Road Trip XI, Days 11-16: What Woods These Are I Definitely Know, Or, What Really Makes an Easterner

Greetings from Durham, NC, my hometown. I’m actually writing this from the living room of the farmhouse I grew up in, and where both my parents still live. I know. I’m beyond lucky, for a person of any age–and I’m 60!

The Mate and I have been pinching ourselves as we crossed this enormous country/continent west-east, waiting for the usual weather trap…but so far, none has sprung! No ice storms, tornadoes, swirling dust, nor blizzards. Not so much as a thunderclap. Yet. We still have a long trip to go. But for now, I’m free to write about stuff you can notice when your nose isn’t buried in a weather app.

Like forests, which I can see very clearly, thank you, even while seeing the trees. Last week we had the pleasure of camping in eastern Arkansas…oh, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First we stopped in Little Rock to ride our bikes along the Arkansas River, which is famous there for its

This being the south, ya gotta add those quotation marks.

I thought I saw swans on the river, masses of them–only to realize, those are pelicans! In Arkansas! Go figure.

Maybe seabirds enjoy an inland vacation once in a while?

At the end of a long day’s drive, we camped in a state park that’s notable mostly for its location alongside part of the Trail of Tears. We got there late enough in the day that I only had time for an hour’s walk before dinner, and what I noticed was–I could be home in NC! The woods looked exactly the same.

Sun setting on maples, oaks, tulip poplar…and The Mate

Even though we still had the Mississippi to cross, not to mention the entire length of Tennessee and the Blue Ridge, these woods felt like home to me. Which of course brought up the decades-old debate between North Carolinian me and my Californian Mate: Are deciduous woods beautiful in winter?

My answer: 100% Even without the garnish of rhododendron, leafless winter woods are, to me, maybe even more striking than green leafy woods. They’re showing you the bone structure of the land!

My Western Mate, and both our Western sons, always insist the winter woods of the east look “dead” to them. I mutter, “Huh,” raise my chin, and feel sorry for them.

Running out of time for a second night of camping, we opted for a motel right outside Smokey Mountain National Park (taking pains to avoid the shudder-inducing town of Pigeon Forge/Dollywood). One more quick walk before dark yielded a swinging bridge over the Little River…

…but unfortunately, all the river banks are locked up in private property, so no beautiful hikes there.

Next day we got to drive through the park, up and over the Appalachian Trail…

I know–how could we pass up “Sweat Heifer”? But we had friends waiting to hike with us in Asheville. And Mt. Katahdin was a little too far.

…and into North Carolina! Asheville is very hip these days, so we were happy just to stick with our friends at their house & eat homemade food. But I did snap this sunrise photo of the city waking up behind Beaucatcher Mountain:

Sure can’t blame all those folks who want to live there! (And maybe you can go home again. #TomWolfeReference)

I mean–what’s not to love about those trees? “Dead”? C’mon, people!

Our last stop in the mountains, before making our way back to the good ol’ Piedmont, was the tiny community of Celo (pronounced See-low), in the South Toe River Valley.

South Toe River at your service

Wayyyyy back in 1981, after two years at Harvard, I decided I needed a break from urban college life. It wasn’t so much the stress that weighed on me, but the lack of purpose. What was this all for? Being privileged enough to be able to take a semester off without working for money, I was steered by a mentor to sign on as an intern at a tiny junior high school serving both day and boarding students: Arthur Morgan School. AMS still exists–look it up here!

Quakers Crossing!

AMS isn’t officially Quaker, but I believe it’s actually more Quakerly in practice than many so-called Quaker prep schools. The kids do all the chores and the cooking, start each day with 30 minutes of singing folks songs, go on weeklong backpacking trips and 3-week field trips. In fact, they were off field-tripping when we got there, leaving us free to tour the campus I worked at 40 years ago. I didn’t feel like taking pictures of buildings, but I did capture the mountains behind the community soccer field.

There’s a school in there somewhere.

(But can we talk about how those trees grace the ridgeline like grey velvet? Can we?)

Without going into detail, I need to say that my time at AMS changed my life…by redirecting it. Two years in Cambridge had been swerving me toward a “sophisticated” ethic of city fashion and fierce academic competition. SO not me. AMS and Celo reminded me of who I really was: a country girl. A girl hopelessly in love with mountains and the trees that grace them.

