Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Snow Day with Capital Letters

A Snow Day. I cannot believe it. I’m so in awe, that I’m honoring the Snow Day by capitalizing it. (That is how an English teacher uses the tricks of the language to show appreciation. Or proves herself to be a giant dork.)

Our frosty farm, location of my Snow Day
Our frosty farm, location of my Snow Day

This morning when I saw the voicemail on my phone from the familiar 444 school-alert number, my heart skipped a beat. But for all the times the voicemail notifications from the 444 number have appeared before 7 a.m., my hopes for a Snow Day never come true. So I listened to the voicemail eagerly, hoping at least for a late start that would allow me to sit and drink coffee at my kitchen table, a nonexistent treat during the work week.

It was even better than I had hoped: a real live Snow Day! I know that we will have to make it up sooner or later, probably at the end of the school year, but whatever. For now, it feels glorious. It’s like a present when it’s not even your birthday. It’s like a second Christmas. It’s like receiving a package in a snow-covered mailbox.

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It’s like a warm summer morni– No. Too far.

I will say that Snow Days as an adult are a little different than they were growing up. Snows Days now come a little less freely, a little more burdened with grown-up responsibilities. I am not complaining, mind you. It’s just that now, Snow Days are a chance to catch up on chores and duties (yuck) that otherwise I wouldn’t have time to do. So, this morning after listening to the voicemail, I thought about basking in Snow-Day-ness by lying in my bed for another couple hours, then drinking coffee at my kitchen table for another couple hours, then immersing myself in my guilty pleasure, Pinterest, for another couple hours, then perhaps painting my nails a bright coral, and then… Well you get the picture. But an image popped into my mind: a stack of 16 research papers at school, sitting untouched, the only 16 remaining ungraded papers of the 60-some I collected a week ago. And a whole day of free time to work on them. Yuck again. But the image wouldn’t go away. So recklessly, I bundled up, went out into the snow to feed my dogs, and started my sturdy little Ford Escape to make the 13-mile trip to town to collect my grown-up responsibility.

No blizzard can keep an English teacher away from her true love, a stack of research papers.

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Actually, that is not true. Grading research papers is not enjoyable. Of all my English teaching duties, it is my least favorite. But it’s also a duty I feel compelled to do, so every winter I spend a unit teaching freshmen the ins and outs of navigating the library and using MLA style and citing sources properly. It’s usually quite a mess, but if my students even come out of the unit with a somewhat-readable paper and an understanding of the word “plagiarism,” I feel I’ve accomplished something.

This morning, my motivation for driving to town in a blizzard was not so much for my students’ greater development in the world of research; but selfishly, the thought of getting the weight of the remaining ungraded research papers off my mind was just too irresistible to ignore. So to town I went. It really wasn’t that bad despite the hours of freezing rain we got overnight followed by hours of blustery snow this morning. I had to go 25 to 30 mph, but there were few vehicles on the road and even fewer trucks, a major relief. Of course, there is always the one idiot. Or two. On my way to town, I was passed by a pickup going about 50 on glare ice. Not smart. When I got to town 5 minutes later, he was only two vehicles ahead of me. Worth it? I think not. On the way home, I was passed by another pickup on glare ice. A few miles later, of course, he was backing out of the ditch. What is it with these guys?

I made it safely there and back, though, mission accomplished and research papers on the seat next to me. Once I got near our farm, our own road was nice and quiet, and the ice and snow stuck to the tree branches was so pretty I had to delay grading for a few minutes to take some pictures. It might be almost spring, but I still love winter storms. This one is even more bearable because we know that spring weather is indeed lurking somewhere around the corner, even a distant corner, and we won’t have many more of these blustery scenes until next winter.

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Now, several hours later, I’m safely in my house, drinking coffee in my kitchen, watching the wind blow and the snow pile up outside. My remaining research papers are graded. I have to admit, this Snow Day couldn’t have come at a better time, considering the grading and lesson plans that have been building up and the lack of time to get them done. It might not be the laziest Snow Day I’ve ever had, but I’ll take it. It’s a Snow Day, and that deserves some capital letters. Congratulations to the rest of you who were lucky enough to get one, too!

I even painted my nails.

Note to self: I might have to come back and read this happy post later this spring when we add on that extra day on the end of the school year!

