One way to end the school year

It was 75 degrees and sunny with low humidity and a bright breeze rustling the leaves around my suburban brick home. A perfect June day. I was sitting on the front porch after a long day’s work watching Honda vans and GMC SUVs full of kids coming home from practice in time for dinner. There were 10 days left of school year. I was trying to come up with a profound way to end the school year – maybe I could give humorous little certificates of achievement to the students, like paper plate awards that the rowing team used to do, or have a pizza party. Maybe I could return the letters they wrote me at the beginning of the year, the ones with their mission statements, and ask them to reflect on their progress as writers and critical thinkers. Maybe they could make little speeches about their goals, or we could play Two Truths and a Lie. My other class loved that game. It would be good for oral language development. I sat on the porch planning all this in my mind while drinking a rosé d’Anjou in a tiny etched glass that used to belong to my grandmother.

I want the end of the year to be meaningful and memorable because I’m leaving it all behind. I’m taking a one-year leave of absence to work as an English Language Teaching Fellow with the U.S. Embassy in Laos. I want to savor every last moment at my MCPS high school.

Instead, I spend my last days trying to grade my Required Quarterly Assessments, which some Board members thought would be a good substitute for semester exams and forced teachers to give up semester exams – and the time to grade them that was built into every high school schedule the last week of school. But ESOL RQAs are not just bubble sheets that can be run through a Scantron. They require days of practice just to expose students to the hastily-written, poorly formatted writing prompts – which this quarter included a checklist for students with misspellings [Did I organizer my writing?]. In the final days of the marking period, so many students were pulled from my class (it wasn’t random, but it sure felt that way) to take PARCC and H.S.A. tests that I gave them independent projects to work on for weeks. I was providing the same mini-lessons over and over again until each group cycled through the tests. I couldn’t move ahead with instruction, so I had to come up with extension activities for those students who weren’t testing. I knew I’d lost them when C., usually my best student, asked if she could just listen to music one day. She was so far ahead of the class that I had to say yes.

So the final days were spent trying to score the RQA exams while students sat in the classroom doing no new work. So many kids have missed so many assignments that the last week was mostly make up work. Thirteen students are failing the semester, even though I tried to save them. It is demoralizing to realize that I care more about their grades than some of them. Today I managed to give out summer reading assignments and to distribute little gifts, but I almost forgot to give out the little candies I bought and return the portfolio of work that I’d been collecting since the beginning of the year. The students opted to watch videos, play Uno and throw their folders in the trash. This is not how I want to remember my nine years as a high school ESOL teacher.

Tomorrow is a half day, and I don’t expect many students to show up. That’s good, because I have to clean out my classroom. I’m having a little lunch with my colleagues then attending a staff meeting, where we’ll celebrate the retirees and those moving on to new schools. I know my name will be on the Saying Goodbye list. I’m going to miss the daily smiles and stresses. I’m going to miss my colleagues, who are such amazingly dedicated teachers. I have so much to learn from them, and I’m grateful they’ve shared another school year with me. I hope I can come back to this place in a year. I know it seems hectic now, but in retrospect, it will seem so wonderful.

A man and a woman are walking by, with a dog on a leash and a toddler in a stroller. I wave at them. The tree branches above my head dance in a mesmerizing forward and back motion. I’m sitting on concrete steps under an American flag. I’m thinking that this is the coldest weather I’ll feel for a long time. By the end of the summer, I’ll be leaving it all behind and I know I’ll miss it.


Dirty Windows

I hadn’t slept in until sunrise for four months. Usually I’m out of the house by 6:20 am and on the way to work well before the birds start chirping. Then one April morning I woke up with brilliant light streaming in and noticed all the windows were dirty. High school teachers in my district aren’t exactly nocturnal, but sometimes it can feel that way. In November the government gives back an hour of the morning light, just before nature takes it away for the winter. Then in March we get a glimpse of the early gleaming before we Spring Forward and the mornings feel gloomy once again. I read symbolism into everything. Dirty windows equals unclear vision. If this is my time to shine, I need to see those little green buds unfurling on the trees around my house. It feels urgent this year. Maybe because I’ve accepted an English Language Teaching Fellowship for next year and am moving to Laos in August. I was offered the same Fellowship in 2014 but couldn’t accept because the timing was wrong. I’ve dreamed of this moment ever since. At school, they’re already interviewing for my replacement. I’m worried that our new president will cut off the State Department funds before I have a signed contract in my hands. Maybe because the weather started to change too early – in February – then everything froze again. The daffodils, cherry blossoms, and crocuses almost died off. Why is it that the things we wait for the longest are the best? The hope that seems most fragile is the one that nurtures us. Through the windows suddenly I see neighbors with new babies in strollers, dogs I don’t recognize, and isn’t that Hannah home from Holland with a friend? Let me go say hello.

