Friday, January 29, 2010

My Writing Routine

Do you find it helpful to have a routine to your writing? A rhythm?

I feel like I'm supposed to develop one. I mean, that's what I tell kids when they ask for homework tips. Designate a specific time and place for your homework. That way, it will become routine and it won't seem like such a chore.

So I try to follow my own advice and develop a writing rhythm. Up at four, feed the dogs, make coffee, write from 4:15 till 6:30, get ready for work, go to work.

Some days, that's how it looks.

This morning, it looked like this:

The alarm goes off at 4. Hit the snooze button three times.

Get up at 4:30.

Let three dogs out to go potty. Bring two of them back in. Holler myself hoarse for the third, who likes to lurk in the furthest and darkest part of the frozen yard and not come in.

Pour the last drip of water from the jug into the coffee pot, then search for the half-empty water bottles I know are lying around somewhere. Did I mention we have a water leak, so our water is shut off? Yup, no running water in the Dooley/Lilly house.

Call for dog again. To no avail.

Feed the cats.

Get chewed out by cats for not having any wet food.

Fill cat and dog waterer with the next-to-the-last of the half-empty bottles.

Step in waterer. Replace socks.

Call for dog again. To no avail.

Remember to put coffee in the filter.

Pin blanket that serves as office door open so the heat can travel, since the space heater is currently in the bedroom.

Plug in computer.

Call for dog. To no avail. Remember to push "start" on the coffee pot.

Re-tape computer with painter's tape so it will stay open.

Visit Yahoo mail, Google mail, 1 and 1 mail, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Verla Kay's Blueboards, Absolute Write, and Livejournal. Realize that 45 minutes have passed.

Hear an odd squeaking noise outside. Get scared. Then realize it's Dog Number 3. Let him in and feed him. Give other two now-whiny dogs an extra handful of breakfast to appease them.

Trip over angry cats.

Remember to pour a cup of coffee.

Now that so much time has passed, visit Yahoo mail, Google mail, and Facebook again to see if anything has changed. Squeeze in another trip to the Blueboards and LJ. Realize that another twenty minutes have passed.

Take a sip of coffee. Notice that it's lukewarm. Add hot coffee to warm it up.

Visit 1 and 1 mail and Twitter in case anything has changed.

Remove cat from revision notes.

Open novel file. Re-read two chapters to find your place and get your momentum.

Remove cat from revision notes.

Realize your fingers are too cold to type.

Take computer to bedroom. Sit on floor in front of space heater and type slowly and quietly to keep from waking partner.

Remove cat from revision notes.

Write one paragraph.

Remove cat from revision notes.

Write three more paragraphs. Remove cat from revision notes. Then realize it is 6:58.

Hurry to splash cold water on face from the last bottle, brush teeth, brush hair, and try to find some clothes that aren't covered in dog and cat hair. Put on pants. Remove cat from shirt. Put on shirt. Dust cat hair off of shirt. Remove cat from shoes. Put on shoes. Remove cat from jacket. Put on jacket.

Frantically look for coffee. Realize that it's cold. Chug it anyway.

Go to car.

Go back inside and turn off coffee pot.

Go to car.

Go back inside to get lesson plan book. Remove cat from lesson plan book. Go back to car.

Go to work.

Speaking of work, I want to share a couple more quotes from that nifty place with you, because they're totally worth it:


ME: "Hello!"

STUDENT: "Ms. Dooley, I'm sorry, but you're a terrible computer guy. 'Cause one time, on the bicycle computer game, you went straight instead of turning. But don't worry. I'll show you. You're not a terrible bicycle guy, you just have to learn to ride a bicycle. Just a bicycle on computer. And don't wreck when you, uh ... uh ... What was that word I was looking for? Oh, yeah. Just learn tricks and then just call ... just call ... Hey, do you know my phone number? Well, call me and I'll tell you how. I just live right up the holler if you need help."

ME: " ..." Cue crickets, chirp chirp!

STUDENT: "Hello! What are you doing? Why aren't we working?"


And my favorite quote from today:

STUDENT: "Miss Dooley, if you promise to leave, I'll fill in for you!"

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What a child told me

One of my students just informed me, "You're not magic anymore. And you're not cool."

