P is for…

I have known what P was going to stand for for quite awhile. Last May we met with teachers from one of the high schools to which we feed. I left the meeting so defeated. As the year came to a close, I felt discouraged by the messages received by my students for their placement in classes, (but kind of in a good way). P was going to be all about placement.

But then something happened.

Yesterday we were called in after school to learn the news that a parent had died unexpectedly. This afternoon I sat in church for a prayer service trying to process a bunch and I realized that P had just become for prayer because I had to get out some thoughts. (BTW – this is sad and long and rambling and you can probably just skip reading it. I just needed to process and this was what I had).

I went to my first funeral when I was in 8th grade. It was during school. It was for my best friend Shannon’s grandfather. We had had a classmate die when we were in 3rd grade. When he died he was no longer at our school. I remember that and I think about him every time I drive by his neighborhood, but I don’t remember how we responded. But I can see clearly our class sitting together in the back of Shannon’s grandpa’s funeral. It may seem weird that we went as a class to a funeral, but in Catholic school, that’s just what you do. When shit happens, you pull together, and you pray together.

I think most people probably know that I teach in a Catholic school. I don’t hide that. I mention it often. But I am very wary about talking about it amongst my twitter people. I harbor (among many others) an insecurity that people are anti- Catholic school in some way. Like with all the school choice stuff, I worry that people see me as part of the “them” in an us against them argument. No one has ever said anything like that, but you know… I worry. I feel a little bit of personal attack when some shitty thing happens, people say, “thoughts and prayers…” and my friends go ape shit over it. I get it. In the face of terrorism, thoughts and prayers absolutely aren’t enough. But maybe for many, it’s all they know and it’s better than nothing (this is not a political statement or anything and people in positions of power definitely need to do more than this. I get it). But when people are so dismissive, I do take it kind of personally. I am not at all super religious. Yes I go to Mass every weekend, but I’m not blind to the fact that, like with anything, the Church has some issues. I have more questions than answers. Trust me. My twitter life is interesting in this regard. I have spent 35 of my 39 years in Catholic schools- it’s all I’ve known. What goes with this is that the majority of people I’ve known in my life are pretty much like me. My #mtbos family is, to me at least, extremely diverse. I respect different people’s different religions or lack thereof. I actually am really interested in learning about different religions. But I sometimes worry there are people who are dismissive of religion. It just makes it an interesting place for me to spend time sometimes. Anyway…. weird unplanned tangent there….

Sept. 11, 2001. I’d been a teacher for, oh… 5 or 6 days (like, literally). I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was teaching in the Boston suburbs. The suburb in which I taught was home to TJX Co. One of the planes out of Boston held a huge group of their employees. You can imagine. We were not able to tell the students what was going on. I’m not sure I could have anyway. That was definitely a message for 5th graders to hear from their parents, not a 23 year old girl who could not even process what was happening. That night I sat with my roommate, a NYer, as she answered call after call from her NY friends. Her boyfriend was over. His dad, who worked in the towers, had gone to work late for the first time ever. He was ok. I waited to hear from my parents who were arranging for my brother to get out of NYC, where he was visiting for the first time ever, and at least get to Boston, since he couldn’t fly home. The HS friend he was visiting lost his girlfriend that morning. And as we sat there, we couldn’t escape the wondering of what would happen the next day. How was I to go in and face these little faces who would now grow up in an entirely different world than I did? How could I help them to cope when I couldn’t cope myself? But in the morning, we started our day in the Church. We prayed together. We prayed for strength to get through whatever was to come. We prayed for the lives lost. We prayed for understanding. And I prayed for the Holy Spirit to give me some sense of how to help these little 5th graders. It was in the Church that morning that I learned that, while you need to be strong for your students, it’s ok for them to see you cry and to see you be human. I remember Katelyn’s mom coming over at the end of Mass and wrapping her arms around me as I sobbed and sobbed.