Spring Break starts today and now I finally have time to reflect on all the changes this year will bring. April is not the cruelest month, but I’ve got to get those windows cleaned.

Breaking the trance of busyness

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog is one of my favorite sites for inspiration. I find in it solace when the daily news seems so bleak. Today’s blog discusses the wisdom of Herman Hesse, writing a hundred years before all humanity became obsessed with the 24/7 news cycle. In today’s world when we all seem to be more interested in staring at screens than talking to each other, this could not be more relevant:

“Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.”

My immigrant students are certainly nervous in this climate of fear and hatred that has been unleashed since Inauguration Day. I see it in the increased physical aggression between the newcomers and those who’ve been here longer, I hear it in the little murmurs from the back of the classroom. Sometimes it’s overt. One of my (nonimmigrant) students wears an anti-Trump button pinned to his lapel. They stand now for the Pledge – I think I have taught them that the flag is a symbol for an entire country, not just for one man.

But back to busyness and inattention. I am one of the worst victims of this disease. It’s usually at this time of year, when the weather starts to turn, that I immerse myself in activities after school – rowing, coaching, writer’s groups, extracurricular activities. I can’t seem to say no to doing everything. I volunteer my time to the point of exhaustion. I think I need to take up the Hessian approach to seeking out the small joys, stopping to smell the flowers or listening to the “prattle of children.” (Well, I have the pleasure of that little joy every day – and my Spanish has improved dramatically.)

It’s supposed to snow tomorrow, but the daffodils, the forsythia and even the cherry trees are already blooming. I anticipate a particularly joyful day when they call a snow emergency and I am forced to stay home with nothing to do and nowhere to go. I am looking forward to a snow day so that I can “… seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys, and thriftily save up the larger, more demanding pleasures for holidays and appropriate hours. It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones.” Thank you Brain Pickings for today’s inspiration. I think we all need a day of disburdenment.

Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you.

What I learned from Rice Dressing

When my husband Frank and I first set up house together 26 years ago I knew that we would have greater challenges to face than what to serve for dinner. I grew up in a large family where my mother miraculously prepared a well-balanced dinner for nine people every night. It wasn’t gourmet but it was predictably bland and coordinated with military precision. He came from a small, Italian family with a mother who would drive 25 miles just to get a single ingredient to make a new recipe and a father who had once been a cook in the Navy. His grandfather owned a little deli in Rhode Island, the kind where sausages and cheese hung from the ceiling and kids at school made fun of him because his sandwiches dripped through the foil (but they would eagerly trade him their baloney on white bread for his Italian cold cuts). Frank intuitively knew how to make every meal taste delicious. I had no repertoire and usually burned things.  So early in our marriage it was easy to defer to him on all things kitchen related. Except for one sacrosanct family recipe: rice dressing.

My family devoured this special Cajun side dish at every holiday meal growing up, either stuffed inside a turkey or served from an overflowing bowl that my brothers fought over. On our first wedding anniversary my mother gave Frank and me a simple, framed copy of her mother’s recipe, handwritten in Grandmère’s illegible script. “About 1 ½ pounds of ground meat… I cook it for about 1 hour with salt and pepper… add onions, green pepper and celery with red hot sauce… add cooked rice, stir up mixing well…” My grandmother died when I was very young, but I proudly carried on the Cajun tradition. Every holiday, I would cook the rice dressing days in advance so that I could be out of Frank’s way while he roasted the meat to perfection and created a gravy to die for. For years, I had that one dish to remind me that I was still competent at something in the kitchen.

When we first moved in together I tried to cook pasta his way, which of course was the only way.  You see, I married a perfectionist. We used to call it spaghetti or macaroni growing up. I didn’t know anything about cuts like ziti or rigatoni. He reminded me that his pasta was far superior to anything I made. And he was right. So I boiled the water and added salt, set the timer and sat down to grade papers. Invariably Frank would go into the kitchen and take over. The few times he didn’t intervene, the pasta would stick together because I’d forgotten to stir it. Or I’d mess up the al dente timing. My husband didn’t finish my sentences; he finished my projects. And not just in the kitchen. At first I really liked it. In fact, all my friends and family really liked it too. But they say that the things that attract you at the beginning of a relationship can sometimes repel you later. That was the case with me. This year I’ve finally come to grips with it.

