Of elephants and lions and little birds

When great souls die,

the air around us becomes

light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.

Our eyes, briefly,

see with

a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,


gnaws on kind words


promised walks

never taken.

Maya Angelou, “When Great Trees Fall” excerpt

For days now, I’ve hobbled around, tears falling on every inch of our yard and house, crying with great fury and despair or just weeping over some huge emotion working its way through my already too tired mind and body. How do I wrap my head around each day? each hour? I cry at songs, at lines of poetry, at words in the pages of a book. Yes, I stand in today’s presence and yes, the “lions hunker down/in tall grasses/and even elephants/lumber after safety.” The emotions are immense; anger, fear, and grief pummel gratitude and compassion. Love feels lost in Her very own ocean. Being injured and adrenal-compromised, I’ve turned to Nature and poetry.

I don’t know much about lions and elephants other than what I’ve learned in school and reading, but I’ve been watching all the little birds who reside around my house. In these moments, I have much gratitude for having the privilege of even having a safe place, a home, much less the time for creation or quiet observation. I know I could fill it in other practical ventures. I could be planning next school year and ALL the possibilities, or thinking about it (which I do way too much). I probably should do that more than writing poem, painting on fences, and writing blog posts, but not over watching all the little birds. I am mesmerized.

The backdrop changes every moment (how could you not appreciate that?) and each morning (before dawn), I sprawl out on looking up at the sky in the middle of my backyard, and hear the little bird’s good mornings (what sweetness). Everything is slowly waking up. Nothing rushed until Sunrise comes in Her usual hurried way, and the little birds make preparations. Within 10 minutes, the Little Birds are flying formations, zipping down the street, setting up watch posts (very specific locations), and calling to each other in staccato–all well-placed and efficient.

In come the crows (because crows do what they need to do) and a small airborne war ensues while the Muscovy ducks, ibis, woodpeckers, and doves chime in (all sort of little birds). Every few days (I started counting two days ago), a bird of prey swoops in and around and all the Little Birds and the Big Birds shut up. There’s a stillness that is intense. What will happen next?

Yeah, that’s the point. None of us really know, but based on the natural cycles, not statistics (although statistics can be a pretty good indicator of how things are going, depending). Wait, and see. And here we are in whatever week and condition we are in, but do we have clarity?

My last poem (last night) is about grief (I’m not even sure what tense to use anymore). If I’ve learned anything in 2020, it’s how to identify an emotion in myself. The tricky part for me is how to separate that emotion from reality AND whose emotion is it…I’ve spent a lot of time working this as part of mindfulness and practice. I’ve learned how my mind flitters and sings, like a little bird, and then flies into action with all I’ve got. It’s intense. It was a normal way of going about my life for a long time. It’s familiar, and because of this familiarity–I know it–I can make myself move toward the bigger picture.

I’m not a participant in the War of the Birds any more than Maya Angelou was a zoo-keeper or hunter on a safari. For the most part, I’m a worker of words and a processor of emotions. A teacher. Whether I go back to school virtually (a reason for practicing with the resurrection of my blogs and other backburner type of Erika projects–there are many) or face-to-face or much more demanding (a mixture of the two), I still am a worker of words and a safe holder of the dreams and fears of my students (and their parents). I practice. Poetry helps me process and brings clarity.

Essential to any change in public education is our understanding of what is essential to learning at all. Familiarity. This takes time and dedication and shared commitment. Familiarity is knowing, remembering, and identifying (at that moment or later with reflection) what emotion you are feeling and what triggered it. Learning comes when students (and teachers and parents) feel safe. Safety should be the norm, not feeling safe, but the conversation starts here for me. What makes us safe? What can we do right now to move that way?

My grief poem was like a reminder on how to get there. In schools (and at home), we don’t talk enough about grief, about loss, about what follows. And it is true I have students who don’t experience a crippling grief, but loss is still familiar, and if it’s not–maybe that’s the challenge to what happens next.

