xmlns:og>='http://ogp.me/ns#'> Pedals & Pencils: 2011

December 30, 2011

My Grandmother's Skirt

A tiny crack splintered through my heart when I hung my grandmother's skirt up in my closet this Christmas.  It's a red and green plaid skirt that sits perfectly on my hips and floats at my knees, a traveling pants sort of miracle being that I'm 6' tall and my grandmother was 5' on a tall day.

The skirt is one of two items I took from her closet when she passed away.  The other was a bland oatmeal sweater that smelled like her.  I kept that sweater on for days after she died, breathing in her smell even as I laid in bed nights, listening to the sounds that felt all wrong in her house.

But the skirt went unworn.  Last year I couldn't put it on without crying and so it hung at the back of my closet, its red and green merriment lost in a dark corner.  This year I was able to wear the skirt with only the slightest quiver in my bottom lip when I looked in the mirror.

I paired my grandmother's skirt with a green cowl neck blouse, a black jacket zigzagged with zippers, black tights and tall black boots with the skinniest of heels.  For good measure I added my favorite leather studded bracelet.  I remember my grandmother wearing the skirt, so proper in her heels and nylons and a red sweater on top.  She would have laughed and shaken her head at her modest skirt paired with a my hints of edginess.  A thousand times I wanted to send her a photo.  I wanted our pictures to stand next to each other, each of us wearing this magical skirt, her red lipsticked mouth smiling out at my own pale grin.

Every single time I took her skirt out for a spin, I was showered with compliments.  I'm not fashionable or trendy in any sense of those words.  I'm gangly and awkward and when I can find pants that don't look like I'm readying for a flood, well, that's a fashion win in my book.

My grandmother's skirt
When I stepped out in my grandmother's skirt, it was a whole new experience.

"I love that skirt."

"That is a fantastic skirt!"

"You look radiant in that skirt.  It really brings out the color in your cheeks."

Needless to say, I felt great in that skirt, so great that I carefully put it in my clothing rotation as often as possible.  The skirt is so unabashedly red and green that the only possible month to wear it is December and so I decided to make the most of my month with my grandmother's skirt.

I took it to see 'It's a Wonderful Life'.  I wore it to three Christmas parties.  I wore it to the Christmas sing-a-long on the last day of school.  And finally I donned  it for our Christmas morning church service.

As we read the Communion passage, I held the plastic Communion cup, complete with wafer sealed on top, and swirled the grape juice so that it coated the sides of the cup red.  I thought about how Christ's sacrifice covers my sins and I thought about how if I peeled back the wrapper on that cup and poured it on my skirt, the red wool would soak it up and nobody would even notice.  For the record, I didn't pour it out.  I savored the wafer on my tongue and washed it down with the bittersweet juice, running red down my throat.

After church and after all the gifts were opened at my mom's house, a knot caught in my throat when I hung my grandmother's skirt up that Christmas afternoon.  I ran my hand over the wool and slipped the skirt back into the recesses of my closet.  I squeezed into Spandex for a Christmas bike ride.  Under a blindingly blue sky and with the taste of Communion still on my lips, I thought of all the gifts I've received this past year, both tangible and not.

And I smiled because somehow in spite of her passing my grandmother still manages to give incredible gifts.

In her skirt I felt vibrant.

I felt confident.

I felt beautiful.

And the most magical gift of my grandmother's skirt is that when I took it off, all those feelings remained.

December 29, 2011

Thankful Thursday #52

This week I'm thankful for...
  • time off at home with the hubby
  • reading in bed in the morning
  • staying up late
  • Pinterest, the giant time suck that has shown me all sorts of useful things to make out of ratty old t-shirts
  • time to re-organize my house
  • walks with friends
  • cheesecake.  Hey, if you'd eaten this cheesecake, you'd know it's a totally legit thing to be thankful for.
  • Christmas carols
  • practical jokes
  • reading the Christmas story with my hubby in the quiet house on Christmas morning
  • Communion at church on Christmas morning.  It moves me to tears every year.
  • riding The Rocket on Christmas day
  • jeans that fit perfectly
  • brand spankin' new cycling socks
  • the red afghan a student's mother made for me.  It's beautiful and comes with a great story for another time.

December 22, 2011

Thankful Thursday #51

This week I'm thankful for...
  • watching the last troops leave Iraq
  • turning off my alarm clock for the next couple of weeks
  • Christmas vacation
  • watching David Hallberg dance at the Bolshoi
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas
  • singing Christmas carols with my little ones
  • packages in the mail
  • homemade gifts
  • my little one who said he was so excited that his "heart was pumping with Christmas"

December 15, 2011

Thankful Thursday #50

This week I'm thankful for...
  • local theater and the opportunity for kids to act
  • pink eye.  It allowed me to take a sick day without being all that sick.
  • decorating the tree with my hubby
  • sitting by the light of the Christmas tree
  • unexpected chances to catch up with old friends
  • parent volunteers
  • my foster grandmother, who loves my little ones so very much

December 12, 2011

9 Songs for the Season

The Christmas tree is all a twinkle.  The stockings are hung side by side.  The Nativity set my grandmother brought back from Jerusalem is splayed out on the shelf behind me, wooden Baby Jesus smiling up at Mary and Joseph.  And I've got my Christmas playlist doing overtime with some old favorites from last year and some shiny new additions.  In no particular order, here they are.

1. O Come, O Come Emmanuel by the Civil Wars This song is so beautifully stripped bare.  It's haunting and lovely and my favorite find this year.  Go now and buy it.  Then just try to stop yourself from listening to it on a continuous loop.

2. Breath of Heaven by Amy Grant I know, I know, it's Amy Grant.  I can actually hear your eyes rolling and your finger tapping on the mouse.  Before you click away, just hear me out.  I know it's Amy Grant and that putting her on my list again would leave me wide open for ridicule.  Knowing that I'd be mocked mercilessly, I STILL put this song in my  Top 9.  That's how good it is.  It's sung from Mary's beautifully human perspective and I will love it all the days of my life.  If you can get past the fact that it's Amy Grant, you'll love it, too.  And if you can't get past the fact that it's Amy Grant, then consider this; the next best version of this song is by Jessica Simpson.  Amy Grant's looking pretty good now, right?

3. River by Robert Downey, Junior This one's not technically a Christmas song, but I'm the one who makes the rules around here.  I love Joni Mitchell's version and Sarah MacLachlan's rendering, but there's a raw quality to Downey's voice that gives it a vulnerable feel.  There's something about a man singing this song that makes me weak in the knees.

4. Peace on Earth by U2  Don't think that I haven't noticed your index finger hovering over the mouse.  I have.  But then I go and throw U2 on the list and lure you back into my evil lair of Seasonal Songifying.  Go listen to this song and I swear by the end you'll be making a list of all the philanthropic things you're going to do just as soon as the last note sounds.

5. O Holy Night by Celine Dion O Holy Night is my most favorite Christmas carol.  I'm not a Celine Dion fan by any stretch of the imagination, but she sings this song like no other.  A lump rises in my throat as her voice soars over the high notes and pierces straight through my heart.

6. The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole Sometimes the classics just can't be beaten.  His voice is like a drink of rich cocoa, filling me as it slides down my throat and into my stomach where it settles into a pile of warmth that lasts the whole day and keeps me from feeling stabby when I'm forced to brave the stores.

7. Baby, It's Cold Outside by She & Him This one is so much fun!  It's a bouncing give and take that brings a smile to my face every single time.  This one will squelch even the Grinchiest of all Grinches.  Believe me, I know because this girl's heart is usually full of unwashed socks, but when this little ditty comes on, I find myself singing along and using cutesy word pairings like "little ditty".

