Students in Writ 095 are currently working on their blogs. The first assignment is an “About Me” piece. Simple, right? Maybe not. “Pay attention to length,” said I, “and grammar and mechanics matter. This is a writing class, after all…”
What about you, Teach? (Spoken in a true, Vinnie Barbarino accent…look it up, you young’uns). Yeah, so I have been teaching at Helena College for five and a half years now, was tenured this last May, and plan to die in my heels. In other words, I’m pretty sure this is my last professional stop, despite my young age…and I have no plans to permanently retire. At some point, I’ll cut back to 3/4 time or part time…but teaching runs through my blood as much as merlot. Not gonna get loose of me in the immediate future.
So, teaching, English, writing, literature, learning, all these are some of my priorities in life. Student success is my biggest celebration, and I would not quit teaching if I were rich, but I’d like to try rich for a while…
I live alone, but I do have a cockatiel who’s my companion. His name is Leo, short for Leonardo, and he and I have weathered 20 plus years together. I have a son who’s 30 years old, and an ex-husband who I don’t write about but who was an important part of 25-plus years of my life. My other passions are hiking, kayaking, music, reading, and teaching, not in that order.
Fall semester 2017 is a new experience for me: it’s the first fall semester, ever, that I’ve entered college with the status of “single.” It’s the first fall semester that I’ve entered college without my dad. It’s not that my dad was especially critical to my teaching, but he was critical to my sense of self: I always had a mom and dad (lucky, I know). He died last October 31st. Every day since then has been, “the first _____ since Dad died.” November 1st will change that, but October 31st will be a tough day for me to survive.
You want to know “about me”? I was a mediocre high school student who grew into a pretty darn smart mom, who became a really smart college student who excelled, who became a competent, committed, caring college teacher, who lives her life to the best of her abilities without regret. Let’s get to work.
I know people who love fall (Gina!), and though it’s not my favorite season (summer!), it ranks as number two for me. As we move through August, into September, we are in that season between seasons. Wasps remind us that winter is coming and will kill all those annoying insects for a few months’ reprieve. Trees begin to turn, the tops usually start first, just a few golden leaves then gradually more. The mornings…have you noticed? This morning was unusually cool, close to 50 degrees when I rose, too cool to run in my usual tank top; I wore sleeves. No one in western Montana can escape the smoke right now, which is also an indication of fall, at least over the last several years. And if you’re a teacher…well, you’re only too aware that summer is coming to an end. One of the first questions I get from teacher-friends is “are you ready?” It’s a silly question; I’m not ready and never will be, but this fall, for me, is different.
My dad’s birthday was September 1st; this is the first one since I’ve been alive that he won’t be. If you’ve lost a parent or someone very close to you, you understand the “firsts” that occur throughout the year that follows the loss. This is the first birthday; in June was the first Father’s Day. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, my sisters’ and my birthdays, Mother’s Day, their anniversary, all of those passed during this first year, too. This year will be the first Halloween, the day he died, one year ago. My sister, Terri, always loved Halloween more than almost any holiday. I wonder how she’ll experience this coming one.
It seems cliché; my relationship with my father was strained, and now I regret that. Of course, I do. That’s how it works, and I’m not special. Many people before me have experienced the same thing, which is why it’s cliché. We like to believe we’re an evolved species, but I wonder about that. Even when we know better, we continue to make the same mistakes. It’s a form of hubris, I think, a very common human foible. Each of us believes we are the exception somehow.
I enter the fall semester of 2017 with trepidation. Last fall was one of my worst, personally, and one my best, professionally. I hate to think that one precludes the other, but it seemed to work that way. Aside from the fact that my dad is gone, I enter fall semester as an unmarried woman, the first time in twenty-four years. Nearly all of my personal relationships have undergone significant change; some didn’t survive my divorce, some resulted from my divorce, and some are still in transition. In many ways, I’m a different woman than the one who returned to campus for convocation 2016. I hope I’m not hardened; I hope I’m still the Pollyanna optimist I’ve always been, but I’m not sure…
I struggled after Dad died, and the memorial ceremony was one of my worst experiences. My marriage was crumbling, my dad had died unexpectedly, and emotionally, I was a wreck. I survived it, but that was all. Since I don’t live close, I was not there when his cremains were installed in the cemetery, and though I’d been to Billings several times, I never stopped at the cemetery. I thought about it; I wanted to, but I didn’t, until Sunday.
