Thursday, January 10, 2008

Better

Tuesday night, it was great. Wednesday, even better. And as for tonight, I'm practically panting for it.

Yes, you know what I'm talking about: butternut squash, but this time in a lasagna.

You know those meals where the leftovers keep getting better and better—the kind that you don't get sick of eating more than twice in one week? This is one of those meals. I'm holding this meal close to my heart (and my belly) because it is so good and becoming increasingly better.

I'm tired at work, a tiredness that seems more extreme than past years. I'm tired of grading mountains of essays, tired of school politics, and tired of getting up so unhappily early. (I mean, c'mon,
everyone knows that teenagers are nocturnal. Why start school at 7:45? Why have meetings before school starts? It's just cruelty, I tell you.) In spite of this physical and emotional fatigue, so many things really are better and continuing to improve. One of the things that has grown in clarity and importance to me is my relationship with my students, and in this particular realm, I can see remarkable improvements in my 11 years of teaching.

My job is to remind students how much they like to learn, give them opportunities to learn, support them through difficulties in learning, and get the heck out of their way when they're on a roll. When a student learns in my class, really learns, fibers of silver curiosity sprout from each of us and grow towards the other, tendrils eventually meeting and tangling, weaving the both of us into a rising cord of inspiration. This cord moves both student and teacher into new intellectual risks, into new ideas, and into whole new ways of looking at the world. Every year, I grow new cords, tying myself to the dreams and unclear, shimmery futures of students. Each year of experience has led me be able to find more ways to get that first silver leaf-curl to emerge, and now, after 11 years, I feel a thousand little threads of hope tying me to all corners of the world.
I'm so lucky I get to be part of these people's lives.

Before break, I chatted after school with an incredible person, one of those thousands of people I'm lucky to know. I'll call her B. She had been my student for two years (as a freshman and as a junior), and is now a senior and suffering the "January and February Wait." You may or may not recall having been there yourself, but December is a deadly month for high school seniors, for it's the month that college applications are due. A brutal month for teachers as well, December is the month we have letter after letter of recommendation to write. However bad December is, January and February are even worse, because, after that incredible effort of writing application essays, collecting scholarship information, surviving interviews, and generally putting one's best face forward every single day, there is no nothing to do but wait. Sometime in March, those fat envelopes of acceptance or skinny envelopes of rejection are going to arrive, but in the meantime, there is nothing to do to help the process along. Seniors just have to wait.

B. had asked me to write a recommendation letter for her to send to her schools of choice. Here is an excerpt of that letter:

But what I love most about B. is the balance that she maintains between her sharp drive for excellence and her good-natured friendliness that puts all around her at ease. B. never ceases to improve herself. She reflects deeply on her areas for growth and sets specific goals to achieve them. As a writer, she knew she needed to continue to tighten up her paragraph organization and make her style a little more concise, so she set out to do just that; her writing lately is reaching new levels of brilliance as a result. In the same manner, she knew that she wanted to gain some experiences helping others, so she asked our principal last year about community service opportunities. Our former principal—a wise woman herself—recognized a fellow leader in B. and asked B. to help her figure out a system by which the school can organize and keep track of community service. Last year, partly as a result of the connection between B. and the principal, our school offered its first community service recognition awards at graduation. The best part about this drive for self-improvement is that she always brings others along with her towards success. The community service award is the perfect example of how, to B., success means more than just satisfaction with herself.


Can't you see how lucky I am? But wait, I'm not even finished yet.

B. had told me that her grandmother grew a lot of the produce that B.'s family consumed, as well as many herbs for traditional Chinese medicine in her backyard. As we sat on the tops of desks and talked that day, I asked B. more about her grandmother's garden. I asked her to detail crops that I wanted to know more about. What about asparagus beans, does your grandmother grow those? What about bitter melon? Chilies? Yeah? What kind?

She didn't know the name, but she knew that her grandmother grew them from seeds that she collected and that they were hot. And yesterday, she brought me a generous sampling.

Oh, they are hot indeed: fruity, flavorful, and
hot. I wonder how I'm going to use them all. I have some ideas, perhaps trying one tonight in a green side-dish for the lasagna. I wonder about the growth habit of the plant, how productive the plant is. I guess I'll have to save some seed and try growing them myself; that crazy silver cord of curiosity links from B.'s grandmother to B. to me.

The learning, it never stops. It just keeps getting better.

Butternut Squash Lasagna With Rosemary and Garlic
(Adapted very slightly from an Epicurious recipe)

3 large butternut squash, quartered, seeded, peeled, and cut into 1/2-inch dice (it's a whole lotta squash)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cups milk (I used 1% milk, to make up for the addition of cream later)
1 dried red chili
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
1 whole clove plus 2 tablespoons minced garlic
½ stick (¼ cup) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
12 7- by 3
½-inch sheets dry no-boil lasagna pasta
1 1/3 cups freshly grated Parmesan (about 5 ounces)
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon salt plus more to taste

Preheat oven to 450°F. and oil 1 large baking pan.

