Monday, August 10, 2015

Glass half full

I'm not a pessimist. I'm a realist.

The words all pessimist find themselves saying when confronted by those damned, delusional optimists. All systems eventually turn to chaos. The slightest deviation and then ...

I kept going back to work. The door to my classroom got smaller and smaller. Sometimes it was boarded up, planks nailed across the door frame. The threshold taunting me through a peephole. I could not get in even when I tried to crawl, squeezing into a space no bigger than a doggie door.

There were more teachers in my classroom every day. I would get there and there would be three or four teaching my class. I tried to get some one's attention from the hall. Hey, I gestured, I'm supposed to be in there. My plea was met with shrugged shoulders and words mouthed. "There's nothing I can do. Look around."

"Come out and let me explain," I pleaded.

She finally acquiesced. I didn't even know her name. She started with "I never even know when you are coming in." We sat down and I tried to explain.

I was a good teacher. Really good, I think. I loved the kids. I knew the material inside and out. I could anticipate problems before they happened. I could hear three kids talking at the same time... while I was on the phone.

"But what did you do?" she asked.

Everything. Art. We drew cartoons. We painted watercolors. We wrote newspapers. We rapped. We did skits. We made videos. We wrapped objects in 1 inch square grid paper to measure surface area. We shopped. We bought stocks and balanced checking accounts. We raced through Ancient Greece. We made snowmen to measure spheres.

"That's what they did. What did you do? Wait, let me put it this way. What is your background?"

That doesn't matter. I taught Core and 2 sections of math. I ran the math club during free periods and before school. I coached the softball team after school and on days we didn't have practice, I tutored kids individually. I sewed costumes for the plays on the weekends and I baked each student a personalized cookie on Valentine's Day.

"So you basically had no life outside of school?"

No, I did. I was a single mom, devoted to my daughter. I ran at the gym. I made delicious dinners. I was in a book club. I played darts in a dart league. 
And then it slipped away. President's Day weekend I went away on a girls' trip with my friends. We drove up to Stowe to ski and snowboard. Marissa Berber, Caroline Boyle, Caryn Duffy, Maddie Franklin. They were my friends. I had friends. There was some drama, a few disagreements and tears but I wasn't involved (for a change). It was so fun until I started to get a really bad headache.

A small leak changes everything. And now it is a glass half full, a glass half full of holes.

Narrator's voice: Next week on Aly's Angioma

"Why you want to be in a place you don't even fit in?" and other tales from the subway

Friday, July 24, 2015

The graveyards are full of indispensable men.

I guess this is supposed to mean don't live under the mistaken impression that you cannot be replaced; that without your contribution, things will not function.

Okay. Right. I get that. I'm fine with being forgotten. I'm fine with passing on and allowing the planet to fill with new people. But while I am here, I do not think there is anything wrong with trying to make the most valuable contribution that I can.

The headmaster at the school where I used to work, quoted this to me on more than one occasion. It upset me. As a business model, it's great. You don't want the success of your organization to rely on any one small part. But should you tell your employees that? Why? So they don't feel too important? So they don't strive to make a unique contribution? It sounds like: Remember! You are merely a cog in a machine! We can find a replacement for that piece any time!

What the fuck! I was disgusted that my boss said that to me. I wasn't trying to stand out or patent some secret teaching method only I could do. I was doing my fucking best, constantly striving to improve. I will always do this! I am a problem solver. It's what I do. As a teacher, my role was to bring out the best in each individual student. I asked myself how do I most effectively communicate the information he or she needs. I want to help them develop the skills and tools they will need and use for years to come. Am I the only one who can do that? No. Did I want to do an awesome job at it? Yes. Why? Because I want to grow and learn and be effective for my entire life? I am not a sit back and smell the roses type.

I feel pretty good about that today. I feel unique and special and valuable. I've thought a lot about what Dr. Soghoian said to me that day in his office. Although he is certainly correct that everyone can be replaced, it doesn't need to be said. Perhaps it is my cognitive distortion (and please, by all means, feel free to correct me or challenge me to a debate), but the message that those words conveyed to my ears were stop trying to be so good at what you do, you're not special.

I will never lie down and accept that. There are times when that message does run through my head on a loop, an endless tape of criticism, self-loathing, and defeat. That is depression and suicide seems like the only relief. Today I am not feeling that way. Today, even with my disability, I feel capable of making a contribution. I intend to go to my grave doing my best, endeavoring to improve myself, and enjoying the creative process of generating unique solutions. Actually, I'm not even planning to go to a grave. My body will go to a medical school student so even in death someone may learn from me.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Grateful to be alive

 I still miss my math teaching days. I ran into four sets of parents and one former student this weekend. The children are all brilliant successful young adults now. I was so fortunate to be there to encourage and witness their growth. Now I coax life and potential into inanimate objects. Life is exciting again.

An interview about me and my artwork came out yesterday. I share it here in lieu of a longer post.


Monday, March 2, 2015


Yesterday was the Fourth Anniversary of my break from the school where I taught for 22 years. There are still aspects of the life I left behind that I miss. I loved teaching math because there are so many ways to reach the same goal. Given one problem, each student might reach a solution through a variety of methods. I used to say learning math was like building a set of tools and then recognizing when each  is useful.

Oh, this kind of problem. I think I will take out my Venn Diagrams. Or perhaps I can just write an expression. Then I will use fraction division.

If you have the tools at the ready, their usefulness becomes apparent.

Now, not all students enjoy the freedom of selecting their own method or "tools." I asked them frequently. There two extremes. At one end there were students who just wanted to know how to do the problem in front of them. At the other were the students who refused to proceed until they understood why a specific set of steps resulted in a desired result. The show-me-hows and the tell-me-whys. I loved teaching both kinds and everyone in between because they all taught me something new and that made my job more interesting and enjoyable and even easier as time went on.

And then there were the kids wanted nothing more than problems. Just give me a challenge. The Math Olympiad. The MathCounts team. My after school group. This was the most fun because I could identify with them. Did you ever try to do a crossword puzzle and have someone look over your shoulder and tell you an answer? I hate that. I want the satisfaction of doing it myself. That's what these kids were like. Hungry, curious, excited, and then even when out of frustration they were forced to give up, they wanted nothing more than to hear how anyone else did it. Their conversations with each other filled with half-finished sentences and partial thoughts.

I just put all the evens... Oh my god! What a good idea.

I realized if there were 10 ones, and 9 zeroes... Yes, then you could just multiply those.

I still love math puzzles. So much!

This is how I am with art now. I have an idea for something I want to make and then I try everything i can to get there. I don't want anyone to tell me how to make or do anything. I want to figure it out myself. I feel very fortunate to have this particular struggle.