Mark and I went to Billings for a party to celebrate my sister Julie’s new firepit. I told him before we left that I wanted to stop in Laurel and see my dad’s final resting place. On the way home, I got involved in a phone call and forgot my plans (I wonder…), but Mark didn’t. He turned off in Laurel and found his way to the cemetery where we located my dad. It was August 6th, so nine months plus after he’d died. I guess that’s how long it took me to be ready, and I’m not going to apologize for that. To whom would I apologize anyway? Like many other examples I could conjure, I’m frequently late in my ability to make sense of things; I’m a pretty smart person, but sometimes it takes me a while to process.
A few years ago, my dad started playing on the internet. Soon, he discovered memes and “fake news,” which annoyed the living hell out of me. Political opposites, I finally told him to stop sending me that shit, which to his credit, he did. Occasionally, he’d send me something he thought I’d enjoy, and one email message he sent me remains in my “inbox,” and I revisit it from time to time. It’s incredibly emotional for me because I love Andre’ Rieu, I love strings, I love this song, and I loved my dad. See if you can get through it without tears; I can’t. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1yfX6VnrSU
Fall semester 2017 is coming, like it or not. I guess I need to get ready.
In just over three weeks, I’ll be back to work full time. I know there won’t be a lot of sympathy for me based on that, but it does make me feel a little panicky. I’m not managing summer very well; how will I manage a fall semester I’m not yet ready for?
Now that I’m moving back into “teaching mode,” as opposed to summer slacker mode, I’m thinking about my upcoming classes and things I hope to do again and things I hope I won’t do ever again (yeah, no need to start a list for me, students), and I’m thinking about all those times when I should have told someone something but didn’t. I’m thinking of those many times when someone did something nice for me, and I thought about telling them how much I appreciated it or how much some little thing meant, but I didn’t. Time moves on, gets away from us, and after a while it seems silly to send someone a thank you card, especially after three years. But you should; I should. And since I’m moving back into “teacher mode,” this will be about teachers, but it could be anyone a person encounters, including teachers. It could be a coworker, a boss, a stranger or even a police officer or a judge! It could be any person who makes any kind of impact on your life. From a teacher’s perspective, here’s what it looks like:
Kaitlin’s not coming back; she is transferring to another school, and I’m quite sad about that. I was looking forward to having her in class again this fall, along with her pal, Nikki. Nikki, too, will not be in my class as scheduled, and I’m not sure why, but I hope it’s because she was accepted into the nursing program: that damn nursing program. I really like those two women, and the fact that they took classes from me, more than once…the same class…is a testament to them and to me: to them for facing a demon (College Writing) and taking it on…with the SAME instructor, and me, for being that instructor they chose to take again. Here’s the thing: I know they like me, too, because they told me. I’m so grateful they told me.
Last May, Nikki and Kaitlin showed up unexpectedly in my office, one holding a white orchid plant and one a bottle of wine (how’d they know????). They sheepishly explained that they wanted to spare me the embarrassment of tears in class (and how’d they know that?) by bringing them to my office, privately, with a card I did not immediately open. To say I was touched by the gesture is an understatement, of course, and I filed it all away “to process later,” and the three of us went to class.
It was the card, more than the flower or the wine (believe it or not) that touched the core of my soul, and I’d love to write the sentiment here, but somehow that feels like it would be a violation of the intensely personal messages the women wrote for me. I can say that I was surprised, had not realized the impact I’d had on those two women who had to repeat my class. When I finally did sit down and read the card, there were tears galore, all mine, some happy but some a little sad, what I could have done better had I known more…
Both were registered for Creative Writing this fall, and I was so excited to work with them in an entirely different genre, one much more relaxed than academic writing. I know them both so much better now; I could really enjoy them, I thought, and we all could make grand, academic strides, but now that won’t happen. In fact, I don’t know if I will ever see either of them again. What I do know, however, is the way that I touched them and how they touched me. The gifts, but especially the card with the long, handwritten messages, one on the inside left and the other on the inside right, remind me that what I do every day matters, both good and not-so-good. One of them wrote that my consistent support kept her going at times…and I wondered how many times I had not been as supportive as I could have been. In the future, I’ll think about her comments when I’m dealing with other students, and I’ll remember that I don’t always see reflected to me—at the time—my efforts and impact. Sometimes, I see a blank stare.
