Tag Archives: teaching

An Open Door

A couple weeks ago, my husband stopped me in the hallway at the school where we teach to tell me that he wasn’t receiving an employment contract for the upcoming academic year. By extension that meant I wouldn’t receive a contract either; we came to the school as a package deal and will leave as one, too. As a part-time Humanities faculty member, I was already keenly aware of my expendability. My husband’s news, however, came as a surprise. I felt like throwing up, but I did what an adult does: I pasted a smile on my face, returned to my class, and finished out the day’s work. Then I drank the weekend away.

Unemployment is a stress in itself, but, at a boarding school, it carries an additional wallop: eviction. We live in a faculty house and must vacate it, and our positions, by June 15. My family has four months to figure out many things: where we will work, where our children will attend school, where we are going to live, and what steps will cause the least damage to us as individuals and to our family unit.

My husband and I waited a week before telling the kids. Though it would have been easier to bear the heartache and spare them, we didn’t want to risk them hearing the news from one of the other faculty members or their children. (In this small community, news travels fast.) My son was four when we started working at the school, and my daughter stood as tall as my knees. This is the only home the kids have known. They cried, we cried, and we all went to bed with nine years of memories to either mourn or savor. When we woke up the following morning, we watched the sun rise into a crisp blue sky.

I will not miss this job. It has demanded my creativity and sapped my patience. It has killed my love for young adult literature. I may miss the unique relationships I’ve built with young learners, but I won’t miss the grading, the superfluous, unproductive faculty “workshops,” or the hours of planning. This job has always been a job, not a calling, and I accept its end for the possibilities and potential it unleashes.

I feel buoyant, despite the chaos. This experience is an open door. I intend to walk through it with my head held high.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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A Real Job

Twice now, I have overheard my husband talking to his family and implying that I am not gainfully employed. “If I died tomorrow,” he says, “Jules would have to go and get a real job.” He’s right and he’s wrong. I do have a job; two, in fact. I am a mother and I teach middle school Humanities. The latter arrangement is purposefully part-time.

Several years ago, I was killing myself working full-time for a supervisor who delighted in disparaging me, taking credit for my writing, and making me cry. Other people were raising my children, witnessing their accomplishments and milestones while I reported daily for the abuse of my self-esteem. When my mother died unexpectedly in 2010, I experienced the type of enlightenment that comes from sudden shock: in my case, a crushing loss that gave me the clarity and strength I needed to change. I quit my job to become a freelancer and occasional tutor.

I have not regretted my choice to be present for my children or the pay cut that came with it. I drop the kids off at school each morning, and I greet them happily when they return home. I sign the permission slips; I help with the homework. So, yes, my husband is right: a significant downturn in life would force me to secure a more lucrative paycheck. But he’s wrong, too. Parenthood is my foremost imperative: a job I perform with diligence and pride.

*

My son, Kai, keeps a journal in his fifth grade class, and we trade off writing entries to one another every day after school. He writes about what he’s been learning and how he feels. The journal provides a complex synthesis of his innermost thoughts and perceptions. He tucks in stickers and inspirational quotes. I delight in giving him wacky responses, just to see if he notices. (He does.) I cherish these little conversations.

Third grade Kai.

Third grade Kai.

Kai is the reason I transitioned into teaching. I knew that I wanted to be involved in my children’s education. When I saw an opportunity four years ago, I applied for the job, eager to work with middle school minds and perform the unspoken requirements needed to work with my own kids in the future.

Fifth grade Kai. The conversation only gets better.

Fifth grade Kai. The conversation only gets better.

*

At work, I channel the outspoken individuals who taught me in junior high: Mr. Homer, Mr. Goldberg, the Highlands, and Miss Becker, who revolutionized my ninth grade world by welcoming me into her AV girl squad. I remember small details about them: the way Mr. Homer adapted 60s song lyrics and serenaded his students; the talk Mr. Highland gave science class about “bowel massage.” Mr. Goldberg administered well-timed hugs, and to this day I envision Mrs. Highland’s prodigiously-lined eyes widening in admiration, chiffon sleeves billowing: “They called him Seurat, the Dot.”

I often wonder how those teachers did it. What compelled them to work with a bunch of foul-mouthed, loosely disciplined, pimply adolescents who weren’t even their own kin? And how did they contribute so much of their hearts without certainty that the investment of their time and energy would be returned or acknowledged? They provided light along the path to individuality.

*

Once, I asked my students why they thought I came to work every day. “You got the job because of your husband,” guessed one. “You really like working with kids,” said another. A third, barely looking up from his handheld technology, offered: “It’s your dream job!”

It isn’t, and I don’t always love it. Sometimes middle school students are obnoxious and gross. When one of my boys mutters something – usually a dirty joke or song lyric – that makes all the girls collectively gag and recoil, I roll my eyes and question if this is how the universe truly wants me to measure the worth of my days. Is this the work I’m supposed to do? Because I remember my teachers so fondly, and because my co-workers seem to thrive at what they do, I sometimes feel like the odd-person-out who views teaching as a job, rather than a passion.

