Being a handy person, I never feel right about buying a gift I could make myself. Especially when the item is so basic that no one would make it at home anyway, and the only reason anyone would buy it at all is that it’s on a cool rack with hundreds of others looking all trendy. As I stood by the bookstore checkout waiting for the clerk to finish entering my order of David Adams Richards’s River of the Brokenhearted, I scanned a nearby display of colorful magnets announcing, “Yay! Chocolate!” “Yay, compost!” “Yay! Mom!” “Yay! Gay!” And all I could think was, this is weird. Not the words or the meanings, which were merely conversational and affirming, but that someone could make a living selling these things. They don’t really qualify as a craft or art, because what crafty person would say, What a good idea–I think I’ll make some myself as gifts. They’re definitely a step own from the “Life is good” T-shirts that have made a killing in the last few years, which at least are wearable, good quality, and have cute little stick figures doing stuff on them. But they too have been elevated in status by mass production which gives them that aura of homey pop culture. Did you know the phrase “Life is Good”on clothing is copyright protected?

As I walked up the stairs to park myself in a booth with my laptop and a cup of coffee, I tried to think of a crafted item that could work in reverse, as in be useful, attractive, good quality, but not susceptible to low quality mass production copying. Here it is: a shopping/tote bag designed to sling over the shoulder and last many years of carrying heavy things, end embroidered or hand painted with, “Down with Mass Produced Junk. Up with Quality”. I’ve been thinking about this theme for years, most intensely when I step too far into a bargain department store and see the crap that we ship here from the sweatshops of the world to pawn off on our poor or tightwad rich: plastic toys, cellophane gift bags, figurines, housewares, cleaning supplies, poorly made clothing, reusable, recycled shopping bags that can’t handle anything heavier than a few bags of chips, and food that will keep months without microorganisms ever being interested in taking a toxic nibble. I often feel physically nauseated at such an experience–not only the reminder of that awful appetite for consumption, but that ordinary human beings in my own community support such a system, as even I do in my quest to appease a child who “has to” have a certain item for a team gift exchange. I’m under no illusion that just because buying the same gift bag at the “nicer” store costs eight times as much, that anyone at the bottom of the economic ladder is benefiting from the extra cash.

Do we really need to keep the economy running on such poor fuel? Now that we’re starting to count the costs of our throw away culture, what alternatives will we come up with? Homemade takes so much time, and who has that? There are always kits, complete with instructions–for cement garden stepping stones, E-Z sew Disney theme fleece pillows, pre-designed memory albums. And to save money there are or cheap, imported, plastic craft supplies–sparkly beads, styrofoam flower arrangement bases, prefab paintable birdhouses, synthetic yarn, and squeezable puff paint, all priced subject to economy of scale. No need to source alpaca wool, wood knitting needles and quality crafting tools. And anyway (quote from Brave New World)

Buying good quality homemade items at the local artisans’ fair is another option, but prices there are pretty hard to swallow after years of comparison shopping¬† online. And in my experience, artisans cater to a limited range of esthetics, and items truly useful over the long term are rare. One can use only so many landscape paintings, earrings, Christmas tree decorations, scented soaps and candles, found item collages, hand bags, ceramic hors d’oeuvres dishes, and funky fleece hats. The products available through developing world fair trade artisan coops are gorgeous, but also not always very practical, and/or they fit best within the culture in which they are made, with all their bright colors and cultural symbolism.

I’ve been working on an idea about this—I’ve heard there’s at least some appetite for it—to teach kids to make things with their hands. In the name not only of training them in useful skills such as woodworking, sewing, and equipping a life, but also as a counter the present dearth of opportunities to practice creativity, depth of concentration, problem solving in real time and space, and a priority on quality. I picture teaching some good basic skills with the materials, whatever they be, and encouraging students to take it from there and express something of their personality and values, working some special esthetic into their pieces. Engaging in an artful productivity, a beautiful practicality. With conversations about the hidden costs of economies of scale, outsourcing, and making it big.

I picked up a The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards after hearing about it on CBC, and just finished. It’s pretty amazing. Based near where my mother grew up in New Brunswick, in the time when logging was by horse team. The teamsters were incredibly strong men, in so many senses of the word, though uneducated and completely cut off from the urbane existence of those who lived in the mansions and used the furniture constructed of the trees they cut. The story tells of Owen, the brother of a deceased lumber baron, coming home after the war to help the business survive as he carries around the awareness of a prophesy that spells his failure and demise. Though wounded and not the woodsman his brother was, nor as respected by local men except as a war hero, Owen decides to cut and haul out the huge trees on Good Friday Mountain, where no one else had the guts to work because of the steepness of the trails that had to be made and used. The story tells of the kindling of rumors that grow and fester about the man and a young woman of the village whose husband has gone away, how the folks of the town feed their own “inner famine” by condemning and judging others, how corruption enters the camp, and how the kind and simple minded cook, named Meager Fortune, keeps the men alive until their final loads come crashing down. One gets the impression that the story is based on actual events, even in how it leads to the narrator’s origin (not the author) and attempts to understand his heritage. It ends in his wandering through those woods and finding the decayed implements of those lumber operations, and through the graveyard containing the crumbling stones of those who lived and died in that era.

