Tag Archives: mother

Why the School Year Begins with Nightmares

He jumped back. He was so startled that I thought I had a bug on my face when I went into my son’s room at 11 a.m. to wake him.

Seeing is believing.

“Wait, what day is it? Is there school today?” he asked. I shook my head and laughed nervously because I had been thinking that I needed to start waking him up earlier to prepare him for the coming school hours.

“Uuugggh, I thought you were waking me to tell me it was time to go to school,” he said and breathed a sigh of relief then buried his head in his pillow. He proceeded to describe a horrific dream where his teacher gave the class an assignment and he got an F.

I felt terrible because I know how much he hates getting bad grades and how generous some teachers are about giving them. I’m especially fond of the teachers who hand the papers back with an imaginary pair of bifocals hanging on the end of their noses as if to remind students that they just aren’t good enough.

Do teachers really need to give kids F’s?

It might’ve already started for you: The nightmares, the rising tension, the fear that you’re missing something, the sting of an impending headache…. It started in our house about a week ago.

The mere mention of school shot the hairs up on the backs of our necks.

And, it ultimately seems to amount to judgment. How will you be judged by other kids, parents, teachers, principals, administrators and so forth? You just aren’t good enough seems to vibrate in our collective subconscious.

But, what kills me and my kids, are the F’s. I don’t understand that need to give F’s, especially with no second chance. Granted, some students seem to live for the F.

I’ve been there. As a teacher, you’re this short of moving the pencil for the student because you’re trying every technique in the book to get the kid to learn and the student refuses.

Most of the time, however, those students who get those F’s just need a second chance. They need to take the test again. They need to hear the lesson one more time. And, it’s not just about percentages such as 50 percent of the class failed; therefore, the teacher must reteach and retest. No, let’s say 5 percent failed. The rest aced it. Why wouldn’t a teacher try to offer that student a second chance? Most likely, it’s too much work and the teacher doesn’t feel like administering another test and definitely not re-teaching an entire lesson to one or two students.

Second Chances

But, what if it was easier than that? What if it was a matter of spending one or two lunch periods with them and chatting about what they didn’t understand? Ask them what went wrong. Even if they’re brutally honest and say they just don’t care or they didn’t bother to study, what if you said well, then, study here and I’ll give you a second chance.

What then?

Would the student succeed?

And, then, how would that affect that student’s future?

Would the student try harder next time, especially if they found success the second time around?

Yep, that’s right, I’ll tell you. That student will succeed because you’ll have connected with him or her in a deeper way than most teachers. Contrary to the way we judge the kid who gets the F, that child simply doesn’t want it even if he or she vehemently claims to want it, even to deserve it.

A highly intelligent and insightful gifted student once told me that he got F’s because he had gotten so many that he finally just got used to it and didn’t care anymore. He was one of the first students I ever taught and those kids taught me more about teaching than I’ve ever learned before. I asked them everything and he was one who I felt so sad about but even more so, I was infuriated with him. He was so freakin’ smart so when he got F’s, I felt like he just did it on purpose. And, judging from his observations, he kinda did do it on purpose.

However, there was one other very important insight. He said he hated seeing an “F” anyway. That’s why he just gave up and gave in to so many teachers’ labels like that he just didn’t care or that he refused to learn, that he was wasting his talents. That was exactly what I was thinking as I was talking to him.

But, it still didn’t register right away. I still didn’t get it. Give him a second chance? What?!

Then, I did, by accident almost. I experiment a lot when I’m teaching, which is why I hold myself at least partially accountable for every performance estimation that I inflict on my students. I give them second, third, and fourth chances so that I can average scores and teach and reteach. Does it make for a crazy exhausting school year? Yeah, but then, I couldn’t call myself a teacher at all if I didn’t do that.

I asked him if he wanted to take a test again. Different questions. Same subject matter.

He accepted. That acceptance in itself taught me a lot. He actually did want to try. So the label that “he didn’t care” made no sense.

