22 September 2006

How come you're so WEIRD?

3rd period

Door: SLAM!
Me: Who just left?
Kiley: Dorian.
Me: Hmmmmm.....
Door: SLAM!
Me: Dorian, since when do we leave the room without Molly's permission?
Dorian: (Completely Blank Look)
Me: Um... Molly being Ms. Backes. Me. You know what I mean.
Dorian: Okay... sorry miss.


Me: What do we know about Africa, based on the stories we read last week?
Candi: They eat weird stuff. Like bugs!
Me: Um....
Morgan: You told us! You told us they eat bugs!
Candi: They ate bugs in the story!
Me: Umm...... (Looking back to see Ali at the back of the room with a puzzled, amused expression on her face.)
Morgan: The guy went looking for bugs to eat!
Me: Oh, ANTELOPE? Are you talking about antelope???
Candi: Yeah, that's it!
Ali: (DOUBLED over in silent laughter)
Me: An antelope is not a bug, it's like a deer.
Candi: Well whatever! They eat weird stuff!!


Link: (to himself) If I could go anywhere in the world...... (louder) Ms. Backes, where's Three Mile Island?
Me: Um... Pennsylvania, I think.
Link: Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. If I could go anywhere in the world, I'd go there.


Dakota: I was going to ask you something, Ms. Backes. What was it? What was I going to ask you?
Me: Was it, "How come you're so awesome?"
Dakota: Yes. Ms. Backes, you are an awesome teacher.
Me: Oh! Thanks! Wow, that really came out of nowhere!
Joellyn: I know what the question is, Ms. Backes! How come you're so WEIRD??


Anna: I like parentheses.
Me: Good.
Donny: Who said that? It's dumb.
Anna: It's not dumb. If I were in a parentheses right now, it would be like getting hugged.


this morning, bus duty

Me: (humming to myself) la la la....
Mr. Schmidt: What are you singing there, Backes?
Me: Um... you know in the Muppet Movie, when they first meet Rolfe, and he's singing and playing piano in a bar?
Mrs. Jones: (wide-eyed, looks slightly horrified)
Me: (half-singing) You can't live with 'em, you can't live without 'em; there's something irrestibleish about 'em.....
Mrs. Jones: We really worry about you sometimes, Molly!

And sometimes **I** really miss Grinnellians. They wouldn't tell me I'm weird for singing a muppet song.


Crazy Teacher Next Door: I asked Andi where she wants to live when she grows up, and she said, "Where the hippies live." Then I told her that we have a hippie teacher in the school and she knew right away that it was YOU!
Me: I'm not a hippie.
CTND: Yes you are!
Me: My PARENTS were hippies. I'm a Gen-Xer or a Millenium child, depending on which cutoff date you.....
CTND: Look at your classroom! You're a hippie!
Me: Uh...
CTND: Like this. What does this say?
Me: My classroom is a safe environment for all students.
CTND: See? Hippie!
Me: I don't....
CTND: Or this! Who is this even a picture of??
Me: Rosa Parks.
CTND: Hippie!
Me: No, she was a poster girl for the civil rights movement.
CTND: Or that sign, "Hate Free Zone."
Me: So acknowledging and supporting student and global diversity in my classroom makes me a hippie?
CTND: Yes!
Me: FINE! Then I'll be a hippie!

Note that this is the same man who picked a fight with me two weeks ago about homophones, first joking about how much I love "homos" and then ranting (for days) about how "where" and "wear" are not homophones because the H should be enunciated in "where" and I am doing my students a disservice by allowing them to pronounce it incorrectly. And THEN getting a bunch of my students to go, "Hey Ms. Backes, Mr. Gooze says w-H-y, w-H-at, w-H-ere! He says it really bothers you!" Which, of course, it didn't; what bothered me was Mr. Gooze saying crazy and annoying things about me to my own students.


21 September 2006

Bobby McFerrin for God in 2000!

Okay. This is the story of me and Bobby McFerrin.

First of all, I violined. I don't know if you knew that. I violined for ten years, and at the end I was still not a wonderful violiner, but I did love to play inside of an orchestra. Orchestra was a really big part of my life from 4th grade through 12th grade, and I continued to play violin regularly through much of college. I still pick it up every now and again; it's under Natty's bed in Zeke's room.

But I digress....

In 6th grade, my teacher Ms. Sanyer sponsored a contest for us orchestra kids. If you could practice at least 120 minutes a week for like six weeks, you got a prize at the end. And I did it -- and it was the one semester I ever really really improved as a player. (You'd think I would have learned, but I really didn't.) At the end of the 6 weeks, Ms. Sanyer gave the five of us who'd made it a very special prize -- a mix tape she'd made herself, with her own gorgeous handwriting on it.

I didn't listen to the tape much -- too bad, I bet there were some great things on it -- but one song I did get off it was a song off of the album "Hush," a collaboration between Bobby McFerrin and Yo Yo Ma. And I loved it. I LOVED it. Turns out my mother actually owned the real album, on CD! So I listened to it a lot in 8th and 9th grade. (Oddly, my two favorite albums in 9th grade were Hush and a collaboration between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. No wonder I had no friends.)

