Not long ago I was at a district workshop for teachers of English Language Learners—over the next five years I’ll complete 300 professional development hours to certify in ELL, a requirement—and found myself chatting with one of the presenters during a break. I like her; although I know her husband better since I’ve worked more closely with him (he’s a teacher, too), I’ve worked in her classroom a few times. I like them both. She’s widely known as one of the best teachers in the county, but it doesn’t go to her head. We were swapping stories about our sons’ experiences senior year at the local high school when I said, “You have– how many children do you have? Four? Five?”
“Four. We had five. We lost one. One passed away.”
I was, of course, flattened. Taken aback. My eyes swelled with tears, I slumped. My head dropped.
“It’s okay,” she said quietly, kindly. “I know. It’s okay, really. Go on.”
After a moment, of course, I did. Because of her kindness, her tone. Because of course it was such a practical thing to say: go on. What else can you do?
All the way home I thought about how perilous it is, our journey. Particularly as parents. And strangely I kept thinking about all those teachers at the workshop, a good one, comments and ideas zipping back and forth about meeting the needs of students, students whose parents don’t speak English, and what resources we need to bring to the students and what they don’t have at home. And I kept flipping back to what it is to be a parent. How messy. How perilous. How terrifying. Sometimes, how devastating.
Any parent can tell you the highlights, the highs. Cute or emblematic tales which let you know who their children are or who they are becoming; I was telling her one when that happened. I’ll tell it now.
His senior year I got a call from my youngest son’s principal. “Jimmy’s really lucky,” he said, not sounding at all like he believed that, sounding instead like he wished Jimmy wasn’t so lucky, like he was a pain in the administrative backside; like he was relishing telling me how Jimmy went off the rails but he, the principal couldn’t, quite, bust him (although it sounded as if he really, really hoped I would. He didn’t know me at all.) because, “If another teacher hadn’t had her window open and heard and seen the whole thing, I’d probably be calling about expelling him and we’d certainly have called in law enforcement. It was his word against a teacher’s, but like I said another teacher heard the whole thing and came to Jimmy’s defense.”
Eventually, the story emerged. Jimmy was crossing the courtyard at school, heading for the media center in the middle of class. He had a pass. There was a student on a three-wheel bicycle, with an accompanying staff member, crossing the courtyard, too. This was a nonverbal child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He was having a meltdown, and the staff member was trying to get him off the bicycle. Apparently, this involved some rough handling of the child.
“Your son put his hands on a staff member and literally removed that person from touching the child,” the principal told me, in a not-very-nice voice, “Lucky for him, a teacher had their window open and saw and heard the whole thing and backed your son up. We will deal with the staff member, but you need to make sure Jimmy understands that he can’t touch staff. He could have been arrested.” Unceremoniously, he hung up.
When Jimmy got home that day I casually asked him, while driving him to work, how his day went. “Fine,” he replied.
“Well, the principal gave me a call. About something that happened in the courtyard.”
“Oh yeah, that. Well, this teacher was abusing a student who was in the middle of a meltdown. I took control of the situation, got her off of him, and said, ‘You want to know how to get a person with autism to do what you want? Here, I’ll show you.’ So, you know, I calmed him down and took him to the office. Poor kid.”
“Jimmy, you could have been arrested.”
“There was nobody else around to help him. It’s no big deal, Mom. She didn’t know what she was doing. She was abusive. Some things are worth getting arrested for.”
I was driving, my eyes filled with tears and I blinked them away. Jimmy is a fearless, happy-go-lucky, full-tilt boy. Jim Tager, who was both his middle school and high school principal for a bit, always lights up like a firefly when I see him, “How’s Jimmy? I just love that kid.” Jimmy’s father and I spent a lot of sleepless nights over this, our youngest, boy. At that moment, going over the North Bridge to Clancy’s, I realized he’ll be okay. This boy will be fine. He’s got his priorities straight.
This Mother’s Day, I think about Jimmy, that story. Now is a time to stand. For all of us. Sometimes it’s scary, we doubt ourselves, we wonder who’s watching and what the results of our very human efforts, if any, will be. But not to stand in a time like this is the worst kind of cowardice. It’s time to put concerns for self aside and speak up.
Most individuals are quick to acknowledge that in this nation’s public education system, teachers are professionals. We must have college degrees (at least a bachelors), licenses, pass tests and continue with professional development during our careers, and certainly behave in a professional way on and off the job. These are givens. But what actually makes a profession a profession? One element is professional autonomy.
With professional autonomy, as I learned working on my first degree at the College of Education at the University of Florida, comes responsibility. One is part of a cohort of professionals responsible not only for the above individual elements, but for defining and changing the profession to meet emerging needs. I’ve noticed a nearly hysterical perspective on the part of the public–through social media, print media, and televised media; conversations with noneducators; through legislation; and, most personally and alarmingly, in the behavior of students in the classroom who stare dumbfoundedly when I share that the classroom is not a democracy (neither they nor I choose the curriculum and I make the rules)–appropriating the profession. It seems that many people want teaching to be defined by anyone but teachers. I’m very conscious of this. Quite aware. And, I’m careful to let dealing with this dangerous falsehood guide some of my own behaviors. I push back against this, plodding forward in my tiny little career.
I have always believed, ever since college, that teachers donating their time and money to their schools, students, and classrooms undermines the profession. I still feel that way, in fact, moreso in these rocky times. I do not donate my time. I work from 7:15-2:50, and I take my lunchtime for myself. If I donate my time, it is of my choosing and not for the students I serve academically. For example, I run some clubs which meet in my room during lunch. I facilitate a professional learning community which also meets during lunch. I don’t meet with students during lunch.
When I share this with students, they are stunned. A teacher who doesn’t read e-mail or grade papers at home? I do not bring this perspective up with them, naturally, but they learn about it over the course of the year. If I am e-mailed to schedule make-up work after 3 on a Friday, I will respond to that e-mail on Monday during my planning period, not before. Will this test be graded by the end of today?
Well, no. My planning period was two class periods ago. I won’t be doing any grading until tomorrow.
Although I hope students aren’t thinking about things like professional autonomy with these behaviors of mine, they do eventually understand that I don’t work during my off hours. I take it as an indicator of past experience that they seem completely gobsmacked by this. They seem to be used to teachers who donate their time. This makes me sad for the profession. How can we expect to be taken seriously as professionals, as employees, if we don’t take ourselves seriously?
Although there is something elusively sacrosanct about teaching, especially the awesome responsibility of shaping young minds, teaching is not a mysterious job. It’s a job. Like any other. People do it for varying reasons. I became a teacher to have a schedule similar to my own children’s, to be available for them when they weren’t in school. It wasn’t a calling, a vocation, for me. It was a job. It still is. It’s a tough one, and I love it, but it’s just a job. I learned when I participated in a safety training that what we do to save our own lives in a school shooting is up to us. I found this a bit shocking–naturally I’d expect to put myself between a shooter and my students–but that’s not part of the job. If I chose to run, that is acceptable. I would not be shirking my duty. It is not part of teaching to put yourself in harm’s way. Like I said, shocking. But, it is in line with teaching being a profession, a profession of educating. Not stopping bullets or shooters.
I will add that along with schooling myself to stick to my beliefs and behave in the professional manner described above as to my work hours, I also (rather unpopularly with some of my peers) believe we are paid appropriately. I don’t feel my salary is too low. Because, on the weekends, in the evenings, and all summer long? I donate not one moment to my profession. This helps keep me the distinguished educator I am.
Here are a couple of interesting, albeit old! articles:
I was just sitting down to pen this blog post when my copy of Time arrived. Behind me, on the living room television, coverage of the marches taking place across this nation plays. It’s time to speak. There is a time for silence. There is a time to speak out. This will be a rambling post, I can tell as I work on it. That’s okay, it’s my blog–not one of my books. I’m the editor as well as writer and publisher. It’s just a blog. If it offends you, feel free to respond. Or not.
I’m an educator in the eleventh largest school district in the nation. One of thousands of teachers in that district. I’ve chosen to go back to the classroom after what seems to some a scattered career. Any special educator will tell you, if you don’t move around you burn out. I burnt out working for the state DOE at UCF as a Coordinator of Educational Training Programs at the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. I fundamentally disagreed with the direction in which the programs were going–including such basic “professional” lingo as “nonpreferred” work & activities for persons with ASD when we were also presenting new research that making demands on these people caused a physical fight or flight response in their bodies. I see no choice in running for, or fighting for, your life. My input was met with derision, dismissed. I chose, despite perfect evaluations, early retirement. After the necessary waiting period to do so, I chose a new career–going back to the classroom as a newly-minted English teacher.
I love my new career. I have no argument with participating in all of the new teacher programs, trainings, requirements, because I am a human being and fallible and I grow older and welcome these opportunities to learn. Education is necessarily dynamic; as we learn more, we need to be open to learning more! However, my rich background in education as well as twelve years of college come in handy when it comes to my current job.
