Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I wrote that last post during my free period. We haven't had city electricity since Friday's storm, and our generator at home is on the blink. Now that the juice in our batteries is gone, we are down to candles in the evening, and it's hard to blog that way.

Right after I wrote it, I had my eighth graders for Writing. We were correcting some sentences on the board when suddenly there was a loud rumbling sound and to me it felt as though the building moved. Take this with a pinch of salt, because I feel the building move many times a day, and often nobody else feels it. But this time several of my kids felt it too. They hesitated for a millisecond, looking at me, and I'm sure my face reflected my reaction of fear and panic, which of course I tried to suppress quickly. Too late, though - half the class was running outside, screaming.

When I got the kids back inside (most of them), we talked about not panicking, about leaving the building quietly if that was necessary. I urged them to try to remain as calm as possible and not make noise, because they might need to hear important instructions. One girl was in tears, and later I went out in the hall with her and another girl and we prayed together (and I cried too).

You have to understand that in my eighth grade class there are several kids who had significant losses in the earthquake: I'm talking about the loss of parents and the loss of their homes. Nearly all the students in the class lost people they loved. One student spent time under the rubble and was pulled out. It's easy to say, "Don't panic," but it's a lot easier said than done.

As a teacher, I was proud of myself that I was able to finish the lesson once I had them relatively calmed down. One student spent the rest of the class period in the hall, but most of them were with me, and more or less on task. And I was proud of my students because they were able to focus reasonably well. These are scary experiences for my kids - and for me. We just have to deal with them as well as we can.


I wish I could share all my stories about my students, but of course it wouldn't be ethical for me to write details about them on my blog, especially now that so many people know who I am and where I teach. Anybody who is used to dealing with 12-14-year-olds knows anyway how wonderful and frustrating and inspiring and maddening they are.

We're accustomed to talking about kids in terms of their potential, what they may become one day. That's appropriate, but there's so much to them right now, as well. My daughter gets annoyed because she says whenever she expresses an opinion, someone is sure to tell her that she will probably change her mind when she's older. "It's irrelevant what I'll think when I'm older," she huffs. "This is what I think now."

She's right. The future matters, but it may never come. Now matters now. And right now I love these kids, the humor and mischief of them, the confusion and disorganization of them, the unexpected kindness I see between them. I love the way they list their closest friends as siblings on Facebook (I know the feeling, guys). I love the way they throw footballs and kick soccer balls and get excited about what they are reading. Even the ones who refuse to read - I love them too. I just keep working on them.

Kids: what a gift they are, even when they are driving you crazy. Even when you feel as though you sound like the teacher in Peanuts to them, and all they hear is "Wha wha wha wha" when you speak. I miss the ones that have left and I welcome the new ones.

I remember the first teacher evaluation I ever got. I was 21 and in my first semester as a TA. Some of my students were older than I was, and I had no idea what I was doing as a teacher. My evaluator wrote that my manner in the classroom was "very pleasant, like a mother," and then, obviously realizing how unlikely it was that I could be a mother to those kids when I was barely out of my teens, "or an older sister." Now that I'm old enough to be all my students' mother, and now that I've been teaching longer than any members of my current classes have been alive, I think back to that and thank God for all the students I've had since then and how much I have learned from all of them - way more than they have learned from me.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Eight Days

I have enjoyed Edwidge Danticat's children's books, Behind the Mountains and Anacaona: Golden Flower, and since she has small children herself, I keep hoping she will write more. I had the privilege of meeting this wonderful Haitian writer a few years ago and I have enjoyed sharing her work with my students. I was excited when I heard that she had written a children's book about the Haitian earthquake.

But she did even better than write about the earthquake. In Eight Days: A Story of Haiti (Danticat's first picture book, as far as I know), she has written about normal, ordinary, beautiful life in Haiti.

Junior is seven, and he is trapped under his house for eight days. We know from the first page that he is rescued, as we see him surrounded by news crews with huge cameras. But then we find out what he has played in his mind during his time in the rubble. Here are all the normal things Haitian children do, like marbles, kite-flying, hide and seek, visiting Papa at his business, singing in the choir at the church, soccer. Here is a beautiful Haitian family, welcoming back their rescued son. There is grief in this story, but it is understated. The main message is that Haiti is a place worth rebuilding, a place of hope.

In an afterword, Danticat talks about returning to Haiti after the earthquake and having an elderly neighbor say to her, "Thank God your children knew Haiti before all this." I am thankful for the same thing, that my children knew Haiti before all this, and that there is more to Haiti than "earthquake-ravaged." "When you look into the eyes of any child," Danticat reminds us, "you are looking at much more possibility than words can ever express."

I am thankful Edwidge Danticat wrote this book and I hope many children will read it and learn about the Haiti that was, and will be again.

This post is linked to the October 2nd edition of the Saturday Review of Books.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Who I Am Now

I am well aware that the situation in Haiti, post-earthquake, and now post-storm, is not just about me-me-me, but I have been thinking about the changes I see in myself since January, and decided to write a post about them. If nothing else, it will take my mind off the fact that thousands of tents housing earthquake survivors were destroyed in Friday's storm.

