Since I retired from teaching, my brain is like a kid in kindergarten, always finding something new. I opened a cupboard and found things to write about, so I wrote… for months and months.
Then I opened another cupboard and there was fabric, so I sewed.
And now I have found the paint cupboard. First gouache, then watercolors. And, like a kindergartener, I have friends with ideas that feed my ideas. “Come join my painting group,” said Ruthie. I did, and it has been wonderful. Art, silliness, and learning all come together in the magic proportions that teachers strive for.
I posted the islands I was painting and dear Elaine said, “I’ll bet you could put those islands on fabric, and maybe even quilt them.” Well, it turns out that you can paint on fabric with regular acrylic paints if you add a bit of “gac” paint medium. Auntie Bridgett had some, because of course she did.
I spent a day looking at maps of all the islands I love. The Big Island of Hawaii. Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland. Treasure Island from Robert Louis Stevenson. Tiny Gabriola Island in the Strait of Georgia. Neverland. Sketch, reconsider, sketch.
And finally I started painting my first fabric island. After smooth gouache and watercolors, the acrylic and muslin felt heavy and clumsy, but I kept at it.
I am still not totally happy with it, but I will get better if I just keep practicing. It seems a bit flat. Hmmmmm… Maybe I can add embroidery or even some beads. Maybe my friends will give me some good ideas.
I have been telling you about painting with watercolors for a few months now. I have been using this little MALA set we found in one of the teeny tiny libraries years ago, and enjoying it very much.
And, as it so often turns out lately, I was wrong…. just a little bit. Since I don’t know much about how watercolors acts or looks, I assumed that the matte finish and slightly chalky feel of my finished pictures was ‘just how watercolors work’ and my slightly muted colors were because I wasn’t applying them properly.
I have been using gouache! Gouache (you say it ‘go-wash’) is a watercolor that has ground up chalk in it, so of course it feels a little chalky and looks more matte, and less transparent, than regular watercolor.
This realization came about when I re-worked of one of my fantasy islands from this…
“You shouldn’t have been able to cover that blue with the brown,” Auntie Bridgett said. “Watercolors are too translucent.” Her eyes lit up. “This is gouache!”
And suddenly, the chalky texture and soft colors of my flower vase made sense. My frustration with my non-shimmery dragonfly wings was explained. I was never going to get the transparency of watercolor using gouache.
I felt better, knowing it wasn’t ‘just me’ and that there were benefits of using gouache, not the least of which was, ‘Hey, it was free.’ But artist Auntie Bridgett, who has been very supportive of my painting, realized that she has a very nice watercolor set, and let me use it.
This set has tubes, instead of cakes, of paint. The texture of the diluted paint is smoother and silkier. I really notice the transparency, even getting frustrated because I have gotten so used to the gouache! And it still has the “Hey, it was free” feature.
So now I am on a new learning curve and having fun with it. And while parts of me are in lockdown and stuck inside, other parts are just a happy seven year old with a new toy.
I was a teacher for thirty years. It was my job, my passion, my hobby. It became who I was.
Teachers talk about their “Teacher voice”. This is loud (but not yelling) way that teachers get thirty kids to listen to them. It can be stern, or disapproving. It is usually just matter-of- fact. But it is never FUN. It is never meant to make folks feel at ease or get them to laugh. It is an information delivery system.
Mine was good, too. I speak fluent Teacher.
Writers also talk about their Voice. It is their point of view, their style, their way of choosing words to make readers feel a certain way. It needs to be easy to read, entertaining, quirky. FUN.
Unfortunately for me, my Teacher voice seems to be getting in the way of my Writer voice. After months of studious revision, I still write with a very strong Teacher accent.
On the way to the Japanese Garden yesterday, Jasper asked me to remind him about Sacajawea, whose statue we passed. “But don’t say it like a teacher,” he said.
First, I determined not to be offended. This is a perfect “out of the mouths of babes” moment. I needed to learn from it.
Then I saw that if I couldn’t use my Teacher voice, I needed to use another voice, any other voice. You can’t speak without a Voice! So I borrowed a New York/ New Jersey gangster voice, jiggling my shoulders like James Cagney to help it along.
“Okay, see, there’s this President, see, Thomas Jefferson. Nice guy, writes well, even doh he owns slaves. He sends these two guys, Lewis and Clark, haulin’ clear across the country. Go! He says. These poor slobs had No Idea where they were going!” I went on to tell a shortened version of the story, just enough to make Jasper laugh and let him remember what he knew about Sacajawea.
