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Monthly Archives: November 2015

Final Exam Angst

Final Exam Angst

 

My first online, graduate, social work class went very well, except for one thing, the final exam. The materials for the course were set up by committee, pretty much, with one teacher organizing the course in the first place, then different teachers “facilitating” each class, and a team coming up with the review materials and the final exam, making changes each semester.

This, already, was a recipe for disaster, and when I read the conflicting review materials and practice exams I said so to my teacher. I said that, one, the review made no sense and made it unclear what in particular the exam would focus on; two, the course overall did not seem to lend itself to a final exam like this, because the readings were so various and really, a written assignment would make more sense, a test of comprehension rather than of memory; and three, the online testing set up, with a strange proctor watching us through the web cam, was just freaky.

My teacher tried to reassure me that everything would be fine, but he also asked me to let him know my thoughts once I’d finished the exam.

I tried to use the review materials to organize my study notes for the test, but they just didn’t make sense. Either the categories were too broad, or the advice conflicted from one page to the next. In the end, I did what I always do and overstudied. I re-read my notes from all of the lectures and readings, and re-read the readings themselves, and condensed my notes, then re-read my condensed notes, and re-read my original notes and re-condensed them another few times, until I’d stuffed information into every corner of my brain.

Cricket had been doing her best to interrupt studying all week, but she is, surprisingly, much less dogged than I am when it comes to studying. She only understands studying smells, and my notebooks just don’t smell that interesting to her. I was worried about how the dogs would deal with the proctor talking to me through the computer screen, so just before the test, I took them for a walk and then gave them each a chewy, and they were fine.

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“Play with me!”

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“Walkies!!!!”

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“Are you done yet?”

I considered bringing Butterfly with me to the computer for the exam, but I was afraid that the proctor would accuse her of helping me cheat on the test. I might have stuffed notes into her ears, or tattooed answers under her hair. (I actually heard from classmates that each time they moved their chairs, or dropped a pen on the floor, the proctor stopped the exam and scanned the whole room again before restarting).

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“I’m sending you the answers with my super powers, Mommy.”

My exam time was 9:15 in the morning, with my web cam wavering on top of my computer screen, and my microphone trying to slide off the desk. It took fifteen minutes for the proctor to set me up for the exam, with various browser issues and weird noises and blank screens. The exam itself only took about ten minutes. There were a handful of short answer questions, which were easy enough to answer, and twenty to thirty multiple choice questions, which, for the most part, made no sense. There were typos (!) in the exam questions, and words were misused, and some of the questions and answers were so vague that you could have chosen any of the four answers equally.

I was spitting mad. I wrote to my teacher immediately after the exam and said as much, trying not to type out the curse words rushing through my head. He wrote back within half an hour to tell me that I had scored an 80 on the test, and that all of my mistakes had been in the multiple choice section. And because the test had to count for 40% of my grade, I would earn an A- for the class.

This is where the noise in my head got all conflicted. An A- is not a bad grade, so it seems obnoxious to complain about it. If I’d skipped some of the readings, or been lackadaisical about studying, or submitted assignments late, then I would have accepted an A- with gratitude. But I know how hard I worked. I had to sit through sessions with my therapist, for eight weeks, while she criticized me for working too hard for this class.

I wrote back to my teacher and made a very clear and detailed argument for why this test was unfair, and why specific questions should be reexamined, and he took me seriously. He said no one else had complained about the test, but that that only meant they didn’t think they had the right to complain. The teacher believed that my argument deserved attention, and he took it to the chairman of the department for review. We are now waiting for a decision.

I worry that it is selfish to fight for myself, and bother people with my own needs, but the dogs have taught me that this is what you are supposed to do. Cricket worked on me for years, but it took watching Butterfly – the sweet, gentle, accommodating one – fighting for her needs, to wake me up.

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“You’ve gotta fight for your right to chewies…I mean justice.”

There is no guarantee that my argument will prevail or that my grade will be changed. In fact, more likely than not, I will be ignored, and that feeling has been difficult to sit with, like bees buzzing under my skin. I wish it didn’t bother me so much. I wish my blood didn’t boil and my thoughts run rampant. But the girls have done their best to remind me that life goes on. Walks must be taken, poop scooped, treats given. There must be scratchies, and cuddles, and adventures, and all of that matters more than this one small unfairness.

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“Hi Mommy!”

But still. Grrr!

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“Grr.”

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Ta-Nehisi Coates and Yom Kippur

 

My Rabbi came up to me after services in September, a week before the high holidays, to ask if I would be willing to do one of the readings for Yom Kippur afternoon. I think they’d run out of volunteers to take part in the services, so he threw up his hands and asked me.

