Thursday, August 29, 2013

Home and Place: Where and When

" . . . home is as much about time as it is about place"  I think I may have felt this internally at some point but it wasn't until I read this piece by Spencer that I was reminded - once again - that home and place are intertwined.  And thanks to Spencer, he poses another value, which is that home is also a place in time.  I believe this.  This piece is full of complexities about transitions and brings out the contrast between feeling temporary and a longing to be rooted.  Many of my friends and family who have moved around will relate to this wonderful piece . . . Enjoy! 


Between kindergarten and ninth grade, I went to nine different schools. I wasn’t an army brat or anything like that—it just happened that circumstances aligned to move me to a new school almost every year, until I finally begged Mom to please let me stay in one place to finish high school. As far as I can tell, this had two main effects on me. The first is that I got really good at making new friends, since basically every year I was the ‘new kid.’ 

The second is that, for me, home is at least as much about time as it is about place: my memories are deeply connected to where and when something or someone is situated. One of my earliest memories is the day I figured out how to make machine gun noises with my mouth. I remember I was on the playground at my pre-K school, which means I was about four years old, which means that’s when Mom and I were living in San Jose, California. Another memory from that time is of Dad and me driving across the Golden Gate Bridge singing “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” together as he brought me to his house for my weekend visitation. Dad had a perm, so I know it was the 80s.
This way of connecting my different “homes” to different times has been sitting heavy with me since my partner Emily and I moved from San Diego to Madison four years ago. In our first year here, I struggled to process new feelings of disconnectedness that had never come up before. We had said goodbye to our San Diego home, it had been ten years since we lived in our parents’ homes, and Madison didn’t seem like it would be home either.

At the time, I wrote a poem to try and articulate what I was feeling. Here’s part of an early draft:

It takes effort to be
who I think I am
when this city reminds
how displaced I’ve become.
These cornfields speak
no stories I know, these street lamps cast
no familiar shadows.

In my meanwhile,
charting maps
through a life I barely recognize
keeps my attention.

What, then, is left
by which to navigate,
to steer my course?
What horizon can I look toward, when
the home I call home feels foreign,
remote from myself?

It is the family I build from scratch
that must be the foundation to shore me up.
It is the tribe that speaks
my language.
It understands how to be displaced
and contented.

While it helps me to think of Madison as another in a series of places I call home, it has also felt different this time. We moved here for graduate school, which right away meant our tenure would be finite. We never intended to stay beyond five years, so sometimes it feels like this isn’t our ‘real life’ but just an extended vacation. As we begin our fifth year, I already feel us stepping one foot out the door.

This ambivalence sometimes makes it difficult to fully invest in a place. Because I don’t feel connected to Madison, I could easily convince myself that this isn’t my community, these aren’t my people. I have the privilege to keep everything at arm’s length, knowing that I’ll just move on again soon. And mine isn’t an isolated experience: the world is becoming increasingly transient. As we find ourselves moving around more often, the danger is that we’re never accountable to one another. This dehumanizing experience becomes our excuse for a whole host of acts—crime, assault, neglect—that would be unthinkable otherwise.

Now that Emily and I are thinking about what next destination might suit us, I sometimes find myself falling into this trap. On the one hand, we’ll talk about it with a what-the-hell abandon, thinking, “Let’s just try it out for a year or two! If we don’t like [state or country X], we can always move again!” When we see these potential places as disposable, we risk lapsing into indifference.

Other times, though, I long to make our next move be toward a home that’s more permanent, more rooted, than those I’ve known before. I need home to be not a place and time, but an enduring place that grounds us across our life. And more importantly, I need to hold myself accountable to the people and the communities of which I’ll be a part.


Spencer Atkinson is a husband, teacher, leraner, poet, musician, and a really good hugger.  He was born and raised on the Left Coast.  @spencerkinson

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: Nine (or ten) Points to Parents from a Teacher

In a little over a week, I'll be getting a new batch of sixth graders, and along with them come their parents/guardians. Likewise, Misa and John-Pio's teachers will be getting a new set of students, and along with them come me and Brad.  We're pretty balanced, really.  As parents, I mean.  We're somewhat involved but somewhat hands-off, and we're available for certain events, but also realize our limitations so we just try really hard to stay in-touch by listening and asking the kids questions. 

