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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.]
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.
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.
6 weeks ago, the state shut down schools because of nearly overwhelmed hospitals due to Covid-19. Matilda had been in distance learning for the 2 weeks before that and the Monday we closed would have been her turn to be back on campus. School opened up last week in a week on/week off schedule for each student, but it Matilda’s turn to be on campus last week. So, it’s been 8 weeks since my first grader has been inside a classroom.
All last week we kept a daily countdown going. This weekend, she kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m going to school on Monday!”
On Sunday we came to campus and went rollerskating/rollerblading in the gym. When we arrived, we had our temperature taken by the guards. After a few clicks of the infrared thermometer, the guard asked us to pull into the parking garage and try the checks again. Sometimes, she said, the car interferes and makes the temp look higher.
We parked, and when we got out, the guard did Matilda first. She showed it to me. 37.9 C. “That’s high, right?” I asked in Portuguese. “Very high,” she answered.
Matilda speaks enough Portuguese to know what we were saying. She looked up at me and her eyes over that rainbow mask were wide. “I have a fever? That means I can’t…” Tears welled up in her eyes.
I put my hand to her forehead. Maybe it was warm? “It’s okay,” I said quickly. “It’s okay.”
The guard reset the thermometer and checked everyone else’s temperature. Calvin, fine. Everett, fine. Matilda…36.3. Normal.
“You’re normal, it’s fine. It was just the car. You’re okay.” I rubbed her back. She immediately brought her fists to her eyes to rub the tingle and tears away. She sniffed quietly and nodded. I could see her try to shake it off, but she seemed fragile.
That whole encounter was maybe 3 minutes but it felt like time dilated. I could see Matilda imagining her week on campus taken away from her. She was devastated. I was surprised to see that she completely understood what that fever might mean. She knew that the temperature checks were important. She knew that a fever could get her locked out. After 8 weeks and being so close, to have school taken away would just be too much.
Just before this current lockdown, we had a bunch of cases that crept closer to our family. We took extra tests. Hospitals and ICUs were at 90 some percent capacity. There was a count in the paper of how many people died waiting for a hospital bed. I was really scared. But even more than being worried about getting Covid, I was worried that one member of our family testing positive would mean Matilda would miss her turn for in-person school. I said to my therapist, “I just can’t handle any more bad things.”
I saw that in Matilda’s face in the garage. She just couldn’t handle any more bad things.
This morning, Matilda bounded out of bed at 6:11. She was bouncing around and changed her hair 3 times, settling on a Carnaval headband with a fake sunflower on it. She dressed in her characteristic hobo fairy princess aesthetic (black pants with gold stars, a dress with a rainbow skirt, and a teal/peach sweater). She snapped a polaroid selfie during breakfast.
When we got to school this morning, Matilda and I walked toward her class down the long hallway that runs like a spine down campus. I heard Matilda say something, muffled behind her mask.
“What’s that?” I bent closer.
“It’s so crowded.”
There was worry in her eyes as her eyes darted around, scanning the kids and teachers walking by her. Even though the hallway is split into directional lanes. Even though there was distance between people. One sixth of Matilda’s life has been spent being told to spread out, wear a mask, don’t get so close. She hasn’t been in a mall, or an amusement park in a year. She hasn’t been in a school hallway with kids in 8 weeks.
It hurts my heart. I’m so glad she’s on campus. I’m so happy to see her happy. But she’s also worried, she’s scared. People talk about how this generation of kids might be affected by this pandemic. I can’t guess what the long-term effects will be, but they’re more fragile than they seem. They understand more than we think. Maybe they, like us, are happy to have some normal life back, but they’re still afraid they can’t handle one more bad thing.
(How did it all go? See below for Matilda at the end of the day.)
In January, we went to a town in the mountains outside of São Paulo that’s built to look like Switzerland or Germany called Campos do Jordão. I took my hiking pants that I had worn in September ’19 on a trip to caves with students. They fit great in September 2019. Friends, I could barely snap them. And I was so uncomfortable. When I came home at the end of the day after a 4 km hike, I had to lay on the bed, pop the pants open and moan.
I had spent 9 months of the pandemic doing a lot of self-soothing with food. I’m not judging myself for that. It was what I needed to do. But there I was in January, on a 5 week break from school. I was travelling (safely) and getting outside. What was my excuse? I needed to take this added well of resilience and use it to take better care of myself.
I decided that I would make myself my next project. I don’t know if you know me, but I am goddamn achiever. (I wouldn’t dare say “over-achiever” since the original meaning of that word was a person (usually a girl) who achieved beyond her capability. Fuck you, I am so capable.) I am really good at getting shit done. My NYU ladies know what I’m talking about because we are total badasses. We are the class of late 90’s early 00’s girls who got perfect GPAs, scored big scholarships, were selected as valedictorian or salutatorian, we start businesses and/or run businesses parallel to another career. We hustle.
