The house is clean, my exercise goal met, lagkagen stands at the ready – Happy birthday, sweet Theadora – and as 2018 runs slowly out, I think of the year to come. A year where I will turn 39. A year where Augustine will enter kindergarten. Where we will travel as far away as Taiwan to teach and learn. Where perhaps another book will be written. A year that beckons for a word to describe it. And so like in the past, I choose a word to help me focus as the year opens up and daily life returns.
More love, even when it is snuck in small moments and through small gestures.
More relaxation. Augi already asks me if we will go to the pool every day this summer.
More moments to sit quietly.
More moments to feel good.
More “I love you’s” and ” I like you’s.”
More thank you’s.
And even more vegetables.
More opportunities to say yes to and if no is said it is because it stood in the way of another more.
But also knowing that more does not mean all. That more does not mean unlimited. That more does not mean sacrificing my family to be more for others. But the type of more that comes with paying attention. With care. With a positive outlook that allows us to look back and realize that we already have so much and that what we really need to do is to realize it.
To give more when it matters. To know when to say no, more. To know when others should have the chance to be more, to be an ally more.
More for the good of others.
And so I wish you more, to quote the incredible Amy Krouse Rosenthal. More of what you need, not what you don’t.
Five years ago today, I held our youngest daughter for the first time. She was 24 hours old. She was down to almost 3 pounds. She could fit into the palm of her father’s hand. I held her for the briefest of minutes until she stopped breathing, her alarm went off, and she had to go back in her incubator. I remember being too scared to hold her, she was so tiny, and yet the nurse, Layla, told me she would be okay. That being held by us would only help, that we would get used to the alarms, the wires, the tubes. That what Augustine needed most at that time from us was our touch. It was the one thing we could do.
I wasn’t supposed to be able to get pregnant on my own. I still remember the doctor being as surprised as we were. The whole pregnancy with her was one fraught with complications. 8 weeks in we thought we lost her, but it turned out that it wasn’t her that was causing the bleeding, it was the blood clots that I had. After weeks of bleeding, and so many ultrasounds we could fill an album, the news came that they thought she had Spinal Bifida. One more ultrasound in a darkened room as they meticulously scanned every centimeter of her body. Her gender was revealed as a side-note, “…by the way you’re having a girl…” and I remember calling my husband, Brandon, to tell him. Standing in front of the hospital shouting into my phone over traffic; we’re having a girl, and she may be okay, they didn’t see any holes…
When my labor started at 29 weeks, we were surprised, yet didn’t think it meant anything. Surely, it would stop. Surely, it was much too soon. Yet, 6 days later as Augustine came so fast that the nurse caught her because there was no doctor in the room, we became part of a tribe of families that got to take the elevator up to the 8th floor of the hospital, to scrub in, to watch their baby grow under plastic. Who got used to alarms beeping and others caring for a child, we were supposed to take home. Whose crib stood empty as her siblings asked us what happened to the baby?
And to this day, while I see the child she has become, the child that knows no limits, I also am reminded of the events of her birth, of the brutality of her birth. Of how we didn’t know why I was in so much pain that even the strongest pain medicine they could give, didn’t do anything. Of how my mother came to visit and didn’t know how to help. How Brandon stood by my side, holding my hand, imploring the doctors to figure out what was going on. How I couldn’t even scream in the end and just cried silently as I felt like I was being torn apart and they couldn’t make it stop.
In those events, wrapped up in pain and fear, Augustine came into the world. Silently and quickly. Brandon was the first to tell me she was breathing as they rushed in and rushed her away.
It was then that they realized that the lining had separated from my uterus. A condition that can kill your baby and cause massive bleeding to the mother. Having Augustine early was my body’s way of saving her. Forcing her into the world was my body’s way of giving her a chance.
And she is fine. She just turned five. She is in school and knows how to write her name. She knows our phone number. She is a great friend and role model. She loves her teddy “Puppy” and asks me to sing to her every night. The doctors have declared her perfectly average years ago and yet, on her birthday, and in the days leading up to and away from it, I am reminded of one of the most traumatic events that happened to me. Of the fear, of the pain, and of the incredible guilt that comes with giving your child such a hard start to their life, even if you know rationally it is not your fault. I can see that she is fine. I know she is fine, and yet, the joy is wrapped in memories that are hard, still, to process.
How many others carry memories such as these silently?
I think of our students as they come to class with unknown trauma surrounding them. Of how small things that we see as harmless may be triggers. Of how we all carry our stories with us and within us and that sometimes those stories can still make us cry when we are reminded of them. That one of the things trauma does to you is to intricately change the connections in your brain and that you might never fully heal, even if you know you should. That it causes you sometimes to act in ways that don’t make fully sense at first, but then later can be traced back to a reaction caused by something that happened to you. That it is something I have had to recognize within my own actions as I cried on her birthday and I couldn’t figure out why.
