Monday, April 28, 2008

In The Navy

The mother of a former student let me know a few months ago that she would be one of the "stars" of the PBS Documentary Carrier, which debuted its 10-part series last night. The film captures the stories on a six-month deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (a sailor's clever acronym for the ship: Never Imagined Myself In This Zoo) to the Persian Gulf in 2005. The saga follows sailors, officers, pilots, master chiefs, commanding officers, and captains while they acclimate to the ship, develop mini-dramas, and prepare for the specter of war in the Middle East. I was completely riveted throughout the first two one-hour episodes.

My father was in the Navy and deployed on nuclear submarines, but never when I was old enough to notice his absence (he actually didn't meet me until I was six months old, after his last long trip). I don't think I truly understood the military lifestyle, as my family didn't move often and my father wasn't actively involved in a military conflict since Vietnam.

Working in a Navy town, though, I have watched many friends, students, and families adjust to absent parents and loved ones, returning parents and partners, and frequent cross-country relocations. The effect of long deployments on families has caused me to question the rationale, logic, and efficiency of the Navy's ways. And I won't lie: I've been a skeptic of the military and its claims that "the best offense is a good defense." I tend to eye recruiters with suspicion and inwardly wince when former students declare proudly that they've enlisted.

But I am always willing to consider new perspectives; when 12th grade students and I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, I included in their packet of related reading a Vanity Fair article on the pressures on military recruiters--and some of corners they cut in the quest to meet quotas.

Watching the complicated systems aboard the Nimitz and the daily grind of practicing the launch and safe recovery of armed jets got me closer to understanding that each six-to-nine-month journey of that floating city can be seen as both symbolic diplomacy and crucial preparation for the worst case scenario. Everything is predicated upon creating meaningfulness, accountability, and teamwork from each individual aboard. Even the youngest, greenest, seemingly-headed-nowherest kind of young adult is given status, skills, and pride in being part of a self-sustaining city of 5,000 people in close quarters. Seen from a vague distance, it's easy to characterize the military as a cold machine...from closer up, it's a bunch of people doing their jobs, being very human. While sleeping stacked three deep on racks. The "machinery" seems far away, the "puppeteers," those giving orders.

Though this LA Times review suggests that the portrayal of the Navy in Carrier is less than rosy, I can attest to the fact that I felt my chest swell watching the ballet of men and women loading up and directing jets on the flight deck, over and over again, willing cables not to snap and bombs not to explode. Then I was reminded that these were not Top Gun's Goose and Maverick playing volleyball on the beach, but the funny, fallible, oft-misguided and youthful recruits whose hometown foibles and shipside follies were just recounted on camera. And I know the poignant parts are coming.

As one officer shared, these largely 18-to-21-year-old sailors work hard for paltry pay, especially when calculated hourly. He admits that he doesn't know how anyone gets them to do their often-unsavory jobs. It's that we're all in this together, one observer suggests. And you help the guy next to you because he might save your life someday.

And there's a personal connection I feel to this film through Susan, an air traffic controller on Carrier. She and I became friends through her daughter, a student on our campus who somehow connected with me, her vice principal, perhaps over talk of tardies or her artwork. Her mom was deployed again for much of 2007, and during that time Grandma was in charge. She began her slow descent into disconnectedness, anticipating her family's transfer across the country after Christmas. She disappeared for a few days in November and we gathered together to remind her of her responsibilities as well as to encourage her, not knowing she was already under water, deep.

Susan left me a message a few days short of New Year's, letting me know that she had run away again. When she was found almost two weeks later, and we better understood the depth of her troubles, Susan whisked her to Florida and into rehab. But it wasn't long before she escaped back to California, where's she's holed up right under our noses but out of grasp. And so far away from her mom.

In episodes later this week, Susan and her three children are featured, a painful retrospective now. Susan is hoping that publicity from Carrier will provide an opportunity to update the public on her predicament.

And that she'll get some help bringing her daughter home and keeping her safe.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Empty Bowls, Overflowing

There are some days when goodness just abounds. And today was really, really good.

Starting with the potentially contentious conference between parents and coaches I sat in on, which ended with a leap in respect gained by both sides, both for the Job of Parents of Struggling Kid and for the Job of Coaches of 80 Alternately Struggling Kids. Sometimes people can start suspicious of one another and end mutually respectful, even admiring. It's pretty cool to watch that go down.

