Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It's All in the Spin

Six weeks. The words have been running in a constant loop through my thoughts for, well, the past five weeks.

My first semester of masters work ended five weeks and one day ago, after thousands of pages of reading, approximately 24,243 words worth of papers, and couple of last minute saves--including an emergency real-time edit of a presentation in progress (an offhanded comment by a professor exposed a critical misreading of a piece of literature as a classmate and I made our way to the podium to present the merits of said piece. Good thing I wore my hip waders and packed a shovel that day...)

Six glorious weeks between the end of my fall semester and the beginning of the spring term seemed like a Christmas gift that could best the entire contents of Santa's sleigh.

Six weeks! At first, the words swelled in my head like the Hallelujah Chorus. Every morning when I woke up, it seemed like the entire Boys Choir of Harlem sang out the refrain, complete with the backing if the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

No papers!

No research!

No vital up-or-downloads!

No Don Quixote!

You'd think that the last thing I'd want to do during this soul-cleansing time of catharsis would be to write. But write, I did. First, for the newspaper--that's right, I remembered, I used to get paid to write. And then, for my sadly neglected but dearly beloved YA fiction venture, as appeared in my previous post. Yes, I remembered, writing is beautiful, when you write what you love.

But it was more than the joy of writing for profit and pleasure that resonated in between the notes of my Ode to Freedom. There have been so many other facets of my hijacked life that I've been able to resuscitate, such as warm, homemade meals on our dinner table: Tuscan chicken, stromboli, risotto, pots and pots of minestrone--tonight we're having lasagna.

Then there's the world of friends and entertaining, into which I wholeheartedly delved one evening just prior to Christmas. Can you imagine ending a meal for 6 adults and 13 children around a chocolate fountain? I can, and the memories are precious.

Oh, and I can't neglect to mention the nearly lost art of reading for pleasure. That book that's been sitting on my must-read list for the past 6 months? Read it, and relished every word like a the last bite of a Hershey's Special Dark bar.

Looking back, it's kind of hard to believe the amount of things I've packed in around Christmas and a week-long New Year's trip to Pennsylvania. Those professional headshots? Done. Undecorating from Christmas and redecorating for winter? Done. Rearranging most of the major furniture in the house? Done. Book signings and school visits? Done. Done.
(See, here I am looking a little more authorly than I usually do, toting around my stuffed tiger):
Maybe all this activity is because that looping refrain in my head morphed into more of a cadence. The Boys Choir moved out last week, making way for The Corporal. The Corporal is intimately aware of the passage of time, and the parameters of the upcoming mission. Spring '08, I believe they call it. The Corporal is big into belting out marching orders, repeating the whole six week loop with a decidedly do-or-die flair.

The Corporal has me shooting off emails to my friends, informing them that it's now or never if they want to get that lunch, or catch up over coffee. The Corporal rides me hard if I sit, staring blankly, as I'm prone to do when overwhelmed. Don't just sit there, he barks, Six weeks, six weeks, that's all you have, six weeks. The Corporal's responsible for all references to the commencement of my studies sounding like the musings of one reporting for a court-appointed prison term, or beginning treatment in an Iron Lung.

Bad news is, an email from Dr P, a Spring '08 Sergent--er, professor, has now sent even The Corporal packing. Dr. P is teaching this pesky one credit "lab" --a "gimme" my son would call it. In the grand scheme of everything else I've signed up for, I didn't view the lab as anything worth much worry. Something about visiting classrooms. No problem.

Dr. P was kind enough to send her syllabus along early. I got bleary-eyed somewhere around page three, and a few paragraphs after that The Corporal's cadence morphed into a dirge.

Among other things, the syllabus outlined various tasks I am to complete during the course of no less than 15 visits to a local school where I will apparently become something of a fixture. These tasks range in complexity and scope. During the course of my tenure, I'll be expected to participate in parent conferences, attend extra-curricular events, observe student hallway interactions, and, perhaps, attend a PTA meeting. I will also be required to conduct interviews with teachers, substitutes, and--I'm not even embellishing here--bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitors. Essentially, I'll be examining the school from the ground up. At this point in my reading, the drone of the mourners silenced even The Corporal's most rousing calls.

The worst of it? I'm not even sure I want to teach, at least not in the full-time, public-school capacity.

See, I am, at once, an appreciative but reluctant student. I didn't really set out to return to school full time. Oh, I always intended to get my masters degree someday...after the kids were out of the house, and I got bored with all of my other pursuits. It's just that seeds of restlessness and dissatisfaction began to sprout in the drear, dank sunlessness of last winter, and one blustery February afternoon found me wandering aimlessly around the campus where I now attend. I thought I might pick up a catalogue, browse some selections, and sign up for a course or two; something to spark some new thoughts, that sort of thing.

I left that day with an offer for a full ride.

Suddenly, someday was upon me.

Some days I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity. Other days, I'm simply overwhelmed.

I even tried to quit once, when it looked like the timing of certain course offerings were going to tip life too far out of balance, with non-stop course work all summer long. The prof I work for wouldn't hear of it, and is teaching me the ill-timed course herself, just her and me. How could I quit, in the face of that kind of confidence and commitment to my success?

The trouble is, I'm a writer, and although this program will give me a masters degree in English, it's also a teaching program. I have a love-hate relationship with teaching. I love being with students. I love discussing deep topics, engaging them in life and learning. But I think it's a little like being a grandparent--it's great as a part time gig.

I love swooping in as a substitute, keeping things spick and span like an educational Mary Poppins--and flying away on my umbrella when the day is done. I love going into classrooms as a special guest, sharing my novels with students, listening to their questions and interpretations of my work, and inspiring them toward their own aspirations. Go in, stir things up a bit, go home. In and out.

Real teaching kind of looks like the anti-writing from where I'm sitting. Grading papers? No, thanks. Calling parents? I don't even call my friends! Attending staff development sessions? Arsenic seems like a more expedient way to go.

Which is why all this business about interviewing safety guards and grading surplus tests really packed a punch. I'm a writer, darn it, a writer. A writer who doesn't go to her own kids' PTA meetings because she'd rather be home, playing with them. I awoke this morning to the lamentation of the mourners. Six weeks, almost gone, six weeks, moving on.

Writers don't interview lunch ladies, I told myself. They don't do grunt work for teachers. They don't rove up and down hallways listening to students gripe, I insisted.

About this point, the journalist in me kicks in. I'm picturing myself walking all over the school with my digital voice recorder and notebook, making copious notes in hallways. We call that "getting the story."

Then it hits me. I write for teens, and I've been given an all access pass to their daily stomping grounds. This is research at it's best! I'm a writer, darn it, and I'm going in.

Someone had better call VH 1 and find out where the Spin Doctors are now, because I think I'm going to need them to pick up the refrain. It goes something like:

One week until I begin research on my upcoming novel!


Jen said...

Great blog!.. I'm glad to hear you are having a good attitude about this whole thing.. we will need to compare stories because I am beginning my internship in a special education classroom in a week.. one day a week I will be in a school too!

Jen said...


I love the new picture!!

Steve said...


Saw your comment on my blog asking me for more thoughts on your small group discussion with the girls about God's Creation and all that. If memory serves me, one of the things that we talked about was emphasizing how when God was going through Creation week, He felt that each of His creations were "Good in His Sight." If you want, talk with them about their ideas and see how they stack up against God's feelings about His creation. Are there any imperfections in their ideas ?? Examine those I think, that will lead to some interesting discussion.

Also, I've got a new blog up, you should come check it out, I think you will find it to be of some interest to you.


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