8. Christmastime is Here by The Vince Guaraldi Trio The children's voices paired with the melancholy piano strikes the right chord every year and brings me back to visions of Charlie Browns spindly little tree.  While I have always loved this song, I've never fully appreciated its magical prowess until this year.  My little ones are bouncing off the walls-and we still have A FULL WEEK AND A HALF of school before blessed vacation arrives.  They are insanely excited and THE ONLY THING ON THE PLANET THAT SOOTHES THEM is this song.  I put it on and a hush, a hush I tell you, falls over the classroom.  For just a few minutes we're lulled into tranquility.  If this song were a person, I'd kiss it on the mouth for the few calm moments it brings to my day.

9. Welcome to Our World by Chris Rice You don't know Chris Rice?  Well, I'm so glad to acquaint the two of you.  There's a great line in this song "Hope that you don't mind our manger."  Such a humble way to welcome the Son of God.  But the line that stops me in my tracks is "Bring Your peace into our violence, bid our hungry souls be filled."  Seriously, I found myself fighting back a tear in the bread aisle yesterday when this one came up on my playlist.  But wait, there's more, because then Chris Rice goes and sings this perfect verse "So wrap our injured flesh around You.  Breathe our air and walk our sod.  Rob our sin and make us holy.  Perfect Son of God."  By the time that verse came around I was wiping my eyes on my sleeve and assuring the checker that I was fine, completely fine, no really.  I hope you enjoy it and if you've got some favorites, give them some love in the comments.

December 1, 2011

Thankful Thursday #49

This week I'm thankful for...
  • watching the sunset over the ocean
  • the sting ray that shot out of the water near me when I was sea kayaking
  • the smell of the ocean
  • being rocked to sleep on a ship
  • a relaxing pedicure and a foot massage that hurt so good
  • towel animals on my bed at night
  • the five trivia trophies we brought home from our trip and the rare occasion that useless knowledge actually comes in handy
  • the grown woman I saw blowing bubbles in the hallway
  • taking my little ones to the theater
  • writing on the lovely and very tropical beach of Las Caletas.  I could get used to this..


Christmas morning and bicycles will always be tied together in my mind.  I vividly recall stumbling out to the living room in footsie pajamas and seeing a shiny pink bicycle, complete with flowered banana seat, waiting for me by the Christmas tree.  Three years later I found a beautiful, blue Bianchi ten speed with my name on it standing by the tree.  And many, many years after that my husband bought me Frank the Tank for Christmas.

To this day I love going for a spin in my neighborhood just after Christmas to see all the wobbly wheeled kids strapped in helmets navigating the sidewalks on sparkly new bicycles.  This post is in anticipation of all the new bicycles that will hit the pavement for the first time Christmas morning.
There's something magical about Christmas.  Maybe it's the carols floating through the air or the scent of cinnamon permeating, well, everything.  Whatever it is, even this glitter-hating, heart full of unwashed socks Grinch of a girl softens up just a bit.
image courtesy of love2pedal.com
Everywhere I look there's joy and delight.  I'm not talking about the aisles of Christmas accoutrements in the stores.  I'm talking about the moments that cause me to stop and smile for an extra second or two.  Like opening the mailbox and having stacks of Christmas cards spill out.
image courtesy of rodamb-blogspot.com
Or the smell of the first snow and the glory of a tarnished world turning white before my eyes.
image courtesy of superstock.com
Not to mention the pure pleasure of flopping down in the snow and flapping my arms and legs until a snow angel arches her wings underneath me.
image courtesy of desertrosepress.com
It's the little things that tickle me most like candy canes hooked over the edges of mugs of hot cocoa or a snowman peeking over his carrot nose.
image courtesy of danheller.com
 At night the world is all a-twinkle, lights shining bright into the dark, calling up to the stars that sparkle in response.
image courtesy of switchboard.nrdc.org
There's joy in finding the perfect tree.  Maybe it's a spindly Charlie Brown tree you found on a mountain top and cut down with your mittened hands.

image courtesy of inhabitat.com
 Or maybe you take home the thickest tree from the corner lot.

image courtesy of techeblog.com
 No matter where your tree came from, pulling the boxes of ornaments out of the attic, turning on your favorite Christmas music and adorning each branch makes for a perfect day.
image courtesy of tributesport.com
 When I was a kid, my brothers and sister and I piled into one bedroom on Christmas Eve.  We'd giggle in our sleeping bags and sometimes always sneak a peek at the presents.  But the best part of the night was listening for Santa's sleigh on the roof.
image courtesy of odditycentral.com
Every tapping tree against the windows and each creak of the house became absolute proof of prancing and pawing hooves.
image courtesy of instructables.com
We'd crane our necks and cock our ears to the side, convincing my little brother that Santa was hard at work while we squirmed in our sleeping bags.
image courtesy of the Embassy of Indonesia
In the morning, the cookies we'd baked for Santa were only crumbs left on the plate next to an empty glass of milk.
image courtesy of trishadean.blogspot.com
Christmas morning began with stockings, the toe of the stocking stuffed with an apple and an orange that went straight to the kitchen fruit bowl despite my mother's tales of how children used to cherish Christmas oranges.  She had a point, but it was only later in the day when I'd made myself sick by eating my entire Book of Lifesavers that I'd eat the orange.
image courtesy of cmybacon.com
 My mother was a master gift wrapper, each gift wrapped in beautiful paper, with military corners and a shiny bow on top.  The presents I'd wrapped were always a rumpled disaster of paper that would never lay down flat and yards of Scotch tape to hold it all together.
image courtesy of loren24250.wordpress.com
These days my favorite part of Christmas is when my husband and I sit on the couch underneath piles of blankets and read the story of Mary and Joseph and the night they welcomed my Christ to Earth.
image courtesy of mesamooncards.com
After the gifts have been opened and all the Lifesavers and oranges have been eaten, we sing O Holy Night and hope that God hears us amongst the choirs of heavenly hosts.  We offer our praise in exchange for the gift of his Son.  On Christmas and the rest of the year we are profoundly grateful for God's grace that somehow makes our meager offerings enough.
Bicycle Heaven by Denise Cottin

November 17, 2011

Thankful Thursday #48

This week I'm thankful for...
  • three day weekends
  • writing over breakfast at a local greasy spoon
  • my little one who beaded a bracelet for me, complete with purple sparkly dolphin bead
  • surviving another round of  parent teacher conferences
  • the little girl on the swings who was writing in her notebook and pumping her legs at the same time
  • vacation
  • Edgar winner, Charlie Price, who asked me to show him some of my pages even after I busted his chops all afternoon at the local Author's Fair.  Charlie accepted his Edgar with grace and humility.  I have a lot to learn from him both on and off the page.

November 16, 2011

Letters to Little Ones: Coming Back

Dear Little One,

Sometimes you make me want to tear my hair out.  Not all of it, but some of it.  Not all of the time, but some of the time.  I have a feeling you feel like tearing your hair out some of the time, too, because navigating the world with autism is tough.  I know that and surely you do, too.  This is why instead of tearing my hair out, I breathe and you breathe and then we breathe together until we figure out a way to get from one thing to the next.
Disclaimer: This is a stock photo.
Lately you've been yelling at me.  Strike that.  You've been yelling at me all the time.  It's partly because anger is one of two emotions you understand, but also because you don't have a firm grasp on voice modulation.  When I point out that you're yelling and that you may not realize it, you shift into a somewhat calmer voice for a sentence or two until you forget and start yelling again.  And then I remind you again.  And so our dance goes, a halting two sentence two-step.

Little One, the occasions when you've spoken softly of your own volition are a rarity I can count on one hand.  And I do count them because every little success matters.  You speak in whispers when you're afraid, like when you slipped your hand into mine at the field trip where we watched dancers, white like angels, and you told me you were afraid that the devil was going to come out next.  Scary stuff worthy of your whisper for sure.

Today I reminded you that you'd have a guest teacher for the next couple of days and that we'd see each other again after Thanksgiving vacation.  You misunderstood and when we hugged goodbye, you whispered, "You're leaving?  I'm not going to see you again?"

