Friday Night Prufrock: This blog is very serious
I know much, much more about middle schoolers now.
Which is to say, I know something about middle schoolers now.
Precious little of the knowledge I possessed about middle schoolers was of any use whatsoever in the 2021 iteration of American public education.
That’s how fast things have changed.
Pedagogical approaches that were pitch perfect teaching successes in 2020 were disastrously depressing failures in the 2021 classroom.
I have all manner of whiplash from my American life.
I made it through another week, though.
Sanity and sobriety intact.
Health intact, I think.
I feel good.
I made it through another week, sanity and sobriety intact and no cigarettes were smoked and less sugar was consumed than the week before and I did what was sane-and-prudent as it related to both the work I’m paid for (teaching and writing) and the work I’m not paid for (calling doctor’s offices, pharmacies, insurance companies).
Consciously, clearly, I approached my week with the intention of compassion toward myself and others.
In 2022, I plan to be much more intentional with my labor and my love.
In 2022, I know that stress, anxiety, and angst kill me while I live.
Call me old fashioned, but I don’t want to live my life as a miserable zombie.
And man, when I was drinking I was a miserable zombie. When I let the angst and anxiety that fueled my drinking creep back into my life, I can also become a miserable zombie. This is why I meditate and go to top-secret 12 step meetings.
I’m not dewily thrilled to be alive every day now that I’m sober, but I can tell you my shit moods blow over much more quickly sans booze-a-hol in my life and all the thinking that came with my alcohol issue.
So I’m pleased to report that I’m entering this new year not as a miserable zombie, but as a brutally alert, mild-to-moderately depressed, spaz.
Is anyone okay? Are you, reader? How could we even possibly know if we are emotionally well or not? I do know I have been struggling with depression. Depression is nothing new, but its persistence is a little disappointing as I did hope that when I got sober “the blues” would vanish.
In 2022, I know nothing complicated, nothing hard, nothing so deeply human has a silver-bullet-magic-pill antidote. Figuring out the “fix” is our life’s work. Figuring out the “fix” without killing ourselves in the process is the part of life that takes true practice, grit, and skill. And then we die anyway. Which may or may not be a loss. Who the fuck knows.
Today my students and I made “blackout poetry” out of Greek mythology. I have been using “blackout poetry” or palimpsests in the classroom since the start of my career in education. They are a fun and simple way for even reluctant readers and writers to engage with language and feel successful in the engagement. And as we sat in the circle, making blackout poems, I thought of my students from Flagstaff. Many of them are still real parts of my life, and some of them I’ve lost touch with or only know through social media connections. In any case, I was at the school in Flagstaff longer than I’d ever been in any single job in my entire life. The only reason Sarah and I stayed on the mountain so damn long was that I fell in love with a school, with a community of kids (and some adults), and sometimes with those kids on the mountain, they and I defaced books in the name of blackout poetry.
Today, in the Sonoran desert with new students, we made blackout poetry, and while I loved watching their joy in the activity, I felt a stinging flash of nostalgia, of grief, for a life I lived that is now gone forever. Not just for me, but for everyone who is still teaching in America.
And then I thought of a student in the last graduation cohort I taught on the mountain. As I was leaving the school the year they were graduating high school, I felt a bit like I was graduating with them. Sweetly, they made me a part of the ceremony by asking me to speak at commencement. Many of the graduates I had known since they were in 7th grade, and toward that particular segment of the class of 2021, I felt a particular bond.
Among the 7th — senior year group was a young man who I’ll call “Jerome.” Jerome was one of the most difficult seventh graders I’ve yet known. I won’t go into detail, but “Jerome,” if you’re reading this, you (and your friends) know exactly what I’m talking about.
2020–2021 was a fully remote year for our school. I taught part of the year from our rented house in Flagstaff, and then part of the year from our rented house in Tucson. Toward the end of the year, when the school partially reopened, I made a few trips “up the hill” to be with “my kids” (I couldn’t help it, I always called them “my kids,” and no one ever really seemed to mind). On one such trip, Jerome and I were sitting in my classroom looking at the wall of blackout poems.
