Loss of a sweet friend

Last Sunday, I unexpectedly lost one of my close friends. Her death was a shock to me and my colleagues, and the past week at work has been dreadful. My way of dealing with grief is to write, and this is a note to my friend in case she is somewhere where she can read it.

**

Kristina, this is such a shock because it is the last thing I thought would happen. I knew you were not feeling well, and I even thought to myself, Kristina has been sick a lot this year, she seems always to have a cold. I wonder why? I was getting concerned, but never thought it would end like… this.

As I remember you, I am so grateful for your friendship over the years. I remember how you helped me get my current job. You were the only one who knew where I was working at the time, and could tell the principal where he could reach me. I guess we didn’t use cell phones as much then! And, that night was “Meet the Teacher” night. I had nothing ready because I didn’t know I would be hired as a third grade teacher that day, and you let me share your room for the evening to meet the students’ parents.

The whole beginning of that year was a whirlwind. I couldn’t have done it without your help and support. We always used to talk. Even though we didn’t talk as much later, when I started teaching 6th grade, we still had the same views on things, the same sense of humor. We made jokes about everything, and commiserated about troublesome students (and adults!).

You were a much more dedicated teacher than I am. You spent long hours at school, you took many extra classes, and you were much more involved than I am. During summer, you thought of doing more classes and improving as a teacher. All I ever thought about was escaping. No wonder I thought you were a worthy recipient of the employee of the month award, a trivial thing compared to the many positive things you have done that went unrecognized.

It’s weird around our school without you. It’s like a light has gone out, and that whole end of the building has been plunged into darkness. You added so much liveliness and energy. You were always there to help, to talk to, to share goofy student stories (and there always were plenty!).

It’s so hard to believe you’re gone forever.

The last few mornings, I’ve waited for you to drive into the parking lot and park your car next to mine, even though logically I know you will never be able to do that again. We’d always arrive at work at the same time, barring any traffic snarls, of course. We’d walk in to work together, talking about our weekend if it was a Monday, or about some crazy thing that had happened the day before.

I’ve even walked by your classroom a few times this week, each time thinking it can’t be true that you’re gone, hoping to find that you are back, and all is right with the world. But everything is wrong, all your things are there where you left them, but you will never touch them again. Colors blur as my eyes fill with tears.

How could you be here and reasonably fine on Friday night, and no longer be alive on Sunday? I just can’t grasp it yet.

Out in the garden, the radishes that our classes planted together are ready for harvest, but you are not here to supervise. I never would have thought when we planted them that you wouldn’t be here anymore after they were grown. I hope that when the kids finally hold the radishes in their hands they will remember how you helped them plant that day. It is almost all they have left of you now.

This school will feel the loss of you for a long time, if not forever. There are people here that are so affected that they can hardly make it through the day, including me. We think that maybe after spring break it will be better, but we know in our hearts that the pain will never heal.

Where do people go when they die? Where is the being, the life, that was you? I get the “leaving the body behind” thing, but the personality, the “person,” that was you, the essence of you, where is she? Where are you? We miss you so much.

We love you and miss you, Kristina. You did so much for so many people. There is a huge void where your presence was, and it will never again be filled.

50,000 words of tired

NaNoWriMo drags on. The deeper I get into the month, the harder it is to squeeze out 1700 or so words each day. My job doesn’t help either. I am engaged in intense work all day every day, teaching and working with kids, and sometimes by the time I get finished working out in the evening, I am just done. I sit down and eat dinner, usually reading as I do so, and then I want to fall asleep. But I can’t. I must drag out my laptop, and write.

Not that I wouldn’t be sitting here at my laptop anyway, It’s just the thought that I have to write. I love to write, and I am not saying I don’t write every night, but 1700 words is a lot if you are super-tired to begin with.

It’s been a rough week, with Veteran’s Day in the middle of it, the starting and stopping, the crazy things that go on in an elementary school all the time. There are also the physical workouts, which for me lately have consisted of digging in the school garden. What am I digging, you ask? Well, all the garden plots got seriously overgrown with grass during the summer vacation, except our grade level’s, of course. The other grade levels let the grass completely take over, and when everyone else came back from vacation, it was a total mess.

