Over the weekend we ventured west. Saturday Nate directed the Singing Youth of Nebraska festival choir in North Platte. I don't know how many concerts I've watched Nate conduct, but every time I'm proud of all he's accomplished. It's incredible how talented of a teacher he is. It's evident in the way kids watch and respond to him on stage--even kids who have only known him for 7 hours like the ones pictured in the photo.

While Nate was busy working, I was busy catching up with friends in Ogallala. I got to run with Kristin and spend time at Lou Kraus music visiting with our friend Shannon (Bob was in India). After the concert, Nate and I both got to eat at our favorite restaurant, Open Range, with some of our favorite people from Ogallala. Then we spent time at McDonald's with about 15 of our former OHS students. It was so great to be able to catch up with these kids again. We've missed them so much. I never thought it would be so hard to leave a group of kids.

We headed back to Omaha on Sunday, so it was a quick trip. It was much-needed though. I think Nate and I both needed to go back to see that our kids are doing okay without us. I carried a lot of guilt for leaving (still do, actually). I did cry as we pulled out of Ogallala and headed east down I-80 towards our home that doesn't quite feel like a home yet.

When we moved, I honestly thought things would get better. I had frustrations from my job due to a lack of administrative support, and I felt isolated. I knew that my new job would be difficult because the expectations for teachers and students was higher. But I never assumed the job would be as hard as its been. Honestly, this year has been rough for me. My job has been more time consuming than I thought it would be, and I haven't been able to build relationships with kids like I have in the past. I feel like my entire life has been swallowed by my job. Even today on my snow day, I tried to go back to sleep and couldn't stop the list of things I need to do for work from running through my mind. I had to get up. I sat down to read the Bible like I do most mornings, and again, I couldn't stop thinking about work. I tried to write to shake off the thoughts, and they kept gnawing. I think about work when I drive home, when I pray, when I read, when I write, when I run, when I'm eating dinner with friends, when I'm spending time with family. I feel guilty when I'm doing something other than working. Then I feel guilty for working too much. I can't shut it off this year, and it's maddening. It's to the point where my fire for teaching seems to be a fading blue flame. Honestly, I'm not sure what to do about it. When I look at the kids in the picture, it makes me want to keep teaching so I can build those relationships and be a positive role model (kids can never have too many positive adults in their lives). I truly love education, but I don't love that I've let it take over my life. Most of the teachers I know seem to have their lives together and in balance and don't seem to be such a big mess like I am; I always wonder how they do it. I don't know if it's this job in particular that is leaving me anxiety-ridden, if it's the fact that it's a new job, or a combination of both. Whatever it is, I need to figure out a solution soon before I (and my relationships with others) combust.


Winter Writing Marathon

Yesterday I ventured to Lincoln for the Nebraska Writing Project's winter board meeting, and afterwards I participated in the annual winter writing marathon. If you're not familiar with writing marathons, here's the format in a nutshell: Writers gather and first proclaim that they are in fact writers, we read a Hemingway quote from A Moveable Feast (this quote has become a Nebraska tradition), and then in small groups we set out to wander and write. Groups set a time limit...sometimes it's 10-15 minutes of individual writing time, then we meet back up and share what we wrote simply to share. We don't give feedback, praise, criticism, etc. A writer reads, and the group simply thanks the writer for sharing. It really is a pure process. The group I was in yesterday visited Morrill Hall and the planetarium and then we wandered over to The Mill in the Haymarket. The entire group then met at Indigo Bridge bookstore for a final read around.
Group shot after the final read-around
It was a much needed three hour session. I felt very cleaned out on my way home and more at peace with life. It's crazy how cleansing writing can be for me.

Here are a few of the pieces I started yesterday:

At Morrill Hall 
It's refreshing to hear children's voices bounce off the walls of this dusty museum. One little boy, about six, is fascinated by the elephant skeletons. He stands and stares at these massive remains and begins talking rapidly in a language unknown to me. He beckons two middle-aged gentlemen to join him in his awe. Soon he darts to another display--pauses to take it all in with mouth agape and eyes wide--and then flees to the next room as if he's afraid the museum will close before he gets to see all the wonders this place holds. 