My heart broke into brittle pieces, Little One, because you are so afraid of your loved ones leaving you.  I assured you I'd be back and we'd see each other again in a few days and you whispered, "I don't like this."  I could hear the fear in your voice.

Little One, I'm not leaving you.
Even when you make me want to pull my hair out, I will come back.
Even when I have to take deep breath after deep breath, I will come back.
Even when you spend the whole day learning not to yell, I will come back.
When you come to me with anger, or frustration, or fear, I will do my best to come back with patience, consistency and love.

Know this, Little One, you are worth coming back for.

It breaks my heart that someone you love doesn't think so.  And it tears me to bits that you associate loving with leaving.

And so I will spend the rest of our time together this year proving that I will always come back to you.  I will always come back for you.

Little One, I will always come back because of you.


Mrs. McCauley

November 10, 2011

Thankful Thursday #47

image courtesy of vejauan365.com
This week I'm thankful for...
  • the awesome shark socks my little brother gave me.  The fascination I have with sharks cannot be contained in a week and now my feet can celebrate all year long.
  • Terry's vanilla pancakes on a Sunday morning
  • when the message at church hurts so good
  • when spin class takes everything out of me and then some
  • parent teacher conferences being two thirds of the way over
  • Christmas colored Cadbury mini eggs
  • taking my little ones to see Momix Dance Troupe
  • early morning pillow talk
  • a three-day weekend!

November 5, 2011

Fall Back

The trees drum my window pane.
The rain taps Morse code on my roof,
A storm is whispering its secrets to me,
Reminding me to fall back, fall back,
Fall back to sleep for a blessed extra hour.

The clock's red numbers blush at 4:36am,
Everything in the house is hushed,
Against the sound of the storm and your snores filling the air between us,
I close my eyes and fall back, fall back
Fall back into your arms.

You stir ever so slightly and I press into you,
Watching your eyelids flutter as dreams play in your mind.
I know the topography of your face like I know myself.
I kiss the scar beside your eye and fall back, fall back,
Fall back through decades of memories with you.

I watch ruby minutes flicker by,
You wake and tease me about stealing all the covers.
We giggle and wrap up in arms and legs and blankets,
I lie awake with gratitude for this extra hour to fall back, fall back,
Fall back in love with you all over again.

Photo by Martin Kenny of the gorgeous photo blog seenobjects.org

November 3, 2011

Thankful Thursday #46

This week I'm thankful for...
  • the awesome birthday present I received, especially surprising being that my birthday is in July
  • the pumpkin one of my little ones sewed for me in his sewing class
  • the Cake Pops that same little one brought me.  Come to think of it, I received the Cake Pops and the birthday present on the same day.  Did someone switch my birthday without telling me?
  • the fresh smell of clean sheets as I slip into bed
  • steel-cut oatmeal
  • pedicures
  • driving with the top with the seat warmer on.  Hello, Fall!
  • waking to the sound of wind chimes
  • Terry, who took care of me while I was sick all weekend.  That guy did the laundry, changed the sheets, did the dishes, rented me a movie, rubbed my back and asked hundreds of times if I needed anything.  It's so lovely to be taken care of.
  • Designer Bruce Mau's Incomplete Manifesto for Growth.  So much of it applies to my writerly life.  Shoot, so much of it applies to my regular life, too.
  • Another year of NaNoWriMo madness!

October 31, 2011

Letters to Gramma: You'll Never Guess

Dear Gramma,

You'll never guess what someone asked me for today.  Never in a million, katrillion, quadfillion years.

I was quietly checking my e-mail this morning while walking to work.  And there it was staring at me in my inbox.  A request from another teacher.

Know what she needed?  I'm in fits of giggles just thinking about it.  Seriously, you'll never guess.

She needed to borrow a mini trampoline!  Can you believe it?  A mini trampoline of all things!  I know, I'm dying laughing, too.

In about 0.2 seconds I e-mailed her back telling her she could borrow yours mine yours.

After school she drove me home and on the drive I told her about how you used to "train" for your trips by trampolining.  Sorry to put "train" in air quotes, Gramma, but I just can't say it with a straight face.  We were cracking up just at the thought.

When you died, that's why I wanted your trampoline so badly in the first place.  It makes me smile every time I look at it and remember you bouncing, ahem, "training" on it.  Wait, I'm snickering too much.  I have to stop and take a breath for a sec.
Ahhh.  Better.

After hearing the story of how I came to possess your trampoline, my colleague said she didn't want to take the trampoline because she was afraid something might happen to it.  I told her that's the very reason she should take it.  Something might happen to it.  Something laugh out loud hilarious might happen to it.

You see, my colleague is going to use it in a spirit assembly that involves kids wearing superhero capes and doing silly tricks and eating disgusting foods.  I told her that assembly is just the kind of thing that would've made you laugh.

So you should know that on Friday afternoon a bunch of middle school kids are going to be jumping and bouncing and having a ton of fun on your old trampoline.

And when I get it back I might just take a jump or two before putting it back in the closet.  Gramma, you always made me laugh.  You're still making me laugh.

I love you like crazy,


Ready for 30 Days of Literary Abandon

Happy Halloween Day Before NaNoWriMo!

It's mere hours until the festivities begin and I'm all ready for 30 days of literary abandon.  Well, except for the fact that I have no idea what I'm going to write about.  Minor detail.

But I've taken care of the important stuff like:
  • the car charger for my laptop is on its way to my doorstep as I type.  We'll be spending lots of time in the car and while Terry fills his brain with ESPN radio, I'm going to be dominating my daily word count.
  • report cards-they're all finished printed and ready to roll for parent teacher conferences.
  • the all important writing playlist including some gems from Adele, INXS, U2, Polar Boy, Matthew Perryman Jones, Ingrid Michaleson, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Stevie Wonder.
  • laundry, done and all tucked away
  • a freezer stocked with quick dinner options

October 28, 2011

NaNoWriMo: Here I Go!

30 Days of Literary Abandon
NaNoWriMo is a few sacred days away.  November 1st is fast becoming one of my favorite days of the year, excitement bubbling up in my stomach with such fervor that I inevitably wake from sleep in the wee hours of the morning and can't resist typing the first few hundred words before falling back to sleep.

Not that 50,000 words in a month isn't daunting.  It is.  It really is.  It's lump of nerves in my throat kind of daunting.

For the past 2 Novembers I've set out to write 50k words while I play at being a novelist.  Both times I've succeeded, or in NaNo speak, I've won.  I loved both of my stories, but what I love more is who I am when I'm writing 1,667 words a day.  I love being in the practice of writing.  I love how quickly I'm able to drop back into my story each day because my writing muscles are strong and limber.

Creating characters makes me happy.  Seeing where these characters take me is thrilling and often times surprising.  The first year I'll never forget when one of my characters opened a drawer and removed a baby onesie.  And a gun.  Trust me, I was as shocked as you are.  I mean, come on, I'm the biggest anti-gun person I know.  Having never touched a gun in my life, I had no idea how to write about guns.  To the delight of my lone gun-enthusiast friend, I made him take me shooting.  For better or for worse, I can now say I've fired a gun.  Exactly once.

Both years have led me to research a variety of things including:
    • the history of LEGO
    • rare children's diseases
    • handguns and penetration abilities of different bullets
    • Biblical references to angels
    • POW camps
    • the history of high heels
    • hospital procedures and policies
    • famous libraries
The first year, I dreamed a strange snapshot of a scene and my novel sprang to life from there.  Last year, discovering an unknown safe deposit box that belonged to my deceased father was the thing that birthed my idea.  It was a story just begging to be written.

So, today on October 28th, I'm waiting for my idea to peek out.  Maybe in a dream.  Or a snippet of conversation.  Or a newspaper article.  Who knows where it might appear.  I wait with anticipation, with a pattering heart eager to know where NaNoWriMo will take me this year.

