Archive for November, 2012

Thanksgiving in my upstate home was a crowded and noisy affair.  The old farmhouse I call home is like so many others in the rural countryside: it is big. With one part added to another over the span of nearly 180 years, it can easily accommodate a holiday crowd. This year, that meant 17 people, two dogs, and two cats. While I was driving north from the Bronx on Wednesday evening they were all there, already in a holiday mood.  And while an old farmhouse can accommodate my family, it took some effort, and numerous deep breathes for me to prepare myself for such a crowd when I pulled into the driveway in the darkness of late November.

Our Thanksgiving feast was wonderful.  The weather was perfect, the food was delicious, and throughout the weekend we enjoyed the love we share for one another. After the last of my family departed on Saturday, my youngest son and I were left with the house to ourselves.  The silence was amazing.  Later that day, I sent an email to all who had been together in upstate and wrote:

Andrew and I now share a much quieter home.  Though there are times at family gatherings when you might give anything for ten minutes of quiet, when the silence does come, you miss the noise!

I can say the same for the school I work in and the students I teach. They are a studious group to be sure, but there are times when it seems like there is nothing but conversation going on between them. We joked about it a couple of weeks ago and even came up with a new word.  One student suggested we add to our classroom rules: No conversating!

People like to talk.  I get that, and I can be a bit of a “conversator” myself.  Teenagers can be especially talkative, especially when they haven’t seen each other for several days.  There is a lot of catching up to do.  So I loosened the reins today, the first day back from the Thanksgiving holiday, and tolerated more chatter than I might on any other day. Tomorrow, I can always pull back and say “Whoa!”

I enjoy listening to them talk. To me, it is evidence of the community we have formed.  If they had nothing to say to each other, I would really have to wonder about my skills as a teacher.

One of the projects my students have worked on is a formal interview.  They have to send an email to someone who works in the school requesting time to meet with them and ask them some questions. This is a job search skill they will need.  Additionally, they have to prepare five questions they wish to ask.  Most send their emails to, and prepare their questions for, either me or their Advocacy Counselor.

Back in late September, one of my students requested my time, and we met at my desk.  One of her questions was, “Do you like your students?”  We recently had four-day weekend for Rosh Hashanah.  “Do you remember the four days we had off last week?” I asked her.  She said she did. “Well for me,” I told her, “That was one day too many.”

I really had missed my students, even their chatter, and the music in their headphones that is sometimes too loud. I missed their easily distracted personalities, and their boisterousness in the hallways.  In a few short months it has all become a comforting sound to this teacher in the Bronx.  Like the quiet of my home this past Saturday afternoon, I might enjoy the silence for a bit, but eventually it is the noise in life I crave.

The source of noise this past Thanksgiving

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Each week now, since the school year started, I begin and end my work with a drive from and to my home in upstate. About 80 miles of the trip are on the Taconic State Parkway – the TSP on road signs – of eastern New York.  It is a beautiful road to drive, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can read more about it here.

The Taconic, as it’s called by frequent drivers, is a road you have to drive. Sharp curves, steep grades, stone walls that serve as unyielding guardrails, and bucolic views that compete for your attention, are all part of the route.  I could take I-87, the New York State Thruway, from upstate to the Bronx, and fall into that semi-conscious state of driving that interstates allow, but I prefer the Taconic.

The TSP demands your attention (though not a toll, as the Thruway does) and trucks are prohibited from traveling on it.  The exits have names, but not numbers, so over the years I have had difficulty giving directions.  I am more apt to describe terrain, road features, or prior exit names, when telling a soon-to-be-guest where (and when) they should exit.  Here’s an example:

“When you see the exit for Near Road, you’re not far.  There will be a parking area and scenic overlook on your right, and then a long downhill just before the exit you want.  Be careful, you’ll pick up speed on the parkway and the exit ramp is sudden and unforgiving.”

Along the Taconic white tail deer are abundant.  They are so inured to the traffic that they graze along the roadside mere feet from cars whizzing by at sixty or more miles an hour.  Even the young, spotted fawns can be seen grazing along the road with their mothers nearby.  It is almost as if they are taught at a young age not to worry about the cars, but it is a bad lesson.