Reset the Mind

Before he took the second test though, I talked to him during lunch and asked why he chose some of the wrong answers. I saw where he went wrong and then helped him adjust his logic. It felt like magic when I scored his second exam. He went from an F to a high B. Plus, the questions on the second exam were much more difficult and somewhat more confusing.

When I gave it to him, he held it as if it was a rare piece of parchment paper. Then he smiled and laughed a little. He blamed his success on the questions being too easy, but I insisted that the questions were harder. I had thrown them out because they were too confusing.

After that success, he never got anything lower than a B. Most of the time, he got A’s.

So, what of it? I think the story speaks clearly.

F’s are like viruses. They spread quickly and they’re hard to get rid of. But, you can wipe them out with a little love. And, that just takes a lunch or two.

Don’t get me wrong. My students who don’t like me will tell you I’m the detention teacher. And, I would have to agree. But, guess when I give detentions? Yep, during lunch. Some students, especially in middle school, don’t think it’s so cool to have lunch with a teacher, hence the detentions (and second chances), but that’s another story.

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Passing Through Madness

She was so much more than this.

Sometimes we have those momentary revelations that we write down and act upon or we just forget them, passing them off as frivolous or a lapse into madness, a simply unacceptable thought or notion. This happened to me more than once in the last year. I never bothered to write any of it down until now.

I’ve been away from WordPress and all of you because everything seemed nothing and then nothing seemed everything.

Now, here, I write what lingers, the remnants of love, peace, and an overall sense of wonder at how fragile and temporary everything we know and understand really is. My grandmother spent the last few months spiraling into madness. She began shutting her eyes and turning off the world around her. She tore off her clothes and screamed for her mommy and daddy. She tapped into a static frequency, her voice sounding like a message from another universe when she said, “Why do we waste so much time? Why don’t we visit each other more?”

My desperate screams of “I love you” breaking into her madness. I found that those were the only words that she understood until her last breath. My tears met the words, “Don’t cry. Come on over and I’ll make ya laugh.”

I spent the next two months visiting her in the hospital and helping her son look for an assisted living facility. Somehow the universe helped us find someone crazy enough to take her and she spent her last few weeks of life surrounded by cats and dogs who were rescued, just like her.

When I’d visit, she’d bounce from one thought to another, then suddenly she’d cup her hands around her mouth and make a sound like she was hollering but it was almost a whisper, “Mom, we’re coming.”

She’d gaze into a far off place and say, “Oh, mom’s got that look. I don’t like it when she just sits and stares like that.” Then, she’d shake her head.

I stopped calling her grandma and called her Bobbye Jean or little girl because that’s who she was. I began to realize that she became grandma for me then the rest of us. That wasn’t who she really was. She was none of those names the world, her family, had given her, the names she accepted and even embraced, creating them to give herself a place here.

She had begun her journey into madness, which I know now was her path to peace. Her revelation had come.

Two weeks before she passed, I sat in front of her while she sat in an old, black wheel chair, which the nurse had put her in because it was sturdy and she wouldn’t fall over.

She had opened her eyes again, and she looked straight at me. I thought for sure she recognized me. Bending her boney, spotted arm, she propped her fist onto her hip then lifted her chin and looked down on me. “Am I pretty?” she said.

I was startled for a second still wanting her to recognize me, to give to me, to be grandma again. Then I realized it was all over. She was dying, and I needed to help her.

I sort of spit a stifled, salty a smile and laughed a laugh of realization and, well, love. “You are so pretty, just about the prettiest thing I’ve seen in a long time.” She then babbled and repeated, hand on hip, “Am I pretty?”

I said, “You’re not just pretty, you’re beautiful.” She acted like a princess and said, “I know I am.”

I kissed and hugged her. I fed her. I watched her as she fell asleep in the wheelchair. I visited again.

When asked her name, she sang, “No-oel, No-oel,…” word for word, perfectly, and in tune. I spent the holidays listening to the song, asking my daughter to play it on the piano.

On December 7, 2014, I drove to her down the winding pathways to the house she was passing through. She sat with her head bowed in that old wheelchair, a blind dog, who had had a stroke also, was resting at her feet.

