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Motherhood 1 comment

Once again, Mother’s Day rolls around and I find myself in a pensive, reflective sort of place.  Looking back, or down as my colleagues would say from my standard perspective of 50,000 feet, a pattern emerges. Early May is always the end of two long semesters, and that always feels like the end of a marathon, emotionally. This year has been especially challenging, with the stress of a potential strike, and the sense of powerlessness one has to do anything at all, individually, to affect the eventual outcome. The deeper frustration at having no ability to affect the systemic issues that would cause such a disruptive and disturbing action to even be considered.

All that aside, teaching is a kind of parenting, I think. I recognized a while back that I engage with my teaching practice as a sort of parent/guardian/mid-wife/mentor/coach. I’m not interested in lecturing and I have no confidence at all in such a dynamic resulting in any “learning” of any kind. I’m constantly scheming about fun ways we can get groups of students involved in classroom activities that help them learn and practice their communications skills. Sometimes I think these are more fun than my students do. Also true of parenting, perhaps.

Where teaching – formal teaching – and parenting are different has to do with evaluation. In my experience, healthy parents love their children unconditionally. Without reserve as to their actual level of skill or knowledge. And here is where it gets emotionally tricky for the parenting teacher, because it is our job to evaluate, to judge. To assess whether skills and knowledge have actually been acquired and successfully demonstrated. Unlike some of the more quantitative skill sets, evaluating communications skills is tricky and somewhat subjective. There are some very good communicators who are not so good with funky details of applied English. There are extremely poor communicators who managed to ace all their quizzes and any assignments that did not involve eye contact, and thus will pass the course.  There are students who hate anything to do with communicating who cannot understand why this is important or relevant in any way.

As a “parent” figure, I get a little attached to them all – and herein lies the danger for me. I don’t want to fail any of these, my pseudo-children. I feel affection for them – I find most of their quirky, undisciplined, messy, “sense of entitlement” selves endearing. I want them to succeed, to feel like they are successful. I hate being the judge. But I am. And, this past term, it was my job to fail roughly 20% of my communications class. It simultaneously breaks my heart and makes me angry.

I challenge anyone who thinks that teaching is a cushy, over-paid  job to actually do it, full-time, for two semesters running. Then, we’ll talk.

I had an awesome good news story this term, though, and it taught me a lot. In the Fall 09 semester, a student came to me mid-point in the term and explained that her parents had arranged for her to get engaged in Dubai during the last three weeks of term. This young woman has aspirations of becoming a journalist someday and so she knew that this communications course would be important to her. However, her actual ability in this area was proving to be rather weak. Not “failing” weak, but weak. As it happens, the last three weeks of this course involve working in a team to research and deliver a presentation. Thus, if she was going to be out of the country, it would be impossible for her to complete the work.

We worked out a compromise. I gave her an “Incomplete” and offered to have her return to my class in Winter 10 (this past term) to complete the team project with another class. She did so, contacting me exactly on schedule and arriving in class exactly as I had asked her to. There was a change in her. In the intervening three and a half months, she had matured and she was clearly able to demonstrate and use the communications skills I had been mentoring her class through the previous term, even though her average at the time she departed was around 57%. Her team, under her leadership, rocked the final presentation. This was a revelation to me – that students, even weak ones, continue to “learn” the material AFTER the course is over. This makes me feel better about the 10 or 15% who SHOULD have failed, but didn’t because of the strength of their quizzes, the mid-term or their group effort. Maybe some stuff will sink in and re-surface later. One can only hope.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before – here it is again in a slightly different context. I’ve always been a bit of a language nazi. Good writing makes me swoon and bad writing makes me gag. This has been true since about Grade Six, I think. So, I was well-entrenched as the self-appointed language police in my household from an early age. When my oldest brother was living in Saskatchewan for a time, lightyears before the age of the Internet, my mother would pain-stakingly write him one page, hand-written notes, usually weekly. She would sweat and labour over each phrase. Her letters wound up reading a bit like this:

Dear Ben,

Harvest todday again, beans. Almost done here, going to Thomas place tomorrow. Combine jammed but it is ok now. Mae brought kool-aid, cherry, and a pie. Too hot but can’t wait. Bails dry soon but no time. John Deere had oil. Leaky again but Aubrey had the right hose and fixed. With clamps. Charlie got a new radio, Fred Woods says new fridge back-ordered. Made cookies. How are you?

Love, Mom

Once, when I was about 16, I came upon her writing one of these, with her face wrenched up in serious concentration, the clicker end of her pen in her mouth as she thought. I scoffed, rolled my eyes and generally behaved like a 16 year old know-it-all who could critique the mechanics but missed, entirely, the depth of communication and love that was being successfully poured into each note. I feel ashamed when I think of this incident and I note, ruefully, that I do not have any such letter from my mother, even though I moved permanently away from home when I was 18, and 20 years would pass before her death. She would not bring herself before the language police again, and I don’t blame her.

But what I wouldn’t give for one of those letters.

