Monday, October 10, 2016

Water, not rock

I've been trying to write this blog post for the last two weeks and I can't seem to start it right, so I guess I'm just going to keep typing.  I hope you'll keep reading as I try to figure this out.

I have a challenging group of kids this year.  I know this because everyone and their mom told me ahead of time that I would have a challenging group of kids this year.  I also know this because last year, I saw these kids walk out of classrooms with impunity, throw each other across the hallway in play fights that became more than play, swear with creativity and without compunction at their teachers and each other, and, worst of all, put their heads down, on their desks, in their cell phones, casting themselves out of the school building and away from our reach.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Balanced, home

During the first day of summer break, the custodians opened every locker in the halls of Oberlin High School.  The locker doors would stand open for a few hours while the custodians cleaned them out; they'd throw all the contents into a giant, industrial-sized trash can.  OHS was small and quickly traversed -- if you looked at a floor plan of the hallways from above, it would look like a lollipop on a stick -- and an enterprising seven year-old could easily investigate each and every locker before the custodians finished, skimming out treasures:  mechanical pencils with plenty of lead, a miniature stapler, an abandoned ugly clay ashtray from art class, a red knit hat.  The school was empty, save the custodians, administrators, and a few teachers who were still finishing up their grades and cleaning their classrooms.  The halls were ghostly-silent, and anyone who'd ever fought through their normally boisterous cacophony would find the whole thing eerie.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

An Open Letter to First-Year Teachers

An Open Letter to First-Year Teachers (or student teachers, or would-be teachers, or all teachers, or those concerned with the care and maintenance of teachers):

Dear First-Year Teachers,

It’s February, and you may be starting to feel existentially overwhelmed.  I know I did, when I was in your shoes.  You did your student teaching, you spent what seemed to be an interminable amount of time in courses on theories of education, and now you’ve had your very own classes for about five months.  You may – and I might just be projecting on this one – be feeling the weight of the system, in a way that manifests as a combination of anxiety and a sinking, dread-filled pit in your stomach.

If you are, I don’t blame you.  My sense right now is that our country seems to consider the state of education to be in a state of emergency, and it’s hard not to let that leak into the day-to-day existence of teaching.

It’s particularly difficult when that sense of panic seems to be woven throughout the apparatus being used to assess your worth.  When I re-entered the New York City Department of Education at the beginning of my eighth year of teaching, I was required to attend a workshop on teacher evaluation in the DoE.  The workshop began with the following quote, from Lee Shulman: 

"Teaching is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity… would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster".

Setting aside the fact that this quote is both incorrectly paraphrased and cited, as I have recently learned, this is a horrifying set of words with which to begin one’s teaching career!  I looked around the conference room at the frightened faces of first-year teachers and all I wanted to do was seize you by the hands and say, “You’re going to be okay.  That is not what teaching is.”

A week or so later, Frank Bruni wrote a column in the New York Times bemoaning the nation’s teacher shortage.  As you’ve probably heard, enrollment in teaching programs is down significantly – 50% inCalifornia, for example.  I’ll refrain from going into the statistics in depth, partly because you can find them easily by googling “teacher shortage” and partly because I’m sure you’ve heard all of them before.

Do you think this might have something to do with the fact that we introduce evaluation to teachers by calling the profession “frightening” and comparing it to an ER during a major traumatic event?

And now that you’re five months into your first year, you’re starting to realize the momentousness of “fixing public education”:  the sagging, heavy, inevitable load of poverty and systemic injustice that seems intent upon crushing your students and your hope.

So here is my message for you, and please don’t take it the wrong way:  the public education system in this country has been a clusterfuck for at least the past 70 years.  It’s not that we’re not in a state of emergency, it’s that it’s not a new state of emergency.  And you know, it's great that our whole society is now worried about the inequities of which teachers have always been aware.  That said:  you, single teacher, are not going to be able to “fix” the system.  You’re also not going to be able to break it.  And you are able to make small, meaningful, positive changes in the lives of individual humans.  And that’s what you’ve got to hang on to.

