It's all about the narrative

Exorcism: a sequel


I started this piece at the beginning of the summer but abandoned it because I didn’t want to jinx things.  Now summer is over, and things did become more challenging than they were when I first started this post, but the strength and resilience have remained.

So I finally finished my post about summer school , and now it’s summer again.

Well, you might be asking, how’s it going?  Are you students still triggering bizarre introspective journeys while you are supposed to be managing a debate on greenspace in Toronto?

And the answer is no.  Summer school is summer school — this pastiche of charming moments and, yes, sullen disregard.  The latter is still a challenge to me and I occasionally ask myself if I have exactly the right kind of personality  for teaching teenagers.  However, it doesn’t feel as personal any more.  At the moment, the dominant reaction is irritation rather than paralysis.

On another level too, I feel that something has been exorcised.  That idea:  I would hate to be a student in this class* — it’s not a comforting one.  It had been lingering at the edges of my consciousness throughout my teaching career.  I thought I could suppress it by refusing to confront it, but things don’t work that way.  This wraith generated a vague sense of guilt that undermined my confidence as a teacher.

Well, there was a point this term where I thought to myself, “I actually don’t care if you don’t like this class, because I know that what we are doing right now is exactly what I would have loved at your age.”

The feeling was short-lived, which is a good thing because a) I like anchovies and tapenade and garter snakes and maybe you don’t and b) you know, you really should care if the students don’t like the class.

Still, it was a moment of strength and pride.

So something happened to cauterize this psychic injury. Was it indeed a Jungian moment? Did I face the full embodiment of my greatest fear and in the act of confronting it vanquish it?

Or was it perhaps in the writing that the Jungian journey became real?  As I wrote that post over the intervening months, I found the story shaping itself in my mind.  Perhaps the actual classroom moment was just the seed of the experience.  Perhaps the true catharsis came later. Was it in articulating the emotions, in mapping the journey, that I truly came to understand and manage the conflicts going on inside me?

It’s getting a little chicken-or-the-egg here.  Short answer: things are better; evil teenage-self seems to have receded; summer school is done and part of me can’t wait for next July.

*serendipitously, I happened upon this piece by Hana Ticha while I was writing this post.





There’s a thirst to starting to learn a new language, a glee when one deciphers  a new word independently.  It reminds me of the way my children laughed when they first made that letter-sound-meaning connection.

I’m learning Arabic  — my first new language since my teens.  And yes, the language brain is not what it was, but “tho’ much is taken much abides” as the wise poet said. * What I didn’t expect was to be having so much fun.

But what is most important about this thirst is that it’s contagious.  A group of learners will spread the excitement amongst themselves, and beyond that, to the instructors and school staff.  I missed out on the big waves of refugee immigration — from Vietnam and Somalia — but I do remember when  the last big group of Colombian immigrants crossed the border and how our halls were alive with the buzz of Spanish and the energy of people for whom learning English was a true survival mechanism.  Every week they could see quantifiable progress in their English; what’s more, this progress translated into greater ease that they felt as they settled into their new homes.

In recent years, immigration has been restricted to more proficient speakers.  The tone has changed.  English classes for most have been a choice rather than a necessity.  While this has its advantages — students with more specific ideas of what they want from a class –there is something lacking.  We can spend weeks discussing the use of infinitive versus gerund forms, but even if that information stays with them, knowing  the difference between “I had trouble doing that.”  I got into trouble for doing that” and “I went to a lot of trouble to do that”  will not necessarily make it appreciably easier for them to make small talk on the bus.

But now…

Surely you’ve seen the news photos of Our Handsome Prime Minister hugging parka-clad children. ** Canada has welcomed tens of thousands of refugees over the past 7 months.  Many of them have settled in Toronto, and a great deal of them are at a basic English level.  Again, we have an influx of people for whom English is literally a survival need, and who are clearly aware of its importance. I have met members of this community in different settings and in each case I have been struck by the intensity of their motivation to learn.

This could be our opportunity, a chance to infuse new energy into the ESL system, on the level of funding (1 student = x government $), but also on the level of morale.  A flood of new  students, especially at the beginner level, could bring that contagious thirst that would give all involved a new sense of purpose.

