Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Historic Moments

I just had an Irish coffee at an Irish pub, and it was good. Good like a cigarette.

I dated the same person from the time I was 17 until I was 21. We went off to college together, and it was just assumed that we would some day get married and have kids and live "back home." But that wasn't what was right for either of us. It's a long story that I'd be glad to tell you someday, but one night I was driving through Kosse, Texas, and God spoke to me in an audible voice and told me that it was time to move on.

You can think I'm crazy. That doesn't mean it didn't happen.

And so, we broke up. It was ugly and heartbreaking and full of the angst that fills those young people who think they have their lives planned out and then learn that they were dead wrong.

I decided at that point to start smoking. (I'd like to pretend that this is news to my parents because I have no doubt that they knew - or at least suspected - but we never spoke of it. I now appreciate their ability to let me work out my vices on my own.) My former boyfriend hated cigarettes and smoking and people who smoked, and we still had classes together in college and still spent time together ("let's be friends"is the stupidest phrase ever spoken), so I, naturally, chose to smoke incessantly around him to piss him off.

God did not tell me to do this.

Slowly but surely we went our separate ways, but I continued to enjoy the rebellious solitude of the morning smoke...and midday smoke...and evening smoke...and I think you get the picture. You lifetime non-smokers won't understand this, but there's something both calming and exhilarating about slowly, quietly enjoying a cigarette.

The night before I married Trey, the most amazing person I've ever met, I smoked my last.

Fast forward through the best ten and a half years of my life, two amazing boys, and eight years of what amounted to both ruining and lifting up what I estimate to be close to one thousand high school students. This and that happens, and I find myself elated to become part of a new elementary school family. My exit from the high school was filled with undeserved fanfare, including the most thoughtful gifts. A journal in which those I worked most closely with wrote me letters of encouragement and support, a few books and a list of books that I should read, a bucket of margaritas, a monogrammed pair of ceramic balls in a tray with a note that said "every administrator needs a pair." Only my friend Grace could get away with that, and it makes me smile every single time I think about it.

One of the books I received when I left the high school is a memoir by Frank McCourt called Teacher Man. McCourt is an Irish immigrant who won a Pulitzer for his book, Angela's Ashes, but perhaps more impressively he spent thirty years teaching English in New York City high schools. I began the book a few weeks ago. The first chapters relate McCourt's first few days of teaching and also MY first days of teaching. It's incredible the way he captures the fear and uncertainty of those days. I laughed at McCourt and at myself as I read, and I called teacher friends and told them they have to read this book when I'm done.

Currently, I find myself at the Conscious Discipline Summer Institute, learning about brains. Limbic systems and brain stems and pre-frontal lobes and safe places and well wishes. I am in awe of the science.We saw a demonstration today that proved the actual electrical fields around people sending positive thoughts versus sending negative ones. I am more in awe of the practicality. Children must be taught to regulate themselves and not rely on others for their self-worth or positive emotions. That's big stuff, folks, and most adults haven't figured it out yet. I wonder if I've even figured it out.

As we spend hours each day discussing self-regulation, I find it appropriate that I am all by myself. This six day conference is the longest I've ever been away from Trey or my boys, and it's hard. Really hard. But I am reminded every day here that I have a choice to make the most of this and enjoy myself or sit alone and crying in my hotel room for a week. I know I would rather Trey and the boys enjoy themselves than sit in a stupor, and I've made a valiant effort to enjoy this trip. Skype has really helped.

Tonight I walked from my hotel to Bongos, a Cuban food restaurant in Downtown Disney, and I requested a table for one. I ordered an appetizer and a mojito, said a private prayer of thanksgiving for Hemingway (Cuba always makes me think of Hemingway and my awe of him), and opened my book.

McCourt describes a silly little lesson that happened out of nowhere in which his students recite recipes like poetry. To an English teacher (which I will possibly always be at heart), the lesson is brilliant. Sitting alone at a table in a busy restaurant, his message to his students struck me:

"If you're an observant writer, you'll recognize the significance of this event. For the first time in history a Chinese recipe is to be read with background music. You have to be alert to historic moments. The writer is always saying, What's going on here? Always. You can bet your last dime that nowhere in history, Chinese or otherwise, will you find a moment like this" (212).

I closed the book and observed my moment. Never in history, and likely never again, would I sit alone in a loud Cuban restaurant enjoying fried plantains and ceviche. I didn't care that I was alone. I loved the food and atmosphere and the volume and the people. It wasn't Chinese recipes set to music, but the message was the same. Every moment is historic. We just have to realize it.

On the recommendation of a friend, I stopped on the way back to the hotel at an Irish pub for some bread pudding. I intended to take the pudding back to my hotel, but was informed at the front that they don't do to go orders. The hostess encouraged me to sit at the bar to order and then ask for a to go box after my food came. It was a lame rule, but I really wanted that bread pudding.

I wound my way through the tables to the bar, found an empty chair against the wall, and ordered my dessert. It arrived quickly and was so beautiful on the plate that I decided to just eat it there in the restaurant.

I took my first bite and reopened my book. I felt as if my friend, Frank the Irishman, had written it about our collective careers. As if on cue, an Irish band began to play their nightly gig, and the patrons sang along and stomped their feet to the rhythm. It occurred to me that I would finish this book, this Irishman's testament to every scary, exciting, depressing, amazing moment spent in high school English classrooms for ages, here in this Irish pub with Irish background music. This, friends, was an historic moment.

The entire book is phenomenal, but the last part (detailing the end of McCourt's teaching career) was profound. If you've ever felt that a book touched your soul, then you know what I'm talking about. I felt kinship with known and unknown teachers everywhere, and I felt like this book and this pub and this band and this bread pudding were, together, a gift.

And so I settled in, ordered an Irish coffee, and drank a private toast to Frank McCourt, to every student I ever taught, to every paper I ever graded.

And the coffee was good. Good like a cigarette.

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