Back to School

IMG_1518School started this week.  For the past three years, I’ve missed the first day of school, so in a way I was excited this year that my life has settled down enough that I could do something normal, like go to work without being paralyzed with grief, or wondering if my son was dead, or rushing off to a radiation appointment.  I was ready, right?  Positive.  Cheerful.  Thinking about new projects. Ready to see my pals.   But when I got into the auditorium on the first teacher day, all my excitement drained away.

First off, when  I looked around and it was like a flashback from twenty-three years ago when I first entered the same auditorium as a student teacher.  I remembered looking at women pushing fifty sporting new dye jobs and geometric patterned skirts and thinking, “Lord, don’t let that happen to me.”  And while I don’t dye my hair, or wear primary colors or chiffon, I realized I have become one of those women teachers who are making fans out of handouts and rolling my eyes at the new teachers rolling out their Pinterest bulletin boards.  I sat and listened to two days of educational presentations and realized new ideas are just old ones dressed up in new clothes.  I went into my classroom and colleagues came to me whining and complaining about a schedule that didn’t meet their needs.  I acquiesced to their wishes.  Even if it puts thirty rowdy nine year olds in my room at one time, it’s way easier to agree, than to argue about what’s best for kids.   I came home in tears, feeling drained and trapped.

Hours later I was still crying.  And I wondered if maybe I was going through a mid-life crises.  Do women have those?  I mean I don’t want a convertible or a trophy wife, but I also don’t know if I can handle all the stupid shit.  All the discussions of hallway rules, and auditorium rules and bathroom rules and math scores and reading programs.  I’m so tired of acting like these things are important.  Where else in the entire world do people line up in single file to get to a destination, except for elementary school?  And dealing with the emotions of a building were half the women are having babies and the other half, hot flashes is intense.  I know I’ve been through a lot in my life, but I wondered if this might be the breaking point.  Kids hadn’t even stepped in the building and I was already dreading the year.  To cheer myself up, I went into my backyard and sat on my swing and watched the hummingbirds in the rose garden.

Last week, the kids and I went on whirlwind tour of college campuses on the East Coast.  One day we went to the beach and took a ride on the Wonder Wheel.  The Wonder Wheel is a eccentric Ferris wheel, which means that some of the cars are built on tracks that swing up and down as the wheel rotates.  Imagine that, swinging 150 feet in the air with the skyline of Manhattan on one side, the Jersey shoreline on the other.  I told the kids that when I retire I am moving to the beach.  Darian thought that was a good idea.  Shayne didn’t respond; he was still not completely responding to his meds and spent most of the trip, lost in his own head.

So I was sitting on my swing, thinking about all this and knowing retirement is not an option, when Shayne came out and joined me.  We just found out that his kidneys are being damaged from the antipsychotic drugs.  The drugs are fighting one war and staging another.  No wonder, little petty things about school are under my skin, I am watching my kid die a little every day.  Shayne turned to me and said, “Thanks, mom.” I said, “For what, bud?”  And he waved his arm around, indicating the yard, “For all this, thanks.”  I smiled and put my hand on top of his.  So I guess I’m not really having a mid-life crises.   I just forgot that this journey is about breathing and enjoying every moment. No matter where I am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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50

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Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

I watched Oprah faithfully in my teens and twenties.  I remember one episode when Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle joined the show to talk about aging.  One of them said turning 50 was liberating.  You had finally grown into yourself.  50 was something to celebrate, not dread.  For whatever reason, I have never forgotten that.  A few years ago, when one of my best friends turned 50, I told her she should do something epic to celebrate.  She trained for a half marathon–an epic show of strength and accomplishment. I guess I  had in my mind that maybe I’d ride my bike to the coast, but slogging through the last years have already been an epic show of strength and accomplishment.  I have asked myself at least twenty times, “how much stronger do I have to be?”  So my idea of celebration fell more in the –fabulous vacation, or hot air balloon ride, or a giant party with all my friends.  What actually transpired was all of that and more.

I’ve only been in this house for a month.  The hard wood floors need to be refinished.  There is paneling in the downstairs bathroom.  I have two rooms that I’m unsure what to do with.  There are still a few boxes unpacked and the bathroom upstairs needs a remodel to become a fully functional adult bathroom.  Not to mention that the garage has no electricity, the fence is in pieces all over the backyard, and I have been referring to the landscape as “ground zero,”  but I’m already more comfortable in this house than I was in the house I lived for fifteen years.  So it made sense to have the party here and make it a birthday/house warming event.