Because, teachers, here is the truth:  teaching is not the most frightening activity that our species has invented, though you may sometimes be frightened.  It is not as complex as the choreography in a post-earthquake hospital, though you may sometimes feel that it is.  It was not even invented by our species; many animals teach their young.

And here is the truth:  you will be exhausted, often.  You will fail almost every day.  Students will not turn in homework and you will look at them quizzically:  “But why didn’t you do the homework?” you’ll ask, “I wrote it on the board and everything!”  There will be weeks when you stagger to and from work with nothing in between; your life will reduce itself to teaching and planning and grading (shout out to my fellow English teachers!) and eating and sleeping, and you will drag yourself out of bed and to the school building and try not to remind yourself that you left the school building only ten hours earlier.  Worse, you will feel the brokenness of the public education system like a clinging, fractured eggshell that rips into everything you once hoped was true about the world. 

Just a heads up:  your non-teacher friends will begin to get bored with the amount of rage you display on behalf of your students.  Get angry anyway.  We are boats against the current, and, to paraphrase Edna St. Vincent Millay, we may understand but we do not accept, and we are not resigned.

Because here is also the truth:  there will be golden moments that will carry you through all of this.  You will plan a unit that sets you afire with passion, and your students will roll their eyes and say “You say every unit is your favorite unit, Ms. Crawford,” and you will say, “But this time it’s true!”  (Your secret:  every unit is your favorite unit.  Do not teach what you cannot love.)

(And that lends itself to another point:  love your students for who they are, and not for who you wish them to be.  The student who hates reading might be a phenomenal basketball player.  The student who drives you to the edge of insanity in English class might be able to paint rings around his peers in art class.  The student who can barely write a sentence might be one of the best human beings you’ll ever meet.  Love them for their strengths.)

Sometimes the golden moment is indefinable – you get a genuine smile from the kid who sits and glares at his desk all day, or the student who declared that they “hate reading” will declare their love for a book you assigned, or you’ll grade an assignment and realize that you’ve actually managed to teach something.  Sometimes, when you are the most tired and downtrodden, you will get an attack-hug from a student who can tell that you’re having a terrible day, or a message on facebook from a student that you taught five years ago, one who you genuinely thought hated your guts.  “I just wanted to tell you that I really loved your class,” it might say, “And I learned a lot.” 

If you take anything away from this, it is this:  hold these moments in the palm of your hand.  Their membranes, though thin, are what will protect you from the broken pieces of the world.  Properly cared for, these moments can feed you for weeks, or months, or years.  Properly tended, they can eclipse the moments of exhaustion and pain and fear.

Do not expect to escape unscathed.  To paraphrase one of the wisest people I know, there is no point to teaching if it is not done with great love, and you cannot love without pain.  This, too, is true.  So we hold our love carefully and tenderly and close, and weather our pain, and treasure them both for what they have to teach us.  Because in the end – and this is the last truth – we are students, too.



Friday, January 29, 2016

Outside Jew

When people ask me where I live, I say "South Williamsburg."  Then, inevitably, in an inept and snobbish attempt to distinguish my neighborhood from Fancy Williamsburg, I add: "Where the Jews live."

Then I get even more awkward, usually because of the startled look on my conversation partner's face.  What follows is an increasingly ridiculous and offensive ramble:

"The Hasids!" I blurt.  "I'm Jewish.  Well, half Jewish.  But I live in a super Hasidic neighborhood.  They hate me because I'm the wrong kind of Jew.  But not all Hasids feel like that -- just the Satmar, that's one of the sects, Hasidism has sects.  I mean, sects, like sect.  Not sex.  Anyway, that's the sect that lives in my neighborhood.  And maybe they don't even hate me, I mean, I just feel like they know that I'm Jewish and I have tattoos so that I can't be buried in Jewish cemetery, I guess?  Anyway, those Jews.  I guess I also live where other kinds of Jews live, because I'm Jewish, so wherever I live is where Jews live?  But, um, anyway, HASIDS."

