Friday, August 27, 2010

The Good Kind of Tired

After a full week, it seems like we are in full-on school mode. I am pretty beat, today, after a summer of not really pushing myself everyday, the grind of the "waking at 5 and working til 5" week caught up with me about Wednesday.

After Monday, I felt awesome. The day had gone really well, I had accomplished everything that I had planned to accomplish, I was remembering my students' names (mostly) and beginning to make and strengthen connections, I didn't turn the wrong way when I got to the bottom of the stairwell on my way out of school (like I had done every day the week before). It was a good day. Even Tuesday, while not as perfect as Monday, due to my lack of experience with freshmen (truly, the squirrels of the high school world), left me feeling pretty amped. But, by Wednesday, my tail was hanging kind of low. While walking the dogs that evening, I decided I wasn't going to make it to my regular basketball game. I was just too tired. And yesterday, I came home from work and proceeded to fall asleep on the couch for a half an hour.

So, it will take a week or two to build up my stamina again, I guess. But, still, a lot is going well. I am really on top of things as far as planning goes. I am doing a better job of being more explicit about the class objectives with my kiddos. I am leaving work knowing that I am totally prepared for the next day (whereas I am usually fairly prepared and I leave a few things to run off or create in the mornings). Granted, this is just the eighth day of school. It's easy to keep it together for a week. Check back with me in October. But, while I am physically tired, I feel more in control and more sure of myself than I ever have before as a teacher. It's sort of scary. You know, in a good way.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

It Only Took Twenty Years

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school,
It's a wonder I can think at all.
And though my lack of education hasn't hurt me none,
I can read the writing on the wall.
--Paul Simon, "Kodachrome"

The school stuff (after just a few days) is already catching up with me. Thus my silence this past week. But, I've got my room set up, I've figured out how to get from the car to my room in a direct manner, I can find a bathroom (when I need one), the main office (and my mailbox), the commons, my department offices, the auditorium, and the media center. I haven't visited the second or third floor, but I might wander up there tomorrow. Needless to say, I am doing what I need to do to be ready for next week. Except for actually planning my classes, but anyway....

I am teaching in a new school this year. After three years at my old school, budget constraints forced them to cut my position. Lucky for me, I landed a new job in the same district. So, I have plenty of familiar things to make the transition easier to negotiate. I don't want you to think that this is going to be an easy change for me, but, the more I think on it, the more I figure that it's really not change, so much as it is the continuation of a life trend that began a long time ago.

The biggest change, at least this week, is meeting all of my new colleagues. Having taught at two other schools with faculties of over one hundred people, I know that that may take years, and I may very well retire without meeting everyone. So far, however, so good. I, at least, know my department colleagues by sight, and I could recall all of their names, if you made me. So, you know, that's good.

Another change involves the schedule. My previous school was on a block schedule. Four ninety-minute classes a day. I taught three classes each day, with one plan period, and my class rosters changed every semester. Now, I'll be on a seven period, fifty minute, schedule, with two plan periods. I will generally keep my classes for the entire school year. Actually, this change is not a problem. Prior to moving to Lincoln, I taught a schedule just like this. I won't have much trouble re-adjusting.

Within those five classes, I have two new assignments, this year, English 9 and Composition. This will provide me with countless hours of work to do, so I am grateful for that. I know I will have plenty of assistance in preparing those classes from colleagues who currently teach (and have taught) those classes. I know from experience that teaching a new class is always a bit more stressful than teaching a course you have taught before. Of course, I haven't actually had the pleasure of teaching the same course for more than three years in a row, yet, so I really don't know what it's like to be totally comfortable with a course. I think you need a few more chances to completely screw things up before you get it down pat. Then again, maybe you never get it down pat.

Overall, I am approaching this change with calm. There will be, I am sure, moments of panic, days of doubt, episodes of worry. I may even find myself slumped in a corner at the end of a Friday or two. But, that would happen no matter what. It's teaching, after all. I will continue, as always, to go with the flow.

