Posts Tagged With: teaching

Just the Haircut Stuff

Riley and I are home alone on a warm Friday afternoon.  We’re not very frisky at the end of the week, both of us happy to curl up with a book or a movie.  But the weather is so lovely, and the espaliered fruit trees I’ve let grow wild are in need of pruning.  We go outside before the day fades and gather our tools.

Clippers in hand, Riley cuts back the dead hydrangea blooms that wintered on the bush.  Up on a ladder, I prune the cherries and then the apple trees, throwing the boughs into a pile in the yard.  Not too far into our work, as the air cools, we decide what we really need is a fire.  Our yard is too small for a proper burn barrel, but we’ve got a portable fire pit, so we haul that out, as well as the pieces of the Christmas tree Owen cut and stacked a few months ago.  Riley goes inside to get the matches, and I realize I’m excited it’s just the two of us, about to share an important rite of passage – a girl learning to build a fire.  We love our boys, but their presence changes the time.

I’ve just finished reading a book with a daunting title by Dr. Leonard Sax:  Girls on the Edge:  The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls–Sexual Identity, the Cyberbubble, Obsessions, Environmental Toxins.  I don’t feast on a regular diet of self-helpish books, but this one was recommended by a friend, and it was worth the read.  Sax’s perspective has made me think even more concertedly about what and how we teach girls on purpose and through example.  A girl emerging from girlhood with a sense of who she is and a confidence in that identity makes a perilous journey, and not enough of us are paying attention in the right ways, Sax suggests, especially in a culture that pushes girls to be objectified, consumed, subservient.

How well John and I buffer Riley from being awash in pursuits of pop culture and also guide her toward survival and resistance keeps me up some nights.  Most days I think we’re doing okay, even if she does know every stinking lyric to Taylor Swift’s songs.  I have to admit, they’re catchy, but they reek of teen angst; it’s disconcerting to catch my daughter, gripping her hairbrush like a microphone, sing-shouting “We are never ever ever getting back together” to herself in the bathroom mirror with just the right amount of venom.

While she’s inside the house, it occurs to me Riley’s nine already.  Much older than I was when I learned to make a fire.  What am I so busy doing we can’t make time for this?  And if I’ve shanked teaching her this elemental skill, what else am I shanking?

But she knows a lot, I discover.  She’s been reading The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, and also paying attention.  Close attention.

“I’m a good watcher,” she says.  She builds a teepee of dried leaves and kindling she’s culled from the wood pile.  She chooses a good fire-poking stick from the cherry boughs I’ve hacked.  We talk about safety and how to feed a fire.  She nods and tells me she’s got it; she knows what to do.  I show her how to strike a match, and then hand her the matches and let her begin, enjoying her delight at this responsibility.  She’s brought her clippers and found a small saw, and she uses both to manage the size of her fuel.  Pulling a chair close to the heat, she’s a serious fire tender, watching the flames with intent.  She feeds the fire while I finish pruning, our conversation across the yard meandering and associative.  We walk about the stars and planets, what animals we’ll have on our imaginary ranch, how she reached her record of 213 jumps in a row on a pogo stick.

cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms

Dark falls around us, but we don’t go inside.  She wants to know if the green limbs of the cherries and apples will burn, so she conducts an experiment and learns wet boughs kill the fire and the tinder-dry Christmas tree creates a fire so high it makes its own wind.  She wonders whether the cuttings will grow if we stick them directly into dirt, so we choose a few to experiment with in that way, and a few others to bring inside and force bloom.  “What does that mean?” she asks me.

“It’s a trick,” I say.  “The plant is fooled that it’s spring, so it lets the blossoms come out of the buds early.”  As I form my answer, it occurs to me we could just as easily be talking about the journey of girls today, and the way culture sexualizes them, tricking them into acting like adults before they know what that means emotionally.  The loud metaphor makes me stop for a minute and follow the breadcrumbs.  I watch Riley choose stems and put them into an old metal pitcher we use as a vase.

I’m sick at heart at the thought of her forced to bloom out of her magical world by pressure to become a woman too early.  Growing up will come for her eventually, and she’ll lose interest in climbing trees and playing her imaginary dragon games, in challenging herself for the next pogo stick record and building seven room forts out of blankets and pillows in the family room.  Innocence won’t last, is already leaving, I know, but I send up a please to the trees that Riley’s safe passage into her pre-teens also means she holds onto the person she’s becoming, and not a version of the girl she thinks she ought to be.

