Lessons from a Pencil Skirt

BusinessPeopleSilhouetteWomanA few weeks ago I had parent/teacher conferences at school. It was a nice break in our routine and a good time to regroup and plan goals for each of my students for the remainder of the year. Plus, it provided three days in which I got to wear big girl clothes. We have a relaxed building when it comes to dress code, which is much appreciated considering most days I am sitting on the floor with my second graders. (I don’t trust primary teachers that come to work everyday looking like they’d never get on the floor.) In addition to working at the students’ level, on an average day I put in over three miles of walking. Don’t get me wrong, I love a pair of killer heels as much as the next girl but walk a 5k in heels and talk to me about fashion then. Uncomfortable shoes make me want to sit at my desk, when I’m sitting at my desk I am not working alongside my kids. Again, I don’t trust primary teachers that wear heels every day.

With that said, three days of sitting in a grownup chair, wanting to appear professional, and with the furthest distance I needed to cover being from my table to the door, it was a nice change to be in big girl clothes. On the last of our three days I busted out my black pencil skirt. It was originally purchased a few years ago for a Halloween costume in which Mr. Something and I dressed as the leading couple from Top Gun. 388492_10150481954097792_1834694537_nIt was perhaps my smartest Halloween costume ever; pencil skirt, white button-down, black heels, all great additions to my wardrobe (minus the blond wig! Ack!) As I went through my day I realized that functioning in my pencil skirt was teaching me a few important lessons. Since we don’t meet often I took notice and decided to take the lessons to heart.

1. A pencil skirt will immediately make you feel like you know what you’re talking about.

I’ve been teaching for eight years and given that these were the second round of conferences for the school year, I had an idea of which ones would be a breeze and which ones for which I needed to brace myself. It is a lot of stress and a lot of work leading up to the three days of conferences but when in the throws of them, I really do enjoy being able to sit down with my students’ parents and just talk about their child and what I love to do. However, because of a new report card format I was thrown off my game this time around and needed a confidence boost as I tried explaining something to parents that I was still unsure about myself. In addition to the pencil skirt induced confidence, it was helpful that my students selected work, prepared self-reflections and goals, and presented at the conference themselves. It is always so interesting to see which students sit at the table with confidence, sharing their prepared materials and which will barely glance up above their eyelashes. Students that are outspoken and confident in class can suddenly refuse to read their latest writing when at the table or, in reverse, the quiet and reserved ones can rise to the occasion with giggles and jokes, beaming with pride.

This year’s spring conferences were shaded with a different color. As I slid the folder of work across the table and excitedly announced, “<insert child’s name here> is going to start us off today with some work that he/she chose to share!” I wasn’t just waiting to see what version of my student was going to emerge, but instead I honed in on the family dynamic that was was now sitting at my table. At first the observations are superficial… he has his father’s eyes and his mother’s smile. Then I became a privileged spectator to twenty-two different child/parent relationships. If both parents were present, the child often spoke more directly to one, not the other. Some parents quietly allowed their child to share and nodded with approval over their child’s work. Some were grinning from ear-to-ear and exclaimed and high fived their child over each work sample. Some parents corrected their child while they were sharing or asked them more questions about the projects. Others sat quietly. I did not judge from my side of the table. Even now, weeks later, I have not drawn any conclusions from my three days of this unofficial sociological study, just an awareness. I often wonder what I will be like on the parent side of the table. When asked by Rep 2 about handling IEP meetings for our potential children I just smiled and chuckled a little,”My kids’ teachers are going to hate me.” I’ll have to wear my pencil skirt to the meetings.

2. No matter how much you try to hurry, your top speed is now significantly slower than normal.

This could seem like a detriment but as I attempted to hurry through our school library to return to my first family of the day that arrived ten minutes early when I still needed to get reports to be mailed delivered to the front office, I caught myself doing a little short step half jog. Pencil skirt combined with a pair of pointy black heels meant that this speed was just not going to happen today. I paused, took a deep breath and resumed my trek which inevitably turned into a saunter given the fact that heels were also involved. At my new pace I had a moment to greet our librarian and caught up with the parents of a former student. It’s a shame that pencil skirts are business wear. The pace they force you to take is more more suited to leisure time. It’s as if it was saying, “Slow down! Take in the world around you! You are rocking this skirt and heels! Soak it up!”

