A New Year, A New Me

 

plannerA new school year has begun, and week two is in the books, or grade books as it were. However, my school year began a day late, due to a back injury that sidelined me for the first day of school. Calling in sick has never been easy for me; I was even more devastated to miss the excitement of the first day back, and particularly this year. In early June, I accepted a teaching position at a new school and spent all summer working on new curriculum and moving into a new classroom. I was ready for the first day at least a month ago, but God sure does have a sense of humor. You think you are ready, LOL, I’ll show you.

First Day

My “1st” day of school this year, back pain and all!

This is my eleventh year as a teacher. Starting at a new school this year, however, really meant coming home for me, as I am teaching in my home parish school, where both my daughters were educated and where my husband and I have been parishioners for over twenty years. While I was excited and thrilled with the opportunity to make this change, leaving my former school after ten years meant leaving colleagues who have become dear friends and saying goodbye to a truly wonderful school community filled with supportive and generous families.

classroom

Control Central (LOL)

Starting over, being the new person, adapting to new policies, and making new friends can be difficult, and sometimes, we hold ourselves back from new opportunities because of being too comfortable, and perhaps because we are afraid of change. But, change can be good. Change is an opportunity to push that reset button, to abandon bad habits, to refresh and renew one’s enthusiasm for work.

class photo

My daughter’s 5th grade class photo from Belgium, Johanna far right middle row

Over the summer, as I worked my way through three new literature textbooks and a bag full of new YA novels, I learned of the untimely passing of one of the greatest educators I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Johanna Bambridge was my younger daughter’s fifth grade teacher. Within minutes of meeting her in the late summer of 2002, I knew I had encountered someone very special. Her warm smile and obvious enthusiasm for teaching was so reassuring as we began a school year in a foreign country. She knew that, even though we were moving to Belgium from Maryland, my husband and I were both Louisiana natives. She had already chosen a mentor family for us, also from Louisiana, with a daughter the same age as our 5th grader.

Early in that school year, my daughter came home and told me she had volunteered me for something at school, and that I needed to call Mrs. Bambridge, which I did. Mrs. Bambridge told me that she had asked if anyone’s mother could come in to do a cooking demonstration on the foods of ancient cuisines, and that my daughter had assured her I was the perfect person for this.

Now, let me tell you that I knew almost nothing about foods of ancient civilizations, but I do love to cook, so I sat down at my computer and began to research the foods of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. And, so began my adventure in the classroom. My first cooking demonstration was karkadé (iced hibiscus tea) and kosheri (lentils and rice) with sausages. For dessert, I served the 5th graders seed cake sweetened with honey and dates. It was a smashing success. As I was cleaning up, Mrs. Bambridge said to me with her usual 1,000-watt smile, “You should be a teacher!” At first, I was startled at this (what, me?), but I admit I was also intrigued, and for the rest of our time in Belgium, I volunteered extensively at the school, including substitute teaching in the middle school and working in the high school library. Five years later, after completing grad courses and the Praxis, armed with state certification in English for grades 7-12 and with Johanna Bambridge’s endorsement ringing in my ears, I began my second career as a middle school language arts teacher.

CCD Dinner

Religious Ed Dinner (2002 or 2003), Johanna Bambridge far left, me far right

I not only knew Johanna Bambridge as my daughter’s teacher, but also as a fellow parishioner and parish council member at our Catholic church parish in Belgium, Our Lady of Mercy. Meetings were on Sunday nights, which all teachers know is the time when we wind down from the weekend and prep for the school week: lesson planning, grading papers, posting grades, emailing parents. But, Johanna was there for each and every meeting, prepared and ready to discuss parish business, plan events, and prepare for liturgical feasts. She was also there to represent the religious education program for the English-speaking families of the parish. Even though she was a wife and mother of two with a very full day-job, she was the Director of Religious Education and taught one of the classes herself every Sunday. It was hard to say no to her when she asked me to teach a class myself. After all, I was technically a stay-at-home mom for our two years in Belgium. Like the platoon leader who vows not to ask his soldiers to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, Johanna not only talked the talk, she walked the walk.

When I casually mentioned to her that I wished we would have shipped our piano to Belgium when we moved, she offered me her piano, free, “just pay to have it moved,” she said. It was an old upright with many years behind it, but after having it moved to our house and getting it tuned, it added much to making our assigned housing a real home during our time in Waterloo.

SJIS

St. John’s International School, Waterloo, Belgium (Source: Wikipedia)

Shortly after her death on July 6th, a colleague from St. John’s International School created a tribute page on Facebook for Johanna. Each day I logged on to Facebook to read the condolences and remembrances left there by friends and former students from all over the world: Japan, Belgium (when we knew her), France (where she moved after Belgium). All, without exception, carried the same themes: selfless, caring, faith-filled, devoted to education, energetic. Many, many people said that their most vivid memory of Johanna was of her with her arms wrapped around children. She embraced everyone in her path.  She enveloped them with her warm smile and blazing, bright eyes. How many lives did she touch? How many children did she inspire? How many teachers, including myself, did she mentor and motivate? How many hearts did she open to her love of the Catholic church?

book-nook-e1505611853705.jpg

Book Nook, my classroom

And, so, now at the beginning of this, my eleventh year in education, I re-dedicate myself to the values that Johanna so effortlessly lived and shared. I will greet each child with a warm smile. I will make learning fun. I will be compassionate and caring, even when I need to be firm. I will bring my faith and love of the Catholic church to every school day, to every lesson, to every encounter. I will do more, I will pray more, I will be more.

 

Johanna Bambridge will be greatly missed by all whose lives she affected, but she will not be forgotten. I know in my heart that she was welcomed with open arms to her final reward, where she heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Rest in peace, Johanna. This year is for you.

