Sunday, March 7, 2010


tattoo a rhythmic drumming (ta-TOO)

Many a story we’ve heard about the other kind of tattoo being the result of barroom bravery occasioned by one too many beers. Curiously enough, tattoo as a drumbeat has its origins the Dutch term for ‘closing time at the tavern.’

He could feel his heart beating a strong and stronger tattoo the closer he got to the tattoo parlor and its needle.”*

Yesterday’s post was all about how my lack of focus and direction had led to a little bout of depression. My husband suggested that I think of my days off as the days that it’s my job to write. From 8:00am to 12:00pm, I will work at my “job”, while chores, errands, and other distractions will wait. Within these four hours, I’ve already begun subdividing that time. Despite my horrid cold, I’m ready to embrace this new routine. (Now I’ll probably get a five-day sub job for this week.)

To mark this new endeavor (and to clear off the other half of the love seat I work at), my husband suggested we get a couple of baskets for me to organize my papers. So, Saturday afternoon, we went to TJ Maxx, where I picked up a couple of lovely, purple and gray rose-covered boxes, which match nicely with the love seat (And my rose tattoo).

Purchasing these boxes also meant that the end table, next to the love seat, which has a convenient shelf below, would be cleared of papers as well. Then I could put some of my writing reference books that I had by the television. When I sorted through the books, I found one I had long ago forgotten*. Since I’m no longer in graduate school and I mostly read children’s books, I don’t challenge my vocabulary as much as I used to. I saw this book in a clearance bin at Border’s, and thought it would be useful. I decided to read a word a day, even if I’d never be pompous enough to toss them into a conversation and they’d be overkill in a middle-grade manuscript (But maybe not YA).

The first word in the book is abscond, which means “to steal away”. Good start. Learning new vocabulary words reminds me of when I ran Word Study as the fifth-grade assistant. I learned from the lead teacher about doing “Word of the Day” in addition to the students’ spelling lists. She had a bunch of cards with words to choose from, and after a word was chosen, it was added to a “Word Wall”. It became my job to pick the word, which I tried to have related to our week’s spelling list. Working on roots? Prefixes? Suffixes? I’d find roots we were studying. Learning about colonies? I’d use words related to Social Studies. Tackling graphs in Math? I’d sort through until I located words related to graphs.

The students would look up the word in a dictionary, write it in their notebook, and create a sentence using the word. Then I’d make a sentence on the board that was riddled with mistakes and I’d call on them so they could help me fix it. I’d always pretend to be horrified by my errors, which made them chuckle. In the beginning of the year, the errors were obvious, but as the year went on, I’d make them more challenging. Misspellings, mixing up homophones, and when to use commas, semi-colons, and colons, all became part of the game. I’d call on lower-learners first, so they could knock off the easy ones. Once in a while they’d surprise me and figure out one that had originally been beyond them. I relished in those moments.

When I resigned from the position, I don’t know if the newer lead teacher took over the exercise. It was a great way to have the students transition from lunch back to class, and they enjoyed it. When I get my own Social Studies class, I may do something similar. If I get a Humanities job, it will work even better.

Teaching fifth-grade Social Studies and Word Study, along with running a reading group, were wonderful experiences. For a three-hour aide, who also had to do homework check, this was impossible to accomplish in the time I spent at school, so I often prepped or corrected assignments at home. Truthfully, even if I had a bad day, I didn’t have any work to take home with me, which is the only positive among the many negatives of being a substitute teacher.

I miss the relationships with the students and the routine of coming in every day, knowing what I was expected to do. And these experiences made me a better writer. I knew my target audience well and what they liked to read. And diving into books in reading group and messing up and fixing sentences, made me more aware of the structure of books and writing. Elbert Hubbard said, “The teacher is the one who gets the most out of the lessons, and the true teacher is the learner.” I couldn’t agree more.

Those years in the fifth-grade were rewarding more than I can convey in this short space. Each one of those students felt like my own children. And when I knew students were suffering at home, I longed to pull them out of their situations and take them home. There was nothing more heartbreaking than sending Social Services to a family’s home, and find out that nothing would change.

When I was listening to NPR on Friday morning, they did their normal segment when they have family members interview one another, called Story Corps. This particular interview had an adopted son interviewing his former fifth-grade teacher who took him in when he was a fifteen-year teen with a newborn son**. The stories in this segment always bring tears to my eyes, but this one was more poignant than usual because I understood the bond that could lead the teacher to take a chance on this young man.

Just as my writing was suffering because I wasn’t disciplined and hadn’t set up a routine, the teacher in me is suffering without my own students. Being a substitute is the opposite of routine. According to my Microsoft Word thesaurus, routine means: custom, habit, schedule, practice. What’s the opposite? Chaos? It’s not quite that bad. On they listed: everyday, mundane, quotidian, routine, unremarkable, workaday. Their antonym? Extraordinary. That’s not quite it either.

Because my job is extraordinarily chaotic, I look forward to having a writing routine, and am determined that it will not be mundane.

* From, Smart Words: Vocabulary for the Erudite: and those who wish to be by Mim Harrison. I’m sure tattoo was so named because the instrument to tattoo is done with many quick pinpricks, like a drumbeat.