Suddenly the boy I've been admiring fades from sight and I'm left alone in this echoey room. It's just me and the bones and my thoughts. I stare ahead, my pen hovering above my notebook not knowing where to go from here. History surrounds me, but my mind is as blank as the page on my lap. But before my mind can get the better of me and twist this refreshing void into a mess of tangled what if's, a new group of toddlers wobbles in to proclaim their awe at the state's first inhabitants. 

Composed in the car on my way to Lincoln
If I were to build a house, I'd build it with my bedroom window facing east so I could watch the sun rise and bleed a brilliant warmth of orange and red and pink. I'd let it wash over me and accept its call to a new day. 

At The Mill
This semester I'm having my Comp II students read, write, and think about place. I wanted to give them chances to explore communities so they could begin to see value in community and maybe even find their place in it. This weekend I've asked them to explore and write about two places and I'm curious to see their thinking. I think I will write about this place,  The Mill coffee shop.

I don't remember how or when I found it, but I do remember that I was in high school and it was a time of self-discovery. I remember watching people as I drank coffee. They all looked interesting in their muted clothing. Their conversations were low and seemed serious, and whatever they were writing must have been brilliant because they barely took a breath to drink their coffee. When they did take a drink, they took long, slow sips and held the mug in both hands as if that mug were something delicate. As they swallowed, a faraway gaze often washed over their faces. I wanted desperately to know what they were thinking and writing and what caused their conversations to be so intense. 

The first time I visited the bathroom in this place I couldn't ignore the chalkboard that hung on the wall near the toilet. I savored each chalky sentiment and even copied them down on a napkin to be used as writing fodder later, a sort of bathroom plagiarizer. 

Each time I come to Lincoln, I visit The Mill to relive that longing I had as a teen--a longing for identity and for community--for a place I could be whomever I wanted. 


Branching out

Currently I'm trying to warm up after a fairly chilly 7.5 mile run. Luckily the temps were double digits and much of the snow is melted here from yesterday's 50 degree weather, but the wind was biting and made for a frozen, fat-feeling mouth. Today's run was a bit different; instead of heading out solo, I met about 10 strangers at a lake here in town. A few weeks ago I joined Facebook again after a year hiatus so I could try and re-connect with some old friends and find some new running chums. Omaha has a great running community, so it was easy to connect with some runners through Facebook. After swapping a few private messages, I found a group to run with this morning.

The runners were varied in paces, distances, experience, but they were all encouraging. I fell into a group with two other women who definitely pushed me today. I'm used to my own running routine where I set the pace, I dictate when I stop (typically halfway through my intended mileage for the run, I stop for about a minute to re-gather myself), I dictate the mileage. At about mile 5.4 I found myself peeking at my Garmin, wishing for a break. The other runners didn't seem bothered, so I didn't say anything and just kept running. Soon a group of three ultra-marathoners caught up to us and we chatted about local trails, races, etc. They were running 20+ miles this morning, and I immediately felt inadequate. Eventually the ultras took a different route...I was a bit thankful because the feelings of inferiority were beginning to make my legs hurt!

By mile 7 I was chasing my new running partners who, it seemed, had kicked up the pace to finish the last half mile strong. I couldn't keep up. This is the first time I haven't been able to keep up with adult runners (I definitely couldn't keep up with some of our XC runners). Immediately the mental self-assault began. When did you get so slow? Why can't I maintain steady breathing? Are my legs frozen? You should not have had that beer this week! I let them sprint out the last quarter mile while I trudged towards my car. We walked a bit to cool down, made plans again to run another time, and parted ways.