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The Sun Came Out This Weekend – Again

CTP Annie posterThe Broadway smash hit musical Annie has a special place in my heart. In the summer of 1987, I met my husband while playing the role of Mrs. Greer in a summer stock production of Annie, working backstage also as assistant director/stage manager. We began dating during that production and after twenty-eight years, it’s safe to say we are “together forever”.

CTP Annie photo

One of the two Annies from the 1987 production

In 2007, exactly twenty years after that summer stock experience, we found out that our daughters’ high school was going to produce Annie as their summer stock musical. Auditions were open to students and adults as well, both professionals and amateurs, so my husband auditioned for (and received) the same role he had in our first production together. We decided to do the show together, along with our high school daughters, to celebrate our first meeting twenty years earlier. It was so much fun to do a play as a family and of course, it added for me yet another special meaning to Annie.

HR Annie ProgramThis past weekend was the culmination of nine weeks of rehearsals and several additional weeks of planning for my middle school’s annual spring musical. Rehearsals from 3:00-5:30 three days a week, wrangling thirty-five 7th and 8th graders into song and dance numbers, training them on the discipline required for a quality production, scrounging for costume pieces at thrift stores and making emergency sewing repairs, all while teaching language arts full time, adds up to one tired human being. However, it is worth every single minute of it, especially when met with the smashing success of the weekend’s three performances.

Sound of Music

Me (far right) as Frau Schmidt

In the spring of 1987 I was asked by the director to be assistant director/stage manager for a production of Annie. I initially said no. I knew the show would be very popular and little girls would come skipping out of the wood-works to audition to be Annie or at least an orphan in the production. The previous summer I had been heavily involved in a production of The Sound of Music, onstage as Frau Schmidt and offstage as producer, where all seven of the Von Trapp children had been double cast. This meant fourteen children backstage at all times, and in the theatre, fourteen sets of stage parents. It also meant fourteen sets of costumes, because God forbid any one pair of children cast in the same role could actually fit in the same costume.

billboard for SoM

Thank God my phone number wasn’t on the billboard!

The show was ridiculously popular, and somehow, my home phone number had been put on publicity posters and flyers as the contact number for tickets. My phone rang off the hook for weeks, and once all eight performances were sold out, things got really nasty. Grandparents, godparents, neighbors, aunts and uncles, and friends of those fourteen children wanted tickets but there were none left.

 

Daigle_Steven_crop-250x332I tried to explain this to my friend, Steven Daigle, now an accomplished director and professor at the renown Eastman School of Music. What I really wanted was to be Miss Hannigan. I had been secretly rehearsing a startling and shocking (for me, at least) rendition of “It’s Raining Men” for my audition piece. He begged and flattered me, saying he really needed me backstage with all those orphans, etc., and finally a deal was struck, one that sealed my fate, so to speak. I would audition for Miss Hannigan, but if I didn’t get the part, I would take a smaller part in the servants’ ensemble and be Chief Orphan Wrangler.

I didn’t get the part.

school flowers and tshirt

Flowers from the principal and an Annie Jr. t-shirt

Just before my audition, my accompanist could see that I was beyond nervous and he was worried that I would blow it so he talked me into taking a small nip from his flask just before going onstage. Did I mention that he was auditioning for the role of Rooster? (He was perfect for the part.) So, I went out there, slightly tipsy from a guzzle of straight Jack Daniels and sang my heart out.

I didn’t get the part.

scharmal schrockScharmal Schrock, a university music professor who was the music director for the production, gave me her blunt response to my audition: “Well, you’ve got guts, I’ll give you that.” Later she called me aside and told me the hard and cold truth, “You just don’t have a strong enough voice for this role. So, take a small role and help Steve with the orphans.” She then added, “Everyone knows Kay is going to be Miss Hannigan. It’s perfect for her.”

Okay, I see. Sure, I’ll be Mrs. Greer, “Blue’s her color, no green, I think.” That’s it, that was my one line.

I have two dream roles that I would give anything to play, one being Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, and the other, well, let’s just say I don’t think I’m ever gonna be on Easy Street.

800px-Frances_Perkins_cph.3a04983For the rest of the Annie auditions, I manned a clipboard and helped Steve and Scharmal bring up the droves of actors and actresses up for their moment on stage. This is where my lack of a proper education in American history let me down. I announced to the packed auditorium that all men auditioning for the role of Frances Perkins should come up to the stage. I heard someone say, “Uh, excuse me, you would want the women who are auditioning for that part, since Frances Perkins was the first female cabinet member.”

I was mortified and quickly called up women as I had been duly corrected. I had just been “schooled” by my future husband, a history buff of first order. Needless to say, we didn’t start dating right away. I had already tried to catch his attention the previous summer, unsuccessfully, even to the extent of joining the church choir he sang in to try to get to know him. This public history lesson did not endear him to me that particular night.

roses from Annie

Roses from a cast member after closing night

But as the weeks of rehearsals went on, I softened (truth be told, I still had a massive crush on him) and offered to type a grad school paper for him on my office computer. I learned a great deal about what Hungary was doing the day I was born. To pay me back he offered to take me to dinner, and the rest, as they say, is history.

HSM programWhen our high school daughters, who thankfully got their father’s strong singing voice and not mine, initially heard that their dad was going to be in Annie at their school on their home stage, they were not so sure how that would fly. When I told them that I planned on applying for a backstage tech position so we could be in it together, to mark our twenty years together, I could tell by their expressions that they were worried that we would be horning in on their conversations with their friends or trying to hang out with them. We assured them both that we both knew how to act around their friends and would not embarrass them in any way; we were doing this to relive our first summer together. They soon got on board and in the end both had tech positions as well. It was the Ardillo Family Summer of Musical Theatre. We had such a great time, we all auditioned for and were cast in the summer stock production the next summer, High School Musical, where I mightily tried my damnedest to get the role of Ms. Darbus, unsuccessfully, and had to settle for Ms. Stellar, the science teacher.

