On Marching

A week ago, women (and men) around the world marched in protest of President Donald Trump. Some say it was the largest demonstration in U.S. history. And among the 125,000+ people that marched in Boston, there was a tiny group of teachers.

There were many signs that were clever and telling and raw, but my favorites were these kickstarter campaign images that celebrate the truth – that diversity is what makes America great. I loved seeing these images cropping up  in footage from marches worldwide.

The march wasn’t perfect. Many faces were missing (for reasons we all need to acknowledge, accept, and act on). It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start. And given the events of Donald Trump’s first week in office, we have a lot more work to do.

the good, the bad, and the lonely

Whenever I am in Miami, I sit on my parent’s balcony and I look at the ocean. That’s what I’m doing now, thinking about the lyrics to that song from Moana (See the light as it shines on the sea, yeah it’s blinding – you should see it if you haven’t already because it’s beautiful). Sometimes out here I talk to friends, write, or just imagine the manatees that lumber near the docks. Did you know that the elephant is the closest relative to the manatee? I told my students that when we studied manatees. They thought it was cool, but weren’t as enamored with manatees (or elephants) as I am.

I sit out here on this balcony and, mostly, I read – interrupted only by taking off my sweater when it gets too hot and then putting it back on when a cloud blocks the sun and it gets too cold. And I don’t actually mean cold because it is 75 degrees in December. It was cold cold back home in Boston when I left. I realized while I was here and talking to friends, that I simultaneously refer to both Miami and Boston as home. Can they both be? This is where my family lives and where I was born. But Jamaica Plain (JP, as the locals say) is where I know my way around. Where I work, where my friends live within walking distance, where I get bagels every Friday at 6AM, where my students’ letters are on the walls of the local library, where my ‘favorite bar’ is around the corner from my house, where I’ve made more than a year’s worth of memories. My driver’s license, license plates, health insurance, car insurance, teaching certification, voter registration…they’re all Massachusetts (which I finally learned how to spell, instead of just typing letters and waiting for auto-correct to fix it). I never thought I would live in Boston. I moved there because my time in India was coming to an end and I was terrified that I would have to move back home with no job prospects. Someone told me about Match, I liked what I read online, one thing led to another, and a few months later I landed in New England. I had two large suitcases (one filled with clothes, the other with twin bedding) and was very disoriented. Fall was hard, but winter was harder. Spring got better, and summer was content.

And somehow it is December 31st. I remember sitting in this exact same spot, writing this last year. A few people told me they liked it; that it made them feel less alone. Which is, I consider, the best thing I can try to do with my life. Make others (children, adults, friends, strangers) feel a little bit less lonely. How much better everything would be if everyone felt a little less alone and a little more connected.

This year seems longer than the rest, though, probably because every school day seems to last several years. And so much has happened. I was filling out this little reflection packet thing that Holstee sent me and one of the questions was, “What is your fondest memory (the first one that comes to mind)?” I started to write something about making homemade choco-tacos with my roommates, but then I remembered that I went to India, and Minnesota, and Canada, and Chicago. I became a librarian, and I’ve made new friends, and kept old ones that forgive me when I make mistakes and inspire me by how creative and compassionate they are. I read a mountain of books, and I can sing at work, and my family members are healthy, and I get to make kids feel a little better about themselves every day (occasionally I teach them something; every day they teach me something). Mostly, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. That assurance, and the flooding of good memories that doesn’t stop once you open your mind to them, makes me luckier than most and makes the bad parts, the painful parts, seem a little more distant.

Every month I get a tiny piece of art. I’ve written about it a few times, here (on loneliness) and here (on roots).

This was my year in rectangles. One month, one box, one theme. Twelve in total. I thought about going through each month (like I did in D.C.) and thinking about how each month’s theme played out in my life. But then I thought that might be trying to find meaning where there might not be (which I suspect is how the Pottermore patronus quiz works…let’s give this person a random animal and see what they deduce about their personality). And, honestly, so much of this year is just a blur of busy. There are some good themes though: intention, friendship, creativity, nourishment, resolve, adventure, curiosity, rebellion, balance, compassion, gratitude, reflection. I think mostly I am grateful.

I am grateful for my students. I complain a lot because my days are long and kids are difficult (all humans are difficult, but kids are an especially interesting mix of wonderful and frustrating). But they make me laugh. They make fun of me and steal my things when I’m not looking (including taking a hair-tie out of my hair while I was wearing it – how did that happen?). They blow me away when I least expect it. They are curious and kind and innocent. They are moody and uncontrollable and strong-willed. They make me patient and give me perspective. I feel more myself when I am with them. Whenever I clean out my folders, my desktop, my phone – I find things that they’ve said that (I’m so happy) I took a moment to jot down.

