A Teacher’s Vacation

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving at 9:48 pm. I had just decided that I would be going to school underprepared on Monday when I received the following email:

Dear HISD Community:

Due to the Boil Water Notice issued by the City of Houston late this evening, all Houston ISD schools, offices, and facilities will be closed Monday, November 28, 2022. HISD will closely monitor the situation and provide additional updates regarding operations tomorrow.

Signed Sincerely by the Superintendent

Hallelujah! I said to myself.  

Don’t get me wrong. I am super thankful for my school, my salary, my sweet students, my week of vacation. But is it a week of vacation if I brought 44 AP Literature poetry analysis essays home for grading? Seriously. On Monday, I would’ve needed to grade the last 5 during my conference period and lunch. Of the other 117 essays, there were a smattering of A’s, even 100’s, but too many did not show understanding of the critical parts. I planned to pass them back for revisions. Three. The thesis statement. One topic sentence. And one body paragraph. (With smoothly incorporated evidence and commentary in connection to the prompt.) Okay, maybe a revision of half of the paper, but some targeted instruction and 40 more minutes should work wonders. Time is ticking. Two and a half weeks until semester finals. I need to finish my fall grades before 2023. Then suddenly May arrives, and my kids take their AP tests, essays included, for college credit and graduate. Ready or not, I feel some responsibility.

Instead of torturing myself with those last five essays or preparing for Monday, at 10 pm on Sunday, I finished Dead to Me Season 3 on Netflix, stayed up past my bedtime, and didn’t set my alarm. What an unexpected treat! Never mind the fact that I might need to boil water.

On Monday, I graded my AP LIT poetry essays, 4 of them anyway, uploaded a previously written recommendation to Julliard, wrote another recommendation for another student, graded some English IV personal narratives online. Granted I slept later, went for a walk, and indulged in some leisure, but by 4:25 pm I was still working toward being prepared for Tuesday. I know the time because I received an automated voicemail from HISD:

Houston ISD will resume normal operations Wednesday, November 30. The citywide boil water notice has been lifted and HRV personnel have begun servicing all equipment with waterline connections. The district does not anticipate the need to make up the prior two days.

Whoop! Whoop! I slid my laptop underneath the couch and continued binging Season 3 of Cuckoo and Season 1 of Wednesday on Netflix.

On Tuesday morning, a to-do list was in order. I notice that everything takes me longer these days, and I’m a little extra scattered. Focus, Crystal. Focus.

To Do:

  • Edit essay for student who politely asked for help with a college application essay.
  • Create overhead agenda slides.
  • Continue grading due English IV personal narratives. 16 to go. 19 missing. 68 total.
  • Identify students with work past due/missing and failing. 27 of 191 = 14%.
  • Check e-mail for students who may have e-mailed missing assignments. 0.
  • Enter grades in gradebook.
  • Add upcoming assignments into gradebook.
  • Type sample research paper found in Writing about Literature, for a digital example of content, MLA formatting, and Works Cited.
  • Prepare to teach The Importance of Being Earnest (for the first time).
  • Create revision assignment with a checklist and examples of a thesis statement, a topic sentence, and a body paragraph with embedded quotations and commentary. Upload to Canvas for student submissions.
Today’s agenda for English IV students. I teach on a block schedule and see kids every other day. If I’m ready for today, I’m ready for tomorrow.
Today’s agenda for AP Literature. Q1–poetry analysis essay. TWIST—tone, word choice, imagery, style, and theme.

My vacation is officially over. Muah. Muah. But I’m ready to see the kids. That’s the easy part.

33 Years and Then Some

Kody’s yearbook. 1984. He was off to high school while I would spend another year in junior high. Ironically, four years later, I followed him to OU, not OSU. The Class of “88 still rules.

Thanksgiving started when our daughter Lauren drove in from Oklahoma. For that I am most thankful. Along with our grand pup and a couple of pies, she brought us some boxes from Nana’s house. Nana is Kody’s mom. One box contained Kody’s junior high and high school yearbooks. Mine met their demise during the hurricane of 2017, and since Kody and I went to school together, well, I got my yearbooks back. Never mind all the signatures from girls who were crazy for Kody back in the day. They provided hours of entertainment.

Kody’s 1984 yearbook was proof that we were friends before I remembered. In a way it foreshadowed at least half of our relationship: “You should know that I’m mad at you…”

Jokes aside, today we celebrate 33 years of holy matrimony. Never mind the three-year divorce. We kissed and made up. For the prequel to a love story, click below.

