A Fine Recess Stew

I used to roll my eyes and speak disparagingly of “the intrinsic rewards” of  teaching, but God knew even then I was never in it for the money, and as I look back I realize it too.  It was ALWAYS about the children. What follows is a fine recipe for life taken from the blood, sweat, and tear-stained cookbook I compiled during my 20 year career as a line cook in the public schools.  This recipe still yields many smiles.

Start with a fine sunny afternoon in May of 1999 and spread 100 or so 10 year old children randomly over a 200 x 300 foot playground.  Warm slowly with exercise, sunshine, add a dash of afternoon fatigue, and dust gently with prepubescent hormones.  Select a sweet blue-eyed blonde with freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks, a girl named Ali who unknowingly has been capturing the confused attention of Garrett, an athletic “all boy” classmate.  I never did find out what the dust up between them was but when it reached the boiling point, Garrett yelled at her, “Well, you’re a big lesbian!”  Sweet Ali wasn’t sure how to handle this attention and dissolved into salty tears, still on her pink face when the kids tumbled back into our classroom when the bell rang.

“Mrs. Lewis!  Mrs. Lewis!” Ali and her handmaidens cried.  “Garrett called Ali a lesbian!” and Ali’s red face and trembling lip bore witness to the outrage.  I was pretty sure neither Ali or Garrett had any idea what a lesbian was, and if they DID, how this fact was discerned during a hot game of tag, so I decided to try to bring this down to a simmer.  That didn’t matter anyway.  They did.

“Ali, would you like to get a drink?” I asked, and she nodded and headed off for the hall and the sanctuary of the girls’ washroom.  I turned to Garrett.  He was guilty as charged and he knew it.  He looked down.

Inspiration struck.  “Garrett, school’s out in 15 minutes and we’ve got papers to hand out and homework to add to our planners.  Let me think about what just happened,  and I’ll get back to you tomorrow morning,” I said.  The class settled in, and we got to the task at hand.  The bell rang, the chairs went up, and out they flew.  I guess you could say we let it steep overnight.

The next morning everything was fresh — the faces, the t-shirts, the hair gel and braids, the very day itself.  We worked quietly and well all morning.  As the kids lined up for first recess I asked Garrett to stay in with me to discuss the incident.  He was obedient and contrite.

We sat at the round book table, and I pointed to a laminated poster on the wall — “USD 497 Policy on Harassment” — a recent district-mandated addition to every classroom in town.

 “Garrett,”  I said, ” do you know what ‘harassment’ is?”

 Garrett shook his head no.

 “Then let’s look it up.”

He grabbed a classroom dictionary off the shelf and I, ever the seeker of the elusive “teachable moment,” let him struggle a bit with the alphabet and initial consonant sounds.

He labored and brought forth. “Here it is,”  he said quietly.

“Read it to me,” I asked.  Might as well practice his reading aloud skills as well.

“Harass: to pester, bother, disturb or worry.  To make repeated small attacks on another or an enemy,” he read.

“What do you think that means?”  Ah!  Cognition and summarizing!

“To bother somebody, I guess,” he mumbled.

“Right you are — and you know, we have a brand new district policy against that.  I am supposed to report this.  You could be in trouble there.”

He was silent.  So was I.  Critical thinking was taking place.

 “What do you think you can do about this?”  I asked helpfully.  Ah.  Problem solving skills!

He thought hard.  “Maybe write a letter to her to apologize?”  he offered.  I haven’t kept track of him, but he may now be a lawyer!

“Sounds good to me, Garrett.  Why don’t you work on that while I get our math lesson ready.  Let me see it when you’re done.”  Bingo!  Writing skills to boot!  We both got to work.

Our time at the table took away most of my 15 minutes of mid-morning prep time, but it also burned up Garrett’s recess, not a small thing as he was an avid kickball man.  I read his note as the bell rang, and when Ali appeared at the classroom door he folded it over and handed it to her as discreetly as he could.  She looked at it, nodded, and we all settled in and turned our attention to the mystery of fractions.  The rest of the morning was as smooth and sweet as buttercream frosting.  Justice — and the district mandate — had been served.

But sometimes things are just a bit better on the second day.  So it was with our recess stew.

Next morning before the kids came in I got a call over the intercom to take a phone call from a parent on line 2.  I made my way to the workroom.  It was Garrett’s mother.  My heart sank, and I drew a deep breath.  I readied myself for the frying pan.  Parents have an awful lot of feelings.

“Mrs. Lewis, I just wanted to talk to you about that incident at school — how Garrett missed recess yesterday.”

 I heard the burner click on.

 “Yes?” I offered.