I've written before about how much more I appreciate life now. I find myself using the word privilege all the time. It's a privilege to get up in the morning, to spend time with my husband, to parent my children, to do my job, to interact with my friends. People are precious and I love them more than I ever have. It's not new for me to love people, but I feel like the Grinch, whose "heart grew three sizes that day." Each day is a gift, and each person in my life is a gift, and I am filled with gratitude.

I've always been a very emotional person, crying far too easily. I remember how annoyed I was in college when I took the Myers-Briggs personality inventory and came down on the F side instead of T (F is for Feeling, T is for Thinking). Anybody who knew me at all would have known I'd be an F, but I wanted so badly to be coolly rational instead of the emotional wreck I felt I was. My friend Diane once said of me, "Ruthie's so healthy," and in context she meant that I was "in touch with my feelings," which she thought was a good thing and I thought was a bad thing. Now, my emotional wreck status has gone to a whole new level. While I function in the classroom and am not a quivering heap at every moment, I cry during worship every single time, cry when I read, cry when I hear people's stories. Today we went out for lunch after church, and I suddenly remembered the last time we had been there, and whom we had seen, friends who suffered loss in the earthquake and are no longer in the country, and, you guessed it, I cried. I'm having to learn to accept that this is the way it is now.

I worry less now. I wrote about that here. I thought I would be scared to sleep in my house when I came back, but although I am still abnormally sensitive to sounds and movement, and frequently think an earthquake is starting, I really am not living life in fear. It seems such a waste of energy to fret about things that don't matter, and life and death are so far beyond my control, so why fret about life and death either?

The next one seems trivial. I almost always wear a necklace now. I stopped wearing much jewelry at all when my last baby was born, because he would pull on and break whatever I was wearing. That baby is now in second grade, but I had never really started again. It's not as though I have all that much - I don't even have pierced ears - but I do have some necklaces and bracelets, with sentimental value only, that I like to wear. Now my attitude is: what are you saving it for? Every day is a special occasion. In general now, if it brings me joy (and is harmless - obviously I still need that caveat), I try not to postpone it. My beautiful aunt, who died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago, always said that: "Don't postpone joy." I thought I was already living that way, but since the earthquake I understand what she was saying even more. And part of that is that I wear a necklace to work now.

Remember the scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Aslan tears the layers of scales off of the dragon Eustace, even though Eustace has been trying without success to remove them himself? I always thought that was a picture of conversion, and I still think that, but the longer I live the more I think that it's also a picture of life. I keep learning about more and more layers that I have and that God needs to remove. He uses the things that happen to me to remove more and more of my pride, and my pretense, and the barriers I've built up between myself and other people. (Note, I'm not saying that's why God lets terrible things happen - so that we can grow - but that if we allow them to, our circumstances can help us grow.)

Eustace tells Edmund:
"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know - if you've ever picked a scab at a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away."

"I know exactly what you mean," said Edmund.

I know what he means, too. It does hurt like billy-oh. Life is so much harder than I expected it would be. But it does feel good to get rid of some of the pointless worry, to live life in a more immediate way, to care a bit less about what others think of me. I have a long way to go before I am the person I want to be and the person God wants me to be. I hope not all of the peeling is as painful as these last few months have been.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Katie on the Storm

Katie wrote a great post about the storm.

Photo (taken on our campus) shamelessly stolen from Katie. (Actually, she said I could. Thanks, Katie.)

How to Get Boys to Read

This is an entertaining article. Apparently many publishers are producing "gross-out" books in order to encourage boys to read. I have the Captain Underpants books on my classroom shelf and they are quite popular, but I haven't heard of any of the others mentioned in the article. Thomas Spence concludes that
One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn't go very far.

I do have some challenges getting some of my students (male and female) to read, but at home everyone (male and female) reads about the same amount - a lot.

More on the Storm

Here's an account from the Heartline hospital.

An article about what happened.

I was talking to one of my students in class yesterday and she said this was the worst year she had ever been through. Not only was she displaced by the earthquake for six months, but now she has had to move out of her neighborhood due to being targeted by a gang that apparently wants to kidnap her. After the storm I saw her on campus and we talked again. One more thing for this kid to deal with. When will it end?

And she at least had a dry place to sleep last night, unlike so many in this city.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I was in the middle of writing that last post, sitting in my classroom after school, when out of nowhere a huge tropical wind and rainstorm whipped up, knocking down trees, smashing a car on campus, bringing down branches everywhere, and putting out the electricity (a tree fell on the wires leading to the generator). Many of my students were hysterical, as they tried to call their parents and couldn't get through. These things bring back memories of the earthquake that are all too fresh.

If our campus is a mess, you can imagine what tent cities all over this city must look like. Please pray for the people of Port-au-Prince.

Now It Can Be Told

My husband was away this week. He left on Monday morning and got back this afternoon. I didn't want to blog about this fact because I didn't want to advertise online that I was home alone.