I’m pretty good about telling people they’ve been important in my life; I love sending handwritten “thank you” cards (old fashioned as that is), and I enjoy giving people the thanks they deserve, but there have been those times when it’s seemed not as important or a little excessively sentimental (oh, yeah, that’s me for sure…) and I didn’t do it. I regret that now. My life’s work is teaching, and it’s only through my interactions with students that I really know how I’m doing and whether I should keep doing it or whether I should apply to be…I don’t know…a meter-reader. Nikki and Kaitlin reassured me that I should give the old teaching gig another year or two, and I’m excited to do that and eager to up my game and see how much better I might be this year, to see how many students like them I might meet.
So, do it. Whether a teacher, a spiritual leader, a parole officer, a neighbor, or a stranger, there’s never a negative outcome when we express our gratitude and affection for each other, and sometimes it inspires those people to try even harder, to give a little more. I know I will, and if any of you know Nikki or Kaitlin, tell them I’ll miss them a lot this year. I won’t be the same without them.
Fortunately, I’m not paid to blog because, if I was, I’d be running a deficit right now. Neither am I paid to write, and that, too, would be a less-than-productive source of income for me based on the amount I’ve written lately. However, I AM paid to teach, and I’ve been doing a fair amount of work related to my teaching, especially and including The Rocket Project, formally known by the publication title, Helena’s Rocket Slide: The History of a Cultural Icon.
Astute readers might be wondering at the lack of symmetry between this and my previous blog post where I stated that the summer of 2017 would be dedicated to play and nonacademic pursuits, but those who know me well will not be surprised. Without an overabundance of things to occupy my time, I subconsciously start seeking other projects, and no one is more surprised than I when suddenly there’s no time to accomplish them all.
I’ll begin with The Rocket Project: since last August, that silly rocket has been in the periphery and then eventually at the forefront of my consciousness until finally culminating in the publication. Never having done an oral history project before, I began with researching what such a project entailed. Next, I tried to imagine how I could get lots of different people to “buy in” to the project, including students who would have to push out of their comfort zones (challenged already by the whole college experience) and call, setup, and interview complete strangers about a local landmark. Putting myself into their shoes, I knew they would hate it, and they did. I also banked on the hope that my cultural capital with enough of them would float the project well enough to be successful, and it was a good bet. Everyone eventually carried out their responsibilities, and many of them found that they grew dramatically as students—and citizens—after meeting such fascinating and inspiring people who were also donating their time and energies to support the fairgrounds and the Rocket Project. After literally hundreds of hours of my own time planning, arranging and facilitating interviews, grading papers, listening to and editing transcripts, and then publishing the book, I came away with a new reverence for civic engagement, selfless service, and the importance of “place” in our lives. I will never forget the experience of The Rocket Project.
I will be at the Lewis & Clark Last Chance Stampede Fair next week, from Wednesday until Saturday, selling copies of the book. TRIO Club Students2Scholars fronted funding to purchase a dozen copies of the book to sell, and when they’re gone, we’ll take orders for later delivery. Come by and see me! Say hello and take a peek at the book! Help me pass the time on a hot summer day.
Reflections, Writing 095, is in late production due to The Rocket Project, and I’m sweating bullets wondering how I’ll get it finished before school begins, but stranger things have happened, and I’m hoping to somehow pull off a miracle. Between that, planning fall classes, and my responsibilities as a member of the hiring committee of the UM President, I’m beginning to feel the pressure of fall pressing in.
The Rocket, however, has not entirely dominated my time, and Facebook friends know I’ve been very busy enjoying summer enthusiastically. I’ve hiked Refrigerator Canyon, Hanging Valley, Hauser Dam, Fleschers Pass, McQuithy Gulch, and Mount Helena, all new experiences except for Mount Helena, my go-to hiking area. I’ve kayaked Hauser Lake, Canyon Ferry, and the Reservoir and hope to get out on the Missouri before I head back to school. In terms of outdoor fun, it’s been one for the record books.
I’ve made time for friends and cultural pursuits, too, and my high school chum, Cinda, visited over the 4th of July, just before all of us were jolted awake by the 5.8 earthquake on July 6th at 12:30 a.m. What to do in the middle of the night after being wakened by a house-shaking earthquake? Why, check Facebook, of course! All my local friends were up and chatting about the frightening experience of waking to an earthquake in progress, and my own thoughts reflected my literary background: I’m not supposed to die in an EARTHQUAKE! I wonder if that’s how it feels when the time actually arrives, if the person is annoyed or shocked at how it all goes down.
