Author Archives: toesinthedirt

About toesinthedirt

Teaching, writing, growing.

A conversation between two deaf men

One guy says to another guy in a coffee shop, a few tables away: “I’m looking for hearing aids from Thailand.”

“What’s that?”

“Hearing aids from Thailand.”


“But they’re all imported from Europe.”


“Europe. And they’re eighty dollars.”

“How much?”

“Eighty dollars. And you have trouble finding parts.”

“Trouble with what?”

“Getting parts.”

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Posted by on June 24, 2019 in Places & Experiences



The sympathy of not really belonging

I am part of a small team within our small staff, just three people, working on getting to know the Common Core math standards, focusing on 6th grade and up. We call it our Math PLC, Professional Learning Community, and meet most weeks, with a few gaps for other things that come up and general staff meetings. I am sort of leader, being the high school math teacher, so I bring guiding documents and suggest options for how we proceed, but we really all work together and I respect and depend on each person for their perspective, experience, and skills. For example, I am ideas and vision oriented but also wanting to analyze a lot of information before making decisions, another member is relationship oriented, super encouraging and also hilarious, and a third member is action oriented and good at laying out the pieces visually so we can organize the parts and move forward.

So far we’ve chosen what we’re calling Priority Standards, being the ones we guarantee to teach and assess with an aim to get all student to meet these standards. These are about a third of the ones laid out in the big CCSS documentation, but it’s recognized that it’s impossible thoroughly teach and track progress in every standard every year. Also and since the standards are broad and overlap from year to year and even across each other, as long as we align the strands up through the different level and catch the stages where certain ones are emphasized, in the big picture we try to cover them all. It’s also true that only certain things can be captured in standards language or be assessed in any standardized way; this does not mean they are the most important or can comprise a full curriculum.

This last meeting was completely different. We didn’t really do anything about math standards, but we made a deeper connection that felt pretty profound. We just talked. About one eprson’s relationship with her grandpa, about spirituality and religion, and about feeling, all three of us in different ways appreciative of but also disconnected and critical of the culture of our local community. I was like, one person said, My two team members had always lived here, but said the place sometimes drove them nuts and they’d never really feel they fit in. Yet at the same time, they knew it was imporant to stick around and be a part of the community, especially as teachers.

I’ve written before about how I don’t feel I fit into the community, doubt sometimes even whether I can even make an impact because I’m so at odds with the dominant culture, even though on the surface I seem like I have a lot of similar background. From a rural dairy area, raised in the Church, large family, homeschooled my kids. But that’s where the similarity ends. I feel like they both said they do so often, like I’m always having to bite my tongue.

There are two sides (at least) to this tongue biting–one being the effort to avoid unnecessary argument, alienation, or openness to misinterpretation when views are worlds apart, or at least toning it down so as to have a chance to slowly influence as well as show respect. The other is the restraint of criticism of the community and culture, and certainly individuals, to those on the fringes or outside, and avoiding a holier-than-them attitude.

None of us put out any specifics about what that culture was that grated, but we all knew. And about the rich and valuable parts too. No need to say, but it was special to feel more connected to one another in that moment, and it was an important team building session.

Personality-wise, the three of us are very different–it’s kind of magical that we can still feel so in sympathy as a team that has come together, as well as individuals who in some way are outsiders. Brings home in a greater way what community means.


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How can we say what’s real, with so much going on under the surface?

I have about 38 posts partially written, stuck somewhere in every one, either because they were too ambitious and require much more deep thinking and hard wordsmithing than I can manage lately, or because they are very out of date. I have not been showing up daily, as wanted, to put words together t o craft at least some kind of post. Discipline is important, yes, but I regularly find I purposely rebel against routine, including this one. It is a regular thing, these purposeful bouts of neglect of a practice I find so enriching for me and for which I can see some possible usefulness out there in the world, if I can improve my craft and develop a sense of a proper focus for my writing voice.

My idea is to double-rebel; that is, when I feel like breaking with the regularity of writing, I’ll recognize that as a habit bred from the same thoughtless laziness that makes me as eat the same breakfast every day or drive the same route to work, frequent the same coffee shop or avoid social situations. Thus I will feel that by maintaining a habit I am being a disruptor, which is more exciting, and out of my comfort zone.

Yes, that’s all really dumb and immature, but at least now I’m writing a little instead of watching two or three episodes of The Crown like I did last night. I was utterly exhausted, wanting to go to bed at 8 pm, exhausted for unknown reasons. I just lay on my quilt, partially propped up with unadjusted pillow, unable to move even to pull over and turn on my laptop and be passively entertained. I wondered if it was just my lack of leafy greens, excessive coffee, and failure to work out for the past two weeks. That habit was getting established, felt mighty fine, and I let that falter too, staying in my classroom a few hours after I should have to get through more paperwork.