Teaching is an interesting profession. One of the problems with it is, it is often overlooked as a profession. There are multiple reasons for this, and it’s getting worse. Not the least of these is that here, in Florida, anybody with a high school education can be a private school “teacher”; more and more the lawmakers enable this unprofessional approach. Parents who never even went to high school, much less college, can legally “educate” children at home. This public and legislatively-supported perspective on education is dangerous. It completely undermines the field. Public education is the largest entitlement program in the United States (see previous articles for references). The local school district is the largest employer in our county. Our salary is tax-based. We are accountable to the public, just like cops, firefighters, paramedics, VA doctors, DOT flag personnel directing traffic on the tax-paid-for freeways and byways.
One dangerous element I am noticing at school board meetings, in news reporting, in conversations, and in social media, is the consumers of education appearing to appropriate the profession. As an educator, particularly on social media, particularly in so called “education forums,” I’m seeing a public perspective that parents, students, and the general public can dictate the parameters of the profession of teaching. This has reached critical mass with the snowballing momentum of arming personnel in public schools. Our legislature has passed, and the governor signed, a complex bill opening the door for certain personnel to be able to carry weapons on public school campus.
The general public is debating, speaking out, holding forums, and wasting an awful lot of school board meeting time under the mistaken perspective that teachers are public service machines. We’re not.
Although of course “arming” personnel is a topic between we professionals in our off time–you know, lunch, after school, at the grocery store, when we go out to dinner together, at the park–it isn’t something we spend much professional time on. When we do discuss it, we tend to laugh at the absurdity. It’s Twilight-Zoneish. Picture the guy who cashes you out in the lunch line packing! Picture the tennis coach who teaches math in the next room, you know, the seventy-year-old woman who’s legendary for her availability during lunch and after school for geometry tutoring, chasing down a shooter and drawing fire to her room! Picture the veteran who has a part-time custodial job, and we all know has PTSD, packing. Picture a quarter of the teachers walking out when this happens. Picture that cafeteria worker, who got to school early and hasn’t eaten today passing out from low blood sugar, being disarmed, and some nut getting the gun; slaughter in the cafeteria. Picture the media center when the media specialist everybody who can read a newspaper knows is carrying when his back is turned and a Nicholas Cruz bops him over the head with whatever’s handy. Picture what happens next. We talk about stuff like that.
But, we don’t waste a lot of time talking about the increasing disregard for our ability to actually think and act. We’re used to public disregard. We’re used to being steamrolled, maligned, and public attempts to manage us. We’re used to sitting through board meetings where those on the dais are attempting to complete crucial, professional business, as well as to consider the concerns of the public, and the same people take up the time of every person in the room, every meeting, with their concerns. There are some parents who are at the forefront of what I consider the biggest threat to teachers of all–an assumption that taxpayers understand teaching just because they went to school or have children who do. It’s in the realm of absurdity, and it’s discouraging. With the current gun issues, it’s dangerous.
Assuming that you know what it is to educate, what the profession entails, is like assuming because you can purchase a cup of coffee and you do so daily, you know how to run a coffee shop. Assuming that you understand testing or curriculum-based instruction is like walking into a surgical suite at the VA hospital and assuming you can remove shrapnel from the patient on the table because you own and understand the same gun which was fired at him.
We as a nation, and each educational community particularly, need to be able to come together to solve the problems surrounding making schools as safe as we can. Until educators are acknowledged as in charge of their own profession (do a bit of research on what it means to be professional–part of that is controlling, as a group, the profession), we can’t get anywhere we need to be with the conversation. Parents need to back off on wanting to know everything, or, even worse, imagining they do. When it comes to safety, there are necessarily things even the students won’t know unless, God forbid, we are in an active-shooter situation. Sometimes, you have to let the professionals be in charge of the profession. This is one of those times. I believe that all the white noise of debate on facebook, and that aggressive time-wasting I speak about at meetings, makes us more vulnerable, not less so. There is a time to step back and listen to those who know. The role of parents who are noneducators in this needs to be one of supporting those who are the decision makers, or voting them out of office. Not blabbing until they become distracting. This isn’t a time for teachers, legislators, superintendents, administrators, or board members to be distracted. Please.
One of the things I’ve learned from my sister, who writes about her town of Sandy Hook, Connecticut (see previous posts for references), is that the students who survive school shootings are the students who obey teachers and administrators on REFLEX. We all know those kids; the ones who do what you tell them in the classroom and hallways even when you are mistaken or tired or cranky or flat-out wrong. The ones who always obey dress code, even if they or their parents think the rule is wrong, and even though other students get away with breaking the code. You know, just like drivers on the freeway who obey the speed limit, and when they don’t and get a ticket accept their punishment, even though others get away with zipping past. They don’t scream about “unfair.” Their parents aren’t the ones who loudly and rudely proclaim about how somebody’s ass is hanging out of their shorts at the parent-loop, and they saw the student walk right past a campus adviser, and they tell their kids the dress code is wrong and defy it. The students who survive are the ones who learn what rules are for, and the right forums for changing them. Further, these students go on to become the voters who understand that the framers of our Constitution meant it to be a fluid document (hence Amendments), changing to meet the needs of the citizens. The Parkland survivors are those students. Pay attention to them.
Right now, the citizens need to be safe from gun violence. The students leading the movement today are correct in their methodology: they epitomize what it means to be American. This, despite our own generation’s failures and the egotistical, bogged-down white noise of the non-professional adults about education, gives me hope. Hope that in live-shooter situations, the students have the correct reflexes with regard to their authority figures. That they will be the voters who FINALLY get rid of the damn guns–not increase their proliferation. The students above give me hope.
Time is one of the magazines I’ve purchase with my own money, along with the Sunday New York Times, to share with my students this year. I checked with our media specialist to make sure that was okay before I did so. I don’t think I’ll be tossing the above issue on the reading table. I think I’ll frame it. And, buy another for the table.
Anyone who knows me well takes two things as a given: I speak my mind fearlessly (because I know how minuscule we actually are within the cosmos, thanks Dad), and I am a pie-in-the-sky optimist. My husband says I could see the upside of a plague. If you look back over this blog, you’ll see that I am a big fan of Volusia County Schools. I am. I’ve been educated here, chosen to educate my children here, and I’ve taught here. When things got really bad in the early part of this century I bugged out of the District and went to work for the state of Florida DOE. I just couldn’t pencil-whip IEPs. That’s what I was being told to do. At the district, I left when I was the administrator who had to take away team planning from the middle school teachers across the county–I was the front person for decisions far beyond my pay grade. Yes, middle school teachers used to have two planning periods; personal, and with the team which worked with their students. It’s what the middle school model is based in, team collaboration. Doing away with that is why middle schools don’t work. One reason.
I often remind my students that they are to do their job, and I, mine. That there’s lots and lots behind the scenes which they’ll never know or see which I base my teaching and expectations on, and they’ll have to trust me on that. By this time of the year, they really do. It’s a big responsibility to have dozens of young adults trusting you to guide them. It is. Sometimes, I stay awake struggling with what to tell them, what not to. They have to trust us on so many levels: Safety. Time management. College preparation. Curricula. This week, because they’re tired and I’m tired and we are pushing through some literature which some just don’t like, I pulled up the fourteen-page English 4 curriculum map and spent a bit of time going through it with them. The standards, the literature selections, the pacing guide. To put it mildly, they were stunned. We have to do all that? In a year? And you have to teach it to us? I don’t think I’ll be getting any more students slumped belligerently, refusing to read, who say, “I don’t want to read this. How come we can’t just read stuff we like? I know a book we should read. I should be able to decide what I study.”
By now, they trust me. I don’t let them down and they know it. I work hard. So do they. We all get tired and we all have to do things we don’t want to do to reach our mutual goal of them mastering the curricula lined out in the map. But there are things I can’t tell them, things which force me to either let them down in ways they’ll probably never know about, or make Herculean efforts to do work that isn’t my own. And that’s because education is broken.
I was an Exceptional Student Education teacher and specialist in various arenas for decades. ESE is what my first degree is in, and I learned at a cutting-edge college, the University of Florida. It was a great school, and I don’t say that cavalierly, one of the top ten in the nation at the time I attended. Back then, ESE teachers had to earn their way into certain jobs, including consultation and coteaching. Both of those positions required, at the minimum, ESE teachers with three years of independent classroom teaching experience. Not now. Now, coteachers can come straight out of college into the job, without even certification. And it’s a disaster.
Consultation and Coteaching both fell under me for the entire district for the brief period that I was acting Programs and Placement Administrator for Middle Schools, ESE Mild. That means that, including my other duties, I was in charge of both program design and teacher training for those two initiative across the entire district, all levels and settings. Although I was young and a little green, I took my work seriously and did a pretty good job. With such amazing mentors as Jewel Dickson and Joyce Lubbers, we trained, for example, coteaching teams for three full professional development days each summer. It was incredible. All were seasoned teachers; all were in those positions voluntarily. Those days are as ancient as the days of the dinosaurs at this point.
New coteachers walk into that position with sometimes zero classroom teaching experience. And, it really, really shows. One of the most incredible things some of my (anonymous) teacher friends have lately encountered is the minimalist approach to implementation of Individualized Education Plans–IEPs. I had a friend call, incredulous, to tell me she had a peer who was a consultation teacher of whom she’d asked about a student, “what is his exceptionality?”
The teacher replied, “He’s SLD.”
“Yes, but what LD?”
“Specific Learning Disabled.”