I cut and cleaned her nails, her body slumped over, her hands limp. I lifted her head to find eyes with barely a pupil. There was no black, just a sea of clear blue.

I kissed the back of her neck and spoke to her, “Don’t be afraid. You need to go now. Mommy and daddy are waiting for you. Your angels are waiting for you.”

Her breathing increased as if she were on the last laps of a race. I left her knowing it was over and later that day she was pronounced dead from cardiac arrest.

I miss her.

I look for her everywhere. I imagine she’s in the wind, the trees, my dreams, but she’s gone.

She’s finally found her peace, the quiet in between.

She was just passing through, like all of us.

Religion is in the details.

At the end of the first week back to school in Florida, I stood in a line with moms beaten, worried, and tired. We were from everywhere in Miami. We wore business clothes, jeans, and sweatpants.

The “perfect” mom with the straight, red hair, black V-neck sweater, and pencil skirt raised her eyebrows as the Latina mom in sweatpants rolled her eyes and said, “I finally understand my mom. I used to be so embarrassed when she’d hand out coupons at the counter and now I’m trying to figure out how I’m gonna pay for all this.”

She raised her eyes to the sky as if to say, “Save me! Help me.”

I pulled the plug from my ear, the earphone muffling the depressing music on the speakers at CVS.  “I know. I feel the same,” I said, desperately reaching out to her.

The redhead rolled her eyes again. “It’s crazy. They kill us.”

I looked into their eyes and the week of troubles emptied from my soul. The week of upset, anger, resentment, and fighting left me because I wasn’t alone. I was with women unlike me and just like me.

We knew pain. The kind of pain religious leaders just won’t ever understand.

The kind of pain kids frown at.

The kind of pain only mothers know.

And, my heart emptied.

In those few moments, no one could’ve predicted that my heart would empty. No religious mantra could fix me. But, right there, with women I didn’t even know, my heart emptied.

And, I was free.

Find those moments that free you and recognize them as religious.

They belong to you.

DP Challenge, Snapshots: Spears for Eyes

Her eyes bit into hers and, what a shame, since love often resided there. Brown spears sprung from a deep darkness pooled into circular rounds, cushioned only by a sense of humanity. To blink would’ve meant she’d lose her stance, her power.

A black ring outlined the severity of her response to her mother who could only break with sorrow at having realized her daughter stood stronger than she did.

The daughter’s eyelashes frayed her lids, framing the centers with honor and pride. Those eyes waited for no one, bowed to nothing, spoke to all, especially the figure she knew no longer posed a threat.

The mother’s eyes paled in comparison, a light green, tired and worn. They ached and blinked too much. The black spears, once strong, were scattered and bent, blending into the green with no real destination. The black ring blurred and swirled, knowing no boundaries.

So, the mother’s eyelids fell half-mast, cradling the idea that life need not be a fight. She bore no resentment or anger at losing this battle with the daughter she loved more than life. She even offered what little strength she had left to the daughter who suddenly blinked, then bit her bottom lip to punish herself for such weakness.

Her eyes took her mother’s strength with a glorious grin that crinkled the edges of her Egyptian-eyeliner handed to her by the gods who’d traced them at birth. She breathed and her eyes flew open much wider now when she felt the sensitivity of that strength.

The pump of it meant they remained connected so that to hurt one, would hurt the other.

Locked together, mother and daughter.

Spears for eyes.

DP Challenge

You’re only as good as your enemy. That would be you, mom.

Rolling your eyes at your mother seems a rite of passage for most girls. My daughter rolled her eyes so much lately that I finally rolled mine back at her. Of course, I was extra dramatic about it. I rolled my eyes up with an extended flutter to emphasize the severity of only the white part showing.

She laughed, and her rolling eyes settled into a disdainful stare to match her frustration with my “nagging.” But, there are other sometimes more disturbing behaviors lately:  Telling me to leave her alone then shutting her bedroom door, elbowing me (however lightly) when I try to hug her, saying “Oh Wow,” after I tell her to do something important like homework.

I’d already hurdled the “I hate you,” moments so I figured I could handle being my daughter’s enemy. But, “I hate you” was sharp, loud and over within seconds. These new insults dig into my side, make me feel nauseous, and even bring me to tears.