Those creeks! So clear and pure! When, in 1990, I abandoned the Southeast to become a Pacific Northwesterner, I swear I recognized that Blue Ridge Mountain purity in the waters of the PNW.

The creeks (or “cricks” or “branches”) in the Piedmont are pretty sluggish & muddy. But mountain waters…

Also–swinging bridges are a thing in the Blue Ridge–or used to be. In 1982 I used to cross one regularly, with two more down the road. In 2022, I could only find this one:

Oh well. (But the trees are still pretty.)

Something else I forgot about those mountain folks: their driveways can be STEEP. (That’s neither here nor there, but I couldn’t resist a picture.)

Seriously? In snow & ice?

Oh, and a quick plug: if you’re looking for a sweet and healthy vacay or staycay, you can’t do better than the Celo Inn.

You’re welcome!

My time at AMS was short, only half a school year, and I’m still not sure why I pushed myself to return to Cambridge so quickly. But in those six months I learned guitar, strengthened my singing voice (30 minutes of Morning Sing for 6 months!), re-connected with my true nature, and The Boyfriend Who Became The Mate & I acquired lifelong friends who still host us to share memories, and waffles.

Waffles With Ward (not pictured: Ward)

Our friends Herbie & Marnie have a sign above their door that sums up Celo best:


Do the bare eastern woods embody the “imperfect life”? Or do they simply remind me that woods are the whole package–trunks and moss and rocks and streams and whatever else is to be noticed–not just green trees. That’s what I go to bat for when I insist on the beauty of my dear eastern forests in the not-green time. Who’s with me?

Adventures in Past-Shedding: You Want Me to Throw Out WHAT?

It’s been 18 months since my teaching certificate expired, the one I first earned in 1987. I haven’t taught an actual class of high school students since 2010. But that hasn’t stopped me from hanging onto all my old folders of lesson plans…until now.

Although the Mate and I left Tacoma in 2010 for Lopez Island, we didn’t sell our house here. We’ve been lucky enough to have housesitters who took care of all maintenance and utilities and still gave us the right of return whenever we (or other friends) had business in the Big City. But that’s about to change. The house where we became Northwesterners and raised our family is finally going on the market.

Which means we have to sort through all the boxes stored in the basement; divvy up furniture and dishes and linens to friends and relatives and Craigslist; curate, then cart a zillion loads of books and clothes and dishes and blankets and toys and who-knows-what-all to various giveaway sites we thought we’d already maxed out on when we moved ten years ago clean up a bit.

Why, I ask myself, did I even need to look inside the box marked “Old Lesson Plans”? Why not just throw it away? My certificate is lapsed. No former colleague is about to call me for best practices on introducing To Kill A Mockingbird.

My first gig, 1987: Orange High School
in Hillsborough NC

Of course I looked anyway.

I taught five–count ’em, FIVE–sections of 9th Grade Civics, each section a complete different planet of kids

Now, if you notice that the above picture is cut off, that’s not an accident. That’s to avoid showing off the last name of this one kid, Don S, who quickly became the bane of my first-year-teacher existence. Don was the kind of kid I learned to love–funny, basically good-hearted, but with zero use for anything that wasn’t centered around his ability to have a good time. I spent my first week of teaching doling out “LD’s”–lunch detentions–to Don. Like that helped any. ūüôā

In those days, besides filling in the Plan Book, I wrote out a complete Lesson Plan on a separate sheet every day. Before I threw all these materials away, something called on me to take a closer look. To see what was so gol-durned important to me, at age 25, that I spent my precious after-school hours (when I could’ve been grading essays) honing in on.

Yep–one of these, every day. Good thing I only had ONE class to prep then!

And here’s what I noticed: that whole bottom portion of the form is given to self-evaluation. What worked, what didn’t, why, and how to fix it tomorrow.

Some days, I remember, it felt more like I was going backwards than forwards with those kids. (Can I get an Amen from any teachers out there?) And yet…I kept filling out those sheets, day after day, until, finally that self-evaluation didn’t need to be written out anymore. It was completely internalized.

