Back to school

-8528 jlh teacher lady cr9x11

(Photo by Dick Schmidt)

I am one of millions today… millions of kids and teachers who are starting their school year (and will likely finish it) at home—not to mention their poor parents who’ve been dragged into home schooling like it or not, or their partners and families who have to listen to (some of us) bemoaning a learning curve that, at this point, looks vertical. As in mountain-high, there’s so much to learn.

And if that wasn’t enough, Zoom crashed this morning on two coasts.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the pandemic that put us here in the first place. Oh, and fires in California sending smoke as far away as Kansas. Devilish fires that yield a blood orange sun through air so thick the experts are saying that no one should be outside. At all.

And yet I suited up as if I was actually going to drive to Sacramento City College—in a skirt even. As if had to contend with the horrible first-week parking that gets all of us cranky before we ever step into a classroom. I knew where I’d scope out a likely faculty spot, if I went early enough. I’d hike to my classroom and up the stairs to my second-floor office, bidding good morning to those already there, working away. And I’d put down my book bag, haul out my big container of tepid tea (because I drink tea at any temperature) and look at the piles I would’ve already set aside for each class I would head into that day.

I’d print the roll sheets for each class and gather some blank 3×5 cards that I have every student fill out with basic contact information on the first day. I’d put all that into the fresh new file folder I’d made for each course. And a couple of minutes before class started, I’d pull my pile of books and folder into my arms and a ready-to-write purple ballpoint into my hand, and I’d head down the hall to the journalism classroom.

It was only five years ago that journalism and photography moved to the second floor of  a new building, and, in the first month, saw the college suffer its first shooting death at the edge of campus. Our journalism students covered that like pros. One of those former students, who has been working in television ever since, also finished his bachelor’s degree and just got a job as news editor at our local NPR station. Another one of those students produces an evening news program at a San Francisco TV station.

Last semester a group of three of our journalism students took on the most ambitious reporting series we’ve seen at our college—documenting in 14 stories, videos and podcasts how social and economic factors derail Sacramento City College students in their quests to complete their educations. And yet so many of them do, slogging through life challenges that most of their professors have never had to endure.

They keep on keepin’ on, and this is what keeps me keepin’ on. They inspire me, the old dog learning new tricks in this all-Zoom age of online teaching. Me, teaching four classes in “real” time, while doing two more remotely. Two classes of students I’ll never see. Not sure how I feel about that since, like most teachers I know, we get jazzed about what we do by seeing the faces of our students light up with comprehension… or puzzle into confusion. We love it when so many of them have questions at once—they’re so eager—or struggle to figure out a concept and then beam relief and walk away with a smidge more confidence in their abilities and smarts. Because they are smart and bright and beautiful. It’s my job to show them that.

Though we came home in March, many of us college teachers simply told our students what they had to do to complete our classes, trying to make things as simple as possible. I was not teaching synchronously online. I did do five writing groups a week, though, between March and the end of August, so I got major Zoom practice. But after more than 30 years of teaching in classrooms, I will now see between 20 and 40 people per class in tiny little rectangles onscreen. And another bunch and another and another.

I hope I can engage them as well remotely as I think I do in the classroom. (One of my good friends who has been coaching many of us in online teaching techniques over the summer pointed out, “What makes you think you were doing such a good job live?” That made us all think.) I hope I do well for them. Because, if all goes according to plan, this will be my last year of full-time college teaching. I hope to retire by next summer.

None of us ever expected to see the end of the world as we knew it, no matter where we find ourselves on the educational spectrum. But I know I will miss their actual faces, students wandering into my office at all hours because that’s how we roll in journalism—if we’re on campus, the door is open. I will miss turning from my computer to see someone with a question, a problem, a joke or just coming to say hi. (I love it when they come to say hi.) But I’ll still get to watch them progress not only in class but become more confident, competent writers and editors, more thoughtful media consumers and, some of them, media professionals.

For this is the new world, baby, and it’s about always being willing to be vulnerable in front of students, knowing that we teachers can’t possibly know everything, of owning this beginner’s mind that puts us back into an I-don’t-know-but-I’ll-find-out place. I look forward to learning new tricks in the online teaching arena. I have no doubt that, as always, my students will teach me as much or more than I do them. Lucky, lucky me.