“Yes, but what is the disability? Auditory processing? Visual processing? Motor impairment? What?”
“I don’t know. SLD! The accommodations are the same for all of them, what does it matter?”
My friend was flattened. Depressed. This is a teacher who is responsible for implementing the student’s IEP and he had no idea what the student’s disability was. And, didn’t care.
More and more, this is what I am seeing across the district, when I get together with friends and I catch up on what is going on out there. I won’t go into, here, issues I have encountered, but I’ve encountered them even in the finest school I’ve ever worked in. Once upon a time, an IEP was a fluid document which supported a student in accessing his or her education in ways which accommodated his or her disability. These days, most of the time, the “educational experts” don’t even know what those disabilities are. Coteachers are pulled to administer tests, and have no idea whatsoever how to be the educational specialists they need to be. I actually viewed the current coteaching training for the district (at my request) last year. It consists of the same training materials I used to use–nineteen years ago–condensed into an hour-long presentation. Woefully unupdated, woefully impersonal.
We soldier on, but in my view (and I know, I’m a master of the obvious) education is broken.
I have no intention of leaving again, mainly because although my work is hard, I have not been asked to compromise my ethics in any way. That matters, to me. I can’t be less than my best, and I can’t not do the right things. But, I left ESE and it is very difficult for me to see the total disaster it is, now. There are some great people out there, but there’s no cohesion, guidance, rigor. Best practices is a thing of the distant past; even meeting the legal minimums of implementation of all accommodations is a chancy thing. When one discusses actually working together to ensure students with IEPs have what they need to access learning and to express it, and changing things when that isn’t working, one is met with blank stares or open derision. It’s awful. I know that I am blessed to be at the school I’m at, but I feel like I’m on an island in the midst of a raging sea, colleagues and their charges sinking around me. And the water’s creeping my way.
I like this photograph of my sister and me, taken by Bret Lott at a writers’ conference in Vancouver years ago. She and Bret worked together at the College of Charleston for a while, and by the time of this picture he’d moved to Louisiana to take over the Southern Review, and she and her husband (also a poet) edited Crazyhorse. We’d all been out to dinner, along with a bunch of students and Carol Ann and Garrett’s young son, Willem. Willem is now fourteen, and when I look at this picture I think of all of the changes we’ve been through.
Carol Ann, her husband Garrett Doherty–founding editor of Sixfold–and their two young children moved from Charleston to Connecticut in the summer of 2012; she was taking a teaching position at Fairfield University. Although it was a bit of a hike for my sister, the family searched for a town to raise the boys in, a town they felt they could stay in. Of course, the main factor was schools. They searched for the right school for Willem and Luke, then nine and five. And they found it. In Sandy Hook.
Happy to get out of Charleston and back to the northeast where Garrett was raised and they both went to college, then graduate school, it was an exciting time and my sister and I talked frequently. We’re close. She spoke of the fabulous character of the town, the landscape; the beauty of the school the boys would attend. The town reminded her, a bit, of the New Smyrna Beach of our childhood; it had that safe, small-town feel. Everyone, even little Luke, felt they’d found home.
When the massacre occurred in early December of that year, I was on the road with my husband and our oldest son between Gainesville and Orlando, driving to the airport. My cell phone rang, and Carol Ann said, “They’re alright. I want you to know the boys are alright.” She had to tell me why. We didn’t have the radio on and hadn’t seen the news.
Through a trick in zoning–what many in our extended family think of as a miracle–my nephews were bussed from their rental home to Hawley School, actually further away than Sandy Hook Elementary, while all of their neighbors attended Sandy Hook. The boys were alright. Nearly every friend my sister has lost a child.
Ever since the tragedy, my sister and her husband have consciously worked to do the right thing for their children. As all good parents would do. After, they asked Willem if he wanted to move. He told them no, this was home. And besides, wasn’t he safer here, now, than he would be at any other school in the country?
I take my cues from my sister when it comes to guns, and schools. I pay attention to what she tells me. And this is one hard lesson I’ve learned, through her: It is okay to tell the kids things are not okay.
After the church shooting in Sutherland Springs last week, I waited a day to see if the school district or the administration of the school I teach at would issue instructions for faculty in addressing this latest shooting in our nation. When I didn’t hear anything, I took matters into my own hands. I teach senior English, and I teach in a portable. I took about a minute at the beginning of each class period on Tuesday to go over some recent changes I’ve made to the portable with the students. I told them this: “Although you are all polite, I want, from now on, for you to always let me be the one to answer the door. You know I keep both doors locked. Well, if somebody knocks, even if it is just somebody late to class or coming back from the restroom, I want to be the one to answer. Always. You know that we do everything we can to keep you all safe–you’re part of drills all the time. What you may not know is this: taking those drills seriously is statistically one of the best ways to save your own life in a school shooting. Practice until it becomes reflex, knowing what to do. And remember, I am here for you. You might be bigger than me, or stronger. But it is my job to keep you just as safe as I can. And there are things which are constantly going on behind the scenes with the faculty and administration to improve safety. We are here for you. Safety comes even before learning in this classroom. Making it reflex to do what we tell you could make the difference between life and death in the event of a shooting. We cannot guarantee your safety. But I can promise you that if somebody tries to come through that door with a gun, they will have to go through me to get to you.”
The relief on the face of every student I spoke to, over one hundred and thirty of them, was uniform. It was both stunning, and sobering. These students think about this all the time. All the time. And they need to know these shootings are not normal, not okay. And, that we are thinking about them, too. It is critical that we let the students know our priorities and our perspective on the terrible massacres occurring with horrifying regularity.
After every shooting, I feel a very real need to call my sister and apologize for not voting in people who will take an aggressive stance against automatic and semiautomatic weapons, and for rigorous gun laws. I talk to her all the time about what Sandy Hook is doing for its children. I called her on that Sunday.
The following Thursday, I had a student in one of my classes get up to answer the door when somebody knocked, I said, (not his real name) “Joey, sit down. From now on, I always answer the door.” Other students quickly and quietly backed me up when he continued toward the door. He’d been absent Tuesday and hadn’t heard my talk, so I repeated it. He still had trouble understanding, was puzzled. Another boy put it bluntly for him: “If somebody with a gun comes to the door, she wants to answer it. She wants to take a bullet for you, if it comes to that.” Joey sat back down.
Parents, talk to your children about the routines of safety. Teachers, do that, too. And make sure they know that this is not alright, what is going on in our country.
Here is a link to an award-winning essay Carol Ann wrote about her experience with the Sandy Hook tragedy, read it and drop her a line at Fairfield, if you’d like:
Sorry for the pixilated nature of this draft of the front cover! The text on the right is a foldover for the front cover-imagine it just inside the book.
I’m excited to announce that my novel, Ana, will be out from Silent e Publishing in November! Ana is a fifty-eight-year-old widow living in coastal Central Florida, a transplant from New Jersey. Ana has secrets, and she wants to keep them that way-secret. Widowhood provides the perfect cover.
The format I chose for Ana allows the reader to chose how to read the book; as a light, ladies’ novel, or as a difficult comment on that most difficult aspect of the human condition-relationships. How I did this is, I added an appendix to the book which lets readers get to know characters with a sketch of each one. The story holds together, either way. You pick what you want to know about people, just as you do in real life.
Usually when Ana got to the hospital for her Friday night shift on the ER desk, she was in sneakers and work out pants, and took a quick shower before she changed into her Pink Lady smock and slacks. She hoped nobody would notice her black dress and ballet flats, touch of lipstick; but the nurses, and Charley the security guard, knew her on sight. Since none of the other volunteers worked weekends, somebody would remark on her attire. Sure enough, even though she had a tearful ten-year-old with an ice pack on his wrist and a pair of anxious parents in the triage room, Judee the R.N. on duty called—as Ana scanned her keycard for the door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY—“Looking good tonight, Ana! Out on the town?”
“Just the annual library appreciation dinner.”
“Ana, I swear, you’re the busiest person in town. They ought to give you a key to the city. Not too bad in here tonight. Pretty slow for a Friday.”
Judee turned back to the little boy, Billy Preston. Ana knew him from church. He was the waterboy for the J.V. football team; somebody must have fumbled right into him. Ana let the door close behind her and headed for the locker room. She passed local Art Guild paintings and photographs in the wide hallway. Her favorite was John Clinton’s panoramic photograph of the Confederate oak at Old Fort Park, across from the city marina. A wonder it never sold; she’d been here going on four years and that picture greeted her, day and night, on her way to change.
The locker room was in the old part of the hospital, along with the morgue and the laundry; its door required an old-fashioned key. Ana kept one on her ring and fished it out of her one and only black pocket book; a leather hobo bag Frank brought back from Quebec. She usually left the purse rolled in a towel on the top shelf of her locker. Ana almost never dressed up, and customarily carried a backpack. Before she rewrapped the bag in the towel, Ana took her sneakers, sweat pants, and t-shirt out of it. She put the sneakers on the floor, tossed the clothes in the uniform hamper. Saturdays she washed and ironed all the volunteer smocks anyway, and nobody else was going to be in before she did that. Never hurt to add a few of her own things to a load. The budget committee was glad to spring for the washer, dryer, iron, and ironing board when Ana proposed she do all the uniforms for the week after her Friday shift.
