In the last couple of weeks, I stumbled across two articles from The Atlantic, “The College Essay Is Dead,” the byline: “Nobody is prepared for how AI will transform academia,” and then “The End of High School English.” Part of me feared reading what I already knew. With artificial Intelligence, who needs intelligence? Who needs teachers? If technology can do the students’ work, why would I waste my time grading it? And how would I even know if students are doing their own work unless all writing is completed in class, handwritten, no devices? Where’s the grading app for teachers? The whole dilemma is above my paygrade…
I’ve joined the revolution. First, I signed up for ChatGPT and told it what I wanted. Within seconds the app spit out an 18-line poem, not exactly a sonnet, but with the time saved in creating the thing, I could easily delete one stanza to fulfill my own request.
My apologies for wasting your time with bot-created poetry. I for one have little patience for wasted time…
Next semester I’ll have 191 students writing research papers, which I will grade. Heavy sigh. Anybody care to guess what percentage of my kids will use this new technology? I’ll ask for their honesty in May.
A vertical line
blinks on the screen.
I tap keys.
From nebulous thoughts,
not quite right,
I cut and add,
When I was in the second grade, my music teacher introduced our class to a plastic wind instrument called the recorder. We each received our own in a bag to take home and practice and keep forever.
My friend Robyn, a tall, quiet blonde with good grades, lived up the street and around the corner. One day she invited me to her house for after-school practice. This is where the details become a bit fuzzy. After playing “Hot Cross Buns” an indefinite number of times, I clearly remember wielding my recorder like a weapon, completely unprovoked, and cracking my friend on the top of her blonde head. Hard. From the bedroom doorway, I heard a gasp and turned to see Robyn’s older sister, eyes wide and jaw dropped.
I can only imagine Robyn’s sister saying, “Crystal, I think it’s time for you to go home.” I don’t think Robyn cried. I don’t think anyone reported me to Robyn’s mother. I don’t remember saying, “I’m sorry.” I do remember Robyn eventually moving to Texas and losing track of her over time.
In 2009, I found Robyn on Facebook and apologized for the time, forty years earlier, I hit her over the head with my recorder. I’m not sure she remembered, my apology now another distant recollection. Why had this brief memory haunted me through the years? I’m quite sure I was even meaner to my brother when we were kids, but that was mostly retaliation.
Humans are imperfect. We randomly act without thinking and hurt others without malicious intent. We often beat ourselves up for mishandled situations while judging others for their shortcomings. At other times, we don’t own up to our own roles in our own dramas. Life is complicated. Apologies, forgiveness, and understanding are not exactly simple. Sometimes, however, we owe ourselves peace. ‘Tis the season.
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.
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.
My vacation is officially over. Muah. Muah. But I’m ready to see the kids. That’s the easy part.
Every night, my mother would tuck me into bed.
“Good night, Sugar Plum,” she said.
I miss my mother.
Especially here at the holidays, I wax nostalgic.
Many years ago, my mother would read me ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and she took me to see the Nutcracker and visions of sugar plum fairies danced in my head. The following story is only loosely connected.
I skimmed the review of a play about Lauren Anderson, the first Black principal ballerina of the Houston Ballet, written by the former Houston Poet Laureate, Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton. I knew of Mouton, but new-ish to Houston, I hadn’t heard of Anderson. In the back of my head, I felt this was a show to see. I didn’t rush to buy tickets.
On Tuesday, October 25, I grabbed a bite to eat down the street from my school. On my way back to my classroom, I took the stairs and strolled by the dance studios on the third floor. Lo and behold, Doni’s review was on the wall of the hallway bulletin board outside Studio A. I know the date because I snapped a photo and texted Doni. “Your name is on the wall at my school,” I said, feeling proud to know her.
On Thursday, November 3, who should come to my school for a lunchtime Q and A?
Come to find out, her father was the first assistant principal at my school beginning in 1972. And this lady mesmerized me in the woman power sort-of way. I wanted to know more of her story than the fifteen minutes or so that I heard that day, and I was especially interested in the connection between the Houston poet turned playwright and the Houston ballerina. How many signs does a person need that she must see a performance?
I found myself Googling Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton and stumbling upon “The Making of Plumshuga.” Mouton says, “I’m not originally from Houston, so coming into this city as a transplant…over a decade ago, I wanted to feel the pulse of this city. I didn’t want to live as someone who was just visiting, but I wanted to make a home here.” Her words resonated with me, a transplant, someone trying to make a home in Houston. I searched for tickets for the play that would close in a matter of days. Then I asked my husband on a date.
He said, “Yes.”
The play happened to coincide with our 11th anniversary of our 2nd marriage (11/11/11 to 11/11/22). There’s something about those ones and twos. I just happened to find two first-row tickets.
