Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Teachers. Colleagues. Siblings.

Once upon a time, in 2009, I started my first year of teaching in a little western North Dakota town. Shortly after, my younger brother Tommy decided he was going to be a teacher too. A few years later, our last brother Joey also declared that he was going to become a teacher.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if we all taught together at the same school?” one of us joked.

Fast forward to 2016: Tommy and I both accepted positions at the same school last year, which was pretty awesome and which I wrote about at the time. Then, this year, I held my breath as Joey graduated from college and looked around for jobs, because there happened to be one open here. I hoped he would apply, and he did. Then, I held my breath hoping that he would get offered the job. He did. Then, I kept my fingers crossed that he would accept.

After considering whether he really wanted to become an adult yet, he did.

Granted, Joey is in a different building in our district than Tommy and myself, which put a slight damper on the whole thing, but when I showed up at the first day of back-to-school district workshops and had two brothers there in the same room, I thought that was pretty neat.

Who would have thought that the joke someone made years ago would come true?

The three of us were quite a trio growing up. I, the older sister, took on the role of second mother to them, which included anything from changing diapers, getting them dressed, and making Malt-O-Meal, to downright bossing them around. Danny, the brother right behind me, flitted in and out of our tight-knit circle of three, but he was close to my age and he didn’t need a second mother. He was more often with our two older brothers, playing army guys and video games and sports. Tommy and Joey, though, were young enough to actually enjoy my interfering in their lives. They were game for all the pretending I came up with; they made forts with me, they pretended to be puppies or kitties or whatever I could get them enthused about that day – at Christmas, it was reindeer- and they played along with my invented games on the trampoline.

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I take the blame for all of the dressing up they were “forced” to do, by the way.

As we all grew older, I drove them to baseball games and art lessons and the swimming pool. We worked together, hoeing trees and moving grain trucks and picking up groceries for my mom from the big towns. When my dad went on an endless number of road trips to meetings and auctions, we often tagged along – my little brothers, as a way for my dad to give my mom a break, and me, as a way for my dad to ensure that my little brothers would actually be watched over on these trips. I was officially their chauffeur, their 4-H leader, often their cook when my mom was busy, and their supervisor. Someone had to make sure they were earning their keep around the house, darn it.

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In 2016, things are different. They’re not the “little” boys anymore. We are now not only siblings, but colleagues. Co-workers. Friends – which, then again, is still the same as it’s always been. Having two brothers in the district is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, one that we can look back on fondly and tell our kids about someday. And that’s not the whole of it: our brother Danny has been a basketball coach in the district for several years. Last year, he and Tommy coached together, and they actually look so much alike that some of their own players couldn’t even distinguish them from each other. Furthermore, Tommy’s wife Olivia works in one of the school libraries. That’s right: Five of us with the same last name have worked in this small district in recent years.

And yet, they keep hiring us….

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But seriously, how great is that?

Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Waiting on Baby

I’ve written before about the crazy life we’ve built since getting married 14 months ago — and we certainly aren’t slowing down anytime soon with Baby #1 on the way. We found out a few weeks ago that it is a boy, which makes perfect sense in my family. I grew up with 5 brothers and numerous male cousins, and learning that the newest member of my family will be a boy too, well, came as no surprise to me.

Plus in our own little family, considering our dogs Lucy and Scout are both girls, now my husband will be slightly less outnumbered.

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So here we are, waiting for Baby with another four months to go. These are exciting times in our little home on our farmstead — but they are nervewracking too. Worries overwhelm me sometimes: Will I be a good mother? Will I even know how to be a mother? Will our home be a good place to raise a baby? Where is all this baby stuff even going to fit? Our little house already seems packed to the brim! Will I ever sleep again? Everyone tells me no, I will not. And I REALLY like to sleep.

Teaching while pregnant adds a whole new level of interesting. My feet and my back have never hurt so badly — and I’ve got four months to go yet.  At least the emotional turmoil of the first trimester has stabilized; it was pretty rough and I think my students knew something was weird. Sometimes though, even still, I get home and I’m so exhausted from dealing with other humans all day that all I want to do is curl up and stare at the wall. My poor husband, who spends much of the day working in solitude, just wants to have a conversation with someone. He’s very patient, thank goodness!