*

Students in my classes probably won’t remember what a dependent clause is or why an Oxford comma makes a difference to the reader. They could not care less about plot lines, context, or hubris. They might remember that I treat fictional characters as if they are personal friends and stammer when I speak too fast. With any luck, they’ll intuit the broader lesson: that whether they’re creative or cranky, flippant or funny, they matter. They can live, talk, think, and act authentically, even if it takes them some time to put all those connections together. Those who have found their voices should help those who haven’t.

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*

At the end of the day, my reach in the classroom is finite and comprises only a fraction of potential influence. I strive to do well, though as summer break approaches and my students’ attention spans grow shorter, success is difficult to gauge. The work I do at home, however, offers immediate, enduring results. It is never far from my mind that the two students I care and advocate for most are the ones who share a roof with me.

Kai is one grade away from middle school. It’s greedy to covet his time in the classroom and at home, but there are so many books to read with him and so many writing prompts I’d love to learn his responses to. I have no doubt which job holds the greater value.

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© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

*****

With sincere gratitude to all of the teachers – in middle school, before and

after – who lit the way with love and support.

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Fortune Cookies

A scholar's writing lasts longer than a martyr's blood.

A scholar’s writing lasts longer than a martyr’s blood.

You have an excellent sense of humor. Lucky number: 13

I have a moderate book problem.  I inherited my addiction from my father, who suffers from a severe, raging book problem.  He spends hundreds of dollars on books each month, scouring book-buying clubs for the newest titles, the latest, greatest publications to acquire.  He views his acquisitions in terms of collections, and is continually searching for ways in which to improve his collections. His Africa collection is exhaustive, as are his Peoples of the World and Peoples of the American Southwest. He taught these subjects at Utah State University throughout my youth.

I go on book binges, but have not yet reached a point in my life where I can afford or find room to house hundreds of dollars worth of book purchases.  My only prized “collection” – of food writing and cookbooks – falls far short of comprehensive. Sometimes I make second-hand purchases, a practice my father finds reprehensible.  I can’t help myself.  Books comfort me.  I love their distinct printed smell, the silken heft of their pages.  I do not feel settled unless I can see their colorful spines, lined up in rows on my bookshelves and arranged alphabetically by author’s last name or, in the case of anthologies, alphabetically by book title.

Can a love of words really be transmitted through a genetic line?  My dad and I both love to read in general.  We’ll read anything we can get ahold of, and spend all day doing it if time and circumstance permit.  Though I didn’t grow up in my father’s house, we cultivated our relationship over summer breaks.  My mother showed little interest in books and she sometimes teased me – not maliciously – about my reading habit, which causes me to wonder if I picked it up casually through observation of my father (whose houses over the years were technically libraries with beds, measured in linear shelf space rather than square footage) or whether there’s something to the theory of genetic transmission.

Your smile lights up a room. Lucky number: 2005

Another thing I inherited from my dad: a button nose.  I got my mother’s hazel eyes, and my father’s round chipmunk cheeks and pert nose.  My sister and brother are also blessed with the nose.  I used to like my nose passively; it was something that made my face seem less plain in photographs, though I gave little regard to it otherwise.

A large black Chow subdivided my nose in 2005.  Thirty-seven stitches later, I retained a nose, with a board instead of a button.  It healed into something wholly unremarkable, except for the thin vein of white scar tissue that flashes like lightning over the bridge.  I actively appreciate my nose now.  Had I been standing an inch to the right or left, I might have been severely disfigured or blinded.

Recently, my daughter, who is six years old, contracted mono. (We live on the campus of a boarding school, and, as such, germs befriend one another quickly.)  I have never before been so acutely aware of her spleen.  The weight and worth of my daughter’s existence catapulted to the forefront of my mind.  Simple tasks like riding her bicycle to school or competing in team sports are out of the question for the time being.  Nothing is worth risking the rupture of this small internal organ.

The body is such a miracle.  My daughter will recover.  My nose remains in tact.   Sometimes it’s the misfortunes that make us feel fortunate.

You have lovely eyes. Lucky number: 2

As a writer, I rely on my eyes to gather the visual details I tuck away for later: the tufted dandelion sprout, floating in the air; the crooked upturned arm of my spiny blue cactus; the silhouette of a horned owl, high up in a tree against the blush of sunset.  My eyes revel in my son’s playful smile; they drink in my daughter’s freckled cheeks.  They are vessels that carry the words I read onto the vast, curvaceous rivers of my mind.  If the day’s first blessing is waking up, the next true blessing must be opening one’s eyes to the possibilities of a new day. Thanks be.

You are an enigma. Lucky number: ?

Research for this essay returned me to a book I hadn’t read in years: Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.  In a chapter titled “Double Face,” one of Tan’s characters, Lindo Jong, recounts sifting through potential fortunes at the fortune cookie-making factory where she once worked, in the hope of finding one that would elicit a marriage proposal from her beau.  She selected a fortune that read: “A house is not home when a spouse is not at home.”  Her clever plan succeeded.  The next day, her boyfriend asked, “Lindo, can you spouse me?”

