13 December 2005

The definition of gullible

Jordan: Ms. Backes, can you explain the definition of "gullible" to Jericka?
Me: Um, it's like... easily tricked. Like, you fall for things easily, you believe whatever anyone tells you.
Jordan: That's what I told her!
Aleks: Jericka, Davin called you "gullible"!
Jericka: Who did?
Davin: No, it wasn't me, it was the little leprechaun behind you!
Jericka: What? Where?
Jordan: Oh my god, you ARE gullible!


Me: Number nine. Betty -- COMMA -- my sister -- COMMA -- is wearing a red dress.
Kids: Ms. Backes, you sound like a machine. Read it with expression.
Me: Um... okay. Number ten. Open quotes -- capital W -- Where did you get that book -- question mark -- close quotes -- lowercase a -- asked Steven -- period.
Kids: One thing's for sure -- you're no actress, Ms. Backes!


7th grade boy: Ms. Backes, you're wearing glasses!
Me: Yes.
7th grade boy: You look like a NERD!!
Me: Child, one day you'll learn not to say things like that to girls. Until then, you're no better than the smelly kid, standing in the dark corner at the school dance.
9th grade girl: (laughing) It's so TRUE!!


Dale: Ms. Backes, I did my assignment, but I can't print it out. This disk proves that I did it, though. Except I can't open it. But it's proof!
Me: (grabbing a blank disk off my desk) Dale, this disk is proof that I wrote the United States Constitution! I can't open it to show it to you, but the disk alone should convince you!
Dale: (taking a moment to process) Oh...... Oh, Ms. Backes. You don't let anything go, do you?


K: Ms. Backes, where were you yesterday?
Me: At the doctor.
OK: Are you SICK?
Me: No, I just keep getting migraines. I thought I had a brain tumor, but I don't.
K: Oh man, I KNEW there was something wrong with your brain!!
OK: She just said she DOESN'T have a brain tumor, retard!
K: Even so....!


Me: Kyle, what are you doing right now?
Kyle: Honestly?
Me: Yeah.
Kyle: Nothing.
Me: What about your excerpt?
Kyle: I'm typing it at home.
Me: Okay. Will you go to the office and get me some coffee?
Kyle: Sure!
Me: Thanks!..... (quietly, laughing) I'm a terrible person!
Cole: You ARE a terrible person! You made your student go get you some coffee!
Me: I'm DRUNK on POWER!! (cackling)
Me: Mwa ha ha!
Kids: You're so weird! Ha ha ha!


Me: Yesterday I was talking to Ms. Lawson, and she was telling stories about how nice she is and how she always tells her students how smart they are, and I was like, uh.... I just tell them I loathe them.
Cole: Yeah, you're always like, 'You guys suck!'
Ray: (shrugging) Hey, the truth hurts, right Ms. Backes?
Me: (laughing hysterically) No seriously, I like you guys... ha ha ... I do!
Cole: (patting me on the back) Sure you do, Ms. Backes. Sure you do.

27 October 2005

In the diner on the corner sits a lady eating pie

I have twenty minutes before rehearsal begins, and a goal of finishing Paige this week. I have about three chapters left, so clearly the logical thing would be to take this time to knock out a few pages, but instead I'm eating pie and updating my blog for the first time in months.

Apologies for the hiatus, and to make up for it, a retrospective of the last six weeks (in no logical order at all):


Super Punk Tough Kid: Ms. Backes, are you sick?
Me: Mmm-hmm.
SPTK: What's wrong? Just the usual tuberculosis?
Me: WHAT? I hope not!!
SPTK: Oh, I don't even know what that is.

The nice thing about getting sick is that kids are so cute about it. They're always nicer and they yell at one another to do their work. "Can't you see Ms. Backes is sick???"


I may very well be the ONLY TEACHER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD who can say that a child CAUGHT ON FIRE in her classroom during a parent teacher conference.

Also, why do so many of my stories begin with "How many people can say...?" As in, "How many people can say they've caught a squirrel with their bare hands, using chap-stick as bait??" or "How many people can say they've been run over by their OWN CAR?"


Parent-Teacher Conference Update:

While cleaning out my classroom in a quiet moment, I gathered up a pile of clothes (gym-type shorts & whatnot, abandoned in the last week) to take to the lost and found. From the bottom of the pile fell two extremely skimpy pairs of string thongs, one pink, one black. "Well," thought I, "certainly I cannot put these in the lost and found, or some teenage boy will find them and a riot will break out." So I hooked them around one pinky and walked them to the office, where the secretary was on the phone. When she saw my dangling panties, her eyes bugged out and she said in a choked voice, "I'll have to call you back!" "I found these in my classroom," I said nonchalantly. "WHAT??" she asked. "Who left them there?" I shrugged. "I have no idea, but clearly I can't put them in the lost and found. You have to take them." "But who would leave their panties in a language arts classroom." Behind me, the principal turned and looked at the two little thongs on my fingers. "Well, they're not mine," he said. "Yeah," the secretary said, "they're too small!"



This morning I met with my department and we discussed our plans for next year. The school's steering committee is working with my suggestion that we move to an 8 period schedule in order to separate Literature/Reading and Language Arts/Writing into two classes. As it stands, I generally focus on writing because it's what I'm good at, and so my students don't get as much experience working with literature. The other main LA teacher focuses on reading, because that's what she's good at, and the kids don't do much writing at all for her. (The third LA teacher just teaches the clappy chanty SRA Reading Recovery curriculum from the book.) At a terrible staff inservice a few weeks ago, I brought the idea of the 8-period day to my colleagues, and now it's very seriously being discussed. Similarly, we're talking about moving to the "family" model, which is something I've been promoting ever since I moved here. This afternoon, I'm meeting with the discipline committee to discuss the discipline model I helped to design (based on Berg Middle School's green card system).

One thing I love about this school is that each teacher's voice is heard, and if you take iniative you can really effect change in a timely and obvious way. Part of this has to do with how small we are, and part of it has to do with the fact that our leadership is committed to continual improvement, and as such is willing to experiment with new ideas.

The problem is that A) I feel like the more I put into this school, the harder it will be to leave, and B) I worry that in some strange ways I'm getting spoiled by teaching here, not in terms of student performance or parent support, of course, but in terms of administrative vision and attitude. This has been such a great place to try things out, to learn and change and experiment, and I worry that I'll be hard pressed to find another school with the same kind of openness to new ideas. And so C) I worry that I'll get stuck here. :-)

I guess it's not a huge problem to have, is it?

Thank god it's not my only problem, or I'd start getting nervous.


From an eighth grader's essay:

"Some of us rely on video games when we can't rely on our own world."


From a seventh grader's essay entitled To Be A Good Teacher:

"The behavior is the most important of all because of how many sex offenders that we have in this world, definitely no-body wants to be raped, and no-body wants to be raped by a teacher."


Walking down the hall at the end of the day, I admitted to the Spanish teacher next door that I'm kind of stressed out today. He dragged me into my classroom, held both my hands, and prayed with me. Staunch unitarian that I am, raised by parents who openly express their concern that the "Jesus People" will get me, nevertheless it was a sweet moment, and I feel a little bit softer. Not because of the heavenly father's light, neccessarily, but because of the light from the people around me, the light we create in our own lives and all the tiny mercies we show one another each day. Yes, and blessed. That I do feel.


Me: So I have to do this big dossier thing that's a lot like our portfolios only so specific I can't re-use any data...
My college education advisor: (interrupting) Just make it up!
Me: Oh... what??
MCEA: Use my name! "Jane Cutter went from a 45% to a 93% in a week!"
Me: Jane, there have been a whole bunch of expose things recently about teachers doing just that, falsifying data!
MCEA: Well, can you blame them?
Me: No, but it's illegal!



Super Punk Tough Kid: Do we have to write in complete sentences?
Me: Um, just for number fourteen, no.
SPTK: Yay! You rock!
Me: (smile)
SPTK: (to himself) Did I just say "yay" out loud?


(from a letter to another teacher)

...I think a great teaching/learning relationship should be mutually beneficial, with both parties enhancing the lives of the other. Certainly I have my days where
teaching doesn't feel so much like saving the world as it feels like being saved, and it doesn't feel so much like imparting knowledge as it feels like being granted the chance to learn yet another one of those big life lessons we all come back to again and again, and it doesn't feel so much like a job as it feels like something holy.

I confess to memories I keep like rosary beads to click through when things get tough; the majority of beads are tiny moments of grace, the times when you feel craziest and as lost as you can be, and then you look up to see a little circle of munchkin angels standing around you to take care of you in their strange little ways, whether it be reminding you to take attendance or handing you a pen when you need one or offering a word when words won't come, or squinching up their little faces and asking with concern, "Are you okay?"

Likewise, there are the rare opportunities you've had to say exactly the right thing or be there for a kid in exactly the right way. They're so, so rare, but they're critical, too, and believe me, they will not be forgotten.

This is why teaching is so difficult and so essential: you are dealing with human beings in a system -- a society, even -- that values statistics and numbers and would reduce each child to a series of test scores and socio-economic stats, a society that blinds children to violence and strips them of their natural empathy, in a profession that is under-supported and under-recognized, and in the face of all this, you and the young people around you will struggle, each day, to identify that in one another which makes you uniquely human and uniquely worthy of time and attention.

Ultimately, it will not be the test scores but rather the moments of human connection that sustain both you and your students. Nobody can tell you that those moments are not vitally important.



Me: What's your thesis?
Taylor: We should move to the Forest Moon of Endor.
Me: Um... (trying not to laugh) okay, what are your three arguments?
Taylor: One, there are ewoks. Two, we wouldn't have to go to school. Three, there are lots of trees.
Me: (trying so hard not to laugh) Well... those are good arguments... sounds good! Okay, good luck with that! (runs away to laugh in corner)


Xander: Ms. Backes, when you were in school, did you ever have a teacher that you thought hated you?
Me: Yeah, TOTALLY.
Xander: I think Mrs. Bradley hates me. She took my hat.
Malinda: Who hated you, Ms. Backes?
Me: My high school advanced biology teacher. We'd be studying these diseases, and he'd always be like, "I think Molly has that." Like, "Narcolepsy -- maybe that's why Molly's always falling asleep in class! Schizophrenia -- maybe that's why Molly hears voices!"
Courtney: I would have been like, "Oh yeah? Well you have herpes!"

