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June Issue Washington Family Magazine

June issue, Washington Family Magazine

Check out this month’s Washington Family Magazine for my freelance work in their June “Father’s Day” issue:

Living and Loving Life as a Lifelong Learner

My summer break is coming to a close; I am just one short work week away from my teacher orientation days that precede the start of each new school year. Next weekend at this time, I will be of course putting together my weekly essay as part of my “essay a week for one year” goal (this week marks #35 of 52, still on track!), but I will also be working on lesson plans for the first week of the 2015-2016 school year, my ninth year of teaching.

Last week I spent some time reflecting on how I spent my summer. As usual, I made frequent trips to the public library, carting home bags of books. My reading this summer was very eclectic. I began reading books about preserving fruits and vegetables, making jams and jellies, and canning in general. I had some new health issues which also required reading and research. I also read a good bit of fiction, another Agatha Christie, a few “chick lit” beach-type books, and most significantly, Paula McLain’s outstanding novel Circling the Sun, which introduced me to British colonial Africa and Beryl Markham. circling the sunI was very intrigued with McLain’s historical fiction of this time and place, and of Beryl Markham and the people she worked and socialized with while breaking barriers and glass ceilings everywhere she went. I didn’t know much about colonial Africa, and frankly, reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness put me off wanting to know more. But after reading McLain’s The Paris Wife, I vowed to read anything and everything she wrote after that. If you haven’t read anything by Paula McLain yet, please do yourself a favor and read The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun immediately.

One of my goals for this summer was to exercise more, and this I also accomplished, building up my daily walks in duration, while walking my precious pup Puccini and chatting with my neighbors in their yards along the way. As successful as my reading and walking were this summer, I fear that, once the school year begins and my school bag becomes stuffed with papers to grade, I won’t allot the time for either of these two important things: exercising my mind as well as exercising my body. I hope to find a better balance this year between my school work and my personal life, so making time for reading and exercising will be a top priority.

Recently I was chatting with someone and mentioned that I taught myself how to make jam this summer, and my husband quipped, “Lifelong learner”. In retrospect, those two words really sum up my personal philosophy. lifelong learning tshirtAs much as I love teaching, I truly love learning more. Over the years, I’ve taught myself enough about gardening to pepper my porch with lovely pots of flowering plants. Last summer I taught myself the art of decoupage and I was thrilled with my results. crocheted baby blanketIn 2002, I dusted off my knitting needles and crochet hooks from my childhood and retaught myself the basics well enough to make and sell scarves and other fashion accessories while living in Europe for two years. Europeans love their scarves! With a very basic beginner sewing machine I am able to patch, repair, hem, and sometimes create things for me and my family. baby quiltI love making baby blankets and quilts for my friends, in fact, I love giving homemade gifts whenever I can. Cooking and baking will always be one of my passions and nothing is more relaxing for me than to try out a new dish or learning about an exotic cuisine from some faraway place. Currently I am learning about and experimenting with low-carb cooking and eating. This, too, will prove difficult once the school year begins and visits to the faculty room become fraught with dangerous donations from well-meaning parents.

tom and michelle on metro to dcThis past Friday, my husband took the day off and we took the metro to DC for the day. We decided to spend the day at the National Gallery of Art, have a nice lunch in a museum café, and maybe learn something new from the art world. The weather was beautiful so we got off the metro a stop early and took a longer walk to the museum. Once there, armed with the museum map of “director’s favorites”, we wandered through the different galleries at our leisure. What did I learn? Well, for starters, I learned that I’m not a fan of the German painters. The art seemed to me to be cold and distant. I could feel a distinct difference when looking at paintings from other Europeans.

front of da vinci paintingI also learned that the National Gallery of Art is the home of the only Da Vinci in North America, and that it is painted on the front and back of the panel. reverse side of da vinci paintingWhen entering the gallery where Ginerva de’ Benci (circa 1474) is hanging, there is a buzz to the room. I remember experiencing this same buzz when visiting the Louvre entering the gallery where the Mona Lisa hangs, isolated and protected in all her glory. I had never heard of the Ginerva de’ Benci painting but it is pretty exciting being able to see a Da Vinci without crossing the ocean, and because it is owned by the Smithsonian, it’s absolutely free to view it.