This is pretty absurd. For one thing, I was hardly home alone. I won't list all the members of my household, but there are quite a few other people who live there all the time. But secondly, I don't think the local criminals go online to check out blogs and Facebook before deciding whom to rob and whom to kidnap. (Although in other, more dangerous places, such as New Albany, Indiana, this does apparently happen.) It's a lot more likely in my neighborhood that criminals would watch me coming and going and realize that my husband wasn't with me as he usually is. Call it low-tech crime, but it works for them.

I was actually concerned not so much that I would be a victim of crime, but that everything in the house would break as soon as my husband was out of sight. This is an international problem, reported by many of my friends around the world. Usually at our house the electricity will stop working. This time several things were out of order before he ever left on his trip, and our fridge was actually returned during this week, now fixed.

The main reason that this trip felt like a big hurdle to me was that this was the first time I have been in Haiti without my husband since the earthquake. His last international trip before the quake was at the end of November, and on the night of January 12th I kept thinking, What if this had happened while he was out of the country? He was so calm and seemed to know what to do, and his calmness helped all of us, in our family and at our school, feel that everything was going to be OK. I worried that while he was gone this time, something might happen and that I wouldn't be able to cope. I doubt my ability to cope with things these days, because on the night of January 12th, I caught a glimpse of how far beyond me circumstances can go.

He hadn't been gone 24 hours before there was an aftershock, but it was only a 4.4, and I slept through it. I dealt with the other minor crises that came up without too much difficulty. And I know that any trips he takes after this will not seem so overwhelming. The first time is always the hardest.

I am glad to have my husband back. I don't take his presence for granted any more.

Poetry Friday: Sonnet 30

It's been a long time since I've posted any Shakespeare. In college my husband and I took an class on Shakespeare's sonnets where we read and discussed all of them. Today's reminds me of how incredibly blessed I am in my friends. I can hardly believe how many wonderful people love me - certainly many more than I deserve. This poem, like "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes," Sonnet 29, talks about all the things there are to feel badly about, and brood over, and grieve, and how friendship can help lift those burdens. I am grateful for all of the people who have helped me through those "fore-bemoaned moans" all through my life.


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Broken Shoes

Today as I was walking to school with my children, someone I know called out to me, and as I turned to greet him, I twisted my foot on the rocky road and broke my shoe. I was almost at the gate and didn't have time to go back home, especially since going home at this point would involve shuffling in a broken shoe. I wasn't going to go barefoot on the road. Look at the photo, which shows the back gate to the school. You can see that there is not just dirt, but serious trash, some of it very nasty and odoriferous. Instead I kept shuffling in the direction I'd already been headed.

All morning, I dealt with my broken shoe. When I walked around the campus, I kept the intact shoe on my foot and carried the other one. When I was teaching, I just took my shoes off completely. I don't think I've ever taught barefoot before but it is not at all unpleasant. (I try to be barefoot as much as possible.)

As I looked at those shoes, I thought, My goodness. Those are in horrible condition. I can't believe I haven't already thrown them away! They were far from new. Unusually for me, I actually remember where I got them. In February 2009 I went to Florida to attend a teacher retreat with a friend. While I was at her house, she gave me a bunch of shoes to take home. Most of them I gave away when I got back to Haiti, but these were really comfortable flip-flop style shoes in black leather and they went with everything. I have worn them a lot, often for walking on that road to school (see photo again), and they were dirty and scratched as well as broken.

As I waited in line for lunch, I showed my shoe to the receptionist from the school office. She immediately told me to take it off and said she'd get it fixed for me. Not only that, she went and found me another pair of shoes to wear. (Talk about resourceful!) They were a little big, but they were much nicer than the ones I had been wearing.

Just over two hours later, during my free period, I went to the office for some other reason, and the receptionist handed me a bag with my shoes in it. She'd had them fixed on the street. They looked like new. Not only was the broken part fixed, but the shoes had been cleaned up and polished. Price: fifty gourdes, just a little bit over one US dollar.

And to think I was going to throw them away. I don't live in a disposable society. (Yes, I know there is trash in the road, but that's because there is nowhere else for most people to put it. Haitians make far less trash than Americans do.) How often do I give up too quickly on a person or a situation, when just a little more effort, or maybe even just asking for help instead of trying to handle things myself because I'm too proud to admit I need other people, could bring a solution? This is what I thought about as I walked home in my "new" shoes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


My daughter always puts up more of a fuss than usual about getting up on Tuesdays. There are several reasons for this, but one, she admitted, is that "Tuesday is earthquake day." Tuesday, January 12th has spoiled Tuesdays a little bit.

Today was especially earthquake day because last night there was an aftershock. It was a small one and I slept through it, but a couple of my eighth graders felt it and one, especially, was very upset and didn't want to sit in the classroom. She insisted I leave the door open, and while I didn't want to make things worse by giving too much attention to her anxiety, neither did I want to invalidate her very real fear. She has good reasons to fear earthquakes, given what she lost on January 12th.

