Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It's My Birthday

I'm a take-charge kind of a gal and so this morning I had some definite ideas about how I wanted to spend my birthday. First I wanted to be outside if possible, and I wanted to do something I'd never done before. When at first the weather threatened to drizzle all day, the Theodore Roosevelt Inauguration Site was at the top of my list.

"Isn't it funny," I said to Heidi,"that really? Teddy Roosevelt is not even close to my favorite president, and yet it seems that we have been to a lot of his places." I was referring to Roosevelt Island and Roosevelt National Park, and now this.

But as luck would have it, the weather cleared, and soon Heidi, Louise, and I were off to Old Fort Niagara, an almost 400 year old bastion located  on Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River. We spent the afternoon wandering the amazingly well-preserved site learning the history of its Indian, French, British, and American occupants. Then we drove home along the wide river, the Canadian side of the river to our left. We stopped in Lewiston and strolled through a riverside park that happened to mark the final stop in the Underground Railroad. Here, residents of the town rowed escaped slaves across the Niagara to Canada. I bought a bottle of water, and paying with a 20, my change was 18.65, the year the Civil War ended.

Home at last, I prepared a dinner of steamed shrimp, grilled steak, baked potato, and salad, and at the table I sat back and sighed. "Well, I had a really great day!"

Heidi's mom laughed. "Really? You drove and you made dinner!"

"I know," I said, "but I like to drive, and I like to cook, especially because I get to go where I want and eat what I like!"

There was no argument there.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Sticking Around

After a fun and eventful week in Buffalo, we were supposed to head home to Virginia today, but knowing that smilie Kyle would be in town tomorrow made it seem silly to leave without spending some time with him. So, we put off packing and spent the day hanging out with Heidi's folks instead. The weather was beautiful, and Isabel seems content to enjoy it. As anxious as we are to get home, here is pretty swell, too.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Nice Place to Visit

"I looooove Buffalo!" a colleague exclaimed when I told her we would be shuffling off to here soon after school ended.

I nodded. I knew she had family in Western New York. "Are you close to your cousins?" I asked.

She nodded vigorously. "My cousins are my heart," she said, but then she smiled mischievously. "I know it's shallow," she confided, "but I also like Buffalo because everyone there is so fat! Whenever I go to a party or something they're always like Who's that hottie?" she laughed.

I laughed, too, and shook my head. She's a little nuts, and she had been drinking, but I kind of knew what she meant. In the last fifteen years, I've come to know Buffalo as a town where people work hard and play hard and reward themselves for both with some of the best comfort food I've ever eaten-- fish fry on Friday, wings before dinner, Ted's hot dogs for a mid-afternoon snack, beef on weck for lunch, and Tim Horton's donuts for breakfast, and Anderson's frozen custard for dessert.

As outstanding and delicious as they are, 'healthy' is not an adjective that fits even a single one of them. It's not surprising that so many people in these parts are pretty well padded.

So, whenever we visit Heidi's folks, moderation is a must, and there's always a big bottle of Tums on the bedside table.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Kind of a Drag

"Can I see your dress or your shirt or whatever you're wearing to the party?" Annabelle asked me this morning.

"Sure," I said and produced the beaded dress I bought.

"Whoa!" Her eyes widened a bit. "Sparkly!" Then she cocked her head. "I've never seen you in a dress before."

"Well you will tonight," I told her. "You will tonight."

Friday, June 26, 2015


We recently got a new camera for our trip to Alaska, and after the shock of the initial investment, it was kind of hard to stop. There were at least 2 lenses that I thought we should have as well. "Money pit!" Heidi sighed when I ran the new purchases by her. "Maybe you can put them on your birthday list."

This week in Buffalo, though, we will have the occasion to take several photos of people in Heidi's family. When her mom asked specifically that we bring the camera along, one of those lenses became a little more must-have, and so I ordered it to be delivered today.

