For My Fellow Teachers

Imagine it is still July. The height of summer. Yes, you have already invested hours in learning how to use Canvas (or trying to). Yes, you have already spent hours making sure your classroom furniture is set up for social distancing. No, this does not feel like a normal summer break. Because it hasn’t been. And the upcoming school year won’t be normal, either. But we’re not there yet. It’s still July, remember? At least, that’s what we’re pretending.

On this particular July day, I am at the beach. The water is wavier than it was the day before. For several minutes, I hesitate to get in. I watch as my husband takes a running leap into the water. I stand in the surf, just up to my knees, the crashing waves pelting my calves with bullets of sand and pebbles. After several stinging waves, I tentatively wade in to my hips, waves sending splashes against my stomach, up to my face. In a little lull, I finally join my husband, in water up to my shoulders. Waves roll in, relentlessly. I jump them or bob over them. After a few gentler waves, a big, menacing wave blocks my view of the horizon. I kick towards it to beat its break, get into deeper water, counterintuitively safer. Each big wave, I swim into instead of away from, until, despite my efforts, in a trough between waves, a roiling monster comes cresting towards me faster than I can beat its break.

“Gotta go under this one,” I hear my husband say.

Just as its frothing crest barrels toward me, I duck beneath its wrath, below its white water, into relative calm, resurfacing to hear the wave crashing behind me with its roil of sand and foam, sparkling water and blue sky in front of me, the water around me momentarily calm, swimmable, cool, clear, and aquamarine.

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Matty, Soda, and Nacho on the beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in July

Like swimming toward a wave, we teachers are swimming (or perhaps being pushed or pulled or dragged by an undeniable undertow) toward a challenge we have never faced before. I have been tempted to swim away from the waves–run for the shore. But whenever I do that at the beach, I usually end up clobbered from behind, sputtering salt water, gritting sand between my teeth. In swimming toward the wave, meeting the challenge head-on in the best ways we know how, we can let it crash behind us while we continue looking ahead. And so I have spent much of my summer trying to learn how to use Canvas (I still have work to do) and Planbook and Virtual Virginia. I have spent even more time worrying about the energy, effort, and time I will need to convert all of my materials to digital versions of themselves; about how to preserve the rigor of my honors class in a purely virtual environment; about the fact that even in my in-person classes, some of the most effective activities I do are unsafe in the current situation, and will have to be modified or abandoned.

At the beach, I am good at reading, writing, sleeping, walking, playing paddle ball, and swimming in calm water. I am not good at surfing or swimming in rough waters.

At work I am good at connecting with students, helping students improve their writing, creating and facilitating lessons that involve movement and socializing, helping students make connections between literature and the outside world. I am not good at technology.

I like the analog, the physical. I am not going to have a cute, Bitmoji online classroom–or any bells and whistles at all. I simply don’t have the bandwidth. And overachiever that I am, I am not sure I’m okay with that. It’s difficult for me to accept that my mind and time are going to be too occupied converting all my old-school analog activities to digital formats for me to think as creatively or innovatively as I want to. I will have to save that for another year, one where the basics are under control again.

I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either).

I liken the experience to driving: When I drive a route I know well, I don’t have to think much about where to turn or when to slow down. I don’t have to read the street signs or pay attention to the street names. The familiarity allows my mind to wander. I can drive and focus on the podcast I am listening to. I can drive and think about the ways I want to improve my unit on The Great Gatsby. I can drive and brainstorm how to rearrange the chapters of the novel manuscript I’m writing.

When I drive a new route, though, I don’t have the luxury of letting my mind wander. I have to listen to every direction Waze offers, pay attention to how far it is before the next turn, read all the street signs. I can’t afford to think about my writing, my teaching, my podcast, or anything else. I have to think about the fundamental act of getting to my destination.

That is what this year will be like: driving a brand new, unfamiliar route that demands all of my attention. Usually, I make all my lesson plans over the summer, so during the school year I can drive on autopilot–I know the route. I planned it out months in advance, and, because I have been teaching for 14 years, I have likely rehearsed most of it at some point in some form or fashion during my career. I don’t have to think about how to make that quiz or when to give it–I figured that out back in June. Instead, I can focus on giving my students timely and thorough feedback on their papers. I can focus on helping students I don’t even teach this year improve their college essays. I can focus on writing college recommendation letters for students I taught the year before. I can focus on how to improve the project I have planned for November, how to increase the rigor of my honors class, how to help students understand the historical context of a certain work of literature. The fundamentals are under control. They’re not taking up any of my mental bandwidth.

