First Semester: Preconception and Reflection

“Does anyone know what this word means?” I ask, as I scrawl “preconception” across the Promethean Board at the front of my classroom, reflecting on how much better my digital handwriting has gotten over the course of the last year. I am not sure how this lesson will go. It is 8:15 on a Monday morning. I made the last-minute decision to revamp my lesson plans last night as I fell asleep, when, from the safety of my comfortable, warm bed, the idea of trying something brand new first thing on a Monday morning seemed less foolhardy.

Now, standing in front of 11 masked teenagers staring blankly back at me, I question last night’s half-awake judgment. It seemed like such a good idea just nine hours ago.

“Well,” I say, “let’s break it down a little then.” I underline one part of the word: concept. “What’s a concept? Anybody know?”

“Like, an idea?” someone offers.

“A thought,” someone else says.

“Yes!” I say, drawing an arrow from my underlined “concept” down to where I add the words “idea” and “thought.” “And what does the prefix ‘pre’ mean?”

“Before,” a student says.

“Right! So, see? You did know what ‘preconception’ means.” I draw an arrow reaching from “pre” down to where I write “before” beside “thought” and “idea.” “A preconception is an idea or a thought you have about something before you have actually done it or experienced it. It’s like an expectation. So, let’s think back to the beginning of the semester–the night before the first day of school. What were some of your preconceptions?”

I write the students’ ideas on the Promethean Board: It’s going to be boring; I’m going to be tired; I don’t want to get up early for school; I’m excited to see my friends; it’s going to be hard; I’m going to have too much homework.

Once we have a substantial list, I point out to them that most of their preconceptions (all but one) about the current semester were negative. I think back to my own preconceptions going into this school year in particular–the pandemic forcing all kinds of unfamiliar precautions, processes, and protocols upon us. I had been terrified. My stress levels were through the roof. I wished desperately that I had reached retirement age. I fully expected this year to be at least as stressful as my first year teaching, when I regularly found myself contemplating driving my car into a tree or guardrail instead of to school. I didn’t have a death wish. I wasn’t suicidal. (I was, however, miserable.) It was just that back then, going to the hospital simply sounded more appealing than going to work.

I fully expected this year to be at least as stressful as my first year teaching, when I regularly found myself contemplating driving my car into a tree or guardrail instead of to school.

“Now,” I say, “next week we start second semester. What are your preconceptions when you think about your new classes, your new teachers, your new schedule?”

Again, most of them are negative–it’s going to be stressful, their classes are going to be more difficult, their teachers might be mean. I ask them how they are feeling now that we are looking ahead to next week.

Stressed.

Worried.

Overwhelmed.

Curious.

Excited.

I can relate. I feel all those emotions, too. Will I click with my new students the way I have clicked with my current group? Will my new bunch of students be as motivated, fun, thoughtful, well-behaved, and enjoyable as the ones looking back at me now have been? Will I remember all the little things I need to do to open a new semester, essentially preparing for a brand new school year? Will my virtual classes go okay? How am I going to juggle my virtual honors class with my hybrid honors class, a mix of both virtual and in-person students? The uncertainty is unsettling.

“Now, think about this current semester. Raise your hand if this semester was as stressful, boring, annoying, or bad as your preconceptions said it would be.”

No hands go up.

“Raise your hand if the semester went better than you expected.”

Most of the students raise their hands. I raise my hand, too. I have, for the most part, genuinely enjoyed this semester–the content, the students, the schedule, the flexibility, the increased concern for my and my colleagues’ well-being. Sure, there have been moments I wanted to cry (and moments I did). There have been moments I questioned if I could really get everything done well–or at all. Moments I had to ask for help. But, despite the pandemic and the challenges, I have to admit–this semester has been more fulfilling and rewarding and successful–and somehow, less burdensome–than any of my pessimistic preconceptions imagined. None of my fears came to fruition. Not. One.

“You see,” I say, remembering what Alexandria Peary said during the mindful writing webinar I attended over the weekend. “That’s what preconceptions usually do: burden the moment. Right now, in this moment, you could be having a perfectly pleasant time in English class, but now you’re dreading next semester’s algebra class instead. You’re not present in this moment; you’re worrying about next week. Now–what are your preconceptions when I tell you: We are going to write a poem?”

