Numb Ella

I find myself not caring when a few of the colleges I’ve applied to have said no. Perhaps this is just because I always file away the big things that hurt, jam them into boxes, and shove them into the attic crawl-space, never to be looked at again.

“Don’t think about it, Eleanor. It’s gone,” I tell myself, “Let it go.”

And so I make myself numb and move on. The rejection, the funeral, the sickness, the disaster passes while I look on with steely eyes and my jaw set.

The hospital nurse is surprised that I’m cracking jokes while she hooks me up to a machine for yet another test. It’s been twelve hours in the emergency room, and I’ve been strangely calm the entire time. I read about the North African Front in WWII and another tank blows up while she attaches a cord to a sticker on my ankle.

My mother is shocked that I can get through a magazine spread of children dying from a suicide bomber blowing up a café. I don’t bat an eye and comment on the framing of the shot and look up aid organizations in the region. I send Doctors Without Borders five dollars and continue reading about the attack.

Pippa is disturbed that I don’t do much crying when people die. “What’s wrong with you?” she asks, and I find myself asking the same question. It’s a free pass to be inconsolable, and I never take it. I restock the napkin holder and search for more ice, instead.

The elementary school nurse is surprised that I have been stung several times by a hornet and reacted by walking into her office, holding out my arm, and announcing, “I think it was a hornet this time. Can I have some ice?” without shedding a tear or hissing in pain. I go back outside immediately.

You just disconnect, float above it all, and never, ever think about it again with an ounce of vulnerability. I let myself fly into that second place that isn’t here and lose myself in the quiet.

But I’m not entirely deadened to emotion, that certainly is clear. I save it all for the trivial, selfish stuff. I get depressed about nothing, spend time staring at walls and lying in bed. I have panic attacks and freak out about imagined gas fumes. I cry about writing essays. I am often consumed by shame and self-loathing. Cecelia’s phone can tell you just how often I reach out to her when I’m upset. And I am also one of those saps who bursts into tears during Water.org’s videos about bring wells to impoverished people or during Matthew’s proposal in Downton Abbey.

Sometimes I ask for the balance to be switched. How much more social acceptable, easier, and moral it would be to react so extravagantly to life changing things. Let’s bring it back to zero, re-calibrate, and begin again. Please, God? If not for me, for the people I affect?

But of course that never changes. My brain came wired a certain way. I was a glum child, prone to tears and insecurities, more likely to play by myself in the corner than hang out with other children. There are infinite memories of wandering around classrooms and playgrounds at recess, lost in my own thoughts, creating narratives describing what I saw or creating stories about lives I imagined living. Why chase people across the asphalt when you can sit under the slide and pretend to live on the Prairie in 1870.

There’s my school picture from when I was four: sad faced and looking sightly away from the camera, arms folded on top of a book, the page open to a picture of an owl swooping down on a mouse. The memory of being told to smile, but instead staring past the photographer to the other children running about and playing, wondering what it would be like to join in, but knowing all the same that I wouldn’t. One more day of walking in circles, thinking and waiting for something extraordinary to happen.

I tell Cecelia that I’m feeling sad right now, and I suppose I am on some level—the allure of lying down and enjoying the silence of my bedroom is tantalizing, a sure sign of something being wrong—but I feel just fine. I’ll have heard from all of the schools within a week, and then I’ll begin to plan.

For now, I’ll think of ways to decorate a dorm room and pretend that I’m the main character in the novel I’m writing, a girl who is always like the animated, foot-in-mouth, passionate about everything Ella. I’m so very tired.

Tomorrow, we’ll go on a rollicking adventure where I’ll be the bouncy, extroverted Ella I’m half of the time. We’ll be goofy and happy together. I promise.

On another note, I learned today that lucid dreaming isn’t something that everybody does. I’ve been aware that I am dreaming and capable of waking myself up or changing the dream ever since I can remember. When I talk about waking up screaming and punching, it’s because I’m sort of physically fighting my way awake, not because I’m suddenly in a panic.