Counting My Blessings

(Art School Version)

In thirteen weeks,
I climbed 8,125 stairs,
from the underground parking
to my classroom on floor four.
Not that I’m counting.

Okay, I am.

125 per day. 6 flights.
5 mornings per week.
13 weeks.
Somedays more.

My phone keeps track—
13 flights on Friday,
12 on Thursday,
10 on Wednesday,
11 on Tuesday,
7 on Monday.

Each time,
my thighs burn,
my heart pounds,
I breathe hard—
but easier
through 13 weeks.
I’ve lost a pound or 2—
okay 8, depending on
when I weigh.
Not that I’m counting.

Okay, I am.
Blessings have a way
of hiding
until
you look.

I count more
around the school
Steps and blessings
and such great kids.

I don’t know
the girl
in the t-shirt
that says,
“Nice
is the new cool.”
But I smile,
as does she.
Then my student
greets me,
“What up,
Mrs. Byers?”
Her good energy
spreads like fire.
I overhear another say,
“Today—
is gonna be amazing.”
He catches my eye,
and his flicker.
I nod and hope
mine spark, too,
a torch to pass on.

There’s often time
in my day
for extra steps.
Time—
another blessing.

Music swells
in the stairwells
a flute trio,
a vocal solo.
My heart responds,
drawn by the pulse
of art and life.

One flight down,
Dancers in leotards
perfect techniques
at the barre.
And I—
stroll a little straighter,
arabesque
if only in my head,
held a little higher,
past the studios,
past the tune of piano,
down another flight
to the art gallery
to contemplate
lines and images,
color and messages.

There are days
I descend
two extra flights
exit the building,
walk a few city blocks
for lunch and fresh air
before ascending the stairs

back to floor four,
somedays to the fifth,
where rehearsals ensue

and my heart beats to
the Mariachi,
vocal, and
orchestral
excerpts.

In a small practice room
with an open door,
my student sits
before a harp.
“I didn’t know
you play harp,”
I say.

“I don’t usually tell,"
says she,
and I leave
her to her secret
and take the stairs
back to my classroom
and prepare
for my last class
of Week Thirteen,
not to mention
Thanksgiving.
Proud teacher moment. One of these kids slaying Pavane by Fauré is my student. Please click the link and enjoy!
On my classroom desk, “One Minute with God.” Thank you, Becky! And Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody!

Native American Heritage Day

Native American Heritage Day (better known as Black Friday) is a not-so-highly publicized civil holiday observed on the day after Thanksgiving in the United States. That’s a shame considering the role of the Wampanoag people in the first Thanksgiving. They “shared their land, food, and knowledge of the environment with the English. Without help from the Wampanoag, the English would not have had the successful harvest that led to the First Thanksgiving. However, cooperation was short lived, as the English continued to attack and encroach upon Wampanoag lands in spite of their agreements” (Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving). How many of us even recognize the Wampanoag name?

Each year, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma sends me a Christmas tree ornament and a story from my ancestors. In recognition of the Native American role in Thanksgiving, in sadness of subsequent forced removal of natives from tribal lands, in memory of my proud Choctaw Granny who faced systemic injustice in her own life, as a reminder of the Choctaw blood that flows through my veins and blessings large and small, I share with you:

“The Gift of Corn”

“Long ago, two Choctaw men were camping along the Alabama River when they heard a beautiful but sad sound. They followed the sound until they came upon Ohoyo Osh Chishba, Unknown Woman, standing on an earthen mound. The men asked how they could help her, and she answered, ‘I’m hungry.’ The men gave her all their food, but the lady ate only a little and thanked them with a promise.

“‘Tell no one you saw me. I will ask the Great Spirit to give you a gift. Return here at the new moon,’ she said. The Choctaw men went home and said nothing.

“At the new moon, they returned to the river as instructed, but Ohoyo Osh Chishba was not there. In the place where they had seen her, though, stood a tall green plant. That plant is corn, and it is a great gift, indeed!”

Tanchi is the Choctaw word for corn.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melody Beattie
Thankful for new candles and the reminder on my Hobby Lobby paper placemats. Oh, and for the champagne. Cheers!

Thanksgiving in School

‘Twas Wednesday the week before Thanksgiving. An English IV student volunteered to read Gwendolyn Brooks 1959 poem…

We Real Cool

THE POOL PLAYERS. 
                   SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

(Courtesy of poets.org)

“What do you notice?” I say.