She sat down on the bed, surplus from when the hospital upgraded, to remove her stockings and flats. The flats fit neatly next to her leather bag; the stockings she stashed in the delicates bag hanging from the locker’s cross bar. Her own uniform smock and slacks hung on a wire hanger and she took them with her into the bathroom to change, even though nobody else was coming in. She preferred to change in private, not take a chance of an embarrassing moment. Above all things, Ana valued privacy.
Ana liked working the weekend third shift, and the staff appreciated it because most volunteers worked days or early evenings, so the paid staff had to screen incomers to the ER themselves at night. Billy had been taken back by the time Ana sat down behind the reception desk. The security guard sat alone in the waiting room, watching Fox News. Ana would probably work until about two in the morning, unless things got very busy. Generally on the weekends there were a few walk-ins, but the more serious cases came in by ambulance, bypassing Ana completely.
There were forms to sort from the morning shift—Peggy Phillips and Roger Ahern had worked together; they always left paperwork on the reception desk. Ana gathered the intake forms, scanned her security card for the double doors to the hallway, and slipped them into the inbox for the insurance department to handle Monday morning. She returned to the waiting room to find a bleeding man in the chair, patiently waiting, next to her desk.
“Hello, I’m Ana. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you came in. What’s your name?”
“Andy McNamara,” replied the man. He had a dirty white t-shirt pressed to his forehead above his right eye, visible scrapes on both elbows. He looked about sixty: he was deeply tanned, with a white beard and moustache, and the yellowed eyes of an alcoholic.
“Well, Mr. McNamara, if you don’t mind I will just fill out your intake form for you since your hands are full, and you can sign once we get you cleaned up, how’s that?”
Something snapped to attention, a sort of puzzlement crossed his face, when Ana said Mr. He straightened his spine and pushed back into the chair. “Alright,” he said softly.
“Okay, so why don’t we start with what happened.”
“Well, I fell off of my bicycle. I saw the sign for the hospital, I was right down on Dixie Freeway, and walked my bike here to see if I could get fixed up.”
“We’ll get a nurse to take a look at you soon.” Out of the corner of her eye Ana saw Judee studiously ignoring them. She was great with locals—and tourists with insurance—but not so good with drunks and the homeless. Ana, on the other hand, had a talent with downtrodden patients. “What is your age?”
“Well, ma’am, I’m traveling. I’m just sort of…passing through. I’m originally from Teaneck, New Jersey.”
“We get a lot of visitors here from New York and New Jersey. Particularly this time of year and also in winter, when they like to get away from the cold weather. And do you have any insurance?”
“Well,” his gaze dropped, “I haven’t gotten round to applying down here.”
The security guard gave a loud snort, not taking his eyes from the television, beer-belly bouncing beneath crossed forearms.
“Okay. Don’t worry about that right now. It can be taken care of, retroactively, after you’re seen. Here’s a worksheet on that; I’ll put it with your paperwork. You can complete it at the local library, because some of it needs to be done online. It just needs to be done within thirty days of being seen here. The library is right down the road, about a quarter mile south of the hospital. Here. You can sign after you get cleaned up; give the hospital copies to the staff back in the ER after that, please, and let me put this bracelet on. Which hand do you write with? Thank you. You can stay right there until the nurse can see you. As you can see, we aren’t very busy at the moment.”
Ana could see Judee and was willing to bet she wasn’t charting anything, but playing solitaire on the computer. She smiled at the patient, got up and carried his paperwork to the triage room. Yep, solitaire. Judee closed it with a deep sigh and shot Ana a conspiratorial, put-upon glance: Don’t you just hate dealing with these people? Ana kept her face carefully neutral. Judee was the professional, after all. Ana was just a volunteer.
“Andy?” Judee called from across the room, not bothering to get up, “In here, please. Let’s get your vital signs.”
At that moment, the automatic doors to the outside slid open and a pack of teens came in escorting a boy wearing dripping wet baggies and a rash guard. Night surfing, no doubt. Ana put on a careful smile and handed one of the kids a clipboard with a blank intake form. It might be an interesting night, after all.
Sample from the appendix:
Usually when Ana Ana (Therill) Mills is 58 years old. She was born in Gainesville, Florida, on October 6th, 1956. She grew up in Flagler Beach, Florida, the fourth of five children. Her mother was an avid reader, volunteer at the local library, and chair of the visitation committee at the First Baptist Church. Ana was baptized on Mother’s Day, 1964. The Therill family attended church on Sunday mornings for Sunday school and worship service, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night for prayer meeting throughout Ana’s childhood. Her father was Sunday School director and chair of the finance committee. He was from Greenwood, Mississippi, an orphan, and earned a degree in civil engineering from Georgia Tech through the Navy ROTC program. He worked for a surveying company in Jacksonville, Florida, after the Navy, where he met Ana’s mother. When Ana was four years old, he went to work for NASA. Ana didn’t know what he did for a living but she got to watch all the launches at Cape Canaveral from the VIP stands with her mother, brothers, and sisters.
Ana met Frank Mills in drama class their sophomore year in high school. He liked her long blond hair and used to sit behind her and play with it. They married right out of high school; Frank did three years in the Army, then went to work for the Florida East Coast Railroad, and later for Amtrak. He was a station manager, and transferred to New Jersey. Their daughter Ella was born five years later. Ana stayed home with the children. After Frank died, she moved to the town of Robinson, Florida, forty miles south of Flagler Beach.
Sure enough, even Judee Marquetta Golden is 36 years old. She is a single mother, never married, of two teenaged girls. She has been a nurse for five years, having worked nights as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home to put herself through nursing school. Her fourteen year old daughter is mildly mentally handicapped, and three months pregnant by someone she met at the all-children’s playground. Judee is a Robinson native, born in the hospital she works at. She doesn’t vote or care about politics, but she is deathly afraid of men and of sharks. She doesn’t swim and she doesn’t date. Her oldest daughter is the result of a gang rape at a frat house party.
Judee turned back Billy Everett Preston 11, is an honor roll fifth grader at Ponce DeLeon Elementary in Haven Beach. He has a big brother who is on the high school basketball team. Billy has red hair and freckles and his ears stick out. His parents won’t let him wear his hair long enough to cover them, so he wears a baseball cap whenever possible. He sleeps in a baseball cap in hopes that it will move his ears closer to his head. He gets teased at school, called Billy Billy Big Ears. His hero is his big brother, who got him the job as waterboy for the football team. They let him wear a ball cap to all the games. He has a secret crush on a girl in his class named Brooklyn who wears combat boots and long skirts year-round. She is skinny and has and auditory processing deficit, so she never says anything in class and has to sit next to the teacher’s desk.
Her favorite was John (no middle name) Clinton, 68, is a retired astrophysicist from New Mexico who moved to Robinson six years ago. After the desert, Robinson seemed impossibly crowded and close. He bought a good camera and started taking pictures of things which bothered him, like SUV’s and trucks and recyclables in garbage cans. Once he began to feel a part of the town and to accept it, he started taking pictures of flora unfamiliar from his past life in New Mexico. He is particularly fond of photographing live oak trees. He lives with his life-partner in a condo in Haven Beach, a retired army colonel named Casey Lovett. They enjoy walking the beach at low-tide with a garden trowel and metal detector. The most interesting thing they had found, so far, is a World War Two era Nazi wristwatch inscribed, Hauptmann , Stumm, unter , und tödlich, Ihr Führer.
Ana kept one Frank Marcus Mills (deceased) was born in 1955 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the middle child of Lee and Sarah (Clancy) Mills. He was raised Catholic and as the second son expected to go into the priesthood. When his parents moved to the Florida coast, Frank was fourteen. His father was part of a new real estate venture seeking to aggressively convert the small town of Flagler Beach to a wealthy retirement destination for northerners. Frank’s mother’s role was to run a wine and cheese store catering to these clients. The store was only partially successful; the Mills’ hadn’t counted on the tea-totalling nature of the local population. After their children were grown they retired to coastal Maryland, finding the Florida summers increasingly brutal.
Frank fell in love with Ana Therill the first time he saw her, walking down the beach in a brown and white cotton bikini which was too big in the butt and threatened to fall off every time she walked from the dune line to the water. He also fell in love with the ocean and collected soda bottles and mowed lawns to buy his first surfboard. Frank shared a bedroom with his brother, and one evening as they were falling asleep, Montgomery described in horrible detail a sexual encounter he had with a thirteen year old boy, a runaway, in Jacksonville Beach the previous night. Frank punched his brother in the mouth, got dressed and grabbed his wallet, climbed out the bedroom window, took his surfboard from the side of the house and went down to the beach. The next morning, Frank went to a phone booth and made an anonymous call to the department of children and families, reporting what his brother had done. He camped under the boardwalk and the following Monday enlisted in the Army. He never told anyone else what his brother had done, but he also never spoke to Montgomery again.
Frank married Ana and they had two children. He was eleven years short of retirement when he got sick and lost his job with the railroad. He had recently been converted to part-time but never told his wife. His death by Huntington’s ate up all savings and assets which were in his own name.