Fast-forward to my latter years of teaching. Instead of one prep, I had FIVE. But here’s all I needed to write in my Plan Book.

Made perfect sense to me at the time!

What’s missing from that latter Plan Book is the same thing that’s missing from the non-existent Daily Plans I pored over in the 1980s. What took its place? Confidence. Experience. Trust. Did I also get a little bit lazier? Mayyybe…though more likely, as with most working-outside-the-home parents, anything that saves time is anything that saves sanity.

Mostly what’s NOT in these boxes is inside ME. Still. Thank GOODNESS I don’t have to box THAT up and take it to Goodwill.

I would love to hear any thoughts from others discovering emblems of their working past. Any echoes here?

Expiring Educator: Now There’s A Job Description

“Expiring Educator Certificates 06/30/18” the email heading read.

My goodness, they’re being awfully casual about dying teachers, I thought. But reading on…oh. They mean ME.

Our records determine that you hold an educator certificate with an expiration date of June 30, 2018. You may log into your EDS account at any time to submit an application: The application must be received no later than June 30, 2018 in order to continue to hold a valid certificate. If the process is delayed due to non-submission of an application, you risk beginning the 2018-2019 school year with an expired certificate. 

Ha! If I started teaching again next fall after an 8-year hiatus, I’d risk a lot more than an expired certificate! To say nothing of what those kids would risk with me as their returned-from-island-exile teacher.

“Um, Ms. Wing? We scan our homework in now. Nobody needs that lined paper.”

“We’re not supposed to raise our hands anymore. We just tap the icon. You didn’t KNOW that?”

“Pssst…where’s this lady been? Can you believe she just said we could email her if we had questions?”

I’ll probably have a work-stress dream tonight just thinking about it.

American Studies field trip, pausing on Tacoma’s Bridge of Glass

Except…here are some teaching things I miss the HELL out of:

  • watching teens, sleepy as lizards, slowly come to life during first period (if they didn’t, well–try harder tomorrow!)
  • joshing (“Hey, I like your shoes–can I have ’em?”)
  • those internal gasps of awe when some kid writes something I never saw coming
  • feeling the esprit de corps grow, falter, then grow again during group projects
  • throwing pieces of candy across the room to get someone’s attention (and calling Jolly Ranchers “Happy Farmers”)

    My 4th Period AP Lit. class showing off its food drive efforts

Not much suspense to this post. I’m not renewing the certificate I first earned in 1987. (If I’d planned to, I would have had to start many months ago!) I’ve been an ex-teacher for eight years now; this just makes it official.¬†

Except…is there such a thing as an ex-teacher, REALLY? Since I’m still chewing on this teachable moment, I’d say not. Better assign myself a longer essay than this to get that bittersweetness out of my system.

Have a John Keats Autumn: Notice What You Notice

Here at the brink of the Autumnal Equinox, I went looking for a poem for autumn. I didn’t have to look far. According to The Guardian, John Keats’s “To Autumn” is “the most anthologized poem” by an English poet. I’ll let Mr. Keats himself tell you why:

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,‚ÄĒ
While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

(courtesy Wikimedia)

(courtesy Wikimedia)

As my former students would have said, “I know, right?”

This season, harvest season, reminds me of life’s cyclical nature more than Spring does. Both focus our attention on change. But I was a teacher for 20 years, and even six years past the classroom, fall still means school to me. And school means poetry. Sooner or later, no matter the class–Sophomore English, Junior English, American Studies, AP Literature–we “did poetry.” Or, as I liked to say, we exercised our Noticing Muscles.

My brand of poetry analysis? Read the poem. Notice what you notice. Notice what it makes you think about. Write about how the poet’s tools (words, images, sounds, etc.) make you think¬†that.

My favorite question: “Did the poet really¬†mean¬†whatever I think he means?”

My favorite answer: “Intention is not the same as effect. You can’t know intention unless the poet tells you. Most don’t. So focus on effect.”

I won’t presume now¬†to take Keats’s beautiful ode apart and tell you about its effect on this reader. Instead I’ll leave you with the thought of Noticing Muscles, the poem itself, and the hope that you’ll spend some time this slower season¬†noticing what you notice. Happy Fall!