Crickets.

“What makes this a poem?”

Here they speak of the rhymes, the structure, the alliteration, the repetition of “we.”

“Who is the ‘we’?”

They speculate.

“Why do they think they’re cool?”

They provide examples from the text. 

When there’s not much more to say, we read Andrew Spacey’s article, “Analysis of Poem ‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks.” Spacey takes some of our beginning ideas about the poem to the next level with sophisticated sounding words about the enjambment, ambiguity, and monosyllables along with insight on the anti-establishment and a miniature tragedy in eight-lines.

“I would love to see you all write like this,” I say. But on this day, I don’t make them write. Instead, we listen to an audio of Gwendolyn Brooks explaining her inspiration behind this poem and giving a reading. The words from her mouth and rhythms of her speech sound different than how my student had read.

Then we watch a video. Same poem another person’s thoughts. The ending goes straight to my heart. I might have seen students wiping their eyes. Students in a class later that day laughed, a contagious laugh. I’ve learned I can’t control anyone else’s reactions, only my own. 

I move on to another poet for comparison, United States poet laureate Joy Harjo. We read an NPR article: “In ‘An American Sunrise,’ Joy Harjo Speaks With A Timeless Compassion.” The article reviews Harjo’s 2019 poetry collection. Then we read along to Joy Harjo’s audio of “An American Sunrise,” a poem within the collection of the same name.

An American Sunrise

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We

were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.

It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.

Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We

made plans to be professional — and did. And some of us could sing

so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars. Sin

was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We

were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them — thin

chance. We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin

will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing. We

had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz

I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,

forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We

know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die

soon.

 

(Courtesy of poetryfoundation.org)

 

We speak of the first Thanksgiving and how the Native Americans were later robbed. The lesson is heavy, but thought-provoking, and the students quite like the two poems side-by-side. I’m posting from my phone today and unable to format this poem as intended. Otherwise, you would clearly see that each line ends with the following words consecutively: We strike straight. We sing Sin We thin gin We Jazz June, We die soon). The students minds are blown.

“Now I want you to create something as a celebration of Thanksgiving—maybe a poem, a song, or art—and give a mini presentation. This is how it works. You entertain me, and I give you a 100. I would be so happy if someone would sing me a song. You have thirty minutes. Go.”

5th period dances to “Beans, Greens, Potatoes, Tomatoes,” also known as the Grandma Thanksgiving Rap.
These images include endangered species. The text says, “To all animals and plants: Thank you for your time spent on this earth. From all humanity: our condolences and apologies for what has been brought upon this earth. May your spirits find a peaceful life after they leave this one. To all humanity: The time has passed to repair for our crimes. Now we are obligated to make the earth comfortable in these times of strife, conflict, loss, and change.
Thanksgiving, a day we spend with family

We eat and munch like an abnormality

We sit around and argue with each other

It never stops, but we love one another.

—1st Period Mariachi

November Gratitude, Or Not

This November, I hoped to focus on gratitude. I’ve done it before. Gratitude is good.

In recent years I’ve kept a journal in celebration of Thanksgiving, listing three reasons to be grateful a day, large or small. But this year—though good things happen every day, though I still admire beauty in this world, though I love so much about this life—I’m on an emotional roller coaster, riding the highs straight into my lows, unable to maintain my attitude of gratitude or my focus on this ride. Of course, I could make myself journal. Sometimes I think I might try. Honestly, that seems painful. And a little fake. So why?

Last year on November 19, COVID-19 found its way to my mother. She suffered alone in her nursing home, closed to visitors due to the pandemic. Ten days later, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, she went to the hospital. Eight days after that she was released to come home, not to the nursing home but to her home since 1976. For hospice. I was there with my sister and brother and dad to welcome her. Mom’s smile lit up the entire room. Her decline was swift. On Christmas Eve, she breathed her last breath. Of course, I’m thankful to have spent those final days with my mother.

I’m not one to let the little things get me down. But losing my mother wasn’t a little thing.

I’m typing these words in solidarity with those (who for whatever reason may be) in a similar frame of mind—an acknowledgement of holiday heartbreak. If you happen to relate, I see you.

God bless.

A reminder from me to me. Maybe it’s good for you, too.

Are you there, God?