As I felt the heavy inertness of my body, I also wondered if it was carrying the burden of some grief stage anniversary. Or if I was feeling May teaching burnt out, frustration from coming home to a mess in the kitchen I did not make, or just fighting a virus.

I did drag myself to the gym today after work, mindlessly warmed up on the treadmill, made the circuit of machines and did a few free weights, and it started to feel very good. It doesn’t feel so awkward going on my own now that I know what to expect–the machines, the low key 4 pm clientele, but the pool was full of kids and a water exercise group so I didn’t get the swim I’d hoped to end with. I was planning to suspend my membership for the next three months, but it turns out I can’t on my deal, and I’m kind of glad that this might make me get here more often, even if I do have more work in the yard to keep me fit.

I don’t want to have a countdown attitude about May and June. I want to fill the hours with well planning lessons and even up my game to work for a higher level of student engagement and success even while the weather calls us all outside and the three fans in my windowless room can’t keep it from heating to uncomfortable levels by the afternoon. I’m trying out a new Chemistry resource and a new online math curriculum we’ll be piloting this year, and collaborating with two colleagues to pin down priority standards for math which we’ll work on aligning K through 12th grade. I’m getting to new levels of understanding of best practices in teaching science (though still a long ways to go on the quality of my instruction), moving toward more student ownership of learning, getting to lead on my team more, all kinds of exciting things going on.

Plus, there was this student I was starting not to like, and really, to get pissed off at, most days. Well, actually two, and sometimes three. That’s never a good direction, and I needed to talk it out with colleagues, and even my daughter, to work on improving my attitude. I think I’m making progress. As I told my daughter yesterday, if I can convey that I actually like, in some genuine way, a student who is passively or actively resisting my leadership and/or their own better instincts, I think there is a lot of hope for something good to happen. Even if that hope is deferred for years. I want the most “difficult” students, when they realize down the road what they want to do with their lives and start to be more mature and responsible, to remember being liked. I want to provide a balance of sort of a parental style to pushing, requiring, disciplinary consequences, with a releasing into their own unique life, a recognition of their free agency to make their own choices, and an acknowledgement that the school machine is just a thing, and you can’t let it get you down. It’s a thing, and it has its uses, but it’s not the real thing, baby.



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Last week was my older daughter’s twenty-first birthday.The night before, her younger sister and (also underage) roommates treated her to a late night, and were there to accompany her to the local grocery store just after midnight to pick up a bottle of wine on her own newly legal ID. My daughter had explained beforehand that they’d be doing this, answered my objections that she’d thrown off her sleep schedule by asserting that it was just what was done. The next day she admitted that after midnight she’d just wanted to go to sleep and had to be urged to the store, that the feeling of hangover the next morning (being usually a light drinker) probably wasn’t worth it.

This is the daughter that always takes the time to make others’ special days feel special–she’s at our home now leading a team of siblings though cleaning chores and making a special lunch for me of potato skins and coconut cream pie for Mother’s Day. She jokes that she’s the “mom” of the bunch. Was in that role while living with her sister and roommates as well (she moved back home and started looking for a different set of housemates, the emotional work being too heavy and thankless).

Likewise she needs to feel special on her special day, and so we planned, checking in with her about her preferences, a special birthday dinner a few days after her actual birthday when we all could make it. She and her sister went camping, and would arrive for the special dinner.

We had a blast. Dance music blasting, everyone helping with this or that, flowers, helium birthday balloon (and helium-infused vocalizations), playing with the dog and cat (who wrestling with abandon, being about the same size), and my daughter’s favorite chicken, rice, asparagus and chocolate cream roll cake, topped off with some cider, champagne, and grape juice soda. Everyone hoping and trying for their best spirits and good will, hoping no one would bring up resentments, be insensitive or unkind, or get moody or selfish. Laughing with and not much at one another.

Another get together today for Mother’s Day. First without their dad. Makes them feel extra thankful, over a layer of melancholy. What will we do for Father’s Day next month?


NaPoWriMo Day 21 – a poem with surreal images

Waking, I saw that by mistake in the night I had knocked my lower leg off.

There it lay on the dusty floor by the bedroom wall

like a pale, Caucasian ham.

How could this have happened?

Had I had an intense dream,

knocked it too hard against the wooden foot of the bed

breaking ligaments so that it fell with a thump on the floor

while I slept?

There was dried blood there,

partly wiped up, as if by me in my sleep.

This was significant.

Wearing a makeshift prosthesis,

I picked up and carried the severed appendage

asking around—had anyone heard anything?

No one had, or was overly concerned.

It would have to have this seen to.

I knew it was important to have all the parts.

That is all I remember, because I must have fainted.