I remember this incident often and it helps me be a better teacher. Clearly, for some people writing is extremely difficult. For others, it is easier. Put another way: some very good, talented, valuable, smart people are terrible writers.  Being a good writer does not necessarily translate into being a good person. My role, my job, is just to teach a skill. Try to help each individual express themselves a bit better when they leave my course than when they started.  If they reach a certain external standard, I have to let them move on to the next challenge. That is the best I can do.

Thanks, Mom … Happy Mother’s Day!

Mother’s Day 3 comments

It has been roughly seven weeks since I’ve been able to even consider blogging. I can’t really apologize for this as it has been a fantastic seven weeks. I’m clearly in a “work hard, play hard” phase of my life and it takes me away from some of the processing place I get into when I write. I do miss it and I hope to find a way to integrate it back in. As part of my weekly “to do” list ritual, I keep a list of notes on future blog posts, little text sketches of things I need to say, or mull over, or share. I re-write the list each week, and usually add one or two ideas … their time will come.

“Work hard, play hard.” My Mom would SO approve of this. Of “getting out there”, as she would say. Trying things, finding barriers, working around them. Making mistakes. Responding carefully to that reality. Giving. Taking. Playing fair. Laughing. Feeling blessed. Feeling hurt. Keeping it in perspective. Feeling loved. Not being afraid of the intensity. A little cowed, sometimes, but not letting that stop me. Keeping it real.

Yes, Mom would be pleased that my hands-on working/playing life has taken over from processing and analysis for a while. So, for Mother’s Day, I dedicate this entire active busy intense jam-packed spring season to the memory of my Mom. It was her favourite time of year anyway – she loved being out in the garden, fussing, planning. She died in her garden, in the spring of 1998. Death in a place of growth and possibility. In my experience, these last two – growth and possibility – trump death every time.

I hope everyone has enjoyed a connection with the maternal, however it appears, this weekend. Happy Mother’s Day!

Changed My Mind 1 comment

So, after the butter chicken / saag paneer / shrimp madras feast last night, Miriam and I swung by those two convenience stores on Gerrard that seem to be highly competitive regarding plants this time of year. When I drive by this corner, I hear Dueling Banjos in my head. Two Asian owners trying to out supply the neighbourhood in greenery.

They were the only places I could think of that might have a decent plant/flower at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday. One of them was open and I was utterly charmed by a yellow flower in a pot.

Me to Store Owner: This is really lovely – what kind of plant is it?

Store Owner, smiling broadly and helpfully: I have no idea! (laughter)

OK. Even though I'm the worst indoor or outdoor gardener in the world, as evidenced by the fact that I killed two of Martina's plants since she moved to Chicago, I've changed my plans because I'm quite smitten with this little plant. At first, I thought, well, I'll plant it here on the grounds of the building, somewhere inconspicuous. I looked around and didn't see a spot where someone wouldn't come along and point and say, "Contravenes our rules!" and yank it out. Then I thought, ok, I'll put it here in my window box. Then I looked at the window box and realized it needs more maintenance than I have the time or patience for today. Then, finally, I have decided to put it in one of the pots recently vacated by one of Martina's sorry bits of greenery. She was reasonably forgiving of me last weekend, but I doubt she'll leave anything green in my care again.

Like a lover who has jumped in bed before a suitable introduction, I am now staring shyly at this thing and wondering if it has a name. Instructions for care and feeding? A temperament to be considered? (Danica? Help!)

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Happy Mother’s Day! 3 comments

I'm trying to remember what I did on Mother's Day, 10 years ago, but I just can't pull up the specifics. I know I did *something*, probably some combination of card / flowers / dinner / visit. I remember clearly that I spoke with Mom a  few weeks later, on Wednesday, June 3, 1998, in the evening.  We talked every Sunday and every Wednesday. On that particular Wednesday, she was excited about being almost ready to go back to bowling, having almost fully recovered from carpal tunnel surgery on her wrists. She had survived two rounds with cancer, both treated surgically, and a chronic lung issue, probably emphysema, that was never properly treated. But what she was most excited about was getting movement back in her wrists and being "allowed" to return to bowling. She'd been to her GP that day, in fact, and, in addition to getting some prescriptions renewed, she got the a-ok for bowling, starting the following week.

My brother Ben jumped in on that call for a few minutes, as per usual, just to check in.

I was excited myself as my partner at the time, J, and I were flying out the next day for a four day getaway to Halifax, a city I'd visited briefly and really liked but hadn't explored much. We also had an overnight booked in Lunenberg that I was really looking forward to. I'm sure I rushed through this call with some impatience as I wasn't entirely packed and ready for an early flight the next day.

We closed with loving words, I recall. Rushed, but loving – as per usual.

Our dog, Freddie, was about seven months old and was staying with Dennis the dogwalker and Dennis' dog, Hennessy. Dennis had our trip itinerary, contact info and so on. No one else did – it was only four days after all.