And yet…

I’m not hearing about that.  I think the students are coming.  When I talk to colleagues at the Board, some of them tell me that they have seen their numbers leap.  But I hear no official pronouncement from the Board welcoming these new learners, no billboards promising broad educational vistas to beaming newcomers. What’s more, I’m bombarded with frustratingly ill-informed messages from the media, stories of newcomers on 6-month waiting lists for English classes, or even one organization dismissing other sources of ESL education as “inadequate” for refugees.*** Even worse, I’m not hearing these claims refuted by the school boards.  I have first hand knowledge that classrooms are sitting half-empty.  We do have space for those students and we do have first-rate programs for helping them.  Why is nobody screaming this from the rooftops?

Community language organizations need to step up, to promote themselves as the best and most accessible option for the refugee community. This makes good business sense, but it’s also common courtesy: we need to let our New Canadians know that they are welcome here.  Management also has to improve internal communications.  Present this to your employees as an exciting new development, a challenge and an opportunity to learn more about another culture, a real chance to make a difference.  Make them see that the work they do is of vital importance — to each individual learner, but also to the country as a whole.

Before you yell at me

Yes I know.  I’m essentially an outsider at this point.  You may bristle at my easy criticisms. You may argue that in fact you are taking many steps to accommodate these new learners.  That’s as may be, but I’m not hearing it from where I am, and I’m pretty close to the ESL world.  You  should be making a noise that I can hear across the city.  Wake up, guys!  This is the work that we were born to do.

*this quote set off a chain of memories and associations that evolved into its own blogpost 

** at least he managed to keep his shirt on this time, as opposed to this one and this one; there’s also this.

***not linking or naming the parties involved, but it definitely did happen

Crawl Inside your Skin — Empathy Again

So I’ve been talking about teachers and empathy and about the fact that despite all the blather from the cute cartoon figures at the bottom of the well, empathy is not always the best quality for teachers.  In the subtly named post Empathy Sucks, I talk about how feeling your students’ sadness can limit your effectiveness by weakening you at the moment when they most need you to be strong.

In this post, though, I’d like to look at it from a different angle:  how much do you really want to know about what your students are feeling?  I’m happy this idea came along because I was looking for a way to talk about a little epiphany I had when working with visiting teenagers this past summer.

The summer program is where we go to atone for our 8 months of 12 weekly contact teaching hours at full time pay rates.  It’s where we go to remind ourselves that there are worse classroom offences than a misplaced citation.  Summer teaching is epic — in the rigour it demands, but also in the satisfaction it provides if things actually do go well.

The greatest difference, though is the balance of power. With my regular students, things are simple: they complete the tasks we give them, and they go on to U of T; they don’t, and they go home.

In the summer, on the other hand, the causal connections are a bit more tenuous. There are possible consequences for the summer students: if their behaviour is particularly egregious, they might conceivably not get a certificate, and a certain kind of parent might be displeased by this. However, we all know about teenage brains and their pre-frontal lobes*. All these things seem very far away when there’s wheelie chair jousting to be done.

In other words, there is no clear and consistent extrinsic motivation to meet classroom expectations.  This can generate warm collaborative classrooms, where everyone — teacher and students alike –feels privileged to be present ,

summer school project

but it can also lead to bad behaviour when students realize the consequences will be less severe than they would be in their regular schools. This can manifest itself in many ways: hyperactivity, open defiance, and perhaps the most deadly, sullen disregard.  This last is less physically exhausting than the others, but it can be the most dispiriting.  In fact on one occasion it triggered in me a kind of out of body experience.

I chose this picture for its Lord of the Flies resonance. Actually, the subject of the photo was one of the sweetest guys ever/.

Face to face with a particularly unimpressed young person, I felt my world tip slightly, and it was as if I were 15 again.   As I saw her lip curve upward into a sneer,  I became the young misfit, facing the  careless disdain of a member of the cool kids’ group.  I felt that for all my knowledge and experience, I had failed to learn the one thing that was most important, the secret signal that would earn me admission to the clubhouse (which back in the day had been a grubby university cafeteria across from the school — the socially elite drank coffee there when  we mere mortals went to gym class).


But it wasn’t just that. After all, I might have been a nerd as a teenager, but I was never a happy nerd.

