Sunday, February 28, 2010

Kindergarten Quotes

“Only people who die young learn all they really need to know in kindergarten.”

- Wendy Kaminer

I haven’t done a humorous quotes post since November*. On Friday, one kindergarten period during gym gave me enough quotes to merit its own post. It’s not often that one thirty-minute period could warrant its very own post, but here it is:

As they filed in, I called, “Kindergarteners, go to your warm-up spots.”

“They’re not their warm-up spots – they’re our stretching spots.”

Drat the little children’s annoying habit of being exact. “My mistake. Kindergarteners, to your stretching spots.”

It’s a good thing they don’t understand sarcasm.

For each stretch, the children protested if I veered from the usual order of stretches, tried to do few or too many counts in the stretch, or (God forbid) counted instead of saying the alphabet as we held the stretch. At some point, I said, “If I don’t do the warm-ups in exactly the same order as your teacher, it’s not the end of the world.” I don’t think they believed me.

Later, a little girl on steppers (upside down cups to stand on with handles that you hold) stepped over to me. “I have money in my pocket.”

“That’s nice. What are you buying?”

“I have more money at home. I’m saving.”

“It’s good to save. What are you saving for?”

“I’ve got $100. If my mother loses her job, if my father loses his job, I’m gonna save them.”

“That’s very sweet.”

With about ten minutes of class time to go, one girl sat on the floor, sobbing and clutching her knee, while a gaggle of girls huddled around her.

“What happened?”

She pointed to a surprised girl. “SHE pushed me!”

Surprised girl responded, “No I didn’t. Your shoelaces are untied.”

We all looked down and indeed they were untied. “I think you shouldn’t accuse friends. You probably tripped on your laces,” I said.

Then the hurt girl looked around. “Stop looking at me!”

I reprimanded the hurt girl. “They’re just concerned about you.”

“Go away!” she screamed at them anyway. (Did her head just spin 360 degrees?)

All the girls scurried away but one. “Can I stay?”


The girl was still crying, but seemed calmer. “Are you ready to play?” I asked.


I pulled up her pant leg to see that her knee. “You look okay to me, but if it’s really bothering you, I can get my HUGE chainsaw and get rid of this pesky leg.”

That usually gets giggles, but she said, “No,” trying to decide if I was serious.

She ran off, probably terrified of me.

Another student, who was in the original huddle, came over and told me, “I know that girl from last year. When she’s upset, she likes to be alone. She needs her space.” I smiled. “Thanks for letting me know.”

When their teacher arrived, I announced, “Kindergarteners, your teacher is here. Please help me put away all of the gym equipment.” Most readily complied.

As they left, one student said, “Thank you for taking us through our routine today.”

Trying not to laugh, I replied, “Thank you for being such a good class.”

As they went out the door, I overhead the last two boys having this exchange:

“You know, staples can kill.”

“No, they can’t.”

“Yes, they can.”

Kindergarteners are really cute, but ZANY. For those of you who teach kindergarten day in and day out, I salute you. Below are two kindergarten blogs that I follow. Check them out and get to know these dedicated teachers:

My Happy Rainbow:

The Chronicles of a Veteran Kindergarten Teacher:

* Previous humorous quotes:

Friday, February 26, 2010

Back in Time

Dr Emmett Brown: “This is it! This is the answer. It says here... that a bolt of lightning is going to strike the clock tower at precisely 10:04pm, next Saturday night! If... If we could somehow... harness this lightning... channel it... into the flux capacitor... it just might work. Next Saturday night, we're sending you back to the future!”

- Film “Back to the future”

Last night, I received a call from the GATE KEEPER, which was a double-edged sword. It meant I wouldn’t have to rise at 5:25am, but it also meant I had to work. Turns out that I was subbing at the same school as Monday*, for PE AGAIN, but this time I was going to be the part-time teacher I worked with, and working with the previously absent teacher. My schedule would be to work straight through from 8:10am until 12:55pm with no breaks, but then I could leave early.

Three Phys Ed. jobs in one week: what were the sub gods telling me? Are most other subs too petrified to teach gym? Did these two teachers request me? Am I meant to go back to school and become certified in Physical Education? I know it isn’t the last one! On the upside, because I did warm-ups with the students, and made it a point to be active, I was beginning to lose my winter mush.

When I left the house, I noticed that the previous night’s rainstorm blew some shingles off the roof and knocked over our little fence that barely protects our little patch of dirt. We’ve buried a couple of fish and hermit crabs there. A few bulbs pop up, but often get stolen as soon as they bloom. City living.

I did the right thing, going straight to the cafeteria and paying my thirty-five cents for milk. Then I went into the teacher’s room. This cool school had a Friday breakfast potluck. I put put fifty-cents in the jar and got a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Then I swiped a small croissant on the way out. In all fairness, they always leave the leftovers with a note for any teachers and staff to take some. (Am I a teacher or staff or neither?) I should confess that last time, I also swiped a book from their book swap shelf, but I brought an old with me today to replace it. What is it about this school that turns me into a kleptomaniac?

