My Silver Anniversary “Commencement” Address

I just finished my twenty-fifth year of teaching high school English. I spent the first 12 years with sophomores, but for the past 13, I’ve taught seniors. At the same time, because of my own life circumstances, I’ve acquired some pretty significant wisdom. In fact, if anyone asked me to give a graduation speech, this, right here, would probably be what I would say.

Commencement: the act or instance of BEGINNING; the granting of diplomas at the END of an academic year.

What an oxymoron.

Okay, whoops. Sorry. Oxymoron: a figure of speech which creates incongruity and contradiction, like “cruel kindness” or “jumbo shrimp.”

See it now?

Anyway, it really doesn’t matter how literally you want to take “commencement” or what it stands for.

Life is about beginnings and endings. Even though some things could just be means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. But at the end of the day, all good things must come to an end, and that’s just not the end of the world. After all, when one door closes, another one opens, right?

All clichés we believe in, live by, and preach. They must hold true.

But do they? Really?

I tend to believe that life folds one moment into the next, ever moving forward, braiding moments into one another, until before you know it, your youngest child, a handsome, witty, intelligent eighteen-year-old young man on the verge of the rest of his life has completed his last year of high school, graduating and leaving you, an educator of the school where both he and his sisters attended—a child (or children) there on the property with you for the last ten years—alone.

(I think I might be suffering from empty school syndrome.)

But it’s not an ending, really. Those who graduate are not finished visiting the school or attending school events (they always come back), and they are certainly—God knows—not done learning. They are not done communicating with their teachers or coaches or friends, and they are most certainly not done being made fun of, gossiped about, or held up by peer pressure.

At the same time, this doesn’t feel like a beginning, either. It wasn’t as if the graduates all woke up the day after graduation to something different than the few days they’d had since completing school before everyone else. Some slept in, some went to their summer jobs, and some sat around bored, playing video games and surfing social media, secretly wondering in the back of their minds if this was the way “adulthood” was supposed to feel. Sure, some will go on to further education and travel and careers, but there will be no switch flipped for that to begin. It will happen as everything else does: one moment morphing into the next, not stopping or pausing or waiting for anyone to say, “Okay, go! Now!”

So, this is my unsolicited “commencement” speech to anyone who’s ever graduated anything or had a New Year’s resolution or decided to start a diet on Monday. You will find out that life happens one moment at a time, no matter what you decide or how well you organize. There will be crazy course-changing moments, some random and some planned. There will be moments that make you and moments that break you. And there will be moments that force other moments to happen, splicing and intertwining until you can finally see how far you have come from whatever moment on the spectrum you choose.

And I think it’s best to be open to all of them, as long as you stay focused on one thing: becoming your ultimate best self, no matter the moments that happen.

“Since when,” he asked,
“Are the first line and last line of any poem
Where the poem begins and ends?”

― Seamus Heaney, Irish poet

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Connor Young, a 2017 graduate and beautiful son of his extremely proud mama.

Things (Mostly English Teacher Related) that Frustrate Me to No End

  1. Buying birthday cards for my sister who has been a humor writer for Hallmark longer than I can even remember. I should be buying her cards from Hallmark in support of my family, but what if I accidentally get her one that she wrote? Bummer. So then I resort to other card lines, and they just don’t compare, and all I can think is how disappointed she’ll be, and how stupid she’ll think the card I chose is. So I just don’t buy any for her. (Happy Belated Birthday, Tina!)
  2. When people ask, “So….what will you do all summer?” as if I haven’t spent the last almost-ten months educating teenagers in and out of the classroom. I can sure as hell tell you what I won’t be doing for inordinate amounts of time this summer: GRADING ESSAYS.
  3. People who respond to the above with: “Well, if you wouldn’t assign so many essays, you wouldn’t have to grade so many.” Please. Does that logic really work in the real world of education where we teach to standards that include—guess what?—writing, while we preach rigor and relevance? Oh, and p.s. I’m trying to prepare students for college, remember.
  4. Hallway noise of loud students, people, anyone laughing, yelling, etc. Or classroom noise of wrappers unwrapping, students eating or tapping their feet, and actually, any kind of noise bothers me, now that I think about it.
  5. When I’m writing on the board with a brand new piece of chalk, and it breaks. Yeah, I know. You’re wondering who writes on chalkboards anymore.
  6. Just because I teach seniors, and just because they are done three days before the other students are, does not mean that I sit in my room playing games on my phone, peeling grapes and cutting the crusts off my sandwiches, all while meal planning for the next two and a half months and watching Ricky Martin videos on YouTube. I have essays to grade—see above, I have senior grades to turn in, and I’m also involved in plenty of other school related activities in which I can get caught up on work. (Pause here to say that I have agreed to help Natalie coach the LHS Drill Team this next year as a transition into her own coaching, and in addition to that, guess who was just named the president of the board of trustees for the Mohican Historical Society? Moi. A position that I fill as an educator, for sure.) Anyway, if all of that is finished, I also like to volunteer my help in the high school office, fill-in for absent teachers, or hey, research for possible grants, read potential literature for next year’s syllabus, or maybe even do some lesson planning. I am not a slacker.

