Monday, November 8, 2010

Nov. 8: Thank you!

I was raised to write thank you notes. My memories of the last day of Christmas vacation or the evening before New Year's include a box of cards, an address book, and a list. Notes had to be specific, they had to be personal, and they had to be written--no phone calls, no "but she was here!", and, by extension, no email. My best friend and I developed a schtick about "Because we were not raised by wolves, we write thank you notes." My elder son is famous for the note he once wrote this friend in the orgy of post-Christmas thank you note writing: "Dear Aunt Julie: Thank you for the movies. Mom is making me write this. I think you should hate her." That gem is still on her refrigerator--note the personalization and the fact that it's three lines long!

I consider myself a student of culture, and I accept that we are different. I believe in freedom of choice, I belong to the UCC, I reject the English only movement in the US, and, although that aforementioned son and his brother might roll their eyes when I say it, I am generally a pretty open minded person. However, I have come to realize that one cultural trend I resolutely mourn is the passing of the tradition of thank you notes. Not only do I mourn it, but I have to admit that I will think a little bit worse of you if you should fail to send me one when you should. (I know. I'm cringing even as I type that line. the word "should"? Not my favorite. But I'm trying to be honest here, and that's the truth!) I have participated in a great "Seven Days of Specialness" Swap through a blog that shall remain nameless. My first swap partner faded away, and I ended up swapping with the blogger herself, which was a pleasure. Her presents were thoughtful, inventive, fun, useful and lovely--as, I must say, were mine. Since we had each other's mailing addresses, and since one of presents to each other had been notecards, I wrote a detailed and enthusiastic thank you note to her at the conclusion of the swap. Then I waited for hers--which never ever came. No email, even, saying which bits she liked the best and how nice the dish towel was and that the tea was nice. Nothing. Even now, a year later, I feel a little bitter when I visit that blog. Clearly, some nice people were raised by wolves!

And many of my students were raised by wolves, too, which makes me sad, as it foretells a society in which we say thank you less and less (See? I get to be rigid and depressing. This is a great topic!). Eight recommendations sent to different schools on time? Regular after-school help sessions, progress emails, and above-and-beyond effort and encouragement? No word. The student may say thank you, the parents may spread my name around as a caring teacher, but no note, nothing I can tuck away to revisit after a day when I'm rethinking my career choice. No little flare of happiness that my effort's been acknowledged. That's not to say that I haven't gotten the occasional knock-my-socks-off thank you: a gorgeous bouquet of flowers from a family, two gift certificates to a book store when I taught two children in the same family, a huge bag of fresh garden produce. But the regular, "thank you so much for helping me out" note--it's an endangered species, and that, I join my ancestresses in thinking, is a shame.

Readers will be relieved to hear that I don't follow the "don't start with the word 'Thank you' rule," I'm not fussy about paper quality, and I care if you mail it, put it on my desk, or hand it to me personally. All I like to see, hope to see, and, clearly, need to see, is that other people are acknowledging that my actions have an impact on their lives. I know I feel a lift when I write a thank you note, especially for something the donor might not realize made an impact. My colleague who helped organize a terrific field trip to a Shakespeare workshop with twelve wonderful students? She's getting one on this rainy November morning. So is the bus driver who schlepped us all over the rain-drenched town, never complaining once. And my guess is that those little three sentence wonders will lighten their mornings, even just a little. So although the current response to spoken thanks is now "No problem," take ten minutes to acknowledge your gratitude for something someone has done for you. You'll be amazed how the wolves of anonymity and apathy will retreat, and the grandmothers of love and acknowledgment will smile, warming you with their approval.

Yeah. a little rough, but I have some thank yous to write. . . :>)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nov. 2: Advisory

I'm on my third rotation as an advisor. At Mdihs, we get a class of ninth graders and stay with them through till graduation, with varying degrees of closeness and friendship. My first two groups featured a cast of characters that changed regularly, struggled a good bit, dropped out (in some cases), made me very proud, and, in other cases, drove me demented. We met about once a month for about 40 minutes, and did occasional projects and activities together. We "got on," as the Brits say.

This year MDI has a new format, so I am seeing my 13 sophomore advisees every day of the week: 10 mins most days, and 30 mins. on Fridays. We chat, we do puzzles, we check in, we lie in exhausted piles around the room--we've also participated in Spirit week, wearing different themed costumes each day; worked on really learning the school song; enjoyed two fire drills; done a few on-line activities, some of which we hated and others of which were okay, and of course we also partook in the PSATs. I liked this group last year, when we were only 11, a little quieter, smaller, and more insecure. We've gained two new members of the group, and added height, age, and attitude. What's most amazing, however, is how differently we interact now that we see each other daily. I know that N. and F. will get sucked into their laptops if I'm not proactive about it; I know that L., E., and A. have a bad habit of gossiping and need to be reminded to "use their powers for good, not evil," and I know that I can be as firm as I want with E. so long as I keep my voice cheerful and upbeat. In addition, I've seen K. and K. fit seamlessly into our group, Z. survive a tough summer, and A. weather a nastily broken ankle, a week out, a wheelchair, and, finally crutches.