My students are a little bit on edge, too, because of kidnapping stories which are once again beginning to make the rounds. Several students know people who have been kidnapped in the last couple of weeks.

It also rained today. Every teacher I know hopes it won't rain at recess, but at our school when it rains during the day we have extra problems. Our cafeteria is outdoors, and ninety-nine percent of the time, this works fine. But when it's raining there's a bit of chaos as we try to keep everyone dry during lunch.

Here's hoping Wednesday will be a better day!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Thank You for Crying

We saw our friend J. today for the first time since we saw him in the States in June. He is back in Haiti for a visit after leaving on a med-evac plane the night of the earthquake. It was great to see him and talk to him.

When we said goodbye, he said to me, "Thank you for crying at appropriate times. And if you want to cry at inappropriate times, that's fine with me too."

It was such a sweet thing to say, and so typical of J., who, although he lost his wife that night, spent our first phone conversation after the quake making sure I was OK. I know how hard all of this has been on me, and my losses pale to nothing in comparison with his. There's absolutely nothing I can do for him except listen and cry, and he listened to us as much as we listened to him. But I sure can cry - that I'm good at. I'm learning more about how important it is to weep with those who weep. There's so much to weep for in this world, so much pain and suffering everywhere you look.

Thank you for crying for Haiti. Thank you for reading, and caring, and continuing to pray for those who grieve and mourn.

You Have to Accept that It's Going to Take a Long Time

Psychologist Sandrine Kenol works with Mercy Corps doing mental health care in Port-au-Prince. She says:
People are only now starting to accept their loss. There has been a lot of denial. Also in Haiti, activities started really early after the earthquake. The earthquake happened on Tuesday, January 12, and by the next Monday the city and the marketplaces started back up again. Everyone started working really soon after the earthquake and I think that was part of the denial. Because people were shocked, but still they had to live, and they had to find something to keep them from thinking about what had happened. But even today you have evidence of what happened. You have rubble everywhere.

It's taking a long time for all of us to recover, but it's normal. Even for me, in January, I was expecting that in the summer, everything would be normal again. And now I am starting to accept that it’s going to take a long time. I’m starting to understand why it takes a long time, and I’m starting to accept that it’s not going to be easy. I think a lot of people were discouraged at first but when you see the amount of work that has to be done, you have to accept that it’s going to take a long time. And do what you can.

Here's the rest of this excellent article.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Poetry Friday: Poems from the Japanese

I've been feeling very scattered this week, for various reasons. At school I've been trying to stay caught up on everything so that I will be ready for today's parent/teacher conferences. I've also been writing emails to parents about their children's behavior and posting grades online - without a reliable internet connection. And, of course, I've been teaching five periods a day, plus an independent study, policing the hallways, grading, and generally doing my job. At home I have been watching my kitchen turn into an Appliance Graveyard, tracking the movements of a large rat which chewed through the side of an Action Packer we were using to store dog food, and dealing with the daily drama of husband, children, and household. And always, always, there is the roller coaster of grief and joy that I've been riding since January.

Last night I found something which, while not a permanent cure for all of that, was at least a treatment. I picked up One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, edited and translated by Kenneth Rexroth, from my shelf, and read the entire thing, cover to cover.

These poems are mostly about love, in many permutations: longing for someone who doesn't show up, spending time with someone (though usually brief), mourning for someone who is dead or otherwise gone. They are sad and lovely and take me to a different world, a world of bamboo and pine trees and rocky beaches, a world of four seasons, each one painted with exquisite detail.

The best thing about this book, though, is the bookmark in it. My husband sent me the book for Christmas the first year we were dating. I was in Massachusetts doing my Christmas job and he was in Tennessee doing - I can't remember what. This was, after all, many years ago (about 23). The bookmark is the letter he sent with the gift, such a wonderful letter which I am sure I received with great delight. On the back he had copied out one of the poems from the book, in the romaji, or phonetic rendering, that Rexroth provides under his English translations. I guess I must have had to look through the book to figure out which poem he was sending me, and then read the English. It turned out to be by Hitomaro, who lived from about 662 to 710. (The book contains several poems by Hitomaro, and I love all of them; maybe I'll share more another week. They are about love, and growing old, and some about bereavement.)

Here's the poem:

In the empty mountains
The leaves of the bamboo grass
Rustle in the wind.
I think of a girl
Who is not here.


You can imagine how I reacted to that, and I have to imagine, too, because I feel as though that long-ago girl was a different person from the one I am now. I do remember that I was crazy about him, and I know that I am thankful we are still together all these years later, complete with jobs, kids, dead appliances, rodents, earthquake trauma, and love.

And poems.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

You Give and Take Away

This morning in Chapel we sang, "You give and take away, You give and take away; my heart will choose to say, Lord, blessed be Your Name."

I thought of the morning after the earthquake, when someone who had been rescued the night before was found dead on the soccer field. She must have had terrible internal injuries and probably nothing could have been done for her; it seemed so unfair after she had been pulled out from the rubble, to die anyway.