The corner of Snow Day and Utter Bliss
The corner of Snow Day and Happiness
Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Just Another Hat

Teachers wear many hats. We are not merely instructing children on the arts of our subject areas, children who sit in straight rows with bright, shiny faces and raise their hands and remember their pencils, and whose lives are changed dramatically by our gentle encouragement to become the best they can be. I wish teaching was like that, but that’s for the movies. Teaching is actually more like this:

“Miss D., he’s poking me!”

“Miss D., I forgot my pencil! Actually someone stole it from my locker! Oh, and they stole my notebook and textbook too! I know, it’s weird someone would want to steal a grammar textbook, but I swear that’s what happened!”

“Miss D., are you seriously giving us a writing assignment?”

“Miss D., now he’s kicking my desk!”

“Miss D., are you seriously making us read?”

“Miss D., can we not do anything today? Can we just have nap time?”

“Miss D., now he’s trying to write on my arm!”

Teachers are mediators, nurses, counselors, referees, bosses, coaches, and listening ears — never mind attempting to squeeze in time for instructing the basic use of a conjunctive adverb. Last year, at the end of a particularly frazzling period with 7th graders, one of them looked at me and commented sincerely, “Man, your job must be so easy! You don’t even have to do homework like we do!” I looked at the stack of 65 research papers sitting on my desk waiting to be graded. I looked at my unfinished lesson plans for the next day and the next week. I looked around the room at 22 7th graders bouncing up and down in their seats. I felt my head pounding. I looked at the clock. It was only 9:45 a.m. Not good.

“Yep,” I said with a sigh. “My job is so easy.” He nodded, satisfied, and gathered his things for his next class.

Yesterday, I got the chance to try on a new teaching hat: Driving a bus. This is not something I signed up for when I went into teaching. I think I envisioned all the neat rows of students with bright, shiny faces raising their hands and having more fulfilled lives because of my teaching instruction – the ones in the movies. I did not envision getting up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to start a frosty yellow school bus and pick up a pile of speech kids who forget scripts and money and dress shirts at home.

But, when the athletic director informed me that I would be driving a bus to some of my speech meets, I swallowed my concern and nodded. I drive grain trucks and combines, I thought to myself. How hard can it be to drive a bus? I tried not to think of the fact that children whose parents love them deeply are a little more important that a heap of barley, and I tried not to think of the long train of oil trucks that usually accompany me to school in the morning, only yards behind my little SUV. Besides, this was one of the “short buses,” which is little more than a glorified 14-passenger van. Drivers don’t need a bus license for this kind of bus.

So instead of arguing, I got up yesterday morning at 5, drove to Watford, found my assigned bus in the bus lot, started it, scraped the frost off the windows (not an easy task when I am 5’1″ and the sad little ice scraper barely extends past my arm), messed around with the switches, figured out how to turn on the strobe lamp on top of the bus, turned on the heaters for the kids, and drove to the high school to pick them up. They piled on, faces excited for the first speech season of the year, and we took off.

And the thing is, it went just fine. The fog was a bit thick; the traffic was moderately heavy; it was early in the morning. But otherwise, I created a few rules in my mind and stuck to them:

  • Hug the white line
  • Keep distance from the oil trucks
  • Don’t let the kids know I’ve never done this before
  • Stop at railroad crossings (I only had to do this twice)
  • Avoid giving obscene gestures to jerks while driving a vehicle plastered with our school name on the side

I didn’t mind trying on another hat, in the end. It was a good day. I had to endure a few comments, of course. When I parked the bus at our destination, the driver in the bus next to me looked at me in amazement. He leaned out his window. “You’re the tiniest bus driver I’ve ever seen!” he yelled with a grin on his face. My friend Allie also about died laughing when she saw me climb into the bus at the end of the speech meet. She’s an English teacher and spent a few years in a Class B school, so if anyone understands what it’s like to get roped into things, she does. “Be good to her!” she called to my kids before snapping a picture of me in my short bus.

The best part: God rewarded me with a sunrise in the badlands on my way there, lifting the fog just enough for me to see, and a sunset in the badlands on my way back. It was absolutely breathtaking. The other best part: My kids gathered their things when I parked at the school, thanked me sincerely for taking them, proclaimed how fun it was, and went cheerfully home to their parents. They never knew all the anxiety I suffered beforehand.