Groans arise around the classroom. We have learned nothing–so we make a list of our preconceptions about writing a poem:

No no no no

This is going to be annoying

I am not good at this

My poem is going to suck

I’m excited

I like poetry

I don’t like poetry

Ugh

Poetry is shady (meaning, I think, it’s too ambiguous and includes too many hidden meanings).

Then, we proceed to write a poem, using a step-by-step process I stole from the weekend’s Nation Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) webinar.

“Imagine,” I tell my students, “you are in a room. Describe the room.” I give them about a minute to write before saying, “There is an object in the center of the room. What is it? Describe it.” I give them another minute. “The object has a shadow, but it’s not of the object. What is the shadow of?” A minute to write. “In the shadow sits an object from your childhood. What is it?” A minute. “The room has one window. What do you see out the window? What is your view?” A minute. “Imagine that in your view, you can see a person you would give anything to be able to see again. Who is it, and what are they doing?”

“I take it back,” a boy suddenly says. “I take back my preconceptions; this is fun.”

The girl behind him echoes his sentiments. “Yeah–I like this.”

I smile. “You get to talk to this person. What do you say?” I give them a minute to write. “Now, you can sense a change in the room. How can you tell something is about to change? Describe how you know, but don’t finish your thought; don’t include what the change will be.”

The room is full of sunshine
or candlelight, whether day or night--
rainbows dance across the wall.
There is a golden birdcage, big enough for me,
in the center.
Its shadow, long across the floor and creeping
up the wall--solid--not barred--
shades a rocking horse.

Buildings outside are brick or sided--
rooftops capping cozy homes.
Jack sits in a window across 
town,
wagging his tail, looking at me expectantly.

Are you happy? I say. Are you safe? Do you know that we still 
love you?

The room is sleepy and warm and lonely and quiet.

The door begins to open and--

I give them a minute or two to wrap up their writing before asking if anyone wants to share. I am pleasantly surprised to find about half the class willing to share their poems, albeit anonymously. I read them aloud, pointing out all the little things that impress me in each of their poems. At the end of class, the boy who predicted his poem “was going to suck” admits he “kind of liked it.” Then he clarifies, “Well, I still thought it sucked when I read it to myself–but I liked it a lot when I heard you read it.”

“That’s interesting,” I say. “Do you think maybe that’s because you still had the preconception that it was bad, but when I read it, I expected it to be good–and read it like it was good?”

He thinks for a second. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Do you think it’s good now?”

He smiles a little. “Yeah.”

“So do I.”

I watch them all file out through my classroom door. I feel a little sad as I realize they’ll walk in and out of that doorway only once more this year before disappearing into a new schedule, different classrooms, different classes, leaving me to build rapport with a brand new, unfamiliar bunch of students with their own preconceptions about English, school, themselves, and me. I remember how worried I was at the beginning of this semester–how skeptical and scared. I reflect on how well it all turned out, and I hush my preconceptions–Stop burdening my moment–allowing myself to savor this small success: Students wrote poetry–and liked it.

My classroom has cleared and the first few students of my next block have entered. One of my students reads the daily agenda on the board.

“Poetry?!” she groans. “Ugh!”

I smile to myself. Buckle up. Here we go again. And everything is going to be just fine.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

A Piece of Cake: Foreshadowing in my Own, Real Life

Today is my birthday. In the world as we know it, birthdays and cake are synonymous. In the world of An Expected End, my novel manuscript, deathdays and cake are also synonymous. In fact, cake features pretty prominently throughout the story. Marshall learns his deathday at Shyndigz, a real bakery in Richmond, Virginia. And although he is eating their signature oatmeal cream pies, as opposed to cake, while he dials into the Hotline to get his official Date of Departure (DoD), Shyndigz is also known for one of my favorite menu items, their salted chocolate caramel cake.

Cake also features in the story when Marshall’s colleagues, much to his chagrin, surprise him with an office deathday party, complete with deathday cake.

