Sunday, September 29, 2013

We Sounded Like Ourselves

Click here, then read.

When I first started teaching online in 1995, there was still a lot of hesitancy when it came to signing off at the end of an e-mail.  My students and I—and all of my colleagues—pretty much knew how to end a letter, but what were we supposed to say at the end of an e-mail?  It seemed that all business and order had gone out the window in favor of smiley faces.  I clearly remember the day when I sat in one of my last apartments, going over a kind and generous e-mail from one of my more advanced friends who already knew the difference between :) and ;).  How could she know all of this, and where had I been?  How had this new language escaped me?

It only took a couple years before one of my online students slipped and signed off her homework with, “I love you, Lisa.”

I e-mailed Lisa back: “You are an excellent student and I so appreciate that!  You’re doing very well in this class and I couldn’t expect more.  However, I’m pretty sure you don’t love me.”

We can only imagine the physical and mental contortions that Lisa might have put herself through after realizing the unintended intimacy of her e-mail signature.  She quickly wrote back, “I always write ‘I love you’ when I send notes to my mom!  I’m just used to it!  I’m so sorry!”

What an easy forgiveness that was.  What a lucky mom.

By now, 18 years later, Lisa is probably a mom herself, and I send my regards to her mother, who obviously raised Lisa well.  I have been thinking of how we represent ourselves and how we want ourselves to be known; there are so many tools to be picked up and used to those ends, many more than before.  It’s easier to make mistakes now, with all the new ways to be vulnerable.

Which is why I valued my first less than three heart from a student today, as she signed off on her homework.  Was that a reflection of me and my teaching, or just a soft moment in all the hard times?  How did less than three become part of our vocabulary?   

I could not help but send a less than three heart back, unfortunately with a C+, which everyone knows is not exactly teacher love, but from me, it comes close.  While I haven’t been formally trained to teach and assess and monitor, these skills have found me, like the love usually does.


My own mom calls long-distance on the phone and visits with me like a trooper until she cocks her head—and I can see her doing it because I know she does it—and she says, “Kathryn, you don’t sound like yourself.”  In the next two seconds of silence, wars could have been won, poverty overcome...statues to my father built.  None of this matters to my mother, not if she perceives me as not being myself.

Ma,” I whine.  I throw my head back and my hands in the air.  I still wonder how the five of us kids and our dad came to call this woman “Ma” when it all started as “Mom”.  “Why!?” I say, beating myself with a walking stick my dad made.

My mom takes a long pull off her e-cigarette.  She’s wearing my dad’s denim coat and I know she’s in the garage.  My mother is always right, and she always knows just how to be.

“I’m just worried about your sister,” she says, rubbing her nose. “I guess you sound okay.”

Rivers flood and the sun sets on the lightness of my mother’s hope.  I would go outside and dig a ditch in the middle of my backyard if I thought it would help.  I would facilitate a new language if I thought it would move my family farther down the road.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

There's Someone in the House

My garage door has been trying to tell me something for a long time.  Since I do not speak Garage Door, lately it has taken to other forms of communication: pantomime, performance art, pidgin English, you name it.  Since none of that worked either, this weekend it called on the devil, who came down from Georgia to help an old boy out.

There I was, minding my own business—reading, grading, and cleaning; hugging, petting, and squeezing—when suddenly through no action or input on my part, my garage door opened.  I could hear it rumbling like the vintage 1984 machine it is, unoiled, clogged with dirt; I would recognize the sound my garage door makes a mile away: my neglected baby.  My ears and tail perked up immediately at the noise: danger Will Robinson.  

Then, the garage door went down.

Well if the devil is in the house with me, he’s either gonna walk in with groceries, like I do, or with far worse intentions.  I stay where I am, sitting on the couch, motionless.  I tap-tap out a message to anyone who might be on Facebook, silently voicing my concerns.

Garage Door goes up again, but only part way, then he stops.  Either the intruder has escaped or he’s inviting the flying monkeys in.  No way, I think.  Over my dead exoskeleton.

I continue to sit quietly on my supportive couch, kind of past the murder-by-intruder scenario since no one has come in yet and I’m still alive.  This is not what I want on Friday the 13th.  I only know it’s Friday the 13th because I have two friends whose birthdays were on September 11th, plus today is not a payday.  Several Facebook friends are quick to point out that it’s Friday the 13th.   Thanks.

As the garage door continues to go up and down, up and down, my Facebook friends throw out all manner of suggestions and explanations: “Your neighbors are running their dishwasher on the same frequency…your house is spooked, get out, sorry…check to see if the safety lights match up…call the company…get a ladder and reset it…maybe it’s an omen or just a ding-ding-ding.”

I sit rigid on the couch, all three cats looking at me.  Do something, Mom.  Something is better than nothing.  I creaky-creak off the couch, my wings and earflaps unfolding.  A vision of my mother in similar circumstances flashes in my brain, a pre-memory: At the age of thirty, long before me, my mom found herself alone in a two-story house with four sleeping children.  My dad was gone, fighting fires as usual.  My brother Craig was the only child sleeping downstairs when my mother, sleeping upstairs with the rest of the girls, thought she heard an intruder.  