Her aunt, a school employee, wailed those words in Kreyol, "The Lord gave; the Lord took; blessed be the Name of the Lord."

On our way to class after Chapel, an eighth grader asked if we were going to pray before we started. Today would have been his grandmother's birthday, he said. She died in the earthquake.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Artist is Not Dead

I saw a house by the road. Painted on it in Kreyol it said, "The artist is not dead." Then it gave a phone number to call if you wanted him (or her) to do some work for you.

Here's an article from January about some of the losses of the art world in the earthquake. I heard an interview with a Haitian art collector who said art was over for Haiti. But I don't think so.

The artist is not dead.

Here's an article (in French) about some of the earthquake art that is being done now. I have seen some for sale by the side of the road. Haitians are artists, and they will keep making art and beauty around them no matter what.

The artist is not dead.

Praying with Them

One of the things I always do in my homeroom is ask the kids if they have prayer requests. Over the years I have prayed for many sick and injured pets, math tests, and soccer games. I never pray that their team will win, which is what they always want me to pray; instead I say something like, "Please let everyone have a good time and nobody get hurt." My all-time favorite request remains one from several years ago. The student was given to telling interminable stories during prayer request time, and she started this one by telling about how she and her family had been doing some painting, and a lizard had fallen into the paint and drowned. I didn't know where this was going, and determined in my mind that I would not pray for a dead lizard. My theology won't stretch that far. When I asked what exactly I was supposed to pray for, the girl responded, "Pray that it won't happen again."

My current homeroom had a teacher in the past who taught them about the "unspoken request." For those who didn't grow up around evangelicalese, this means that you want people to pray for you but you don't want to specify why. We always have several of these. Some of the kids will say things like, "I have twelve unspoken requests."

I have prayed for many kidnapping victims (I wrote a bit about that here). One year we had a student whose younger brother was kidnapped and we got all the students together and prayed for his release. Afterwards I questioned how wise we were to get all the hysterical middle schoolers together like that, but when the boy was released within the hour, it was a very faith-building experience for our kids. Many of them still talk about it, even some who have graduated from high school by now. I have also prayed for sick people, for elections, for family problems. My kids often ask me to pray for dead people, and I don't do that (I'm far too Protestant), though of course I'll pray for the people left behind.

This year we have the same mix as usual, but one request really stuck with me this past week. The student said that he had had a friend die during the earthquake, and that now the friend's mother was, in his words, "going crazy." I keep thinking of that woman, and of all the other mothers and fathers and other relatives who are grieving unspeakable losses. I keep praying for them.

Monday, September 13, 2010


I'm not sure why I felt sad today. Maybe it was reading the essay of the student who spent time under the rubble after the earthquake (and yes, he was rescued, but so many were not). Maybe it was my daughter talking about how little she remembers from the first half of last school year, and realizing that I, too, can hardly recall what happened in the first semester. We talked this morning in our staff meeting about interacting with parents, in preparation for upcoming parent/teacher conferences. It's hard to think about what some of these parents have been through this year. Maybe it was those reflections that started my sadness.

Whatever the reason, today I have felt such a deep longing for none of this to be real. Maybe I will wake up and it will all be a dream, a typical seventh grade way of wrapping up a story when the plot thickens a bit too much.

Yes, God is good. Yes, there are reasons for optimism and moments of great joy. But sometimes I just feel discouraged and sad.

Tips for New English Teachers

This is a good article (thanks, NCTE) for new English teachers, but it contains some tips that all of us, ahem, older English teachers could use, as well.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Seen on the Way to Church

There's a reason I rarely post photos from anywhere except the way to church. I rarely go anywhere else except home and work. I love to travel and see new things and have adventures, but for this time in my life, I go back and forth from home to work to home again. (I do have adventures, though - it's really not possible to live in Haiti without having adventures. Unless, that is, you have absolutely no imagination at all.)

We took a different route today, so I saw some destruction I hadn't yet seen. Some of it was terrible. In one house, the roof was at a 30 degree angle and there were giant X-shaped cracks in the walls that hadn't yet crumbled. Yet there were people inside the house. In other places, the gate would be slightly open leading into someone's small concrete courtyard, and you'd glimpse a couple of tents inside. Other buildings were completely flattened and looked as though no cleanup had been done at all.

But I decided today to post some photos of more mundane things.

This is a roadside shoe store.

More vendors. Notice that the display case of choice these days for roadside vendors is an army camp bed. Loads of these were donated after the earthquake and Haitians don't waste anything.

A tent city with laundry drying. I know I said I would just show you mundane things today, but the tent cities are mundane. That's what is normal now.

This tap-tap says "Welcome to Paris," but I'm pretty sure we weren't in Paris today.