A teensy part of me hopes that on November 1st, my idea will not have shown her face yet.  There's something exciting about sitting down at the computer and beginning to type, implicitly trusting that my writerly brain will follow my furious fingers as they tap out words becoming sentences becoming a story.

NaNoWriMo, here I go!

October 27, 2011

Thankful Thursday #45

This week I'm thankful for...
  • sleeping spread eagle in bed
  • the dollar movie theater
  • walking through piles of leaves
  • hot showers
  • reading in bed
  • morning music to psych me up for work after a couple of particularly hard work days
  • my little one who read this out of his notebook: "I am a fun kid.  I love school."  This was on the heels of a couple of days wherein he lived out the consequences for peppering the playground with a litany of profanity.  It's proof once again that children need those boundaries.

October 20, 2011

Thankful Thursday #44

This week I'm thankful for...
  • walks on the River Trail with friends
  • stories from my firefighter friend about fire
  • dried mangoes
  • growing pumpkin seeds with my class
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • broccoli cheddar soup
  • books that make me laugh out loud
  • writing poetry with my little ones
  • Terry's cologne
  • seedless grapes
  • the fact that I'm still wearing short sleeves and skirts in October

October 19, 2011

Why I Write

October 20th is the National Day on Writing and this year to celebrate the day people all over the country are answering one question:
Why do I write?

It's a seemingly simple question, but it's been knocking around in my brain for weeks and try as I might, I can't come up with just one succinct answer.  Then it hit me today, I can't come up with a succinct and solitary answer because that tricky monkey is actually several questions hiding behind one sentence.

Why do I write?

I could just as easily spend my time riding my bike, reading, or watching How I Met Your Mother until I laugh so hard that one more chuckle will send me into tears.  I enjoy all of these things, but not like writing.

I have to write.

Words are air and if I don't inhale and exhale them, I will die.  You think I'm being melodramatic and maybe I am, but when I'm prohibited from writing, my joy for life begins to dwindle.  Everything dulls into gray.
image courtesy of mylifeonamac.com
I have a harder time solving problems in the non-writerly parts of my life when I'm not tapping out ideas on the keyboard.

I'm horrible at sleeping through the night as it is, but when I'm not writing, I can just forget about sleeping.  When I stop writing, my creative brain stops breathing.  Then my nocturnal brain senses impending death and begins CPR in the form of stacks and stacks of insane dreams every night.

I write because writing is life.

Why do I write?

I believe everyone has a story.  A beautiful, funny, heartbreaking, fascinating story.  You do.  No really, you do.  And it turns out I do, too.

I write because I'm the story of the unconventional athlete.

I'm the story of the girl who once had to cut herself out of a dress.

I'm the story of the teacher who loves children with reckless abandon and stands up for what is just.

I'm the story of the wife who fought for her husband when he couldn't.

I'm the story of the woman who battles cancer, with a bicycle as my unlikely weapon.

I'm the story of the girl who can only clot the grief of losing my grandmother by writing letters she'll never read.

I'm the story.  And guess what?  You are, too.

Why do I write?

There's something to be said for all those stories, but for some great orators they can be just as easily and just as well told orally.  I am not one of those great orators.  I never will be.  I have a pesky lisp that crops up when I'm nervous.  When I speak in front of people, I sweat so much that I create my own water cycle.  I stumble over words and stammer over syllables.

But not when I'm writing.

When I write, I can write and revise until the words feel right in my mouth.  The delete key is a beautiful, beautiful thing.  Oh Lord, what I wouldn't give for a delete button in some conversations I've had.  It would have come in really handy when I was interviewing for a job and accidentally called the interviewer bi*ch.  I digress.

The point is that when I write, I'm a better version of myself.  A more honest version.  A more thoughtful version.  The version I try to be, both on the paper and off.

Your turn.  Why do you write?

October 14, 2011

Moments from the Pumpkin Patch

Today I made my annual trek to the pumpkin patch with 26 giddy six-year-olds in tow.  Not to mention their parents and a smattering of younger siblings.  The weather was perfect, sunny without a drop of rain.  The sky was so blue, it can only be described as piercing.  We had a great day watching pig races, bouncing in the bounce house, picking pumpkins, firing corn cannons and just enjoying the pleasure of being outside together.  Here are some of the best lines from the day:

1) On the bus ride to the pumpkin patch, two little ones in the seat behind me were singing "Old MacDonald" and decided to make up a verse about pumpkins that went like this:
Little girl: "Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O.  And on his farm he had a pumpkin, E-I-E-I-O.  With a...with a...what kind of noise do pumpkins make?"

Little boy: "Ummmm, BOOM BOOM?"

Little girl: "Yeah, that's a good one.  Let's sing it."

Both: "With a BOOM BOOM here and a BOOM BOOM there, here a BOOM, there a BOOM, everywhere a BOOM BOOM.  Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O."

Then they high-fived their musical genius.  Boom, boom indeed.

2) Also on the bus ride over, I sat near one of my autistic little ones.  He was a little uneasy.
Little One: "I feel scared in my heart."

Me: "What are you scared of."

Little One: "I've never been to a farm before."

Me: "Do you remember all the things we talked about seeing?"

Little One: "Yes, but I'm still scared in my heart."

Me: "It's okay to be nervous about something new."

Little One: "Will you stay with me?"

Me: "The whole time."

Little One: "Until I'm old?"

Me: "How about until you go home on the bus this afternoon?"

Little One: "Okay.  But I'll miss you when I'm old."

Me: "Me, too."
I'm pretty sure I will miss this little one long before I'm old.

3) While walking by the goat house where the goats where children were using a hand crank to send a conveyor belt of food to the goats, one of my little ones was deep in thought.
Little One: "Mrs. McCauley, what are those goats doing?"

Me: "Eating the food those children are sending up to them."

Little One: "What do you think the goats are thinking?"

Me: "I'm not sure.  What do you think they're thinking?"

Little One: "I think they're thinking 'Mmmm, room service is niiice.'"
Room service is niiice, even in the form of grain shuttled up in a cup on a conveyor belt.

4) All week long we've been studying how pumpkins grow and my little ones were especially interested in learning that only the female pumpkin plants produce pumpkins.  I'd showed them how to look under the yellow flowers to see if the plants were male or female.  Out in the pumpkin patch I heard a little one explaining it to his dad like this:
Dad: "Plants aren't boys and girls.  They're just plants."

Little One: "Nuh-uh, Mrs. McCauley read us a book about how to tell if they're boys or girls and this one has a baby pumpkin growing under the flower.  That means the bees visited a boy pumpkin flower and got yellow pollen on their legs and brought it over to the girl flower so she could make a baby pumpkin.  Then this baby pumpkin will grow up to be a mommy or daddy pumpkin and it will make a flower and everything will start all over again."

Dad: "Really?"

Little One: "Really.  But the sad part is that the pumpkins die, but don't cry because their seeds go back to live in the Earth to make new pumpkins.  So, it's sorta like they come back to life.  It's like a secret pumpkin super-power."

I just love how their minds work.  And I agree, returning to life after dying is an awesome secret pumpkin super-power.

5) Back at school we parked our pumpkins on the nametags on our desks.  Also on our nametags are clear cups of pumpkin seeds that we took scooped out of a pumpkin and planted a couple of weeks ago.  The seeds are starting to send roots down and grow root hairs.  When we got back to class, a Little One put her pumpkin on her desk and squealed when she saw one of the seeds in her cup.
Little One: "Look, Mrs. McCauley, it's taking off its seed coat."

Me: "That's awesome.  Can you see the seed leaves yet?"

Little One: "Yep, they're coming out to hug the mommy pumpkin I picked."

Me: "I bet your seed leaves will be poking out of the soil when we come back to school on Monday."

Little One: "Should I leave the mommy pumpkin here to help them?"

Me: "No, I don't think so because pumpkin seeds know how grow all by themselves."