And so as I share this seemingly too personal story, I do it in the hopes of giving myself the freedom to speak these words out loud. When I recognize that her birthday, while joyful, is also one that carries many layers, I can feel the burden lighten. When I write out the thoughts that continue to haunt me, they seem to lose some of their weight as we look to a new year of memories.
Sometimes I wonder how some of our students do it every day, knowing full well the lives they live in, the lives that continue to produce trauma in their world. How perhaps in our rooms they can feel safe. How perhaps our time together can be something good in their lives that doesn’t cause them more pain. How perhaps with us they can find courage if they need it, reclaim their voice if they lost it, find hope if they seek it. Because I know that what we do everyday matters, that how we help kids feel everyday matters. And as Augi sits here next to me, I am reminded of what we all know to be true; every moment is but a moment, and yet, every moment has the power to break us or empower us. We choose its legacy. Happy birthday, Augustine Grete, and many more.
These were the words I texted my husband on November 18th as I traveled home from NCTE. Exhausted yet fulfilled, I knew my brain needed a break from the constant stream of learning that Twitter provides me with. Take a break fully in order to be more present with my family. Taking a break well-knowing that even taking a break from some of the work that is happening on social media is a privilege in itself. I get to step away when I am exhausted. Not everyone gets to do that.
I could have just stopped going on there and yet I needed a further distance than that. A true break where I did not get to check in, where I didn’t get to quickly sink back in, slowly letting the consumption of Twitter pull me back in. Because that’s what has happened in the past. Call it fear of missing out, of feeling inadequate, of being excited to share, whatever you call it, the reality was; when I was on there, I was affected and I needed a break.
At first, I missed it. It was weird not just jumping on there to check in. Weird to not see all of the conversations unfolding. Watch the news break. Hard to not share the work we were doing in our classroom through a quick tweet or question.
But after the missing came the questions; am I still doing enough to change the world of education if I am not on Twitter? Am I still doing my part whatever that part is? Am I less effective as an educator if I am not connected to those who not only will inspire me, but also challenge me?
I am not sure, I am still pondering that…
But what I do know if this… Since then I have checked Twitter four times and every single time, I have felt my heart rate increase, my stomach clench, my brain get filled with to-do’s that weren’t to-do’s a few moments ago. I have noticed that within the excitement of seeing the conversations happening, the sharing, the hard truths being pushed out, I also felt lost. I felt overwhelmed. I felt like I was not doing enough, or maybe I was trying to do too much. That perhaps my voice could add to the ongoing conversations or perhaps it could hinder others from joining in.
So today, I asked my husband to once again change my password. To allow me to continue to step away from “Twitter Pernille.” Not because I don’t want to engage, but because I want to engage in other spaces. Because I want to preserve the energy I have to affect change in my own classroom, my own school, my own district. Because my kids deserve more of me, both my own four, but also the 76 I get to call mine this year. Because I want to focus on reflecting, because I want to focus on learning. I don’t want to focus on what I need to produce. I want to listen to others whose work will help me become a better educator, a better human being. And right now, Twitter isn’t doing that for me. And that’s ok.
So for now, I will be on here. I will be in my classroom fully present. I will try to find a better balance between sharing and staying quiet. I will be in the Global Read Aloud community, the Passionate Readers community. I will be actually reading more of the fantastic things written by others whose work inspires me to be more than I am. I will be diving back into research. I will be looking at my own practices in order to grow. I will be by my fireplace reading a book. I will be at my dinner table laughing with my kids. I will be just Pernille, not Pernille that has a lot to say and doesn’t always know when to be quiet. If you see me on there, it is probably a cross-posting from Instagram or a very rare moment indeed. But until then, take care of yourself. I am trying to take care of me.
We are about to write in class. 15 minutes of free write await. I have a prompt from the amazing The Creativity Project, I am ready with my own pencil, my notebook, the document camera. And yet…the hesitation from students is almost palpable. So many of them already feeling defeated. Feeling like this will be hard. Asking if they can read instead of write. Despite all of their years of great teaching, of great moments with writing, so many of our kids still feel like writing is something they will never like, nor is it something they will ever master.
On our wall hangs our writing rights poster, the rights we created as a writing community at the beginning of the year. The rights that surround us as we play with writing, as we develop our writing voice. And yet, something is woefully missing from it.
So I add it quickly.
“You have the right to write “bad” writing.”
And I tell my students this…writing doesn’t have to be great. Writing doesn’t even have to be good. You have the right to write bad stories, to write poems that you never want to share. To write a few sentences that are so cringy that you can’t believe you came up with them. You have the right to start, to stop, to think, to write whatever pops into your mind. Not because it is any good but because you are simply writing.