The seventh-grade class couldn’t have behaved any better, using the sack of balls given to me in the office. Almost every person played some game, with only a few girls (as usual) staying on the sidelines. One student is me reincarnated or my clone or my platonic soul mate. I met her when I subbed music last year. She had my semi-Goth look, but updated from the 1980s. I put on my iPod while they completed a survey. She asked if we could listen to hers. She had the same exact red one as mine that raised money for Aids. When I viewed her play list, we had almost identical songs. Her music ranged from back to the 1970s until the present. Because of her, I discovered the Silversun Pickups and found out the name of the artist to the song “Mad World”. Oh, and her favorite color is also purple.

The next group of eighth-graders was a horror when I subbed Science last year. It was early in my substitute teacher "career" and they were my first middle-school group. Since then, I’ve enjoyed them much more in PE and Music, where I’m not forcing them to do anything academic.

Since I’ve been looking back on the teenage me, I’ve revealed my senior picture, which was taken just before I began my final year of high school. (Click on it to enlarge, if you dare.) To see more pictures of me with curly hair, become my Facebook friend. Here, I was sporting the tragic Vanessa Huxtable look from The Cosby Show. Even then, my dream was to have a bob with bangs, like the lead singer in the band, Siousxie & the Banshees and my friend, Maura. I was a straight-haired girl trapped in a curly girl’s head. If only they had the same hair products and flatirons back then.

Considering I had just ridden my bike to the school in the summer, my hair and make-up held up. At least my face had grown to match my nose by that point. Let's not discuss my eyebrows. The photographers made us push down our shirts and put that funny fabric over them. My skin was darker then, making me look like my Italian relatives, but now it’s paler like my Irish-side of the family. My hair was medium-brown, but I dyed it black. Now it’s naturally darkened to nearly black. It’s hard for me to believe this picture was taken twenty-two years ago.

In some ways, who I was then and who I am now hasn’t changed. But in other ways, I don’t know who that girl is anymore. If I were in high school now, what would I be like? Would I still be a semi-Goth girl? Would I be like the girl who has a similar look to the old me and shares my play list? I remember who I was vividly** – all the awkwardness and insecurities and frustration of not having control over much of my life.

That’s why I love writing for and about preteens and teens. Leaving childhood, you begin to question everything you took for granted: parents tumble off pedestals, religion is questioned, government seems ineffective and corrupt, and almost all adults are clueless and uncool. As a teacher, I see myself through the students’ eyes. I don’t try to be their friend (lame), or talk down to them (rude), or minimize how hard it is to be them. If anything, I point out how different I am (calling myself an old white girl), which garners their respect (Or silent ridicule).

Would I want to go back in time and be that young again? Hell, no. Maybe going back to my early 20s, before gravity ravaged me, would be tempting. I spend enough time with minors; it’s easier to be in charge of them than being one of them. The nice thing about writing preteen and teen characters is that I get to visit, but I don’t have to live there.

*Here’s the post from the PE job the other day:

** A previous post about relating to adolescents:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

House Hunt

“Most of the time it was probably really bad being stuck down in a dungeon. But some days, when there was a bad storm outside, you’d look out your little window and think, ‘Boy, I’m glad I’m not out in that.’”

- Jack Handy

When I ran in the rain to my car yesterday morning, I stole a glance at a dead rat that lay atop the square of earth surrounding a tree on the sidewalk. Rats are everywhere, but especially in cities. Most of the time, I can pretend that they don’t exist until they lay dead on the street or, worse, scurry in front of my path. In my eight years in Cambridge, the latter has (thankfully) only happened a handful of times.

Was I the only one disgusted with the thought of rats working in the kitchen in “Ratatouille”? I loved everything else about the movie, but… the rats. Rats symbolize what I don’t like about residing in a city. For the diversity, variety of foods, entertainment, and good schools in Cambridge, there’s also poverty, noise, congestion, and filth. Filth brings rats.

I fool myself into thinking that if my husband and I didn’t live in Area 4*, we wouldn’t see as many rats. Since my husband got his new job, we’ve been sort of hunting for a house. I’ve written about my problems finding a full-time job (that’s why I’m a sub) and how that’s delayed us getting a bigger place**. It’s rare that homes pop up in our price range, so we haven’t worked on securing a pre-approval. This morning, my husband and I vowed that we would move on that because if an opportunity comes along, we want to be able to pounce on it like a cat on a rat. (Sorry.)

Right now, we live in a two-bedroom condo. My requirements for the next place are modest: three-bedrooms, so my boy and girl would have separate bedrooms. A second bathroom, driveway, and some property (grass), and I’d jump for joy. But no more than two bathrooms or I’d be stuck cleaning them.

Two houses in our approximate price range popped up in recent weeks. One needs work and has no property, but would be big enough for our needs and is in good shape. The other is in the sought-after Cambridgeport section, near the river (don't point out that rats live near rivers) and Trader Joe’s (Good and bad, since it’s visible from the ample yard). It’s big, but needs work and has only one bathroom. And even with the price decrease, it would be a financial stretch.

The big one already has three offers and we’re not ready to compete, but the smaller one may be doable. If there are no offers on that, we can get the pre-approval, and manage to wait for our current condo to sell (bridge loan?), then we may be able to move sooner rather than later.

But I really wanted to have the next move be the final house. Not that I’d never consider moving again, but that it could be the last home because I didn’t need to make any huge compromises. Could I live without ever having some property other than the outline of the house? Probably not. If we buy soon, then the chance that the new house will have anything more than one extra bedroom is slim, but without my full-time job earnings, that may be the reality.