Marshall is eating the last piece of his birthday cake when he realizes how knowing his deathday has changed his perspective on life and the way he lives it: Life is like a piece of cake; he savors each bite, but knows each bite moves him closer to the last bite, and ultimately, to no more cake.

Perhaps one of the most important roles cake plays in the manuscript is that of being the reason Marshall meets Penelope. He goes to her bakery, The Cakery, a fictional bakery in Richmond, to pick up a deathday cake for a colleague’s office deathday party. Later, on his thirtieth birthday, he revisits The Cakery to purchase himself a birthday cake, which is really just an excuse to see Penelope again. He is eating the last piece of that birthday cake when he realizes how knowing his deathday has changed his perspective on life and the way he lives it: Life is like a piece of cake; he savors each bite, but knows each bite moves him closer to the last bite, and ultimately, to no more cake.

In its final role in the manuscript, cake features again when (**spoiler alert**), after Penelope has died, Marshall bakes a birthday cake from one of her recipes for their daughter, Evergreen’s, birthday.

Recently, cake has also featured prominently in my own, actual life.

Sunday, my husband came home from mountain biking in Richmond with our nephew. “I stopped at Shyndigz on my way home,” he told me.

“What did you get?” I asked.

“Oatmeal cream pies.”

“What else did you get?” I asked, taking for granted that he also brought back a piece of salted chocolate caramel cake for me.

“Nothing.”

Surely, he was pulling my leg.

“No, seriously. What else?”

“No, seriously. Nothing.”

I waited for him to break down, and admit, cackling, that a piece of cake waited for me on the kitchen counter. When he didn’t, “What?” I said.

“I didn’t get anything else.”

On New Year’s Eve, the fifth day after The Day I Did Not Get Cake, the doorbell rang just as it was getting dark outside. When I answered it, my husband was standing on the front porch, holding out a plastic container in which rested the perfect piece of Shyndigz salted chocolate caramel cake.

“You didn’t get me any chocolate cake?” I was incredulous, still sure he must be kidding, dragging the joke out as long as he could.

“No. Really. I’m not lying to you. I was in a hurry and I just didn’t think to get any cake.”

“Are you serious? You went to Shyndigz and didn’t get me any cake?”

He laughed at the utter shock that must’ve been on my face. “Sorry?” He was still laughing.

For the course of the the week, I lost no opportunity to remind him of the fact that he had gone to one of my favorite bakeries where they make one of my favorite cakes, and neglected to bring a piece home to me. I must’ve found a way to work his negligence into every single day at least twice.

On New Year’s Eve, the fifth day after The Day I Did Not Get Cake, the doorbell rang just as it was getting dark outside. When I answered it, my husband was standing on the front porch, holding out a plastic container in which rested the perfect piece of Shyndigz salted chocolate caramel cake, complete with a to-go cup of extra salted caramel spread. During his lunch break, he had driven downtown to get me my long-awaited piece of cake. He has been forgiven.

I let him in and set the cake down on the counter, every intention of savoring it after the Chinese takeout we’d ordered for dinner with a couple friends. As we finished our lo mein and rice and pot stickers and egg drop soup, I eyed the piece of cake on the counter. But before I could eat that: New Year’s Eve fortune cookies. We each cracked open our fortune cookie and shared the fortune within with the rest of the table. Mine? “A piece of cake is awaiting for you.” Forgiving the misuse of “awaiting,” never has there been a truer fortune. Just a moment later, I was sinking my fork into the moist chocolate cake, savoring the thick chocolate icing and salty caramel goodness of the slice.

Today, being my birthday, is also likely to involve cake in some capacity, at some point.

And I’m hoping my New Year’s Eve fortune holds a longer-range, figurative meaning in addition to its immediate, literal one. I’m hoping it’s prophetic, foreshadowing that my manuscript, rife with pieces of cake, will achieve publication this year–will become a real book, one I can hold in my hands, flipping through its pages, savoring its existence the way I do a piece of chocolate cake.

Never has there been a truer fortune than the one I got on New Year’s Eve. (Sidenote: The above is only a third of the actual slice of cake, which will likely last me three to four sittings.)

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/