Yes, it was a good day. And what would teaching be without a few more hats?

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Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Teaching, Farming, Exasperating

Tomorrow night, the windchill might get to 50 below. I do love winter, but when I hear things like that, I still sigh a little bit as I see a picture on the wall of us all smiling on a beautiful harvest evening. Now that I live on our farm full time, I’ve gotten to know it more completely in all four seasons, from the 50 below, to a beautiful 82 above and beyond. I’ve also had a chance to see it become ingrained into parts of my life that weren’t touched by farming before. When I used to come here, it was just for our farm and for farm-y things like horseback riding, harvest, and hunting. When I left, I went to other cities in North Dakota or Minnesota to go to school or teach school and wear non-farm-y clothes and do non-farm-y things.

Putting farming and teaching together has made some days a bit more of a juggle. My first year teaching here, harvest started one day before school did, which is pretty late for our part of the country. I usually operate a combine for my dad or brother during harvest. It’s a pretty nice job, really: I sit in my air-conditioned cab with the FM radio while I watch my brother and dad outside in the chaff, driving trucks, sweating like crazy and itching in the barley dust. Every evening, my mother brings harvest meals out to the field, and they are glorious. I mean, these are some of the best meals any of us have ever had: meatballs and mashed potatoes, French dip sandwiches, lasagna with garlic bread, homemade pizza, cold lemonade, fresh brownies. And everything during harvest tastes SO AMAZING. We are all excited for a good meal and a little desperate for my mother’s smile and cheerful conversation after hours alone in our separate cabs.

Grandpa Wayne shutting  'er down for supper
Grandpa Wayne shutting ‘er down for supper
An oldie but a goodie: The harvest crew, minus a few
An oldie but a goodie: Harvest crew, minus a few

However, this particular harvest of 2011, there were two problems. 1) My mother was already back at her school counseling job in Bismarck, and 2) I was at my own local teaching job until close to 5 every afternoon, so the bulk of the combining hours would be drawing to a close by the time I got out there. My usual role as a combine operator was not much of an option. We still had a harvest crew: My dad, Grandpa Wayne, my farming brother Danny, my college brother Tommy who hadn’t started school yet, my dad’s hired man, and our cousin. I bravely decided to take on my mother’s role as the “meal wagon.” It was no easy task. If i didn’t appreciate my mom before, I sure appreciated her now.

Oh, there was a third problem. Did I mention we were temporarily living in tiny, cheap – and I mean cheap – trailers while we waited for construction to be completed on our farmhouse? My two brothers and I were crammed into one and my father and grandfather were yards away in the other. The walls were so thin, we could hear each other walking – from next door.

My schedule for the first several weeks of school that fall went something like this: 6:30 a.m.: Wake up for school. Make coffee in the bathroom because kitchen outlets don’t work. Watch everyone else leave for harvest and be really jealous. 7:30 a.m.: Sit in oil field traffic on my way to school. 8:05 a.m. Start day of shaping young American minds. 4:45 p.m. Sit in oil field traffic on my way home. 5:15 p.m. Start supper. Curse at the tiny sink and the tiny, crooked oven. 6:30 p.m. Leave for field in rickety suburban with my coolers of food and jug of lemonade, leaving behind piles of dirty pots and pans in the tiny sink and stacked on the tiny, crooked oven. 7:30 p.m. Smile as the harvest crew thanks me over and over for my meal efforts. Watch them walk back to their combines and be really jealous.

Tommy and I combining in happier, teaching-free days
Tommy and I combining in happier, teaching-free days

9:15 p.m. Back at the trailer. Finally finish washing piles of pots and pans in the tiny sink. Stare at schoolwork. Look outside at the sunset. Jump at the chance to help move harvest vehicles rather than do any schoolwork. 10:30 p.m. Fall into bed, exhausted. Have nightmares about what to make for dinner the next day in the tiny, crooked oven.

Every Friday at 4:30 p.m.: Finally climb back into my combine cab and bask in it until the weekend harvesting is over and I’m back to the school books.

I will say, that harvest of 2011 was pretty unique. We had never had a harvest like that before, and we will probably never have one like that again. Since then, farming still touches my teaching days now and then. Sometimes, I am asked to haul trailers of various shapes and sizes for my dad, so I drive them to school – and park a little farther away. Sometimes, I drive the rickety suburban to school so I can pick up some tractor part or trailer of various shape or size (it’s truly amazing how many trailers there are floating around our farm) while I’m in town. My few students who have spotted me in the rickety suburban found that very funny.