And the clock is ticking. My son is eleven and my daughter is seven. They’ll need to be separated soon, and we’d prefer not to put up a wall in their bedroom. If we move into something we can barely afford, we’ll be scrimping once more. Whether we can afford something now so have to live more frugally as a result, or we start living more frugally so we can afford something soon, we still need to reign in some spending. We save, but we should save even more.

But what Americans “need” has changed in the last fifteen-years. Remember life without cable, Internet, and cell phones?

I look back to our first cheap apartment with few expenses. The biggest cost was insuring our two cars. Heat was included and phone and electricity were each a mere $30 a month. There was no cable in New York City, so the building’s antennae had to do. Internet was $20 for dial-up.

Now I have a big cable bill, Internet costs more, heat is expensive in he winter, we have two cell phones, insuring one car costs as much as our two old cars used to cost, and we have a car payment. (Our Taurus died, so we bought a new car. Then someone being chased by the police because he tried to run over a police officer with his car hit our new car***.) Plus the kids are doing more activities after school.

I don’t mind prioritizing to get a bigger house. If we have to drop an activity or two, eat out less, and think about how to lower other bills, that’s part of being responsible. Why am I paying so much for a telephone landline exactly?

But it’s the knowledge that if I had a full-time job, we could purchase the larger home without compromising on an extra bathroom and property, and still have some spending money, that bothers me. A letter from the school superintendent arrived today, informing parents that due to the economy, there will be millions of dollars in budget cuts. What are my teaching prospects now? And I thought securing a book deal was difficult.

Being stuck in this house is another symbol of me being professionally stuck.

“There’s only one me, and I’m stuck with him.”

- Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

* A little more about Area 4:

** Other posts about money issues:

*** Yes, that’s my gray Mazda in the article. This is the second time my car was hit, but this time it was the new one, and it just received a little damage.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Physical Dread

“A good plan is like a road map; it shows the final destination and usually the best way to get there.”

- H. Stanley Judd

As I dried off after showering, the dreaded phone rang. I guess I’d be having the oil changed and fixing the ding I put in the right-front quarter panel another day. Those chores could’ve been done on my no-call day yesterday, but I ironed, cleaned the bathroom, and wrote instead. The job was to teach Phys. Ed. AGAIN, but this time at a school I’ve only taught at once before. Where was the bathroom again?

Last spring, I could tell from the moment I spoke with the co-teacher that there was no love between him and the absent teacher. It’s the only time I’ve seen two gym teachers NOT work together. When I opened her supply room, I knew why. There was barely a bare spot on the ground or shelf, as it was littered with papers, gym equipment, and I don’t know what else. It took me a minute or two to locate the plan book. Besides instructing me to do warm-ups and the importance of taking attendance and leaving notes about students who failed to wear sneakers, there were NO PLANS. I was provided with pages of games I could play. This was before I was a seasoned gym sub, so I was apprehensive. Despite the mess and lack of direction, the day went well except for one group of eighth-grade boys who kept sneaking on the other side of the accordion wall.

This time, although I wasn’t looking forward to the day, I knew what to expect. When I reached the office, the principal introduced himself. I wanted to say, “Yes, I know your name. I’ve put it on all the cover letters when I submit resumes, but you’ve never called me in for an interview.” You’ll be glad to know I refrained, and instead, said with a smile, “Hi. Nice to meet you.”

The room was in the same condition and there were NO PLANS, but the co-teacher told me a little about the schedule. I'd have four regular classes, but other teachers would run ballroom dancing and the ungraded class, so I just had to provide support. This already sounded easier than last time. HA!

When I was an assistant, the ballroom dancing program began, so I knew what to expect and how to help. First period, the students filed in, but there was no ballroom dancing teacher. Nuts. I told them to get in their warm-up spots. “We don’t do warm-ups on ballroom dancing days,” a student explained. I wasn’t using the term TIME KILLER to a ten-year-old, so I said, “Since the teacher isn’t here, we’ll do warm-ups. If he’s still not here by the time we’re done, we’ll play a game.” After stretching and jogging, still no teacher. I agreed to let them play Capture the Flag. A couple of girls explained how the game worked. Just as the gym was set up the captains were almost done choosing teams, the teacher showed up fifteen-minutes late. Great.

Imagine telling a bunch of kids that instead of playing a fun game, they had to DANCE with members of the opposite sex. Imagining it? Well, considering that was the case, they actually got in their places (mostly) with some minor grumbling. Have you seen the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom”? When the students are in the early stages of the program, it doesn’t look like in the film. They’re awkward and mortified to be touching one another, so most girls pair up while most boys practice the steps on their own. I watched them shuffle through samba, swing, merengue, and tango. By the performance, they’ll be lovely and will bring tears to their parents’ and teachers’ eyes, but they’re not there yet. Not even close.

Seventh-graders came in batches, since they were rehearsing for a Michael Jackson tribute concert for Music class. They wanted to play mat ball, which is kick ball with mats. I asked one student to give me the ball while the captains chose teams; he said with a smirk, “Let a brother hold it. I’m from the hood.” I laughed and shook my head, so he handed it over. I know that a ball is too tempting for a student to leave idle. While some girls played, five sat out, although I encouraged them to join a few times. When girl-one told girl-two that the mat was tagged so she was out, girl-two replied, “Bitch, nuh-huh.” At that moment, girl-two got socked with the ball, so I didn’t bother reprimanding her.

