Friday, March 31, 2006

Thoughts Accompanied by a Cinnamon Crunch Bagel

I'm sitting here at Panera Bread, grading essays when I become thoughtful. So, essays are temporarily on hold. What is causing me to be reflective is a group that is eating here. There are about half a dozen mentally or physically impaired men and women with their helpers. I watch as they struggle to make their desires known in elevated groans, or as their coffee dribbles down their face onto their shirt, with no reaction. There is the human instinct to turn away in disgust, embarrassed that people behave in such a way. After all, it is quite different from "proper" society.

I'm drawn to them. I've had some exposure to people with "deformities." Most recently, in my classroom this year. I have been blessed to have a cerebral palsy boy in one of my sections. I feel like he has opened my eyes so much. My student is in a wheelchair and can only communicate through a mercury, which is a computer attached to his wheelchair with a button that he can use to navigate and type by hitting his arm on it at intervals (it's more complex than I'm making it out to be, but humor me). When he so desires, my student can activate a speaking feature to read aloud to others what he has typed.

My awareness comes slowly, but I have been moved as I've seen him work so much harder than other students around him. His mind is sharp, but I ache as I see the frustration present when he struggles to communicate the simplest of conversation. This student has reminded me how I sometimes underestimate the intelligence of those who are noticeably "different" from the norm. That's hard to swallow; I like to think I'm empathetic without prejudice, but then creep up examples that show I am sometimes predisposed otherwise.

This past summer, again at Panera, I had a conversation with one of the workers here, also slightly impaired. She was so sweet and bright and we talked literature for a time, as her dad was an English teacher.

I wonder what life would be like in the shoes of someone with huge obstacles to overcome. What must it be like to feel trapped, to want to communicate your feelings but to only have unintelligible gibberish come out of your mouth? Or to want your body to perform the simplest physical act, but instead to have your outer shell so out of line with your mind? And then they are judged, and others write them off as inferior. My student communicates so much with his eyes, and I love that I have had him in my class. He never would have chosen this life: others having to take you to the restroom, having to mash up your food and spoon it into your mouth, but his spirit is enviable. Sure, he is frustrated sometimes, but he has passions he pursues like everyone else. He is an advocate for others in his position, bringing awareness to the city for changes that need to be made for life to be equitable.

What are we missing out on when we don't recognize them as equals, as ones who can teach us lessons? They are receptive to what is going on around them, and we do everyone involved a disservice by missing the opportunity to learn from them. How would I react if tomorrow I could no longer speak and my body no longer moved fluidly? What would I experience in trying to do the simplest tasks in public? How would others respond to me? Who would take the time to really know me?

So I take these few minutes to pause, to appreciate the differences. Soon enough I will return to my black sharpie and my pile of essays, but right now I just want to observe people who aren't all that different from me.

So Where Do Lil Smokies Come From?

I'm grading essays (so I put them off until yesterday and today), and I see the following: "My family always loves coming together for anything. We love looking at old picture albums, roosting marshmallows, and baking cookies." I don't know much about farming. Do you get mini marshmallows when you let them "roost"? Curious practice. I've still got a lot to learn.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Airline Fun in Indiana

You have to love airline delays! Last night we returned from visiting Indiana Univeristy. From Chicago to Indianapolis we flew on a small jet, and we sat in it on the runway for at least two hours before we had clearance to fly into Chicago. Chicago was having some weather issues, so we spent our lunchtime with our stomachs growling in the stationary plane. Then we arrived safely in Chicago, only to run to the other end of the terminal in the small chance we could make our connecting flight; it was finishing boarding and was about ready to take off. I don't recommend running around carrying luggage as your stomachs are empty. It was the first time I was slightly worried about getting sick on a flight. Nevertheless, we made our tight connection and didn't have to deal with the hassles of spending an unintended night in Chicago and explaining to Eric's superiors why he is not yet back at work.

The experience at Indiana University pleasantly surprised Eric, but he's fairly sure it won't be his final destination. At Indiana, we received the customary tour, appointments with individual professors, invitations to grad seminars, and a dinner with several of the current grad students in the home of a professor.

This decision has been difficult for Eric; everyone has been so generous and accommodating that it is going to be hard to turn down all but one of the schools. I'm not sure he realized to what extent people would be catering to him in an attempt to woo him to their program. The final decision, while we suspect we know what it is, will be decided in the next couple weeks.

