“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
—Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
F is for F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of Gatsby and master of human insight wrapped in poetry. His novel begins here, his narrator Nick Carraway, grappling with his father’s caution of criticism—
“All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
In short, people judge, and Nick tries to refrain because his father said so. I think about Nick’s words and my life. I remember how often my mother would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” Then Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.
Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.”
I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How beautiful! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.
F is also for Florida, where on the beach, I soak up the sun, snap a few photos, tap a few phrases into my phone, and attempt to be Fitzgerald:
It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a sparkle of sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically onto the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.
49 is for my 49th year of life and my 49th blog post. Somehow I saw neither coming, but there is a peaceful simple luxury here, with words of reflection, promising more of the same.
“Happy Friday, you guys!” I say as each class begins.
A chorus of voices, practically singing, respond on cue, “It’s
Fun Fact Friday!”
Fun Fact Friday just sort of happened this year. One Friday
during the Fall semester, I said, “Fun fact,” and in the pause, all eyes spun
toward me, and I had a captivated audience. I proceeded to tell my students a
little something about my life. They loved it, and now every Friday their
voices ring out, “Fun Fact Friday!”
Last Friday’s Fun Fact:
“So this is my twentieth year to teach,” I said. “I have a
fact from about twenty years ago during my first few years of teaching when I
was young, right?” I try to make eye contact with all of them as I speak. “So
when I first started teaching, I taught seventh graders for five years. Then I
taught freshmen for a couple of years and sophomores for most of my years, and
this is my third year to have juniors. Anyway, do you remember having really fun
assemblies back in middle school?”
A sea of heads bobbed up and down.
“Well, at my school, we had a traveling trampoline show with four or five trampolines in the gym, and music, and people jumping really high and flipping. It was the best assembly ever. The kids loved it. Anyway, at the end, they asked for volunteers to come down and flip.” I raised my hand as if to portray how a person volunteers.
“And so I did. I ran down from the bleachers and jumped up
on the trampoline. I’m not sure the last time I had been on a trampoline or the
last time I had flipped, but I was a gymnast when I was younger, and twenty
years ago I was still young, right? So I took a couple of bounces and went for
it.” I paused to add a little drama. “And do you know what happened?”
Their faces conveyed expectation.
“I landed on my face.”
“Awww!” They responded in unison, mouths twisting, heads shaking back and forth, half-way disbelieving the horror and fully empathizing.
“This was a big middle school, and I fell on my face in
front of about 500 students AND teachers AND administrators.” I shook my head
up and down to verify the truth. “But
do you know what I did?”
“You quit your job?” One boy jested.
“No.” I laughed and shook my head back and forth. “No. I got up,” I said with my index finger pointed upward. I looked at my kids looking at me, I felt my face flash red reliving this embarrassing moment, and I resolved to use it. “I got up,” my number one finger punctuated those words, “and I did it again, and do you know what happened?”
Their faces bore uncertainty and fear of the worst-case scenario.
“I landed that—.” I censored myself before I said shit, at the same time cut off by a thunder of student cheers. “And that’s what life is all about,” I continued, caught a little of guard by their response, louder now, “You will fall down on your face throughout your life, but you have to get up and try again.”
In my head there’s this story about me teaching The Tragedy of Macbeth, and well, it’s complicated.
My story starts at the beginning of this school year (new job, new school) during the planning phase. The last minute planning phase. I had been hired a week or two before fall classes began. I remember planning my syllabus, quickly, with a small degree of flexibility, in a very similar way to that of the teacher before me. I knew that I would be teaching something Shakespeare, and I knew it would be a text I hadn’t taught before. Our book room contained two choices: Hamlet or Macbeth. While I had read Hamlet many moons ago in college, Macbeth I had enjoyed more recently performed under the moon in the park. Eenie meanie miney moe, witches and murder, I picked Macbeth.
I’m hoping one of my high school classmates might be reading this post today because I have a question: “Did we read any Shakespeare senior year?” My memory fails. However, I do remember my friend Jacki, back in junior high apostrophizing, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” or was it, “Out, out, brief candle”? Either way—somehow these lines are equally familiar, and somehow they have stuck with me over time.
