 48 boxes for all of it. I am estimating it will be 24 this time around.

We have no idea when we will know what – and where – we will be teaching next year. We are all hopeful that we will hear before school is out. Last year we didn’t find out until July, but we were right in the thick of the pandemic. Needless to say, morale is low and teachers are exhausted. I keep telling the kids to finish strong. I should take my own advice.

The Doctor is in

18 May

“Hey Ms. Gillespie,” an in-person student called to me one day last week. “What did you want to be when you were our age?”

I thought for a moment before replying,”I don’t remember exactly, but I know that before I went to university, I wanted to be a doctor, a journalist, a politician, a UN interpreter, and a spy.” I chuckled to myself and thought As a teacher, I am really all of those things!

A few days later, I found myself playing doctor.

Richard’s allergy test revealed that he was allergic to a wide range of things, including every tree in the neighborhood, most of the plants, and the yeast he develops on his own skin when he has an allergy flare-up. Based on these results, his serum was whipped up in a lab and the day had finally arrived for me to learn how to administer the shots.

The vet and I talked over his health history, how reactive he is, and decided that once a week, rather than twice a week was the way to go. She gave me a spreadsheet where I was to track each shot. We talked about reactions and I learned that dogs don’t have anaphylactic reactions. They get hives and their faces can swell, but it is extremely rare for a dog’s throat to swell. There’s be no need for an epi-pen but made a plan in case there were hives and swelling.

And then she pulled out the hardware: serum, syringes, and a needle clipper. She explained that we’d practice today with a saline solution, so I could learn how to be gentle, but effective.

I grabbed the massive cowl of flesh that is the nape of Richard’s neck – his basset physique made it easy.

“The needle will go in easily,” the vet explained as I filled the syringe with saline. “TV has given people a false impression. Sometimes they think they have to stab it in, but it is a slips in gently.”

She was right.

Richard didn’t seem to have noticed.He didn’t notice the first shot he had this morning either. As soon as it was over, he made himself comfy on the sofa and did what he does best.

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

11 May

I’ve been thinking about not wearing my mask when I walk the dog. I am fully vaccinated and can, theoretically, go outside without wearing one. My brain gets it, my soul does not.

I still step off the sidewalk when people approach and give friends and strangers a wide berth.For over a year masks and social distancing have ruled my behavior and it is hard to unlearn these lessons. But I am thinking about it, and that is a good first step.

The shoe was on the other foot yesterday, as Richard and I took our post school day walk in Laurelhurst Park.

I’d like to say we meandered, but these days, Richard is on a mission. I’m not saying I have to run to keep up with him, be he goes at a fair clip and I have to walk fast. I don’t mind. I am hopeful my doctor will say nice things to me at my next physical – whenever that might be.

So, there we were, hoofing it through the park. We passed a group of men, then two older women before we got to the east end of the park. We sometimes see pairs of ducks here. Since early Spring, this has been their nesting grounds and a few weeks ago a sign in a childish script appeared warning people away from a particular spot at one corner of the horseshoe pitch, where duck eggs had been laid.

Over the weekend, ducklings had appeared. On Sunday – Mother’s Day – when I expected the park to be full but wasn’t due to an overcast sky – Richard and I stood in awe watching ducklings hop into the pond and swim. It doesn’t matter how old I get, ducklings still warm my heart.

Yesterday, as we rounded the east end, the men we had passed early, passed us. There is a lamppost that Richard has a special relationship with and he spent some time communing with it. When we restarted our walk, the men were a bit ahead, and so was a family of Canada geese. The group was waddling around on the north side of the path. The pond was on the south side.

I’d seen ducklings galore in the park, but I don’t recall ever having seen goslings. Richard was sniffing a particularly attractive tuft of grass so I watched the men veer away from the family, who were making their goosey way towards the path, and the pond. As we approached, the goose family arrived on the left side of the path. We stuck to the right side, this isn’t England after all.