Eight Months

Today marks eight months since the earthquake of January 12th. The real tragedy is how little has changed. Though there is some work being done to clear rubble and many shelters have been built, as you drive down the street you continue to see broken buildings and everywhere, everywhere, tents. Today I talked to a friend, A., who has been working directly with people in tent cities. She spoke of one woman in particular who used to be a seamstress, but her sewing machine was crushed in the earthquake and now she has no way of earning money to support herself and her four children. Her husband died several years ago. She can't even search through the ruins of her house, because other houses fell on top of hers. If life is impossible for people with skills, imagine those who had no job even before the earthquake and no training of any kind. What is their future? And yet A. said that people are not giving up; they do not despair. They keep looking for food each day, looking for ways to take care of their families.

Here is an article describing some of the challenges still facing Haiti. It feels as though the world has moved on, as though those weeks of deep grief across the globe for Haiti's suffering are a long-ago memory. And here, people settle down to their new lives.

I measure every Grief I meet

I got this poem in my Poem-A-Day email yesterday. They had chosen it for September 11th. It works equally well for today, the eight month anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti.

I Measure every Grief I meet (561)
by Emily Dickinson

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –

I wonder if it hurts to live –
And if They have to try –
And whether – could They choose between –
It would not be – to die –

I note that Some – gone patient long –
At length, renew their smile –
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil –

I wonder if when Years have piled –
Some Thousands – on the Harm –
That hurt them Early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –

The Grieved – are many – I am told –
There is the various Cause –
Death – is but one – and comes but once –
And only nails the Eyes –

There's Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –
A sort they call "Despair" –
There's Banishment from native Eyes –
In sight of Native Air –

And though I may not guess the kind –
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –

To note the fashions – of the Cross –
And how they're mostly worn –
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like my own –

Friday, September 10, 2010

Poetry Friday: Homespun collars, homespun hearts

Last week I found on my shelf an attractive copy of A. E. Housman's More Poems, published in 1936. I see on Amazon that I could buy a copy of this book for anything from one cent to $52.34, but my copy cost me $2 in some place I have now forgotten.

These poems are mostly short and mostly sad, and many of them are about unrequited love. They are old-fashioned, and I like them. My favorite is the same one that I liked last time I read this book. I think it is a lovely image of homesickness, and of being in a place where you feel that everyone else is a bit more sophisticated than you are or will ever be. It has no title, just a number.


From the wash the laundress sends
My collars home with ravelled ends;
I must fit, now these are frayed,
My neck with new ones London-made.

Homespun collars, homespun hearts,
Wear to rags in foreign parts.
Mine's at least as good as done,
And I must get a London one.

Can't you imagine the young man examining his frayed collars in his lonely room? I'm not sure his London heart will be an improvement over his homespun one.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bird by Bird

I just finished reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I've read this book before, but I found an unclaimed copy when I got back to school in August and decided to read it again before making too much of an effort to find its owner.

I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship with Anne Lamott. I love her funny, irreverent, original take on the world. In her books on faith, I am constantly struck by her insights. I find her incredibly quotable - except I don't use that kind of language. Yeah, this is where the ambivalent part comes in. She makes me feel very priggish, cliché-ridden, and old (though actually I think she is older than I am). Sometimes her irreverence veers into territory where I'm uncomfortable.

All that being said, I love this book. Perhaps it's because her theme isn't faith here, but writing.

Here are some great quotes, to indulge my urge to quote her:
Publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. The thing you had to force yourself to do - the actual act of writing - turns out to be the best part. It's like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.
I have found this to be true more than ever since the earthquake, in the writing I've done here on this blog and elsewhere. I've reached the point where I would write on my blog whether or not anyone read it (which is good, because some days I think hardly anyone does). I've always written, off and on, but now it feels like a lifeline to me.

Here is Lamott on first drafts:
But the bad news is that if you're at all like me, you'll probably read over what you've written and spend the rest of the day obsessing, and praying that you do not die before you can completely rewrite or destroy what you have written, lest the eagerly waiting world learn how bad your first drafts are.
Here's what she has to say about books:
For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don't get in real life - wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean. Aren't you?
And then, because I've been collecting quotes about middle school lately, here she is on finding someone to read your drafts for you:
It's like asking for a date, so while you are doing this, you will probably be rolfed by all your most heinous memories of seventh and eighth grade.
And later, talking about a benefit she was supposed to read at once:
There was a paragraph about the event in the book section, and once again I was not included. This time the publicity chairwoman called, upset and so full of apologies that she managed to mollify me. Then there was a big mention in the society pages, and guess what? It felt like seventh grade all over again.
(Just like in the quote I posted yesterday, seventh grade is the metaphor for being wretched.)

I recommend this book (book #54 of the year), whether you want to write or not. It's entertaining and fun and insightful.

This post is linked to the September 11th Saturday Review of Books.