After dog paddling my way through the deep waters of last semester’s curricula for my two advanced placement courses, I started studying Macbeth over Christmas. Where was a tutor when I needed one? Not only did I read but also I listened to the audio and watched the movie and researched commentary and googled lesson plans. Lucky for me, I had a two week “vacation” from school. All of this, I did for my two AP Literature classes when I needed to be planning for my four AP Language classes as well.
If you’re not familiar with Macbeth, here’s a quick refresher. The story is set in medieval Scotland in the midst of civil war. Macbeth is a Scottish nobleman and a war hero, cousins with and loyal to the king. Three witches appear at the beginning of the play with a prophecy for Macbeth. He will become king, they say, which causes Macbeth to consider the logistics of the new title and the possibility of murdering the king. He feels conflicted over the potential betrayal on many levels, but his wife Lady Macbeth mocks his masculinity and manipulates him toward the deed. In this tragedy, murder begets murder, and the Macbeths both succumb to guilt, insanity, and karma. Lady Macbeth cannot wash the blood from her hands to her own demise.
I found an introductory lesson to Macbeth in the New York Times. Students would participate in a brief experiment about symbolic cleansing which would segue into research on one of the following significant 20th century psychological studies:
Classical conditioning by Ivan Pavlov
Conformity by Solomon Asch
Operant conditioning by B. F. Skinner
Human obedience by Stanley Milgram
Abuse of power by Philip Zimbardo
False memories by Elizabeth Loftus
Throughout the play, we would discuss how psychology drives human motivation in connection to the Macbeths as well as ourselves. The more I studied and the more I planned, the more I realized all of my students MUST read Macbeth, especially considering the cheating scandal from last semester. Macbeth provided the perfect opportunity for an extended lesson on right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and the psychology of human behavior. My AP Language syllabus did not include Macbeth, but I made the executive decision to add it, simplifying my life by teaching the same lessons to both courses for the third nine-week grading period.
And so, to introduce the tragedy, I made two sets of note cards: Group A and Group B. The group A cards said, “Think about an unethical act from your past—like betraying a friend, stealing, or cheating on a test.” The group B cards said, “Think about an ethical deed from your past—like returning lost money, volunteering to feed the homeless, or helping hurricane victims.” My experiment wasn’t exactly scientific. Instead of a random distribution of cards, I targeted my known cheaters with Group A. Then I asked students to consider their responses silently without discussing and bring their cards to my desk where they would choose either a paper clip or an antiseptic wipe, and I would tally statistical information based on their cards and their choices. We followed the activity by reading a New York Times article titled, “Study Finds That Washing Eases Guilty Consciences.”
Instead of the traditional multiple choice test, I opted for a couple of quizzes along the way and a couple of major projects with presentations. In groups, students researched one of the psychology studies previously mentioned and presented their findings to the class in connection to our play. Individually, they had lots of creative options and freedom to choose. And, to tell you the truth, I wrote today’s post just to show off how my students shined when given the opportunity.
Students wrote poetry and performed scenes and sang songs and played ukuleles. One student created an animated video of Macbeth murdering King Duncan using Legos and Play-Doh blood. Now the visuals decorate our classroom and serve as reminders that we don’t need any Lady Macbeths in our lives. But honestly, in the end, my students taught me. They rose to the challenge, and they showed me who they are, and I hope that thirty years from now they will remember reading Macbeth.
P. S. Did you see my flowers? They came from twin girls with an attached thank you for the inspiration.
P. P. S. Fun fact. Did you know that Shakespeare wrote the first knock-knock jokes in Macbeth?
P. P. P. S. Here’s my favorite Macbeth soliloquy.
P. P. P. P. P. S. This is Macbeth’s response to Lady Macbeth’s death. For Macbeth who has just murdered quite a few people and lost his wife due to his own ambition, sure, life is meaningless. He doesn’t have the things in life that make it meaningful: friends and family and love.
P. P. P. P. P. P. S. Happy Monday, everybody! Make it meaningful!
For a year and a half-ish, up until Thanksgiving of this past year, I would’ve called myself vegan. Not vegan as in, I will never wear or own or sit on leather again. Just vegan as in, I ate MOSTLY a plant-based diet and refrained from eating animals.
Prior to veganism and upon moving to Houston in the summer of 2016, I ate without restrictions. The restaurant competition here is fierce, and food choices endless. We moved into a fixer upper and gutted the 1960’s kitchen. Reconstruction took a while, and well, “Hello, Twenty Pounds.”