Our flight was delayed for at least two hours on the tarmac @ Pearson. When we finally arrived in Halifax, it was go go go to explore and check it all out. On the Saturday night, our last night in Halifax before heading to Lunenberg, we landed at a lovely seafood place on the water. I had lobster and wine. I think the meal started with a bisque. I had an objective of eating as much lobster as possible on this trip. 🙂 We then proceeded (waddled) from the restaurant to a dessert place, the one down on the waterfront or close to it, for something yummy. Then to a nearby Irish pub and indulged in beer and singing and, well, carousing. Lots of singing. I loved it.

It just occurred to me that I have no photos of that trip at all.

Got back to our hotel room at about 12:30 or 1:00 a.m. There was a light flashing on the hotel phone and I knew immediately that something was very wrong. There were two messages to call home and the voices, my sister-in-law Sue and my brother David, were very distressed. I called David and learned that Mom had died, suddenly, in her rhubarb patch around dinner time the night before, on Friday. She wasn't found until the next morning by a neighbour who was quite traumatized by this. She had gone out to fetch rhubarb make her grandson, Alex, a pie for the next day. She apparently was lying there quite peacefully, with some rhubarb stalks in one hand and a plastic bag and a knife in the other. There was clearly no attempt on her part to rise – she was dead when she hit the ground, apparently.

Died, June 5, 1998 in the evening. However, the coroner issued the death certificate for June 6, 1998 as that is when she was found.

Stunning news to receive in a hotel room in Halifax after a raucous pub night. I went immediately into a state of functional shock. What has to be done? (emergency airline tickets back …)  Who has to be called? (the b & b in Lunenberg …) Air Canada was actually quite gracious and granted us compassionate seating at a reduced fare.

I remember lying awake staring at the ceiling all night. Still had alcohol from our night out in my body and the news was just too sudden to comprehend.

Things had been quite frantic back in Ontario as the family tried to track me down. Not only was Dennis the only one in Toronto who had our itinerary and contact info, he didn't live in the neighbourhood and only one other neighbour, @ #5, was connected to him in any way. In desperation, late on Saturday a.m., my friend Angela's brother, Greg, started knocking on doors at #1 to ask if anyone had our travel itinerary. Ed and Louise – neighbours who first introduced us to Dennis – knew how to reach him.

We know now that Mom had an aortic aneurysm. Ben has had one, and survived luckily, in 2005. Our maternal Grandma died suddenly too, at age 93, in front of her beloved 100 Huntley St. – we suspect aneurysm.  I'm having  some test done every few years to check the walls of the aorta but I don't have the stress of aging (not being 93 yet) or 40 years of smoking. I'm trying to remove the stress of extra weight.

I learned two things from this experience. Probably more, but two come to mind:

a) Leave contact information with more than one person.
E-mail makes this easy. Create a distribution list of half a dozen people who might need to reach you for some reason. Fire off flight and hotel/accommodation info. Dates, etc. Be reachable.

b) Tell the people you love that you love them. I miss my Mom, no question. I must mention this, especially to the people who knew her, frequently. She'd be insanely excited at how my life has turned out, the things I've done and the kind of work I've been able to do. She was pretty proud of me and never let me forget it and, you know, sometimes a girl just needs her cheering section. 🙂

What I do not have are regrets. Mom and I went through quite a long process regarding my lesbianism. She wound up with a comfort level that impressed me – she sure didn't start that way. She got there on her own, it seems. She was always loving and welcoming to my partners – but we were never allowed to sleep in the same bed in her house. Ever. I think she would have got there, eventually. She was on her way.

About five years before she died, I wrote her a one page letter, three paragraphs only I recall, thanking her for being such a great Mom. I heard my friends complaining about varying kinds of abuse, about being tossed out of their families for various reasons, about being left out of wills … and I looked back on my childhood, my relationship with my Mom and felt profoundly, deeply lucky. She did everything she could to give me a rich and complex life. Anything I indicated an interest in, or a passion for, she made it happen. Music, sports, theatre … she would drive me anywhere to do anything. Swimming, hockey, fastball, rehearsals … all pretty amazing given that we lived well away from town where most of this happened. I used to wonder if my Mom had a life. She did, she would say … me. How great, and humbling, is that?

It was my job to go through her papers after she died and that letter was on top of everything, on her dresser. She had a filing thing for papers, bills, important stuff, and that letter sat on top of it all. I'm told she showed it to every one of her friends after she received it. I think she looked at it a lot.

Note: If you decide to do this, and you are writing to someone over 60, write it, print it, sign it, snail mail it. Give them something tangible they can take to the coffee shop and show around.

So, as much as I miss my bi-weekly calls with Mom, and occasional visits, and making mental note of "Oh, I must tell Mom about this …" when interesting things happen … I don't feel that she and I had tons of unfinished business or baggage. It feels … clean. It's ok.

I'm going to mark Mother's Day this year by planting a flower in Freddie's favourite park, surreptitiously. 🙂 Perhaps over in a corner somewhere. We can go visit it when we walk there. 

I need to be reminded that when people are important to me, whether they carry the title of Mom or Mentor or Good Friend, I need to reach out and tell them that. It is important. They might not know if you don't tell them.

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