I woke up thinking all sorts of crazy things–is James going to want to sleep with a 50 year old woman, can I still buy t-shirts at Hot Topic, should I get a tattoo, or a convertible?  But then I met my lifelong friend to get my nails done.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a nail salon.  I used to go with my mom.  Her perfectly manicured nails of dusty rose still flash in my head when I think of her, but on my birthday, I found myself reflecting on my own hands.  I have a vein that seems to have become dark and prominent, and a few brown spots, but my burn scar is faded and almost invisible. In my. college year book, there is a photo of just my hand as I lined up for a shot at a pool table.  The photo is both artsy and sexy.  My hands don’t seem young anymore, but my fingers are still long and slim.  I wear jewelry now–mom’s wedding ring, a cancer survivor ring, a tiny turquoise ring that my dad gave me as a child, and a birthstone ring with jewels for my kids and my parents.  Looking at the rings anchored me and I relaxed into the experience of being pampered and enjoying my birthday.

The party was so fun.  Balloons and streamers and food and drinks.  But most of all–my friends.  All the people who are consistently in my life on a day to day basis filled my house from the front porch to the kitchen.  My friends have pulled together for me so many times over the years, but this time there was no trauma or tragedy, just joy. It’s exactly what I wanted–a day with people I love.  I wasn’t expecting any gifts, but was honored and touched at all that I received.  My workmates came together and gave me a hot air balloon ride.  It’s on my bucket list.  I had offers when I went through cancer treatment, but I didn’t want to go then.  I felt like the balloon ride would be something to look forward to when I was fully recovered.  I guess that’s now, right?  I can’t wait to be high in the sky with endless vistas before me.  It’s a great metaphor for how it feels to turn fifty.

When I finally went to bed, I realized that I was truly happy.  I’ve made it through challenges and still believe in love and grace.  I have amazing friends and a beautiful family and I’m lucky.  I could’t blow out 50 candles in one breath, but it doesn’t matter because all my wishes have come true already.

DI

I know I haven’t blogged in a while.  My goal this year is to write for publication.  Blogging is considered “previously published” and a lot of magazines, journals, other writing venues won’t take previously published work.  So, I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus on my on-line journaling.  However, I figure Destination Imagination is worth a blog post!

Most people have no idea what DI is.  So here’s my answer that doesn’t even cover it–but basically DI is a world-wide problem solving competition for creative thinking.  It is for K-university level students and incorporates challenges in science, art, acting, engineering and community service.  I got started in 2001 when I came to Canon City as a Gifted and Talented teacher.  A parent wanted me to do a team, so I said sure, even though I’d never heard of DI before.  I was also a half time teacher and missed a chunk of the season on maternity leave.  I read the first challenge that showed up on the screen and didn’t even realize there were other options.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  My kids didn’t know what they were doing and we showed up at the regional competition completely unprepared.  We took a first place medal though, because no other middle school had done the challenge.  The DI challenge masters wanted to help my team so they could have a better experience.  We went to state and completed the challenge.  It wasn’t great, but it made me want to learn more and do a better job.  The next year, I dived in with five teams.

In the early years, it was rough.  I had to learn how to let the kids do the projects themselves, but to give them the kind of guidance to help them be successful.  I learned a lot about team work and how to help kids find the synergy they needed to get the job done.  My teams started doing better and qualifying for the state competition consistently.  Finding the funding was always a challenge.  Sometimes the gifted and talented program would support a team.  Sometimes the money would come from the school.  More often than not, I paid for it out of my own pocket.  I sold lollipops, had garage sales, bake sales, dances, and begged for supporters.  I’d carry around duct tape, cardboard, PVC pipe and call myself a “bag lady in training.”  I’d drive to all the competitions around the state to see what other teams were doing and learn to about the challenges my students were competing in.  I guess you could say DI was my thing.

My own kids grew up with my early DI teams.  Darian couldn’t even walk at her first DI competition and all the team held her and carried her around at practices.  Shayne, already a natural improv kid at eight years old, looked forward to competing in middle school.  It was his team in eighth grade that became my first team to qualify for global finals.  I will never forget our school being announced that night in Denver and all the cheers and high- fives as hundreds of Colorado kids watched us go up to the podium to receive our medals.