Doni said the story would stay with me “for its honesty and the original and superlative collaboration of words, music, and dance.”
At the end of the performance, Kody said, “That was the best show I’ve ever seen. I mean, much respect for those dancers.”
I agreed. The dancers. The writing. Lauren Anderson. Her story. The way she overcame racial barriers and bad relationships and addiction. I left the theatre inspired.
This play is an important reminder that if you are an excellent artist, even if you don’t feel like you belong, you do. And that psychological dimension of artistic insecurity, regardless of the source, is part of the difficulty of creativity.
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.
Due to inclement weather for an outdoor event nearby, Wynton Marsalis showed up at my school, where his gig had been relocated. This happened on Tuesday at 11 am, and I just happened to have a coinciding off period, so I took two flights of stairs down to the balcony of The Denney Theatre. With an introduction from Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, Marsalis spoke about the fundamentals of jazz and how jazz teaches us to exercise individual rights as well as responsibility to others. “Jazz can show us how to work together,” he said, “while also celebrating our obvious differences.” The metaphors weren’t lost on this English teacher. Marsalis spoke of improvisation and how improvisation is freedom. Then he improvised on trumpet with The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and proceeded to blow my socks off. There was a call and response among the musicians. The piano and sax, the drums and string bass and trombone each had their turn. I understood the celebration of differences and left the theatre that day feeling that jazz is life.
This whole jazz experience overlapped with classroom discussion of James Baldwin’s 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues.” I had never taught this story. I’m not sure I fully understood the nuance. I had hesitated to assign the story. It’s not exactly short. But there’s something about Baldwin. And I couldn’t have planned a guest performance of a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning jazz musician if I had tried.
Prior to the reading assignment, I gave my students a bookmark, ironic since The Norton Introduction to Literature is online. The bookmark, a mini-handout, included what to look for when marking the text:
Music and Jazz
Being Trapped, Physically and Emotionally
Light vs. Darkness
Grace, Forgiveness, and Salvation
Characterization of the Narrator vs. Sonny
Then came Wednesday, the day of the graded discussion. I had divided the story into three parts and my class alphabetically into three groups. My students read the entire story but focused their annotations on their assigned section: beginning, middle, or end.
The students first discussed their chunk in small groups for main ideas and motifs. Then we had a class graded discussion. Everyone participated. Intelligent and sophisticated conversation ensued. In twenty-two years of teaching, what happened in my classroom this week ranks as a highlight of highlights and left me inspired.
Sonny is a free-spirited jazz musician with a heroin problem. It’s 1950s Harlem. His older brother, the unnamed narrator, teaches school and has spent time in the military. The brotherly conflict is real. Before their mother dies, she tells the older brother, “Don’t let him fall.” It seems wrong to write a story about the artist James Baldwin or his masterpiece of a story. You would be better off reading “Sonny’s Blues,” and then we can talk.
It’s not like I hear a booming voice in the sky saying, “Crystal? Hello!” But God has a way of showing up. Like, over and over.
Once when I was fifteen or sixteen, I happened to have a severe earache while at church, my little non-denominational church in my little Oklahoma hometown. Pastor Charlie stopped mid-sermon and said, “God has laid it on my heart that there is someone here in pain. Someone with an earache. I’m going to stop and pray.” And so he prayed from the pulpit and returned to his message while I sat in the congregation awestruck. Believe me or not, my pain subsided 100%.
Then when I was twenty-one, I packed my bags with my mother’s help and loaded Drew into his car seat. I drove out of Colorado and left my young husband and the Rocky Mountains in my rearview mirror. I prayed along the way. “God, I don’t know what to do. Please. Send me a sign,” I said. It wasn’t long before Kody drove to Oklahoma to see me and Drew. Time apart had served us well. We had a happy family reunion for three. A month later when I missed my period, I took the positive pregnancy test as my sign. Thirty-one years later on a Friday night, we sit on adjacent couches. Our toes connect on the ottoman, and we smile at each other while the Astros play on TV.
God and I have been tight through the years—and sometimes not. Sort of like me and Kody. My mother once told me, “There’s a fine line between love and hate.” I’m stubborn when it comes to conforming. I tend to hold grudges when life doesn’t go my way. At times, I stick to the mantra—I can choose hope (through God) or despair, and who would choose despair? Then suddenly, I find myself despairing.
This past week, one of my students asked if she could use my room on Thursday at lunch for a meeting. Their regular meeting spot, or maybe their sponsor, wasn’t available this week. “No problem,” I said. I’m not sure I even asked what kind of meeting.
When Thursday lunch arrived, I grabbed my sad little sandwich from the refrigerator in the teacher’s lounge and returned to my classroom where a small group of some of my favorite students sat in a circle of desks. One of them read Philippians 4:6-7. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I sat at my desk on the opposite side of the room. I might have had some tears in my eyes. This scripture was one of my mother’s favorites. I wonder how many letters she wrote me that included this verse. Was my mother speaking? Or God? I believe they’re in cahoots.
