Wednesday, December 18, 2013

This is where I am

Hello again to all seven of you who at one point read my posts regularly.  This is the first moment in many, many months where I have had both the time and wherewithal to write - though I don't know that I have anything significant to say just now...

In August I became a principal.  It was all rather a whirlwind experience.  I was contacted in the last week of July to see whether I might be interested in the position, at which point I met and interviewed with what seemed like 732 different people over the course of two weeks.  Not entirely sure whether I was willing or ready to make the leap, I snuck into the school and walked its empty summer hallways.  And there I thought, that just maybe, this is where I was supposed to be.  In the second week of August I was offered the job, and thus, unceremoniously launched into my new role as principal.

Let me just say this: I knew this job was going to be difficult, and stressful, and crazy.  Turns out I hadn't the slightest idea -- to know a thing abstractly is no comparison to living and breathing it daily.  It's all-consuming and easily the most difficult thing I've ever tried to do.

And yet, I know I made the right decision, and I know this is where I'm supposed to be.

The thing is, I'm beginning to know the children, and I'm beginning to know the staff.  They are so many beautiful people.  The kids ricochet off the walls, sending their fears and insecurities scattering into anyone who happens to be nearby, and this reverberates daily around our building.  Many of them bring with them a sense of noisy desperation to which I am not wholly accustomed.  I ask the most apathetic and aggressive of them to attempt kindness, and they look at me like I'm crazy.  No - they tell me I'm crazy.  "You crazy, Miss."

Perhaps I am.  But then again, so are all the other amazing adults I work with.  They are a team of people who has chosen to work in public education, with disadvantaged and marginalized adolescents.  These adults commit themselves daily to doing right by these kids in the best ways they know how.  And it's such amazingly difficult work, and so they are my heroes.

Last year I seized on this poor woman who came to observe my classes; I insisted that she student teach with me last spring.  She did, and I watched as she fell in love with the children.  I watched her learn how to construct curriculum and how to bring it to life in front of them.  And I watched her anguish every time a student gave up and refused to participate.  Her heart would break for them, and she'd go after these kids with a vengeance.  It was the most beautiful thing.

When I became principal, I asked her to come with me to my school.  She said yes, and I thank God for her every day.  There she is in her classroom giving everything she has -- really, giving so much more than she has -- she's reaching down into and past the depths of herself for the kids.  I sometimes want to apologize to her for bringing her into this crazy place with me, this place that can be so difficult -- it wrenches your heart out without any warning.  It leaves you fried and frazzled and dazed.  And yet she just keeps giving, and so do her fellow teachers.  I am unspeakably grateful.

I am learning what it means to lead adults, to run an organization, to collaborate with countless stakeholders.  I am learning to try to put something into motion, and to screw it up a dozen times over, and try again.  I am learning what it feels like to feel helpless and in letting go, to be open to the newness.  I am learning what it feels like to make thousands of decisions a day.  No.  I mean it.  Thousands.

To the point that I simply cannot decide what to eat by the time I get home, or which shelf the bowls should go on in our new apartment.  I cannot make these decisions.  And so my gorgeous husband has taken care of me -- without complaint, without fuss.  He lets me sob or sleep or walk around like a zombie.  He takes me out when I need to escape, and tucks me in when I need to hide.  For him, too, I thank God every day, every hour.

And so this is the adventure.  This is where I am now.  It is so utterly terrifying, and has so much potential for beauty.  I am hanging on for dear life, knowing that life will carry me along with it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Wee Bit Scared

Here is a truth: I am deeply uncomfortable, terrified even, of doing new things.  And I'm not talking here about skydiving or drag racing -- activities that reasonable humans should reasonably fear.  I'm referring to the way my palms sweat and my heart races before I try a new class at the YMCA where I've been a member for six years; the way I consider canceling on friends at the last minute because we're meeting at a place I've never been before; the way I panic and want to crawl out of my skin as I walk into a room full of people I don't know.

My personal response to this has been a strange two-step jig, the steps of which alternate between spending a LOT of time on the safety of my own couch and throwing myself headlong into all the scary.