At this point, the person I'm talking to inevitably does one of the following things:

a)  nods slowly with a bemused look on her face and gives me a moment to collect myself,
b)  asks what I mean about the sects,
c)  or makes a vaguely anti-Semitic comment.

It's that last one that haunts me.  Every time I mention the Satmars, I feel as if I'm tacitly welcoming anti-Semitism into the conversation.  I say things about them that generalize in a way that I would never, ever accept in a conversation about any another ethnic group. 

Example:  as you may have heard, there was a blizzard in New York on Saturday.  The side streets in South Williamsburg were not plowed until 3:00 a.m. Monday morning.  Sunday was a study in Hasids vs. snow, as minivan after minivan squealed to a halt in the middle of the road, blocking traffic until Hasids and volunteers from the Spanish church across the road combined forces to dig out the stranded vehicles.

Here are ways that I did not tell this story at work the next morning, but wanted to:

"And of COURSE they all have minivans, because they each have a billion children."
"They cannot drive, like, at ALL."
"I hope from now on they're nicer to the people of color in our neighborhood.  They're generally hecka racist."

Why do I think about them this way -- and why do I sometimes slip up and talk about them this way?  Because I'm sort of Jewish, and it seems like I'm "allowed"?  When I'm around other Jews, all I have to do is mention the Satmar and we're instantly on the same page.  There's the same wary thread running through the conversation every time: 

1)  These people are crazy, and
2)  They make people anti-Semitic,
3)  Which makes us nervous because people see them and think that that's what a Jew is,
4)  But for real, they're CRAZY, right?
5)  But what can you do?

And that's the thing:  Every now and then, when I say this stuff around non-Jews, the conversation can get anti-Semitic fast.  Then I scramble to distinguish myself from "those" Jews -- I talk about how they wouldn't even accept me as Jewish, how they sort of maybe thought that Hitler was sent from God to punish the Jews for assimilation and Zionism, how they're trying to repopulate the Jewish people after the Holocaust, or how I've heard that the incidence of domestic violence in the community is alarmingly high.  I don't really have sources for these factoids -- I've done my Wikipedia research, read Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman, and have a friend of a friend who works at a domestic violence hotline, but I wouldn't take any of that evidence to court. 

Still, I assure the people I'm talking to, "they're not normal Jews.  That's not normal."

Therein lies my true hypocrisy:  I'm hardly a "normal" Jew either, if there even is such a thing.  My mother is Jewish, but my father isn't; I grew up in a tiny Ohio town and was raised in a casually agnostic household; I didn't know how to pronounce "Rosh Hashanah" until I was in college.  I've been to a few Passover seders -- and led one, nervously, but at a space-themed evening where everything was covered in tin foil.  I've been to services exactly twice.  I had latkes for the first time when I was in high school.  It would be fair to say that I am neither religiously nor culturally Jewish.

And I have so desperately wanted to be Jewish, all these years; I want the sense of belonging, of history, of flamboyant grit in the face of persecution.  I cling to sayings like "a Jew believes in one or fewer gods," and the stubborn Jewish abhorrence of dogma.  I know a lot about Jewish history; when people ask if I had a specialty in my history major, I tell them that I largely took classes related to "secular Jewish history at the turn of the century," and that leaves out the classes I took on Jewish theology and time I spent studying the Jewish community of Thessaloniki.

I am an outside Jew: that is, both an outsider to the Jewish community and a Jew on the outside, but not the inside.  I'll say, tentatively, to a Jewish friend:  "My grandfather sat down with my mother and told her, 'it doesn't matter if there's a god.  It matters that you live your life in the best possible way, and you should do that without thought of future reward.'  That's kind of a Jewish idea, right?" 

Or I'll say, "I've always thought that the ultimate thing Jews believe in is argument -- the importance of argument, I mean.  Do you think... is that what you think?"

