Redirection

photo.jpg

It took me 16 years to stop being afraid of my students on the first day of school. 17, if you count my year of student teaching when I showed up to observe other teachers and got tossed into a classroom to sub. Not that I knew what I was doing that first year–that year it seems fair that I quivered in my bad JC Penney pantsuit and stumbled through another teacher’s activities with five classes of kids who were only a few years younger than me.

This is the kind of thing you don’t admit out loud, the being nervous. Or, I guess I don’t hear teachers say it, which is why I’m writing it. Last year I finally came to grips with both the fact that I’ve always been nervous on the first day, and the fact that I was finally not. I know plenty of teachers who say they’ve never been nervous, that they don’t care. These are normal people with human emotions (read: not psychopaths), so I’ve been thinking about why that’s the accepted posture. I definitely don’t think it helps new teachers.

Teaching is weird. It’s you, but it’s also not you. I’ve always understood my teaching self as a character and my class as an act. I have referred to my job for years as The Mrs. Partington Show, and that’s not as much of a joke as it seems. The Mrs. Partington in my classroom is me, but she’s me if I carefully selected all the parts of me that were appropriate for teenage interaction and parent scrutiny; she’s the nice me, the patient me. She’s the me that wants to hear about your freshman football game and will joke with you about Fortnite. The me who wants to spend a lot of time talking about data or how someone is not a great test-taker. That is not me, friends. She is not the me who gets down with an episode of Dr. Quinn on a Thursday night or the me who hides in a hammock for the whole summer with Tristram Shandy. The part of that that’s hardest to reconcile is the human self that stands in front of those kids and that views the emails from the parents–she gets hurt when real conflict happens. The character doesn’t shield the real me.

That’s what I used to be so nervous about on the first day. The whole will they like me? thing. I care. Again, there are so many teachers in my life who deny any attachment to likeability, but I feel like there was at least a kernel of that at one time that inspired them to go into the profession. To say it another way–maybe they respected a teacher so much that they really learned well, and they wanted to have the same relationship with kids. And what’s wrong with being likable? I like students. I don’t think it makes me a strange person to admit that likeability plays a role in education.

I wish there was a magic phrase that helped me stop being nervous last year. I heard so many pieces of advice from veteran teachers that I tried to implement for my first decade and a half. Most consistently, the one about not being able to get meaner as the year goes on. While true, the problem with that for me was that I’m not a harsh disciplinarian, either. Frankly, a lot of things just don’t bother me. I tried starting my year off as a drill sergeant, and it didn’t last–it was as inauthentic as any other time I tried to do someone else’s shtick. The surest way to fail as a teacher is to try to recreate someone else’s thing. I had to figure out how to do this as me.

What finally clicked in year 16–which is late for such realizations, but here we are–was that if I paid less attention to myself, and I focused more on recognizable student behaviors, my job became more about gently correcting course a thousand times a day rather than putting on a show that was so fabulous it would hold everyone’s attention for 5 hours. What I know now is that students act the exact same way every single year at every point in the year. There is nothing new under the sun. I can nail it down almost to the day–when a kid will blurt out a joke to make the class laugh as I’m trying to teach. When someone will draw a penis on one of the desks. When a girl will burst through the door crying because her crush broke her heart. When they will leave a mountain of trash under their desks or destroy one of my books. And in the midst of all of this comes waves of different feelings toward their teachers–anxiety, then suspicion, then rebellion (this one lasts a while), and then a long stretch of comfortable learning, joking and testing the waters of adult conversation. Somewhere in there, we read and write.

This year, year 17, I overslept on the first day of school. I could blame it on the medication I’m taking or the fact that we had three days of soul-crushing meetings just before, but I’m sure it’s because I wasn’t nervous. The first day brought plenty of other challenges–large class sizes and enrollment issues, especially, but I spent most of the day being amused by my students. I enjoyed getting to know them, and I enjoyed the pressure being off. Everything was new, and everything was exactly as it has been for the last 16 years.