 Nope, definitely not interested in your team-building activity.
Nope, definitely not interested in your team-building activity.


Think Winona Ryder at the beginning of Beetlejuice. I sat in class actively resisting knowledge.  Any whimsical attempts to draw me out or make a lesson “fun” merely served to redouble my resentment.

No thank you, I would not like to share my feelings with the group right now (or ever).
No thank you, I would not like to share my feelings with the group right now (or ever).

I was cruelly derisive of any attempt on the part of the teachers to relate to us or seem young and current. The sneer appeared on my face as frequently as it did on my tormentors’.


So at that moment I was simultaneously the young victim of my supercilious adversary, and the adversary herself.

I knew that I would never endear myself to her, because I had been her.

There was a moment of horror.  I felt trapped in knowledge that I could not gainsay, because it was hard wired into my own memories.  I saw my teaching through my younger self’s eyes, and it was not pretty.  I would have been an atrocious student in one of my classes.   Somehow, through a mixture of genetics and happenstance,  this awful student morphed into a reasonably good (no fishing expedition here) teacher,** but traces of the sullen teenager are still active within me — active enough to remind me of the times when teachers were the enemy, with no quarter given.  I suppose there’s a lesson there about karma.

And then… it was ok.  Somehow the tensions loosened.  My Jungian*** journey had reached its goal, and we moved on.  There was no heart-warming meeting of minds, but I found a kind of peace.  In a way, I had slain the dragon:  I had come face to face ( almost literally) with the conflict teaching stirred up within me.

After all, the dragon was something I had sensed all along.  I guess that teaching often does involve a kind of suspension of disbelief, the ability to not notice the rolled eyes and fidgets, the kind of heedless pep that enables one to persuade a class of foreign-trained surgeons to engage in the cutting of jack-o-lanterns.****


It was only now that I was strong enough to acknowledge this hostility and face it head on.

And how did this inform my teaching practice?  Did it make me more hesitant to employ creative teaching methods,  now that I remembered how much I had resisted them?  Actually, not really.  My teaching persona had evolved in response to the feedback I was getting, even when I seemed oblivious. This was my way of being me in the classroom — and one incident was not going to change it.

It did make me more aware, though. I became aware of the degree of courage that this kind of teaching demanded of me.  And I guess that’s a huge part of creativity *****

944334_10156764454215054_4072101517551283580_n— being willing to make something  you love — and show it to  the world — when you know that it will be judged by others, and that not everyone will find it to their liking.

At the same time,  I also found it easier to make my peace with those resistant students;  to  find space for them in the interactive classroom.  I realized that it was not really about me — even if the students thought it was.

After that, though, I’m a little more cautious in my deployment of empathy.  The student mind can be a fetid swamp of nightmares and monsters, and that’s on a good day.  I will be a little bit more careful not to venture there uninvited.

*though whatever we do know is probably vastly oversimplified
** an interesting piece on that here
*** full disclosure:  I find actual Jung a little tl;dr, so this is based on knowledge derived from the movies and the predigested interpretations I found in feminist theory texts of the 1990s, and also this.
****Well, to be fair, they did a damn fine job of it.
***** thanks, Rusa Jeremic!

Here’s another voice in the empathy conversation

The Trouble With Empathy

Teacherpants Empathy Part 2 Coming soon


Empathy Sucks



So* I’ve been reading a post by a fellow blogger about how taking an academic course generates empathy in us for our students, and I’m thinking, “Yeah, tried that once.”

Last year, I created a reading blog  to follow my students in their extended reading program.  I read a novel in French as they read theirs in English.  Did I experience empathy?  Well I found out what it is like to read really really slowly.  By obsessively examining my reading practice, I discovered that I was marginally less proficient in reading French than I thought. But did I really develop empathy for my students?  No, I was having a good time.  Reading and self-obsession are my two favourite hobbies (well besides #catsofinstagram) (And let’s just say that there’s a fine line between reflective practice and narcissism; in fact they are part of the same Greek myth.)

I love me some good Pre-Raphaelite.
I love me some good Pre-Raphaelite.

To really mimic their experience, I would have to be kidnapped, transported to a place halfway across the world where the time was always 12 hours wrong.  I would then be forced to read books I didn’t want to read and have to pretend I liked them.  To receive credit, I would be compelled to join an organization that was illegal in my own country and participate in an activity as potentially addictive as online gambling or crystal meth.**  So no.