I don't think I've laughed that hard in my classroom, EVER.

Today in 8th Grade:

Jody: What's Arbor Day?
Me: Blah blah blah planting trees.
Jody: When is it?
Me: I have no idea.
Paul: Nobody really cares about Arbor Day.
Jody: I do! I love flowers!
Entire class: TREES!
Me: I *JUST* said that, Jody!
Jody: Ohhhh! Why would they have a holiday about trees??
Entire class: JO-DY!!!

The assignment: Create a word portrait of a person you know using lots of interesting, telling details.

Most kids chose their best friends, parents, or siblings, but one of my 7th grade boys chose me. I guess I'll come back on Monday, after all. :-)

Ms. Backes

Ms. Backes is one of the coolest teachers because she lets us talk and listen to the radio during class. She jokes around with us and helps us when we need the help. She lets us make bets with her. For example, the class bet her that she could not go for one day without wearing black. She always wears black to school. She says that is all she wears because that is all she buys. She did win the bet, though. She managed to not wear black for one day. She wore a blue and white shirt, blue pants, brown sandals, and a rainbow colored belt.

Ms. Backes is really funny. She told us that she has ADD and is dyslexic. She said that last year, a girl wore shiny shoes, and they distracted her all during the class. So, we can't wear shiny shoes. She also told us to keep our watches out of the sunlight, because the reflection will be a distraction to her.

Ms. Backes must love dogs because there is a picture of a dog on every poster in her classroom. There are space dogs, escape artist dogs, vampire dogs, dogs with pink hair, dogs in a suit of armor, dogs in swimsuits, detective dogs, and many, many more.

She also has a very big collection of post cards. There are post cards from all of the United States of America and around the world. I wonder if she has traveled to all those places.

Ms. Backes has very nice handwriting. She writes stories about all kinds of stuff. Last weekend, she told us that she wrote twenty pages about stuff for a novel that she is working on. I think she is a good language arts teacher, because she loves to write and teach and gets very involved in her work.

She likes to tell stories about her friends, especially Ally and Mr. Blue. She told us that she could tell us stories all day long about her friends. One story was about Mr. Blue. He used to teach second grade in the United States, but now he teaches kindergarten in China. One time he came into her seventh grade class, when she was a student teacher, and told the class that his name was Mr. Blue. Sometime later, her friend Ally, otherwise known as Mrs. Brown, came to the same class. After that, another friend came to class, and the class asked what is his name, Mr. Green? Ms. Backes thought that was kind of funny, because how a lot of her friend's last names were colors. Her favorite color is green.

I am looking forward to an exciting year with Ms. Backes, otherwise known as Molly. So far, I have enjoyed her class very much. Thank you, Ms. Backes.

21 October 2005

Poofy and Peeeenalized

This morning:

Davey: (knowingly, sympathetic) Bad hair day?
Me: What? Me?
Davey: Yeah...
Me: I'm having a bad hair day??
Davey: I'm just asking....
Me: You think I'm having a bad hair day!
Davey: Well, it is kind of poofy....
Girls: No, Ms. Backes, it looks good....
Me: [yanking a hair tie off my wrist, pulling my hair back into a ponytail] I *like* it poofy! But fine! I don't even like you people, anyway!
Girls: Aw, Ms. Backes, don't do that, it looked good..... [turning on Davey] SEE WHAT YOU'VE DONE!!
Davey: [shrugging] I just said it looked a little poofy is all.


Me: Anyone who does not have this tomorrow will be penalized.
8th Grade Boys: HA HA HA HA!!!!!
8th Grade Boys: Pee-nalized! She said peee-nalized! Ha ha ha!!
Me: Yes, yes. Hilarious.

8th Grade Boys: Ms. Backes, are you going to PEE-nalize us?
8th Grade Boys: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!! Pee-nalize!
8th Grade Girls: Ms. Backes, why are those boys *still* laughing?
Me: Oh, they think it's funny because it sounds like PENIS.
Me: (in my head) They've had them for 13 years, you'd think they'd be over them by now. Ha ha!

Yes, she who laughs last laughs best.

17 September 2005

The Book of Muppet, Chapter IV, Verse III

No posts for a while because my laptop committed suicide on Monday. Now I'm writing in a little blue notebook, feeling like I'm back in high school. The other day, my 13-year-old aspiring writer Davey and I were talking novels (as long as I've known him, he's been writing a novel about a dragon named Vortex) and he was giving me advice on writing.

So it has come to this: I'm writing a novel in a blue spiral notebook and getting advice from a geeky 13 year old boy.


My new laptop.

04 September 2005

Sunday at the Circle K (ee-ay-yay)

Three things:

1. Yesterday I paid FORTY TWO DOLLARS for gas and my tank wasn't even EMPTY. I had more than 1/8th in the tank. I'm thinking it would have been $50 if my tank had been totally empty. My new strategy is to keep a Wisconsin Winter tank (ie never let it get below 3/4) because the gas prices are going up EVERY SINGLE DAY. Also also, it's time for Molly to get a 2nd job to pay for gas to get to her first job. Sad. Although....

1 1/2. I have this theory that if gas gets too much more expensive (rumors put it at $4 by September 15), we'll have to go to a 4 day school week, because ours is SUCH a rural district and it must be hundreds of dollars to fill up those school busses and I highly doubt the district has budgeted for doubled gas prices. OR school will just be cancelled because if the rumor that you won't be able to get diesel in the southwest is true, our busses won't even be able to run. Too bad they don't run on LOVE. Or, like, tumbleweeds.

2. The law office finally got smart enough to put locks on their wireless, which means I don't have internet in my house anymore. Sad. And I'm not going to get it anytime soon, not as long as I'm paying something like $8 a day just to get to and from work.

3. Yesterday I wrote 15 pages and they're good and I'm past the half-way point in this manuscript and I am proud of myself.

post-script: one of the reasons I moved & broke down my website (yes, I intentionally broke all the links on my homepage) was that I suddenly felt too exposed and that was freaking me out. This blog will be as anonymous as I can make it.... and I seem to be having some issues with this plan. All student and colleague names are changed, but I keep accidentally posting my own name. Keep me on my toes, folks. If you notice that I'm name-dropping, let me know. Thanks!

01 September 2005

"We could call her... BONECRUNCHER!"

I chews my bones and I crunches my kitties.

Further proof that developing an internal editor is KEY:

Me: What details did the author give us about her cats?
Class: Age, where she got them, their names.
Me: Do you feel she sufficiently supported her topic?
Class: Yes!
Me: You wouldn't want any more details?
Class: No! She did a good job! I love kitties!
Me: Okay. Let me tell you a story.
Class: Yay!
Me: I don't have a cat, but I used to. He was a big, black, shaggy cat, and he adopted me. I didn't even want a cat, but suddenly this cat starts following me around everywhere. I go to the library; the cat sits outside waiting for me. I go to a party; the cat waits on the porch.
Class: What was his name?
Me: Griffin.
Class: How'd you pick that name?
Me: One day I was reading in the living room, and the cat was in the window staring at me. I looked up, and the words "My name is Griffin" appeared in my head..... wait, you can't say that. Um, he named himself. NO. Um...... he told me.....
Me: Um, I don't know.
Class: Okay.
Me: Anyhow, Griffin was kind of spooky. He wasn't allowed inside the house, but would sit on this table on the porch and stare at me through the window.
[I mime being watched, slowly widening my eyes and glancing behind me nervously. Class laughs.]
Me: Also, there was something about Griffin -- he was, like, MORE than a normal cat.
Class: How?
Me: Like the time I was so stoned, and Nadia held up her hands and said, "Give me five," and I totally thought the cat would do it. Wait..... Okay, like when I was drunk, and would come home from the pub and sit on the porch and talk to the cat.... shit, not that either.........
Me: Um, I can't really explain it. Anyhow, after a while, Griffin decided he didn't want me to be his human anymore, and he left. And that's the story of Griffin. Do you see how my story is different from this other story?
Class: Yes! You gave lots of good details.
Me: You have no idea.....


Gas was at $2.95 at the Chevron on the hill last night, $2.99 as I drove home from work today.

I can't be optimistic about this. Whether or not high gas prices will ultimately help to reduce the demand, thus dropping the prices, or will encourage the world to seek alternate forms of energy, thus reducing the need for oil, the real problem is that the high gas prices are fueling the hatred and jingoism among our fellow countrymen.

Exhibit A: A teacher at my school, yesterday in the teacher's lounge.

"What we really need to do is turn Iraq into a parking lot and take all their oil. They shouldn't have a choice any more. We're in there, saving their butts, and they're gonna charge us $50 a barrel? That's bullshit!"

It breaks my heart.

Dan: So I was reading your new blog....
Me: Is it too pink?
Dan: No, it looks good.
Me: Okay, thanks.
Dan: But here's the thing. You know the story about the boy and the dog?
Me: Yes?
Dan: Well, I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's Good Omens, which is about the antichrist who's given to a normal family at birth, and is growing up as a normal kid in a normal family....
Me: (suspiciously) ...and?
Dan: And when the antichrist kid is about eleven or twelve, this dog shows up, like a demon dog, and the kid names it Dog.
Me: .....
Dan: So I just wanted to let you know that you might have the antichrist in your homeroom. Me: You know... that would actually explain a lot.....

UPDATE: this morning, Potential Antichrist Kid (PAK) said (and I quote), "Can I write about a satanic dog?"


...and speaking of hellhounds...

31 August 2005

Her First Official Freak Out

Eleven days down, one-hundred-sixty-nine to go. SIGH.....

Goddammit. Today's one of those days I wish I had someone to go home to other than the dog, someone to tell me that I'm not a total failure, I'm not a terrible person, I'm not wasting my life, and I'm not on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Also, I could use a hug.