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Teaching, Youth, Oxymorons, and Me

The sky was oddly bright today when it was time for the students to go home. Daylight Savings never fails to startle me–what a difference an hour brings.

I looked up from my desk which was littered with mostly graded tests and book reports, knickknacks confiscated from students’ desks, and a large bottle of mango lassi. If I were less exhausted, I would have crossed the room to open the blinds further and fully enjoy the late afternoon sun, but instead, I just looked out at the parking lot and pinched the bridge of my nose. 5:30 p.m. only half an hour to go before quitting time.

It’s odd to be the one at the big desk, the one sitting in the swivel chair of power, and it’s stranger still to actually be partially responsible for a classroom full of seven-year-olds. Less than a year ago, I still had my knees shoved under a student’s desk, fidgeting uncontrollably, and waving my hand in the air. My appearance hasn’t changed in the slightest, and I’m hardly any wiser, and yet the kids look at me as if I have all the answers. They don’t know that in many ways, I’m still as much a child as they are. I’m still wide-eyed, a little too naive, and the day when I think before I act is still a long time coming.

But I just smile and answer their questions. Yes, you’re supposed to underline the subject and circle the verb, and no, you’re not allowed to go to the bathroom in the middle of a lesson. I mess up, accidentally spell things in French instead of English when it’s late on a Friday and my brain is muddled beyond belief (5:30 wake ups are not my friend) or mess up the instructions for a grammar worksheet, and they forgive me instantly. We start over again until we all get it right.

They ask funny questions, “Are you married? Do you have children?” And all I can do is laugh and say “one day, but not now.” They don’t know that “one day” is farther away than they probably think. Give me half a decade, and then we’ll reassess. The rest of the staff can’t seem to guess my age. “Are you in high school yet, sweetheart? My daughter’s your age–she’s a sophomore right now. When did you graduate from college?” I just want to finish microwaving my soybeans and rice. I’m an oxymoron. A jumbo shrimp, if you will.

I’ve put my foot down as far as discipline goes–if you start skipping on the way to the bathroom, you will go back to the classroom door and repeat your journey until you can walk quickly and quietly, during silent reading, we are going to adhere to both words, and if you show anymore sass, you’re going to the principal’s office–but the fun remains. I tell stories at snack, sit with them at lunch, and let them dance to the Jackson Five for a few minutes in the afternoon. In a weird way, I feel like I’m babysitting, only instead of getting insomnia-ridden two-year-olds to bed, I’m just trying to get seven-year-olds to pay attention. Both tasks are not for the faint of heart or the impatient, but that moment when you sit back and take a big sigh of relief, knowing that you’ve just done something good and worthwhile, taken care of a child’s need, makes all of the frustration and exhaustion worth it.

We’ll make it work whether I’m fifty-eight or eighteen. I’ve got more papers to grade, more power-points to be created, and more lessons to be planned. Tomorrow will be here in a matter of minutes and unlike last year, falling asleep in the classroom would result in more than a trip to the nurse.

How to Stun Second-Graders Into Silence

It’s not easy to stun a room of second-graders into silence, but I guarantee that this picture will do it:

We were discussing different cultures, and when we put this picture up on the Smart Board, 25 seven-year-olds gasped and gawked.

Maybe it’s the sea-green eyes or the piercing stare, but this Afghani girl has that same effect on people of all ages. She’s become iconic, an image many people conjure up when they think of National Geographic.

I will never forget my own reaction to discovering the original photograph while digging through old issues of the magazine when I was ten. She looks both terrifying and terrified. The horrors of war and an escape to a Pakistani refugee camp are conveyed in the way she almost glares at the camera. You feel as if she isn’t just captured on the page, she’s staring right at you, and she knows all of your secrets.

At the time, I screamed and slammed the cover face-down onto the floor, but a moment later, I flipped it back over to take another peek. As scary as the image can be, you feel compelled to stare back, to lock eyes with the image, and puzzle out the her almost baffling beauty.

