I wrote his words on the white board stuck to my classroom door. I typed them into my power point agenda right above today’s plan—Timed Write (2 x Minor) and projected it on to my screen. From there I said, “Did you guys know that after today I will only see all of you together three more times before your AP Literature test? That’s including today. And that’s why I want you to remember what Jay Z said, ‘The genius thing we did was, we didn’t give up.’” I pointed to the quote on the screen. “Some of you guys might know that I’ve been boxing and kickboxing since January.” I noted a couple of raised eyebrows. “When I started, I committed to going three times a week for three months, and I did it until about Spring Break, and then I went out of town, and after that I had some company, but I’m still there twice a week at least. And you know what? I can punch a lot harder than I could in January. And what difference does that make? Well, none, except that I’m sticking with it and hopefully I can defend myself if I ever need to. But my point is—if you spend two to three hours a week practicing anything, you’ll see results, and that’s what we’re still doing today. We’re practicing, and we’re improving, and we’re not giving up.” I forged on. Certain times of the year call for psychology. “I know that the last thing you want to do is write back-to-back essays.”
I know this because yesterday juniors all took the SAT, a four-and-a-half hour timed test, and I proctored. At the end of the exam, I said, “You guys are welcome to move around and talk to each other until they release us.” As if I had spoken Greek, blank stares and a few blinks met my gaze. On top of yesterday, today and tomorrow my AP Lit juniors are all taking their U. S. History final exam.
Also, I know that after today we only have two more days, and so I passed out a packet of three essays prompts—a poetry analysis, a prose analysis, and a theme prompt based on a major literary work from this year—as I continued my pep talk. “And I only share my boxing because first of all, do I look like a boxer?”
I actually heard a “yes” or two, which is hilarious.
“Most days I don’t want to go, and often I think to myself, ‘I want to quit.’ You know how you hear your own voice in your head?”
I saw nods and their eyes. They were with me.
“Well, you can’t believe everything you think. And sometimes, you have to get back into your head and tell yourself the opposite. ‘I can do this…I can do anything for an hour…’ Guys, boxing is hard and kickboxing—” I just stood there shaking my head back and forth. “But I can do anything for an hour, and I’m getting better.”
Next class period students will self-score using rubrics and sample essays and spend time comparing these essays to past teacher-scored essays in their writing portfolios. After that, all that’s left is extra psychology, some last-minute tips, a healthy dose of prayer, and maybe some Shane Koyczan.
“That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Over the past twenty years, I’ve discovered that most writing success begins with an example. Students need concrete models of introductions and thesis statements, topic sentences and embedded quotations and commentary, statements of theme and parallelism. Name the skill, any skill, an example provides the training wheels.
In my bag of teacher tricks, I dig for a creative writing assignment that I must credit to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, not to mention Plano ISD, where I taught English and learned my craft for fourteen years, and the intensive two-week Plano Writing Leadership Academy, which I attended twice, and my writing mentors, Lisa Thibodeaux and Marsha Cawthon, who facilitated those game-changing professional development opportunities.
The directions for said-teacher-trick go something like this:
Think about where you are from and use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description above to inspire one of your own. Use some of his words as needed, and pay attention to his phrasing and punctuation.
That’s my _________—not the _______ or the ________ or the ________ _________ ________ but the ________, _______ _______ of my ________ and the _________ _______ and _______ _______ in the ________ ______ and the…
(You understand where this is going.)
As the teacher, I can’t escape the upcoming high stakes testing, but I know the students need breaks from the test prep and loads of confidence. Did I mention bonus points for sharing aloud? You should see their little faces beaming with pride as they string their ideas together like Fitzgerald, and my eyes get a little misty, too, as I learn something new about my kids and their journeys, their hearts and the insides of their heads.
I even had a head start. Starting December 27th, no more.
And so far, so good.
Even now I hate to admit my habit, but here goes.
Goodbye, cigarettes. You comforted me for a time. Thank you for showing me that it’s time for me to work on me.
I remember listening to one of Dr. Wayne Dyer’s audiobooks about ten years ago. He practiced saying goodbye and thanking whatever is bothering him. His daughter had some bumps, I don’t remember the details, but the bumps were a problem, a problem that went away when she spoke to them with kindness and a farewell. Together they wrote a children’s book about it. Recently, Marie Kondo reminded me of the technique in her tv show on tidying up, thanking the items you use and love as you put them away, keeping only the things that spark joy, thanking items for the joy they brought you at one time before bidding them adieu. I try to use these lessons in my life. It’s a work in progress. I believe 2019 will be a year of personal growth.
