How I Came to Own Three Typewriters in a Span of 48 Hours

July 11, 2024 Northfield, MN

It started, like many good/bad ideas, with falling down an internet rabbit hole. Early last school year, we misplaced one of Everett’s favorite toys, a basket of magnet tiles. Shortly before returning to the US for the summer, I started researching buying replacements. New, they are quite expensive. David suggested I check out the Goodwill website. Lo and behold, Goodwill has two websites: one with auctions, like Ebay, and one where you can buy things outright. It became clear to me that when Goodwill got especially nice items donated, rather than putting them in that store, they put them up online to catch some niche buyers. I found the magnet tiles on the auction site and put in my bid.

This is when a question popped into my head: what other stuff is for sale on this Goodwill site? I’m not sure if I saw it listed or the idea just occurred to me, but there it was: typewriters.

As you may have guessed, the site was in fact full of typewriters. Now began the problem of not really knowing what I was looking for. Enter YouTube and Reddit. I discovered a couple of great accounts that highlighted features of different typewriters and showed how to clean and repair them. A spreadsheet began, because of course it did. I was finding it hard to keep all the different makes and models in my head. One YouTuber I especially liked, Just My Typewriter, had a few suggestions for your first typewriter. She suggested getting a Smith Corona from the 50s or 60s. Other sites and many YouTubers agreed that the Olivetti Lettera 32 is one is of the best. Those were running between $200 and $300 online and there were none available on Goodwill.  The Hermes 3000 is a darling of many writers, but on Etsy or Ebay, those were often selling for $400 or $500, and when they appeared on Goodwill, they were around that price as well or with significant damage. 

I decided to put in a bid on an Olympia B12 typewriter from the 70s. I soon realized that online auctions are complicated. The serious bidders wait until the last few minutes and seconds of the auction to sneak a final bid in at the end that beats the high bidder by a dollar, without time for that previous high bidder having a chance to counterbid.  At first, I was perplexed by these maneuvers. Why not just bid early, and put in the max bid at the most you would be willing to spend? That’s what I did, but someone waited until the final minutes and bid 50 cents more than me to win. (Your max bid is secret, but other bidders put in $1 increments until they find your maximum and exceed it by $1.)

Unless I somehow made a max bid that was ridiculous, I didn’t really have a chance of winning. I’d have to set an alarm for the last 5 minutes of the auction and play their outbidding game. 

I turned to the other Goodwill site. No competition, no alarms set for the final minutes. I could browse and research. I narrowed it down to a Smith Corona and a Sears Malibu. The Smith Corona was a Silent model from the 1950s. The photos looked good. The keys looked good, the body didn’t have any visible damage.

The Sears Malibu was a quirky choice. The Sears Malibu is a late 60s early 70s machine made in two shades of blue. It had some plastic body elements which many people online pooh poohed. I didn’t really have an opposition to the plastic. Sears also made a green and orange model that were similar but with different model names, Chevron and Newport. A redditor referred to them as being like Pokemon cards–collect them all! The Sears Malibu didn’t have as much of a presence on YouTube or the internet as a whole. There was one pretty scathing review on a typewriter website, but it felt like a personal vendetta, if such a thing is possible against a typewriter, lol.  TypewriterMinutes had a review of the green Sears Chevron model and it looked interesting to me.

The Smith Corona was $99, which felt reasonable based on my research, but the Goodwill listing didn’t have much info about its condition or functionality. I could maybe try to win an auction for one and pay less, but that was no guarantee, and I could use up a lot of time trying to do that. The Malibu was only $55, and was on sale. I am such a sucker for a sale, even 5% off on a Goodwill typewriter. I left both typewriters in my cart for a day to ponder which to buy. 

Reader, I bought them both.

Listen, it was the end of the school year. I was stressed. I was tired. I have no regrets.

I had both machines sent to my sister in law in Minnesota. But I still had 2 weeks until we flew back. I will admit that I got antsy. I continued to watch videos and read articles. Again and again the Lettera 32 was mentioned. Cormac McCarthy apparently wrote his novels on a Lettera 32. In the process of my research, I learned that the Italian designed typewriter was made in a variety of countries, and quite popular in many Latin American countries, including, drum roll, Brazil. One person even mentioned that the Mexico- and Brazil-made machines were desirable because they could make all of the diacritics and accent marks.

I hopped on over to Mercado Livre, a website in Brazil that bears some resemblance to Amazon, but with more independent sellers. More of the products you might expect on Ebay, but without the auctions. Whoo boy, there were a lot of Olivetti Lettera 32s for sale. Whereas many Lettere 32s will sell for $200-300 in the US, I found ones in pretty good condition for about $60-75. I looked at lots of pictures, and I specifically looked for the little screws that affix the ribbon spools on Lettera 32, which can easily get lost. I also wanted to see if I could find a seller with a bunch of typewriters, which could indicate that they knew the product they were selling. I found a seller who appeared to be the online platform for an antiques shop. I found a Lettera 32 that looked undamaged and I sent the seller a message: Does it type? Does the carriage advance? Do all the keys work?

The seller replied yes and I placed my order. It arrived a few days later. (Based on the serial number checked against the Typewriter Database, it was made in 1965 in Mexico.)

I loaded up the paper and started clacking away. The ribbon was totally dry, which wasn’t a surprise, but the keys all worked and the carriage advanced. 

The one thing that wasn’t working wes the bell. Tragedy!

The charm of a typewriter lies in (among other things) the bell. I went back to YouTube and watched tutorials about how to fix a bell. I ordered mineral spirits and sewing machine oil. These, along with the compressed air cans we already had, were the main tools for cleaning, degreasing and then oiling a typewriter. I watched videos on how to disassemble the typewriter  and I got to work. I blew out all the dust and used a paintbrush to help. Then I used the mineral spirits to clean out the inside.

I found the bell in the back of the innards. I played around with it and realized that the dinger arm was resting on the bell. When the machine raised and dropped the dinger, it was dampening the sound.

It wasn’t a problem of gunk or goo, which the mineral spirits would have fixed, so I realized it was a mechanical problem. I needed to bend the arm so that after striking the bell, it was hovering above the bell, not resting against it. Going slowly and carefully, I bent the dinger arm upwards. Very quickly, the bell began to ding! 

The feeling of victory that accompanied fixing that bell was euphoric.

I ordered a new Olivetti ribbon. Olivetti uses a proprietary ribbon spool, but I was easily able to buy an Olivetti branded set of spools with fresh ribbon. After installing the ribbon, I realized that when I wrote, the spools weren’t spinning the way they were supposed to. I found that the screws on the spools were too high and were touching the cover and getting stuck. Even though they were Olivetti spools, they appeared to be too tall. With no other buying options, I would have to wait for the US. If I popped the ribbon cover open a little while I typed, they moved perfectly.

When I landed in the US, I bought  my mineral spirits and sewing machine oil. I started on the Sears Malibu. (The Typewriter Database is not as fleshed out with these machines, but it is probably 1969 or 1970, but it could be later in the 70s.)

I rewatched the TypewriterMinutes video about the green Sears Newport, and learned how to disassemble it. I took it apart and followed the steps: blow out the dirt and dust with the compressed air and a paintbrush, squirt mineral spirits on the interior metal parts, using Q-tips and paper towels to remove the old gunk and grease, then small drops of machine oil on the moving parts.

When I put the whole thing back together, it was working nicely except for the ribbon reverse system. To try to explain what this is, the ribbon is on two spools.  As you type, the ribbon inches from one spool to the other.  Many machines have an automatic system for switching the ribbon from winding in one direction to winding in the other direction.  On my Malibu, both of the spools were pulling simultaneously in opposite directions, rather than one side disengaging and the other spool pulling. I worked and worked on it, even enlisting the help of my 11 year old niece. I couldn’t get it to work.