And when I woke my leg was better,

though it clicks now when I walk.

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Posted by on April 21, 2019 in My poems


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English Afternoon

After the poetry workshop wound down, I took courage and invited the instructor for a conversation on our next break. He seemed very approachable, and had, in fact, glanced over my way several times from his position at the head of the table. I was gratified when he agreed gladly to join me at the nearby Obfuscations Café.

“Words can be so powerful and evocative,” he explained over tea. “Take undergarments, for example. His glance slid to the brown bra strap that I felt had slipped away from the cover of my T-shirt. “That is clear, explicit. But it is a mere label. One may also use the term ‘lingerie,’ implying a desire to linger, and something exotic or foreign. As for color” (his yes drifted left again) “one could say ‘brown,’ the unadorned, middle-of the road term, or”, his eyebrows lifted, “‘chocolate.’ I do love chocolate.” He looked directly into my eyes as he reached for his spoon and fetched a taste of syrup-covered brownie to his lips.

I thought about this, but it did not make sense. Words may be accurate or inaccurate, as well as more or less precise. Should we not, in attempting to communicate, aim for both accuracy and precision, agreeing on standards for these whenever possible? Allowing for etymological evolution, and cultural diffusion, as well as influences from the physical environment, language is still about statements: past, present, future, declarative, interrogative, imperative, observation, inference, opinion. Even considering context, there are truthful and untruthful statements, and surely the same would be true in poetry.

I told him this.

He carefully placed his spoon on a napkin. An oval dampness spread outward through the microscopic white fibers. He picked the spoon it up again, spooned honey into his tea, and his eyes lost their focus, before returning to mine. “What I mean is, well, for example, which statement do you take to be true: one, you are a new female acquaintance from a writers’ workshop, about my age, widow of one year (as you told me), about 5’6”, brunette, dressed in green and brown. Or, two, you are a fascinating, desirable woman with a heartbeat I sense across the room, reaching out for companionship, pulsing intelligence and feeling that intrigues, and with an aroma of cherries wafting out on the warmth of her breath”?

I considered the two options, then answered, “You are comparing two different types of language there. The empirically observable on the one hand, and on the other, words intended to communicate a desired relational outcome. One, both, or even neither may be considered true—it all depends on one’s criteria and assumptions, which we have not yet established.”

He sat back a little (he’d been learning forward, hands somewhat extended on the table, and his cheeks looked rather warm, his eyes bright). He took several uneven breaths. Perhaps he was understanding my point? But he looked confused. I remembered that men can be on a different wavelength when it comes to communication, sometimes having difficulty with subtle ideas.

I decided to shift to something else, to ask about something he’d mentioned in his workshop. “I would like your thoughts on poetic technique, if you don’t mind, specifically the use of rhythm,” I said.

He adjusted his chair with a sudden scrape against the concrete floor and a sharp intake of breath. “Rhythm?” he repeated, looking surprised, and even more alert. “I…would love to show you what I know about that. In fact, since I’m staying just above (They gave me a fireplace!), why don’t we continue this in my suite?”

“Your room? But I have half a cup of tea still, and most of my muffin, and you haven’t yet given me satisfaction on either subject we’ve broached.”

“Satisfaction?!” he squeaked, then ran his tongue over his lips, and said something under his breath. “Can’t get…”?. Then, aloud, “I really would like to… discuss this further, so, shall I say, my place in fifteen?” He gulped the last of his passionfruit tea, nodded at me, somewhat distractedly, set his card  with a room number scrawled on the back, looked at me dazedly, and walked quickly back to the lodge.

I was confused, to say the least. Celebrated man of words that he was, he obviously hadn’t understood a thing I’d said, nor expressed himself clearly at all. Poetry really was not my thing, I decided. Non-overlapping spheres of understanding and all. I pondered the complexities of verbal communication as I finished my English Afternoon tea.


Posted by on April 21, 2019 in Writing


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NaPoWriMo Day 19 – abecedarian poem

Breaking some eggs

As if he wanted to know
better than just to hear me
call it out over the sound of the
dryer, that comfortable, clean
electric sound. But I answered
fairly loudly, but only just over the
general din: “No, I didn’t make it with
ham. I don’t eat ham anymore;
I didn’t want to make two, and
jam them both in that small pan.
Knock it off, will you, with the
lame questions? You said you were
making something for yourself.
Not about food, is it, anyway?
Out with it. What do you mean?
Play this game if you want, but
questions like that will get you nothing.
Reactions is all you want.”
Stirring the eggs, I glared at the
tile, splattered with months of
ugly grease. I poured the mixture
very slowly into the pan.
Why did everything
X- out the warmth?
Years of this, and I was finally, completely


Posted by on April 19, 2019 in My poems


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