Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I'm closer to walking away than I have been all year. And there's one day left.

Reason one: some people are just mean.

Well yeah, people are always going to be jerks. People are always going to say and do cruel things with the intention to hurt you. And they will hurt you, seemingly with relish. The old sayings tell you to kill 'em with kindness, that honey catches more flies. Sometimes, though, honey doesn't work, and reflexively you reach for the flyswatter. You and everybody else that kid has dealt with for the last sixteen years. All you can really do is not let it phase you, roll with the punches. Don't blink. What a shock to have those blows casually ignored. Sometimes enough of a shock to challenge a belief, and enough times and you may start to see a shift in behavior. Not always, not every day. But maybe.

Reason two: some people are just lazy

This one gets me. I hear my staff and faculty toss it around like it's something a kid actively participates in, like an extracurricular. I  was a smart, capable kid. I was engaged. And damn was I lazy. It's so easy to forget how hard it is to be a teenager. Increasing responsibilities, plus all those hormones? It's only natural to shut down, or to do the bare minimum. To avoid. To hide. To complain. That was me. Hell, that's still me sometimes, and most people would agree that I did all right (in high school and since). The primary difference? My kids here at school have a fraction of the support I did. How can I abandon them too?

Reason three: Some people can't be fixed.

This is true, but not the way you might think. It's a fact of life. People will always think there is something inherently wrong with others. People who are different need to be fixed. People who are this or that, people who are angry or lazy, something is wrong with them. No. Something is wrong with you, me, the system, the world, that a kid can grow up with so much hate in her heart or so much weight on his shoulders. What's wrong is me, thinking I can change them. They may be broken, but that doesn't mean there is something wrong with them. There is so much right that I've been privileged to see this year. The angry girl channeling her aggression to challenge an injustice; the frustrated boy sticking with it, his pain visible, exposed by a simple algebraic equation; the spaz with a heart of gold showing me what it means to live in the moment (consequences be damned). There is nothing wrong with these kids except that they've always been told that there's something wrong with them. And I've told them that too, in my own moments of frustration, in my own moments of anger. And for that, I feel a deep sadness. Could I have done better, acted differently when faced with challenges, earned their trust, their respect? Probably. But in this moment, feeling pretty vulnerable as I mentally prepare for my last day, I can't change the past, I can't think about the things about myself that I want to fix. Because there's nothing wrong with me either.

Friday, June 1, 2012

caution: wet paint

When I was younger, I was cast as the kid Tom Sawyer hoodwinks into whitewashing a picket fence in a stage version of Twain's classic novel. It was a small part, and I'm pretty sure I had to wear overalls (not a good look for me), but playing the good-natured fool was pleasant enough. Why does this memory arise now, more than ten years later? Because yesterday, I spent three hours whitewashing our school's chicken coop, by myself, juvenile hooligans nowhere to be found. It was actually supremely pleasant working in the sunshine, despite how ill prepared I seemed to be, painting a whole gallon of primer with a two-inch wide brush. But it seems to be a fitting metaphor as our school year draws to a close.

See, what I've discovered in the months since my last blog post (sorry) is that the most fulfilling work I've done here is the behind-the-scenes, thankless work. Hear me out on this one. Our year has been tumultuous at best, but somehow we've managed to find ourselves ten days out, overwhelmed and exhausted but bolstered by high hopes for next year. Optimism for the big projects to come is tempered with the hesitant cynicism that has overtaken the glass-half-full worldview I'm used to. But doing what I can do, what needs to be done, knowing that the coat of white paint I've applied will become a blank canvas for next week or next year - and that the white won't show through after the project is complete - that gives me a sense of accomplishment that is a combination of the satisfaction of an afternoon's work and the pride I feel having dedicated my time and energy to this place for the small amount of time I've been here.

"I guess I'll do what I can," a student said to me while working on a project yesterday afternoon. Yes. Yes, I said. Always do what you can.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

still life with elephants

So. I've been updating about once a month. I feel pretty good about that.