Anyway, the point of all this is that as a parent, I'm learning and trying all kinds of ways to be a better teacher. I've been thinking more and more about how being a mama is reflected in my vocation and along the way, I've learned some things.  For now at least, I've whittled it down to these points  - they're points of reference I'd say to my students' parents if they were so inclined and wanted to know, and I've also thought about what those points mean for me as a teacher. 

It's an odd-numbered list with some holes but nevertheless important to me as everything education and student-centered is at the front of my brain these days.  So here they are - some thoughts for my incoming parents . . .

#1. I'm going to be making one assumption about you.  I'm going to assume that you want to know what your child is learning.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means there will be some form of regular communication  either through our blog, a student planner, or maybe in a quick email/phone call.  I know your time is precious so I'll make it a point to be brief and upbeat. 

#2. I'm going to be positive about your child.  I know you'd want to know how your child is progressing and perhaps you want to be surprised by something that might be different, something that makes your kid stand out to the point that s/he is doing outstanding things. 

What does this mean for me as a teacher? It means that I'm going to get to know your child through a few different lenses. If your kid likes to fish, loves to read, knows baseball and football stats, learns quickly, plays piano, beatboxes, writes stories, is strong in math, has a pet, cares deeply about family - I'm genuinely going to observe and listen for those bits and pieces because they can help me understand your child from the inside.  I can determine your child's best learning styles and admire their uniqueness and then adjust or modify or enhance accordingly.  

#3. I'm not going to be a fake.  Lets face it. You've been a parent for at least 11-12 years, some of you for longer and I know you can read a teacher who's full of it.  I'm not one of those teachers who divvies out high-pitched praises or vague compliments.  I can't fake it cause I don't want to insult your child or you.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I'm going to be straight-up with you if your kid is checked out, cuttin' up, being a bully, or manipulative.  Before calling you though, I'm going to talk to your kid myself.  I might warn him or her that I'm on the verge of gettin' mean, and I might pull out big words and phrases like petulant, passive-aggressive, and insolent but I promise you I'll tell your child what those things look like and what they mean and I'll teach an alternative behavior or way of being. 

#4. I will only call your child by their name.  Contrary to what I do, my students report that they like terms of endearments from their teachers because it shows there's a good relationship and that the teacher cares about them.  But I'm sorry, I can't do it - it's just not me.  And you probably don't even care.  I promise you though, that there are several other teachers in my building who will call your kid "Honey," "Kiddo," "Buddy," and the like, so there's that. 

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I'm going to save the endearments for you.  I'll find another name that's more fitting for me and your child.  It might be their first and middle name together, or maybe just their last name, or it might even be some name I completely make up but it'll be relevant and related.  And I'll ask if it's okay, and if they like it.  It also means that I'm going to teach a unit on the power of names and naming - that I'm going to encourage your kid to dig deep into his/her identity so much that they will find power in their own name(s). 

#5. I will only assign homework that I know your child can do independently.  Evening time is too valuable and besides that, I know some of you are working second and third shift and will be unable to sit with your kid during homework time.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means homework will be connected to their classroom learning and the work I assign will help reinforce and practice skills.  It means that for everything I plan outside of school, I'm going to carefully judge what that might look like for all kids - kids who go to the youth resource center or kids who go straight home, or kids who want to stay in my classroom after school. 

#6.  I will help find solutions to challenges that your child might face as a student.  There are a hundred ways to say that adolescence is a period of storm and stress. Much of their stressors will be markedly social like broken friendships or no friendships or questionable friendships.  Chock one up for social and physical awkwardness too.  Your kid might get bullied, feel pressured, or isolated.  There will be tears over too much homework or work is too easy and inexplicable tantrums and irrational worrying.  There's the fact that your child has the capacity to be rational, but prefers to spend 90% of their time being irrational. And all of these things are normal even though it feels new almost every time and I guess it's cause the kids are new to it and experience these kinds of stressors differently.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I'll listen, refer, and find your child the right guide to help get through those periodic storms.

#7. There's a chance your kid might not like me.  Not everyone can be enthralled or captivated by a middle school teacher. Thankfully there are several other adults in the school that your child will like.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I won't take it personally.  It means that if your kid ever reports something about me - like I was mean or suspicious or impatient or unjust or confusing or that I yelled (because being stern and firm is yelling to some kids), please believe only 50% of your kid's words until you check it out with me.

