Scent: Message Received

winter storm jonasThanks to winter storm Jonas, a/k/a #Blizzard2016, I had an unexpected “winter break” from teaching, and I must say I have really enjoyed my #snowcation. Sandwiched nicely between my Christmas break and my Easter break, this one came with no expectations of shopping or meal planning. With my six school days I did some school work but mostly did things that I wanted to do, not that I had to do. I finished two knitting projects, crocheted a stack of make-up remover pads for my daughter Margaret who blogs about make-up and fashion, made a large batch of grapefruit orange marmalade, organized my bedside library (if you could see the number of books in my bedroom alone you would also designate this area as a library), did some writing and editing, and read several books.

oliver wendell holmesChris Grabenstein’s new book, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, was great. I also read Janet Evanovich’s latest, Tricky Twenty-Two, and even though I am really done with Stephanie Plum and her band of misfit friends and family, for many years I have been reading each of Evanovich’s books as they come out and I just can’t quit on her yet. I am one-third in to Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, and I am hooked already. In fact, I was hooked by the very first sentence:

“These are some of my favorite smells: toasting bagel, freshly cut figs, the bergamot in good Earl Grey tea, a jar of whole soybeans slowly turning beneath a tropical sun.”

figI grew up on biscuits, not bagels; I despise Earl Grey tea; and I have no idea what a jar of whole soybeans “turning” in the sun would smell like. So, of that short list of items that Gretchen the protagonist is describing, the only one I can really identify with is the freshly cut figs. My Aunt Helen had a giant fig tree in her backyard and I used to retreat there when my mother would bring us over for a visit. I would literally climb inside the outer ring of larger branches and stand there, all but obscured from view, and eat fig after fig right off the tree. When I see what a small carton of four or five fresh figs cost at a gourmet grocery store here in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, I can’t imagine how many thousands of dollars in figs I ate in my childhood.

FigsI can’t bring myself to purchase them no matter how badly I want them these days, because I know deep down that they will not taste as good as the memory of my Aunt Helen’s figs tastes in my mind. I know this because when sniffing the carton of absurdly expensive nuggets, they do not smell like fresh figs pulled off the tree, one after another. And, that doesn’t count the preserved figs I’ve eaten. These are figs that were gently poached whole in simple syrup and then preserved in mason jars, given out to friends and family as casually as though everyone in the world had access to that sort of goodness on a regular basis. Those preserved figs were great plopped on homemade vanilla ice cream or pound cake, but they were just as good, if not better, draped across a slice of buttered toast.

Lewis ThomasThe connection of smell and memory is a powerful one. I was never much of an outdoorsy person but I did love the smell of the honeysuckle growing along the fence in my backyard as a child. I could stand there for hours, pulling the tender strands and sucking off the sweet nectar, one after another. The memory of pulling a satsuma off the tree in my backyard and eating it right there, dropping the peels and pithy stringy bits at my feet, is so powerful I can almost smell it right now, the citrus oils, almost acrid, slightly burning my nose.

Mississippi RiverClimbing up the levee to sit and watch the boats go by on the Mississippi River was a favorite pastime, something I did every time I went home for the weekend from college. I loved looking at the water, the soft waves lapping at the rocks along the bank, the pieces of driftwood floating by, but it is the smell of the Mississippi River that instantly told me I was home.

sulphurMy hometown had a smell all its own as well, although those of us growing up there couldn’t really smell it. You had to be away from it for a while to be able to smell it. Originally Port Sulphur was a town created to house the workers of the Freeport Sulphur Company, the townsite as it was called. With its close proximity to the shipping channel via the mouth of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, it was the perfect location to fill tanker ships carrying the liquid sulphur away to foreign lands. When I had friends come for the weekend they all noticed it right away, but to us it just smelled like home. If you aren’t familiar with the smell of sulphur, you can get an idea of it by smelling the yolk of a hard-boiled egg (especially one boiled long enough for the green ring to appear around the yolk) or the tip of a kitchen match just as it starts to burn.

king cakeEveryone knows the smell of freshly baked bread, the earthy smell of yeast turning a bowl of plain flour and water into the bread of your culture, whatever that might be. In Louisiana, that would be French bread, not really a baguette as it has a soft exterior as well as a pillowy interior. It is the platform for po-boys of every kind: fried shrimp, fried oysters, roast beef, fried catfish, and more. It is just as good slathered with butter and eaten as is. Add some sugar, eggs, and milk to your bowl of yeast and flour and you get brioche, the bread of kings, Mardi Gras kings that is, the king cake. We have one shipped to us every year, just to get a bit of Mardi Gras here in our home in Maryland. Opening the Fed Ex box and then the Gambino’s box, and then the twist tie on the plastic bag, and wow, the aroma of that still fresh brioche hits your nose like a ton of bricks.

