A Job I Didn’t Want

thanksgiving sign (photo by Wendy Kennar)

Every Friday morning I volunteer in my son’s second grade classroom.  For the most part, it’s an hour to an hour-and-a-half of paperwork.  I help his teacher by stapling together homework packets for the coming week.  I cut patterns.  I staple language arts packets.  I put papers inside sheet protectors.  I rip out pages from math books.  It’s not particularly challenging work, but it can be time-consuming for a teacher, and I’m happy to help.  I’m in a corner of the room, doing my work, while my son is at his desk doing his work.

Last week, Ryan’s teacher also asked me to “check” the homework packets the students had just turned in.  She told me not to worry about checking if each question was correct or not.  I was mainly checking to see if the worksheets were complete.  And I get it, — homework isn’t supposed to be the primary way a child learns a skill or demonstrates mastery of that skill.  Hopefully, a child has completed homework under an adult’s supervision (or at the very least, an older sibling), so any errors or misunderstandings have already been caught, explained, and corrected.

But last week the kids were also supposed to write a paragraph about what they were thankful for.  This paragraph was to include a topic sentence, at least three supporting-detail sentences, and a concluding paragraph.  Ryan wrote about being thankful for our planet Earth. 

Asking a second-grader to write a paragraph is a big deal because it’s a relatively new skill.  And a teacher shouldn’t just be reading for structure but for content.  What a child chooses to write about can really provide glimpses into their personalities.  And with twenty-four children in the class, it isn’t always easy to get to know your students the way you’d like to.  Those paragraphs should have been checked and edited and not just given a cursory once-over by me.  

Almost a week later, I’m still bothered by the fact that I most likely will be the only set of eyes looking at those paragraphs.  It made me very uncomfortable that my son’s teacher (a woman who I think is a fine teacher) so carelessly passed over this important task to me, a parent volunteer (who just happens to be a former teacher). 

5 Things About Me

Lake Arrowhead (photo by Wendy Kennar)

This past weekend I attended a writing retreat in Lake Arrowhead.  It’s the second time I’ve attended (the first time was last year; you can read about it here:  http://wendykennar.blogspot.com/2014/05/writing-driving-and-metaphor-for-life.html)  And being away from home, out of my comfort zone, meeting new people made me realize a few things about myself that are true regardless of where I am and who I am with.

  1. I’m not fancy.  Our breakfasts and lunches were serve-your-self style.  Pick up a plate, move along the line, and select your own portions.  Dinner, on the other hand, was a sit-down, four-course, hours-long event.  And while I did appreciate the fact that I didn’t have to cook, serve, or clean-up, I felt much more at ease during breakfast and lunch, when the silverware came wrapped up in a napkin rather than at dinner when there were multiple forks, knives, and spoons on the table.
  2. I’m in awe of words.  Being surrounded by other writers, and having the opportunity to read their work, really touched me.  26 letters.  That’s all we have to work with, yet, those letters have such power, and the ways in which they can be combined create such compelling writing.
  3. I get ideas in the bathroom.  At home, I find myself often getting ideas while showering.  I can zone out, go through the motions of what needs to be done, and in those moments an idea may come to me — an idea for a new personal essay, an idea for a revision, an idea for a new opening paragraph.  The same thing happened in Lake Arrowhead.  I had workshopped a personal essay on our first day, and I was revising my essay based on the feedback I had been given.  I was trying to find a new way to begin my essay.  And that new way occurred to me while I was brushing my teeth.
  4. I’m shy.  I may be able to write about personal topics (i.e. my sex life — see my essay at XOJane.com, http://www.xojane.com/sex/sex-drugs-and-rheumatology), but I still feel myself blushing when praised.  I’m also not one of those people who can easily approach a stranger and immediately proceed to have a lengthy conversation.  It takes me a bit of time to warm up to new people. 
  5. I need quiet time.  Each night before dinner, there was a “social hour”  — a chance to have a glass of wine (for me it was water) and mingle with the other writers.  Each night, I excused myself early from the social hour and sought the refuge my quiet room offered.  For me, it’s quiet, alone time that allows me to recharge (rather than a drink and chatting). 


Different Diseases, But the Lessons Are the Same

Jennie Nash book (photo by Wendy Kennar)

Recently, I re-read The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming (And Other Lessons I Learned from Breast Cancer) by Jennie Nash. I know Jennie Nash because she’s an instructor through the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. And while I don’t know what it’s like to be diagnosed with breast cancer in your early thirties, I do know what it’s like to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in your early thirties.

The medical details are different but some of the lessons I think are true for many people in many different situations.

We all want to feel needed.  We all want to feel that we have something to offer.  And what I had to offer, while I was sick, was an unconditional acceptance of the help people wanted to give.”

I’m not good at that.  I find myself often declining help or not asking for help for many reasons.  I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.  I’m stubborn, and I want to be able to do things for myself the way I used to.  I don’t want to admit that I need help.  But I read those lines in Jennie’s book and I realized that me declining help, me doing without asking for help, really doesn’t benefit anyone. 

“…the body is mutable.  It can be scarred, it can change, but it can still be beautiful.” 

Those are Jennie’s words, and I admit that while I may agree with them, I don’t live my life with those words first and foremost in my mind.  Usually I look at my legs and see all that they can’t do, I look at my legs and wonder what is going on beneath the surface to cause me so much pain, but never do I look at my legs and find them beautiful.  (Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever looked at my legs and thought them beautiful.  They were just my legs, functional and pain-free).

And as we approach this season of giving thanks, it’s important to keep in mind this paragraph Jennie wrote:

There’s nothing like a life-threatening illness to make you think about what’s important.  Even if you’re not going to die anytime soon, the thought of the possibility of death is enough to get your mind to focus.  You grab on to the things in your life that are a blessing and a privilege to be a part of, and you tend to let go of the things that aren’t.”