My research also brought me to an article about the largest producer of fortune cookies, Wonton Food, Inc., which distributed over four million cookies a day in 2005.  That amounts to nearly a billion and a half cookies annually!  Who eats them all?  My theory is that most people – excluding children, who would eat cardboard if it tasted moderately sweet – are more interested in the fortunes than the golden cookies themselves.  Sometimes the messages resonate; sometimes it’s the lucky numbers. In 2005, lucky numbers won 110 people sums of approximately $100,000 each in a single day’s Powerball drawing.  The accompanying fortune?  “All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off.”

I don’t harbor strong feelings about fortune cookies, but I love the intrigue they hold within.  Maybe if I had taken the time to read a fortune on the day of my new nose, it would have read: “Beware of inauspicious strangers.  The admiration of their beauty wields a deleterious cost.”

All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off. Lucky number: 2013

My dad once advised me to prepare to hold at least three professions in life.  The changing world, he said, required adaptability.  To date, I’ve worked in about twelve positions – with vastly different titles and responsibilities – without interruption (and sometimes simultaneously).   My love of words has threaded through each of my professional incarnations.  I am very grateful to possess a skill that benefits myself as well as others, and buoys me, despite sharp changes in the economy and employment rates.

Right now, I teach Humanities to a gregarious group of middle school students.  I have no idea how I got so lucky in this latest gig: not only do I get to read and write, I get to geek out about reading and writing with young, enthusiastic minds!  Together, we explore worlds that are so different from our own with characters who are so similar to us.  I love when my students ask questions about the text and I can literally see their imaginations flare.

I do not know what the new school year will look like for me, but I hope that the long weekends of lesson planning and grading will pay off.  I hope that this year of channeling my own creativity into the creativity of others will not have been in vain.  In truth, I have missed the freedom to write and read on my own schedule.  I have missed marching into the grocery store; sweeping ingredients into my arms, like long lost lovers; and coming home to a joyous orgy of cooking and photography.  But I have also cultivated positive relationships with seventeen great students.  I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a teacher… and learned that the process of learning never really ends. Nor does the adaptability of my spirit.

I face the fortune ahead of me with gratitude and optimism.  My love of words has yet to let me down.

© Julia Moris-Hartley 2013

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Appetite APB

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My appetite is gone.  Poof! Whoosh! Alla Shazaam!  I don’t know  where she has gone, but for the last few months, I have lived without her.  My food enthusiasm has not waned – I still troll food blogs, ogle food photography, and fondle fruit in the produce aisle.  I read all the articles that appear in the Dining & Wine section of The New York Times.  The cheese case still makes my body sing.  But when the time comes to eat, I am impassive.  Filet Mignon?  Raclette?  A piece of wheat toast spread with salted butter?  I just don’t care.  This bothers me.

Where has my appetite gone?  Maybe, like Mayzie, my appetite has grown tired of her perch inside my egghead brain, and has flown to laze about in warmer, less turbulent climes.  Maybe she is baking in the heat of the Aruban sun, where, I confess, I would love to join her.  Winter has felt very long this year.  It would be nice to feel warm sand under my feet, to smell coconut oil in the balmy breeze.  I miss my appetite.  I would rejoice to reunite with her.

I’m trying not to panic.  I remember the intense sympathy I felt for Molly Birnbaum when I read her book, Season to Taste, in which she recounts losing her sense of smell.  How can one have an appetite or appreciation for food without the ability to smell it?  I shared her story with my husband, who responded with a tepid “Meh.” Meh?  Meh?!  How dreadful to live out your life in a state of “Meh”!  I’m a party-like-it’s-1999 kind of girl.  And yet, here I am, skipping out on meals and dodging Meh’s specter in the realm I hold most sacred.

I placate my growing sense of fear with the knowledge that I’m a first-year teacher who didn’t know she would be one until it happened.  I expend a lot of creative energy in the classroom.  Every single day involves intense planning for the next class… from scratch.  Every day poses a new challenge, like learning a new delivery style, adapting to the moods of my students, and accepting that sometimes technology fails at the exact moment when you planned to show the perfect YouTube clip.  I’m like a contestant on Chopped, an amateur trying to prove myself worthy enough to be in the League of Super Teachers.

I’ve also battled several colds since the school year began.  Colds mess with appetites, right?

Though I haven’t shared this information with anyone, I suspect my friends know that something’s amiss.  Plans for food-related gatherings and excursions have increased threefold since the New Year.  Hostel rooms have been reserved for extended food outings in the north.  Friends anonymously deliver delicious foodstuffs by cover of night.  I may be lacking in cravings, but I’m not lacking in good friends.  I am so grateful to have their love and support, especially now.

I can, thanks be, still appreciate the taste and flavor of good foods.  I can still smile into a bowl of creamy, cheesy grits.  I just can’t feel my own food mojo anymore.  So I’d like to formally issue an APB.  My appetite is about 5’2” and she recently cut her hair and added auburn streaks.  If you happen to see her, please tell her to come back to me.  I’ll be waiting right here with open arms.

© 2013 Julia Moris-Hartley

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