So what is empathy really? Empathy is when students cry and you cry with them, and it sucks because it’s really tough to teach separable phrasal verbs with mascara running down your face.  It scares the students and makes them feel bad for disturbing you.

True empathy is a dark primal emotion***, as volatile as lighter fuel.  It’s not necessarily something you want to have around when you’re teaching.  In fact, perhaps we are more effective without empathy.

I think Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar point about surgeons, but I don’t acknowledge his existence any more after that obnoxious article he wrote about being a jackass at his best friend’s wedding.

Before I started working in settlement, I had a kind of awe of anyone who had led a life of suffering.  I felt that they were somehow ennobled and not to be judged by conventional moral standards.

That all changes when you get a class full of people who — well let’s put it this way: very few people leave their jobs and uproot their families and get on a plane because they are so happy with their life that they want to spread the joy.

They all come from some kind of suffering, but suddenly they are not so noble. You don’t judge them exactly and there are all sorts of things that you take into consideration, but even so, a teacher soon realizes that some students are better at getting along with each other and contributing to the community than others****.

If you encourage the behaviours of those students, you’re going to have a safer and more collaborative space for everybody, and they might even learn more. So you can either melt into a puddle of sorry or impose some norms on the classroom.

And so yes, one does have to turn off one’s humanity to a certain extent.  It’s surprising how quickly this surgeon mindset takes hold.

I remember the first time a student cried in front of me, the first time a student told me of a friend being killed, the student who told me of her children being taken away by social services.

There were times when I lost it*****, but more often than not, I would hear my own voice saying, “So tell me what happened; tell me what I can do.”  Often I was shocked by my words.  How could I not be destroyed by this terrible story I was hearing? It was as if some mechanism had malfunctioned in my brain.  But had anything been lost?  Would I have been a better person had I stayed connected?

Let me give you an example.  Back in the days before cellphones, daycares used to call the main school phone if there was a problem with the child.  The secretary would then page the parent on an all-call throughout the school.  Then the parent would have to go to the office to take the phone call.  Once when a woman was paged, she asked me to walk with her.  As we made our way down the stairs and along the hallway, I could see that she was terrified.  I walked calmly beside her, keeping my steps even so as to encourage her body to slow its pace. Would I have been a better person if I had empathised, if I had imagined feeling that terror for the safety of one of my children?  Perhaps, but I would never have made it down the stairs, and then what good would I have been?

There are times when the best thing we can be is a mirror that reflects back a person’s emotions, but sometimes that is not what is needed.  If we both feel our knees buckle, how can we keep from falling?



*Yeah, yeah, yeah, I read that banned words article. Not going to change, though.

**I know — I am also participating in this addictive activity, but it’s different when it’s voluntary.  It’s the difference between becoming a heroin addict through one’s own actions and that episode of  Starsky and Hutch.

*** Read this if you don’t believe me.  Read this too: it’s not as relevant, but it’s really good.

****George Monbiot articulates this phenomenon nicely here: “I have seen people undergo astonishing trauma and emerge scarcely changed by the experience. I’ve seen others thrown off balance by what look like insignificant disruptions: the butterfly’s wing that causes a brainstorm. We cannot expect a system as complex as the human mind to respond in predictable or linear ways.”

*****like here.






Set piece/wistful leitmotif

strange things you get when you googleimage letimotif, but this one makes sense
(strange things you get when you googleimage letimotif, but this one makes sense)

There’s a kind of watershed when it comes to memory.  Too close to an event, you can’t really process it; too far, and you start to lose the nuance of the experience.  I feel that I’ve come to that point in my memories of Overland. I’m finding ways to articulate things better than I could when I was immersed in that world, but I sense that if I wait any longer, I will no longer be able to truly capture the experience.  It’s already starting to happen with the Overland Heyday stories.  My semantic memory of that time is pretty good, but the episodic is becoming vague and generalized.  I can write about how Overland made me feel, and I have done so here and here and here and this whole series.  However, I can’t really capture what it felt like to teach a particular class.  That teacher is so different from the person I am now that we can’t even talk to each other.