When Greg and I decided to move to New York City, I was petrified.  And exhilarated.  Mostly petrified.  I was convinced NYC was the final frontier: if I could live here, I could do anything.  Having grown up in a Midwestern suburb, I was certain that if I could learn to navigate the subway, the taxis, the unattainable fashion and coolness, and all the rude New Yorkers, I could conquer anything thereafter.  We drove into the city on July 11, 2005.  Heading south on the FDR Drive, the skyscrapers loomed over us in all their glory and haughty indifference.  I was terrified.  Where would we park?  I mean, where would we park?  Wow, there's NYC, close enough to lean out the car window and touch, but where would we park?  Sheer panic.

Needless to say, we found parking.  And then spent the next six sweaty weeks of summer learning the rhythm of the city, and the following eight years making meaning of its cadence and lyricism.  And though I cannot claim to be a true New Yorker (I think the title is bestowed only after a decade?), I love this city every day, want to drink it in and merge myself into its very concrete fabric.

And yet, I am still scared of all the new things.  Because you know what?  There is no final frontier, for any of us, I think.  The past three years of my life have taught me this -- getting older does not mean that it all gets magically easier or suddenly makes sense; life laughs (at us or with us is debatable), a perpetual surprise around the corner.  I amuse Greg with my attempts to thwart these surprises; I generate endless "if-then" scenarios, hoping to lessen the new and unexpected, and thus the fear.  Sometimes this works, sometimes it does not.

I hate driving.  I cannot predict the road, the other drivers, the sun blinding me in the late afternoon.  I have a recurring dream that I am in a car being driven by no one, that I cannot get to the steering wheel, that the car is loose and on the run.  I get that dreams are symbolic and this dream could be interpreted as having larger symbolic meanings, and blah blah blah.  It's the car, people.  It freaks me out.

But I keep driving, and trying some of the other scary things, too.  And not all of them work out, really.  Not infrequently I just end up in a ball sobbing, sorry to say.  (Do your ears water when you cry?  Because mine do.)  Sometimes scary just keeps being scary, and it bites you in the ass a little.  Regroup on the couch.  And then back at it again.  What else is there to do but to try again?  One can't stay on the couch forever, right?

Last night, my banjo and I went to my first official banjo lesson.  Panic, panic.  But the evening was lovely.  The trees were lush from rain, the breeze drifted by, toying with my long summertime skirt.  And as I crossed over the highway on a footpath, I felt my internal scale tip away from terror and toward something like joy.  This new thing might just be okay.

Turns out the lessons were rescheduled for next week, unbeknownst to me.  Banjo and I trekked back home, back to face the scary again next week, together.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Running in the Rain

I ran eight miles in the rain this morning.  Today marked my last long run to train for my second half-marathon, next Saturday.  The weather forecast predicted rain and thunderstorms likely for the whole day, so when I woke up and there was a small break in the rain, I figured I better just go for it.  The sky was only just spitting for the first mile, and then the sprinkle gradually increased into a shower over the next few miles, but by then I was warm and oddly happy to be accompanied by the rain.  In fact, around mile six I realized that the rain had momentarily let up and I was surprised to find myself feeling as though I'd been abandoned by a friend.

When I first started running several years ago, I refused to run anywhere but on a treadmill.  I think it felt safe; I was in a controlled environment, I could stop whenever I wanted to.  Gradually I began to run in the park, but never by myself -- it seemed too daunting somehow.  Slowly I learned to run alone and to venture beyond the familiarity of the park (a couple weeks ago I even ran the 10 miles from my apartment in Brooklyn to Columbus Circle in Manhattan solo!).  But I've never willingly run in the rain.  I've seen other people run in the rain and thought, Hey, there goes a dedicated runner.  That looks awful.  Today though, I shunned the indoor track and joined the ranks of the badass rain runners.

A couple nights ago I listened to presentations by a few organizations that help at-risk kids succeed.  One of these was Row New York, a group that "empowers young people from New York City's under-resourced communities to build strength, gain confidence, and pursue excellence through the unique sport of rowing."  The speaker talked about how rowing teaches young people endurance and dedication; they row when they're tired, when it's cold, when it's pouring down rain.  While she spoke, I thought about how important this is, and how hard it is to teach young people this, or to learn it yourself.