Me: Don't just scratch the surface; go deep. Go beyond the obvious. Think outside the box.
Kurt: You stole that from Taco Bell!
Me: Excuse me?
Kurt: Except it's "eat outside the box."
Me: Oh..... okay. It was an expression before it became an advertising campaign.
Kurt: You stole it!
Me: Um. It's a phrase that means, like, don't just be normal, don't just do the obvious thing.
Kurt: Except it's "eat outside the box," right? That's what they say on Taco Bell.

Me: Argh! (after an extremely long day of chatty chatty chattyness)
Me: You guys! It's so frustrating that you're always talking, because you're SO smart, and you're SO creative, and it seriously drives me insane that you don't respect yourselves enough to listen to yourselves! You're all so intelligent and awesome and you deserve quiet time to learn to hear your own thoughts, but you need to respect yourselves enough to be quiet and trust your own thoughts.
Kids: Uh........ we're smart? We're not smart!
Me: You ARE smart, you're SO smart, and you can do so much better than this!
Jody: Um, Miss? How come 3rd period doesn't have a mission statement?
Me: I don't have a class 3rd.
Jody: Well what do you do then?
Me: That's when I go into the padded room and try to find some semblance of mental wellness!
Kids: AWESOME! I want to go in the padded room!


from a seventh grader's letter to his future self:
"I'd love for you to write me back. Thanks, your biggest fan"

from a seventh grader's letter to her past self:
"Dear Past Self, Growing up as a kid, you were pretty lame. Don't worry, because a great future is in store...."

from an 8th grader's personal mission statement:
"I am here because my parents made me. They wouldn't home school me. I guess I have to learn something.... I am going to put out 9% in all my classes. I have to put out 110% every time I nod my head to call for the gate."

from an 8th grader's letter to himself: "...just writing to give you a few pointers:
-- duck when Joey throws the rebar
-- always stand back when shooting the GI Joes with a pellet gun. It really hurts to have it ricoche in your face.
-- always be sure to carefully crawl throu the barbed wire fences, and always wear gloves when you break bottles.
Sincerely, Future You"

from an 8th grader's letter to her future self:
"Dear Future Me, You better not have any kids or I'll go into the future and beat you with a stick."

30 August 2005

Sex, Dogs, and Mama Trolls

When I was a student teacher, my mentor teacher Heather taught me a method of dealing with conflict using a mix of over-reaction and humor, so that you can make the point that a behavior is unacceptable without involving anger or blame. I find that it works well for me, which means that I'm often laughing and yelling at the same time, like "oh my GOD I cannot BELIEVE you just SAID that!! that is just WRONG!" Usually the kids kind of laugh and the offender looks embarassed and we all move on with our lives. Sometimes, though, there are situations that call for more discretion, times when you don't want to make a huge deal out of something.

Today was one of those times.

In 7th period, I looked down and saw a BRIGHT GREEN CONDOM all unrolled and shriveled up on the floor of my classroom. My first impulse was to scream, "Oh my GOD why is there a CONDOM on the FLOOR of my CLASSROOM??????"

But I said nothing. Instead I ran and hid behind my desk, trying not to giggle and/or freak out. At the very end of class, Summer and Shawna found it and threw it away for me and we talked about how sometimes it's fun to blow them up into balloons.

(Sidenote: my friend Leonard used to perform with this Social Issues Theater and would blow up a condom into a big balloon and tell the high schoolers, "If your man says it's too tight, you tell him ain't never gonna be a problem, 'cause no matter what, he ain't THIS big!")

And while Summer and Shawna were dealing with the green condom, my little gay friend Edwin came over to show me that someone had written "JUDY IS A WHORE!" [with a backward J] and "ANNA HAS ADIS!" [sic] and "JUSTIN HAS A SMALL COCK" [complete with picture] in the back of his science book.

I guess it was just Triple XXX Sex day in my room.

In the words of my dear friend Cameron, "Your kids are going to be SO FUCKED UP by the end of this year!"

Advisory this morning:

Jason: Sorry I'm late, Miss, but my dog came to school.
Me: Oh. Um...
Jason: We locked him in the courtyard!
Me: Really? Let's see. (We walk across the hall to the glass brick wall looking over the courtyard. Sure enough, there's a big yellow lab pacing around.)
Jason: He's a good dog.
Me: What's his name?
Jason: He doesn't have a name.
Me: Uh... why not?
Jason: He just showed up last night.
Me: So he's not really your dog?
Jason: Yes, but just since last night.
Me: Maybe he's just lost?
Jason: He's a good dog.
Me: He probably belongs to somebody else. Someone's probably looking for their dog, never imagining that he's locked up in the middle school courtyard.
Jason: I think I'm going to name him "Doggy."

This afternoon I listened to the other English teacher, a veteran of 25 years, take a call from a mama who made my life miserable all last year, and it was quite clear that the mama was irrationally yelling at her and finally hung up on her. It seems that the Little Darling was doing other homework in English class, so Maryanne took the paper, ripped it up, and threw it away. She kept saying, "It's inappropriate to be doing anything but English in my classroom. No, I didn't even look at the paper. The kids know that they're not allowed to do other work in English class. Well maybe you should ask your son why he was doing his math homework in English class. No, I didn't even look at it -- it was inappropriate behavior....."

Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but it freaking MADE MY DAY. Not to hear Maryanne get yelled at, but to know that the mama is unreasonable no matter who is teaching her kiddo. Also it made me that much happier not to have that particular student this year, because with a mama like that, he's only going to get worse and worse. Do parents not see that attacking their kids' teachers every ten seconds just hurts the kids, in the end?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: STOP BEING SUCH SUCKY PARENTS, PEOPLE!

29 August 2005

True North

Bear with us as we find our footing on Blogger. We've been on angelfire for so many years, it's a little weird to change... it's like learning all the quirks, traditions, and inside jokes of a new family. Strange and even uncomfortable at first, but ultimately worthwhile.

And until then, enjoy the repeated pictures of Momaquilt's official mascot, Sleepy Zeke.

Say goodnight, Zeeky.

Goodnight, Zeeky.

The Reason for the Season

Today we're writing stories from the perspective of a childhood toy.

At the end of fourth period, I gave the class time to share their stories, and a little girl with big eyes and a quiet voice read a story that began, "I was the most beautiful Barbie in Wal-Mart" and ended, "My old owner pulled me off the shelf and handed me to her new baby sister. I was so happy; my time had come again."

When the girl finished reading, there was a moment of silence and then the class spontaneously burst into applause. The little girl's face lit up in shy amazement, and I shivered as goosebumps ran up my arms and across the back of my neck. THIS is why I'm a teacher!

26 August 2005

Famous (last?) words....

Hilarious teaching moment of the day, so far: Homework last night was to find at least ten quotations that inspire, interest, amuse, or enlighten you, and write them in your writer's notebook. My seventh graders did an awesome job of it, bringing in quotations from JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., & Shakespeare. My 8th graders mostly brought in commercials and slogans. (My quotation is "I'm lovin' it.")

In class today, everyone had to pick their favorite quotation to write on a card for our Inspiration Wall. The sweetest little girl in the whole 8th grade -- you know the one, the horse-loving heart-doodling soft-spoken sweetheart -- called me over and showed me her card. "Is this okay?" she asked, holding up a card that said Life is like a vacuum; it sucks.

"Ah.... no," I said, "these are going in the hallway. Keep it positive, please."

"Oh, okay!" she said agreeably.

Six or seven minutes later, I was standing at my podium and she held up her new card to me. "Is this better?" she asked. The card said simply, CARPET-MUNCHER

Okay, needless to say, I freaked out. "No!" I said, laughing and horrified. "Rip that up and throw it away right now! I'm so shocked by you!"

The little girl's eyes widened. "What? Why?"

Teasingly, I yelled, "That's so bad, Amanda! I'm traumatized! You used to be so sweet!"

"I don't even know what it means!" she said. "My brother just says it all the time!"

"It's really bad," I said.

"What did she write? What did she write?" the other kids yelled.

"Nothing!" I said. "Throw it away!"

Sweet little horse-loving Amanda asked, "What does it mean?"

"I can't tell you!" I said. "I'll lose my job! You'll go home and be all, 'My English teacher taught me this bad word today!'"

But by then, the whole class had picked it up. "What does it mean, Ms. B? Tell us, tell us!"

"I'm not telling you NOTHIN!" I said. "The horror! And you kids used to be so nice!!"

The whole thing was hilarious. I'm still laughing. Okay, but here's the worst part: I did kind of start it. Because when I was going around checking everyone's quotes, one girl (the horse-lover's best friend) had a quote that said, "What's the dilio?" which I read as WHERE'S THE DILDO? So I proceeded to freak out about that and accuse her of being all dirty when actually the problem is that I can't read.

I am the best teacher ever.

My students are going to be so, so fucked up by the year's end.

The First Days of School

August 14, 2005

My school missed making AYP by .51% POINT-FIVE-ONE Just over half a percentage point!!! And yet, all the local papers are screaming that "11 Local Schools Get Fs" If you miss something by POINT-FIVE-ONE, shouldn't that be a D minus? I mean, seriously. We were SO CLOSE! So it's 2nd year school improvement for us! Yippeester.

The one subset we missed was ELL kids writing about math. Our English Language Learners (only 1/3 of whom actually got any services from the school; the other 2/3 had parent refusal on services) can't write about the process they use in solving a math problem, and our school gets an F for the year. SO FRUSTRATING!

What I mean to say is: isn't every job in the universe easier than teaching middle school?

August 15, 2005

Today's inservice would have been far more entertaining if presented by zombies. "Align your curriculum to state standards or we'll EAT YOUR BRAAAAAAINS!"

August 17, 2005

First Day of School, Scavenger Hunt with 25 Enriched LA kids
-- Ms. B, whenever I fight my brother, I use my head! I use my KNOWLEDGE to confuse him!
-- Oh...
-- And then I hit him!

-- We're going to the teacher's lounge?
-- Awesome! We get to see where the teachers shave off their human skins!

First Day of School, 7:35 AM
(cute little 7th grader walks into my room)
Me: Who are you and why are you in here?
Him: Uh.....
Me: I mean... you shouldn't be in the building yet; you should be outside near the cafeteria.

