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For those of you that aren’t up on the TFA acronym lingo, EOY stands for End Of Year. Corps members always have an EOY conversation with their program director to debrief their students’ results, talk about strengths and areas for growth, and reflect on the past, present and future accomplishments. At my EOY I was happy to inform my PD that I might be given the opportunity to teach AP (Advanced Placement) Language and may be promoted to grade level lead teacher (for English only). These are two very exciting opportunities that would provide not only a new challenge, but also help me to develop some of the skills I will need if I want to pursue school leadership or education policy in the future.
Anyways, my PD responded to this news with a rather interesting question. He asked, considering the population that would be in an AP class (students who have had some measure of success, who are more self-motivated, etc.), how did I plan to influence the course of their life paths as significantly as I’ve had the opportunity to do with my regular students? I’m not sure exactly how I answered this question, but with more thought, I realized that my true answer would be this: the same way I’ve altered the life course of my current students.

Honestly, I hope this doesn’t sound conceited or odd, but I really believe the most significant impact I’ve had on my students’ lives comes merely from them knowing me–not whatever I may have taught them in English. That stuff is all very important, obviously, but I think that I have been an example to them of what their lives and characters could be like. I have worked VERY hard at this job. And for the most part, the students see it and know it when I ask them to work hard. And I LOVE them. I want to stress how much I mean this as a verb because as an emotion, my love can be rather weak. But I have acted for their good on so many occasions when it was painful to me. And they haven’t always seen that, but sometimes they have. By no means do I claim to have accomplished this on my own. I truly believe that this is God’s work in me and through me and it is such a privilege to have my eyes open to that now. It was so much harder to see last year or even in the thick of it this year. But it is so incredible to see how students respond to this love. I think some of them have never had an adult really care for them or express pride in them or act in a selfless way towards them. I am by no means perfect, but I care and I have done my best not to give up in caring though many students push and push and push and reject whatever care I attempt to show them. When I look inside myself, I know that this does not come from me, it is a supernatural gift and I thank God that He has put me here and asked me just to love these kids.

When I think about it, it makes my purpose so much simpler. I can forget about the TAKS, the pressure, the school politics, etc. and just love. Not that loving is easier than teaching–certainly not, but sometimes it seems simpler. It is the difference between advising the crying and scared 16 year old girl who has just confided that she’s pregnant and just holding her in my arms and feeling that fear with her.

I’ve really been working hard at relaxing lately. Yup, I said, “working hard at relaxing.” You’d think that would be a rather easy feat to accomplish, but believe me, it isn’t easy to break a workaholic. However, I did realize that my long hours were becoming unhealthy and so I’ve made some small but important changes that have already made a big difference in balancing out my life. For one thing, I’ve been leaving work earlier–and leaving to go work out or do something else I’ve planned in advance (even if it’s just a plan to watch tv and knit, sometimes that’s enough!). If I put what I want to do on my to do list, it’s a lot more likely to get accomplished and it gives me something to look forward to all day when I’m staring at my to do list at school.

Don’t get me wrong, school itself is not totally unbearable. I love the students (and they drive me crazy some days too) and I like teaching them, seeing their eyes light up with understanding, with pride when they’ve accomplished something. But sometimes I get bored hearing myself say the same thing 6 periods a day! I really don’t know how to change that, but I suppose being a little bit bored is a nice change from being overwhelmed.

I’ve just gone through a period when I swore there was no way I’d teach a third year, but I’ve gone through it to the other side and I wouldn’t mind not having to go through another major adjustment in the next few months. Even though moving home would have much comfort and familiarity, if I’m truly honest with myself, I haven’t lived in Seattle in 6 years now so even that would be an enormous adjustment, especially with all the expectations that ride on “moving home.” However, right now, I’m open to any direction God takes me. Some might see my current state as directionless, but I prefer to look at it as “flexible.” Not that flexibility by any means comes naturally to me. As most of you know me, I am  prone to planning and preparation and care. Yet I feel like a little boat that’s come loose from it’s mooring, drifting slowly. Luckily, the water’s pretty smooth right now. In fact, I’d kind of like it if there were something to rock the boat, to set me in motion, in a direction of some sort. I haven’t heard back from several of the more promising opportunities I’ve applied to and at this point, any answer would be something to push me one way or another.

I feel surprisingly peaceful in this not knowing most of the time, however, I do have my freak-out moments on occasion. Usually Sunday nights or Monday mornings, but sometimes on a bad day or a day when too many friends talk about the future. Whatever I do in the coming year, I cannot avoid transition of some type because close friends of mine will likely leave Houston to pursue their plans and dreams. Yet with all losses, there is also something to gain, something new.