And then I share the beginning of a story I wrote that morning with my first-hour class. A story that I knew was terrible as I wrote it, filled with cliches, overused plot points and weird sentences, but U was tired and distracted and so that was all I could think of. I read it aloud, laughing as I go. At first, I can see the skeptical looks – this isn’t that bad, Mrs. Ripp – but when they get to the genie in the bottle part, they are laughing too. As I finish, I shut my notebook and declare that I will never continue that story but at least I wrote.
One child yells, “But you write books, Mrs. Ripp, how can you write bad stories?”
“My book took me a year to write..” I answer honestly because it’s true, my books take a long time because I wrote a lot of stuff that never gets published.
We turn back to the prompt. I remind them to sink into their writing, to simply write something, using the prompt or not, and off they go. Every single child writing something. Every child trying. Not because they are all trying to write something powerful but because they are reminded once again that writing doesn’t always have to be everything we love about writing. Something you just have to write badly and be okay with that.
All day, writing has been calling to me. The magic of the words unfolding, my thoughts becoming clearer, my ideas set to page, taking a life of their own. Ideas abound, swirling until I feel unsettled, craving the peace that inevitably arrives after the writing has happened. A picture book? A new book for educators? A blog post? A poem as I prepare to advise our slam poetry club starting tomorrow (wish me luck)? The urge to write is there even if the ideas are not fully formed, fully present, but the keys call my name as I sit in front of the fire, reflecting on today.
I wonder how many of our students have that urge? How many are called to write as they process the world around them? Search for their unique way to sift through the bombardment of images and thoughts that constantly surround us? How many feel the call of a pen, a journal, a keyboard, as a way to unpack and digest? As a way to create something that didn’t exist until they decided to create it?
I have said it before, but it bears repeating; in our eagerness to make sure that students can write well, are we extinguishing their very urge to write? To tell stories? To reflect? To process somehow?
When we ask our students who they are as writers, their answers lack little surprise; I am a writer who writes because I have to. I am not a writer. I hate writing. I am a writer who writes in school, that’s it.
“How many sentences do I need, Mrs. Ripp?”
“How long should it be?”
“I don’t know what to write…”
Not let me write.
Not can we write?
But why do we have to write? I will never use writing when I am… older…in my job…when I leave school. Fill in the sentence however you see fit.
So for the next four weeks, we will play with writing. We will form stories, journals, poems, plays, comics, whatever strikes our fancy as we take away the assessment. As we make a space every day to simply write. As we make a space every day to share what we wrote if we want to. As we make room for the conversations that need to surround the writing and the writers. As we strip away the to-do’s and search for the to-be’s.
As we discover perhaps not just who we are as writers, but more so who we want to be. As we search and perhaps even find a place for writing somewhere in our busy lives so that perhaps, just perhaps, their answers will not always be, “do we have to write?” but instead can be “Do we have to stop?”
Our house is a mess. In between coming home from being away, the rush of two school days, the joy of Thanksgiving and now the Christmas decorations, it seems that on every surface, in every corner, there is something out of place. A job that calls for my attention, urging me to pick up, clean up, fix, do. It is overwhelming to simply wander, now knowing where to start.
My house reminds me so much of our work as teachers. Everywhere we see projects half-finished, ideas calling out for us to work on them, conversations that should be had, and, indeed, children who seem to have a long way to go. Children who we are not quite sure how we will ever get there, wherever there may be. Children who need us in ways that we have not really discovered fully yet. Children whose lives will be shaped by the decisions we make, whether we intend them to or not.
It is overwhelming at times, all-consuming at times, urgent at times. Where do we start? Where do we go?
Too often we are big idea people as teachers, and yet within this innate quality to juggle many different components at the same time also lies a dangerous mindset; the idea that we must think of all things at the same time. The idea that if we do not constantly focus on the whole then we will never reach our destination. It is a paralyzing mindset, one that may spur us into action at first, but then burn us out.
Yet, just like our houses, our lives whose unfinished projects call our names, we have a choice to make. Do we sit back, looking at all of the projects calling to us, or do we simply go from one thing to the next? Do we have an overall goal in mind, but then focus in on the one small thing we can do right now? The child we can sit with? The lesson we can plan for tomorrow? The book we can read tonight? The idea we can try right now? The change we can when it comes to the inherent wrongs we are constantly faced with in this world?
So I propose a simple reminder today; focus on the next small thing and once that is accomplished then focus on the next small thing. Be aware of all of the needs, but focus in on one. Don’t force yourself into this perpetual state of overwhelmedness that seems to envelop us all as teachers, as adults.
Start small with each child focus on what you will try next right now. The next few days. Change a text. Change an approach. Try something new. But do it one at a time. And then pay attention to the small changes. To the small moments that indicate successes that we so often miss when we keep our eye on the end of the year. The growth is happening, I promise, we just have to take a moment to see it.