Okay, phew. I feel better. Sorry for the snark, and thanks for letting me vent.

How to Keep Seniors in High School Engaged on Their Very Last Friday of English Class Ever

The noise of desk legs scraping the floor as they moved into a circle filled my room today, the last Friday I would share Room 110 with the seniors in English 12.

“Here’s your final quiz,” I said, as I passed a two-sided paper out to students. It didn’t count for anything, but they didn’t know that.

Some students rolled their eyes while others sighed loudly to convey their displeasure, but after 25 years, I have learned to tune it out. (Ohmygosh, this is the end of my 25th year! Where did the time go?)

The quiz included questions about the last five Heisman award winners, the World Series champs, American Idol winners, and Nobel Peace Prize recipients.  Students always grumbled and stumbled through the answers, usually trying not to look at each other’s papers and asking, “Is this really for points?”

Just when I started to sense real frustration, I told them to turn the paper over and complete the other side. Name a few teachers who aided your journey through school, people who have made you feel appreciated or who have taught you something worthwhile, friends who have helped you through a difficult time. I never heard a peep while they answered these questions.

The lesson? Award winners of yesterday are quickly forgotten, but those who made a difference in your life are not. It was a great way to end the year, one last terrific discussion to remind students who was important in their lives right before they graduated.

“Okay, now choose a person from any category that you’d like to tell us a little something about. Who wants to go first?” I asked.

One by one, students went around the circle, sharing the people who had impacted their lives, sometimes offering brief reasons or stories.

When it was Gaven’s turn, he tilted his head to the side, looked at me, and read, “A hero whose story has inspired you? I said you.”

“Me?” I asked him.

“Yes, you,” he answered.

I have been keeping my students in the loop this year while writing my book, because 1) I can’t help it, that’s just who I am, and 2) writing, editing, revising, and publishing the book are all real-life English skills at work. But now I knew that sharing my story might have been doing even more than I had hoped. I was touched.

“Wow. Thank you,” I said.

We finished the activity with them writing 10-minute thank-you letters to someone of their choosing, and my wonderful son, who I had commandeered into joining us, happened to write his to me.

I was still fighting back tears from reading it as the bell rang and those seniors shuffled with their backpacks out the door, their last Friday’s English class finally over.

End notes: What a great activity—and I’m willing to share. Email me at aimeeross14@gmail.com if you’re interested. Also, how far back have I been doing this activity? I’m curious. If you remember doing it with me in class, or with Mr. Dunlap, who started it, let me know!

The Ricky Martin Mystery: Solved

The morning routine—before school—includes a lot of opening.

open the door to the garage, where I immediately push the garage door button to open it, step down two steps, open the outside fridge to grab a couple bottles of cold water for the day, open the back car door to deposit my school bags, close it, and open the driver’s door to—wait a minute.

Something is different today.

Just outside the garage, the driveway concrete is marked with what looks like the chalked outline of a murdered man. Homicide…here? It takes mere seconds for the crime scene’s photograph my brain has created to register.

Aimee, calm down, I think. It’s just Ricky Martin.

His life-sized cardboard stand-up (for which I paid close to $80) is lying face down. It’s a wonder Jackson didn’t back over him this morning when he left for work. And thank God he didn’t!

RM

How did he get here? And who might have brought him? I wonder.

Someone had to have gotten into my classroom. Someone with a key that could open the always-locked door.

A senior prank, I bet. Why those little tricksters, I think, marching over to grab Ricky so that I can move him inside to my office where he will be safe.

“You can just stay home from school for the rest of the year,” I tell him, not really up for chasing Ricky all over the school district’s rural countryside, as graduating seniors decide how many times they want to carry out this chicanery (vocab word #10, by the way), because maybe, just maybe, they had ‘inside’ help.

And so, I go to school and wait, lips tight, eyes and ears wide open. I will catch the hooligans, I will, I say to myself.

After I get settled into my Ricky Martin-less classroom that morning, I notice the back window levers are up—the window could have been pulled open from the outside.  But I thought I checked it before I left! Oh no. What if I didn’t?

 So I rule out my colleagues, and let the principal know of my dereliction of duty. If it can happen to me, it can happen to others. Even after twenty-five years.

It actually takes until fifth period that day for the case to begin to crack. As students arrive for English class, one fine young man in particular, a guy who loves to fish more than doing his homework, asks me, “Hey, where’d Ricky Martin go?”

