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Mama Needs Shoes

Shoes have meaning for mothers. Not our own shoes. Our kids’ shoes.

Most mothers can remember the tiny little pair of baby shoes they got right before or after children entered their lives. Maybe they were those pliable little saddle shoe lookalikes or sneakers or miniature Mary Jane patent leather flats with bows. They came in a shower gift with some onesies and too many bibs or three pairs of little pastel socks. We held them up, marveling. “Oh, look how tiny!” We admired them from all angles, tried them on our fingertips, imagined a little foot inside them belonging to a child taking steps for the first time.

Baby shoes magically evoke visions of the future. Those first tiny sneakers come into your possession before your baby can even crawl–about as useful on feet as they would be dangling from the rear view mirror of a car. Still, we put them on those little feet, lace them up and tie bows that will only come undone…all the while envisioning a day when that child will run to us, pedal a bike, race downfield in soccer, cross a graduation stage to applause while we look on proudly, excitedly share that he is engaged, walk down the aisle on her father’s arm, or stand to thank the Nobel committee. Mothers need shoes, especially in those early days, to remind us that the child who keeps us up at night until we are bleary with exhaustion will one day walk on his own. Shoes belong to the future. They keep us going.

My teenagers’ shoes proliferated in ways I could never understand. Piles of them bloomed by the garage door, the stairs, and in the laundry room. No matter how many times I moved them to better locations, they somehow returned to inconvenient places. Casually tossed under the table in the kitchen where someone studied late last night. Left in the car for days after kids in the car pool changed in the back seat en route to a basketball practice or soccer match. Stuck in gym bags marinating in a sea of dirty clothes in the laundry room. Stacked NEXT TO the shoe rack, I built in the garage but never placed ON it for some unfathomable reason. Kids coming to visit invariably and courteously left their own shoes by the front door. A good Saturday night in their high school years meant I’d head upstairs to bed with sounds of laughter floating up from the basement and a nod to the stack of tennis shoes, flip flops, and Sperry topsiders in the hall that were all planning to stay the night. Shoes by the door meant kids in the house.

When Kristin left for college, I was assigned the job of unloading the giant laundry basket full of her shoes into the small square of floor in her dorm room closet–a task designed to keep me too busy to be sad about leave-taking. Girls choose shoes intentionally anticipating occasions. Noticing what she’d brought gave me clues about what she believed college would hold. Cute flip flops and sandals to make friends, gym shoes for workouts, soccer cleats “just in case of intramurals,” the fake Ugg boots she was so proud of owning that were faithful old friends from high school for confidence, a pair of cute trendy rain boots she had splurged on indicating she intended to reinvent her style here, a pair of professional-looking pumps for business school presentations, a sparkly pair of dress shoes for dances. I came home to her bedroom, peeked into the nearly-empty closet and sat on her bed and cried.

Three years later when Joe left for college, I came home to find that in his typical style (he cares deeply about living in the moment and will always choose people over planning), he’d left a couple pairs of his shoes in the house by the door to the garage–exactly where they had lived for most of the summer. He had moved, but the shoes, flash frozen in time, remained in place. I had griped about stepping over those shoes daily for months. I had moved them time and again only to find them back in the same spot the next day, stubbornly resisting relocation. Tripping over them once again as I came in from that college move-in, I cursed their existence and my son’s inability to grasp how to put things away.

And then I left them there for a month.

Every day as I walked past those carelessly arranged shoes right by the door out to the garage, I pretended he was still home, upstairs sleeping late tangled in his sheets, his broad shoulders and hairy legs overfilling the bed we bought for him as a child. I stepped carefully over those shoes on my way into the house from work each evening for all of September and felt like he might come through the door at any moment so I could grumpily ask him if he would PLEASE put them away. And finally…when I had given myself time to accept the fact that our nest was really empty…I put them away myself, realizing a little sadly that they’d now stay put.