I learned about Frank’s handiness early on. He’d been a forester in Maine – which of course was a big selling point while we were dating – but we were living in Manhattan at the time, and there weren’t too many trees to identify, or logging roads to manage. He liked to organize and fix things. He was very handy. But a Mr. Fix-It with no garage and no truck has to find an outlet. There was only so much you could do in a 600 square-foot apartment in New York City. Frank started to cook more regularly. He bought a Romertopf clay oven and made delicious Tandoori chicken. We got a pressure cooker that could give us a kid-friendly beef bourgignon in 15 minutes. We got a rice cooker and he started going to all the Asian stores and asking the salesladies for their advice: Jasmine rice from Thailand or short grain Japanese rice grown in California? I developed a gourmet pot belly.

Friends would invite us for dinner and express delight that Frank fixed things that they didn’t even know were broken – stovetop fans, pictures that were hung crookedly, chairs that squeaked.  “Can you believe she tries to slice meat with those dull knives?” he would exclaim as we left. He started to travel with a knife sharpener. His skills made me very popular in a new way with my old friends. I basked in his reflected glory.

But then his helpfulness started spilling into my domain. If I started laundry on a Sunday night and stepped away, he would put the clothes in the dryer then take them out and fold them all wrong. Neatly, though. I can’t say I look forward to doing laundry, but there is a certain satisfaction in finishing a job you start. Before I realized what was happening, he took over other chores as well. If I slacked off for a moment, he would be putting a second coat of polish on the shoes that I left out, or re-cleaning a stainless steel pot I’d washed because it wasn’t shiny enough. Who doesn’t like shiny pots? I didn’t complain. But it has made me kind of lazy. “You know that tea kettle you mentioned wanting to buy?” he said. “Well I went out and bought a better one.” He would produce the Number One rated item that Consumer Reports or Cooks Illustrated or America’s Test Kitchen agreed on. Don’t get me wrong – it was a great choice but I was deprived of the shopping experience.

“I wish my husband would do those things,” said my neighbor when I complained.

As the kids got older and I got busy with coaching and after-school projects, Frank started cooking regularly again. There’s nothing better than coming home to a hot meal after a 12-hour day spent almost entirely with teenagers. I was really appreciative that I didn’t have to make any decisions about food.

A few days before Thanksgiving this year, I asked him to pick up a green pepper and some ground beef. I had to work the Wednesday before and he didn’t. “I’m going to start the rice dressing tonight,” I said. He texted a few times from the supermarket. “The recipe calls for a mixture of ground beef and ground pork,” he said. “They have ground pork here already mixed with beef. Should I get some?” “Sure,” I texted back. It was annoying that he had checked Grandmère’s recipe – and knew it better than I did. I’d never followed it exactly, preferring my own version of the family specialty. Also because it called for “gizzards” which I think should be outlawed. “It calls for hot sauce,” he said. “Can I use Sriracha instead of Tabasco?” Noooo! That was just too much a departure from the Cajun roots and respect for my family tradition, as if he’d slapped me in the face.

When he arrived home, I’d cleared the accumulated junk mail off the kitchen counter, washed the special platters and serving utensils so they’d be ready for the next day. I’d made a cake. I’d arranged the flowers, found the right decorations, napkins and silverware. I’d just sat down, put my feet up and was enjoying my first sip of wine, when Frank walked in with bags of groceries.  “You look tired,” he said. “Do you want me to start the rice dressing?” What woman wouldn’t want to hear those words?

I considered for a moment. He had established dominance in the kitchen years earlier, he’d already taken away my autonomy in simple household maintenance, he’d usurped my domestic roles of laundry, dry cleaning and shoe repair. I didn’t mind giving up those chores. But my old-fashioned traditional rice dressing recipe? Could I relinquish my last vestige of kitchen competence? My self-esteem?