This week in school I spoke to one of the 11th graders who had just done miserably on his neuroscience test.  He told me he understood the material, but just hadn't studied enough, explaining that he was bad at studying.  When I offered to go over some study techniques with him, he said he knew how to study, but was just too lazy to do it.  "What happens when you need to study for tests in college?" I asked.  "Oh, I'll study in college!"  To which I replied, "You won't be able to unless you build your study muscle now."  "There's a study muscle?"  "Yes, of course there is," I lied.  But it wasn't really a lie.  I talked to him about how it's important to build endurance, that it doesn't happen all at once.

I think about this a lot when a child who has not regularly engaged in school decides he wants to really be a student.  The turn away from apathy and self-doubt is such a beautiful moment, and in some ways often feels like it should be the end the long battle, but really it's just the beginning of an even longer one.  These students start out at a sprint, and soon tire, wanting once again to give up.  They don't know what it feels like to be a student -- to push themselves, to stay in class all day long, to complete a project, to care enough to ask for help, to keep working.  It's so exhausting, and they have no previous training or experience.  They just want to poof! be academically successful.  Asking them to be a full-time student all at once is akin to suggesting that a person merely stop loafing about and run a marathon, now, today, no running experience needed.  It's not possible, not sustainable.  In reality, these kids must commit to a long-term and arduous journey.

Last year I was scared to run the half-marathon.  I didn't know if I could do it.  Literally.  I didn't know if my body would take me 13.1 miles -- I had never done it before.  After the race was over, I was relieved and joyous, and proud of myself.  But it dawned on me that the race was not what I was most proud of; I was most proud of my training.  It turned out that the race was the easy part, full of celebration and fanfare; the 10 weeks of non-stop, grueling running leading up to the race was what had made me strong.  Every day that I did not want to run but did anyway -- that was what taught me something about myself.  That's why the little milestones and personal celebrations are so important, they're the only thing that can keep us going.

Last night I went to see one of my girls in her first full-on roller derby bout.  She was amazing.  All the girls were amazing.  These girls train several times a week.  They're badass chicas, proudly showing off bruises like war wounds.  They speed around the track, falling hard and getting right back up again.  I am so impressed by their spirit and want to be one of their teammates.

This student of mine, she checks in with me a couple times a day at school.  She comes for a hug and a laugh, and for me to remind her that she is strong enough to keep going and conquer her school projects.  I remind her that if she can do it with a pair of roller skates on a track, she can push herself to excel in school, too.  She tells me she wants to be strong like me, but what she doesn't understand is that I want to be strong like her.  I want to push myself to do the next difficult thing, to get up again when I've been knocked down and hurt or discouraged or when I am lost.  That girl in her roller skates, she teaches me to be a strong woman.

Monday, February 18, 2013

In Case You Forget What a Pomegranate Looks Like

The last month and a half has been particularly busy for me at work.  On more than one occasion I found myself blankly staring at someone who'd just asked me a question and then explaining, "I'm sorry.  My brain has fallen out of my ears.  Could you say that again?"  My seniors were finishing their calculus graduation requirements and panels, I took on increased administrative roles for the second half of the school year, and the term ended, which means grading projects and writing narrative reports to the kids.  Anyway, my brain was falling out of my ears a lot.
As any wise person knows, eating delicious food is one of the best ways to cope with overwhelming amounts of work.  One of my recurring foods of choice this winter has been loads of pomegranate seeds.  They are like edible candy rubies, and I'm obsessed with them.  While it can be fun to pluck out and consume one seed at a time, this is only an option for those with really nothing better to do with three hours of their life, as my best friend and I did during high school performances as we waited backstage for our next scene.  As evidenced by the brain falling out of ears, I don't have that sort of luxury in my schedule lately.  Instead, I follow Alton Brown's magical method to retrieve all the seeds post-haste: score the pomegranate, submerge in a bowl of water for 10 minutes, then rip the fruit open in the water and simply sweep the seeds away from the membrane.  The seeds will sink to the bottom while the membrane floats to the top.  VoilĂ !  You have a bowl of pomegranate seeds piled high, ready to munch on to your heart's content.
So there I was a few weeks ago after work one day, in the produce section of the grocery store.  Having consumed several pomegranates in the previous weeks, I thought to myself Ooh, I want a pomegranate!  And then I did the blank stare at all of the fruit.  And I thought I can't remember what a pomegranate looks like...maybe sort of like an orange?  If I see one I'll probably recognize it.  At which point I began to slowly spin around, like a person lost in a crowd, looking for something that might remind me that it was a pomegranate.  Yup, that's how far gone my brain was.  And it was not until the next morning when I'd had a decent night's sleep that I actually managed to remember what one looks like.