We cut red currant and Daphne boughs to bring inside as well, because if a few stems are good, more are better, and we’re talking about how the whole house will be full of spring. Maybe it’s the jasmine-lemon scent of the Daphne that has bloomed already, on its own time, or my penchant for drama fueled by remembering a few of Sax’s less savory anecdotes about girls gone wild, meant to be cautionary tales.  Down the Rabbit Hole I go, imagining a version of Riley that trawls the mall and has Bieber Fever, hinges her fashion choices around her five pairs of Ugs and gives up sports for cheerleading.  Then there’s a boyfriend who’s too old for her with some gold chains and a red Mustang, and she fails out of school and is having sex in the back of a car, and she has a couple of piercings and maybe there’s some pole dancing, and I’m working myself into a vicious panic and feeling like I need a beer or maybe six, and I know my visions suffer under the pathetic weight of being cliché and cast in a low-budget-made-for-television-glow, and I’m supposed to be good at narrative but I can’t even make a scary-daughter-dystopia that’s interesting.

And how did I get here from being excited about teaching her to build a fire? Which I didn’t do anyway because she already knows how.

Riley finishes her arrangements of cherry boughs in the vase and turns to me.  “So.  It’s kind of like cheating and being the boss of nature,” she says.  “You wouldn’t want to cut too much, though.  Just the haircut stuff.”

Clever girl.  I’m swimming back to the surface, where I send my B-Rate-Riley production packing and I nod, thinking about a week from now, when all the stems we bring inside will be in full bloom, a reminder of building a fire, and the way my girl knows herself so well already.  “Yes,” I say.  “Just the haircut stuff is perfect.”

red currant

red currant

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Categories: books, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

chicken in space

Before I began the glamorous work of becoming a writer, I was a high school teacher.  I worked in several high schools over the years, doing everything from teaching English to driving the van for science field trips, but my favorite job was my first (and longest) in Bishop, California.  One of many small towns flanking the high desert of the Sierra Nevada range, Bishop is on the highway between Los Angeles and Reno, and many view it as nothing more than a place to stop and get gas before they go skiing at Mammoth Mountain.

But I loved it there.  In fact, I never intended to leave.  Until I fell in love and then I did leave, but that’s another story.

Bishop Union High School is a small place filled with a band of passionate teachers, most of whom have chosen to work and live in the Owens Valley for a certain way of life.  Pretty much anything you want to do outdoors is at your feet there.  Bishop has Mule Days (a whole weekend devoted to celebrating the mule; it’s fantastic; you must put it on your bucket list), world-class fishing and rock climbing, hot springs, and a rich history of conservatives and liberals working to get along.  I could go on.  Someday I’ll move back.

My favorite tidbit about my old stomping grounds is this:  Recently, students at Bishop Union High School sent a rubber chicken named Camilla into space.

What’s more, their venture was (will continue to be) sponsored by NASA.  Camilla is NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory mascot who has upwards of 20,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter.  I’d like to say I still have my finger on the pulse at B.U.H.S., but I only know about the project because the students involved were interviewed on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me last weekend.  Instantly transported back to my time as a teacher there, I listened as Peter Sagal interviewed young scientists from Earth to Sky, a team of Bishop’s middle and high school  students who are working on various astrobiology projects.  Probably it was a coincidence, but  the kids Sagal interviewed were all girls. I almost cried at the great, good hope of a tribe of young girls choosing science ( at lunch; it’s not even a class!) instead of the raft of pursuits they no doubt feel culture expects of them.  But, I digress.  I’m sure there are plenty of boys in Earth to Sky, too.  They just weren’t interviewed.

I’m tempted to pack my bags right now and  join up with Earth and Sky.  Or just hang out with kids pumped about science.  Right now they’re waiting to see what Camilla’s “radiation badges,” sent away to a commercial lab for testing, will reveal.  My guess is Camilla’s relationship with Bishop’s kids isn’t over.  I bet they’re already planning what she’ll be armed with the next time she goes up.

A SHORT LIST OF DELICIOUS DETAILS ABOUT CAMILLA’S LAUNCH

  • The kids launched her into “near-space” during a solar radiation storm  in a helium balloon that went up to 124,00 feet

  • Her balloon popped, of course, and she floated back to earth by parachute

  • She was fully rigged with 2 GPS  units

  • She wore a knitted space suit made by a gal from Missouri

  • 7 insects and 24 sunflower seeds were along for the ride

  • None of the insects survived, but you can find them pinned to the “Foamboard of Death” as examples for all future adventuresome insects about what will happen if you try to go to the edge of space (maybe this explains Camilla’s look of horror…or maybe that’s joy?)

  • The 24 sunflower seeds have been planted by 5th graders to see if radiated seeds will produce flowers, too

Categories: chickens, girls | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

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