After six hours of pouring snow, the same child left his desk to stare out the window for five solid minutes. At the end of this time, he whirled around, slapped his hands to his cheeks, and screamed, "Dear God Jesus! It's finally snowing!"

During a refusal to come to his desk, he informed me that his imaginary friend wouldn't let him work. I asked him to tell his imaginary friend that his teacher needed him at his desk. He stared at me for a full minute -- so help me, unblinking -- and then said, "Uh, Miss Dooley? He's imaginary?"

Feeling quite foolish, I replied, "Well, that's why I need you to tell him for me. Because he can't hear me."

He sat down slowly, shaking his head in wonder. "He gots ears ..." he muttered under his breath.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A lot of moving, a lot of rolling

When I was in the single digits, my big sisters and I would stay up all night. Or, more often, one of us would wake up before the sun and wake the others, and it would feel like we'd been up all night, sitting together in the dark, with no grown-ups, looking at old yearbooks or playing with the cat who wasn't supposed to be in the house, giggling like crazy and listening to the trucks on the highway.

I think they're called jake brakes? Those loud, machine-gun rattles on the distant highway? Always distant, back then. They were away across a meadow, behind a mountain, beyond the horizon.

I teach eight-year-olds, and sometimes I don't give them credit for being dreamy, distant souls. Then I see that look in their eyes. The one that reminds me of the sound of those trucks.

We talked about them a lot, back then -- where they were going, what they were hauling. What it must be like to be out on the highway at four a.m., nothing but the radio and maybe a dog for company. I thought there could be no better career than truck driver. I hatched a secret plan then and there to learn to drive just as soon as I could reach the pedals.

I didn't actually know then that the sound was made by brakes. By somebody stopping. My sisters had to explain to me that the noise even came from trucks. I only knew the sound was associated with travel, with the road, with green road signs and white numbers that meant we were getting closer -- closer -- closer to somewhere. Or, more often, further -- further -- further from the place we didn't want to be anymore.

We took a lot of trips back then, some of them church trips, some of them just because we were restless and there happened to be gas in the tank that week. There was always a point on those trips when we each thought of what it would be like, never to come back. We could sleep there -- work there -- eat there -- play there.

And then there would be brake lights and usually rain and sometimes tears and the numbers would reverse, drawing us nearer and nearer again to the thing we could never escape.

I wasn't sure what that thing was, then. Still not sure I know the name for it.

I think the carpet in that living room when I was eight was yellow-green and had dirt and hair ground down in it from all the years. In daylight, we listened to Don Henley on the record player and we danced, and the whole trailer shook. It seemed light and airy and full of possibility. I remember thinking we could move at any moment and I hoped we did, even though I liked the trailer, because moving was something fun to break the monotony of hateful neighbor kids and earwax-colored carpet and trucks on a highway I'd seen once or twice but never taken far enough to not turn around and come back.

I live in a small town, the smallest of small towns. There's a sign when you roll in that says "No Jake Brakes."

I find myself thinking, "That's not fair." I find myself thinking, "That's hateful, is what that is." Across a mountain somewhere, some kid might be sitting in her living room, needing to hear those highway sounds. Needing to think about numbers on signs, and how the roads that start in this town lead out.

The more time I spend in this town, the more listening I do for the highway. And this time my sisters aren't here to explain things. This one's gonna be all me.

I don't know what the signs are going to say, or where the numbers on them will lead me. I only know two things: that my goal is to sit in a living room someday and not strain my ears listening for someplace else.

And that this is not that time or place.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Five Things you Don't Want to Hear

Five things you don't want to hear in an elementary school classroom:

1. "Uh oh!" (This is usually preceded by a crash, a splash, or a scream from another child.)

2. "Miss Dooley, I think I gots fleas on my head!" (It turned out to be a shred of paper from a spiral notebook, and not what I thought he meant at first, thank goodness!)

3. "Miss Dooley, my tummy hurts --" (Because they never tell you until they are at the furthest point away from the trashcan.)

4. "My mommy says I can --"/"My mommy says I don't hafta --" (This is usually followed by a description of whatever it is you've just told the child she can't do/must do.)