Then, of course, there is the fact that high school students have no filters:

“Mrs. M, you are HUGE already. You’re only half done?!” (I don’t think some of these kids have ever seen a pregnant woman.)

“Mrs. M, you look like you’re going to pop! Is your baby due soon?” (Um… no. It’s going to get a lot worse, kid.)

“Mrs. M, can you feel your baby kick? Will you let me feel next time he kicks?” (Um… double no. I like my personal space!)

“Mrs. M, can I babysit your kid?” (Well, if you didn’t lose every assignment I give you, I might be less worried about you losing my kid.)

“Mrs. M, you better name your baby after me.” “No, me!” “No, me! I’m your favorite!” “How about Hank?” “At least give him a middle name after me!”

“Mrs. M, you are so cute when you are fat!”

Sigh. And, once again, I’ve got four months to go….

But all of this is okay, because so far Baby is healthy, and deep down I do know that this, our farm, will be a great place to raise him. I can’t wait to buy him a pony when he gets a little older and teach him about country life and working hard and that nothing is owed to anyone for free. I can’t wait to give him some of the life I had growing up, full of family and love and siblings and pets and adventures.

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My husband can’t wait to teach him about music, hunting, and carpentry, and all that other guy stuff. My dad can’t wait to take him out on the tractor. My mom can’t wait to retire from her job and spend more time visiting her grandkids, including this one. The baby’s aunties and uncles and cousins will welcome him with open arms, and my grandma is busy these days making a blue baby quilt, like the pink one I still have today.

And you know, despite all the worries and backaches that come along with waiting for Baby, I think we’ll do alright.

North Dakota Living, Teaching, Travel & Adventure

North Dakotans in Mexico

I write this blog post from the deck of our suite overlooking the Caribbean sea. The sun is just coming up, the waves are crashing on the beach, and the palm trees are swaying. Although it is our last morning here, these are the sounds that have helped settle me and all my anxieties over the last few days.

A few months back, I made the declaration that if I’m going to be pregnant all winter and stuck indoors in our little house on the farm, I at least want to sit in the sun for a few days over winter break. So, I started researching resorts in Mexico, we booked a four-night stay and airline tickets, and here we are. I typically choose adventurous travel where we walk all day and learn new things and experience other cultures, but this is pretty nice, if I do say so myself.

I was frazzled the day we got here. Teaching is a stressful job, and we just wrapped up the first semester at my high school the day before we left. Teaching is also one of the best jobs, no doubt, but on a daily basis, I am needed by 140-something students, and they all need different things: some, reassurance; others, attention (and they will get it in whatever means necessary); others just need a little help with their grammar and writing skills; most of them need understanding — and some just need help passing the class and earning the credit. And that’s just the students. As a teacher, you are also needed by parents, committees, principals, and each other. It’s a demanding job, and while I love it, it’s also exhausting at times, especially at the end of a semester. I finished all my grading by Friday at 4, jumped into my husband’s pickup to head to Bismarck, and by 5 a.m. on Saturday we were on a plane headed south. I still felt a bit shellshocked, and it took a day or two for me to stop thinking about all my students and a couple nights for me to stop having dreams about school (Really! That happens.) But as I lay on the beach a couple days ago, I couldn’t help but think that the sound of the waves really are mesmerizing, that the sun and salty breeze really did feel amazing on my face — and what was I so stressed out about back home, again?

(In May or June, it usually takes us teachers about a week to recover from the shell shock, so this wasn’t too bad.)