I joined the gym and worked hard, at least I thought. I tried to eat better, at least I thought. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to outwork my eating. Something had to change, so I said “farewell” to the meat in my life and later said “later” to dairy. Around that time, a hurricane flooded our house, and I said goodbye to many things, including my new kitchen, the gym, and ironically, the twenty pounds. I maintained the loss for over a year, but also plateaued.
Then Thanksgiving 2018. Someone gave us a turkey, which I ate, along with unrestricted sides plus dessert, and I immediately gained five pounds. I realize I could have chosen differently like I had the Thanksgiving before. Anyway, maybe not immediately, but between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I completely gained five pounds. My food choices completely derailed. Nom! Nom! Meat and more meat plus cheese plus all-things-holiday. I wasn’t sticking to any sort of plan, I was missing the map, and I felt completely lost on my journey.
At the same time, my hubs KB decided the vegan thing wasn’t working for him, which meant suddenly it wasn’t working for me. His new thing, actually a revisited strategy, is low-carb, and my vegan choices—totally carb-heavy. Plant-based pasta and quinoa and beans and rice were no longer on the menu at home where my husband is chef, so I jumped the vegan ship and joined Team Low-Carb. With the cognitive dissonance as an animal lover (have you noticed that cows have the most beautiful eyes?) and my bleeding heart for living souls aside, I admit, I love a good steak—medium.
And so—my food journey continues. Recently, KB grilled grass-fed filet mignon and made a cheese sauce with heavy cream, cheddar and parmesan, thyme, sage, and paprika. (You’re welcome.) I roasted the broccoli.
During my vegan phase, my body started rejecting cheese. On occasion, I would eat pizza or chips and queso, and my stomach would shame me for my poor decisions. One day near Thanksgiving while having the lactose intolerance conversation with my mother-in-law Dana and her best friend Michelle, Michelle said, “Cheese from grain fed cows is the problem. When you go to the store, look at the European cheeses from grass-fed cows or even goats. Try Manchego. It is really good.”
And wow! Thanks, Michelle, you’re right. We’ve discovered a lovely goat cheddar, my dairy problem has leveled out, and Kody rocked my roasted broccoli with his cheese.
If I haven’t already, I have to admit how easily I’m swayed. Before choosing to “Go Vegan,” I watched a documentary called What the Health. Then, before fully committing to low-carb, I saw one called Fat Head. Funny how we have the tendency to conform and how you can find anyone to corroborate your beliefs and how you will find conflicting research and how truth is malleable. You just have to decide what works for you, and in my experience, that takes experimentation and a map.
The winter break approached, exam stress visible on the faces of the students. Of my four sections of Advanced Placement Language and Composition, one class tested Monday, one on Tuesday, one Wednesday, and one Thursday. On my white board I wrote: Happy Holidays! Do your best! Be your Best! The underlying message—Don’t Cheat! I would be naive to believe that students wouldn’t try. Yet I want to trust them, really I do.
Monday’s scores were consistent with student averages and other tests taken throughout the semester. Tuesday’s test had two paradoxically high scores, but the students missed different questions, so I didn’t think too much about it as I was still grading my brains out with essays, which would comprise 50% of test scores. By Wednesday after walking in on five girls just hanging out in my office, which connects to two other classrooms besides mine, I knew in my gut that my test had been compromised. There was nothing I could do in the minutes leading up to the test that day.
After passing out Wednesday’s exam, I noted the darting glances from “Felicia.” Every time I looked at her, she met my gaze, and even though this test consists of reading passages and comprehension, “Felicia” failed to even fake read as she bubbled her answers. I monitored like a hawk. She wasn’t copying off of anyone. However, after tests were submitted, I discovered four more inconsistent scores including Bad Faker “Felicia” and three of her friends who had seemingly coordinated well enough to miss different answers.
So (1) there was the situation with unsupervised students in the office where tests were not visible but also not under lock and key. And (2) I did not physically collect phones or Apple watches during this testing season though none were visible. And (3) normally I give more than one version of any test, but this time, with keys having to be entered into an unfamiliar computer system and too much to do and too little time, I did not. This time I stapled a cover sheet on top that either said Form A or Form B and copied Form A in white, Form B green. Lame, I now know.
So on Wednesday after school with one semester exam to go, I assembled a new test and made copies with the same cover sheet, Form A in white and a green Form B.