Then I attended a meeting about a student in our special education program who suffers from serious disabilities as well as Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. We celebrated this teenager's occupational therapy evaluation results, awed by how well she copied shapes and stayed in the lines when asked to perform tasks with a pencil. We listened while her mother described the family's hour-and-a-half-long morning routine, meant to stretch her daughter's muscles and prepare her for less-painful days.

"What time do you wake up in the morning?" I asked, humbled by this parent's dedication.

"4:45," she answered, "Everyday. This is our family's schedule," she added. "We're used to it," she smiled. "And it makes a difference."

I had an opportunity later in the day to counsel two girls I had disciplined earlier for going AWOL from class for half an hour. One set of parents was now sure that the other young lady was a bad influence. They wanted advice, as well as confirmation that I hadn't told their parents they were Satan's Spawn. Though in our last encounter I played Stern Vice Principal and lectured them on Trust and Accountability (as well as assigned them Saturday School), this afternoon we sat on the quad at a picnic table and talked about how to gain and keep the trust of parents. How to apologize, atone, and embark on honest relationships with people who are constantly worried you're Going to Hell in a Handbasket, fast. Especially on days when the school calls with Bad News.

The day culminated with our school's second annual Empty Bowls Dinner and Student Art Exhibit. Our ceramics teacher conceives this event, which involves our students hand-throwing hundreds of ceramic bowls, local restaurants (and citizens AND students) contributing gallons of soup, and artists donating treasured works for a silent auction, all benefiting the homeless and hungry. Teachers, students, parents, community members, and families were all over our quad, listening to live music, eating, communing, greeting one another, holding one another's children, dancing, cartwheeling...and oohing and ahhing over amazing student artwork.

Maybe the best part was our music teacher on guitar, singing 80s cover tunes with current students accompanying on the mandolin and violin.

Maybe the best part was students pointing to bowls strangers had chosen and offering, humbly, shyly: "Ohhh...I made that bowl..." and the Chooser saying, "Really? Oh my goodness! It's the Most Amazing Bowl!"

Maybe the best part was the reunion of student musicians, some graduates, who've made a name for themselves and cut a CD, playing their famous version of "Video Killed the Radio Star."

Maybe the best part was that I happened to choose a bowl, blindly, among 700-odd bowls, made by my artist friend, the ceramics teacher, to give to a friend who asked me to pick one for her.

Or that my husband and I divided and conquered with our two girls, to allow them to choose their own favorite bowls. And they both chose pieces from the same whimsical student artist.

Or that my husband and my mother both chose bowls by another talented student.

Or that my mom managed to snag a bowl that featured my own poem reproduced inside.

Or that my dear friend and her three children came to the event, and a sweet student agreed to stand in the soup line with her to help her juggle five soup bowls and three kiddoes.

Or that I caught up with the mother of a student whose father (her beloved husband) is dying, who came to see her son, and to eat soup and to just be for the moment...

Or that my Daughter #2 showed up in mittens and shorts.

Or that my Daughter #1 demonstrated how important some of the adults (NOT related to her!) are in her life, especially my artist friend and a math teacher colleague/mentor/friend. Making ME feel like my mother side and my work side and my friend side converge. And that it all makes sense, really it does.

Or that teachers at our school are teaching our students more than subject matter. That each discipline has its global connection. That ceramics comes with GIVING and a potential for awareness beyond ourselves, and that we need to give, give, give...and open our eyes.

That's what my teacher friend did by hosting this event AGAIN, and by inspiring his students to create more than 700 bowls to give to others. And that's what the parents demonstrated, the parents who made this one of the most well-organized events we host. And that's what the pride in craftsmanship--of the music, of the pottery, of the ideas conceived, of the hard work--really means to the people behind this event.

To quote one of my colleagues, reflecting on tonight in an email to staff: "I usually feel my bowl runneth over..."

Sunday, April 20, 2008


It's April 20th, 2008, and I am celebrating the fact that this date is on a SUNDAY this year.

4/20 may be just an ordinary date to the blissfully ignorant, but if you work among teenagers, you know this is the infamous Day To Get High or to just Spend All Day Talking About It.

Both good reasons for me to be happy I am not hanging out with adolescents today. Otherwise, as it would be the topic du jour on campus, you would likely find me sighing, rolling my eyes, reminding teachers to be on the sniffout for possible potheads, and correcting students who erroneously think it's Bob Marley's birthday.

Next year 4/20 falls on a Monday...maybe it will be Spring Break.

Not likely.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The answer is: I Had A Big Lunch

Ooooh, to be an educator.