A second commitment evolved throughout the month. I like to start school each new year on a positive note. A new year. A fresh start. I know for a fact that some kids don’t get much positivity at home, and we can all use an extra dose of positive. Anyway, on January 4th, I read a blog post titled “You need to believe it’s possible.” Click the link to read. Embedded in that post was a sixteen-minute video titled “The Power of Belief.”
I decided to show the video to my students on their first day back, January 7th, and have them journal about what they believe. I watched the video seven times total, once to preview and again with each class. After the third viewing, I noticed an ad at the end for Evan Carmichael’s book Your One Word with a #believe at the bottom of the front cover. I tweaked the writing assignment for my classes to reflect on their one word for 2018 and their one word for 2019 in addition to what they believe.
I didn’t journal at the time, but I thought about my two words and what I believe.
Word of 2018. Hope. When I began this self-imposed writing gig while living in a La Quinta and rebuilding our house that had been flooded by Harvey, I named my blog Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope. My dad gave me a silver bracelet engraved with HOPE for my birthday last year, and I wear it almost every day as a reminder that Hope, with a capital H, is a choice. I can choose my attitude, another gift of a lesson from dear old Dad. I’m fairly certain Dad is also a Wayne Dyer fan. Amid crisis, I have a choice. Hope or Despair? I choose hope along with the opportunity to grow.
Word of 2019. Believe. I realize Hope and Believe are practically synonyms. In my mind Belief removes all doubt and fuels the Hope. Belief reminds me to trust God in the process. I’m in a different place now. Literally. Back home and on a new couch. So what do I believe? I believe in a better, healthier future for everyone in my family. I believe in the progress of medicine and stem cells and cures for diseases like paranoid schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s and addiction. I believe that together we are stronger, and our relationships are important. I believe my writing is evolving and helping others evolve. I believe one day I will publish a book. All through the grace of God. Some of these beliefs I shared with my students, and after one class a student came up to me and said, “Mrs. Byers, my grandfather has Parkinson’s, and my mom is like you. She researched and found a place right here in Bellaire that does stem cell treatments and took him.”
“So your grandfather is better now?” I asked.
She nodded, holding our eye contact with a serioussincerity, “I will find out where and let you know.”
And like that, I had a new avenue to explore. I believe it’s only a matter of time. I believe all of it with faith in God, gratitude in advance, and peace in my heart.
January 11th was our daughter Lauren’s 27th birthday, and Kody and I gave her a three-month membership to a local boxing gym, which included a three-month membership for me. We would go together. Now mind you, I had not worked out in any way for approximately a year and a half, but I believe in a healthier future. Right? So on January 13th, Lauren and I found our workout clothes, drove to the gym with over fifty suspended heavy bags, wrapped our wrists and knuckles, and started our first class—kickboxing. The fifteen minute warm-up included jumping jacks and pushups, lunges and squats. My calves started screaming after about one minute. Somehow I pushed forward. Then we pulled on our gloves and punched and kicked our way through eight, three-minute rounds with the bag before the abdominal-focused cool-down using weighted medicine balls. If that sounds hard, it is. On January 14th Kody joined us, this time for boxing, and he signed on the line for the membership. By January 15th, I could barely walk up a flight of stairs, but two weeks and five classes later, I’m feeling pretty fantastic, and Lauren has made it to at least three classes without me. And the bonus…this gym is motivational, the instructors are motivational, I am motivated, and it’s quality family time.
Last weekend I traveled the three-hour road to Austin to hang out with my like-minded childhood besties overnight. I am so very thankful for Denise and Pamela and our forty-ish year friendships, speaking of sparking joy. For the trip I downloaded Rachel Hollis’s audio of Girl Wash Your Face. I like this girl Rachel, and I can’t stop thinking of something she said, and I want you to read it:
“A few months ago after I was out to dinner with my closest girlfriend which was an impromptu happy hour that turned into an impromptu dinner and ended up going later than any of us anticipated, I went downstairs to the basement where our old treadmill is hidden and ran a few miles. I put the evidence of that workout on Snapchat, and later my girlfriend saw it and sent me a text. “You worked out after dinner? What in the world?”