During my break, I noticed that Miss Snark’s First Victim’s 250-word dialogue entries had started going up*. Mine had no comments, so I started commenting on other entries (I was obligated to do at least five). When I finished, I noticed I had one comment on my entry. I hit the comment button with apprehension. It said, “LOVE this! I was totally sucked into the story. Well done!” which made me feel writerly.

My next group was a bunch of kindergarteners, but I wasn’t able to locate my sunshine personality. They played freeze-tag and I did the usual refereeing when kids got too aggressive. After that, I had three autistic children. There were supposed to be five, but one was absent and another was with a different specialist. Good thing because with the Occupational Therapist, an assistant, and me, we had our hands full. One student kept trying to open all the doors. Another was aggressive with a hula-hoop, and got it taken away, which made him cry and howl. The third student kept hopping on the hopper and saying, “I won. You lost.”

Third and fourth-graders arrived for the last class. After enduring my millionth set of stretches and jumping jacks, the students agreed to play Capture the Flag. Did you read the capture the flag section of, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief? My game went way worse than Camp Half-Blood’s game with the monster. One boy was accused of hovering too close to the flag, so a few students started chasing him. I immediately went to intervene. As I did, a problem boy grabbed a large orange cone and raced after the boy as well. I got there in time to grab the cone, but the boy who was being chased fell on his face. Luckily, no blood. I gave the chaser a time out and then he apologized.

I was done with games, so I gave them balls, hula-hoops, and hoppers until their classroom teacher came to save me. They were fine during that, and I wished I had done that the whole time. With younger students, games often cause petty fights.

For those of you subbing or about to sub, I’m sorry if my previous PE stories gave you confidence that you too can teach gym. If you’ve put yourself down as a result of these humorous tales, only to read this one, it’s probably not too late to take yourselves off the list. As for me, I’m trying to muster some energy to cook dinner.

*Here are the dialogue entries (I'm #14 of the Talking Heads):

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


“I don’t at all like knowing what people say of me behind my back. It makes me far too conceited.”

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

“It’s perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays saying against one, behind one’s back, that are absolutely and entirely true.”

- Oscar Wilde

Waking up at 5:25am this morning was brutal. During winter break, I’d gotten in a terrible habit of staying up until midnight or later, so trying to readjust the night before was futile. Believing that there was NO WAY I was going to get a sub call the day after vacation, I almost didn’t set my alarm. But the call came at 5:59am.

It could’ve been worse. I was reporting to a decent school to teach Phys. Ed.; a job I’d done a few times last spring. But I’d always subbed for the part-time gym coteacher. Since she’s a mom, she starts first period, takes no breaks, and leaves early. The good part is that they’d let me leave when her schedule was done. Working with the full-time teacher was always pleasant, but this time, he was the absent teacher. I looked forward to working with the part-time teacher, since we knew each other from my old school.

When I got to the office, the assistant principal printed me out the schedule and told me that it would be an easy day. After I spoke with the other PE teacher, I realized how easy it would be. We co-taught almost all day, and I had the first two periods, plus the last period off.

Since I had a big break, I went to the teacher’s room. While I was on my laptop, an assistant came in and made a pot of coffee. I wanted coffee. After she left, I investigated. For fifty-cents, I could have some. There was even a Styrofoam cup. My problem was that I only had thirty-cents in my wallet because when I entered the school, I gave my last dollar to a collection for Haiti. I tried not to bemoan my charitable donation, but… coffee.

Then I remembered, with city meters charging a quarter for a measely fifteen-minutes, I had change in the car. I ran out to get a couple of quarters. After pouring coffee and sugar, I checked the fridge for milk. No milk. So I made my way to the cafeteria, and found a kid-sized container. But there was nobody there. Should I leave money? I didn’t know how much to leave and they wouldn’t know what it was for, so, yes, I took the milk. At the time, I intended to go back, but then I forgot. I know; it’s terrible. When I’m called back to the school, I’ll pay them the quarter or fifty-cents. Remember, this was a coffee emergency.

The first class was a bunch of sixth-graders, many I had recently subbed for music*. I remembered them being chatty during ballroom dancing practice last year, and they hadn’t changed. While the other teacher did fitness tests, the other students tossed balls around or went outside. This gym's outside door leads right to the playground. The weather was actually moderate enough that the students could go out without coats and I could stand in the doorway without freezing to death.

It was funny seeing a group of girls playing some game where someone was sick or dying or something. Some were wearing makeup, their bodies were developing, a few were taller than me, but they played just like the third graders next period. The only difference was that the third-grade girls were smaller and one of them brought a pastel plastic pony, which they kept hiding and had to “save”. The owner of the pony cried when it got lost in the bleachers, but the other teacher fished it out.

I got a lot of exercise throughout the day. With each class, I did all the warm-ups like I always do, but they also had to practice for their upcoming endurance run fitness-test. The other teacher ran back and forth for two-minutes, so I did as well. If I had to run the full six-minutes like they do for the test, I would’ve fainted. I know, pathetic.

The last two periods were first and second-graders. During the first group’s class, a boy came up to me and asked, “May I borrow a writing implement and piece of paper?” Stifling a chuckle, I told him I didn’t have either. Then I told the teacher what he said. She replied, “When you were at lunch, a kindergartener asked, ‘Can I use the facilities?’” (So, when agents and editors tell you that kids or teenagers wouldn’t use certain vocabulary, don’t believe them.)