When it arrived late this afternoon, I went out to the backyard and took lots of test shots of one of my favorite subjects, our dog Isabel. They didn't turn out half-bad, and when I showed my handiwork to Heidi, miraculously she thought the new lens was a fabulous purchase!

Note to self...

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sea Dog

I was talking to Heidi's brother about our upcoming cruise in Alaska. "Of course they have all sorts of shore excursions in every port, " I told him, "but to be honest I haven't had a chance to take a close look at what is offered yet. I plan to spend some time with that when I get home."

Then I shrugged. " I'm quite certain they'll have several sled dog programs, and you can imagine we'll probably attend one of those." I paused, and he shook his head, smiling.

"Or more? Knowing your sister? She'll have a sled dog in every port!"

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Nothing like spending time in the north at this time of year to take advantage of those loooooong days. Sunset tonight? 8:57 PM. Dinner's over, dishes are done, and here we are on the patio basking in that still golden light. Fade to violet, cue the fireflies and...


Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Heidi's dad and I made small talk last night as I helped him carry a few things in from the yard where he had been working. We had covered the road conditions on our drive, the weather at home, and my mother's well-being and everything was neatly stowed in the garage. As we headed in to wash up for dinner, he turned to me. "So how's the marriage!?"

I laughed heartily in surprise. "Great!" I answered when I could.

"Everything working out so far?" he asked.

"Oh, yeah!" I told him. "Heidi's a great catch!"

Monday, June 22, 2015

Keystone State

I was wondering what time we might arrive in Buffalo today when I punched the address into my phone. To my surprise, the map app offered a completely different route than our usual, with a thirty minute shorter driving time. My eyes popped a little as I curiously scanned through the many many steps. Directions such as turn left on Main Street, go .4 miles and turn left on Frontage Rd made me pause only briefly until I turned the phone over to my trusty navigator, Heidi, and headed north. What a trip it was! Two lane roads much of the way, a national forest, three mountain summits, several cool little towns, and the highest point on I-80 east of the Mississippi. We had our sun roof open and windows rolled down for the last half and only closed them up when the whine of the rumble strips on the thruway was just a little too high-pitched. With three stops to stretch, pee, walk the dog, and fill the tank, we made it up here in 7 hours and 10 minutes-- a classic summer road trip!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Knee High on the Fourth of July

I spent the morning in my garden catching up on the chores I've neglected in the last two busy weeks and also getting it ready for us to be away a week. With the exception of a lot of weeds, things looked pretty good. We've had tons of rain lately, which was helpful to both vegetables and weeds. When we were children, our Aunt Harriett always used to explain away summer thunderstorms as Jesus bowling with the angels. Well, somebody was throwing a lot of strikes last night, and there was torrential rain to go along with the boomers. Fortunately, the storm did no damage to the garden, but it did make the ground super soft, so pulling all those weeds was pretty easy.

The wet soil also gave me confidence that the tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, okra, watermelon, and corn will be okay until I return. Another thing Aunt Harriett used to tell us as we barreled along country roads in the summer, the windows of her white station wagon wide open to the warm, humid air, was about the corn in the green blur of the fields we passed. "Everything's fine, if it's knee high by the fourth of July!"

I guess everything's going to be fine.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Hard Bargaining

I saw a funny exchange between our almost 15-year-old nephew, Kyle, and his mom on Facebook the other day. Kyle posted a picture of a new Ford pick-up with the message, Let's negotiate. 

His mom replied, haha, and then posted a picture of a vintage station wagon, royal blue with three sets of seats. Possibly, she added.

Their bantering went back and forth from there and was both amusing and contagious, so much so that I felt the need to participate. I'll chip in if you make the honor roll, I wrote. 

To which his mother quickly replied, For the station wagon, right Aunt Tracey? 