I know there are a lot of high-profile jobs out there, and a lot of careers that require "performing" and "being on stage," but there's nothing like the daily parading of teenagers through your life, hour after hour, to make you horribly self conscious (or, rather, to cure you of that).

I take some consolation in the fact that AT LEAST no one is publishing cartoon caricatures of me, meant to highlight my least favorable characteristics, on a Daily Basis, as Presidents of the United States--or candidates for which--learn to tolerate.

Nevertheless, in my years in the classroom I have endured questions about my wardrobe, my shoes, my complexion, my choice of accessories, the tone of my voice, and my habitual gestures and phrases. Not to mention my religion, politics, and private life. (Off Limits, People, OFF LIMITS! And, I like to think, not as obvious as the state of my skin).

Just ask any teenager to parody a teacher: It's not hard to act out the character of someone whose show you watch every day (except weekends)--someone who alternately talks, argues, jokes, cajoles, loses it, apologizes, waxes philosophical, gets emotional, lectures, rejoins, scolds, cheers, and any self-respecting teacher is likely to do during the episodes of his/her nine-month season. There is more material here than offered on the average Soap Opera. And this celebrity, the teacher? Ohhh, FLAWED. And Very Real.

I am now a Vice Principal. This means that in some ways, my life is much more Public. People--students in particular--tend to know where I am in a crowd. Parents acknowledge me and conversations are careful in my presence. Call me, to a certain extent, Buzz Kill.

But in other ways, I am less conspicuous. I don't command the attention of 100+ students per day as I used to as a teacher. In moments of desperation (spilled coffee on shirt, volcanic pimple on cheek, HIGHLY EMOTIONAL DAY), I could ostensibly limit undivided attention by Hiding in My Office.

But there could always be a Fire Drill to interrupt an otherwise Under the Radar Day: In which all students and staff evacuate to the field and look to their administrator(s) for guidance. For leadership. Or for permission to go back to the Regularly Scheduled Program.

I wasn't having a bad day today. I wasn't hiding anything (apparently). But I did know that when our alarm went off UNEXPECTEDLY that I was going to be giving directions to large groups at the very least. Yelling at 1000 students at the very most.

So I reflexively put my accordion-style key-holder bracelet on my wrist, grabbed my cell phone, pulled my First Aid Backpack equipped with Wheels for Rolling over BOTH shoulders (which made my dress ride up in back), and remembered to bring the Megaphone with me out to the field, where I marched around like a Big Dork reminding students to SIT DOWN and teachers to TURN IN their student rosters so we could account for every child's whereabouts.

At some point while we were waiting for Updates On Our Status, I walked past a small group of students and one had a question for me.

"I want to ask you, but they won't let me." She nodded toward her friends, crouched on the field so as not to actually Sit Down on the artificial turf in their too-short shorts.

"Well, who's in charge of YOU?" I prodded, curious, not interpreting signs leading me away from continuing this line of questioning.

The substitute teacher in charge of the class quickly hissed at the young lady, "DON'T ASK HER THAT QUESTION." Students around her were likewise shaking their heads.

I walked away, slightly confused, and also distracted from my main task: protecting the safety of my student body. Out of the corner of my eye and half listening, I watched the conversation among this group of students continue:

"That's SO rude."
"No! That's EVEN RUDER!"
"Just forget it...come on!"

And then came the moment of clarity. The moment of GREAT. The moment of acknowledging that I got the Fat Pants Box out of the garage because I have been eating too much and running too little. The moment of knowing that some of the looks I have been ignoring recently have all been based on the same wonderment...that this innocent student was the spokesperson for all the colleagues and neighbors and maybe even random strangers who have been wanting to ask...

I couldn't resist. When the "All Clear" announcement was made and she walked by me, I leaned over and offered, "I'm pretty sure the answer to your question is 'I had a big lunch'."

She looked startled, and chagrined, and laughed. And so did I.

But I went running later. I think I lost at least a week off that phantom pregnancy.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I know

I haven't mentioned the sad fact that it wasn't until February, when I went to vote at the church a few blocks away, that I learned our neighbor and his girlfriend were expecting a baby...due in April.

He and I were in line to vote in the primaries, so I turned to him and remarked on a cool scene a few nights prior, when I glanced through our side doors straight into one of their bedrooms and noticed his silhouette, backlit in a beautiful blue light. I quickly realized the unusual glow came from him, up late painting the room a serene cornflower hue. He smiled. "You know why, right? We're expecting a little one."