There were some Margaret Bridgett (McNaulty) Phillips is 67 years old, and had been married at eighteen to her high school sweetheart, Roberto, in Charleston, South Carolina. She worked as an eighth grade science teacher at a private school and he was the custodian there. Both wanted children, but they were unable to have them. When they were sixty two, Roberto and Margaret retired to Robinson. Roberto spent his days fishing in a john boat on the Intracoastal Waterway. Margaret does cross stitch, watches soap operas on television, and volunteers three afternoons a week at the hospital. She fell in love and began a flirtation, what she hoped would turn into an affair, with Roger Ahern, a widower from Monterey, California.
RogerRyan Ahern 83, is a north California native who worked in the canneries from the time he dropped out of high school at fifteen until he was seventy two years old. He is six foot five, and weighs three hundred four pounds. Powerful as a young man, all his muscle had gone to fat as soon as he left the cannery. Roger is a gregarious octogenarian who likes the ladies and had twin daughters, Breck and Brock, in the Navy. They would both reach retirement in three years and his secret dread was that they would retire to Robinson. He collects postage stamps and spends his free time and his saving studying for and traveling to philatelic conventions and auctions. He is fond of Mrs. Phillips but has no intention of entering into a relationship with her outside of joking around when on duty at the hospital. He volunteers because he swore he would to his dying wife, who passed away at the Robinson hospital of a burst appendix five years ago.
“Andy McNamara,” replied Andrew Elvis MacNamara IV ,47. He served his country as an CIA agent based in Langley, Virginia, for fourteen years, joining the agency immediately after receiving his master’s in psychology from Harvard University at 23 years old. He came from a long line of patriots; both of his parents had been eastern bloc spies during the Cold War. His grandfather was a Navy flyer killed in the raid on Tokyo following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Andy had foregone family life and friendship for service to his country. In an undercover job in 2005, he failed to notice an asset slipping a powerful drug into his drink at a crucial moment; the mistake resulted in the deaths of three agents. Andy lost his job and climbed into a bottle; he eventually was evicted from his apartment and began walking toward Florida, with a vague notion of suicide in Key West as the sun sunk beneath the horizon and the revelers around him cheered. He planned to swim until he sank.
The security guard Terrell Elias Realmuto, 39, works two jobs; as a cop in Port Orange and as security guard at the hospital. He and his wife, Earline, lived with Terrell’s mother in West Robinson. They had two children in college, boys, at Florida State. Both won scholarships for baseball, one was a pitcher, the other a catcher. Terrell worked so much that he only had time for one hobby—he belonged to a hunt club where he hunted wild pigs with nothing but a bowie knife. He went on four hunts a year and bagged a hog every time. Terrell drank Miller High Life and fell asleep in front of the television on his rare days off.
At that moment Lynn Thomas Till, 17, had Asperger’s syndrome. The thing he wanted most in the world was friends, so he learned to surf. He read everything he could about surfing and surfers, and sat on the beach and watched for three years before trying it. He had perfect technique, and could not understand why the other surfers his age laughed at him or yelled at him no matter what he did or said. He had heard some boys he knew from school arguing that nobody was brave enough to night surf in these shark-infested waters, so Lynn said, “I will.” The event was scheduled for Friday night, and all the boys showed up to watch; there was a full moon. Several girls showed up too, which Lynn hadn’t expected. Two of them, the Johnston twins, Jessica and Jenna, begged him not to go out. He got nipped by something after his first ride, close to shore. Jessica and Jenna drove him to the hospital, followed by a jeep full of boys.
Author’s Note: The wonderful photograph above was taken by Kelsi Johnson. It’s of the house I was raised in, and where generations of surfers, including my own sons, stashed their surfboards. In this town, the house is something of an icon. Throughout the town–and especially in the immediate neighborhood– locals are shocked and saddened by what is happening to the house. Just recently I’ve had to deal with the deliberate destruction, from the interior out, of the home described below. The pictures I have of that are currently too heartrending for me to work into my manuscript.
My mother passed away in March, leaving the house to one of my siblings. Her choice, which I didn’t agree with, but, her choice. I don’t think she–in fact I don’t think anyone involved, including her heirs of which I am one–could have imagined the current situation. I am certain my father, who although he lived there less time than she did, having died in 2001, couldn’t when he left it to her. He, after all, paid for the house. It was in our family fifty-one years.
I know it is “just a house.” I share this excerpt from my forthcoming memoir to give a glimpse of what it means to me. Two family members, including myself, made offers on it and were turned down. Mine was a desperate attempt–using my generous husband’s recent offer of his inheritance–to save the house from destruction. The best he and I can do, in the current situation, is to try to continue what we have been doing for the past 22 years: like my parents did for me, give our own children some roots. And, learn from the present. We have a renewed commitment to keeping our own humble digs in the family for future generations.
The chapter about this current situation is yet to be written, as a memoir by definition is reflective. It’s too soon. I process by writing. The vast majority of what I write is never read or heard by another, and most of that I don’t even revisit. This memoir is deliberate. I am grateful to my father, who taught me to navigate the world. That’s what I am doing, here.
Several chapters from the memoir, due out in 2018, have appeared, or will, in peer-reviewed journals. I’m proud of that.
Ded reckoning has nothing to do with mortality—the ded comes from deduced, what you think you know based on history: the history of the boat you’re sailing in…where she was when you last knew for sure. How fast she has been moving since, and in what direction. You draw a line along your projected path: five hours, say, at 6 knots equals 30 nautical miles of distance along that course line from your last known position. You don’t know yet what the tidal set and the currents have done to her. Or leeway—her tendency to slide a little sideways as she moves forward. As we all do.
When I was a small girl I’d lay wide awake, worrying the day over in my mind, and sometimes my father would hear me stirring and remind me to settle my mind. He’d tuck me in and sit at my feet, softly singing hymns that were my lullabies, replacing chaotic visions with the poetry of God’s sweet promises. It is these songs I will murmur to him as he lies dying, dumb and acutely aware; it is his combination of stubbornness and blind faith which will save lives on the morning of his funeral.
It is unusual to find time alone with my father. This had to be carefully and assertively planned. The house is generally filled with people; my brothers and their families or those needing help, as my parents comprise the benevolence committee of our church. For five nights Mother has agreed to answer the phone and to keep everyone away. It is hard for me to believe, and I’m ashamed—but since moving to New Smyrna Beach from Huntsville, Alabama, where I was born, I’ve never sat down with Dad alone to concentrate on his stories. And I should’ve. I’m thirty-five: old enough to have taken the time. But, when I was growing up things were hectic. He was madly in love with his work, very busy at NASA, and our house was chaotic.
We Davis children basically inhabited three households; Mother’s unpredictable domain; the happy mess when my father was home; and the secure child’s world we created for each other, in an almost surreally beautiful landscape between ocean and river. The rhythms of our lives moved as naturally as the sea, by turns stormy and calm, unpredictable but constant. In those days of roaming over the cracked pavement and sandy shore on calloused bare feet, a bond formed between my self and this island that would make it impossible for me to ever feel fully at home inland, anywhere far from the sea.
We moved from Huntsville in June, 1966.When we pulled up one sweltering evening in our Chevy station wagon, I climbed out the back window and ran up the street, past the weedy vacant lot next door, to a big square iron storm drain set in the sand. My feet were still bare and sore from sandspurs everyone plucked out after I crossed the grassy strip in front of the boat basin in town. The sandy dirt was rough with broken shells, but the black pavement hot and smooth and it felt good on my bruised feet. I stood on the grate, the warm iron and rising air soothing, leaned over to put my palms on the grating, and looked down into a pool of black water four feet below. I could see my short white hair and bangs next to my round face and tilted green eyes, crosshatched with bars of light and shadow, and picked up a piece of shell and dropped it in to watch the ripples roll through my reflection. Then I looked back between my chubby legs and that is the first view I remember of our new house and of Robinson Road, upside down.
Past the narrow overgrown lot the roof on the house was not shingled like roofs in Alabama, but covered with uneven pebbles the colors of clouds. And it was nearly flat, with just a slight pitch in the middle. The yard started almost at the door, with a narrow porch of poured concrete not even a full step up, shallow block boxes filled with geraniums along the front. It merged indistinctly with sandy dirt which crept up on the road, over it in places. The road tilted away from me, a slight rise all the way to tall dunes covered in sea oats bent in the breeze and wagging their seedy tops hello. I couldn’t see but could hear the ocean, a rising and receding stretch of continuous sound, like low voices in another room murmuring into the night, indistinct yet melding into something new.
New Smyrna Beach became our home because Mother spent summers there as a child. All she said was, “We took vacations, here.” We knew better than to ask for more, so we speculated, trying to imagine her as a small girl, privileged with summers at the shore. Remnants of that childhood filtered in strange ways into ours—her elegance, and her acerbic, aristocratic turn of phrase; I tried smart and I tried nice and Ifound nice was better, consider the source; her insistence that we wear linen which she sent out to be starched and ironed. In Alabama, we had a maid to do the ironing. By process of elimination we knew those vacation would have taken place before 1942. When Mother turned ten, her three-year-old sister was diagnosed with bone cancer. My grandparents sold the verandahed house in Decatur, Georgia to pay for Billie’s radiation treatments at Emory. Mother and her other sisters were sent to live with various relatives. There were families with vacation houses on our street who’d known Mother in Atlanta, people who greeted her in the same sweet drawl she used.