I had worked our plot the whole summer, even standing out there one day in 115° heat taking down giant sunflowers that were now dead. I didn’t go over to the garden every single day, but I never let more than a couple of weeks go by. I just knew what would happen. Under the garden beds, which were newly made last February, there is particularly aggressive Bermuda grass, the kind that will not ever die. The garden was not dug down properly to begin with, and I watched it happen, but since I am only one little person, the people who were building it did not listen to me. Plus, as usual, most people take the easy way and don’t care about doing things right. I always think it is better to take a little extra time and do it properly instead of having to go back and re-do it after it’s messed up. Well, guess what happened? It got messed up.

So, my project is to dig out all that nasty Bermuda. You have to dig way down and get the white spaghetti-like roots out, and it takes digging with a spade. And jumping on the shovel to get way down in it. I don’t really mind, it’s a great workout, and it is keeping my boss from getting really annoyed at people for not keeping up the garden after all the effort that was made to put it in. Since I was one of the people who really wanted it, I feel obligated to do my share of the work. And, apparently, other people’s share of the work as well. Anyway, the schedule of working all day and then doing physical labor every afternoon takes its toll by the time Thursday rolls around.

Tonight I also had the privilege of going to an awards ceremony for one of my students who earned one of the awards. I am really proud of this girl, and she deserved the award. She is a great student. In fact, after I told my class about what National Novel Writing Month is about, she was the only one who showed interest in it. She signed up to do the 50,000-word version even though she is only 12. If anyone can do it, she can. She and I can at least commiserate every morning about how writing went the day before.

So, I guess I’d better get back to my words for the day. Here I am, sitting and writing about “stuff” that doesn’t count for the novel, but at least it’s a good warmup.

Yes, NaNoWriMo drags on …

A day of tears, and joy

Out in the garden on the morning of the last day of school before classes began, the wind ruffled the petals of the sunflowers. I noticed that one of the sunflowers had the shape of a heart right in the middle of it where the seeds would soon begin to form. How appropriate, I thought. It was quiet out in the sun-filled garden in the morning hush, but I knew the surrounding playground would soon be a swirl of sound and emotion. It would only be a half-day for the kids, and then they would be free for the summer.

Today, elementary school would end for the sixth graders in the school in which I teach. When it was time to go, all the younger kids lined the hallways, clapping for the sixth graders who were walking through the school as students for the last time. I almost made it without crying, winding through the hallways dry-eyed until I neared the front door. Then I made the “mistake” of looking back at my school kids one more time when they were still “mine.” At least three of my boys had tears streaming down their faces, and that was it for me. It’s always the boys that make me feel extra emotional, probably because it is so unusual to see them cry. My eyes blurred with tears, and I couldn’t help sobbing when I stopped outside and hugged everyone goodbye, one by one. I’d spent every school day for the last 10 months with them, and I felt more than a tenuous attachment to them. Not only were they physically stepping out the door of the elementary school for the last time, their hearts fluttering like the wings of small birds, they were stepping into the next stage of their lives. For them, it was a scary, bittersweet, truthful moment, but one filled with the hope and eager anticipation of what will come next. For me it was the sweet-sad ending to a good year with a nice group of kids, some of whom I might never see again.

I remembered on the first day of school some of the boys sitting in their seats, near their friends, smirking at each other, wanting to see how far they could push their new teacher, see how much they could get away with. Little did they know how they would dissolve into tears on the last day of school at the reality of leaving me. I heard, “I don’t want to leave you!” so many times, and from so many kids. But I also know that now, after school, their tears are forgotten, they are already hanging out with their friends and classmates, looking forward to junior high next year. That is what they should be doing, enjoying the moment.

After the sixth graders left with their parents, I went out to take some of the other kids to the buses. The same little kids that walked with me out to the bus last year at this time did so again today. I noticed how much they’d grown up since we did this walk together a year ago. Surprisingly, I noticed more sad faces than happy ones, and the twin boys that are always with me at the front of the line had tears running down their cute faces as well. I remembered my days as a student in elementary school when we couldn’t get out of the doors fast enough on the last day, laughing and screaming because we were free for the summer. How times have changed, it seems.