After I climbed with stiff legs in my car to drive home, I looked through my Garmin to evaluate my distance, pace, etc. A smile crept across my face. I ran an 8:33 pace for nearly 7.5 miles, non-stop. I haven't pulled that kind of pace on a long run since June. Though I couldn't maintain the pace that my running partners kept, I managed to reach a new level of fitness, I didn't take my usual half way break, and I met a few new people who weren't bothered by the snot frozen to my face (because everyone had snot frozen to their face).

Our move has been tough, but today I felt like I had a small victory. When I arrived home, I celebrated a bit and treated myself to breakfast, coffee, and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, and some computer time. I keep reminding myself that small milestones are better than no milestones...


Dear students

This week I'll begin teaching the persuasive writing unit for my 11th grade English course. The unit culminates with the ever-anticipated state writing test (insert long, somewhat political, and incredibly passionate rant about said test here). One of our lessons in the unit is: Pretend it (the writing test) matters. Before students can pretend and write like they care about a topic they actually don't care about, they must have chances to write about topics that really do interest them. I've never taught this before, but I'm going to try it and see how it works. Essentially, students will pick a topic they care about and write a letter to an identifiable audience persuading them to act or think a certain way about whatever topic they choose. Pretty open, right? To give them a framework, I decided to write my own persuasive letter...to them. Here it is (in draft form):

Dear Students,

As your English teacher, I think I’m supposed to want for you to write sentences that don’t end in dangling modifiers, identify motivations in protagonists of classic works of literature, recognize the all-star writers of 19th century American literature, diagram sentences, know when to use who and whom correctly, and score high on your state exams. As a lover of reading and writing, I do want some of these things for you. I’d also like for you to fall in love with classic literature. I’d like you to realize the beauty of a well-turned phrase. But when I really think about what I want most for you, my students, here’s what I want: I want you to be able to think deeply, to move beyond apathy, to question and engage with the larger world around you, and I want you to see value in compassion.

I know it’s sometimes a hassle to be a high school student; I was there once. I know we ask you to do seemingly pointless assignments, bogging you down with piles of worksheets, quizzes, essays, and readings. Enduring seven courses five days a week can be tedious. In my short time of teaching, I’ve noticed that many students want simply to be fed work they can absorb with little effort. And to be honest, this would be easier for me. It would probably mean less student grumbling. It would mean less time-consuming grading, less time-consuming planning. It would mean more time to spend with my family.  As your teacher, I have a great and awesome responsibility to teach you. And this means that I must give you chances to expand your thinking beyond what is comfortable. Growth happens when we step outside the familiar. It might feel uncomfortable and a little like failing in the moment, but those moments eventually lead to growth. Growth is necessary for us to reach our full potential as humans. When people reach moments where they value growth, they can begin to recognize the disease of apathy.

Apathy allows us to turn our eyes away from suffering; it quiets our questions and hardens compassion. If left unchecked, it will spread rapidly paralyzing people, stunting growth. Apathy can destroy relationships, families, and communities. Engagement is the antidote for apathy. So students, I ask you to think deeply so that you may question because to question is to engage.

Finally, I want you learn compassion, concern for your fellow humans. We get busy with our own pursuits, and sometimes it’s difficult to look beyond ourselves and recognize the needs of others. This world is often cold and dark. As cliché as it may sound, one person’s compassion towards another can make a lasting impact more than, dare I say it, knowing the subjunctive moods of verbs.

Don’t mistake me and think that I’m regarding school as unimportant. Your classes will all teach you valuable lessons. You might learn new content, or you might learn how to tolerate people who seem positively unbearable. You might learn how to manage your time more effectively. Sometimes the relevancy of school might not become apparent until much later in your life. I’m asking you to bear with us. Most of us became teachers because we find joy in seeing you learn and grow.

Other teachers, parents, administrators, and policy-makers keep telling me that I should focus more on state tests. This “stuff” is important and necessary. I’d love for you all to walk out of English passing your state tests, proclaiming your love for composition and literature. However, I think I’d find more satisfaction in seeing you think deeply, boldly questioning and engaging in the world around you, and treating others with compassion and grace.

Mrs. Helzer