CAW

I know the crows don’t care.

It’s the end of the semester.

I know, crows, you don’t care.

Fora little over 100 years, American schools have used this A-B-C-D-F system to do something.

No one’s quite sure what.

It might be about showing mastery of various skills, or maybe about knowing facts, or maybe completing tasks, or not running the streets breaking into cars.

As I said, no one’s sure.

But we pretend to be EXTREMELY SURE. And then to fight over when which grade is ethical, or permitted, depending on the student, the teacher, the school district, and the fashion.

We continually push kids to believe that grades are more real than the opinions of their teachers, or the quantity of their work, the quality of their work, the effort they expend, the chances they take, and certainly more real than what they learn.

One thing grades are about is rejecting teachers’ expertise and autonomy.

Although an online system for communicating with students’ families has existed for at least a decade, a big part of what some teachers are asked to do with their day is to make phone call after phone call.

The crows don’t care.

I left work just enraged.

Enraged.

I don’t have a better solution for grades. The only one I’m really interested in is the “F,” the threat of which encourages someone to come to school occasionally, and to not sit for hours at school staring at Instagram.

F I think is important as a threat.

The others are very blurry.

I was wise enough to walk and walk and walk, after calling my poor mother who sadly has always taken my calls, no matter how annoying.

I walked and walked and my mom had to get off the phone so I kept walking.

Down a boulevard lined with apartment buildings from the 1920s, of about eight stories, passing other walkers with pitties and cocker spaniels on leashes.

I thought my head or heart would burst, and a mob of crows started screaming.

Not at me, but before me, above me, they were screeching and flapping and raising hell in the tops of old oaks, oaks trimmed so all their branches are high, high, twenty feet up.

And I thought the crows don’t care.

The crows do not give a shit about American education, public education, my job, my students, what they could do had they more boundaries that encouraged them to settle peacefully and think. Think and write and think and create.

Crows are not like oh Liz no one respects your valiant attempts to live your values

Because they don’t care.

They don’t care about how middle managers are continually hired to critique people doing the actual work.

They don’t care.

YOU DON’T WANT TO STOP HER FROM GRADUATING, DO YOU?

Over Christmas break, I talked with several friends I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still way less social than I was pre-pandemic. I feel an intense pull to stay to myself, where I can manage things.

The subject of the talks was: how do you care without being crushed by depression?

One of my friends, the answer was weed.

Briefly my answer was crows.

How often, though, can you hear the crows? I don’t think they are as loud as getting high.

But I don’t really know.

How many times can you be distracted by keeping your job, and still have any energy to do your job?

How many times can you cross t’s and dot i’s when your house is on fire, without choking on the smoke?

I don’t know, but the crows were beautifully sharp, loud, free, and fuck-it.

And when they show up, they show up.

Bricks

I drive across one of the more interesting parts of town on my way to work. Quite a few boarded-up houses. Down one street where a business has one building on one side, and one on the other, so someone might be driving a forklift across slowly. Down one end of a cemetery. I salute the old bones and plan to be alive for the day. At one corner, a commercial-looking building had been creaking down since I started my job. And probably long before that.

Inscribed brick, Neo-Sumerian, ca. 2094-2047 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One day on my way home, I stopped at the light and saw a man on the second floor of this building. He was holding some bricks in his hands. There was a weekend, and on Monday, I drove past and saw the whole second floor was gone.

The city can be like a coral reef, full of life and stories and various pieces of flotsam and jetsam are likely to be taken up, rather than left for an official person to officially put them in a bin and cart them off to an official disposal site where dreams go to die.

Further down that street, there’s a house with a front yard chock full of furniture and doo-dads. At first, I thought someone had been evicted, and I said a little prayer. But the stuff is in the yard all the time. Then I thought they might be selling some of it, and you know I’m all in on buying some weird stuff now that I live in six (6) rooms! But it’s just a yard with chairs, benches, windmills, metal snowmen, giant pinwheels and pergolas and bouncy horses and cement saints.

Honestly I don’t remember anything that’s actually in the yard, and school is out for Christmas break, so you know I’m not going to do the drive to work (!) to find out.

Frequently at school our wi-fi is out, or so slow that no one can do anything they are trying to do, like review their vocab in a game, or look up what goes in their paper. Words appear on student computers, with a constantly spinning wheel beneath them. “This makes me want to stab someone,” I said. Being equally frustrated about my lack of wi-fi access, I try to affirm my students’ frustration. “You can stab me,” a student said. “That’s the first time anyone’s said that to me in my whole career,” I said.

My advisory is mostly boys, and they express affection for each other by attempting to wrestle, hiding each others’ laptops, using our classroom mascot Dr. Frog as a football, and talking shit about each others’ racial backgrounds.

It’s really quite precious. Sometimes I have to yell at them to stop touching each other, or to do push-ups. I have one student who can do a complete flip from standing perfectly still, and he’s in ninth grade. His energy could power the island nation of Singapore.

The first Saturday of Christmas break, I was excited to not have to drag my ass out of bed in the dark for a while (no offence, kids), and I padded down to get my packages. My neighbor had brought them inside and set them on our steps. Then I heard someone yelling and (it sounded like) throwing a good old-fashioned tantrum, pounding heels and fists on the floor. One of my neighbors is a three-year-old child, and I thought, oof. Yeah.

My friends came over and we built things our of cardboard and made collages and drank coffee.

Things are falling apart. And coming together.

Sydney Plague of 1900

Now, what about an Australian plague?

What about a plague that wasn’t actually as bad as people thought it was (for a change)?

I give you the Sydney Plague of 1900.

Good news: only 103 people died.

Which is shit for them, but as you’ve learned, a plague of 103 is hardly a plague. It was THE plague, though.