The kids boarded their school buses, and the driver of the very last bus that arrived remarked, “What do you guys do to these kids? None of my other schools have kids that are crying!” He was joking, but then I thought about it as I slowly walked back to the school. Our kids must feel the environment of safety, love, and success that we give them at our school. That is the amazing, extraordinary thing that I have felt every year of the 15 years our school has been open – we have always been a loving, caring community of adults who all work hard together to give our kids the best they can get for success in life. No matter what their home life is like, they can trust that our school is a good place for them.

The day ended with me in the garden again, this time I was watering the sunflowers and other plants after everyone had gone, listening to a pool party going on over on the other side of the block fence. I heard the Macarena being played and thought they’re still playing that old thing? I smiled to myself. It was obviously older kids, having a good time. See? The school year forgotten already, the summer is before them, and now they can relax and recharge, just as the teachers will do.

We are all tired now, but content, going through our paperwork and making plans for next year, cleaning up our rooms. The end of May gives us closure to another whirlwind school year. When August comes, the circle begins with a new group of kids, and by then I will be ready to do it all again.

 

 

A school trip to Lake Powell

Above: Lake Powell, the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam

Thursday, April 24, 2014

It was dark out. I did not want to get up yet. However, I was awake and kept thinking about the little things that I forgot the night before, the things to pack before I walked out the door to our annual field trip with my school kids to Lake Powell, near Page, Arizona. It is about 300 miles away from where our school is, so it is a long trip. We were scheduled to leave at 6 a.m., hence the need for me to get up at 4:30 in order to be coherent and somewhat organized as I helped load the buses with kids and their luggage.

To my surprise, when I got there the buses were already arriving. That meant that I could get things loaded, and organized, then have plenty of time to find out who was on the bus and who was not. There has to be time for the “shuffling” of kids from one bus to another to even out the bus numbers. There were only two buses this year, and all the kids that were on my bus wanted to stay with us (me and my colleague) on our bus. We still had a few empty seats, so it was fine.

Our bus was an awesome bright pink color! Our drivers, Milo, ahead on the lead bus (bright green), and Tom, driving our bus, were great, probably the best we’ve had outside of our district drivers a couple of years ago. Our bus, the pink bus, was brand new! It even smelled new, and I hoped to keep it clean. The kids did a very good job throughout the trip.

We left about 6:15, pulling out of the school parking lot with everyone on board. We traveled through rush hour traffic, which hadn’t yet gotten too heavy, and an hour and 15 minutes later we were nearing Sunset Point. I looked west out of the windows of the bus and could see the lovely winding dirt roads near Crown King. Someday soon I will ride them on my dual sport motorcycle. We also saw numerous hot air balloons! This is the last hurrah for them as the season is changing to the super-hot weather of summer. When it is hot, it impossible for them to go up.

We were in Flagstaff by 9 a.m., ahead of schedule. I ate the half bagel that I had packed earlier, before I left the house. I was determined not to be too hungry or too tired by the time I got to Lake Powell Resort.

North of Flagstaff, we turned at The Gap onto Indian 20, which has been recently designated as Temporary 89 north due to the landslide last year. It was a much quicker route than the original route, and definitely much quicker than the roundabout route we had to take last year, far east to Tuba City, then back in a northwest direction on Hwy. 98, to Page, AZ. This year was a breeze! We arrived very early, as usual, and had to kill time while the kids explored, ate lunch, hung out. Finally, the rangers were ready to do their presentations, and the kids sat down to listen.

What it is:

Under the water of Lake Powell is the lost paradise of Glen Canyon. I have seen films made in the 1960s of the lovely areas that are now lost due to the backup of the Colorado River. It’s too bad such great sacrifices have to be made in nature to support the ever-growing human population. No one ever talks about this aspect of dam-building and energy generation.

After the presentations, we walked across the bridge over the base of Glen Canyon Dam. Some kids said they were afraid of heights, but then enjoyed the walk anyway. It’s one of those pre-teen drama things, I guess. They were able to see the rafts far below the bridge, the ones that they would take down the river on Friday morning.

We got back on our lovely buses and rode the short distance to Lake Powell Resort. The rooms were not ready, so we had to put our baggage in a tiny room until we got back from the Antelope Canyon boat tour. This year we got our own tour boat and very nice personnel on the boat. The kids were able to really enjoy it this time and I saw many of them taking photos. They seemed to appreciate the beauty of the scenery, and no one complained about anything, not even about having to wear the life vests. The weather was absolutely perfect for an afternoon cruise on the deep blue water of Lake Powell.  The boat went deep into the narrowing canyon; however, this time we did not get to go far in, to experience the extreme tightness of the canyon, because another boat was headed out when we were about to go in. So, our captain turned the boat around, and sadly, we missed out on one of the most spectacular parts of the trip.