He brought me to the synagogue library, where he had lined up all of the poems on the table, in the order in which they would be read during the Yom Kippur afternoon services. He had a piece in mind for me, a poem by Marge Piercy that looked very long. He said I could read the Marge Piercy, or really, I could choose whichever one I wanted. I started to read through a couple of the other pieces and he laughed at me, because I’d read all of them a few times over when I helped with the proofreading a few weeks earlier, but, my memory’s not so good.

I glanced across the table and saw the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece and just grabbed it, because that was the one, of everything I’d read, that echoed for me. I felt the same way with that piece as I’d felt when I asked if I could adopt Butterfly, and the woman at the shelter said yes. You mean, you don’t have to save her for someone more worthy?!

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My Butterfly.

After I’d made my choice, the rabbi told me that it would be part of something called the “Martyrology.” I’d never heard of a Martyrology before, and he described it, or at least this iteration of it, as a focus on what it is like to be Black in America right now. A young (white) man from our synagogue came up with the idea, and he was bringing two friends to speak about their experiences, and congregants (including me) would read three poems, to echo their message, and fill out the ceremonial quality of the event.

The rabbi said it might be cheesy, but I stuck to my choice.

It took me about three seconds after leaving the library to realize what I’d just agreed to – reading in public, dressed up, in heels, at the podium, in front of a crowd (the whole sanctuary, plus the social hall behind it, was filled for that service by the way, and if I’d known that ahead of time there would have been vomiting).

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“Mommy, you look ill.”

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“Are you gonna puke?”

At the same time, we had a weekly assignment in my Human Rights and Social Justice class (for social work school), to write a journal entry about the assignments and readings and anything else going on with us each week related to social justice. It was an opportunity to complain to our teacher, or consider new ideas, or confide internal conflicts or limitations or prejudices where no one else could read it.

My teacher was an African American man, with two young daughters, so when I knew I would be reading a piece from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me, I wrote to him about my concerns, that I was usurping this story in some way, or misrepresenting it. I felt guilty in particular for taking this full-throated rant about race, and applying it to my own experiences, which are not about race at all. And I wanted permission to read it anyway, from a black man who could stand in for Ta-Nehisi Coates in a pinch. The teacher wrote back to me and told me to go for it, and be loud!

I read the two or three paragraphs to myself, and then to the dogs out loud, every day leading up to Yom Kippur, because I was terrified of reading in public, but also because reading it made me feel better. To write a book to your son, even if it is also a book to the world, is a way of saying – you matter. I would tell this story only to you. I have told this story only to you over and over again. I would spend years of my life talking to you and sharing with you even if no one else ever heard me, because this love between us deserves that level of effort and care and communication.

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Reading to the girls. Clearly they are fascinated.

The words, and the fact that I could hear them out loud in my own voice, were soothing. They reached into corners of my mind and body that are usually ignored. When I read the line “It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country,” I felt it deep in my bones. I don’t think this is necessarily how other people see me, but it is how I see myself: as subterranean. And I’ve taken the same comfort in the “struggle to understand” as Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken. I’m a writer because I need to be, because I have to struggle with how I see the world and myself every day.

The reality of the Martyrology was so much more powerful than I’d expected. First, the young man from the congregation spoke about how he’d grown up on Long Island, in a largely white town and largely white school and largely white synagogue, and it wasn’t until he went to the city for college that he met people whose experiences of the world were really different from his own. But it was the two speakers themselves, confronting us with the ways people like us have ignored them and mistreated them, which made the deepest impression on all of us. Everyone in the synagogue stood up and clapped when they were done, in the middle of the service, on Yom Kippur afternoon.

I was barely a blip in the program, but it meant a lot to me. Maybe people assumed I was just reading for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who for some reason could not make it to our Yom Kippur services on Long Island, but really, I was speaking or me, for the parts of me that have been ignored, mistreated, and pushed aside; the parts of me who rarely get to speak up in public, and be heard.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates. (2015) Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel and Grau.

The Day My Grandfather Died

I was eight years old and we’d just gotten back from visiting him in the hospital the day before. Memorial Day weekend. We’d stayed at a campground near the hospital in Mount Kisco, New York, as if it was just another adventure, not pancreatic cancer.

I think we were only there one night, and then visited him in the hospital in the morning, but I don’t remember much. It was the phone call the next morning, as the bus was arriving for school that stuck with me.

Mom answered the phone on the wall in the kitchen, next to the yellow and orange wallpaper that was starting to peel. The skin around Mom’s eyes turned dark purple and if she said anything I don’t remember it, but I knew that Grandpa was dead.

I was in a fog. My grandpa was the first of my four grandparents to die, and the one I needed the most. He was the one who loved us. He was the one who could fix everything, or at least that’s what I wanted to believe. His death meant that we were on our own.