Global finals for Destination Imagination is the Olympics of Creative Thinking.  Picture 10,000 kids wearing clothes made of duct tape dancing and laughing and using their imagination in wild, creative ways for five days.  Picture 10,000 kids from different countries trading tiny medal pins and cheering each other on.  It kind of makes you believe that world peace could happen. It kind of makes you believe that things like world hunger could be solved.  It kind of makes you believe that education could be an amazing tool for changing the world.  It kind of makes you believe that anything is possible.

When I started school this year, I wanted to do a better job.  Cancer is behind me.  And I’ve accepted Shayne’s illness as my normal.  I live it everyday, but I also try to leave it at the door when I can.  I know teaching has become this thing I do to put food on the table.  I wanted to rekindle my passion and my creativity again and I started to think about DI and I decided to come out of retirement and coach a team.    I went to a PTO meeting and asked if they’d support a team.  Teachers nominated some students.  I met with their parents and we were off.  It wasn’t easy.  I’ve never coached an elementary team before and it’s been a long time for a team of girls.  Girls are emotional.  They cry.  And fight.  And I underestimated how much time they needed to get the job done.  Plus I decided to sell my house mid-season.  Another teacher stepped up to help, and I am grateful.  She made it possible.

I asked Shayne if he’d like to come to the competition to help carry props and supervise.  Life is rocky at best with Shayne.  He isn’t always consistent with his meds.  He struggles with the symptoms of voices and lots of times he is lost in his own fog.  He rarely interacts with anyone but me, not trusting his perceptions in public.  Yesterday, though, he was up, dressed in his 2011 state champion shirt, ready to rock and roll.  He ended up filling in a spot as a runner/timekeeper, which meant he ushered teams back to their instant challenge and kept time for teams all day long.  I was worried, but he said it was great.  He said he loved watching the kids come up with their solutions.  He said, “They always went right for the pencil.  I remember being there.  The pencil is never the best option.”  We started laughing over all our DI memories–like driving home from a state competition in a raging blizzard, or drinking an entire gallon of milk before the performance, so he’d have a plastic jug as a prop, or some of the insane names he thought of for team names.  He said, “I hated school, but knowing I had DI probably made me graduate. Thanks for doing that for me.”

Another amazing thing about yesterday, was seeing a former DI member coaching her own team.  She told me, it was her third year.  This girl was all drama, but smart and creative and pretty amazing.  It was so gratifying  to see her with her own team.  What would that be– my grand-team?

Anyway.  My little team of six girls and one boy did their best yesterday.  They met all the components of their challenge.  They forgot some lines in their skit and their technical device got a little hung up on the cardboard and they were scared and nervous, but they did a great job anyway.  When they went to do their instant challenge, they came together as a team and used their creativity in innovative, original ways and poured out of the building with the confidence of ROCK STARS.  Hearing our team announced as second place winners was thrilling and exciting.  The joy and surprise on their faces will be a memory I will have forever.

Once again Destination Imagination has inspired me to believe that with hard work and little creativity, anything is possible.

Sugar

10245549_10202313063532727_8801878069667122338_nAbout two months ago, I had an appointment with my medical oncologist.  This particular doctor looks like a grown up version of Harry Potter.  He grew up in San Luis and his sisters and oldest brother went to SSA and the Abbey.  In fact, one of my friends had a massive crush on his brother when we were in middle school.  And then to further my fifty layers of friendship in a small world, I knew one of his younger brothers from my years at Upward Bound in Alamosa.  Taking my shirt off for this man is kind of weird.  Yeah, he’s a doctor, but he’s also Camille and Theresa’s little brother.  But moving beyond all that, he is the guy that’s managing my care for the next ten years, maybe the rest of my life.  And there is no disputing his brilliance.

In the last few weeks, two people I know have been diagnosed with breast cancer.  One of these people seriously considered not doing the prescribed treatment–surgery, radiation, hormone therapy.  I listened to her reasons both with understanding and alarm.  I understand being scared and putting my trust in the hands of medical professionals, when my life experiences have not given me great reason to trust doctors.  However, I also know someone who did not do the prescribed treatment and she’s dead now.  It’s a personal choice, I suppose, but current treatment for breast cancer is highly effective.  In the same breath, I admit that I’m not following the hormone therapy regime.