Even now, I’ve started a small group with my close friend Sarah and I’m building new friendships with some great people from my church. It’s tough starting something new so close to the possibility of change, but when I think about it, life by nature is temporal and I have to make the most of each moment. I’m doing my best to trust that God’s plan and purpose may be much larger then anything I could perceive now. Maybe it’s not about these relationships but about something I can learn from this experience. But then again, sometimes you click with people (even if it’s your senior year in college…) and they become lifelong friends.

Much love and thanks to all of you who support and pray for me. I appreciate you all and hold you dearly in my heart.

Being dislocated from my room for a brief break during testing, I wandered into the teachers lounge. I have not spent much time in this room prior to this occurrence and not surprisingly met some teachers I’d never previously spoken to. One such teacher informed me that at the beginning of the year, all she heard from her students was how mean and scary I was. ME! She thought, “who is this Ms. Ochoa? She must be some grumpy old, warty teacher…” and was surprised when she actually met me. Apparently, my students thought my class was incredibly difficult at the beginning of the year and therefore labeled me as ‘mean.’
I am quite pleased with this news. Not only does it mean that I improved something that I miserably failed at last year (remember my hostile 5th period?) but it also means that I am actually changing the lives of my students. If my class is “hard” in their frame of reference, then it is altering the course of their lives. My class is nothing compared to the classes I took in high school–but if I can move them a little closer to the difficulty that life and employers will demand of them, then I know that my work here has meaning.
Other highlights from this week include Anthony getting the highest possible rubric score on his essay (after he struggled to write a paragraph at the beginning of the year) and my students reporting that the TAKS (high stakes state exam) was EASY and they felt prepared for it. I wish I could say my work here is done, but unfortunately this brings me to another critical moment. Now the challenge will be investing students in classwork when they’ve already achieved MOST of our yearlong goals. I have already taken a few steps to invest them by giving them a survey asking what reward they’d like if they actually reach their TAKS goals and asking what they’re interested in studying for the remainder of the year. The number one choice of study is a media literacy unit, which I am in the midst of creating and extremely excited about. I think that not only will the unit be really engaging, but it actually has a very high level of relevance to my students’ lives. Similarly, learning the process of inquiry and analysis will enable them to apply their skills to all kinds of “texts” including literature. Analysis is a high level on Bloom’s taxonomy and I think that this unit will really push them and develop their thinking skills. We also be able to explore (I hope) some really important issues relevant to my students, such as race, class, gender, body image, and materialism.
With four days left in the classroom before Spring Break, I am feeling good.🙂

Excerpt from Matthew Arnold’s “The Buried Life”:

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

This excerpt captures so well the thirst and fire that I currently feel welling up within me. These past few weeks I have felt so full to the point of bursting. And it’s not a “good” or “bad” kind of fullness, just an uncomfortable one. For Arnold, the “buried” life is uncovered through the  speaker’s relationship with his beloved. For me, I suppose the same could be true…I hope to uncover my “buried” life through my relationship with God. However, this current discomfort is somewhat difficult to manage along with the rest of my life. It means, even when the students are well-behaved and learning is happening, I don’t want to be at school– when teaching is rewarding, I am somehow looking for some other kind of motivation. In addition, in my relationships with friends, I find myself particularly sensitive. It’s one of those situations where I feel like the more I try to control my emotions, the more emotion I FEEL. I guess the difference between validating and surrendering to emotion is a fine line to negotiate.

For all this discussion of emotion, the true message of this poem has to do with an individual’s meaning and purpose. Being at a crossroads in life, a point of decision, it doesn’t surprise me that every little experience I have causes me to consider and question aspects of my identity and my purpose in life. Who will I be in 5, 10 years from now? What experiences must I still traverse to become that person? What pain/discomfort will further refine my character to make me into a clearer reflection of the divine? What joys will I play a part in creating? Do I want to continue down a path of difficulty, where my greatest struggle lies in finding peace and rest–true fulfillment? Somehow, I always thought that doing a “meaningful” job would bring me fulfillment and satisfaction. But after a year and a half doing something incredibly meaningful, I don’t think that’s the case. Nor do I think that doing something mundane, or living hedonistically would make me content. How does one find contentment, fulfillment, or happiness in oneself when the very meaning of these terms seems to imply that something must be gained/added to what was/is? What I’m really saying is, how do I become happy in my own right when I feel like there is something more to be had, needed even? I take comfort in the idea that Christians ought to experience some measure of divine discontent with this world. I ought not get comfortable here as my true home rests in heaven. Others have suggested to me that perhaps this discontent is the way God urges me to seek Him more ardently. However, I will stick with Arnold and call it, “mystery” and continue to inquire of my wild, deeply beating heart.