I became aware of the fading of these memories  as I wrote this article.   The story is set in the Later Overland era,  but even so,  I realized that the scene was already slipping away from me, and that if I was going to write this, it should be now.

This originally started as a set piece that I was working on for a very pragmatic reason: I needed something  halfway serious to do while I was supervising a test.  In other words,  I didn’t want the students to see that telltale shade of blue radiating from my screen. It’s a response to the imagined prompt:  Talk about a lesson that you are particularly proud of.  This is actually a series of lessons leading up to a pizza lunch, although the pizza lunch itself was distinctly underwhelming.

Two events precipitated this series.  There was a famine in East Africa, and schools around the city were raising funds for relief efforts  The TDSB had offered to match any funds raised.  Around the same time, TIFF screened the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc , which articulated the first quiet suggestion of criticism of the breast cancer awareness campaign.

pink ribbons

I used an audio clip from a radio interview with the producers of the film and located  some print background material.  The class compared the different resources and discussed the ethics and practice of charitable donation.  I was so impressed with the interaction, the level of sophistication and engagement, that I decided to extend the conversation.  It seemed like an ideal lead-in to a fundraising activity.

So I devised a series of lessons in the course of which the students would to choose a charity to donate to, publicize the cause and the event, and then perform the actual fund-raiser.

Students worked in groups.  The first task was to identify a cause that they considered important.  They then researched the aid groups that  targeted that particular group or problem.** Students worked together to prepare an information sheet on their chosen organization and its mission.   Through discussion, they identified the arguments for and against choosing the organization as the recipient of our funds.

Each group shared their information with the class.  We then discussed the relative merits of the different programs.  There was a real range of knowledge and experience: some students were thinking critically about these issues for the first time; others had experienced  directly the situations at which the aid was directed; still others had worked with the NGOs we were discussing**.

The students worked hard to determine the group that best matched their values, and ended up choosing MSF.  Key factors were the effectiveness of their programs, the absence of geographical restrictions, and the transparency of their mission.

The next step was to create the print publicity.  We discussed  the basics of poster making and the need for balance between attracting attention and relaying information.  We talked about how to make the content appealing and accessible, and about why it was a bad idea to copy and paste chunks of material from the internet.  We then negotiated the logistics of getting access to the only colour printer in the school, and posted the documents.

In the week before the actual day we broadcast the information over the PA system.  Normally strong, confident  speakers volunteer to read an English script.  It is challenging, but it is  very valuable experience, especially for students who plan to undergo the ordeal of the TOEFL Speaking Test.

Earlier that term, however, one of the other teachers, Glenn, had experimented with bilingual broadcasts (Spanish and English) for soccer team announcements.  We decided to take it one step further and provide announcements in languages that reflected the school population. There was a discussion as to which languages should be used; then strong speakers were chosen from each of the dominant language groups.  They decided on the key details of the message and then wrote out two versions, in English and translated.   They worked with a partner from the same country to make sure that the translated version was smooth and accurate.

Watching the delivery of these PA messages was fascinating.  When the students switched into their native languages, it was as if they had slipped on new clothes.  Their voices were stronger; even their body language became more assured:  it was yet one more reminder that these students had really been persons of stature in their original countries.  I enjoyed watching the reactions of the students from other classes:  that slight double take when they realized they were hearing their mother tongue.  The announcements generated inter-class discussions: comparisons of the sounds of the different languages, and the dialects and accents within individual languages, and suggestions that other languages be included.***


The pizza lunch itself was, as I said, anticlimactic.  The scheduling made it difficult for the students to be involved in the actual serving; other events had made the day unusually chaotic; and well nobody really likes pizza that much anyway.  Later on, I was told that we had missed the deadline for the fund matching, but ours would not have been matched anyway because we had not chosen to earmark the funds for East Africa.****

So as an actual fundraising event, this was not an amazing success.  However, it’s one of those moments I come back to when I want to remind myself of the enormous wealth of talent, intelligence and experience that I encountered every day in the Overland classroom.  It keeps me humble , at the same time as it strengthens my belief in the benefits of an open immigration policy.

When I look back on that, and notice what year it was, I realize that I was already halfway out the door at Overland, but I didn’t see it at the time.  Sometimes a peak experience like this gives us renewed vigour for our job, but it can also be bittersweet.  When you realize that yes this is as good as it gets, no matter how good that good is, it may be a signal that it’s time to move on.