Things to Work On Before School Starts in 20 minutes:
-- Don't joke about doing drugs, even though crack cocaine is always funny
-- Don't swear or make lewd comments around the children, especially if that jehovah's witness from summer school shows up
-- Pretend -- at least for the first day -- not to be such a bitch

August 18, 2005

Doug says, "The first day of school is the day to be The Biggest Bitch On The Planet. Especially with middle schoolers. They've got to fear you before they can love you. You can always go backwards with discipline, but it's damn-near impossible to go forwards."

Fear not, Doug. Today was the first day for the 8th graders (who already know me) and I was THE BIGGEST BITCH in room 8.... not on the planet. Not even in the school, probably. BUT. I assigned 500 word essays to every 7th grader and 750 word essays to every 8th grader, and the most common response I got from the 8th graders was, "UH! You used to be cool!" or "Remember last year, when you were NICE?"


I told them that this was the easiest assignment I'd give them all year. Now I have to make good on that promise. :-)

Also, I think the "Never Smile Before Christmas" rule should be recast officially as the "Biggest Bitch in the World" (BBW) rule. Awesome.

August 24, 2005

Steve: Death and destruction is always fun to write about.
Me: So write about it.
Steve: I can't, I'm writing about peanut butter.
Me: Surely you can write about both.
Steve: Good idea! Peanut butter and death -- Death in a Jar!

August 25, 2005

Steve: Jax is Gandhi reincarnated!
Jax: No I'm not, would Gandhi do this? (leans forward and punches Steve on the arm)
Steve: OW! Dammit, Gandhi!

August 26, 2005

Brenna: Ms. B, I want to be *JUST* like you when I grow up!
Me: Awww, that's nice.
Brenna: Yeah, I'm NEVER getting married, just like you!

23 August 2005

Welcome Home

Dreaming of a blog without advertisements....

After keeping a blog on angelfire for nearly two years, it's time for a change. A change that doesn't involve angelfire suddenly putting a bunch of advertisements all over my blog and making it all ugly and commercial. So here we are, back among friends. Lots of love.

12 August 2005

Where I am:

Today I was at school from about 10 until about 5 (I think? Maybe it was more like 5:30). I would have been there earlier this morning, but Zeke and I are having a problem with ants that has not been curtailed by multiple little Club Meds of Death I have carefully placed right in the middle of the ANT SUPERHIGHWAY that runs straight from a crack in my window frame to the end of my plant counter. When I got home from work yesterday, I went to get Zeke's food and the bag was totally covered with these little ants so naturally I freaked out and banged the bag on the counter several times to throw all the ants off it at which point they all started crawling up my arms and then for the rest of the night I couldn't shake the sensation of little ants on my skin (which, as I used to remind Ali, is a sure sign of psychosis). Plus, Zeke was hungry, and I was all anxious about feeding him, because what if ANTS get in his DOG DISH? But after stressing about this for several minutes, I remembered that he's been known to eat poop and dead rats, so surely some tiny ants in his dish will pose no real problem for him at all, right? Right?

So I fed him, I fed myself, I fielded several phone calls, checked my email, brushed more ants off my arms, refilled my water bottle, herded Zeke into the truck... all in the space of about 20 minutes. When I showed up at meditation class, I was harried, stressed, brushing ants off my face and arms, and trying to keep track of Zeke, who ran happily into the building, down the hallway, and instead of following me into Jennie's office, trotted calmly out the back door and into the little meadow. (Later, when I was Deeply Meditating, in a place of PEACE and LIGHT, Zeke came over to where I was sitting and went CHOMP on a flower I was using in my meditation, which made me giggle, and then I felt guilty for disrupting the meditation, but then it was like giggling in church, and I couldn't stop thinking about how Zeke just went CHOMP right over the pretty orange flower I was meditating with, and how non-Zen that was, only maybe it was totally zen, how should I know, and though I managed to stop giggling, I never quite got back to the hippie batik of golden peace I'd been in before Zeke CHOMPed my flower.)

But I was talking about school. And ants. When Zeke and I got home after class, laden with cheese and poison, most of the ants had disappeared, and cheerfully -- naiively -- I thought, oh they just went away! That was easy! Nevertheless, I dutifully put out the little poison hotels and went to bed.

This morning I woke up to Rushhour on the Ant Superhighway, including more ants on Zeke's food, even though I'd moved it -- the ants just moved with the food! What's up with that! -- and proceeded to scream in frustration, murder a LOT of ants, scream, and start all over with the ants-on-my-neck thing, all of which conspired to make me a half-hour later to school than I'd intended.

Clearly, the ant problem needs to be solved before school starts for real next week.

My day was busy and yet felt rather unproductive, mainly because I was more curriculum oriented than classroom-setting-up oriented, meaning that I downloaded and printed and hole-punched and binder-organized and labeled and sorted and organized and prioritized and reviewed, but at the end of the day the desks in my room were all still piled in a huge mountain in the far corner of the room, blocking my big supply cabinet which holds untold wonders (or at least, whatever I shoved in there before checking out last spring). My walls are still bare (except the postcard map, which I bullied my way into not taking down in May), my ugly silver pipe thing still exposed, my room still utterly unorganized and my entire life still in total and complete chaos. So... I'll be back tomorrow.

The drive home was just gorgeous. The sky was dark, dark blue to the east, all storm clouds and sweeping rain. The mountains were draped with varying degrees of cloud, but the little patch of sun above my truck illuminated the tawny corn and wheat fields, the bright yellow sunflowers, and the soft adobe houses against the deep blue of the sky and rich dark green of the mountains, and I was reminded of driving outside of Bratislava, with the same dark skies and bright sunflowers.


Today at school, I started panicking about remembering the names of the kids I had in my classes last year, 70 (ish) of whom I'll have again this year. I have the WORST memory for names, mainly because I psych myself out and question and second-guess and go through entire dramas in my head whenever I say someone's name. Much of this anxiety can be traced back to high school, when I called this girl Adelaid for like TWO YEARS before she snapped, "That's not my name! Stop calling me that!" (Senior year, mind you.) "WHAT?" I was truly horrified. "What's your name, then?" "Natalie!" the girl screamed, "it's NATALIE!!"

I'd been calling this girl by the wrong name since SOPHOMORE YEAR and she'd never said a word.

Do you see how a person could be permanently scarred from an experience like this?

So, Back-To-School Note To Self Number One: call everyone "hon" until early September, at least.

Also, today one of my former students (child of another teacher, doomed to hang out at school on days like this with nothing to do but hang around in Ms. Backes' room and randomly pick things up and touch them) came into my room. "Did you hear that Betty's* gone?"

[Backstory: Betty was the janitor who cleaned my classroom, and I honestly was a little scared of her. She reminded me of the house-elf in the House of Black who skivvered around and muttered to himself. "Oh, the pencil sharpener's broken? I'll make a note of it," she'd say to me, and then spend the rest of my prep period dragging around my classroom muttering, "..murblerm mellueish, show them all... askushl have the right mutterm murble." Creepy! Also I think she didn't like me, because she never washed my chalkboards. When I met the new janitor today, Kay said, "He'll wash your boards once a week!" and I got SO excited.]

"Yes, I just met the new janitor," I said. "How exciting!"

Former Student seemed shocked. "But Betty was so good!"

"Oh.... well, that's true....... but it's always exciting to have new faces around, right?"

Back-To-School Note To Self Number Two: no more expressions of your true feelings about anyone, until you're at least 20 miles out of town and/or on Christmas break.

I also learned today that I'm no longer responsible for writing IEPs. Hooray! AND the principal told me that I'm eligible to jump up to the 2nd tier of licensure after this year (not next, as we'd thought), which means that if I stay here for the 2006-2007 school year, I'll see a $10 K raise -- a year earlier than I'd thought!

Back-To-School Note To Self Number Three: Reconsider that plan to move back to the midwest just yet....

Of course, Camille and I agreed that since I come from a poverty culture, that 10K will disappear in a matter of days. "Right up your nose," Camille says, and I have to agree.

Oh, wait.

Back-To-School Note To Self Number Four: Stop joking about all the drugs you do........

*name changed to protect the weird and creepy

09 August 2005

Moments from Augusts Past....

A little bit about everything except the whole going-back-to-school thing; you shall have nothing about that.


The last glorious days of summer, and I'm already nostalgic for them. This is a quality in myself that irritates me. Overly nostalgic, fine, but could we at least wait until the very thing about which we are all nostalgic is finished happening? I always do it, too: I remember driving through the dark streets of Saint Louis Park with K a while back and thinking, "This is so nice... and in a few days, I won't be here and I won't be able to ride around with Kevin while he pretends to shift with his water bottle... how sad is that? I'm going to miss him, and I'll miss this moment... and I won't see him again for a while...."

See, and the whole time I'm thinking, oh sad, this will be over soon, I'm completely missing out on enjoying the moment for what it is. For pete's sake.

Recently I followed a link from one YA author's blog to another to another, where I found this hilarious "retro-blog," where the girl only posts journal entries from the distant past. So while other people are discussing The Sad Death Of Peter Jennings on their blogs, this girl is talking about The Tragic Death of River Phoenix, complete with Seventeen and YM collages. Hilarious.

Of course, my old journal entries are rarely funny; I've always been too thinky and weird for that. Nevertheless, for your Tuesday entertainment, I present:

Moments from Augusts Past...

August 9, 1993
I got my braces off today!!!!!!!! Definately a day to be celebrated!!

August 17, 1996
I'm writing with my brand new Fed Ex pen that I ganked from some poor customer at work today. School starts in a week and a half. Wooo. My Junior year. No, actually I'm really excited about it. I've got all these great things on my list or something. The OHS AIDS Walk team that I'm organizing (with the help of the fabulous Rebecca Fox-Blair); Pass The Green (Yaayy!!); The Chautauqua; new friends; a new and improved Panther Press; Once Upon A Mattress; my job. This Bobby McFerrin Gig!!!!; + I'm even sorta trying to write a book. Crazy. [...]

Um, what else? I have my driver's license, I cut my hair, I'm cute. I work at Ben Franklin. Aaaahh! It's actually pretty fun... sort of.