Cinda in repose on my patio
My mother left today after visiting me for the first time since I’ve lived in Montana City. We took the Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour, the Last Chance Trolley Train, went sapphire mining at the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine, and saw Tarzan at the Grandstreet Theatre. Along with a variety of Snapchat photos, meals out, and wine, I enjoyed the time with my mom tremendously and look forward to our next opportunity to spend time together. Since my dad died last October 31st, we’ve all been learning how to move forward as a family, and individually, without him here, and this was the first time Mom and I spent time alone, just us with nothing to do but have fun, and we did.
Finally, some people missed my December and January posts where I wrote about my failed marriage and were surprised by recent revelations that my hiking and kayaking partner is also a romantic partner. Mark is indulgent of my penchant for social media and indifferent to whether anyone knows or cares about our relationship, which I appreciate a lot. So, regular readers of my blog should expect to see frequent updates of the adventures of Mark and Karen, and I appreciate the many expressions of support and affection I’ve received, not only in the last couple months but the previous nine or ten months. I lived through several dark days and lots of self-doubt, but I’ve emerged on the other side, and though way behind in my goals for summer 2017, it certainly has been one to remember.
Hey all ya’all, and happy summer! Officially off the clock on May 17th, I’ve been busy in the best kind of ways ever since! This won’t be a post about teaching; I’m going to stray from the norm and write about the importance of leisure and the soul-soothing warmth of the summer sun.
Since May 2003 when I first started my college education, I’ve either worked or had internships or taught or took classes or did research or sometimes a combination of those during the summer months. I still enjoyed the slower pace and time for fun, but always in the background loomed some kind of major goal: create a new class; pass a class (or two); put together a promotion and/or tenure portfolio; read texts for ideas for assignments, etc. Not summer 2017.
I earned my tenure this spring (yeah, that’s a pretty big freaking deal) and my classes aren’t changing at all next year, so aside from putting together my syllabi, which I do every semester, I have no academic tasks to complete. I renewed my K-12 Class 2 license this year, good until 2022, at which time I’ll be 60 (gasp!!) years old and possibly will have won the lottery, so I won’t have to worry about renewal credits (better start buying some lotto tickets). All those years of working, planning, striving, studying and learning finally paid off and landed me here: the summer of 2017. And I’m going to enjoy it.
So far, I’ve been kayaking twice, hiking five or six times, and out with friends. Some of that time was spent in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park and some was spent on the waters and mountains surrounding Helena, and mixed in with that has been later-than-usual nights and leisurely mornings, sleeping late and coffee on the patio, time for journaling and shopping and friends.
I’m still working on the Rocket Project, and the longer I spend thinking about and reflecting on that incredible event, the more privileged I feel to have had such an opportunity to be involved in it. The sense of community that I found in the audio recordings, the reminisces of the community members who generously donated their time and memories, is tremendous; it resonates like a marching band on July 4th and humbles me that I am able to compile and prepare an historical artifact that encapsulates the civic-minded spirit of Helena’s community over the past sixty years. Publication is forthcoming but dependent upon my ever-encroaching social calendar. I plan to have the book completed before the Lewis and Clark County Fair in July. Stay tuned…
Speaking of books, I haven’t even begun work on this year’s edition of Reflections, but it’s in queue, after the Rocket Project, and it will be published before the end of July also. I have a long list of “to read” books for the summer, beginning with The Name of the Stars, a sequel written by Pete Fromm, a look back, in a way, at Indian Creek Chronicles, one of my all-time favorite books. I can’t wait to read it.
The rest of the summer is filling rapidly with an upcoming concert, a family reunion, friends visiting from out-of-town, my mom coming to visit me for the first time since I’ve moved here, and more kayaking, hiking, and of course, wine! Today, I spent the day on the water with my beloved June Caudle, and my soul sucked up the nourishment of sunshine, warm temps, calm waters, and June’s friendship. Every day I have like that—and there have been several already this summer—sustains me during the trying times (midterm, anyone???) during the academic year and the bleakness of winter. These days, these friends, these experiences are just more reasons why I love my job.