My husband, wisely, said nothing.
Mothers need shoes.

This month, I helped Kristin move things to a storage unit from her apartment in D.C. She won’t be able to take the things she’s amassed in a few years of working in the world with her to law school housing. We packed and stored a box full of black and nude business pumps, high heels, dressy sandals, cute flats for walking to and from the train station. She kept out flip flops, sneakers, and comfortable boots to take with her. I eyed them and could see her vision of nights in the library and tramping across the Law Quad to Contracts, Torts, and Crim Pro.

A few weeks later I helped Joe pack his car to move to Chicago to work. As we got ready to say good-bye, he handed me a crumpled looking brown grocery bag with three pairs of old shoes in it. “These need to go to Goodwill, and I forgot to drop them off. Sorry, but would you mind taking them for me?”

Of course I don’t mind taking them. I peered into the bag. The dress shoes we picked out sophomore year for fraternity dances and business school interview days. The expensive topsiders he couldn’t afford that we surprised him with a few Christmases ago after texting a picture to his girlfriend from the store and getting a “YES!” response. His favorite pair of sneakers. All scuffed and well-worn-out from lots of living in them these past few years. These shoes were shared with fraternity brothers in need searching the stew of clothes they all view as community property. They danced on sticky floors to loud music at parties. They got soaked on rainy walks to class or snowy trudges through “Scary Woods” behind Phi Gamma Delta. They’ve been replaced with shoes now more appropriate for the next bend in the road and relegated to the bag in the back of my car. I helped him choose their successors last month as we contemplated the things to come and what he might need to wear. And, despite being many times the size of those tiny sneakers from years ago, the new size 12 wingtips also magically conjure pictures of his future for me.

So…I haven’t taken the bag of shoes to Goodwill. I keep meaning to drop it off, but I just haven’t had time. I’ll get around to it I know. Probably pretty soon. But for now…for just a few more days…Mama needs shoes.


As a teacher, I get the sweet pleasure every year of my working life of “the countdown.” It usually starts in May with some optimistic but exhausted colleague who is a coach or former cheerleader encouragingly posting a sign on his or her door or board that says “27 days left in the school year!” Sometimes it has tear-off pages that count us down to the last day of school. A few enterprising souls subdivide the countdown and announce in email “three more Mondays” or “this is the next to last Friday with students.” And every May, like clockwork, we look at those signs through weary eyes and tell ourselves together “we can make it.” At the point in May when these signs first appear, “we can make it” feels a lot like “we can claw and scrap and drag our way along to the end of this thing…dig deep, people…come on!…how much longer could 20 days really be? Show that backbone!” But that’s ok. We see the sign, and we know the end is in sight.

These countdown signs might seem a little negative to someone who doesn’t do this work. A friend of mine who had been to a school in the month of May once asked me “What’s wrong with you people? Do you hate your days with kids this much that you have to publicly proclaim how eager you are for the approaching finale? It just feels weird.” Clearly, this person not blessed with a professional life like ours just didn’t speak “school.” Hate our work? Far from it. The countdown signs, while certainly announcing to the world that we are approaching exhaustion, are heralds of the celebration to come…of doing work that has a finish line and reaching it together…of knowing that if we can just push a little harder, just a little longer, we will ultimately arrive at that exhilarating ending place. They remind us that soon, very soon, we will look back at how far we’ve come in one short year and feel the sense of joy that comes with knowing we have finished the race…bringing a lot of people we have grown to love a very long way in a short time.