“This guy is just too good. He should drop the mic at the end.”  – While watching MLK deliver ‘I Have a Dream’.

“Ms. Smogard is super-strict, but only when she’s in a bad mood, or we annoy her. Like when we don’t do our work.”

“I would get Ms. Smogard $100 worth of coffee. Except I don’t have $100, so it would be more like 99 cents.”

“A sixth grader told me the secret to doing well in fifth grade….you have to focus.” Groundbreaking.

“Shoot, I forgot to evaporate. I mean annotate!”

“Is evaporation the only way you can make gas?” “No, you can also go to Taco Bell.”

“Can I talk to myself?” “Only in your head.” Sits in silence for a minute. “Whoa. This is cool.”

“Ok I got one. The pizza’s love with always be with me. Because when you eat a pizza, it dies. It’s a metaphor, Ms. Smogard.”

There are so many moments every day that I can’t remember them all. They push my buttons and remember everything I say. They write poems about protecting the environment and doing good things for the community. They tell me secrets and get mad at me and they break my heart and make me laugh and inspire me. Like when a friend of mine from Hybrid Nation came to talk to them about diversity and stereotypes, one little girl said: “A stereotype is an assumption you make about someone based on how they look, usually because you’ve had a negative experience with someone who looks like them or, you’ve never met anyone that looks like them and you are basing your opinion on what you hear from other people.” Her words – eleven years old – not mine. She was elected to student council this year on an anti-bullying campaign. Can she be president instead?

I wanted to celebrate the election of our first woman president with them. Instead, we talked about their fears for undocumented family members. Their confusion about how someone so rude, so racist, could get elected. A lot of people are ready for this year to be over because they feel like 2016 is the year we started moving backwards. The year that hatred and anger have won in our country and around the world. Our President-Elect says he wants to make America “great again”. He doesn’t know that the ten year olds I spend my days with are the best of America. But he will. Because you can’t stop change and you can’t stop hope and you can’t stop love, no matter how hard some people seem to try. And these middle schoolers? You sure as hell can’t stop them either. So to 2017 I say – come at us. We’re ready.

A is for Apple

We went apple picking despite the mist and the cold because it is fall in New England. And apples must be picked. Especially with friends like these.

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My Librarian Is A Camel

A year ago I wrote about how much reading we were going to do be doing at Match Next (and how much I missed my favorite readers in India).

What is the best way to get better at reading? READ MORE! It’s not enough to read smarter. Reading has to be enjoyable. Which brings me to what is going to be my favorite part of the day: Independent Reading. This is a 45 minute chunk of time where students can read whatever they want. Comic books? Those have words. Anything is fair game as long as students are engrossed in a series of words on a page (or a Kindle screen) and my job during that time is to help students find a book that will inspire them to read. Towards the end of my time in India I decided my dream job would be to be a personal librarian for kids. I would get to know each and every child at a particular school and pick books specifically for them – sparking love affairs left and right and sending kids off into worlds of wonder and excitement.

Well, this year my dream came true. In the spring my boss and I had a vision to turn Independent Reading into something more than kids sitting at their desks reading on Kindles. We wanted more options for kids and a more systematized way to get them reading books at their level. So we needed to take our small collection of physical books and make it grow. We called public libraries around Boston to see if they would donate any books, and the response was amazing. What started out as a few shelves of books quickly turned into almost 2,000 titles. And then there we were in June, sitting in the middle of a room surrounded by thousands of uncategorized books. Daunting, but exciting. It took three weeks of coffee, Beyonce, circular stickers, and amazing friends who were willing to perform repetitive tasks, but we categorized every book by genre and reading level. And this is what the kids saw on the first day of school.

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Fiction, nonfiction, humor, fantasy, adventure, mystery…..I haven’t memorized all of the books that we have, but after pawing through these buckets so many times, I feel pretty darn close. Each student is building a wishlist of their favorite books, and we have been previewing titles with them when they come to the library every day to read Wonder, a book we read last year about a little boy with a facial deformity who starts 5th grade at a new school. There are so many books I know they will love, and I hope they find comfort in this soft, colorful space to grow as readers. And, of course, while digging through the boxes of donated books, we found several hidden gems. Including the book that inspired the title. It’s going to be a fun year.

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