My brilliant, Harry Potter look alike doctor, prescribed  this drug called Tamoxifen.  I took it for awhile.  I have spent every single day for three years struggling with Shayne to take his antipsychotic medicine.  I wondered why it was so hard to take the damn pill at the same time everyday.  But I had a little more understanding with the Tamoxifen.  I didn’t really want to take it in the first place, and it gave me severe mood swings.  I work with small children.  I can’t have mood swings.  On any given day, I want to strangle at least one child, so being on a drug that makes me angry and weepy and delirious in the span of six minutes is not good for my career.  My cancer was estrogen positive which means that estrogen had a hand in feeding my cancer. When I had the hysterectomy in February, I thought that my estrogen source would be removed and I wouldn’t have to take the drugs anymore.

My radiology oncologist was in a panic about this because he said that a hysterectomy only improved my chances slightly and that I should still be taking whatever drug menopausal cancer patients get.  I told him that I was willing to take the risk and that if the cancer came back, I promised not to have regrets.  He kind of threw up his hands and wrote a long note to my medical oncologist about my stubbornness.  But Dr. Pacheco actually agreed with me!  He said that because my reoccurrence rate was low, he felt like I could continue to be healthy if I continued my check ups, controlled my diet and exercised.  He actually wrote out a prescription which I have posted on the fridge–Eat vegetables, meat, nuts, seeds, some fruit, a little starch and NO sugar.  No honey.  No agave.  No substitutes.  NO sugar.   He also told me to exercise as hard as I can three days on, one day off.  He recommended Crossfit.    And to fast for sixteen hours once a week.

I’ve not been back to Crossfire, I mean Crossfit,  but I’m exercising and I’ve cut out sugar.  It really hasn’t been so bad except for two things.  Beverages and pizza.  I don’t drink coffee, but I was used to drinking hot apple cider or white hot chocolate in the mornings, or a horchata or a lemonade in the afternoons.  I visited my favorite barista a couple of times a week and I’d stop off at Starbucks in Pueblo or Springs, and I was a regular Happy Hour costumer at Sonic.  Even when I drank tea at home, I’d dump in a large dollop of honey.  But I’ve gotten accustomed to drinking tea at home, without honey or just warming up my water if I want something hot in the morning.  Sometimes I still crave the afternoon pick me up of a sugary drink.  I look in the refrigerator and realize my choices are water, or water.  But I’ve started to eat my piece of fruit then, and that has helped a lot.    I still stop off and see Katie at the coffee shop on the weekend, mostly because I love her and enjoy catching up.  She fixes me an herbal tea without sugar.  I guess I’m saving a ton of money without the morning drink.  So that leaves pizza. At first I tried to pretend that pizza doesn’t have sugar in it.  I have eaten it, but my repressed Catholic guilt came screaming back. I walked into the lounge at school this week and there was a sausage pizza from Dominos.  Yesterday in the teacher kitchen there was a box of gourmet vegetarian pizza by the microwave.  I didn’t eat any either time.   It’s not realistic to think I will go the rest of my life without pizza, but I’m committed to trying life without  sugar.  Except on my birthday.  I’m having pizza when I turn 50.  To all my friends who are planning my surprise party, make sure there is pizza there.  And not the “healthy” kind.  I want it loaded–Chicago style with lots of sausage.

Teachers survive on sugar.  There is chocolate at staff meetings.  Kids come around with birthday cookies and cupcakes almost everyday.  Most teachers have jars of M&M’s and Skittles on their desks.  I even have a cache of Jolly Ranchers that I pass out to kids.  And there is the frequent FAC.  But candy doesn’t mean that much to me, and I’ve never been much of a drinker, so that’s not been too bad.  But, I’ve discovered that there is sugar in everything.  Even frozen vegetables in my freezer have sugar in the ingredients.  So eating takes way more prep than I am used to. If I forget my lunch, or don’t give myself time for breakfast, I can’t just run to Taco Bell  or Sonic like in my old life.  I really have to think about food. I’m grateful that my boyfriend grows such a bountiful garden.  I’m surviving on his homemade soups and canned veggies and his applesauce has become my big staple.   But the big pay off is,  I  have more energy and the low level depression I’ve been fighting seems to have disappeared.  I find myself thinking about doing a 5k to ring in the new year.  I feel strong and healthy enough.  All in all, not so bad, for a chick who once considered starting a 12 step program for carb addiction.