Back at the hotel, we took group photos of each class in their matching t-shirts. Each class was a different color, and mine were black, as usual. After all the voting on which color we would have, it ended up black anyway! We finally got the problem of the hotel rooms settled, and then we were able to retrieve our luggage from the small room and proceed to the actual rooms in which we would be staying. We only had time to drop our luggage and run (again) because we were due at the pizza party on the lawn near the pool. I hate it when they make us eat outside because they never serve coffee out there, and the adults can’t even have a moment’s peace to sit and sip. What is so wrong with letting the adults have a small pleasure once in a while? I don’t get it.

Then it was on to the gift shop where the kids bought over-priced objects, like colorful plush stuffed snakes, hoodies that said “Lake Powell” on them, various jewelry trinkets, and candy. Yes, candy. Well, they might as well enjoy it, I thought, as long as they don’t over-indulge.

Finally, it was time for the kids to go to their rooms and get to bed. The chaperones and teachers went to their respective rooms as well, and my colleague and I, who I always room with, thought we would be “out like a light” immediately. Not so. I think we had been so over-tired and stressed all day that neither one of us could fall asleep. We both tossed and turned all night, but finally toward morning I fell asleep. But not for long! It was time to get up early, get breakfast, and get packed.

One of the highlights of the trip, at least for the adults, is the fabulous buffet breakfast that is always available in the Rainbow Room. The kids were polite, and filled up on lots of delicious food, including eggs and bacon, fruit, Danish rolls, cereal, and orange juice. At last there was coffee for the adults, and we all took full advantage of it. Then we all went back to our rooms, finished packing, said good-bye to the resort, and boarded our buses once again.

The buses took us to the dam, where the kids would take different buses to the base of the dam, where they would get on rafts and do a smooth-river float down the Colorado, eventually ending up at Lee’s Ferry, where our buses would pick them up and take them home. Since I have been on the rafts many times, I drove a chaperone’s car to Lee’s Ferry so she could enjoy the rafting trip. It was lucky that I had planned to do it anyway because it turned out she had a car with a manual transmission, and no one else was comfortable driving a “stick shift.” So, I set out from Page behind the tour buses, with Milo and Tom driving them in front of me, and I had some peace and quiet, at least until I found out the CD left in the player was a Lady Gaga CD. I listened and sang for a while, but then I was getting too distracted on the narrow curving road near Lee’s Ferry. In front of me I saw the buses swaying in the gusty wind, and bouncing on the rough parts of the road.

Soon we were parked in Lee’s Ferry, and it had taken us only a short time to drive there. Last year when I had to do this drive, it had taken the whole 3-1/2 hours to get to Lee’s Ferry due to the detour caused by the landslide on Hwy. 89 in February, 2013. This year we made record time on the shorter route.

It was once again a hurry-up-and-wait situation. “We could have had another cup of coffee at the Denny’s in Page!” remarked Milo. I wished we had. I sat and talked with the two bus drivers, sitting in our bus for an hour and a half. They are two very interesting men, people who have experienced a lot in their lives, and done many things. It was interesting to listen to them.

Finally, I saw the first rafts and recognized the kids as they came around the bend leading to Lee’s Ferry. I grabbed my camera and took photos as the rafts docked and the kids disembarked. Some were cold and wet, but we had warned them about that! After a short time, we were all back in our buses again.

The drive to Cameron Trading Post was soothing, the buses rocking over the uneven road. Some kids fell asleep, and I handed out snacks and water to a few of them that remained awake. Many of them were looking forward to reaching Cameron because they could buy lunch and souvenirs there. However, our time at Cameron was short, that perpetual hurry to get to the next thing, so I think some of the kids didn’t have enough time to browse. The bus drivers had gone into the restaurant to eat, and as they later said, “barely had time to wolf down a burger!” It’s too bad, I love Cameron Trading Post, and I always wish we had more time there. What would it matter if we were a few minutes later getting home?