5. Silence. (They're either sick, missing, or hatching a plan. Occasionally all three.)

Unfortunately, all five happened yesterday in my classroom -- numbers 1 and 3 more than once. Five was definitely the most frightening, as it resulted in a school-wide game of hide-and-seek. I'm hoping that one drops off the list entirely today, but I know I can expect to hear at least three or four of them. I love my kids, but I'm really glad it's Friday!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Day in Quotes

STUDENT: "Did you leave my game open?"

ME: "Yes, it's still open."

STUDENT: "Good, because I'd hate to have to call your parents and get you s'pended. Then who would play wif me?"


STUDENT: "Miss Dooley, can I make a suggestion?"

ME: "Sure thing."

STUDENT: "Zip it!"


STUDENT: "Mr. Dooley? I mean -- Miss Dooley?"


Also, why do students never aim for the trash can -- or at least the linoleum floor -- when they get sick? Why must they aim for the beautiful, brand-new alphabet rug?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ten Ways to Get Off-Task

After a two-week winter break and seven snow days in a row, it's Monday. A school day. And a two-hour delay day (which means an alternate schedule -- and let me tell you how much my kids with autism love schedule changes. They don't. At all).

In case you find yourself going back to elementary school for any reason (and I hope for your sake that you don't), allow me to pass on some wisdom I've picked up today from my students.

Ten Ways to Get Off-Task

1. Untie your shoe so you can ask your teacher to tie it for you. Do this at least six times per hour.

2. Untie your shoe and then trip over the laces. Fall. Fake a cry and say you "broke yourself" and you are "gonna dead."

3. Ask your teacher for a hug. Give your teacher a hug. Then tell your teacher you are made of Velcro and she is made of felt and you are stuck.

4. Choose an object from the "draw box" to inspire you at the writing center. Make sure it's something that rolls, like a miniature basketball. Roll it out of sight. Then tell your teacher you lost it and you need to find it so you can finish.

5. Place your pencil on the blue rug. Tell your teacher your pencil is at the bottom of the ocean. When she tells you to "swim over and get it, please" (read: when she gives you an inch), tell her you have to "dress appropriately" and then procede to suit yourself up in imaginary "flippy feet," "jar of breath," and "snorkel nose," one garment at a time (read: you take a mile).

6. Tell her you are "simply exhausted" and you must sleep. Then, when she directs you to your quiet space, stop at every desk on the way to tell each student to "keep your stupid voice down" because you need to rest.

7. Be six years old and imitate an extremely inappropriate scene from South Park.

8. Pick up the fake bird's nest from the phonemic awareness kit and burst into tears. Announce that your teacher is the meanest lady in the world for killing the baby birds and taking their home. Then repeat this to the principal when you pass her in the hallway.

9. When walking down the hallway, stop to hug every single teacher you see, especially the subs who don't know that this is your M.O. Then tell them you are made of Velcro and he or she is made of felt and you are stuck.

10. Read nineteen of the twenty words assigned. Then skid to a halt before the last word, which is your name, and tell the teacher that you never learned to read.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My Decorated Laptop

When I wrote Livvie Owen Lived Here, I lived at a boarding house in western North Carolina. The house was shared by the landlady, her daughter, two local fellows, my partner, me, six cats, and five dogs, and we all -- well, all the humans anyway -- shared one computer.

So when my landlady's daughter offered to sell me a laptop with a broken screen for $25, I bought it in hopes that I would be able to fix it, or at least plug it in to an external monitor and make do.

A month of saving, an Ebay spree, and a YouTube tutorial later, I installed a new screen. The laptop has worked beautifully ever since, save for one crash last year that was quickly resolved.

So, okay, my partner and I like to throw snowballs. I mean, is that a crime?

According to my 20-pound Rat Terrier, it is. When a stray snowball hit the window this afternoon, Lola apparently darted under the desk, clotheslining herself on the power cord and smashing the computer to the floor.

Don't worry. It still works. If it didn't, you would not be reading this. And I'm so relieved that the screen didn't break, because, without my partner's help, I would never have been able to get all those tiny screws into all those tiny holes to put the laptop back together the first time, and I didn't fancy going through that again only a year later.