It’s not romance, not cliche, but a kind of honoring of that way of work, which required a kind of strength that has passed away with those times. At the same time the workings out of the “inner famine” of those seeking importance in the community, revenge, or justification leave a pall on the memory of that life, from which Owen failed to escape.

Two days into my indefinite semi-regular subbing position, and so far so good. I received a warm welcome from the secretary to the principal, who took the time to show me the route way back to my classroom and made sure I knew all the routines, and that I could drop in or call any time with questions. Later snagged me to introduced me to the top four in the main office, the principal coming across as a kind, rather than driven, leader, and the assistant principals maybe more intense, but that’s only momentary impression. It was a step up from the lowly semi-anonymous role of sub in a too hectic, just jump in and sink or swim elementary / middle school environment (which is okay too, there being more important people to attend to, as in the students). My fellow biology teachers were helpful and welcoming, and one turned out to be a neighbor whose chicken our husky killed a few months ago. All water under the bridge now, with her two new chickens filling the void.

Interesting being with these older kids. They don’t seek the connection that the younger ones do, don’t seem to need the same kind of affirmation and encouragement, and certainly not so much quasi policing, as ten-to thirteen year olds. I have more mental space to consider the planning of the actual scope and sequence of content, with the help of two other biology teachers, the one I’m subbing for being too embroiled in medical concerns to contribute at this point.¬† The other two teachers have shown a perfect balance, really, of being available to problem solve and offer suggestions, and trusting me to figure it out as best I can until things get settled. The main thing for me is to get things moving so the students’ time doesn’t get wasted and they learn what the syllabus says they should.

It turns out high school biology hasn’t changed much. The first day we wheeled in the microscopes and did the same cells lab I did decades ago. Plant and animal cells actually still contain the same organelles as they did back then. I expect that our experiments on growing plants under different light conditions will have predictable results, though I hope to show at some point, say in the spring, that seeds really do grow fruit and vegetables, and not just sickly root bound things that are thrown in the garbage after a being watered and measured for a few weeks. Saving the revelation that bean seeds can really produce beans really shouldn’t be reserved for advanced agriculture students in this day and age, in my opinion. And that late November is not really seed starting season. I do believe I once saw a greenhouse at the side of this school building–another thing to explore. Maybe we can start a plot of strawberries and compare my new organic fertilizer mix to miracle grow. Strawberries in June would be sweet!

To help the students review cell structure and function, I had them sketch and narrate to one another in pairs (each had to choose someone they hadn’t worked with before, which worked well–seems many didn’t even know one anothers’ names). Told them how small, frequent encounters with information in various modes would alert the brain that this ought to be long term memory material. They were pretty successful at this, seemed pretty engaged, maybe even pleased to work with someone new. They’re expecting a quiz Monday. Then it’s on to photosynthesis, my favorite subject.

Sub notes

Pretty tired this week, as I get used to a heavier schedule of subbing–this week in middle school as usual but also a bit of time with kindergarteners, second graders and fourth graders on a “float”day. With kindergarteners I told and illustrated a story about a spider who built a web in my car and caught two flies. The little boy who had arrived just a few days before and spoke only Chinese copied the drawing in his story book and and then the sentence written below it–perfectly. Later whispered something in my ear in Chinese. The other children wanted to convince me he couldn’t do this, couldn’t understand that, and I had to correct them, saying that they he would soon, just look at what he’d accomplished in the little time he’d been in the country. We reviewed colors, numbers, alphabet sounds–I wished I’d brought my ukelele. Later I led a round of pogo count-jumping with extra energetic boys, believing as I do that generally that’s more helpful than trying to get them to sit back down and be quiet. They didn’t want to stop until recess.