Fall in New England has been lovely, despite often being gray and rainy it's been quite mild - with the notable exception of the six inches of snow a week ago (which has already melted away entirely). My mom and Don were out to visit over Veteran's Day weekend, and while it was nice to see their faces, it didn't feel out of the ordinary - quite the contrary, since, as I realized while they were here, we only really saw each other about every other month back home anyway, so we were right on schedule. After a delayed arrival and a brief jaunt around the central and down east areas of Maine, off they went and it was back to normal around here.

Haha, gotcha. There is no such thing as normal here.

So the month of November has been a whirlwind, mostly because early in the month one of my coworkers tendered her resignation. It's a huge loss for our community, but ultimately the best decision for her. The administration, apparently disregarding the fact that my position on staff up until that point was perplexingly varied and relatively undefinable, felt that rather than continue on that path (or lack thereof), my time and energy ought to be reallocated. After a little thought, I agreed, but with stipulations. So in a somewhat mystifying display of bravado and perhaps insanity, I find myself shapeshifting yet again. And apparently no one is surprised that I woke up on Monday and found that I am a teacher.

Obviously, I am in no way certified to be an educator. My last classroom experience was six years ago, and that was college. I never studied education, or psychology, or child development. Sure, I loved being in school. If you didn't know me then, I'm sure it will come as no surprise to you that throughout school I positively thrived, the perfect teacher's pet. So with these things in mind, when I was offered this position I absolutely refused the title "teacher". I don't want to make lesson plans and grade papers and the like (though I have no doubt that I will still be doing those things). I want to help these youngish humans see the world. I want to get them doing things. I want them to connect the dots. And I've had a lot of little revelations in the past few weeks that are going to fuel this, well, whatever this is. Long story short, I see myself as a facilitator. I've approached these kids - kids who are overwhelmingly uninterested in school, kids for whom just being in school five days a week is actually a great hurdle to clear - as one might approach, say, a wild elephant. If you whip the elephant into submission, you get either a depressed elephant or a pissed off elephant. Angry elephants can be dangerous, and sad elephants are just... sad. So none of that in my classroom. By acknowledging these kids are powerful - kids who have always had to fight for power, or have been told that they are powerless - and showing them that their empowerment can be a tool, a means to choose a life for themselves, a small bit of control in a chaotic world, but refusing to allow them to use their power over or against others... it's been an educational experience for me, I've actually learned a lot about how I relate to people in general. So it's been awakening after awakening being in the school during the day. And it's been three days.

If you want an idea of what I'm actually doing in the classroom, basically imagine me with five elephants, trying to encourage them to all move the same direction at the same pace. And if they move at all, it's kind of a thrilling victory. So far I've managed to avoid being perceived as a threat, as an authority figure. Because, in all honesty, they spook easily, and if you've ever tried to herd elephants then you know what I mean.

Ok, I've taken this elephant metaphor much, much too far. Hopefully soon I'll be chattering on endlessly about our wonderful, engaged community of learners, developing projects to improve the world we live in and engaging others to fight the good fight. Because isn't that the goal, here and now and everywhere and always?

Next update: interns. Oh, it's gonna be good.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

emilies in action

At my job, there are three Americorps volunteers. Yes, I'm a volunteer and yes, I get paid... it's just not very much. Logical? Not so much. But then again, I am technically an employee of the federal government, so logic is not a given I guess. Anyhow, there are three of us and we are all Emilies. Even after eight weeks, people still like to joke about it, and it is still hilariously confusing. I use initials to distinguish between EK and EG, but for some reason no one else does, and I can't quite figure out why. I had hoped we would come up with some pretty awesome nicknames by now, but alas, this is not the case.