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">In the classroom (virtually or otherwise), I invite discussion. Still, I am vigilant. I'll sing the morning song, but I won't let you rob our nest, even if it is a part of your role. A crow's going to do what a crow's going to do, but when even the lions and the elephants mute themselves…In the classroom (virtually or otherwise), I invite discussion. Still, I am vigilant. I’ll sing the morning song, but I won’t let you rob our nest, even if it is a part of your role. A crow’s going to do what a crow’s going to do, but when even the lions and the elephants mute themselves…

What will happen next?

Fama Volat.

Aeneas at Dido’s Court, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Musée du Louvre, Paris. The Athenaeum.

Today for my 2nd week of summer, I have puttered around the house, straightening and cleaning, fidgeting mostly, like I have some business to do with school or something I wrote down that I need to remember (but I did all those things earlier). I’ve been thinking a lot about Dido, and many other players in literary words about how life is supposed to work and for whom. I don’t have very many of my original text books, but I do remember reading Book IV of the Aeneid three or four times. And, now, I’m hopeless lost in looking at my translation and notes, delighting and celebrating inside that I wasn’t that kind of student who, piously as Aeneas, took the notes they think they should take…

Anyway, most of my students have never much like Aeneas–more like the unseen, unheard, and unwritten heroes and heroines in any epic. Still, there’s part of me that wants to post pictures of the love notes I’ve found on Cornell notes, close reads, and classroom desks and books from my students (I keep them). You learn a lot from what students (who typically don’t write for assignments) have to say (evidence that they are “writing to learn.”). It’s not very expansive, but there is a certain recognizable pattern from elementary to middle school to high school, and a small evolution happening. Few words start blossoming into more words, and then…

I’m lucky though. I can look at my notes from all three times I read with someone else: the stilted awkward translations sprinkled with small epiphanies of an 17-, 19, and -21 year old. Archaic writing with traces of me in it, next to Dido, in Book IV, in different color ink and handwriting (when did I stop experimenting with how I take notes? what did I mean by MEDEA! ?). The book is falling apart, the binding is coming loose (how many times did I conjugate loose in Greek only to forget now?), there are holes (which seems appropriate as this book is where I learned lacuna–holes and holes)…

It was a rabbit hole that put me here today…a question I posed myself about something that popped up in my head: fama volat. Many things fly, but rumor above all travels and lingers…gets all mixed up in the elements and our emotions. Dido’s downfall, witnessed and carried by Fama, is purely elegiac, but there’s a lot of beauty in that meter. Maybe, if Dido was given a chance to use her own words–Didn’t she build her city after leaving her childhood?–those words might say something like…

Ovid constructed his Fama as the middle of the world, where the sky, sea and earth meet together; she lives in a house on a peak with no doors and 1000 windows. She has feathers to fly, eyes to see everything, ears to hear it all, and a mouth to spit it out into the wind. She is a monster. However, the thing is, with me at least, is that I can’t believe she is actually a monster, no more than I believe in Charybdis and Scylla. When I listen to the news, I can hear all those dusty forgotten monsters speak. What words are valuable to us as society? Does turning women’s power into something otherworldly and frightening to behold or something beautiful and raw and real? As if, in America, we didn’t perpetuate the same injustices on people of color, as well as women. Was this written in the stars…

And the question for my research became this exploration of differences and similarites of then and now. Even my copy of Vergil’s Aeneid is old (first published in 1930–how much has scholarship and reading changed). It’s definitely not the oldest book I own or most unique, but I just love it. The book still smells like college, like the old, asbestos-filled building where the Classics department was located (in the Religion building next to the chapel) near the mens’ dorms (we didn’t even have co-ed dorms). I linger a bit remember all the cozy afternoons with my advisors (husband and wife team) combing through Book IV in their office–but oh! the notes…

Scribbles. Calligraphy. Drawings. English words (jejune is in there!) identifying Latin grammar and precise definitions; there are references to Euripides, the world tree, and the Odyssey…

