Friday, April 20, 2012

Endings and beginnings

Spring is the season that reminds us that each new beginning is the ending of something else.

When I'm walking to campus across the High Street bridge, seeing the trees on the banks of Decker's Creek leafing out and catching a glimpse of a moutainside painted in shades ranging from the palest green to russet, Robert Frost's lines "Nature's first green is gold/ Her hardest hue to hold" often run through my mind.  In April, every day brings the emergence of some new wonder even as yesterday's fades.

Can you tell I'm feeling sentimental lately?

I spent this afternoon at the annual conference the College of Education holds where the graduating class from the 5-year teacher education program presents on their classroom research projects.

I facilitated a couple of sessions for the English education soon-to-be grads, and realized while I was sitting there that this is really the first class of students that I've seen through their entire program, since I'm finishing my fifth year.

The students in the photo, Brent and Carrie, were both students in one of the best sections of the young-adult lit class I've taught thus far.  It was one of those classes full of amazing students who collectively create something even greater than the sum of their individual parts.

We initially bonded over our mutual disdain for Sharon Draper's Tears of a Tiger, a book I didn't really care for but had included because it's required reading at both of the high schools in town.  It was one of the first novels we read, and after about half an hour of discussing it, someone finally asked, in a tentative voice, "Why did you choose this book?"  Suddenly we all heaved a mutual sigh of relief, realizing that we all felt the same way about it.  From then on, there was no holding back.

That was in fall 2009, the semester my father died.  In fact, the only things I remember about that fall are Dad's illness, and specific moments from the young-adult lit class.  I missed a week of school right after Thanksgiving for the memorial service, and I was anxious about going back to work afterward.  But every one of the students in that class sent me an e-mail while I was gone to offer their condolences and to express their sympathy, and when I went back, I almost cried, I felt so much like I was back home.

(And then Emma played guitar and sang a very funny song she'd written about Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak [believe it or not], and I laughed until I almost cried again.)

A couple of the folks in that class have graduated already, but most of them will be graduating in May.  Brent, on the left, has been in at least three of my classes, starting in the fall of 2008.  Writing a letter of recommendation for him recently, I thought about how lucky I am to be able to be a part of some students' lives for these particular years.  A music-teacher friend of mine once remarked that middle-school students were her favorite to work with, because they were just starting to figure out who they are.  I love working with college students for the same reason--and because they're so full of potentials and possibilities for the future.

I never thought I'd be the kind of person to say this, but what the hell: it's true.  Not having any children of my own, some of these students truly come to feel like my kids.  The love and pride I feel for them is overwhelming at times.  And many of the WVU students I've grown to feel that way about were in that fall 2009 class:  Brent and Carrie, but also Emma and Jake and Paige and get the idea.

It's been a long, hard semester, and I'm not going to be remotely sorry to see it in my rearview mirror.  And I won't be sorry to see these students graduate and take their gifts into the world.  But I will be sorry not to see them around.

(As long you're reading such schmaltz, you might as well listen to some, too, right?)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Good Girl 2.0

Years ago, when I was still a grad student at Ohio State, I baked some cookies for my Introduction to Folklore class.  It was the last day of the quarter, and we were watching a movie.  Plus, the class started at 7:30 a.m., and those folks deserved a reward for having dragged themselves to campus at the crack of dawn for the previous ten weeks.

When I got out the cookies, one of the students said, "I knew you'd bring cookies.  You've just got a cookie personality."

I wasn't really sure how to respond, because the comment was delivered in a positive way, so I decided not to ask too many questions about what it means to have a "cookie personality."  And I wasn't sure I wanted to hear the answer anyway.

This line turned into a running joke, and several years later, after I told that story to a class at the University of Northern Colorado, a bunch of them got on and left comments about my "cookie personality." 

A colleague at UNC was always kind of snarky about the "cookie personality" thing, referring to it sarcastically on a number of occasions.  It clearly irritated her, and she remarked more than once that she envied the label, even as she coached me to "grow a set," in her words.

More recently, I've run into a similar situation here: a former student told me that when my name came up in a conversation she was having with another professor, the other prof said, "Oh, Rosemary.  She ought to have little birds fluttering around her head." 

I can't tell you how much that irritated me.  Being a "good girl" is a double-edged sword.  Yeah, I'll be the first to say that there are a lot of benefits to it.  My longtime friend Christina and I are sometimes astonished at the stuff we got away with in high school because we were considered to be "good girls" and "good students."  (Don't worry, Mom: it was nothing dire!)

But when you get tagged that way, and--admittedly--when it's important to you personally to be thought of that way, it's a very restrictive and even a dangerous label.  