HR Annie JrAnd, so, this third time doing Annie, this time the MTI Broadway Junior version, was wonderful and new and different, made even more special by the very talented members of our cast and crew. It’s all over now, after a matinee performance for the whole school on Friday, opening night to a packed house on Friday night, and closing night to another full house on Saturday night. Today I loaded up my car with all my personal belongings that found their way on the set, and cleaned up my classroom which had been turned upside down at the end of strike with everything being dropped off hurriedly in the hallway and doorway so everyone could get to the cast party.

Annie poster HR parents

Souvenir from cast and crew

This is my eleventh year directing middle school plays, nine at my current school. I’ve learned a lot about both adolescents and theatre during that time. I’ve had time to reflect today on the experience of doing Annie a third time: once with adults, once with high school students, and this time with middle school students. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • You can get 8th grade boys to help you with just about anything if you flatter them by calling them “big” and “strong” in front of the other students. My team of “big boys” moved set pieces, costume racks bulging with clothes, and more every single day of tech week, with no complaints.
  • Something magical happens when you put a costume on a teenager. Even the shyest person comes alive when they are sufficiently masked by a period piece costume or at a minimum, a bright red boa.
  • hyacinths from cast

    From the cast!

    Middle school girls put the “drama” in “drama club”. Enough said.

  • Middle school girls will scream with fear over just about anything:
    • a live wasp that stung someone else,
    • a dead wasp that can no longer sting anyone,
    • the soundtrack being played too loudly,
    • a backstage area, which was fine ten minutes ago, is suddenly “too dark and scary” to enter.
  • When an 8th grade boy is very happy and proud of his performance on stage and wants to say something to you about that, asking if he can have a “fist bump” is as good as a thirty-minute speech of thanks.
  • back page of HR program

    Inside back cover of the program, so sweet!

    Even when they are being normal middle school teenagers and driving you crazy, they somehow manage to poke a hole in your heart and squeeze themselves into it.

  • Just when you think you can’t possibly do this another single year, you find yourself looking at potential musicals for next year.
  • And, finally – and those who know me will know I don’t say this lightly – only nine weeks of rehearsals, a grueling tech week, three performances, and lots of late nights mending of costumes and hot-gluing of butterflies back on hats, can make you feel like teaching language arts full-time is easy work compared to doing it while also directing a school play!

And that, as they say, is a wrap. Curtain!

A Salute to Intangible Rewards

saluteOn Friday, I was driving my normal route home from school, and as I turned on to this one particular neighborhood street, I slowed down, as usual, on the lookout for the group of boys who sometimes are throwing a football from one yard to another, in some form of ultimate street football, as they throw the ball across this somewhat busy street. Once as I was coming down that same street, one of them unexpectedly darted out in front of me to retrieve the ball, and while I was not that close to hitting him, it still un-rattled me, and ever since, I take it nice and slow down that street. On Friday, however, there was no football. All four of them were standing on the edge of the street, in a perfectly straight line, and as I approached, slowly, all four of them saluted me. I laughed, saluted them back, and proceeded on my way home.

yearbooksThis brought back a flood of memories of two of my favorite former students, who, while being quite different from one another, were even more different from everyone else in my homeroom class that year. They were rocket smart, good writers, and very well-rounded in their base of knowledge. They were being raised in households where reading was important, and they had been avid readers since they were old enough to hold a book. One particular shared interest was military history, and they took it upon themselves to declare me, their homeroom teacher, their commanding officer. As a result, every morning, they would be waiting in the hall when I approached my classroom, and they both stood at full attention and saluted me. I would salute them and say, “Good morning, gentlemen.” The other students would just shake their heads.

One day I was out of school for a field trip with a different class and upon my return I found a note on my desk from my substitute teacher, “I caught these two boys cheating on their vocab test, so I took their tests away from them. I wasn’t sure how you wanted to handle it so I didn’t send them to the office.” I looked at the two tests, and I immediately knew what had happened. It was my two 8th grade soldiers. First of all, they would never cheat, too much honor in them to ever do that. Secondly, they sat across the room from each other, and there was no way they could have seen each other’s papers. Thirdly, and most importantly, as they were the two smartest boys in the entire 8th grade, who in the world would they cheat off of if not each other? When the boys came in that day, they both looked at me sheepishly, and rushed up to my desk to explain. Before they could say anything, I handed them their tests and said, “Go and finish your vocab test. I know you weren’t cheating, but next time be more careful when there is a substitute teacher.”

taking testsYou see, what they were in the habit of doing was to race while taking the vocab tests. Because the students used file folders to shield their work while taking tests, they could not possibly see each other’s work, but they would listen for the other to turn the page to the next part of the test. They would actually peer up over the top of their file folders to make eye contact with each other as if to say, “I finished page one, going to page two, I’m ahead of you,” and so on. They always finished first and second, and it was a mad dash up to my desk to turn them in, which I also had to tamper down because it made some of the other students anxious with them finishing so quickly. And, they never got a single question wrong, perfect 30/30 each and every vocab test the entire year.

star trekThese two boys were also Trekkies, and we would talk sometimes at lunch about various Star Trek episodes and discuss the different Star Trek series and the many iterations of that franchise. The other kids in the class had no clue what we were talking about, and while I sometimes worried that our Trekkie conversations and the whole saluting business served to further set them apart, I decided that they were not bothered by it, and in fact, so confident in their own personalities that they didn’t seem to care what the others thought anyway.

standardized test answer sheetAfter nine years of teaching middle school language arts, teaching roughly 80-100 students a year, I frequently see someone or meet someone who reminds me of one of my past or present students. On Saturday, I proctored the ACT at a local Catholic high school. There were 23 high school students in my room, and as I checked their photo ID’s and admission tickets, I was supposed to assign them seats, which I did. There were quite a few standing at my door when it was time to start admitting them and they seemed very anxious to get in and get started. One young man in particular seemed to be somewhat agitated that he was not first in line and nearly breathing down the neck of the girl standing in front of him. He ended up in the desk directly across from my desk so I had the opportunity to watch him throughout the nearly four-hour standardized test.