One time last year, I somehow found myself driving a dusty old grain truck home in my high heels with my lunchbox and stack of school books next to me. Mind you, this grain truck has shoddy brakes and questionable turn signals. I downshifted grinding, groaning gears with my cute high heels – and held my breath – for every turn. When I got to my yard, some strange construction equipment blocked my approach, so I parked the truck where I could and trudged through shin-deep mud, the result of a winter thaw. My thoughts toward my practical farmer father were not particularly warm enough to thaw anything at that moment, but I got over it. I also got smarter: I wear boots to school now and pack my high heels in my school bag instead, anytime from November until April or whenever the snow melts. Or anytime there’s even the slightest possibility that I might be driving a grain truck. Then again, I usually can’t predict such things. Ah, the combination of teaching and farming… Exasperating? At times. Worth it? No question about it.

Just stay there until school is over, please!
Just stay there until the school year is over, please!
Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

I Say Creek, You Say Crick

One of my favorite things about teaching high school students from all locations is the arguments over pronunciation and word choice. Not that these arguments are limited to high schools students – just the other night at the lounge where I work, a customer made me repeat the word “bag” after I said it. (Yes, I’m from North Dakota, so a bag is a “bay-g.”) He thought it was quite entertaining.

Numerous times over the last year and a half, I have had to practically break up fights in class over the simple matter of how one pronounces a word, or what one calls a simple object. Here is how my last one went. I was in the middle of grading while the students were working, when suddenly a freshman boy in the front of the room erupted, “YOU CAN’T CALL IT THAT! THAT IS THE DUMBEST THING I HAVE EVER HEARD!” I looked up from my grading, surprised, trying to see what was going on before I scolded him.

The girl he was sitting by answered the question for me. She tossed her hair and replied, “I can too. It’s a creek, not a crick. Isn’t that right, Miss D.?”

The kid turned on me in anger. “Miss D., tell her it is a crick and not a creek!”

I tried to diffuse the situation. “Actually, it depends on where you’re from. Some people just pronounce things like this differently. But I’m from Bismarck, and I actually say creek.”

The kid rolled his eyes and repeated, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s a crick!”

Some of my other favorite language issues that have come up recently:

  • Coyote (no e sound at the end) vs. Coyotee (long e at the end). If you pronounce the long e at the end, you are definitely not from the area.
  • Syrup (pronounced seer-up) vs. Syrup (pronounced sirr-up) vs. Syrup (pronounced surp). Since when is syrup one syllable? But for some around here, it is.
  • Crayon (pronounced cray-on) vs. Crayon (pronounced cran). Ok, so I am guilty of shortening this one to one syllable. But it just seems so much easier to color with “crans” when you are six! I guess some habits die hard.
  • Pop vs. Soda. I had to calm a Southern transplant kid down for this one too. “Pop” is North Dakota speak.
  • And my all time favorite: Slushburgers. This is a northwestern North Dakota thing. I have never been able to find any other location that uses this term, not even slightly farther east or south in North Dakota.

What is a slushburger, you may ask? You probably know it by one of its more common names: a sloppy joe or a barbeque. A gooey, amazing sandwich of beefy, tangy goodness. (Yes, I may have a thing for sloppy joes.) It wasn’t until I attended a summer baseball game in Watford City when I was in high school that I had ever seen the term “slushburger.” When I was in college, my Watford City boyfriend and I made this item for lunch one day, and we got into an argument in the grocery store over what our concoction should be called. Apparently he won, because I found our recipe a few months ago, and it was titled “Slushburgers” – in my handwriting. I did NOT remember losing that argument. (Drat.)

Then, I came to work in northwestern North Dakota, and there it was. Slushburger. Right there on the high school lunch menu. Now, when I take lunch count in the morning, I ask my homeroom kids if they want “slushburgers” or salad bar. Yes, I’ve succumbed. It’s just easier that way. It gets me out of several-minute-long arguments with all of the local kids who would be outraged at my lack of respect for the term. But I still grin a little inside when some new kid from Washington yells out, “What in God’s name is a slushburger?!”