Witches

Poems

 

My husband and I cut down the brush
That years ago broke through the playhouse walls.
Dead twigs and branches, mainly, though 
Some new living thing was entwined there, too. 
We tugged at it, bit by bit, pulling through the tangle
Until it all piled up, crooked, on the lawn. 
It took a long time. 
Then, we lit a fire with expired mail and fed it with the twigs. 

We did all this in silence; all week long
We'd circled around a quarrel. 

It's Easter. I didn't visit family this year.
It doesn't feel right -- taking their food
And leaving when the talk turns antagonistic. 

I don't know what's going to happen. 
I don't know if we'll recognize ourselves tomorrow. 
I don't know if change begets hope. 
I don't even know
If we'll keep loving each other year after year. 
As we break these branches with our hands, 
As we clear more space. 

I snap dead wood into tinier pieces.
We can't help but stand in the smoke, 
Tossing both dead and living into the fire. 
The green vines curl like witches as they burn.

My Complicated Journey to a Child-Free Middle Age

Personal Essays

When I was 12 years old and my little cousin Morgan was two, we took a walk on my uncle’s farm. There was an electrified cattle fence — a wire, really — that wound around the property, some distance from the house. My cousin toddled up to it, but I didn’t worry because it was normally turned off when family came over. Only this time… it wasn’t. My cousin touched the wire with one hand, stood in shock for a moment, and then started to howl. I hurried over to her. She took a stumbling step toward me and as I scooped her up, she wrapped all four limbs around me and held on tight. A sort of jolt went through me, a jolt that I recognized as that mysterious thing older women talked about: a maternal instinct. I rushed to the house with that baby in my arms, our hearts beating close together, and my mind empty of everything but protection. She stopped crying by the time we reached the house, and she was fine after a few kisses from her mother.

I thought about that experience recently when a coworker asked me why I didn’t have kids. I explained to him that while I had a maternal instinct, I did not have a maternal desire. This coworker, a father of three, tilted his head and looked genuinely perplexed.

I was never like the girls who always knew they’d be mothers. My relatives (seven aunts!) had started asking me when I’d have children by the time I was old enough to menstruate. It was always “when,” by the way. Never “if.” My answer was always a firm… “meh?”

I grew up going to church and was a teenage counselor at a summer camp a couple of years in a row. I’d make up silly stories for my seven- and eight-year-old campers. I remember once a little girl leaned against my knee, sighed, and said, “You’d make a good mom.” At the time, I thought it was the nicest compliment I’d ever received. By college, though, I’d placed myself firmly in the Never Kids camp. My fellow ’90s-era Riot Girrrl feminists and I would get annoyed when kid talk interrupted our discussions of art, music, and other Deep Things.

That didn’t stop my Midwestern relatives from asking. For a long time, I’d answer that I was waiting for the right partner. But when I did partner up, I realized that not only had that maternal desire NOT materialized, but that the man I’d shacked up with wouldn’t make a very good father. While he could be charming and generous, he could also be self-centered and lazy. I was content to love him and continue to have the kind of adventures we’d always had together. We were in agreement about a child-free life. So, we confidently told our 20-something friends that we weren’t having children, even as couple after couple began having baby showers. Our marriage ran into trouble within three years, and when it did, I learned something about myself and about a man’s ideations about fatherhood. You see, when my husband cheated and subsequently admitted his affair, he followed his admission up with: “I think I’ll only feel whole again if we have a child.”

Reader, I laughed at him.

I realized right away that these sudden ideas about fatherhood were either the result of his girlfriend’s whispers or a grasping for a sense of self that would help him justify his actions. I mean, this was a man who once thought that potty training ended at six months! A man who refused to clean the cat’s litter box! That first terrible break-up was my first inkling that a man’s fantasies about fatherhood were vastly different from my own considerations about carrying, giving birth to, and raising a messy little human. His idea of it — before the reality of childcare set in — was clearly a dream into which he was projecting himself. We divorced.

Over the next few years, I got my graduate degree and changed careers from an unfulfilling cubicle job to a teaching job. I also drank, flirted, and dated like a 23-year-old without a thought of motherhood, even though I was nearing 30 and my friends were busy diapering infants and chasing toddlers. I loved my friends’ children! I felt privileged to sit in a hospital room with a close friend, to hold her newborn — that tender creature with soft tufts of hair and infinite potential. To this day, every time I experience it, it is holy. But I was focused on other things.