House

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I moved into 2903 N. 5th fifteen years ago.  To be honest, I’ve never loved this house, but there were things that I liked about it.  First off, it has a huge garage.  I can store my Christmas stuff, and wine bottles that people keep giving me, and all my books from my childhood that my mother kept until I had a place big enough for all of them.  The backyard is pretty great.  It’s got a good mix of grass and growing space and shade trees. I have raspberries and roses and a swing and now a great porch covering that brings down the temperature in the house in the summer heat.  The master bedroom gets amazing morning sun and has a closet that holds all my clothes and shoes without being crowded.  And it has two full bathrooms.  I grew up in a house with one bathtub and multiple people. I don’t know how we did that.  I could never do that again.  Having my own bathroom that I don’t to share is a deal breaker for me now.  The location of the house is another bonus.  It’s a five minute walk to the Washington Street trailhead for Hogbacks trail system.  Shayne got his start on his cross country career running back there everyday for a decade and a half.

There are three things I am not crazy about: first off, the garage is built in front of the living room, so I only have northern windows in that room.  I like lots of light, so even though it’s cozy for a movie and shady in the summer, it’s dark in the living room.  The house is on Park Center water, which is a little more expensive than regular city water.  I lived on a thousand acre cattle ranch that had a well.  That water was ORANGE and my bathtub and toilet were rust colored from the mineral deposits.  So Park Center water is not like that, so I didn’t think too much about it. And it’s improved in the years that I’ve lived here.  I know some people have had problems with the water, but it hasn’t been horrible.   But the thing that brought me to consider moving was the bedroom layout.  All the bedrooms are on one side of the house.  Since Shayne’s mental illness has developed, living across the hall from him is tough.  I listen to him pace.  I listen to him talk to his voices.  I listen to his screams when the heater comes on and he hears the soul snatchers come up from the vents.  Music helps him drown out the voices.  So I also listen to his music which varies from hardcore gangster rap to mediation music that honestly makes me feel like someone is running their nails over and over on a chalkboard.

I’ve been watching Zillow.  I’ve been looking for a place with a two bathrooms, a garage, a yard and a “mother in law” situation.  But I’m also super conservative with money and I don’t want to go up in my mortgage.  I found a place a year and half ago, but then I got cancer and that just didn’t seem like a good time to make a decision like moving.    Then I decided maybe I would just stay put.  Darian’s going to college in a few months and maybe Shayne will be more stable and get his own place, and I’ll be fine here.  But then July happened and Shayne had that major setback and I realized that his mental health is a lot more precarious than I want to admit.  And honestly, he hasn’t been incredibly stable since July.  I’m okay with him living at home, but if I don’t get some privacy, I’m going to end up with some mental health issues myself.

I’ve heard for months how great the market is and how fast houses are selling.  My neighbors didn’t even have the sign up for a day when they had a contract on their house.  But my house is not selling–Park Center Water is one of the reasons.  I can’t change that and I’m not just giving the house away.  It’s got a new furnace and a new roof and was painted in August. Maybe letting D pick the colors was a bad idea.  It doesn’t stand out from the neighborhood, but it looks a little Mediterranean.  I found a house I like that has most of the things on my list, but I can’t buy it, if my house doesn’t sell.

And I keep thinking of my parents.  They helped me do so much at this place.  My last conversation with them took place in the driveway.   Then I think, maybe I’m not meant to move.  Maybe I’m supposed to stay here.  Maybe it’s a test of patience.  It’s just so hard to know.  I guess the only thing I can really do, is just take it day by day and see what the universe has in store for me.

 

Thanksgiving

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Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Thanksgiving’s never been my holiday.  Oh sure, I like the food and the parade on TV and having a week off to celebrate is amazing, but it’s not my fave.  As an adult, it reminds me that I don’t have strong traditions in my life.  And without my parents, I barely have any.  So here I am, 49 years old, having my second Thanksgiving dinner ever at my own home with my small, non-traditional nuclear family.

I CAN cook, much to probably a lot of surprise to a lot of people.  I grew up with Rose after all, even if it was by more osmosis, I did learn a few things by watching her do it five million times.  Like I made deviled eggs this morning.  I didn’t need to get down a recipe book, or look it up on my smartie pants phone.  I actually knew exactly how to do it, even if I have never done it before.  I have never made stuffing before either, but I can read the directions on the bag.  I did go to college.  I threw it in the crockpot, because that seemed like a fun way to make it.  I think it tastes kind of mushy, but Shayne keeps taking tastes, so at least he likes it.  If no else eats it, it won’t go to waste.  James handled the turkey.  This is probably best.  Raw meat.  Salmonella.  I don’t want to poison anyone.  I’m NOT that good of a cook.