 

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What stays with us

“I went up to the door, but I turned away.”
—Pat Schneider, Aug. 5, 2020
           (June 1, 1934–Aug. 10, 2020)

I see you at the door, your hand with its
long tributaries of veins pausing on the knob,
ready to pull it open, step into the hallway—
it’s always the same goddamn hallway
then turn, take a breath, and, when you
are ready, pick up your pen and write.

I’ve heard you give this prompt umpteen times,
imagined I’d have the chance to write
with you once more, even as I knew you
were fading, but word has come
that you’re hovering in the hallway,
poised before this life’s last door.

And, when I close my eyes, put myself
in the hallway, there you are—white-haired
and white-gowned, on your way to ghostly,
or angelic. You turn, smile, radiating
love as you did with every workshop—
you can’t blow it if you love them

and I’m telling you again, forever
and always, as I used to when you
looked to me before you spoke
or taught in my city—
you’re wonderful, you’re going
to do great things for these writers,
they’ll love you, I love you,
thankyouthankyouthankyou.

Cobwebs of light shimmer behind you
as you walk through the door, as you
feel the wings you’ve grown, lifting,  *
as you become soul,  **
as we trust that, somehow,
what stays with us
is you.

*from Rumi’s “who gets up early,” from These Branching Moments,
translated by Coleman Barks © 1987, Copper Beech Press

**Pat Schneider from “Into Mystery” from The Weight of Love © 2019,
Negative Capability Press

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Pat Schneider in Sacramento, 2009

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Now we look to the stars—

though the beings rooted
to this blue marble must
have always looked skyward
once darkness pulled its
cobalt curtain over
their portion of planet.

I want to emerge from
isolation, coming out of
hibernation to be with those
who make their way on
breezy summer nights to
elevated places away from
manmade illumination,
distancing ourselves in dimness,
pointing our chins toward
night diamonds winking,
we imagine, at us,

searching for the sweet
sight of that fuzzy comet,
head down, swinging its
glossy tail of icy starstuff,
racing past us at 40 miles
a second. We try to
visualize its 3-mile girth,
contemplate the 70
million miles between
its brilliance and us.

And when we spot it
galloping below the big bear
in the northern sky, we grin,
gasp, point our visual devices
toward the blazing miracle
delivered in this precarious
human moment,

when a glimpse of distant
luminosity sprinting by
feels, somehow, like
a radiant spot of hope.

Comet Neowise over Mt. Jefferson

Comet NEOWISE over Mt. Jefferson, Oregon / photo by Jay Mather

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Seize the moment

Canada geese in Tahoe-5802

Photo / Dick Schmidt

July 1, 2020, west shore, Lake Tahoe  

This instant as kids scramble
atop a makeshift island floating like
a bright penny on chilly emerald water
that grows warmer every day.
This moment as two teenage
boys dive off the dock where I sit
inhaling the vastness of mountain lake,
their slender forms cutting neatly
between flashing sun stars—
only to emerge heads shining,
grins spreading.

Pointed noses of motorboats bob
as so many pleasure craft, decently
distanced, drift around tetherball floats.
A bearded fellow paddles by on his
standing board with an unseen
device broadcasting Pearl Jam, and
I want him to hurry by, take his tunes
elsewhere. A young woman suns
tushie up on the dock, her daily practice
no matter what, I hear her tell
a friend.

A flock of 14 Canada geese cruises
a watery path parallel to shore,
having no idea that their native land
celebrates its independence today,
three days before ours, those
northern neighbors who, for now,
shun us, a country of plenty roiling
in turmoil, much of it our own making.

We are all of us wildlife in this
precarious time, even here
in this limbo of beauty and illusion,
as I engage in a few days of
magical thinking, trying to leave
behind those struggling for breath,
those howling in protest, those
carrying fears and griefs too numerous
to name. I have temporarily fled
my own isolation to seize these
precious, peaceful moments.
Still, even here, alone on my portion
of dock, I wear my mask, my face
flushed under late afternoon sun.