If you haven’t seen the image before, I’d love to hear what you think of it in the comments. Did you startle the way I did or did you gasp and stare like my students?

If you’re interested, there is an article about going back to find the girl seventeen years later. It’s amazing, and the picture Steve McCurry took is just as striking.

I’ve had this new layout around for a few weeks now, and I’m curious to know whether you like it or not.

And it’s that time again. I’m writing this week’s Reader-Selected post tomorrow and need you to vote for the topic.

I also hang out at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, where I sometimes reblog pictures as beautiful as this one.

Pippa’s Boarding School Stories

Having Pippa home for the weekend means that I get to hear all sorts of hilarious boarding school stories. When I’m not being regaled with tales of a boy taking off running to avoid a drug test and then disappearing for days, I’m giggling at Pippa’s other slightly scandalous tales.

“Then the hockey guys got mad about the dress code and didn’t wear their pants to class. Instead, they wore their suit jackets, ties, and oxfords over their under-armor tights.”

“And then to get back at his girlfriend for breaking up with him, he decides to cut his hair into a mullet. Obviously, it did not work. And then a bunch of other guys did it too, and someone else’s girlfriend dumped them because they couldn’t deal with the mullet. Mullets are never the way to go.”

“Oh, someone started a Gossip Girl-esque Facebook and Twitter account where they share all the gossip about people. It’s really popular. My roommate last year was on it a lot.”

“So, you know, he looks like a Hollywood kind of guy, but the type that always plays hockey players because he is a hockey player.”

I am absolutely entranced by these stories because they nearly all sound like the sort of events that only exist in novels, tv shows, and movies, only I’ve visited the school and can actually verify that they’re the truth.

Boarding school is a whole other world filled with cocaine expulsions, designer purses used as backpacks, and endless dances. If I had the opportunity, I would love to be a fly on the wall and observe these strange and often over-privileged kids in action as they go about their business in preppy clothes. Alas, I am not an Animagi nor have the power to shrink, so I’ll just have to keep hanging on every last one of Pippa’s words and keeping notes on the funny and interesting things she reports.

You can also find me collecting lovely images and words on tumblr athttp://emleng93.tumblr.com/. I’d love for you to follow me on my trek into the wilds of tumblr.

Explorations in the World of Ella’s Nutrition

Winning the reader-selected topic poll with an impressive 33.33% of the vote, I thought I’d talk about nutrition and body image today. However, instead of focussing on my own nutrition and body image, I thought I’d talk about some of my second-grade students and how the girls are already beginning to perceive themselves as fat and unattractive.

I was standing in the hall today, while the students were lining up to go to the bathroom, and one of the little girls came up to me and gave me a hug. It was incredibly sweet, and as I untangled her arms and sent her back to her place in line she said, “Wow. You’re so skinny. I wish I were thin like you. You ate a huge bowl of soup at lunch, and you’re still soooooooo skinny.”

(Necessary background information: I am currently around five foot four and around 104 pounds. In short, I am underweight and probably look it.)

I was shocked. Sure, I get bizarre questions and comments from kids all day long (Today, one of the boys wanted to know if the carved wooden monkey bead on my necklace was a real monkey that I had trained to stay still, and another boy is convinced that jalapenos don’t actually exist.), but I’ve never heard anything like this. It certainly would have been easy to laugh it off with a “thank you, that’s very sweet,” but I do not want to become another member of society telling these girls that in order to feel good about yourself, you have to be underweight.

While I stood there trying to come up with an appropriate response, other girls started to chime in as well, making comments about the small size of my waist and wrists. If I wasn’t teaching second-graders, I would have loved to be able to have a frank talk with the girls about body image, but seven-year-olds aren’t ready for that. Instead, I pointed out that my mother is also quite thin and that metabolism and size are often hereditary. I told them about my frequent bike-rides, and pointed out that while I did eat a lot of split pea soup at lunch, it was low in sodium, organic, and homemade. My entire lunch was well below four hundred calories.