To quote one of my students, who scribbled in the class read aloud book, Refugee: “this fuckng grate!” As I work on cleaning and ridding myself of stuff today, I wonder if the student who wrote that (I’m pretty sure I know which one) will even remember that book or maybe some theme in the world will set them off down a rabbit hole, even after 10-, 20-, or 30-years…

Who gives birth to all this? You? Your parents? The school system? Your breadth and depth of reading? A teacher? Some of this? All of this? The neuroscience of your physical humanness? Don’t we learn when they experience the struggle, like Dido? We (the teacher “we”) often take the struggle out of reading and school (and most kids never even notice). I could give some examples…

So much experience in institutions come from writing and reading; even rules we teach in school (and life) are written down (in fact, catalogued and curried each school or legistated year–you can thank the Romans for that one). I love that my students ask why, but I have to force myself to remember this (it catches me off guard somewhere in the first hour of my teacher talk). Don’t we all struggle with our rules in society, those words that others use to describe us (most of us don’t even choose our names), the characters we identify with, the resources we carry with us? And, isn’t fucking epic (and great), but filled with potential. It’s scary. In my opinion, it’s COVID-scary. I’ve seen the rabbit holes people go down in the name of public education…

What kind of individual choices would lead Dido to commit suicide? What are we missing? What kind of decisions does a person make in survival mode? That’s how I know it’s not Dido talking; What great woman couldn’t handle herself with pious Aeneas after her brother killed her husband (also not of her choosing) and she fled from the Middle East to Africa? All because Venus placed Cupid in disguise on her lap as Ascanius? Convenient. Love made her do it…

What does that say about Roman Love? Anyway, I never did buy the epic storyline, but I am captivated by it. That’s the point. In the game of civilization, there feels like there’s some chance involved. Is that chance written in the stars, and read and carried by Fama, Herself? or does She hear it from her 1000 windowed house without doors from the ships that set sail from Her shore? are these the men that carried our alphabet and shackled the us to laws about our person, our body, our roles? do those echoes sound the hegemony of today? An idea that the unread, unwritten, unheard characters are powerless (even with words)…

The whole morning has been spent staving off discomfort and gnawing fear (does Fear fly, too, because it sure feels like it?), cleaning up messes I’ve left behind over the year: what to keep, what to throw away, what to use for school, what to move past. Too much stuff. Lots of notes written in lots of books (and I’m only on the school-related shelves right now)…

Just like public school: what to keep? What to rid? What is is necessary for us to feel safe? If we are digital, I think we’ll all feel safer, but it sucks for some of us (it’s a struggle). If it is blended learning, many will have some adjustments to make for the new kind of normal (I’ll be working 1000 hours a week in a room with a 1000 doors and no windows except the ones I make). If it is traditional brick-and-mortar….

A handful of kids over the years have ask to hold this book (it was, just before the end of the year, on my classroom bookshelf with some other really special books). As if magically enchanted, all of the students have asked permission (which never happens in a middle school setting) to look at it. What is this magic of a book, of a teacher, of a classroom, of an institution that begs any question? Is it the action that forms the question or the question that forms the action?

If I could ask for one truth (or wish) for my students (for anyone actually), it would be for them to have the power to see their world as it is, not as someone else paints it or writes it to be. The caveat is if, and if they don’t like what they see, visualize that change. I pose this to classes from time-to-time, but I’m a little afraid I’m not up to the job (professionally, like). It’s good discussion, fertilizer for what might have come, but now…

I’m not writing for them though, but I’ll try to give them tools to see and express themselves, tease it out (that’s best practices). I find it the most rewarding thing about teaching multiple grades and subjects and exceptional ed. Given time (and I mean a lot of time–not mathematical time on some IEP, tied to dollars and services), students will learn to write this for themselves (writing probably being one the hardest ways to express yourself for me). I don’t mind if they write it on a napkin (definitely is epically upsetting to some teachers). I really don’t mind if a kid has to take a nap, go to the nurse, get a drink, cry because they are overwhelmed or really mad (even if they are 220 pounds and 6 foot tall), or eat a snack (they are 220 pounds and 6 foot tall in 7th grade–they need a snack), or go down to the uniform closet (although I probably harped way too many times over the year about it). Mind, not care. I care a lot about their time out of class and the fact they aren’t reading, but until they realize the power of their choice and the magic of books, there won’t be any notes or rabbit holes…