Ironically, the main character of my story is a little girl who has become mute due to trauma. She has literally lost her voice.
How can I find my own voice to tell this story? How could I possibly write my story, in someone else’s voice?
As you know, I have been working on my children’s history story about Portland for a little over a year now. For the first six months I read about Portland history so I know how it became a city and what sort of interesting things happened here. The Oregon Historical Society and Belmont Library became my favorite hangouts.
I chose to put my story in the spring of 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt came through Portland on a country-wide tour. There was a parade, a ceremony in what is now Washington Park, and a banquet. It was a very big deal and I think it would make a good backdrop for a mystery story. But as I told you, I don’t know much about mysteries.
So, I studied that, too. For a few weeks, I read Nancy Drew books and articles about mystery story plots, character development, and clues.
But as a teacher, I never really understand something until I need to teach it. So I pretended I was teaching someone about how to make a mystery story. I cut shapes out of paper to show everything that happened in the story: action, characters, description, distractions.
I practiced using these pieces to map out the first eight chapters of The Bungalow Mystery, #3 of the Nancy Drew books. I could see when action happened, when characters were introduced, how the chapters alternated between action and description, and how each chapter ended in a new mystery or dangerous situation.
This took some of the mystery out of writing my mystery! I am now working on my own story, using these paper pieces to make the characters move to solve the riddles of the story and come to a happy ending. If I don’t like the way it is going, I just move the pieces around! I feel organized, less confused, but flexible enough to create and re-create the story until it is right.
Of course, once I have this visual outline done, I still have to write the actual words….but that’s the fun part! I am happy to have found a way of working that works for me.
In 1990, when my teaching partner, Laurel Sherry-Armstrong and I moved from Hartnell College’s Child Development Center to University Park Elementary, we were happy to become part of an elementary school community. But we were sad to lose the lovely playhouse at the Center.
We mentioned this over dinner one night with my parents, who were visiting from Lompoc. My dad (your great grandpa Lowell) said that he could design a playhouse, and would even build it, if the District would allow us to put it into our new classroom. Weeks of drawing and discussion, proposing plans and changing them, became months of waiting for the District to get back to us.
Finally, there was good news! They approved the planned two story playhouse, with stairs and a railing, to be built in room 13. Dad took the plans, built the house in pieces (walls, floor, railings, stairs), and drove it up to Salinas.
He and Great Grandma Billie, Grandpa Nelson and I, Uncle David and your Momma Katie (who were 10 and 8 at the time), Laurel and her husband George, and our friend Rick, all worked to paint the pieces. Then we put it together, laid carpet on the top floor, and even installed a bookcase and pile of pillows for reading on.
The kindergarten kids loved the playhouse. It was part kitchen, part pirate ship, part reading loft, and part cave. It was good for quiet times and silly conversations. It has been climbed on by, I guess, more than 700 kids over these 28 years.
And now, the kindergarten classes are moving, and the District hasn’t said that it will approve the playhouse for the new space or move it there. The teachers have no guarantee that it will even be on campus when they return for the next school year. Technically it belongs to me, but I only have two days left in Salinas and no way to pull it apart and move it anywhere.
This makes me very sad. There are so many things right with the playhouse, things that are missing in education these days. Imagination, thoughtful quiet time, and changes in perspective.
My only remedy was to get up extra early this morning, get you dressed, and take you up to play on the playhouse before it (maybe) goes away. You had so much fun! I looked at every inch of it, from the plaque Laurel put on after Great Grandpa Lowell died to the railing on the stairs, rubbed by hundreds of tiny hands.
When it was time for us to go, I cried a bit and said goodbye to yet another old friend.
Yesterday I did a dumb thing. You know, the kind of thing that if you asked your Mom if you could do it, she would say,”That sounds like a really bad idea.”
It all happened just before school started, when I was taking artwork off the walls. We are getting the end of the year, and my classroom will be used by Kindergarten next year, so everything has to come down. I didn’t want to go hunting for the ladder, so I dragged a chair over to a bookcase and stood on that to be tall enough to reach. As I was pulling off the banner asking “Who? What Where? When? Why?” to remind students important points to cover in their writing, I stepped backwards…onto thin air.
I felt like a windmill. Arms flailing, trying to catch balance somewhere and failing. I ended up sitting down very hard on my bottom and left wrist, with my head just barely missing one of my students’ desk. Well, I thought, it certainly could have been worse.