I giggled as I typed, You're the boss!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Breaking Eggs

What better way to kick off the first afternoon of summer vacation but with a showing of the highest opening-weekend grossing movie ever? Yes, we saw Jurassic World a little while ago. I'm not sure what I expected, but I didn't love the movie. The first half filled me with dread and anxiety; the impending doom was palpable. Once the action started, the second half was a little better, but the body count, both human and reptilewas disturbing to me.

I guess I'm getting too old for that kind of stuff. As ambivalent as I was, halfway through, Heidi leaned over and hissed in my ear. "I hate this movie!"

On the way home, we talked about the movie, as we always do. "I guess the violence was as low key as possible," I said. "They clearly wanted to keep it a family film."

Heidi shrugged, unconvinced.

"And, they were mindful that some people would sympathize with the dinosaurs, so they kind of minimized their injuries, too," I added.

Another shrug.

"I think it's like, if you want to bake a cake, you're going to have to break some eggs, and if you want to make Jurassic World, you're going to have to kill a few people and dinosaurs."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Page Turners

As I do every year, I had my students calculate how many pages they read and books they finished for the year. This year was a pretty good one-- my kids read over a half-million pages combined and together they finished 2,387 books. That's an average of 7,342 pages per person and 33 books.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Moving Forward

Tomorrow's the last day of school and we have an early release schedule that allows just 24 minutes with each class before we bid them a fond farewell. It will be bittersweet, as always, for I have grown attached to my students, and when all is said and done, I will miss them. Even though they will be in the building next year, it will never be the same again, and that's kind of sad.

The last few years I have filled the time in my empty classroom by watching one of the high school graduations on local access TV as I clean and pack for the summer. It started when my nephew graduated and I tuned in to see him receive his diploma. So many familiar faces crossed the stage as I waited for him to be called, and seeing these former students six years later, grown up and ready to head out into the world, made it a little bit easier to say good-bye to the kids who would be boarding their buses in a little while.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Rap of Merciless Madge

One of the best things about teaching sixth grade is that once they get to know you? Those kids are pretty sure you can do anything! And to be honest, they're not that hard to impress.

Why, just yesterday on the bus the boys across from me were making rhymes of each other's names. When they noticed me watching them curiously they were only too happy to explain. "We're making raps!"

"Cool!" I told them and turned back to my book.

"Can you make one Ms. S?" they called across the aisle.

"Um," I hesitated, because, really? The answer was rightfully No, but I felt compelled to try.

"Do CJ!" They suggested.

 "OK, give me a minute." I considered the rhymes and took a deep breath.

My name is CJ--
I'll be your DJ.
Listen to what I say
'cause I know the right way
and if you are a hater?
You don't have to be that way!

Their jaws dropped only a moment before they started to clap.

Monday, June 15, 2015


When I was in school the coveted spot on the bus was always the way back, and I can tell you from personal experience that things haven't changed much since then. I suppose it's developmentally appropriate for some adolescents to try and get as far away from the presence of authority as possible, but these days, when I'm riding the bus? The authority is in the back.

That's how it was this afternoon on the hour-long ride back to school from our end-of-the-year field trip destination. The field trip itself had been a mixed experience; some parts of it were better than others, but in general the kids around me were happily settled in with their phones as we pulled out of the marina.

"To be honest," I heard the girl in front of me say, "you're a little weird."

"To be honest," said the girl next to her, "you're sort of a b--"

"Hey now!" I interrupted. Leaning over the seat I could see they were not talking to each other, but rather to a third girl's phone. "What are you doing?" I asked them.

"Oh," answered the first girl, "it's a joke! He knows we're kidding." She noted my raised eyebrows. "OK! We'll erase it and only say nice things. " She handed the phone back to its owner.

That girl framed her face on the screen and punched the red button. "To be honest," she said, "you're nice, but we've faded."

"To be honest," I said, "I don't want you playing that game anymore."

"It's not a game," I was informed. "It's an Instagram thing."

"Fine," I replied. "Don't do it."