It’s me, Crystal. Today is Thanksgiving. I want to be thankful, but I’m so scared, God. So many people in my life are sick, and some of my relationships need your help. Suppose my friends and family suffer? Suppose we all can’t call a truce? Please help me find joy despite circumstances, God. Don’t let today be too horrible. Thank you.

Let It Go

Thanksgiving Episode 2

Back in Houston last Sunday, I tried a new church, River Pointe, by recommendation of my friend Mary. Like my Chase Oaks back in Dallas, the music was outstanding, a mix of contemporary and traditional, and for the second time in a week, I sang “It Is Well With My Soul.” This time the minister referenced the songwriter Horatio Spafford and said, “You should Google him.” I remembered the story from last week’s service in Oklahoma (Thanksgiving Episode 1) and silently wondered if God was trying to tell me something. I mean, my soul still felt pretty darn good. As pastor Ryan Leak spoke, I heard the boom of God’s voice and a special Thanksgiving message crystal clear.

Regardless of what you think about Jesus, you have to admit he has a common sense approach to relationship restoration. And while some of us can’t wait to gather with our families at Thanksgiving and throughout the upcoming holidays, some of us have some relationship issues that strike discord and darken spirits.

As I typed up a few sermon notes to keep for myself, I decided to share with you if you so choose to read on. Let us now turn to the New Testament.

“Then Peter came to Him and asked, ‘Lord, how many times will my brother sin against me and I forgive him and let it go? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered him, ‘I say to you, not up to seven times, but seventy times seven’” (Matthew 18:21-22).

Did you see the italicized and? It’s not just about the forgiveness. We must also let it go.

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4).

Before you sit down to the Thanksgiving table, remember the words. You see, faith allows you to do what sometimes seems impossible…like letting go and moving on. It is impossible that no offenses will come. We are human. None of us are perfect, but it’s so much easier to point the finger in blame rather than to let a wrongdoing go. Jesus says, “Let it go. 490 times. Let it go.” Did you notice the imperative statement, also known as a command (ment). Ask God to give you an opportunity to be honest (rebuke them), then be generous with your forgiveness and discerning with reconciliation. That is God’s message. The message I needed to hear.

As I left the sanctuary that day, the woman sitting next to me turned, looked me in the eye, and said in a lilting Nigerian accent, “And to think that God would give us the grace to forgive every family member.”

It Is Well with My Soul

Thanksgiving Episode I

I’m on a two-week church streak. Since moving to Houston in 2016 and leaving behind my seemingly irreplaceable Chase Oaks in Dallas, well, let’s just say I sort of slipped off the church wagon. I visited here and there, and in a city the size of Houston, it’s weird that I couldn’t find a place that felt like home. Eventually, I gave up and just lived in sin.

(Ha Ha! I kid. We’re all sinners and by that I mean imperfect. But I keep trying to be a better human anyway.)

Two Sundays ago, I found myself at the Methodist church in my Oklahoma panhandle hometown. Olivia, my five-year-old great niece, was singing in the children’s choir, and well, I couldn’t miss that. Their song went something like this, “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings for what the Lord has done.” And I did. While the kids sang, I counted my blessings.

  1. Seeing my sweet mother again.
  2. Hearing my mom say, “I love you,” to me one more time.
  3. Seeing and hearing Olivia’s performance and gleaning a jewel of wisdom.
  4. The opportunity for some time off of work to spend time with my family.
  5. A safe solo trip to the panhandle.
  6. My three-year-old niece Allyson, playing hide and seek with me in the next pew.
  7. My last class of my 12-week, long-term sub job, where we had a round of Show and Tell, and Jennissa and Neicko brought down the house with their own rendition of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s duet “Shallow” from A Star Is Born.

I could’ve continued counting, but I zoned back into the service in time for the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” which led into the sermon and the backstory of the song writer Horatio Spafford. A lawyer from Chicago, in 1871 Spafford’s four-year-old son died of Scarlet fever and the Great Fire destroyed his real estate investment and ruined him financially. Two years later his wife and four daughters headed to Europe on vacation, where he planned to later join them, and their ship the S.S. Ville du Havre sank in the Atlantic Ocean. His wife’s telegram read, “Saved alone.” Their four daughters had drowned. He wrote “It Is Well With My Soul” on his journey to England to meet his wife while passing near the spot where the ship went down. In the face of more tragedy than the average person could bear, Spafford’s soul was well. Mid-blessing count, my soul is well, too.

Click here for Episode 2.