The last group was a much easier group to watch. No boys were jumping on top of each other or stealing other students’ jackets or lassoing one another around the neck with hula-hoops. One boy asked me if I would toss a football with him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him how lousy I was, so I played. When we stopped playing, he told me how much he loved playing football.

I noticed he had an accent, so I asked, “Where are you from?”

“Haiti,” he replied.

“Have you lived here long?”

“Have I lived here long? I’ve lived here FOREVER!

Then I noticed a girl was upset. I asked her about it, but couldn’t make heads or tails of the issue. I thought it was because they were playing a game that they were in some vehicle, and there were already two passengers, and they wouldn’t let her be a third passenger. When I said something about a game, she got impatient with me, explaining:

“When we have a problem, instead of talking directly to the other person, we can use passengers to give the message. I asked to be a passenger, but she said there were already two, but I said there could be three. She still wouldn’t let me.” The girl pouted and quivered her lip for emphasis.

I tried talking to the other girl, but she was already dismayed because she’d pushed a taller girl by accident, and even though her passengers had tried to explain the situation, tall girl wouldn’t forgive her. Apparently, this was a different issue than the first issue in which passengers were necessary.

“Maybe you girls should stop using passengers,” I offered. The first girl shook her head. “No, our teacher said we should.” To me, it seemed like bringing a lot of students unnecessarily into the mix. What originally involved three girls had ballooned into at least seven. I could see them huddled, whispering. It created a lot of drama, which girls are already notorious for. Getting other girls involved sounds like a way to encourage gossip – encouragement they don’t need.

Boys and girls, regardless of age, always go right into those stereotypical roles during gym**. The boys are physical with one another and play more aggressive ball games, while the girls tend to role-play and sit around talking. With each grade, it’s the PE teachers’ job to make sure the boys play without injuring each other and encourage the girls to stop talking and get moving. When I sub Phys. Ed. I enjoy the students, but also get to view them in their natural habitat, which is great for writing for and about them.

* Post from my music day:

**Some previous PE jobs:

Monday, February 22, 2010

Come Together

“We are one big family of people, trying to make our way through the unfolding puzzle of life.”
– Sara Paddison

When my son was in third-grade, he had to learn cursive. And by had to he thought that meant forced, which was an unfair and impossible hardship. The teacher gave an entire book of exercises to practice that was due by some date in the future. My constant nagging to get the workbook completed was met with typical resistance. As the due date loomed just ahead, I told him to complete a minimum number of pages done each day. During one of these homework battles, he exclaimed, “Cursive is tearing our family apart!
That line was too good to forget, so I told my husband. Here and there, when my son complained, we’d use that line to fit with whatever my son was stubbornly refusing to do.

“Piano is tearing our family apart.”
“Vacuuming is tearing our family apart.”
“Compost bins are tearing our family apart.”

And so on.

My son loves reminiscing way back to two-years-ago, and laughing about the ridiculousness of the statement. He even likes to use in on his sister when she’s on the verge of one of her fits, “Baths are tearing this family apart!” So that’s our running family joke. For some reason, the story came up last week, and we wound up saying the line for everything.
We just finished our winter break, and we spent the last four days visiting family on Long Island in New York. At some point my daughter decided she was bored, so my husband got the idea to do a puzzle. The kids have puzzles at home, but none are over 100 pieces and the pictures vary enough so that they’re pretty easy. The one my mother-in-law took out was NOT one of those puzzles.
This puzzle contained 500 pieces, which included: a mountain, a forest, sky, and a few words on the bottom. Except for the words and the mountain, there wasn’t much variation. The sky and water were mostly a block of blue, and the trees and land were just dark. I raised an eyebrow in skepticism that my daughter would be entertained by piecing together this puzzle. Frustrated was more like it.
Since my daughter doesn’t believe in beginning with corner pieces, my husband and she started with all of the pieces with letters. Slowly but surely, the puzzle began to take shape. My mother-in-law joined in. recalling how much she and my father-in-law enjoyed doing puzzles until the 1000-piece buffalo one with only browns and yellows did them in. Later, my father-in-law took a turn. Any time people were in the den, from one to three people quietly worked on the puzzle, while I watched on in awe. I can’t think of any other project or hobby that’s had an effect on this family.
Because many hands were piecing the puzzle together, by the morning of our departure, most of the puzzle was completed. After breakfast and packing, I ran up to the bathroom to take a shower. When I came back down, my sister-in-law was there, and one of my nephews and son were working on the puzzle. During the course of this trip, at one time or another, seven people took a turn at this puzzle.
There are always so many places to go, so many things to do. I feel like my time is spent barking out commands, even if I pepper it with “please” or “honey.” When we’re on vacation, squeezing in family and friends forces a schedule as well. But the puzzle worked its magic, making people forget about doing anything else, including watching the Winter Olympics. While some things may “tear our family apart,” a puzzle brought our extended family together.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Unsung Heroes

“Heroes take journeys, confront dragons, and discover the treasure of their true selves.”

- Carol Lynn Pearson

When I began my blog, I wasn't really sure to what it was going to be other than chronicling my saga as a substitute teacher. Most of my family members hadn’t followed blogs, so the whole process was a mystery to all of us. When I told my husband that I wanted to set up a blog, he suggested Blogger and helped me with any kinks as I followed the instructions.