For Italians, the smell of a pot of tomato gravy bubbling away on the stove or a pan of lasagna baking in the oven is the smell of their grandmother, cooking love right there in her kitchen. For me, that would be the smell of a roux. It’s so simple, a roux, just equal parts of flour and fat. Yet, it is the basis of many a Louisiana recipe: First you make a roux. The trick is to cook it very, very slowly, until it simmers into a liquid pool of peanut butter-colored lava. I say lava because if you have ever had a bit of roux splash up on your hand while cooking, you will know exactly what I mean. Outside of cooking caramel (again equal parts of two otherwise benign ingredients, sugar and water), a cooking roux is the hottest substance in a kitchen. holy trinityWhen you add the holy trinity (chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery) to a hot roux, that smell can transport me to the kitchen of my mom, my Aunt Helen, my Uncle Guy’s make-shift kitchen in his grocery store, the kitchens of restaurants all over Louisiana. Both my daughters know that smell and when I am making a gumbo, they come out of their rooms, away from their phones and devices, to stand in the kitchen and smell the smell of a Louisiana they never lived in, a place where they have only visited, a place they only know through family and food.

mom's perfumesPeople have their own individual smells as well. My mother loved perfume and she loved trying them all. A walk through a department store with her meant an interminable amount of time spraying and spritzing one after another. She never wore a lot of perfume at any one time but she wore perfume every day. We all knew her favorites and there was always perfume under the Christmas tree for her. She loved the little sample bottles that came with cosmetic purchases. These miniature bottles became so popular that they started making them to sell as a boxed set. She received several of those as presents and long after she had tired of the perfume inside each one, she kept the bottles on a mirrored tray on her dresser. This collection of little glass memory containers was lovingly bestowed upon my fashionista daughter.

al di laI guess I have my own smell which has changed over the years. Fresh out of college in my first job I found a perfume I loved and wore it for years until the store where I bought it closed. I’ve never been able to find Al Di La since but I still have my last bottle of it. It has a few drops left in it, enough to whisk me back to driving my chocolate brown Ford LTD, a former unmarked police car that was my college graduation present from my parents, windows down, wind blowing my hair, feeling as young and carefree as I actually was at the time. From there I transitioned to many of my mom’s favorites, the Estee Lauder perfumes: Aliage, Estee, Youth Dew, and eventually landing on my all-time favorite, Cinnabar. my perfumesAs a young working mom in a big company, I was told many times my scent announced my visit before my colleagues saw or heard me coming. I never used a lot of perfume at any one time, much like my mom, but the spicy, warm smell of Cinnabar became my signature smell. One of my bosses from that same company announced one day that it was time I find a new scent, and she gave me for Christmas a gift set of Aromatic Elixir by Clinique. I am still wearing that scent to this very day, alternating occasionally with Cinnabar.

Rachel Carson, the environmentalist who wrote Silent Spring, once said,

“For the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories and it is a pity that we use it so little.”

cruso quoteThis is so true for me. Today as I opened the little pink box where my daughter keeps those miniature perfume bottles, the smell of my mom enveloped me and brought a lump to my throat. Yes, the image of those little bottles, arranged just so on my mom’s dresser in my parents’ pre-Katrina home, is a strong one, but the soft, powdery smell emanating from that box made me yearn to give her a hug and make her a cup of tea. The smell of a roux cooking will always make me yearn for those simple times of eating a bowl of gumbo at my Aunt Helen’s house or a plate of my mom’s crab stew. These are the smells and scents of my life, each one cataloged and filed away for instant recall at the opening of a bottle or the making of a roux.