I love projects. I’ve written 3 novels. I’ve (unsuccessfully) submitted these novels to agents close to 750 times. I ran a 5K and then a 10K. I ran a triathlon. I learned to knit and crochet. I sewed a slip cover for a chair. I birthed three kids. I taught myself the mandolin and the Irish banjo. I learned to watercolor. I’ve won awards that come with plaques suitable for hanging on the wall; I’ve won scholarships that came with money. Hell, I got a perfect 4.0 in college. I am good as shit at achieving things.
So why have I never turned that sense of achievement on my body? I have to confess with a little bit of shame, that I sometimes thought it shallow when other people got really into exercise or eating well. (Sorry, Internet Vegans, you are not helping the cause.) My achievements tended to be of the mind, or producing a tangible external product. Chuck Wendig, a writer I follow on Twitter, said years ago that we are a computer wrapped in meat and we need to take care of the meat or the computer doesn’t run well. That really got me, and I’m finally taking his advice.
I also realized a few years ago that while I was working on something (writing a novel, say) I consciously chose not exercise. I reasoned that I couldn’t be good at everything. I had to cut something out, I told myself.
But wait, you said you ran races and did a triathlon, Meg? You’re right. But I did only that, and usually I didn’t stick with it after I was done. Race completed, metal scored, I’m laying on the couch. It’s not that I didn’t want to exercise, it was that I saw exercise as part of something to be achieved and then abandoned for another project.
For a long time, I also resisted calling exercise and eating well “self care.” There is a whole military industrial complex of “self care” that makes its money telling women they aren’t enough and are doing everything wrong. I didn’t want to associate with that. But there isn’t a better word. Self care. That is what I am doing. I am taking care of myself.
Exercise and self care are a life project. This isn’t radical. People reading this are probably saying, “Duh,” at the screen right now. Exercise is a practice. It’s not an achievement. You don’t do it and then get a diploma and then never do it again. You do it every damn day. I had not really accepted this before now.
I’ve struggled to write during the pandemic. It may feel unrelated, but at first I resisted exercise as a new project because it felt like I was putting the nail in the coffin of my writing. It doesn’t make total sense, but that’s how I thought about it. It felt like I was cheating on writing if I dove into taking care of my body. It felt like either/or. Either I write or I exercise and take care of myself. Maybe any new endeavor would have felt like it was crowding out writing. But the writing had already stopped on its own.
Yes, I’m contradicting myself in multiple ways. The point is, in January, on January 6, in fact (I’m good with dates) I decided that I was my next project.
It’s amazing how focused I got. My competitive streak fired up, even though there was no competition to train for. Maybe that’s the secret for some of us achievers, we can feel competitive and be motivated to “win” even when there’s not really anything to “win.”
Around this time, I read an article in the New York Times about new research around exercise and eating. If you’re like me, I get super hungry when I’m working out a lot and then I overeat. But this article gave me hope. I could eat and satisfy that hunger as long as I worked out 300 minutes a week. I set my iWatch exercise goal to 45 minutes a day and I met that or beat it almost every single day. I got back on the stationary bike we own. I started walking more. I did Essentrics classes on the iPad (my mother-in-law turned us on to this). Once I set that tangible goal of 45-60 minutes of exercise a day, it wasn’t hard to achieve it.
Then, I started paying attention to my eating. I’m working on mindfulness with my therapist and she told me to pay attention. Am I eating mindlessly or am I really enjoying the moment I’m in? She encouraged me to just slow down and only do things that I was really soaking up, including eating. I started just saying out loud “I want to eat, but I don’t actually feel hungry.” Just saying that would make the urge to eat dissipate and then I’d stand in the pantry having a little moment with myself. My internal dialogue went like this:
Hey, what’s going on?
I don’t know. I just want to eat another dinner.
You already ate dinner.
What do you think you really want?
I just want to feel better. It’s been a long shitty day, I feel totally ragged, and I deserve to feel better. I want to feel like I’m doing something for myself.
Yeah, but are you going to feel better after you eat this?
Okay. So how about don’t do something that you will regret later. How about some online window shopping?
Or an episode of Queer Eye? A trashy TV show with people in a beach house stabbing each other in the back?
Honestly, the trashy TV shows were key. It felt self-indulgent and selfish and I loved it. I watched two seasons of Are You the One? and one season of Too Hot To Handle. All while pounding away on my stationary bike.
Lo and behold, I discovered that when I exercised with a nice hard bike ride, or a fast walk, I felt better afterwards. I started to get on the bike when I felt myself getting angry or frustrated–the kind of angry or frustrated I couldn’t shake. It didn’t make the feeling going away completely, but I did dull the rage.
What you exercise people have been saying forever is totally true! (Ugh, I sound so gross even to myself. Of course they were right.)
Now, I go for a walk every day or every other day. There’s a path through the woods in our condo and it’s through a small section of Atlantic rainforest. There are butterflies, all kinds of birds, and stunning flowers and plants. I feel like my head is cleared when I walk through there. I pretend for a moment that I’m not in a mega city. I feel better afterwards.
I hesitate to even mention weight, because it’s so tricky and so loaded and definitely not the only measure of health. I feel weird talking about it. But I now weigh what I did before I got pregnant with Calvin. If you’ve had a baby, you know what a big deal that is. Hey, 27-year-old me. Nice to see you again.