In 9th grade choir, we had to do this thing called an IMP -- individual music project -- and I brought in the song "Coyote" from "Hush." At this point, I'd already been to New Mexico with my orchestra, already fallen in love with the state, already declared my intention to move there when I grew up, & so forth. "Coyote" reminded me of New Mexico, reminds me still, of the desert sky at night, the crystal of the stars, the loneliness.... Anyhow, so I turned off all the lights in the echoing choir room and made everyone lie on the floor and listen. Coyote.

In 10th grade, I wrote an autobiographical poem at the beginning of the year, in my Multicultural Lit class with Rebecca Fox-Blair and Camille Farrington. There was a line about Bobby McFerrin being some sort of god with really cool hair. My mom, never missing an opportunity for me to make a fool of myself, made me send it to Bobby McFerrin.

Can you believe that?? I haven't even thought about this in years, and I'm still embarassed, eleven years later.

Also in 10th grade we had to write our future selves letters, to be delivered in five years. The thing was, I was in a senior English class, so everyone else would be 22 or 23 when they got the letters, solidly out of college, solidly adults. I'd be.... 21. BO-ring. But I wrote it, extremely awkwardly, covered it with stickers from Ben Franklin, and gave it to my teachers to mail to me in 2001.

Somewhere along the line, my mom started a friendly relation ship with Bobby McFerrin's publicist. I guess she'd read the dorky poem I'd sent, and thought it was cute, and my mom did her "my daughter the nerd" networking, and next thing you know we have backstage passes to Bobby McFerrin in Milwaukee.

Backstage passes!

You have to understand, I never liked NKOTB or any such band. I never went through that shit. I mean, I cried when Kurt Cobain died -- we heard it on the radio in art class, in 8th grade -- but I didn't WORSHIP Cobain like I worshiped Bobby McFerrin.

So we saw him in concert in Milwaukee, and it was amazing. We'd seen him live before, at Ravinia in Chicago, but this time we MET him. And I was such a dork, I was like, "Oh my god, hi, I love you!" And he kind of laughed and said hi. My younger sister Megan was completely unimpressed; she didn't say a word but kind of nodded at him, so he pressed his hands together and bowed to her. I was too drunk on adoration to be jealous.

Over the years I saw him several times more, always wonderful. Most recently, my mother sent me tickets to see him at Popejoy for my 25th birthday. And he was wonderful again. He did the Bach Prelude/Ave Maria thing with the Popejoy audience, and it was something holy. One of those rare moments in your life when you're entirely present and you can actually look around and say, this -- this -- is a moment of grace.

And the letter? Delivered to me in the late, lazy Grinnell summer of 2001. I wandered through beds of native prairie grasses and purple conflowers to sit on a bench in the peace grove and read it. It was covered in stickers and addressed, awkwardly, to "you -- I mean me, I guess -- I mean, you know. Weird!"

And on the front of the envelope, it cheered,


18 September 2006


Homecoming 2006:

(prep period)

Melusina: (jumping through my open door) Ta Daaa!! I'm a pirate!
Harriet: (walking slowly after her, sounding less than enthused) And I'm a Viking.....
Me: Ooooh! Fight!
(They do, Melusina eagerly and Harriet obligingly.)
Me: Um, Mel, shouldn't you actually be a horse. We're the Pintos, right?
Melusina: Yeah, but the theme of Homecoming is Pirates.
Me: Pirates?
Harriet: Yep.
(More student council kids wander in.)
Me: Seriously, just.... Pirates?
Shelby: Yep, Pirates! We have a treasure chest full of candy!
Me: Not, like, "Enchantment under the sea" or "Adventure on the waves" or "Moonlight Cruise"? Just.... Pirates?
Kids: (giggle)
Me: Homecoming 2006.... Pirates!
Kids: (giggle)
Shelby: It's pretty romantic, huh?
Melusina: I never even thought of that!
Me: Just... Pirates!

(after school, the float)

Shelby: Hey Ms. Backes! Look! Pirates!
Me: Pirates!
Troy: We have a treasure chest! And it's full... of CANDY!
Me: That's cool, you guys.
Melusina: We're going to throw candy!
Harriet: Last year we got in trouble because someone got hit in the eye.
Shelby: (nodding wisely) That's right. This year, gentle throwing.
Jason: Here Ms. Backes, I'm going to throw you some candy!
Me: (standing like four feet away) Uh, okay!
(Jason throws candy. I catch a couple of tootsie rolls, more fall at my feet.)
Me: ... (bending over to pick up the fallen tootsie rolls)
Jason: Okay, now you throw it back at me!
Me: Why?
Jason: Because I want some candy!
Me: But you just threw it to me....!
Melusina: Ooooh, throw me a tootsie roll!
Shelby: Throw me one, Ms. Backes!
Me: No, I'm keeping one for myself!
Kids: Awwwwww.
Me: What?? You're sitting on a treasure chest -- literally! -- a treasure chest of candy!
Shelby: Pirates!

