Sunday, July 31, 2011

Is Re-Entry A Go?

Each time I have returned from a trip where I have congregated with the other state teachers of the year—a group filled with people who have unexpectedly become some of my dearest friends—I have used the term “re-entry.”  The time spent with them is always filled with professional learning, passionate conversation, uncontrollable laughter, and adventure after adventure, much as how we wish life could be, but is often not due to responsibility and routine.  So returning home where laundry, grading papers, and meals rule my schedule is always an interesting transition (my husband might use another adjective there), and “re-entry” does in fact nicely sum it all up. 

For the past week, I have been a space camper.  I have sat in classrooms and studied rocket propulsion systems.  I have met astronauts, authors (one of them was Homer Hickam, the author of Rocket Boys—the book that inspired the movie October Sky), and engineers.  I have sat quietly and reflected on that day back in seventh grade when I watched the Challenger explode, rode the bus quietly home, and then sat on my front porch crying for our lost New Hampshire teacher.  I have built bottle rockets, engine rockets, and thermal protection systems.  I have played math games, foolishly running around and grabbing friends’ hands so that our numbers would add up to the correct sum, and rolling dice in fierce competition.  I have piloted the most inappropriately and absurdly funny shuttle mission with one friend by my side as Commander and another in my ear as Mission Control, both of whom continuously keep me laughing.  I have proudly worn my flight suit in a picture taken next to my team after we landed our shuttle successfully, but not before hitting some trees and swamp.  I have eaten camp food that sat in my stomach like a brick, have slept on a plastic lined dorm bed, and have sat in the “commons” until the wee hours of the morning talking and always, always laughing.
One thing different about this gathering was the addition of some international teachers of the year.  When I first heard other teachers would be joining our group, I felt uneasy—I wasn’t sure how “outsiders” would fit in, but my worries were immediately dispelled as I spent early mornings and late nights in my dorm with my Norwegian roommate, listened to my Australian flight director beat box in our Mission Control headphones, accepted a new Swiss Army knife from a tall, lanky Swiss man with a sharp sense of humor, and walked arm in arm with my new Dutch friend.  Our group is already diverse, and instead of straining the dynamics, the addition of these 16 international teachers made us feel whole.  Yesterday morning, after another breakfast of cheesy eggs, biscuits, and grits, we said our goodbyes with tears.  They had become part of us.

On our final shuttle mission as a team, my job was to oversee our astronauts as they undertook a mission of repairing and replacing heat tiles on the outside of the shuttle so that it did not burn up upon re-entry.  The feeling of weightlessness was simulated for them by being suspended in an intricate system of straps and tethers.  They reported back numbers to me and then I guided them in the repairs—of which they completed with shaving cream and a spatula.  Without these repairs, the shuttle would not be able to sustain the immense heat that is experienced when re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.  One chink in the tiles could mean a disastrous return. 

I’ve been thinking about that the past couple of days as I had to perform my own re-entry.  The transition of moving from an environment where you feel weightless—unbound by the gravitational forces of life’s responsibilities—into one where your feet must land on the solid ground of reality is always a difficult matter for me. But I think I have my heat shields in order—my family, my friends, my health.  They might sustain some damage, just as heat shields often do, and I might still experience some turbulence, but as we would say in mission-esque speak, “T+01:23:12:08, all systems are nominal, and re-entry is a go.”

Roger that.

A few pictures from the week:
Pilot Angie and Commandersen Paul, after our successful  Discovery shuttle mission

Apollo 11 patch--the astronauts chose not to have their names on it, because they wanted it to represent  mankind.

Command module from Apollo 16 flight

Boarding the bus

Ryan (Minnesota), Jay (Washington State), Me, and Jeff (New York)--our  egg drop team

Matinga (Michigan) and Jeff (Pennsylvania) work on our bottle rocket 

Joe (Delaware) enjoys another camp breakfast of sausage and grits.

A moon rock

The Pathfinder

Me in the pilot's seat of Discovery

One of my favorite views--the rockets silhouetting each other

John from Greece closely inspects our thermal protection unit


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer Malaise

              Ask anyone in my house lately:  I have been grumpy.  It doesn't help that all my plans of hiking and running great distances without a ticking clock have been sidelined due to a painful double whammy of plantar fasciitis.  But I don’t think the foot pain and immobility can totally make up for the overwhelming sense of irritability I have been feeling the past couple of weeks.  Everything gets under my skin, and I haven’t written here or for my newspaper article because I’m not one who can fake it well, and so I have been worried I would write something that I might later regret.

                But this week I started teaching at writing camp.  And this morning, sitting with six girls who have sanctioned off this time to be with me and my co-teacher, Heidi, because they love to write, we began to talk about books we are currently reading and started this fantastical conversation about what characters we would be if we could be anybody in literature (I waffled between Isabel Archer and Hermione Granger, but finally decided I have more in common with Hermione).  Our conversation became lively and I felt myself relax into what is comfortable as we discussed settings, character attributes, and literary techniques used by authors.

                Later on in the day, I saw a student of mine who enthusiastically told me about a powerful book she just read about September 11; we discussed the pros and cons of Kindles; and then she let me know that the business letter she wrote in class for me that accompanied a torn Northface jacket was just answered—with a BRAND NEW jacket enclosed!  Her face was aglow and I felt happy and involved with the conversation—not irritated.