The students took turns discussing the meaning of the words.
One said, “Whatever you’re going through, His peace is greater than your anxiety.”
Another one said, “I just know that we’re all struggling with grades and college applications, and God’s going to get us through it.” There was a pause. “We’re not going to do this on our own. God’s going to get us through it.”
And with these words, I felt convicted. How often do I try to rely on my own devices? That’s a rhetorical question.
Confession time. I struggle with alcohol. I like wine. I like bourbon, vodka, and tequila. I like the relaxation that comes from a drink or two and the comedy that ensues after three or four. According to my oncologist, daily drinking is alcohol abuse. She had the nerve to write that in my charts. Alcohol abuse. The American Cancer Society says, “It’s best not to drink alcohol” and recommends that women “who choose to drink should limit their intake to 1 drink a day.” One?! I swear, I’ve Googled this more than once hoping I’ll find a different answer. Anyway, I’m trying to make healthier choices. From the end of August to the end of September, I did great. I was practically alcohol free, but I was pretty bitter about it, and I mean, downright angry. Notice all the I’s. I. I. I. I. I. I…twelve. Then came October, and I fell off the proverbial wagon. I can’t do this on my own. The mouths of babes confirm it.
So—Thursday after school, I drove home and slipped into some leggings and a long t-shirt and my tennis shoes and went for a walk instead of pouring myself a drink. It was a gorgeous fall evening, and my steps fell to the beat of my music. YouTube picked a song for me. I swear, I think it was God again.
Halfway through another post, or mostly finished, I’m not sure—it’s hard to tell with a poem. The thing lacked detail, the kind of detail that develops from noticing—and time. I slid my laptop out of the way, beneath the couch, and slept. It was Friday night.
The next morning, I awoke to the incessant meow of Nora and ignored her. I lay in bed, scrolling my phone, and stopped on a post called Slower:
“Before I thought of myself as a writer, I thought of myself as an artist—not incompatible identities. Among the many lessons I learned as a visual artist also applicable to literary arts: slow down. Wait. Wait. Wait. The eye (thought) moves faster than the hand on the page; you have to slow down so that the hand can keep up.”
My husband fed the cat. I made the coffee. Texas pecan, wildflower honey and cream for me. Back on the couch, I savored my cup, the decadence of the morning, the sunlight spilling through the living room window, the slowness of Saturday. I reread my last draft and started a new one.
I can’t help thinking about the history of breast cancer. How 100 years ago I probably wouldn’t have been screened. How 50 years ago surgery would’ve been inevitable. I’m not exactly sure when the outlook changed.
When I spoke to my general practitioner about my biopsy results, she thought she was breaking the news to me. Little did she know that Solis, the mammography center, had called the day before. They gave me the name of a surgeon. They said I would be having surgery within a month. I told her also about the doctor who performed the ultrasound pre-biopsy. The one who twisted his mouth when he said, “I’m sorry. We caught this early. It’s tiny.” I had been processing this almost official news of the C-word for nearly a week. I had hoped for the best, was prepared for the worst, and would be unsurprised by anything in between.
My general practitioner said that I needed to see an oncologist first. She said she knew a good one. “But you’re driving this bus,” she said. “Where do you want to go?”
I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Still, “I want to go to MD Anderson,” spilled from my lips. I can’t drive to work without seeing an MD Anderson billboard or hearing an ad on the radio. I know many-a-person who has traveled to Houston for treatment. U.S. News & World Report ranks MD Anderson as the #1 cancer hospital in the U.S. It’s seven miles from my house. Duh.
Within days I was there. A day of more testing. Another day of meeting my team: my oncologist, my surgeon, my radiation oncologist, and my nurse practitioner.
I was told that statistically breast cancer returns at the same rate whether a person has a lumpectomy or a bilateral mastectomy. Both surgeries were options, but I had a third option. A medical trial. No immediate surgery. With such a tiny hormone-positive tumor (that means my hormones feed this cancer), I will block my hormones with a pill, once-a-day for three months. Then, I’ll have another ultrasound to check the size of my little friend. If there is no growth, I will have a round of radiation (we’re looking at January now) and stay the course with the hormone blocker. If the tumor happens to grow, I’m no longer in the trial. I would have the surgery of choice and radiation. This medical trial has fought and won for others, so I expect the same for me.
I’m a week and a day into blocked hormones, and how do I feel?
Like someone hijacked my hormones. Duh.
Early detection and treatment is still considered the best line of defense against breast cancer. Current technology lets researchers learn at a faster pace than they did decades ago.
As technology evolves, more treatments — and, perhaps, methods of prevention — will be uncovered.