When To Take The Drawing Away

I've been writing a lot this last couple weeks but publishing very little on the blog (or anywhere else) because I'm torn between two competing instincts: to publish and to revise. It's difficult to know when something is ready to go, when it's finished. I have a piece about the power of leaving the classroom, the nature of real leadership, and the mistake of hierarchy, but I don't know that I've got all three things in the piece, that they all belong and are connected in some meaningful way. I liked the first draft but saw issues and have gone through four or five revisions, but wonder if it still requires significant restructuring and re-imagining. I wish it would just resolve into what I imagine it should be, but there is still work to be done.

On the other side are today's Morning Pages. Running my pen over three pages, I came up with something that felt good in the moment, but I worry it will require just as much revision as the leadership piece. There are only so many balls I can keep in the air. Here's what the Morning Pages sound like:

The most vivid of dreaming this morning began with a woman who could not wait to get me alone and naked. She was dream-familiar in that she probably combines eight to ten women I've known or seen on the screen. I'm trying to conjure her now in order to figure out who she is, but she is a figment, fleeting, insubstantial as smoke. Maybe I have no idea who she is and with every attempt to pin her to reality some part of me says, "she's not of this world. Let her go."

In a later dream I was saying goodbye to Danny Devito whose son I had helped somehow. I said, "I hope to come back someday." He stared sadly at me, not wanting to explain that this was a one-off. The woman appeared again, silent, withdrawn, and I was possessed of a need to make out of desire something like love because the chance wouldn't come again. But I also knew that chance had never come at all. I hugged her — around the legs of all things. She allowed it because even I knew it was an embrace rather than my usual desperate hanging on.

In the real world, something like my old school job was posted yesterday. This morning the school's website is down. Coincidence? I don't think so! (Actually, I'm sure it's coincidence but still enjoy that joke.) The posting describes only half of what I used to do. This is either management omitting crucial details and withholding information or it indicates a programming shift in which the two parts of my old job are split from one another. I suspect it's the former or else there would be a part-time job posted as well.

Whatever the case, some poor sap will walk into my old job like stepping on a rake, the wooden handle snapping up hard in her or his face. They'll see stars and it will leave a mark. Some admin will say "it's nothing, keep walking, there are a hundred more rakes in the yard. Good luck!" They'll give the sap a push forward, turn out the lights, and blamed that teacher for every bruise and beating they receive.

Here's what really bothers me about all this: I won't know; I'll be out of that loop. No one in management will notice I'm gone and those on the ground will be too busy to pine for me. Though I want to say it doesn't matter, I'm so troubled about being easily replaced that I want to see the place fall to pieces without me.

"Why are you still carrying her?" the elder monk asks me. I have no good answer. Anger, anxiety, and ego get in the way of enlightenment. I'm still back in the place I left in June, trying to change someone other than myself.

(There's a topic to discuss with my therapist today. Will I continue therapy after August when I have to change insurance plans? It will be a luxury I likely can't afford and I wonder if it's a better vehicle than this writing. Is it just a shield against making the same old mistakes?)

In the dream I was only close to the woman twice and each time something got in the way. First it was other people, then it was me. When Danny Devito asked how he should pay me for helping his son, I said, "call it tutoring. That's what I do." He shrugged and wrote the check.

Then I was with a guy trying to figure out our next move in a long-term plan to teach writing. I asked what our next event should be, but he refused to say even the first word.


That was this morning's pages. There are things that interest me, but it's a mess, just a draft. I'm torn between revising and losing the feel of the thing. It reminds me of a scene in Six Degrees Of Separation:

FLAN (VO): How easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He can paint and paint – work on canvas for months and one day he loses it – just loses the structure – loses the sense of it – you lose the painting.

A BRIGHT WHITE LIGHT shines on FLAN who turns to see A TEACHER, in her forties, very pure and happy, hanging beautiful and brilliantly colored children's drawings in the air. FLAN'S VOICE echoes in this vast space

FLAN: Why are all your students geniuses in the second grade? Look at the first grade. Blotches of green and black. Look at third grade. Camouflage. But the second grade — your grade. Matisses everyone. You've made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade! What is your secret?

THE TEACHER: Secret? I don't have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.

I have no idea when to take the drawings away, but I keep wanting to be Matisse.

Learning Is Messy

It turns out that learning is messy. Go figure.

Sunday, having had in my possession since Christmas a doorbell/camera, I decided to install it. I'd put off doing so for, well, seven months because I'm afraid of electricity and figured I would need my brother's help to install it. I kept meaning to set up a time we could work on it together, but that time never seemed to come. Doing it alone meant attempting something I feared and would have to learn. No wonder I put it.

What possessed me Sunday, I'm not sure. I had finished mowing the lawn (not exactly brain surgery) and wondered what to do next. I stood outside the garage next to where I planned to mount the doorbell/camera. I was appropriately bored, dulled by the July heat, and figured I'd give it a shot. I had little idea how to install it, but what the hell.