The past year was a challenging one, with many, many dark days, loss, heartbreak, and difficult decisions. I can’t be certain I’ve emerged from the cloud of darkness that hovered during that time, but it sure does feel like I have. I am hopeful and happy and excited to see what the future holds, how many days I can spend in my kayak, on a mountain trail, enjoying a good read, a nice bottle of red, or with friends. This is going to be a summer to remember: Summer 2017.
Tomorrow is a new beginning; that means that today was an end. I feel like this whole past year has been one succession of ends in my life, and frankly, I’m over it.
Trigger Warning! (for Brad or any of the students from my honors class—they’re a sensitive bunch—there will likely be some very bad language in this post, so if you’re easily triggered, you might want to skip this…)
Today, I sat through several hours of an end-of-semester planning meeting for our 5-year strategic plan. Yeah, so you know what that was like. However, I tried to pay attention, and a couple things really stood out to me. For example, we were reminded that the brain has basically two regions: one is the decision-making part, and one is the language, or emotional, part. Wanna guess which part dominates my life? I don’t know why it was a eureka moment for me. It makes perfect sense. I love language and everything related, and I am completely dominated by my emotions, to the point that rational judgment is often impaired.
We did some good work today, but I was distracted by the fact that there are so many ends in my life now. The end of the semester is a good thing, but it’s also a time of reflection. People who work in education get to do that twice a year, once at the end of the calendar year and again at the end of the academic year, and I was thinking about the past year and wishing I had done it better and wishing it wasn’t the end.
I’m coming off a very good year, professionally. It seemed like I had the Midas Touch though my pal Nathan said it was due to the year of the “Hen”derson (the Chinese year of the Rooster). I had great students, as always, and my special courses, Creative Writing and Ways of Knowing were innovative and successful; The Rocket!!! This is still incomplete as of this writing, but by all accounts, The Rocket project will go down in history at Helena College, and my name will be attached to it; TENURE!! Yes, friends! It was officially announced yesterday, so I feel confident in announcing that I have received tenure and will spend the rest of my working life at Helena College (unless the President needs a new press secretary, which could happen…).
Let me add the new clubs that so kindly asked me to advise them: TRiO Students 2 Scholars and Newspaper Club, the Helena Helm. These students made me look like a rock star this year. Everyone is talking about the successes of TRiO S2S and the first-ever student newspaper, and I was the lucky person they asked to put the oky-doky on the slip. Just wait though…this is NOT the end of these guys. TRiO S2S is still working on memorial trees and is going into the fall semester with a full leadership team on board. They recruited successfully and have been pioneers in club organization within a two-year college. Plans are in place for a fun run in the fall and a huge orientation presence, along with sponsoring the Rocket book, currently in the making. The Helena Helm plans to be in place to record all the good works of all the clubs beginning early in August and has also highlighted some of our faculty and staff who really deserve some credit (Helenahelm.blogspot.com). It really did seem, at times, as if I could not make a bad move professionally. Never fear…I very competently managed that personally.
How someone can be so successful professionally and so unsuccessful personally is something that Bill Clinton and I apparently share. My personal life, over the past year, has been a succession of ends: the end of my marriage (and because my ex-husband is reading this and will object to my pandering, let me just say it was all my fault), the end of my relationship with my dad (at least my ability to impact that relationship at all), the end of my long stint as a dog-mama (I miss my Lancelot more than I can bear to think about at times), and the end of Karen as I knew her, before.
I lost friends from my former life, people who somehow had to “choose” a side; I lost people I considered family because they, too, had to choose, and I wasn’t really family; I lost some self-respect because I wasn’t able to be the person, the teacher, the friend, the woman that I know I should be. Despite the fact that I initiated our divorce, I lost myself in the process; the past year is a blur of just moving forward because I had to.
More than anything, as I come off a very successful year professionally, I wish I had been a better teacher. I wonder how good I could have been if I would have been “on.” I think about the times I went to class on two hours of sleep…how inept I must have been to facilitate discussions. I think about how distracted I was, really, all year, how my emotional state detracted from my ability to foster learning. I’ve been fortunate to bask in the glow of the Rocket (and it really is an amazing project), to receive the accolades of the work the clubs have accomplished, to relish the feeling of earned (?) tenure, but today, when my beloved friend Tammy said to me during a pensive moment, “A Penny for your thoughts,” my response was one she surely did not expect: tears of regret bubbled up in my eyes: How I wish I’d done things differently, and I wish this wasn’t the end.