Once we were back on the buses, we were sealed in for the trip home. I always love this part of the trip because most people are asleep, including the adults, and it is reasonably quiet. We watched a couple of “G”-rated Disney movies, the only kind we can play, but the drone of the bus’s engine put many to sleep from just south of Cameron almost to home. There was a brief stop at Sunset Point for the drivers to take a break, but the next thing I knew we were pulling into the school driveway, parents anxiously waiting the arrival of the buses to take their tired but happy children home for the weekend.

It was another good trip, and I know the kids really enjoyed it. I am so pleased that we were able to take them since for some it is the only time they will get to experience a road trip like that!

Convention conclusion

Why does the song “Riding on the Metro” by Berlin keep going through my mind??

2-28-14

Today was the last day I got to go into the city for the convention. I thought maybe the Metro would be fairly empty today; I guess I was hoping for “Friday light.” I couldn’t have been more wrong – all the cars were packed. There were people of all ages and occupations. One man, obviously homeless and filthy, slept in one of the seats across the aisle from me. There was a couple sitting and sleeping in the seats in front of him, and they appeared to be in the same situation. They could be any of us, at any time. Most people are just a paycheck or two away from losing their home. Sadly, that is what those in power want.

Here are my thoughts on the week:

I loved riding the Metro into the city each day, and I knew I would. In fact, I think the biggest highlight of the week was getting to ride the train! I would totally ride it every day if I could work downtown.

Cityshapes:

The last downtown photo for a while. I love the mirrored-window high rises when they reflect the ripped cotton clouds of an incoming storm:

I also found that I miss being around the energy of the downtown area. I used to work there years ago, and as I said before, I miss working in graphic arts. It no longer exists as I knew it, but I am sure there are other creative jobs available. I like the energy and excitement of being around working adults, professionals, and other workers, in different types of jobs, and I like being around people of diverse cultures. There are always so many interesting things to see and learn in an urban area. My eyes were open wide during these three days, my brain going at lightning speed. I always want and need new things to think about.

The conference itself was nothing spectacular, but it did have a few pearls of wisdom. The last keynote speaker was excellent, and almost everyone sat in rapt attention for two hours. That is saying something since the speaker before him was abysmally dull.

Overall, I took some good ideas home from the convention, and I hope to have some meaningful conversations about those ideas with my colleagues, and my boss, who was also there. It would be nice if we could get closer to the ideal in our school, and I think we all want that.

Next week is the last before spring break in our district. I can’t believe it is already almost here. It is sure to be another wild week in an elementary school.

“Conventional wisdom”

Today, the second day of the convention, and I was almost completely acclimated to this new, different schedule. I got up before the alarm went off at 5:15, ate a quick breakfast, then got dressed and ready in record time. My colleagues and I caught the Metro at our usual station, and had an enjoyable ride on the train to downtown Phoenix. A couple of keynote speakers and a “breakout” session later, it was lunch time. We walked to Hard Rock Café, which was fine with me since I’d never been to one.

As we walked there, it struck me that Phoenix is finally growing up. It looks more like a real city than it ever has before. I won’t say it is “mature,” but there are always growing pains to any urban area. Unfortunately, our lawmakers are still embarrassing us, but one can always hope for a better, smarter future.

Ceiling of Hard Rock Café:

In the restaurant, we ordered lunch, then waited. And waited. And waited. It was almost an hour before we were served. I had unintentionally ordered an enormous sandwich, and then felt obligated to eat it, which was a mistake. I was glad for the walk back to the convention center, only for me it felt like a “waddle.” I should know better than to eat like that.

I love shooting tall buildings:

Because of the long wait for lunch, our sessions had already started. We all dispersed into various rooms, and I went to one about technology. There is always this big push for technology in education, and we eagerly embrace it, only to have it fall short when hardware and software limitations get in the way. For example, hundreds of people trying to access one website at the same time causes problems, like crashing. One of the problems with technology not being fully implemented in schools is simple logistics. If this happens when a teacher is trying to use it, he or she “loses” the kids.

The best thing about this session, though, was the conversation that I had with a man sitting next to me, who is from New York.  He said almost the exact thing that I said yesterday about these “new” ideas and presentations. There are always more hoops to jump through, and there never is enough time for us to do simple, important things, like grading. Yes, that takes time! And if we don’t get that time, we can’t get the work done and then give useful feedback and help to the students. It’s pretty simple.

