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.

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.

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!

In Which Ella Surprisingly Ends Up Helping to Teach A Kindergarden Class

Note: I had planned for today’s post to be a continuation of the story I was telling yesterday from the time I went to the Maureen Johnson book launch, but then I realized that tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and it would be much better to have a pre-written post for then.

Also, I have fun news to share!

Today, instead of writing doggedly at home, taking breaks, of course, to slam my forehead repeatedly into the table and drink way too much orange juice, I went into my mom’s school to help out. Now, I had been planning to do this for some time now, but it had taken quite a while for the proposal to work its way through the administration. But it entirely was worth it–spending the day in an inner city school is both incredibly fun and exciting. (Or at least that’s the way it felt for me, an eighteen-year-old who has a great deal of energy and almost boundless enthusiasm when it comes to kids.)

I started out just observing my mom’s class, which she teaches with another lovely woman, but after lunch I got to help out with their social studies lesson. They were supposed to watch a video made by the organization that runs Plimouth (how they spell it, for some reason–I always thought it was with an y.), have a discussion, and fill out a outline of the facts they learned before they wrote a letter to a child who lived through the first year of settlement. (We used the real names of the Plimouth children for this activity. Believe it or not, some of the kids had names like “Wrestling,” “Helpless,” “Dust,” “Delivery,” and “Ashes.”)

However, in the way that most things tend to go when it comes to kids or lesson plans, it did not go exactly as planned. The computer malfunctioned, turning the video into a series of brightly flashing pixels and a disembodied voice that sounded half like Sarah Palin and half like a robot, sending the class into peals of giggles. But my mom picked things back up again by just explaining the gist of the movie and drawing pictures with the LCD projector (It’s crazy how much technology has changed in the past eleven years. All we ever had in second grade was an overhead projector and three, bright blue Macs.).

I also got to use the pointer tool to point out the countries in Europe, explain religious persecution, and debunk a few common Thanksgiving misconceptions. (My mother had told me the night before that I was under no circumstances to tell them that European settlers started genocides, destroyed entire cultures, and were generally brutal to the native peoples. I was to keep it at “unfairly killed and hurt” for the day.)

But then the acting principal knocked on the door, called me “sweetheart” in an incredibly saccharine way (something I had sincerely hoped would have ended since I’m now an adult), and asked me to go help out in the kindergarden classroom. More than a little shocked, I followed orders and walked into the kindergarden classroom where the kids were having their Thanksgiving Day party. I’ve recently been babysitting several kids who are in kindergarden, so I felt right at home. They’re still at that wonderful age where they are (mostly) angelic and will try desperately to do the right thing to get your attention and affirmation.

I mostly spent the duration of their party checking homework and pulling together worksheets, while watching the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special (which, by the way, is  somewhat racist, paints the Pilgrims as huge heros, and portrays all parties involved as complete caricatures of themselves–and people wonder why I’ve never liked Charlie Brown or Disney movies) out of the corner of my eye. But then, school technically ended and “homework club” began. I read them two stories and then spent the next two hours, either squatting on the floor or perched in a very low chair, helping the kids with their math.

I must admit that I loved it. The kids were so sweet and were all trying very, very hard. One girl was having a lot of trouble forming her numbers properly and was printing them upside down and/or backwards, and while it was challenging, I really enjoyed working with her to write them correctly. One of the little boys kindly brought her a chart showing the letters and the way to form them in big print, and she very slowly managed to get it. Of course, this is not to say that the problem is entirely fixed, because an issue like that takes a lot of practice to correct, but it was a lot of fun helping her work through her frustration and succeed, and I’m looking forward to continuing working with her on it in the future. I have every confidence that she’ll get over this mistake. Pippa, after all, used to write her name like it was a mirror image of itself (every letter was backwards and in reverse order), and she’s turned out just wonderfully.

Also, giving little kids high-fives and pound-it’s is a tremendous amount of fun, and I’m coming up with all sorts of new ways to say “good job,” so I don’t sound like a broken record each time they figure something out. My current favorite is “rock on!” which the kids seem to find particularly funny.

