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Monday, January 31, 2011

Teacher Secrets…

I went back to work last week and as I realized that the month was ending and I needed that last blog for the month, I thought that writing about 'going back' might be interesting. I remember those days when I was in school – the excitement, the nervousness, the hopes, and the fears. Funny thing is, I still have those same feelings now. Every semester. I look forward to meeting a whole new group of people, I get nervous going into class the first day, I hope that the semester will be successful, I fear that I will mess something up. Just because I'm the one with the chalk, or white board marker, doesn't make me any less susceptible to those feelings. In fact, they are somewhat magnified, I think. I see 130 or so students and I want each and every one of them to succeed. I will have and hold deadlines, I will push them, I will grade them firmly but fairly, I will hold fast to my expectations and my requirements.

But here's my dirty little secret.

Although it is not perhaps pedagogically sound, I want the students to like me and I want them to like my course. The reasons for this ARE pedagogically sound for the most part – in addition to simply the fact that I'm human and, therefore, a social animal. Many of the students that come into Freshman English or Introduction to Literature are carrying a lot of educational baggage. The following is not true for all of them of course, but it is true for many. A lot of them have spent so many years being told that they are terrible writers and that they can't do it that it has been completely internalized. Not only do they not like to write or read, but they sincerely believe they are incapable of doing either successfully. I can't tell you the number of times I've held a diagnostic ESSAY in my hands that reads "I can't write." Oh, the irony. Even when they believe (accurately or not) that they are good writers, there's still something defeated in them before we even start. They seem to believe that they are good writers in spite of what they've been taught, not because of it. So, I want them to like me and like the class. I want them to see that I am not the enemy and that the class does not have to be the stuff of nightmares. The best things I can hear as that first class lets out is "This is going to be fun class" or "This is a cool English class."

When they say that, I know that the demons have receded just a little bit. I know that they are ready to work.

Now I just have to hold on to them.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Float Like a Butterfly

In some cultures, I would be regarded as a shaman for having had not one, but two, near death experiences. I've already written in other contexts about my accident, but there was another equally fascinating (though far less rage-inducing) experience. I think we all have had, or know someone who has had, a similar experience and lived to tell about them.

I don't remember what year it was (other than sometime between 1988 and 1991), but I remember that it was October. I don't remember it being particularly warm or anything that day – I just remember that it was October. Dad was away and it was just my mom and myself at home. I was in the kitchen at the time and I slid the garbage can out from under the sink to throw something away. As my hand hovered for that brief moment over the garbage, I felt it: a sharp sting on my thumb – just between the knuckle and the nail on my left hand. I looked down and I can still see the little fellow etched in my mind's eye – a groggy wasp clinging to the edge of the garbage bag. My mother had thrown him away earlier, thinking that he was successfully squashed; however, wasps are quite resilient to squashing, as it turns out.

Now, we knew that once upon a time I was allergic to stinging insects from a company picnic years before in Dansville – all I remember from that day is being decidedly cold on a decidedly warm day and then being taken to the hospital. Many years had passed, and there's no real way to know if one's allergies grow more deadly or less so, and so we had no precautions on hand. It had been at least a decade since that earlier incident and while I still remembered my eyes being swelled closed as a youngster, I don't remember being particularly concerned on this day. I just knew that I was going to swell up. I had been stung in between these incidents without cause for alarm, after all.

On this fateful October day, however, all of that was to change. the first thing I became aware of right after the wasp found my thumb, was that the couple of mosquito bites on my legs were beginning to spread. I had a single hive on my shin, for instance, that spanned from ankle to knee within a relatively short space of time. And then the itching began. Mom suggested I take a bath in baking soda to keep the itching down, so I headed upstairs and drew a bath.

As I sat in the tub, the strangest feeling came over me. I could literally feel my throat begin to close. This, as you might imagine, was not a good feeling. I didn't have much time to think about it as I became aware of my lips and tongue and eyes beginning to swell a little. I got out of the tub, a little anxious at this point, and threw some clothes on. I opened the door and said to my mother, "I can feel my throat start to close." She, having more presence of mind, was already in the foyer by the time I had the door open, and could see my face. She told me to take my contacts out and put some shoes on. We were heading to the hospital.

The ride there was harrowing. I can't even imagine what my mother was going through, but I know that I was slowly suffocating. I remember looking at my wrists; blotchy, swollen hives that swallowed my wrist bones and looked like mutant mosquito bites. My fingers were beginning to turn blue and I was coughing. I couldn't get enough air. My throat was closing more as each mile slipped past and I was losing any sort of awareness of the world around me. When we got there, mom half carried, half dragged me into the Emergency Room and went up to the desk. They asked what happened and my mother said, "Wasp sting."

Now, I don't want to cast any disparaging remarks about the speed of ER staff, but it is no exaggeration to say that I've never seen anyone in one move as fast as they did at that moment. I was in an exam room with three needles in my arms before my mother saw a static paperwork. My blood pressure was 60/40. I was told later that I was about 10 minutes away from an anaphylactic coma. By the next morning, I had had 2800g of Benadryl and a shot of adrenaline. I was swollen everywhere I'd ever been stung before...and there was only the tiniest mark on my thumb. I was not admitted to the hospital, but sent home with more drugs to take and a prescription for an Epi-pen. I still carry one to this day.