But amidst having so much to do that my brain periodically stopped working, I was, as always struck by the joy that it is to work with young people.  Teenagers, specifically.  They're just kind of wonderful.  A few highlights:

1) A couple weeks ago one of my seniors turned in his project to me, and as he turned to go he asked if he could do anything for me.  This took me off guard; I thanked him and told him I'd let him know if anything came up.  The next day I gave up my classroom to a teacher who really needed one and planned to move into an office.  But, the office was full of shelves and files that needed to be moved in order for a desk that I didn't yet have to fit.  I panicked a little, feeling a bit lost and displaced.  On this particular Friday after school I was stuck for hours doing some admin work, only to be informed by someone walking by that, unbeknownst to me, my office was being set up by this same student and my friend whose office I was moving into.  They worked for hours clearing out all the old junk, finding me a desk and computer, and setting the whole thing up.  I was incredibly touched.

2) Last week another teacher and I were in the hall talking to a group of kids between classes.  After chatting a bit we reminded them it was time for their next class.  They all drifted off except for one 11th grader who stubbornly refused.  He's new to the school and not yet convinced that this whole academic thing is for him.  This other teacher and I were unsuccessfully trying to convince him to be on his way when one of his classmates showed up and gently took him by the arm, saying, "Come on.  It's time to go."  He resisted, saying that he didn't want to go, to which she casually replied, "I know, none of us want to go, but here we go anyway."  And without another word, he went off to class with her.  He's on the margins, at risk of not engaging as a full time student; she saw this and simply drew him into the fold.  Beautiful.

3) A few days ago, one of the boys I'm close with showed up in my office during first period asking if I had any candy.  I teased him for not saying hello or asking how I was and only wanting candy.  To which he said, "It's because I'm angry!"  And then he launched into a long story about how his friend at a neighboring school had been jumped by a bunch of seniors at that school, and now this friend wanted him to come over to the school that afternoon and beat these kids up.  Now, this young man is definitely a fighter.  He lives in a tough neighborhood and fights people frequently, but this was not a neighborhood issue.  And, for the past year and a half, he and I have been working on providing him with non-violent responses he can fall back on when he's upset or in a tight spot.  I reminded him of this and told him that's why he'd shown up in my office: he didn't want to fight, but didn't know how to tell his friend that.  Then we talked about how you could still be a good and loyal friend even if you didn't fight to defend your friend's honor.  This, however, goes against everything he has lived for 15 years.  He decided to step out into the hall and call his friend: "Yo man, I'm down wit you, I'm just not down wit you like dat.  Naw, I can't fight."  Um, yeah, I literally did a happy dance.

Teens in our society are cast as lazy, disrespectful, dishonest almost-people.  And unfortunately, many schools and teachers also seem to see their students as a sort of enemy to be battled, or at least to put up with, each day.  This is really too bad, because teenagers are just young people trying to figure it all out.  And who of us isn't?  I surely am.  The older I get, the more I am convinced that adults don't really have anything figured out, we're just better at faking it.

These kids are vulnerable by definition: they are in flux and constant chaos and will reach out to most anyone or anything that will provide them with a bit of attention and direction.  We need to be there for them because far too many pointless and destructive forces will happily guide them if we don't.  And more importantly, we're totally missing out if we write them off.  When they know they are loved, even teenage children are warm and giving, and most always quirky and unexpectedly hilarious despite themselves.

Okay.  I'm off my soapbox.  There it is over there and I'm not on it any more.

After the pomegranate incident, my friend JD gave me this, explaining, "In case you forget what a pomegranate looks like again."  Thank goodness for the children, and for good friends.