A few years ago, when I wrote my first manuscript, my husband read chapters after I wrote them, making suggestions. Then I wrote another manuscript, which he read when it was completed. After that, he stopped reading what I wrote, saying he couldn’t be objective. Writing middle grade and young adult was not his typical reading genre, but I didn’t know whether to be offended or relieved or neutral. I think I’ve felt each at one time or another.

I’m not suggesting that he’s been anything but supportive. I’ve attended four conferences, and he hasn’t batted an eye about the cost or watching the children so I could attend. This year, I’m attending two conferences: a three-day weekend at NESCBWI and one day at BlogHer in Manhattan, and I’ve received the same support.

On the few occasions that an agent or publisher has asked for pages based on a query or an entire manuscript based on a partial, he’s been as excited as me. But when it hasn’t worked out, nobody has been harder on myself than me.

When I began writing, I don’t think either of us understood how long and tedious the writing to publishing process could be, especially when a writer had as much to learn as I did. Last spring, he said something to the effect of maybe I should give myself a deadline for getting published. That stung. I couldn’t imagine not writing and persisting. I defended my continuation by telling him that Laurie Halse Anderson said that she gave herself a five-year deadline, but in retrospect, why not ten years or more? Based on Anderson’s keynote address, I’d kept at this. I wasn’t ready to give up.

Back to my blog. My husband, sister, and mother-in-law were my first followers. I remember when the first stranger joined, which awed me. Someone wanted to read what I had to say. I told more family and friends, and then linked my blog to Facebook (Networked Blogs). When I had around nineteen followers, plus some on Facebook, it held steady. Then it began to grow. First mostly teachers found me, and then mostly writers.

It’s great getting comments because it gives me feedback. I feel a boost when someone takes the time to read it and decides that something about it was comment-worthy. And I comment at the blogs of my followers and/or blogs that I follow. One of my posts has a quote that a blog is an ongoing conversation*. I think sometimes the comments become as interesting, if not more so than the original post. It’s worth mentioning that the regular commenters, who have blogs, happen to be ones worth following.

I had been worried that my blog was too general: teaching, writing, domestic (for lack of a better word), and miscellaneous/all of the above. Would it appeal to anyone? But some aspect of what I was writing, others were relating. And I found writer, teacher, whatever blogs that I loved. I became part of a community. I’m at the point that I’d love to meet some of these people in person, if the opportunities arise because they seem like old friends. (Anyone want to attend BlogHer in Manhattan with me this summer?)

Along the way, I’ve had some big fans who have been there from the beginning. My mother-in-law e-mails or calls every time I get new followers or commenters, and then she checks out their blogs. My sister shares some of my posts with her large number of Facebook friends. And my mother-in-law and sister tell me when they think a particular blog is good. They are also regular commenters.

Then there’s my husband, who checks every day to see if I’ve posted, letting me know if I’ve made a typo, by sending an e-mail entitled, “Mistake”. Lately, due to some family issues, I had an e-mailed entitled “Blog Mistake (But Not as Big a Mistake as Eating Eight-Year-Old Butter)”** and “ Blog Mistake (But Not as Big a Mistake as Giving Away $1000)”. Even if you don’t get the jokes, know that he’s making me laugh. He also tells me when he’s particularly enjoyed a post and which type he thinks is strongest (There’s a debate between him and his mother about that).

One part of blogging my husband hasn’t liked is when I’ve complained about aspects of domestic life***. He wants to be painted in a more positive light. But who wants to hear that kind of boring stuff? It’s like writing the sequel when the first book ends, happily ever after. Yawn.

When I attend the NESCBWI Spring Conference, one of the workshops I’m attending is called “Social Media Tips and Tricks: How a Savvy Online Presence Can Serve Your Career”. I didn’t believe that my blog was going to help my Middle Grade (MG) and Young Adult (YA) writing career. Then I came across a post about building a platform****. I wrote a comment to Jane, voicing my confusion. Her response, along with the links she provided me, gave me an epiphany.

Although I didn’t begin a blog to create a platform, it may be just that. It doesn’t have to be specifically about MG and YA. If I’m reaching out to teachers and writers, and someday I am lucky/good enough to get a book published, maybe my followers will spread the word. And I would use my blog to promote their worthy books or endeavors as well.

Teachers, writers, mothers; we all toil away in virtual obscurity. Our blogs are vehicles to: vent, promote, question, answer, link, support, request support, voice and be heard. And so we should have support behind the blog too. So, I have sung about the unsung heroes.

* Quote and early post about blogging:

** Butter reference is explained in this post:

*** A couple of domestic posts:

**** See Jane Friedman’s post and the comments section:

I also recommend a related post that she wrote on another blog:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Perfect Plans

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”

- Thomas Elva Edison

I’ve had a few posts, where I’ve complained about the quality of the plans or lack thereof. This is not one of those posts. Last Monday I worked for the third time for a Biology Teacher who always leaves me flawless plans.

When I checked the office mailbox, there was the familiar folder, entitled, “Sub Plans”. On the left side, was a letter from the teacher. On the right, were all the materials I would need.

I reached the classroom from the adjoining one because (of course) the door was locked. On the board, as usual, all of the instructions, almost word for word from my letter, were left for the students. All I had to write was my name. Both desks had copies of the letter that was in my folder.