October: A Libra’s Day in the Sun

Libra Scales of JusticeI am a Libra. I’m not really into horoscopes or astrology, but a brief research of my “sign” reveals it fits me like a glove. The sun sign of Libra covers those born between September 23 and October 22, and is represented by the scales, symbolized by the Scales of Justice held by Themis, which is the Greek personification of divine law and custom. Some of the adjectives and attributes I found are ones I know describe me: artsy, talkative, diplomatic but likes to win, people-person, lazy if not engaged in something interesting, and sometimes fickle and indecisive. My family can attest to that last one…as they are able to recount many examples of this, such as the struggle to decide what color Kindle to buy (between black and white, why was that so hard?), and then, oh my, the decision for what Kindle cover to buy.  And, I do love to win, also well documented in everything from Scrabble to cards to Jeopardy questions. The lazy thing is not something I’m particularly proud of, and while I can work circles around anyone when I am actually at work, lack of motivation can get the best of me on the weekends.

my favorite color is octoberThe eternal question is of course am I all of this because I am a Libra or am I picking and choosing buzzwords from various descriptions of Libras that best describe who I say I am, of who I think I am? Long before I knew what a zodiac sign was or before I could “identify” as any of these attributes, I had my mind set on becoming a lawyer, with those scales of justice as my personal mascot. All four years of high school and all four years of college were spent thinking about this goal. My college major didn’t really matter; I was going to law school, so as long as it was something in the humanities I would be fine. I wouldn’t need to rely on that degree for employment because I would be practicing law. When I didn’t get into law school, I went to work in a law firm, working my way up from receptionist to legal secretary to paralegal. I traveled to courthouses and did title work for real estate transactions and oil and gas leases. acorn storageI organized files, maintained law libraries, interviewed prospective clients, drafted briefs and memoranda, and annotated and summarized depositions. I learned a lot about mortgages, real estate transactions, collections, bankruptcies, adoptions, divorces, personal injury, and medical malpractice. Eventually, on my third try, and with the help of a family friend, I was admitted into law school, but lasted only one semester. Back to work in law firms, back to the scales of justice, eventually becoming quite proficient at drafting and negotiating lease agreements for commercial real estate, where I spent fourteen years attempting diplomacy while always looking to win on each and every point being argued.

puccini at playWhatever the reason, October has always been my favorite month. Yesterday, while out walking the dog with my husband, I stopped to enjoy the beautiful fall colors of the landscape around our neighborhood. With the cool, crisp breeze and the clear, bright sky, I couldn’t help but think how much I love October. In true BuzzFeed fashion, I started thinking about the top reasons I love October, and being an English teacher, the image of an acrostic poem popped into my head. cropped acrosticI know I won’t be in the running for the Pulitzer in Poetry, but it does capture the essence of October for me.

After a long hard winter and a spring that seemed to sprint past us, we endured a hot summer. Then, it’s back-to-school season, and I am immediately saddled with grading summer reading assignments while trying to get to know my new 7th graders and helping my 8th graders buckle up for their very busy last year of middle school. Just when I feel as though I can catch my breath and ease into a good routine of school life, fallen leavesOctober rolls around. Even with the later sunrises and earlier sunsets, the days are just so much more pleasant. The crisp, cooler temperatures and beautiful fall colors seem to work their magic in easing away stress and tension. The promise of holidays is just around the corner but the crazy frenzy of those holidays still seems far off.

And, naturally, October 11th rolls around and because of its proximity to Columbus Day; I almost always get a three-day weekend to commemorate my birthday! If I’m lucky, decoupage leafthe temperatures will have dropped and I can pull out a favorite sweater to wear for my birthday dinner out at a favorite restaurant. Growing up in southeast Louisiana meant that I never owned an overcoat until I moved to Washington, DC, in 1988. Every year just before school started, my Aunt Helen would take me shopping in New Orleans and buy me a few back-to-school outfits. I distinctly remember those outfits, particularly a black and tan striped sweater and black “gauchos”.

pumpkin and pelicanFall weather also brings to the dinner table root vegetables and soups. I could eat soup every day. There used to be a small restaurant next door to the courthouse in Baton Rouge called Soupçon, which had a very limited menu that changed daily. Written on a sandwich board outside the restaurant were the choices of the day: soup du jour, salade du jour, and sandwich du jour. Whenever I was assigned work in that courthouse I ate there every day, where I tried whatever soup was on the menu: cream of carrot, pasta e fagioli, Italian wedding soup, and of course, Louisiana favorites like chicken and sausage gumbo or shrimp and corn soup.