Teaching is an amazing joyful crazy push. A school year kaleidoscopically melds the smell of new school supplies in August into warm September afternoons with bright leaves outside, crisp October mornings on bus duty with stacks of papers on your desk, November gray skies and kids tracing their hands to make turkeys or listing what they are thankful for, December anticipation of holiday breaks and first swirling flakes outside the window that send all the kids into frenzies of joy, January’s dragging feet and lethargy, February snowfalls that allow a day to sleep in which makes you rethink whether you really needed all those days to do this unit you are sick of, March mushy slushy apathy and third quarter grades due, April’s bounce-back into light mornings after spring break and tiny little restart feel, May’s finals, performances, exhibitions and practices for graduation with its commencement-y feelings of endings wrapped in beginnings. That’s our push. Those are our rhythms. A cycle of excitement, settling in, finding our way, hunkering down, dragging along, starting to fly, and finally…on that last beautiful day (even if it’s pouring down rain)…waving good-bye.

The sense of satisfaction in doing work that has a defined beginning and endpoint year after year has always made me love my profession and the colleagues with whom I share the rhythms of the year that only we understand. No other work I know has this sense of finale to it, a chance to step back and take stock of how far we have come together and what it all means.

Countdowns usually end in excitement, in liftoffs, in explosions of force and power. They end in racers leaving the starting line and hurtling toward a finish we can’t see. They create breathless anticipation for that second right after “ONE!” They cause us all to draw closer together, huddled around, intently focused on this “thing about to happen.” They command our attention to something very important.

So yes…I love the countdown signs, the “two more Mondays” reminders of my friends and students, the “FOURTEEN more days, not counting today because we’re already here” admonitions that often start a school meeting like an invocation in these final weeks of May. I love them. They aren’t the evidence of fatigue they seem to be (although there is certainly plenty of that when people are pushing into the stretch of an exhilarating all-out race to a finish line that matters). Instead, they are harbingers of the joy that will come when we arrive there together, waving goodbye to busloads of cheering children or gown-clad graduates. On that day, words will not be necessary because all of us know what the end of the countdown means. We will finally turn to each other in the silent parking lot and smile, return to rooms that hold only echoes, and rejoice deeply in the race well-run.


No More “What Did You Do this Summer?”: 8 Questions We Should Ask Our Students as We Start the Year

School begins this month in millions of classrooms, and as teachers begin to build a learning community with 25-180 unknown humans who will enter their classroom spaces, many of us will ask some version of the question “What did you do this summer?”

I know what you’re thinking. “No we won’t. We are so beyond that.”

We will.

It might sound like “tell me about your family” or “tell me something you want me to know about yourself” or “tell me what you’re good at” or “interview/introduce the kid sitting next to you.” It might be writing an “I Am From” poem or completing a list of “favorite things” or an open-ended free write, or an autobiography, or a survey about reading or a “bingo” game where they find who has a pet like theirs or is left-handed or has lived in another state…but essentially, it will be a way of learning tidbits about students’ life experiences and contexts.

And this is fine. But as I think about some of the things I’ve been reading and learning this summer, I believe we still aren’t asking the right questions to set the tone for the year in my opinion. (And, believe me, I know that if I were preparing to greet students, I would be getting out some of my favorite ice breakers, music, readings, “I Am From” poem examples and quick writes to prime this pump just as I always do.)

And I’d be missing the boat just a bit.

(Apologies to those of you who hate sentences beginning quite ungrammatically with coordinating conjunctions. My thoughts on this topic keep unfolding in just that way with “ands” that keep cascading.)

New research shows that the students I will greet next week likely will not work in a traditional economy. Over half of them will be freelancers doing project work in teams (with colleagues like themselves, some of whom they will know only virutually). Their success will rise and fall based on their ability to deploy a set of skills that I am only beginning to articulate to myself:

-the ability to see and quickly understand a need/problem,
-the creativity to design solutions,
-the skills to analyze what it will take to build the answers,
-the confidence and self-awareness to identify what skills/knowledge they personally can bring to a project
-the experiences and networks to find others they need to collaborate on their project for successful outcomes
-the knowledge of where to go to learn what they need to get a job done if they don’t have all the skills/information,
-the communication powers to reach out to teammates and entice them to join the work,
-the practice with and skills to collaborate,
-the ability to critique and revise without fear,
-the confidence to defend what they think and create,
-the ability to communicate results, and sell themselves as solution makers by building their own brand,
-and the knowledge of where the best “product placement” of themselves will be to get asked back to do more projects.