We had to go to school anyway, me and my brother. He was ten years old and I was eight, and he didn’t talk to me on the bus or in the hallway at school, ever. My friend Alex noticed that I wasn’t my usual self in the one class we had together, art. He chatted to try to get me to smile, and listened when I remembered how to talk, but mostly he just watched me, to make sure I was okay and not shattering into tiny pieces.

My parents picked my brother and me up from school at noon, and took us to the deli where our father picked up too many sandwiches, and chatted with the counterman, and drank Dr. Brown’s celery soda, (really gross), before we drove up to Westchester to see Grandma.

The funeral had to be planned. Relatives had to arrive. Decisions about the future had to be made. But I just remember sour pickles and pastrami sandwiches and the utter emptiness of that house without Grandpa in it.

My grandfather was my idea of God – a little bit frail and not especially powerful but full of love and joy. I knew he loved me, and my brother, and my cousins, and I knew there was enough love for all of us. My grandfather was the only person in the world who seemed to have power over my father, though he rarely used it.

One of my aunts spoke at the funeral, but I don’t remember much about that day. A lot of funerals seem to mush together from those years: the funeral parlor, the pine box, the black ribbons, the cemetery, the prayers, and all of those grey stones. What stays with me is the grief; the void of no-Grandpa that we were left with after that.

I don’t remember Delilah, our Doberman Pinscher, being a part of things. Did she come with us camping that weekend? Did she sleep on my feet after the funeral? Was she there in the kitchen when the phone rang? I don’t know. But I do know that I would have talked to her about all of it, like I learned to talk to Grandpa after he died, and like I used to talk to God. I never considered it talking to myself, because I always knew that someone was listening.

Delilah.

Delilah.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

And Delilah, who loved me in her own quiet way, was always willing to listen.

Delilah's favorite form of listening.

Delilah’s favorite form of listening.

Nature Poetry

My rabbi adds poetry to Friday night services. Scratch that, he adds poetry to every service he leads, but the services we go to every week are on Friday nights. I am not really a poetry person. I wrote poetry and songs as a teenager, but I felt like I didn’t belong with the other poets. I wrote poems just to get the glitchy thoughts out of the corners of my mind, not to be profound. I just wanted to say what I meant without having to think about rhythm or rhyme, or “the right word,” or what was going to impress people. So much of the poetry I was told to admire was incomprehensible. I love Mark Doty’s prose, but we spent two hours in a graduate class trying to diagram one of his poems, and I still did not understand what he was getting at.

So it was a surprise to me when I realized that I looked forward to the poetry every Friday night. That’s not to say I love all of it, I don’t. But sometimes it says exactly what I needed to hear, that I didn’t know I needed to hear.

“Mmm poetry.”

The other night there was a poem from Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet, with the Hebrew version and the English translation both printed on the page. My Hebrew is clumsy, and if I’d tried to just read the poem in the original, it would have been a struggle. It was pretty and melancholy in the English, about the conflicted feeling of being in Jerusalem in 1967, where you expect joy and transcendence, and instead get grief and complication.

In the English the words were bland, plain, clear and practical, but in the Hebrew, the words themselves were onomatopoetic, they bounced. The Hebrew words were playful and full and carried some of those sprouts of joy that were missing from the plain meaning of the poem.

It wasn’t even one of the nature poems, intentionally. It was one of the “Israel is complicated” poems that we get every once in a while, because our rabbi does not believe in making everything nice and simple; he believes in seeing things as they are and still trying to have hope anyway. This is why he is my rabbi.

There was also a poem by Mary Oliver, called “What Gorgeous Thing,” about the beautiful, and incomprehensible, song of the bluebird in the morning. She describes it as “the only thing in the world that is without dark thoughts,” or at least seems so.

“Really?”

I keep thinking that I’ll go to the library and pick up a stack of poetry books and find poems that speak to me, but I never do. I often have to re-read a poem to really get it, even on a basic level (forget about depth, or historical references, or coded language, then I’m clueless). If I like the sound of the poem, or the image it leaves in my mind, or the feeling it creates in me, then I’m in.

It helps that someone else is reading the poem out loud and I’m not just stuck with how the words appear to me on the page. We have some very good readers at my synagogue who can bring out the rhythm or pacing of the language in a way that doesn’t occur to me on my own.

For sentimental reasons, I always like when a dog shows up in a poem, but most dogs make more sense as storytellers than as poets. Cats could be poets. Cats are terse, with a well-chosen gesture or expression saying everything that needs to be said.

A genius at work.

A poet at work.

Actually, I think Butterfly might be writing nature poetry all the time, but her medium is pee, and I am too human to understand it. She is a nature poem all by herself when she stands out in the yard listening to the birds and contemplating the world around her, and then she becomes two poems intertwined, when her sister jumps over her still, contemplating body, to catch a falling leaf before it hits the ground.

My nature poem!

A nature poem!

Cricket, a poem in process.

Searching for a poem…

There it is!

and there it is!