We spent quite a bit of time in the Flemish galleries, near and dear to our hearts after living for two years in Belgium. Vermeer has his own little section. I first learned about Vermeer when I read Girl with a Pearl Earring, a novel by Tracy Chevalier which is a fictionalized biography of Vermeer’s life, this particular painting, and the servant who sat for this portrait. The book was adapted into a stunni
ng film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

vermeer girl with red hatTwo of the Vermeer paintings at the National Gallery of Art also centered on one woman, and both seemed to have the same ethereal quality as Girl with a Pearl Earring. In The Girl with the Red Hat, I was struck by how much this woman reminded me of Princess Anne of the Royal Family of Great Britain, hat and all.princess anne

The other Vermeer painting, A Lady Writing, also features a woman donning a headdress of sorts. vermeer a lady writingMy husband and I studied it for a while and could not determine if she is wearing ribbons in her hair as decoration or as some primitive type of curling system. She is obviously of wealth, wearing what appears to be an ermine-trimmed dressing gown.

Our day at the museum was very enjoyable, and indeed, very relaxing. We strolled through the sculpture garden and sat for a while listening to the gurgling of the fountains. We had a lovely lunch from the Garden Café buffet (mostly low-carb choices) and even ran into our friend, Sister Marie de Sales, me and Sister Mariewho bestowed upon us a gift of great happiness, our dog Puccini. It was the perfect way to end my summer break.

Last school year ended with my father becoming very ill and dying in early May. This was the first summer in eight years without his annual two-week visit. my dad and me 2014While I am thankful that he did not linger in poor health and suffer, it is very bittersweet to think about his time here with my family each summer, watching cooking shows and Deadliest Catch, Edge of Alaska, and other fishing and hunting programs. He loved to eat out and was always coming up with new ways to steal the restaurant check away from us at the end of the meal. He also loved my cooking and always asked if I could cook a big pot of mussels or French onion soup while he was here.

Overall, this summer has been just what I needed: time to rest, relax, reflect, and refresh. I’ve had time to take care of some household repairs and reorganization, read and write more, work on some crafts, exercise and walk my dog several times a day, and of course, continue down my path of lifelong learning. In a week, I will be ready to take on the challenges of a new school year and all that lies ahead of me. Bring it on!

A Week Down Memory Lane

Once the school year begins, and the “train” leaves the station, it seems like I don’t have any time, inclination, or energy for a big project around the house. For ten months I struggle with the enormous piles of essays, tests, and quizzes that befall a middle school language arts teacher.  About all I can manage around the house is cooking dinner each night and doing the laundry on Sunday evening while I do my lesson plans for the next week.

At the start of my eight-week summer break, I wander around in a daze unable to commit myself to much of anything, even the laundry, other than reading (for pleasure as opposed to reading for school), cooking, and baking, three things I find truly relaxing. Eventually, however, it dawns on me that the summer is slipping by and I buckle myself down to tackle a project.

bookshelvesBecause we are a houseful of avid readers, and by avid I mean obsessed, one of my first projects last summer was to make room for the overflow of books that is the result of (a) one college graduate moving back home with her boxes of books and (b) the whole family’s favorite weekend forays to the two excellent used bookstores in our neighborhood. We all regularly give and get books as gifts, and we actually use Amazon gift cards to purchase, surprise, books. Unpainted planks and concrete blocks from the local hardware store and voilà, an entire wall of bookshelves. I know it would have been nicer to purchase bookshelves, or hire a carpenter to build some, or at the very least, to sand and paint the planks, but once the shelves are filled with books, the beauty of the spines of the books and their jackets seems to take over and elevate the whole thing to an acceptable point.

My next major project was to go through my closet. This is a much more monumental task than finding shelf space for books. Books are my friends, and no matter how old they are, or how many times I have read them, I can always pull them out and read them again. However, some of my clothes stopped being my friends years ago. Some items were impulse buys, and once home, decided they were loners and did not wish to see the light of day.  Other items were once cherished BFF’s, building me up and making me shine, and now they taunt me instead, unwilling to zip or button or match with anything that does zip or button. This surliness has even spilled over onto my shoe racks. That beautiful pair of bone pumps, with the pretty kitten heels and the stylish brushed nickel buckle across the rather pointy toes, has turned into a mean and spiteful set of twins who tease me by taking nips out of my little toes every time I wear them. It was time for me to “unfriend” some of these hangers-on and free up valuable closet space for new friends.

This seemed like a one day job: take everything out of the closet, inspect it, try it on, and either hang it back up or fold it for the donation box. Ha! One day my foot. Speaking of feet, the shoes alone took a whole day.  So many painful decisions. I finally decided on the only reasonable method of deciding to keep or pitch: could I survive a day teaching in that pair of shoes? Strappy sandals, no way! Red clogs purchased in Holland (but ironically say “Made in Sweden” on the bottom), uh-I don’t think so. This made all further shoe decisions extremely easy.