 “Garrett was really miserable when he came home from school that day.  He went to his room and hardly ate any supper.  When we asked him what was wrong he told us he’d gotten in trouble on the playground and that you’d talk to him about it the next day.”

“Yes, he had a little run in with another student.”  I got a whiff of olive oil hitting the pan.

“Yes,” the mom offered.  “He likes Ali an awful lot.  He felt terrible about it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” I said, and I meant it, too, because I loved Garrett as much as I loved Ali.

“But let me finish,” she said.  “Garrett was so low the night before his Dad and I asked him about it at dinner last night.  ‘How’d it go with Mrs. Lewis today?’ my husband asked. ‘Oh!’ says Garrett, ‘Not bad at all.  Mrs. Lewis just made me stay in at recess and look up harass!’  Oh my God, Mrs. Lewis — we nearly DIED trying not to laugh out loud!  Just thought you’d enjoy it too.  Have a great day.  Thanks for everything, Mrs. Lewis!”

Schools are like pressure cookers most of the time.  So many kids, emotions, abilities and expectations, mixed together, chopped up by time schedules, and weighted down by district outcomes and state regulations.  We line cooks show up everyday and do the best we can with the produce we are given.  Our yields always vary: some rise.  Some fall.  Some are delicious, some are acceptable, and some give you heartburn.  Not one ever made me bitter, and more than one made me cry.  But this one was just so sweet.

I still savor it.

Why I Write (and Why I’m Doing This Blog)

I’ve never been able to understand why most people love writing. Or trying to write. Or thinking about writing. Or why they secretly cling to that most unattainable goal — to imagine that they just might BE a writer.

Consider the words of them that’s tried it: “The first draft of anything is shit.” “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” “If you want to be a writer, develop a thick hide.” “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.” And the one that breaks my heart: “There is no greater agony that bearing an untold story within you,” Maya Angelou said, and she should know.

I have been told since I was a child that I am an excellent writer. And that was always nice to hear but hard to value, since growing up female in the 1950s — or at least in my house — was a highly programmed experience. Being a “good writer” felt a little dangerous. It was out there somewhere with buck teeth or being over 6 feet tall. People might notice you. Writing wasn’t a goal for girls!

It sounds like whining, but back in the day young women were expected to aspire to marrying well, mothering well, getting a degree to “fall back on” (also known as the “MRS” degree, IF they were lucky enough to go to college), and to at all costs remain “nice” — sexually desirable but virginal, capable but subservient, strong but weak, intelligent but never competitively so.

Writing was, perhaps, a vague curse. It was easy to doubt that writing could be an activity of much value, other than making it easy to compose timely thank you notes or write out the weekly grocery list. It could bring trouble!! Remember Dad’s words of wisdom (and warning): “Don’t rock the boat!” And yet….

Writing is everything to me. It’s a comfort and a support. It is a need and a drive. It’s so personal. I am so exposed. It’s embarrassing and enchanting….sometimes a dreaded duty of sorts, and always my secret delight.

I believe writing can be this for all of us. I’ve heard “we read to know we are not alone,” and I believe we write for that reason as well. The words come from within, and often in the dark. Sometimes they wake me up at night. Writing feels like a mixture of noble desire and raw self-promotion — I just can’t wait to tell you! Listen to this! I want to tell you something. But why would you listen? It’s confusing. The process thrills me, though! There is a surge of joy — a high — when the “right word” comes. It feels like a miracle.

There’s adventure, too. Where is this thing going? How will it be said? Note I did not write “how will I say it,” because I will not say anything. The writing will come of and from itself, and I will merely witness the birth. I am in touch with something larger than myself. I am in awe.

Writing helps me understand. As I write I can undo the tricky knots of life — the “whys” and the “what’s nexts?” Writing often tells me how to handle things, shows me the way. It’s a road map, of sorts. I get a sense of what is really going on. Clear directions help us find a friend’s new home, disarm a bomb, or make a killer boeuf bourguignon. I need directions. I can hear myself better on paper. I recognize the sound of my real voice.

There’s the beauty, too. Immortal words. Vivid pictures. “Listen to this!” moments. Reading a well-written phrase can stop the breath. My own writing is cathartic and helpful to me — and hopefully helpful to you, too. But the beautiful words — the poetry, the song, the essay — these we read, we quote, and perhaps even embroider them — on our hearts, if not on a piece of linen.

I won’t get out my embroidery floss for Kurt Vonnegut, but I love this ditty from Cat’s Cradle:

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly.

Man got to sit and wonder “why why why?”

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land.

Man got to think he understand.

Writing helps me — helps us — understand. That’s why I love it. Don’t you?