One word brings another

Εκ λόγου άλλος εκβαίνει λόγος

Euripides (from The Women of Troy)

With the publishing of my husband’s 3rd book, The Complete Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement: Cooperation, Communication, and Reflections, 1951-1971, the current state of affair has required much discussion. We tread lightly, Fred and I, around the news of the day and work. Time together is important and I don’t personally invite most topics since we moved in this house. We both know these are there. We have 5 children, a grandchild, many, many good friends and loved ones with overly complicated and beautifully simplified words, words, words. And we have our own. However, discussion is what is needed.

Treading lightly, we thus discussed our individual roles in the greater (because they are too ominously present) institutional systems. Our lives today have been set upon this same landscape. We work with a similar set of worldviews within current belief systems, which seems both to harbor and shoulder oppressions and epic anger or (worse of all) massive indifference. These are the same institutions that also provide nourishment (however lean it is for some) and opportunity. And, overall, we can always agree that we have been blessed with good friends, a beautiful family, and home.

I could catalog inequities I see in a year in school. Likewise, I could also name every day in which my husband came home from a shift (or two or three or four) safely. Institutions. I’m pretty sure we both can still see some of our darkest hours in our work roles, but we mostly keep these hidden after all these years, which is why any discussion is tenuously challenging and uncomfortable (for me). What is said cannot be unsaid, just like what I can’t unsee what I’ve seen. Who am I to call upon my darkness as a weapon? Nevertheless, I can imagine, to a certain degree, the intensity with which Fred, as a police office, had to do his job in order to come home. Likewise, I CAN imagine my students and other people having experienced or experiencing epic wrongs and been hushed so they don’t even bother anymore. I can even name, regretfully, many times (with good intention or brilliant indoctrination), I was the person that caused a student pain unnecessarily, mostly through sarcasm. Words. Why do we wait to use the right ones? Who are today’s bards?

The advent of our supersized chaos demons coming to roost on both sides of 2020, with their demands of annihilation, human sacrifices, order from ranks or ranks from order, or just business as usual, muddies the water. We can’t see the future from the present or the past from the future, so how should I even approach students of next year? How do I even start a conversation in the digital or brick-and-mortar classroom of substance where students come willingly?

Moreover, educators have been talking about (but not much truthful discussing) the train wreck in American public education for a decade now. Somehow, this burning train went off a bridge into a river and re-emerged in a subway station in some city somewhere on fire again (and it was Florida train). Even with far greater (because they are too ominously present) immaculately conceived train wreck paradigms out there ready to be implemented by next week’s school board, teachers (as are police officers) are busy working. There seems never to be a good time to talk about all the elephants in the classroom, let alone the world (Life’s irony, not social distancing measures). Even without tests, we are still teaching to the tests (and there is NO discussion about them–I could even lose my teaching certificate for using my photogenic memory to analyze a question, let alone speak out about one of the most common ways the institution entrenches status quo and American ideals which leave us feeling less than what we truly are).

In the classrooms in my conscious carefully-selected memories, we read books and share stories. The words were soft like whispers then, but our classroom transformed and we became Hamlet or (in my case) Ophelia. On the American playground, I played cops and robbers, Axis and Allies, cowboys and Indians, bad guys against good guys, boys against girls, red Rosy, tag, king of the hill, and other games of social competition. I was unaware or lacked an understanding of privilege and power, but it was there among wonder and kindness. Now, it feels like I was just immature, practicing in a safer, kinder world only because I was without understanding of tragedy and hardship, of the true injustices hidden below the foundation of society not affecting me. And, now enters the constant balancing act of finding the words and not giving away too much of the plot (and do I even really know it?). That’s the thing with conversation…you think you know what the person is going to say…you project it on them, whether it was said or not, you plan, you refute…no, not with true discussion. You hold space for everyone before yourself.