The problem is, one of the ... hinges, I guess you'd call it? Broke. Now the screen sort of ... wobbles around. I have to line it up right to get it to close. There's a jagged edge of plastic held on by one of those tiny screws I can't get undone, and part of the frame sort of ... popped loose and won't pop back.

There are many who would turn to a professional. But I'm broke, I've got no car, and there's a blizzard on.

Okay, so. Duct tape? Nope. I don't seem to have any. Electrical tape? Seems to have all gotten used when my cousin installed our baseboard heat. Superglue? Dollar Tree brand, which I'm not putting on my computer.

Aah, yes. Painter's tape.

When we moved into this house, we had high hopes and big dreams. We bought complimentary colors and began painting with gusto.

Six hours later, we were permanently done. Not the house, I mean. Just US. The trim still hasn't got painted. In fact, there's still painter's tape up in my office, framing the unpainted trim that I've just never gotten around to. Luckily, there are also still six unused rolls of painter's tape out on the porch.

And half a roll holding the screen onto my laptop.


I love this little machine, though. It's a trooper, that's for sure. It'll be a sad day when I actually have to replace it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Never be hungry.

Yesterday my niece e-mailed me to share her "main" New Years Resolutions. (From what I understand, the original document was two pages long, single-spaced, and included such gems as "Meet Jennifer Garner's parents" and "Go to school less." But those didn't make the "main resolutions" cut.)

She shared with me the following Main Resolutions:

-Do more fun stuff.
-Meet Rihanna.
-Get more money.
-Never be hungry.

My niece is 13 and a budding gourmet chef. The problem is, she doesn't eat what she cooks. The rest of us do -- it's really good stuff -- she cooks from recipes she finds on the internet, using ingredients she often purchases from her own tightly-clutched coin purse.

Over the summer, she went through this phase where she wouldn't eat anything wet. Or anything that was wet before she cooked it. Or anything that would get when she chewed it. Fresh veggies that needed washed? No. Pizza? Yuck, it has sauce. Oatmeal? Nasty. Cereal? Of course not, it's got milk. Dry cereal? Well, she'd still have to chew it, right? Which didn't leave a whole lot that the child would consume.

She's changed a lot since summer. She's moved from Simpsons-obsessed to Rihanna-obsessed. She's inches taller. And she eats. Not much, but more than she used to. So I hope this New Years resolution is one that she manages to keep.

As for my own resolutions? I've got just one: To see my niece more.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cars Wrecked - 1. Marriages Destroyed - 1. Dogs involved - 16. What a Holiday.

I'm really glad tomorrow is another snow day. That means the number of clean, dog-hair-free, more-or-less-professional outfits I have to find for this school week has been reduced almost by half.

We used to do laundry at the home of one of my partner Jake's relatives, Michael. That, by the way, is not his real name. Since this man is my future relative, too, I tried not to feel uncomfortable invading his home to do my laundry. He swore he didn't mind, said he understood that we were without water at the moment, thanks to a leak somewhere in our underground line and the constant snow that's kept us from fixing it.

Our laundry invite has since been revoked. Even if I could drive to town to do laundry at Michael's house, we are no longer welcome there after nearly breaking up the man's marriage last week.

That's when the car still worked, of course.

Christmas. Let's go back that far, because that's the last time things went according to plan. Of course Jake and I knew we ought not drive as far as my sister Jennifer's house, because, from the moans and groans coming from our old Ford, we could tell the vehicle no longer wanted to bear weight on all four wheels. The right rear tire was held together by little more than the grace of God and a can of Fix-a-Flat as it was. We were pushing our luck driving two hours over the river and through the woods.

But my niece has autism, which means she's a head and shoulders above the rest of us when it comes to event planning. Everything was ready, down to her detailed maps of sleeping arrangements. She had even knitted new collars for my three dogs and wrapped them in notebook paper so the animals wouldn't feel left out on Christmas. Canceling our trip now, on the heels of my niece's other aunt, my sister Heather, announcing that she couldn't make it in from Philly, would be akin to killing Santa Claus.

So we drove across the mountains, dodging patches of ice still clinging from last week's storm. And the worst that happened on the trip was that the puppy peed in the laundry basket. Yuck, yes, but he's done worse. The car held up and the family had as smooth a holiday as a blended family with several members in various positions on the autism spectrum can have. Jake and I even stayed an extra night, even though we hadn't brought enough clothing along, and the clothing we had had been puppied.