be-preparedThis guy was obviously an athlete, judging from his stature and build. He was clean-cut and casually, but neatly, dressed in a lacrosse sweatshirt and nice jeans. As soon as he sat down, he took out of a small string bag (Washington Nationals) not one but two calculators, placing one on his desk and one on the floor under his desk. He also had a water bottle which he placed next to the calculator on the floor, and then next to the water bottle, he placed one cough drop. On the top of his desk, he lined up six #2 pencils, all brand new and freshly sharpened, with unused erasers. Next to them in the little pencil well across the top of his desk, he lined up four AAA batteries. His final item in his arsenal: a wristwatch which he synchronized with the clock on the wall over the whiteboard. I had to bite the side of my mouth to keep from smiling at him as he readied himself for battle against the ACT.

raise handI’ve had several students just like this young man, in fact, I have one right now. He is always prepared, always ready. He works incredibly hard every single day. As soon as I ask a question in class, his hand shoots up. Often when I call on him, he is not really ready with an answer, which is somewhat frustrating for me, but he is so eager to participate in classroom discussions and so eager to always be first, that enthusiasm sometimes wins out over actual knowledge. I can just imagine him three years down the road, showing up to take the ACT somewhere, and unloading his own arsenal, which no doubt will have been checked and double checked to ensure he is completely and totally prepared to do his very best on that test.

Saturday night I went to see a musical at another of the local Catholic high schools. Two of my former students had lead roles, and there were several others in the backstage crew. The two onstage had been very involved in our drama club when they were at my school, and both had significant roles in the plays I directed their 7th and 8th grade years. It was wonderful watching them, because as good as they were in my plays, they have grown and matured so much over the course of their high school years. At one point, I teared up, which my husband noticed right away, and he asked me about it today.

NunsenseI’m not sure what made me cry; it wasn’t the song they were singing, as this was Nunsense the Musical, which is an irreverent and hilarious parody of nuns and the Catholic Church. I think it was the fact that I felt like I had a small part in how those girls ended up on that stage with lead roles. I realize that I had nothing to do with their vocal talent or acting skills; that is a result of God’s blessings and perhaps genetics. But, at least for one of the girls, I do feel that she developed a love for singing while being in her first play with me.

away in a mangerWe weren’t even doing a musical, but there was a somewhat awkward transition from one scene to the next, and I was looking for a way to smooth it out and blend the two scenes together. She was playing the role of a young mother, out Christmas shopping with her mother-in-law, pushing her baby in a stroller. While waiting for the mother-in-law to come back into the scene, I asked her if she could perhaps gently push the stroller back and forth, which she did, and I asked her if she could sing a little something softly to the baby. She said, “Sure, like what?” Since the play was set at Christmas time, I asked her if she knew any Christmas carols. She said, “Away in a Manger?”, so I told her to go ahead and try that. And, out of her mouth came the sweetest rendition of “Away in a Manger”, perfectly in tune, that I’ve ever heard. I think she was a little shocked at how surprised I was. I asked her if she had been in choir or had taken voice lessons, and she said, “No, but I like to sing in the shower.” Later that school year, she auditioned for our school’s musical, and it was pretty clear to everyone that she would be Belle in our Beauty and the Beast.

I’ve lost touch with my two soldier boys because one was an only child and the other’s younger sibling transferred to a different school. I’d love to know how they are doing right now, what they are majoring in. If everything is going to plan, they should be college juniors this year. I wish we could have a little reunion and talk about what they think about Chris Pine as Captain Kirk.

The budding actress with the great voice whom I “discovered” in a small middle school Christmas play, is currently a high school junior going on college tours and mapping out her future. Her mother shared with me that she is interested in physical therapy, with an eye toward minoring in music. I couldn’t be more proud. These are the intangible rewards of teaching, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.

Color My World

Feb issue of Writer's DigestRecently I was reading the latest issue of Writer’s Digest magazine when I came across an interview with Drew Daywalt, who was featured on the cover. I had not yet heard of him (sorry, Mr. Daywalt) but the image of his two children’s books on the first page of the article caught my eye so I read on. Intrigued, I did a bit of research on him and found that he was also featured on one of my favorite websites, Nerdy Book Club. It didn’t take me long to get the 4-1-1 on Drew Daywalt.

By all accounts, Drew Daywalt has had quite a varied career, even at the current age of only 46. He graduated from Emerson College with a double major in screenwriting and children’s lit, leaving the door wide-open as to future plans. He headed to Hollywood with a friend after graduation, using his screenwriting degree to work for the likes of Disney, Universal, Quinton Tarantino, and Jerry Bruckheimer, a charmed life for sure. In 2003, with his wife pregnant with their first child, he sat down at his desk to write a children’s book. His goal was to write something that his kids could read some day, because his work so far had been in horror films, certainly not bedtime-reading material, even in Hollywood.

As he surveyed his desktop of the grown-up tools of a writer, he spotted a box of crayons, which he dumped out on his desk. His creative wheels started to turn and from that box of well-used crayons came the 2013 book The Day the Crayons Quit, illustrated by celebrated artist and Emmy winner Oliver Jeffers. Daywalt’s first venture in children’s literature remained on the New York Times bestseller for two years, and was followed by the sequel, The Day the Crayons Came Home, published in August of 2015 to critical acclaim as well.