“Which one is yours?” I asked Jerome, then a senior.
“It’s not up there,” Jerome said.
“What? Did I lose it or something? Were you sick that day?”
Jerome shook his head. “No. I wasn’t behaving and you said I wasn’t really working so you didn’t put it up.”
I looked at the wall of blackout poems, scanning it for Jerome’s, surely I was never that harsh as an educator . . . “Really?” I asked. “I really didn’t put it up there?”
“Really,” said Jerome.
“Were you misbehaving?”
Jerome laughed, said he had been misbehaving that day but as for the blackout poem “I really did try.”
And my heart shattered. Here was this teenager who vividly remembered the time I was a jerk to him in the 7th grade and he was actually trying, “Oh my God, Jerome,” I gasped. “Oh my God. Look. Make me another one — “
Jerome insisted I shouldn’t feel bad, I shouldn’t feel guilty, but I went on, “Make me another one and I swear that no matter where I live, for as long as I live, I will hang your blackout poem in my home. I’m serious.”
Jerome laughed more. He seemed a little embarrassed, in that big-puppy-dog way teen boys sometimes accidentally betray their embarrassment.
When I came back up the hill to attend graduation, Jerome bounded up to me in his mortarboard carrying his new blackout poem. The poem was two-sided, even. I don’t remember quite how I reacted — that day, that time was so difficult and surreal — but I do have Jerome’s poem in my home office, prominently displayed on one wall. And every time I see it, I am reminded of the presence, in my life, of love — love I am given, and love that I give. And when I can recognize love, I can breathe a little easier in a life that more-often-than-I’d-like feels confusing, claustrophobic, and cruel.
No idea why I felt the need for that level of alliteration —
AP students, feel free to discuss.
Also, AP is some Old World bullshit.
I say this as someone who peddled that curriculum for many years.
My hot take? AP courses, on the whole, unnecessarily stress kids out by force feeding them a heaping, steaming, superficial pile of discipline-specific jargon while simultaneously insisting that they think and write like the dreadful robotic bores who came up with this bullshit, classist, racist, woman-hating, lukewarm-Coca-Cola-in-the-can curriculum.
What I’m saying is I’ve had to make choices in this life (like teaching AP curriculum) that I am not proud of. I have had to debase myself on the comp-rhet circuit and even did a quick stint in the world of proprietary ed.
And you know what, reader? I wouldn’t take any of it back.
Because all things considered, I think I’m doing okay. And I don’t think if I hadn’t had all those weird times, those hard times, those what-was-I-thinking times that I would be “okay” right now. I mean, there’s the pandemic. There’s my stage iv cancer. There’s American healthcare and American education — systems with which I am, by necessity and choice respectively, intimately acquainted. Systems that are changing and struggling.
What I’m saying is that on top of the pandemic, I have other extenuating stresses (as do you, also, I’m certain) and I think it was all the shit that came before March of 2020, in my life, that equipped me to survive everything after March of 2020 without becoming a miserable zombie.
I am, of course, miserable sometimes. Not an easy person. Moody. Grumpy. Spazzy. Messy. “Full of high sentence . . .” and definitely, “at times, the fool.” Basically, I’m gay Prufrock. Queer Prufrock? Lesbian Prufrock? Lady Prufrock? Friday Night Prufrock?
I am totally Friday Night Prufrock with my robe and my tea and my throw pillows and my fucking blog. Jesus christ. Why didn’t anybody tell me I turned into J. Alfred Prufrock? Always the last to know. Story of my life.