7 August 1997 -- 13:48 -- Charles DeGaule Airport
My God, it’s over. All second semester -- the anticipation, the “Oh, I’ll be in Europe for most of the summer,” the thinking -- it seemed so unreal all through the spring and June and now again, did it ever happen? Did I ever leave home? I swear, I can’t believe it’s been this long. We just left, maybe 4 days ago. I expect once I’m home, the feeling will be even stronger.
Still -- raining. From here I can see wet, black pavement under a tired and cloudy afternoon sky. Stark. Not too much like my other memories of Paris -- a colorful mélange under a strong blue sky and cheery sun.

6 August 2000 11:15 am MFA, Boston

Franz Kline
Probst I, 1960
oil on canvas

A huge canvas – bigger than my bed. White background with hints of orange and yellow, huge black and brown slashes across the canvas. The black gathers together in the bottom left corner, and swirls up across the page like a twister, a tornado. Two women behind me pause, and one says, “I could do that,” rather scornfully. I want to turn and say no, you couldn’t. To “do that” takes more passion than you’ve let yourself feel in years – maybe more than you’ve felt your whole life. To “do that” requires a confrontation of self, an awareness and acceptance of the darkness, the rage, the pain, and the truth we have within ourselves. It requires an acceptance of and a belief in the truth of one’s own voice, and the power of one’s own truth. It takes huge movement and giant feelings and trust in oneself. It takes love – the love you need to let yourself express your darkest, rawest, most primal feelings. I know I couldn’t do it – but at least I’m working on it.

3:20 am Thursday morning, 30 August 2001 White House Porch
There is no good reason for me to be awake right now. Other than: I’ve been at Bob’s, and I’m not tired, and the first day of my senior year in college is tomorrow – or today, rather, and I’ve been up for hours thinking about how everyone has changed, and all the ways we haven’t changed, too . . . I was reading my old plans and laughing and wincing and skipping over parts . . . .

Last year, Dave Bradley wrote about the duality of Molly, how on my plan I’m this rampaging mega-bitch, and then in person I’m a “Sweetie.” I embrace that duality. I’m feeling more and more confident about the Bob’s thing . . . tonight Charlie Marshall reminded me that the best managers are those who take care of themselves! Sounds like something I ought to know already. I feel nostalgic and sad for the parts of me I’ve lost along the way, for the moments I didn’t enjoy enough at the time . . . but what’s new? I always feel nostalgic and sad. Luckily, autumn is coming! My favorite! O season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!

1:50 am (mountain) Thursday night 21 August 2003 – Home – ABQ

I have this phrase running through my head: “What have I got to lose? Other than, you know, everything.” I guess it’s what I told Mark Bechtel back in March – though maybe I said, “There’s nothing riding on this” not what have I got to lose. In any case, the former is what’s running through my head just now....

So there you have it: 10 years of Augusts, and I didn't change a whit. Melissa Bailey and I were just talking about that the other night; about reading our report cards from kindergarten and finding that we're exactly the same at 25 as we were at 5. Which is both troubling (don't I **EVER** get to grow up?) and reassuring (that the core, the essence, of who we are only strengthens over time, and that the world has not been enough to erase the essential characteristics that make me ME).

02 August 2005

Homeward Bound....

Today I flew home from Chicago, by way of Minneapolis. It was hot and sunny the whole way, until we flew up over the settling night back into the dusky sunset above Minnesota.

Lisa was kind enough to let me go pick up Zeke on my way home from the airport, so I wouldn't have to spend a night by myself. Thinking back over the last 8 days, not a single night passed without at least one animal sleeping on or with me. Even the nights I spent in Milwaukee (Gabby) and Chicago (Nick's weird cat Byron) found me couch-bound with critters. Byron actually slept directly on top of my chest for a time. One night I had THREE animals in my bed: Basil, Gabby, and the freaky cat who I took the liberty of renaming Pussy Galore The Spy Cat. Honestly, I was just tired of hearing my mother compare herself to King Lear. When does the madness end??

I had a looong layover in Minneapolis, and other than calling everyone I know in the cities just to say, "Hi, I'm HERE! But you can't see me, because I'm in the airport... but still, I'm HERE!" and then giggling happily --- uh, other than that, I spent several hours thinking about the spooky, elusive * * F * U * T * U * R * E * * (were this handwritten, the word would be written all up and down, with sparklies all around it, to show that I'm wiggling my hands and going oooooh when I say it). After this weekend, Chicago's on the list. I made a long list of pros and cons for Chicago and Minneapolis (or as Jennifer would say, plusses and deltas). Minneapolis won out, but only slightly. I believe that either city would be a good place for me right now. Particularly if one of my sisters starts having babies.

Honestly, Chicago. Or Minneapolis. I'll make a little home there and spend my summers in New Orleans or Prague, learning to write.

Just as soon as I learn to teach......

01 August 2005

More notes from home....

Spent the afternoon with Ila last Friday, ambling around downtown Madison. Lunch at Ian's Pizza, where we met Ian and tried two different slices of Ian's wacky pizza concoctions: macaroni & cheese and spicy bean burrito. Surprisingly they were both very good. We wandered around the square, Ila pointed out her new apartment above Mangus, and ended up on the Monona Terrace Rooftop, stretching our legs in the sun and watching the sparkling lake before us. It was a perfect Madison day, all sun and breeze, not too hot. And of course, perfect company. Leaving the terrace, Ila suggested we cross back through the hotel walkway, and I agreed happily. "Great! I do love walkways!" Ila said, "That's what I love about hanging out with you: you take me back to my highschool self, when I did things just for the fun of it."

Indeed. Coming home always involves a lot of that, for me: driving favorite old roads, walking along favorite paths, visiting restaurants and listening to radio stations that all feel like old friends. So much of my delight, when I lived in Oregon, was rooted in means to freedom: driving through the lush back roads, walking up and down State Street, going to certain restaurants (most notably Perkins...) -- anything to get me out of the house and away from school, any excuse to be alone, or to spend time with just one other person.

Saturday afternoon I drove down to Chicago to visit some Grinnell friends, primarily Nick and Chris (with whom I stayed), and happily Vivek, Adam, Rachel Clark, Kumail, Laurelin, Aja, Jarrod, Marti, Julie, and Kate (did I miss anyone?).

Spending time with Nick and Chris was awesome for a lot of reasons, but one of the coolest things, for me, was getting to talk to them about improv theory. They're both on teams at IO (formerly ImprovOlympic), one of the two most famous improv theaters in Chicago. Saturday night, the three of us went out to dinner, and then Nick and I took a cab to IO (across the street from Wrigley Stadium),
where we saw two teams (Extra Billies and Baby Wants Candy) each do a longform show, with games in between. Baby Wants Candy did an improvised musical that made the gang at Gorilla Tango look like amateurs in comparison; whereas the GT group sings funny songs, they don't put too much stress on being particularly musical, while some of the BWC songs could have been on the soundtracks to shows like Rent or Pippen, except for the fact, you know, that the actors were singing about circus freaks with hairy chests and vaginas. Overall, I was really impressed, and I'm so glad that I got the chance to see "real" improv, that I may have a broader understanding and perspective on what it is, exactly, that we're trying to create and do at GT in Albuquerque. And then, because I was lucky enough to be staying with fellow improv geeks, I got to spend time talking about the structure of the shows with Nick, analyzing them from a theoretical/structural perspective. Awesome.

I've always really admired Chris and Nick and really enjoyed talking to them when I ran into them at parties or at Saints Rest in Grinnell, but it wasn't until this weekend that I got to spend any extended amount of time with either of them, just hanging out. I'm so glad that I did. They're both perfect examples of the kinds of people I loved most in college: hilarious, smart, interesting, creative and artistically driven, open-minded, and kind.

The only exception to the kind thing was when we needed to take a bus from IO to the bar where we were meeting up with the Grinnell group, when Nick, sensing my weakness like a predator around prey, played on my mass-transit anxieties and became the Bus Bully, terrorizing me onto and then off of the bus. Nick, in his evil bus riding tactics, pushed me off the bus into the gutter and then kicked me, laughing. Clearly, he's a diabolical mastermind.

Or maybe I'm exaggerating. I mean, just a little bit. Not much though. It was traumatic, honestly.

We met up with a large group of Grinnell kids at the Hopleaf, where we took over one entire side of the upstairs room. Throughout the evening, people moved around, switching places around the table in order to talk to a number of different friends, so I moved from Vivek's lap to between Rachel and Laurelin to next to Adam, between Adam and Laurelin then Adam and Rachel, and ended the evening at the other end of the table, between Nick and Jarrod. The funny thing about the night was that even though I hadn't seen any of these friends in at least two years (and more, in some cases), it was as if no time had passed at all. Adam and I picked up our usual fighty banter, laughing about clownpants and sandmouses; Vivek and I our usual flirty banter; Rachel and I our sisterly kinship. The generosity of the group was twofold: one, the assurance that you're already in, you're already accepted and loved, and don't have to impress anyone or prove anything, and two, that you exist not only as the person you are now, but also as the person you have been. I found myself more open, laughing harder and joking more, quicker and funnier and happier than I usually feel in my "real" life, where I'm far more reserved, more polite and far less outrageous than I ever was in college. How wonderful to travel back, if only for an evening, to step back into the role of a part of me that I loved. In some ways, I felt like the best version of myself in that crowd.

Sunday afternoon, I found myself (along with Chris and Nick) helping Miss Kate Herold move from Iowa into a third story apartment a few blocks down from Nick and Chris, primarily because I hadn't seen Kate in two years and this was the only way I could spend time with her. Also, because she fed us pizza and beer in payment. It was hard work, and the humidity was worse than I remembered (I was having flashbacks to moving into Norris 4th in August of 1999), but overall it was -- not fun, exactly, but agreeable -- not a bad way to spend the afternoon. At least I got to see Kate, is what I'm saying.

Chicago seems like a fun place to be in your twenties. In contrast, Albuquerque seems really stolid somehow. kind of suburban. Maybe it's just that there aren't many Grinnellians there, not many young Grinnellians. Just as I made my peace with Minneapolis -- and then grew to love it -- a few years ago, this weekend I made my peace with Chicago, and I am beginning to see why so many of my friends and family love it. I'm officially adding it to my list of possible places to go to grad school.