#8. I will not undermine your child's intelligence and potential.  Your child is deep.  If there's one thing that bears conditioning and support, it's building confidence and self-reliance so that your child can grow intelligently and learn what s/he is capable of.  Your child is also at the perfect age for social activism and for creative problem solving, and if there's any time to really build on artistic expression, it's now.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I won't play down current issues of inequities,  media influences, environmental catastrophes, and other political/social problems.  It means that service-projects, narratives, stories, poetry, plays, speeches, music, and improvisation will be integral to learning because these are positive ways to create and build personal expression that's artistic and fun.

#9.  I cannot do this alone.  I've said it before and I know it's a cliche, but it really does take a village.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I will need you to step up your game. Even if you're already there, consider going the distance.  Collect cell phones and anything portable and electronic and stick to the routine bedtime.  I really don't want to call you to tell you your kid spent first hour drooling on their desk.  Make sleep a priority - 8-10 hours will help your kid recover in time to build new learning muscles.  Reconsider the ebb and flow of your child's involvement in activities - periodic months off from all the hustle of sports and extra-curricular classes seems detrimental to them and to you, but seriously - they're young and life is long.

And finally . . .

I won't number this one because it comes down to the heart.  A packet of sharpened pencils, a Subway or local coffee gift card goes some of the way, but do you know what really matters? What really, really matters? 


A note of thanks, appreciation, or a flower from your garden.  Something simple and free to let me know that you get it. You get that teaching and parenting are demanding, and that through all the disillusionment and super high expectations on both ends, that something dope and cool and magical can happen and that's that your child and my student grows into being this really kind, resilient and independent kid.


Stay tuned for part 2 (sometime in the future): More Points to Parents from a Teacher.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Home and Place: National City Brings Out the Sap in Me

I recently became a sap.  I wasn't born that way, I don't think.  Though my mom doesn't remember everything about my childhood and my temperament, I fantasize that I developed toughness because my parents were so nonchalant about most things.  Left alone in the backseat of the 1956 Edsel parked in the garage cause I fell asleep, solo plane trips to San Francisco and Guam at 9 and 11, and that horrible dentist Dr. Weinburger who looked me in the eye as he drilled into my molars only half anesthetized and said, "Don't cry. Don't cry." I tend to attribute those top three memories to my first 40 years of emotional toughness.

I'd say it's now time to openly and freely be a sap.  And after a three week stay in my born home of San Diego, I've been a sappy mess.

Aside from my family and friends who live there, I've known a lot of people who have visited and toured San Diego, and I know that they knew they were in a beautiful place.  Endless beaches, amazingly consistent temperatures, pockets of cultural and ethnic diversity, the Padres and the Chargers (ah-hem) - just a few of the reasons San Diego is so popular.  Most people go there without even blinking an eye towards National City where I grew up, and that being so, I'd say they missed out on a real historical part of San Diego.

31 years ago I left my hometown of National City and whenever I return, I notice it really hasn't changed.  What I mean by that, is that it hasn't changed inwardly, which is a weird way to identify a city but that's the feeling I get.  And I feel that way because some of my strongest memories are bottled up in that environment.   I love it there - I identify with the trees, plants, rhythm of the city streets, freeways, food, and people better than anywhere else I've lived.

And I also love it here.  In Madison.  For different reasons.  I get all sappy because for the sake of my family, sometimes I want to move back and sometimes I want to go, yet most times I want my family to just come here to Madison.  These days whenever I'm traveling between the two, I find myself dragging my suitcase instead of carrying it.  I hug my parents, sister, brother-in-law, nephews and niece tighter and longer because those lifelong connections are not something I wake up to every day and I take nothing for granted.  So that's why I seem to brew with sappiness these days.

Where else does this sappiness fit?  It's in the paradoxes - that for both coming and leaving home, I am so aware of those fits of feelings and experiences that are both illuminating and unsettling, comforting and disorienting.  That's enough to make anyone feel it, right?

Enough of the sap.  Let me just say this: If you ever get to San Diego don't pass up the southern part of the city and make sure you stop in my hometown.  Never mind that National City is noted for the highest violent crime rate and gang activity in all of San Diego.  Never mind that it looks depressed and industrial and stagnated.  Never mind that it spreads inland and its buildings and homes have iron bars.  And be sure to ignore the haters who will turn their eyes downward when you tell them you're heading to National City.  That is how National City is characterized, but it really isn't what it is.  

I took Brad and the kids to see my old house and elementary school.  Here are some photos from the visit to National City, aka Old Town National City (OTNC), also known as the ghetto which is another story, but whatever.  I love my home.  Home(s).