It’s easy to rush, to hurry, to find ways to save time but then fill the saved time with more work, more stress, more pencil skirted business. I’m reminded over and over again as we approach our fully licensed foster care status, that life is going to get very busy and very full very soon. I need to appreciate the pace my life has now while I have it. We are so close to being licensed. There are fully built and mattressed bunk beds in our second bedroom, there are plastic covers on our outlets, a new nightlight in the hallway, and a certified second floor fire escape ladder stashed in the closet. We are so close that most days it feels like an ache in my chest. There are kids out there right now that need us, we are going to help them heal and grow, and together we are going to be a family.

We saw Rep 2 last week. The “quick” checklist she needed to go over took about an hour and a half. 75% of the list did not apply to our current situation because there aren’t actually children in our home yet. But, on the upside, it was the last step needed before submitting our paperwork to the state and, thank goodness, the state says that she has two weeks to submit it. Finally a timeline that is not dictated by Rep 2, who really has no idea what she is doing. She followed up with us a few days later and said she asked another Rep that has actually licensed people and found out that our license should be arriving within the next month or so. As soon as we are licensed we can open our home to placements, or find a new agency which is the plan at the moment.

After calling the new agency every day requesting information, I finally heard back from someone. The cell phone buzzing in my pocket in the middle of one of my conferences drove me mad. I knew it was them but I couldn’t answer. She left a message telling me to call her back and leave my name and address so she could send us an informational packet. That was three weeks ago. I’ve only called and left my info once a week so far. Maybe I should go back to my every day calling like before to show that, yes, WE. WANT. TO. HELP. CHILDREN.

“Slow down. Enjoy the view for now.” Says pencil skirt. Okay, okay, I’ll listen for now but it’s not easy to resist the temptation to kick off the heels, hike it up, and start to run.

3. You thought you knew how to get into a car.

Once upon a time, ladies knew the proper way to get into a car. Sit. Lift both feet. Swivel. These ladies were never trying to get into the car with a school bag, a lunch bag, a purse, a yoga bag, and a violin case (welcome to my Tuesdays.) One of our second grade vocabulary words is clamber. It is safe to say that on a regular day, I clamber into my car and count it a success if I don’t drop my phone, my keys, or dump my lunch bag upside down in the process. Pencil skirt, had other plans. Sit. Lift. Swivel. Suddenly the mundanely familiar became complicated, even awkward. The other night, Mr. Something said to me, “Our relationship is going to change when we have kids, isn’t it?” It was a rhetorical question because the answer is apparent to both of us. The routine of our relationship is going to take a new shape. We will be forced to take a step back and decide upon a new approach to every situation. What was once easy and comfortable will somehow not work in quite the same way. One can’t deny the grace of: Sit. Lift. Swivel. But it will take some getting used to.

Am I worried? Not actively. Mr. Something and I have been together for 13 years, other than puberty, we’ve tackled all major life changes together so far.

-Graduating different high schools two years apart

-Attending different colleges, meeting new people, living with roommates

-Graduating from our respective colleges and moving back home

-Starting first jobs

-Getting engaged

-Building a house together

-Getting married

We both wavered in our relationship early on and we both made the decision to come back. We both committed to making it work and we have for over a decade. Think about who you were in high school. We are still here, together, as vastly different (kind of) grown up people. Just like before, there will be adjustments. The familiar will become uncertain and wrought with emotion but pencil skirt says, “It’s what you’ve done every day but this time just: Sit. Lift. Swivel. And you’ll be on your way.”

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Passion and Weakness

question-marks2On Tuesday I received an email from the supervisor of foster care and adoptions at the agency we applied to. She thanked us for our application and shared that our assigned licensing representative would be getting in touch with us sometime within the next two to three weeks. As a courtesy she also included, “If you have any questions in the meantime, feel free to contact me.”I was just thinking how amusing it would be to really contact her with ALL of the questions we have right now. The questions that we will eventually find answers to (What type of financial assistance comes with fostering?) along with the others that only life can answer (Can we handle this?) She may regret ever offering.