When we were called into the faculty room yesterday and given the devastating news of the parent’s passing, I was, of course, terribly sad for the family. I currently have one child in 6th grade, had another for 2 years (he’s a freshman), and there is a younger sister. Others were visibly upset, but I sat feeling somewhat blank. As I drove home and talked to my mom, of course I was thinking about the 2 boys I’ve had in class and how their world is forever changed. My mom is the one who kind of made the connection back to 9/11 and the unsettled grief of that day. I’ve dealt with family deaths of my students, but most (maybe all?) of those were after a long illness. No less sad, just different. I didn’t have any tears (and with me, there are ALWAYS tears). I actually kind of wondered what was wrong with me that I wasn’t feeling anything other than sadness for the family.

We met as a staff this morning to have a game plan. What would we and would we not talk about? Would we go to Mass at 8am? Grief counselors were brought in. The other math teacher (who is also the 6th grade homeroom teacher – the grade of one of the kiddos) and I made a plan to allow her to keep her class together as much as possible. But then… we just went to class. It felt weird. When my 8th grade came, nothing was said and we went about our business. Sixth came and one of the boys asked me to sign a card for his friend. That was it. The day was very normal.

I went into the office before lunch and saw 2 parents of classmates of the freshman boy. I consider these 2 moms friends, so we hugged and chatted for a few minutes. The tears finally came to my eyes at this point. At the end of the day, as you do in Catholic school, we gathered together in the Church for a prayer service. The family was in attendance. As soon as I saw the freshman boy, I pretty much lost it. I could no longer contain any emotions.Of course, here I am in a Church filled with all my students and most of their parents. I’m supposed to be the strong one. I’m supposed to be there for the kiddos. But man…. no way. As we went through the prayer service I couldn’t even look in the direction of my students or the family. I was just so sad.

But at the same time, it was such a powerful statement of community. There were so many families in attendance. Even a few of the students from last year’s class were there with their parents in support. This family is so well loved and will have no shortage of support. At the end of the prayer service, out of the corner of my eye I caught a mom of an 8th grader move up from the back of the Church to sit with and comfort her son. There was something so heartbreakingly beautiful about it. As cool as they try to be, they are still such innocent kiddos dealing with sadness and loss. When the classes were going back to the school the 8th graders left last. Many of the boys have been on teams with the freshman son and the father had been a coach for many of them. One by one, those who felt called went and greeted their friend, his mom, and siblings with deep, meaningful hugs – most of them with tears in their eyes. Once again, I found the moment so heartbreaking, but also so heart warming. I wanted to go say hi to the family – especially the freshman boy who will always stand out in my memories of students gone by. I just didn’t know if I had the strength to do it without totally falling apart again. Finally, I walked over there and greeted each of the kiddos and the mom with a giant hug. But like, what do you even say? There are no words that I can offer that will lessen their grief. It’s just about knowing we are there for them, I suppose.

What I did know, however, was that I felt very lucky that I am in a place where we can respond in the way we did. Because I have only known schools like this, it’s just natural. In the morning it was like, well of course we’ll have a prayer service. I can’t imagine what it must be like to deal with these tragedies in schools where prayer isn’t the first reaction. I know there are other ways to deal with grief, but this is the only one I know. Maybe there are people who say that prayer doesn’t actually do anything. But what I know, going all the way back to 8th grade and Shannon’s grandpa’s funeral, is that having a way to come together and support the family, brings comfort.

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O is for…

I’ve known for quite some time what O was for – Ordinary. But you know what the funny thing is? I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a “defense” of ordinary or a lamentation for my feelings of being ordinary. Even after all the time thinking about it and knowing this was coming and sitting down to write it, I’m still not actually sure.

What does it mean to be ordinary? What does it mean to be extraordinary? What is the “extra?” I’m actually really curious what people think about these words. Is ordinary necessarily a negative? I don’t think so. I think that I, and most people I know, would choose ordinary if they were really pushed to pick. Maybe we are all ordinary people with a few extraordinary talents. I don’t actually think I know anyone who would flat out say, “yep. That’s me. I’m extraordinary.”