Meanwhile, this week is my spring break, and while traveling can be an appealing venture, it certainly isn't a restful one. I'm ready to spend some time being home without the daily demands of teaching...and I'll attempt to grade 140 student essays before next Monday sometime between trying my hand at knitting socks and sewing a quilt. Very domestic of me, I know.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Los Angeles Experiment

We have returned from our whirlwind tour of Los Angeles. We spent less than 30 hours there, which some people claim is not nearly enough time to get a good perspective of the city, but we were limited by Eric's vacation time. It's tricky to visit three schools in one week.

You can see pictures of the USC philosophy building here. The building was modeled after several Tuscan monasteries and is beautiful; in fact, there's a bell tower that used to house a professor's office, and in the courtyard there is a fountain. It was even nice to experience the balmy weather when in Minnesota we're having temperatures in the 30's and 40's.

Traffic wasn't bad for us, as we arrived in LA after midnight and then left again later in the evening, so we were able to avoid slow travel. We sat in on an undergrad class and then had lunch with a couple of the professors. They had arranged for us to have coffee with a graduate student in the department; she called herself the "big guns" and said Eric is "some kind of a superstar." They rarely bother this student with meeting with prospectives, so she knew they wanted Eric to come. In fact, she clarified for us, without prompting, details about the provost scholarship Eric was offered. She said the department has never nominated a prospective student for this scholarship and that it was telling that they did so for Eric. In her words, he was recognized not as a potential student, but as someone who doesn't have to prove himself. He is being seen as someone who can contribute to the actual discipline. Quite high praise for Eric, who has trouble accepting compliments. When a department nominates someone, it goes before the provost. I don't know how many students are awarded the scholarship, but nominated students from all departments are vying for the award.

We followed up coffee with dinner with five current grad students in the department. It's amusing to see people view menus when they know they aren't picking up the tab. Eric told me that at Notre Dame last week, he avoided the steak dinner since he has an unlimited supply of meat from his parents and felt guilty ordering it, but several of the grad students specifically chose it since the department was paying.

When being driven to dinner, we were able to see the city. It's astonishing to see Porsche and Audi dealerships and sleek buildings within a block or two of Skid Row. The city certainly has a harsh contrast between the have's and the have-not's.

We arrived home without incident, but we were exhausted, as our flight left LA about 1 am. It's hard to sleep on a plane! Tomorrow we're leaving early for Indiana University, but it seems as if the final decision will be between University of Southern California and Notre Dame. Within the week we should know where we will be moving late this summer.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Can I At Least Rock Someone's Paradigm?

I just got off the phone with Eric, who's in South Bend on his Notre Dame visit. He's been enjoying the trip, which is fortunate, as Notre Dame appears to be his favorite choice right now. The last couple days have found him sitting in on seminars and meeting one-on-one with professors who share his interests. He has also received a campus tour, where he learned of the familiar names of statues and murals around campus. The one pictured here on the library, for instance, is known widely as "Touchdown Jesus" because of its proximity to the football stadium and the Son's apparent celebration near the endzone. This is what you get when you join together a Catholic university with a nationally recognized football program.

Eric related an interesting conversation to me. I will preface the story with what Eric said: "I almost didn't get into Notre Dame." Today he met with a professor nicknamed Fritz. Fritz was on the graduate committee that reviewed applications. He pulled out his notes from the experience and read what he had written about Eric. One of the comments was, "Probably won't come to Notre Dame." Fritz's opinion was that Eric would get tons of offers in top-five programs and would end up going somewhere like Rutgers. Eric's response: "I didn't actually apply to any top-ten programs." (For inquiring minds who want to know, Notre Dame is ranked eleventh.) To which Fritz replied, "That was stupid. Your application and writing sample totally rocked my worldview. Not that we're trying to push you elsewhere, but you might want to consider beginning here and then after a year or two moving to an even better institution. We haven't been investing much time in wooing you, as we were sure we didn't even have a chance."