Then camp and a beach trip came, so I put the typewriter under the bed and tried not to think about it. Once back from our trips, I went to work on the Smith Corona. (Based on its serial number, it was made in 1951.)

Before the cleaning, it had been skipping and adding in extra spaces in the middle of words. (Matilda tried to write a letter to her friend and cried real tears when it kept skipping and adding spaces) The mechanism that advances forward, called the escapement, may have had some junk or debris stuck in it. This typewriter was in good shape, but the eraser bits all in the machine led me to believe it was well loved and frequently used. Extra mineral spirits and air did the trick.

With another successful repair under my belt, I decided maybe it was time to take another look at the Malibu. I watched a couple of videos by Joe Van Cleave, focusing on the different types of ribbon reverse systems. It appeared that no matter the system, there was some kind of click when the ribbon reversed and the system would be the latched. My Malibu did not have any click, it just sort of flopped back and forth. On this second look, I leaned closer and saw a little metal arm pulled away from the ribbon reverse system. When l pressed it down, it landed perfectly on the ribbon reverse mechanism. When I flipped the ribbon forks back and forth, there was the click! I took off the left side of the body and pushed the arm down until it held the ribbon system steady. It worked. Again, I felt so triumphant. What a thrill.

Here’s where I get a little philosophical. As a teacher, change can be slow in my students. There’s not always an easy fix, and learning takes time to get into our long term memory. That’s not a complaint, but it means that frustration is a normal part of my day to day. Maybe that is why fixing a typewriter feels so good. I also love that mechanical typewriters can be fixed mechanically.  Then again, maybe my satisfaction in working on those machines has nothing to do with being a teacher, and it is human to like that feeling.

Last night, I said to David that I wanted to buy another typewriter. He responded, “First, you have to type something.”

Touché, my friend. So here I am. I sat down after breakfast and composed the first draft of this blog post on my Smith Corona Silent.

Some initial reflections on writing long form on a typewriter: it’s a very physical thing to type on a typewriter, akin to playing an instrument. You really have to work your fingers. Because of this, you have to go a bit slower, which I like. You also can’t delete, obviously. But is it so obvious? We spend our whole day with backspace and autocorrect and, in some cases, Al to fix and enhance our writing. On this machine, my mistakes are immediate and visible. So, I have to make some decisions.  Will I go back and x out the mistakes and rewrite the intended word? Will I just keep going and fix it later? I’ve also started using a pen to make corrections and additions above the line. (This is why I decided to type with 1.5 line spacing.) I’m not a perfectionist, but it is still a good exercise in deciding what to sweat and what to let go.

There is also the benefit of being disconnected from not only the Internet but electricity. I can’t click away and see what’s happening on a celebrity gossip site or the New York Times . I’m not an incredibly distractible person, but I’m human. I would definitely say that I am more immersed in the writing when I am composing on the typewriter.

I’m learning, however, that there are some words I don’t know how to spell! Occurred. I think that’s right, but maybe it is only 1 r? Distractable? Distractible? Destractable? Destractible? I really can’t tell. I might seriously make myself a little spelling list on a notecard to set next to the typewriter.

I also find myself wanting to go back and make revisions. I knew as I was writing about the repair process that I was getting too long winded and that my audience wouldn’t sustain their engagement for that long. But what can I do? I guess I could just stop mid-sentence and make a note to myself. I opted to just commit, knowing that I will shorten and condense those parts later.

Mabe you, like my son Calvin, are wondering how I got the blog post off the paper and onto the World Wide Web. David used the Android Google Drive app to scan the pages and then convert them to a PDF. I downloaded the PDF and then used Preview on my laptop to highlight and copy and paste the text into a Google Doc.  One problem is that the formatting was a bit odd.  All of my line breaks were maintained.  That means that my paragraphs looked weird on the Doc.  I installed an extension aptly called Remove Line Breaks.  I learned that I should use a blank line between paragraphs rather than an indention.  Once the formatting was okay, I revised and proofread. 

Was this whole process more work? Yes. But I am starting to think it is less overall. How much time do I lose to internet time wasting? What’s the mental cost of flicking back and forth between windows and tabs and devices? There’s slow food, why not slow writing?

And here I will end. Perhaps I will come up with a snappier, more satisfying ending in “post”. My fingers definitely need a rest and I think I’ve earned to spend a few minutes browsing the Goodwill site for a new typewriter 😉

(Curious what the original types pages look like? Here’s a PDF of the original.)


Why I Secretly Like Writing Report Card Comments, or, Why I Don’t Use AI to Write My Report Card Comments

I am wordy. There’s not denying it. I am rarely at a loss for words, words flow from me, words are my artistic medium. This is what I usually tell people when I admit to them that I like writing report card comments.

To be fair, writing 75-85 short paragraphs isn’t easy, and it can feel like Groundhog Day to keep churning out a repeated comment structure that has some repetitiveness to it. Despite all this, I do like writing them.

First, report card comments have a real audience. We talk all the time about giving students authentic audiences for their work, and any of us who have had our students share their writing with families, a writing competition, or the community, you can attest that the writing is better when real eyeballs other than yours are on it. I’d argue the writing is better because the students engage with it more. They care.

Thus it is for me. I care when I write these comments. I know that as a parent, I read my own kids’ comments very closely, often two or three times. I can assume that my students’ parents are also reading them like this.

Of course, some may be thinking that not every parent is reading the comments that closely, if at all. But the chance that even a handful of parents read them makes them meaningful. I also don’t have any reason not to believe that parents who don’t read the comments are the exception, not the rule. At the lunch table yesterday, more than one teacher told the story of a parent quoting their report card comment back to the teacher in a conference.

I also don’t often get the opportunity to talk about a kid like this, in a written form, without interruption. Most times when we talk about kids, it’s a conversation, or perhaps an email, with interruptions and back and forths. But report card comments are my chance to boil down my thoughts and impressions of a kid and their work into an uninterrupted little nugget of text. There’s room for me to think, write, re-read, and revise. I would liken report card comments to a thank you card or a note delivered to someone on a special occasion. Those are meaningful notes, and they usually contain the kinds of things that don’t get said on a daily basis.

My comment writing process is my own, and I know every teacher has one. My husband, David, writes the rough and the final draft all in one go. He doesn’t stand up from the computer until the kid’s comment is done, perfect and ready to be turned in. I, on the other hand, write a messy first draft in a tornado of key strokes. I sit down and compose wildly, without re-reading. Of course, I have a rough structure that I use for each comment, so it’s not a total chaotic mess. I also write with correct grammar, spelling and punctuation in the first draft. Typos will inevitably slip in, but it’s not an untamed mess.

Then, I let the comments go cold, which is writer speak for I don’t look at them for a day or two. Then, I re-read. I can usually spot any problems right away. If I can, I take another break from them and then return to paste them into our online gradebook system. That’s my last chance to read each one over and make sure the tone is right and no mistakes lingered.

I often take things away in the final re-read and paste. I usually have a line with a bit too much emotion that doesn’t belong. I let myself keep it in the early drafts as a little gift to myself. I can usually tell on that third re-read if the wording is off or I’m straying from the objective and constructive. To err is human.

Just yesterday I submitted final report card comments for 72 students, totally 7,943 words. And I wrote every single one of those words. I did not use predictive text, AI, chatbots, or Grammarly. I didn’t even use a comment bank. I wrote and revised each of those 7,943 words with no more than spellcheck.

This year, I had to refer 6 students to our administration for academic dishonesty, specifically for using AI to write part or all of an assignments for them. The consequences were wide-ranging based on how many times the student has plagiarized in the past, but some of the consequences were severe and had a real impact on their educational trajectory.