2812 Plaza Blvd where I grew up

It was originally pink, and the only one on the block  

The view from above the school playground

Walked up and down these steps everyday to get to school

Opened in 1967, Palmer Way Elementary was 2 years old when I started kindergarten in 1969

SO cool that Tracey Roundtree-Bristol has been teaching at Palmer Way for the past decade.  True spirit of "coming home," she showed us around and obviously loves teaching there.  One thing I'll remember was when she said, "You know what - National City gets such a bad rap, but I would live here again."  We feel home from deep in our bones.  

Areas of the school are still referred to as "modules" 

Portables - they weren't there when I was in school

Simple kind words painted throughout

Students wear uniforms now and the gifted and talented kids are self-contained, which is different from my school, but here they are - all brainy and on-task.  

Playground is unchanged 

My siblings and friends marked our territory sliding down that rail

Monday, August 19, 2013

Home and Place: All Over the Place

Not only does Melissa have a lot going on now and in the next few weeks, but she's in transition.  Moving, that is.  Nothing wrong with cliches when they help put things into perspective - "Home is where the heart is" might seem kitschy but there's just so much truth to it on so many levels, including finding a sense of belonging.  I love Melissa's distinctions of what Home and Place personally mean, and I especially got a kick out of her digression that led her to write this sweet piece.  Enjoy!  

Home is . . . All Over the Place. 

I had to take a break to write this.  I'm currently cleaning like a mad woman.  My lease at my current apartment ends August 31.  I'm going to Florida in a week.  So this weekend was the only weekend I had to clean before I have to be out of here.  Can I vent for a minute?  I'm going to go completely off topic, but anyone that has ever had to move before will feel my pain.  Remember that last time you had to move, and you had to clean?  And you were cleaning that one spot you've NEVER cleaned before - for example, under the range hood.  Who thinks to clean that on a regular basis?  (I swear if you say, "I do.  Doesn't everyone?"  I'll pinch you.)  And remember the last time you had to clean it, you swore that in the next place, you'd clean it regularly?  But you never did.  And now you're in that same boat.  Awkwardly twisted upside down, getting soapy water in your eye, arms hurting, cursing yourself for every time you fried any delicious, fatty food and the grease splattered up under that stupid hood and you never wiped it up.  I broke four nails, chipped all my fingernail polish, and scratched up two fingers.  I'm tired.  I hate the moving process. 

Back to the topic at hand, my HOME is relocating.  I say HOME because this is MY HOME. My little apartment.  My rent.  My bills.  My furniture.  All stuff that I paid for.  It's mine, mine, mine, Mine, MINE!  But, (forgive the cliche) I truly believe that home is where the heart is.  It's wherever you love to be.  Where ever you feel welcome and are free to just be yourself.  

We can really separate dwellings into three categories: HOME, Like Home, and Places.  

HOME is where you dwell.  It's where your stuff is.  In the business world, it's the main headquarters.  I have one HOME. 

"Like HOME" is the dwelling where you go that isn't yours per se, but you're welcome there and you feel comfortable there.  In the business world, it's like a franchise store.  Questions to determine if this dwelling is Like Home:  Can you walk in, kick your shoes off, put your feet up, and ask when dinner will be ready?  Have you left any of your personal items (toothbrush, clothing, etc) there?  If yes, then it's Like HOME. 

A Place is all other dwellings.  In the business world, I call it the competition.  If HOME is McDonalds, then a Place is Burger King.  You don't mind going there.  It's a change of scenery.  But those manners your parents taught you are in full effect.  You keep your legs crossed, you excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, you politely turn down snacks so that you don't impose upon the host.  It's like going to a friend of a friend's house.  It's your distant aunt's house.  You know you're welcome there, but you know you can't stay.  There are plenty of Places in my life.  

I've moved around a few times in my life.  I was born in Milwaukee, moved to Madison in the 7th grade, moved back to Milwaukee in the 11th grade, moved to Sheboygan for college, then moved back to Madison after graduation.  For a little while when I was younger, my mother lived in Madison completing school while my sister and I stayed in Milwaukee.  So, HOME has been all over.  Although my HOME is in Madison, Milwaukee is Like Home.  It always will be.  