I read something about meditation long ago–that you’re not supposed to punish yourself for letting your thoughts drift. That it’s better just to note your thoughts and gently direct them back toward your breath. To just breathe. My role in the classroom is the same. Redirection.

 

Advertisements

In Return

Someone told me once that the best thing you can tell your spouse is often “that sucks”–as in, don’t try to fix things when they’re upset. Don’t try to tell them what to do. Just listen and say, “that sucks.” Because what most people want is to be heard, the feeling that someone else cares about the hard things that happen to you. More often than not it’s what I want: just acknowledgement. Saying “I know exactly how you feel” is untrue. Telling me what to do is awful. And you can forget about “just relax” or “it’s fine.” Well. I am lying about one thing. It wasn’t a person, it was an episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, but it still changed our marriage. “That sucks” is often just right.

IMG_9687

Three months ago, I went back to church. Do you see how I buried that in the second paragraph? It’s hard to write about. A little embarrassing. Church sure has a lot of different connotations, doesn’t it? I feel you forming an opinion. I have an opinion, too, because it’s been almost 20 years. Church is a loaded word, conjuring either a closed mind, or too much liberty with the word of God, depending on which peanut butter you buy in 2018. And my tendency is usually to hem in whatever bits of myself might be most interesting or bold so I don’t offend. But that’s exhausting. At almost 40 I just want to be. Like RuPaul says, “what other people think about me is none of my damn business.” In the last year our cruel president’s policies and my health issues have clarified my sense of self. Remaining silent or immobile is a privilege I don’t want. But I don’t want to do good alone, either. I want to work within in a body that does good for others in the community and the world. I finally realized that the place I’d grown up, a small congregation of the United Methodist Church with its policy of inclusion and a history of serving vulnerable populations–was it.

As a kid, I liked any part of the church service that was said in unison. Sometimes I’d close my eyes and speak along with the prayers that hummed around my head, while the light warmed my ear from the stained glass windows. Often, though, I’d snuggle into my grandma’s side, bow my head and run my finger along the sewn-in seam on the knee of her polyester pants while we prayed. I loved the sounds of the Lord’s prayer. Especially: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. All those good S-es that the debt/debtor people miss. I struggled, then, to think of any trespasses against me. I always had a list of my own.

My church wasn’t cool, but it was earnest. I stopped attending around my late teens–not because I gave up on religion, but because I looked down my nose on my church’s simple and steady routines; they didn’t seem like enough. Please stand for the reading of the Gospel. You may be seated. Let us pray. The creaky pews, the casseroles, the basement fellowship time. Puppets. Choir robes. Powdered lemonade. I wore my Methodism–which comes to me by both sides of my family tree–like a scratchy hand-me-down sweater. I shed it the first chance I got: I was attracted to my friends’ sparkling mega-churches—where people raised their hands in worship and sang the refrains of songs over and over with their eyes closed. These churches had rock bands and LCD screens, dark lights, and altar calls. We were married by a dear pastor in one of those big churches when I was 20. I felt happy there, but when I look back I wonder at the spectacle. It seems like some churches are designed to draw people in to entertain them with the show rather than to inspire service to the community at large. (What rock concert would Jesus attend?) Where I settled, there was so much emphasis on judgment–never from the pastor, mind you. But I can’t avoid the memory of so many prayers for friends in our circle who had “fallen away,” so many whispers about other people’s sin. And so much daily, constant anxiety about my own. It was easy for me to get lost. That wasn’t the case where I grew up, and yet it was the world I found myself absorbed into by my late teens. In 2000, around the time I was married, a group came to a church service to speak about Prop 22, a precursor to California’s Prop 8 Marriage Initiative. I was hardly woke, then, by any standard, and it still felt wrong. Really wrong. I didn’t feel like my heterosexual relationship was in danger if my gay friends could get married. I was disgusted by how people acted in the name of God. Soon I gave up and stopped attending.