Happy Back to School, Y’all: You’re all Fresh-men

This month marks the start of my fifth year out of the classroom. I can no longer recite the schedule of my former high school. I don’t know whether teacher workdays are this week or next, or whether they’re calling them LIDs or PRADs or some other stupid fun acronym.

I still don’t miss it. And I still miss it.

I DON’T¬†miss the stomach-rocks at the thought of losing delicious summer freedom. It’s not that teachers don’t work in the summer. Most teachers I knew actually took only about three weeks completely “off.” The rest of our summer included workshops or meetings or curriculum development, or all three. But we could generally schedule that work at our discretion–no ringing bells telling us where to go. That made all the difference.

If I let myself, I can still feel those stomach-rocks. I’ll bet most of you former students and teachers can too.

I DO¬†miss that happy adrenalin of “THIS-year-I’m-gonna-try_____”; of fresh, new, empty lesson plan pages waiting to be filled; of that first packet of “Dear Ms. Wing” letters I’d make my students write on Day One. (At the end of the year, I’d write back.)

What other job is as cyclical in nature as teaching? What other job follows such a prescribed rhythm, allowing what’s new to stand out in such beautiful contrast?

(orig. image courtesy Wikimedia)

(orig. image courtesy Wikimedia)

I can’t think of one. Can you? What jobs out there have you had which allowed such a lovely sense of starting fresh?



Move Over, Hogwarts: These Students Really Are Getting Their O.W.L.s

A funny thing happened to me on my way to the classroom the other day: I got bowled over by watching high school students LEARN Spanish.

So what, you say? Ah, but pay attention to that verb. Ask nearly any high school student in the U.S.–I don’t care if it’s P.S. 392 in New York City or Snobster Prep in Massachusetts–what their classes are, and they’ll say this: “I’m taking Spanish [or French, or Japanese, or whatever].” TAKING. Not LEARNING.¬†

Translation: “I have to do this because it’s a college requirement.”

“I’ve only been taking it since 9th grade because that’s all our district funds.” (OK, maybe not at Snobster Prep.) (…this when ALL the research shows that the best years to learn languages are the early ones!)

“I don’t bother to speak with¬†a proper accent, because when I do, the other kids call me a brownnoser.”

“As soon as I’ve fulfilled the requirements of my school/college/parents, I’ll stop ‘taking.’

So, you’re fluent in Spanish now? “Um, not exactly. We didn’t really speak Spanish, y’know. But we did take it.”

Can you tell this has been a bit of a sore spot with me? And I’m not even a World Languages teacher!

But: a few days I had the opportunity to visit my old high school, Franklin Pierce (home of the Cardinals) in Tacoma. And at lunch one of my former colleagues told me, “You have to see something.”

Her next period was free, so she took me to the room of the teacher next door. There I witnessed a minor miracle. I’m going to get all teachery here for a sec and focus on OBSERVABLE BEHAVIOR, as though I were an evaluator.

  • Every single student had his/her assignment in his/her hands without being prompted: a hand-drawn map of a typical Mexican town, showing names of buildings, i.e. Correo (P.O.) and Panaderia (bakery).
  • All students sat in a giant circle of chairs without desks. As soon as “el Profe” directed, each student turned to the one sitting adjacent and took turns conversing on the assigned topic: “Tell your partner the name of your town, and the size of its population.” “Tell your partner which building in your town is the most important, and why.”
  • From the moment the bell rang, I heard not a word of English.

Did I mention that this was a first-year Spanish class in a mid-sized public school with a free-and-reduced lunch student population of over 50%? And that this was not an Honors class? If you are not, like me, amazed not to have seen a single student try to worm his/her way out of this assignment, or drag his/her feet, or otherwise try to hijack the teacher’s attention onto anything but learning Spanish, well…let’s just say you haven’t been hanging around schools or teenagers as much as I have.

These kids were not only learning, they were having fun. They were proud of themselves. (I heard one kid, dressed in classic slacker mode, describe how in his¬†town, “Robertlandia,” the most important building was the statue of himself in the center of the Plaza. But he said it all in Spanish!)

