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Drowntheshamrocksday’s Childe

Drowntheshamrocksday’s Childe

Lately, I’ve been working through some difficult times at work. I’ve taken on a few different responsibilities this school year, my sixth back in the district after our three-year hiatus to Louisiana. This year I’ve stepped into several leadership roles: union representative, participant in two “innovate” groups redesigning the high school experience, and I’m 10th grade lead, and overall-department lead. On top of that I’m teaching two 9th grade classes, an AP Lit class, and an at-risk academy class of sophomores. Maybe all this is why there’s nothing in my Submittable queue?

Add to that, two and a half weeks ago one of the students in my at-risk class died unexpectedly (illness). That put me over the top. I was about to go to a site leadership meeting in my classroom, having just finished a team meeting for the at-risk academy. I bumped into one of the assistant principals in the corridor, heading to my room for the leadership meeting, and she pulled me aside and said she’d some bad news to pass on to me. “Ahrlenny died earlier today.” What do you do? How do you capture that idea that a fifteen-year-old girl is gone? I had to take a few minutes to call as many of our academy team as possible and break the news to them. Mostly disbelief was the reaction. It was only when I walked into my own room for the leadership meeting, twenty other educators in attendance, that I broke down and cried.

In the early 2000s when I taught in a high school in inner-city San Diego I had the first student I taught die. Tony Gomez was gunned down on a Saturday night as he walked his bicycle on his way home from a party. Five or six bullets to the chest. Fifteen. A joker. The class clown. Loved by his classmates. A holy terror is how my teachers back in Ireland would’ve described him. I went to the removal for him. Stood at his casket and said some prayers. Spoke to his bereft parents. Platitudes. I couldn’t go to the funeral back then as the principal at the time had concerns about violence and only allowed a couple of teachers/administrators from the school to attend.

So, this time, I went to a Saturday evening Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Santa Barbara, with my wife, and the Mass was offered in her memory. We were the only gringas at the service. Mass was familiar, though the music was far better than back in Ireland. I muddled my way through prayers, communion, the usual things. I spent the weekend trying to make sense of this sudden loss of a student. Sitting under the stained glass windows in the Unitarian Society on Santa Barbara Street, the “sermon” cracked me open again and I found myself weeping in my seat. It’s good to cry, I remind myself. I also recall the many times I cried as a child and my father’s admonishments to “Stop your snivelling.” Funny how most of his advice proved so futile.

And I was back at the church the following Monday for the Rosary, followed by the open casket viewing. I feel like as life progresses I am less and less assured of my place in it and of my ability to live it successfully. I let the tears flow as I stood in front of the casket, then turned and spoke to her family. Again, most everything the priest said had been in Spanish and I relied on observation and my English Hail Mary/Our Father prayers to make it through. There were students from the Academy class there, others who were in band with her, all grief-stricken.

The next day I attended the funeral, removal and burial. More grief. This time several of my fellow Academy teachers were graveside. A student gave us roses to drop on the casket. We filed by, dropped the roses, said whatever prayers we had to offer, and again I spoke a few words to each of her parents and siblings. I then took a handful of earth and sprinkled it on the casket. I thought of my father’s funeral, of my mother’s increasing dementia, of Tony Gomez back in San Diego, of my wife’s grandfather who died at 96 this past summer, of the other students we’ve lost at our school in the past few years. More and more, as I journey through this life, I find myself opening up to grief and allowing the emotions to surface.

I wonder if all this grief makes me better able to empathize with others? I’m a far more patient teacher in the classroom these days, much less prone to allowing student behavior to trigger me. Maybe, as I make my own way through this life towards my own final end, maybe, just maybe, I’m growing up a little, too. My writing is stalled, though I’m managing to keep my “365 Days of the Bird” project going so far this year. I’m not able to promote my novel, organize a book launch, or contact places for publicity. It’s all simply too much. The best I can do is be present as much as possible and keep going.

Last week I took two personal days and drove to Berkeley with my family to stay with our friends, Katie, Dan and their little boy, Sam. A weekend of Daniel Tiger, walks in the rain, amazing pastries, and great friendship was exactly what my exhausted, wounded soul needed.

And this Sunday; St. Patrick’s Day, after everything else on the agenda, I’ll sit down to Irish stew and soda bread with some friends and raise a glass to the dearly departed.