Little One: "Wow, pumpkin sprouts are really smart."

I'm pretty lucky because I've got 26 of my own smart little sprouts.

October 13, 2011

Thankful Thursday #43

This week I'm thankful for...
  • Condoleezza Rice's take on receiving opinions "I welcome your opinions, but not your uninformed opinions."  My thoughts exactly on people who cast judgment on teachers when they themselves haven't spent a single day in the classroom.
  • pretzel crumbles on Moosetracks ice cream
  • dinner bubbling in the Crock Pot all day Sunday while I read a stack of magazines and books
  • when a book reads quickly
  • cold chocolate milk
  • this post by Chris Brogan on time well spent
  • Apple Crumble scented Wallflowers from Bath & Body Works.  It's the perfect Fall scent.
  • dresses and tall boots

October 8, 2011

Anatomy of an Acceptance Letter

In the not so distant past, I received my first rejection letter.  Oh my, it hurt.  This piece was one of those 'open a vein and write' kinds of pieces.  It was about a particularly wrenching time in my teaching career, about a child who created a safe place for himself.  His story broke my heart and writing about it crushed me all over again.  I was sure this piece would resonate with other teachers who'd walked in my very shoes.

I submitted it.  And was rejected.  I submitted it again.  And was rejected again.  Time and time again, I sent this piece out and it returned void.

I was just about to tuck this piece away and give it a rest when a friend of mine sent me a call for submissions for an anthology about what it means to teach.  I dug my brave face out of the drawer and sent in my piece again, steeling myself for another rejection.  I didn't think about it much.  Let's face it, after receiving so many rejections, I wasn't holding my breath.

And then one day my inbox flashed a message from the editors.

My heart began to pound.  My palms dampened with sweat.  I swallowed my nerves and opened the message.

Here it is, with my inner dialogue in italics.

Dear Alicia,

Well, at least my name is spelled right.  There's nothing worse than receiving a rejection letter for Alisa or Alisha or Alice.  Seriously, I don't even sound remotely like an Alice.

It is my pleasure to notify you that we would like to publish your essay, "The Escape Artist," in the Spring 2012 Rogue Faculty Press publication, What Teaching Means: Stories from America's Classrooms.

Wait, what?  I think they said something about pleasure in relation to my piece.  Just a sec, let me read that part again.  

Well, would you look at that, they want to publish something I wrote.  

I might pass out.  Is it lie down to prevent fainting or put your head between your knees?  I'll just try both for good measure.

To help us during this stage of the process, please send an email, as soon as possible, that includes:

1. Informal confirmation that you will allow us to publish your work. Contract will follow. 

Um, yes, and-wow a contract sounds very official.  I think I need to breathe into a paper bag.

2. Your current mailing address for sending a contract packet and, eventually, your copy of the book.

It's becoming increasingly difficult to fully appreciate this e-mail while laying on my back with my head between my knees as I breathe into a paper bag.

3. A short professional biography (150 words) that will accompany your piece in the book. There is one below as an example. We are including these because we want to give our readers a sense of the people behind these stories.

150 words for a professional biography?  How on earth am I going to come up with 150 words for a professional biography when I haven't done anything yet?  I teach.  That's 2 words.  Wait, I teach writing.  Phew, only 147 to go.  I'm pretty sure noodling around with poetry and stuff doesn't count.  I'm 100% sure that practicing staying upright on my bicycle doesn't count as 'professional' in any arena.  I'd better get off this couch and actually DO some professional sort of stuff so that I have something to write down.

We want to let you know that we will copy edit all the pieces for punctuation and grammar. o thank God Oh thank God Oh, thank God!

Once we near the publication date in April, we will be developing a promotion and publicity plan for this book. We are already extremely proud of the collection, and we will be doing everything we can to get these stories to the people that we believe should read them. 

Wait, people are actually going to read this?  Is it hot in here?  I don't feel so well.  I didn't know armpits could sweat this much in an air-conditioned room on a temperate day.  That phrase "dying of shock" is taking on a whole new meaning right this second.

Congratulations and thanks again for sharing your story with us. We look forward to working with you. 

That's because you haven't met me yet.  Should we ever have the pleasure, I will be the tall girl with sweat cascading down my brow and a huge grin on my face.


__________ and __________*

Editors, What Teaching Means

Wait, editors-as in more than one-decided my piece was good enough?  Well, I guess I'd better clear my schedule for the book tour.

*Names were omitted to protect the innocent.  I also didn't want you googling them and letting them in on the secret that I'm just a regular girl who dreams about being a writer someday.

October 6, 2011

Thankful Thursday #42

[caption id="attachment_4939" align="aligncenter" width="354" caption="Image from "Rain", a breathtaking installation by Stacee Kalmanovsky"][/caption]

This week I'm thankful for...

  • waking to the sound of rain

  • the scent of rain on asphalt wafting in through my open classroom door

  • the little ones whispering in the corner of the class about how much they love school

  • the part of the pumpkin life cycle where they shrink back to the earth

  • my little ones who loved smelling, feeling and examining our old pumpkins with magnifying glasses

  • my bathrobe

  • Donald Miller's book Through Painted Deserts

  • my dear friend who is on the road trip of his life and calls me to tell me about all the quirky things he sees on the road.  His calls make me laugh so hard that I cry and cry so hard that I laugh.

  • soaking in my hot tub while it drizzles

  • morning prayer time with my hubby

  • my teaching team

  • my Fall clothes

  • hot mint tea on a cold Fall day

October 5, 2011

Oh So Many Apology Letters

Dear New Sweater,

I'm sorry for catching you in the paper cutter.  Twice.  Ahem.  I'm amazed that, try as I might, I could not cut your fabric.  I mean really, you look so light and airy, but apparently you're made of Kevlar.  Who knew I'd be getting such protection for $20.  I will now stop trying to chop you to smithereens.


The girl who shouldn't be allowed to use sharp objects

P.S.  I'm also sorry for the spaghetti sauce splattering incident at lunch.  You're a white sweater, you had to see that coming, no?


Dear Terry,

I'm sorry that ice cream, cereal and salads are the extent of my dinner menu.  Thankfully you make a mean batch of vanilla pancakes or we would probably starve.


Your domestically challenged wife


Dear Rocket,

I'm sorry I haven't taken you out for a spin for a few weeks.  The cobwebs in your spokes are reprehensible.  I'm profoundly sorry and look forward to a reunion soon.  Please, please don't buck me off in bitterness the next time we meet.




Dear Dentist,

I'm sorry I was a whiny baby in the chair.  In my defense you had to fix things in 3 of the 4 quadrants of my mouth.  And let's face it, nobody likes to hear "I think I can do this one without numbing you."  You're right, it didn't hurt, but the anticipation of pain caused buckets of perspiration to build up in my armpits and seep onto the chair.  Please accept my apologies for all the whimpering and, no doubt, for the extra time spent mopping up after me.

Kind regards,

Me and my new and improved molars

September 29, 2011

Thankful Thursday #41

This week I'm thankful for...

  • the volunteers in my classroom

  • my former student who sought me out to tell me she has a new baby sister

  • a taste of Fall weather

  • my dentist for making major dental work bearable

  • soft foods that require minimal chewing

  • my teaching partners

  • the feel of my husband's stubbly cheek

  • piles of pumpkins at the grocery store

[caption id="attachment_4929" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="image courtesy of Ryan Donnell for The New York Times"][/caption]

September 22, 2011

Thankful Thursday #40:

This week I'm thankful for...

  • a visit from my brother.  It was too short, but still sweet

  • the leaves that are beginning to change colors

  • walking to church in the cool of the morning

  • the parents and children who still visit me long after they were in my class

  • crisp sheets

  • minor league baseball games

  • road trips with friends

  • spin class

  • walking to school in the morning before the sun bakes everything

  • the fact that it's no longer Wednesday.  Wednesday was a doozy of a day with my little ones.  Thank goodness they're not always like that!