Eric was pleased at this welcome news. A frequent doubt was that, although he excelled at his undergraduate program, it certainly wasn't respected as having much merit; how was he even going to begin to measure up with seasoned students? The Colorado seminar gave him the catalyst he needed to apply to grad schools. When the offers were rolling in, I asked him if he felt like he should have aimed higher. He didn't seem to feel cheated at all, or shortchanged. Notre Dame has been an institution that met his needs; he respected the faculty there and they are quite diverse with interests. They offered a mindset that Eric could get behind, and while other universities could offer him the same skills, Notre Dame can be quite as rigorous. When it comes down to it, had he been offered admittance to other higher-ranked programs, Notre Dame may still have won out. It has the appeal of a large department, whereas other places didn't fully meet Eric's interests.

The travels continue. Tomorrow Eric returns from Notre Dame, only for the two of us to jump on a plane to Los Angeles to visit USC quickly. Then, after a quick reprieve, a jaunt to Indiana University soon follows. I'll post when there is opportunity and inclination.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Snow Days and Awkward Citations

As I watched the radar last night, the storm was approaching the area, but seemed to skip the Cities. I decided to temper my emotions and plan on a school day. Fortunately, however, I wasn't disappointed. Today brings enough snow and wind to keep me at home. I do feel guilty, however, for those people that still have to go out in this. Farmers, for instance, never get a day off, even when the weather is treacherous. Eric has made me mindful of this, as his dad has a dairy farm and Eric grew up dreading iffy weather.

As I am holed up, I am grading the last batch of assignments. One is a mini-research project. Students were to write a small summary of what they learned and include a visual and a citation. Most projects have been great and I've been pleased. One in particular that I just graded had this for the citation, even after my laborious focus on how to write the bibliographic information: "The Golden Gate Bridge, Hagedorn's shelf." Some will never learn.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Teacher's Confession

I admit it...I long for snow days. Whenever the snow moves in and meteorologists predict several inches of snowfall, I start anticipating all that I will, or will not, do with an unexpected day at home. I wake up bright and early--without any snoozing, mind you--and peer out the window. If there is accumulation on the ground, my spirit starts to soar. I head to the living room, so as not to disturb Eric, turn on the TV and power on the laptop. I get butterflies as I notice the schools scrolling across the bottom of the screen during the morning news. I check my email to see if the news service has sent me a message that my school is closed.

Unfortunately, Minnesota is apparently a southern state. Snowfall has been pitiful these last two years. For instance, the first time the Metro received more than one inch of snow last year was in mid-January. This year hasn't been much better. But I haven't given up hope! Since Friday, there have been predictions of a storm moving in this Sunday night, bringing with it several delightful inches of snowy goodness!

Savor with me this news report from about the coming havoc:

"A cool 6-12" of slushy snow? If storm stays on track this should be the biggest storm of the winter season, possibly the biggest in years for the metro. Last time the metro saw a foot of snow: March, 1999.

Heavy Snow Warning posted....snow may fall at the rate of 2-3"/hr. at times tonight, even accompanied by thunder & lightning, a true 'snow burst'.

Monday rush hour: could be the worst in years, expect triple or quadruple your normal commute time, and widespread school delays and cancellations."

Do you feel it? Are you excited? Far and above, teachers anticipate snow days more than students. Students, after all, are used to inservice days where they sleep in and laze about while their teachers slave away in meetings and workdays. Teachers, however, just want to throw on some hot chocolate, get the gas fireplace going, and relax with a book or movie as we watch the fluffy flakes float down.Will I get my chance to do just that? I'm a few hours away, but hopes are high.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

It Was One of Those Days

I knew yesterday that my students were desperate for a weekend, especially when it came to my last class of the day. There we were, reviewing parts of speech with the delightfully competitive review game. I look to see a student in the back corner, leaning out of his desk, apparently doing something on the floor. He seemed to be taking too long, so I asked him to sit back up. He popped up his head, looked earnestly at me, and sincerely declared, "But Mrs. H, I'm swimming!" None of us knew how to respond to that, so I just shook my head, grinned, and thought it was high time for the day to end. It's not too often I'm caught off guard in my class, but that was unexpected. I guess I can't fault a man for wanting to practice his butterfly with the weather being so beautiful.

Monday, March 06, 2006

So What State Do You Reside In?

I was finishing up with grading my last batch of Tom Sawyer tests this morning, reading the essays. One of the questions asked students to draw connections from Mark Twain's life to the book. This answer was from a student who struggles with spelling: "Well, Mark Twain was born in Misery, and Tom Sawyer was born and raised in Misery."

Sad, isn't it, that they had to live in such a state. If only they would have moved.