I am a teacher and this week I had to go to bat for one of my students. Some pretty big decisions were being made about this student’s education and whether or not the child belongs in the general education classroom. The special ed team was divided and quite a few were on the fence ready to be tipped one way or another. The weight of the decision pulled me down for days. Knowing that absolute failure or success could be possible with either decision, and only time would tell, was a terribly helpless feeling. The truth of the matter was that no one knew for sure what the “best” decision was. Yes, there were assessments and data but, as educators, we all knew that behind the numbers there is a child, a child with an educational future balanced in our hands.

In the final meeting, at the height of the debate, I simply lost it. I couldn’t hold back the tears. I am generally a pretty closed-off person emotionally, they are far from being stitched on my sleeve, however, when things get intense, if I get angry or frustrated, or simply feel completely helpless, as I did at that meeting, there’s no holding back the tears.  I was embarrassed. All I wanted to do was stand tall and make a poignant and confident case for what I believed in but all I could do was sit there and try to not let my tears turn into an ugly cry as my colleagues looked on.  Instant tears have always plagued me and ruined many moments of would-be triumph in situations that have tested me.  After what totalled up to be about two hours of conversations around this student, a compromise was eventually reached and we are bringing it to the parent on Monday. What her final say on the matter will be is yet to be determined.

Fighting so fiercely for this student, for needs that might not be far off from the needs of my someday children, rocked me. I want to be a strong and confident parent that can go to bat for their child when needed. I want to be able to stand up in a courtroom, a conference room, or a classroom and fight for what I think is right for their wellbeing without being reduced to tears and choked sobs. If I am so moved by this passion and determination for a student that is mine for only a school year, how is it going to compare to the ferocity with which I will want to fight for my someday children? Mr. Something may need to lead that charge. I’ll be sure to write notes for him. 🙂

Whirlwind

The week of October 15th was one of the most emotionally and physically difficult weeks of my life. On Monday, I hugged my students a little tighter before they left knowing that my union would most likely be on strike the following day. With negotiations leading nowhere and the school board’s constant misrepresentation of the facts, the outlook for the next morning was grim. Sure enough, at 5am my cell phone rang and the prerecorded voice of our superintendent told me that school would not be in session because the teacher’s union had moved to strike. My heart sank. In a few hours my students would be waking up in their own beds and they would be told that there was no school. Too young to understand, it would provide the thrill akin to that of an anxiously awaited snow day, but surely they would be told something about the teacher strike. What were their parents telling them? Which side were they on? What would they think of me or say to me when we finally returned?

Three hours later I reported to the sidewalk outside of my school, a building that has been my home away from home for the last seven years. With my jacket zipped and a hat pulled over my ears against the cold, I hoisted my sign and we began our walk, knowing that for once I had to set aside the selflessness that comes with teaching and stand up for the integrity of my profession and of the district from which I had always planned to retire.  There were honks of support but it was difficult to ignore the dirty looks, the head shakes, and rude gestures. News came during the day that despite the school board’s public stance on doing everything possible to reach an agreement, they had suspended our insurance. On and on we walked. Every major news channel had reporters on site, newspaper reporters, photographers… suddenly, us teachers, used to our relatively solitary professional lives, were in the spotlight. Co-workers and dear friends were being interviewed for the 5:00 news, all the while hoping that no one accidentally said something that could be misconstrued by the media. It was surreal. 9 1/2 hours and 15-17 miles later I climbed my aching body into my car and finally allowed myself to cry. Almost too exhausted to even do that I drove home with nothing but the feeling of dread that we were most likely going to be right back out there tomorrow. How was I even going to get out of bed?