But I find that my adult life (and I have more than enough years on this side of the divide to call it a representative sample) totally vindicates my youthful resistance to life planning (which I know I've mentioned before). After all, how can you make a five year plan when you find yourself changing things (by choice or otherwise) every three or four years?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Feeding a Passion

Occasionally, in a workshop or a meeting or reading some article somewhere, I'll come across the idea of a "passion." "What is your passion," a presenter may ask. Or a writer might espouse the beauty of her passion in the pages of the latest glossy magazine. I used to think that I didn't have a "passion." I used to think that there were plenty of things I was interested in, but nothing that I was totally crazy about. But, I have since changed my thinking. I realized that, from an early age there were many things that I could potentially point to as a passion. And, the more I thought about it, the longer the list became. I further refined my thinking, realizing that I was listing things that I was merely interested in, such as 19th century American history, rather than those things that were significant enough to my life that I might seriously regret their loss.

Interestingly, as much as I love reading and writing, they didn't make the cut. Don't get me wrong: I love literature. I love writing. But they are somehow not a part of this conversation. Obviously, those things are big parts of who I am as a teacher and as a person. They might even be passions of some sort. But, I have chosen to focus on less obvious parts of me.

I guess I have three things that I might call "passions." Each of them is a thing that I find important to my life in various degrees. Each of them is a thing that I could not do without. The first is food. I am not an amateur gourmet, but I do love to cook. I am not a gourmand, but I do love to eat. I do not have a sensitive palate, but I truly appreciate a splendid meal. I am passionate about food. I grow it. I cook it. I eat it. I appreciate and love it in all of its varieties. I love a well prepared and condimented hot dog just as much as a perfectly prepared and presented filet mignon. I will try anything, in the way of food, no matter how odd it might seem. I read Bon Apetit and Food and Wine. I regret the demise of Gourmet. I eat and talk about food with some of my friends, a lot. So, yes, food is a passion.

My second passion is nature. General, I know, but that is because I couldn't pare this category down from the many possible sub-sets that I had to choose from: hiking, fishing, birding, nature reading, botany, entomology, etc. I have always, since I was a young boy, loved to be outdoors. I especially loved being on the water (which, as many of you know, is an ironic aspect of my personality, since I get sea sick). My first major was biology. I was going to concentrate on marine biology, at first, until I discovered entomology. Of course, then I hit the big brick wall known as organic chemistry, which derailed my scientific ambitions completely. At any rate, I still enjoy a walk in the woods. I am still fascinated by insects and fish. I still have breath-taking moments on new and old trails. I am or have been a member of National Audubon Society, World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the Ocean Conservancy. I am passionate about nature.

Lastly, I am passionate about music. Regular readers know that I write about music quite a bit. I see bands when I can (not as often as I used to), I buy new music I have never heard before regularly (but not as often as I used to), I read about music, and I play music. My first instrument was the drums. Once I moved from my parent's house, however, I had no place for my kit. I sold it. I haven't played since. About four years ago, I bought a guitar and taught myself how to play it. I am still not great shakes, but I can play a dozen chords or so. Recently, I began teaching myself how to play with a slide (it's not as easy as it looks).

This summer, in my quest to keep my brain fresh and my self less complacent, I bought a trumpet. I plan on taking lessons, eventually, since I don't think a trumpet is as easy to self-teach as a guitar, but I don't know when I will start. My plan was to begin this summer, but, since I am back to workshops and meetings already, summer is over. For now, I just content myself practicing the tight-lipped blowing into the mouth piece, trying to make just that one basic sound as pure as possible (again, not so easy). But, musically, I will continue to challenge myself. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but, in a couple of years, I think the violin will be next.

Monday, August 02, 2010

A Very Long Story of Personal Accomplishment (In One Installment)

Monkey and I have always been fond of a quote from Hank Aaron, one of my all-time favorite baseball players. Now, the circumstances of the conversation in which this quote was uttered escape me, but we heard of it in the midst of Barry Bonds' tainted pursuit of Aaron's all-time home run record. As Bonds crept up on Aaron's number, Monkey and I heard of Aaron responding perhaps to questions about the significance of his accomplishment with a simple and direct (and somewhat boastful) line: "The fact is, I hit 755 home runs, and nobody else did."