“I don’t know, S—-, why don’t you tell me. No one’s noticed until now,” I say.

And he grins. “Well you can’t help but notice, Ms. Ross. You just look around the room, and boom. No Ricky.”

He knows something, my detective senses say.

But for almost another 24 hours, I get no leads. And when I return to school the next morning, I find out that another beloved teacher has also been pranked…and in the same way. Window levers put down, but not before the culprits open the window and pull the blinds, making it look as if it’s closed.

What happened in her room, you ask? Chairs and tables stacked to the ceiling, and this time, the shenanigangsters—too proud—are talking.

Talking so much, they turn themselves in to me while bragging. It was S—- after all!

S—- and his buddy, M—-! And their story is hysterical.

They set the windows up during the day, so no one—me—would notice. That night, S—- drove to and parked behind the district’s bus garage, while M—- ran down past the football field, past the field house, past the baseball field, past the softball field, and past the practice soccer field to my room, where he climbed in through the window, grabbed Ricky and ran all the way back. Only to find that Ricky was just big enough to almost NOT fit in the car…but they couldn’t bend him up and ruin him—they knew.

So they let Ricky semi-hang out of the car, his face resting in between the two of them, as they drove to my house for his release. Hah—can you imagine that car ride?

But here’s the best part of the story, at least to me. The part that tells me that this senior prank was different. That this senior prank was done in complete fun with thoughtfulness for me and planning undertaken to make sure no Rickys were harmed during the process.

You see, the two pranksters had checked the weather before stealing and leaving Ricky outside in my driveway all night!!! Now how bout that?! They didn’t want to risk turning him into a soggy, rain-drenched piece of cardboard, because they knew how much he means to me.

And that, dear readers, is the reason I not only love teaching teenagers, but the reason I also let them into my lives to know things about me (like my forever crush on Ricky).

“So did ya turn them in?” someone asked.

“Were you upset and just so furious?” someone else asked.

“Did you cry?” even more people asked.

No, no, and no. Those boys were just livin la vida loca, you know, the best way to live.

But also because teaching is about relationships. And because they got me good. Real good.

But mostly because—look out, boys—Karma and I go waaaaaaaaaay back. Wink, wink.

 

 

 

The Prom King and Glinda, the Good Witch

It’s only right that someone who fancies herself a fairy tale princess should make sure that everyone knows

  1. That my handsome son was prom royalty last evening and
  2. That his gorgeous date Katie’s dress looks SO MUCH like my favorite-movie-of-all-time’s good witch and her dress!!!

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What a couple–I just had to share!

The Evolution of “Permanent Marker”

downloadWell, I’m finding out that writing a book is a lot like choosing a major in college.

If memory serves, when I attended freshmen orientation at THE O.S.U. way back when, I was told that the typical college student changes her major between 4-5 times. Proudly, I can tell you that I didn’t change mine even once—I went in as an education major, and I graduated as a teacher—yay me!

THE BOOK, however, is now going into its third evolution, and I’m sure that by the time it’s all said and done, we will have hit the 4-5 mark. Speaking of marks, the book now has a new title, Permanent Marker. I’m very proud of this title, as I came up with it myself about three years ago while putting together an essay for an anthology on Scars, which was edited then by my editor now. The title serves so many purposes for the book and its story, as it should, and I can’t wait to see how this may affect/change/mold the writing itself. I don’t know why it never came to mind in the first place as a title; my editor threw it out there to the publisher, who loved it, thus, it was born! The publisher is currently working on the “packaging” of THE BOOK, as it must go into a June 2017 catalog of Spring 2018 releases–isn’t that crazy? I wonder what it will look like.

Unfortunately, the fairy tale of Aimee as Cinderella just wasn’t working out write, pun intended, nor was the fairy tale patterning—it threw off the tone and voice of the writing, which I worried might happen. No matter how dark the tale told/or allusion made in my writing, the fairy tale angle came off as lighthearted and glib, making the seriousness of the story and what happened to me fade. Ricky Martin will be staying in the book, however, because Ricky is as much a part of my classroom as my desks and books are. Yay! (I also hope to get Ricky to write a blurb for my book—now wouldn’t that be seriously wild?!)

In other news with THE BOOK—now wait a second. I’m going to start using its title.  In other Permanent Marker news, the order/structure-of-the-book monster has reared its ugly head again, causing me to revise toward a more non-linear chronological story line. So far, for what I’ve done, I like it. But as I’ve already found out, just because I like it doesn’t mean that it’s right for MY story.

Have I mentioned lately how difficult it is to write a book, by the way? And how gratifying, fun, challenging, and curiously delighting it is, too?

I love it. And I’m excited. And sometimes, when I’m feeling really good about it, I think about all the other things I want to write about afterward….