A Real Circus Has to Smell Like One

(This essay appeared in 1990 in The Beach Reporter. Ringling Bros. just this week announced it is closing down, but Circus Vargas appears to still be going strong. I don’t have any desire to see a circus now, as I know the animals lead mostly hellish lives, but I’m glad I have the memory of going to them as a child and as a parent.)

Laaaddeeezz and gentlemen… We live in a time when we have seen a man walk on the moon. Hollywood has outdone itself entertaining us with the most outrageous car chases, the most fiery explosions, the biggest stars.

Then why is it that with all this glitzy entertainment at our fingertips, we still turn once a year to one of the oldest forms of entertainment – the circus? Long before there were movie theaters, television, even before radio, circuses were one of the big events of the year for family entertainment. And judging from last week’s crowds at Circus Vargas, the circus is still the greatest show on earth. Continue reading

As Teachers Say Goodbye to the School Year

Published on http://www.newsworks.org, the online news source for WHYY (NPR) in Philadelphia on May 24, 2012. Read below or click on link.

http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/speak-easy/item/38526-as-teachers-say-goodbye-to-the-school-year

It is nearly the end of the school year, my first year of teaching, and I am humbled, tired, reflective, and panicked.  The feeling of panic was a surprise, and it woke me up the other night with the feeling that somehow I needed to impart to my 7th grade students everything they will need to know about the English language in the next three weeks, including, but not limited to: proper grammar, excellent punctuation skills, a deep love for poetry, a hunger to read widely and often, and the confidence to flex their own writing muscles.

Truthfully, I have learned alongside my students this year.  Last summer, the head of the girls’ school where I now teach took a leap of faith hiring me to fill in for a teacher who was going on pregnancy leave.  “But I’m just a writer,” I protested, scrambling about in my brain for what I remembered about thirteen-year-old girls.  It wasn’t pretty.  I also hadn’t had a “real job” in decades, let alone the type of job where you actually have to be somewhere every day with every moment of your day planned chock-full of exciting and informative lessons that will shape the next generation of global thinkers.

Helping me make the decision to accept the teaching position was the stark fact of my age.  For years I had been thinking of myself as “middle-aged,” but now, unless I was going to live to be 120, I was no longer in that category.  I was not just getting old, I was old.  Typically, like many of my generation, I have decided not to go gently or gracefully into that good night.  7th graders would be just the thing – they could benefit from my years of experience as a real writer, and I could benefit from their energy and youthful perspective on the world and their places in it.

I didn’t anticipate that I would grow to think of the students in my English classes as “my girls.”  As in, “I wonder how I’m going to get my girls to love this poem as much as I do?”  Or, “I wonder if my girls can tell that I hate teaching grammar rules, and would rather have them writing in their journals.”  Or, “I wonder if my girls are surprised that they really, really like Shakespeare?”  My own learning curve has, at times, been as steep and rocky as a mountain goat trail in the Rockies (that’s a simile, girls).

I have felt like a bit of an oddity being a first-year teacher at the age of fifty-nine.  As a freelance writer for the past thirty years, I have worked alone and fashioned my own schedule.  Now (and for the past year) I am part of something much larger than myself.  I not only have a desk in the tiny “Faculty Workroom” with eight other teachers (think of it as the bowels of the school, nearly subterranean – containing our cubicles, a copy machine, a water cooler, a small refrigerator, piles of papers and books, and an air of general hilarity mixed with pathos – think of it as a teacher’s version of “The Office”) but I also have meetings.  Lots of meetings.

Looking back now on all those meetings, and at various conversations in the Faculty Workroom (what happens in the Faculty Workroom stays in the Faculty Workroom) and at the hundreds of exchanged emails and hallway conversations, I am struck by how the blur of days, that at the time seemed to be an inchoate, rudderless thing, now seems to have been a well-orchestrated, wondrous plan.  How did those teachers do that?  How did they make that happen?

As an outside observer, with an insider’s perspective, I think I know how it happened, and how it must happen in most schools.  Every teacher I have met wants the best for each and every one of his or her students, and works as hard as they can to make that happen.  What a simple thing.  What a humbling thing.

 

 

 

 

Even Leaving Kindergarten A Milestone

(Originally a column from The Beach Reporter from 7/5/90.)

It was a commonplace scene this time of year. A time of new beginnings that we mark by a ceremony we call graduation. It calls to mind a rush of days that somehow add up to this day, this time, this place. A time when there is no looking back, except to remember. This is mostly a time to look forward, to shed the past, and look directly into the future.

April brings the primrose sweet/ Scatters daisies at our feet/ May brings flocks of pretty lambs/ Skipping by their fleecy dams/ June bring tulips, lilies, roses/ Fills the children’s hands with posies.

The children who recited these simple words were fifteen of a graduating class of forty-five, three kindergarten classes at my daughter’s school. When I first heard about the ceremony, I thought – kindergarten graduation? Hardly necessary.

But when I saw the forty-five freshly scrubbed faces dressed in their finest, and I listened to the poems and songs that they had been memorizing all year, I decided it was somehow fitting and special that these children should mark the end of their first year in school with a proper ceremony. Continue reading

Does Your Job Define You?

(My newspaper column from The Beach Reporter 11/16/89.)

Quick: What’s the first question you get asked at a social gathering? (Besides “Do you know where the bathroom is?”) That’s right, it’s that perennial conversation-opener, “What do you do?”

Finding out what a person does for a living somehow gives us a handle on who that person is. Or does it? Does a person’s job define the essence of that person? Of course it doesn’t, but we do seem to be obsessed with putting labels on each other.

For example, if I am introduced to someone, and they ask me The Question, and I say I am a housewife, their smile freezes and they start casting about the room looking for someone who is more with-it. But if I say instead that I’m a writer, they look at me with keen interest. Continue reading