And, as things go, in any marriage or classroom when two isn’t one (ek), we have different ways of seeing the world. The discussion, the witnessing and bearing witness, being present to uncomfortable truths is important and uncomfortable because it is intimate. Not everyone sees the necessity, not everyone jumps at a chance to put it all out there, and some will even intuitively run away or fight it. I’ve been working on this in the classroom: the structure of a common vocabulary based on consent given not taken (by me or anyone else). It’s still a balancing act. That’s the work of civil servants…trying to let any trace of altruism and Love be untarnished by the emperor’s newest clothes, which are just a cover up of blemishes and ulcers burned in institutional sanitation methods in order for everything to come out clean and white.

And here I am on the tightrope between two greater (because they too are ominously present) abysses. I’ve been working on balancing this whole time, and definitely still operating in full survival mode. Am I Evel Kneivel or Zarathustra? Or am I that teenage girl who still says, “Fuck that…let’s talk about Dido,” even though I never hear what’s really being said. What rabbit hole isn’t worth going down sometimes to see another possibility that always exists within the problem? And what problem doesn’t involve politics? And what politics doesn’t involve some personal driving force? Having felt my way in and out of this so many times (with the structure of the words, words, words), isn’t it possible to teach this? Is that what all my schooling was about? Whether the conversation is with oneself, or words in a book, or an author from 2000 years ago, or with a loved one, a lover, a foe, or even in a different language, conversation is necessary (just as force is necessary, in some cases), if only to provide a structured backdrop on which to practice how to just be and grow in spite of our circumstance…

Still, I am awake (I’m a professional–my personal mantra). I have resources and privilege which allow me access to realms (even when it says “everyone”) others cannot enter (that’s one oppression, my friends). I know I’m leaving a lot out. I ask of myself many things, but I demand of myself action beyond words. Can I contemporaneously commit to preserve, conserve, or change some part of myself to make the institutional systems for the better? What kind of world makes a person fear another doing their job? How do I tease out creative thinkers not just persistent reactors (and not just for my teacher evaluation)? How do I take a student gently into our own tragic human faults, seen and unseen, so that they see how choices, conscious and unconscious, can be made for everyone without losing sight of the wondrous human inventions that have given birth to civilizations as well as exploration?

I could make a case that waxing poetic is avoidance. I recognize my overuse of adverbs (adverbs being very difficult to teach as a second language depending) here and how the quality of my actions might make a more pronounced and instant impact, but for whom’s sake? I once thought I only should only teach reading and writing…but these same words, now, are more of a portal of transformation in whatever my content areas (I teach 4+ subjects in a school year). The same advent birthed chaos demons brought us writing, and with it, a ton of textual evidence of human suffering and man’s ways to eliminate suffering (a favorite BG quotes here and my favorite translation/text here), as well as methods of inflicting suffering (my first Latin sight reading on a test in high school was on torture).

In ancient texts lie ancient cities and landscapes built by our ancestors, sort of like parks and natural landmarks which call on some to plunder or pilgrimage (or both). Words pave (not past tense) a path by which a reader (or perhaps just a wanderer) might find (depending on the verb tense) these hidden gems. In the Indus Valley (and it probably stands to reason in many other places), the road gets paved right over the existing path (formidable important first words forgotten even beneath the below) and what still breathes beneath remains. What remains…words or something more? What is it but words unless you travel there with a teacher? How do we bring the millions of conversations which led to exploration and dialogue into today and held our heroes and heroines in equal regard, even in their humanness?

