Picture him rollin (William update)

William rolled into the school year at Delta Middle on wheels! While he’s getting around great on crutches, they’re exhausting, and while he also drives a mean walker, it’s frustratingly slow. So, thanks to friends who shared a youth wheelchair, a school nurse who’s not only highly qualified but also had some relevant mom experience, and a school community that is literally built on the idea of having a school community, he had a great first day. The basic vibe was “yep, found my people.”

Since both kids AND both parents had first days of school this week, as did almost everyone in our circle as either an educator, a parent, or just a resident of a newly jam-packed college town, it’s been hectic. But, Jason and I have been able to trade off schedules, Beth has swooped in with incredible backup, and the rest has been patched together more-or-less successfully.  Colleagues have helped me to adjust my courseload to a more manageable configuration, loving friends and neighbors from school, work, church, and everywhere have been showing up with meals and gift cards, and I’m basically astounded by the ways help like this really does help. I love the students in my face-to-face course, and my asynchronous online students are patiently waiting for me to get them started a week late. Our other kid is doing well too (but a Mom-initiated update to the internet would not be welcome, so you will have to ask her yourself if you see her)! 

Also, a true emergency does have a way of helping us not to care what others think of how we’re doing! “What I was able to do in the time I gave it,” along with an apology for anything beyond that, is the new standard of accomplishment, and although it sucks to have a sick kid, I am counting this awareness of priorities as a side benefit that I do appreciate.
Still unknown what is actually wrong with William’s femur and what lies ahead. Bloodwork and microbiology yielded no new information, he goes on with antibiotics for now, and September 1st we’ll visit his surgeon (Dr. Fox, a superstar bone specialist), and see where we are then.

Ah, high school memories

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Remember when I had my hair shaved on one side of my head, wore clothing all the wrong sizes, and hated everyone my age?

Remember when I joined the golf team? Very upstanding! But I never broke 100, and felt dumb with the other girls, and played one tournament, then had a panic attack in the van for the next one, then stopped going. The picture in the yearbook didn’t show those parts.

Remember when I made region and district choirs every year from seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh… but not twelfth, because I had never opened the music until the day before?

Remember when I got kicked out of gifted and honors and extra and special? Just regular was all that was left. Just regular, and I was nowhere near enough regular for regular.

Remember when I asked if I could graduate early?

Remember when I asked to change schools?

Remember in Algebra II, or was it Geometry, when Chris Thomas walked behind me and spit into my hair, and the teacher kept on teaching and I kept on sitting there?

Remember when I had an F in English? Also, remember when I won the English award?

Remember when I forgot to fill out the National Merit Finalist forms till the day they were due, so I wrote a poem on them in pencil? It was about how little an application could reflect a real person’s potential.

Remember when I ran out of gas on the way to my interview at Rice? “Must not really have wanted to go there,” remarked an adult who should have known better.

Remember the kids I had crushes on, the kids I kissed, made out with, had sex with but didn’t love?

Remember when I skipped classes to smoke under some stairs or in the parking lot? To sneak to my car and read Greek mythology, with the seat leaned all the way back so I couldn’t be seen?

Remember when I ran away from home to love purely forever and ever, only to be found and returned promptly to home, forfeiting my 16th birthday and all remaining privileges for what seemed like forever?

Remember when I removed the license plates from my car so that I couldn’t be found after driving getaway for convenience store beer raiders?

Remember all the times I stormed out of a class, or lost my temper, or burst into tears? And read all the textbooks, and did no homework? And slept through discussions, and wrote only the papers we could work on in class?

Remember when I felt like an alien pretty much all the time, everywhere?

How do you remember those days?

On not having any ideas

Why is it that all my best writing ideas happen when I’m driving a car? I don’t even like driving.

It’s been like this for as long as I could drive. Wait… it’s been like this for as long as I could write. When I’m cleaning, or walking, or driving, I have so many ideas. And they are all so good! But of course I’m doing something, and I don’t write them down, and I don’t remember them when I might write them down. And I’m no beginner, so I’ve learned from my forgetting, and now I often make a voice memo or tell Alexa or take a note on my notes app or the back of my hand.

Later, when I sit down to write, I look at those notes and forget what I meant. Or I remember, but the ideas seem much dumber than I remembered. Notes or no, when I’m sitting with my open notebook or at the keyboard, I hate everything I write. It feels like I have no ideas.

For so much of my teaching career, I couldn’t understand what kids meant when they said they had “no ideas.” What do you mean, no ideas? Everyone has ideas. I’m having tons right now. Brains are electrical idea cauldrons, with more ideas bubbling up than we can even grab onto and think about. At least that’s how it’s always felt to me. How can they have no ideas?

But now, having found myself feeling I had no ideas and even saying I had no ideas, I have some ideas about ideas.

I now understand my writers, kids and adults and basically everyone who’s felt they had no ideas, much better. When they say they have no ideas, they mean one of at least these two things. One, they have ideas, but they’re like the ones I make in my notes: they seem less good now, and the writer becomes afraid of going with them, for fear of looking stupid. This isn’t a writing problem, or an ideas problem, it’s a guts problem. I know this one well.