For almost the same time that I’ve been avoiding church, I’ve been teaching public high school. In some ways, that was easier. There are strict restrictions about what I can say and what I am allowed to teach. I could never–and would never–espouse a particular political or religious view as the only view in a lesson, and yet my entire job is interpretation. When my job as a critic is quite literally to have opinions, it’s a strange dichotomy. So in the interim, it has worked to believe, quietly, in God. I am positive that I believe in God in such a different way from most people, anyway, and for a time, I felt like that might be wrong. In 2014, I reviewed Sara Miles’ City of God for The Los Angeles Review of Books. Miles, a Director of Ministry at a congregation in San Francisco’s Mission District, writes in her memoir about taking ashes out into the Mission on Ash Wednesday. “God so seldom means just one thing to any individual, much less the same one thing at a time to a whole group,” she writes, “and so worship spills out every place God meets people.” This idea and Miles’ account of faith interacting with the vibrant city spoke to me, so much that on a solo trip to San Francisco, I visited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. I just wanted to see it.

I’m not sure why that detail should be important to you. I’m not sure about Mr. Rogers, either, except I want to tell you that I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor the other day, and I sat alone in a theater, crying a little bit as I watched him tell college kids that they were valuable just because they are, thinking about what a bold idea it is to be loving. Thinking about how many of my students need warmth. “Love is at the root at everything,” he said, “all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” It’s the same feeling I had when I watched Nanette, the groundbreaking Hannah Gadsby comedy special on Netflix, last week. It doesn’t matter why we choose a different kind of story. It’s risky, right? To be open to all people? To believe them when they tell you who they are? Our patterns of storytelling are built around heroes and victories. Power. Mistrust. On a national level, we’ve decided right now that we are going to be in this moment where winning matters. Where having matters. Where everyone is a liar. Going to church right now, being a part of a community, listening, serving others, speaking out, choosing love–these feel like acts of defiance–especially with a group that dedicates itself to serving vulnerable populations.

I’m not even sure if I’m conveying this properly.

I walked into church again on April 15th of this year because I’d just finished a book about recovery by an author who felt like she was too smart for AA’s scripts and clichés. In reviewing the book, I had to examine my own biases–I found that the author’s disdain for the rituals of AA grated against a part of me that felt comfort in repetition, in belief, and in gathering together with others who will listen, or in being someone who says yes, I will be here for you. But also, I read an echo of the pride that made me leave my home church almost 20 years ago. I decided to finally push past my embarrassment about not having gone for two decades and just go. Last Sunday, I sat next to a woman about my age. During the sermon, the pastor asked each of us to think of a time when we had felt most alone in the world. Then he asked us to turn to the person next to us and share. (Church comes with more interaction, now, I guess.) I won’t tell you what the woman shared, but it was painful. I thought about that advice from Parks and Rec as I listened to this stranger who was incredibly vulnerable. As she spoke through her tears, I tried to offer a more eloquent version of “that sucks.” I shared something in return. We stumbled through a conversation, but it had value. 2018 often makes me feel like I need being human classes. Church feels like my way to reach out rather than to reject, right now. A way to acknowledge the humanity of the people around me. Earnest connection, which is something.

What’s in a name?

I have Epilepsy, and I feel a little weird about it.

You will remember that I had a rough autumn of bad health: headaches and insomnia and tongue-biting in my sleep. I felt like I couldn’t control my stress, and I was on the verge of tears all the time. My doctor thought I might be having nocturnal seizures, but he didn’t know for sure. My EEG was inconclusive, even though I bit my tongue in the middle of it. He gave me a long list of things to do to improve my health, and that was overwhelming and hard. Many of those things were for the migraines, and a few were for the seizures: cut out all caffeine, make sleep your new religion, cut the stress. Plus the old medical standard: wait and see.

I started taking Topamax to treat both problems: the chronic migraines I’ve had since my twenties, and the [maybe] seizures. If I stopped biting my tongue, that would tell us something. Well, I stopped biting my tongue. I started feeling way better. It’s amazing how groovy you can feel when you’re not biting your tongue all the time. About three months into the meds, I had another appointment with my neurologist, and he said that we could assume it was seizures, and I should stay with the meds.