If they say yes, I belong.  This is important.

My confused reaction to the Satmar in my neighborhood is largely a result of my own insecurities.  I imagine that they hate me for being "the wrong kind of Jew" because I am desperate for them to recognize me as any kind of Jew.  Simultaneously, I reject them and separate them -- en masse! -- from myself because they live a form of Judaism that makes me not want to be Jewish, and that is a very strange place for my head to be.

I don't know how to reconcile all this, and I don't know how to end this post.  Because even though I know how much all of these feelings stem from me, there's still an angry little voice in my head that says, "but they are usually terrible drivers, and the women have to shave their heads when they get married, which for some reason bothers me in a way that the hijab does not, and most of them won't look me in the eye, like I'm not even a person, and also they are often really really racist."

And those things are true.  But it's not how I want to end.

So maybe I'll leave you with this: 

A few months ago, I was walking home from work during a brutal rainstorm.  It was dark out, and I was playing the "don't fall in a puddle" game at which I am so often a failure, as a Satmar father and his daughter walked towards me, heads bent against the wind.  All of a sudden, a gust whipped the girl's pink umbrella out of her hand -- it popped inside out and then flew into the street.  The girl shrieked, and the father ran into the street to fetch the umbrella.  Every time he reached it, the wind blew it just out of his reach until his daughter's screeches had turned from dismay to laughter, and he was laughing also, shouting with triumph as he finally caught the umbrella -- tiny, pink, frilly, ridiculous and precious against his sober black coat -- flipped it so that it was right side out, and returned it to his daughter's joyful hand.

Friday, December 25, 2015


If you know me, you probably know that Christmas Eve is one of my favorite days of the year.  No, there's no orgy of wrapping paper and gifts, no roast beast -- and no, I'm not even Christian.  But I love tradition and I love family and I love anticipation, and on Christmas Eve I get all three:  decorating the tree, finishing the advent calendar that my grandfather carved decades ago (a small bronze cast of Notre Dame rotates in and out of ultimate spot), helping my mother cook, watching the cats try to outsmart the Christmas tree, and most of all, listening to the King's College Choir's set of Lessons and Carols.

If my family feels holy about anything, it is architecture and music.

And yet -- it is Christmas Day and I'm still in New York City, lying in my bed and writing this blog post.  At 8:00 a.m. on the 23rd, I sent my parents and sister a gleeful email saying, essentially, "I'll be home in a little over twenty-four hours!  STAR WARS!!!"

(I've seen Star Wars.  I'm still excited about it, though -- you know, in general.)

I should have known better than to tempt fate.  It's a tale as old as time:  I taught all day on the 23rd and couldn't get out of the city earlier, my flight was cancelled because of weather and all the other flights to Cleveland were overbooked, and the earliest they could get me to Cleveland would be Dec. 25 at 7:30 p.m., but they recommended that I show up at LaGuardia on the 24th to go on standby for some other flights just in case.

When they called to tell me my flight was cancelled on the night of the 23rd, I sat in my bedroom and wept big fat tears for about half an hour.  I'd miss everything, and not just Christmas Eve; I'd miss the family viewing of A New Hope, opening presents, Christmas breakfast, Christmas dinner -- all of it.  I'd have one fewer day with my parents. 

(And it's not like it's been the easiest week -- for example, on Monday I had to go to the doctor because my sinus infection had travelled into my eye.  Yeah.  That's a thing that can happen.)

I felt wrecked, and I felt guilty that I felt wrecked, because honestly, not being able to go home for Christmas is a pretty common problem and I am privileged to have a family to go home to in the first place.  During my bout of weeping, I emailed a dear friend and received her reply:  It's okay to be upset.  Go drink some wine.  Good luck tomorrow. 

I started to breathe again.

So, friends: I spent Christmas Eve at LaGuardia airport.  I arrived there at 5:30 a.m., was at the top of all waiting lists, and got onto zero flights. 