Recently, I heard about a rock musician, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, whose newly-released song, “Beauty in Repetition,” relates William James‘s meticulously following the exact same routine every single day. Scott himself follows a tight routine, right down to eating the exact same dinner every night. Not having to think about the mundane tasks of life (what time to get up, what to wear, what to eat) frees his mind up, he said, to ponder higher thoughts–to access his more creative mind. When his brain is not bogged down with questions like “What’s for dinner?”, it is free to soar to new heights of cognition and creativity.

That is how my school year usually goes. I create a very strict routine for my students and for myself. My lesson plans are flexible, but set enough that I don’t have to worry about what we are doing in class tomorrow–or this week or next week or all the way through the end of the year. I have laid the groundwork for daily survival in my classroom: an established routine.

This year, there is no groundwork. Despite the time I have spent in professional development this summer, I am almost as unprepared for this coming year as I was for my first year teaching back in 2006. The only advantage I have this year is that I am aware of my shortcomings. I have no delusions about my situation.

School Year II
Sadie, Matty, and me days before my first day teaching

I entered the profession naive and idealistic. I was 22 years old. My wakeup call was swift and violent. I devoted all of my mental energy to simply making lessons plans for the next day. Occasionally, I was able to get maybe a week ahead, and that was something. Just to achieve a day or two worth of lesson plans, I regularly arrived to work between 6:00 and 6:30 AM, often bringing with me a microwaveable dinner so that, if I stayed at school later than dinnertime (which I often did), I wouldn’t go hungry.

It was traumatizing.

When students began to arrive for the day around 7:15, I felt like they were interrupting my much-needed quiet time to plan. When I had to bring home their journals to read or their essays to evaluate, I felt like they were taking away from time I needed to plan for their next class period, not to mention recharge personally. Basically, so much of my focus was directed at the daily logistics of teaching, that I didn’t even have the energy left for the reason I started teaching: my students.

I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either). I have to accept the fact that my plans and activities and projects and instruction might not be up to my own high standards, but it won’t be at the cost of how I treat my students or how I feel about them, and it won’t be at the cost of my own mental or emotional well-being.

When I start to feel overwhelmed this year by waves of I-don’t-have-a-clue-how-to-use-Canvas, I-don’t-have-time-to-convert-this-quiz-to-a-digital-format, I-can’t-adjust-to-this-every-other-day-schedule, and so on and so on (it’s a long list), I will try to remind myself of that day in July, diving underneath the roaring waves. I will take a deep breath and I will dive right in, but I will also try to remember: I do have to come up for air. And when I do, the foaming, angry wave will be behind me, and I will be able to look ahead for calmer waters.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

When it comes to Beaches and Books, Never Give Up

Last Friday morning, my friend Lauren and I set out with my two dogs for a day trip to the Northern Neck of Virginia. We anticipated a day of sunshine and salty breezes, scouring the sand for sea glass and cooling our skin in the brackish water on the quiet beach, where the fresh waters of the Potomac River begin to mix with the saltier waves of the Chesapeake Bay. Our plan was to leave Richmond by 8 o’clock, landing ourselves on the warm sand by ten. We’d spend about four hours in a state of summer solitude, just two friends and two dogs soaking up the sunshine, catching up on each others’ lives, and strolling the strip of sand that is the beach. By 2 o’clock, we’d enjoy cruising the country roads home.

Last June, I equally optimistically started a different kind of journey: writing my first (and so far only) novel. I was convinced I could accomplish this goal before the end of the summer. I wrote almost every single day, anywhere from 500-3500 words a day. I spent hours outside on my back deck, typing away, bringing my characters and their circumstances to life, my whippet and beagle by my side. My plan was to have a near-perfect draft finished before another school year began in the fall.

After a pit stop or two, Lauren, the dogs, and I found ourselves finally on the road leading to the beach. This road is the absolute only way to reach the beach. As we rounded the last curve before the straightway to the water, we were greeted by three or four standing vehicles, a fire truck, a utility truck, and a few people pacing the street or leaning nonchalantly against their cars. The orange lights perched atop the utility truck were silently flashing, as were the lights atop the fire truck. Directly in front of the two emergency vehicles, a large, downed tree draped in power lines like tinsel on a Christmas tree blocked the road.

I slowed to a stop.

“Well,” I said. “This is probably the most exciting thing to happen here since forever.”

A man dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt approached and, hoping for an explanation, I rolled down my window and learned that though the fire department was on-scene, the power lines were still live, and the firefighters could do nothing about the downed tree or blocked road until the power company shut off power. No one knew when that might be.

“What do we do?” I said. “Do we just turn around and go home?” It seemed such a sad solution after driving so far, with such high hopes.

Lauren and I deliberated for a few minutes as to our other options, and adjusted our plans. At my parents’ recommendation, we drove to a small, public beach about 15 minutes away, hoping to let the dogs stretch their legs in the sand, and sit on the beach to eat the sack lunches we had packed. Then, perhaps we would revisit the scene of the fallen tree in hopes that everything had been cleared up, and the road reopened.