Turns out this miracle has a very real source: The Organic World Languages program, or OWL. Their website says,¬†We believe in movement, 100% immersion and an emphasis on the importance of creating community in the classroom.¬†This was very evident, as we all moved and switched partners twice during the 20 minutes I was there. (Of course El Profe didn’t let his visitors sit quietly on the sidelines–we got to participate! Turns out I can speak enough Spanish to converse with first-years, but only just.) So, we spoke. We laughed. And we learned.

If only I could go back to high school and start over!

Want to see what I mean? Here’s a short video from OWL that explains its history, emphasizes its effect on test scores, and shows its work in action:

So, I’d like to hear about your own experience with learning another language. Did you? Was it because of, or more despite, your school experience? (If you were raised bilingually, I’m totally jealous, but go ahead and brag.)

Back in the Classroom Again, Minus the Essays–What’s Not to Like?

It’s been nearly four years. At any hour between 7:45 and 2:15¬†I can still tell you exactly what period it is at my old high school, Franklin Pierce, Home of the Cardinals. This week is AP testing (as was last, which was also state testing for all ages in Washington). My former colleagues, and the younger siblings and–yikes!–high school-age children of my long-ago former students, are stressed to the max.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, everyone. I no longer include myself in that comment.

Except when I do.

Next week, as part of my promotion of my new YA novel, The Flying Burgowski, I am meeting with several 9th grade English classes at Anacortes High School. Anacortes is the closest mainland town to our little island, its high school many times the size of ours. I may get to spend my day¬†with over 100 kids–just like I used to, day after day. Just like most high school and middle school teachers do.


I am PUMPED. Yes, I’m going to read a chapter, just as I will have done the night before at Village Books in Bellingham, but the high school event won’t just be another boring author reading/Q & A/book signing. (Note to self: don’t ever sound jaded about such an extraordinary privilege.) Nope–I’m still a teacher, turns out, and I’m going to engage the heck out of those kids. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that butcher paper, markers, shiny stickers, and movement around the classroom are involved.

But no essays to grade! I feel like the grandma, picking the kids up for a fun day at the zoo, then dropping ’em back off with their exhausted parents. (Okay, OKAY, I know an author coming to one’s class does not exactly = a day at the zoo. Well, maybe one of those tiny, small-town zoos with, like, a bunch of pygmy goats and one sad wallaby.)

Yes, I can hear a question begging. “Gretchen, if you love teaching so much, and there’s a school on your island, why not…? You know. At least you could be a sub!”

Here, in sped-up form, is the scenario I envision should I step back through those doors with lesson plans and tea mug in hand: 

  1.  I start subbing.
  2. Since subs are so few, I sub every single day.
  3. Pretty soon, this test is posed:

A) A full-time position opens.

B) Some students and/or parents, who have become my fans, start begging me to apply.

C) Looking at the plans of the teacher(s) I’m called to sub for, I start believing I could do it better.

D) All of the above.

4. Result: there goes my new career as a writer/baker/singer-songwriter. I know myself, and the teaching profession, too well. It is WAY MORE THAN A FULL-TIME JOB. If I want to be true to my commitment to my own creativity now, I have to keep my distance.

But next week, I’m still gonna enjoy the heck out of my day at school.


In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week (a week late, but when is appreciation ever misplaced?), would you guys please chime in with some teacher-stories of your own? Or thoughts about what REAL teacher appreciation might look like?


Going to the Dark Side: Why I Miss Working With–gasp!–Teenagers

“Wow, you’re brave.”

That’s the most common reaction I used to hear when I told strangers that I taught high school.

I knew the images they were reacting to: sensationalized news bits about school shootings or violently defiant juvies. Welcome Back Kotter sweathogs. Or maybe just the mouthiness or sullenness or SOMETHING-ness of their own kids at home.

“I could never deal with that.”

My standard response, laughing: “Oh, the kids are fine. It’s the parents that you should be scared of.”

Kidding–sort of.

It has been three years and ten months since I left the other Wing’s World, my classroom in Tacoma (Room 1603), and I. Miss. Kids.

Has rosy nostalgia clouded up my memory, blotting out all the frustrations with ____, who was obviously brilliant but only ever turned in one piece of writing (about ComiCon, which his mom pulled him out of school for a week to attend)? Or ____, the cheerleader who helped me understand the finer points of what it means to be a Mean Girl? (The secret is in the curl of the lips when saying apparently sweet things.) Or ___, who was such an uncontrollable chatterbox I made him sit at MY desk just to get him far enough away from any potential gossip-mate? (He tried texting.)

