For Barbara

This is a difficult blog post to write. 

My heart is heavy. Which in turn makes my fingers feel heavy to write what I need to write.

You know when people ask Which teacher most impacted you? I never had a really good answer to that question. I always thought the question referred to teachers you had before college, either the teachers that told you the play area for the week was kickball, or the teachers who helped you navigate the confusion of changing classrooms for each class period, or the teachers who wrote you the recommendation letters you needed for college.

I had gotten it wrong. 

A teacher is one who teaches. At any level.

Now I know my answer to that question.

Which teacher most impacted you?

Barbara Abercrombie.

And with a heavy heart and my heavy fingers I must add may she rest in peace

Barbara Abercrombie recently passed away. I learned of her death through an email newsletter I received from Jennie Nash, current CEO of Author Accelerator, former instructor in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.

About twenty years ago, I took my first class in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension. A weekend course about Writing the Personal Essay taught by Barbara Abercrombie. I remember writing a somewhat humorous post about the women’s restrooms not having toilet seat covers. I remember hearing Barbara Abercrombie tell me she could hear my voice coming through. At the time, I didn’t realize what a huge compliment that was.

 It was shortly after that course that I became a published writer with a piece I wrote being published in the Los Angeles Times. (You can read it by clicking here.)

Barbara was a cool lady. She was honest and calm. She encouraged everyone, believing everyone could write — and publish — a personal essay. She was the only teacher I knew who wore a lot of jewelry like I do. Silver jewelry like I do. 

Occasionally over the years I enrolled in Barbara’s classes when they aligned with my teaching schedule. Back in 2005, I was fortunate enough to miss two days of teaching to enroll in UCLA Extension’s intensive four-day Writers Studio Barbara taught.

When I retired from teaching, I was then free to take Barbara’s weekday, daytime classes. And it was in one of those classes that I met one of my closest friends. 

Barbara also offered four day writing retreats up in Lake Arrowhead. I used to wistfully read her emails and think someday. Someday became two different occasions. Each time, I left my family for four days and three nights to go read and write and talk about reading and writing up in Lake Arrowhead with a group of writers.

It was Barbara who told me the essays I was writing could be — should be — a book. 

March of 2020. We all remember it as the month and year when our world ceased to be as we had known it. Originally I was enrolled in one of Barbara’s classes which would have started at the end of March. The class, of course, switched to a virtual format. With my husband working from home, and my son doing his schooling from home, I had to drop out of Barbara’s writing class. 

I hadn’t spoken to Barbara for quite some time though I followed her on Instagram and always liked and commented on the photos she shared of her grandchildren. 

But I know Barbara knows how much I appreciated her, how fond of her I was. Because I always told her — through a letter. At the end of each class, Barbara told her students to write a letter explaining what grade they deserved. You wanted an A, you wrote and asked for one. I always wanted the A. In these end-of-course letters, I didn’t just reflect on my writing during the class, but also on Barbara’s teaching methods. Barbara created a safe space for writers. Writers, who often didn’t know each other well, came together and created a supportive environment to write and share aloud some of the most personal, intimate parts of our lives. 

It always worked, because of Barbara.

A Lesson I Didn’t Want to Teach

My readers who follow me on Instagram (@wendykennar) already know this. But for my readers who aren’t on Instagram, I have some publication news to share.

Though, I wish I didn’t have to write this particular essay.

I wish gun violence wasn’t a fact of life.

But wishes don’t change the facts.

You can click here to be redirected to Moms Don’t Have Time To and read my essay, “A Lesson I Didn’t Want to Teach.”

Where the Light Enters

I admit. I didn’t walk into the bookstore looking for First Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s book. I was vaguely aware of it, but it wasn’t at the top of my ever-growing want-to-read list.

Yet, turns out I couldn’t resist the buy 2 get 1 display. And Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself  was one of the books I purchased that day as part of that sale. And even after buying the book, it didn’t sit on my shelf for months before I picked it up. I felt there was something about this memoir. And I was right. 

This week, I’d like to share some of the passages that touched me:

“Every scene on those walls, every role I’ve played, has taught me so much about what family means. I’ve learned — and am still learning — about the bonds that make up a family. Few of us would reduce those bonds, that gravitational force, to something as simplistic as blood. Families are born, created, discovered, and forged. They unfold in elegantly ordered generational branches. They are woven together with messy heartstrings of desire and despair, friendship and friction, grace and gratitude.”