To me, my statement about my own comment writing and the students I have caught using AI are of a piece. It’s been a rough year for cheating and academic dishonesty. I’ve spent hours documenting and investigating what a student did, using Chrome attachments that can play a document history like a movie, AI checkers, TurnItIn reports, and good old fashioned “this doesn’t sound like a 17 year old wrote it.” I’ve sat down for conversations where I had to ask a student to explain very sophisticated vocabulary or a reference that I’ve never seen a high school student use.

It’s been demoralizing. It undermines not only the educational goals of the classes I teach, but it also touches on some core beliefs I have as a person about the power of writing, of voice, of expression.

So how could I ask a robot to write a comment about a kid I spent the last 10 months with? How could a Large Language Model understand the challenges a kid faced as a second language learner, or the anxiety a junior felt in an individual oral exam, or the way a freshmen dug deep into an academic journal article about Plato’s Symposium? What does a bot know of joy, triumph, frustration, or tears?

I can hear Taylor Mali telling me what teachers “make” in my head right now, “I can make a C+ feel like a congressional medal of honor and I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face.” Has Gemini or QuillBot ever spent an afternoon extra help session helping a kid identify personification, symbols, metaphors? Sure, it can scrape the internet for other writers’ ideas about poetic devices, but has it sat and read Juliet’s soliloquy before her suicide, in a room full of teenagers, and sifted through the iambic pentameter to find how odd and thrilling it is to contemplate her use of the word “rust” as she uses an apostrophe to speak to the dagger she will plunge into her chest: “there rust and let me die”? Has ChatGPT listened as your teacher tells you that until the 20th century there was a censoring of that word rust. The Victorians found it too graphic for a lady, so they changed it to “rest” and that revision of Shakespeare lasted until the 1960’s, when scholars decided to restore the original word, discomfort and grotesque imagery and all. And how when this teacher went home from college after the Shakespeare course she took, she found her mother’s old college copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare on the shelf, fanned through the collected works to find Juliet in Act 5, and there, would you believe it, is Juliet telling the dagger to calmly “rest” in her chest. And isn’t that just a moment to pause and think about the power of the original words. The power of the choice that Shakespeare made, even if it’s odd or perplexing (does she imagine her hot blood will rust the dagger, or that the dagger will stay in her chest for eternity?), but that is what Shakespeare intended. And Shakespeare, like all of us, was just a human being–a talented human being, but a quirky, imperfect one even still.

I know that AI is alluring. Even just to plug in your first draft, as I had students do this year, into a bot that can correct your grammar, smooth out your word choice, and amp up your sentence construction. No more agonizing over where to put the period, or if (gasp!) perhaps a semi-colon is needed, if you can manage to remember the rules for using a semicolon. Writing is hard. And the world is judging your writing. You just want it to look and sound good. Short cuts can sound appealing when the work is hard and the pressure is on.

Let’s put it another way. Would I want my child’s teacher to use AI to write my child’s comments? Would I want to read that? The simple answer is no. Ezra Klein, the writer and host of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, has described it as a lack of friction. When he writes to a friend, a real human, there’s friction. He wants the person he is writing to to like him. To think he’s witty, or funny, or interesting. He is invested in what that person thinks of him. He’s tried to create bots that he can converse with and he said he usually ends up dropping the conversation because there’s no friction. There’s no person on the other end to be invested in. (Listen to a brilliant conversation about this here.) If my children’s comments were written by a bot, would I want to read them? What is real there? What is it actually telling me about my child? Something generic that could be said about any 4th or 6th grader? I know what the generic child of that age is like. I want to know what it’s been like to teach my child.

Or, perhaps, consider if your current employer wrote a letter of reference for you using AI. Would you want that letter? When this question has been posed to me and other teachers, the answer is a pretty quick no. I wonder what answer I would get if I asked a student who plagiarized using ChatGPT that same question. Would you be okay if I wrote your college recommendation letter using a bot? I’m not sure what their answer would be, and I’m afraid to ask. Perhaps all they care about is getting admitted, because they’ve been trained to place their entire sense of self worth in their college acceptances. Maybe the scenario I offer is a speech at their wedding in some imagined future. Would you be okay if your best friend got up to give a toast about you and they hadn’t written it themselves?

What am I doing here? If I used AI to do my writing, what is this job I’ve devoted my life to? If it isn’t about working with kids and teaching them to express themselves, what’s the point? I didn’t become a teacher to teach kids to sit in a room and prompt a Large Language Model to give them work that will be grammatically and technically perfect, but devoid of any real thought or experience.

But the time! The time! It saves so much time! You know what would also save me time writing comments? Not being a teacher. I would have 100% of my comment writing time back. I would have zero minutes of teaching another human to use a comma after starting a sentence with a subordinating conjunction. I would spend no time of my day explaining how sentence variety is like different parts of the song that keep your piece from feeling repetitive and mind-numbing. I could leave teaching! I have colleagues who are choosing to change careers.

There’s another angle that is maybe too far, but maybe just right. I don’t think I need to collaborate with the bots in my own obsolescence. By that, I mean that I don’t need to embrace technology that some are already arguing will eventually replace me. Remember when American jobs were getting “outsourced” and “off-shored” to low-paid workers in other countries, and they made the people getting fired train their replacements? That’s depressing. Do I have to go along with it, just because it’s here? Do I really need to “get with it” and “be cool” and embrace it? Kids are vaping a lot too, should we just give them a room where they can do it so they don’t hide in the bathrooms? Okay, maybe that’s a false equivalency.

Why am I here if kids are just going to have AI barf up some amalgamation of an Internet’s worth of words by real people, both paid and unpaid, who struggled through the writing process? Am I training highway robbers or thinkers? Am I training lip-syncers or composers? I have no interest in training copy-pasters. If there’s one thing that makes me seriously think about leaving the field, it’s AI. And I say that with a pang of absolute despair in my chest. Absolute despair. I love this job. I’ve worked so hard for the last 17 years of teaching and 2 years of graduate school before that to be good at this job.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but for now, I will be writing my own comments. What is more worthy of my time and effort, than to write a little note for parents about the child they love, that is aging and growing away from them with every passing day? What is more worthy of my time and effort, than leaving students with a final thought, a word of encouragement, a declaration of admiration and respect for the 180 days they have just spent with me?

Happy comment writing, y’all.


It’s a (Christmas) (New Years) (Valentine’s) (St. Patrick’s) Easter Family Update

If you are a teacher, and you manage to get out a family letter or holiday card, I salute you. I cannot. School lets out in December and I collapse. I’ve just written 85 report card comments and graded a ridiculous pile of essays.

That doesn’t mean I don’t feel some guilt and write it in my head. So here is my Easter update on the Griswold family.

As you may remember, after 5 years teaching middle school humanities, I have moved back to high school English. (Before coming to Graded, I taught HS English in Nashville for 7 years.) It’s been a great change for me. The most important thing a teacher can do is recognize when they need change.

Like teaching any new class, it has kicked my butt in the best of ways. I’ve felt really stimulated and energized by my new teaching teams. I’ve enjoyed reading and teaching new novels. And I am again delighted by high school students. If you are tired of the age group you teach, go check out another one. They have different problems and different strengths, and it reminds you that change and growth happen and kids aren’t static.

I’m teaching three classes, English 9, IB Language and Literature SL year one, and Theory of Knowledge year 2. 3 preps is hard, but I’m keeping my head above water.

My freshman are currently reading Romeo and Juliet–my heart leaps up. How I’ve missed teaching Shakespeare! My juniors are reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. What a revelation. My TOK students just finished their capstone TOK essay, and it was really awesome to support them through that process.

If there’s a big takeaway for me from this year back in high school, it’s that I love teaching writing. I love pulling beautiful sentences out of the texts we read. I love helping students plan and outline. I love conferencing and reading drafts. I love supporting student writing.

David continues to teach 9th grade math and IB computer science standard level and higher level, year one and two.