I ran wires from a low-power switch that opens and closes the garage door. Two problems: it provided too little power for the camera and pushing the doorbell button opened or closed the garage door. Which really isn't ideal.

Okay, start again. This time I wired into another low-power line, thinking it was just power. It was a reasonable assumption, but wrong. The line runs to a second garage door switch upstairs. Once again, pushing the doorbell opened and closed the garage door. Oh, and it still lacked sufficient power for the camera. Damn it, damn it, and damn it.

You know what's tough about these learning experiences? By now I was far enough into it that I couldn't just stop. Part of that was pride. And then there were holes I had drilled and the bracket I had mounted. Those things would have mocked me. Still not quite sure what to do or if I could make the thing work, I drove to the hardware store, thinking about how learning sucks.

At the hardware store I bought a 24-volt transformer to hook into the house current at a junction box in the garage. It was a good plan with one problem: I really am scared of house current. At my funeral I'm sure someone will be shaking their head and reporting that I neglected to shut off the power at the box. Still, I had to go forward and see if I could get it done. I drove home thinking, learning really sucks.

Moments after I returned home, my brother arrived, God bless him. He understands electricity and so doesn't fear it. I wanted him to take the tools and do the work, but he knows better. He left the tools in my hands and talked me through. I (we) wired the transformer into the box and we (he) made sure it was connected safely. I (really me this time) wired the doorbell/camera to the transformer and went into the basement to flip the breaker.

"Well?" I yelled out to him.

"It's got the blue light it's supposed to," he said.

The rest was simplicity itself. I installed and configured the app. No fear there. We rang the thing and it lit up my phone. Hooray. All set. Except the chime at the top of the stairs remained silent. Learning totally sucks.

I thought I had wired it correctly, but obviously not. We tested the front doorbell, sending the dog into apoplexy. We tested the back doorbell. Same results for bell and dog. We tested the doorbell/camera at the garage. No sound. Damn it. But hey, no big deal. It rings our phones and the Google Home units we have. Good enough. My brother went on his way.

At bedtime, the back doorbell sounded. The dog went nuts. I was perplexed. No one had pushed the button. I looked things over but couldn't imagine what was going on so I went to sleep.

The next morning, just before six, I woke to a menacing buzz from the door chime. Crossed wires? Fire hazard? I felt a rising electrical worry. I went to the basement and tripped the breaker for the chime and two other breakers. Whoops. I flipped the wrong one back on, set off the doorbell and the dog, woke the family, and startled myself into a brief panic. I tripped the breaker again and went to see what I could do to reset the dog. She was having a fit. Whether it was about learning I don't know.

I was wondering why learning couldn't be just a little less messy. Maybe it can be for other people. Sometimes maybe it's neater even for me. But often enough it's a mess.

There's a lesson in this. Something about kids and teachers in schools. I've been out of teaching school for a few weeks and don't know if I'll ever go back, but I still think along school lines and probably will for a long time. I always used my own learning as the model for my teaching. Messy learning seems as good a model as anything neater.

After I got the dog and my own racing heart calmed down, having shut down the electricity to the chime, I stood wondering what it was all about.

Maybe it's about how ridiculous it is to think that kids learn whatever they're taught and that if they don't learn it right away it's the teacher's fault. I had directions for installing the doorbell and they were clear. It's just that things didn't go as they were drawn up because I didn't know enough. I had to make mistakes and learn from them.

Kids aren't allowed to do that very much at school any more. Neither are teachers, at least not where I used to teach. Mistakes still happen at that school, but making them guarantees that tenure will be denied and the teacher will have to move on. Step on a crack, break your mama's back. If installing the doorbell had been a school project I would have been fired three times over.

Sometimes learning is a messy process done all alone. And when good teachers come along sometimes they simply stand by, doing what appears to be nothing while I fumble around feeling foolish and making mistakes. The outsider, or the passing administrator, wonders what good the teacher is doing standing back, maybe nodding once or twice, but mostly just being there.

All learning has the potential to be messy and deliver shocks. That can hold a learner back, sometimes for seven months.

Who knows what gets us over that. Maybe the good teacher or necessity or boredom on a hot summer day. Maybe it's embarrassment or desperation. Whatever it takes. Then, when we break through the fear, we bungle things until the bungling teaches us what's what. We find an imperfect but working solution that signifies, more than anything else, how much there is left to learn.

I have plenty more thinking about learning and teaching, planning and doing, fearing and trying. If you want to talk any of that over, stop by the house and ring the bell. Let's see what happens. Could be almost anything.

Two Monks, One Person

This Zen parable keeps talking to me:

Two traveling monks reach a town where a young woman waits to step out of her sedan chair. The rains have made deep puddles she can’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. She is very cross and impatient, scolding her attendants who had nowhere to place the packages they hold for her, so they can’t help her across the puddle.