Then we made our first mistake.

We started back.

I guess the first bad omen was that the dogs ate the muffins. Good Heavens, did those muffins smell good. I woke the day after Christmas from a nightmare about slipping on ice and falling on my rear end, but I promptly forgot the dream because of the smell of baking muffins. Jennifer sent us on our way with a butter tub full of them, but we weren't a mile out when the dogs pulled the tub out of my overnight bag and ate every last crumb. I still don't know how they opened the container. All I know is that those muffins were tragically taken before their time.

Jake's sister Mandy happens to live at the halfway point between Jennifer's house and our own, just across town from Michael. Jake decided to visit his sister, but because she and her family have eleven dogs already – for real, eleven – there was no way we could ask her to let our three pooches stay, especially not with Buddy being the size of a Budweiser Clydesdale and still growing. So I agreed to take the dogs home and spend a night writing, planning to return to town for Jake in the morning, at which point we would do a load of laundry, as was our weekly routine thanks to Michael's willingness to share his appliances in the interest of us not smelling bad. Mandy even offered to send her cell phone with me in case I ran into any trouble. But I assured her and Jake that all would be fine.

I made it halfway home from Mandy's house.

We'd made this CD to get us in the Christmas spirit. It was mostly the Trans Siberian Orchestra and my favorite song had just come on. The headlights of an oncoming Chevy flashed at me, so I slowed down as I entered one of the many U-turns my stretch of southern West Virginia byway makes between the nearest town and the heart of my county.

When I saw the fire truck, lights flashing, and the firemen milling about in my lane, I slowed nearly to a stop. I say nearly, because there is no stopping completely when you find yourself on a solid sheet of black ice, especially not if you're a bad driver like me.

To the crashing crescendo of Carol of the Bells, the guy behind me hit my bumper.

It took me about thirty seconds to realize I'd just been hit, after which I started panicking as I inched by the firemen so I could get off the road. After we all stopped and it was clear that nobody was hurt and the worst that had happened was that my bumper had a new ding and my littlest dog was suffering from PTSD, we all went on our way to get home before the roads could get any worse.

At this point, I'm pretty sure what happened was that I hit more ice. There was water gushing across the road, after all, and it was more sluggish than usual by the time I reached it. But I was so freaked out by the accident and so distracted by the insistent stress-barking in the back seat that when the Ford took a shimmy to the right, I did a U-turn and went back to the nearest open business.

Open, actually, was not a fair assessment. The Mor-for-Less Grocery was scheduled to close less than two minutes after my arrival. Only then did I think of Mandy's cell phone, still in my pocket. I pulled it out only to find that, of course, of course, of course, it did not get a signal down in my mountains. Luckily, the manager of the Mor-for-Less was generous and after about six tries, I managed to dial Mandy's landline. She and Jake agreed to come and get me, since I was afraid to drive the rest of the way home.

After sitting in the Mor-for-Less long enough to learn their floor-waxing procedure, to witness three separate visits by a worried father to warn his cashier daughter that the roads were getting slick, and to finally be kicked out into the parking lot so the store employees could go home, I spied Mandy's Jeep. Nobody fancied driving the Ford in this weather to ascertain whether anything was wrong. Because a formidable mountain stood between us and home, and because Cashier Girl's worried father had already declared that particular mountain “slicker'n spit,” Jake and I decided we would have to go back to Mandy's for the night.

Did I mention she drives a Jeep? Yeah. A Wrangler. Soft-top. And Jake and I have three dogs -- one of whom is Buddy, who is sort of like keeping a gentle grizzly bear for a pet. So I piled in the back seat with all three dogs, and of course of the three of them, it was Buddy who was most frightened and who insisted in sitting on my lap the whole way. All hundred and twenty pounds of him.

It took over an hour to make the 45-minute trip to Mandy's. By the time we got there, we'd worked out a plan to deal with the dogs. Rather than inciting a riot by trying to take them into Mandy's already-dog-ridden home, we would drop them off at Michael's house, the place where we usually do our laundry. It would only be for the night, after all, and he only had two dogs instead of Mandy's eleven, so it shouldn't be a problem.