They will need to be constant learners and scanners of “what’s out there?”–frequently analyzing their options and paying attention to the details of evolutions so they don’t become extinct themselves and so they stay fluent and relevant for their own work.

What questions do I ask the people who will live and work in that world as they come through my classroom door for the very first time? How can I get them starting to orient themselves to a world that probably even they cannot envision because A: they don’t even think about adult life yet really and B: it doesn’t quite exist in that form in most of the things they observe around them…YET.

I struggle to think about what I need to ask these learners, to set the tone for the year of learning ahead, for the kind of work ahead…

And I think I’d start with some small shifts in what I want to learn about them as we begin. I would start by changing my OWN first questions to them.

Not “What did you DO this summer?” but “What did you LEARN or LEARN TO DO this summer?”

Not “Tell me about your family” but “Tell me what things you do that help your family survive and succeed” (or some version of that). “What skills do you have that no one else in your family has?” “What are each of the people in your family good at?”

Not “Who are your friends?” but “How do you make friends?”

Not “What do you like?” but “What do you want to know more about?”

Not “What is your learning style?” but “Where and whom do you learn from?”

Not “Tell me about your pets, bedroom, etc” but “Tell me what’s on your bookshelf, Kindle, iPod, app list, blog, “recently viewed” history, or Twitter feed right now and what does it tell me about you as a person?”

Not “What worries or upsets you?” but “What do you do when you’re faced with a really interesting or tough-to-solve problem?”

Not “What do you want me to know about you?” but “What do you want the world to know and think about you?” Now and in the future.

Yeah. I think that’s where I’d start. (And I would STILL entice them into the fun of my favorite “I Am From” poem creation…but before that, I’d start with the kinds of questions that the world is going to be asking them someday.)

Turning the Page on a New Year

New Year’s Day for those of us who have spent our lives in schools is NOT January 1. It’s the first day of school. The fresh page. The blank slate. The aisles of school supply sales at Target. The clean classroom. The empty plan book. Each year, as educators, we have this one great, gigantic, glorious restart on the work we have given our lives to. What a gift. And this time approaching it…well, it’s the time when we ponder how to do it all again but even better this time around. The time when all things are possible, all lessons fit perfectly into the time we imagine they will take, all students come ready and willing before real people embody the ideal image we have of them…the time right before we roll up our sleeves and get to work to build messy, imperfect, achingly human relationships we will never forget.

In this beautiful crystal-clear space of waning lazy summer days, I can clearly imagine the perfect ten months ahead. A year in which I will flawlessly execute my ideal school year. A year in which I will be the teacher I dream of being. It is always possible once again as I stand at this point ready to begin. Year after year, I can imagine who I want to be and take aim once more before I set out on my work with students–all of whom will walk through the door with high hopes that THIS year will be great.

My profession offers this amazing annual “do over” unlike any other. As I stand here on the eve of “one more time” for the 29th time in my life, I am as excited as I’ve ever been and grateful for that wellspring of eagerness to get started that comes “free with purchase” upon choosing to teach.

