Friday, February 22, 2019

Teacher Voice

Two summers ago, a former student from many years ago who is now my friend was passing through San Francisco and asked if I was free to catch up. We decided to meet at a casual bar in the Mission to tell each other the story of our lives since we had last seen each other. After giving each other a big hug, we ordereed our drinks. I grinned at the bartender, jabbing my thumb towards my friend, "This guy was my student and now he's a teacher, too!" My friend responded with a similar gesture, "The woman standing next to me is the reason I became a teacher." The bartender could hardly contain herself: "Oh, this warms my heart so much!"

When we sat down to talk, my friend told me about his romantic quandries and his challenges in finding the right teaching job. He struggled to know whether he should stay teaching in California or pursue his long-distance girlfriend in another state where teaching was a less comfortable fit. He was up in the air at the time, but he was young, and either way would provide him so many options. I knew he could find satisfaction whichever path he chose.

Of course, I had my hopes of what he would do.

While I sipped my wine and he his beer, he told me a story of vacationing with friends in Poland. He explained how he and his friends were walking out of a bar and they witnessed one man throw another man out of a doorway down the block. Within seconds, both men were pummeling each other. Always the adventurer, my friend went toward danger rather than away from it. He didn't speak Polish, but he did have a weapon: his teacher voice.

He didn't raise his hands. He didn't get angry. Instead, once he was within ten feet of the men, he told them, very assertively in English because that's the language he had, to stop what they were doing. He told them, with that powerful voice, to take a break, for one of them to step one direction and the other to step the other. The men didn't step back from each other, but they did stop hitting each other. They stood, glaring and panting. My friend repeated his message, incomprehensible in language but clear in tone. Slowly, arms sinking to their sides, the two men walked away from each other. He credited the whole experience to his teacher voice.

Last winter my friend called me. He had broken up with his girlfriend and stayed in California. He had a teaching job he loved. He was happy.

The teacher voice is a real thing, a thing students need to hear. It provides confidence and familarity; it provides clarity and sometimes humor. But students aren't the only ones who need it. Using the teacher voice feeds the teacher.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Unreliable Narrator

When Scott and I were at my parents' house for Christmas this year, I told him how I broke my collarbone when I was a little kid. When my parents heard me tell this story, they said no, it didn't happen like that. 

My Abbreviated StoryMy Parents' Abbreviated Story
We were camping at a lake.We were camping at a lake.
I was little.I was little.
There was a hill.There was a hill.
There were many mosquitoes.There were many mosquitoes.
I chased the mosquitoes away from my family down the hill.I ran away from the mosquitoes down the hill.
I fell and broke my collarbone.I fell and broke my collarbone.

My parents laughed when I told the story because I had made myself the hero of it. I trust completely that their version is correct; they were adults at the time and I was very young. But it also makes me wonder what about that moment made me tell myself through the years that I was chasing mosquitoes away. I've always been less likely to receive mosquito bites than my relatives and friends. Maybe that fact became conflated with the story, and I made myself the person protecting my family. Maybe it was the love for my family that made me remember I was protecting them. Maybe I felt so vulnerable and in such pain about the broken collarbone, I created something in my head that unconsciously helped me feel less weak. Whatever the cause, no part of me was intentionally lying; the story I told at Christmas was the story I believed to be true for years and years.


I have conflicted feelings about this situation. I imagine I frequently unintentionally make myself the hero of my own story. But, of course I do. I hope you do too. In the long run, it's up to you to save yourself. Then there's the other part of me that wants to raise the banner of objective truth. Tell the truth! Be honest. There's the difficult tangle of when we don't know if we are telling the truth or not.

I've been thinking about this a lot for a couple reasons. First, I read the memoir Educated by Tara Westover not too long ago. If you are not familiar with the book, here's a quick summary: Westover was raised in a family cult headed by a dictatorial, mentally unhealthy father and a mother who found great pride in her position of spiritual authority. Westover's parents did not allow her to go to school and she had a spotty home education, though her physical environment provided her a wealth of practical knowledge. She details the abuse she experienced growing up, as a young girl from her father and as a teenager from her brother. When she escaped her family and sought out an education, she had to learn a whole new way of understanding the world.