We also took a tropical trip last year for our honeymoon, but being pregnant sure lends a different feel to things. First of all, instead of packing a lot of cute outfits to go out in at night, I realized very quickly as I was packing that most (ok, all) of my maternity clothes have been purchased in late fall and early winter — basically a lot of sweaters — and I was limited to grabbing whatever summer clothes didn’t look obscene on me. It turned out to be a very small pile. Also, I usually bring a few suits and cover-ups, but I invested in exactly one maternity swimsuit and found exactly one cover-up that still fit. I haven’t worn a tankini in years, but why start out this baby’s life by sunburning it, right? I mean, it’s going to be almost half Norwegian. We don’t mess around with sunburns.

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This lack of clothing options really made packing a lot simpler.

Needless to say, we haven’t been going out much at night, anyway, but luckily my husband is pretty easygoing and likes bingeing on Netflix just as much as I do. (That is, he watches Netflix while I fall asleep at 8 every evening.) The last noticeable pregnancy change is my appetite: I usually love seafood, but now the sight and smell of it makes me sick. And here we are right next to the ocean, fresh seafood galore!

We’re having a great time, despite those weird little things. Although I’m not exactly getting a cultural experience on this trip (we’re not seeing much of Mexico itself as we haven’t even left the resort once since getting here), we have met a lot of new people, thanks in no small part to my outgoing husband. I can be pretty reserved at times, so I enjoy watching these interactions. On the plane down here, he offered everyone around us “North Dakota deer jerky.” I was thinking, Oh my gosh, we can’t offer food to strangers, they’re going to think we’re trying to poison them. Boy was I wrong! He had several people around us munching on jerky and declaring how good it was. Pretty soon we knew all our neighbors on the plane. He also knows some pretty decent Spanish after taking four years of it in high school (I took three years, yet remember literally two phrases) and has been practicing it on all the locals. They love it. “Tu Español es muy bueno!” they all exclaim to him. He’s made friends from South Dakota, Chicago, Texas, and Arkansas, and was chagrined when the only other people we met from North Dakota weren’t friendly at all. “They’re giving us a bad impression!” he whispered to me. He’s been our own North Dakota one-man ambassador squad down here.

And he takes good care of me. When I woke up one morning with a sore back, he called the spa immediately despite my protests which he thoroughly ignored. “My wife needs a pregnancy massage,” he said, and it was booked just like that. It was amazing, by the way. I never wanted it to end.

I am a lucky girl in more ways than one. I live in the best place in the world, but I get to travel, too, and all with a good man at my side.

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Nothing like a little rejuvenation of spirits at the ocean! I think I’m ready to come home now.

Teaching

Don’t Forget the Trees

Sometimes, I get so busy in the throes of teaching — handing out papers, collecting assignments, turning on projectors and turning off lights, picking up gum off the floor, repeating what page we are on, helping students remember passwords and telling them for the 17th time what size font to use in MLA style, and ordering them to get out writing utensils, to sit down, to stop poking their neighbors — that I miss out on my very favorite part of teaching: Getting to know the students not as students, but as actual human beings. Humans with stories and lives and experiences and dreams that, unless I do some digging, I might know nothing about.

It’s as if the metaphorical thick and tangled forest of teaching is so dense that sometimes, despite my best efforts, I just can’t see the trees. But those trees are what I’m here for, and every once in a while I get a precious few minutes to focus on one “tree” at a time.

So I get a little break from teaching last week when the senior class is on a class outing for the morning. To my surprise, one lone student shows up to second period senior English. I inquire why she isn’t with her classmates, she gives me a reasonable answer, and we spend the rest of the period working on our various projects in comfortable silence, broken here and there by amiable conversation. I had liked this girl from the first day of school, but she is in a large class of almost 30 seniors and the truth is, I just haven’t had the chance to talk to her much one-on-one. This particular student is one of our oil field transplants, here from Louisiana. I’ve never been to Louisiana, I tell her, but I would like to visit someday. She tells me I should visit New Orleans, but not during Mardi Gras, and Baton Rouge is nice anytime of year. She loves to read; so do I, and the hour passes quickly as we talk about books and music and her other classes.

Sometime during this conversation, I ask about her family. She moved here a little over a year ago with her older brother and his wife. In a matter-of-fact manner, she tells me that both her parents died of cancer — her mom when she was 7, and her dad when she was 11. As she tells me this, her sweet but straightforward voice is broken by  the tiniest trace of sadness.