It doesn’t take long for a new teacher to realize that an educator is also called upon to be a counselor. Soon, I was listening to a kid talk about the problems he was having with his boyfriend. I was patiently giving a short-skirted, heavily made-up young woman space to rant angrily before calmly redirecting her. I learned that to be a teacher is to create an alternative family. We forgive mistakes with every new class period. We lead and comfort and encourage and scold — just like parents. We allow creativity while reinforcing manners. We facilitate practice and mistakes, outbursts and growth. As I’ve continued my teaching career I’ve realized that I’m doing a job that, perhaps, my students’ mothers cannot always do. I had a weird jolt of recognition once when a shy young man said, “I wish you were my mom.” I went home that night like I often did — exhausted, but with tears in my eyes and a new bruise on my heart.

My next big lesson about motherhood came along when I nearly became a step-mother. My boyfriend — then fiancé — had two young daughters with whom I bonded quickly. Here was an option I hadn’t considered! I could be a mother figure to two school-age girls who were so creative, so unique, so wonderful! I l fell in love with a darling eight-year-old who dressed up in a princess dress to meet me, with a punky 13-year-old who giggled with me on the couch like we had a secret. My partner and I did everything the “correct” way: I got to know my future step-daughters slowly. They only stayed with him for 2-1/2 months during the summer, after all. And we didn’t move in together until a few weeks before the planned wedding. Clearly, we weren’t thinking things through.

When my fiancé-almost-husband expressed giddy anticipation at the thought of having a third child — with me! — I believed in his excitement. I had a family of my own! Almost. So maybe it was time. For once, I threw caution to the wind. We got tipsy and I encouraged him to — you know — without a condom while I was between birth control. At age 32 I thought I’d give this “not being careful” thing a try. It had worked out for my friends, right? We were in love, right? Was I thoughtlessly following a path my aunts and mother and decades of patriarchy wanted for me? Maybe — I don’t know.

Luckily, I did not become pregnant. A mere two months later he had second thoughts about our marriage. He became erratic, and accused me of trying to trap him. He decided he couldn’t live with anyone but himself. He wasn’t as keen on marriage, or second fatherhood, as he had pretended. Maybe his past haunted him. Maybe we were both following some script. Or maybe his cruelty was my liberation. Anyway, my almost-but-never-husband left without an explanation and told our friends that I was the type of woman who skipped her birth control on purpose and was deeply in debt, too. I felt ashamed. That was the year I felt the full extent of the Great Recession.

It was 2010 and my house was so far “underwater” that my only reasonable option as a newly-single woman was to walk away. I pawned my engagement ring to pay homeowner association fees. I had paid off my undergraduate debt but couldn’t bear to start on my graduate school bills. I continued teaching while I consolidated credit card debt. My friends with children were going through their own struggles as their financial foundations fell out from under them, but I couldn’t acknowledge their pain. I was mourning the loss of what I thought would be my family. I realized I was myself at my worst, and I fell into the deepest depression of my life. I was in my mid-30s.

Thank heavens for all of this. Because it forced me to confront my own inherited ideas about motherhood. It forced me to put new foundations under my feet and find myself.

I was confronted with the realization that, as a thoughtless or naïve young woman, any public judgment on having or not having a child was placed on me. And it was unforgiving. Never mind that it was the early 21st century. I was either a cold, child-hating divorcee or I was trying to trap a man! As a single young woman holding on to the status of Lower Middle Class with both hands, I knew it wasn’t practical to have a child on my own. I had discovered that, for the young men in my experience, pregnancy was merely a way to validate how they felt about themselves or their relationship. I learned that my male partners’ feelings or judgments about my uterus had nothing at all to do with the actual experience of motherhood. Because, for me, it was necessarily different.

Pregnancy was at once fraught with expectation — and terrifying. And I still didn’t feel that baby fever — that urge to be a mother — that my family and friends felt. As I paid bill after bill with no salary raise in sight, I wondered how young-ish Gen Xers like myself could afford motherhood anyway.

