This past week was hard, you guys, and the week before both bitter and sweet, and the week before heinous. Kody and I both had an entire week off for Thanksgiving. We left the La Quinta and Houston in our rearview mirror, tripped up to Dallas, and resided for a few days at a Residence Inn. Our family of four spent the holiday cooking and eating at Lauren’s house with Kody’s parents and Auntie in Plano, and I made a quick day trip to see my family in Oklahoma with my sidekick Denise. That’s the sweet part. But Thanksgiving morning, I heard my own audible gasp when Facebook alerted me of the death of one of the neighborhood kids from my childhood. Cancer. Aggressive. Sudden. Shocking. One of the neighborhood kids doesn’t do Shelli justice. That little spitfire could light up the room with her radiant joy and contagious energy. She lived around the corner, and her cousin Jill lived right next door to me. Shelli’s big brother Joel was my classmate K-12 and my first kiss at age five. As kids we shared many a swim meet, dance recital, pool party, and Fourth of July. Shelli was a few years younger than I, too young to die. My heart broke, and my tears fell like raindrops for her family, my friends.
I find it increasingly difficult to return to the La Quinta after quality time with my friends and family. Before the break, I had my yearly, combination sore throat/headache, and it was all I could do to make it through each school day. That Friday before my week off, I totally broke down in my sixth period class of twenty-two boys and four girls. In part because I was sick, in part because they wouldn’t shut the fuck up, and in part because I didn’t have the energy to deal with them. Please excuse my language, but I left for my holiday with fantasies of quitting.
When Monday after Thanksgiving rolled back around, I mustered my strength to return to school and face sixth period. And here is the thing: first, second, and third period are lovely, good as gold. The students walk in and know the routine. They sit down without being told, and they work with little direction or redirection. Fourth period has more spirit but also my student Chandrell who greets me daily with an enthusiastic, “Hello, Mrs. Byers!” combined with jazz hands followed with the best hug. I LOVE her, and I think she just might be an angel sent by God to make sure I show up each day. Then comes lunch merged with my fifth period conference, and I brace myself for my infamous sixth period. Think attention deficit disorder on steroids, throw in some autism, some students with emotional disturbance, some learning disabilities, a former gang member, lots of testosterone (did I say twenty-two boys?), and a deaf and blind girl who endures the chaos without complaint and out tries all of them. I can do anything for fifty minutes, I tell myself. At the end of the day I don’t have the energy to call parents. I focus on the moment and survival. Last week, miraculously, I checked off five more days at school, followed by five more nights at the La Quinta. The Ws assist: wine and whiskey. You guys, please pray for me. I’m not a quitter, but I battle some post traumatic hurricane stress and the option of walking away from this job.
This past Saturday, my internal alarm woke me before six AM. I had volunteered my time to tutor students who will be re-taking the STAAR test (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness). In Texas, public school students must pass state-mandated tests for English I, English II, Algebra I, biology, and US history in order to graduate from high school. At my new school, passing rates are respectable for the algebra, biology, and history tests; however, during the spring of 2017, 61% of English I and 65% for English II testers passed. Less than half of my sixth period passed. These statistics differ greatly from my previous school district (with more like a 90% passing rate), so I face the biggest challenge of my eighteen plus year career as an English teacher. As much as I HATE to teach toward a test, unfortunately I do what I must do to help kids graduate from high school. Approximately 1/3 of my students will be retesting next week, and we have practiced in class for two weeks. (Um, possibly there lies the problem. I’m working on a plan for more fun, less torture next week).
Back to yesterday’s tutorial, I know the English II state standards forward and backward and a thing or two about testing strategy, and I feel obliged to help any student who would choose to spend five hours at school on a Saturday.
Before rolling out of bed, I scrolled Facebook and read an interesting article about the effect of walking barefoot on earth.
Study after study confirms that the act of walking barefoot on the earth causes stress hormones to normalize, controls blood sugar levels, regulates metabolism, reduces inflammation, relieves pain, improves sleep, and enhances well-being. I thought to myself, I must try this immediately. Then I rolled out of bed, made way to the shower, stepped in with my bare feet, and visualized the grass between my toes. As the water rinsed away my negative energy for the sixth time that week, I rehearsed my spiel on the power of positive thinking, noting the irony, and considered taking my tutees outside, having them take their shoes off and go for a walk.