She crept down the second-floor hallway, keeping low to the floor, finally rounding a corner to peer through the banisters into whatever light was available downstairs.  By the light of the streetlight, she could see that nobody was around.  Curled up at the top of the stairs in her nighty, my mother decided to call out for her son.  The name that boomed inside her somehow came from her throat sounding more like a cupboard door might without oil: creeeeeeeeg.

No response.

She quietly howled his name again; maybe the mice only heard the second creeeeeeeeg.  The impact of this second outburst was much the same as the first: nothing.  My mom had already been frightened once, and she had frightened herself twice more.  She crept back to her bedroom, thinking that everything must be fine, and in the morning, everything was.


And now it is my turn, the mighty garage door huntress.  I have three children in here and our peace will not be disturbed any longer, I don’t care if you’re Jack the Ripper.  Any game you might have been playing up to this point is not going to be a game any longer.  I’m coming outside because it’s my house and my garage and I’m not afraid of you.

I cast my line a little closer to my sinking confidence.  We can do this.

I crack open the door that leads from my house into my garage, and peek out.  All the lights are on and my car is there.  The garage door stands at half-mast, like somebody might be planning to sneak in later.  This is either the work of a criminal, or another glitch in my system.

I reveal myself a little more, standing there in the garage light.  My life is too short to be afraid like this.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Boxcar Child

It is a September weekend in Fairbanks, Alaska, 1990.  The rain has turned to snow.  I am twenty-two years old, a first-year graduate student at the university, about to grade my first set of student papers, all twenty of them.  I haven’t been taught to teach outside of being handed a book and a sample syllabus, both from the year 1913.

I don’t know what’s good as compared to what might be unacceptable.  I sit cross-legged on my bed and read all the papers, making minimal tick marks, using a pencil to make preliminary judgments.  I make a bowl of instant oatmeal and spoon some raspberry jam into the middle of it; I move to the floor with this snack and all twenty papers, determined to make some sense and create some order.  I know what A work is; it reminds me of my own.  But everything else is unknown: the potential B’s and C’s, and God help me, the failures.

I sit on the carpet in my apartment—already too fancy of a person for the cabins without running water that my classmates and professors live in—and begin by laying all twenty papers out on the floor, in order of best to worst, based on my childhood.  Any kind of ranking system is better than none.  Starting with five rows of four, it’s pretty easy to push the first three papers together to make the A’s.  This makes it easier to push the last two into “failing”.  

Only fifteen to go.


One year later, having transferred  from Alaska to Arizona before my life turned into The Shining,  I am standing at the front of a tiny stifling classroom on the third floor of the Engineering Building at Arizona State—an English graduate student assigned to teach English in the worst of places, the only room available on the entire campus.  It is no better than the wilderness of my first classroom in Alaska, worse than the bowels of ASU’s English Building, where we have department meetings in a cave, maybe because it’s cooler down there.  

It is long before my second life as a community college instructor, when I happily taught out of air-conditioned boxcars during times of construction because the pay was better.

Now I have twenty-five students, times two.  I have gotten worse at all things, not better.  No one has taught me anything about teaching or grading yet.  I waggle a graded paper in front of my students—a big F circled on the front—and ask, “Whose paper is this?  There’s no name on it!”—thus learning to turn an already unhappy crowd hostile.

It is only then, in that moment, that I realize why grades need to be located on the last page, not the first.  I also begin teaching how and why to put your name on things.


Twenty-three years into the business of teaching and learning and grading, I remain wild and untrained.  

No one as yet has taken me aside and said, “Pardon, you might want to stop doing that,” or even “Excusez-moi! Good job. Continuez.   As opposed to teaching the kids of Fairbanks, Alaska—where one taught me how to pronounce the names of national parks, what syllables to emphasize and when...why murdering your parents on the front porch is okay sometimes but might land you in Tutoring Services—now I just teach normal students who are back from other wars.


I stand in front of a classroom, all 45 years of me, and start a lesson on the use of tact.  In my mind, I am burying my head beneath my feet in a snowbank, because I realize my own limitations.  However, I feel that I have gotten the main point across, and confidently abandon the head of the classroom to mix and mingle with my students, who are critiquing each other’s papers.  Everyone works quietly with tact until one student who can’t help himself waves me down and shouts out, “THIS IS THE WORST ROUGH DRAFT I HAVE EVER SEEN!!!!!”

I don’t know what to do.  I want to throw myself on his fire.  Personally speaking, I’m discomfited and feeling a little harassed.  I have already done my good job and am only expecting the best.  I jettison this first reaction because I know it’s wrong; I scramble in my brain to remember what to do in circumstances such as these.  God rises from his throne, again, to personally stitch together the raggedy seams for me: Asperger, no reliable filter, weave it in, the crowd will understand.

As usual, there is no sound or perceivable reaction coming from the crowd.  They have already woven this child into the fabric of themselves and the class.  

God is knitting again when my knees crack, rising from the latest occasion.