Then as is always the case in the spring, I started having discussions at work about next year’s teaching schedule. Immediately, my stress level was through the roof. My health was better, but barely. Worrying about it getting bad again was going to make it bad. I tried to be honest about my health issues and take things off my own plate, but I struggled to say no because I’m a wimp. I felt like I should have a doctor’s note on file so it would be clear that I wasn’t making this stress/seizure stuff up. It’s hard to explain something that you can’t see. It felt like dumb excuses. I asked my neurologist for a letter that explained my condition. I didn’t know how to convey what it was, anyway. Did it have a name? Was there something more specific than nocturnal seizures? Could he put it down on paper in a way that would make sense so people wouldn’t have to Google what was wrong with me?

He did. It took about a month, but he finally sent me a letter, which said, “Heather has nocturnal seizures caused by Epilepsy.”

What.

36404527946_f5c13b4367_o

The funny thing is that I wanted the letter so nobody else would have to Google anything about me. But the letter sent me Googling. What the Google Machine told me is that Epilepsy is what they call repeated seizures without a known cause. So: me. I think my neurologist didn’t use the word at first because we didn’t know, and then he was just being more specific, referring to the specific type of seizures.

This is what I tell myself, anyway. Because he just hadn’t used that word at any time before.

But I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time. For at least the last 15-20 years, I had a terrible daily headache, and I woke up every night in the middle of the night with anxiety and insomnia. That’s not happening, anymore. I still get headaches, but they’re rare, and they usually have a specific cause. I’m still sad I’ve had to cut so many things out of my life–don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty much off caffeine, soda is gone, and I haven’t had a drink since October. I don’t take OTC pain meds more than twice a week. But I’m at a point where decaf tastes like real coffee, and the amount of uninterrupted sleep I get has made a notable difference in my energy, anxiety and migraines. The meds help, but I think that all the lifestyle changes were huge. Damn it.

And I’m not having seizures. To my knowledge, I’ve only had two since October. One, about a week after I started on the meds, and another a few weeks ago. Both times, I was up way too late, and I was unusually stressed. That tells me that what I’ve been doing is working. Sure, it stinks to leave our friends’ houses early, or to go upstairs when my whole family is still hanging out, but I’m better.

Not having seizures all the time is great. I can recommend it.

What we call things doesn’t give them any more power than they have on their own. I know this. As Eric says, nothing is different in my body now that I have that letter. And yet: feelings.

My 60 Day Caffeine and OTC Pain-Med “Wash-Out”

I hate my neurologist.

Of course, this isn’t a static emotion. What was first a panicky hate for his long list of changes has grown into an affectionate grumpiness for the smart man I wish hadn’t been right. Damn him.

In September and October of last year, I kept waking up to bite marks in my tongue. Bad ones, ever-worsening. Besides being confusing, they made teaching difficult. One day I woke up from a nap with my face covered in blood from a deep wound in the right side of my tongue. I didn’t wake up when I bit it. I felt like shit: heavy, weird, and confused. Every muscle ached. Fearing I’d had a seizure, I made some doctor’s appointments.

I was worried because there is something in my head. This isn’t a figure of speech. Midway through getting my MFA a few years ago, when my migraines increased, I had what seemed like a cursory MRI before I could be put on Topamax, a daily migraine medicine. During that MRI, the technician slid me out of the tube and asked me a bunch of questions that were too pointed to seem normal. Have you ever had an MRI before? No. Have you ever had any head trauma? No. Are you sure? Yes. Has anyone ever told you that you had any abnormalities in the left side of your head? No. And at that point, the technician told me she needed to push me back in and do the MRI all over again because she couldn’t be sure of what she saw. My Ativan had worn off. I couldn’t reach my ears through the head cage to get the earplugs back in. I lay there and I cried through the booms and clangs, in full panic attack. What was in my head? An arachnoid cyst, just behind my left ear. My general practitioner wasn’t great about helping me understand it. She sent me an email. She said they’d keep an eye out, wait to see if I had any neurological symptoms. And that was that, for a few years. So when I bit my tongue, when I suspected this might be a seizure, I was terrified.