It was a little difficult to adjust to HOME in Madison when I first moved here.  Imagine how shocking it was to move from my all Black neighborhood and school in Milwaukee, to being one of maybe 10 minorities in my whole school in Madison.  My sister and I would play a game called 'Count the Black People' as we walked around State Street downtown.  It would usually take us a while to get to the double digits, which is pretty amazing since we were near the UW-Madison campus.  Back then it felt like minorities didn't want to make Madison their HOME.  At first, I would feel more at ease when we'd go visit Milwaukee.  My Like HOME felt more comfortable than my HOME.  My attitude eventually changed though, once I made friends and felt more accepted.  Then when we had to move back to Milwaukee during my junior year of high school, I would always want to come back to Madison to visit my friends.  I missed my HOME in Madison a lot.  So much so, that I decided to make Madison my HOME after graduating from college.  

I feel like things are changing around my city.  Madison is more colorful now than it was back when I was a kid.  My job is so diverse.  My coworkers and the students I help at the technical college I work for come from every background imaginable.  I think it's the first place I've worked since living in Madison where I wasn't the token Black employee.  My neighborhood is diverse, too.  My daughter has a United Nations of friends that she plays with in our apartment complex.  I hope that it's similar in our new HOME.  

I've been so lucky to always be around people that have made me feel at Like HOME, even when HOME was in transition.  That's why I have so many places I feel comfortable.  It's why, even though HOME is so important to me because it's my little sanctuary, Like HOME is just as comfortable.  Home is where the heart is.  My heart is here and all over the place.  

Melissa received her bachelors degree in psychology (and Jada) from Lakeland College.  She earned a masters degree in psychology from Walden University.  She is currently working in the Employment Center at Madison College, and before that position, she worked for the state of Wisconsin.  But even before that, she was the ever-so-loving nanny to Misa and John-Pio when they were babies.  She enjoys journaling, wacky dancing with Jada, practicing yoga, and urban line dancing.  

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Birthday Challenge By-Products

Turning 49 isn't so monumental so my birthday challenge reflected a somewhat every day, not-so-hard but just challenging enough kind of effort.  That 40-year-old one set the standard, I'll admit.  Here's how it started yesterday:  I ran two sets of 4.9 miles for a total mileage of 9.8, which isn't so impressive after running a marathon and certainly isn't anything compared to the past 9 years when I divided my age in half and did that number of miles in kilometers.  A 24.5k was just too much to harness, and plus, I'm running a half marathon next Sunday so you know, 9.8 was coincidentally right on training.  (If you think you'd like to stalk me, I'm running America's Finest Half Marathon here in San Diego with pretty much zero training so that effort - I'll tell you now in advance, is going down as unimpressive.)

Birthday Challenges taught me a few things.  One is that I take heart when many other friends and family members of mine started designing their own birthday challenges in really creative ways.  Like my one friend who, in addition to her physical challenges, decided to volunteer 30 hours to an organization for 3 months.  Another turned 50 and ran a total of 50 miles each month for 5 months starting 5 months before her birthday.  One of my favorites was my friend Melissa, who is trying 30 new foods as she leads up to her actual birthday.  Perhaps most inspiring though is when my own kids and my students feel compelled to do one of their own without any prompting or prodding from me, and they kill it on that day.

Another thing I learned is that challenges themselves can be so demanding, and can turn you into a boring, seemingly one-dimensional person so I really prefer to keep what I'm doing for my physical challenges on the down-low until I do them.  Plus I really don't like to work very hard physically - I like things to be just-enough and just-for-fun with fitness as the by-product.  I've discovered I'm pretty satisfied with the process and for the most part, my results.  So I've embraced birthday challenges as one year-round goal and anything else I get to do in-between is a bonus.

That additional perk of excitement and support when I hear about others' birthday challenges makes me believe in the power of positive influence, and the effects of being intentional.  People want to be better tomorrow than they are today.

I think that's true - at least I'm optimistic that it is true.

Anyway, here's how the weekend went down - some running, in-door rock climbing, hanging, pull-ups, sit-ups, and planks.  And drinking.  And food.  And family.

After our run - this is my brother-in-law and my sister, Geri.

Drink #1 post run. 
Drink #3 or #4, I don't know which really . . . 

Tryin' to make it to 4.9 Moscow Mule drinks.  Fail.
Here's a little video of us at Mesa Climbing Gym in the San Diego area.  It's kind of funny.  Auto-belay systems on really high walls freak me out, but they're a lot of fun.

Climbing alongside Brad :) from Vera Naputi on Vimeo.