Since then, I have taken a more forgiving look at my past, and at my partners. I understand myself a little better. I can now count on my fingers the reasons I don’t have children. Let’s see: There’s the money reason. The demanding job reason. The history-of-depression reason. And, I’ll be honest, the selfish reason. And maybe the best reason of all: the auntie reason.

My little sister had a child when I was 35: my first niece. Can I tell you how much I love her? She’s Elton John’s tiny dancer with a pirate smile. She’s a little CEO with an honest heart. And I get to be in her life! My niece’s mother will never teach her child to wave saucily and sing, “Bye, Felicia!” But I will. An auntie can play pretend when Mommy is too tired. An auntie can bring over a tent which becomes a princess tent which becomes a secret playhouse. An auntie can shower a child with love and teach her manners at the same time, because an auntie is both a buddy and a capable adult. To be an auntie is to create a safe space where a child can have fun and learn. An auntie isn’t a mother — is a sort-of friend — is an imaginary mother — is a brand new grown-up who cares.

I’m almost 40. Thankfully, I’m getting to the age where relatives, friends, and even strangers stop asking “when” I’ll have a child. To be honest, I wear my decision not to have children like a heavy coat — one I’ll be happy to discard once I’m finally beyond childbearing age. Nowadays, when asked, I say I never met the right partner. Or that my career and money and timing were never right for me. Often, I say that I prefer being a teacher and auntie to being a mother — and that’s the truth.

What I don’t say is this:

I love leaving a noisy classroom of teenagers, knowing that when I go home I can sit in silence, have a glass of wine, and watch a movie with subtitles. Or talk about politics with my new sweetheart.

Now, I’m not immune to wistful regret. Sometimes, I’ll see a stocky little boy with mouse-brown hair, intense blue-gray eyes, and a proud little chin and I’ll think, my kid would look like that. I notice, but ignore, the automatic dismissal in another woman’s eyes when she learns I’m not a fellow parent. Although I feel the sting of not being recognized as quite grown up enough, I know that she doesn’t know my history. It’s OK. Hell, I’ll probably teach her kids.

My partner now, at nearly middle age, understands. I can’t tell you how liberating that is. He has nieces and nephews, too. Sometimes we talk about fostering older kids who need a home. Sometimes we talk about buying an RV and being RV people — us, a couple of faithful dogs, the road. Sometimes we simply read books together, or decide to take a drive together. We don’t have much money, but it doesn’t matter, does it?

I’m an auntie. I’m a teacher. I’m a woman with a past. I don’t have to have children to be a whole, mature adult. I’ve lived life, and I’ll continue to with a perspective and unique gifts that busy mothers don’t always have time to cultivate. Don’t worry. We crazy aunties have those gifts. We conscientious teachers have those gifts. And we’ll share them with your kids. After all we love them, too.

Burnout Will Break Your Heart

Personal Essays, Teaching Notes

[April, 2017]

I felt my calling leave me, like a cold seep.

***

I’ve taught for over ten years, and I’ve been privileged to teach our most vulnerable students. I say privileged despite the classroom management challenges and the low-achievement challenges. Their joy, openness, and strength have enriched my life in ways that, I suspect, I’m not even aware of. 

I remember vividly the exhilaration of leaving a cubicle and stepping into a classroom. The pride with which I planned and presented lessons. Most of all, I remember that feeling of humble affection I experienced when I looked around the room at irrepressible, beautiful young people. I loved being their teacher.

***

About a year and a half ago, maybe two, I realized I was in bad shape. Outside of the classroom, I didn’t have much of a life. On weeknights I’d come home exhausted, unable and unwilling to do much more than recover from the ten-hour day. On Saturdays I’d sleep very late, and then go out, trying to cram my resting time, social time, alone time, and (let’s be honest) drinking time into that little window. On Sundays I’d plan for the week ahead. Grading never seemed to get done. It certainly couldn’t get done during the school day.

***

As I struggled I asked myself, what happened to me?

What happened to the girl who, when faced with nearly 30 English language learners in a half-finished classroom with only 25 chairs and zero resources, could just handle it?