My mom has never been more on my mind.  I can’t believe she did this shit all by herself for like sixty years of her life.   I put on her bathrobe this morning when I went out to the kitchen to see if the turkey was thawed enough.  (It wasn’t).  Then since I was up, I went ahead and fixed appetizers and salad and cut up the sweet potatoes.  I had three hotflashes, so I sat on the deck with a drink of water and opted for shorts and my Johnny Cash t-shirt.  I thought about turning on the Thanksgiving Day parade.  But I can’t figure out the damn TV in the living room.  When Shayne got up, he gave me a look he reserves for lost puppies and homeless cats.  Apparently our cable in the living room isn’t working because the amount of wireless devices we have aren’t supported by our outdated wireless device.  Or something like that.  This translates in that I should get my ass to a Black Friday sale and pick up a new Roku or at least call the cable company.  Darian hasn’t poked one foot out of her door.  She says Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate our national pasttime of genocide.  She is also a vegetarian, so she could give a rip about the turkey.  James and I went out of her way to make sure there is food for her–hummus, green beans, salad, two kinds of potatoes.  If I was a betting kind of person, I’d lay down odds that she barely touches anything.  Well, at least we’ll have left overs.  Unless Shayne eats everything during a midnight snack.  I hope Mom is watching me cook this meal.  If she is, she is probably simultaneously rolling her eyes and being proud.  Or maybe laughing her ass off.

I remember seventeen years ago, I brought Darian home from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day.  Mom outdid herself even though she was just cooking for Dad and Shayne and me.  We sat at the oak table, instead of at the counter and we took turns holding the baby as we ate our meal.  I can’t help wonder where Darian will be next year.    She is going to college so far away.  This might be her last Thanksgiving at home for awhile.  Mom used to get all fatalistic at holidays and say things like, “I might not be here for the next one.”  And I’d get irritated and tell her not to talk that way.  But today, as I contemplate making mashed potatoes the way she used to make them, I kind of get why she would say stuff like that.  You just really never know what the world has in store from day to day.

Here’s to building new traditions, making new memories, and celebrating all the moments that have brought me to this point.  I am thankful each day for all my friends and family who have me joined me on this crazy journey of life.  Peace.

 

 

Alphabet Art

42489202_10212827403584657_3551009051150123008_nJames calls me an alphabet geek.  It’s true.  I collect alphabet books and alphabet art.  I alphabetize things when I can’t sleep at night–the fifty states, the countries in Africa, my cousins, the people I work with.  Ever since I was kid, I look around for letters from A-Z while I wait in line, or in a doctor’s office, or when I am bored in meetings.  I even wrote an alphabet comic book once.  So I guess it’s not too surprising that I came up with “alphabet art.”

Alphabet Art was born out of desperation.  I taught fifteen years before I stepped into an elementary classroom.  I had tough gang kids in my classroom, teen moms, crazy middle school kids with raging hormones.  Before that, I waitressed at a biker bar with a fair trade of cocaine flying out the backdoor, but not even that prepared me for kindergarten.  First off, the average five year old speaks gibberish.  If I ask, “What’s your name? ”  They just stare at me.  They pee on their chairs, because they forget to ask to go the bathroom.  They eat stuff like paper and glue.  And every year, someone says, “Is paint water poisonous?”  Always after someone has taken a sip.

I was provided a kindergarten curriculum that has fun lessons like–paint thick and thin stripes–draw a house with shapes, make rough and smooth lines.  I don’t know who wrote these lessons, but clearly, they have no idea what the hell they are talking about.  I tried to follow the book and some of the lessons worked, but more times than not, the kindergartens transformed into pterodactyls.  One time we went outside to gather leaves for leaf rubbings.  I did not give clear instructions, which would have been “stay in a single file line, follow me, don’t talk, don’t hit each other, only breathe enough to stay alive.”  Instead they raced outside, screaming at the top of their lungs, and proceeded to roll around in the leaves like puppies.  I rounded them up, gave each of them a leaf and made it back to the classroom with the whole class. Half of the monsters had lost their leaves on the way back.  I said, “Where’s your leaf?”  Shrugged shoulders and “it flew away,” where some of the answers.  Everyday after the kindergarten left, I’d stack tiny chairs, and sweep up paper, and wipe down sticky tables.  Somedays, I nearly wept in frustration.  After a couple of years of this, I decided I needed a better system and Alphabet Art was born.