“That would be wonderful,” I said. All my fight was gone. Deep in my heart I knew that if he said ‘start,’ he would most likely finish it. Because he finishes all my projects. And he does them to perfection. So for the first time 26 years , I allowed myself to relax on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. My husband cooked my grandmother’s rice dressing recipe completely on his own without any pretense of checking with me. And guess what? It was delicious. I sulked a little when he got all the credit, but I had time to read a few chapters of my book and go for a walk in the woods. He’d one-upped me with the only meal I was confident I could make. And I didn’t care any more. In fact it was a relief.

When you are married for so many years, you learn to figure out your boundaries. It’s like doing a little dance forward and backwards without stepping on any toes. I had to step all the way back and relinquish control of my final family recipe to realize that my pride had just gotten in the way. What I learned from rice dressing is to truly appreciate that my husband’s competence has allowed me the freedom to pursue my own dreams.

Is the American Dream dead?

I didn’t want to go to school this morning, the day after the 2016 Election. I woke up 5:00 am, as usual, and before I’d even finished my first cup of coffee my colleagues were texting and posting on social media. “What will we say to the children?” they asked. I felt sick to my stomach to hear the announcer on NPR say “President-elect Donald Trump.” This is the man who has bullied his way to the top with crass racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric that I have taught my students to avoid. They recognize him for what he is. They are fearful of deportation and discrimination. Now he has the power to turn his evil words into action. How could I reassure them when I felt so angry myself?

My fellow ESOL teachers had a pow-wow in the office. One had printed out “Know Your Rights” information that we made available last year when the immigration raids started in Prince George’s County. One was going to show an electoral map and explain the process visually. Another was crying openly. We agreed that we’d listen if students wanted to talk and would say that we didn’t have any answers. We knew that there might be some behavioral issues, especially with the newcomers. We would try to reassure them that school was a safe place. I decided to talk about the strength of our democracy, the power of the system of Checks and Balances. But inside I don’t know if it’s true any more. I’m churning and angry and scared. Because I think the American Dream has been crushed overnight.

During the morning announcements, students were more talkative than usual. When the student newscaster said, “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance,” I heard a chorus of boos. They refused to stand up. I was shocked! That’s what we did during the waning Vietnam War days when I was in high school. “No, Miss! We don’t support Trump!” I’d been teaching them the etiquette of hand-over-heart, silence and showing respect when the Pledge comes on. “He doesn’t respect us!” This is what Trump has engendered. Disrespect for the greatness that our flag represents.

As the day moved on, students wanted to talk openly about it less and less. Many had stayed up all night watching the returns come in. My bleary eyes matched those around me. I felt brain dead. Teachers expressed the numbness they felt when we ran into each other at the copy machine, in the hallways, eating lunch. I was trying not to see this as a repudiation of all that I hold dear: equal rights, human rights, civility. I couldn’t help connecting the text we’re reading in 3rd period, Oedipus Rex, to the elections. But the tragic flaw brought Hillary down, not Trump. “The hero’s downfall is partially his or her own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate. In fact, the tragedy is usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the hero’s lack of perfection… This error of judgment or character flaw is known as hamartia and is usually translated as ‘tragic flaw.’ Often the character’s hamartia involves hubris (which is defined as a sort of arrogant pride or over-confidence).” I think the entire Democratic Party was suffering from hamartia.

By the end of the day, students were trying to joke. “Ms. Sullivan – next year you won’t have a job any more!” That exact thought had crossed my mind long ago, but I dismissed it. The vast majority of my students are from Central America, and some are undoubtedly here without papers. Trump couldn’t possible evict 11 million undocumented immigrants, right? One of the reasons I went in to this profession is to share the joy of teaching immigrants about uniquely American opportunities. Like how in America, you can arrive with little money, no family connections, and get a good education. You can work hard and go to college or graduate and buy a car and a house. My grandfather immigrated from Ireland and worked as a steamfitter in the Boston suburbs. His children went to college and became professors and business people. In America you can avoid gang violence by living in the right neighborhood, and by making good decisions about your leisure time. My father regularly visited the library and won the state Spelling Bee and a trip to Washington, DC. You can imagine how proud his Irish-nanny mother felt to accompany him by train. In America you can be from anywhere in the world and  go to any church you want. You can wear a head scarf and go to the mosque if you want. You can hold a rally and speak your mind or refuse to salute the flag if you want. Because that’s your right. “La migra!” they joked in 6th period. You can choose to take advantage of all that is here. Isn’t free choice and opportunity what the American Dream is all about?