I think of my hour with second graders with a shudder, and am so relieved it was a one time job–there were kids poking other kids and making them cry, a kid doing a hip wiggly dance to entertain everyone while I was trying to explain an activity, lots of hands-on math games with no instructions and lots of small parts that got all mixed up and spread around, boys who got on the rolling cart of the computer maintenance guy and wanted to ride out of the room on it, and waves of children who couldn’t wait for their question or comment or story to be told and were blurting and mobbing me as I tried to get things rolling, others walking around visiting, causing trouble, everything so noisy, and I not knowing the signals and rituals for quiet down, sit down. No chance to get a handle on any kids’ names, since they were supposed to be rotating to different activities, and couldn’t keep their teams straight so eventually there was a table with eight kids and another with two. And a backdrop of cooperative kids ready to play the games and listen to the story and keep their hands to themselves, but could they get what they needed in the chaos? No, and I felt sorry for them. I asked the paraeducator to help get the kids to their right places, and she used the good old riot act, same one with which the regular teacher left us. Recess was a blessing, as they ran joyfully with the gusts of wind whipping up and around the soccer field and across the playground. Rumor was among the teachers that the wind was playing havoc with the kids’ spirits, winding them up to no end. Then it was back inside to try to get them to copy down words in their agendas until their teacher returned from her meeting, with frowns and stern words.

This week I also encountered middle school boys who had personally made jam and relish–the relish maker sure his recipe would be a prize winner. I asked seventh and eighth graders if they thought Google’s motives for getting internet access to remote areas of the globe by means of helium balloons was motivated purely by altruism (the only reason that was mentioned in the article they were reading), described ways to get to college without graduating from high school, read “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and tried to avoid a teacher’s request that I line up a class by height, thinking it might be hurtful but finding out later it was for the purpose of arrangement in a choir. I saw a teacher show her class how to do a certain math problem, leave it illustrated on the board, and then hand me a stack of math assessments to give them as a test, with the exact question on it that she had shown them. Corruption or subversion, I don’t know.

My daughter said a curious thing after I went on a bit about how I really wanted to treat my time with students as important, that I didn’t want them to get the impression that because they had a sub it would be nothing much today. How I wanted to teach real lessons, facilitate real learning, and not just monitor study hall or games like Heads Up Seven Up. She said with conviction, “Mom, you care! You should teach; you should be a teacher, and not just a sub. Subs don’t care!” I said, Really? And she told me it was true, that most subs were just there, just got through the day, maybe had fun or were entertaining or nice, but their purpose was not education. Her words have been ringing in my ears the last few days. Don’t care? It’s true that I have heard numerous times in my brief encounters with other subs that they had come out of retirement because they were bored, so I suppose in a way my daughter was right. Still, maybe it’s a problem of low expectations that the system has of us, perhaps out of not wanting to impose unreasonable ones. Yes, we are told what we do is appreciated, but no one alludes to any real educational contribution, and there seems to be a sense of surprise when a sub can teach, or touch a heart, or bring something really valuable into the experiences of students. Or even bring a sense of refreshment, a different perspective about the children themselves, about the topics of study, the methods of work, or the atmosphere of a classroom. There’s mainly the hope that the work gets done somehow, and the kids behave.

I’m going to try out a more “regular” job next week, teaching high school biology for someone who’s out on sickness or injury, not sure how many weeks. It will be a good opportunity to get more familiar with high school work and expectations, high school professional atmosphere, see if I fit there. And, as they say, “get my foot in the door.” I’m glad to have the opportunity, but I have mixed feelings about committing to anything long term, if that opportunity comes up. Still, I might love it, and would consider it, providing I can sharpen up my biology knowledge and work it in with my present home responsibilities. Will I miss my middle schoolers? Will I enjoy the change to less emotional/intuitive work, more intellectual/organizational stuff? And will I be able to find the right shoes?

I had funny experience subbing at a school today. As I was walking down the hall before first bell to my portable classroom, a smiling woman a few years older than I greeted me warmly, asked my name, we shook hands, and she introduced herself as the custodian, as I remember it. I thought, wow, she dresses really nice for a custodian, and was delightfully surprised that she put on her best and communicated such warmth, seeing that as part of her role. A rather non-traditional interpretation of the role of custodian, but, I why not? I remember fondly both the custodians in my elementary school (called janitors in those days) as kind, humorous, humble older men who seemed like uncles to us, with their keys and mops and kindly eyes. We visited with them, confided with them, joked with them, and they were free of any authoritarian aura. The janitor helped anchor the school atmosphere in a kind of comforting parental domesticity.

During the morning announcements today, this custodian was part of a skit on fairness, and it was really well done–cute, understandable and relevant to students of any age; again I noticed her warm smile and enthusiasm, and was surprised to see her level of involvement in the school’s culture.