Calvin is starting to get into his groove in 6th grade. He is playing the flute in beginning band. Specifically, he is playing the flute I played in middle school and high school that was a gift from my grandfather. It’s really nice to have that instrument passed down through our family. Last semester he grudgingly ran cross country, but this semester he was cast as the Narrator in our school’s production of Into the Woods! He is really enjoying that. The production will be in May, and we are all very excited. I think Matilda and Everett will be able to sing along with every song.

When he’s not in school, Calvin codes, draws, whittles, plays D&D and reads. And antagonizes his siblings.

Matilda is loving 4th grade. She’s in student council and the green club, and she’s doing drama, wall climbing and swim team after school. She loves playing outside after school with her friends in our condominium. She’s at that awesome stage where she is always choreographing dances with her friends and singing in front of the mirror. She’s grown a lot as a reader this year, and is drawn to realistic fiction books that deal with themes of fairness and equity.

Everett is still his quirky oddball self. 1st grade has been an adjustment for our pandemic kid, but he’s growing and maturing. He is currently obsessed with being read chapter books. After exhausting Roald Dahl’s oeuvre, we’ve been reading Kate DiCamillo and are now onto Judy Blume. He still loves all things science and nonfiction. He is often the slowest of the bunch as we walk anywhere because he is examining and collecting dead bugs from the ground. He learned to ride a bike last summer, after years of insisting some kids just don’t learn to ride a bike. Now, he says he most looks forwards to our summers in Minnesota because he can ride his bike in the senior center across the street, making loops around the “road islands”–what Everett calls the raised grass beds in the parking lot.

As for David and I, we are both running and weight training, (David grudgingly weight trains but runs faster than me without really trying–urgh!). David plays Ultimate Frisbee about once a month with some colleagues from school. I am still running a race about once a month. Usually I do a 5K, but occasionally I sign up for a 7K or 8K. David and I are still playing music together occasionally, and now we are often accompanied by at least one kid.

We’ve done a lot of amazing travel over this school year. Over the December-January 6 week break, we went to the Atacama desert in Chile, the Amazon, and David and I took a solo trip to the Mendoza wine region of Argentina. Over Carnaval break in February, we went to the state of Bahia in the Northeast of Brazil to the town of Praia do Forte.

Last summer, we became the owners of the townhouse in Northfield, Minnesota where we have spent the past 5 summers. It belonged to David’s parents, but we bought it from my father-in-law in June of 2023.

What comes next for the Griswold Family Circus in 2024? We fly back to the US in June and all three kids are attending a camp northeast of the Twin Cities. Matilda is doing horse camp and Calvin is doing a teen adventure challenge with a friend from Brazil who now lives in India. Everett is doing a traditional overnight camp for his first sleepaway camp experience. While the kids are off at camp, David and I are going on our own camping trip to the North Shore, specifically to Grand Marais, in northern Minnesota.

We will be doing a trip to the beach in North Carolina to see my side of the family, and we are excited for boogie boarding and hush puppies.

I wish everyone health, happiness, and peace in 2024.

A pause in our hike through the Amazon rainforest
David and I at a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina
A highly salty mountain lake in the Atacama Desert
Mountains in the Atacama desert
Valle del Arcoiris in the Atacama Desert
Mars Valley in the Atacama Desert
Teaching, Writing

When a student uses your favorite obscure rhetorical device

I really enjoyed teaching AP Language and Composition for many reasons–if nothing else, I still think everything is an argument. An advertisement is an argument, a speech is an argument, a letter is an argument, a poem is an argument, a novel is an argument, a painting is an argument…someone stop me. But one nice fringe benefit was learning a lengthy list of rhetorical devices. Some you may recognize: rhetorical question, pathos, oxymoron, but some are more obscure: chiasmus, synecdoche, and metonymy. But my absolute favorite is zeugma (pronounced zoog-mah).

Right off the bat, Zeugma draws the eye down there at the end of the list, and that vowel combo is uncommon. It comes from the Greek word “to yoke” or to link together, and it essentially is when you use one word and apply it in two different uses or senses. If you are a millennial, I can prove to you that you already know a zeugma and make you sing at the same time:

You are the bearer of unconditional things
You held your breath and the door for me
Thanks for your patience

Alanis Morissette

Our Lady of 90s Female Rage Alanis Morissette sang these lyrics in “Head Over Feet”. It’s a bit of a deep cut, but I just earwormed a few of you.

So there are two senses of the word “hold” at play here. Holding the door, which would be using your hand to keep a door open, and then holding your breath, which means to trap air in your lungs.

Another example of zeugma: he stole my heart and my camera. The two senses of stole are yoked together.

So imagine my delight when I open a short story that one of my 9th grade students wrote. It’s vivid, the setting is engaging, and then a character is introduced: “Among the mournful crowd of peasants and soldiers stood a man with a heavy armour and a heavier guilt.

Y’all. I gasped! I don’t know if he knows that what he wrote is a zeugma, or if he did it intentionally. I definitely did not directly teach zeugma. But I love, love, love that he wrote a brilliant one. His sentence is a great demonstration of why I love zeugmas: they surprise and pivot. It’s a little switch that delights the mind. It’s also very tight, in that sense that in just one sentence we can visualize his armor, but we also establish that he’s done something bad. Zeugmas make for zippy plot and characterization. In an assignment that limited them to 1000 words, this was a good technique.

Okay, that’s all. Just wanted to say I am here for all zeugma-related content.


All teachers should teach middle school at least once

A colleague said to me in passing last week, “I’d love to sit down sometime and hear your thoughts on middle school vs. high school.”

(For background, I’ve ping ponged in my career from MS to HS and back. I spent the first 4 years in MS, the next 7 hears in HS, the next 5 in MS and now I’m back in HS.)

I’ve spent a lot of the first quarter thinking about the differences. What I’ve arrived at is that I think all teachers should do a tour of duty in middle school–metaphor completely intentional. For some teachers this would be a joyful home to stay in forever, other teachers would find it challenging. But that is precisely my point: teaching middle school can make you a better teacher, if you don’t run screaming for the hills first.

First, teaching middle school reminds you of the fundamental skills in each discipline. Far from the anxiety and pressures of college and GPA, middle school is a little island of time where it’s a teachers duty to instill a love of their subject. Teaching middle school humanities, sometimes I felt like I was in a friendly competition to get students to like my subject the most. Science really gives us a run for our money.

Truly, though, teaching middle school English is about the wonders of reading and writing. We watch movies in our heads, we compose things that make other people feel something. What a gift! Teaching middle school you will be reminded about what really is at the heart of your subject, and probably what drew you to loving that subject in the first place.

Next, you can’t be sloppy or unprepared in middle school. They will eat you. Ha, I kid. But you will feel like you’ve been eaten. Middle school students are honest and they also don’t have a lot of self control to spare. So if something is confusing, illogical, rushed, incomplete–they will smell it and let you know. Sometimes they will raise their hand and tell you it doesn’t make sense, but more often then not, they will begin to roll across the floor, do a handstand, cut pencils in half, or make strange bird calls. This is your sign. You must right the ship immediately.

You better have all those photocopies made. You have to get the desks pre-arranged. Doing a group activity? Pre-sort and number the materials. If you lose time trying to sort things or arrange the room during the first 5 minutes, pandemonium will ensue. By contrast, in the high school I share rooms, and I often arrive to a desk arrangement that I need changed. I simply project the seating arrangement on the board, the 9th graders move the desks and then sit, ready to learn. If you’ve never taught middle school, asking them to rearrange the desks is disastrous. They will build them into a pyramid and then begin launching themselves at the ceiling. I kid, sort of.

When I began my last 5 year stint in middle school, in the first semester I went and talked to lower school teachers about transitions. I would transition from a minilesson at the front to independent work time at desks. Except it wasn’t a transition, more like it was a bunch of molecules firing off into infinite entropy. I was completely losing them in the transitions and I couldn’t reel them back in or get them to be productive after the transitions.