But I didn't know. Partially because our habits don't mesh--I rise early, leave early, come home in the evening and start tending to children. He is in a rockabilly band and they seem more nocturnal: up late at night, up late in the morning. Maybe once a week we see each other, coming and going, waving from car windows. It's quite possible that my husband spotted our neighbor's girlfriend, quite pregnant, at one of these moments. But no, sadly, I didn't know they were having a baby.

But yesterday I noticed that her Honda was missing...for most of the weekend. I bet she's having that baby, I thought, excited, sorry that we hadn't offered to take care of their dog.

Lo and behold, his parents pulled up in the afternoon, flower bouquets in hand, to report the two-weeks-early broken waters, the labor that didn't progress, the C-section that ensued, and the healthy, just-short-of-eight-pound baby boy born Wednesday morning. The new family was on its way home from the hospital behind them.

I couldn't help watching through the window. I've been through two Cesarean sections. When it's not what you planned for, when it's your first, it's exhausting.

And then there's that drive home from the hospital, when you are sitting in the backseat (which is weird enough, already) next to Your Child, and the world outside is going on as normal, as if no one completely understands that your world has been completely, irrevocably ROCKED. That nothing for you is the same and everything looks so different and everybody else looks so...carefree.

Which is why, when they parked outside their house, and she got out of the car, I looked at her, tears streaming down her face, and I just said, I know. I know, sister. I know.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Our Zoo, Part Two: Mutant Tadpole

When an email went out from a coworker whose husband cleans pools that he had just rescued about a million tadpoles from a pool abandoned during the San Diego fires in Fall 2007, and did anybody want some?

I was like, YEAH!

If we can handle chickens, surely we can take on frogs.

I dutifully brought my tupperware so I could claim my pollywogs from the back of coworker's truck after work one day, and then we became responsible for three To-Be-Frogs. Helpful coworker shared that tadpoles eat hotdogs.

Seriously? That sounded like a joke.

But in fact, you need to see some tadpoles eat lunchmeat. They go to TOWN.

One week later, I learn that I am woefully unable to pick out who's most fit in the Natural Selection Game. I chose Mr. Whopper Head, who has no arms, but who is three times as large as the two other, more froggy-looking guys. One of our biology teachers shared that this would-be-hopper, with no arms (above), is probably a Mutant, and probably Not Going To Make It.

But he's hanging in there, like a two-legged, tail-bearing, no-arms-but-in-denial Big Head Todd (I mean TOAD). We'll see what happens next.

Of the two remaining amphibians, one seems to float around rather listlessly (I am not feeling confident about his viability), and one has two useful legs and arms as well as a tail, and appears to be the Best Bet.

I was wrong about chickens; I may have no Frogsense, either.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Three weeks ago my husband lost his cell phone and his wallet. In our house. I am pretty sure. Because his last call from the phone was at night when he was in our house, and the very next morning he couldn't find it. And no one has used the phone or anything in the wallet since.

But we haven't found the phone, and we haven't found the wallet. And in the meantime, my husband is on an Allowance, because I am pretty much refusing to cancel the credit card and replace the phone. BECAUSE THEY MUST BE IN OUR HOUSE. And besides, this is not the First Time my husband has lost, say, his keys, or his wallet, or his phone. Did I mention that my husband works with boats? That he has dropped keys and cell phones in THE OCEAN before, never to be heard from/of again?

So I need a break from cancelling credit cards and then getting a new phone for myself and then giving him my old one because it's only a matter of time until that one is broken or lost. Sorry, honey, but you deserve Sloppy Seconds in Cell Phones.

We will continue in this vein until I tire of remembering to withdraw cash and give it to him.

But (luckily), he has had access to a work cell phone. Which is why I haven't been tempted to replace his cell phone: we have a back-up communication plan.

Until today.

When he dropped his work cell phone IN THE TOILET.


Thursday, April 3, 2008

We Are Here! We Are Here!

I was pretty excited to take my daughter(s?) to see the movie Horton Hears a Who, a new Seuss adaptation starring Jim Carrey (former Grinch), until I heard this review (by a dad who saw it with his kids) on NPR on my way to work yesterday...

As the mother of girls, I can't help but chew on his valid points, and wonder why leading girl roles in kid movies are usually either Princesses or Horse Lovers.

Go Hermione! She might be an exception.

And go Peter Sagal, the Father/NPR Reviewer! You are a Great Girl Dad, I can tell.

My Great Girl Dad/Husband is taking his daughter to the baseball game tomorrow night.