29 July 2005

Happy Birthday, Megan!

Currently home in Madison (well, Fitchburg), enjoying the recently cool temperatures and loverly humidity. Tonight I was driving along one of the many winding country roads between Oregon and Fitchburg, trying to taste my place here as you'd taste a sore spot on your own tongue. Here? Here? Is this where I belong? Is this who I am? I drive along, windows wide open, my head hanging out in the rushing wet air, as if I could sniff the answers in the wind. (The midwest SMELLS so delicious!) The richness of sensory details overwhelms me: the lush greenness, the warm, wet earth, the smells of all things growing in the air, the sound of breezes playing with bristling grasses in fields... at the corner of Fish Hatch and CC, an entire field of wildflowers! What simple beauty. What luxuries we have taken for granted all these years.

And fountains! Water! Lake Michigan, sparkling warm topaz on a cool, sunny day in Milwaukee. Two rivers and a lake? Is it possible to have so much water in one city? Look at all these bridges, bridges and boats everywhere. We even had to wait in the car while a bridge lifted and sank to let a boat full of people pass underneath, bells dinging merrily all the while.

My sister, becoming something of an adult...

I spent about 26 hours with her in Milwaukee, going out for dinner, playing with the dog, driving through the twisted city streets, idly shopping and making fun of ugly shoes. Playing at the big, pretty ship of a museum, perched above the water like a ship skimming the waves. She made me breakfast and I searched through her apartment, marveling at all the evidence of a life lived in my absence: she has dishes, and shirts I've never seen, movies and books, plants that she waters, thoughts that she thinks when she's alone. A whole life, of her own.

And tonight, dinner at Red Robin with Cindy and Memo, who laughed when I stepped into the car wearing a clown nose, and obligingly let me take a picture of him wearing it a minute later. He's six.

Everyone here seems to wait patiently for me to come home, holding some breath until I say I think I'll stay in New Mexico another year or two, at least, and then with a quick, disappointed sigh they say, "I wish you weren't so far away," like I'm breaking their hearts every time.

It's hard.

But this trips says I'm as much of New Mexico as I am of Wisconsin, at least right now, at least right here. Though I miss the bobbing fireflies at dusk in the misty roadside weeds along the fields that I love. The lightning flashing through the saturated sky. The sweet, hazy smell of summer here, here in the green.

23 July 2005

On Monday, I'm flying from Albuquerque to Chicago, where my mother will pick me up and drive me home to Madison. I'll be in Madison for a week, drive down to Chicago for a day to see some college friends, celebrate my sister's 23rd birthday with her, and fly back to Albuquerque on the following Tuesday.

I won't see George, Dan, Ali, Nadia, Mary, or Cam, but I'll see a bunch of other people, many of whom I haven't seen since I graduated from Grinnell more than three years ago. I'm looking forward to it, absolutely. And I'm hoping to see some of my dear Oregon friends as well, including Ila, Heather James, Cindy and Memo, and perhaps some of my dear teacher friends. I'll see my family, some of whom I saw at Val's wedding in May, some of whom I haven't seen since Christmas. And I'll see the land, the green hills and cornfields, the sparkling lakes, the tall, leafy trees of Southern Wisconsin which are my family just as much as my people are. I'll sit on the end of the pier at the Memorial Union, splashing my feet in the lake if it's not too gross with algae. I'll walk the roads at night, following the railroad tracks under the dusty brilliance of the milky way. I'll drive old paths, so familiar it will seem I've been gone mere days instead of months.

I'll probably cry when I leave. I usually do. And as always, I'll re-examine my committment to New Mexico, wondering as always if the velvety peaks of the Sandias at sunset carry enough weight in my heart to balance the winding roads and sturdy red barns of the midwest.

21 July 2005

The great thing about summer is I have lots of free time to think about stuff.

The bad thing about summer is I have lots of free time to think about stuff.

Ultimately, I believe it's a noble pursuit, but along the way my thinkyness tends to lead to days (sometimes weeks) of self-questioning, doubt, internal debate and drama, and of course, angst. (The internal drama's the best: "The real problem is that I can NEVER ESCAPE MY OWN HEAD! Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!") Tiresome, painful, and even frightning, these phases of thinkyness often help me to clarify, to shift, to let go. To grow.

Recently, I've been submerged in the re-evaluation of a particular friendship, and in the process have spent a great deal of time thinking about friendship in general, what it means, what it costs, and what it's worth. And more specifically, of course, I've been thinking about my friendships, what they cost and why. Too, I've thought about myself as a friend, at what cost my friendship comes, and at what worth.

I'm difficult, I think. I'm intense. I can be demanding and self-centered and controlling. I struggle with change and I suck at saying goodbye. I can be jealous, and I can be such a bitch.

(I see you laughing. "Tell us something we don't know!")

(Or my friend Doug last night: "You are a pain in the ass, but you're sweet, so it's okay.")

On the other hand, I'm loyal. I'm forgiving. I'm devoted and supportive and helpful. I'm honest, and I'm generous. I love my friends fiercely.

Ironically, I believe that my closest friends are those for whom my friendship is the most difficult. Certainly I have the highest expectations of my closest friends, and there's almost always trouble when I can't shift my expectations quickly enough to match the changing lives of my friends.

Maybe it's those confounded journals, or my long memory, but I seem to have an excess of nostalgia in my brain center. I'm forever saying Remember when....?

Remember last summer? Remember when you used to take the time to make me laugh? Remember how funny we used to be together? Remember when you were kinder, warmer, different?

Believe me, my friends, the nostalgia thing is far more obnoxious for me than for you, because you can walk away, close the email, hang up the phone.

But the good thing about my long memory is that I never forget a kindness, and I never stop giving credit for it. Do just one really nice thing for me, and I will love you for it forever, even if you then go on to join the army or become the asshole in the attic. I'll always be there to defend you: "I know he's difficult, but listen, this one time...."

As we more fully immerse ourselves in adulthood, many of my friends are turning to their jobs for self-identity, working impossible weeks, living at the office, relishing the clarity of self provided by work. "I don't have time for friends right now," they say. "You have it easy," they tell me. "School ends at 3:00 and you're finished, but me? Sometimes I'm here until midnight. I'm working 80 hour weeks!"

The thing is, I could be working 80 hour weeks; every teacher knows it. But I *choose* not to. The last two years for me have been an ongoing quest for greater balance, greater harmony in my life. Of course my job and my work are important to me, but they're not the sum total of the person that I am. I also have my writing, improv, meditation and pilates and walking, the mountains, the dog, reading, my family, and yes -- my friends -- to define and sustain me.

In the last few weeks, some friends and I have kept up an ongoing discussion about Harry Potter, first speculations for the sixth book and then predictions for the seventh. My friend Paul and I, in particular, have been arguing about which of the six is the best, and tonight I realized why I argue so passionately for Goblet of Fire -- its climax mirrors the way I see the world. Harry has to do battle with Voldemort, but he's not alone: the ghosts of Voldemort's most recent victims emerge to offer Harry strength and support, encouraging him to keep going, to stay strong, to believe in himself, and ultimately they help him to escape and survive.

And this is how I've always seen myself. I imagine my friends in circles around me, encouraging, supporting, cheering. Believing in me. Even in my darkest times, I trust that they are there. Distant, perhaps, but there.

This quotation, originally in an email from Gail Gregory, has sustained me for seven years: "Keep your balance, know that you are greatly loved no matter what, and that whether or not you see the light, it’s there."

I'm difficult. I'm demanding. I'm intense. But oh my heart, oh my friends, I do love you fiercely.

19 July 2005

This morning I went to my friend Dawn's coffee shop and actually worked on the YA novel I started in May, finished chapter six and am feeling good. Then Lisa called and wanted to gossip about Harry Potter, so we got bagels at Einstein's and brought them back to my house, which she hadn't seen since she brought me saltines and gatorade when I was dying with the flu a month or so ago. She was very impressed with the cuteness of my place now (compared to a month ago, when it was nothing but boxes and STUFF everywhere), though she's concerned about an "entity" that is apparently trapped in the corner under the stairs. Ghosts make Lisa cough.

New Mexicans make me giggle, sometimes.

14 July 2005

Today I have learned an important lesson: I have the power to end droughts! Or at least to make it get really windy and spooky and WINDY oh my god. It's like a desert hurricane.

... just had to run through the house and close all the windows....

So how, you ask, do I know that I have the unique power of summoning the rain? Well. Today I bought two wicker bookcases at the thrift store. They're just about perfect for the space I have, and I was *JUST* thinking this morning that if I didn't get another bookshelf soon I was going to go crazy from too many piles. One day, I will have a house with a whole room of just BOOKSHELVES, and then I will be the happiest girl ever. But for now, I make due with the... well, my recent acquisitions brings me up to a total of seven. SEVEN. Most of them are small, though, and/or formerly gunracks. So.

My new bookcases are kind of a half-hearted white color, like they were spray-painted white several years ago and then never cleaned and then enhanced with kool-aid stains. Immediately after loading them in the truck, I drove up the street to the hardware store for paint. (I love small-town hardware stores! I don't know why, but I always have. I loved the one in Grinnell, and the one in Oregon... and the one in Cedar Crest has its very own store-dog, a big foofy muppet dog.)

I came home and started painting immediately, with several problems. One, my back patio is a major ANT SUPERHIGHWAY and I soon had ants in my pants, quite literally. Two, the paint I bought is a latex blend (because I'm thinking of putting one of the shelves in the bathroom for towels and such) which makes it very very sticky. Sticky isn't too much of a problem until the DESERT HURRICANE starts and every miniscule speck of dust blowing through the backyard instantly adheres itself to my new shelves. Sigh. Also, I had to scrub my hands like crazy to get enough paint off to eat. That is, to eat without getting paint all over my food... not to eat paint.