Inevitably I remember what I did to my own mother. Rolling my eyes being the most memorable of my insults. She would yell, “Don’t you roll your eyes at me!” Then, I’d do it again, just to spite her.

I’ve grown up a lot since then and I hope I’ve learned something. However, like every naïve new mother, I vowed to never be like my mother. Now, when I hear other moms say they won’t be like their mothers, I secretly say, “Good luck with that.”

My mother was terrible. She wore miniskirts to my ultra-conservative Baptist school functions. She divorced two men. She told my friends’ parents to go to hell when they made snide remarks about her inappropriate behavior. She wouldn’t let me go anywhere because she was afraid I’d get hurt. She didn’t come home sometimes for 24 hours because she’d work double shifts as a nurse.

I hated her for all of that and more.

Sometimes, very early in the morning I’d sneak into her cave of a room and kneel next to her bed. I’d listen to her breath and I’d feel sorry for myself because I missed her so much. Then, I’d blow her a very quiet kiss and leave. I wanted her with me, just being my mom, like all the other mom’s at my school.

I know now that if she were around all the time I’d have hated her for that.

Why? Well, she’s my mother, my enemy, my one true love.

It doesn’t make it any less painful to know that while I experience the same with my own daughter. It just keeps me grounded. I know the journey will leave me sore and tired, but love will lock us together.

My mother also snuck into my room late at night bringing me little presents: a pair of earrings, a teddy bear, a kiss. I’d be angry with her for something so I wouldn’t let her know I was awake, but I loved her for visiting me. Deep in my soul, I knew she loved me just as much or more than the “perfect” moms who volunteered at bake sales and coached the cheerleading teams.

Four Generations of Mothers.
Four Generations of Mothers.
It’s been said that they all rolled their eyes at their mother.

Just recently my daughter decided we didn’t need to read together at night anymore like we’ve done even before she began reading on her own. I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, but when I cried myself to sleep for three days in a row, I again felt what my own mother must’ve: a sorrow that only love brings.

I wrote my daughter a note praising her for finding her independence and telling her why I was sad about it, that I would miss it so much and I’d be there for her no matter what changes come.

Within a week, she asked me to read with her again. One night, yes; another night, no.

I remind her that I will always need hugs and she will always be my baby. Those things she must accept. We’ll work out the rest.

She smiles a baby smile, blinks her eyes, and rests her head on my shoulder.

Sometimes, she rolls her eyes.

Written By Lisa Chesser

Our Education God: The Test

Teachers often share many similarities with the students they admonish, chastise, chase, change, and ultimately love like a mother who spends her days doing the same. Because we’re together so much of the time and essentially trapped in the same environment, teachers want to escape just as much as students do, especially at this time of year. We also tend to mimic each other and think alike.

Since mid-April, we’ve been testing and I feel like a caged animal, so do my students. They’re wild, then angry, then tired, then irritated, then they start the cycle all over again.

Angry Student
Angry Student

I’m pretty much the same. I have no energy at the end of the day and I’m dreaming of that final day of school like never before.

See, I’ve been teaching for a while and the more years that pass the more I question the relevance of the Test, the more I think about it, and the more I hate it.

Backward Steps

I always walk backward to my own experience with tests. I was the kid who panicked, stayed up all night, worried so much so that I often bombed the Test, but ironically enough in a relaxed environment, if you never mentioned the word Test, I could answer any question perfectly.

I eventually got over it because I wanted to go to college and after bombing my first SAT, I knew I needed to figure out how to handle this.

So, I taught myself how to take a test.

Put any test in front of me, give me a minimal amount of time to study for it, and I’ll score well.

I had none of the handbooks, trade books, test-prep books, and didn’t use any “tips” to get me through it.

I found that if I treated a test mathematically and thought in a similar way to this imaginary person who created it, then I could defeat it. I practiced a lot, and it paid off. I plan to take the GRE soon and know that I’ll have to buy one of the test-prep books to review information that’s been filed away in those dark cabinets inside my brain. However, I also know I’ll not only pass it, I’ll do well on it. I proved that to myself.