The rhythms of a school year are perpetual and as familiar as old friends. As “Back to School” kicks off, I recognize happily the sights, smells, and feelings that come with it over and over again–crisp class lists with names of people I hope to love, neat stacks of materials, bright smell of Fantastic and Febreze in my room, long droning faculty meetings packed with reminders, new pens and markers, the themed bulletin boards we got inspired for somewhere last week with school closing in. I know these feelings. I have stood many times in this place and felt these rhythms start up again. I know they’ll be followed by the autumn sunshine of September afternoons that call to us to stay outdoors at recess just a little longer than planned, the slow turning of October leaves as I stand on afternoon bus duty, the gray skies of November that make us almost glad to be indoors learning together, the first snowflakes swirling lazily outside my windows which kids will greet with all the excitement of people who’ve never seen one before in ways that derail a lesson completely (and that we gracefully surrender to because they remind you that you, too, are excited to greet the snow), the fevered expectations of the holidays through children’s eyes, the dark January mornings when you struggle to find lessons that will make all of you engage and count on coffee to get you through first period, the February carnations delivered by the Student Council that poignantly remind you of the despair of being friendless, the melting muddy footprints in the hallways of March, the countdown to Spring Break, the weak April sunshine that you greet with joy and dawning realization that learning IS happening, the frenzy of May’s “end of year” events and the “only fifteen more days” reminders of summer on the rise, and the bittersweet realization that time is almost out on this year in the community you built back in August. We wave good-bye excitedly as the buses roll on the last afternoon of the last day and go back to pick up a classroom that holds only echoes, memories, and a couple of notes from kids who want you to know you made a difference to them. One more year is done. One perfectly imperfect amazing year of unexpected moments and challenges, students we learned to love or help, differences made in small and life-altering ways.

THAT is what begins here in a few days, and I cannot WAIT to get started just one more time. I love it. I love it all. We are the luckiest people in the world to get to teach.

A Set of Summer Solstice Words

Like all those who worship light, I love those long, lazy summer evenings when the light hangs in the sky till well past the time we should be getting tired.  I love the fireflies darting in tiny random trajectories through the backyard on the edge of our woods leaving jet trails of light when I squint to bring them into clearer focus.  I love falling asleep on a late summer night with the windows open…allowing the cooling earth to enter the room on whispering breezes.  Love the voices of kids with dirty bare feet, playing in the cul de sac drunk on summer freedom as dusk begins and mothers start calling them home.  I love the rising crystal-bright evening star in a sky more deep blue than black.  Love the darkening edges of night tinting the sky to black while one strip of tri-color light (rose, cream, and velvety blue)  frames the horizon for what feels like forever after sunset.

Summer is such joy.

The solstice appears at the height of all these things I love.  It tips us over toward the shortening of days…but instead of feeling sad that we are headed downward, I bask in the apex of the light–enjoying both the lengthening of days preceding it and the long days that hang on after it.  They are not shorter yet, and so they feel like celebrations to me–each one its own line in the secret hymn of praise I sing to the light.

The solstice reminds me that light leaves an echo just like sound…the hours of daylight hanging on in the air and slowly fading as we roll into fall, when the “blue hour” just at sunset arrives earlier but still reminds us just a little of the just-past clear golden light of summer.  When fall comes, some of us will dream about light that stayed up late just as we did with nothing but time on our hands–laughing and talking on June nights.  In the long light of summer evenings, we were all children out of school once more…drunk on freedom in the days when all things are possible.

Fugitive Moments

If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn. The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay. Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence. What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?

