Thursday, July 28, 2022

Against the Current

My grandmother and grandfather bought a piece of land in East Hampton, New York in the late 1960s. Back then, I'm pretty sure when people said "the Hamptons" it didn't come with all the elitism and snobby baggage that it does now. From what family lore has told me, they found a small plot of land that overlooked a bay, and they jumped. Their eldest child and her husband (my aunt and uncle) are architects so they designed a house and my grandparents built it in 1976. Along with my mother and their other siblings, my aunt and uncle have maintained the house on its stunning perch, putting blood, sweat, and tears into a place that has meant (and continues to mean) so much to me, Brian, and our family. 

My grandparents have been gone for years now, but their spirits live on in this house. I can feel them in the books, chairs, artwork, coffee mugs, photographs, and even the placemats and recipes that remain in this house. Every now and then, I can still smell my grandmother, I swear (she had such a beautiful smell that could never be explained nor replicated). 

For us, the visits to Long Island come only in the summers, but those two precious weeks in July are cherished times of the year. When we are here, Brian cooks (per usual, but somehow it tastes even better), we read (a lot), we sit on the deck and admire the sky and the sea (that view will never get old), and we spend a lot of time at the ocean (Atlantic Avenue Beach). 

This year, our family vacation left behind a family member because his baseball team kept winning (so awesome, but boy have we missed him). Granted, our 14-year-old probably wouldn't have much interest in this quiet, peaceful place, and we have spent ten days trying to accept that in this phase of his life, playing baseball and being with friends is more his vibe. Oh how that's a tough pill to swallow, and at times, the mom-guilt of leaving him has been debilitating.  

So while family and friends in Canton have spoiled Teddy, Brian and I have enjoyed quality time with each other, and with Annabel and my Mom. It's been blissful, with reality interrupting the bliss in all its normal reality sort of ways. 

Yesterday, Annabel and I enjoyed the waves at the ocean. While my mom read her book on shore, I loved every minute of teaching our 11-year-old how to navigate the surf. I grew up playing in these waves and it's so precious watching her love them as much as I do. The waves at Atlantic aren’t enormous waves, but they are strong enough to challenge even experienced swimmers. Lifeguards raise a green, yellow, or red flag every day to indicate the danger level of the water (including riptides). Green days are fun because they are more calm but yellow days are fun because they are more full of adventure. Red days are off-limits per the life guard’s restrictions.

A yellow flag has flown over the lifeguard stand in the last few days but there has been enough space in the waves closer to shore for Annabel and I to enjoy the waves without being fearful. She's a water bug and can stay in there for three hours at a time. There's nothing better than watching her play, even if after an hour, I need to put a podcast on in my ear. There's only so much being totally in the present moment I can take. 

I never had any formal training in how to navigate the waves of Atlantic Beach but I had parents, uncles, and cousins who taught me the basics: when and how to enter the waves at the right time, how to decide if it’s safe to float over a wave or if diving underneath is necessary, how to exit the waves when you’re tired or freezing, and how to empty the sand out of your bathing suit once one-too-many boogie board or body surfing trips has led to an uncomfortable collection in a part of the body that really doesn’t appreciate sand.

My family also taught me one of the most important lessons about riptides: don’t fight them and don’t panic. If you feel that a riptide is pulling you out into the ocean, the best thing to do in the moment is let it pull you. You’re never going to be stronger than the ocean. Once the riptide has taken you out and it subsides, you collect yourself, stay patient, and wait for the right time to let the waves help carry you back to shore. By that point, you have likely moved hundreds of yards down the beach from where you started, but that’s okay. Once you’ve made it back to shore safely, you can use those cold and shaky legs to walk back to where you began.

Last summer, on a glorious beach day with a yellow flag, the ocean currents were real, so real that it took no more than two minutes in the water before you were about 400 yards down the beach. That day, I taught Teddy about a few powers of the ocean. I'll admit: taking him all the way out in a yellow flag (something I haven't yet done with Annabel), scared me. Mostly, I was scared that he would fight the current. That he would panic. But I wanted him to learn, and he did. Annabel will be ready next year. I hope I'm still strong enough to teach her. 

*  *  *

In many ways, the last school year felt like trying to swim against a riptide. Several times a day, I felt like I wasn't strong enough to keep going, like I didn't have the energy or the will to keep on fighting against the current of so many bad things. Student addiction to cell phones, mental health issues (students and adults included), violent behavior, hateful and hurtful language, low motivation, and persistent negativity. Any teacher in America will tell you: it was a challenging school year. 

While some teachers may find solace in their shared frustration with students, others of us just feel sad that our students are struggling so much. “It’s not their fault,” I repeat, and I still believe that. At the same time, fault doesn't really matter when it comes to their futures. Plus, receiving constant negative energy eventually feels toxic. Last year, no amount of mindfulness could shield me from that toxicity.

At the same time, I believe deeply in schools and in educators who fully commit to closing the achievement gap. It’s a canyon of a gap, an abyss really. And COVID seems to have made it all so much worse. 

In the years of remote and hybrid learning (and, now that I think about, in the prior years teaching in Boston), I felt like I was swimming against a strong current. I'm guessing other teachers and even students felt the same. But for many of us, last year was different. Last year, I felt like I could drown. 

In what often felt like chaos, I fought the current and I went with it, and neither seemed to work. Like other teachers across the globe, I changed my teaching methods in hundreds of different ways. I edited and adapted and adjusted, before class and during and after. I reflected a lot, and even reflected on how I reflected. I took numerous different tones, tried to listen more, and tried to distinguish between noise that needs my attention and toxicity that doesn’t deserve it. I tried. We tried. So hard. And yet, by the end of the year, I was only just holding on. I have taught for a very short thirteen years. I know that's not enough to feel exhausted. But I felt exhausted. 

Aside from the feeling of failure and shame that comes when I ask myself what some students learned from my class last year (answer: maybe nothing), I also feel great guilt in the reality that I am taking the next school year off from teaching to write my book. But I know I need to surrender to the current for now, let it pull me to places I hadn’t anticipated I would land. While I’m there (wherever that may be), I hope to become stronger, more knowledgeable, and more patient. I need to rethink my ideas about education by asking questions that I think we all need to ask: How do we address students’ increasingly short attention span for any academic task? How can we get kids to come to school, never mind, how do we best teach them once they are there? Oh the list goes on.)

Still, I feel guilt and sadness. I will miss my classroom next year, despite that so many classes this year have ended in my wanting to cry or scream. But eventually, I will gather strength, emerge from the waves, and march back down the beach, ready to dive back in again.

*  *  *

A few mornings ago, I got up early to set a time lapse photo to catch this sunrise.

Playing in the waves.

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