I’m sure Mother’s love of the town factored into my father’s decision to rent the house at 219 Robinson Road. When Dad saw the white concrete block house trimmed in black, five houses from the ocean and six from the Indian River, he rented it for $127.00 a month. It was a month-to-month rental, and he moved us in with the intention of letting Mother choose a house to buy.
The house itself was surprisingly large for its plain exterior, the front door opening into a huge living room running the width of the house from jalousie windows on the right, western wall, to more windows into what must’ve been a garage but had been enclosed to make a long Florida room on the eastern side of the house. This is where all five of us children would sleep sometimes, to catch breezes off the ocean.
The kitchen served as a pass through to the Florida room and the hallway from it to the boys’ bedroom in the back corner of the house. Along that hall was the beach bathroom. It has a terrific big poured concrete shower stall in one corner. And holding back the dark wooden door with black enameled steel handle was the biggest conch shell I’ve ever seen. Enormous, white with a black organic fuzz mottling it, unpolished and dirty, ribbed with curving ridges as delicate and lovely as the wrinkles and veins of my grandmothers hands. Inside, the eternal sound of the sea. Every time I hefted that shell in order to close the bathroom door I imagined it filled with a great mollusk, creeping slowly over the ocean floor, stirring up a fog of sandy dust.
Whenever we returned from the beach, we were required by Mother to rinse our feet with the hose, then walk around to the east side of the house, enter through the Florida room and go directly to this bathroom to shower, coming out fully dressed. No one was allowed to walk around in the house wet, sandy, or in a bathing suit. Wet terrazzo floors are slick and dangerous, hard as poured concrete but smoother.
Directly across the living room and dining room from the front door was a short hallway which ended at another door. This was the linen closet, between mine and my parents’ room, with three wide solid wooden shelves I would climb onto and hide in. I loved to pile blankets over myself, curl up and sleep on those shelves.
The house echoed with sounds of the ocean and rain during storms and always with the voices of children. After a year of renting, my parents bought it for $16,000. Largely unchanged, it could easily bring twenty times that today, perhaps the only wise monetary investment they ever made. Mother lives there still.
That first summer my father took a good deal of time off work, and we spent long afternoons and evenings at the beach. I loved swimming at sunset best, the water bathwater warm, and walking along the wide beach at low tide, wading through tide pools. The pools on the windward side of the inlet were especially deep at low tide, often as big as full sized swimming pools. Sometimes sharks or sea turtles got trapped in them, the sharks swimming around frantically as the pool shrunk, sea turtles gliding peacefully to the surface occasionally, seemingly philosophical, checking to see if the tide had come back up to set them free.
John, fourteen months older and my closest companion, used to tell me how important sandbars are, how they protect beaches, make waves, and even become islands. I’d listen and try to imagine what he told me as true: our own beautiful and delicate island was once a sandbar, appearing and disappearing beneath the sea, sometimes nothing more than a tonal shift in color of green of the water, a flattening beyond the beach.
When one is small, one is closer to the water, to the land, not just in physical orientation but through all of the senses. Moving through tide pools I charted them with my body, and their characteristics became as familiar as the changing textures of my own flesh beneath my palms. Just as my shoulders reddened and grew tender by afternoon beneath a gentler sun than we know now, the margins of evening tide pools warmed and softened to host colonies of magical creatures. Silver minnows; blind tunneling crabs we called sandfleas; harmless clear round jellyfish, heavy and cool in the hand; sizzling invisible skates. In the shallow flats at the inlet, warrens of stingrays, easily dealt with by sliding the soles of the feet along, toes up in a flicking motion at the end of each step, sending them into fluid flight.
One of our favorite things to do as our parents strolled hand in hand on the dark sand rippled with ghost-prints of receded waves, absorbed in each other, was to approach a long string of pools strung like imperfect pearls above the shore break, at a run. Feel the heavy pull of water against our ankles twinned with the buoyancy of salt water and move as quickly as we could, laughing, until a dip in the bottom threw us face forward into the water. Then we’d pull ourselves along on our hands, exploring with all of our senses at the same time as only children do, allowing ourselves to be taken by the water, by the sand under our trusting fingers and things that bumped against us; tasting, smelling, to the point of sucking and choking that primordial fluid up from our throats and out our noses, letting our ears fill and testing the differences between sounds traveling through air and through water, always unafraid, always ready for what that magnificent sea had to offer.
When I was small the beach was fairly steep and at the mercy of the sometimes violent tides, but the Army Corp of Engineers constructed jetties on both the Daytona and our side of the inlet to build up and protect the beaches when I was eight years old, building them up and evening out the topography of the ocean floor so rip tides were less frequent, waves smaller close to shore, and the big tide pools which trapped the larger sea creatures disappeared.
New Smyrna is a long narrow barrier island with white sand beaches, and there was not a single building taller than two stories when we moved there. The north end of the beach—it was two miles from the house to Ponce Inlet, famous for treacherous currents and shifting sandbars, the dangerous inlet of Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat—was sparsely covered with low houses and tracts of vacant land covered with sea oats, palmetto scrub and laurel oak. We lived at the narrowest part of the island, what I think of as the waist because it curves in gracefully like the waist of a woman, but it widened and lengthened to the south, twelve miles to its terminus where ocean meets swamp above Cape Canaveral. This is the wildest part of Mosquito Lagoon, a dangerous maze of mangrove islands and sandbars, full of trout, mangrove snapper, redfish; diamondbacks and cottonmouths and copperheads; sharks and alligators and a rich array of seabirds— snowy cranes, majestic great blue herons, sharp-eyed osprey, gulls and terns and pelicans.
The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon landed at Turtle Mound, a refuse heap of oyster shells left by Timicuan and Calusa Indians, six miles from the southern tip, the highest point on the island. The conquistadors couldn’t handle the swarming mosquitoes, went back to their boats and settled at St. Augustine, ninety miles north, the oldest city in North America. The Indians used to cover themselves with mud to thwart the stinging insects, a method we kids often used. It was an informal right of passage for girls and boys alike to take machetes and hack their way up Turtle Mound to stand on the small bald top and imagine Indians there, watching breakers roll in timelessly below, and birds dive for fish in the river on the other side. I climbed it for the first time at seven years old with John.
Toting a machete into play was a badge of honor, the older and nastier the implement the better, but a necessary tool for hacking at the thick brush covering Turtle Mound. We learned young to make lots of noise tramping through overgrowth—our doctor used to tell us that the only thing keeping the rat population under control on the island was snakes, and snakes slide off at the noise of something large crashing through. We moved in a kind of shuffling, bent over gait, watching both the ground at our feet and the spaces between branches overhead. It was slow going—banana spiders made huge, magnificent webs between the scrub oaks, hand-sized black and yellow striped spiders with vicious bites. When we made our way to the top, sixty feet above sea level, filthy and sweating in our t-shirts, we felt we’d earned that view. And it wasn’t hard to imagine the prehistoric people who’d been here before us, earning a moment’s breeze up here, sipping from animal bladders just as we drank tepid water from our dented scout canteens.
That part of the island seemed so remote then, so wild—there was one short main street ten blocks from our house on the civilized end of the island. A1A, called Atlantic Avenue in New Smyrna, was the eastern boundary for our travels, running perpendicular to our street at the dune line and ending as an overgrown dirt track past Turtle Mound—the beach was steeper, there, the waves big and scary, and the nearest building visible was the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Cape Canaveral, twenty miles distant.
Our western boundary was Peninsula Drive, which we were not allowed to cross to go down to the river. John and I looked exactly alike, and could not have been more different. He was born cautious. I am reckless. He is sly and quiet and witty, and I am a master of the obvious and plunge in, think later. This was hardest for him when we were small. Mother tells how she lost me the first time when I was two. She used to put John in the front yard with a circle of rocks around him, and he’d sit there and play. The first time she left me there I was off, and she found me in the next block, naked. I couldn’t stand clothes when I was small and used to meet my brothers at the school bus naked as a jaybird. I adored John, and tried to do what he wanted me to. The first time we went to the beach, he grabbed my hand when I ran for the water, walked solemnly down to the edge of the sea, and stepped in front of me. Only after the waves crashed over his own feet did he let go and allow me to plunge in. I’m not sure I’d have survived my childhood without him. That isn’t to say he didn’t get mad at me—he did. That summer Mother got into the habit of taking us to the beach in the mornings, unfolding a lawn chair close to the lifeguard tower, and pulling out a novel. We usually dug in the sand, but sometimes she rented a yellow and blue rubber and canvas raft from the concession stand two blocks down the beach in front of the Crawford Road approach.
One morning I must’ve annoyed Johnny, because, as Mother dozed in her chair, he towed me through a slough, over the sandbar, and gave me a shove. How peaceful he looked, sitting on the beach building a drizzle castle next to the tall red wooden lifeguard tower. I couldn’t swim yet so I just held onto the ropes that surrounded the raft, bobbing backward over swells until the lifeguard swam out and pulled me in.