                And then I realized—sometimes it’s right in front of our faces.  When we are deprived of what we love, we become cranky people.  And I love teaching and learning.  Three summers ago I was a liaison between a restaurant and a community organization as I taught teenagers business strategies. Two summers ago I worked with the Pakistani Institute at Plymouth State University.  Last summer I worked with the Plymouth Writing Project at the University.  I was actively and routinely engaged with educational conversations that made me think deep about what I do and why I do it.  This summer, so far, I have read a bit, taken small hikes as my feet heel, and done a lot of sitting and complaining silently in my head.  No wonder I’m irritable!  I had, in fact, planned this summer to be low key and relaxing due to the hectic nature of the past school year, and while I have loved the time with my family, I think I went from one extreme to the next—this has been too much down time and too little educational involvement.

                One of my goals for the summer was to write a book proposal, and the beginning stages of a first draft sits on my desktop taunting me every day as I check email.  When a friend asked me if I’d gotten any further on it and I told him about my summer malaise, he said, “Angie—it’s plantar fasciitis, not cancer.”  Point taken.  So.  Two weeks of writing camp stretch ahead of me and I plan to use every ounce of youthful energy these passionate writers share to remind myself of what I love to do.  Early morning writing sessions are planned.  And someday soon, I will run again…  In the meantime, it is summer, and it’s time to enjoy it!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Living Today for Evie

Two weeks ago all of the teachers and staff of Holderness Central School sat in the school library and said goodbye to Evie Spodnik. 

Sadly, like so many other positions across the state, our reading specialist position had been cut, and we were losing Evie.  I sat across from her, so close I could reach out and touch her hand.  So close I could see the specks of dark gray in her eyes.  I looked into those eyes while our principal spoke eloquently about the job she had enthusiastically and happily done over the past few years at Holderness, before opening the floor to anybody else who would like to speak.  Teacher after teacher began to talk to and about Evie—and we heard how efficient and effective she was as a reading teacher.  We heard how kind she was.  We listened to success stories about struggling readers who became proficient and confident.  Tales were told about families she connected with and students who left the classroom for her care and help with beaming smiles on their faces—they relished their time with Ms. Spodnik.   It was an outpouring of support, collegiality, and such positivity and appreciation that does not occur enough in our regular days.  When I got home that night, I called a friend I teach with, and told her how touched I was by the luncheon.  How wonderful it was to hear our colleagues laud Evie’s magnificence and celebrate her on such a sad day, when we had to say goodbye.

I didn’t work closely with Evie, since we spent our days in two separate wings of the building with two different student populations, but we bumped into one another frequently in the teachers’ room, where she would regale me with adventures of living in Tulum, Mexico and other places abroad.  She always had an interesting story to tell about interesting people she had once met.  We would stand next to one another by the photocopier and she would look over my materials and inquire about my practices and we would discuss reading philosophies.  Once in a while, I would bump into her while eating and we would exchange recipes and food ideas.  I never once remember her complaining or frowning—she always had a smile on her face and a kind word to offer, even when she was obviously crunched for time.   I departed our conversations wishing I had more time to see her, more time to work closely with her, because I sensed we shared similar beliefs and values. 

And then this terrible news arises about her murder on a beautiful July day and shocks our community.  Wondering and worried about the children she worked closely with, the families she supported, and the primary grade teachers she collaborated with, I keep bringing myself back to two weeks ago when I sat with her at lunch.

I have a crazy theory that I don’t often share with others about wrinkles—I believe that as we get older, our wrinkles tell the stories of our lives.  And they tell us if we have spent more time smiling or grimacing, laughing or pursing our lips out of stress.  And as I sat across from Evie, looking into those speckled eyes, I was overcome by the laugh lines that surrounded her mouth and the creases that originated from the corners of her eyes, and as those beautiful, articulate, kind and loving words filled our school library, I recognized that this was a woman who had spent her entire life making sure happiness and joy were ruling emotions. 

Two summers ago I lost one of my best friends, another much loved teacher, to a car accident.  Overcome with grief, sobbing, I sat on a very similar warm, sunny summer day and wondered what she would want me to do today.  And I knew:  help others, be a good friend, run, and eat ice cream.  So I did.  And I consciously carry a piece of her with me daily.  Sometimes when I am teaching, I know that I am doing it for her.  And when I am out on a long run, I can feel her at my side.  When I call a friend, I know that this was the kind of friend she was, and when I eat ice cream, I close my eyes and enjoy every last spoonful just as we did so many times sitting next to one another.  I see her face everywhere, and it catches my breath.  I still feel sadness, but then I wonder if these quick glimpses are her way of saying thank you for living the way I would want you to.

When I think of Evie’s kind, kind eyes and face that was so quick to burst into a smile, I find myself with similar thoughts.  How would Evie want us to live today?  This woman, who walked the beaches of Mexico …who hiked out west and traveled abroad…this woman who sat patiently with small children while they struggled with reading, making them feel like they conquered the world when they overcame those troublesome Bs and Ds in words…how would she want us to live today?  We learn from life, and in the face of death, need to remember to continue to do so, and I don’t think we would learn anger, resentment, or hostility from Evie’s life.

So today we should read a good book.  We should walk outside and embrace the beauty of summer.  We must be sure to burst out into laughter and smile, and be willing to take on an adventure.  We need to slow down, and offer patience to a child.  And we will do it all in honor of Evie Spodnik.