"But we have faded," she said. "We're not as close as we were."

"And you want to put that on Instagram?" I asked. "That doesn't seem very nice."

"OK!" Yet another student joined the conversation. "We will only say nice things. Promise!"

"Like what?" I inquired.

She shrugged. "Like, 'You're pretty'!"

"Why does it have to be about someone's looks?" I asked. "Why not, 'You're a good friend' or 'You're really smart' or 'I like spending time with you, because you're funny'?"

They were unconvinced. "No one says those things!"

"To be honest," I answered, "maybe they should!"

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Better Late than Never

It was back in early March that in preparation to start this year's seeds, I dumped a couple of dry plugs of potting soil in a planter on the deck. These were last year's duds-- dirt with seeds that had failed to germinate with the rest.

How surprised was I in late April to recognize a couple of fledgling tomato plants reaching for the sun in that very same pot? And they have continued to not just survive, but thrive, out there. I have no idea what variety they might be, but I'm going to guess some type of cherry tomato, based on the arrangement of the many, many blossoms.

With a little luck, I'll know soon enough. And in the mean time? I am grateful for these prodigal plants.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Habit Forming

"I guess the writing challenge ends today?" one of my students asked with more than a note of disappointment in his voice.

I nodded. The challenge had been extended a week to allow kids who were close to make up any days they had missed. "You have all your days, right?" I smiled.

"Yeah," he sighed, "but I just kind of like to write every day now. I feel better when I do."

I can certainly sympathize with that! 

"How about if I set it up until the end of the year for anyone who wants to keep going?" I suggested.

Now he smiled. "Thanks!"

Friday, June 12, 2015

Progress Report

I've mentioned before that my sister-in-law works in the same school as I do and that we share a last name. Today my friend Mary came up to the two of us. "Hey! Guess what someone in my homeroom asked? They wanted to know if Ms. S. the English teacher and Ms. S. the art teacher were married!"

Emily and I laughed incredulously, but Mary shrugged. "Look how far we've come!"

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Life Well-Lived

Who knows how it happens? Something jogs your memory and suddenly you are transported to another time and place. I can't pinpoint what reminded me, but yesterday I spent a little time recollecting an event from my own middle school years.

When I was in seventh grade the whole school broke up into lots of cross-grade teams for something they called Oktoberfest. Each group met once a week for the month of October to plan and participate in all sorts of special events. For example, the first thing we had to do was come up with a name for our team and design badges that we would all wear to the other activities. Our teacher sponsor was my social studies teacher from the year before, a nice guy by the name of Mr. Greve (pronounced gre-vay'). Over the summer he had noticeably acquired a hair piece, and he was really a good sport when our team decided to dub ourselves "Greve's Toupees". I still remember what our badges looked like, too.

Back then, middle school itself was a new, cutting edge concept. Separate from junior high, including sixth graders, the middle school model was developed to support young adolescents in their transition from elementary to high school. How interesting it is to look back on my experiences then through my middle school teacher goggles now! I know just what they were hoping to accomplish when they planned that event, but also what a disruption it probably was to instruction, and how gracefully my teachers handled it.

Kudos to them!

I googled Mr. Greve last night and found that he passed away in 2004, but not before he retired from teaching and walked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail and most of the Pacific Coast Trail. There were many comments on his remembrance page from other former students who appreciated him in much the way I did, too, as a good teacher and a kind man.

We could all do so much worse.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


"How long does it take?" someone asked in my department meeting this afternoon when we were reminded of yet another "quick survey" that we were asked to complete before school ends next week.

"It depends on how detailed you want your answers to be," replied a colleague who had already taken it.

I nodded, because I had already completed that one. In this day of automation and Google forms, the end of the school year seems to bring survey after survey. It's brief! the designers always claim, but 5 surveys with three or more short answer questions each ends up being rather time consuming, if you intend to answer thoughtfully, particularly with no "SAVE" button.