The other two Emilies work in the school during the day, and I work part of the day and then overnight as well. All three of us have lots of big ideas about how we can make this place really amazing, and all three of us are somehow keeping our footing in this uphill battle. Between day-to-day lesson planning, volunteer recruitment, advising students, developing curriculum and extra-curricular activities, we have our hands full. Sometimes we even know what we're doing! The cool thing is the school (being non-traditional, experiential, and standards-based) extends us a lot of freedom to develop ways for these kids to get ahead, since many of them entered the school lagging behind their peers. In a perfect world, the momentum would come from the students, who would take the initiative to design their own projects and learn by doing. But if you recall being a sixteen-year-old, you'll know that this is quite a stretch. Since it's the school's first year, the systems are being developed as we go, which is both a good thing and a bad thing, since it allows us to be flexible. The downside to that is that we lack structure and clear goals (some days just making it to 2:15 feels like a huge success).

Some fun(ish) things I've been up to:
creating world geography games
drafting hypothetical volunteer positions/recruitment strategies
crafting an elective art history course
developing an after-school citizenship club
attending interesting conferences (this month was volunteerism, next month is local economy/small business/maine-centric)

In other news, I've been falling back into my old habit of overbooking myself, and now that I've realized that I'm trying to find some balance. Part of why I came out here was to challenge myself to finding peace in solitude, which I figured would be easier to do in the middle of nowhere. But I've got a pretty solid core group of awesome folks developing out here, especially my pair of Emilies. A recent trip to Portland reminded me of how much I love living in a city - being able to walk or bike to a cafe, music and art and people - but I am challenging myself to stick it out and make the most of my year out here in the boonies. Fall has been absolutely beautiful - weeks and weeks of changing leaves, gray and rainy afternoons, and crisp walks in the woods have allowed for humble reflection, quiet and bittersweet. I'm looking forward to a winter full of reading and hopefully, once I'm adequately outfitted, a bit of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Finding myself oddly excited for my least favorite season, but never fear, I'm sure I'll be complaining about it in no time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Boots on the ground

Wow. It's been a month.

I'm still immensely overwhelmed. I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to be doing. But holy cow, I wanted a change and a change is what I got.

My first weekend here there was a hurricane. Really in this area it turned out to be more like a big rainstorm. Not much different from tornado weather at home, except that tornado weather you get dramatic clouds and flash-bang thunder and lightning, whereas here it seemed like just wind and rain. We were luckier than the rest of New England, though - a lot of folks lost power around here but there was relatively minimal damage.

That weekend, having just arrived, I was utterly alone. I got here on a Friday afternoon, they showed me where I'd be staying, and then all the staff went home for the weekend. The storm was expected to hit on Sunday. I got myself settled in, I unpacked a bit. You don't think about it, but for most of us spending 48 hours with yourself can be a bit overwhelming, especially after being in the car for two days, especially when you've been advised not to go out in the storm. I was sure I'd go insane. But then the solitude was part of the plan, something I knew I was facing when I picked up and put a thousand miles between myself and everyone I know and love. More on that in later blog post, I think.

The day of the hurricane was the only day since I've been here that I had no responsibilities, no hours logged. Tomorrow, Saturday the 24th, will be my first official day off. Seriously. I've thrown myself into this job, partly because it's up to me to make it worth my while and partly because I don't really have much else to do and sitting at the tea shop on Facebook gets old quick.

So the first week I was here was spent getting things ready. Cleaning the houses, outfitting the kitchens and living space, developing school and residential policies. It was a blur. I remember a lot of coffee - including my first foray into the cult of Dunkin' Donuts. No comment.

The second week the kids arrived. That was a whirlwind too. I think for my own sanity I've blocked a lot of it out. Week two was suddenly week three, and I started to realize a couple things. First, I needed boundaries. I had worked two sixty hour weeks and I got really sick really quick. Because I'm me, I still put in fifty hours last week, but spent the rest of the time trying to sleep my way back to wellness. During that time I made myself a rough schedule that would hopefully help me steer towards 40/wk. So going from no structure to a set of hours and tasks has given me a sense of ease and ownership and I'm back to being really excited about what's coming up in the next month.

Next post will be more about what exactly I'm working on and some Maine trivia. Get excited!