I assumed we were far enough away. Richard was on the grass. I was on the very edge of the path. Apparently one of the parents did not agree, turned, and hissed at me. I apologized and kept moving forward, away from the goose family. Not good enough, the goos started running towards us, hissing more ferociously. Richard and I ran.

A couple was walking towards us on the path. The look half amused, half nervous. As we passed them, they took our place on the side far, far away from the goose family.

Teaching simultaneously

4 May

How do you hold the book so that both the students in the room and the students online can see the cover?

That’s a simple problem I faced as we embarked on simultaneously teaching kids in person and remotely. It’s a whole new learning curve and I feel exhausted like we did when all this began.

I mute myself so the students at home don’t hear the conversations with students in the room, but students at home tell me I’m muted and they think they are missing something.


A student asks for a private conversation in a breakout room. I have to tell them that anything they or I say could be heard by the students in the room.

It’s a delight to get to meet some of my students in person and engage with them, but it’s been a whole new learning curve. To limit contact, my 6th graders stay in the room and we three core Class teachers rotate. I began my career as an itinerant French teacher and I am back to the itinerant life, rolling from class to class on a cart.

I had worked out a comfortable routine working from home: computer in the center, iPad and stand to the left, plan book and everything else to the right. It took me a while to become comfortable on the cart. I opted for a tall cart, so I could use it as a standing desk. I am a natural spreader and there is no right or left with the cart. I have had to adapt and use the cart shelves as my new left and right, but I don’t feel as though I am at the top of my game yet.

I have learned to carry my power cord because my laptop battery doesn’t last all day.

With no home base, I bungee corded a plastic file box to the bottom of my cart so I can carry personal items, like my wallet and car keys, with me as I roll.

I seem to be fine tuning things just fine. Most days seem easier than the previous one, but then I get a day like yesterday, when I kept forgetting to share my screen and couldn’t figure out how to hold that booktalk book.

Thank goodness the kids are very forgiving.

A tooth story

20 Apr

It’s weird to feel an unpopped kernel in my second handful of popcorn, I thought as I settled in to watch a movie Tuesday night, they don’t usually show up until I am closer to the bottom of the bowl.

Richard was snuggled next to me, expectantly awaiting his share. I spat the kernel into my palm and looked at it. It took a moment or two for me to realize it wasn’t an unpopped kernel – it was a crown. I ran my tongue along my teeth and found a hole. I looked at the tooth again. Felt the empty space again. I repeated the action.

My first thought was – there’s no pain. I figured that was good news. I noticed there was no empty space in the tooth where the crown should anchor to the tooth. Another inspection with my tongue revealed that the nub was mostly gone. That probably wan’t good news. I put the rest of the popcorn in the compost – it didn’t seem right to keep eating it – and bagged the tooth, in anticipation of a dentist appointment.

I haven’t been to the dentist since October 2019, when I had my annual cleaning. I was supposed to go again in October 2020, but, like many people, I stopped making unnecessary medical appointments in the face of COVID. Fortunately, I still had no pain the next morning and, when I called the dentist, they could get me in on Friday morning.

It was curious to enter a medical office for the first time in almost two years. The waiting room was empty, but signage was everywhere. I had to rinse my mouth with a mild mixture of water and hydrogen peroxide before the x-rays. The dentist wore two masks and a face shield. It felt strange to remove my mask in the presence of strangers.

It was a good news bad news situation. The good news that it looked as though there was no infection. The bad news was that I’d been correct in suspecting the nub was gone. There was no way to reattach the crown.

I was given a couple of options and decided on a dental implant. What that means is several months of dental visits. In June they will remove what’s left of the tooth. At that point an appointment will be made to begin the implant process.

The good news is that I have good dental insurance, which a lot of people don’t have. The other good news is that I probably won’t set off the alarm in a metal detector, because that was the weird question I asked the dentist.

Randy Ribay

YA author, teacher, nerd

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