colorful leavesOctober is also the month of the rosary and for Catholics this is a treasured devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Appearing multiple times before three shepherd children in Portugal, Mary asked the children to pray the rosary. The apparitions began May 13, 1917, and ended on October 13, 1917, which is the date that the Catholic Church commemorates the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. I grew up with the rosary and watching my mother pray the rosary before Mass every single Sunday. The Hail Mary was the first prayer she taught me and it is the first and last prayer I say each day of my life. During some of my darkest moments, spending hours in hospital rooms and sleeping in chairs in ICU waiting rooms, the rosary was a constant comfort to me. The words of my cousin Anna from Scotland became somewhat of a mantra for me, “Our Lady will not let us down.” So, I prayed, and it is that prayer that sustained and comforted me during her surgeries, illnesses, recoveries, and eventually, her death. living rosaryLast week, on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, before first period, my school said the Living Rosary, where students represent each bead of the rosary, all standing in the outline of a rosary, spread out across the auditorium. As each prayer is said the student sits and passes the microphone to the next “bead”. The rest of the school is seated by class, all following along on their individual rosaries, reciting the rosary quietly in their place. What a way to start the day! I am truly blessed to be able to experience this in my work life.

pretty colorsAnd so, my love of October continues year after year. As much as I love spring and the promise of rebirth, as much as I love summer which now to me means time off from work, October and fall will always be my favorite time of the year. As I know my words have not done it justice, I will close with the words of someone far mightier with the pen than I.

“October”

by Robert Frost

 O hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all.

The crows above the forest call;

Tomorrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,

Begin the hours of this day slow.

Make the day seem to us less brief.

Hearts not averse to being beguiled,

Beguile us in the way you know.

Release one leaf at break of day;

At noon release another leaf;

One from our trees, one far away.

Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst.

Slow, slow!

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

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.

Read ‘Em or Weep: A Cautionary Tale

summer readingAll over the country grade school, middle school, and high school students are scrambling to finish their summer reading assignments and projects. Some have put off reading a 300-page book to the very last minute and now finishing it in time to complete the assignment seems a daunting task. In the coming week, which is the week before school starts here in Montgomery County, Maryland, I anticipate many emails asking for clarification of the writing assignments and art-based projects for the books I require my rising 7th and 8th graders to read. Of course, the emails will be fraught with typos, grammar errors, and the ever present “texting” language.  After taking a deep breath, I will respond cheerfully to the questions and point them to the detailed instructions for the projects and the rubrics for grading them, which I posted on the school’s website at the start of the summer.
procrastinateWhen these emails begin flooding into my mailbox, I inevitably want to say, “Why did you wait until the last minute to start this?” but I won’t. They most likely have heard it from their parents, or it may already be obvious to them, and if not, this lesson may or may not be learned by them in the future. Some never learn this lesson at all. Well begun is half done, right? aristotleThis famous quote is attributed to Aristotle’s Politics, a work of political philosophy. If ancient Greek philosophy is not your style, how about the 1964 classic Mary Poppins? She also quoted this to her young charges when enticing them to clean up the nursery. For many, however, procrastination rules the day. I must admit, I am guilty of this myself…although never for anything having to do with reading.

At the end of each school year when I go over the summer reading assignments with the soon to be 7th and 8th graders, I always advise them to start their summer reading the very next day. Finals are over, the sun and sand of summer awaits; get those books and start reading, a few pages a day. Summer reading is just that: reading over the summer, the whole summer. alarm clockIt is not meant to be binge reading, condensed into a few days’ time, with the loss of freedom and the promise of scheduled wake-ups and bedtimes looming in the near future.

During the first few days of school each year we always discuss what we each did over the summer. As I teach in an affluent neighborhood, the responses from my students include family vacations abroad or somewhere tropical, weeks at their beach houses, elite sports camps, and swim team practices and meets at their country club pools. My summers growing up were quite different. During my pre-teen and teenage years, my father was self-employed as a soft drink distributor for the 7-Up Bottling Company. Taking a week off was not an option as he would have had to pay someone to take his routes for him for that week. That, combined with the expense of a family vacation for the five of us, simply wasn’t in the cards. So, my early summers were spent at the public library, where I devoured large numbers of books, many of which were read sitting on the cool, 800px-Terrazzo-normalterrazzo floors between the stacks in the fiction or biography sections. Reading about far-away places was my vacation. During high school, my mornings were spent at the local public pool teaching swimming lessons and working as a lifeguard in the afternoons. My first “vacation” was at the end of 8th grade, when my aunt and uncle took me on my first airplane trip to see my cousin graduate from college. We only crossed the state of Louisiana on that short 45-minute airplane ride but I was in heaven. I remember every detail from that trip, including the Plum Nuts Cake I had at the home of my cousin’s roommate. A foodie in the making, I asked Mrs. Ory for the recipe so I could make the cake for my mom when I got home. I still have the 3×5 index card with the recipe on it, and I still make that cake today-it is always a smash hit.