  • this Just Because present from a friend.  She gives the most perfect gifts.

Since my terrible photography skills are making it impossible to read the quote, here's a better version of the print.

September 15, 2011

What It Means to Give

[caption id="attachment_4909" align="alignleft" width="500" caption="Image courtesy of flickrhivemind.com"][/caption]

Dear Little One,

Today the girls stepped in the classroom, twirling in fancy dresses.  The boys showed off their stiff, spiky, gelled haircuts.  It was Picture Day and, Little One, I have to admit I was surprised when you showed up with your thick, black hair cut short.  Your hair was so long and gorgeous.  Your new haircut frames your face and your deep, brown eyes stand out even more than before.

During Morning News, I commented that your haircut looked great and, Little One, your response stole my heart.  You looked at me, with eyes so pure, so earnest, and said, "I gave my hair away."

I felt my jaw drop as the words sunk in.

"I gave my hair away."

This baffled the other kids sitting on the rug with you.


"You gave your hair away?"

"Who did you give it to?"

"Why did you give it away?"

"What do you mean you gave your hair away???"

I motioned you to the front of the rug to explain.  With a grin that stretched across your entire face you told how your mom braided your hair after school yesterday and then a hairdresser cut it off.  You gave your thick, shiny braid to the hairdresser.

As you spoke, the class stared at you, 25 sets of eyebrows wrinkled in confusion.  You continued, explaining that your braid of hair would now be made into a wig for a sick child who didn't have any hair.

I hugged you tight and told you that you'd given a beautiful gift.  One of your friends summed it up even better when she said, "I think that was the best gift you ever could give."

She's right, Little One.  I know you loved your long hair, but you love helping others even more.  That is your gift to the world.  You give, even when giving requires sacrifice.

Every time I see your pixie cut, I'll remember the day you gave away your beautiful braid. I'll remember the day you taught me what it means to really give.


Mrs. McCauley

Thankful Thursday #39

[caption id="attachment_4899" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Julie Andrews is one of my favorite things."][/caption]

This week I'm thankful for...

  • the little one who brought me a bag of nectarines, freshly picked from the tree in her yard that morning.  She always brings me flowers or fruit, offerings from her yard.  It touches me to know that she thinks of me when she's at home.

  • watching The Sound of Music in the park.  I've seen it, oh, probably 100 times.  I met a friend there and this was her first viewing.  I was so glad to watch it with her.

  • my little one who saw me across the playground before school and ran full speed, arms and legs flailing, just to say hi and get a hug.  What a great way to start the day.

  • watching my little ones sand and hammer pencil boxes together as part of a Home Depot project.  They were so proud of their work.

  • driving with Terry in the MINI with the top down

  • the movie Stranger than Fiction.  Some movies just get better with each viewing and this is one of them.

  • playing Parcheesi with Terry.  Strike that, we have the knock-off version.  I'm thankful for playing Pachisi with Terry.

  • my friend and former parent, Mandy, who volunteers her time in my class to help my twins with special needs.  She is just the kind of person they need right now and I'm touched that she would devote her time to these sweet boys of mine.

  • 2 of my other former parents who sought me out specifically to see if I needed any help in class.  The answer is a big resounding YES!  I'm thankful for you, Kim and Melody!

  • my former student teacher who stopped by to see me at lunch today.  I'm just so proud of her!

  • cozying up under the covers and watching a lightning storm out my bedroom window

  • reading Thundercake by Patricia Polacco to my class the next day

September 8, 2011

Thankful Thursday #38

This week I'm thankful for...

  • slipping in between nice, fresh sheets

  • the great parent volunteers working in my classroom

  • writing in bed early Saturday morning

  • the parents of a former student who called down the hallway "How's our favorite teacher doing?"  It was the tail end of a long day and hearing that  made me smile.

  • Jaison, a server at Olive Garden, who made the Never Ending Pasta Bowl true to the name.  I had dinner, lunch and dinner again.  Plus when I asked if I could box up the teensy bit of leftover salad, he boxed it up and added more salad and garnish.  Best service I've had in a long time at any restaurant.  He really loves his job and it showed.

  • walking by the river just in time to see the sunset

  • my work-out buddy

  • lifting weights until I'm sure my arms are going to fall off

  • these beautiful flowers picked from a student's backyard

September 2, 2011

Return to Me

Today, in the sweltering heat of bus duty, I had one of the best moments of my teaching career.  As I stood corralling kids in the bus line and stopping kindergarteners from throwing their backpacks at each other, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned as she said, "Mrs. McCauley, do you remember me?  I used to be in your first grade class."

Of course I remembered her.  I knew her the second she said my name.  I knew her eyes.  I knew her voice, quiet and strong.  I knew the tip of her shy smile.

I often dream of former students, children who lived nightmarish lives and found refuge at school, safe in our classroom.  I dream of little ones who lived with monsters, horrid monsters who were careful to never leave a thread of evidence for me to report, but leave me still with a sick pit in my stomach.  I dream of little ones who one day just up and moved, never to be seen again.  They visit me in the sacred space of night, these lost children.

My lost children.

As I stood by the bus area, looking at this beautiful young woman, I hugged her, probably too tightly, and peppered her with questions.  How are you?  What are you doing now?  Are you going to school?  Are you working?

She is the same sweet six-year-old I taught eleven years ago.  She's the darling girl who I hugged hundreds of times, her head resting on my shoulder as her little hands gripped my neck.  She is the same girl who fell in love with reading.  She's the same girl who used to light up the room with her giggle.

She told me about her life and how, at the age of 17, she has removed herself from her monster.  She tutors her peers.  She'll graduate this year.  She's college bound.

She's strong.

And beautiful.

And courageous.

And kind.

And introspective.

And smart.

She is the woman I always knew she could be.

She's the little girl who filled my heart so many years ago and she is the young woman who made it overflow today.

Tonight when my lost children tiptoe into my sleep, I will think of her.  She's given me renewed hope that my other lost children have grown into strong and courageous adults.

And in the solitude of night I will fall asleep hoping that maybe, just maybe, they too will someday return to me.

September 1, 2011

Thankful Thursday #37

[caption id="attachment_4847" align="alignright" width="216" caption="image courtesy of clccharter.org"][/caption]

Oops!  I thought I set this to publish yesterday.  Here's Thankful Thursday on a Friday. 

This week I'm thankful for...

  • riding with the top down

  • my curly hair

  • skirts because it's just too blasted hot for pants

  • the little boy who wrote this for our August weather summary.  "Mostly sunny.  I like Mrs. McCauley.  She is nice.  I like school."  Yep, that about sums up the weather, both inside and outside of the classroom

  • my little one who brought an encyclopedia bookmarked to the page on Nudibranchs for N day.  Who knew sea slugs could be so beautiful.  I heart word nerds.

  • the fact that I have 364 more days until SweatFest Back to School Night comes around again

  • my parent volunteers, especially the ones who don't even have kids in my class anymore and still come and help

August 30, 2011

Letters to Gramma: Envy in Grief

Dear Gramma,

I had a dream this morning, a nightmare actually.  I dreamed that it was the day you died and I was alone in your house.  I've had this dream before, a memory that comes back to me at night sometimes.  But this time I was in your old house, in the house I visited as a kid, not the house you lived in when you died.  I was walking through the house, crying up the creaky stairs.  In the face of such a devastating loss, I crammed myself in the little closet that used to be a telephone room and I closed the door.

Your doorbell rang and I untucked myself from the corner of the closet.  Out on the front steps was a real estate agent and a family ready to look at the house.  In my dream I didn't even know the house was for sale.  I explained to the agent that you had just passed away that morning and it really wasn't a good time.  The agent pushed the door open and showed the family in.  The mother started asking me all these questions.  I gave them a tour of your house, staggering through the rooms of memories with a lump in my throat and tears welling in my eyes.