I’m trying not to be orthodox about anything (no new orthodoxies!) because I don’t want to burn out. I try to make all of these choices about me and putting me first. About doing what makes me feel good tomorrow and not just standing in the pantry at 10:30 at night eating a bag of chocolate chips. (To illustrate a point, I ate a handful of chocolate chips in the pantry last night, but I’d done a spin class, eaten a salad for dinner and I really savored those chocolate chips.) I also hate it when people propose a solution to a really complex problem with a platitude or a single word, but I’ve found a balance. I made carrot cake last week. I didn’t eat a piece every day. I made sure to keep up with my exercise so that I balanced out the cake. Today, I had yogurt and fruit for lunch because we’re getting ice cream after school and ordering burgers and fries for dinner. I’ve built myself a safety net.
Ugh, have I become an Internet Vegan? I don’t want to tell anyone what to do. If I had told myself to do this 6 months ago, I would have punched me in the nose. But I do think it’s worth telling you this. I’ve become somewhat devout about exercising and eating well. A lot of vegetables, very little sugar, very little super processed food. It’s much easier to eat that way in Brazil where fresh food is cheap and processed foods are not as common. Fruits and vegetables are amazing and cheap. I’m not tempted by giant chip and cracker aisles.
I’m at the point where I’m afraid what I’d be like if I didn’t do this. As I sort of start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m thinking about how to keep this good part. I worry that I won’t be able to return to old passions like writing if I want to keep exercising like this. I wonder what life will be like when this is over. Whatever it is, I want to keep this: I’m treating my body the way it deserves. Nobody puts Baby in a corner. That’s me. I’m Baby.
Things are better, but not awesome. I don’t think awesome has really been on the table for the last 55 weeks, but it’s worth adding that caveat. Sometimes when you are struggling, people who wish you well want you to be great again so that they can not worry about you anymore. And sometimes those struggling get tired of carrying their own load plus someone’s else anxiety and worry, so we smile and say we’re fine! All cleared up!
It’s not “all cleared up,” but it is better. This Monday, Everett’s day care reopened. As a day care, they are classified as essential, even in the emergency phase we find ourselves in as a city with regular schools closed. On Monday morning, I sent this gif to my coworkers in our group chat with the message “Me walking away from dropping Everett off at day care this morning.”
For a moment I felt a bit bad. I don’t have tons of mom guilt, but sometimes I worry non-parents are going to be shocked.
So I followed that up with this gif and the caption, “To be fair, this was Everett running in the door without looking back.”
Monday was so much better. The two older kids did their work and due to leading less attention, I was able to focus on what I needed to do with less interruption.
Everett was sad before he went to school and said he’d miss us. I reassured him that we’d pick him up at the end of the day. He still repeats that feeling some mornings, but he comes home dirty from the sandbox and talking about what he did that day.
The other change I made that has improved my mental state was planning in more offline time in each of my 80 minute blocks. When we started the school year, I planned in 30-50 minutes of off-screen (asynchronous) work time for students. But as we went back to campus, I started running 80 minute live Zoom classes. It’s just exhausting for everyone involved, and I need to be free to help my children with their lessons and activities. Just being able to send my students off to work while I go get lunch started or help a kid with their writing assignment has done so much for me.
In case you needed reminding, I’m working two jobs and parenting at the same time. Matilda can’t read her math word problems or log herself into her computer. She needs help with instructions. She needs pencils sharpened and clean sheets of paper. She needs help finding her Portuguese book. They all need a time keeper to get them logged into their 4 Zoom classes a day. David and I have all these alarms set and we have to stop our teaching to tell the kids to join their Zoom classes when our phones start playing funny songs. And many times, we have to strong arm them into logging on because they resist.
They resist? I must admit that until March of this year, my kids have done 0 specials classes in distance learning. No PE, art, music, or counseling classes. And until this semester, they weren’t always consistent about going to their Portuguese classes every day. So, about half the time I tell them they have Portuguese or special, a cloud rolls over their eyebrows and they start negotiating skipping it. We’ve held the line and they always have a good time in those classes.
So I’m not in the low-bottom any more, in the words of Marc Maron. And that’s huge. I’m more focused, I’m less stressed, I’m less depressed.
We’re still waiting to find out if the state and city government will allow schools to reopen next week. Because we have parent/teacher conferences next week and only have classes on Monday and Friday, we bumped our tentative reopening to April 19, the following Monday.
The situation in Brazil and Sao Paulo is still really bad. You have to be really avoiding the news to not know that. There are a few signs of improvement in our state and city. Hospitalizations are down and we have some days of lower cases. It’s going to take some time for that to have an effect on the death rate and the ICU occupancy.
Teachers 47+ can get vaccinated starting on Monday. They haven’t announced when teachers under 47 will get vaccinated, but I’ve pre-registered and our school is hosting a vaccination site, so we may be able to get ours on home turf.
So, everything is “a little better, but…” That’s about as good as it gets in this pandemic, I guess.
But, hey, both my kids went outside to play with friends during our lunch break today and I’m writing this in a quiet, nearly empty apartment. I’ll take it where I can get it.