I watch the kids on the floating raft
laugh and roughhouse in good fun,
splash into rippling water, whoop
as their mouths meet air, clamber
back up among their fellows.
In the same instant eight members
of the flock paddle paddle glide by
this human anchored to the steady dock,
their black webbed feet visible just
beneath the surface of sparkling green.

Beneath my mask I smile at their
nearness. The leader turns his ebony
head, meets my eye, and utters a gentle
honk echoed by his brethren, an
inter-species acknowledgment I hear
as hello.

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Purging the subject files

files

For Dani, who makes it easier to sift and sort

They came off garage shelves stiffly
like the old creatures they were, sagging
cardboard file boxes encumbered with
the weight of words on paper, to fwump
onto the old concrete floor, poofing
decades of dust onto my cheeks and nose.

Each bore letters carved in faded Sharpie
on its flank—A–C, C–G, H–M, N–S, T–Z—
their concave backs swaying as I hefted
them one at time outdoors. I swiped a rag
over each before I lugged them indoors
where, I had vowed, I would purge mercilessly.

The boxes with years inscribed on them
had been easier: storage for old bills and
check registers, handwritten lists of monthly
debts paid, odd receipts unworthy
of the year’s tax file. Easy to pick through,
shred, recycle, toss into the blue bin
at the edge of the driveway.

But these five lettered boxes bore most
of what was left of a young journalist’s career—
by no means all—subject files of notes,
photos, stories dear to my heart from
days of serving three newspapers,
a wire service and a magazine.

Opening each box, sighing at the files
standing at attention, I took a deep dive
into the former me, a young woman
I no longer recognized. But with the opening
of each file folder, memories tumbled into
my lap like squirming puppies, eager for
attention: Remember me? Wasn’t that fun?
How can you possibly give me away?

But it’s time, I told the puppies. I can’t
keep you all anymore. I only have
so much space and years left, and you’re
important only to me anyway.

Really, for whom do we archive our lives?
For whom have we saved the bride’s thank you
letter after standing up with her and her groom
at their wedding? Who will read handwritten
notes scribbled by a newbie journalist watching
a roundup of wild mustangs in the high desert?
Who will understand the significance
of the creamy ribbon or recognize the name
on yet another business card, much
less on snapshots bereft of identification?

If I am brave, I’ll pronounce the answer:
no one.

I do it for me, to stir up the what-has-been
along with the dust, which is where I’m
headed in the end, which reminds me
time’s a’wasting and yes, it’s freeing to
locate and eliminate the no-longer-needed
bits in boxes or drawers or life.

But my heart lifts when I hold a file folder
and its inhabitants rise in me—especially
those long gone—and I read words they
offered the young me, who took them down
and corralled them on fragile pages
where, for just a short time, they lived
and were read by others who lived, too.

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Love to the swimming body

-5124 jlh ready to lapCR

Once afloat, pulling the water in familiar strokes,
you will forget about what it took to get here:
the annual oh-my-god-how-round-you’ve-gotten
work of donning the suit, stunned at the cleavage
you would have died for as a flat-chested teen
on the synchronized swimming team, horrified by
wobbles of flesh on upper arms and legs.

Then reminding yourself that’s one reason
you swim at 9 on summer nights—no one else
in or around the pool—and you stop the
useless recriminations. Remind yourself that
this body is, after all, a garage for your soul,
and your job is to love it no matter what, till
death do you part, and to put it in the water,
dammit. You always feel better when you swim.

Because the pool, after being closed for three
months to an unseen virus, is at last open,
and you have learned that you must take
advantage of every opportunity to swim
your 20 laps. Numbers are on the rise.
It could close again. Soon.

Because swimming, for you, is seasonal,
means summer, means four months, if you’re lucky,
in this outdoor pool in your watery routine
of various strokes, sculls and eggbeaters
under a Delta breeze, should it arrive, or on
the sultriest nights when droplets dry
on your face in seconds.

You take the four steps into the water
for the first time in this rollercoaster year,
this upside-down, how-could-this-happen year.
It’s warm, as it should be after the thermometer
hit the century mark today. Yet the water
always looks ice blue in the diffuse light.
You jog in place, acclimating, before you adjust
your goggles, lower your shoulders and
feel yourself lift off, finally weightless,
at home in the old motions, pulling for
the other side.