Sláinte.

James

 

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’tistheseasonsday’s childe

’tistheseasonsday’s childe

  • Avocados sold at Saturday market: 200
  • Days to Christmas: 10
  • Books on desk: 5
  • Words in “Bird” manuscript: 22,457
  • Copies of The Heart Crossways on hand: 29
  • Pens on desk: 27
  • Baby Jesus’ statues in office: 1
  • Yearly Planners on desk: 2
  • Cash in pocket: $5
  • Crows in front yard: 28
  • Independent publishing books on order: 2
  • Broken fountain pens: 1
  • Red-tailed hawks surprised in orchard: 1
Insomnia and Dementia’s Foggy Wilderness

Insomnia and Dementia’s Foggy Wilderness

Work begins officially, again, this morning. Meeting at 8am, all staff assembled for the first time since summer vacation began in June. We got back from Ireland on Sunday night, after a 24hr travel day. Since then I’ve been waking a little after 3am, unable to sleep, tossing and turning, the brain full of conflicting, colliding, elliptical ideas about student engagement, writing strategies, books to read, etc., etc.

Coffee is brewing, the crunch of leaves outside the window from a skunk wandering the orchard is the only sound to be heard. This is the time to write, I tell myself. Two spring-clipped manuscripts hang from the wall in front of me. The poster of Jesus’ face by Evie Hone looks down at me. Searching a churchyard in the west of Ireland I found one of her stained glass windows, but it was practically invisible due to the metal grille protecting it from most likely having the lead stripped away and sold.

Life is a series of interconnected moments. We walked into the large entrance room of Crosshaven House, booked by my wife, and there on a bookcase was a photograph of one of my former bosses from when I was in my early-twenties. Next to it in a frame, his obituary. I knew of his untimely, terrible death and found the synchronicity of staying in a place he used to own quite strange. More-so, the next day I got an email from an old friend who had worked with me back in the old days for the same guy. The email, totally out of the blue. We met in Trim for lunch to catch up on life and family and children and lost time.

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Back in America the assault of daily news from our divided country batters my ears. In lreland a sense of safety from the political vitriol prevailed, an almost serene atmosphere where the news couldn’t break through the neolithic gravesites, the red deer crossing our path, nor could it penetrate the sheep-track we drove over for ten or more kilometers as we marveled at the beauty of my homeland. Instead, we wandered boggy fields in search of frogs, stared at towering sea stacks, drank perfect pints of Guinness, poured expertly by various barmen, and spent time with my mother as she disappears, step-by-step into the foggy distance of dementia’s wilderness.

 

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Now the new school year beckons. New faces, students and staff, all holding on to the same hope and expectations for an exciting, rewarding and hopefully uneventful new year. May we have no fires, floods, or mudslides, may we write and read and create magic, may we embrace our differences and celebrate our shared humanity, may we explore new paths to equity and understanding and bring joy and curiosity to our classrooms.

Tempus Fugit…

Tempus Fugit…

Spring break 2011. I was knee-deep in the final stages of editing my MFA thesis novel and we were driving around New Orleans visiting random cemeteries, looking for my wife’s grandfather’s grave. Relatives had given us the vaguest of directions as to where it might be located, but our search was the wildest of wild goose chases. Not sure if it was after we’d found the plaque, high up on a mortuary wall, sun dazzling our eyes, the name barely legible. Maybe it was before we tracked down her grandfather. Memory.

There was an email from Jim Wilcox, head of the MFA program at LSU, and the world’s nicest man. It began, “Regrettably…” or something to that effect. “Our colleague, Jeanne Leiby was killed today in an automobile accident…”

One of those “bottom of your stomach” moments.

Vibrant. Alive. Argumentative. Opinionated. Passionate. Frustrating. Loyal.

Jeanne and I met weekly to go over the pages of my manuscript. She told me I couldn’t write metaphors. She was right. We got along famously. Then she was gone.

Seven years ago, today. Close my eyes and I can see her outside the Old President’s House at LSU, puffing away on a cigarette, dark-rimmed glasses, leather jacket. No bullshit.

Gone. Not forgotten. As Allen Weir put it in his tribute the day we gathered to remember her, “In my life, Jeanne lives radiantly.” 

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