My alarm clock sounded and I've never been so glad for it to go off.  I woke with that lump in my throat and swallowed it back down.  My pillow was wet from crying.  The dream felt so real that it took me a few minutes to realize it couldn't have been real because you haven't lived in that house for over 20 years.  I swept away the cobwebs of the dream and pulled the covers up under my chin, wiping my eyes with the sheet.  I miss you so much that sometimes it's a physical ache in my chest.  This morning was one of those times.

I got up to ride my bike with Terry and Nick.  A good hard ride was just what I needed.  I pedaled up and across Shasta Dam, the water in the lake blue and glassy.  We followed a new piece of trail and at a split I jumped on the old the river trail and Terry and Nick followed the road back home.  I wanted to be by the river, to be near something beautiful.  I rode fast, pushing a big gear, passing everyone I encountered.

I reached the Sundial Bridge where there was a breast cancer awareness walk.  I got caught in a crowd of people dressed in pink.  I felt the lump rise up from my belly and bob in my throat.  I saw people walking in memory of loved ones lost and the ache stabbed at my chest.

Then I saw people walking with the word "Survivor" pinned to their shirts.  There were stickers and pins and hats and everything else rightly proclaiming survivorship.

White hot envy bubbled up.  And I know I shouldn't be envious that they survived and you didn't, but sometimes I am.  Most days I think you won, Gramma, that you lived the best life of anyone I know.  But some days I feel like cancer won, that it's unfair that other people survived cancer and you didn't.  It's the ugly part of grief, Gramma, the part I hate the most.  It's not that I wish these other people didn't survive.  It's not that at all.  It's that I wish you were still here, too.

I tried to get out of the crowd of walkers, but no matter how many times I called out "On your left!" or "Coming through!" they didn't move aside.  The entire bridge was filled from one side to the other with walkers and survivors and pink shirts.  I felt the tears pricking my eyelashes.  I needed to be anywhere but there.  I unclipped and walked my bike through the crowd, keeping my head down until I got to the road and onto the trail that would lead me home.  I rode uphill, stomping on my pedals, crying until hot snot ran with my tears.  By the time I got home I'd stopped crying, but the sadness remained.

Gramma, I don't mind dreaming of you.  In fact, I love it when you talk to me in my dreams.  But this dream was different.  You weren't in it at all.  And that's what makes the sadness stay, the fact that each day I get further and further away from the life that had you in it.  Sometimes that loss devastates me all over again.

Come talk to me in my sleep, Gramma.  Sidle up next to me and drawl "Hi, honey.  How are you?"  Make me watch Jeopardy with you while we eat ice cream for dinner.  Come back, for just a little bit, even if it's only in my dreams.



August 29, 2011

Best Year Yet: The Yang

Yesterday I wrote about my incredible second day of school.  In fact the first three days of school were heavenly.  The following four were a bit, uh, different.  It's the period of time I dread every year: testing time.  Not paper to pencil testing.  It's the period right after the honeymoon when my little ones get comfortable enough to test the boundaries.

To give you a quick snapshot of just what I mean, let me tell you the things that happened in the lunchroom on the sixth day of school, as reported to me by a lunch duty aide.  A little boy took a seam ripper with a handle that had been sharpened to a point out of his pocket and threatened kids with it.  Another little boy called a girl a "bitch" after he wouldn't stop pestering her and she told the lunch duty aide.  A third little boy pointed to his private area and shouted "Penis!  Penis!  Penis!" over and over again for the entire cafeteria to hear.  And the grand finale was the little girl who pulled on another girl's ponytail and then went home and pulled out handfuls of her own hair and told her mother the other little girl did it.

After lunch that day, I made sure the little ones who'd been picked on were okay and then I followed through with consequences for the aggressors.  All of them were absolutely shocked that I'd be talking to their parents after school.  They were even more shocked that their actions had consequences like writing apology letters and loss of privileges.  But what I think they were most surprised by is that I didn't get angry or raise my voice.  They're used to stirring things up.

Later that day we had a class meeting about how we can all make school a safe and happy place to grow and learn.  I followed up by reading a story about a school bully and how to respond to bullies.  Interestingly enough, in the discussion that followed the story, none of those kids saw their actions as those of a bully.  When other kids pointed out that their were behaving like bullies, the aggressors were completely surprised that the other kids would consider them bullies.

This is the thing though, within that testing period, each of those kids had really sweet, tender moments, too.  But just when we'd be rolling along having a nice day, one or all of them would do something to try to throw the whole class off balance again.

Have you ever met people who thrive on drama?  You know the ones I'm talking about, the ones who can't stand it when everything is going well in their lives.  The ones who take the smallest difficulty and whip it into a frothy mess.  The ones who create chaos just for the sake of creating chaos.

If something doesn't change, these little ones are going to grow up to be those people, whirling dervishes who wreak havoc because that's what they think life should feel like.  I know a handful of adults like this.  I think of how miserable they really are, I think about what a lonely life they lead and it breaks my heart to think of that kind of future for these little ones.

Earlier this summer I encountered the word 'ballast' for the first time.  Then I heard it again the following day.  And again the next.  It was like this word had something to tell me and if I didn't listen, it was going to keep repeating itself.  I've been chewing on this word for months, thinking about it in terms of my life in general and in terms of my life as a teacher.

Maybe you're new to this word, too.  Here's one definition:

ballast, noun 1: heavy material, such as gravel, sand, iron, water, or lead, placed low in a vessel to improve its stability

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Ships use ballast so they don't tip or capsize in high winds.  By placing the weight in the very bottom of the keel, the ship sits lower in the water and is less likely to be swayed.  Even people can serve as ballast.  The weight of the crew can serve as  ballast.  So can that guy hanging over the edge of a sailing boat.

This idea of ballast makes me think of my little ones because for whatever reason, and I'm sure there are several, they aren't just aren't filled with enough weight to be steady.  They think life is about capsizing and then recovering.  Or not.  And the attention they get for capsizing things has made them good at it, very good at it.  They don't know the pleasure of being steady, the joy of sailing through the chop unharmed and upright.

These little ones and this idea of ballast has left me thinking of what it is I want to put deep in their hulls this year.  What can I fill them with that will keep them steady?  How can I make them stop craving the chaos?

Ballast is a verb, too.

ballast, verb 1: giving stability (as in character or conduct)

In thinking about filling these little ones with things that will help them steady themselves, I'm also thinking about the things I can do to give them stability.  I'll continue to respond to their inappropriate behaviors calmly with logical consequences.  I won't give rise to their undesirable behaviors or allow them to create chaos in my classroom.  I'll be on the constant look out for instances when they act in ways that are helpful and kind.  Those are the things I'll give attention to, the things I'll crow about.  And best yet, I'll weight their hearts with stories of people who exhibit integrity, courage and compassion.

Did you know that when a heeled vessel returns itself to its upright position it's called the "righting moment"?  This year is going to be a year of learning to read and write and do math and all of those things, but what's exciting to me, what has me still believing it's going to be the best year yet is that it's going to be a year full of creating ballast in place of chaos.

It's going to be a year full of righting moments.

August 28, 2011

Best Year Yet: The Yin

My second day of school began at 3:30am, perhaps the unholiest of all sleeping hours to be awake.  I laid in bed willing myself to go back to sleep, telling myself I was going to need my energy to keep up with my new little ones, but the millions of little tasks that I had ahead of me began to romp and play in my brain.  After laying in bed for an hour, I clomped out to the couch and started on my To Do List.

As I worked in the quiet of my house and watched the moon change guards with the sun, I couldn't help but think of Jim Burke's tweet from a few weeks ago.  Ever since I read it, it's been resting deep in a pocket of my belly, a place reserved for meaty ideas that need time to digest.

That's the mindset I've had the last couple of weeks.  Just what if this is my best year yet?  This thought also has a little brother that tags along, poking at me.  What am I doing to make it the best year yet?