The emotional and physical toll was far greater than I had ever anticipated and in the midst of this career turmoil, Mr. Something and I had an orientation at an adoption agency on our calendar for the very next day. My head could not have been further from our Tiny Human Project that week but I was committed to taking our idea beyond our diningroom table conversations and into the real world. I went to bed that Tuesday night not knowing if I would be waking up to walk the picket line again or to get back on track with my students. Such uncertainty lead to fitful sleep despite my exhaustion. At 5am I awoke in the darkness to the buzzing of my cell phone. Once again the prerecorded voice of my superintendent, but today he reported that the board and the teachers had reached a tentative agreement after 17 hours of negotiating, school would be in session.

I rolled over as my eyes adjusted to the early morning gloom and stared at the ceiling in utter shock. Knowing how little faith the board had in the idea of a quick settlement I was certain we would be striking again. As my mind slowly shifted gears and I began to plan an entirely different sort of outfit for my day, I remembered a district meeting that all second grade teachers were expected to attend that very day. Surely they would allow us to be with our students instead. There was no reason it couldn’t be rescheduled. I tried to check my school email on my phone but we were still locked out of it. I wanted to begin substitute plans just in case but my laptop had been collected and was locked in my principal’s office. Once again I found myself having no idea what my day was going to hold. When I arrived at school I learned that the meeting was still on but we were starting a little later than originally planned. Grateful that my students would get to see me before I left, I began frantically writing sub plans, a process, when I do it as well as I like, can take about two hours. I had 40 minutes.

When my student’s saw the substitute they asked if I was still on strike. When I told them, no, that I had a meeting to go to they asked if it was about the strike. “I saw you walking on the street yesterday!” Second graders are too young to understand, I needed to be there with them but I was heading to the district office. A building that had been ground zero just twenty-four hours ago. Yesterday they had told me to turn in my laptop, they deactivated my keycard, and they suspended my insurance. Today they were serving me bagels and sweets and telling me how happy they were to see me. The drastic flip of circumstances left my head spinning. My coworkers were beaming, jubilant to be back, but bitterness clung to me. I like to think that I may have slipped back into it a bit more easily if I could have been with my students but I was left feeling like a traitor sitting in the district office all day.

Despite the emotional turbulence of the day, Mr. Something and I had a meeting downtown at 6:00. He had taken the day off, originally planning to walk the picket line with me so we could head into the city together that evening. But since I was sitting in a meeting all day, he stayed home and took the train into the city where I would meet him. It was pouring by the time I left work, and being a creature of the suburbs, I have never been comfortable driving in the city. The rain didn’t help. I didn’t know where I was going. I missed streets and struggled to parallel park my Subaru Forrester (after driving a Mini Cooper for 6 years, it’s a bit different when it comes to parking now!) It took me twice as long to get into the city than I had expected and by the time I arrived I was practically in tears from frustration.

Mr. Something was waiting for me in a pub that he found called The Beetle. He had dinner waiting and had stashed a bag of chocolate chip cookies in his bag for me, knowing that despite the end of our strike, it was going to be a tough day for me. The pub was nothing spectacular. Vinyl covered chairs, and a battered floor covered in black paint, but as I sat there decompressing with Mr. Something over chicken quesadillas and a hummus platter I spotted an uncharacteristically ornate chandelier in the ceiling. A tribute to a past life of the building we were sitting in. Something about the contrast of the present establishment that we were sitting in and the beauty of this giant chandelier centered me. I snapped the photo knowing that through the drama of the week that single shining detail of this evening would stay with me. After our quick dinner we were on our way to the agency. The rain had stopped, I was on Mr. Something’s arm, and we were moving forward… together.

For now, it’s past my bedtime. Nineteen second graders are rather unforgiving if I come to work a bit groggy from not getting enough sleep the night before. 🙂  To be continued…

Summertime and the Livin’s Easy

It’s been too long! As I should have expected, the end of the school year stole every spare moment I had within reach. But here I am now, comfortable on the couch with my feet up and that vast, vacant, “now what?” feeling that I always get on the last day of school.

Packed up for the summer.