Helping Kids Choose Books

My mother sent me this great article on helping middle schoolers talk about books. Here's a taste of it:
Saricks suggests replacing the use of subject headings with something she calls “appeal terms,” essentially adjectives that effectively convey a reader’s reaction to certain elements of a book. The reason? They allow us to move away from plot summaries and help us to connect seemingly disparate titles by determining their common appeal.... Thanks to the work of all our language arts teachers, our students can now identify the pace, characterization, story line, and tone of a book. How’d we do it? We taught them to use an abbreviated list of Saricks’s adjectives, or appeal terms, that fall into each of the four categories. For example, for pacing, kids now often use words like “breakneck,” “engrossing,” “fast,” “relaxed,” and “unhurried.” For characterization, their go-to words include “familiar,” “multiple points of view,” “quirky,” “realistic,” and “well developed.” For story line, they take advantage of descriptions like “action oriented,” “character centered,” “violent,” “gentle,” “open-ended,” “thought provoking,” and “tragic.” And for tone, they might say “dark,” “edgy,” “hard edged,” “humorous,” “magical,” “romantic,” and “suspenseful.”
When kids can identify what it was they liked about a book, it's easier for them to find other books that share those characteristics. I love it.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Seventh Grade and Misery

I read an article today about how being defriended (yes, that is now a word) on Facebook causes similar distress to the end of an offline relationship. I don't think anyone has defriended me lately - though really, how would I know? I have so many friends I don't even know, people who added me after the earthquake. But what really struck me about the article was the last paragraph:
“In the cases where I was defriended, it was without warning and I hate to admit it, but I felt rejected,” she said. “It is interesting how Facebook can feel just like being back in the seventh grade.”

Ah yes, the seventh grade - that universal metaphor for all that is uncomfortable about human relationships: insecurity, irrationality, unkindness. Kind of makes you wonder what kind of person would choose to spend her days with seventh graders, doesn't it?

(Here's the article.)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Reading Update

Book #51 was The Grace that Keeps this World, by Tom Bailey. I picked this book up because I was intrigued by the title but also because of the blurb on the cover by Leif Enger. It's the story of a tragedy, and you pretty much know this from the first page. The story is told in many different voices, and each one is so lovingly and carefully rendered that you feel you get to know all of the characters. Gary Hazen is a strong, dominant father whose influence on his two sons they both appreciate and resent. I completely believed in this family: the wife who works constantly to maintain the kind of stark, self-sufficient life that she and her husband have chosen, the two sons who want to please their father but have lives of their own that they feel obligated to hide from him. The book is beautifully written and I recommend it.

My brother loaned me the next book several years ago, and I finally read it this week. The book was Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury. This is the lushly written story of Douglas Spaulding, a 12-year-old, and the summer of 1928. The metaphor of the title is the wine his grandfather makes every year from the dandelions in his yard; each one represents one day of the summer, and the wine preserves those beautiful summer days, just as Bradbury's writing does. I think my favorite part was the old man who makes surreptitious phone calls to Mexico, just so he can listen to the noises of a city far away. Since this is mostly a book about enjoying the here and now, I'm not sure what that preference says about me.

I saw a friend reading book #53, Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, and asked her about it. I had the impression it was a YA novel, and that was inaccurate. When my friend left the country in December she gave me this book, and I am just now getting a chance to read it. It's a disturbing story of Lee Fiora, a girl from the midwest who attends an exclusive east coast boarding school on a scholarship. Disturbing because Lee, to whose every self-absorbed musing we are privy, thinks so little of her own worth that she wastes four years in constant terror of what others think of her, how she should respond, what she should say or do to maintain a certain image of herself. Most sad is the relationship she has with a boy in her class who visits her dorm room at night but then doesn't acknowledge her during the day in front of his friends. "Excruciating," says one of the blurbs on the back, and that's exactly the right word. Since I, like Lee, attended boarding school on a scholarship, you might think I would relate to her, but my situation was so different, and my school was so different, that I really couldn't. Well, I could relate at some level to her painful insecurity, much as I'd rather not admit it, and since I have in my possession a journal I wrote at the age of 17, I have to confess that I was almost equally self-absorbed as Lee. But I don't think I ever thought of myself as completely worthless the way Lee appears to. This is probably a good book for someone who teaches teenagers to read but I can't say I especially enjoyed it.

This post is linked to the September 11th Saturday Review of Books.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Reading their Writing

Here I wrote that I was looking forward to reading student writing again. School has only been in session for three weeks, so I may still be in some kind of honeymoon period, but so far I am still enjoying reading what my kids write. Some of the papers are much better quality than others, and there are certain young writers whose work you either grab first, or save as a reward for the end, because you know their stuff will be good.

I read everything my students write in my class (except the notes they write to each other while I'm teaching, and yeah, I read quite a few of those too). I know people say you don't have to, but to me, this is my job. I was very disappointed with the lack of feedback my daughter received on her writing when she was at school in the States. She would turn things in and not get them back for weeks. That just ensures that all enthusiasm about the writing is gone by the time you get it back. Then all too often when her work was returned, there would be no response to the content itself, just red marks through any errors.

I don't respond perfectly, and I'm always reading about ways to do it better. I am sure that there are times when students get work back from me and are disappointed in my responses. But I do read it all, and I do try to react to what the kid is really saying, and not just to the mistakes she made.