On the return side, I just had a long meeting to try to get one advisee back on a healthy, productive track. During that meeting, I was able to give reasons for hope and concern on the basis of daily observations and conversations. After it ended, I just happened to run into another advisee looking blue in the hallway, and pretty quickly found out he was feeling overwhelmed and nervous about his school work. He's prone to depression, I remembered, and though I had to run out for an appointment, I was able to give him a little love, make a to-do list, hand him a granola bar, and promise that we'd touch base in advisory tomorrow. The feeling of interconnectedness (which sometimes, yes, masquerades as exhaustion and over-responsibility) was palpable and very strong: I know these kids. I've only had three of them in class, and only this year, but I feel more and more that I know them, in the words of the CES document that inspired our first lurching advisory steps, "deeply and well." It's hard work, but it's good work, because it enriches both my teaching life in the school and their growing lives in it as well. These connections are why I went into teaching. Go advisory!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Nov. 1: Playing Hooky

"Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work."

Robert Frost got it so right with that scrap from "Out, Out--" that these lines echoed in my head as I swam laps Sunday morning. I usually swim laps Sunday morning, but this time I was 3 hours later than usual, and had not been and had no plans to go to church. Most of my family and I were indulging in a Sunday of playing hooky.

This fall has been stunningly busy for us. My husband and I are both teachers, he in an elementary school and I at a high school, and both of us have a commute of about an hour round trip (less once the tourists and leaf peepers leave!). I have just gone back to full time teaching this year, and am also the head of my department. Andy's on the negotiations team. We have two children who attend the local high school, a blessed 5 minute walk from our house. Lyle is a senior, Nate is a freshman. Cross country season just ended, Y swimming is starting, Nate celebrated high school by joining every activity known to human kind: not just cross country, but also show choir, jazz band, pep band, the fall musical, and, on Wednesday afternoons, he now has a paper route. Oh, and we have an exchange student from Denmark this year. He's a senior too, a day older than Lyle, and he decided to play football this fall.

As a whole, our family has felt that we've kept our obligations thinned down: work, school, and church: no travel soccer, no weekends at the skiing condo, no Rotary club, no scouts. However, somehow Y swimming crept in there, in addition to my position as Library trustee for our town and a second on the Mission Board in our church. This fall we were in full action mode: AFS activities with Silas, various meets and games to watch or get kids to, parent meetings as teachers and as parents, committee meetings as planned, and then all the inescapable facts of family life: food shopping. Laundry. Family dinner as much as humanly (humanely?) possible. Occasional rounds of UNO or Blokus. Andy's 50th birthday party. A hike.

In this rich but laden calendar, the idea of playing hooky presents enormous grace. I've learned, after 24 years as a teacher, that a sick day isn't really a gift, as it comes with "sub plans" stamped all over it. That leaves the weekend as our backout option, and, this past weekend, Sunday was the chance. Amazingly, none of us had nursery duty or ushering; I didn't have any announcements to make or activities to run; none of the kids was involved in a project he didn't want to miss. As I turned the idea over in my mind, it began to assume the glow of a truly inspired chance, and when we all reassembled in the kitchen at 10 pm after a day of car appts at seven am (Brewer), Lyle's last State meet at Belfast (11 am), Silas's last football game in Lamoine (1 pm), Nate's work call (9 - 3), Lyle's work at the YMCA Haunted Hayride (4 - 9), I told the kids we were skipping church--and that was clearly a good idea.

Not that we did much with our extra time. I got up about the same time I would if I were on my usual schedule of swimming before church, but I made a coffee cake adn then lounged in my pjs with the cats and coffee for a while. I did some banking online, wrote a few letters (remember those?), called my brother, organized some catalog returns, and then swam hard, three hours later than usual. I food shopped at just about the usual time, and it snowed. Nate's goal was to stay in his pjs all day, and he almost made it! Lyle lounged and then went to his usual shift at the pool. Silas nursed a sore ankle from the game and slept in. The day, however, even with all its ordinariness, was set apart, special, because we had time to relax in it. We had given ourselves the gift of space to breathe, to lounge, to celebrate. For one morning in one week, we'd stepped off our chosen and beloved treadmill to revel in more time. What a gift to be "saved from work."