My father was an excellent swimmer, and in the evenings taught us to body surf in the shore break. That fall my oldest brother Rusty bought a surfboard, and every morning before school went down to the ocean and taught himself to surf. Rusty, too, was shy and quiet, thirteen when we moved to New Smyrna, and he wouldn’t let anyone watch him surf until he mastered it. But sometimes John and I snuck down to the dune line to watch, lying on our bellies on sand damp with dew, peeking through the sea oats at Rusty. He was tall and thin and took naturally to the sport, and we loved to watch him paddle out and over the breakers, disappearing only to catch the next big wave, popping up, arms out for balance and knees carefully bent. He looked like he was flying.
In October the big waves rolled in, and by then Rick and Bill were surfing too, and Rusty was confident. There was a small shell parking lot south of the end of the street with a tall seawall and ten concrete steps down to the beach. During big swells, Dad would stand there for hours while John and I played along the wall, watching his boys out on the water. We all knew he’d come here for us, and we him for loved it.
Visions of my brothers on the autumn swells still visit my dreams. They each rode differently, their characters expressed in movement as if some master painted them on a broad blue canvas. October waves are my favorite—each season, each day, really, held different types of waves—voluptuous swells, rich with gleaming treasure. From our vantage on the seawall, thick salty mist coating our faces then gusty northwesterly wind rubbing it away, we could see down into waves. The quick silvery mullet and flashing bottom feeders; flowing almost-human, but so much more beautiful, play of dolphin; dark sinuous shadows that were sharks.
Rusty, the oldest, was the most graceful, the most natural of the three. He was a wonderful dancer, and this translated well to movement on water. The boards were long and heavy, ten feet at least, and controlled by a rider’s ability to work with, not against, the natural movement of a wave—not just forward, but up and curling through air, growing in the inevitable rush to shore.
In fall the boys still wore only baggies in the water, thick canvas shorts that rode low on their hips and tied closed with a shoestring, and sometimes a t-shirt stretched out and tied into a tight knot like a tail in back. They walked down the beach slowly then stood assessing the water, boards balanced end-up next to them: tall, skinny Rusty, broader Bill, pre-adolescent Rick, also tall but with a hint of breadth to his shoulders. All of them bleached blond, Bill and Rusty tanned, Rick perpetually sun burnt. They studied the ocean then, with just a glance exchanged between them, tucked the boards under their arms and race into the water. Thigh-deep, they threw the boards into swirling foamy water and hopped on, Rick and Bill on their bellies with their feet in the air; Rusty crouched on his knees, and paddled out. This was tricky, especially in big surf, when it was a matter of pride to “make it to the outside”, past the long roll of breakers crashing in deep water before the sandbar. They paddled strong and steady in the trough then up the face of a wave as if about to launch into the air and disappeared over. Sometimes, if a wave was going to break while a surfer was still near the base, he’d wrap his arms around the surfboard and flip over in a “turtle roll”, hugging it tightly to him and hopefully pulling the board through the wave with him, sometimes losing it and having to swim in, the wave pushing and rolling it toward shore. As we grew older John and I would stand in the shore break to stop careening boards for grateful surfers.
I’ve seen it take a persistent surfer an hour to get to the outer break. Once there, they sat with their feet dangling in the water, the noses of the boards tilting up under their weight. Rusty often just sat back on his feet, or lay on the board with his chin propped in his hands, and watched for the great rolling sets. There was usually a span of minutes between them, sometimes half an hour. From our perch on the wall we could see them on the horizon and gauge the size of the waves from the color of the water. Smaller waves retained the color of flat sea, which changed from blue-gray to bottle green to deep cerulean depending on the sky, the depth of the water, and the position of the sun; large waves acted as prisms on the horizon, sparkling and winking spectrums of blues and greens.
Bill was almost always the first one up on a wave. If he saw another surfer paddling he gave the wave up, the cardinal rule of surfing, but he was the strongest and most eager of the three. Muscular, quick and stubborn, Bill also has a natural affinity for water which helped him read waves and get the longest rides. Watching him was watching economy, efficiency in motion.
Rick surfed with his heart, every emotion readable from his movements and actions. He caught the most waves and didn’t seem to discriminate between them—he rode with boyish eagerness and energy. If Rick wiped out, he surfaced quickly and jumped back on his board. If he missed a wave, he’d pound the water next to him in frustration.
It was Rusty we loved to watch. Out on the water he seemed separate—
from us, from the world. It was as if he became a part of the ocean itself. He often just sat on his surfboard, watching the sea around him, noodling around on the water with lazy hands. He was gangly and skinny, and he’d slump forward a little with his head tilted back, completely relaxed. He never seemed to hurry after that initial run into the shore break, but moved with a slow steady grace similar to the rhythm of the sea itself. And he waited. He waited on a wave with the right shape, the right feel, the right weight to carry him. I’d find myself watching a huge swell rolling in, murmuring, “Take it, Rusty…take it…”, but he’d just lie down, slowly dip his arms in and rise up and over, never taking his eyes from the horizon. Sometimes it seemed like we waited for hours for him to choose a wave. Oh, but when he did…
The big breaker building, building, closer, fifty yards, thirty, twenty and the nose of his board would swing slowly around, “He’s taking it! He’s taking it!” I don’t think I ever saw him miss a wave. He waited in perfect position, lined up not toward the beach but at the precise angle of the building wave, canted just so, paddling slow or quick depending on its speed, angling impossibly down the face, sliding now, the board falling forward for a moment as he placed his palms flat and sprang into a crouch, big gangly feet just over the sweet spot, perfectly balanced, feeling it, reading what the wave wants to do, swiveling his hips just enough to feed a turn down to his feet, carving deeper into the curl, and on those great big ones disappearing completely inside, the white curtain of foam like a great sheet of something alive curving over him, frothing up below the tail of the board, the skeg carving its own sinuous little whitewater trail, then gone completely until just his hand is visible at the front of the tube, making a motion like a small boy mimicking flight, complete with the sound of the ocean moving which is that same whirr of childhood imagination…shhhhhhhh…and his hand riding currents of air inside rushing water, arm and body following in perfect cadence like a flock of seabirds riding thermals. He moves, moves with the water, the board a vehicle for flight, a facilitator, an obedient thing working doggedly at his feet. And sometimes, if the wave told him to, he’d walk right out onto the nose and slouch there, easy as that, toes holding prehensile to the rails at the nose of the surfboard, arms and hands hanging down, loose, head just cocked a little with this goofy satisfied grin, Oh yeah…
Mother didn’t swim—she said that she could but we never saw her in the water, it scared her—and she was insistent that we learn very young. When she was a teenager growing up in Atlanta she saw a boy she knew drown in the public pool. She was sitting on the bleachers, watching the people in the pool, when she saw this pair of hands clawing at the lip of the pool, the person struggling to pull himself up from under the water, fingers scratching, bloody, on the concrete—and she said it felt for the longest moment that she was the only one to see, although that wasn’t, couldn’t be, true—and the boy just drowned. And that was why Mother said she wouldn’t go in the water. It was a scary story, told in part I think to keep us careful in the water. Every so often someone would drown in the ocean or, somehow worse, get sucked out the inlet from the river and die, and she would just shake her head sadly as if to say, see? I told you so.
Anne Davis, living room of 219 Robinson Road, NSB, date unknown
The author with her son, Jacob, 219 Robinson Road, NSB 1998
Sometimes it seems to me that we as a society have lost track of what education actually is. As an educator, that frightens me. On the one hand, as a teacher of Senior English using a dictated curriculum map and standards, I am heartened. Truly, the actual educators who designed the curriculum I currently teach have handed me an amazing set of literary works with which to guide students to be fabulous communicators. These are also works which I witnessed, last year, actually inspire nonreaders to become readers! Incredible. So, progress.
Now for the other hand. The frightening side. With the push to meet the increasingly muddled governing expectations of the state–graduation rates, school grades–and those of a lay population largely ignorant concerning the behind-the-scenes world of professional education, public school students are paying a dear, dear price. Most professions govern themselves, create themselves, design not only their own rules but do the work of building on the past to create the future. Not education. In education, while educators do the research and all of the work, politicians and voters make the critical decisions which end up as the day-to-day realities in classrooms across the nation.
What do I mean by all that? Well, specific examples are always helpful, right? When I was a junior at New Smyrna Beach Senior High School, an English teacher proposed to the administration a double-block of English, senior year, specifically for twelve students she felt had both a talent and a taste for poetry. This replaced my senior English class. As a result, when I was in grad school for poetry, my department chair said to me, “I am excusing you from Forms of Poetry due to the education you received at New Smyrna twenty years ago. I looked into the curriculum and that was better, as to forms, than what we offer here.” There’s no room for that sort of creativity in this other-driven profession, anymore. A shame.
A more current example is a conversation I had with a colleague last school year. We were working together with mutual students, and butting heads. We had to narrow it down and find out what the problem was, between us, and it turned out to be quite simple. My goal was to teach the students that fabulous curriculum I cited above. My colleague’s was to see the students cross that graduation stage, this year, no matter what. I saw this person’s point, just as they saw mine: we are squeezed between the boulders of actually educating students and spitting them out into the stream of graduates in a rapid enough fashion not to negatively effect such vital statistics as state, district, and school graduation rates. It matters. It matters to students; loss of funds due to retention is a real threat. But, so is ignorance.