Two, they haven’t actually started trying to write yet, but they are scared they won’t have any ideas when they do. So, they don’t start trying. This isn’t a writing problem either, and if it’s an ideas problem, it’s not lack of ideas at all but simply a delay in ideas. And the delay is caused by fear. So, again, a guts problem.

Ideas don’t come when we’re doing nothing but waiting for ideas to come. They come when we’re doing something. Like driving, or cleaning, or walking. Or, they come when we’re doing something like…writing! Yes! We usually need to start writing in order for the ideas faucet to really turn on.

Or, clean or walk or drive or shower or something. Live. Do things. Notice how ideas come.

Then, the guts problem. If you don’t have the guts to go with the ideas that surely come, think on this: what other ideas do you have? Probably none except for the ones that you do have. So, guts or no… might as well go with those.

By the way, when I opened this Post window and started typing, I had no idea what I would write. I remembered having some good ideas while driving this afternoon, but they didn’t seem so good after all. I sat doing nothing. Finally I started typing. And here we are!

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Writing is hard

Writing is hard. That’s it; that’s the main secret I have learned in my 20 years as a writing teacher and writing researcher.

Wait, you knew that already? Of course you did. Anyone who has ever written has felt writing’s difficulty. Sometimes it’s starting at the blank page or screen, not knowing how to begin. Other times it’s sitting stuck in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph, reaching for a word that doesn’t come. Or it’s writing oneself halfway into an argument that suddenly, somewhere in the middle, breaks down. Or it’s sharing writing with a reader and finding, painfully, that you have not made yourself clear, or—more often—hesitating fearfully before sharing with a reader, or before writing at all, for fear of criticism.

Writing is filled with hard moments. Even the most skilled writers find it difficult. But the best and most prolific writers have something that many others don’t: the hard moments don’t stop them. They know that if they can face the hard moments, the moments will pass—and the bad feelings of those moments, the shame and fear and worry— will pass too. They also have a repertoire of strategies for getting through those hard moments productively: routines for settling down and getting to work, strategies for drafting and revising, and skills for eliciting helpful feedback from others and for processing the feedback they receive.

In school, however, we often pretend writing is easy, or that it should be. “OK, write for ten minutes,” we say, and we expect people simply to begin. Or we hand out prompts, and days or weeks later, we collect pieces of writing. These practices hide the difficulty of writing in ways that writers take personally. When writers struggle, they end up feeling they are doing so alone. They look around, see other students seemingly doing fine, and then they take their own difficulty as a sign that they’re doing it wrong, or worse, that they simply aren’t good writers.

Better to open up the difficulty of writing, to name its hard moments and explicitly teach how to get through those moments.

For example, when asking students to quickwrite, I do so too. As I begin, I speak aloud my feelings and what I am doing about those feelings. “Starting can be hard; I always worry my ideas will be stupid. But usually if I can just begin with something, even something stupid, I’ll get through it and it comes out OK,” I explain. And then I write with the class, in my own notebook or on the overhead screen, thinking aloud as I do it: “I’m not sure where to start,” I’ll say, “so first I’m just listing a couple of

words that come to mind… oh, ok, I like this one. Now I’m just going to write down what comes to my mind.”

Or when sending students off to write at home, I preview some of the hard moments that might come. “Here’s what I do when I find I’m procrastinating.” “Here’s what I do when I’m stuck on the first sentence.” “Here’s what I do when I find I keep switching over to Facebook when I should be writing.” “Here’s what I do when my sentences seem aimless.”

(And the main thing I do, in all of those hard moments: Take a deep breath. Write a little anyway. Cut myself some slack.)

Once we acknowledge that writing is hard, we can do something about it. We can tell ourselves helpful things, encourage ourselves to go on trying. If writing is hard for you at moments, you’re doing it right, not wrong.

“Yes, are you finding this difficult?” I ask. “ Oh good! You’re doing it right. It’s not hard because you’re stupid, or not a good writer, or in the wrong class—it’s hard because it’s hard.” Just this reassurance is often enough to get writers going. Bodies relax, shoulders descend, and jaws unclench. A few quick smiles silently say Yes, that is what I was thinking.

Our society tends to deny negative emotions, and I’m no different. As I circulate through my classroom during writing time, I sometimes catch myself turning away from a student who is struggling, as if to give him/her some privacy. I don’t want to embarrass a writer by calling attention to the problem, and so I walk by, thinking I’ll return in a moment after he’s had a chance to get started or after I see she at least has a few words down.

But on a good day, I can do better. Different hard moments call for different responses, but I am convinced that encountering another human being in a hard moment demands at least some response, even if it’s simply to stand beside the one who is struggling.

Sometimes I offer a strategy: like when the words simply do not come, and I feel stuck at a blank page, I roll my chair away form the desk, face another direction, and tell it to the wall. Literally. I talk to the wall. Or when the critical voices in my head get too loud, and I can’t write without hearing them judging every line, I sometimes start a new document and begin as if it’s a letter. Dear (name), I begin, writing to someone who will love anything I do, warts and all. Later I can change it back to the real audience. These strategies may not be groundbreaking, but to students they often feel as if they are: the teacher is recognizing and responding to the feelings of writing. Simply acknowledging that there are feelings, and that they are normal, is often enough.