I promise you, this is about coffee, too. I’m getting there.

My tongue-biting episode led me to the neurologist, which is where I should have gone after that first MRI. He asked me if I wanted to see the last few MRIs of my head. He showed me the surrounding, healthy, brain tissue. He told me I was probably born with the cyst because my brain had grown around it. He said that it couldn’t be causing either my migraines, or the episodes I was having now because of both where it’s located and how it hasn’t changed in several years.

See? I told you he’s smart. He’s kind and comforting, too. That made it hard to ignore him when he told me that I needed to give up caffeine and all OTC pain meds for two to three months if I wanted to make my headaches better.

IMG_8140

“How often do you take over-the-counter pain medication?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Probably four days a week?”

“How much?”

That answer was too high.

“And how many cups of coffee a day?” he gestured to the cup in my hand.

“Oh, this? This is green tea.”

“Green tea has caffeine in it, too.”

“I know. But, uh. Just one cup of coffee a day.” His fingers fluttered across his keyboard.

Diagnosis: rebound headaches. People like me who have chronic migraines can get them from being too used to caffeine and over the counter pain meds.

Prescription: cut out all over the counter pain meds, any use of Imitrex (a migraine medicine I take when I get one), and all caffeine for two to three months. A “wash-out.” After the “wash-out,” I could return to these things, but in an irregular pattern. Caffeine was okay, as long as it wasn’t every day, and I had to do one week a month with zero caffeine. Pain meds no more than twice a week. The hope was that it would lessen my headache frequency.

“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “Your headaches are going to get worse before they get better.” No Tylenol, or Motrin, or Excedrin. Nothing. No coffee, or green tea, or black tea.

Cool.

PWPOE5327

He wasn’t wrong. The two weeks I cut caffeine were awful. I weaned myself with decaf (first three quarters caffeinated, then half, then one quarter, etc), then decaf for a few days, then nothing. Water and herbal tea only. It sucked. When I say “it sucked,” I mean that I had headaches and I was tired and I hated everyone and my body ached. And I wanted to murder my neurologist a little bit.

He also cautioned me that in order to stop the seizures, I needed to get at least eight hours of sleep, and I needed to “reduce my stress.”

Sure, Buddy.

This is my sixteenth year of teaching high school, but it feels like my first. We have all new curriculum–entirely new anthologies–as well as new novels at each grade. I teach two grade levels, which means I am teaching something new to me four times a day, every day. Not to mention learning one hundred and fifty personalities and trying to accommodate each soul as it needs to be taught. We also have an entirely new, entirely confounding computer database this year (and in the fall, I was a trainer for our staff), and the combination of new computer system and 180 days of new literature–times two grades–proved to be more than I could fit into my brain. By the second month of school, I wasn’t sleeping. I would wake up at 3:00 AM, worrying, and I’d think, well, that’s an extra hour of work I can get done. I’ll just get up and create a user guide for the computer system. I was borrowing sleep from both ends of the day, falling asleep late and getting up early. Usually I would wake sometime in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and I’d lay awake trying to make lists of all the things I needed to do.

Sometime last fall, my friend Lizi sent me this podcast from NPR, with scientist Matthew Walker. It inspired me to start harassing my children by telling them that “sleep is the Swiss Army Knife of health.” I believe it, though. The podcast is wonderful, and I can also recommend his book. Cliff Notes version: if you ain’t sleeping, you gonna die, friend. I was putting myself at risk every day. The real science behind how much we need a real chunk of sleep is pretty scary, and my recent brush with nocturnal seizures is proof that I need to stop messing around.