Each week, I base my lesson on a letter of the alphabet, an animal starting with that letter, and an art concept.  The first year, I spent a lot of time researching art concepts that would work–b–beading, c–crayons, clay, d–drawing, e–earth art.  Some of the letters leant themselves to a concept more than others.  Sometimes the art is more about the animal associated with the letter.  For “A” the animal is an alligator, so I teach the kids to watercolor because alligators live in water.  They paint alligators.  Most of the letters have a story to go with the concept.  Most of the stories, I’ve made up on the fly.  V for vampire bat is my favorite story.  It’s about a vampire bat from Venezuela who is a vegetarian who only eats violet vegetables.  He decides to move to Vermont to join a vegetarian village, but he doesn’t have enough vitamins to fly, so he decides to walk.  He hitches a ride on top of. a VW van, but gets blown off.  Don’t worry, no one dies in the story.  Sometimes there are adults in my room when I tell these stories.  They either laugh or give me that look that screams, “Oh my god, this woman is crazy.”

Alphabet art has evolved over the years.  When I first started, my ideas got more and more elaborate with each letter.  Take H for example, I couldn’t think of anything “h” related for an art concept.  The animal is a horse.  I came across an article about horses in art history.  Kindergarteners don’t even really know what history is, but I take a stab at teaching them about art history around horses.  Horses were painted in caves thousands of years ago; the Greeks painted horses on their pottery; in modern times artists paint, draw and sculpt horses.  I set up three stations–I have a “cave” where kids add to a horse painted on the wall.  We make horses with red clay.  And I have a drawing, coloring station related to horses.  I cycle the kids through the stations in thirty minutes and wrangle two or three people to make it all work.  The letter “I” has a “build an inchworm” station.  I hot glue pom pom’s together as fast as I can, burning myself 40,000 times and holding in the “f” bomb.  The letter Q involves so much prep that I started questioning the whole concept of alphabet art and I realized that it didn’t have to be so hard and I simplified my ideas.  I still need volunteers on a few of the letters, but everything runs pretty smoothly.  I have a tub, and I just get the materials out each week and I’m ready to roll.

I like to think of alphabet art is an introduction to all the things kids will get to do in art in all the years to come.  I think the kids like it.  Sometimes the first graders ask to do alphabet art again.  And when I’m glazing the cats after “c”, or snakes after “s,”  kids always look over the cats and snakes knowingly and tell me that they still have their cats and snakes.  All the kids remember doing Earth art and want to know when they get to do that again.  And I couldn’t  get through Q, without the fifth graders helping me cut quilt squares.  The best thing about Alphabet art though is that I don’t feel like the kindergarteners are trying to kill me anymore. Now they wait until first grade.  I’m working on a survival strategy for them too.  First grade art is supposed to be all about self discovery in art.  I’m thinking about inventing “Monster Art” for them.  They could draw monsters.  It would be like self-portraits.  Who knows?  I might be on to something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clay

1901292_10201937393541212_8303811241300188525_nI never will forget getting a ball of clay for the first time.  I was in seventh grade.  The clay was cold and made my hands feel chalky and dry.  It didn’t do what I wanted it to do and my first attempt at a pinch pot sucked.  I crushed it and tried again.  And again.  The clay got all dry and cracky and I remember feeling tears on my lashes, but even back then, I just didn’t cry.  Drawing was so much easier.  I could make an eyeball look real with different lines and strokes, or make a box pop off the page, or draw a horse running across a desert.  My clay pot looked like something a six year old made while playing in the mud.

When I got my schedule my freshman year, I was kind of surprised to find myself in Ceramics 1.  I didn’t remember listing it as an alternative.  I didn’t want to take that class, but changing my schedule didn’t occur to me.  That wasn’t a thing that anyone did.  Ever.  I was gonna have to suck it up and deal with it.  I liked the teacher anyway, and I figured maybe it would go better the second time around.  I got lucky.  The class fell in the weeks before Christmas, and our art teacher decided to break with her formula of pinch pots, coil pots, and slab pots and have us make copious Christmas ornaments.  Cookie cutter style.  Easy.  I made candy canes, trees, snowmen and stars.  I carved in them and trimmed and sanded and painted them bright reds and greens and golds.  I didn’t have to make damn pots, so I left with a slightly more friendly feeling toward clay.