It's painful to read. I also don't believe it's 100% true. I believe the pain is true. I believe that Westover is still broken today because of the experience she had growing up. However, even she admits to being muddy on details, especially in situations of high stress. And, she points out that she and her siblings remember events differently. Yet, Westover comes out of a clearly unhealthy situation in a position that allows her to function, and even excel, in the world outside her family. Is it partly the way her brain has worked with the details of her life that has allowed her to do that?

A second event has me wondering about memory and narration. I remember hearing stories about my mom's mom and aunt making ice punch bowls for parties. These punch bowls were particularly special because they contained flowers caught in the ice, frozen spectacularly in place. Something in my memory holds deeply to the idea that camellias were the flowers caught in the ice, but when I talked to my mom about it, she said no, camellias wouldn't work and that they'd brown when frozen. She couldn't remember which flowers specifically were incorporated, but she imagined evergreens and berries for winter parties.

Based on the stories in my memory of my mom's memory, I made my own version. I picked fuchsias and salvias from the yard and placed them in a very large bowl. I added water to the bowl and placed a another bowl inside of it, weighed down with various heavy kitchen objects, enough so that it floated but made an indentation large enough to hold a generous batch of punch. I set the whole contraption in the chest freezer.

After I took the bowl out of the freezer a couple days later, I set it in the refrigerator for an hour so it wouldn't be so cold that it would crack the second punch, at a higher temperature, hit the surface. After an hour in the fridge, the bowl gleamed. Scott took pictures. I took pictures. The perfect flowers, unharmed by the quick freeze because they were trapped in ice, looked like they were caught midair. The ice punch bowl looked even more lovely than I had imagined it in these years of stories.

Before the party, we set it on a folded towel so it wouldn't slide around, and set that towel on a platter. Scott watched as I started to fill it with punch. The coral of the large batch of Jungle Bird complemented the fuchsias. I poured more in, most of a batch. A small dribble began to leak from the side of the bowl, following the countours of a fuchsia through the ice. I thought the leak might slow down, but it didn't. Instead, the bowl fissured along the edges of another flower and spouted ferociously from the bottom, quickly soaking the rag and filling the platter.

Scott and I worked quickly, saving what we could, scooping it into a another container, and sopping up what we couldn't save. Eventually, we dropped the whole ice bowl into a huge metal bowl, and it floated, iced flowers and all, in another batch of punch.

The ice bowl was beautiful, and people commented on it all night long, but because the flowers leaked, it didn't do what we thought it would. My bowl based on layers of memory couldn't hold punch. Perhaps another's would.

Does memory ever work the way we think it will?

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Miners' Lettuce

In the late spring two years ago, my first spring in my San Francisco home, whenever I wandered through McLaren Park, I collected Miners' Lettuce seeds. A native plant that's also a delicious salad green is a plant that is made for a garden like mine.

The following late winter, my now-stepdaughter and I threw seeds in places in my yard that seemed like natural habitats for the plant. Of the thousands of seeds we tossed into the soil, only one plant grew to maturity. I was frustrated. The climate and conditions seemed perfect for this not too picky plant. But I also consoled myself: prior to the work I started in my garden when I moved in, the soil had been covered with a thick layer of industrial plastic—not weedcloth—topped with mulch. No rain got to most of the soil. I didn't find worms or beetles or red spiders when I dug around. I found very little that was alive.

But, that one plant made it and I didn't nibble on even a single leaf. Instead, I babied it along, and when it went to seed, I tossed those seeds everywhere.

This year in the rainy season, Miners' Lettuce has popped up everywhere, even in places I don't remember tossing the seeds. Perhaps the plants have resulted from seeds that have laid dormant until they could find their foothold. Perhaps they needed the fungus and worms and slender salamanders that have moved in.



Perhaps everything just needed to rot a while for the growing to get good.