(Oh, and don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten their names. I not only remember those, I remember where they sat in my room, and what their handwriting looked like.)

So…is nostalgia distorting my memories of my old career? Of course! Isn’t that nostalgia’s job? Who would do anything hard if the positive memories afterward didn’t outweigh the pain? (Tempted to use the childbirth parallel here…)

I’m riding that wave of nostalgia for real this week, because I GET TO WORK WITH TEENS AGAIN! Well, “work” is an overstatement. And only for a few days.

Next week is the official Launch Party for my YA novel, The Flying Burgowski. And since it’s a book about teenagers, I figured, why not spice up the Author Reading with…teenagers? So I invited four of Lopez Island’s finest young actors (whose work I’ve seen in our Community Shakespeare performances–but that’s another post) to join me in a dramatic reading. We got together twice last week for a read-through. I’m still a little giddy. Call it a contact high from all that open-endedness that teens emanate.

It’s not “energy.” Most normal teenagers, before noon, have less energy than your average banana slug. What draws me to that age group is their sense of possibility. They are walking intersections–the kind with a gazillion roads crossing over each other, some with turns so sharp they appear to be going the opposite way from what the sign indicates. Sullenness might be quiet superiority. Cheeriness might be fear. Inappropriateness might be hope. (Of course it could also just be inappropriateness. Teens are teens!)

(orig. image courtesy

(orig. image courtesy

You may, at this point, be wanting to ask the obvious question: Gretchen, if you like teens so much, and there’s a high school on your island, why don’t you go teach there? Or at least sub? Or tutor?

It’s a damn good question, although one my husband hates to hear. (He once famously told me, “I’d be more excited to see you without essays than without clothes!”)¬†

My answer is: When we moved here, I promised myself writing time, which does NOT fit with a full-time teaching job. (Believe me, I tried it.) As for subbing or tutoring: I know myself too well. I am #1, really bad at being peripheral–I like to be in the middle of things, if not running them. And #2, I’m horribly susceptible to being needed. So if any kid came to me saying, “I HATE history–Mr. So-and-so is BORING! Why don’t YOU be our teacher?” Ohhh…I’d be toast.

So I’ll make do with four kids reading aloud the various parts from Chapter Five of my novel. But inside, I’ll be soaking up those possibilities.

What do you think of my teenager metaphor? Do you have one of your own? (I mean metaphors, not teens–but you can share about that too.)

Oh, Life Crossroads, Why Are You Such a Terrifying Blessing?

Does this look familiar?

(orig. image courtesy

(orig. image courtesy

Been there. More than a few times. You?

Having just spent a Thanksgiving holiday with Son #1, aged 23 and working in his first full-time, post-college job, while Son #2, aged 21, spent the same holiday 3,000 miles away with cousins since he’s studying on the east coast this semester...let’s just say I’ve been thinking a good deal about those delightful life crossroads.

Son #1 is happy. Loves his job. But people are already asking him, “What’s next? Gonna stick with that? Thinking about grad school? What do you want to BE when you grow up?”

Son #2 has it worse. About to graduate in spring of next year, he’ll soon face that dreaded question, “So…?” (I’ll let you fill in the blanks.)

Thing is, even though I’m the same age as a pack of cards (without the jokers, thank you very much), I can totally relate to the whole transition thing. Walking away from my teaching job was the most terrifying and exhilarating thing I’ve ever done.

It wasn’t even because of finances. I’m lucky enough to be married to someone with a superb retirement plan, so we knew we could afford for me to take a huge, ginormous pay cut. It was the IDENTITY.

If I’m not a teacher anymore…what AM I?

Watching my kids begin that first, gradual accumulation of job-related identity, I wonder: which is the greater blessing: to be able to define ourselves through our work, or to be able to shake off those identities and see what’s underneath?

I sure know which one is scarier. But I think, given what we find beneath those layers accrued from years of work, it may also be the greater blessing, in the end.

What do you think? How many major job changes have you been through? Do you think the rewards are worth the terror? Let me hear!