Teaching is a profession that can easily consume every ounce of your creativity, focus, and drive. This is a blessing and a curse. I love having a job that I can pour myself into. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else and right now in my childless life, I am able to give 100% of myself to the kids with whom I spend my day. I know that someday when I have children of my own that amount of energy and focus will wane but for now I thrive on it.

I spent hours over the last week making a video yearbook for my students. Pictures and video clips set to music, burned onto real DVDs, and encased in actual DVD boxes with beautiful covers adorned with a class picture on the front and personalized individual pictures of me with each student on the back. The moment that first copy popped out of my laptop I slipped it into our DVD player and there it was on our TV screen in our living room. A year of memories, laugher, learning, and growth. I hopped up and down like it was Christmas to see it finally in it’s published state. Mr. Something can attest to the fact that I am a very mellow person and not much makes me hop up and down like it’s Christmas, sometimes not even Christmas itself! I couldn’t wait to play it for my class and when I did it was exactly as I wanted it to be. They cheered and laughed and pointed out silly moments that I caught on camera. They next day, after they went home with their own copies I got incredible emails and phone calls from parents telling me what a wonderful job I did, that they watched it after the kids went to bed with a glass of wine and shed a few tears in reflection of years slipping by. I love my job. I love being able to leave a little piece of myself in the lives of the children that sit in my classroom each year.

The end of the year always consumes me. It consumes me in a wash of nostalgia, creativity, and my never-ending pursuit of making it “perfect” for my second (soon-to-be- third!) graders. I love it, I thrive on it, but as is evident from my lonely blog here, other passions tend to step aside to let the maniac end-of-the-year teacher lady take center stage. It’s a strange thing to be so ultimately consumed in something and then have it come to an abrupt end. There’s always a strange twist in my stomach as I tape my classroom key to the “check out” form and hand it to the secretary. Cold turkey. Can’t get into my classroom even if I wanted to. It’s always a bit too abrupt for my taste. The maniac end-of-the-year teacher lady has been pushed off the stage. She’s gone clattering down into the orchestra pit and the other passions are peeking out from the wings, wondering if it is safe to take the spotlight once again. Is she really gone?

Ah, yes, our Tiny Human Project, a relative newcomer on the bill. A few weeks ago, before the maniac lady pushed her way to the front, THP was getting restless. I asked Mr. Something what exactly are we doing to get ourselves closer to THP. A conversation ensued that resulted in a list of things to do before moving forward. Paying off a bit of car debt, finding a new job, selling our house, and moving to lessen our commutes were a few of the main items. (Oh, is that all?) I’m okay with this. I don’t want to get in over our heads but I was restless. I wanted to know what I could be doing to move ourselves forward. Mr. Something put it simply… start saving more money. To start saving more money I decided that a good place to start would be to make more money. A summer job was out of the questions. Who would hire me for two months? Not to mention that we have something going on every weekend until the end of July. Retail was out of the question. Tutoring? Music lessons? I feel like I have tried these veins before with no success.

One Saturday a few weeks ago, it finally hit me. I was sitting at a home jewelry party that a co-worker was hosting. Naturally the saleswoman gave her pitch about joining the company, making your own hours, making extra cash… The prospect of selling jewelry didn’t excite me but a few years ago I hosted a home party for 1154 Lill. It’s a Chicago based company that makes custom purses and bags. You pick your style, you pick the fabrics, and in a few weeks your bag arrives in the mail. So much more fun at a party than picking jewelry out of a catalogue! Suddenly I had my plan. Within a week of that jewelry party I looked into becoming a Lill on location stylist, filled out the online application, had a fabulous phone interview, and will be attending a day and a half of training in July to become a stylist. I can make my own hours, it’s creative, I get adult interaction for a change, and my 15% commission is going right into the THP fund. Well it’s more like the pay off the debt and save up for a down payment fund, but step 1 must come first. I’m excited to be moving forward with something. The restless planner inside me is appeased for now. I just wish I could be getting started sooner! There was a June training scheduled for this weekend but we are heading off for a weekend camping trip with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew.

Summer break is in the air! Good things are on the horizon and I’m looking forward to frequenting my happy little blog more often and continuing with our careful steps forward.