It is a lot of fun to see the world through my students' eyes. I remember all too clearly what it was like to be 13, and I wouldn't take any money to go through that again. But I get to experience it again every day - for better or worse - as I read what the kids write. Sometimes what they write is hilarious (not always intentionally so) and sometimes it makes me cry. Sometimes I can't figure out what the writer meant, and have to sit down with him and figure out his sentences with his help.

There are tales of intrigue, full of explosions, adventures of 13-year-old boys who work for international spy agencies, à la Alex Rider. There are stories about teenagers who discover that they have special powers, à la Harry Potter or Charlie Bone. There are superhero stories, often populated by other members of the class and frequently containing descriptions of flatulence. Some girls write laments over beautiful, unattainable boys they love and wish would love them back. They write about high school and the romantic adventures which they imagine take place there. There are stories of pets that died and injuries sustained while riding motorcycles or walking down the street, stories of trips taken and fun at camp, stories about the birth of baby brothers and sisters. There are poems about their favorite colors and their cats and their parents. They tell of their BFFs, the meanness of people they thought cared about them, how hard it is to say goodbye. There are rants about injustice, both the suffering of the poor and the anguish of those who are forced to do homework, attend school against their will, and refrain from chewing gum in class.

And this year, there is piece after piece about an earthquake that changed their lives. This is some of the best writing I've ever read from middle schoolers. I am sure that part of that is because of my own intense emotional involvement in the topic. But I am also struck by my students' insight into their experience, both of the quake itself and of what happened to them afterwards, whether they were evacuated or stayed in Haiti. I am thinking seriously about producing some kind of anthology of their earthquake stories, because I think other people should read them, too.

I am honored to read this writing, the silly and the serious, because I believe it is all part of what my students are working through, both the ordinary growing up part and the recovering from extreme trauma part. Sure, some of my kids are squirrely and goofy; sure, some of them talk all the time; yes, one of them asked me in class last week why I hate him, since he had observed I scolded him for something and let someone else get away with the same thing. We're still dealing with seventh and eighth grade, and no instant maturity has been conferred on anyone - them or me. But what a blessing to be here, with them, right now! I thank God every day for letting me have this opportunity.

Come Home, Books

In the middle of this week one of the ninth graders came into my classroom. I typically get a lot of ninth grade visitors, many of whom come to appreciate me in those early weeks of high school much more than they did when I was actually their teacher. It's always fun to see them and ask them about their new, more grown-up lives. This particular visitor had already talked to me since school started, and given me a notebook in which she had written a love story she wanted me to read, and then we had talked about it when I gave her story back. But this visit had a purpose; she had a pile of books in her hand. And one of them was my copy of Catching Fire. I was very happy to see this book again since I had been looking for it. I'm about to order the third book in the series, Mockingjay, which just came out, and I was thinking I'd have to order myself a new copy of the second one as well.

Lots of my books are returning this way, brought in by parents who say they found them in their kids' rooms, carried in student backpacks, unearthed in piles in the basement of our building.

Apparently this particular student, the one clutching my copy of Catching Fire, who stayed at school after the earthquake, had simply gone into my classroom and helped herself to some books. She was explaining that she had had nothing to read. She didn't have to explain. I completely understood.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Poetry Friday: Charcoal

I had already written today's Poetry Friday post (I usually do them on Thursday night) but decided to postpone it to next week because of the smell wafting in my bedroom window. It's the smell of someone in the neighborhood making charcoal. I started thinking about a poem I wrote about this a while ago, and when I looked it up, I found I liked it better than I remembered.

Here is an article explaining the charcoal-making process and why all of this is an environmental disaster in Haiti.


Charbonnier est maître chez soi.
(The charcoal maker is the master in his own home.) - French proverb

Charcoal makers
Take scraps of wood,
and roots dug from the earth.
They bury them in a pit,
Set them alight
And cover the fire over
With grass,

They poke holes in the pile
To let out the smoke
Which rises,
Smelling like death,
From the mound.

Smelling like death,
Like decay,
A primeval smell
Like dinosaurs rotting
In prehistoric forests.
Except this time it is the forests
That are about to be extinct.

After a while,
The charbonniers dig up the charcoal,
Put it in bags,
And take it to sell.

Please, Monsieur Charbonnier,
I need your charcoal to cook
But my island needs trees to live.
The trees are gone,
Which is why you are using stumps.
When will they be gone too?

You, Monsieur Charbonnier,
are the master here.
For now.

by Ruth, from

I haven't ever taken a picture of people making charcoal, but here are some of people selling it.

You can buy it in giant bags like this...

or in tiny amounts from this lady. Propane is cheaper but it has big setup charges, and you can't buy just a squirt of propane, whereas you can buy a couple of sticks of charcoal when money is tight. For the poor, who live from day to day, there is not much of an alternative.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Theme Day - Open Air Market

Oops, I missed posting this yesterday, on the first day of the month, which is always Theme Day at the Daily Photo blogs. This month's theme is "Open Air Market." You can see thumbnails of the participants' photos here. There are lots of wonderful bright photos this month.