I learned that you keep those transitions tight, the instructions clear. If you can introduce a timer or a competition of some sort, even better. No dead air, no breaks, no loose ends. A well-choreographed dance.

If the instructions aren’t written in addition to being spoken, forget it. Make sure there are posters around the room with the concepts you’ve been teaching. Yes, you’ve told them the website for printing 16 times and asked them to bookmark it. They did not bookmark it. Put it on a poster and just point at the wall. Middle school students are easily distracted. They can miss instructions because a cool bird was outside, or their thumb nail is a weird shape. They are like smaller children in that way. While high school students may not need so many reminders, I’ve found they really appreciate the posters around the room that they can consult. High school students often have questions about the instructions, but they might be too shy or self conscious to ask, so putting them on the board is helpful.

In middle school, the attention clock is ticking down so fast. Give instructions efficiently and get them working as quick as you can. They cannot sit through 25 minutes of instructions and explanation. Spend 5 or 10, then get them working and address questions as they come. Middle school students often can’t envision an activity until they are doing it, so if you let them ask endless questions, they can can caught in the bog. Give instructions verbally, project the instructions on the board, and send them off, ideally with a timer or a ticking bomb or some kind of fun device to get them working.

Even though high schoolers have longer attention spans, they also don’t love endless instructions. They also appreciate getting to the work quickly.

In middle school, you need to save middle school students from themselves. I learned very quickly that if they are working on computers, they need to turn so that their screen is facing me. They don’t have the self control to resist games, YouTube, whatever is currently obsessing them. Are middle school students starting to sound like manic squirrels? Yeah, that’s not too far off. But as soon as they know you are watching, and you’ve told them three times to stop playing Fortnite, they get down to work.

Turns out that high school students might be more tech savvy, more mature, but they also need to be saved from themselves, technologically or otherwise.

Middle school students make you realize that if things don’t go super well, it’s probably your fault. Sorry to break this to you, but middle school students are basically doing the best they can, and if that lesson didn’t fly, you need to rethink the way you did it. In high school, it can sometimes be easy to shift the blame to the students. That sounds harsh and judgy, but I don’t mean it that way. Yes, high school students can be held to a higher standard, but it’s worth reflecting on how you as a teacher could have done things differently.

I shouldn’t let you walk away from this believing that middle school is just a post-apocalyptic wasteland with more hormones in the air than oxygen. When things go well, students will tell you both with their words and their engagement. They will hug you spontaneously, they will tell you that they really loved your class. The highs are high! And this will give you the feedback you need to find what works.

The growth is huge in middle school. The leaps can be impressive and the victory dances are joyful and unbridled. It’s a heady place to teach, middle school. And while I knew I needed a break, there are so many powerful teaching practices that I carry with me.


Remembering Kathryn Griswold

When my mother-in-law’s health began declining in April, I started writing my feelings down. I continued to work on what I’d written right up to her funeral. As per Kathryn’s wishes, only the minister at her church spoke during her funeral, and he gave an amazing homily. He spent hours with the family the day before the funeral, listening to stories and taking pages of notes.

I thought about publishing what I’d written right away, but it didn’t feel right. Then summer came and I felt that I needed to be present in that time, feeling the sunshine and my feet on the ground.

Tomorrow I start back to work, and I feel that I can put a cap on this summer and the period of recharge and recovery by sharing what I wrote.

Below is my tribute to Kathryn Griswold, my mother-in-law.

The first time I met Kathryn, she and Rick came to New York City to visit me and David.  She asked David to pass a message on to me, and I revealed to me that she was worried about meeting me.  She’d been having some migraine issues, she wanted me to know, and if she was quiet, that I shouldn’t take it personally.  It was immediately clear to me that she wanted to make a good impression. Here I was, so nervous about meeting her, and she was equally nervous about meeting me.  At the heart of what she wanted was to put me at ease.  That’s how she was.  She wanted us to come as we were.  She wanted us to be our messy selves without apology. 

I never met Kathryn’s mother, Elizabeth.  She died before I met David.  But I feel as if I knew this matriarch through the stories Kathryn told.  I got the sense from Kathryn’s stories that she had high standards for herself and her children.  She may have been something of a perfectionist. She set a high bar, even if unintentionally. I could always tell that Kathryn made a conscious decision about the kind of mother-in-law she wanted to be.  

When Kathryn visited us once we had children, she didn’t care if the kids were in grubby play clothes, the floor was covered in toys, or that lunch was served in take out containers.  What mattered to Kathryn was that she was there, with us.  Impeccable housekeeping, she understood, was a tall order to fill for new parents.  She wanted the real us.  And she wanted us to know that she would be there for us unconditionally.    

And when she spent time with you, Kathryn was an amazing listener.  She wanted to hear about everything, the good and the frustrating.  She would listen with compassion, nodding, and then telling her own stories.  We always ended these conversations with laughter.  

I have been so lucky to have Kathryn as my mother-in-law.  She never brought any expectations or judgment.  She shared her struggles—raising three kids, one of whom was a very difficult toddler, ahem, who grew up to marry me—and those stories were invaluable to me.  Speaking of that difficult toddler, I can tell you she probably told me the stories of David as a child about a hundred times each.  About how she had to learn to help him transition between activities, how she read a book, which I believe was titled The Difficult Child, to learn how to parent him. She always told me these stories to let me know I was doing a good job.  

I am raising some little difficult humans of my own.  At the end of days spent together with Kathryn, after the kids were in bed, I would collapse onto the couch and she would start to tell me all the things she had observed and overheard that day.  She would recount what the kids had been playing or saying, and she would tell me all the best parts.  She knew that I needed to hear how bright and inquisitive they were, the little funny things they said, the little kindnesses.  And I did.  She knew that I was tired and hard on myself.  So she’d tell me these stories and we’d laugh.  She did an amazing job of imitating them!

Once, when Calvin was a baby, David and I both got a terrible stomach bug.  So bad that we couldn’t even stand up to change Calvin’s diaper.  I remember I said to David, I don’t know if we can do this alone.  He called his mom, and she hopped in the car and drove the 3 and a half hours from Tupelo.  She saved us.  She was the one we called when I went into labor and we needed someone to help with the kids at home.  She would happily drop everything to care for her grandbabies.  While we’ve been in Brazil, every time we got sick or had a stressful time, she would always say that she wished she could be here to help.  And I knew she meant it. Not to mention that she and Rick hopped on international flights to visit us twice. There wasn’t a distance too far to see her family. 

The grief of a daughter-in-law is complicated.  Kathryn didn’t raise me, but she’s been an essential part of my life for 15 years.  She understood David in ways that were so unique.  She and I were perhaps the two people on this planet who know him the best.  She helped me see him through the lens of his whole life, his childhood, his teenage years. In turn, I told her about the man and father he’s become.  

As a general rule, I’m not a fan of euphemism, so I prefer to say died instead of “was lost”. But loss is also a state of being separate from its euphemistic meaning for death. Loss is the gap, the void, the empty spot. I have lost something with Kathryn’s death. Nothing has gone astray or been misplaced, but there is something missing. In losing Kathryn, I haven’t just lost my mother in law, I’ve lost a confidante and a champion.  

I’ve lost the person who will say “Rick!  Stop winding them up before bed!” when Pawpaw won’t stop chasing them around the house as we’re trying to wrangle them into pajamas.  Who will the kids curl up with to play a word game on the iPad? Who will read me crazy Facebook posts and comments? Who will track every tornado in a three state radius and send us updates? 

There isn’t anyone.  This is just the loss, this hole in our lives that we will learn to live with.  

She would hate to be the center of attention, and even reading this would have been so hard for Kathryn. But now that she’s gone, I’ll crow about her all I want. It’s the least I can do. It’s our turn to see and share the best of her. 