Along the section of the Taconic which I drive twice weekly, I will spot a dead deer almost as frequently as a live one.  The road kill statistics for this route must be shocking. Driving south last weekend I counted a dozen.  Some were twisted into repulsive shapes.  Others had their hind legs pointed straight to the sky, or were laying so far from the road that I wonder if they were thrown that far, or if they managed some final steps before death found them.  It is a slaughter.

But there are many more beautiful sites along the Taconic.  Red-tail hawks are common.  Vistas of farms, fields, and low rounded hills sometimes seem dreamlike. The fall is a time of unbelievable beauty, and once the trees have lost their leaves new or expanded views open up. I often feel as if I am driving through a park and not the densely populated Hudson Valley.  The route reminds me of roads I have driven through the Shenandoah and Great Smokey Mountains.

Along the TSP

My drive on the TSP is also the time when I transition between two worlds.  At home upstate I am surrounded by a rural landscape. Neighbors are not nearby.  The second closest home to mine is at least a thousand feet away.  I often hear the sounds of cows, or a neighbor’s rooster. Mornings in upstate are a thing of beauty as the light of the rising sun first hits the mountains, and then lights up the lower farm fields.  Nights bring so many stars; uncountable when the Milky Way glows above.  At times, the stillness is so deep your ears may ring.

My downstate home stands in contrast. There are the sounds of passing cars and the horns of the Metro North trains.  The sirens of emergency vehicles are frequently heard.  Jet planes taking off from LaGuardia Airport in distant Queens often roar overhead.  And there always seems to be a dog barking somewhere.  It is a crowded, suburban neighborhood with the houses set close to one another.  Looking out the windows of my mother’s home I can count more houses than exist on the entire four miles of the rural road I live in upstate.

It is between these two worlds that I travel each week, and the Taconic State Parkway is the road that links them.  Sometimes, I imagine myself as a traveler in space on a journey from one planet to another.  At some point in my journey the pull of gravity from one world ceases and I am drawn in by the gravity of another.  Even after these many weeks of making the trip, I can feel the change come over me as I leave or approach one home or the other.  Upstate and the Bronx.  Two worlds I call home.

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After Sandy

The school routine at Bronx Arena resumed on November 5th, a week after the New York City area was hit by the forces of Hurricane Sandy and became New Orleans of the north.  The city’s schools had been closed for five days.  Sandy was no Katrina by any means, but more like Hurricane Irene which plowed into the area around my upstate home in late-August of 2011.  In my home county we are still dealing with Irene and for many the dealing is done.  They have left.

So I was anxious as I drove south towards the city and my mother’s house in the first suburbs to the north.  She had been without power for days, and I had been following the news from afar.  We had winds in upstate, enough to tear some metal roofing off one of my barns, but the lights and the phones stayed on.  Thankfully, so did the internet.

Downstate was a different story.  There was loss of power, heat, lines of communication, and life.  So I was uncomfortable leaving my home that was enjoying all these conveniences, for a “second home” that might not have any of them. Fortunately, power had been restored to my mother’s neighborhood by late Saturday afternoon. Five days of no juice had spoiled everything in the ‘fridge including the orange juice.

I was happy to hear the news from my mother since it meant that I would not be dressing my candle or flashlight.  And there would be heat.  But watching the news stories from afar, I was worried about my students and co-workers.

One of my first impressions as school resumed after a week recovering from the storm was that my students were happy to be back. Students may grumble about school, but it really is a routine in their lives, and they miss it when it is gone.  True, they are most happy to be back with their friends, and the chatter as our first day back began was evidence of this.  Yet, I think it is the sense of purpose – or call it a sense of “this is what I am supposed to be doing” – that also brings them some satisfaction.

I was amazed by how quickly the students were back on task.  I wanted to allow some time for “storm stories,” but we never really did that. Being back with their friends and their teachers, with a sense of purpose, seemed to be all my students wanted.

Just prior to the storm, Arena 6 added seven new students. An eighth joined us a few days after school resumed.  The unanticipated closing of city schools and a nearly 50% increase in my class size have presented challenges.  But we are working hard at retaining our sense of family, and I already see several of the new students buying into the culture of Arena 6.

I am often amazed at the wisdom my students show, and their sense of how important one moment may be.  Shortly after classes resumed, one of them decided we should have an inspirational quote written on the chalk board from time to time.  “Find one,” I told him.  He already had.  He asked me to write it for him. “My chalk board writing is OD,” he said.  Here is what he found.

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