Drew Daywalt interviewI haven’t read Daywalt’s books, although they are currently on order from Amazon, but from reading about them, I am intrigued. The first book is a series of letters from the individual crayons to an unseen little boy named Duncan. Apparently, each crayon has a beef with its owner. It’s this use of personification that interests me, that each crayon has written the boy with complaints about his use (or non-use) of them.

markers and colored pencilsI also have boxes of crayons, markers, and colored pencils at my disposal. In 7th and 8th grade language arts, we normally express ourselves in essays about the literature we are reading. However, after studying Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, I realized the value in allowing students the opportunity to express themselves in a more artistic way, with the creation of posters or brochures to accompany oral presentations.

box of crayonsIt was only a small step from thinking of the crayons as individuals quitting their job for a variety of different reasons to considering my middle school students as a box of crayons. John Mayer said once in an interview that he considered himself a box of 64-crayons, although a few were missing. I’m not 100% clear on what he meant by this but I like the visual image his quote calls to mind. We are all individuals, each one of us unique and one-of-a-kind, yet we have many of the same facets of others mixed in to our unique blend. And, to extend the metaphor a bit more, we do all have to live together in one box, like it or not.

box of chocolatesIn the 1994 film Forrest Gump, the lead character, played by Tom Hanks, says “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Sometimes I think of my classroom full of students as a box of chocolates, the assorted ones that come without the labels on the lid of the box to tell you what is inside of each one.

As the school year begins, you have no idea what is inside each chocolate, but slowly, through class discussions, graded work, creative writing, field trips, and after-school activities, you get to know each student as an individual. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. Some have well-developed senses of humor and a firm handle on irony and sarcasm while others are more literal and sensitive. Some feel more at home in a math or science classroom and can’t match my enthusiasm for reading or writing about literature. A few students each year remind me of myself at that age, a book at the ready in case there is any down time in the school day or the opportunity to escape back into the story they are half-way through. Some are fledgling writers while others have already found their voice and are well on their way to being able to write coherent and pertinent analytical essays. word cloud of favorite subjectMany list “recess” as their favorite subject, followed by PE as a close second. My school is very sports-oriented and as a result I have had to step up my game and learn some sports lingo to better communicate with them. I now have, with the help of my husband, some sports analogies that help with grammar rules as well as classroom discussions about characterization and plot. While talking about sports is not my strong suit, I am okay with them knowing that they have the upper hand in this area. It evens the playing field a bit.

Since my school is a traditional co-ed K-8 Catholic school, I also observe daily the many differences between adolescent boys and adolescent girls, not the least of which is the differences in their maturity levels. It is interesting to see how even when we end up in the same place, with the same answer as to the dominant theme of this work or that, the approach the boys and girls take is quite different. I have girls who are quiet and reticent to participate in class discussions but I also have girls who are strong and confident, not concerned with what the boys may think about their comments in the class discussions. The same goes for the boys, a fair mixture of those who avoid contact when I am looking for an answer as well as those ready to debate anything and everything at the drop of a hat.

crayonsWhether I use the box of crayons or the box of chocolates as my metaphor, my days are segmented into 40-minute periods with a revolving door of unique individuals coming and going. It is my job to find out what is inside each one, much like the assorted chocolates, peel back the wrapper a bit and figure out how best to reach and teach that individual. With 18-23 in each of my six classes, that seems next to impossible. But, to the contrary, I am energized by it and, even now, in my ninth year of teaching, I can honestly say I absolutely love teaching. school bellAt the end of each school day, I am most often content with my work for the day, even if it meant I was successful with making a substantial connection with only a few that day. Each day starts anew, and at 8:20 each morning, I start with a clean slate and a new lesson plan, albeit the same goal: to share with them my love of literature and the importance of reading and writing well.

 

Drowning, But Don’t Save Me — Yet

back to schoolAt the annual Back to School Night last week I introduced myself to the parents of my 7th graders with my usual background information: “This is my 9th year teaching and my 9th year at this school. I came to education as a second career after twenty years in the legal field. After leaving my corporate job to move overseas with my family in 2002, I spent two years volunteering and substitute teaching in the international school my daughters attended. I loved working with students and the energy and atmosphere of a middle school so much I decided when we returned home I would become a teacher. I love teaching, and I love teaching here at this school.”

All of this is true. The two years I spent as a parent, volunteer, teacher’s aide, library assistant, and substitute teacher at the St. John’s International School in Waterloo, Belgium, were wonderful. I made so many good friends during those two years abroad, and I did rediscover within myself my creative side, a part of me that I had tamped down with business dealnever-ending conference calls, acrid negotiations, brain-numbing legal writing, terse interoffice relationships, and high-pressure business deals.

A good friend and co-worker said to me many, many times while we were working together in a large shopping center development company, “You should get out of this job. You should find something else to do. You are too creative for this work.” I didn’t really understand what she meant because I was very caught up in my work identity. I had worked extremely hard, without a law degree, to climb up the legal ladder and become successful at drafting and negotiating legal documents. It was a tough job but I loved it. I enjoyed some flexibility with my work hours and had quite a bit of autonomy within the workplace. I had five weeks of vacation leave a year, was bonus-eligible, had received stock options, and earned a very healthy salary. I loved my job and I was confident in my abilities to do it well. So, when the opportunity presented itself for us to move overseasinternational school for two years and give our daughters the experience of living, traveling, and going to school in Europe, I went to my boss and asked for a leave of absence. She said no, that it was too long a period of time, but they would welcome me back if a position were open upon my return. I was crushed.

Those last few months of work (I had given ample notice) were tough. The winding down of my responsibilities, closing out my files of signed deals, transferring my pending deals to co-workers, goodbye lunches and happy hours, packing up my personal belongings from my office, it was all very difficult. For the first few months in Belgium, I had a lot to do. First, get the girls settled in their new school, reach out and make new friends with some of their classmates, buy school uniforms and school supplies, and find our way around our new town. Then, when our sea shipment arrived, unpacking and getting our house in order filled my days. Eventually though, reality kicked in. I had nowhere to go every day. i'm boredFor the first time since a few months after my college graduation, I had nowhere to go every day. My husband would leave for work, my daughters would board the school bus, and then it was just me and the cat. Except for two C-sections and a back surgery, I had never been away from work for more than a two-week vacation. As many times as I had wished I didn’t have to get up and go to work, I didn’t like it at all.