As I became an upper classman, I spent more and more time drawing and painting.  I worked with my art teacher designing the large backdrops for the school plays and spent most of my free time in the art room working on my portfolio for college.  By the end of my senior year, Ceramics 2 was the only art class I hadn’t taken, so I thought I’d give it a try.  It was my last class before graduation.  The assignment was to create a creative container and the object it contained.  The girls in my class had awesome ideas.  One girl made a boom box and little cassette tapes to put inside it.  Another one of my friends made a sheep and little sheep to go inside it.  I could not think of anything.  So day after day, I played with my clay until I had like this cone, funnel shape.  My art teacher took it out of my hands one day and held it up to her chest and asked me if I was making a boob.  Everybody laughed, except me, I burst into tears.  I honestly think my art teacher felt bad, she let me draw the rest of the time, but that sealed the deal; I hated clay.

When I started teaching art nine years ago, I took some classes to refresh my skills.  One of the ones I took was sculpture and the dreaded clay came back.  My professor sliced off chunks of clay for us and told us that we needed to build something inspired by the human body.  Really.  I can’t make this shit up.  I was not going to make another breast, but I had no idea what to make.  The women at my table immediately got started.  I sat and watched them smooth water on to their pieces and indent and pull with their fingers.  I picked my wedge up and started making grooves in it with my fingers.  I didn’t think.  I just made ridges and dips and valleys in the surface, keeping it as smooth as I could make it.  After an hour or so, I held it up and turned it slowly in my hands.  I showed my table mates–“it’s an ear, from this angle, and this one, and this one.”  Van Gogh would have been proud, or maybe I should say Picasso would have been proud.  It was definitely an interpretive ear.  My professor liked it and I got an A, but most of all, I learned that with clay, you have to feel, not think.

I probably would have avoided clay altogether when I started teaching elementary, but there was a kiln in one of the classrooms and the kids kept pestering me about when we were going to make something with clay and fire it in the kiln.  I didn’t even know how to turn on a kiln.  I found an instruction book and read about how to operate the kiln.  I went to the local ceramics shop and plagued the owner with questions.  She patiently explained the difference between Cone 05 and Cone 5 and gave me some tips.  I hoisted a bag of clay on my hip, dropped it down on the table in my classroom and had the custodian show me how to slice it into wedges.  Then I passed it out to the first graders.  All of it, with no instructions.  Kids were delighted.  They pounded and pulled and made the biggest, muddiest mess possible.  They made a lot of things that looked like penises  they called volcanoes.  I giggled, because somedays I’m not mature enough for my job.     And most everything crumbled or exploded in the kiln.  I called up my old art teacher and she spent a few hours reteaching me pinch, coil, and slab methods.  She taught me about glaze.  I poured over clay books and magazines and I went to all the clay workshops at the art educator conferences.  And I practiced.  I made dinosaurs and sea turtles and snowmen and masks.  I got to the point where clay wasn’t scary anymore and my skills are slightly better than a fifth grader.  And the best part is that when I get a little perfectionist artist and the tears come out with the clay, I know what to do to help him or her.

The summer before my parents died, I took a wheel class from a woman in Westcliffe.  She had a little studio, high on a hill, facing the Sangre de Cristo range.  She’d leave the door open and I’d feel the mountain air ripple across my skin as I spun the wheel and pulled the walls of bowls out of lumps of clay.  Hours would pass and my thoughts would fall away.  It’s the closest thing to Zen that I know.  I gave my dad my first pot.  He was thrilled.  He said, “Can you make another one like this?”  I laughed and said, “Not on purpose.”

Last year, I didn’t do all my clay projects with kids.  I was too sick and gone too much.  My muscles in my side and shoulder were damaged from my surgery and radiation and wedging clay and rolling out slabs for the little kids hurt too much.  This year, I’m making it up to the kids.  My PTO bought a slab roller for one of the schools and I’m getting prepared to introduce some new projects. So on the outside it’s business as usual, but on the inside, I have felt like I’ve been going through a soul crises.  Like I’m broken  and it’s hard to find the strength to put myself back together.  All my old ways of soldiering through things don’t seem to be working and I have been trying to figure out how to find a little peace.  A few week ago, I was looking for an old book in the garage and I passed by the pile of my mom and dad’s stuff, that I still haven’t dealt with.  On the top, was that pot that I’d made for my dad.  I picked it up and remembered his sheer delight when I handed it to him.  I asked Shayne to pull out my wheel from the corner of the garage and I signed up for a clay class at a new studio in town.  Maybe in the process of centering a lump of clay, I’ll find my way back to centering myself and begin to rebuild the walls of my soul.