***

When I taught middle-schoolers in Phoenix, we enforced Sustained Silent Reading. I’d read, too, partly because I wanted to model reading habits for the kids, and partly because reading was a tonic — I enjoyed it, and it gave me a comfortable moment of silence amid the clamor of the classroom. One day a kid who’d habitually fidget and flip pages for the mandated 30 minutes, asked me: “Are you gonna take a test on that book?” “No,” I replied.

“Then why are you reading it?” He was genuinely confused. And my heart cracked a little for the first time.

***

Last October I learned I had a severe thyroid disorder, asthma, and a sleep disorder — all of which undoubtedly contributed to my feeling of exhaustion. My boyfriend sat me down and told me my job was killing me. I knew he was right. I wasn’t energized by teaching anymore; I was drained by it. I felt like a rusted-out battleship. I felt very, very old.

I knew it was over when I started waking up with one thought in my mind: “OK, let’s get through the day.” When my boss came by one day to give me a talking-to about generating more energy in the classroom, I accepted what I was — what I never wanted to be! A burnt-out teacher. I started revising my résumé that night.

***

I’d like other new teachers to remember: As you begin to love these students, remember that you’re not teaching their minds, you’re teaching their hearts.

And when you end up (metaphorically) fighting them, understand: You’re not really fighting them.  You’re never fighting them.  You’re fighting the apathy, combativeness, and despair that they have absorbed.

But then you may absorb it, too.  

***

As the country faced Recession and my students faced poverty, I faced Recession and poverty, too. As my country reacted to that Recession in sometimes cruel ways, I marched with my students in protest, even as I absorbed their bitterness. As my students often thought of no future beyond their noses, I began to see no future, too.  

Fellow teachers, be on the look-out for this attitude — this absorption — because it can plant stone upon stone in your heart.  

***

Something had happened over the last few years. I had lost some vital something. Maybe it was the natural evolution of No Child Left Behind (all that testing) or just the natural evolution of me.

While I still enjoyed planning lessons, I had lost the drive to get to know the kids through their work. I knew that whatever the kids produced, I’d have to grade it, plot it on a chart, and prove to someone in charge that Learning Was Happening.

I still loved talking about literature, but I avoided grading papers. I avoided them until there was a permanent stack in the backseat of my car. If there were gems amid the plagiarized or hurriedly scribbled paragraphs, I didn’t have time to enjoy them.

To be a teacher means to be responsive and reflective. I was still responsive in the classroom, but I no longer had the time or inclination to reflect on what my students were learning. I loved them, but I wasn’t doing enough, and I felt that lack like a hollowness in my stomach.

***

Then, there’s this:  

Eventually, I didn’t want to fight with one more cell phone. I didn’t want to beg one more kid to just. read.

My empathy had hit a wall. I didn’t know where the wall came from, and I didn’t know how to tear it down.

***

I have a coworker, among several, whom I admire. A data nut. He’s always eager to learn kids’ test scores, and once he gets them, he’s laser-focused on how to improve them. “If we can get Kayla’s score up by two points,” he’ll say, we’ll beat the state average!” When he says things like this, I feel a strange combination of bemusement, envy, and … indifference. I’ve never been competitive; I’m just not motivated that way. But my lack of interest feels like another failure. On top of a long list of failures.

At my school, we grade according to the standards, the way Marzano recommends. We “teach like champions.” And it works. It’s admirable! But according to those standards, I’m not measuring up.

If the kids aren’t on task, 100% of them, I’m not doing enough. If, despite my efforts to make class engaging, they still hate reading, I’m not meeting expectations. I tell myself to look at the positives! But every week, when the entire administrative team marches in with clipboards to count the number of kids sneaking a peek at their phones, I feel — more and more — like a scolded student myself.

No wonder the kids hate class and try to play. I hate class and want to play, too!

***

Another teacher I admire has managed to turn teaching into an art form. She earns the devotion of her students by crafting creative lessons and offering them love, support, and — most of all — joy! Her lessons are now published online and she’s gaining recognition nationwide for her efforts.

I follow her career and wonder, if I were an extrovert — would I be that successful, too? If I taught at different schools?  

***

I began, more and more, to read for fun in the evenings. To write little poems instead of lesson plans. I even sought out a freelancing job in the hopes that something else might come along. Eventually, it did, and I accepted a writing job with a marketing agency. If it were 1997 or even 2003, I’d wonder if I were selling out. But in spring 2017, I didn’t think of it for more than a moment.