In one of my favorite movies, “You’ve Got Mail,” Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, says in a message to her unknown internet “friend,” “Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?” This quote has always resonated with me, and I think it’s fitting here. When I think about my life, I think it’s fairly ordinary, or “small,” though I know some would look at opportunities I’ve had and think differently. (That’s mostly things outside my teaching life, however.) Is it because I like it that way or because I haven’t been brave. I think realistically, it’s both. There are ways I’d like my life to be “bigger,” but when the reality of situations appears, I realize that I’m way better off in the smallness. Brave is not a word that has ever resonated with me, but when Steve Leinwand told me I was fearless this summer, I decided to embrace it and try to focus on living that way as much as possible. I’ll get back to you on that. I did incorporate it into my professional and personal goals at school, though. So there’s that.

Last year at NCTM I had a tough time. At some point I’ve said that to probably everyone who might be reading this. I’ve joked hundreds of times about having a nervous breakdown there (not really). I think this idea of feeling so ordinary, but wishing I *could* be extraordinary, was a lot of the cause. Being surrounded by the people I spend time with at NCTM makes that feeling really obvious. In every meal and conversation and even in every session I was hearing things on big and small scales that made me consider my position in my school and in my community that made me just yearn for something, anything, more. As silly as this sounds, I started to hear about all the different committees and side opportunities and things that people were asked to be part of, and I wondered a lot about, “why not me?” It made me wonder – what is it that makes “them” special and why am I not special  enough to be asked, as well? In addition, I was constantly asked about why I wasn’t presenting and I was frustrated because, despite being quite flattered that people wanted to hear from me and felt I had a contribution to make, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what that contribution could be. As someone who considers herself pretty passionate, that I couldn’t identify one thing I felt I could share made me feel, well, very short of extraordinary. It caused me to really turn inward and consider things. People said that I could offer the perspective of someone who is still in the classroom on a daily basis, as opposed to much of my crowd who are not. I like that idea, but at the same time I couldn’t identify one way in which I felt my classroom was any more special or worthy of sharing than any others. It made me focus on my own limitations and I saw something to worry about, not something to celebrate.

Now, let me say this. I know my students do extraordinary things. I know the things that I share out on twitter make it seem like maybe I’m an extraordinary teacher. But as we all know, and despite others’ efforts to eliminate this feeling, we are more apt to share our shining, extraordinary moments than our “omg wtf” moments. With every lovely compliment I receive, I worry that I’ve created an illusion that I don’t feel I live up to. I guess I’m not really sure what I think an extraordinary classroom looks, sounds, feels like. I know my classes do some special things. I know they are growing to be capable, thoughtful mathematicians and humans, and that’s the most important thing. I guess the truly extraordinary thing is simply that we are given the trust each day to make this happen.

Awhile ago my friend posted this article. I finally read it yesterday. I’m so glad  I did. I’m certainly not a millenial, but it made re-focus my thoughts and made me feel better about my very ordinary life. The quotes that stood out to me the most are these:

“The most meaningful lives, I’ve learned, are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.”

“Most young adults won’t achieve the idealistic goals they’ve set for themselves. They won’t become the next Mark Zuckerberg. They won’t have obituaries that run in newspapers like this one. But that doesn’t mean their lives will lack significance and worth. We all have a circle of people whose lives we can touch and improve — and we can find our meaning in that.”

Finding meaning in an ordinary life lived with dignity and finding meaning within my circle of people, both my student circle and my MTBoS circle. This is a life that makes sense to me.

Ordinary. I think that being part of such an extraordinary community sometimes makes me feel lost. Like – wait, I don’t fit in here. I’m not extraordinary, I’m just… me. But what I’ve come to realize through tweets and blogs and conversations with so many of you, is that nobody really feels extraordinary. We are all out here doing the work, fueled by our ordinariness, and the desire to someday see ourselves as extraordinary. However, I’m not sure any of us will ever come to see ourselves in that way, because that would mean that we’d “landed” somewhere. And if there’s one thing I know about this community, it’s that none of us will ever be willing to stop growing.