And the thing is, I wasn't alone.  People who were actually technically on the coveted flights were bounced off of them because of overbooking.  There were other people whose flights had been cancelled the day before, and there were groups of friends who were separated because of it.  We hung about gate C4 like hungry ghosts, waiting without hope but with a gaunt, hollow-eyed need: to go home, to be with family, to eat something other than Au Bon Pain or Auntie Anne's, to not be at gate C4.

(I do not recommend flying American Airlines at the holidays, by the way.)

The thing is, it wasn't a terrible experience for me to have right then.  Ridiculous as it sounds, I think I went through all five stages of grief while I was sitting there at good old gate C4.  I spent some time wondering if this was all karmic retribution -- for not giving money to the homeless woman, for not holding the elevator.  I found myself getting both vocal and irritable with the people who were complaining about their flights being delayed for an hour (being a teacher means that you get way too comfortable chastising people you don't know very well).  At one point, when I realized that I wasn't going to make a flight, I wept again -- silently, staring straight ahead at the plane through the gate window.

But as I witnessed the dilemmas of my fellow hungry ghosts, I began to realize how incredibly lucky I am.  I'm lucky to have a family to go home to, yes, and I'm lucky for all the normal things one is always lucky for, but more:  I'm lucky that I saw my family at Thanksgiving.  I'm lucky to have a family that is small enough and flexible enough to pause time and move Christmas Eve to the 25th and Christmas Day to the 26th.  I'm lucky to have been traveling by myself, and not have to navigate another person's stress as well as my own.  I'm lucky to have been able to afford the cab fare to and from LaGuardia, no matter how fruitless my errand was.  I'm lucky that my roommate is staying in town and that her friend is visiting and that I wasn't going back to an empty apartment, and I'm tremendously lucky that in that moment they were (without my knowledge) shopping at Fairway for the ingredients to a Make Becca Happy dinner in preparation for my probable return from the airport.

At a certain point, fed up with the world around me, I downloaded King's College Choir to my phone, put on my headphones, and pushed play.  The opening soprano notes of "Once In Royal David's City"
washed over me, and I realized -- in a true, gut-feeling way, with no sense of obligation or guilt -- this is okay.  This is going to be okay.  Music is still holy, and friends can be family, and oh, it tugs at me that I'm losing a day and a half with my parents, but I have a confirmed flight to Cleveland tonight, and outside my bedroom right now I can hear my roommate and her friend making coffee and breakfast. 

I'm going to go out there now.  And as my student would say -- Merry Holidays, everyone.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Today is the first time in two years that I've had an end-of-marking-period "afterschool," in which I stay after school (duh doi) with kids so that they can do work.  Traditionally during these things, I tell the kids I can stay until the custodians set the alarm.  In Federal Way, that was 10 p.m., though I never had a kid stay that late; I think the latest was around 8:30.  Here, the alarm is set at 6 p.m., so I'm staying two days in a row to make up for it: today and tomorrow.

Because afterschool always comes near the end of the marking period, it coincides with me being ridiculously stressed out.  I dread it a little bit the day before it happens.  After all, here I am, trying to figure out kids' grades, drowning in paperwork, unsure what I'm teaching the next day, and totally unable to get work done while kids are actually in the room, so why am I taking valuable time away from my life?  Don't I need this time for, you know, EVERYTHING?

(And it's not like I can use afterschool for doing any of this stuff.  "Why don't you just grade while we're in here?" a girl once asked, to which I responded, "Do you actually want me to grade your work when I'm this distracted?  Because I don't think you do.")

Friday, September 25, 2015

Kids These Days

"So," says the bartender/airport check-in lady/person waiting in line with you, as soon as they find out that you're a high school teacher: "What are they like?  Kids these days?"

They always give an ironic little smirk when they're saying it -- as if to proclaim their awareness of the innate ridiculousness of the phrase, to insist that they're not like the fuddy-duddies who they imagine are the ones usually asking this question.

Still, it's barely a question.  They already know their answer.