You see, although it's been at least a decade since that incident and I've been stung by other things in the meantime, I remember the last time. Never again will I become complacent with stinging insects – since I'm not entirely sure which it is that can kill me, whether I've outgrown it by now, or if the allergy itself is worse. Since a bee put me on crutches for a few days and another put stretch marks on the top of my foot and essentially eliminated by ankle bone, I'm not going to assume it has faded. I know that there are ways to find out...but they involve needles and a series of shots and I think I'd rather not know. All my life I've been allergic to, or at least highly sensitive to, stinging insects, and all my life doctors and nurses have been telling me that shots of any type just feel like 'a bee sting'. My terror of the needles is to be understood in this context, I feel.

Yes, I know I have tattoos. But that's different.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Eagles and Trains (300)

I recently went on a short road trip with my parents. The weather was typical for January in Upstate New York – blizzard and cold until we got far enough that it was simply cold. As we traveled, my mother counted hawks, as she always does. She sees them in trees and on wires, sitting stately and fluffed up in this cold weather, watching for the movement that might mark their next meal.

I was looking out the other window at the oddity of an unmoving train that ran parallel to the road. On the way home, I counted them and was amazed that there were around 188 cars. At the time, I was thinking that this might be the longest train I had ever seen – grey car after grey car, some colored with graffiti, others just skeletons of steel cross pieces. As I marveled, my mother interrupted the silence with a surprised exclamation. I turned my head in time to see the bald eagle sitting in a tree – the white of his hood stark against the grey mountains behind him and the bare branches around him. He was beautiful – close enough to really show his immense size and unmoving – a noble reminder of the untamed wilderness America once enjoyed or least contended with.

For the tiniest moment, I sat between two representations of our past. Both once thrived here – the rail was the technological future of transportation and the impressive eagle was plentiful enough to become our emblem. Both began to disappear, however, from the ravages of time and progress and we were so close to losing the eagle completely. Both have seen a resurgence, especially the eagle; and, though neither may ever fully recover, they both remain as powerful testimonies of nature, man’s world, and the cost of progress.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I, Resolved

So, the New Year arrived just the other day, came to the world in the usual way….and this year, I decided that I would share my resolutions.  Resolution is an interesting word, if we break it down:  to re-solve – to solve again – to find another way.  I don’t think my life is particularly problematic, so the ‘solve’ is interesting, but I like the idea of finding another way to get my life accomplished, as it were.  I don’t know as writing them down will have a monumental impact on the likelihood of them becoming more than a January fad, but it certainly can’t hurt.

Here, then, is a list of how I will 'solve my life again'…

  1. Lose weight – I know, I know.  I could not be much more cliché than this.  That does not, however, make me any less earnest in my desire to do so.  I went through the trauma of surgery to remove extra weight from my back, and yet I’ve put on extra pounds elsewhere that can’t be doing my back or general health any good.  I’m unhappy with the physical form my body has taken and so I’m going to fix it.  I’m not doing this to look good – I’m doing it to feel good.  To that end, I will work out for 30 minutes at least five days a week and I will endeavor to eat more fruits, vegetables, grains, and non-red meats.  I will be more aware of whether or not I’m actually hungry when I eat and I will be mindful of portion control.  I will not go insane or crazy, I will not develop an eating disorder.  I will simply eat better and get myself back into a shape (literally) that I am happy with.  Sensible and realistic – those are key. 
  2. Read more – As an English professor, I often feel guilty because I don’t read as much as I should.  The problem with me picking up a book is that I will often not put it down until it is finished.  That tends to be a problem when I’m in my office, or supposed to be sleeping, or I have countless other things that need accomplishing.  The result is that I don’t read at all and this makes me sad.  It also feels disingenuous to expound on the benefits of reading to my students when I don’t do so nearly as much as I should.  So, I’m going to fix that, too.  Like losing weight, however, I’m going to exercise portion control.  As wonderful as it can be to lose oneself in another world, that’s not a practical way to balance that world with this other one that I have to actually live in.  So, I resolve to read for 30 minutes every day (or until the end of the chapter that I am in the middle of when the 30 minute mark hits). 
  3. Write More – See the rationale for reading...same thing.  I have a blog now, as you may have noticed, and in 2010 I wrote in it three times a month beginning with the very first month of the blog's life.  That was pretty manageable.  This year, I am going to set my goal as four times a month – once a week.  And I’m going to endeavor to write more on the side, as well.  I have half-finished projects and poems that would like to be published and I need to work on nurturing my inner writer and DO something with those writings.  I have no specific, measurable goal* for this one other than blogging four times a month, but I think that’s okay.
If I had to sum up these three resolutions and what they represent, I could simply say that I want to do more of everything.  In short, I want to do more of the things I love and I want to feel my best while doing them - reading, writing, eating better, and exercising are easily tracked and easily monitored.  But it goes beyond such 'simple' endeavors.  I want to exercise my mind and my creativity, I want to be active, I want to complete home projects on the house I love, I want to explore new places, cultivate friendships, celebrate my family.  I want to be in this world.  In this moment.  Dancing on the edge of making this a sadder post than I originally intended, I feel that this idea of Doing is absolutely vital.  There is so much about the wider world that saddens me and leaves me heartbroken.  My overall well-being depends on me moving in my own world in a way that keeps me alive, vibrant, and as happy as I can be in a world that I simply cannot fix.  That I cannot 'solve again'.  So, I resolve to do just that...and perhaps I can fix some of the world in the process.

That is all.  Let’s see how well I do.

Happy New Year.

* for those in academia with me, I humbly apologize for tainting this post with the idea of 'measurable goals' -- it seems we cannot escape certain concepts, even when we want to...