I got all five shelves of one bookcase washed, stripped, and painted (tops only -- tomorrow will do bottoms and then a second coat on tops). Yay me. Until the wind started blowing, leaving my poor defenseless shelves at the mercy of the elements -- because they're too sticky to come into my pretty house with its newly refinished blond wood floors. The unpainted cases got to come inside, but there are still five shelves in the middle of the Ant Autobahn, collecting dust and bugs and leaves as I speak. Le sigh.

What does all this have to do with my power to summon the rain, you ask?

Well. Four years ago, when Ali and I lived in the house on High Street with Jamie and Nancy, I felt the need to paint a bookshelf I'd inherited from Quance, which was painted the most unfortunate combination of McDonald's Red and Yellow. Ali and I spent an afternoon out on our porch, using several coats of white paint before we could completely cover the red and yellow. On the back of the shelf, we painted "Molly & Ali, June 2001," which made me laugh a year later when we moved it out of White House and up to the Brand, where it lived with Ali.

We left the bookshelf out on the porch to dry in the Iowa summer sun, along with the paint tray and paint. That night, it rained (of course!) and the not-quite dry paint in the tray turned into white-paint-water.

Then the raccoons came. For weeks, I'd been telling my housemates that a family of raccoons came to our house and tapdanced on our porch all night. I should know, I said, my room's adjacent to their dancefloor. My roommates were skeptical. The night of the rainstorm, though, the raccoon family came to dance and dipped their little feets in the paint-water before dancing a pattern of little rodent feets across our porch like an old-fashioned dance instruction sheet.

And that's how I know that I have the power to end droughts: let me come and paint bookshelves under your hot summer sun, alongside your wilting crops. The rain will come, to ruin my bookshelves and reveal the nocturnal secrets of tapdancing raccoons.

30 June 2005

I promised someone that I would post this very creepy but kind of funny
Talking Squirrel Flash Commercial
from Big Time Attic. Yes, the very one that triggered my interest in squirrel fishing, though my mother claims that she sent me the squirrel fishing link when I lived in my little Dickensonian Langan garret.


27 June 2005

Taos this weekend was fabulous, but sadly not as photogenic as it should have been. Apparently it was rather dark all weekend. Maybe that's just a function of the constant mountain monsoons, one of which we got stuck in up near Taos Ski Valley, thus forcing us to take shelter under someone's second-story deck. It became clear, about 7:30 on Sunday night, that it had become personal: literally seconds after we got out of the car to walk the dogs, the sky opened up on us (and ONLY on us -- the rainstorm fell on a teeny patch of land maybe 2 or 3 acres wide, exactly where we happened to be). When we scorned the storm and continued our walk, it started HAILING. Obviously, someone was trying to tell us something. ("Are those dorks getting out of the car again? Okay, RAIN! And if that doesn't work, HAIL!!")

03 June 2005

This exhibit, summer friends with new roses, takes its name from one of my poems, ici. I believe they're publishing ici in the letterpressed zine accompanying the exhibition as well.

The other day, I heard an interview with Pete Seeger about his song "If I Had a Hammer," which had been used (in a comic way, with different words) to support republican Tom DeLay. Seeger was asked if he was angry about his song being corrupted and used by the very groups he'd always fought, but instead of being upset, he said something about how songs take on a life of their own, and an artist can't control the ways that the culture adapts and adopts the song. I thought it quite an inspired answer, really.

And that's how I feel about my own work. It takes on a life of its own; it goes out into the world and suddenly this little thing that I wrote in the loggia when I was 19 has meaning for an artist in Pennsylvania. Very cool.

01 June 2005

Reader, I edited this.

I promise you, I spent over an hour the other night, simply creating an update worthy of your time and attention -- namely, all the stories from middle school I neglected to post in the months of April and May. School's out for the summer, but I only have four days left before summer school begins. I make no promises about future updates, only that I will attempt to re-update the lost edits and get you your summer reading before summer ends.

10 April 2005

Sunday evening in spring.... ah.....

The clouds over the western mountains reflect the setting sun in the most delicate layers of tangerine, orange, butterscotch, pale rose, violet, indigo, peach, as if someone has laid layer upon layer of the thinnest tissue paper to drape over the darker gray-blue of the rumpled mountains. A mourning dove whoo whoos in the front yard. There was snow on the ground when I woke up this morning, and yet the fruit trees are blossoming in the yard. In the back yard, the tiny pink blossoms of the peach tree hang against the snowy mountains like Japanese calligraphy.

Things haven't been easy lately, and yet I feel healthier and more whole than I can remember feeling in years. It's springtime, yes, but it's more than that. I feel closer to achieving some sort of balance than I've felt in a long time. Between meditation class and improv class and writing and teaching and friends and the dogs, no part of me feels unfulfilled right now.

Recently, beauty has become more important to me. I've been able to keep plants alive longer than a month for the first time in my life, and I want to continue to add to them. Tonight I bought a little potted lavender plant to add to my collection. Last week I had a vision of myself as a tower swept clean, with a winding stone staircase wrapped in ivy climbing through the open space.

New Mexico can feel like a very safe place, a very healthy place, a very clean place. A pure place, a place to return to clean essence and nothing more.

14 March 2005

It’s snowing today, in a way I’ve only seen before in the midwest. The flakes are large and wet, persistently piling up on each branch and blade of grass until everything looks plumply skeletal. I woke up this morning praising a god I unevenly believe in: a crisis of faith solved by a snow day. The radio said no school and I said Hallelujah. I spent the morning curled up with the dogs, a steaming cup of coffee in my hand and the snow falling outside. I had to leave this afternoon, though, because we have no food in the house and I had a horror of being snowbound in the house and having to live on dogfood until rescued. Even driving to the grocery store one street over was harrowing. The streets are thick with slush and snow, the drivers overly- or underly-cautious, the snowplow fairly non-existent. The hills steep and slippery, treacherous mountain driving that’s extremely unusual for this far down the mountain.

Were it not for the hills, I could be driving around Iowa, or Wisconsin, or Minnesota this afternoon. The snow is that thick. I am tempted, in the parking lot of the grocery store, to make snowballs with the snow I’m sweeping off my windshield, but I have no gloves and no one I know to target. Lisa’s in California, and I call her to talk about the weather, to say, “Don’t come home yet! It’s cold and wet here!” On a sunny patio in San Diego, she cries, “Oh no!” Later, I think that if the snow keeps up, she might not be able to get home tomorrow.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a meditation which moved me through the day, and though I started here, in the Manzano Mountains, I ended in the midwest, moving from Madison to Rock Creek to a lake in Michigan where I lay on my back in a canoe and stared up at the endlessly starry night. When I told Lisa, she said it meant I would end up in Michigan, but I disagree. I think it merely indicative of the in-between place in which I’m living, where home is still the midwest but absolutely New Mexico, now, as well.

Often when I feel homesick, I find myself longing not for Madison, not for Oregon, and not for Grinnell, but for the long, graceful curves of Highway 151 stretching down through southwestern Wisconsin, crossing the Mississippi, meandering all the way through northeastern Iowa until it meets Highway 6 around Homestead. Most of all, I miss the road between, and I think it’s because whenever I drove it, I was on my way home. Even when I was feeling uncertain about what home was, even when the boundaries and borders between my lives lacked the definition I wanted them to keep, even when home became neither/both, traveling the road between the two places always felt like a promise of safety and belonging. In a way, I never felt so much like myself as I did when I drove that road.

Recently I crossed some milestone, and suddenly New Mexico became home in a way it had previously resisted. For the first time since I moved here, I’m planning to spend an entire vacation here rather than going home, and I’m looking forward to the chance not only to run errands and accomplish little tasks that never seem to fit into my everyday life, but also to explore some of the places around my home here I haven’t yet had a chance to see. For the first time since I moved here, I know without a doubt that this land has imprinted itself on me, and the New Mexico skies will never leave my cells. The dust, the pollen, the light and wind and rain of this desert exist in my DNA now, and will not leave, though one day I may try to leave them behind.

This March marks the ten-year anniversary of my first real trip to New Mexico (that I remember, at least): the Oregon Orchestra tour in the spring of 1995. It also marks my ten-year anniversary in journals, and perhaps the two are linked. Ten years ago, this land claimed me as its own, when I looked down from the window of the plane and saw a coyote running along the runway. Friday night, a coyote ran across the road in my headlights as I drove home, and it felt like the closing of a chapter in a way.

Rebecca Solnit says, “Every place exists in two versions, as an exotic and a local. The exotic is a casual acquaintance who must win hearts through charm and beauty and sites of historical interest, but the local is made up of the accretion of individual memory and sustenance, the maternal landscape of uneventful routine.” Ten years ago, I fell in love with the exotic, and only now am I beginning to know the local, as I see my way through a second winter into a second spring here.

This land is like my mother: unmistakably mine, unquestionably home; yet the longer I live here, the better I understand how I am a stranger. When I was 19, I realized how little my mother ever talked about herself, and saw, for the first time, just how little I knew about her. I began to wonder about all the things she had not said in the first two decades of my time with her. I began to wonder about all the things she'd said that I never heard, and wondered how much I would have understood if I did hear it. Had she always been so quiet? Had she always held such secrets?

New Mexico has secrets I cannot even imagine, mysteries I couldn't unravel in a hundred years. Ten years ago, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I had come home at last, and for the first time in my rocky adolescence felt that I truly belonged. I heard the snowy mountains, the twisted junipers, the soft brown desert calling to me, and from then on, like Georgia O'Keeffe, "I was always on my way back." Seven years later, I returned, fearing I would find it so much changed it no longer matched the mountains that lived in my memory, those I drew in the margins of my notebooks all through high school and college.

They were still here; it was still here. Sitting by a stream on the slope of Mount Taylor, I wrote: It was not until I began to plan our senior year spring break trip that I began to doubt my memories and question my faith in this land. I realized the weight of the symbols I sought, and I worried that the mountains I had been drawing in the margins of my life were merely fabrications of my own desire. The fact that the mountains are just as I remember them, that the plaza is as sunstained and glowing as I remember, that the desert is busy with low bushes, the fact that I feel like an amnesiac waking from a dream life, reassures me that she was here. The fourteen-year-old Molly, about to fall in love – first with writing, then with the world. If New Mexico is still here, then I am still here.