  1. Well even if you end up working all week at a school, at least you know you'll be ready for your writing job the next time you have a day off. It is always nice to see the relationships my husband builds with his students. They often visit him after they've graduated and it makes us both feel old when we realize a certain student we both remember has already graduated college! Where does the time go?

  2. Good luck with your writing routine! When I was little every time I came accross a word I didn't know, I'd write it in a notebook along with the sentence I found it in and what it means. I love learning new words and I didn't know what abscond meant (or maybe forgot). Thanks for sharing.

  3. Surfie, I can't believe that the first group of seventh-graders I had several years ago, graduated high school last year. And the fifth-graders I had the year after that are in eleventh-grade now. I recently wrote where I mentioned that when I see them, I say, "You're so tall." It makes me feel old too.

    Aubrie, it's amazing that you did that when you were little. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Hi

    Oh wow. I do like how you are really getting your writerly routine to mesh with your teaching and family. Wonderful!

    It's such a shame about your Word Study fifth grade class but I know that you are following the right course for you - the right path to being a total writer! It's so great that you were able to have this teaching experience because of the bond you fostered with your students. I think this only enhances your strength as a writer - because you've had - and still continue to be - totally immersed with your target audience.

    I love these word of the day sites! I sneak every so often to the "freerice" site because they do the most intriguing word game (the site throws out a word, you try and pick the correct meaning. I say sneak because the site has come under some stringent scrutiny for perhaps being a scam - ie. the site donates rice to poor countries - how they do so is never really explained). Anyway - I'm on a lookout for similar sites!

    I'm so intrigued with this "love seat"btw LOL!

    Have a great Sunday - I do hope your cold goes away soon!

    Take care

  5. Old Kitty, I'm glad that I'm working with older students sometimes, which is good experience when I get a full-time job.

    I love I had the fifth-graders who had computers do it over winter break last year. One of the schools I sub at, have students do the Spanish version during Spanish class, and the computer teacher keeps a total of how much rice they've donated.

    My husband wonders about the legitimacy of He'd say, "If you don't do it today, some poor child won't have breakfast."

    In America, a two-seater couch is a love seat. Do you call them something else in England?

  6. I love your four hour morning routine to write. Someday...someday... :)

  7. Theresa,]]

    I can't believe that you took work home as an assistant. Shame on your teacher. I feel that you don't get paid enough to have to take work home and as a result, when my student leaves school, she is empty handed.

    I am praying every night that you get your own classroom next year dear lady. It is a good thing I don't live up there because I would be going around talking to those Principals on your behalf.

    It sounds like you have a terrific husband who is very supportive of you and your writing.

    I go back to school tomorrow bright and early but I wanted to let you know I was thinking of you before I crawled into bed.


  8. M. Gray, I'm excited to start, but I'll have to wait at least a day. I'm subbing for ESL tomorrow. I hope you get that kind of time too.

    VKT, you are so sweet. The teachers treated me like an equal and I worked like an equal, even if I got paid a lot less. Doing my best and the students were the most important to me. I had the same kind of work ethic as a student teacher.

    I hope you're sleeping already. It's almost nine and I'm crawling into bed too, hoping I won't cough all through tomorrow.

  9. Good luck with your new writing routine! Let us know how it goes. I'm sure substituting also makes you a better writer. You're learning to be flexible, getting exposed to all sorts of different personalities and situations, and getting more time to devote to writing. Feel better soon!

  10. I love how supportive your hubby is. Have I said that before?

  11. I wish I had your self-control on the whole writing thing. I know I could never convince myself on a day off to write at 8AM for four hours. I totally commend you for your efforts! I hope you get to put your theory into practice soon and reap the benefits.

    And feel better!!

  12. Thanks, Sheila. I wonder what ESL will have in store for me.

    Susan, thanks for the comment. I hope I get a chance to try the new routine tomorrow.

    Karen G, you have, but I'm sure he loves reading it.

    Tiffany, I could never have written anything remotely creative in graduate school. Maybe it was because I was in the History program, but it took me years to find pleasure in reading again. If I'd written back then, I doubt I would've been writing creatively either.

  13. Good luck with your routine! Having a routine has been invaluable for me. Otherwise I can mooch around for hours doing nothing, and the days fly... not to mention the fact that I can eat my flat out of food in one day if I have nothing else planned.

    I'm sure you'll have a novel (or several) produced in no time.

  14. Thanks, Talli. I'm lucky because my hunger doesn't kick in until late afternoon. I do, however, down a lot of coffee.

    My problem isn't number of novels, it's polishing them so that they get published!

  15. Hi Theresa, You sound so like me, am also trying to get some kind of routine going here for writing and I wish you lots of luck and happy polishing of your novels,
    I down a lot of coffee at the moment too,

  16. Brigid, I'd love to hear what kind of routine you're trying out. Good luck!

  17. please do find me at blogHer this summer! I don't know how to contact you except your comments, but you can reply to this comment and I'll give you my "real" contact info and we'll meet up!

  18. Lora, I realized after I left a comment on your blog that I forgot to give you my e-mail address, so I left you a second comment. In case it didn't go through, I'll put it here as well: tmilstein at gmail dot com