A notice in the school newsletter saved me: “Help neededhelp wanted in high school library. Volunteers welcome!” That was the open door, or the slippery slope if I’m really honest, that started it all. Shelving and cataloging books led to helping students with research, which led to becoming a teacher’s aide, which led to substitute teaching. And, upon our return to the States, that led me to my current job as a middle school language arts teacher of nine years.

And, yes, I do still love teaching. I have totally reconnected with my creative side, through my work as drama club moderator for my school, directing two school plays a year. And, for seven hours a day, I am on stage, live live performance artperformance art, acting out and reading aloud from the literature, leading lively discussions about the literature, helping students understand the literature and improve their writing. But, still, there is irony, or as we say in this Catholic school where I teach, “God sure has a sense of humor.”

What’s so ironic or funny? Well, tomorrow begins the fourth week of school and I am literally and figuratively drowning in school papersdrowning in a sea of papers. I had not even stopped long enough to realize I was drowning until a teacher friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook, but it perfectly describes my current state of affairs. I am still grading summer reading projects for my eighty students, collected on the first day of school, all the while giving out new essay assignments, covering new material, and giving tests and quizzes. I stay at school three or four hours after the final bell and still bring work home with me each night. I work on the weekends, often spending three or four hours at school on Sunday. I am exhausted, and we have only just finished our third week of school.

So, the irony is that I left the legal field to explore my own creativity, yet I am so drained each day from teaching, grading, lesson planning, and guiding students in their own creativity, I hardly have any time or energy left for my own. This “Essay a Week for One Year” project was a line drawn in the sand, so to speak, an effort to reclaim for myself some outlet for my own creative writing, some tangible sign that I could practice what I preach—read and write more.

Other than a small part in a summer stock production at my daughters’ high school several years ago, I haven’t been on stage since 1987. I miss it. I miss the theatre life, comedy and tragedy masksthe dark and perpetually chilly rooms, the instant family created by a cast in rehearsal for a play, the feel of the lights on my face, and the sound of applause when a scene is exactly as it should be. I miss memorizing lines, working on accents, hunting for props, trying on costumes. A local community theatre group is holding auditions in mid-October for a play that I am very interested in, but if I am entirely honest with myself, I simply don’t have the time to be in it while teaching full-time, especially when the rehearsal schedule overlaps with that of the play I am directing at my school. So, I will pass.

Even though this is only my 9th year of teaching, the reality is that a lot of my college friends are retired or are in the processing of retiring, especially those who have been teaching since graduation. On August 24th this year, the first day of in-service week for the faculty of my school, it's mondaymy college roommate posted this picture on her Facebook page. Hilarious, right? Sure, if you are the little guy in the striped shirt, which she is. She retired last summer so she has already had a year without dragging home the school bag full of papers to grade every night. I’m jealous.

So naturally, I think about it. I think about what it would be like to “retire”, to not teach next year or the year after that. Mostly, though, I think about what it would be like to come home from work, cook dinner, clean the kitchen, and then RELAX until time to go to bed. I think about calling in sick without first calling five different people looking for a substitute teacher and then rushing to email more detailed lesson plans to the school office. I think about what it would be like to read whatever I want whenever I want, and not just read books for school or about school. I think about what it would be like to write every day, just for myself, and not just once a week to have my essay ready to post on this website. But that is when I think about those early months in Belgium in 2002, when I had nowhere to go and nothing to do with my day, and how lost I felt. That is almost always followed by remembering a funny story about a student or a teacher at my school, or about a class period where we discussed the most amazing things from a piece of literature that everyone enjoyed, or about a note a parent sent me thanking me for teaching their son or daughter to be a better writer or a better reader. That’s when I recall telling an adult about a piece of literature that I am teaching and they say, “I wish I was in your class.” That’s when I run into a former student who is in high school, proudly telling me about HONORS ENGLISH, “Can you believe that, Mrs. Ardillo?” Yes, I can believe it. life guardYes, I am happy to have played even a small part in making that happen. Yes, I am making a difference each and every day in the lives of these students. Yes, I am drowning, but I’m not ready to be saved—yet.

The Fatal Bite

I didn’t go looking for drama; it came to me. In early 1984, I was at a very low and dark point in my personal and professional life. I went to work, came home, went to bed, got up, and repeated that process for weeks-no, months-on end. My only foray out of my apartment was to Mass on Sunday. I was not sleeping well, not eating well, and generally, not doing well. And then one Saturday in April of that year a friend came to visit. I was horrified to have an unexpected guest drop in on me and see the way I was existing. In fact, my half-decorated Christmas tree was still up (barely standing) in my living room, a carpet of pine needles surrounding it.

My friend took stock of the situation and sent me upstairs to shower and get dressed. “We are going out,” she said firmly. There was no negotiation allowed. I dragged myself upstairs and did as I had been instructed. When I came back down, my living room was spotless, dead Christmas tree dragged to the dumpster, decorations stacked neatly on my dining room table. That was when she made the announcement: “I’m on my way to audition for a part in the musical South Pacific and you are coming with me. After the auditions we are going out to lunch.”

Uh, no. No thanks. No way. Not happening. But, as friends come, this one is a real spitfire. At this juncture, we had been friends for ten years, after meeting in 1974 as freshmen during sorority rush at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana.

My Phi Mu sisters and me at our National Convention in 1976, Charleston

Here’s my Phi Mu sisters (including my friend) and me (standing, first on left) at our sorority’s National Convention in 1976, Charleston, South Carolina.