I am ashamed in this moment, and sad. Sadder than I expect to be. In fact, I need to excuse myself for a few minutes (to the copy machine, because where else does a teacher get a minute to herself?) as I feel tears welling up in my eyes. How have I had this student in my class for almost two months and not known the heartbreak of this young girl’s life? She has experienced more heartbreak than I have, and more heartbreak than any young girl on the brink of womanhood should have to.

Should I blame it on the fact that I have almost 150 students this year, and really, how would I have known this? Six groups of 20 to 30 students rotate through my room every day, 50 minutes at a time. We have 50 minutes to get settled, open books, take notes, cover sentence structure or the Anglo-Saxons or the life of Edgar Allen Poe; to get ready for standards and standardized tests and ACTs and college and careers; to do an assignment, put away books, clean up, and move on to the next 50 minutes. The few rowdy students in each class demand more than their fair share of my attention, and sweet girls like little Louisiana, while I’m so grateful to have them in my classes, sometimes get less. Furthermore, a big classroom full of one’s sometimes judgmental teenage peers is not always the greatest place to share real thoughts, troubles, anxieties, past experiences, and dreams for the future. At least not out loud. Sometimes I get a glimpse of it in my students’ writing.

But it doesn’t matter. I can’t let the craziness of teaching make me forget why I’m here in the first place.

She lives with her brother and his wife, she says, because it is a better option than living with her other brother and his wife, and besides them, there is no one else, nowhere else for her to go. When they moved to North Dakota for her brother’s work last year, she moved too. When they move back to Louisiana this November, she will move too to finish her senior year.

I’m going to miss her when she leaves. I will think about her and wonder how my little student from Louisiana is doing. Where will her life take her? I will most likely never know. I hope with all my being that she succeeds wherever she ends up. And I hope, secretly, that she remembers that senior English teacher she had once when she lived in North Dakota.

I am grateful for the reminder she gave me, yet again, that no matter how thick and tangled and dense that forest of teaching gets, no matter how overwhelmed I feel during the daily grind or how much I feel some days that I am getting absolutely nowhere, that I can’t afford NOT to see the trees.

The trees are why I’m here.

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North Dakota Living, Teaching

Famous in a Small Town

I’ve written a bit about how happy I am to be back on the farm. There’s another thing I’m happy about, too: Teaching high school in a “small” town again. (Not that Watford is really that small anymore, at least compared to how it once was.)

There’s something about belonging to a high school in a smaller town that really lends itself to a close-knit community feel. I missed this the last two years while I was off adventuring in Asia and in Bismarck. When you teach in a small town, you get to know the kids. You know their families. You know all of the other staff members on a personal basis, the good and the bad.

You even, as a teacher, have a certain amount of fame when you teach in a small town. Perhaps the better word is, you are watched. I am sure I could count on one hand the number of times I have been to the local grocery store without running into a student. Often, when I run into students out in public, they say hello. Sometimes they are so weirded out to see me in public that they act all embarrassed, don’t say a word, and then the next day proclaim in class, “I saw you at the grocery store yesterday!” (Students often feel braver in groups, in case you didn’t know.)

Sometimes, I think it it hard for them to believe that we sometimes exist outside the school walls. Students will say things like, “I saw you at the mall last night and it was WEIRD.” Or, “I saw you running. You can run?” Or, “Why did I see you at the restaurant with Mrs. S.? Are you guys friends? That’s weird.” You see the trend here.

Or, they might be very interested with whatever it is that we do outside of those school walls when we are actually acting human — things like what we do in our free time or even what we eat for dinner. One evening, I went shopping at the local Supervalu and purchased some items, along with the necessary ingredients for tacos. The next day in class, a freshman student asked, “How were your tacos last night?”

A bit surprised, I replied, “They were good! I don’t remember seeing you at the grocery store… How did you know I had tacos?”