Teach Your Children Well…and Others’ Children Too

Teach your children well

Test them like hell

Till the last bell sounds to free you

Learn ten dozen names 

And coach their games

Trying to sustain what it means to be you…

That’s the chorus to my latest song (with an ironic-but-grateful nod to CSN), a gift to my former fellow teachers heading back into the classrooms this week.

Or last week. Or last month. I had a former neighbor call me a week ago from Phoenix for homework help for her seventh-grade daughter. (My neighbor escaped communist Czechoslovakia in her teens and wasn’t feeling too confident about responding to an American teacher’s demands for a perfect Thesis Statement.) When I told the girl, “Wow, an essay in your first week back?” she informed me she’d been in school for a MONTH already.

So, kudos, y’all, students & teachers & exhausted parents alike. Rah! Go get ’em. Another school year begins.

Can you tell I’m feeling just a wee bit guilty nostalgic?

I’ve heard it said there’s no such thing as an ex-addict. I’m pretty sure this applies to teachers as well. It’s a permanent condition. Our teacherly hormones are hard-wired to the rhythms of the school calendar. November, January, May, we feel the thickness of the universe closing in–phantoms of past grading periods. Summers, we relax. And around Labor Day, our pulse quickens once more.

I don’t have any slick photos or videos to snazz this post up with. (Well, I have tons of photos of past students, but I’m not about to violate their privacy like that.) Instead, I thought I’d toss out a few vignettes from 20 years in the classroom, each a little “window” into that world that most adults leave behind at age 18, except for the occasional parent conference and graduation ceremony.

Me: How was your Thanksgiving, Grant?*   (*all names changed to protect identities)

Grant (an 11th grader): Awesome! We went to Canada to see my grandpa.

Me: Canada, wow. What part of Canada?

Grant: This place called Lopez Island.

Me: Umm…Grant, that’s not in Canada. I was on Lopez Island too. It’s in the U.S.

Grant: Really? But we watched Canadian television…


Miranda (a 10th grader): Oh my GOD, what is THAT??? 

Me: What, the thing in the cage?

Miranda: What IS it? It just moved!

Me: Miranda, that’s my chinchilla, Chiquita. She’s been there all year. Since the start of school.

Miranda. Whoa. I never noticed her before. (Note: this conversation took place in APRIL.)


Me: (after repeated, increasingly impatient requests for student to stop talking to his seatmate) John, shut UP. (yes, those never-to-be-spoken words did cross my lips)

John (12th grader repeating 10th grade English for 3rd time): YOU shut up.

John & I, out in the hallway, then had one of the most honest and sincere conversations about the importance of mutual respect that I’ve ever shared. I don’t remember the details, but you don’t need to hear them to know that sometimes gifts can come wrapped in the unlikeliest packaging.


These are the funny ones. Some vignettes are more poignant:

The Korean exchange student giving her oral report on How to Make Delicious Kimchee, followed immediately by the sixteen year-old American on What It Was Like To Have My Baby (now a two year-old).


“Steve” explaining his one-day-on, two-days-off pattern of attendance: “When my mom’s drunk, I have to watch my baby sister.”


“Brandon:” Why do I have to learn to write a f—ing essay? No offense, Ms. Wing. I just want to work on cars with my dad.

Me: I don’t know, Brandon. Sounds like a pretty good life to me.


I could go on, but right now I’m too busy getting lost in memories too layered or fleeting to share. I loved almost everything about teaching: the kids, the material, the rhythm of the year, the creative autonomy, the occasional treats in the staff room. I did NOT love faculty meetings, not being able to reach parents by phone, and grading essays on weekends. (My husband once told me, “I’d be more excited to see you without essays than without clothes.” Of course I put that line into my song.)

I walked away from teaching well before retirement age, because the timing was right for my husband and me. I’m avoiding the local school here, knowing that even occasional subbing would suck me right back into that happy/heartbreaking/exhausting/rewarding vortex when I am trying to stick to my new career as writer/baker.

But in September…I hear those sharpening pencils, and my heart beats a little faster.

What does back-to-school mean to you? Freedom, doubt, hope, dread? What memories does it conjure up for you? Let me hear!