Kathryn taught me what it means to open my heart to a new member of the family.  I will remember that when it’s my turn.  I will open my heart without reservation or judgment or comparison.  I will make space and listen and tell stories.  I will see and share the best when others can’t make it out for themselves. In this way, she will live out the Jewish condolences that I especially love: her memory will be a blessing.

Kathryn Muller Griswold, January 25, 1955 – May 12, 2023.

Kathryn and David
Kathryn with Calvin


Kathryn with Matilda
Kathryn with Everett
Teaching, Travel

Leaving the flowers in the dirt

When we were leaving Nashville and selling our house, I had a reaction to that massive change I didn’t expect. I got very worried about the landscaping in the backyard.

I had hired a local landscape architect to design a plan for our back yard. Then, David and I, with the help of many family member conscripted into the effort, dug up the beds ourselves. We drove an hour to a nursery that had great prices so that we could get all the plants ourselves. They were so tiny! To save money, I bought the smallest, youngest versions of each plant.

Our final garden plan

When we left, the backyard was thriving and lush. And I was struggling to imagine leaving it behind. What if the new owners didn’t prune the bushes at the right time? What if the crepe myrtle got leggy? Would they weed it and mulch it?

Cuttings from our garden.
Moved this hydrangea from under the deck and nursed it back to health.

For a fleeting moment, I had this moment of insanity where I thought about digging up all the plants and selling them or giving them away to good homes. This is obviously nuts.

Siberian Irises
Bleeding hearts
Tulips! Coralbells!
Peach tree. Those blossoms, man.

The only answer was that I just had to leave the flowers in the dirt.

This year, my fifth year of teaching 7th grade humanities and journalism at Graded, I started to think about something different. The world is scary right now, the pandemic is still reverberating, and in all the upheaval and uncertainty, we decided to consider our options. We started looking at job openings around the world.

Meanwhile, our kids are happy here. Matilda moved into the native-speaking Portuguese class. Everett is finally no longer saying he hates school. Calvin has friends and loves his teachers. This is the backdrop of our search. We watched schools post openings and each one led to the conversation: is this place good enough to leave Graded now? For most schools, the answer was no.

And then a high school English position opened up here. Before moving to Graded, I taught high school English for seven years at Harpeth Hall in Nashville. When we left Nashville, I was excited to return to middle school. Honestly, I didn’t want to hear the words “college” ever again. I wanted a break from high school problems. And for the past five years, I’ve loved working with middle school students again. Their joy! Their unbridled enthusiasm! Their silliness! A breath of fresh air.

Until the point comes when you are tired of silly noises, spacey students, forgotten materials. I started to feel myself needing a break from teaching students to use the TAB button and not the space bar five times. Reminding them to get their notebooks and folders for the 85th time. Telling them to stop very obviously mouthing words across the room to their best friend in the middle of my lesson. Threatening life and limb to the next person who blasts that annoying song from their laptop in the middle of silent work time. Sometimes students said or implied that they felt like the work didn’t matter, it’s just middle school anyway. Dare I admit that I wished someone might mention college and have it lend gravitas to the work?

I applied for the high school English job. I felt that panic again. What would happen to the 7th grade curriculum, or the journalism class? I needed to be there to guard these things I’d helped build. I couldn’t just let them go.

But I could. This is life, especially for teachers. The curriculum you wrote will be rewritten or thrown out. The new teachers will bring their own ideas and expertise. And? That’s beautiful. That’s life. That’s this ever-evolving field. It’s not meant to stay the same forever.

I went back and forth; I slept on it. I talked to some new teachers and some old ones. And I took the job.

I wasn’t sure if I’d done the right thing at first. That feeling changed when I started to feel some joy and appreciation again. This was, after all, the last time I’d be teaching The Giver for quite some time, maybe ever. It stopped feeling like, Ugh, fifth time with The Giver, here we go, and started to feel like, Oh, The Giver, you’re great. Let’s do this and move on.

Of course, this isn’t a grass is greener. The grass is just different, and I’d like a change of turf for a while. Yes, high school students have their own problems. But they’re different problems. Problems I’m not tired of troubleshooting.

We signed a two-year extension and the kids are elated. We are all happy that our time in Brazil and at Graded is not coming to an end yet. We have time for more Portuguese, more travel, more time working with and learning from these amazing educators.

I’m working on leaving the plants in the dirt and trusting that the next generation will do with them what needs to be done–including replacing them or letting them die. It’s alright; I’ve got a new garden to tend.


Agency: Observations From the First Day of Middle School

Playing zipper tag with 100 7th graders on the first day of school.

In our pre-service deeper learning work this year we delved into a few areas in our new statement of deeper learning at Graded. One of the items on the list is agency.

To kick off our discussions, we read this text, “Making sense of student agency in the early grades” by Margaret Vaughn from Kappan. Despite the title, it’s very applicable to all ages and grade levels. And I love an article that begins with a teaching anecdote. According to Vaughn, agency is “a student’s desire, ability, and power to determine their own course of action.”

Reading that text, I immediately thought about students in my middle school journalism elective. The way I operate it, it is much like a workshop where students are writing on their own topics at their own speeds. After our first assigned topics, there are no required or common topics, and I don’t set deadlines for students. Everyone writes at their own speed, ideally matching the writing and revision speed to the type of article and level and complexity they have chosen.

This freedom of choice and pace is amazing for some students and paralyzing for others. I started to think that the difference between the two reactions comes down to agency.

I’ll come back to the journalism course as a study in agency later, but today was our first day with students and there were so many moments that made me think about student agency. A first day of school is hard for anyone, but for new students, it demands a high level of agency. They have to listen closely to instructions, decide which peers to follow or reach out to, ask for help of adults they maybe have never met.

After a morning of advisory, grade level, and middle school assemblies, after lunch, students got to go to their first four, each for a short 30 minutes. Every student had 3 copies of their schedule given to them in the morning. The schedule lists the block (1-8), the course (humanities 7), the teacher (Mrs. Griswold), and the room number (D27). But it’s a schedule of a normal school day rotation.

Students had to use the printed schedule to find blocks 1, 2, 3, and 4 for our short afternoon classes today. They had to notice the teacher and the classroom printed there. Then they had to use our classroom numbering system or ask a peer or adult for help. This all requires a lot of agency.

Standing outside my room, the most common question I got was “Where is Mr. Lockhart’s room?” or a variation on that. My follow up was always, “What’s the room number?”

Very few students had noticed the room number or remembered it. Many claimed that room numbers were not listed on their schedule. I loved waiting patiently for them to show me that they were no room nu–oh, it’s right here. E07.

Sometimes a student came up knowing the room number. I was standing outside room D27. “Where’s D28?” I would point out that I was in D27 and D26 was to their left. Any guesses for D28? Being middle schoolers, they often forgot to say goodbye or thank you after the lightbulb went off and they scampered to class.

There was one student who stood out today. He came to my room during the start of block 2, when I had already started the class. I could tell he wasn’t a 7th grader. I asked if he had my class right now. He said yes. I asked to see his schedule. Block 2 said PE in the main field.

“Do you know where the main field is?”


“We just had recess. Did you go to the field for recess?”


“Okay, head back there.”

That seemed to click for him and he turned and left. Turns out he only made it to 2 of his 4 classes successfully. I think he switched block 4 and block 1.

Listen, he’s a new student on a big campus. I totally get it. But there wasn’t a lot of giddyup in his step as he left my room. He seemed a bit passive, unfluffed, adrift. I know his cognitive load was probably at the max, but I theorized that I was seeing a student who generally lacked agency. I’m curious to see if this pattern holds. He was one of almost 30 new students in the middle school, and the only one I saw or heard about having those difficulties. It wasn’t a common pattern for new students.