When the end of August arrived, my novel was closer to finished–but not actually so. That was okay, I told myself. The James River Writers Annual Conference was in October, and I could pitch to an agent then. I simply adjusted myself to the idea of a new deadline: October. As long as I was finished by October, and ready to pitch to an agent, I would be satisfied. And so, whenever I could find time between grading research papers and essays, I kept writing. The goal seemed achievable.

As we pulled into the little gravel parking lot at the end of the country road to Vir Mar Beach, the skies darkened slightly and the breeze picked up, the day feeling more like late October than late July.

“Watch. Now that we’ve finally found a beach, it’s gonna rain,” Lauren joked. No sooner had she spoken than a few stray drops landed with quiet taps on the windshield. Despite the spitting skies, I harnessed up the dogs and led them up the wooden steps, over the dune, and onto the beach.

Or at least what was left of it.

The tide must have been in, and it was so windy that the waves were rolling up almost to the sea grasses at the base of the dune, leaving only a small strip of damp sand, at its widest point perhaps a foot thick. In addition, the beach itself ran only about thirty to fifty feet in either direction before we were abruptly met with “Private Beach” signs, warning us back onto public sands. I walked the dogs to one end of the beach and back in less than three minutes, and Lauren and I ate our lunches in my parked car.

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After their short stroll on Vir Mar Beach, the pup dogs wait patiently for me to share my lunch, a picnic-on-the-beach-turned-picnic-in-the-parked-car.

I wasn’t done with my novel by October, though I did make my first (albeit sorry) attempt at a pitch to a kind agent at the James River Writers Annual Conference, who told me she couldn’t really do anything without a manuscript, but generously offered to read sample pages if I sent them her way when I had a completed draft. I left the conference feeling both discouraged and inspired. I had not met my second deadline: my novel was still incomplete. I had not met my goal: I did not have an agent. But I did have reason to keep writing. So I did.

As Lauren and I finished our lunches, the same breeze blowing water across the beach to effectively obscure it, became more helpful, and began blowing away the low, dark clouds to allow the sun to make an appearance.

“Should we go back and see if the tree and power lines are all taken care of?” I asked.

Lauren agreed, and we were pleased to round the curve and find a clear route to the beach.

Just two days before Christmas, I finally completed the first draft of my novel. Few accomplishments in my life have been so satisfying, and though I knew my work was not done, I could finally say it: I wrote a book.

Although we had a mere hour before we needed to head home in time to be ready for our separate evening obligations, Lauren and I were rewarded for our determination to reach the beach. The sun broke through the clouds and warmed the sand. The water was clear and not as roiling as it had been earlier in the day, when we had seen it spilling onto the sands of little Vir Mar Beach. We found handfuls of colorful sea glass, and the dogs gleefully sniffed and wandered and waded.

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Lauren’s celebratory selfie: We finally reached the beach!

By this June, I had completed three drafts of my novel, and felt ready to start the querying process. In July, I was thrilled to see an e-mail in my inbox from one of the agents to whom I had sent a query and some sample pages. My enthusiasm was dampened slightly when I opened the message, a polite and warmhearted thanks-but-no-thanks. I was not surprised, really, but I was somewhat disappointed. Still, I press on, more or less undaunted, and am currently working on the fourth draft, which I hope will fare better in its quest to find an agent, when the time comes.

While it was hard to go home so soon after finally reaching our destination, I found inspiration in the ultimate result of the day. Lauren, the dogs, and I had had to go through several obstacles to reach a goal we originally took for granted as easy to attain. We had had to be flexible. We had had to be persistent. We had had to remain steadfast in our goal despite many reasons to give in: a blocked road and seemingly inclement weather, with no clear end in sight for either. And because we had succeeded in all these, we had gotten an hour more on the beach than we would have gotten otherwise.

The connection between that Friday adventure and my writing is clear to me: We could have turned around, abandoning our goal altogether, at the first sign of trouble. But we didn’t. Many times in my writing process, I could have done the same. But I haven’t.

My dedication and determination to not only finish my book, but also to find an agent and publisher for it, once it is more polished, and Lauren’s and my dedication and determination to just make it to the beach are one in the same. I am confident that if, like Lauren and I last Friday, I can remain optimistic, perseverant, and dedicated, I will ultimately hold my book in my hand–and maybe someday, see it in the hands of others. And when that day comes, I will finally be able to sit back, turn my face to the sun, and bask on my own beach.

Just for a few minutes–before I start writing again.

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Our efforts were rewarded with an hour of this scene, enjoying the view from Virginia, standing on the shores of the Potomac River where it meets the Chesapeake Bay.