I tried to emphasize that being thin doesn’t mean that you are healthy and that you do not need to worry about being thin while you’re seven. I have absolutely no idea if any of it sank in, but I’m glad that I did not allow myself to become part of the silent majority that urges girls to be thinner, thinner, thinner and makes them feel bad about themselves if they don’t look like the ideal girl that the media portrays.

I know that it is impossible for a world to exist where people never worry about body image, but I do know that if whenever possible we all take a stand and model healthy body-image and food relationships, we can create a world where I don’t have seven-year-old students obsessing about their weight. As a still recovering anorexic who started down that path when I was eight (if you want my anorexia story, click here), I know that it is imperative for girls (and boys) to have healthy role-models in their lives if they want to prevent themselves from falling down the rabbit-hole of eating disorders.

You can also find me collecting lovely images and words on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/. I’d love for you to follow me on my trek into the wilds of tumblr.

How to Shut Up a Bully in French Class

The reader selected post for last week was a tie between “How to Shut Up a Bully in French Class” and “Explorations in the World of Ella’s Nutrition.” And as I’ve spent a portion of this evening discussing classroom dynamics with my mother, I’m going to write about the former.

Freshman year of high school was terrifying. I began the year with few friends in my classes, and the high school was huge–two buildings and close to two thousand students. I was absolutely adrift. I don’t think I had any friends over at my house until about March, and if it weren’t for meeting Cecelia and hanging by Tal at lunch and Audrey in English and History, I would have turned into even more of a wallflower. My life revolved around reading in my bedroom and observing other people. It was pathetic and extremely depressing.

Ella at fourteen.

What I probably looked like 90% of the time, minus the billowing flannel nightgown.

Of course, none of this is to say that my life remained this way for the rest of high school. The next year, everything did an almost a complete 180° shift, and I was constantly busy and surrounded by friends.

But for that first year, I was downright miserable, and it showed, the way that those things often do. It wasn’t that I cried or walked around looking distraught, I was just wide-eyed, quiet, and very timid–a perfect combination for being bullied.

French class was the worst. I knew no one, there was extreme familial pressure to do well (We’re French for pity’s sake, Ella! You should be able to communicate with your grandmother and great-aunts by now!), and my fear of making mistakes was amplified tremendously. I was not going to be the person who made themselves look ridiculous in front of the entire class. And of course, the exact opposite was what went down.

There was a senior boy still stuck in French II, who despite not being particularly smart, had a mean streak a mile wide and managed to extremely intimidate me by flippantly breaking rules and constantly talking about being on the varsity wrestling team.

You should never doubt the fear that a letterman jacket with the words “Varsity Wrestling” can instill in a freshman girl. Some part of me was sure that if I did anything to offend him, I would be find myself with both arms pinned
behind my back and my face smashed into the linoleum. And having once slammed my face into a concrete curb while being chased by a vicious goose (true story), I was already intimately aware of the sensation of hitting your head on something hard enough to bruise your brain and nearly fracture your skull.

So a few weeks into the class, this kid (who amusingly shares a name with an ex-boyfriend, though the similarities stop there), discovered that I was rather vulnerable and very worried about grades.

He may have been seated all the way across the classroom, but he managed to find out what I scored on everything from homework to the midterm and mocked me for it. The teasing got worse whenever I had to give a presentation or do anything that required me to speak in front of the class. But having been heavily bullied in elementary school, I tried to do what I did then and just turned the other cheek. I figured that if I ignored him long enough, he’d give up.

Unfortunately, turning the other cheek does not work in all cases of bullying. I just had to ride out large portions of elementary school, and this charming boy was making it look like I was going to have to spend French class the same way. You can spend all the time in the world thinking about Jesus, the Scriptures, and the importance of forgiveness. You can even pray quietly in class for God to grant you the ability to forgive the bully and for the tormenting to stop, but it’s pretty rare that the bullying will entirely stop unless you also take some form of assertive action.