Here’s the letter (Note: it was a planned absence and she’s very pregnant):

Monday, February 8th

Dear sub,

Thanks for filling in for me. I teach AP Biology periods 1, 2, and 4.

Please reassure students that I will be back in class tomorrow.

1) Students can hand in their transpiration lab packets and extra credit objectives into the IN basket.

2) Please administer this test.

- Blue side of scantron should be used

- Remind them to use the restroom BEFORE the test begins; no bathroom breaks or other trips out of the room are allowed while they are taking the test. Once they hand it in, they can go.

- They can sit anywhere, but there should be no talking, use of notes/book, or sharing of answers.

The test is no times…they may take as long as they need. As it is a short test, I do not expect most students to need more than 20 or 30 minutes. The room should remain quiet until all tests are handed in.

3) Please collect scantrons AND test questions (no test credit if test questions are missing)- remind them to put their name on BOTH. Please save these for me in the sub folder and return to my mailbox or leave on my desk at the end of the day.

4) Students can have free study time after the test. Possible options:

- Objectives, if they have not done them

- Get on a computer and research their plant topic (5 computers in classroom; could send 2 additional students to the library and a couple more to the computer labs) or start constructing their powerpoint

- Start reviewing labs 2-5 using the lab study packet

- Other classwork

I reopened the folder. Inside was a pile of scantrons fastened by paperclip; underneath, the tests secured in a paperclip; below that, lab study packets held together by a paperclip; and just under those packets were hall passes.

It was all so organized, with no time without students having something to do; it almost brought a tear to my eye.

Now I know that each time I’ve subbed for this teacher, she’s planned her absence. When a teacher wakes up at 6:00am with a fever, this isn’t always possible. But even when the teacher has been vomiting all night, an e-mailed plan that’s as detailed as possible goes a LLLLOOOOONNNNGGGG way in making sure that the day goes smoothly.

If I don’t know where to look for materials, that homework needs to get collected, what to direct students to work on when students are done… Let’s just say, if I appear disorganized, the students pick up on that, and it’s more likely that there will be DISCIPLINE PROBLEMS. And if I’m not sure what to do, then I’m probably not going to do it right. But I doubt the teacher thinks about the little direction I received, and will be more likely to complain about what I didn’t do. And I won’t be there the next day to set the record straight.

I have tricks up my sleeve (handouts, games), but on the high school level, it’s harder to have appropriate alternatives. Students know when the work isn’t closely related to what they’re doing in class. If they think it’s busy work, they won’t do it.

So I appreciate this dream absent teacher and her dream classes.

*This is the post from last week when I used these plans. At the bottom of this post, I give links to other times I’ve subbed for this teacher:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Accidental Tourist*

Rose: “You know, I kept losing that apartment every time I turned around. I would head east to the grocery store and turn west to get back again... and I would always be wrong. Always.”

- Film “Accidental Tourist”

For the later part of our winter vacation, I decided to take the kids to New York to see family. It’s been nearly two months since our last visit, and at least six weeks until our next, if we visit for Passover. My husband can only take so many days off from work, so we came without him.

When I travel to Long Island without my husband, instead of going all the way from Massachusetts, westward through Connecticut, and then taking the bridge south to head eastward to Long Island, I prefer to take the Bridgeport ferry in Connecticut, which brings me to Port Jefferson on Long Island. It costs about $50 but it shaves an hour or two of driving, part of it in New York City congestion.

At first, I was uneasy about doing the drive because it would be the longest I’d ever driven alone, but I’m used to it now. It’s funny when we enter Port Jefferson because that was the big town next to the University my husband and I attended for undergraduate and graduate school. Once I get near Stony Brook University, the route is the same as I did for all of those years. It’s like I’ve worn such a groove that I could do the commute with my eyes closed.

As I made my way down route 25A, something has always changed. This time I noticed that Strawberry Fields, where I had often stopped for coffee and a gourmet sandwich, is now Dave’s Catering. By the time I get to Kings Park, I spied a restaurant that had been the Longhorn Diner when I was a child, and had some other name that I can’t recall, is now The Hokey Pokey Diner. Hokey name.

Across from the ill-named diner is a bakery called Park Bake Shop. I always think it says “Pork” instead of “Park”, so when it says the food is Kosher; it surprises me for a second. After all these years, I should get it in my head that it’s Park since it’s in Kings Park.

The town also used to have an asylum called Kings Park Psychiatric Center, which was turned into a state park, called Nissequogue River State Park in 2003. People used to say it was haunted. If so, I wonder if the ghosts like the new bike trail.

Finally, I made it to the East Northport border, where I grew up. To the left (aptly named, Townline Road), I can meander through the roads where the dump used to be. But now it’s capped into funny-looking grassy hills and there’s an incinerator. To the right, is the nicer part of town on Bread and Cheese Hollow Road. Quaint name, right? But I continue on straight ahead on Pulaski Road into the town I lived in since I was nine-years-old, to the house that I’ve visited since I was eighteen-years-old.

Around age eighteen, I read Accidental Tourist by Ann Tyler. At the time, I remember being appalled that Macon’s sister, Rose was so used to living in her childhood home that she left her new apartment and husband to retreat back to the familiar. The husband eventually moved into the house, thereby saving their marriage. I could never imagine being in that kind of rut.

Looking back, it was accidental that I haven’t traveled more. I thought I’d go away to college, but my parents were finishing a messy divorce that cost my father a figure I can’t bear to write down. I couldn’t ask him for the dormitory money on top of tuition. My now husband decided to also commute to school to keep our relationship intact.