Before the test on Thursday, I made eye contact with every single student as I handed out scantrons. To each one of them, I said something like, “Good luck today” or “May the force be with you” or “I’m thinking of you as you test today.” Some of them probably thought/think I’m creepy, but most of them were amused. I added a new note to my white board next to Be Your Best—No Cheating. Before distributing tests, I didn’t mention anything about the suspected cheaters or the new test, I just said, “It’s been my pleasure to be your teacher this year.”
“What? Aren’t you coming back?” they asked.
“Of course, I mean, 2018 has been great, and I’ll see you next year. I hope you all have a wonderful break. Are you ready? Do your best! Please keep your eyes on your own test and keep your answers covered.” Then I passed out the test and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles for two hours.
Immediately I recognized two scantrons with the same bubble pattern—A, B, B, D—the answers from the original exam. These two students weren’t even trying to read and see if those answer choices made sense, and they weren’t keeping their answers covered either. However, I had left one clue that this test was different. The first test had 37 questions, and this one had 39. I kept my eyes on the two, and about an hour into the test they both exuded an air of defeat—heavy exhales, eyes rolling, corners of mouths turned inconsolably down.
Fast forward to the scantron machine that sounded off like a machine gun and left six scantrons bleeding red. Six. Six students had stuck to the familiar A, B, B, D pattern, their scores to the tune of 10-20%.
Skip ahead once more past me telling some co-workers and my dean. Our math teacher had a similar cheating scandal, and I heard many a conflicting opinion on dealing with my cheaters. If I gave these six kids zeroes, they would all fail for the semester, and six more whom I suspect also cheated, but couldn’t outright accuse, would get away with it. If I gave my little cheaters their 10-20% and averaged that score with their essay scores, they will still pass for the semester. The math teacher and I both entered zeroes into our grade books and left the school that Friday, December 21 for a two-week respite. Grades would not be officially due until our January return.
In the meantime, I’ve reflected on the times I’ve cheated in life. I remember my freshman year, still in junior high. It was just math homework. I’m sure I was too busy with my ninth-grade life to worry about school, so I borrowed the homework of a very smart, kind, and well-respected friend who had diligently completed hers and whose name I will protect to this day. I proceeded to copy her assignment in my history class, and my teacher Mr. Watkins, also the dad of one of my classmates, walked over to my desk, picked up both papers, scrutinized the names, and handed them back to me without saying a word. And I felt ashamed of myself. That’s not to say that I didn’t find a way to cheat my way through business calculus in college, and I don’t relay my own dishonesty with pride.
I say this to illustrate the imperfection of humanity. I realize that the pot should not call the kettle black, and I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”
I remember the story of a prostitute kissing the feet of Jesus and anointing them with perfume and her own tears and wiping them with her own hair.
I remember Simon saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know this woman was a sinner.”
I remember Jesus saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace.”
(It’s all in Luke 7:36-50 with a powerful parable in between*).
There will always be Simons who say, “Let them fail. Teach them a lesson.”
There will always be Jesuses and Mr. Watkinses who teach lessons in other ways.
There will always be people, like me, who choose wrong from time to time, but continue to try to be better than who they were before. Isn’t that what we all do in January? Resolve to be our best selves?
When I go back to school, I’ll give my students credit for their essays and say little, maybe even nothing like Mr. Watkins, and like Jesus, I’ll forgive with grace and peace for new beginnings in the new year.
*Luke 7:40-43, New International Version, biblegateway.com
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
Each Monday in homeroom advisory, the students and I answer a couple of questions as a team-building exercise. One at a time, we relay a detail or two about our weekends and practice the art of communication. Some say more than others. Some endeavor to entertain. Everyone participates. The school dictates the other query through a leadership class for senior students in charge of facilitating activities for the 9-12 homeroom.
Last week as advisory started, a soft-spoken senior named Diego wrote on the board, “Are you a good communicator?” He turned to face the class and proceeded, “I’m not a good communicator…,” followed by his why. Something stuck my heart as he spoke.
From my rolling chair at the front of the room, I rolled left and right for the ultimate vantage point, listening to my twenty-three kids, digesting their responses to understand, and preparing mine to note my observations. I perceived a clear division between the extroverts and the introverts. The extroverts expressed satisfaction with their abilities while the introverts beat themselves up, half of them echoing Diego, “I’m not a good communicator…,” followed by whys. Each time my heart sank a little lower.