* Students often became aware of an asymmetry between need and services, sometimes because a problem did not have a clear and coherent solution, sometimes because the cause just was  not as media friendly.  The essential unfairness of  the marketing of the more glamorous causes at the expense of others became a key consideration in our discussions.  This was one of the  factors in  our decision not to choose an event-specific charity: we wanted the organization to spend the money where it was most needed, not where the media attention was most focussed.

**For example, one student was a former member of Veterinarians Without Borders, which in not nearly as cute and cuddly as you might think.

***There was an interesting contrast among the language groups.  Some students were quite eager to have their language represented.  In contrast, one language was fairly widely featured at Overland, but its speakers were hesitant to present it as one of the school languages.  There was no obvious political reason for this: it was more a matter of the particular character of the country in question.  If you speak the language yourself, you might be able to guess which one I’m talking about.

**** As part of our decision was based on avoiding ear-marked charities, I can’t say I really regret this.



voices 2
So I’m looking for a good junk food book to burn off the stress generated by end of term and all the other activities I seem to find myself caught up in, and I end up reaching for Voices  from Chernobyl. ( I know , eh?  Usually it would be totally the other way around.)

I’m reading it with this soundtrack of THIS IS A NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR blaring in the background, which makes it a little hard to focus on the actual literary text.  Anyway, there will be a Goodreads review about that sooner or later* — probably fairly soon, as the book is short and surprisingly readable given the subject matter.

But the Chernobyl stories have their own special resonances for me because I was pregnant with Em in 1986.  I was here in Toronto.  My parents were in Greece.  They were phoning me:  be careful; don’t go outside.  We were just waiting to see whether the wind from Eastern Europe would blow upwards and over the North Pole.

Later, I would have chance to meet mothers who had also had children in 1986 — and  weren’t as lucky in their location. But their stories aren’t mine to tell, and anyway I can’t tell them without crying.

Part of the book is about the workers who were sent in to clean up after the explosion. The speakers are quite specific about the heroism of these young men: they knew that there was a strong chance that they would die from the radiation, but they also knew that without their actions, the deathtoll would be orders of magnitude greater.  They went willingly because they knew their country needed them.

I had a student who had worked clean-up in Chernobyl.  I asked whether they were given any protective equipment, and he laughed a little (because he was a funny guy) and said, “There was no point.” I don’t remember laughing.

He was around Overland for quite a while because it took him a really long time to find a job in his field:  Canadian employers are somewhat wary of applicants who know a little too  much about certain topics.  However, last thing I heard he had a career-related job, and I assume he is still healthy.

When I think about this, I feel so fortunate.  In the obvious kind of way, to have had the luck to be able to raise my children in Canada.  But there’s also a more personal  reaction: I’m grateful to Overland for giving me the chance to hear these stories. Sometimes there were so many stories that I felt my head would burst. They were shocking, heart-breaking, but in their own way they were beautiful.  The dignity of the speakers gave human meaning to what had been incomprehensible newspaper headlines. It was an immeasurable privilege to be allowed to bear witness to them.

* and here it is

update:  this came up; it seems relevant somehow — US vs. Soviet heroism perhaps?


A refusal to not mourn


Dylan Thomas

I’m not going to apologize for crying over Paris.

And yes, I did hear of the attack on Beirut. When I read the story on the 12th,  I remember thinking, “That’s an awfully high casualty figure for a country that’s not technically at war.’  And I wondered whether our refugee family was ok.

And yes, we mourn the loss of life in both places.  But how can one truly grieve death in such numbers when comprehending the loss of a single human life is enough to tear one’s soul apart?  How can a person do that and still get up in the morning, hug one’s children, open one’s heart to strangers, fight to spread light amidst the darkness?

So we do our best, but we grieve imperfectly.

But this is not that.  This is the same gutshot feeling  that swept over me as I read about the destruction of Palmyra.

Paris is our city.

I’m sure that 3 million still-feisty Frenchmen and women just bristled at that, but as I watch the Facebook profiles of my Canadian friends flicker into red, white, and blue, I know it is so.