Worshipping the Test

When I teach students how to take standardized Tests or any Test for that matter, I point out these basics to them and then we practice. I don’t rely on tips. We use some standard ones, practice using them, discard some, and return to others.

Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid's Elements.

I try to help them as much as possible because I know their education god, the Test, will be there as long as they remain in the world of education. It will make judgments on them. It will torment them. It will inflict fear in them. It will never go away until they worship it, until it knows they will kneel down and worship it.

But, there’s one way to bring a master to his or her knees. That’s to master the master, which is why I spend so much time teaching my students how to test.

Now, however, feeling so sick and tired, so broken, so desperate to end this school year, I just want to kick the test, even if it’s kneeling before me and my students.

I want it to die. I hate it for different reasons than the anxiety and fear I felt when I was younger.

It drains students from actually learning.

Instead of spending time learning about the great novelists and their character’s conflicts and struggles then realizing that all these struggles reflect their own, that books are Bibles for kids to value as tools to tackle their own difficulties, students learn that they have to score well on a test or they won’t be appreciated in school. Perhaps they won’t even move to the next grade level. All too often they think of themselves as failures, which I try to change by teaching them how to test. But, that in itself stealthily strips literature, language, mathematics and the written word of their essential value.

The False God and Judgments

Schools know that high scores on tests mean that they look good in any and every way. “That’s a good school,” a parent says to another. “Why?” I ask as a parent, not a teacher. “The scores. They’re ranked one of the best schools (in the state, country, etc.).” How else will people know whether a school is good or not?

Well, to answer that question, I’ll tell you and the Education God: Test.

There are a thousand other ways to compete and show what you know:

Contests

Art

Design

Competitions

Presentations

Portfolios

Projects

It goes on and on.

If the Department of Education hired trained representatives to visit schools and actually observe teachers and students, get to know us, hang around and see what we do, couldn’t the DOE learn and teach a whole lot more than by looking at the results of a multiple choice test?

Not only would the DOE help create more jobs, but it might just do something that no one seems to be able to do by making more tests. It might just improve the educational system.

We’ve been worshipping a false god. We don’t need this god. God should live and breathe inside us, forcing us to hold hands and be gods ourselves.

That’s what our kids need—a helping hand, not something to judge them.

Desire Meets Talent

They broke into my sea of problems rushing through my brain as I cleaned the house. There was a slow pounding to them as if sorrow was leaving the body and finding it’s own center.

I hadn’t heard any music, at least not from the piano for two months.

A half-smile split my thoughts apart.

My daughter finally played it.

Back Inside Music
Back Inside Music

Her piano teacher and mentor left for New York City a couple of months ago. She was the opposite of Daisy, my daughter. She smiled all the time and laughed a lot too. Most people who do this too much make me very nervous because I feel like they’re trying to cover something up.

But, Daisy who normally carries a serious demeanor found her teacher refreshing and inspiring. I did too. Then she left.

Since then, Daisy has avoided the piano, which she used to play every day. She abandoned it in a sort of mourning process because she really loved this teacher.

Even though her school has a piano teacher, we’d leave school at four and drive a half hour through heavy traffic to another school, a school where rich kids played tennis and housed a special piano teacher.

In a second-floor room, they sat and played. I took my shoes off and lay on the floor in a desperate attempt to fix my aching back. Between the hard floor and the therapeutic drop of each piano key, I was a new person at the end of each session.

More importantly, Daisy smiled and pushed back her shoulders that normally curled inward out of insecurity.

After two years of lessons, I realized, watching and listening to them together, that this very young woman wasn’t just her teacher. She was her mentor.

She was her mentor because she held Daisy to a standard above which desire met talent. She was an artist.

This mentor wasn’t just teaching piano. She was a pianist and a singer. So, the respect Daisy felt for her flourished on a level beyond teacher and student.

When she left, well, she took Daisy’s soul.

So, when the notes spilled into our house this last week, I smiled the smile of an artist who knows heartbreak.

My eyes filled with tears but none spilled over.