***

I had to walk away, cruelly. I wanted a better, more creative life. And teaching didn’t offer that anymore. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to be judged for my ability to write creatively. Not for my ability to manage a group of teenagers. My love for the kids, my love of literature — these things just weren’t enough anymore. And it broke my heart.

It broke my heart to think to myself that I wasn’t an educator after all.

***  

I still enjoy talking about literature and writing with young people. Helping a kid, one-on-one, understand a line of poetry or write a great conclusion? I love it. I’ll honestly miss learning about new teaching apps and creating interactive lesson plans. And I’ll miss the refreshing honesty of teenagers, and the feeling that I’m learning something new about the next generation every day.

But I never want to grade another test again. I never want to enforce a dress code or explain to a hostile parent why their kid is failing English. I don’t feel like sitting in a meeting while administration admonishes grown adults not to “allow” kids to sleep in class. And I can’t bear to convince a kid, ever again, that his end-of-course test is in any way important. Because, frankly, I don’t believe it is either.

***

A highly sensitive person, who loves literature and would like to be useful, might go into teaching. Many do. If you’re one of them, I applaud you. I want to hold you close. And I don’t want to stop you — but I’ll tell you this:

You will absorb what’s in your classroom. At times, it will exhilarate you. It will make you feel both humble and proud, both capable and awed. And if you aren’t careful, it will break you within ten years.

***

Some of my teacher friends always knew they wanted to be teachers. They played “school” when they were young. Me — I was always stuck on “Let’s pretend…” I wanted to be an artist or a writer — one or the other — since age six or seven. I’d always rather create than be the warden in charge.  

This week I veer between giddy opportunity and mourning. Because I’m leaving something I had once fallen in love with. And trying something I never imagined I’d get to do for a living. I’m off to be a writer.

If I ever make my way back to teaching, if the educator in me can find her joy again, I hope I’ll remember this. I hope I’ll be able to wrap myself in purpose, so I won’t freeze up again. I especially hope, for my colleagues in education, that we won’t continually be left in the cold. 

Imaginary Wine Labels

Poems

[I wrote these years ago and thought I had lost them!]

Arm’s Length

2006

A drink that warms when held in the mouth.  Strawberry on the edges. Rounded center one would mistake for hollow—a globe.  Best on an empty stomach, with bread after the initial sips to soak up the coffee grounds one might imagine on the roof of the mouth. Recommended for people who like caves, pepper plants, and experimental films.

Singularity

2005

Earthy is too predictable a description for this mineral dormancy.  The aroma—a mixture of salt and wet paper—rises from a seed within the wine. Pairing with only the lightest-colored cheeses, this variety should be aged—not chilled.  Best with dried peaches.  Best after an afternoon that leaves the street wet with barely-noticeable pools of oil slick along the curb.

Staring Contest

2006

Although the first flavor is a jarring thickness, this wine lightens when consumed.  Notes of butterscotch and edamame.  Particularly good for pregnant women or for women who would like to become pregnant.  If pairing with chocolate or raspberries, have a glass of water nearby.  Best with pork.  Best on a morning after.

Fundamentalism

2007

Our darkest variety.  Too many berries to count.  We recommend drinking it with someone you don’t quite trust.  Best with crackers and oyster soup. Particularly memorable if consumed during a hurricane or blizzard.  The first flavor is a ruse—soda water.  Wait for the second and third flavors of velour and black cherry, respectively.

Changing Your Mind

2003

Initial flavor of lemon that hardens to green chile on the way down. Amber color as seen through pink-tinted sunglasses.  Not unlike raindrops on a Cholla cactus.  Caution:  Risk of explosion if heated.  Best when paired with potatoes and cream or anything that sticks in the throat.

The Good Life

2010

Aroma of candle wax and cucumber.  A taste that brings out lint on the tongue.  For relief—swallow.  Best with your most shocking acquaintances. Notes of antique wood carvings and motorcycle chrome.  It is only your imagination that detects a hint of lemonade.  This wine may be aged or consumed immediately.  In either case it will seem as though you’ve been drinking it for years.