As much as Mesopotamia or the Yellow River, Paris is a cradle of civilization.

Cradle of civilization — we bandy around the cliché so carelessly, but we forget that a cradle is a sacred space.  A cradle is  where we place what is most precious to us — a newly created life.

In cradles we shelter these beings that are entirely powerless.  Under our care, they become autonomous and eventually outstrip us.

A cradle of civilization is a human location that has created an environment capable of nurturing a new spirit.  At first, this idea is new and vulnerable, but it grows into a spirit that spreads across countries and civilizations, a spirit that survives long after the human bodies have perished.

At so many times in history, Paris has been a nursery for these spirits, spirits of beauty and creativity, but also spirits of freedom and democracy.

These spirits have become part of who we are, even those of us who have never opened a French book or travelled to France.

These spirits are present in the stories I tell and the language I use, but they also determine how I hear a piece of music, how I see colours, how I taste a cookie, how I perceive my body as I move through space.

Paris is part of who I am and Friday’s massacre was an attack on the essence of Paris itself.

A human force deliberately set out to erase these spirits,  just as deliberately as it erased the human lives.

And this is why I am crying for Paris.

  • thanks for the inspiration to T Dilworth
  • After I published this post, this  article popped up on my newsfeed.  I love the way the organized presentation of data helps me understand a little but of what I’m feeling.



But seriously, Where Are My Pants?


let go of all that no longer serves you– says the wise yoga teacher

So,  as I explained in the previous post, I’m doing my blog audit.  I’ve got rid of all the nasty harsh visuals and it’s looking nice.  Then I get to the header, the strip of pant ankles.  I don’t hate it — it’s got a nice flow.  It’s distinctive*, but not gimmicky.  But still “let go of all that….”

Let’s backtrack a little.  Teacherpants started as a name rather than an image.  There was a lot going on there — an extended Facebook conversation about pants,  the epithet “smartypants” that may or may not have been slung at me in my youth, and of course the epoch-making   Bossypants , but I didn’t really have a clear image in my mind.  When I was putting the visual parts of the blog together, I googleimaged Teacher pants, and got a sea of extremely unflattering garments, the business casual equivalent of Mom jeans.

Well fair enough, I’m sure we all have a pair of those,  a pair of pants that we can throw on with just about anything, reasonably comfortable, nothing too tight or too trendy, probably black, probably some kind of capris.  They are the sartorial analogue of the go-to-lesson  that supply teachers have ready-photocopied and filed in their schoolbags**, there  waiting for those days when you have to be in a classroom at a minute’s notice.

But still

These teacher pants seemed to confirm a certain preconceived notion of teaching as a kind of default profession, a safe, suburban, uneventful job that smart people did if they couldn’t think of anything else to do.

Well I didn’t see teaching that way, and I certainly didn’t want the blog to contribute to that view.

To me teaching was about performance, showmanship, even.  Teaching was about taking risks and breaking ground.  My heroes were teachers, and in my mind, teachers could be true heroes***.

So …. not those pants, then.

So there was a new Google image search for pants.  I found a shot  from the catwalk of a fashion show, cropped it so that it fit into the header dimensions, thereby also removing the part of the pants that revealed the bodies underneath.  So the pants were presented purely as garments, the most impractical, luxurious examples I could find.  It was ironic, and I hoped a little subversive. ⇒ What you mean when you say Teacherpants, is not the same as what I mean.****

And it has served me well, but I think it’s time to move on. Teacherpants isn’t really about that any more.  Or maybe it still is about taking risks and heroism, but I no longer see that as something I need to prove. I feel that the Teacherpants voice has developed a degree of autonomy: through my writing, I have defined my pants.


The header on my  current page came with the WordPress theme  I know it’s a bit of a Robert Frost-y cliche, but it’s a pretty shot and it does capture a little of the spirit of the blog, the introspective journey, the moodiness.  I’ll leave it up for a while.  Probably something more apropos will come along eventually, but I’m not going to force it.

I’ll let go when it no longer serves me.


*although perhaps a little too much like this

**well ideally — I don’t know whether I personally was ever that conscientious

*** and also

**** probably if you were really clever, you could do something with Roland Barthes here, but all I remember about him right now is that he was run over by a car because he was reading while crossing the road


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