The younger monk notices the woman, says nothing, and walks by. The older monk puts her on his back, transports her across the water, and sets her down on the other side. She doesn’t thank him; just shoves him out of the way and departs.

As they continue on their way, the young monk broods. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he speaks. “That woman was very selfish and rude, but you carried her on your back! She didn’t even thank you!”

“I set the woman down hours ago,” replies the older monk. “Why are you still carrying her?”

I sent in my resignation letter to my old school and am officially out as of 11:59 PM on August 28.

Yet I'm still carrying it.

I checked the school's vacancies list. Most people running the programs and many teachers have been resigned by upper management and no one received tenure. A friend in the program where I toiled shouldn't return in August — the place does him real harm — but that's his call. None of it is my call anymore. I should set it all down.

I struggle still with not being thanked. My efforts were unnoticed and disregarded, so too will my resignation. I was a body filling a space and a new body will fill the space come August. The machine goes on.

The young monk, brooding, shouts, "they didn't even thank me!"

The old monk writes, "You left June 24 and resigned July 16. Keep walking. The trees and sky overhead, the path at your feet, the length of the day stretching before you, and the people you meet, these are all the thanks you need and there are more ahead. Keep walking."

Still I turn to look back. The old monk walking in my tracks smiles at my foolishness which he calls by a gentle name. He waits until I turn and move forward again.

Lessons From Lucy, Dave Barry

Lessons From Lucy by Dave Barry. There's a dog on the cover. There's Dave Barry on the cover. The dog looks both wise and dumb as good dogs should. Dave Barry looks like Dave Barry, I guess. The cover says New York Times Bestseller in all caps so it's not like I'm alone in liking this. Nice to be in the in-crowd. And the publisher has put a subtitle on the thing stating that it's about "the simple joys of an old, happy dog" by which I think they're referring to Lucy, but who knows what they think of Barry or how they refer to him around the office. Could go either way.

My friend Faith suggested the book, so I blame her. I've known Faith forty-one years. I remember how, on her fortieth birthday, a family friend hung a sheet or something on her house saying, "Lordy, Lordy, Faith is Forty." I also remember thinking, "wow, forty is old." And now our friendship is forty-one years old, I'm ten years older than that, and I've come around to a whole new way of thinking about these things, which is to say: wow, forty-one is ridiculously old.

The book is good and fun. It's a self-help book, but Barry knows better than that. He also understands he's stating the obvious in the book and that it's okay. Besides, it's not really a self-help book because it's funny. Self-help isn't allowed to be funny. It's not even allowed to approach funny. There are laws in all fifty states and Rhode Island about these things. Lessons From Lucy is a humor book disguised as self-help too obvious to be real self-help and couldn't be self-help anyway because it's funny, all of which is help to my self.

To give just a taste — mind you, this book tastes terrible even with chocolate sauce — discussing mindfulness, Barry reminded me of my good old days working in schools that often helped teachers by forcing them through day-long sessions about things that obviously didn't matter and would be forgotten before the end of September so that we could spend another day-long session acting as though we were invested in and listening to the presentation and definitely not watching the NCAA Tournament on our phones hidden cunningly in our laps.

I was one of the last people to find out about "mindfulness." By the time I'd heard of it, major corporations and government agencies were putting their employees through mindfulness training. I did not view this as a positive sign. In my experience, any trend that reaches the point where large organizations are inflicting it on their personnel has a high statistical probability of being stupid.

I don't remember what the second lesson for Lucy is (there are seven chapters, each with a lesson from Lucy, and (spoiler!) they follow in numerical order) but it served as an excuse for Barry to describe being a member of a precision lawnmower brigade and the band The Remainders (who play, according to Roy Blount Jr. music falls under the heading "hard listening.") I read it in bed last night and am still married because my wife remained downstairs talking with our daughter while I snorted and giggled through forty-four pages and then reread most of it to snort and giggle some more. After I'm done drafting this, I'll read it again and laugh at the exact same stuff and this may go on for days. I think this is a sign of greatness, that I derive joy from things again and again, sucking the marrow out of life as it were. I hear whispers on occasion, suggesting the possibility that I'm just a simple moron. Another thing that could go either way.

But there really is a part of this for which I blame Faith. The epilogue had me in tears. Not laughing, Dave-Barry-is-so-funny tears, but real ones I had trouble seeing through. The last eight pages I had to keep wiping my eyes and try to breathe normally. Also, I got snot on the book. For this, I apologize to the Onondaga County Library System and everyone else waiting to read Lessons From Lucy, but mostly I blame Faith. So should the librarians.

Don't worry, the dog doesn't die. Lucy doesn't even get sick. She's fine. Everybody's fine. Even me. Everyone is good except Faith who has some serious explaining to do.