Why is summer reading and other independent reading important? I’m not really asked that by the parents of my students. They know it is important, but somehow, reinforcing that at home is difficult in today’s fast-paced society. sportsSports is part of it. Summer sports camp is required to maintain and improve their skills so they will make the teams in the fall and spring. If they make certain teams, they will be noticed by high school coaches. High school coaches from the private and Catholic schools sometimes have the ability to influence admission decisions. Playing and winning in high school means being noticed by college coaches. And, college coaches can influence not only admission decisions, but offer scholarships as well.

But, what if a student gets injured and can’t play that sport any longer? What if they aren’t really good enough for college sports? During a difficult parent meeting about a 7th grade student who was struggling with reading comprehension and writing in my class during my early years as a teacher, the father of this young boy told me his son would be playing basketball in high school and college, and given his height and prowess at the sport, he didn’t need tutoring or additional support in language arts. In fact, the student himself had told me that he was going to play in the NBA and then be a sports attorney after he retired from professional basketball. I’m not sure how he thought he was going to make it through college and law school if he couldn’t read and understand a short story in a 7th grade textbook. I’ve quietly tracked that student over the years, and I am sad to report that it didn’t actually work out the way the father (or the student) planned it.

summer readingA quick Google search will bring up many studies about the pros of summer reading to combat the “summer slump” and loss of skills as well as the importance of independent reading in the middle school years. In a short two page report, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction stated the following bullet points:

  • Numerous studies have shown that reading over the summer prevents “summer reading loss.”
  • Summer reading loss is cumulative. Children don’t “catch up” in fall because the other children are moving ahead with their skills. By the end of 6th grade children who lose reading skills over the summer are two years behind their classmates.
  • Reading 4 or 5 books over the summer can have a significant impact for middle school readers.

weepingSo, in response to the question “Why is there assigned summer reading?” I say, “Read ’em or weep.” In other words, read now or pay later. The statistics are clear.

When selecting the books I assign for summer reading for my students, my goal is one classic and one more contemporary work. My rising 7th graders read Hemingway’s masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea and Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, a work of realistic fiction, albeit historical to these young pre-teens, set in the 1960’s on Long Island, New York. The protagonist in Schmidt’s book is a 7th grade boy who is left behind on Wednesday afternoons when half of his class is dismissed an hour early to attend religious education at the Catholic church and the other half of his class heads to the temple for Hebrew lessons. Holling Hoodhood is the only Presbyterian in the class and the principal looks down his chart of teachers and their planning periods and assigns Holling to Mrs. Baker, the middle school English teacher, for that hour. As any teacher can imagine, Mrs. Baker is not happy about losing her planning period to be saddled with one student in her room. At first she attempts to make his life miserable by having him clean her classroom. As any normal 7th grade boy will tell you, cleaning the blackboard and erasers is infinitely better than having two periods of English class in the same day! Once Mrs. Baker figures out that Holling is not miserable enough with the cleaning tasks, she assigns him Shakespeare plays to read. shakespeareThat should do it, she thinks, he will be miserable! However, Holling, who is a good-natured young man even though he can’t attribute this to the saints or the Torah, begins to see the deeper meaning of the Shakespeare plays and how he can apply them to his own life, which is complicated by his parents’ lack of involvement in his activities and accomplishments. The Wednesday Wars is a great coming of age novel, with lots of sports, middle school pranks, and early adolescent stirrings mixed in with a very clever introduction to Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

My rising 8th graders read Steinbeck’s classic The Pearl and Agatha Christie’s well known mystery Murder on the Orient Express. As the protagonist in Orient Express is the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the novel is filled with French phrases and utterances. The summer before, these same students will have read The Old Man and the Sea, which takes place in a fishing village near Havana on the coast of Cuba. This novella is filled with Spanish phrases and utterances. This is not by accident. Our school is fortunate to offer two foreign languages: French and Spanish. Students are introduced to both languages in first grade and then in second grade they choose the language program they wish to pursue through middle school where they will have foreign language three days a week. We are also fortunate that the faculty members for both languages are native speakers, which is an enormous benefit to the students in learning proper pronunciation. As a result, many of our students test out of either freshman Spanish or French.