I wrote back, “Yes, because I planned on doing it and didn’t want to cancel.”
“Couldn’t you just postpone until tomorrow?” She was genuinely perplexed.
“No, because I made a promise to myself and I don’t break those, not ever.”
“Ugh,” she typed back. “I’m the FIRST person I break a promise to.”
She’s not the only one. I used to do that all the time until I realized how hard I was fighting to keep my word to other people while quickly canceling on myself. I’ll work out tomorrow became I’m not working out anytime soon—because honestly, if you really cared about that commitment, you’d do it when you said you would. What if you had a friend who constantly flaked on you? What if every other time you made plans she decided not to show up? Or what if a friend from work was constantly starting something new? Every three Mondays she announced a new diet or goal and then two weeks later it just ended? Y’all, would you respect her? This woman who starts and stops over and over again? Would you count on the friend who keeps blowing you off for stupid reasons? Would you trust them when they committed to something?
No. No way. And that level of distrust and apprehension applies to you too. Your subconscious knows that you, yourself, cannot be trusted after breaking so many plans and giving up on so many goals.
When you really want something, you will find a way. When you don’t really want something, you’ll find an excuse. I know that blowing off a workout, a date, an afternoon to organize your closet, or some previous commitment to yourself doesn’t seem like a big deal—but it is. It’s a really big deal. Our words have power, but our actions shape our lives.”
Wow, Rachel, why haven’t I realized this before? You, my young friend, are right. Okay girl, three times per week, at least. That’s my boxing commitment for the next three months.
Thursday I came home to a package in the mail—inside, a silver bangle bracelet with BELIEVE in capital letters and a note from my Denise–Believe is a powerful thing!!
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.”
The last time I stood upon a stage and spelled words before an audience, I was twelve years old. I could spell decently. I mean, I was no Ashley Adams, champion year after year, competing her way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Washington, D. C. But, I did enjoy spending time with my dictionary, perhaps more than the typical child. And, I could spell my way out of my homeroom and onto the stage with the other Academy Elementary finalists. Go me!
And thirty-six years later, I found myself on a stage once more, bright lights in my eyes, teachers in a line to my left and to my right, an audience of students before me. Stepping up to the microphone for my first word, the cheers drowned out the word uttered by the student judge. Flattered and taken by surprise with the audience response after a semester at my new school, I turned to the judge sitting stage left and asked, “Will you repeat the word?”
“Decordicate?” I asked with a grimace, brows furrowed.
“Decordicate,” he affirmed.
I turned back to the audience. “English teachers don’t know all the words,” I said into the mic before proceeding. “Decordicate.” I repeated, looking again to the two judges, who nodded in agreement. “D-E-C-O-R-D-I-C-A-T-E.” I spelled.
“That is incorrect.”
Okay, so I wasn’t so lucky. With disappointment, I crossed the stage, descended the stairs, and slumped into a front row seat, clapping for co-workers still competing and internally spelling their words while trying to remember mine. With my iPhone back in my classroom, I would have to wait to look up “decordicate.”
The next teacher had to spell “chocolate,” by the way, and the next “paranoia” and the next “scenery.” The winning word was “reminisce,” a favorite pastime of mine. I can spell those words. Oh well. This spelling bee supported two causes: an Engineering Club fund-raiser, $2 a ticket with a few hundred kids in attendance, plus a canned food drive, one item per student for our local food banks. A win-win. I can’t be bitter.
Once back in my classroom, my student Cheyenne who represented my advisory class in the recent student spelling bee asked me, “Was it D-I-C?”
It took me a second to understand her question. “I have no idea,” I responded with phone in hand. “Let me look it up,” and I Googled.
“Showing results for decorticate,” said Google.
“Enunciate,” said my inner dialogue. No one was there to hear.
“D-E-C-O-R-T-I-C-A-T-E,” I spelled for Cheyenne, emphasizing the T while reciting from my screen. “I missed the T. I heard D.” Her smile revealed empathy as she left for lunch.
I read on. According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine at medlineplus.gov, “Decorticate posture is an abnormal posturing in which a person is stiff with bent arms, clenched fists, and legs held out straight. The arms are bent in toward the body and the wrists and fingers are bent and held on the chest. This type of posturing is a sign of severe damage in the brain.”
According to The Free Dictionary, decorticate means “to remove the bark, husk, or outer layer from; peel.”
Anyway, I learned something new. I hope you did, too.
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.