This bright pain
blooms at the back
of my heart

its beauty
pounds vitality
beating through my inky veins
a proof of life,

suffering plays with a timbre
that is both commanding and delicate
winding itself like a prayer
around my finger, turning
purple with each pulse

discontent becomes a vital supplication
a palpable loneliness always
present like a stillborn child
fragrantly haunting

inhale, lengthening
exhale, deepening

dear memory,
never fail to yield sorrow
in season

savor
how the juice
runs

let not a
drop
escape

Right now I am wishing that the little lines and squiggles that we call letters could contain the sounds and ideas, the thoughts swirling around my head. The neat little shapes on the page seem too stringent a structure to form the shape of the jumble that is my mind right now. I really want to be open, to feel less strongly this desire to accomplish a  specific goal, to be accepted into a specific program but then I don’t think I would be myself. I am trying to remind myself that this is God’s work that I get to participate in…NOT my work. I can only do so much. And right now I am struggling to remember that, to not carry hope and worry as a burden on my shoulders.

With all this abstract meanderings, my reader must be wondering what I am really talking about. I am still trying to make sense of that myself. Among other things, my plans for next year and the encroaching high-stakes state exam are weighing on my heart. On top of all that, things like personal identity and the meaning/purpose of my life come into play. Would someone please smack me and tell me to lighten up?? I need some sanity knocked back into me…

For many people, Christmas is a time of thanksgiving, of rest and joy, of making memories with family and loved ones. Christmas is very much about family and tradition for me as well. I was thinking about that and wondering ‘how does Jesus fit in?’ I mean, this holiday really ought to be about him so it shouldn’t be a stretch to trace the path between Jesus’ birth and values such as family.

Without Christmas, without the birth of Jesus, without God incarnate, I believe that we’d all be lost and lonely souls, separated from God by our sin. Sin is a heavy word for many people, but if you considers it’s true meaning “to miss the mark” with the mark being perfection, it’s easier to conceive how all humankind is troubled by it. All people have a desire to belong, to know and be known and God satisfies this desire in the deepest form for he knows us better than ourselves, our loved ones, our families–and even still he loves and accepts us. Jesus needed to become one of us, human like us, in order to adopt our orphan souls into the family of God–that He might know us and we him. So, yes, Christmas is about family, God’s family and his great desire to invite all people into his family. This deep desire and love for his children lead him to humble himself to the utmost, just as the unconditional love of parents sometimes begs them sacrifice themselves and their own feelings to do what is best for their children.

I am humbled by this selfless love and I celebrate the gift of God’s adoption and friendship. There is nothing better than being a part of the family of God.

Lately I’ve been so moved by my students’ life stories…I just began thinking that other people need to hear these stories. Their experiences are so far removed from my own… dropping out, going to jail, having babies, seeing friends die in gang-fights–all the stereotypical experiences mean very little until you hear about them in the unique voice of an individual child. As of right now, my students are on-track to reach “significant gains” in TFA lingo, meaning they will close the achievement gap by 20% when they take the state high stakes exam in early March so their writing has already come a long way and they’ll continue to grow. I was wondering… what if I wrote a grant to get their stories published in an anthology? It might increase their investment and give them some confidence.  I’d really like to get some comments on this one… how-to’s, opinions, connections, suggestions–anything. What do you think?

Here’s a ROUGH draft of a poem I’m working on…

___________________________________

I’ve neglected to record the signs when I encounter

the dismayed cries of two sparrows

caught in the aluminum rafters

of the high school in the early morning, the feeble

light creeping in the upper windows

_____________________

the dead purple petals

of a flower plucked

and pressed between the pages of a wedding program

tucked in a volume of poetry, forgotten

opened for an impromptu discussion

of the history of love

_________________

the familiar hum of rain

on roof and splash in gutter

is the same, here

as home

though, I pause,

here is home now

________________

the one inch steel gauges

in the earlobes of your favorite drop-out

“Cristina” tattooed across the brown chest

peeking above the collar of his uniform

the rush of profanity uttered from his lips

briefly subsides “I realized…”

and he’s coming back

_________________________

the offender at the Jester III service,

Christmas eve, whose enlightened eyes fixed your gaze

from the front riser of the soprano section

missing his left leg, knee onward

stopped, balanced on his crutches

shook your hand

and you thought, ‘ whatever you do

to the least of these…’

and you were grateful

that God had paused and called

you (worthy of the title) “least”