Yeah, well, his wife disagreed with us.

Worried that we were causing marital strife between Michael and his wife, we decided to pay him a visit at his place of business. He works nights and we found him caught up in his work. His coworker assured us he would be with us just as soon as possible. Then she kept looking at us after that. Just looking. I guess we must have looked hungry, because she finally said, “Have some of this.”

Where she was hiding such a gigantic tin of sugar cookies in that tiny little office, I don't know. We tore into the cookies like they were going out of style, which, I guess, since they were Christmas cookies and it was now an hour and forty-five minutes into December 27, they kind of were.

After the cookies came peanut butter fudge, and after the peanut butter fudge came warm, flat Pibb Extra from a 2-liter bottle. Then, at long last, came Michael.

We discussed our doggie invasion of his home and he was quite patient and understanding, given the circumstances and the hour and his wife's repeated phone calls. (“Michael, I think it's your wife,” his coworker said on answering the phone. “It's hard to tell – there's lots of barking --”) Reassured, we took his coworker's parting gift of caramel corn and headed for McDonald's, whose 24-hour drive-thru might as well have had magical beams of Heavenly light beaming down on it from the night sky. Hot food! And, at long last, we headed to Mandy's.

The next morning, dodging the phone and ignoring the voice mails about our puppy's transgressions on Michael's kitchen floor, we hurried back down to the wilderness to rescue the car. Only problem was, when Jake drove it, it didn't feel quite right to him. So Mandy drove it. Same conclusion.

“Crud, I've gone and messed up the car,” I groaned, wondering what on earth we were going to do with our kitchen-full of unwelcome dogs and our new lack of transportation.

“I can't just leave you all stranded down here,” Mandy pointed out, which, actually, was an excellent point given the fact that we have no phone at our home and it's tough to schedule a tow and a garage visit if you've got neither car nor phone.

So Mandy took us to feed my cats, who were delighting in their time alone with the house. On the way back to town to walk the dogs before putting them back in Michael's kitchen just for one more night, Jake nearly panicked at the sight of a car upside down in the creek. We stopped and he slid down the bank to make sure no one was inside, but whoever they were, they'd gotten out. I'd been feeling guilty all morning about the craziness, and wishing I'd made it home without incident, but seeing this car, off the road and upside down at the foot of the mountain I was moments from descending when I got rear-ended in the first place, I was suddenly grateful I'd gotten stopped before I made it any further.

We walked the dogs and dodged the daggers of hatred sent our way by Michael's wife. Now all that was left to do was get comfortable and settle in for the night.

You know, when I graduated college, I remember sitting on a hard metal folding chair thinking about all of the things that were about to change. No more classes, no more professors, no more all-nighters to finish term papers.

But believe it or not, it didn't occur to me to wonder whether I'd ever make another middle-of-the-night Wal-Mart run for clean underwear. I just assumed that after college, those days were over.

No such luck. Now four years into my teaching career, I found myself at Wal-Mart at a couple of minutes past midnight, buying underwear and socks because I could no longer stand wearing the ones I'd been rotating since Christmas Day. It was now the wee hours of the 28th and we still weren't home.

Later that day, we were finally able to schedule the towing and mechanic work on our Ford, so Mandy drove us over to pick up the dogs. After an ugly scene at Michael's home, we left in haste and shame, toting three disgruntled pooches and the understanding that it was entirely possible they had single-pawed-ly wrecked my future relative's marriage.

And thus, revoked our laundry privileges. Crud.

We made it home without further event, and the worst that's happened since is that we learned the car was damaged not by the accident but by a problem it had already been developing. A twelve-hundred-dollar problem. Since that's most likely above the car's blue book value anyway, the Ford is currently sitting in our driveway, good for nothing more than a trip to the grocery store less than a block away.

My hastily-purchased Wal-Mart socks and underwear are all dirty now, and we have no way to get to a laundromat, or, better yet, to any other relative's houses. I've got one carefully-protected clean school outfit hanging from the curtain rod in the living room, and after that I'm going to have to get creative.

So I'm really, really glad that tomorrow is another snow day. Not just because I've got nothing to wear, but because, after my Christmas vacation, any day spent at home and off the roads is a good day in my book. Biased as my book may be.