The Sydney Press! The plague! The stuff came from people from China! Those people got plague and hid it! From the good people! Of Sydney!

It was a bad time for people of Chinese descent. I mean, did it come from China? Yeah. But that was only because it came from a place you could get to on a boat from Australia, and that included China.

Because people had finally figured out that rats were a big part of the problem, it was a very, very bad time for rats. As the sister of the lead mascot of the band who wore a rat mask, I regret to inform you that the Rat Squads of Sydney (who need their own prestige drama on HBO) killed 100,000 rats.

Sydney Ratcatchers with some of their spoils.

The Australian government started cleaning up their docks, too. If you lived in the area, you could clean your own place. When the building was clean, you got a plaque to show you were spit spot.

Newspapers said! That the plague! When people died they were! Disposed of in! Horrible ways!

If you got plague, you were forced to move to a quarantine area. First they went to the Woolloomooloo quarantine depot (a sale on “o”s that day I guess) and then they were taken to Quarantine Station at North Head, where at least I hope people were able to joke about the second place name of the day that deserved mockery.

I’m glad Americans never were going into others’ houses and dragging them out and sending them to a quarrantine location. I mean, there’s a lot we went through, but not that.

Australians sometimes resisted being taken into custody and kept imprisoned when they’d done nothing wrong, as you might imagine.

While only 100 or so people died, 1,800 people were quarrantined in the facility.

I’ve just been watching my favorite reality television show, which is getting into its covid-era episodes. A guy on the show was extremely cautious about covid, and family members were not. He got covid even though he was isolating. And then he was rethinking things.

I had such strong feelings during covid about doing the right thing. That I wanted to look back at that time and feel I had behaved ethically.

I think that’s good.

But I also consider the dangers of self-righteousness, and the way, as Vonnegut said, we don’t even know what’s the good news and what’s the bad news. It often depends on who’s looking at the situation, and where in time they are.

So I still kinda hate you for thinking covid was fake, or not dangerous, or that masks don’t work, but I acknowledge I’ve got my problems, too.

Fall

This fall, I’ve known six people who have died.

None of them were close to me. I was a secondary mourner for all of these deaths: a cousin-in-law’s brother-in-law, a great aunt and great uncle I had never known well, an old friend’s father, and my aunt’s parents, who both died in the same month.

I didn’t go to my great uncle’s funeral, or my great aunt’s, though I would have, if I hadn’t been overwhelmed. Our family returns to Nebraska for funerals, Nebraska our happy hunting ground (literally for some), our blue heaven.

I went to my friend’s father’s funeral. Well, the event at which I clenched my stomach to keep from crying, and felt my body puff up with pain, secondary pain, holding a paper plate of grapes and yogurt dip and seeing people you’ve known forever broken by one of the things that breaks absolutely everyone and then driving away telling yourself you did what you could though now they have to have Thanksgiving this year without their dad.

My aunt is one of the most hospitable, thoughtful people I know.

Her parents died just weeks apart.

Yes, they were elderly and unwell.

That didn’t mean I couldn’t taste her grief from the front of the church.

Here’s where I’m going to throw my mom under the bus: I was up, dressed in black, and walking in the church door at exactly 9 am, when I ran into absolutely no one because the visitation started at 9, not the funeral.

Being on time is an odd condition for me, and I never know what to do with myself.

I was there for immediate family time, when I was merely the niece of the deceased’s daughter.

But I took a few more steps in, and turned a corner, and my uncle was crouched down with his granddaughter and I’ve already used so many relative descriptions you’re now like who are these people anyway, but they’re important people in my family.

The little girl had eyes blown open in distress.

“People just kind of lost it,” my uncle said. “So I was taking her away for a minute.”

I crouched down, too, and said hi. “Your grandpa died. It’s very sad,” I said.

Little girl was not comforted by this, at least partly because it wasn’t a comforting thing to say. But she didn’t freak out, either.

A funeral is being in the room with the dead person until it sinks into your subconscious, your still living bones: this person is dead.

Like, really dead.

No, they’re gone, and no one can fix it.

No money, no wishes, no genie, no new diet, no anti-aging serum, no exercise regimen, no drug will make the person not dead.

I went around saying hi, watching the memorial slideshow, and generally feeling like a lost sock, until my mom arrived and I could accuse her of lying to me about the time of the funeral.

My cousin read the same lesson I read at both my grandparents’ funerals, ye olde Ecclesiastes being all, oh, there’s a time for everything, a time to step in dog shit, a time to find a $20 bill. A time to have your leg amputated after a car accident, and a time to eat chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting.

A week later, Thanksgiving was clouded by a different kind of death. My stepsister is getting divorced. She and her daughter brought the dark cloud of divorce to the holiday. It seemed a bit darker to some of us because my parents separated at Thanksgiving 36 years ago.

I wanted very much to hug them and be with them and distract them and listen to them. On the other hand, I had begun to feel, emotionally, like I was traipsing through the deserts of Iraq through a maze of burn pits.

“I can tell my depression’s not that bad if I have bathed in the last few days,” my stepsister said.

“I can relate,” I said. Once I turn the water on, I can get it done.

We played badminton, if you could call hitting a birdie back and forth with no nets using tennis rackets “played badminton.”

We lost each other in the crowd at the city’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

My stepsister told me some terrible things her husband said to her.

We had plenty of mashed potatoes.

We went to the zoo. The penguins had several nests going. We watched them bite at each other. We watched them tick tock around like little fat metronomes. They all followed a zookeeper who brought a shovel down into their reserve snow and dumped it near them.

My niece said penguins were one of her favorite animals.

I remember when she was three she liked to lie in the grass and see the clouds, and she brought my dad a pine cone and begged him to help her plant it so she could see a tree grow.