A secondary goal in my choice of literature for their summer reading, as well as during the school year, is to broaden the world view of my students and to help them associate important literature and authors with world events and time periods. Studying the Medieval era in social studies while reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman in literature brings the students to a richer, deeper meaning of this important time period and how it shaped England and the rest of the world. medieval era pyramidBecause we are a Catholic school, it is easy to bring religion into the literature classroom with this award-winning novel which features heavily the importance of the Church and the lives of the saints in the daily life of all classes of people in Medieval England.

My 7th graders have one project each for the two summer reading books: an artsy project for The Old Man and the Sea, a travel brochure for Havana, Cuba; and an essay for The Wednesday Wars. In the first person narrative they are to write about what would be their own Wednesday war, which subject would they hate to have twice a day like the protagonist in the novel. As you might expect, a lot of students choose math as the one subject they would hate to have twice a day each Wednesday. A few say science, although not many given how much they love our science teacher at my school. A few say foreign language, but this is more about the lack of self-confidence they feel in having to deal with either Répétez, s’il vous plait or Puedes repetir eso, por favor in their respective classes.

Only a brave few, however, dare to say literature. That essay is their first introduction to me, as I will be teaching them for the first time. They obviously don’t want to start off on a bad foot with me, so they hide the fact that they secretly hate reading for several weeks into the school year, when I begin to notice a distinct reluctance to read aloud or shoddy work on reading comprehension questions. If only I could “flip the switch” on these students, change their minds about reading, turn them into lifelong readers who enjoy reading for leisure. perfumeIf only I could liquefy and bottle the feelings I had as a middle school student, sprawled on the cool, terrazzo floors of the Port Sulphur Public Library, as I read my way through book after book, constantly learning new words, experiencing new places, meeting new people, tasting new cultures. I would spritz them all with this eau de lisant if only I could.

Source:

Evers, Tony, PhD, State Superintendent. “Why Public Library Summer Reading Programs Are Important.” Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.

Sing It, Alice Cooper!

Alice Cooper's "School's Out for Summer"In the inimitable words of Alice Cooper, “School’s out for summer!” The end of the school year is a glorious thing for students. The countdown begins somewhere mid-4th quarter. Teachers are ready, too, and many post the countdown on their white boards, both as encouragement for their students to hang in there and finish strong, as well as to join in the excitement. However, as any teacher will tell you, the end of the school year is not an easy coast to the finish line. It means making, proctoring, and grading final exams. It means preparing report cards. It means collecting textbooks and class novels. It means completing book orders, class lists for next year, maintenance request orders, and classroom inventories. It means cleaning out and organizing nine months of files and materials. It means packing up what was once a bright, vibrant, and engaging classroom and stripping it down to a dull and boring room with naked bulletin boards, upturned desks, and stacked chairs.

My classroom, end of school year

My classroom, end of school year

I love teaching. I just finished my eighth year of teaching (second career) and I can still unabashedly say I love teaching. Seriously, I don’t know how anyone could do this job if they didn’t love it. It is a lot of work, and I am pretty sure the entire world knows that the pay is not great. I work 7:30 to 7:30 most days, and I spend five to ten hours each weekend on school work. But, there is something about that exchange of ideas, the transfer of knowledge, the unpredictable nature of each day; that I completely love.

For me, teaching literature is like doing a one-man show each and every day in front of a full house, albeit, a captive audience. When that bell rings and my students file in, I close my door, and six times a day it’s show time! Whether it is starting new material, reviewing for a test or quiz, learning new vocabulary, unlocking the vagaries of the comma, doing group work, or rotating through stations for peer teaching, it is all exciting to me and each school day flies by.

7B Literature, "fishing" for vocab words about medieval times

7B Literature, “fishing” for vocab words about medieval times

So you can see that I never look forward to this process of undoing my classroom at the end of the year. Once the last bell rings and the kids are gone for the summer the school changes. It is quiet, too quiet. It is almost as though there has been a death in the family. Hallways are empty and barren. Teachers are on permanent dress-down, coming in to clean and sort in what my mother would have called “car-washing clothes”, which meant any outfit she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in public. Without the spirit and energy of the students, a school building is just a building, nothing more.