“I realized early on that teaching was more than a job for me. It goes much deeper than that; being a teacher is not what I do but who I am.”

“There’s always a part of you that wants to step into your children’s lives and make the right decisions for them — pick them up when they stray and put them on the safest, easiest path, just as we did when they were small. But the tragedy of being a good parent is that the better you are at your job, the less you will be allowed to swoop in and protect the people you love most in the world. You have no choice but to trust that they’ll do their best and hope that fate will be kind.”

“Over the years, I’ve heard so many people talk about teachers in a way that doesn’t reflect the reality of teaching that I know at all. They think it’s a job for people without ambitions, that teaching doesn’t take a lot of skill, and that teachers have short hours and summers off. I’ve taught in a lot of different environments, but one thing is always the same: teaching is rewarding, but it’s a tremendous challenge, too.”

“There’s something profoundly optimistic about teaching. We are taking the best of what humans have to give — lifetimes of knowledge, wisdom, craft, and art — and handing it over to the next generation, with the hope that they will continue to build, continue to make our world better. It’s a conversation with our past and future selves at once, a way of saying, Look what we’ve done! Now what will you do with it?

“So why do we do it? We do it for that spark in a student’s eye when an idea falls into place. We do it for the moment when a student realizes she’s capable of more than she’d thought. For the chance to hold a student’s hand as she begins to explore this wild, incredible world through books and equations and historical accounts. We do it because we love it.”

Deserving of the “Good Paper”

The theme for the March issue of Sasee Magazine is “Planting the Seed.” 

Some writers might read that and think in literal terms – planting seeds, watching a garden grow, waiting for a flower to bloom.

I took that theme and went a different way. 

I wrote about my second grade teacher, Mrs. Jones. It was she who, all those years ago, “planted the seed” and helped me believe I could be a writer.

Click here to read my essay, “Deserving of the Good Paper’ ” in its entirety.

 

Could I? Should I? Would I?

March 1, 2013. My last day as a public school teacher.

“ ‘Can you still teach?’ ” 

‘Kind of,’ I answered.

‘You either can or you can’t. We can’t continue with this process if you can still teach.’

It was November 2012, and I didn’t know how to respond to the CalSTRS (California State Teachers‘ Retirement System) representative sitting across from my husband and me.  

Can you still teach?’ 

There was a part of me that could still teach, that still wanted to teach. I’d only been teaching for twelve years. I wasn’t supposed to be looking into retirement this soon.

But this wouldn’t be a traditional retirement. This would be a ‘retirement due to a disability.’  

Could I still teach? ” 

The words above are taken from “Could I?, Should I?, Would I?” a personal essay that was recently published as part of Amsterdam Quarterly’s twenty-ninth issue “Choices.”

You can click here to read more about the story behind my decision to retire from my teaching career back in 2013.

Thank You For Being You

Each year, our class created a thankful “quilt.”

 

There are parts of teaching I really miss.

Mainly, all the “extras.” The out-of-the-box, beyond-the-textbook things we used to do.

Like the way we celebrated Thanksgiving.

When I taught kindergarten, our class always hosted a multicultural feast. Hot dogs, turkey, spaghetti, sushi, mashed potatoes, empanadas – they all made their way to our feast. We made placemats and table centerpieces, and lined up our desks in long rows. 

When I taught fourth and fifth grade, we still celebrated with a feast. But, for a few years, I did something extra. 

I wrote each of my students a short letter about why I was thankful for each of them.

As a teacher, it’s so easy to get caught up in what went wrong, and easy to overlook when things are going smoothly.

But, it’s just as important to pay attention to those moments.

I don’t know if my students remember those letters, but I do. 

Here are a few passages from the notes I wrote over the years. And maybe they will serve as inspiration to you. Make sure the people in your life know why you are thankful for them.

I am thankful for your participation. You are always eager to read aloud, answer questions, and share from your journal each morning. 

I am thankful for your attentive listening. During lessons and discussions, I notice how closely you listen. I don’t have to worry that you’re not paying attention.