In fact, I had kept the tab with the questionnaire in question open on my lap top for some time yesterday afternoon as I mulled the best response to questions such as If you could design countywide meetings any way you want, what would you do? and Describe the MOST effective PD course/activity of your career. Why was it effective?

Today I had the same experience with this question: What do you feel has been your greatest instructional accomplishment this year?

I'm just sayin:

Those are some mighty BIG questions to put in a quick little survey at the end of the year. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

And I Know It

We had our annual visit from my favorite guest poet today and the kids really enjoyed the activities. Just as gratifying, he was impressed with their imagination and creativity, too, and attributed it to my teaching. Aw shucks!

As always, I grabbed the chance to participate with my students as a fellow writer. Here's my poem for the day:

Poems are useless-- 
unless they are fresh like tomatoes off the vine,
or pickled like Brussels sprouts,
or black like t-shirts,
soft like number 2 pencils,
cellos and ukuleles.
I want poetry that climbs Sargent Mountain,
changes my sheets every day,
brings me puppies and kittens,
takes me to Paris.
Words like sweet potato empanadas,
Grandma's fried chicken,
down pillows on Sunday morning.
I'm a quiet poet,
quiet in the chaos of a sixth grade classroom,
watching my students,
sipping inspiration like air.

Poems are useless--
unless they are black crows on white snow,
a scarecrow in an empty field,
four leaf clovers or wild blueberries.
I want poetry hot out of the oven,
poetry that pedals madly down Superman Hill,
o bushwhacks to the top of the mountain
collapsing on the warm granite ledge.
I am not a poet,
but I am a bowl of plums
cold from the ice box;
I am Emily Dickinson's night gown:
my words smart, insurgent, 
goliath, crusading.

Poems are useless--
unless they wear tie-dye,
rise like the moon over Lake Lugano,
or brew a potion of dragon spit and candy corn.
I want poetry that teaches me to play the drums
in a cafe in Montreal,
rocks me like a hammock in the shade,
snorkels into a lost cave filled with pirate treasure.
I am a poet like the midnight wind
that blows open the french doors,
like the gold finches flitting in the river birches.
Words will knock you down
like an old farm house in a tornado,
and when you get back up,
say, "Good."

Monday, June 8, 2015

Since You Asked

"Wait! Are you married?" asked one of my students this morning. She was hanging out before the bell and had spied the ring that I've been wearing for about 15 years.

I hesitated only a moment, and it was a moment at all, because this was the first student (or anyone, really) who had asked me that question since I was, indeed, married.

"Yes," I said, suppressing a little giggle at how odd it seemed to say so. Fifty-two and a half years is a long time.

"Cool!" she said.

I know, right?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Week x Week

"Next Sunday is the last Sunday of the school year," I reminded Heidi a little while ago.

She shrugged. "So? We still have a full week of work after that."

"I know," I said, but it will be the last Sunday we have to school the next day, for a while."

She nodded in agreement. "That's something," she replied.

"Of course, the next Sunday it will be the day before we leave for Buffalo," I told her.

"And the next Sunday will be the day before we come home," she answered.

"And the next Sunday will be just a couple of days before Richard and Annabelle come," I added. "And then the next Sunday will be Treat's birthday, and the next one we might go to the beach, and the next one we'll be home, but the next one will be the one before we go to Alaska, and the next one we'll be in Alaska, and the next one we'll be almost to Vancouver, and the next one we'll be home, but... we'll have to go to school that week."

"Stop," she shook her head. "Just. Stop."

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Hanging on Like a Yo-Yo

I woke up around 5 this morning and never quite made it back to sleep. I didn't mind-- it's been a busy day and those few extra hours allowed me to practice my ukulele and do a little local history research in addition to the chores and errands we had scheduled.