As I was circulating among students in my class while they worked on their assignments, the custodian came in to ask how things were going, and I said great, and complimented her on her skit. She laughed and replied that she was always nervous doing that sort of thing. She went on her way, and I asked one of the students what was her name again, as I have a bad habit of letting these details slip on first encounter. That’s Mrs. X____. Which I knew, because of prior research, was the principal‘s name. I told the students what had happened, how I really did hear “custodian,” and it was either a good trick of hers or of my aging ears.

I work there again tomorrow, and plan to bring the story to her and see if she confesses. I’m sure we’ll have a good laugh at the very least.



swollen stream

She told him about the pileated woodpecker whose call made her stop and look up and see its giant body clinging to the top of a dead standing tree, red crest blazing. She told him about suddenly coming upon a guinea pig grazing on the side of the trail, that when she spoke to it and tried to reach for it, scurried into a tunnel of matted grass into the blackberry thicket. She told him about the way the colors changed as the fog lifted and settled back down: lime yellow to gold, gray to bluegreen. She told him about stopping midway down a stretch of trail arched over with the branches of clumping trees, watching the surface of the water that overed the mossy roots beside the trail. How she waited, saw drops from branches create expanding wrinkles, but then there was hidden life, sluggish in the cold water, but unmistakable: sudden underwater lurches and lunges that could also be read in bulges and changes in reflected light. How as her glasses fogged up from the heat of the vapor off her cheeks, impeding her vision, she became aware of the sounds: melodious drips, gurgles, and small rushings of water through the bog.

But she said nothing her experience at the stream. How when she stopped at the bridge as usual, on the way out, and the newly swollen stream drew out of her a longing, a flood of memory from someone else’s past. She watched a bulging wave over a rock and the fast currents on either side, and how some of the water curled back around in its lee, felt an attraction and horror that threatened to nauseate her, and she turned away.¬† On her return she stopped further down the stream, looked for comfort in the shallow, gravelly bed that reminded her of the streams she waded as a child. But there was only cold and warning. And then she tore herself away to continue on the trail to the house. She told him of the beauties of the trail, but about the stream, she only told him, “I want to live by a river. It could even be a small one, but some kind of river. It’s in my blood.”

The subbing field is opening up now that I’m accepted into my home district and another one up north; I had my doubts at cracking the mysterious code to getting into the local district. Applied years ago when I first came back into the field, and was told no subs were being accepted. I tried to find out what the criteria were, since I knew that teachers freshly graduated from the local university were getting on the sub list. Thinking I had as much a right to enter the field as they, I went to the HR office–were they looking for subs in science and math, even? To the university–should I study for and take the new content knowledge exams, even set up an internship to get my foot in the door? No real protocol I could see. It even occurred to me there might be grounds for a lawsuit, if there was some kind of age discrimination going on.

I decided to make a big push this year, which took numerous emails back and forth to solve the problem of no recent observation-based references. Finally got it solved, using references from a former professor who barely remembered me but had cheat notes, and some homeschooling colleagues who filled out checklists based on seeing me teach over the years. Now thanks to a new need for extra subs, my application was approved and I was invited to the orientation.

The orientation was entirely about paperwork, the atmosphere at the central office much removed from the dynamic classrooms and hallways full of children. It was a lifeless conference room table full of hopefuls with folders of paperwork in front of each–a quiet, rather passive bunch on first impression, some looking a little scared, others distasteful. Were some of them here from lack of other options? Financial need?

We were told by the sub coordinator that the administration “appreciates what we do,” that we are “qualified to teach pre-K through high school calculus (new definition of “qualified”? new definition of “teach”?), and that what principals and secretaries notice and remember is when we do some special cleaning up or organizing during our preps or after early releases when they have to pay us to stay the whole day. A clean microwave in the break room or neatly filed reports being true measurable outcomes.

Still, can’t blame them. I suppose the sub coordinator, HR managers, payroll personnel, curriculum experts and so on don’t get to be in schools much, to remember what it’s all about, and their work has to me attended to. The central office does get to display the nicest student artwork in their hallways, though. Makes me think, again, that Mao’s and the Fuhrer’s ideas of “re-education” that obliged bureaucrats to rotate out to the country for a season wasn’t such a bad idea. Let the first to go be the ones who use the terms “front lines,” trenches,” and “grassroots” overmuch, and those whose decisions affect day to day operations the most.

On the way home, driving through the damp streets lined with trees in their autumn finery, I tried to think of improvements to the substitute orientation. First, ice breakers: opportunities for each sub to share a bit about what brought them to the field, and their career plans. Next, maybe while the IDs were being photocopied, a small panel including current and former substitutes, current teachers, and several students, each offering their perspectives, expertise, and encouragement. Finally, refreshments.


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