Taking inventory, I checked to see what felt good and what hurt. My left wrist was hurt but I could move all my fingers, so I figured nothing was broken. My back and head were good. Just then, the bell rang and two students looked in and saw me sitting on the floor. They banged on the door to make sure I was all right. I explained what happened, calling it “a big stupid thing”.
During the day I managed to slip and fall against a desk, banging that same arm. Ouch! I went through the rest of the day carefully, using my left hand as little as possible. By the time I got home, it was swollen and very sore. It was useful as a paw or a stick, but I couldn’t grab anything with it. I was able to slowly chop onions to make pasta and meat sauce for dinner.
Auntie Olga got home and checked my wrist and arm, gently feeling it to make sure it wasn’t broken. She made me a lovely sling out of a scarf. It looked very fancy. She suggested an x-ray, but I decided not to go. I was tired and the thought of the emergency room seemed like another big stupid thing. I ate, read some Junie B. Jones to Liza, and went to bed.
Woke up this morning much better. Sore, but I could make a fist and hold things in my left hand. I got the sling on and headed off to school. Everyone asked about the sling, so I got to tell the story a dozen times. Children helped me with doors and carrying things. By the end of the day I was tired again, but less wounded.
I still napped after school, but, hey, I’m a Grandma, right? Looking forward to being even better tomorrow!
This is not a fun post. It is sad and scary. You may want to skip it. Fair warning.
Today I went to a teacher training, but we were not learning how to teach. Our wonderful trainer, Kelly Hendrix, vice principal at Mission Park School, was teaching us how to keep ourselves and our students alive in the event of an active shooter on campus. Let that sink in for a minute. We have fire and earthquake drills. In Portland there are even volcano drills.
But this….this idea that we must try to outsmart and outrun someone who has come specifically to kill us and our children…this is a whole new level of scary. Also scary is the fact that since most shootings last a total of 5 minutes, law enforcement folks will probably arrive after the shooter is done. We will be on our own for those terrifying moments, needing to think fast and be smart.
ALICE stands for alert, lock down, inform, counter, and evacuate, which are the steps (not necessarily in that order) that are encouraged in this training. Before, our directions have been limited to “lock the door, turn off the lights, get under the desks”. Then people noticed that in many mass shootings, there were a lot of dead people under desks. So, then what?
ALICE acknowledges that there are no easy answers and that every single situation, even room to room within a school, will be different. Hiding, if necessary, is best done behind a well-barricaded door, and children should be spread out in different parts of the room, not a dog pile, so they will be able to get up and move if it becomes possible to evacuate or necessary to fight.
Yes, fight. If you cannot get out of your room and the shooter is in there with you and your students, ALICE encourages you to know your resources and act fast. Things to throw, to distract a shooter and keep him from aiming. The kids can help by screaming like banshees or, my favorite technique, “swarming”, where everyone grabs a piece of the shooter and hangs on for dear life. Scary, yes, but better than sitting still and waiting to be shot. Besides, the image of 26 kinder-babies bringing down a psycho is very satisfying to my imagination.
The last part of our training was acting out scenarios in which Kelly and her head custodian Gumaro, played the part of the shooters, armed with Nerf guns. We teachers played teachers and students and had beanbags and squishy balls with which to retaliate. Depending on where our class was when we became aware of the incident, some of us ran, confronted the shooter, or barricaded the door. One group was so well hidden we didn’t realize they were still in there! But even in our state of readiness, we had a few “casualties”.
By the end of the morning we were all exhausted, hyper-adrenalized (if that’s even a word) and a bit sadder and wiser. I feel it was the most important training I have received in 30 years of teaching, because all our work goes nowhere if our students are dead.
And that’s the reality of it. Sorry for the sad story.
One of the many reasons I have loved teaching all these years is meeting such fantastic young people, my students, who are just at the beginning of their life’s journey. They are 8, 9, and 10 years old. They are just figuring out who they are, what they love, what they are good at, and what is important.
This year, I have many students who have surprised me in different ways. I will tell about one of them now, and one tomorrow. They are both boys, who I will call B and R so I don’t embarrass them. A few people reading this will know who I mean, and that’s okay.
B has not had an easy life. Lack of parental attention gave B the feeling that he didn’t matter, that nothing he did or said made any difference. When schoolwork got hard or boring, he simply left the classroom. He walked around the school grounds. He “eloped”, as the behavioral psychologists call it. Trying to keep him in class lead to even worse behavior. Without his parents’ stepping up, the problem just got worse.