I didn’t mean to go to the same college for undergraduate and graduate school. After two years at another college, I finished my B.A. at Stony Brook University. I even attended a couple of other colleges when I was deciding what I wanted to for graduate school. But when my husband and I applied for programs, it was the only college that waived tuition and gave us stipends.

When it was time for my husband to do a post-doc, although he did get into some labs in New York City, the lab in Cambridge seemed like the best place for him. Since we’d never had much money, I wasn’t well traveled (my husband got to go to meetings, so he was more travel-savvy). The trepidation I had about moving forced me to confront the similarities between Rose and me. Even thought it was difficult to leave everyone behind, to go to a place where I had no friends, no job, and a three-year-old son to care for, I knew the change was good for me.

For those who have lived all over, who don’t rely on family, this may sound strange. And if you had asked me when I was eighteen, I would’ve said that all I wanted to do was get away from family and start anew. But I didn’t.

Two years ago, I attended the NESCBWI conference. The first night I went up to my hotel room; after I closed the door and went to settle in, I realized that it was the first time I had ever stayed at a hotel alone. Before then, I had taken vacations with my husband. I never needed to travel for work. So, here I was in my mid-30s, finally staying by myself in a hotel room. Last year, I got a roommate since there were two queen-sized beds. Might was well make friends and save on costs, right?

This is why I drive long distances, even though I hate it. Because I don’t want to be afraid to drive, like my mother is petrified to drive. She needs someone to show her how to drive to a new place at least twice, and it can’t be far from home. GPS has just made my anxiety driving to new places virtually non-existent. And although I don't like to fly, I love visiting once I land. My fears won't prevent me from living.

I don’t want to feel stuck. In a rut. This is why I write. Because writing, showing my work to others, editing based on their critique, and submitting is one of the scariest things I do. But I do it. I'm making a break from same old, same old.

* Same name as book by Ann Tyler

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


“I’d tell myself

What good you do

Convince myself

It’s my life

Don’t you forget”

- Hollis, Mark David; Friese-Greene, Tim. Song “It’s My Life” Talk Talk

Recently, I was reading a post about trying to make a decision. I suggested writing a pros and cons list because it’s helped me when I’ve been stuck at a crossroads. Looking not only whether there are more pros or cons, but also the content of the list sometimes forces an answer to jump out at me.

It brought me back to a big decision from my past. I was a couple of months into in my second year of graduate school and miserable. Who said the first year would be the hardest? Soon, I was pregnant and could feel the stress my body was under, making me worry I could damage my unborn baby in some way. I knew I was unhappy, but what to do about it was another question. Graduate school was something everyone has to get through – nobody particularly enjoys it. But did the end justify the means? And did I want the end that this means was justifying?

While I mulled it over, I called my former high school, asking if I could observe a Social Studies class. If I was considering a change, I should know exactly what the job was like. At this point, I was in my second trimester. Observing the class, I was pleasantly surprised about the level of learning that was expected of the students. And an AP course would demand even higher order thinking. Perhaps teaching to high school students wasn’t such a concession.

I think it was my husband who suggested the list. Although I didn’t save the original, I think I can approximate it:

Become a College Professor or a High School Social Studies Teacher?

College Pros

Students would be more mature

Fewer hours in the classroom

Prestige of a PhD

College Cons

I’d have to spend a lot of time in dusty libraries researching (Publish or perish)

Fewer hours in the classroom

May have to teach in lecture halls

The department wouldn’t prize my teaching skills

Less money

Less job security (Tenure)

A lot of putting one another down in an effort to seem intellectual (I couldn’t compete)

Greater chance of moving far away from family

More difficult time coordinating careers with my husband

High School Pros

Smaller groups of students in each class

More money

Closer relationships with the students

More job security

Getting same students every day instead of twice a week

Should be able to get a job just about anywhere (Ha!)

Easier to find an area where my husband and I can both work

High School Cons

Students would be less mature

More discipline problems

Dealing with parents

I’d be quitting the PhD program

My professors and classmates would think I’d failed

History graduate students look down upon education graduate students

When I looked at the list, the high school had more pros than staying in college. Then I looked at the cons, and noticed that the content was starkly different. The college cons got to the heart of what I hated about the History program, and eventual job I’d obtain. Many of the high school cons were mostly superficial. If I stayed in the graduate program, I’d be doing it because I was worried about lowering expectations for myself, as perceived through someone else’s eyes**. Why on earth would I want to do something to theoretically please others – many whom I didn’t even respect?

That’s always been my problem. My hardest decisions are the ones where I think I should do or not do something because of what I think others will think or how I think my decision will make them feel. Now that I’m nearing a BIG BIRTHDAY (ugh, it’s coming ever closer), it seems beneath my years to live my life with others’ happiness in mind more than my own.

Do men do this? Do other women do this?

Of course, I know that I have to think of other people. But when I’m in a situation where the other person probably doesn’t care (or at least, shouldn’t care) as much as I do, why am I sacrificing what I want? A problem recently arose, and I made a mental list, revealing that I was once again putting my own happiness aside in the worry that I’d offend someone else.

If it weren’t for lists, I’d be an even bigger mess.

*This story is in more detail here:

** Here’s a post on my views on different types of educators: