Saturday, April 22, 2017

An unfortunate (true) story about a substitute teacher, a third grade class, and a hamster

On Thursday when the bus dropped off my younger two daughters from school, my eight-year-old had pressing news.  "Five kids threw up in my classroom today and had to go home," she said. "One was sitting right beside me."

No parent ever wants to hear these words because you know, deep in your heart, that this isn't a mere statement.  It's a proclamation.  It's fair warning.  It's game on.  Your child is now a ticking time bomb inserted into your family structure with the power to bring you all down.

She was sick within hours.  The next morning, my oldest daughter also complained of an upset stomach and promptly joined the ranks of Sick Kramer Children Staying at Home.  I succumbed today.  None of this has surprised me.  Twelve years of parenting have taught me many lessons, including the innate knowledge that the stomach bug rarely stays contained.

But this isn't just a story about our family.  It's a story about the unfortunate substitute teacher who was in the third grade classroom that day -- you know, that fresh-out-of-college, maybe 23-year-old substitute who, perhaps like a young foal, is still finding her footing as an educator while the regular teacher recovers from surgery for a few weeks.

I immediately tried to imagine her day because, people, five kids vomiting in a third grade classroom is not ordinary.  It's a day that goes down in lore and gets referenced for years -- maybe decades -- to come, like the Blizzard of '93.

It's a day that lives in infamy.

I imagine her pausing in shock when the first child threw up, then springing into action and calling the custodian.  I see her regaining composure and re-establishing classroom order as the student was ushered to the nurse and the mess was cleaned.  But then the second kid threw up.  And then the third.  Then two more for good measure.

Somewhere along the line, I imagine her composure ending.

No.  No, no, no, no, no.  Dear Lord, no.

I didn't know that much stuff could come out of such a small person.

This is not what I signed up for.

That's it.  I'm showering in Lysol as soon as I get home.  

I will never wear these clothes again.

What are the odds of this happening while I'm subbing?  I've clearly been set up.  Recovering from surgery?  That's easy!  I'll take recovering from surgery compared to this!

Lysol is not enough.  This room must be destroyed, and I need a Hazmat suit.  I saw the movie Contagion, and this scene is eerily similar. There's no way today's going to end well.

(I'm speculating on that last one, but then again, I am the woman who proposed burning down her own house as a viable middle-of-the-night solution when a child throw up on our hallway carpeting.)

All told, the word on the street is that two more children threw up during their bus rides home.  One made it off the bus and then reached his yard, where he promptly threw up in the bushes.  Like my own daughter, more students got sick later in the evening.  I even saw the father of classmate at the grocery store that night buying ginger ale while I was picking up Saltine crackers.  (We nodded in solidarity.)  The substitute teacher had to take the next day off, and even Cupcake, the dearly loved classroom hamster, was sadly found the next morning resting in peace.

A day in infamy, I tell you.

Oh, substitute teacher, I'd raise my glass to you in your honor, but I can't hold down any liquids yet.  You have earned your stripes.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Hidden Truth Behind Easter Egg Hunts

Have you ever watched a children's Easter egg hunt?  Over the years, I've read several one-column write-ups in local newspapers describing these events, and each article is filled with pastel adjectives and sugar-laced plots that highlights the story of one toddler (always age two) who plucks eggs with childlike wonder while parents (armed with a camera) look on proudly.

Sweet, but that's not the whole story behind Easter egg hunts.  I know, because we just held a massive one.

It started weeks ago when my husband came home from church with a trough that was filled with empty plastic eggs.  He placed it in the center of our family room, where it would stand as a physical monument to the monumental task of stuffing obnoxious quantities of eggs with obnoxious quantities of candy.

As we started filling the eggs, I learned several important lessons.  For example, some candy will never fit inside the cozy confines of a plastic egg even though the packaging is prominently labeled with misleading phrases like "egg-stuffers."  Also, you might break certain child labor laws by unceremoniously employing your children to stuff eggs every time they near the room .  Finally, for every nine pieces of candy you'll stuff, you'll eat one.


Once the eggs are stuffed and sealed with a piece of painter's tape so they don't accidentally crack open when you scatter them across the field (last year's lesson), you host the actual event.  For us, the egg hunt was a portion of our children's church service this morning.

Just like the articles I've read, the children were adorable -- so, so adorable! -- and the sun shined, and the wind blew, and the eggs glittered in the field as good Easter eggs should.

But no newspaper article really captures the essence of a children's Easter egg hunt because they never admit how, in two minutes flat, an entire field is picked clean.  (The phrase "swarm of locusts" comes to mind, but perhaps that's not acceptable to print.)

You see, there's a certain Hunger-Games-like intensity among some older children who seem willing to trample that distracted toddler who simply cannot see the one egg that's directly in front of his foot, even though you're on the sidelines pointing, encouraging, and, as a final measure, sending adult-to-toddler mental telepathy: "It's right there, right in front of you.  See it?  It's a bright yellow plastic egg!  It's so close that you're practically stepping on it!  HOW DO YOU NOT SEE THIS?"

But by this point the hunt is finished, and the kids already surreptitiously have eaten a handful of treats.  As you gaze into their sweet eyes, glazed with the combination of competition and sugar, you remember why you're doing this in the first place, why you're holding an event where families gather on this holy day.

You smile broadly and say, "Come on, little peeps, it's all about Jesus. He's alive!  We're celebrating resurrection!"

And they're like, "Did you say Peeps?"

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Convinced that you're only succeeding at failing? Here's how break free.

Several encouraging things have happened to me recently.  I was selected to be my department's Faculty Marshal for the upcoming graduation.  I was able to speak into a student's life in a profound way.  I've had significant conversations with each of my children, and during these moments we've connected, really connected, because I listened more than I talked, which, I'm finding, is one of the hardest and wisest things for a parent to do as kids grow up.

Even more, a man who's relatively new to our town approached me at church and shared that his wife received a message from her friend in another state.  (North Carolina?  Wisconsin?  Florida?  The details have grown fuzzy.)  Her friend recommended that she read a blog, and when she visited the recommended blog, it was my blog.  She had paused, thinking, "Wait, I know this woman.  I just met her.  She brought us a meal."

My primary take-away from this exchange?  I have at least one reader who isn't personally related to me.  (Thank you, dear out-of-state, unrelated-to-me reader.)

Good things, all around.

On the flip side, I've been chronically exhausted lately.  Even when I get absurdly large quantities of sleep, like a nearly eleven-hour coma that spanned last Friday evening until Saturday morning, I wake feeling like I could immediately return to bed.  I'm not sure whether I'm suffering from mono, anemia, Lyme Disease, or some other energy-draining illness, or whether it's merely the cumulative fatigue of working, parenting, and going, going, going all the time.

In this exhausted state, even with several lovely things happening in my life, I hit a dark place one night last week.  It happened easily enough: this depleted version of myself was placed in the worst possible context (late evening, all alone), and I was armed with my own weapon of self-destruction (all forms of social media in one hand-held device: my phone).

The early stages were relatively benign.  I scrolled through pictures of celebrities, which is a default time-sucking endeavor when I'm especially listless, but then my searches hit closer to home: I scoured other author's blogs.  That's when the jungle drums began to pound and the comparisons began to surface.

The more sites I visited, the worse I felt.  Every blog looked more professional and popular than mine. (Better design! More comments! More followers!)  Every blogger seemed to be a master at SEO and social media marketing.

As I skimmed their posts, the words on the screen didn't fully register.  I was too occupied reciting a more powerful and harmful sub-text message: These people?  These other bloggers? They're the real deal.  You're an amateur.  You still don't know what you're doing with the technical side of blogging, even after doing it for years.

That inner voice, emboldened by how easily I swallowed these critiques, began to speak more pointedly.  Robin, your efforts aren't meaningful, noticed, or effective.  Your work isn't appreciated  or enough.  Nothing you write matters.  Nobody really cares.  Nobody comments.  You're failing.  

You're a failure.

It escalates quickly, doesn't it?  In these moments of isolation and weariness, it's easy to agree with harsh self-criticism.  It seems so valid, so true, after all.

Except that it isn't.  It isn't valid or true.  After spending nearly an hour languishing under this weight, I started to examine the words I was feeding myself and say, enough.  No, I will not accept these accusations.  No, I will not spiral downward.  No, I will not agree with the accuser speaking lies over me.

Enough.  My voice does matter.

Enough.  There's more significance to life than blogging metrics.

Enough.  I am not a failure.  (I have an out-of-state, unrelated reader, after all.)

It takes effort to re-write the scripts we speak over ourselves.  Sometimes it's easier to agree with criticism, to rehearse our weaknesses, to believe the worst.  But I'm convinced that this goes against the very nature of God, who is described as singing over us in delight, whose banner over us is love.

I've noticed two things about the internal accusations that subtly play in our heads and hearts.  First, they tend to target areas of life we care about deeply, those places where we have a desire for significance.  They might target our closest relationships, raising doubts about our capacity to be a good parent, spouse, or friend.  They may target our deepest dreams where we hope to make an impact and leave our mark.  (For me, it recently focused on my writing; for you, it might manifest in a different way.)

Second, accusations surface when we're most vulnerable.  They hit hardest when we're worn, alone, weak, distracted, or otherwise compromised.

This is by design, given that they're leveraged against us by the accuser, the father of lies, who feeds us falsehoods when we're susceptible.  Too often, we take the bait without question.  We already feel miserable, so we might as well perpetuate the misery.

I don't want to do this anymore.

Not that it's easy, and not that I'm without struggle (exhibit A: this post), but I refuse to side with the enemy.  I choose to partner with God and accept what He says about me -- that I'm loved, that I'm favored, that I'm designed for a purpose, that I'm called to do good works -- even when I don't feel these truths.  Especially when I don't feel these truths.

I want you to reach a place where you'll agree with what God says about you, too.  If your inner dialogue ever is fraught with accusations about your worth or your shortcomings, here are three concrete actions that will help:

Don't grow isolated.  Ever watch a PBS documentary and grow nervous for that singular gazelle who strays from the herd?  Don't do it, gazelle!  Don't wander to the watering hole by yourself!  Our anxiety spikes because we realize that prey are easier to attack when they're alone.  The same goes for us.  If Satan walks about like a roaring lion seeking who he may devour, then we'd be wise to partner up.  Time and again, when I share with a friend that I'm under siege, she speaks life into me until I'm able to believe it.  We're safer and stronger in community.

Identify (and avoid) your triggers.  I'm infinitely more prone to spiral into depressing thoughts when I'm tired and when it's late at night, which happen to go hand in hand.  I rarely interact with social media in a healthy state of mind in the evening.  Fortunately, this is preventable.  I can monitor and limit my usage to times when I'm less prone to mind-numbingly scroll myself into trouble.  

Speak life, not death, over yourself.  We need to create new patterns of thought and speech about ourselves, patterns that align with God's perspective.  I never have had anyone else die for me because He didn't want to live without me.  But that's what Jesus did.  His love transcends understanding -- it's given lavishly in full knowledge of our many screw-ups. 

God delights in us.  Because of this, we can think well of ourselves.  We can be at ease in our own skin.  We can label ourselves as lovable.  We can believe -- with security, not vanity or superiority -- that we're valued.  When we speak these truths over ourselves, we short-circuit the negative patterns of criticism that too often dominate the soundtracks of our lives.

Friends, we tend to believe the things we speak about ourselves.  Let's speak good things.

Stay connected.  Avoid your personal triggers.  Speak life.

I'm working on this.  To combat my recent bout of insecurity, I recalled a refreshing explanation of how God created the world, and upon its creation, he rested.  He didn't strive, check for approval, tweet about his work, or worry whether people liked it.  He created, he called it good, and he rested.

So, today, I'm applying that wisdom to this post.  I write, and once I hit "publish," I release that writing into the world.  I call it good.  And then I rest because God is looking at me, with kindness and gentleness, and saying, Yes, child, it's good.  You're good.  You're mine.

Let that be the soundtrack we all hear -- and repeat -- in our heads and hearts today.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Short and Sweet: True Love

Short and Sweet: a real life example of true love, in 100 or fewer words. 

That moment when you mention to your husband that you'd like to hang a heavy mirror, meaning that you'd actually like him to hang the mirror, and once it's hung, you realize that it's 4 or 5 inches higher than you'd like it to be, and despite the fact you know he's thinking that your decorating sensibilities are entirely too precise, he lowers the mirror.

Exactly 4.5 inches lower.

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Monday, March 27, 2017

Woke Up Like This

You've seen these shirts, right?

Well, I'm thinking about launching a similar campaign that specifically focuses on my children's hair.

Just keeping it real, every single morning. 

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Feel like you've been hit by a truck? This will help.

I feel like I've been hit by a truck.  This is a funny expression.  Not because there's any real humor in getting hit by a truck, of course, but rather because people say it on a semi-consistent basis, even though the vast majority of us have no idea how it actually feels to be hit by a truck.

Even so, during the past week I've felt like I've been hit by a truck.

I've been tired, sluggish, sore, and unmotivated.  An acquaintance suggested that my lethargy might be due to aging, and as evidence, she quite happily referenced the fact that I celebrated my 39th birthday earlier this month.  Point noted, but grudgingly, because a) turning 39 means I'm practically still a puppy, and b) we're all aging.  Every day, in fact.

No, I don't believe that the real culprit for my recent tiredness is because I'm facing the end of my 30's.  I've decided that it's due to my recent trip to Florida.  Florida has ruined me.  During our six days in the Sunshine State, I grew accustomed to warmth, and vitamin D, and the smell of sunscreen, and posing for pictures with alligators.

Now that I've returned to the daily grind of my life in the north, I've reverted to a cold-weather existence that involves heavy jackets, clunky snow boots, gray skies, snow squalls, and scraping frost from my windshield in the morning when I forget to pull my car into the garage.  

I tolerated this reality for the past several months without complaint (or even notice), but now I've moved past these winterish practices, both mentally and physically.  They have no place in my post-Florida-trip lifestyle.  I vehemently object to them, in fact, but despite my protest, they continue.

Which is why I recently took a nap on my kitchen floor.  You see, when the afternoon sun shines (which doesn't always happen in March, but did happen today), it illuminates a small stretch of flooring tucked between my kitchen table, a house plant, the spot where my kids leave their boots, and the wall where I lean our broom.

And, for some reason, when I saw this brilliant sunshine streaming through the sliding glass doors this afternoon, I immediately lay down, stretched out, closed my eyes, and basked in the light.  Granted, closing your eyes is a dangerous prospect when you're worn out; sleep comes quickly, even if you're not intending it to.

In my last wakeful moment, after realizing that there were some hardened Cheerios stuck to the floor near my head and noticing that a child had vandalized the underside of our kitchen table with Banksy-esque graffiti, I remember vaguely thinking, "If Joel comes home and finds me sprawled on the linoleum, he's going to think I'm dead."  (Of course, if my kids had found me, they would have ignored the fact that I was on the floor, nudged me with a foot, and asked for a snack.)

It wasn't quite the same as lying on the beach, mind you, but it must have counted for something.  After all, I woke from my unlikely nap feeling warm, refreshed, and no longer as if I'd been hit by a truck.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Happy First Day of Spring!

Title: Happy First Day of Spring!

Subtitle:  Consider this to be a post card sent to you from Pennsylvania.  There's a bird in that one tree.  That's spring-y, right?

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2,400 Miles. 3 Kids in Tow. 1 Epic Road Trip.

Our family recently took a Spring Break road trip -- driving over 1,200 miles from Pennsylvania to Florida, and then over 1,200 miles back again, only to get walloped with an epic Pennsylvanian snowfall upon our return.  This juxtaposition seems both ironic and somehow fitting.  I mean, who doesn't want to spend one day vacuuming sand out of your minivan, and the next day shoveling your driveway so you can pull that minivan out of your garage?

It was a glorious trip, even with its small hiccups along the way.  Plus, you have time to reflect when you have that much distance to cover.  For example, once again I was amazed that strategic road trip bribery is effective, even though it's definitely not my typical parenting style.  Here are a few other observations from our travels:

The original adage is wrong.  The journey of a thousand miles actually begins with a child asking, "Are we there yet?" 

When your spouse packs a can of Lysol spray and a container of Lysol wipes and stores them in the cup holders, the exact place where you want to store your bottles of iced tea and water, do not question whether Lysol products are necessary to take on a road trip.  Do not think about hiding them away.  They are essential.

At least, they were for us when one child announced that her stomach hurt a mere 30 seconds before vomiting across the backseat as we were driving 75 miles per hour on a dark and congested stretch of highway.  (Yes, this was as exciting as it sounds.) 

But, we had Lysol handy.  Always pack the Lysol.

You'll take inordinate pleasure when you find a license plate from a new state.  On our drive home alone, we discovered plates from 40 states and 4 Canadian provinces.  (Shout out to Ontario, Qubec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick!  You, my friends to the north, are the true road-tripping heroes.) 

During your license plate search, you'll realize that you haven't given this much thought to US geography since elementary school.  Incidentally, you'll also notice that no states begin with the letters B, E, J, Q, X, Y, or Z,  so you'll feel prepared if you ever get asked this question in a trivia game.

You'll eventually get in the driving zone and it will be so surprising, so shocking, that you won't want to do anything -- no talking, no glancing in the rear view mirror, no fumbling with the bag that's crowding your feet -- because you recognize it's a holy moment.  Nobody needs to use the restroom.  Nobody is hungry.  Nobody is cold or hot or complaining that the sun is too bright, or that their sister looked at them funny, or that it's their turn to have some device that will low on batteries and missing its power cord.

The miles pass, and you feel like you could drive forever -- which, you reason to yourself quietly, is good, because you are driving forever -- and it reminds you of the rare times when you've run and felt like you could run forever, which happens so infrequently that it also deserves a moment of silence, because most other times during a run you feel every step and are tempted to check your watch or the treadmill screen every few seconds.

But no, you're driving, and miles are adding up, and all is right with the world, and don't dare to breathe and offset the hushed glory.  You remain silent and awestuck, like you would if you encountered an albino deer or a snow leopard in the wild or witnessed the Northern Lights.

That zone will last roughly 25 minutes.  Then you're back in the fray. 

It's worth it.  When you finally arrive at your destination and stretch your legs, you'll forget the 19 hours of minivan confinement.  You'll forget the vomiting episode and the three bathroom breaks in a span of under two hours because one child chugged an entire bottle of Gatorade.  The excitement will counterbalance the road-weariness, and the roadside challenges will turn into good stories, and the trip will finally have begun.  You have arrived.  You made it.

Yes, a road trip is always worth it.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

It's What You Do After a Good Show

Early in the morning when I hover in the grogginess between sleep and wakefulness,  I sometimes can't discern what day of the week it is.  To push through this haze I need to focus more intensely than what seems possible.  Eventually, reality surfaces and I remember details of what I did yesterday or what I must do today.

That's happening to me right now, but it's not regarding the day of the week.  No, right now I'm confused about seasons.  You see, it's still winter in Pennsylvania where I live, but our university is on spring break, and to celebrate, we're visiting my parents in Florida where it's perpetually summer.  (Essentially, the only thing I'm certain about is that it's not fall.)

Mind you, this is a good type of confusion.  I can handle the cognitive dissonance of sitting on a beach and toying with the idea that it's actually March when I get to see sights like this:

The other night my family, along with a group of unknown beach-goers, stood on the shore and watched this sunset.  As the sun slipped beneath the horizon, spontaneous applause erupted from the crowd.  My youngest daughter looked around and asked why we were clapping. 

"Well, it's what you do after a good show," I said.  "We just watched a beautiful one and we're acknowledging it."

She nodded and went back to dragging her towel and getting sand stuck to every exposed ounce of skin because that's what kids do.  After all, kids really don't need to worry about what time it is, or what day it is, or even what season it is.  They simply enjoy the beautiful show, just like I've been doing this week.

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Breaking Up with Dr Pepper (making one better choice each day)

I have a confession to make.  I once nursed quite an infatuation with Dr Pepper, but I cut it out of my diet a year and a half ago.  Originally, the separation left quite a hole.  During the early days after the break-up, I noticed the absence of sweet cherry fizz in my life as acutely as I notice the missing period after the "Dr" title.  (Seriously, where is the period?  My inner grammarian cringes at this omission.)

Jealousy used to surface when I saw others with a cold Dr Pepper.  I'd remember the good times we once had together.  I'd glamorized how full of life and energy the good doctor made me feel.  In moments of weakness -- late nights, dull afternoons -- I contemplated going back, whispering to myself just this once.

But I held firm.  As more time passed, my cravings diminished.  I could tolerate being in the same room with another person holding a Dr Pepper without obsessively staring or longing.  As weeks turned into months, I felt downright Taylor Swift-y about it.  I made a declaration: Dr Pepper, we are never, ever, ever getting back together.

And that's where I stayed: living a resolute Dr Pepper-less lifestyle for over a year.

But then there was last week.  On a day when I felt especially deprived of sleep and burdened with a heavy workload, I was given a coupon for a free Dr Pepper.  It was the worst possible alchemy.  I realized that I was flirting with danger by keeping the coupon instead of immediately trashing it, and as expected, the temptation proved too great to resist.

I won't lie: it was wonderful.  I savored every drop as it went down.  I still enjoy a Dr Pepper fling, apparently.

But here's where I differ from my past self: I didn't wallow this time around.  I didn't throw my hands up in the air, exaggerating that I had ruined everything by falling off the wagon.  I simply moved on.  I filled my water bottle the next day and got back on track.  This reminded me of three premises for better health:

1) Little actions lead to larger habits.  I like to pretend that my small dietary choices, good or bad, don't have actual consequences.  It's just a Dr Pepper, I rationalize.  It's just a milkshake, and I deserve a milkshake after this week.  It's just an entire box of Girl Scout cookies, and Thin Mints only come out once a year.  It's just one apple, and does one apple really help that much?  But these small choices, when repeated, can form habits, and habits, when entrenched, have impact.

2) Don't let one bad choice derail you.  Although repeated small choices do lead to habits, I've found that it helps when I give myself grace.  A bad choice doesn't mean that I'm entirely undone.  Sure, I broke my year-long Dr Pepper-free streak, but I didn't buy a whole case and drown my sorrows with more Dr Pepper to numb my regret.  I can chalk it up to a bad day (or week) and move on.

3) Make one better choice each day.  When I think about my diet or exercise restrictively -- mulling over what I shouldn't do or shouldn't have -- I grow more fixated on those things.  Instead, I've found that it's helpful to get so busy doing the right thing that I don't have time to do the wrong thing.  (This is good for life in general, not just health.)  If I concentrate on one simple premise -- Robin, just make one better choice today -- I'm more prone to take the steps rather than the elevator, or eat a little more broccoli instead of a little more pasta, or skip on a second scoop of ice cream.

This repeated choice to do "one better thing" each day leads directly back to my first tip.  My little healthy actions lead to larger healthy habits.  Those larger healthy habits, in turn, ensure that my bad choices are more of a rarity than the norm.

I'm sure I'll drink more Dr Pepper in the future, and since I'm being honest, you should know that I still hold a more romantic view of sweet tea than I ought.  And if you hand me a theater-sized box of Dots, it would be gone in a day.  And don't get me started on freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. 

But I'm working on it.  For me, one better choice each day means I carry a water bottle at all times.  After all, I simply don't have enough room for sugary drinks when I'm downing two or three 32-ounce Nalgenes of water each day.

If you've every struggled like I have, I hope these tips help you make one good choice today.  (Just one. You've got this.)  And even better, I hope that today's good choice will help to kickstart a good habit tomorrow.

Ever kick a bad habit?  Have any tips for us?  Leave a comment: we're all ears!

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Dr Pepper image adapted from cyclonebill.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Five Stages of Essay-Grading Grief: An Illustrated Guide

"Well, it's your problem now."  
- Words said to me by a student upon submitting his essay. Truer words never have been spoken.

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: higher education, just funnier

After teaching for over a decade and a half, I've carried a hefty stack of freshly-stapled essays out of a classroom enough times to recognize a distinct cycle of essay-grading grief, a cycle through which I progress with textbook-like consistency.  The struggle is real, friends.

Stage One: Denial

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: Denial

The classic defense mechanism rises up immediately.  I downplay the fact that I've collected 300 pages of student writing that I must read and evaluate in a thorough, yet timely, fashion while all other work and life responsibilities continue at their regular brisk pace.  I set the stack on my office desk or dining room table, glance at it warily, prod it periodically, or perhaps even alphabetize it -- just enough to engage without actually accomplishing anything.

Then I promptly check my email, immerse myself in an unrelated work task that's not due for another month, find a new way to arrange the envelopes in my desk drawer, or decide to clean out my refrigerator and dust the tops of my ceiling fans.  Anything to feign productivity is fair game.

This stage lasts anywhere between a few hours to a day, so it doesn't waste much time, except for that one stretch when I sink to reading about 25 celebrities who have aged badly.  Still, my newly-organized inbox makes up for it.

Stage Two: Anger

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: Anger

Inevitably, reality sets in when the grading begins in earnest.  I carry smaller stacks of essays with me at all times -- to a waiting room, to the sidelines of a child's soccer game, to home and campus and back again.  The physical presence of the stack looms heavily, making its weight both literal and figurative.  Resentment brews.

I grow irritated with a bad stapling job, and downright agitated over a careless dog-eared fold-over.  I begin muttering to myself.  Thesis-driven?  You call that a thesis-driven argument?  In the far recesses of my mind, I recall once being told that comments written in red ink can appear harsh, regardless of what's being said, and in this stage, I don't particularly care.  I like red ink.

Stage Three: Bargaining

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: Bargaining

Resentment subsides and I redirect my energy.  Each time I finish an essay, I count the remaining ungraded papers in the stack, even though I intuitively know the remaining tally.  I attempt a new strategy by criss-crossing essays into smaller piles of five, hoping that this altered layout will entice me to reach incremental goals and trick me to grade faster.  It doesn't.

At this point, after wondering whether Sheetz is hiring (I'd make amazing made-to-order sandwiches), I imagine assigning essays that students can complete like a multiple choice exam.  Choose the next best sentence: A, B, C, or D.  You picked C?  Why, that's correct.  My work here is done.  My rationale side, which already is compromised, sends up a weak flare to alert me that a multiple choice essay prompt would be a cop-out.  Think about how originality and voice would be lost.  How critical thinking would be diminished.  How depth and analysis would be shortchanged!  

I dismiss those concerns, of course, because I just want the essays to go away.  It's all been a horrible mistake.  None of this ever should have happened to me.

Stage Four: Depression

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: Depresson

There is no longer any semblance of hope.  Wearing yesterday's clothes, I lie on my family room floor, surrounded by a pile of papers.  I eat chocolate, rock back and forth, and softly whimper.  My family no longer makes eye contact with me.

Stage Five: Acceptance

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: Acceptance

A new day dawns, and with it, the realization that I've graded more essays than I still have to grade.  I've passed the halfway point.  As if I'm a marathoner running negative splits as the finish line draws nearer, my pace picks up.  I can feel it in my bones: my feedback is articulate, my evaluations are fair, my job is nearly done.  At the very least, I'm now convinced that I no longer will die.

I find an essay that I already know will be good and tuck it at the bottom of the stack, dangling the proverbial carrot for myself, and I work with diligence to reach it as a reward for days of sustained mental labor.  You'll end on a good note, I tell myself, and I do.  When the final essay is finished and grades are entered into the master spreadsheet, I rise from my seat and stretch.  I tap the essays into neat stacks, secure the stacks with binder clips, and regard them one final time.  They look so tame, sitting in their completed state.  Then, I carry them one final time to the classroom, feeling light and free as I transfer them from my hands to the hands of my students.

They've come full circle, these essays: their problem, my problem, and now their problem again.  

In the afterglow as I walk away, my work bag nearly weightless, I momentarily forget the pain associated with the entire process.  Except there's that niggling reminder that I also introduced the next assignment, and with it, the next due date.

The cycle continues.  It always continues.

You experience essay-grading grief, too?  Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter, or drop me a comment below to tell me about it.  I'd love to hear from you.

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

A post about that one warm-ish day in February

Our weather in Pennsylvania has been mercurial lately.  In the past week alone we've swung from typical winter bitterness with sub-20-degree temperatures, to a surprising high of nearly 60 degrees, to a school-cancelling 6-inch snowfall the very next morning, and back to a temperate day in the mid-50's that currently is causing the snow to melt in steady streams through downspouts and storm drains.

February is having a grand identity crisis.  It doesn't know whether it's winter or whether it's spring.

But this happens annually.  There's always one warm-ish day in February when everyone thinks it's spring and then promptly loses his or her mind: washing cars, wearing shorts, driving with the windows down, and making plans to stow away all heavy winter coats and boots.

It's a nice reprieve, of course, but it's merely a tease.  Winter always returns.  You see, though the shortest month in days, February is the longest month in perception.  It's also the answer to many of my recent questions: Why are my children acting feral?  Why do I feel lethargic?  Why am I contemplating eating my body weight in chocolate?  Oh, I know.  It's February.

But today, on this happily surprising day when the snow melts, and I only wear a sweatshirt when I walk outside, and I dream of outdoor projects, I don't mind it nearly as much.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

When You Don't Do the Heavy Lifting

Last winter we experienced some water damage that stained our bedroom ceiling.  As my family's resident painter, I had intended to paint the ceiling myself.  I convinced myself that while I was at it, I'd also paint our upstairs hallway and stairwell to remove the six-thousand-or-so hand prints that my kids have left over the years.  (Every child's logic: Why hold the railing when you can just as easily touch the wall the entire way upstairs?)

I never got to this painting, though.  You see, we didn't have an adequate ladder to reach the upper portions of the stairwell, and I wasn't entirely comfortable with the height, and while I'm entirely fine painting walls, I'm not keen on tackling ceilings.  So, after a year of good intentions that never led to action, we finally hired a friend who owns a painting business.  In two days the hallway, stairwell, and bedroom ceiling were painted, and everything was put back together again.

I didn't do any real work at all.  Our painter friend painted.  My husband moved the furniture back in place.  I simply hung a few pictures, and in the brief interim when our bedroom furniture was shifted, I vacuumed the scary tufts of dust and debris around the edges of baseboards that hadn't been exposed for a few years.

Yesterday morning while I was at church, I thought about how I didn't do any heavy lifting.  The job was finished by capable hands, and I simply enjoyed the results.  I felt a nudge in my soul, a reminder of all the heavy things that I sometimes carry -- concerns about my children, or work, or whether Facebook eventually will blow up from political divisiveness.

They're not good loads to carry; I don't have the capacity or strength to manage them.

Thankfully, God does the heavy lifting for those who ask.  He invites us to come to him, we who are heavy-laden, and he carries our burdens for us.  Just as the fresh coats of paint corrected the water stains, God is capable to cover our damaged parts, and just as the furniture found its way back in place, God knows how to put our disorganized pieces back together.

Oh, I'll paint again, I'm sure, but for now, I plan to enjoy the benefits and remember that I don't always need to do the heavy lifting myself.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Because 2:00 a.m. logic is never logical

It's taken a decade to discern this trend, but my children never get the stomach bug during the day.  No, in our household, vomiting episodes are always cloaked in the darkness of night.  This might be a blessing in disguise, of course.  (Who actually wants to be fully cognizant when scrubbing throw-up off your hallway carpet because your child didn't make it to the bathroom in time before exploding?)

Besides, once you've comforted the child, cleaned the mess, scrubbed yourself with Lysol, danced a little heeby-jeeby dance as you contemplate the billions of germs likely still teeming through your house, taken a quick shower because you know you're now teeming with germs, and laid back down to bed, you're free to confess your deepest fears aloud into the black void:

Nothing in this house will ever be clean again.  Never.  I think we need to burn it down.

And your spouse will grunt in agreement, because, quite frankly, at 2:00 in the morning, burning down your own house seems a perfectly logical response to vomit.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

That Time I Vandalized. (A Confession of Sorts.)

I enjoy finding unique or humorous signs, like this flyer once posted on campus.  Apparently crow harassment is a thing.

Then I found this gem advertising a local a bowling alley that might be a fine place to celebrate your birthday, but isn't recommended to check your spelling.

When pumping gas, I came across a scripted message from an anti-smoking advocate:

And then there's this noteworthy sign -- a local favorite -- that I pass daily on my way home from work.  Poor guy.

I laugh at signs, I take pictures of signs, I admire the humor of people who creatively alter signs, but I've never actually vandalized a sign myself.

Until recently.

An opportunity presented itself, and with the possibility of becoming part of a legacy like 22 Times When Vandalism Won, I couldn't refrain.  You see, someone had set a case of soda -- FREE soda! -- on a radiator at the bottom of a stairwell at an exit in a well-traveled campus building.  It came with a disclaimer: Please be advised that these sodas are past their expiration date.

Who does this?, I thought.  Who wants to bequeath expired soda to a thirsty soul so badly that they'd go through this trouble, rather than, say, pouring it down the drain?  My amusement grew each time I saw it.

Finally, I couldn't contain myself.  As I walked down the stairwell later that week and saw the case of soda, unsurprisingly still untouched since my first viewing of it, my heart began to pound.  I was going to do it.  I was going to vandalize that sign.

I pulled my pen out of my bag and neared the soda, brainstorming what I'd say if someone caught me.  I hadn't even determined what I'd write, but there was no time to deliberate, not when I was poised on criminal activity.  I just started writing.  These sodas are past their expiration date....

... and may poison you.

It wasn't even funny, and even worse, my mind malfunctioned mid-vandalism.  How do you spell poison?  With an oi or an io?  My focus veered off course: what if I accidentally write Poseidon, as if the Greek god also disproved of expired sodas?  Why does the word poison suddenly remind me of high school French class?  Poisson means fish, right?  Is it le poisson or la poisson?  I never could remember which article to use!

I tried to pull it together (Just write, Robin! Just vandalize! This is your moment of rebellion!), but my handwriting grew cramped, making my "s" awkwardly snakelike.  The entire message was lackluster, small, and easily disregarded.

I had failed.  I missed my opportunity for vandalism fame.

The next afternoon I noticed that the case of soda, along with the sign, had been removed.  I hoped I hadn't hurt anyone's feelings.  It had been a kind-ish gesture, after all, unloading eleven free cans of expired soda onto a warm radiator in a stairwell.

But perhaps my vandalism still serve its purpose.  After all, nobody was poisoned.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Draft Workshop (#DemoDay)

An editor once accepted a piece of my writing, but suggested I should start the piece with the final paragraph.  I had worked on the article for weeks, and in my mind, the words were set.  I couldn't envision a different version.  The writing was in place, permanent.  I didn't want to break it apart, parse out new sections, consider new transitions, or kill any sentences I had labored over.

The article was done. I wanted it to stay done.

But I took the editor's advice.  I reconfigured the conclusion as the introduction, found a different stopping point, and filled in the gaps that inevitably form when you bust up a piece of writing.

The end result was a better article.

I tell this story to my students when they revise their own essays.  Today, as we hold draft workshops and students cluster desks together to share their work, I even wear my #DemoDay tee shirt.  I ask them to practice compassionate demolition -- to thoughtfully enter these written spaces, not with sledgehammers, but rather with their pens and comments, with an eye for what's good, what's best, and what's still possible.

Sometimes, after all, whether in home design or writing, you need to bring a degree of destruction in order to create something more fitting, more orderly, and more beautiful.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

They're Better When They're Homemade

When my husband travels for the week, my neighbor invites my daughters and me to her house to make homemade pierogies.  She's from Slovakia, and I can tell simply by the way she speaks that Slovaks know how to make pierogies.  This is her thing.

Unceremoniously, she pours flour onto her counter, carves out a well, and cracks eggs into the hollowed space.  Our children take turns kneading the dough, and once it's the right consistency, we run it through the pasta press. 

We cut squares of dough, add the potato and cheese filling, and seal each peirogi by crimping the edges with our fingers and the prongs of a fork.

The kids run off to play, and my neighbor and I sit together, talking and drinking tea.  She boils the pierogies and sautees onions on the stove top, and then we call the girls back into the kitchen as we scoop steaming pierogies onto plates.

They're better than you can imagine.  They're little pillows of potato and cheese wrapped in dough, slathered with butter and love and more butter.  I am now forever ruined; I can never return to boxed pierogies from the grocery store freezer aisle.

They're always better when they're homemade.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

For Such a Time as This

As we drive to get groceries, my youngest daughter tells me that Dr. King was 39 when he died.  I'm floored by this.  Thirty nine years old.  Somehow, I mistakenly had stretched his lifespan to early or mid-forties; 39 years seems too brief to leave as permanent of a mark on history as Dr. King did.

I'm still contemplating how he lived only one year longer than my current 38 years when my oldest daughter speaks.  "Mom, if Dr. King hadn't been born, would someone else have done what he did?"

I pause for a moment and finally answer yes, I believe so, but perhaps differently in method, or timing, or results.  I try to explain in a way my daughters would understand: when Dr. King lived, multiple forces were at work.  The discontent surrounding the mistreatment of blacks had grown too severe for people not to act, not to speak out.  Many players, both everyday citizens and others in positions of greater authority, were in place.  Dr. King's particular abilities -- his articulation, his ability to cast vision, his drive and discipline, his willingness to lay down his life for what's right -- it all coalesced at this time, within this precise context, when the country desperately needed and was poised for change.  Being a principled and visionary and godly man, Dr. King devoted his life to bring about that change.

If he hadn't been born, I speculate, the Civil Rights movement still would have happened, but it might have unfolded differently.  Perhaps more militantly.  Perhaps not as quickly.

I think of a verse in the Old Testament book of Esther when Esther, upon becoming queen during exceptionally tumultuous times of Jewish persecution, is advised, "Who knows if you were made queen for such a time as this?"  In other words, Esther was told, "What if your life was designed for this exact moment, for this exact role, for this exact point in history, because God knew that you'd be a person who wouldn't remain quiet, a person who'd bring relief and deliverance to your people?"

A Jewish woman born four centuries before Christ.  A black man born in Atlanta in 1929.  Both were born for such a time as this.

Our lives may not be as celebrated as Dr. King or Queen Esther, but today I'm motivated as I remember that I'm born for such a time as this, too.  Our lives -- no matter how small they might feel as we shop for groceries, go to work, pay our bills, get the mail, interact with our neighbors, raise our children, or stand up for causes we believe in -- are designed to be lived well.  To live justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.

We're born for such a time as this.  I want to do it well.

* * * * *

"If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.  He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, "Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well."  

Dr. King | New Covenant Baptist Church | Chicago, Illinois | April 9, 1967

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Unplanned Day Off

On Monday my oldest daughter explains how a false fire alarm at her middle school caused students to be evacuated to the parking lot and relocated to the elementary school across the street.

On Tuesday she sends us a text from school: "There's an early dismissal today."

I arrange to leave campus immediately so I can be home for the girls' earlier arrival, and I respond to her text in jest, "Yesterday a fire dismissal, today a snow dismissal.  What's tomorrow?  A hurricane?"

My husband offers the briefest response and texts us both a volcano emoji, which certainly would warrant a day off from school.  But since volcanoes aren't prevalent in central Pennsylvanian topography, I feel like we're safe.  On a scale of 1 to 100, I'm 100 percent certain that school on Wednesday won't be cancelled because of a volcanic eruption.

I didn't think about ice, though.

But that's what did it.  Ice was the culprit that led the school superintendent to leave us a cheerful message early this Wednesday morning about "being safe," and "staying warm" and "getting extra rest," which is code for "Parents, proceed to scramble and figure out the logistics of your now more complicated day."

I hadn't planned on having my three children with me today, you see.  I had planned on teaching my morning classes and having the afternoon to write recommendation letters and review new student rosters.  I had banked on having time to do First Week of Classes Stuff so I could navigate these opening days smoothly.

But ice storms can, and do, unsettle the best laid plans of mice, men, and college lecturers.

So today, instead of writing recommendation letters and planning ahead, I'm making Chex Mix, referring squabbles between children, folding laundry, and sweeping my kitchen floor.  It's an unexpected way to spend a Wednesday afternoon, but ice storms happen.

At least it wasn't a volcano. 

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Getting Life In Better Order

The morning after Christmas my husband flew to California for work.  He returned late last night.  I'm not sure why this happens, but I adopt a nocturnal lifestyle when he travels.  After the girls went to bed each evening while he was away, I spent my wakeful nighttime hours on one task: cleaning.  (Okay, on two tasks; I also watched more episodes of Downton Abbey.)

But let me tell you about the cleaning.  Friends, I cleaned All The Things.

I organized my kitchen pantry, rearranged shelves in my garage, purged my closet, sorted my kids' clothes, tossed out miscellaneous plastic toys, earmarked items for our next garage sale, and streamlined medicine cabinets.

I trashed dried-out markers, sharpened dull pencils, filed recipes that I had clipped and hastily stashed, managed my address book, mended a few garments, reunited Tupperware bottoms with their tops, and threw out clumpy nail polishes.  I cleaned nasty soap scum off my shower curtain.  I rid my fridge and freezer of suspicious leftovers.  I kept on top of laundry.  I always remembered to empty the dishwasher.  I put away Christmas decorations.

All the while, my heart sang happy songs about organization and decluttering.  By the time we reached New Year's Day, my house had lost a few pounds, like it was an overachiever ahead of the game in terms of its New Year's Resolutions.

When I couple these housecleaning accomplishments with the productive hours I spent setting up my course websites and syllabi yesterday, I feel like I'm on top of 2017.  Granted, I'm only four days deep, but I'm currently killing it. 

It's good to get life in better order.  It's good to simplify and streamline, to take inventory and plan ahead, because there will be days (and weeks) when life will be complicated and messy, and I'll feel terribly behind, and my kids will badger me to serve nachos for dinner and I'll comply because I won't have any fight in me.

None of us know what the upcoming year holds, but today, this fourth day in January, I'm hopeful.

January is a month to reset.  It invites us to consider both where we've come from and where we're going.  In January, I always have a newfound resolution to not just tidy up the externals, but also to freshly seek God and His wisdom for my life, which He gives freely to all who ask.

The home is in better order, and my heart is falling into better order, too.  Welcome 2017.

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