“Oh,” he said. “My mom saw you, and she told me that she saw you at the grocery store, and that you were buying taco stuff. So then I knew you were eating tacos.”

See what I mean? They’re always. watching. you.

Actually though, I love it. I love belonging to a smaller community. I like that my students work at the grocery store, the gas station, the only Subway in town, and the hardware store. I like that they ask me to come to games and notice when I do and when I don’t. I like those North Dakota Class B sports events where the entire town shows up to cheer on their boys or their girls. I like that by the time every student graduates here, they will have had me in English class at least once or twice.

There’s a lot of things to like, teaching where I do. One more thing I like, is that I’m teaching with my brother Tommy this year. He joined the staff at the same time that I decided to make my way back.

Here we are, being famous in the local newspaper:

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I kid. We’re not really famous… yet. But really, it’s great being back in this small town.

Musings, Teaching

Trading It In

One day in late May every spring, a teacher puts away the whiteboard markers, stacks the textbooks on the shelf, takes one last look at the empty desks, and locks the classroom door behind her.

She is trading in her teacher hat for three short months, trading it in for another hat: a second-job hat, a student hat at the local college because she needs more education credits, maybe a more-time-to-be-mom hat, or even, if she is lucky, a much-deserved relaxing hat.

She is trading in her chalk for gardening tools.

She is trading in her red grading pen for a Canon camera and her gradebooks for a passport.

She is trading in her high heels for a pair of hiking sandals and her book bag for a hiking pack.

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She is trading in her parking space at school for a boat dock.

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She is trading in school lunch chicken nuggets in the cafeteria for fresh-cut strawberries on the porch.

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She is trading in hours spent teaching other people’s children the ins and outs of grammar, literature, and respecting others, and instead, she spends those hours teaching her nephew how to ride a horse.

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She is a little sad. She is sad to say goodbye to those students, knowing she will not teach most of them again and will maybe never see some of them again. They will move on to other paths, other states, other teachers, other desks in other classrooms. She hopes she has done her job well, hopes they have learned how to write a little better and think a little more, how to treat each other nicer and see the world as a big, wide playground, a place waiting just for them.

But she is also happy.

She is happy to say that she has put her heart and soul into her students this year, even if they don’t know it. She is happy that one student found a love for reading this year, and another student figured out he is good at poetry. And she is happy that she can forget, for just a short time, about PD and PLCs and IEPs and remember, instead, how wonderful it is to sit on the porch in the sun in the middle of the day.

In what seems like a blink of an eye, she will be back in the classroom, handing out textbooks, digging out whiteboard markers, and hanging up bulletin boards.

But for now, she is taking her teacher hat and trading it in.

Musings, Teaching

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Repeat after me: “We do not have hurricanes. We do not have hurricanes. We do not have hurricanes.”

I saw that little quip online this morning and I thought it was funny. Blizzard conditions are currently raging outside. It is the middle of April. There has to be a positive, even if it’s acknowledging that hey, at least in the Great Plains we don’t get hurricanes, too. I’ve mentioned before that I love winter, and I do, but that’s when it stays inside the confines of winter. We are almost a month into spring with only a few warm teasing days, and I think I speak for everyone when I say a little break would be nice. The kids are getting antsy at school. The farmers are getting antsy for spring’s work. Even the tractors look antsy. Outside my window, our big red is sitting in the snow, ready for seeding. But he’s not going anywhere. Just like me.

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Until winter decides she is ready to release us, we wait. And keep repeating, “We do not have hurricanes.”

Meanwhile, I thought I would occupy my time indoors by reading through some of my most recent freshmen essays, and I thought I might share with you some of the wisdom out of the mouths of babes. In this essay, I asked my students to address a problem in our school or community and propose a possible solution, using both their own wisdom and outside sources. While they are not exactly “babes,” freshmen in high school are fairly new to exploring and writing their ideas clearly and logically. It can be a real struggle, let me tell you. Why shouldn’t they be able to demand that school is canceled forever for all students? Why shouldn’t they be able to ask for a Six Flags amusement park in their small town in western North Dakota?