In a large bowl toss squash with oil until coated well and spread in the large pan. Roast squash in oven 10 minutes and season with salt. Stir squash and roast 15-20 minutes more, or until tender and beginning to turn golden.

While squash is roasting, in a saucepan bring milk to a simmer with rosemary, whole garlic clove, and red chili. Heat milk mixture over low heat 10 minutes and pour through a sieve into a large pitcher or measuring cup.

In a large heavy saucepan cook garlic in butter over moderately low heat, stirring, until softened. Stir in flour and cook roux, stirring, 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat and whisk in milk mixture in a stream until smooth. Return pan to heat and simmer sauce, whisking occasionally, about 10 minutes, or until thick. Stir in squash and salt and pepper to taste. Sauce may be made 3 days ahead and chilled, its surface covered with plastic wrap.

Reduce temperature to 375°F. and drizzle a little more oil into the large baking pan to grease the bottom and sides.

Pour 1 cup sauce into baking dish (sauce will not cover bottom completely) and cover with 4 lasagne sheets, making sure they do not touch each other. Spread half of remaining sauce over pasta and sprinkle with 1/2 cup Parmesan. Make 1 more layer in same manner, beginning and ending with pasta.

In a bowl with an electric mixer beat cream with salt until it holds soft peaks and spread evenly over top pasta layer, making sure pasta is completely covered. Sprinkle remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan over cream. Cover dish tightly with foil, tenting slightly to prevent foil from touching top layer, and bake in middle of oven 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes more, or until top is bubbling and golden. Let lasagna stand 5 minutes.

It's wonderful the first day, and reheated the day after that, and the day after that, and even the next day. This makes 8 generous servings, so plan accordingly.

8 comments:

Terry B said...

Christina--I taught for a number of years, and I was a pretty good teacher. You are a wonderful teacher. The kind of teacher I've been lucky to know and even luckier to have touch the lives of my kids. I know the hours and the politics suck, but hang in there. You are doing so much good.

Pam said...

The lasagna looks amazing! I have some squash and have set aside some time this weekend to try this. I also enjoy your stories about teaching. I am really trying to focus on relationships with my students. A lot of them have hard home lives and I try to compensate as best I can.

Lucy said...

Must be a very stressful time of the year, waiting for those approvals...and for a committed teacher such as your good self, an agonising wait lies in store for you too.

Happy new year, my dear! It must be wonderful to know that despite your current exhaustion, your efforts to inspire really do make a difference. Love it!

Hope to get my hands on Autumn's first butternut's in a few months so I too can return to such a scrumptious, heady delight.

Christina said...

Terry B.: You are so kind. Thank you for the compliments--I appreciate them greatly. Have a wonderful weekend.

Pam: I hope you like the lasagna. Let me know how it works for you. It's amazing how much need our students have, isn't it?

Lucy: I think you would like this. You could experiment away with this recipe, replacing the rosemary with garam masala, a different spice mix, or a just a different herb. I've been thinking about you a lot lately--the chard is just beginning to come into its own. I almost have enough mature leaves to make the chard pie that I've been waiting to make since you posted it. I hope you're well and returning to home life has been relaxing and happy.

Wendy said...

Christina, I always find your teaching posts so very inspiring. It is our job to remind kids that learning is fun, though I often it's more a case of persuasion!
Completely understand your feelings towards B and others. Going back to school after the winter holidays my overwhelming feeling this term is one of affection and pride towards my pupils. It's a great job and a real privilege to be a part of the education of these wonderful people. :)
Very impressed by the recommendation for B. She's a lucky girl to have such a dedicated teacher.
Big hugs to the tired teacher.

winedeb said...

You must be a wonderful teacher if one of your students brings you goodies from a garden. They look like cayanne peppers to me. The reason I say that is the stem looks just like mine and so do the red ones. I enjoy adding mine to fresh pasta dishes as they put just the right spark in the dish. They also work very well in fresh salsa. OK, seeing your squash and peppers, I am in need of some lunch!
How is your garden doing?

ann said...

A story like this makes me think that I should have become a teacher. The eternal loop of inspiration is, well, inspiring. I miss that give and take... You're very lucky (As are your students. I got a rec letter like that once, and I think it's what got me into my first choice college. B is a lucky (and obviously talented) young woman).

Christina said...

Wendy: Thanks for the understanding support--I really appreciate it. It is such fun what we do, but boy am I glad when summer break rolls around!

Winedeb: My garden is growing beautifully, thank you. Today I had a handful of sweet, sweet sugar snap peas straight from my garden. Oh, yum!

Ann: Thank you for the compliments. I hope I give the students what they need and more--they all deserve quite a bit.

Have a wonderful evening, everyone!