I am thankful for your positive attitude. You come to school each morning with a smile and a good mood. I really appreciate that.

I am thankful for your sense of humor. Your comments often make me smile, and sometimes laugh out loud. And there are days when we all really need to laugh. So thank you for that.

I am thankful for you taking responsibility for your actions. Even when you have chatted or done something you weren’t supposed to, you are quick to apologize and get right back to work. I appreciate that.

I am thankful for your positive attitude. You never give up. You are always trying to do better and learn more. I noticed that fractions were a bit tricky for you at first, but you kept practicing, and they got easier. You did it! I hope you know I’m proud of you for sticking with it.

I am thankful for your smile. You greet me each morning with a smile, you smile at me throughout the day during our lessons, and end the day with a smile. Your smile means a lot to me. Thank you!

I am thankful for your kindness. You are a good friend to your classmates. You offer to help them when they are having difficulties with a certain lesson, like the fractions and decimals we were doing. It was very generous of you to give up a recess to stay inside and help a friend with math.  

I am thankful for all your computer help. You are our class computer expert. You help your classmates when they are having trouble with the computer. And you’ve helped me with the blue computer when it wasn’t printing. You are my computer hero!

I am thankful for the way you help your classmates. You are a fast and accurate mathematician. I really appreciate the way you walk around our classroom to offer assistance to your classmates who are still working on their math assignment.

I am thankful for your hugs. I love hugs, and it’s such a nice treat to receive one of your hugs. Sometimes you surprise me and all of a sudden I just have two arms wrapped around me! I hope you know how much your hugs mean to me!

What Everyone Should Know About Teachers

   Before – This is what my classroom looked like at the end of summer vacation 2010, a week before the start of a new school year.

 

Quick.  Name five things you think teachers do during a typical school day.

What did you come up with? Depending on your past experiences, your list might look something like this:

“Correct papers,” “yell,” “staple,” “organize,” “erase.”

But in my twelve years’ experience, I’d add these verbs to the list: 

Dare.

Give.

Listen.

Model.

Nurture.

You can read my personal essay/list “The A to Z List of Verbs Teachers and Students Practice Daily” by clicking here and being re-directed to iTeach literary magazine.

 

After – The finished result: an organized, colorful, inviting (I hope) classroom. All it needs now are students!

A Tribute to Teachers

 

Though I left my teaching career five years ago, there are still many aspects of teaching I really miss.  There’s a special sort of magic that happens when you connect with a child, and that’s why I still enjoy reading about teachers who love teaching.

Recently I read Phillip Done’s memoir Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind – Thoughts on Teacherhood, and I’d like to share with you some of the passages that stood out for me.

“What exactly is a teacher anyway?  A lot of different things.  Teachers are like puppeteers.  We keep the show in motion.  When we help children discover abilities that they don’t know they have, we are like talent scouts.  When we herd kids off the play structure at the end of recess, we are like shepherds.  Teachers are like farmers.  We sow the seeds – not too close together or they’ll talk too much.  We check on them every day and monitor their progress.  We think about our crop all the time.  When we see growth – we get excited.”

“Teachers are word warriors.  All day long we explain, correct, examine, define, recite, check, decipher, sound out, spell, clap, sing, clarify, write, and act out words.  We teach spelling words and history words and science words and geography words.  We teach describing words and compound words.  We teach synonyms and antonyms and homonyms, too.”

“Teachers try everything short of back handsprings to get their students to quiet down and pay attention.  We flick off the lights, clap patterns, hold up fingers and wait, change the level of our voices, count up to three, count down from five, set timers, brush wind chimes, shake shakers, bribe kids with free play, and seat the boys next to the girls.”

“I was in Teacher Mode.  It turns on automatically whenever children are near and goes into overdrive when it senses busy streets, mud, gum, or bloody noses.”

“Of course nothing has changed like technology.  A bug was something you brought in from recess to show the teacher.  A desktop was something you scraped dried Elmer’s glue off with your teacher scissors.  Hard drives were on Monday mornings.  Viruses kept you home from school.  And cursors were sent to the principal’s office.”

Now it’s your turn, dear readers.  Feel free to share any school memories or teacher anecdotes of your own in the comments section below.