And the longer he spent out of the classroom, the further behind he got, and the more impossible the classwork became. The whole thing seemed like a problem with no solution. He eventually put himself and a few friends at risk by jumping the fence and wandering off from school. The police were called.
Then the school called Tucci Learning Solutions. This is a private company that specializes in helping students who behave badly to behave better. They provide one to one aides who stay with a student all day. The aides help with school work, but mostly they encourage the student to do it. They provide comfort, structure, conversation, and caring. They are well trained and professional. In my class, anyway, the aide has become the caring, firm parent figure that B never had and that I, a teacher with 25 other students, could not be.
In the 3 months I have been in class, I have seen B go from an angry, belligerent boy who didn’t care about anything to a student who will follow directions (mostly) and asks for replacement papers when he loses his, who will write a paragraph about his Spring Break or do a page of addition problems. He wants to do well. He cares about himself and others. He wants to learn and believes he can.
Because of his years of “elopement”, of course, he is behind academically. He is getting extra tutoring in math and reading, and is improving. But the biggest change is in his taking responsibility for himself, his actions, and his progress. Seeing this and projecting forward, I can see success down the road for B, where before I saw only disaster.
This past week we had Pink Shirt Day at school. Pink Shirt Day is a day where we wear pink shirts and have programs and lessons about not bullying other kids. It was started years ago when a boy wore a pink soccer shirt to school and some other boys bullied him about it. Some of his friends went out about bought a bunch of pink tee shirts and they all wore them. The bullies had to give up because they were out numbered and bullies only like to pick on one person at a time.
So, on Pink Shirt Day, I borrowed a pink shirt from Auntie Olga and wore it to school. The Student Leadership group brought small paper shirts to the classes and showed us a video about working against bullying. It was good to see my students come up with so many ways to stop bullying! “Stand with kids who are being bullied.” “Ask new kids to play with you.” “Tell a grown-up.” Kids who defend those being bullied are called “upstanders”, because they stand up for the kids. It is good to be an upstander!
The irony is that in the middle of all this focus on not bullying, two of my boys were teased very cruelly by their friends…. and their friends were in Student Leadership. Apparently, knowing how to stop someone else from bullying doesn’t keep you from being a bully.
It started when a friend thought of something clever, but mean, to say to my student. He said it, and his friends laughed. My student didn’t like it, but these were his friends, so he laughed, too. Then everyone was saying it, because it made them laugh, and all of a sudden my student had half a dozen kids saying the mean thing over and over, and laughing. It felt awful. He came back to class crying.
Fortunately, we have good grownups at our school who saw what was happening. They called the kids aside and talked to them, and had the kids talk to each other. The kids who had been mean saw that they hadn’t been playing, but bullying. Playing is when everyone is having fun. Bullying isn’t. Apologies were made and friends, mostly, were forgiven.
By the next day, it seemed that everyone was friends again, but it was a real lesson about human nature. We need to practice kindness everyday until it becomes our natural response. We need to practice on our children, teachers, parents, pets and house plants. We need to nurture and care for each other, not say things that will hurt others, and hold on to the connections between us.
It’s always been true, but more than ever, that teaching is less about curriculum and more about growing good people. It’s hard work.
Saturday was another walk to Old Town Salinas for brunch with a friend at First Awakenings. This time I met Terry Soria, who I started working with about 15 years ago. We understood each other and made each other laugh on difficult days. We worked together for a few years, then lost touch. Then, four years ago, I got to teach her grandson! I was so happy to get to talk about the joys and frustrations of teaching with her.
While I was downtown, I stopped in at Downtown Book and Sound, run by our old friends Trish Triumpho Sullivan and her husband, Dan Beck. Dan, who is a musician and artist, was working on a new tune on his guitar when I arrived. Trish is an artist and community activist and out of the shop at the time.
Downtown Book and Sound is part music shop, part bookstore, part art gallery, and part visitor’s center. There is always good art on the walls, good music playing, and someone interesting to talk to. The chartreuse window frames make it easy to spot at 222 South Main.
Dan and I talked about life and family, then I scooted out.
In the past few years, the city of Salinas has started investing in more Steinbeck-themed art and activities. I found this giant boulder at the corner of Central and Homestead. It says, “I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that dogs think humans are nuts.” John Steinbeck.
I also visited the beautiful new Tony Teresa Baseball Diamond at Hartnell College! There was an exciting game going on between the Hartnell Panthers and the College of the Siskiyous Eagles. It was tied 1 to 1 when I left. Hooray for baseball season!