We also had some time to go to the movies late this afternoon. We chose the theater near us with the comfy reclining seats, and I was all set, leaning back with my feet up, my fountain seltzer in the cup holder and a bag of popcorn to share with Heidi, when what eluded me this morning evaded me no longer, and I peacefully napped through the second act of the film.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Quitting Time

"Sitting is worse than smoking," my friend Mary told me the other day, and I totally understood what she was saying.

After racking up about 30 hours of butt time since Monday finishing up the school literary magazine, this morning at 9:30 I gleefully clicked SEND. Then I got up and stretched and walked around my classroom.

I would have spent the rest of the day on my feet, but for my lesson plan calling for me to edit and print final drafts of my students' final writing pieces. They were on the laptop and the laptop was on my desk. When the final bell rang, I spent some time walking around both in the school and in my my room delivering and sorting through piles of accumulated papers. Sadly, though,  there was more to do at my desk, and I ended up sitting another hour or so before I finally packed up to go home for the weekend.

I am consoled by three things: first the fact that, in general, I don't rack up as much desk time as I did this week; second, this is my last magazine: I'm passing the baton next year. And third? In two weeks I won't even have a desk to sit behind!

Yep! I'm quittin' sittin'!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

They've Got Talent

Today was our annual school talent show. Organized in an Everyone's Got Talent model, this is one of my favorite events of the year. Because it is entirely student produced, the performances range wildly from stunning to awful. Personally, I have nothing but admiration for any kid who has the guts to get up on stage, and there is always someone who chokes under the pressure and runs off stage weeping and into the arms of their supportive, if drama-loving, friends. There is also no shortage of kooky and novel acts, and today was no exception. One of the best performances of the show was a girl with a jump rope routine. She skipped and leapt and jumped gymnastically across the stage to music, and it was amazing! Then there was the duet of singing sixth graders, accompanied on the piano by one classmate while another did a bit of an interpretive dance across the stage. It was sublimely, endearingly wacky in a way that was so sincere and soooo absolutely middle school that I was reminded once again of why I love teaching this age.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Cord of the King

I don't pay attention to many fashion rules for myself, but I do think that wearing shorts to school anytime after June 1 is just fine. Unfortunately, after the hottest May on record, June has been downright chilly around here. In fact, this morning I chose a pair of light gray corduroys to wear and only hesitated a moment before pulling them on. Far from being unseasonable, I was glad I had 'em, and only wished I'd worn a warmer shirt, too!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Wasn't it just the other day that my jaw dropped in disbelief and my fingers flew to the keyboard to tell NPR that their headline was *gasp* wrong! For all intensive purposes it read...

Fortunately, before I posted my correction, I read further to find that it was actually a piece on "eggcorns", words and phrases that are often mistaken and misused for their sound-alikes. Some examples most of us have heard? How about a new leash on life or coldslaw?

At any rate, I read with mild interest and forgot it until today when I read the title of one of my student's short recollections: April Showers Spring May Flowers.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Start the Presses

I spent a big chunk of the day on the penultimate push to wrap up our school literary magazine. Although I have always been proud of the results in the 7 years I have been editing it, I can't say that it is worth the effort. Not enough kids or teachers participate to make it as popular a publication as it should be.

Surely, there is something I could do to improve the situation, but this task is just one among the many that fill each of my school years. And so I have decided to give it up, and I am happy that our ELA Lead teacher has expressed an interest in taking over; her position and personality are probably much better suited for the job.

But that leaves this year, and as always, I'm cramming to finish it up, which means taking time off from school to focus on editing and layout. Rather than entirely spent in front of a computer screen, though, this day had its other diversions, too: I took my mom to the airport at 9:30 and Josh to the bus station at 1:30. In between, I walked the dog and watered the plants. When at last the battery on my laptop died, at 3:30, I played on the Wii, practiced my ukulele, and paid the bills until Heidi got home with the charger.

So, while the journal of writing and art has not yet been put to bed, I will certainly sleep soundly tonight.