In reading, we call the purposeful and thoughtful placement of words and images throughout the the classroom a print-rich or literacy-enriched environment. In second language learning, we draw on comprehensible input, immerse ourselves and our learners in the target language (on everyone’s level) for 85-95% of the instructional period. Does it not stand to reason that students need to practice social interactions with a common vocabulary, since most of our life is spent trying to relate (or not) to another? Drilling and testing on the concept of epochs and eras with a classroom of 11 and 12 year olds (many of which are students who are DH/H) is EXACTLY why the train keeps going off the track (usually on fire). Still, maybe, must maybe, next year (or any year), a student will not only hear the words whispered to them, but also see.

Or at even better, understand why the women of Troy are still lamenting…

la bella Simonetta

“Here in this vague green valley

lamb and lion, love and war are united

by indifference equally to these babies

                                    and to each other.”

Rachel Hadas on Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars”

Even as the lazy, yet fruitful, days of summer collide into the chaos of back-to-school unknowns and vagaries of the news, not totally unlike our afternoon and evening weather (who knows?), my mind spins around next year’s middle school students. Teaching pre-teen and teenagers with exceptionalities is as mysterious, but familiar, as admiring and wondering at the planets’ paths on a new dawn. Truly.

And still, this predictable churlish chaos mirrors the world and cosmos. Neurodiversity and twice-or-thrice exceptionalities have language all their own, which isn’t often heard in the classroom (although middle school students who are D/HH are the LOUDEST of all, which is a sheer delight); however, with a little discipline and homework (on the part of the teacher, not the student), one can definitely see the subtle shift of unknowing into recognition and then courage to trial and err without any assumptions or conditions. This just is…as Beauty cannot hide Beauty, but learns to make the most of it, without apologies. Most can hear the background noise (echos bouncing off the hallways of traditions worn threadbare and dirtied).

Much ado because #life continues, and not necessarily with any sense of human injustices and complaints. Love sits patiently, knowing the ins and out of War, who has His job to do (is He unaware that Love is involved?). With all the talk of hate in this country, is it any wonder that our students think hate and love are opposites (and often they believe hatred has something to do with being rich)? Does Hate make us more uncomfortable than War? And how do we express that discomfort? The answers to questions becomes a #practice of patience and presence. The balance is not giving too much away, but projecting a beautiful richness into their futures through the stories.

Without language, the classroom can become a playground. One discussion about a word can build an entire civilization. So, which word is it? Which story do you tell? Of course, I try really hard not to mention la bella Simonetta or Botticelli or Venus or Mars, or some ancient text recorded and buried in some wormhole in the Vatican, but with every weft and warp of next year’s fabric, I know I will stretch and weave strong threads which will hold. We learn dead white men? No, I say, we’re learning about something (which isn’t even the right word) really, really old (and I pull my unseen beard hairs three or four times because that’s the only ASL I can access). I’m not even sure I’ll come close to the 1400’s next year, but that’s one of the greatest layers of knowing (textual evidences) about antiquities (material evidences) that we have…

Not that it matters at all, but I think the stories about the sky say it all. My students haven’t walked the Earth through words and books, and quite possibly have never seen beyond Central Florida–even the Ocean–but many of them have experienced things that can’t be unlearned. How then do they picture a peninsula, a seashell, Olympus, a ship’s crossing? How do they see the importance of the full view of a horizon? The necessity of restless doldrums? How do dragons of limitation get sung to sleep?

Venus and Mars captures the rawness of our times. The stories will unfold, as they do, in World History, but the details take a life-time to imagine. The students will remember really, really old (with my face on it) and then I’ll get a question that blows me away, and the story changes yet again…

<p class="has-drop-cap has-black-color has-pale-pink-background-color has-text-color has-background" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Venus and Mars are not caught up in their words or actions. Love and War. Just two <em>really, really old</em> lovers, hanging in the sky, in some small but glorious equilibrium, only held by the strength of our actions.Venus and Mars are not caught up in their words or actions. Love and War. Just two really, really old lovers, hanging in the sky, in some small but glorious equilibrium, only held by the strength of our actions.