One day in the spring, I was staring our of the window thinking about the Confession of Sin while our teacher passed back our latest test. When my teacher dropped mine on my desk, I noticed that I had earned a 93%, despite all of the time I had spent studying. I had been worrying about the oral section for days, and seeing that I had, in fact, not done very well on that section was frustrating and very discouraging. I knew at that point that I was going to be spending the summer in France studying at a university and living with a host family. My current speaking skills needed quite a bit of improvement. Close to six weeks alone in a country where I didn’t speak the language was already stressing me out. So I tugged on my hair, bit my lip, and tried very hard not to cry.

At this point, the boy had already noticed not only my grade, but also that I was close to crying. But as he began to mock my reaction, I realized something: I have a high A average in this class, I thought, He is nearly failing it for a third time. Putting aside the morals of bullying, he just doesn’t have the authority from which to criticize my grades. And I knew what I needed to do.

I looked up, tucked my hair back behind my ear, and said in a voice loud enough to be heard by him and most of the class, but still be ignored by the teacher, “Hey, at least I get ninety-threes. When was the last time you even got close to an A?”

A few people made ooooh’s and laughed, but he just opened and shut his mouth like an unintelligent goldfish. I turned back to my test and neatly filed it away in my binder, smiling a little at my jab. Score one for Ella.

And while I wish that I could say that he never did anything to me again, that would be a lie. But the teasing certainly did decrease, and I got better at standing up for myself.

Years later, I’ve continued to think about the incident–my joy to have come up with my own stinging retaliation, his shock, and the bullying before and after–and I must admit that I actually feel bad for him. Being a senior in a room full of freshman and sophomores must be rough, particularly if you are very close to failing the course. You can’t graduate without fulfilling your foreign language requirements, and I’m sure he was worried about not being able to leave in June. No one wants to be in high school forever, and I also know that when I feel stressed and ashamed, I don’t always act with grace.

This is not to say that I’m okay with what he did–hurting people, no matter how you are feeling is wrong and deplorable–but I understand how he must have felt. No one ever acts without a motivation, and that motivation is almost always emotion-based. I hope that my response to his bullying didn’t further harm his own self-esteem, and I wonder now if it would have been better to just continue turning the other cheek, even if what he said upset me. But such is the way of the past and former choices–what happened happened, and getting stuck debating what could have been is never productive.

Here’s the poll for next week’s post.

Rules: You can only vote once and select up to four choices before hitting “vote.” Unfortunately, if you hit “vote” without selecting multiple options, you will be unable to go back and select other choices as well. I’m sorry, but that’s the way the poll website runs. Additionally, when I did have unlimited voting on previous polls, some people used it to vote upwards of eighty times for their favorite. And as I’d prefer for this blog to run as fairly and democratically as possible, rules have become a necessity.

Happy voting!

You can also find me collecting lovely images and words on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/. I’d love for you to follow me on my trek into the wilds of tumblr.

In Which Ella Gets Fingerprinted

It is probably pretty rare for someone to get incredibly excited about going to the police station to get fingerprinted.

And no, I did not get arrested, though I did get in a lot of trouble with a police officer for stepping in wet concrete when I was eleven (it turns out that wet and dry concrete look suspiciously similar and usually you aren’t expecting the apron of your own driveway to not be solid). I’m just getting an official background check so that I can volunteer at my mother’s school, which is also fairly dangerous. I hear that one of her students accidentally sent an eraser flying across the classroom a few days ago and you should never doubt the terror of having twenty-five kids declare mutiny.

Don’t you like how I didn’t go on a rant about how SOPA and PIPA are going to destroy the internet? I had to metaphorically keep both hands clamped over my mouth for the entire post. If you are looking for my political anger, you can find bits of it amongst pretty pictures and quotes on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com.