After my shower, Kody’s alarm went off. “Why did you set your alarm?” I asked.
“I just wanted to make sure you were up,” he said with a little smile.
I proceeded to tell him about the article I read and my plan for preaching positivity as a testing strategy.
“That sounds good. I have this theory,” he said. “You know, New Orleans won the Super Bowl after Hurricane Katrina, and the Astros won the World Series after Hurricane Harvey. I think there was just a lot of positive energy in both cities after the hurricanes. People helping people. Less hate. Politics are so divisive, but people here let that go. Don’t get me wrong, New Orleans was good, and the Astros were great, but the energy of the cities carried those teams.”
I agreed. I felt those vibes, and I wanted to bottle them for keeps. “Hey, will you play some music?”
“Sure,” he said, pulling up his YouTube account on the iPad and playing Nothing But Thieves and King Krule.
I don’t know how many people dance at seven AM, but I practiced my moves in front of the mirror as I drank my almond milk and finished my morning routine. Then I kissed Kody full on the mouth and said, “Goodbye, Daddy. Goodbye, Rainy” with a pat to her sweet head and a rub on her tiny belly.
At school, I taught three, ninety-minute sessions focused on revising and editing and the power of positive thinking to small groups of ten or less. “I can only imagine it must be frustrating to be here on a Saturday, but thank you for being here. I’m going to try to make this not terrible. Some of you are so close to passing. If you learn just a few things today that can help you answer a few more questions right, then it’s totally worth being here, right?”
Heads nodded up and down, belonging mostly to students I didn’t know. They showed up as a last-ditch effort, and I poured on the psychology before mixing in the grammar.
“First, I want you to believe that you can pass, and I mean, say it to yourself, repeat it, and believe it. ‘I can pass this test. I can pass this test. I can pass this test. I can narrow down my answer choices and choose the right answer. I can narrow down my answer choices and choose the right answer.’ And when you get tired, ‘I do care about this test. I do care about this test.’ I know that might sound a little crazy, but my house flooded, and I’ve lived in a hotel for the past three months. I have to talk myself into having a positive attitude pretty often, and it works, but you have to believe, and you can’t stop believing.” Experience spoke through me and to me. I can’t stop believing either, I reminded myself.
One girl said, “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s okay.” We proceeded to discuss punctuation rules, reciprocal pronouns, the subjunctive mood, and commonly confused words. I showed the students how to locate that information in the dictionary, which they can use while testing.
“No one has ever told me this,” one boy said. “My sophomore English teacher quit halfway through the year.” I think he was a senior. I have heard that my classroom is cursed and that a few past teachers in L-114 have quit mid-year. I silently wonder if their houses also flooded and if they lived in a hotel.
“That’s why I volunteered for this session. So I could tell you,” I responded. The day proceeded like that, with kids who wanted to learn something and me believing I could help and make a difference.
Feeling fulfilled, I left the school around 2:30. December 2nd in Houston was perfect, 75 and sunny. I drove back to the La Quinta, where I walked the thirty-two stairs to my third-floor room and picked up my husband, my dog, a bottle of wine, and a load of laundry. “This is a hot date,” I said to Kody as we continued to our still gutted home, where our washer and drier still work. I threw in the clothes and started the washing machine as Kody poured the cabernet into red Solo cups and resumed his DJ duties at our patio table on the deck. By this time the sun had dropped but still peeked over our backyard fence. I sipped my wine, removed my shoes, and danced with my shadow in the grass. I think I’ll try that more often. I felt my well-being enhanced. Maybe I’ll take all of my classes outside this week for a barefoot walk in the grass.
Today, Dear Reader, I send you good vibrations, leave you with a few song selections from Kody’s playlist (click on the song title for a trip to YouTube), and gift you some dancing tips. Of course, it’s more fun when you own your style. As my daughter Lauren would say, “To thine own self be true,” or maybe that was Shakespeare. Thanks for stopping by and bearing my rant. I feel better now. Bring it, Monday.
Pro Tip: Think “interpretive” and “dramatic.”
Pro Tip: Think “aerobics” and “pogo stick.”
For this one, I put my shoes back on and stomped it out on the deck. Think “Stomp. Kick. Stomp. Kick. Stomp. Kick. Stomp. Kick.” Once a dancer, always a dancer, I still count in eights.