My first day of school was a great one and even though I'd woken at 3:30, I was determined to make my second day equally great.  I wasn't willing to concede my best teaching year yet to a pesky bout of insomnia.

At school, I started in on my list of things to do, setting a birthday crown on a little girl's desk and relishing the rarity that is alone time in my classroom.  Then my happy little ones trooped in from morning recess.  The room buzzed with parents and kids getting settled in for the day.

The birthday girl and her mom were one of the first to arrive.  Nodding to the food allergy sign on my door, I asked if she was going to send in birthday treats for the class.  The mom explained that they were poor, that there would be no birthday treats, no birthday party and very few presents.  I understood.  Single moms have it rough and I patted her on the arm.  Then the Birthday Girl spoke up.  She looked up at me from underneath her head of white blonde hair and said,  "We're going to have a special day just spending time together."  Be still my beating heart, I love this little girl.  She gets it.  She so gets it.  I smiled at her and asked if she'd like her mom to help her put her birthday crown on.  This little one's jaw just about came unhinged.  "You made me a birthday crown?"  Her voice lifted into a squeak.  I pointed to her desk.  She clapped and rushed over, her mom following close behind.  A minute later, while I talked with another mom, I felt her hugging the backs of my legs.  It was a tight squeeze, so tight that I could feel her lips moving against my pants as I heard a very muffled, "Thank you for my crown, Mrs. McCauley."  Later that day, when I asked about her life goals now that she's six, she told me she wanted to learn how to do a cartwheel and learn to fly, not in an airplane, but really fly.  My heart puddled on the spot.

Best Year Yet: Flying high.

As parents said goodbye to their kids, one of my little boys, a husky guy with a heart of gold, was in tears at the prospect of saying goodbye to his dad.  I reassured him that today was going to be a good day and I hugged him for a few minutes.  He cried on my shoulder while his dad hurried off to work.  A few minutes later he was fine.

Best Year Yet: A little damp on the shoulders, but none the worse for wear.

The parents left and we got started on our day.  We counted our hot lunches, sang the Good Morning Song and said the Flag Salute.  Just as we finished "and justice for all" a sleepy faced, pale little guy, who sits right in front of me on the carpet, turned a whiter shade of pale.  Uh-oh.  I know that look.  I've seen that look too many times before.  The next few seconds felt like slow motion as I twisted out of the firing zone, and Lord have mercy, that kid let fly and puked all over the spot where I was just sitting.  He missed me by about an inch as I grabbed a trash can and held it under his chin.  Another kid's mom was working in the hallway and she popped her head in at that moment and I passed my sick little guy to her and she ushered him to the nurse.

Best Year Yet: Nimble and vomit free

We had a great day together, reading, writing, graphing, and laughing hysterically during Author's Chair at a story one of my little guys is writing about a koala bear who goes to school.  Koala Kid is going to be a ton of fun to write with.  Before I knew it, it was time to have our closing meeting and say our goodbyes for the day.

At our closing class meeting, one of my little guys, a darling little boy who happens to have autism, raised his hand and said, "Mrs. McCauley, I love you so much I want to buy you a limousine!"  I'm already tickled by how his mind works.  I told him I loved him a lot, too.

Best Year Yet: Riding in style

My little ones gathered their backpacks and I held onto the hands of my bus riders as we navigated the parents bustling in and out of the hallway.  I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I turned and saw the father of the kid who was crying that morning.  "Thank you for helping my son this morning.  I appreciated it."  I stood there blinking.  A parent just thanked me.  Like out loud.  And sincerely.  Holy cats, was I dreaming?  I shook my head back to the present, "My pleasure.  He's a great kid and we had a really good day."  The two of them left and I held a little tighter to the hands of my bus riders as we wove through a maze of people.  Koala Kid's mom stopped me and asked if her son had already left the classroom.  I assured her that she'd just missed him by a few seconds.  I walked my bus riders to their bus line and just as I turned to go back to my classroom, Koala Kid got in the bus line.  He explained to me that his mom wasn't where she said she'd be and that he took the bus home all last year so he thought he'd take it home today.  I took his hand and was just starting to lead him to his mom when she caught up with us.  I braced myself, ready for her to blame me because he was in the wrong place.  Instead she said, "Oh, thank you for helping me find him.  I was late because I couldn't find a parking spot.  I'm sorry.  He rode the bus home all last year, so that's why he got in the bus line, but this year I get to stay at home so I'll pick him up.  Thanks again for finding him."  The three of us had a chat about where he will meet his mom each day and I walked back to my classroom.  Two parents thanking me in the span of 10 minutes?  Surely I was dreaming.

Best Year Yet: Surreally happening

Back in my classroom, a former parent was waiting for me with Simpson University bag in her hands.  Our school is doing a big push for university preparedness and we have a College Shirt day coming up.  I don't have a shirt from my alma mater, but this mom works there, so when I bumped into her the day before, I'd asked if she had a shirt I could borrow and maybe some letterhead or something I could use for the bulletin board I was supposed to make to display my degrees.  This mom did so much better than that.  She came with a bag full of stuff she'd bought from the university store.  There was a t-shirt, a pennant, a stuffed mascot, stickers, folders, etc.  I thanked her and asked how much I needed to pay her.  Nothing, she said.  I insisted again.  She refused saying that the university had donated the items because they wanted to be publicly represented by people like me.

Best Year Yet: All decked out in free swag

A couple of minutes after the Simpson mom left, one of my little ones from last year popped her head in to see if I needed any help.  This little one was a challenge last year, as was her mother, both of them questioning my every decision.  I love this little one, but I did not love being her teacher.  But this year, I'm no longer her teacher, meaning I get to enjoy her in small doses.  I had a few tasks she for her and as we worked, we chatted about her summer and second grade so far.  She showed me the teeth she'd lost and we laughed at misadventures at the waterslide park.  Half an hour later, her jobs were finished and she bounced back to the after school program.  I was truly glad to see her and grateful for her help.

Best Year Yet: Still going strong

As I walked to my car, I checked my e-mail and there in my inbox was a notification that I'd won a huge basket of school supplies from Rose Art.  I'd put my business card in their drawing at BlogHer, but I never thought I'd win.  I never win anything, let alone something as useful as school supplies.  I mean, just look at that basket!  I walked to my car with a little more of a spring in my step.

Best Year Yet: Duh-winning!

After school, I met up with a friend to see her new house and walk her dog.  This friend had a couple of tough years and as we chatted down the streets of her new neighborhood, I heard a lilt of happiness in her voice.  Her new house fits her, like a reflection of all her best parts.  We walked and talked and it was just so apparent that she'd found herself again.  I watched her wrangling her huge dog on a leash, and caught her smiling just as the sun hit her face.  It was a beautiful moment and I have a feeling she's in store for a lot of them this year.

Best Year Yet: Progressing beautifully

As I was leaving her house, That Laura called to see if I had time to stop for frozen yogurt.  When don't I have time for frozen yogurt?  Because everything was going my way, the yogurt shop had my favorite flavor, of course.  We let the cool yogurt slide down our throats, a blessed relief from the 104 degree heat that day.  As we slurped our yogurt down, I told That Laura about my amazing day.  One of That Laura's best qualities is that she is genuinely happy when good things happen to other people.

Best Year Yet: Tastier than Ever

Back at home, Terry and I spent a quiet evening together, filling each other in on the day.  We read our books and just hung around the house, a perfect ending to my day.  In bed that night as I waited for sleep to find me, I replayed the day again in my head.  It was filled to the brim with sweetness, like if one more lovely thing had occurred, I  would have overflowed.  And maybe that's the key to making this year the best one yet: not only being open to receiving the grace and generosity of others, but seeking out opportunities to be gracious and generous to those I encounter.

Best Year Yet: Definitely.

Stay tuned for Part 2, The Yang.