Robbing my sleep was the worst thing I could do. I just didn’t know. I’m a morning person because I like the peace of a quiet house. I like the sunrise and the sound of the coffeemaker. But that means I need to be an early-to-bed person. I like knowing that I’ve given time to the most important task on my list so I won’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day. But I was taking so much time from sleep that my body was shutting down. My neurologist diagnosed me with nocturnal seizures. (Biggest contributing factors: sleep deprivation and stress). Since I left his office in November, I’ve been religious about sleep. I’ve set an alarm to get in bed (not to sleep, but getting in bed about an hour before I want to be asleep makes a huge difference). I try for eight hours, but I usually get about seven and a half. You know what’s happened since I started getting all that sleep? I haven’t been sick once.

Giving up coffee was emotional, in a surprising way. I didn’t realize how it was linked to writing and reading, entirely a part of my routine. I got past the caffeine withdrawal after a few weeks, but I never made it to a point where I didn’t miss the emotional pull. I gave up soda, too, but I couldn’t care less. But at 8.5 half weeks, when a bad day finally sent me over the edge and I gave up on this “wash-out,” it was because I needed a cup of coffee. For my feelings. This process has taught me both that I have a serious lack of vices, and that I am tied more to a daily cup of Joe that I thought. More than once as I tried to muscle through, I thought, maybe it’s just worth it to have headaches, because I really, really love coffee so much.

But of course my doctor was right. After the initial miserable pain, my headaches lessened. I still have them, but more more infrequently. Not being able to take even a Tylenol made me pay attention to headaches before I got them. Before, I’ll admit that I’d just get a headache, and then worry about it later. Now, I’m more likely to try to prevent one before it starts. I’ve found that a lot of my headaches are from bad posture: specifically, sitting badly in bad chairs. I sit to read or type for long periods of time. I need better neck pillows and desk chairs. My tension headaches often turn into migraines (I had three migraines during my “wash-out,” and I couldn’t take anything for them. That was fun.) An added side effect of cutting caffeine was that I slept better.

I found that without coffee, I ate more. I had less of a reason to get out of bed. (Who gets up for tea? Not me.) I realized I drink coffee when I’m bored, rather than eating. I also found that I had to be more honest with myself about how much caffeine I’d been consuming before. Sure, I only drank one cup of coffee when I was home, but if I was out, one “cup” meant a Venti black coffee, and usually a large iced tea somewhere else in the afternoon. Oh, and when I was stressed last fall? I’m sure I was also pounding down the Coke Zeroes. So if I really think about that answer I gave the doc? It wasn’t honest because I wasn’t telling myself the truth. No wonder I had headaches, and no wonder I couldn’t sleep. The other thing this taught me is that most people are completely stupid when it comes to how much caffeine they’re consuming. Decaf is not caffeine-free, dummies. Now I know that herbal tea is just gross water (I never really got on the herbal tea train, although I will say mint tea and chamomile are the least offensive of the herbal teas), and it’s not good, but most people are just downright ignorant about what they consume.

I made it 60 days without coffee or pain meds. I couldn’t do the full three months, but I’m still glad I did it, and I do feel like it had a positive effect on the number of headaches I’m having. For now I’m sticking to decaf for as long as I can, and I’m still not drinking coffee every single day. More importantly, I’m still trying to sleep close to eight hours, and I’m practicing saying no to the constant demands on my time. That’s the hardest part of all of this. It feels like my health is under control, but barely. I need practice.

 

2017: 1 Second a Day

Last year–January 1, 2017 to December 31, 2017–I used the 1 Second Everyday app to capture our life in seconds. The final video is about 6 minutes long, and I love it so much.

Admittedly, it stressed me out a little during the year. I ended up thinking I accidentally deleted what I had so far in early March, and I cried for about 2 days straight. But I recovered what was missing, and I kept it up (almost) faithfully for the entire year.

It’s a little peek into our ordinary life, and I know I’ll be glad to have it for years to come. There are, unsurprisingly, a lot of pets, a lot of swim meets, and a lot of books. Enjoy!