My forthcoming book (maybe next month? or the month after? everything — and I mean every-fuckin’-thing — in my life is weird right now; not all “dreadfully horrible,” either, but just “weird”) explores connections between teachers and students, how there is no exact word in our language to precisely name the nature of that exchange/connection. (And yeah, I’ve been reading Wittgenstein, and I’m not sure if the intellectual pursuit is good for me or bad for me.) So when my book — called Transference — arrives in the public sphere sometime in the next few months, you should read it and maybe you will have (new?) thoughts on teachers and students and education in America.
And speaking of teachers and students, when I was a little girl, I memorized all the dialogue in The Karate Kid. I had my reasons, and I succeeded in my efforts. My love for this film, as a child, was obsessive. I’m exploring this kind of pop-culture-story attachment in some more “serious” work outside of the blog. Not that the blog isn’t serious. This blog is dead fuckin’ serious, man.
I happened to catch The Karate Kid on television over break. I hadn’t seen the movie in many years. In part because it never crossed my mind, in part because when it did I feared viewing the film would stir up too many painful feelings inside of me because this movie, as a text, was holy to me as a young human. And I think it’s the work I’ve done on myself — my heart, my soul, my head — this year that enabled me to watch and enjoy the movie, sober, on an incredibly lonely Christmas night in my life. And no, I’m scared to watch the Cobra Kai franchise because I fear it will cheapen my memory of the original. Karate Kid cannot be repackaged as 80s nostalgia. The interesting thing about Karate Kid is not the stupid, gross decade in which it takes place, but the story itself, the story of Daniel and Miyagi. Fight me. Actually don’t fight me. I’m old and tired.
Luckily, I had many good teachers pre-2020. I don’t just mean classroom teachers. I’ve had good ones of those, too, but I’m talking about all teachers. Your beloved uncle. Your next-door neighbor lady. Your best friend who’s known you forever. The nurse who administers your chemo in a pandemic and still manages to be kind. And the classroom teachers, too. And all my teachers taught me, like Miyagi, some tricks to manage my own survival in times that seem, objectively, unfathomable much less manageable.
And when I say I’m “managing,” I mean I’m not getting loaded and making nuclear errors in my life. My head is above water. My nose is above water like the nose of an 11 year old in a kn95.
And sometimes, I find myself in yet another new and baffling situation and I’m like “What the fuck do I dooooooo?” and I remember something from the Old World: mala beads, poetry, whiskers on kittens . . . But seriously. I do. I remember “before” and sometimes it’s a fucking curse and sometimes it’s a blessing because there were some wax-on-wax-off lessons I learned along the way that are now excellent survival moves in my life.
The cold I had all of winter break (quarantined for the whole break, too, because I didn’t get my covid results for many moons) is almost all gone. After everything it has been through, I marvel at my body’s willingness to heal. For that, today, I am so grateful. I felt well enough to make it through an entire week of work — on my feet, walks to the park, up-and-down-stairs many times per day, moving furniture . . . you wouldn’t even know I have incurable cancer. And yet I talk about this, even when I feel well, because I could (and likely will) die of this, and I know we all have to go sometime but I really think a disease that impacts what? 1 in 4 women? (I am not Googling cancer tonight) deserves some attention, and I believe that the treatment that is available should be just as easily available to the working-class teacher as it is to the senator’s wife. Period. So no, I’m never going to shut up about the cancer thing. And I definitely will not shut up about this in a country where I know damn fucking well some motherfuckers are financially profiting from my suffering and the suffering of countless other women who had the misfortune of developing breast cancer. Evil is sometimes just objectively evil.
What I mean, reader, is that tonight I am okay.
I am not overly upset about anything. I’m “fussed” and “bothered” and “saddened” about a few matters, but not upset.
And I have no pain in my body. And I don’t feel sick to my stomach. And I don’t have brain fog, and it’s Friday, and I have household, creative, and spiritual projects to work on this weekend. And it’s not very cold here, and I don’t miss the “post-holiday January cold” of the mountain and the midwest. And I’ll be okay.
Wax-on, wax-off, hooligans.