But now, with a Trump presidency looming menacingly over us, my students are already limited in their choices because now Trump has unleashed an anti-immigrant, xenophobic plague that is already infecting us with fear. How will they be able to advocate for themselves in the face of bullies? I have to show them how to listen respectfully to others, how to disagree with an idea without demeaning the speaker. I have to teach them about the values that we hold dear as Americans. They fled their countries to hear the lessons that I have not yet taught. I think now, more than ever, my job is one of the most important ones in the country.

What we should say to the children is much better said in this Huff Post article that my colleague forwarded.

One of the characteristics Americans are known for is optimism. Tomorrow we’ll begin a Socratic Seminar for Oedipus Rex. I will urge my students to comment on the following: “The fall is not pure loss. There is some increase in awareness, some gain in self-knowledge, some discovery…Though it arouses solemn emotion, tragedy does not leave its audience in a state of depression. Aristotle argues that one function of tragedy is to arouse the ‘unhealthy’ emotions of pity and fear and through a catharsis to cleanse us of those emotions.”

I think America needs a Socratic Seminar to process these election results. We need to relearn how to talk to each other and listen respectfully. I won’t stand for bullying or put-downs in the classroom but I will stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and I will stand up for the rights of my students.


Teaching more than English to English Language Learners

People often ask what it’s like to teach students who don’t speak much English. The first question I get is “Do you speak Spanish?” but that’s the wrong question. I speak the language of teens who’ve just arrived in the U.S.A. and find themselves in a wonderful environment of opportunity and freedom for the first time. In my classroom they learn how to conjugate verbs and use academic language, but they also learn how respect boundaries, think critically and value independent learning. In my classroom I give them just enough leeway to be themselves, and I watch as they become a little more American every week. It is both frustration and privilege.

They come into my classroom wearing a uniform of jeans with strategic tears at the knees, carrying colorful Jansport backpacks, the boys in black hoodies or soccer jerseys in the colors of El Salvador or Barcelona; the girls wear tight pants and tops that bare the midriff, having discarded the outer layer as soon as they stepped off the bus. It’s like emptying a cup of marbles through a funnel into a wine bottle, the way they all jostle noisily through the door, a multicolored striata of Tiger’s Eye and mocha lip gloss, high ponytails and giggles. Some smell of last night’s kitchen, some smell of too much cologne sprayed on after PE class. Why don’t they take showers any more? Sometimes I feel invisible as I stand before them. They are so in tune with each others’ every gesture, every flick of a girl’s hair, every nuance of eye contact and intonation, and way too much touching for an Anglo. I feel a surge of panic at the urgency of their physicality – hugging, breathing too close, tapping, elbowing, pressing against, jostling, fake fighting, a burst of Spanish curse words,  acne, chewing gum, shampoo, unwashed t-shirt, illicit baseball cap that gets lifted off one boy’s head and passed from gel top to gel top, a bottle of water and a half-eaten ice cream sandwich passes between two girls, licking fingers, chocolate dropped on the floor. The transition music playing through the intercom stops and the bell rings but nobody is sitting down with the book open to page 54 and Luis Chavez is still roaming the back row conversing loudly with with Jose and Karen asks if she can close the windows, bless her heart, she’s wearing a tank top and it’s 20 degrees outside.

I’m patient as they open their books. I teach them how to turn a page without ripping it. How many had consistent schooling in Central America? I teach them the past tense of irregular verbs. How many knew both parents before they came to Maryland? Knew and came. I teach them questions. Why didn’t you eat breakfast? Didn’t eat. I teach them negatives. Please don’t share your answers. I laugh at their little sotto voce jokes in Spanish. English please. I point to the prompt that says On Your Own. Independence is such an American concept. It will come.

I’m not in a hurry. When I was a child, my family moved from Louisiana to upstate New York and then to West Virginia. I had to learn new social rules and a new way of talking each time. And I’m fluent in English. It takes years to get used to a new culture and a new language. Today we’re one step closer. I repeat the pertinent morning announcements for them, slowly and with visuals. I use realia to get them more involved in school activities – like holding up the purple bow for the PTSA Gift Wrap project. Now they get it. Some stay after class and ask who and where and when. For one more day, I’ve given students a safe environment where they can take risks, make mistakes and pick themselves back up to start all over again. I have one of the most important jobs in the country. I’m shaping the next generation of Americans.