It might not come through, but this is the perfect, perfect example of why I love middle schoolers. They're so weird, and they still make me laugh.

12 September 2006


Over Labor Day weekend, R. and I helped our friend Natalie move to Chicago, which involved driving a u-haul trailer from Albuquerque to Chicago in 24 hours, staying long enough to have dinner with friends, watch you-tube videos of people getting punched in the nuts, sleep, have breakfast with friends the next morning, restock on ice and food at Target, and hug everyone goodbye. We left Chicago around 2 on Sunday and made such good time I talked R. into stopping in Grinnell where, incidentally, Adam & Cam were for alumni soccer weekend.

Grinnell. The moment we crossed the Mississippi I was too excited not to drive. R. slept as I drove over those familiar hills, under that enormous sky. I surfed channels on the radio, but for some reason I kept finding songs that were popular when I was at Grinnell (Cher's "Believe," Madonna's "Believe") and happily pretended it was junior year again. By the time we were passing exit signs for Victor and What Cheer (not to mention Monty & Brooklyn!) I was hitting R. to show him.

Of course, I can't go back to the Grinnell I knew. The place itself is different -- the Chrystal center, East Campus, the shiny new student center, the shiny new PEC -- ad infinitum, it seems, though I only left a little more than three years ago. And the people, though they look shockingly familiar from a distance, are not the same people. I bet they're great. But they're not *my* people, not *my* Grinnellians. I'd need an Ali and a Hudson, a Jamie, Cam, Adam, a George & Dan, a Nadia and Mary, of course, a Margaret, Em, Vivek, Chris & Nick, a Paul and a Matty and a Posey, Kim, Melissa, Gus, John, Gina & Pat & Dave and.... well, you know what I mean. That collection of people, the specific population of people I love, will never be together again in exactly the same place or exactly the same way.

And yet....

Knowing that the campus itself is different, and knowing that the people, for the most part, are gone (though there's a very real chance of running into a Professor Youde or an Abby Scheckter these days), Grinnell still holds a powerful draw for me, the very trees themselves which I knew so well, the very curve of each path meandering through the wildflowers across campus. The air there seems different, even, in ways I may never be able to explain.

And I realize now, 1300 miles away once more, teaching again on the wide desert plain, that the person I was hoping most to see was myself, the girl I was six years ago, walking across the campus with notebook in hand and mischief in mind.....

The chances that I'll see her again are slim, I think, and yet the fact that I was able, even for an hour, to sit at Dairy Barn with Cam & Adam and a strawberry-banana smoothie tells me that there's a chance I can find her again as well. A chance that I'll be able, even for an hour, to step outside the suburban adult life of mine to walk alongside her as she wanders under the apple trees, wholly present and wholly herself.

And I wonder if that's not the biggest reason anyone has to go back, not in search of the place or even the people, but of yourself, the person you were. The person you know you still can be -- still are -- given an hour and enough wildflowers.

08 September 2006

Dear Everyone....

I love you. I really do. I love you, and that's why I want to have this little talk. Consider it an intervention. Because I love you.

it's = it is

its = it, possessive


1. The dog licked (it's, its) balls.

2. (It's, Its) so nice of Molly to make this quiz for me.

3. This particular grammatical idiosyncrasy is tricky; (it's, its) something I've never quite gotten.

4. And now this quiz has just about outlived (it's, its) novelty.

HINT: it's = it is, its = possessive

Key: 1, its. 2, it's. 3, it's. 4, its.

How'd you do?

Wonderful. And remember, it's just because I love you so much.

06 September 2006

Great Moments in Teaching, or: Why I'll Go Back Tomorrow

4th Period, 8th Grade Language Arts

Me: What is the MAIN IDEA of this essay (Charles Kuralt's Independence Hall)?
Class: Declaration of Independence!
Me: Okay, but what's the THESIS? What argument is the author trying to put forth?
Class: 1776! John Hancock!
Me: Um.... okay. Is the author saying that the Declaration was written by God himself, left on a rock for Thomas Jefferson to find, at which point the entire Continental Congress burst into song?
Mysterious Voices in beautiful 8 Part Harmony: Oh say does that Star Spangled Banner Still Wave....??
Class: OH MY GOD!!!
Me: Whoa! That's apropos.
Class: So... yes?
Me: What?
Class: You asked if God wrote the Declaration of Independence, and then angels started singing the Star Spangled Banner!
Me: I know, right? But seriously, the main idea of this essay is....
Dalia: The main idea is that it was HARD, that it was a struggle.
Me: YES! Very good.
Mysterious Voices: ...and the HOME of the BRAVE!!
Class: (spontaneously applauds)

So then I ran into the hallway, found the choir and their teacher, and said, "Hey, we just read an essay about the Declaration of Independence, can you come sing for us?" The choir teacher said, "Great!" and the 26 high schoolers filed into my room, some of them former students, and sang for my 8th graders. After which, of course, we applauded again. Then the choir teacher told my students some facts about music, and then I released my students early for lunch. Awesome.