We spent some time in class discussing feasible topics. Once we eliminated the topics that were a little too unrealistic, many of my students really embraced the project with alacrity. Whether they care to admit it, they are concerned about their community. In reading through the essays, I discovered that young teenagers can be remarkably perceptive in understanding the real issues surrounding them. They addressed everything from the dangers of our roads to the need for more emergency personnel in the oil field, and less serious topics such as adding more restaurants or community activities in our small boomtown to improve the overall quality of life. Some of their arguments:

  • “[Our community] should hire a full-time fire department because our local firemen are overworked. Our fire department is run on a volunteer basis, which means in addition to all the hours these men are on call, they also have to maintain full-time jobs.”
  • “If major highways like 85 and 23 were four lanes, there would be less congestion, which would make people feel less likely to pass.”
  • “I want our high school to start a recycling program.”
  • “If we built a new Civic Center, it would be a great place for kids to hang out… Right now, our town has few places for us kids to get together, so more kids are getting into trouble.” 
  • “Having a bowling alley in Watford City could involve all ages in the community. Having leagues would allow kids and adults to compete and have fun at the same time.”
  • “Fixing and repaving the roads will be very beneficial… Drivers will have less of a chance of hitting an obstruction, such as a pothole, and going into the ditch or other lane.”
  • “Having more restaurants with different types of food would make it easier on our travelers and truckers.”

They had some decent ideas, actually. The state of North Dakota is scrambling to keep up with the massive demand of an increased population: housing shortage, services shortage, and higher rate of crimes and traffic accidents, among other things, and it’s obviously not an easy job. However, the fact that my students were able to identify some of the serious and the less serious problems in their community and propose meaningful solutions made my chest puff up a little with, well, pride. 

But lest you go around amazed at my teaching skills and ability to coax well-written essays out of previously clueless students, something like the English teacher in the film Freedom Writers, let me share that it’s not quite like that. Not all of my students are so, well, eloquent. Here are some from the other side, some that help keep me humble as a writing instructor, so my head — and my ideals — don’t get too big.

Sigh.

  • “It would benefit our community by having the speed limit set to 65 instead of 45 close to town and will help the people on the bus so we can GET HOME FASTER.” 
  • “When the roads are in bad condition, a lot of people complain about it but don’t do anything. When people get blamed, a lot of fighting starts to happen. So better roads would reduce the number of fist fights.”
  • “I think it’s horrible the smokers got our open lunch hour taken away. We are all teenagers and we like our freedoms. If we can make a deal with the school board, we will!!!”
  • “If you wear something that isn’t dress code you get in trouble. Kids don’t like to get in trouble. It makes them sad and agitated. In conclusion, dress code makes children unhappy. It brings unhappiness to the world and needs to be stopped.”

And my personal favorite: This student had found a hair in his food at lunch one day, so he based his entire essay around this apparently traumatizing event:

  • “If a lot of hair is in your food it could make you constipated. If you get constipated, you will have to go to the doctor for medicine and the bill can be more than some people can afford. [Also] I puke after I find hair in my food, so you know that hair can’t be good for you. If the food tasted better, we would probably eat more and the school wouldn’t have to buy as many garbage bags. With the money that we saved from the garbage bags, we could buy even more hair nets.” 

Dramatic? I would say so. Although I had a hard time appreciating the logic of the arguments in this essay, I admit finding that unknown hair is never fun. (In this particular case, I suspect some of the student’s friends as the hair culprits.)

I do enjoy my students and their various colorful ideas, even the not-so-eloquent ones. In my classroom, we’ve had many discussions over issues like these, inside our small community and across the state and even the country. Students keep our jobs as teachers interesting, and as long as we stop to hear what they have to say, we may be surprised, even pleasantly surprised. Try it sometime. Listen to a kid. Heck, listen to another adult. In our crazy piece of land called the oil patch, it’s worth hearing some of the stories that people have to tell, some of the places that people are coming from.

This April storm outside my window, however, is not much of a pleasant surprise.

We do not have hurricanes…