Saturday will be reader selected post day, and you can vote on the topic below. I’ve reset the poll so that you can only vote four times. One person voted about eighty times in under five minutes when I hadn’t restricted it previously, so now we must have rules.

Feel free to add your own requests in the “other” section, and if I like it, I’ll update the poll and make them additional choices. Have fun clicking your allotted four times. Click, click, click, click!

Guinea Pigs Are Soft As a Baby’s Butt and Other Test Responses From Seven-Year-Olds

One of the best parts of having a mother for a teacher is getting to hear about the silly things that her students do. I’m a particular fan of their writing. Here’s an excerpt from one student on their recent test on banking.

Something I would want to borrow money for is to buy a guinea pig because they are solf as a baby butt. Another reason why I would buy a guinea pig is because they look adorable. The lost reason is because they are healthy. What would you do if you could borrow money?

Soft as a baby’s butt? Too funny!

Also, she only made about two grammatical errors and two spelling mistakes, which is pretty darn amazing for a seven-year-old!

And did I mention that my mom teaches at a charter school in the inner city? Nearly every kid is on free or reduced lunch, and they don’t have access to the same materials I did growing up. Many don’t have computers or more than a few books in the house. Considering where the kids started the year, seeing them being able to write like this is phenomenal!

Still. Soft as a baby’s butt? I. Can’t. Stop. Laughing.

Also, one of her students recently wrote a story called “My Dirty Shirt” about the day he got mud on his church shirt. Unfortunately, he forgot the “r” in “shirt.” That mistake has been the best one so far.

I love children so much.

I’m keeping the voting open for about a week longer on the first two polls below. I’d really like to know what people did and didn’t like about my daily posting in 2011, and what they’d like to see in 2012. Finally, you can vote at the bottom for what you’d like to see in tomorrow’s post.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

In Which Ella Gets Suspicious

This evening I was carrying a basket of laundry to the basement when someone knocked on the front door. And when I looked through the window to see who it was, I saw an old man, holding up a badge that said he was a school security guard. The picture on the badge matched his face and the badge was the same type that all the school security guards wear, so I opened the door and asked him what he needed.

It turns out he wanted my neighbor’s phone number so that he could establish their residency in the town. He said that they weren’t answering the door. Now, I do know that the town has been having a problem with out of district students, but my neighbors have had their kids in the public school system since they were in kindergarden. The oldest one is fifteen and a high school sophomore! It’s not like they’re renting their house, either. They own it, which means that if you go town hall, you can see the official documents proving that they own the house, live in it, and pay their taxes. Having a school security officer come to their house is entirely unnecessary when one phone call or quick look over their records would confirm the obvious.

Then, the guy said that he couldn’t get into the house because of the dog, which also struck me as strange because they have a very docile golden retriever. He also said he was trying to go knock on their back door. It was all very weird, and I stood there a little dumbstruck as I watched him walk across their yard and to their gate.

So thirty minutes later, I spoke to my neighbor about what I had seen happen. It turns out that they were home the entire time and never heard a knock or the doorbell, and he let the dog out of the backyard. They had to go scouring the neighborhood to find her.

I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m really hoping that no one tries to break into any of our houses. And if they try to get into our house, the joke’s really on them. We’ve got double locking windows, no hidden keys, and a security system. They’d either be unable to get in or get caught by the police very quickly.

It wasn’t until the security officer left that I realized that I had been holding the laundry the entire time I was talking to him, and all of the underwear was on top. This is one of the many reasons I am glad I’m no longer in high school. I’m never going to have to see that guy again, knowing that he saw all of my underwear. Of course, the underwear matters very little compared the potential security threat.

In other news, no screaming and convulsion inducing nightmares last night!

In other, other news, I have eighty percent of a very long post drafted about the remainder of my adventures in the city on the day of Maureen Johnson’s book launch party for The Name of the Star. Expect it tomorrow. Warning: Good things happen.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if you’re into that kind of thing.