She was involved in theatre back then, too. She was an actress, with a great voice, and lots of what I later learned was called stage presence. She had won the lead in the school’s musical as a freshman. Yes, she was good.

After a bit of hemming and hawing, I realized resistance was futile and I followed her to her car. She drove us to the campus of our alma mater and parked at the music building. We went in and she signed the clipboard for those auditioning. We then took our seats in the theatre. I have to admit that once there, it was fun sitting in the dark, cool theatre, watching the people go up on stage under the bright lights and sing a song for their audition. Sometimes, the director or the music director would speak to them or ask them to do something additional. A few were asked to dance a bit or read lines. I had never seen anything like it and I was intrigued.

Eventually my friend was called up. She did a great job (or so I thought, but what did I know, never having been in a play before). Then the most shocking thing happened. The woman with the clipboard called my name over the microphone. WHAT? I didn’t sign up for anything! I just sat there stunned. My name was called again. My friend literally raised me up by my elbow and said, “She’s here!” I blubbered something about just being there to watch but I soon found myself being “escorted” by my friend up the stairs to the stage, the music director shouting at me, “What piece are you singing?” My friend then said, “Oh, she didn’t prepare anything, she’s just going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’.”

I cowered next to the baby grand piano parked stage right, waiting for further instruction. The accompanist started playing and I just stood there, mute. The music director shouted, “Are you going to sing or what?” So, I sang “Happy Birthday”, badly and I am sure pretty off-key.

You can imagine my shock and surprise a few days later when I saw my name on the cast list, under the ensemble group, Frenchwomen’s Chorus. I was even more shocked to see my friend’s name in the same ensemble group. She was so good, how could we be given the same part? By this time, I had been “convinced” that this would be good for me: I would have a place to go in the evenings, meet new people, try something different, and have the opportunity to act and sing and dance. So, I was thrilled to see my name there, even though it was a very small part, singing just one song, “Bali Ha’i”, and later in another scene, singing its reprise. My friend was not so thrilled at being cast as ensemble but we vowed to hang in there together, me the novice, she the veteran.

Along with music and/or stage rehearsals every weeknight, there were costume fittings, shopping trips to purchase stage make-up and character shoes, props to find, sets to build and paint, and of course, the requisite nightcap at a local bar after rehearsals on Friday night. My friend was right. I made a lot of new friends and had fun while doing it. TheatreBug1-copyright200And, as they say, come opening night, when those bright lights hit me in the face and I basked in the applause during the curtain call, I had been bitten by the theatre bug.

For the next five years, I was a fixture with that theatre group. I joined the group officially, ran for office, headed up committees, volunteered for anything and everything under the sun, and auditioned for each and every play that came up, even when there wasn’t a part that was really right for me.

The place where my best high school memories took place, that's me in first row left, in white drum major costume

The home place of my best high school memories, marching band. That’s me in first row left, in white drum major costume.

Dracula

Cast of the Columbia Theatre Players’ 1986 production of Dracula. First row, far left in grey suit, me as Professor Van Helsing, a male role recast as female just for me!

I parlayed my four years of high school band and two years of childhood piano lessons into being able to read music well enough to get a part in the chorus of the summer musical each year. I gave it everything I had but in return I received much more. While I never got a major singing role, I did get the female lead in two straight plays and had the opportunity to direct two plays during my time with that group. My five years of performing in front of audiences taught me self-discipline and problem-solving as well as improving my self-confidence and public speaking skills. Serving as producer for several of the large joint productions also gave me great experience at organizing a major event involving significant sums of money. Being the editor of the group’s quarterly newsletter gave me a creative outlet for burgeoning writing skills, as well as experience in marketing and public relations for a non-profit group.

My cast for the second play I directed for CTP, Beth Henleys e Miss Firecracker Contest, 1987

My cast for the second play I directed for CTP, Beth Henley’s play The Miss Firecracker Contest, 1987. That is me seated on the right, second row.

In 1988, after over twenty productions with the group, I had to say goodbye to my friends at Columbia Theatre Players. My “day job” as a paralegal had also brought me success, and eventually, a cross-country move for a job with a Fortune 500 commercial real estate development company. Soon after, I married and had children, and my long evenings in a dark theatre came to an end, paving the way for watching our daughters in school plays and encouraging their creative talents.

After twenty years in the legal field, I decided to become a teacher. Hoping to find a teaching position where I could marry my love of theatre with my love of literature, I attended a Catholic schools job fair, with a large silver brooch of the Greek comedy and tragedy masks on my suit jacket. comedy and tragedy masksI stopped at all the booths of schools showing an opening for a language arts teacher. At one booth, a woman said to me, “Is that the symbol for theatre?” After I told her yes, she said, “Stay right here. I’ll be right back.” She returned shortly with her principal and they told me that the teacher who had directed their school plays had recently retired. “Would you be interested in doing that if you were offered a teaching position?”

Cast and crew of my latest production, Disneys High School Musical J

Cast and crew of my latest production, Disney’s High School Musical Junior, April 2015. That’s me in the teal jacket.

And, so, for the last eight years, that is how I have fed and nurtured the theatre bug that bit me so many years ago. It makes for a very long day, teaching all day and then holding auditions, running rehearsals, building sets, searching for costumes and props, coaxing shy students to project and sing out. After rehearsals are over, there are still lesson plans to make, essays to grade, tests and quizzes to create, parent emails to respond to. It leaves little time for leisure with family and friends, and energy for my own creative endeavors is short-changed. TheatreBug2-copyright200But, how can I give it up when I have been given so much in return? It seems that the bite of the theatre bug is indeed fatal.