In 2002, with Cynthia and Kevin, seven years after the warm brushy desert and cool green mountains first claimed me, I traveled the paths of my own memory in the constant shock of recognition. "It's still here," I would say, again and again. "It's as I remember it."

It was as I remembered, and yet, inevitably, it was different. I was seeing it through different eyes, with different people. Could anything be exactly the same at 14 as at 21? Of course not, but the 14-year-old I had been still lived inside the 21-year-old I was, and both reside now, inside the 24-year-old I have become.

At 21, I wrote: I suddenly understand something Mr. Root told me when I was in high school. I was telling him about the peace I felt and the connection to land I found in New Mexico, and he said, “The trick is to find that wherever you go.” At the time, I thought he meant I should find some special places in Wisconsin – and I did, of course. Or I recognized the places that had always been mine. But now I see that loving mountains like this is easy, and therefore somehow it feels – to me at least – one-dimensional. Can you truly love something just because it is pretty? I don’t know if you could truly love a land until you had seen it in every light, in every condition – in snowstorms, in drought, at dawn, at dusk, in heat and cold, when it’s pleasant and when it’s extremely unpleasant and even dangerous. But then, I never did believe in love at first sight. It’s too simplistic. And yet – I also believe that sometimes there are inexplicable connections – between two people, and also between people and land. Something deeper than aesthetic, something more instinctive and rare.

Reading this now, I laugh at how little I knew, how lightly I was brushing the surface of the place I sought. The longer I live here, the more mysterious this land becomes, though I've come to know it with far more intimacy than a week's visit could ever foster. Though now, when I wander through the arroyos and twisting pathways of the foothills, I know the names of many more plants and animals around me, I realize that my love for this place was, in fact, one dimensional. It was love at first sight. As such, it was -- as my father always says -- a "form of mental illness." Now I wonder, if I had understood the complexities and difficulties of this place then as I do now, would I still have come? Would I still have locked on to this land as an ideal? Today, with snow falling on the peach trees and tumbleweed in my backyard, I think I would.

06 March 2005




Sally: Shouldn't "grizzly bear" be capitalized?
Me: No. Not unless it's someone's name. Like... Grizzly Adams.
Tomas: Question. Wasn't he a United States president?
Me: GRIZZLY Adams?
Tomas: Yeah.
Me: (trying not to laugh) No.
Tomas: Yes he was. President Adams.....?
Me: You mean JOHN QUINCY Adams!
Tomas: Oh, well... close enough!


Mr. K: I don't see what the problem is with having the Ten Commandments posted in government buildings. After all, our constitution is based on them!
Me: WHAT!?!?

Also, apparently one of the five most common religions in the world is "Muslim." Um... yeah.


Joleen: Ms. Backes, do you want to know what I asked my mother this morning?
Me: No.
Joleen: Why not?
Me: Because the last question you asked me was shocking. What was it?
Joleen: I asked you what "Well Endowed" means.
Me: Right. Exactly.
Joleen: I asked her.... I asked her what a "nympho" is!

Today in seventh period we had the BEST discussion about etymology! How cool is that??

24 February 2005

Adventures in Middle School


Today the guidance counselor informend me that the kids think I'm one of the two "most stylin'" teachers in the school. Yes!

Dale: I wrote about a red car with a big yellow S on it. I wrote about how I'll drive around and everyone will say, "Look at that S-car go!"

TT: Ms. Backes, have you ever been to New Orleans?
Me: Yes.
Buddy: Have you been EVERYWHERE?
Me: No.
Dale: Have you been to.... Chicago?
Me: Yes.
Brad: Have you been to New York?
Me: Yes.
Dale: Have you been to Canada?
Me: Yes.
Dale: Did people sit in cottages and eat cheese and say "eh!"?
Me: What??

Girls: Ms. Backes, what socks are you wearing today?
Me: Oh, this is very exciting. You've never seen these before!
Girls: Oh, they're so cute!
Lizzil: Look at my socks!
Karen: Look at my socks!
Aylea: My socks are just white today.
Me: BO-ring!
Mr. K: Do you think you'll ever match up?
Me: No -- we should all get matching socks. That would be so great!
Lizzil: Ooh, we should!
Me: You guys have warped my brain. Now I think about you every morning when I'm getting dressed. What socks should I wear today?
Karen: Me too.
Lizzil: Me too!
Me: Next year will be so sad. No one will care about what socks I'm wearing.
Lizzil: We will! We'll come visit. We'll ditch class to come ask what socks you're wearing! We'll flunk 8th grade so we can stay with you and see your socks!


2nd period.

Me: Okay, we're about to run out of time, so are there any other questions about the sentences?
Andrew: Yes. Are they edible?
Me: No..... but they are editable!


In preparation for tomorrow's "Introduction to Meter & Scansion" lesson, I pulled out the (in)famous Almost But Not Quite Complete... poetry book, and was struck by how much time and energy went into writing a book about poetry for no real reason at all, just that I was 18, just that I loved poetry, just that I was meeting weekly with a bunch of sixth graders who thought I was pretty cool. Mostly: for the love of poetry, for the love of kids. A different person wrote this book, more innocent, less guarded. Someone who didn't know exactly how a sestina worked, someone who thought illustrating the word "paradox" with two kissing ducks (a pair...) was the funniest thing in the world.

On the back of one of the pages I found are pictures of New Horizons High School, the old place downtown. Pictures of the room we painted with poetry, my funny angsty students and I. The pictures struck me in the chest, thrummed me like a harp, and I sat, studying them, for a long time. Searching for clues of what we were, of who we were, as a class, at that time. We painted poetry on the walls! How beautiful and how bold! Looking back, I am half in love with the person I was, how brave and how determined, how sure.

What I remember is the excitement we all had in the project, how it came from the students complaining of how ugly the little room was, how everyone else at school was envious of my class then. Everyone wanted to paint poetry on those walls, but only my students got to, and somehow our project became bigger than just us; it was a community quilt, a whole far greater than the sum of any parts. I look at these pictures and I marvel at how carefully one student printed "The Raven" in such beautiful, gothic script, remember how excited Eric was to find the dirtiest poem he could for the wall (ee cummings' "may i feel") and how I laughed.

Did the class teach those kids anything that would show up on a standardized test? I doubt it. But that's not what was important to me at the time, and it's not what's important to me now. There is no question in my mind that those kids will always remember how they got to paint poetry on the walls, because it was so strange, and wonderful, and wild. I believe they gained a stronger belief in themselves, gained even just a tiny increase in the value they gave to their own ideas, their own beliefs, their own voices. I believe it helped them; I believe it changed them. I believe I made a difference, and I believe it was important.

That brave and determined and beautiful teacher is still a part of me. Even as I bow to increased pressure from the administration to teach to the test, even as I cave and give the fifth standardized test of the year, I believe I make a difference, tiny but sure, and I believe that's important.

23 February 2005




Jay: Ms. Backes, have you ever seen The Day After Tomorrow?
Me: Yes.
Jay: We're watching it in Mr. K's class!
Me: Oh, believe me, I know.
Jay: Do you think that could happen?
Me: An ice age in under a week? Um.... I really don't know.
Jay: Well, aren't you worried about it?
Me: No.
Jay: Why not?
Me: None of us ever really knows how much time we have on earth, so I think what's important is that we try to spend what time we do have well.
Jay: Well, do you believe in God?
Me: (vaguely) Well.... yes....
Jay: I do!
Me: That's good.
Jay: I believe that God is going to bring all his true believers to be with him in Heaven!
Me: Like, the rapture, you mean?
Jay: Yeah. And I'm pretty sure it's going to happen in the next three to five years, max.
Me: ...........hmm.


Dale: Can you swim underneath the continents?
Me: Add that one to your book.
TT: What book?
Me: Dale's going to write a book: "What if: Dale Treadwill's Many Questions."
TT: How long will it be?
Me: It will be like the Oxford English Dictionary, with tissue-thin paper.
Dale: And then Ms. Backes is going to write a book of answers. It will say, "No. No. No. No."
Quin: No, it will say, "Shut up, Dale!"
Me: Why don't we just combine our books, so in the bottom corner of every page of your book will be a picture of me, with a word bubble coming out of my mouth that says, "Shut up, Dale!"
Dale: Yeah! And when you flip through the pages, you'll be shaking your fist at me!

Dale: Where could I buy a camel?
Me: Um... the middle east? Or from a zoo.
Dale: How about Africa?
Me: I don't know, are there camels in Africa?
Jax: Yes. There are.
Me: Are you a camel expert?
Jax: No, but last year I did a report on Africa.
Dale: I was supposed to do a report on Romania. I thought it was Rome, so I did the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but as it turns out that's not in Romania.


7th period.

Carter: Oh, he's just mad because I accidentally called this girl he likes an android.

6th period.

Me: Sorry, I'm a little confused today. I didn't sleep much last night.
Kids: Why not?
Me: My friend Matt called from Antarctica and woke me up.
JC: Are you sure these aren't IMAGINARY friends? Because all your supposed "friends" live in weird places!
Phil: Yeah man, she has cool friends! She has an ex-boyfriend who's a rock star, some of her friends live in Africa...she even knows someone who was in a Pepsi commercial!
Kids: Oooooh!
Me: Yeah --
Phil: With a monkey!!

1st period.

Mr K: Brad, SIT DOWN!! I have to tell you to stop running around at least once a day!
Me: Maybe we should tie him to his chair.
Brad: (shrugging) I can get out of ropes.


6th period.

Aaron: Instead of reading us a poem today, can you sing to us?
Me: SING? You want me to SING to you?
Aaron: Yes.
Me: No you don't. Really.
Aaron: We do. We really want you to sing to us. We hear you have a great voice.
Me: What are you talking about? You've never even heard me sing before.
Aaron: You're a world-renowned singer!
Me: No I'm not!
Aaron: Well.... kind of. We know you!


2nd period.

Me: Does anyone else have questions about citations?
Dale: I do!
Me: Okay...
Dale: Do you have a boyfriend?
Me: ... ANYway...!
Andrew: He's a DUCK!