After that, the group from our school re-convened, and we all decided we were “done.” We discussed more of what we’d thought about and learned during our sessions while riding the Metro back to our cars. It was a productive day.

Found this on the street as we walked to the Metro:

Amazingly, tomorrow is the last day of the convention, and I am going to miss the time spent out in the world seeking and discussing new ideas.

“Conventional” fun

Today was an adventurous day, although not adventurous in the way you are accustomed to hearing about from me. I attended a conference for teachers in downtown Phoenix, which was fun in a lot of ways, but disappointing in other ways.

I did not like getting up at 5:15 this morning, I will have to admit that. I knew once I was up and going I would be okay, but I am definitely not a morning person! It was worth it, though, because my colleagues and I rode the light rail train into downtown Phoenix instead of having to drive our cars there, saving gas, and the environment. While riding the light rail, we passed by two places that I used to work. One has closed, and I noticed that the building was still empty, and one is still going strong. As we passed it, I was amazed that over 20 years have passed since I worked there. The building and parking lot still look the same, but I am sure there have been many changes. I miss being in graphic arts, but it doesn’t exist (as I knew it) anymore.

Downtown, looking vaguely “Abbey Road-ish:”

Soon we were in central Phoenix, and we got off the train at the convention center. Being in the city center always makes me starry-eyed and dizzy as I look up at the tall, glass-walled office buildings. It’s a heady feeling, an excitement of being right in the middle of where things are happening. I need to get out of my little two-mile-radius web of existence once in a while to clear my vision.

My co-workers and I were borne along the sidewalk by the crowd that was flowing into the convention center. We picked up our name badges, then several of us were glad to see that coffee was offered along with bagels, cream cheese, and fruit. We went in to the main room to find seats, then, with those prime seats (near the back) chosen, we went out to get cups of coffee.

The main conference room, which was a visual carnival of shapes, colors, and textures:

The presentation began right away. Before I say any more, I always learn something from these things, no matter what they are. But I will also say that it is the usual thing: good ideas that are common sense, and strategies that we already use, repackaged to make someone a sh*tload of money. This is no exception.

There were the usual ego-stroking introductions telling us how great the presenters are, the usual pep talk, and then a formulaic video – classroom scenes, music playing in the background while “real teachers” told how great this program is. You know, the usual. I drank my coffee in silence, writing down key phrases as they were spoken. As I said, I can always learn something useful from anything.

There were two sessions in the morning, and then we got to go to lunch together. My boss had the foresight to call a local restaurant and make a reservation, so we didn’t have to wait when we got there. Lunch was an hour and a half, which was much appreciated since teachers normally get about 15 minutes (if that) to (try to) relax (usually not succeeding). That alone was a treat. While we all sat at the table, we had some useful, informal conversations.

Food court:

By the afternoon, we were tired of sitting. Our jobs have us standing and moving around all day, so I wasn’t quite sure how they expected us to sit there for hours. Personally, I can do it pretty well, but others were very uncomfortable. At least we were free to get up and walk around when we wanted to. It was especially nice to be able to use the bathroom when necessary, a real luxury in our world.

The afternoon sessions were somewhat of a disappointment for most of us, although a few people had good experiences. As we waited at the light rail station for the train to return us to our part of town, those who went to the interesting presentations talked about what they’d heard and learned.

A bizarre tableau in the convention center. I am not sure what the artist had in mind:

On the way home, the train was less crowded, so I got a seat this time, thanks to a young man who gave up his seat so I could sit down. Either he was being polite or I look like an old feeble woman. If he only knew, right? 😉

I got home late (for me), but at a normal time if I really did work in the city. Speaking of that, being out in the world makes me want to have a job like I used to have. I suppose it is only because I enjoyed taking the train downtown and not having to drive the car, as I used to. I also was thinking how tired I am of the “next great thing” that makes teachers like me have to jump through even more hoops than we had to before. That is what is dismaying to many of us. We didn’t have time to do what we need to do before, and now we really don’t have time to do the things we should. I am talking about things that we know benefit the students the most.

I will have another day like this tomorrow, which should be fun. By Friday, I will either be sick of it, or want to have a job downtown! Just kidding. But no matter what happens, it will be a great adventure!