Monday, September 5, 2011

origin stories (or how I came to be here and why, including where exactly "here" is, etc.)

note: I will refer to friends and family by name (unless you ask me not to) but students and coworkers will never be. FYI.

Sometime in early May I started to scheme. As I told my friend Derek, I was going to develop an 18-month plan, and this was going to be my summer of discernment.

I felt like my time in Mpls was drawing to a close. I had moved up in 2002 for college, so I was quickly approaching the 10-year mark. I loved my job because I loved my coworkers, but otherwise I was getting bored. When I started at the Wedge I was looking for a career, something I could grow, and if I stuck around I could have had that. But in my personal life, a lot of things changed over the two years I spent there - we don't need to get into that now, except to mention that I started doing yoga and really getting to know myself. The me I was when I started at the Wedge in May 2009 had shed a lot of insecurities and emotional baggage, so in May 2011, I started thinking about where I might go, what I might do to keep pushing myself. At a personal plateau, I began to explore the idea of change.

After describing my 18-month plan to Derek - basically that I would spend one more winter and one more summer in Mpls and be fully on my new path by fall 2012 - he went on a two week vacation. We sat down for coffee when he returned and, with a wicked grin spreading across my face, I told him of how my 18-month plan had become an 18-week plan. I had found the perfect conduit for change, for escape, for adventure. I was going to Maine.

I had this thought that I'd like to live by the ocean, but I didn't want to move to the West Coast, or to the South (which, really, meant anything south of New York City). And so, coastal + New England = Maine. Being somewhat practical, I knew I should have a job lined up before I left, but I also knew I didn't want to work retail any more. The first place I looked was Americorps. The first job I saw was this one. It was the only one I applied for. It was just right, right for me, right for now. So I just decided. That was that.

The day I had my first interview was the same day I sprained my shoulder in a bike accident. The interview happened first, though. The Americorps staff person I talked to totally got it, got me and why I would be a good fit. It was one of the best interviews I've ever had. It was only a matter of time, even the accident couldn't dampen my spirits. I was sure I'd hear back within days. Days became weeks. Weeks became months. Somehow I was still convinced. It was still right. So I went about my days confident that change was coming. It was a good summer, tumultuous, filled with sweltering afternoons and nights on the town.

Exactly eight weeks after my first interview, I had a third interview (there was a second, more of a screening really, just in case you were thinking my math was wrong). It was, by far, the worst interview I had ever given. I had spent my summer banking on this, and now it was done. There was no chance, I was going to have to figure out a plan B.

Two days later, I was offered the job.

Two weeks later, I was in the car, on my way here.

(Now where is here exactly?)

Good-Will Hinckley is an old place. It used to be a school for at-risk youth, until state funding dried up a couple of years ago. More than 100 people lost their jobs. Acres of property, historic buildings, sitting unused and empty. I don't know who came up with the idea for MeANS, or how it came to be a reality. I'm sure it will make for an excellent tale for another day. But the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences has 21 students enrolled for the 2011-2012 school year, and eleven of them are from rural Maine (well, really, all of them are from rural Maine, but eleven of them are from a more rural place than Hinckley, which is saying something.) Anyhow, those eleven - eight boys and three girls - they're living on campus. It's what this place is for, after all. And somebody's got to be responsible for them when they're not in class. So why not me?

My official title is Campus Life Advisor. I'm basically an RA, but I get to do cool stuff like plan cultural events and cooking classes and get involved in the classroom, taking what kids learn in school and figuring out ways for them to incorporate it into their everyday lives, into the real world. I'm making it up as I go. It's rad. Or, it will be. I hope.

They arrive today.

Friday, September 2, 2011

I really am going to update soon. For now, know that I am not avoiding blogging, I am just up to my neck in projects that all have to be done by Monday. So after Monday, I will share with you my many, many stories from the week I've been here.

I can't believe it's only been a week. I can't believe it's already been a week.

More soon. I promise.