I think there’s something here in this first day experience about agency. Agency means using the tools in your hands, knowing when and how to seek help, planning ahead and setting your speed to compensate for lost time. These are important parts of driving your own ship. I know that the definition I gave of agency was about determining a course of action, but part of agency is weathering storms. Steering through rough weather.

If the first day of middle school isn’t the purest form of steering through rough weather, I don’t know what is.

(I started at a new school in a new country in 7th grade myself. Sheesh, I could tell some stories. More on that to come.)

My challenge for myself is to think about ways to teach students to be agents. How can we help them reflect and then try to exercise more agency? How can we be explicit when teaching them how to be agents? I bet some kids today thought I was being mysterious when I prodded them to find the room number on their printed schedule, or when I explained how the buildings were numbered–this is D, the next building is E; 1 digit number is 1st floor, 2 digit number is second floor–rather than just pointing and telling them.

I’m not being difficult. I’m showing you that you, like Dorothy, had the answers all along. The power was always yours.

Group in journalism class tries to remember all the news they heard or read this summer.

For my third pandemic birthday I got Covid and almost totaled my car

I made it 2 whole years of the pandemic. I’ve been on many international and domestic flights. I’ve taught in classrooms with 22 students every day. I even travelled across the US during the Omicron spike. But it took one day without a mask mandate to catch Covid.

On Thursday March 17, the mask mandate was lifted by the governor of Sao Paulo. On Friday, March 18, I taught for the first time in the pandemic without a mask on in my classroom. I went to a happy hour after school and sat outside.

On Monday I woke up really tired. Feeling a bit achy. That night I had chills and had to lay in bed all night. But I woke up on Tuesday with none of those symptoms. Ha! I thought. Some weird 24 hour bug. On Wednesday, after lunch, I felt like someone had removed my batteries. I was suddenly exhausted. Couldn’t stand up. Felt lightheaded. I put a mask on. I messaged David. He also wasn’t feeling good. We left right away after he swung by his AP to tell her he probably wouldn’t be coming to the AMISA conference that we were hosting for the next two days.

We went home and did spit PCR tests and sent them to the lab. The tests came back that night: positive.

Interestingly, the kids were all negative. But a 5 day clock started to retest. We hunkered down with our fortuitous recent grocery restock.

Wednesday to Thurdsay was my worst day, but I started turning a corner on Friday. Just in time for David to have his worst day.

On Saturday, I turned 39. Dinner reservations, cancelled. We stuck a birthday candle in a warm chocolate chip cookie. In March 2020, we were in our first lockdown. In March 2021, Brazil had a huge Covid spike, schools were sent into a 6 week lockdown and hospitals reached a very scary 98% occupancy. And now I had Covid.

By the following Monday, when we tested again, I was feeling totally back to normal. David was still not feeling great. And yet, I tested positive and he tested negative. He even tested again the next day to confirm. Negative.

But here’s the kicker: Calvin had now tested positive. The 5 day clock started for him and the other kids, because they’d been exposed and would need to retest in 5 days.

As soon as I got the news that Calvin was positive and we were going from 5 days in quarantine to 10, I started to feel desperate. The kids had been basically locked indoors for 5 days. On the last 3 nights of those 5 days, I would take them outside for a walk at 7:30 with KN95 masks on. But I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s inhumane to keep kids locked up in an apartment like that, with no access to the outside.

I had to take them out of the city. That was my immediate thought. If we still lived in Nashville, we’d have our fenced in backyard for them to play in during the day. We don’t have that option in a condominium. So, I needed to find a place.

Add on to this that Matilda was supposed to go on her first field trip in 2 years, which she would now have to miss because of her brother’s Covid. We would get out of here and have a field trip of our own, dangit.

I got on Airbnb and tried to search within a couple hour drive. Many of the country places I found were part of a condo or community. That was no good. I didn’t want any communal spaces. I was getting frustrated, unsure how to search for what I needed.

Then I remembered that three of my colleagues have houses on a shared property in the mountains just outside of the town of Sao Francisco Xavier. We had been to the town twice, and on the last trip, we had visited their property. It was secluded and beautiful. There was a stream to play in and I had some familiarity with the town and the grocery store.

I find David and tell him this. I can already feel myself clicking into go mode. It is a very particular mood to me where I feel like an ER surgeon with a seven car pile up coming in. I get calm and focused and I go.

I send a message to my friend Andrew who owns one of the houses and runs their rentals. I ask if I could stay there. Turns out there was no one there this week. We could stay in my colleague Katie’s house since the others were being cleaned. There were renters coming in on the weekend, but I could have it until then.

I went to the kids’ rooms and quickly threw stuff into suitcases. David helped me throw some kitchen stuff and food into a few bags. I packed my own bag and we were out the door by 4:30 pm.

It’s a three and a half hour drive, and it hit me as I was driving at night, that this was something of a risk. I would be by myself with the kids, driving in the country in the dark. But the chance to let them go outside outweighed it all.

Andrew sent me directions. Navigate to the town, then navigate to this pin. I got excited and before I got to the town, I navigated to the pin. I didn’t really check the route, but even if I had, I’m not sure I would have changed anything.

What happened was I got off the highway and onto a dirt road with 45 minutes to go until the destination. The road was bumpy, muddy and pitch dark. And I had no cell service. I’m not sure if I’ve been that scared in a long time. And I sustained that fear for what was more like an hour.

I started to think about a flat tire out there. There was nothing but cows around us for miles. It was raining. I had no service. No one knew where I was. A flat tire, stuck in the mud, any other of a host of problems would be distastrous. I guess the plan then would be to sleep in the car? I had food and water. But I was so scared.

I thought about turning around at one point, but I couldn’t recalculate the route. I would have to retrace my steps on the map. What if I missed a turn or went farther down the wrong dirt road? I decided to stick with the plan. Everett fell asleep, but Calvin is old enough to realize this was scary. I had to tell him not whimper, it wasn’t helping my nerves.

I asked the kids to talk or sing. They said, “Okay…” and then went totally silent. In our anxiety, we all apparently forgot all songs. A few rounds of Bingo and We Don’t Talk About Bruno whittled down the dirt road drive in 3 minute chunks.

When we finally came to the entrance of the property, I could have cried. I remembered that there was a steep hill up to the houses, and I gave it a good shot. But about halfway up, my tires were spinning. I tried one more time and got a little farther, but I decided not to try again. I parked on the hill. It was raining and we still had to walk up that hill to get to the house.

Thankfully, Calvin had packed a flashlight. It was pitch black, but at least between my phone and the flashlight we made it up the hill.

In the dark, I couldn’t find Katie’s house. We went and stood on Andrew’s porch and I connected to his wi-fi. I called him and asked where Katie’s house was. We inched along in the dark, found the house and collapsed inside.

Now on wifi, I messaged David, he was relieved. He’d been watching me on the map, but then all it showed was a dot where I’d last had service. He was worried.

Of course, I was the only parent, so I had to go down and get the suitcases and the beds needed to be made. I told the kids to make the beds as best they could. 2 trips in the rain and some muddy suitcases, and by this point it was 9:30. The kids put on jammies and collapsed into bed.

The next day was exactly what we needed. Calvin was a bit tired and mostly laid on the couch and read. I took Matilda and Everett to the little creek behind the house. We threw rocks. We picked limes. We played board games. By some kind of miracle, I made it through the day without the kids watching screens.

I decide it’s time to go get some groceries. I pile the kids in the car and head to town. They wait in the car while I go into the store in a KN95. I get a bunch of food and we head back.

It’s day time now, so I consider giving the hill another shot. I try going up, and I get farther, but I lose traction again. Ah well, I think and start backing down again.

I lost my bearings. I turned the car wheel to the right, even though I needed to turn it to the left. I hear a crunch of gravel, I feel somewhat disoriented and then a loud crunch to my right.