The perambulations of history notwithstanding, in my heart, I still recognize Hank Aaron as the paragon of home run hitters. Drug-aided or not, what Bonds did was an awesome spectacle. It was amazing and fun to watch, but Hank Aaron's accomplishment seems more real, more legitimate, and, so, I still have him atop my personal list. But, I don't want this to be about baseball (I want it to be about relativism), so, enough about Bonds.

Let's talk about accomplishment. For, in the midst of a summer in which I feel like I have, with little intention, challenged myself emotionally, I managed this week to challenge myself, with slightly more intention, physically and mentally. Forgive me, as I write of this, if I continually pause to make excuses. I will resist the urge. But, I can't seem to keep the seeping "modesty" at bay.

For, in the grand scheme, what happened this week was nothing like hitting 755 home runs when nobody else did. It's more like hitting 100 home runs. Not everybody did it, but enough did to make it not that big a deal. On the other hand, hitting 100 home runs is a pretty awesome thing.

Whatever. Enough metaphor.

We returned this weekend from a long-awaited trip to Estes Park, CO. As we usually do when we are in Colorado, we spent most days in Rocky Mountain National Park, hiking and eating pb & j sandwiches. On this particular trip, we planned to take a two-day hike to the top of Longs Peak, the highest point in the park (14,259 feet), and one of 54 "fourteeners" (14000 foot peaks) in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. The fact that this peak is one of 54 of similar height; along with the fact that it is about the sixty-first highest peak in North America; added to the point that, at 14,259, Longs is about half the size of Everest; and lashed to the approximated statistic that about 200 people summit the peak each summer week is what makes the accomplishment of reaching Longs' summit seem quotidian. However, the fact that deaths occur annually on the mountain, that certain stretches leave one's heart in one's mouth along the hike, and that just as many "climbers" turn back before reaching the peak makes a successful climb seem something of a feather in one's cap.

Whatever. Enough qualification.

On Wednesday morning, we left from the Longs Peak Trail Head, hoping to make our way to our camp site at the Boulderfield before the afternoon rains came. We had hiked this stretch of the park before. Two years ago, we had started from this point in the very early hours, in order to make it to Chasm Lake by sunrise. That magical hike ranks as one of our all-time favorites. The discovery, in the faintest of early morning light, that we were hiking through a large herd of foraging elk, is not the only reason we hold that hike up so high.

This time, it was a far more civilized 9 am as we left. One other remarkable difference included the need for Monkey and I (and our companions, The Twin City Ambassadors, as well) to carry much heavier packs than we usually did. After all, we were camping, not just hiking, so, instead of food, water, and a warm shirt, we needed to carry tents, sleeping bags, and additional important supplies.

In high school, and a few years after, a group of my friends and I were semi-regular Appalachian Trail hikers. We'd drive up to western Maryland, park the car on the side of some small road, strap on some heavily laden external frame packs, and wander off into the woods. That was a long time ago, and my body has lost the custom of walking up the side of a mountain with an extra forty pounds strapped on. Needless to say, I had a few moments of doubt toward the end of our six mile hike in, as my legs quivered with exhaustion over each elevated step.

As often happens, just as I was about to despair, our campsite came into view. A few rocky walls indicated the tent sites at the Boulderfield, which is perched on a plateau just below the approach to the Keyhole, the point at which the more harrowing part of the climb began. Monkey and I set up our tent and awaited the arrival of the other half of our party. They soon arrived, and our camp was complete. Just in time for the almost-daily afternoon storms to arrive.