But perhaps the best part about working with those kids is that I feel like I get to fix the mistakes that I thought my elementary school teachers made with me. I really want to give kids tons of praise, convince them that it is good to make mistakes and take risks, and tell them that they are smart and capable at every turn. If I had been given more of that, those unhappy years could have been greatly improved.

By the end of the day, I could throughly understand why my mother comes home so exhausted each night. (There aren’t many jobs where you are at work from seven a.m. to six p.m.-ish and spending many hours doing massive amounts of work at home.) But for right now, I’m totally in love with the whole experience and rearing to go back.

Thankfully, I’m babysitting some of the world’s sweetest children on Sunday evening, and I get to see my young cousins tomorrow, so I won’t be totally without young children in my life for too long.

On another note, Cecelia came home today, and I got to spend several hours with her this evening. We ended up driving around, looking at the skyline, with all of the buildings lit up and the light pollution turning the sky over the city an odd shade of purple-red and the low-laying clouds, grey tinged with orange, watching Obama’s speech at the 2011 White House Press Correspondents Dinner (this was my eighth viewing), and a plethora of time-lapse videos. It was loads and loads of fun and exactly the sort of low-key activity I needed before being surrounded by massive amounts of family for close to 48 hours. Also, I have missed her terribly since I last saw her in October (check out In Which Ella Gets Caught in the Rain, Tells Stories from Middle School, and Visits Cecelia at Yale, if you’d like to hear about that adventure.).

For the month, you can find me updating my word count on NaNoWriMo here. (I need to do it more regularly so that it doesn’t become flat for a few days, only to receive an enormous spike, indicating that I somehow magically wrote about twelve thousand words in one day.)

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.

My Mother and Waking Up When It’s Sunny Outside

I woke this morning at five a.m. because I had set my alarm clock. It’s an attempt to learn to wake up at an healthy hour, but I’m afraid that all I’m doing is training myself to sleep through the alarm. And, sleeping through alarms is already a problem and the exact reason why I have this alarm set for an ungodly article.

But I got back to sleep, and slept all the way until nine thirty when the sun glinting off of the snow was blinding me. Even the cats were squinting and blinking rapidly as they readjusted their bodies so that their faces pointed away from the windows. I lay there and drifted in and out of sleep–stuck in that sleep stage where you have crazy dreams about having lunch with Ian Hamilton and J.D. Salinger–until my mother burst into my room. She threw the New Yorker at me so that I could read the Steven Millhauser fiction piece, and she told me that she thought that I wrote like him. Then, I had to get out of bed, so I could do ridiculous victory leaps across my bedroom in my grandmother-like nightgown.

On another note, my mother is in school to become a elementary school teacher because that’s what all normal Midtown attorneys decide to do once they hit 46. It’s amusing to see how she transforms herself the moment she comes into contact with younger children. She suddenly starts smiling and squats down to their level as she reads them a story or ties their shoes. It’s a complete role reversal from how she acts with us older folks. She isn’t obsessive and argumentative with them. Perhaps that’s because the power struggles with eight-year-olds are much more mild than her battles with the rest of us. Don’t get me wrong, though. I love my mother. It’s just that I’m a teenager and she’s my mother, so we’re pretty much obligated to have squabbles.

I was sitting in the Child Study Team office in school over a week ago and talking about her with my case manager (I swear that I’m no delinquent), and he couldn’t understand her decision, either. He, like me, thinks that she’s far too academic for the job. But as I realized when I was eating lunch today, anyone who can parent me certainly does love children and must have an honest-to-God talent for handling them, even if that ability seems unbelievable. After all, I did do things like try to eat newspaper in the middle of a panic attack (before I even knew what panic attacks were) when I was seven, and spend hours and hours doing homework because I was too busy doing back-bends off of the couch or picking up every single small object in the study.

I guess the woman isn’t so awful. I haven’t turned out half-bad, and she thinks that I can actually write well. Even though we might not always get along, I really do love her. And because of my lunch time thinking, I know that she’ll be a great teacher. I’ve prepped her for the worst.

And so ends my first blog post. A ramble-y endeavor that leaves much to be desired. However, for a first attempt, I’ll take it.