Student after student said things like, “I know what I want to say. It just doesn’t come out of my mouth,” and, “I just get nervous and end up not saying anything,” and, “When I work with a group, the loud people take over, and I might have something to say, but I miss my chance,” and “It takes me awhile to think, and I usually think of the perfect thing to say later” and “I just don’t care enough to say anything.”
After the tenth or eleventh time of hearing, “I’m not a good communicator,” I contemplated the purpose of the activity as well as my heart condition for my fellow introverts: Have I been the kid who’s hard on myself due to failed conversations? A thousand times, Yes! Do we really want kids to leave here feeling terrible about themselves? No! No! No!
I carefully crafted my conclusion to change the course. “I communicate better in writing than verbally,” I said, pausing for eye contact. “I’m a quiet person, too, and I like to think before I speak. As I listened, I was up here thinking that I have a problem with this question.” I hesitated with a purpose. “I don’t think any of us should beat ourselves up over a personality trait.” I took another second or two to let that sink in. “Some people love to talk. Some don’t. Doesn’t communication go two ways?” At this point I became aware of some approval in the form of nodding heads. “It seems we could’ve talked about the meaning of communication first. Some people are really good at conveying their ideas, but they might not be as good at listening. I think all of us have room to improve.” And from there, I chatted about my weekend…but the question bugged me all week.
It was a day like any other day—me, teaching the next generation, returning their graded memoirs, explaining the meaning of revision and the next phase of the assignment while traversing every inch of the classroom.
“Just because I marked up your papers doesn’t mean that they are terrible,” I said as I as I handed students their work.
Passing back the first essay of the year always breaks my heart. Their faces reveal disappointment, so I try to soften the blow. “I enjoyed reading your stories. We can all improve our writing—I know I can. Overall, we need to work on more action verbs, so I marked your ‘Be’ verbs—am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being. Oh, and get, got, getting, gotten, which are informal verbs. We tend to overuse them when we could be more specific. I want you to listen carefully. We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get’ in our daily language. Did you hear what I said? I said, ‘We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get.’ That’s just how we talk. But listen again. We can eliminate—the word ‘get’ in our writing.” I slowed down the word ‘eliminate,’ enunciating each syllable, pausing with some drama and a small smile in hopes they processed my point. “Did you see what I just did? ‘Eliminate’ and ‘get rid of’ mean the same thing. ‘Eliminate’ sounds more sophisticated, which is what we want as juniors in high school, heading to college, right?”
A sea of heads bobbed up and down in agreement as I continued passing out papers.
“Many of you wrote about some heavy, life-changing events that could be really nice college entrance essays. Universities want to know who you are and how you have become that person, so I want you all to have essays saved that are your personal best. That’s why we are revising. To revise means ‘to reconsider’ and ‘to alter.’ Some of you may have written four pages, and by the way, college entrance essays usually have a word limit, but a memoir should be just a moment in time. I want you to work on showing me versus telling me. Some of you could cut quite a bit and then explode the details of one moment.”
Speaking of a single moment, my left foot stepped on to a backpack which started a slow-motion slide across the tile floor, my foot along for the ride. All of my weight shifted, and I heard myself saying in rapid-fire succession, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if I had stepped on a child. I could do nothing to prevent the fall. I remember my unsuccessful attempt at catching myself and the soft thud of my right knee making contact with the hard tile. I remember sitting on the floor wondering why ‘sorry’ in triplicate had issued forth from my mouth and wishing for wittier words mid fall—“Et tu, backpack? Then fall, Mrs. Byers.” I remember feeling thankful for wearing pants that day and wondering how I could gracefully stand once more and continue teaching.
My class very politely stifled their laughter, as I gathered my composure and rose as if on wings with strength and dignity. The owner of the offending backpack said, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,”I said on two feet once more, papers still in hand.
I remember another student making eye contact and saying, “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I said. “All but my ego. Thank you for asking.”
Somehow I carried on. It was the last class of the day, and somehow I didn’t die of humiliation. Somehow I made it home, where I examined my knee for a bruise and found none. I would be okay.
A day or two passed before I finally told Kody, and as suspected, he burst out laughing, the hearty, contagious kind that made me giggle, too. “You’ve gotta admit. That’s funny as shit,” he said.