-5137 jlh between lapsCR

(Photos by Dick Schmidt)

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First haircut after quarantine

(for Susan Stewart)

Feels like the first time, as the old song goes.
Foreigner’s first album dropped in 1977, me
a freshman in college, equal parts curiosity,
intimidation and hormones, hiking the university
to which I commuted daily—my parents entrusting
me with their old Toyota, which I parked
at the far end of campus, absorbing one of my
first important pieces of learning with every step:
A college parking pass does not guarantee
a parking space.

It was the first time in college, freed from
the must-do/can’t-do of high school, ready
to try on my big girl journalistic wings,
at the same time questioning everything
I thought I knew about my chosen major:
What made me think I could do this?

A decade later, returning to teach at that university,
after doing time on a few newspapers but before
a wire service and a magazine claimed me,
the mantra returned:
What made me think I could do this?
As it has every semester, before every plunge
into cold water, the reminder that every
class is a first time for all of us in the room,
to remember beginner’s mind, how good
it is for the soul, if not the nerves, to start over.

And now, sitting in Susan’s chair after four months,
it, too, feels like the first time—both of us masked,
only one other stylist and customer in the place,
sheets of heavy plastic hanging like vertical dropcloths
between chairs. She squirts sanitizer on her hands,
and I follow. She aims the thermometer gun
dead center on my forehead without touching it,
pronounces an acceptable number, leads me
to her chair, one that I and hundreds of others
have occupied for years.

In the four months since I’ve sat here, the world
has shattered. People like Susan with brooms and
dustpans are sweeping up the pieces, creating
barriers no one wanted in the name of safety as
people who have never been safe because of the color
of their skin are showing us there’s no going back,
we must now do the thing we think we cannot do.

Look at your curls, she says taking her usual position
behind me, flipping them up at the back of my head.
I trimmed a bit, I confess, as I imagine many of us
who sit here have, and I know it’s uneven,
needs a good cut, but I rather like it.

In the mirror I see her eyes crinkle above her mask.
Me, too, she says.

We both know I usually have her trim me short
for summer, but for the first time I can remember,
she says, Let’s leave it a little longer.

I hope she sees the smile in my eyes, too.
Let’s, I say.

IMG_7976redo

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Digression: Teaching at home

remote teaching

For my students at Sacramento City College, who survived the spring 2020 semester

Thank God, for the social media post written
by some teacher as despairing as I who said,
It’s not teaching; it’s damage control.
To which I hollered at the screen,
No shit, Sherlock! and which, under other circumstances,
might have helped but now, no soap.
Which is, I realize, a reference to money, not soap.

Though, really—soap? Forget the stores bereft of
hand sanitizer, toilet paper, soup, pasta, meat
and, in the first week of quarantine, all frozen food.
Soap is the answer, they say. Soap is the savior,
liberally applied to hands (don’t forget between
the fingers) under warm water, two minutes
of serious washing… and did we not know how
to properly wash hands before? Did we need
instructional videos?

But I digress.

What I need are students to reappear, those who’ve
vanished into hibernation, which we should all be
emerging from now that it’s trying to be spring.
But from what I read on social media that they’re
terrifiedjoblesspanickedstoppedintheirtrackshopeless.
As they should be. They’ve had their young worlds
upended—as yes, we all have, every bloody bit of humanity
on the planet—but they have no spare tires around
their middles to carry them through crisis. They are
flailing in deep water, using every stroke they know to
stay afloat. (As am I with overwrought metaphors.)

As am I, reaching into the void of cyberspace to
try to find them, engage them, assure them that they’ll
pass, just finish these assignments, I’m not giving new
ones, hang in there, keep going. And occasionally my
radar pings—a response!—to reveal a plaintive
email from a student struggling not with classwork
but a recent breakup on top of an aborted semester
and a worldwide pandemic, asking the unanswerable:

Will everything be OK? How do I go on?

And somewhere, deep in my own despair over
the ending of what I recognize as my insulated
bubble of a world, I reach inside my beating-too-fast
heart and let words spill through my typing fingers:

You’re already OK. You really are.
You’re breathing and walking around.
You’re already strong and successful.
You’ll be even more so with every year.
Love will come again. 