Grace on the Field

As many of you know, I teach middle school language arts in a Catholic school located in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC. Yes, I spend all day with pre-teens and teens, awash in adolescent hormones, Axe body spray, egg-shaped lip gloss containers, and poor grammar brought on by texting and IM’ing.  Six periods a day, a surfeit of shuffling Sperry-wearing seventh and eighth graders file in and out of my classroom for forty minutes of literature, vocabulary, writing, grammar, and a fair dose of my unbridled enthusiasm for reading.

I love teaching language arts; that is, I love everything that happens “inside the bells”. I love the energy of the kids as they come in and settle in to their desks. I love telling them about my favorite books and my favorite authors. I love teaching vocabulary and unlocking the vagaries of the semi-colon. I love connecting the literature we read to major world events and historical eras. I particularly love the Victorian era, complete with its formality, rigid social class system, and of course, great pieces of literature like The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Importance of Being Earnest, both of which I teach to 8th grade.

After the final bell of the day rings, however, well, let’s just say that the next three or four hours are not exactly what keeps me in this grossly underpaid and overworked occupation. As much as I love teaching English and literature, the expectation is that the students demonstrate their new-found knowledge of literary devices, story triangles, figures of speech, and the like, in a never-ending stream of assessments such as compare/contrast essays, tests and quizzes, personal narratives and research papers. These things take forever to grade. My husband (not a teacher) keeps telling me to make my assessments more objective so they will be easier and faster to grade, but in order to prepare them for high school they must learn how to write a decent essay and that can’t be accomplished with multiple choice or true/false questions.

As dismal as this nightly ritual of endless grading may seem, there are other things “outside of the bells” that I dislike much more. Je déteste le recess duty! Recess duty (one day every other week…I know, quit complaining) consists of standing outside, swatting gnats or freezing, walking up and down an asphalt driveway overlooking the school’s artificial turf soccer field, while watching 140 middle school students for thirty excruciatingly painful minutes.

Our turf field in the dead of winter, a carpet of white velvet...no outdoor recess this day!

Our turf field in the dead of winter, a carpet of white velvet…no outdoor recess this day!

Winter months, especially the winter we just experienced here on the East Coast, brings respite in the form of “indoor recess”, with the field barren and empty, often blanketed in a carpet of white velvety snow. When the weather is good, however, out we go. Occasionally I will strike up a conversation with a group of sixth grade girls who are sitting on the school steps, but it is really their time away from teachers and school work, so eventually I move on. If there was a bench, I could tolerate it. If there was a bench and a book, I would be ecstatic. If there was a bench and a book and a cup of tea, well, I would be in heaven.

But, alas, no bench, so instead I walk the driveway and survey the soccer field littered with various balls, nets, and dozens of pairs of Sperry slip-ons, kicked off to make running and kicking easier. Some days I focus on one particular group and watch them play. A few years ago, a group of 8th grade boys regularly gathered to play touch football, and one bright and sunny spring day I watched them intently for about fifteen minutes. I knew those boys well, having taught them for two years. Half of them were in my home room, the other half just two doors down in the science room for home room. As with any class, some of them were good students with the academic skills to do well, some were decent students who worked incredibly hard, and some were students who struggled daily with reading comprehension, writing, grammar, and of course, with maintaining any sort of interest level in the literature they were assigned to read.

Of the latter group, on that bright and sunny spring day, I watched one particular 8th grade boy catch the football and run like the wind the entire length of the field. He ran with long easy strides, perfect posture, ball tucked securely in the crook of his left arm, head tilted back, in a style reminiscent of “the flying Scotsman” eric liddell quoteEric Liddell, born in China to missionary parents from Edinburgh, Scotland, who was brought to fame via the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. With his unorthodox running style, Liddell captured Olympic gold for the track team of Great Britain at the 1924 games in Paris. He did it in his own way, however, refusing to run in a heat for his “favored distance”, the 100 metre, which was to be held on a Sunday, being the Lord’s day of rest. So, instead, he ran the 400 metres, which had never been his best race. The qualifying heats for the 400 metres were held on Thursday and Friday, and while not the fastest he qualified. In the final event, with the crowd cheering him on, however, he threw back his head, lowered his arms, and finished the race in first place.

In his school uniform of navy Bermuda shorts and a navy sweatshirt, his white athletic crew socks sharply contrasted against the bright green artificial turf, my student was the very epitome of grace in action, relaxed and happy. No one could catch him, in fact, after half a length of the field, they all but quit trying. When he reached the end, he turned in a semi-pirouette, and started back, running in the same graceful style, back to his group of friends he had left coolly behind. He was all smiles, very different from his gloomy look in my classroom.

As I watched him, I realized I was envious of his obvious and natural athletic abilities. I never played a sport, other than a few miserable weeks one summer when my mother attempted to “make” me play softball. In high school I lifeguarded at the pool in my hometown, but that was more people-watching than sport. Sure, I jumped in to save the odd child, over-confident and under-skilled, slipping beneath the surface, head bobbing up and down, but I was a strong swimmer so it didn’t require much effort, and hardly a display of athleticism. Another summer, as an adult, I traded English lessons for tennis lessons with a wealthy Iranian exchange student whose family had fled when the Shah’s regime fell. The tennis was just a bit more successful than the softball, but neither was as enjoyable as watching Wimbledon or the French Open from the comfort of my living room.

No, my natural talents are for letters and words, not rackets and balls. I love reading and writing, and I find vocabulary truly fascinating. The graceful athlete down on the field would rather be anywhere other than a language arts classroom. I wonder where he will end up as an adult. He is in high school now and I wonder if he is finding success as a high school athlete. Will he go on to play college sports? Will he figure out a way to be successful in the language arts classroom as well, so as to keep his grades up to stay on the team?

Watching him run that day, I truly hope that he finds a way to work it all out. I hope he ends up with a career in sports, coaching or commentating. I hope he spends many, many hours running the length of a field, deftly weaving in and out of contact with the opposing team, his long, graceful strides the envy of all watching, especially his middle school English teacher.