It’s hard for me to get motivated for these tasks as I don’t feel any sense of urgency. Some teachers fly through this work in a day or less, anxious to get started on their summer vacation. The really diligent ones don’t stop to chat or linger in the hallways. They don’t go out for an extended lunch at a neighborhood eatery. They hole themselves up in their rooms and get the work done as quickly as possible. I am not one of those.

Students listening to medieval music as part of literature unit on middle ages, reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Students listening to medieval music as part of literature unit on middle ages, reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

As classroom doors close one by one and final goodbyes are shouted by those who have officially signed out, I find myself getting less productive and more distracted. I decide to clean out a desk drawer and find things in it that need to be filed so I open my file cabinet, and once in there, I find things in the file drawer to sort and organize. An hour later, the desk drawer is still agape, with no progress being made there whatsoever, and not much progress has been made in the file drawer either. The busier I am, the more I get done. But, when I am not busy or under some sort of deadline, I can procrastinate with the best of them.

8th graders working with their kindergarten buddies on a writing assignment

8th graders working with their kindergarten buddies on a writing assignment

Packing everything away–posters, bulletin board strips, knickknacks, religious items from my classroom prayer center, my computers and other tech equipment–always reminds me of putting away leftovers after Thanksgiving dinner. All of that food came out of the refrigerator before it was cooked. Once cooked and half-eaten, it seems as though it just isn’t going to go back in there. Without emptying the closets and reorganizing everything, it seems impossible to stick all of the tech equipment and classroom decorations back in there. But, emptying two closets and starting over takes forever, and soon distraction creeps in and a project that should have taken a few hours expands to fill the whole day. Near the end of the second day, you can guess what happens…pushing and shoving things in wherever they will fit just to get it done and over with. “I’ll sort and organize it in the fall when we come back,” is the inevitable thought process here.

7th graders studying the foods of the middle ages, from the familiar (meat roasted on an open fire) to the unusual (boiled eel)

7th graders studying the foods of the middle ages, from the familiar (meat roasted on an open fire) to the unusual (boiled eel)

Don’t get me wrong: I can’t wait for the end of the school year. As much as anyone else, I look forward to a break from the endless grading required of the middle school language arts teacher. There’s also turning off the alarm clock, a particular favorite of mine. There’s the freedom of deciding at lunchtime what to eat, not having to eat whatever it is that you brought to school with you that day. There’s the luxury of reading for pleasure, not reading educational articles or new novels you are contemplating adding to your curriculum.

My classroom library, sorted by genre to entice the reluctant reader

My classroom library, sorted by genre to entice the reluctant reader

Being home for summer break means finally getting to clean and organize at home. You teachers know what I mean. There’s that spot where everything gets dumped week after week as you are just barely finishing your lesson plans and grading before falling into bed on Sunday night, and when you spot that area, you think, “Once school ends, I will take care of that.” There are also doctors’ appointments to catch up on and household repairs to schedule. Even if I don’t have big vacation plans for the summer, I still enjoy having lunch out with friends from the corporate world, friends from my past work life that I haven’t seen in a while. I also love spending the day in my kitchen trying out some new recipes. I frequent my local public library and spend hours browsing the stacks, indulging in “beach reads” as well as catching up on the classics. Last summer I taught myself to decoupage and successfully completed several projects. This summer I want to do some sewing and also try my hand at mosaics, an art form that has always fascinated me.

Of course, there will be time for writing, continuing my journey on becoming a writer. This essay on school being out fulfills this week’s requirement in my goal of writing and publishing an essay a week for one year. So far, so good. This is week 24 of the year 2015, and counting this one, I’ve published 26 essays. I am also going to redouble my efforts on a novel that I have been working on intermittently for several years, and I will continue my efforts to get something published.

My 8th grade girls having lunch in my classroom, earlier in the year

My 8th grade girls having lunch in my classroom, earlier in the year

So, tomorrow officially begins my summer break from school. Well, almost. I am taking an online class that I need for renewing my certification so I will be doing school work, but it is only from June 22 to July 2. The rest of July and part of August stretch before me like an endless stream of possibilities. Most importantly, it will be a time to recharge my batteries so I can return to school in the fall full of energy, new ideas, and excitement to begin my ninth year of teaching! School’s out for summer!