Brooches and PinsDay two: jewelry. Seriously, you would think I was a member of the British royal family with all the pins and brooches I have collected over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I love my pins and brooches. I wear one almost every day. Some I have had for thirty plus years. Others I bought because they reminded me of a particular piece of literature and I wear them when I teach that book or short story. What? You don’t understand? Well, in a thrift store I once found a burnished gold brooch in the shape of a marlin, as though it were leaping from the water, back arched and scales glistening in the sun. I just had to have it, I mean, for goodness sake, I teach Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize winning novella The Old Man and the Sea. So you can see how sorting and organizing my extensive collection of costume jewelry would be a day in itself.

silk scarfDay three: scarves. Okay, now you probably have an image of someone your grandmother’s age, or older, swathed in some smelly old Victorian printed piece of gauzy material, but I can validate how my love of scarves began. Years and years ago my mother’s great uncle died and when her family went through his belongings they offered my mother one of his ancient leather suitcases, embellished with his initials in gold leaf near the handle. When we got the suitcase home and opened it, we were surprised to find inside items left behind by his wife, not him, a small sandwich baggie filled with costume jewelry, some of it marked with well-known names such as Monet, Napier, and Sarah Coventry, and a collection of silk scarves. My mom gave it all to me and gave the suitcase to one of my cousins who had been named for this great uncle. And so my love of scarves began. A plain knit top becomes an outfit with the addition of a scarf and a brooch.  Perhaps not as fashionable as in the past, I still love to accessorize with these items, and my collection of both scarves and brooches has continued to grow.

closet renoDay four came and finally it was time to tackle the clothes. This was undoubtedly the hardest day as some items have such sentimental memories attached to them. There’s the knit top purchased at a Gap store on the day it first opened, and I had negotiated the legal documents between the landlord and the tenant for the build-out of the store. As a result of my work on the deal, I was given an employee discount card for one day and was able to shop in the store before it opened to the public. I loved that shirt. I wore it all the time. I have a charming picture of my family taken on a summer vacation to Williamsburg with me wearing that top.  It has seen its better days and frankly, doesn’t fit anymore, but for years, when I attempt to organize my closet, I just can’t bear to part with it. There are other items like that. A brown denim maxi-skirt appliqued with bits of corduroy and plaids in a swirly pattern down one side is another example. During the two years we lived overseas I didn’t purchase much clothing in the stores on the local economy as we were able to have shipped to us American goods via the APO system as well as being able to shop at the PX and commissary near Brussels. In addition, the European tight-fitting clothing didn’t quite agree with my all-American (for better and worse) body-type. But, one day, in a mall in Brussels, I found this brown denim skirt and by some miracle, the largest size fit me. I absolutely adore that skirt (still) and wore the daylights out of it until it turned on me and decided not to zip one morning as I was dressing for work. I can’t give that skirt away, even though it has betrayed me; I just can’t. So, on that day I made a decision to make a small stack of clothes like the Gap shirt and the brown denim Belgian skirt, and pack them into a box marked “Keepsake Clothing”. Now, they can’t taunt me from their never-touched coat hangers and I actually have room in my closet to see what does fit!

About halfway through the clothing process I stumbled upon a black zip-front cardigan that had been my mother’s. She wore it all the time as she was always cold as she grew frailer from the illnesses that plagued her for the last fourteen years of her life. In 2007 when going through her closets after her funeral, I found that cardigan and had a good cry while holding it close to me. That day I packed it in my suitcase and hung it in the back of my closet when I got home. Seven years later, I was overwrought with emotions once again as I took it from the closet. I had to sit on the edge of my bed and hold that cardigan, and yes, have a good cry. It was shabby from much wear, and one shoulder seam had become frayed. It wouldn’t fit anyone in my family and looked so dated I am sure it wouldn’t be worn by someone that it did fit. That cardigan is not my mom; it can’t bring me closer to her or do anything other than make me sad when I look at it. So I did something my mom would have advised: say a Hail Mary, wipe my eyes, and put it in the donation box. Just before I did that, though, I checked the pockets and there I found two clean tissues, a packet of Equal sweetener, and the balled-up wrapper of a Hershey’s Kiss, with its little paper tail sticking out. There you have my mom in a nutshell. Tissues always at the ready, and because one of her medications had brought on Type II diabetes, she used Equal in her coffee and tea. Type II diabetes, however, wasn’t strong enough to ward off a little bit of chocolate here and there.

Sadly, after four days I was still not finished with the reorganization efforts in my bedroom. I still have a large drawer crammed full of socks. Oh the stories those socks could tell if they had tongues instead of toes. But, I have run out of steam on this project, and it is almost “back to school” time for me. The remainder of my time off will be devoted to cleaning and decorating my classroom, organizing my teaching materials, going through my school library, throwing out student work not collected at the end of the year- -a lot like organizing my closet at home. Besides, in the dead of summer, who wants to sort through matched pairs of socks, mismatched pairs of socks, and sock widows and widowers? I think the stories from my sock drawer will have to wait until next summer.

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!