And arrive they did.
During that first bout of storms, we had heavy rain, we had small hail, we had ripping wind, we had very nearby lightning strikes. Honestly, a thunderstorm on a mountain is nothing to mess with. When it happens, if you are lucky enough to have a campsite, just get in your tent, stay on the ground and ride it out. Which is what we did. Unfortunately, the high winds and hail converged to alter the configuration of the rain fly on our tent. It began to sag on one side, and water began to run down the side of the tent and in between our ground tarp and the floor of our tent. We were getting damp. And there was nothing I could do about it, as the lightning was blasting the summits of Storm Peak and Mount Lady Washington on either side of the Boulderfield. I could do nothing until the rain stopped. Which it eventually did.
After an hour or so, the storms passed, the sky cleared a bit, and we emerged from our tents. We shored up our rain fly, dried our tent floor as much as possible (not much), and heated some water for a bit of a warm dinner. We wandered about the rocks for a while, just to stretch our legs, and wondered at the beauty of the surroundings in the low evening sunlight. The passing thunderstorm had lowered the temperature considerably, and, while I wore my shorts, I donned a fleece jacket and a wool hat. After some post-dinner socializing, we snuggled back into our tents. It was 8pm, and we intended to climb a mountain at 6 the next morning.

Sleep did not come easy, as the hard ground, the damp tent, and the return of wind and rain (which the tent withstood admirably, this time), kept gnawing at my comfort level. Monkey and I dozed fitfully, and as the sun brightened the sky, we emerged, poorly treated by the night.

We donned our day packs (which contained only water and some energy bars) over our rain gear (it was a cloudy morning), and headed off to the Keyhole. One of the Ambassadors stayed at the campsite, never intending to make the summit. The three of us picked our way over large boulders, up to the craggy break in the rock. Once on the other side of the Keyhole, the view down into Glacier Gorge was spectacular. For the first time, we really got a sense of where we were (on the side of a mountain). A few pictures at this spot and we were off along the ledge that traversed the back side of the mountain. Along this section, Monkey got pretty tight. Eventually, she said she didn't want to go on. We left her to return to camp and continued.

We skirted along the side of the mountain and made it to a long climb up a scree field. This was arduous, but not too difficult. However, at the top of the scree, just as you are about to saddle the mountain and make one last upward climb, a large rock blocks your way. As far as I could tell, there were two ways to attack this rock. On the right, the way my companion went, a thin ledge leads away from the rock, switches back, and leaves you to scramble along for about ten feet before you reach a place of relative safety. I tried that, hugging close to the face of the cliff; however, I didn't feel any comfortable hand holds, and withdrew after about a minute of static contemplation (i.e., standing still, doing nothing, deciding whether to retreat or become petrified). The second way, was a straight vertical climb of only ten feet or so, with apparent places for hands and feet, which, at sea level, would seem like nothing. But, with a ten thousand foot drop at your back, you can get a little wiggy. Wiggy or not, up I went, and with nary a slip, made it to the top.

An even more intense climb awaited in the Homestretch, but, for a moment, I allowed myself to bask in the awe of the view into the rising sun from this side of the mountain. Below, Peacock Pool, our campsite, and even the flat lands beyond were awash in the sun (it was about 8:30, by now). It was beautiful, but, as I looked out, I was seized with another bout of fear. I sat on a rock and almost said to Mr. Ambassador, "That's it. I'm done." The last rock had really shaken me, and further evidence of the heights I had reached were assaulting my sense of self-preservation.

"How much farther," I asked.

"About a quarter-mile."

Well, hell, I thought, I am too close now. And on we went.

The Homestretch is quite an end to the ascent. It seems pretty steep, and there are points were you feel like the only thing keeping you from certain death are your thin fingers clutching a crack in a rock and a tentative toe shoved in a crevice. I thought to myself, in alternate moments, "You idiot, what the hell are you doing up here?" and "Holy crap, this is the most awesome thing I have ever done!"

And, just as I came to the realization that the latter is what I should be telling myself, I crawled up one last rock and stood on the large, flat surface of this mountain's peak. Below spanned the world, as far as I could see. Around me a couple dozen like-minded people milled around in the stiff, cold wind. I realized I had just done something I never thought I would do.

It's not the highest mountain in the world. It's not a record-breaking accomplishment. I didn't hit 755 home runs when nobody else did. But I did something that before (and even during) I wasn't sure I could do. I doubted and overcame. And it felt rewarding and amazing, something to be proud of.

Of course, now, I had to get down.