And then—after I send my long-winded response,
along with the video of people in isolation singing
“You’ve Got a Friend”—I worry that it sounds trite,
something a grandma might send in a cheesy
birthday card. But she writes back, says she’s
lifted by it all, and I can breathe again.

But I digress. Which, as another student
who briefly surfaced said, was new to her.
I never knew what digress meant, she wrote.
I just liked the sound of it. You used it in class
and I looked it up and now I know.

So there. Amid my floundering damage control
I taught one person something useful and
helped another find a bit of hope in darkness.
It helps, a little.

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Everything I know about being afraid*

Sara-protest

Demonstrators in downtown Sacramento May 31 protest the death of George Floyd six days earlier. (Photo by Sara Nevis/saccityexpress.com)

For my students of color on the front lines, June 2020

It’s not the fear itself I fear.
I’m afraid that I won’t listen well enough
to hear your hearts, to have patience
as you tell me what is it to be you in this moment,
to hurt and rage in a world that doesn’t see you
for you, doesn’t value you for you
as I hope I do. As I hope you know I do.

I hope I have told you how much the world
needs your voice, your perspective, stories
only you can tell—even when you’re telling
the stories of others. I hope I have told you
I see you, value you, appreciate your goodness,
your compassion, your determination.

You, marching for the first time,
you, carrying a sign with aching arms,
you, hoarsely shouting in cadence with others,
lending your voice, your heart to a cause
many of us hoped would no longer require
your participation. But it does. It calls you
as it has called others for generations.

And your righteous anger is more than
a loud outcry. It is right—right now.
I am not afraid to say that.

But I am afraid for you. I want to put my
old white lady teacher body between you
and anyone, any group of ones, who might hurl
wordsrocksteargasracismmysogonyhate
rubberbulletsflashbangs and any manner
of harm at you.

Because you are the face of what the world
is dying to become—the old order on the way out,
the new one laboring to be born. It is a long,
bloody struggle, 400 years of trying to be embraced
as worthy, as equal, in this experiment of democracy
for some, still not for all.

Fear, that insistent teacher, whispers
that this will never end, though I will,
that you will not see a day when you can
live in the world unafraid.

But, it seems to me, you have taken fear
by the hand, marching daily into the fray
with it tagging along like a reluctant little
sister/brother. You do not cast it aside,
nor do you let it lead.

You give me hope—
you, recording this moment in history,
you, with signs and allies of many colors
on the front lines.

You, the steadfast, the wholehearted,
you, fists raised, voices lifted,
you, the mighty calling for justice,
you, whose strength is going to
—please, God—
transform us all.

*The title comes from a line by poet/essayist Audre Lorde from “A Burst of Light: And Other Essays,” a series of diary entries.

 

 

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Liftoff

Dr Steve Simmons ladder

Steve Simmons in rural Merced, California, checking a nest in 2010

For Dr. Steve Simmons
Sept. 14, 1941–June 1, 2020

2009 2122

Daughter Deanne helps her dad

You have been trying to depart for days,
propped up in a strange bed in the living room
that no longer looks like home, except for
loved ones, both two- and four-footed,
who wander in and out—

as you do, trying to find breath, release,
as images swarm behind your closed eyes
like bees leaving the hive or birds departing
their boxed nests, the ones you tended
for decades, hauling the gangly ladder
through pastures, propping it next to tall poles,
climbing up, peering into your handmade artificial
nests, counting, retrieving, banding young ones,
making notes, moving on to the next.

2008 4214 kestrel fledge

Dr. Steve bands a kestrel fledge, 2008

And now, on final approach to the great liftoff,
you cannot summon the strength to shake out
damp appendages, flap hard and ascend,
though, like the nestlings, you try.
Haven’t you been growing wings all along?
Hasn’t this lifetime with feathered beings
prepared you for flight?

You have no thought when it happens:
In the right moment, your chest bursts open
to a heartbeat of flapping feathers,
a wood duck readying for exodus.
Now all you must do is rise, glide, soar,
wing your way into what comes next,
focusing only on the clear blue of up.

2010 2953 kestrel flies

Releasing a kestrel, 2010 (Photos by Dick Schmidt)

 

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