Recent events at work have left me feeling like being anything but a good girl.  I've been, by turns, enraged, depressed, astonished by people's short-sightedness, and just plain cranky.  I haven't wanted to be nice, or be a team player.  To do so would be to deny my very real, very powerful feelings.  And yet, I worry that if I show my true feelings, speak my mind, people will think that the "good girl" thing has all been an act--that I was just waiting to get tenure so that I could revert to my true, bitchy self.
I posted this image to my Facebook profile,
and a former colleague commented,
"Rosemary! This doesn't sound like you at all."
But it's what I'd like to say sometimes.

Those of you who know me are probably saying "Not bloody likely."  I know.  If only I could say what I feel, be bitchy, pitch a fit, sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of Morgantown.  Instead, the arguments, the sassy comebacks, the bitchy asides just play on a continuous loop in my head.  I'm not a nice person; I just hide my inner mean girl a little too well.

In the wake of all of this, I've been contemplating what "Good Girl 2.0" might look like, since "Good Girl 1.0" is so obviously an obsolete and buggy piece of software.

Good Girl 2.0 would maintain its signature features: trying to be kind, compassionate, reliable, helpful, and thoughtful. 

However, while these are integral parts of the Good Girl programming, they need to not be automatic functions in Good Girl 2.0.  Perhaps the new interface should have a series of pop-up dialog boxes: "Are you sure you want to say yes to that request?"  "Does what you're about to say reflect what you actually feel?" "Can you tolerate disappointing or angering this person?  Because it's OK if you do." 

That last one's tough, since Good Girl 1.0 has a tendency to crash if she thinks someone is mad at her.  And she's also worried that her niceness is an effective whitewash to hide her incompetence, so that without it she'll be revealed for the fraud she is.  Or perhaps the better analogy would be to liken niceness to a bunker:  "If I'm nice [or cooperative, or silent, or invisible], people won't hurt me."

How do you beta-test a new attitude? 

Well, one way is graphically.  Here's how I'm reframing the "fluttering birds" comment:

Any good student of fairy tales knows that in many older variants, the heroine isn't always sweet and docile.  Often, she's wily and intelligent--a trickster.  She often plays into the villain's idea that she's naive and powerless specifically to put herself in a more powerful position.  Folklore reminds us that there's always been a subversive element to good-girl behavior; in Good Girl 2.0, I think that feature needs to be more robust. 

But here's the thing: it's not about the program's interface.  It's about being more user-friendly--the user being me.  In short, I don't necessarily have to change how I respond to things, but where I respond to them from.  If the response comes from that automatic, Good Girl 1.0 place, then it's likely based in fear, or shame.  The 2.0 response might might look the same to another person, but feels entirely different to me because it comes more directly from my feeling in the moment.

Cinderella may still be smiling, but she's not doing it because she feels like she has to.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Jiggs and Stinson Reliant

Spring Break just ended here, and we got away for a few days, staying in an out-of-the-way Inn in the middle of Ohio's Amish country, where we saw all the horses and buggies we might wish, as well as seeing Amish kids playing baseball at the schoolhouse. While we were there in Holmes county, we couldn't stop ourselves (maybe I should say Rose couldn't stop me) from visiting a couple of the local antique malls, where, of course, we found some things we couldn't resist.

The first thing I picked up (and didn't put back down) was this interesting little pencil and watercolor drawing of a Stinson Reliant airplane, probably dating from the middle 1930s.  It was stashed in a box full of old postcards.  Of course, it's painted on the very worst sort of acidic paper, and it already has one corner off and other creases separating. Rose really loves the inscription on the back, identifying who drew it, and who he drew it for.

Later, I ran across an entertaining wooden cut-out and painted figure of Jiggs, from Geo. McManus's long-running comic strip, Bringing Up Father.  Sawn from a wooden plank and painted, Jiggs has a stake for planting him in the ground, though he's only about eighteen inches high. The buttons on his vest are actually decorative round-head nails or tacks, giving it a little three-dimensional effect. And since this guy is right at the boundary between folklore and comics, we literally couldn't turn it down.

Of course, I didn't pick him up when I first saw him, and I dragged Rose twice around the mall trying to find him back--unsuccessfully.  I finally gave him up as sold in the meantime.  But, luckily, when I went back the next day to pick up a couple other items, there he was, and I snapped him up straightaway this time.

Neither of these items, of course, is anything one would associate with the Amish, and for all I know, both were trucked in by antique dealers from elsewhere to stock the mall. But we were there to relax, not to consume Amishness, and I have to say I'm just as happy that this is the kind of shopping I still like to do for enjoyment.