I look over and see that there is a little tree right up against the side of the car. I’m driving over the edge.

I shift into drive. I try to pull forward and correct. Skidding tires. The only way is down. But I’m against this little tree. If I keep backing down, it’s going to scrape against the car and then into the mirror.

I tell the kids “We’re sacrificing the mirror!”

I take my foot off the brake, and my mirror bends backward with a crunch. We stop. I realize then that I’m stuck. We have to get out of this car.

We climb out on the side opposite from the hill that slopes away to my right. It takes a lot of strength to hold the door up, but the kids get out. I drag out all the groceries I just bought. I realize then that my car is already halfway off the hill. If that little tree hadn’t been there, we would have probably already rolled the car.

From where I’m standing, I don’t have cell service and the wifi doesn’t reach. I tell the kids that we have to walk up the hill.

As soon as I get on wifi, I call David. “I’m fine, but the car is stuck on the hill and I don’t know what to do. Please call Andrew. I have to get the kids into the house.”

David has to call back a few minutes later because he didn’t have the right number. The kids are complaining about the groceries being heavy.

I have no idea how we were going to get that car off that hill. I was realizing how close I was to rolling our car off a hill while I was the only adult present with no cell service.

My phone rings. It’s Andrew. “It’s okay,” he begins. “We have a neighbor. A nice Canadian guy. You might even be able to see him up at his house.” I look around, but I wasn’t standing at a good angle to see and anyways my whole brain was shutting down. “He’s handy. He’s super nice and helpful. He will help you.”

Andrew tells me that David called and told him to reassure me that this was still the right call to bring the kids up here. It was going to be okay. I wasn’t totally sure. I was running nightmare scenarios like a mom version of Dr. Strange calculating all the endgames.

The neighbor came over, and in fact, he was very nice and helpful. he came with his Brazilian wife and mother in law. His father in law had done the same thing last week. You just have to call a “tractor.”

Why the quotes around “tractor”? They were saying this in Portuguese and I pictured this:

Deere Rolls Out Fully Autonomous Tractor at CES - WSJ

But instead what came was this:

I’d call that a back hoe or a bulldozer. Apparently a tow truck tried to get the neighbor’s father in law, but it couldn’t make it.

I was also warned that it would be driven in by a 12 year old. It was more like a 15 year old and his buddy. But hey, they got the job done. In the country, you own a construction company and some heavy trucks and you send your 15 year old out with the bulldozer to drag cars off of hills.

It took them a couple hours to arrive, and even though I felt better that there was a plan, I was nervous until they arrived. But then, we got quite the show:

The little tree didn’t make it, but the car was just dented. The mirror was pretty toast.

And then there was some joy to be had and enjoyed. We roasted marshmallows:

Calvin and Matilda invented a game called Fire Magic, where you let the tip of your marshmallow stick get a glowing ember and then you wave it around in the dark to make letters and shapes:

And like all good games kids invent, it ends when you burn your brother, clear through his shirt and to his skin and then your mom yanks away your Fire Magic sticks and chucks them into the woods and you cry.

We had a bath in the big, luxurious tub:

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the anxiety and weight of those 24 hours really hit me that night. After the kids went to bed, I had to have a call with David where I walked through every horrible scenario that could have happened (Dr. Strange, but much less quickly) and he would rationally respond with how we would have handled that. Couldn’t get towed? He’d drive up. Car wouldn’t start when we got it towed? He’d drive up in a rental and drive us back.

But then, we caught butterflies the next day.

And played in the creek some more.

Lots of reading:

And then on Thursday, we drove home IN THE DAYLIGHT.

On Friday we all tested negative.

I don’t have a snappy ending. If this was something written by my journalism students, I’d tell them it didn’t feel finished.

I’m glad I did it. It was scary. I need this whole thing to be over. That’s all.

[I could have put another revision on this, but it’s getting late and I wanted this out of my drafts.]


Starting again?

Remember when the beginning of the year felt like deja vu?

Yeah. That’s not the case this year.

I am about to finish my first week and it feels a bit like I’m Rip Van Winkle or an amnesiac whose memory comes back in spurts.

The last time I had an August first week of school with students in the room with me, it was the salad days of 2019. I had a 2 year old who spent half the day at a Brazilian preschool and was with our nanny the other half.

Now I have three full-day kids at Graded and no nanny. I keep feeling like I moved, but I didn’t? It feels similar to when we moved to Brazil and had to make new routines and figure a new rhythm out, but I never left. I’m still home.

I love being with students. When I got the email 1 weeks before we came back to Brazil that we’d be in 100% in-person, I cried. For a moment I worried that my kids would be freaked out that I was crying on the couch but they never looked up from the cartoons. Pandemic kids, amiright?

This week has been good-hard. I’m not sure I even have the energy to describe it more than that.

As always, I write a letter to students at the beginning of the year. This year, I got to read in front of them in the room, in my real voice, not a voice that has been converted to 0s and 1s and then sent into headphones or speakers. I didn’t cry, but I thought I might, and god bless the mask for hiding any chin quivers.

Like I’ve done in years past, I’m sharing the letter below.

Dear students,

Listen. Do you hear that? That’s the sound of a group of people together, in a room, beginning a year together. That’s not the dings and dongs of Zoom, your dog barking in the background, your home phone ringing. These are school sounds. Can you believe it? 

This is my 15th year of teaching and every year I start by writing students a letter introducing myself. This year feels different. In some ways, I’m also getting to know myself again. Who is Mrs. Griswold who teaches in a classroom and not on Zoom? What is Mrs. Griswold like when she can walk up and down the desks and look over students’ shoulders and not just open breakout rooms? 

Maybe, like me, you’re wondering what this year will be like, and what you will be like. The last time you had classes in a classroom every day, every week, you were fifth graders. You’re different now. I’m different now. So I’m grateful for this letter and this chance to tell you a little bit about me, because I, too, am curious about who I am right now. 

My name is Mrs. Griswold and this is my fourth year teaching at Graded. Before teaching here, I taught in Nashville, Tennessee, and New York City. When I was a kid, like many of you, I was born in one country, but lived in others. I was born in the US, but I moved to Mexico City in middle school, and then to Caracas, Venezuela for high school. I even have an IB diploma! My husband, Mr. Griswold, teaches high school math and computer science, and we have three kids who are students at Graded. Calvin is in grade 4, Matilda in grade 2, and Everett is a K4. 

One of the best parts about me right now is that I am not a homeschool teacher! For the past year and a half, I have been teaching my kids how to write their names, spell short words, multiply, write stories, add, subtract, and more. Can I tell you a little secret? I hate homeschooling. I love my kids and I love teaching, but I don’t love them together. 

One thing this pandemic has proved to me is that I love teaching in a classroom every day. I love the little things like watching students make progress day by day. I love encouraging students, and watching students share big ideas. It’s just not the same on a computer screen. 

I also learned that I am a person who loves teaching middle school students. What I missed most when working from home was the smiles, the chats in the hallway, the silly dances, the laughter, the high fives. 7th graders are funny, caring, energetic, and unique. It’s hard to experience that on a screen of little muted squares. 

At this point in the letter, I usually talk about my hobbies, but so much of that has changed with the pandemic. Right now, I like biking, walking, hiking and camping. But I’m hoping that I can return to some of my old hobbies, like swimming, playing the mandolin, writing, and traveling. Maybe now is my chance to reconsider who I want to be, and how I might be different now. 

Here’s what I know for sure: I am so grateful to be in this room with you right now. I am so happy that I get to teach you and that we get to learn together. We are lucky. Lucky to have this amazing school, lucky to have classmates and teachers who care and work hard. We can’t let any moment go to waste. Every day together is precious, and education is an amazing privilege and a gift. 

Now it’s your turn to introduce yourself. Write me a letter and tell me about who you were, who you are, who you want to be. 


Mrs. Griswold