– Stanley Kunitz

Once again…one of my favorite bloggers, Lindsey Mead, gives me a quote worth pausing my hectic pace to sigh over. “The moment is dear…precisely because it is so fugitive.” Fugitive moments. Fleeting, fleeing, fugitive moments of our lives hide from us in the days that unfold upon one another. They are precious because they are gone. To hold them might devalue them, and yet we ache to do it anyway. I recognize these words as truth the moment I read them. As a compulsive journal writer and scribbler of the wispy thoughts that float through my mind and then are never seen again, I, too, have hunted for the magic that will make the moment stay. I have felt myself be in a moment and known that I wanted to pin it down forever, to feel it so deeply that I would be able to reach into myself and touch it again, press “play” in my head and be there once more long after time has moved on from this spot. To keep the sunset staining the sky for just a minute more. To stop the ocean spray midair and watch it endlessly hanging for as long as I want. To close my eyes and know that when I open them, the scene will not have changed, the breeze will still lift my hair gently, the snowflakes lazily drifting through the air will not melt, the golden crimson leaves will not fall from the trees all wreathed in glory. I feel the sharp remorse sometimes as I watch my grown children and wish that I had been able to flash freeze moments from their past…so I could see their little shining eager innocence one more time now and then, capture and re-see their delight in the world, their surprise in things that are long since “not new” but were, at the time, amazing. “Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence.” Such words. I think about my fascination with stories of time travel or bending, tales of people who stand in “the thin places” in the universe and cross through them. Maybe they resonate because it is transcendence I seek, that we all seek. The ability to not have our days pass away into forgetfulness of what it meant to stand here and now, to live here and now, to feel and be and work and hope and love and breathe. The sharp deep beauty of the moment…captured, run to ground, not a fugitive at all, but ours to hold or at the very least, to cross back into and revisit when we wished. If we could, we would not always be leaving something behind at the last station as we moved forward but taking it with us…precious cargo…to the end of the line. I think of poets who have captured and preserved with spare and lovely words and phrases the fleeting instances of life that they experienced–the beauty or the pain or the painfully transient beauty. If poetry is the pinning down of these moments for others long afterward to open, animate, and feel again, then poets are, for sure, the heroes and heroines of all humanity.


The Things We Carry

A friend recently shared a story her cousin had written about his decision as a young boy to fill his new fly-fishing vest with a “charm” or token from each of his family members.  It was a novel little idea that led to his bag of charms growing over the years and coming to represent so much more to him than a way to fill his pockets.  I loved this story, and it made me think for a moment about the things we carry.  Kristin once told me that her favorite assigned novel in high school was the book The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s story of a Vietnam platoon and the tokens each man valued enough to keep with him.   As someone who would claim she doesn’t value possessions much, I must confess I am nevertheless passionate about what I would probably call my personal “treasures.” When it comes to the old question about what you would save if the house was on fire, I always say “just the family,” but my heart always hurts for just a moment when I think of the loss of some of the other things I carry.   I am a minimalist when it comes to home décor.  My house is full of light and space and the view of the outdoors is my favorite interior design element.  I find light and room more restful than lovely furniture, art objects, fabrics, paint, or interior accessories.  There’s no accounting for personal taste, but this is mine.  Thus, it is in the places I allow clutter that you can see what I care about.  My home, where it is cluttered, is filled with odd accumulated little treasures—stacks of old books that came from my relatives, stones collected from everywhere that my children or I have been, photos, refrigerator magnets, a sprawling set of blue and white dishes I almost never use that were Grandma’s treat for all our birthday meals, Christmas ornaments, the silver tea service like my mother’s that is oddly out of place in our contemporary home but which she gave each of us as a wedding gift, the two little jade figurines that perched on Grandma’s kitchen windowsill that now live on mine…Joe’s awkward little school pottery projects, every card or letter people I love have ever written me, books…did I say books?  And the place where these things find themselves is important too.  My kitchen window ledge is completely full—the one place I stand multiple times a day and look and remember.  My refrigerator door and the bulletin board I see when I come through the door every night are loaded with memories/photos/quotes/ribbons/tickets and the magnet collection Kristin and I increase each time we travel to someplace we love enough to deem “magnet worthy.” My bookshelves are loaded not only with books but with photos, children’s projects, homemade gifts, or little reminders of places I’ve been.  My dresser drawer is stuffed full of writing—letters and notes from Tom and the kids, my own scribbles, quotes or stories I’ve copied.  I can’t open it without them falling out, and I open it every day.  It should drive me crazy, but it doesn’t.  So, yes, even this minimalist loves charms, too.  They are those little reminders of the people who matter kept where we can see them every day and think of them every minute.  They are not cluttering our lives; they are, in fact, the visible reminders of them.  I love my friend’s story of this seventeen year old boy’s charms because he carried them with him…because somehow he knew just as Tim O’Brien’s soldiers did that a little piece of all the people we love is the best accessory we can have.