At the school I teach at, we work together to meet all those expectations. I happen to be a big fan of the new push to make sure students pass each standard, each assessment. Because, where I work, it isn’t pencil-whipping. We actually do work to make sure they pass–they get the concepts, they demonstrate the skills, they master the curriculum. Then they move on. It’s an astonishingly team effort; students and educators. Parents, too, play a role, but at this age, frankly not really. Some students don’t have parents. Some students have parents they, the students, support and care for. Some parents are very supportive of students. But, I only have to pick up a newspaper or turn on the computer to see that this is increasingly rare, the teaming and the focus: many schools, many parents, and many legislatures are merely focused on getting kids out of school as quickly as possible.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could consider all of the factors which make up education, and allow those students who need to to slow down? I remember a story my father used to tell. He was a lead designer for NASA from the early sixties in Huntsville until he retired from Cape Kennedy in 1989. A truly wise individual, and a true pioneer. One of his stories haunts me in these days of rush, rush, rush K-12 (and even college) education. He was in an interview for the job of city engineer for the town of Bessemer, Alabama. The interviewer asked my father about a class he’d failed–I believe it was in surveying–twice at Georgia Tech before passing it the third time.
“Well,” answered my father, “I did take that class three times. I really know surveying.”
He got the job.
Part of the truly endangered value of education is failure. Learning from it. Remember kindergarten, where if you goofed, or didn’t get it, you tried again until you did? Can you picture that perspective being the case in March with a core class, senior year? Let’s just slow down and do this over until we’ve got it? Imagine the pressure which would be relieved. Imagine the shift in perspective. Imagine the confidence-building that simple rocket scientist’s perspective could inspire. Imagine the future with thinkers like that.
So, failure. It’s part of school. It’s part of learning, part of life. What if we took a new perspective on it, all the way up?
For students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, there is a federal law (of course currently endangered) which mandates allowing them until their twenty-second birthday to complete high school, if need be. It’s a good rule, seldom used for students in the Learning Disabled category, usually used for students who need intensive, wrap-around services due to severe disabilities. But. What if teams took the perspective of creative scheduling, and worked together to ensure success for these students–including shortened school days, a longer high-school career, and dual-enrollment classes at the local college? If that were the case, these students could get a completely-district-paid-for college degree (or two!) through dual-enrollement! The rationale in many cases would be very sound: students with auditory and visual processing issues, for example, do benefit from shortened school days, a slower academic pace, and tiered supports for acquisition. And by definition, students with learning disabilities have a normal, or higher than normal, I.Q. Imagine the levels of success these special students could experience with this plan. Now imagine the reaction of the district and state, particularly as regards cost. Ouch.
This article started as an early-morning musing on a conversation I recently had with a parent on mentoring students. Mentoring is a slippery slope. How do you vet mentors, I asked her. She didn’t understand. “Well,” I explained, “what do you really want students to learn from their mentors? How to succeed? If that is the case, then shouldn’t all the mentors have at the very least a terminal degree in their chosen field? Do you want these as you call them “at risk” students to stay away from drugs and alcohol? Will you vet the mentors to make sure they don’t smoke or drink?”
I don’t think she ever saw my point. I’m an English teacher. My job is not to guide students to moral high ground. That’s the job of their parents, their faith leaders, and if need be the professional guidance counselors at the school. It certainly isn’t the job of volunteers! If we are to get education back to truly being the foundation for success which it must be in this nation, we need to get the focus back on who needs to be in charge of education. Educators.
This month, with two others I led a workshop for teachers and administrators in how to best serve homeless and unaccompanied high school students within our classrooms. We here at CEG have decided to make this issue—teen homelessness in Volusia County—our singular focus until we have strong impact on the problem.
The most powerful educating at this workshop, and it was an excellent one with all participants working together, took place while we listened to and asked questions of one of my copresenters. She is a Daytona State College education student, and was a VCS unaccompanied student. Because of the response of the group, we are forming a district-wide cadre to share ideas and problem solve. If you would like to participate, you first need to come to the training, which will be repeated toward the end of summer. Please contact me to add your name to the list; we can do this. Please read my previous blog post on this website to read more about this remarkable young woman’s story, and to read tips from the INSIDE of homelessness for educators.
The picture below is of one of my sons, used with his permission. But, keep in mind, there are over 2,000 identified homeless students attending Volusia schools. How many are unidentified? My guess is, at least twice that number. And many of them look just like Jimmy, your typical NSB teenager. Homelessness is often completely invisible, especially in our classrooms. On purpose.
This week, along with a colleague and a Daytona State College student majoring in education, I facilitated a workshop for teachers and administrators. It was truly a workshop: we rolled up our sleeves and worked together to not only come up with ideas and solutions, but to begin to form a cadre to continue our efforts. And I learned much.
The topic was Unaccompanied, Unidentified: Helping homeless and unaccompanied students in our high school classrooms. One of the critical–and difficult–aspects of the workshop was the second word. Pam Woods and her staff are excellent at guiding schools in identifying, and serving, homeless and unaccompanied students. There’s no doubt Ms. Woods does her job of meeting the needs of these students in our schools, and in the communities. But. But. What about the unidentified students? If students are homeless and wish to stay hidden about that, how can we help them? What tools can we use, what measures put in place, to serve them without ferreting them out?
One activity, and frankly the difficult one for yours truly, was when we broke up into groups. The groups each got a case study I had written up, and brainstormed solutions and ideas for that student. Each one was a homeless student I’d known, a homeless VCS student (I had permission from each of them and changed their names and minor details of their situations.) What got to me was this: when I sat down to write the studies and had to pick from the dozens of homeless students I have known, personally, right here in VCS over the years.
A few of the quick facts we shared (courtesy of the District’s hard work), shocked many of the workshop participants. For example: Four percent–over 2,000–current VCS students are homeless or “unaccompanied” (which means, in lay terms, couch surfing without parents or guardians). That is a huge amount of IDENTIFIED students! Reason would dictate there are at least that many who don’t disclose. Another shocker was how misrepresentative the term “free and reduced lunch” is as an indicator of socio-economic status (SES). Although it is a professionally acceptable marker, it is very misleading unless disaggregated, which it really never is for training or information purposes. Here’s why I say that. Students can get reduced lunch if their family annual household income is well above the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). For example, FPL for a family of four for 2017 is $24,600 or below. A family can have an annual income of up to $44,954 and the children receive reduced lunch. See what I mean about misrepresentative as an SES indicator? One final, and very crucial, point I heard Pam Woods, herself, make in a workshop. It’s one we spent some time exploring this week: the biggest barrier to students being identified and served is the prejudices of school personnel.
That last point was poignantly, explicitly, and beautifully explored by my cofacilitator, the DSC student. She took us through her personal story as an unaccompaned youth at a local high school. She was open about sharing, and frank when answering questions. One of the most illuminating points happened organically. A former teacher of this student who was a workshop participant–in fact she taught the student for three of her four years of high school—seemed to feel she had failed this student in some way by not knowing of her situation. In fact, this was one of the student’s best teachers, ever. She didn’t know because the student didn’t want her to. And we owe it to these students to try to understand why that might be. All of the workshop participants, including me, came to understand exactly why this student made the choices she did, and her presentation sparked a thorough and thoughtful exploration for creative solutions. We have a lot more work to do. Some of the student’s points (and remember, this is one student’s perspective, but good advice for stakeholders to think about):
Parents may be abusive. They may be drug addicts. They may be bad parents. Don’t try to influence or impact the student’s desire to maintain a relationship, to love, their parents. Don’t judge, even if the child has been removed from the home or left on their own.
Gatekeepers of access to services should park their personal opinions and leave it to the professionals, the district Homeless Liaison and her staff, to handle the intake and follow-through with the student. It is hard enough to come forth–keep your remarks, eye-rolls, sighs, to yourself.
Don’t pump students for personal information. It is great to let students know you are there, that you will listen, and that you can get them help if they need it. But, just do that. Listen. Don’t advise. Teachers are masters of their subject area, not social workers or guidance counselors. Teachers are also safe adults, and adults students can disclose to. Listening is the key. And, again, parking your own opinions, questions, and judgments.
Let ALL students know what services are available through the district and through your particular school at the beginning of the year, and don’t single students out. Letting all students know lets unidentified students know along with everyone else. Take the time to do this in every classroom.
I learned so much from this young woman who made the brave and difficult decision to speak for an hour and answer questions about her past, her present, and her future. One remark she made (and I’ve known her since she was sixteen, she’s nineteen now) punched me in the gut. In part of her remarks she shared that one of the reasons she had to leave home was that her parent left her alone at night a lot, and sometimes in the daytime, too: sometimes, for a week or more. She had no way to get to the store, to school. I had known about that when I helped her navigate the identification process at her high school. What I didn’t know was what she replied when a teacher in the workshop asked in the Q & A, “When you talked about your parent leaving you alone, off and on, before you became unaccompanied, how long did that go on?”
She quietly replied, “Since I was twelve.”
This was her normal. She didn’t know this was not normal until she left home at seventeen. Think about that. Wrap your mind around that. And roll up your sleeves in your school, your community.