Friday, June 20, 2014

How to (Literally) Balance It All: Being a Working Mom with a Broken Ankle

I picked the "best" time to break my ankle. I teach, and it's summer. I was completely off work the first two weeks of my injury, so I followed orders and basically did not move. But I was starting to get a little unhinged, so I was looking forward to getting back to work--even if the prospect of parenting, working, and commuting without being able to put down my left foot was a little terrifying.

My one summer class started, and I finished up the first week of classes today. I survived! So here are my tips for the literal balancing act:

The Practical 

For me, breaking a leg was getting expensive in a hurry, but there were some expenses I just couldn't see any way around. On the other hand, there were some quick fixes I used to cut costs where I could. Here's a list of what I had to buy and what I ended up making do.

  • Get a knee walker. If you have to be on your feet for any length of time or distance, crutches just aren't that practical of an option, especially since you can't carry much with them. Just waiting for the elevator on crutches would wear me out. I got this one, and it works well, doesn't tip over, turns easily, and isn't too heavy to get in and out of the car while balancing on one leg. You can rent them from some pharmacies, but--for me--the cost of renting for the 2-3 months I'll be needing it was the same as purchasing it outright, so I did that. 
  • Don't just depend on one mobility device. They do different things. The knee walker (or even just a regular walker) isn't going to get you up and down stairs. Crutches will. You can rent those cheaply at Walgreens or Target. 
  • Get a shower chair. Maybe you can make do with a plastic lawn chair, but my bathroom is tiny and awkwardly shaped, and having the grippy feet on the bottom of the legs leaves me with a little shred of security as I balance precariously with one trash bag-clad foot hanging over the edge of the tub. 
  • Do you remember in college how you'd put your booze in the freezer because it would get cold without actually freezing solid. Well, this tip uses all of the science and none of the fun. If you dump some rubbing alcohol in a ziploc bag with water and freeze it, you'll have a nice, malleable ice pack that lasts a long time. Double bag it. There's a recipe here, but I just dumped some in, probably 3:1 water to alcohol, and it works great. 
  • For some reason, I've been hoarding the buckets my cat litter comes in, feeling that they had a utility that I had not yet discovered. Well, I was right! A Tidy Cats bucket with a towel on top is the perfect height for me to put my knee on and voila! Now I can stand at the bathroom counter and dry my hair without striking a flamingo pose. I can make dinner, put up dishes, or just take a few seconds to rest when I'm on crutches around the house. 
  • Make use of small baskets to keep the things you need the most near the bed/chair where you spend most of your time. Put chap stick, lotion, the remote controls, medicine, a hair brush, deodorant, etc. in it. You don't want to have to get up as soon as you've settled in with a properly elevated leg and an ice pack. 
  • Leash your kid. My husband has been doing all of the daycare drop-offs and pick-ups, which is exhausting for him and my daughter, who now has to stay at school three or four hours longer than she usually does. In order to safely be able to walk with her while I'm on crutches and can't hold her hand, I bought one of those backpack leash things that I always swore I'd never use. Now is not the time to hold stubbornly onto the image of the parent you thought you'd be. 
  • Use backpacks. You can't carry things on crutches. Some people have successfully created little pockets on them, but I am not crafty and I am clumsy, so I prefer backpacks. I moved the contents of my purse to the front pocket of a backpack so that I have everything I need with me in one place when I get to my office. Then I put one of those little drawstring backpacks into the bigger backpack so that I can take just what I need during the day. 
The Philosophical
  • Give yourself a break. I went from taking my daughter to the park several times a week to sitting on the couch watching My Little Ponies with her. I went from cooking homemade meals every day to eating Qdoba takeout. I went from standing during my entire two hour class, walking around and checking in on my students individually to spending most of it sitting at the front of the classroom. I went from running several miles a week, going to roller derby practice twice a week, and squatting 150 pounds to lifting 5-pound dumbbells while I sat in bed. And every single one of those things felt like a defeat. But while staring down three to five months of recovery sounds like an eternity today, it really isn't. This is a slice of time that will fade into the background of a large, rich life. Give yourself a break. 
  • Find ways to be productive. I could have gotten someone else to teach my summer class because I was injured before it started, but I could not bear the thought of doing nothing for six more weeks. It was taking a toll on me emotionally. I was sleeping all day, crying at random intervals, and generally sitting around in a pool of self-pity and dread. That's not a good recipe for healing. Getting back into the classroom gave me something to focus on other than my leg and the fact that I was sitting still all day long. It forced me to figure out how to get out of the house on my own. It forced me to get up and get dressed every day instead of staying in the same pajamas for 48 hours. Yes, this is a time to take it easy and (as mentioned above) give yourself a break, but--for me--I need some structure and busyness or I melt down. 
  • Accept help. If someone asks what they can do to help, don't reply with "oh, I'm fine." Ask them to pick up groceries, bring by a meal, take out the trash, do a load of laundry. These little, daily necessities will pile up fast and what feels like vengefully. If you can afford it, this would be a great time to hire a cleaning service to come in once every couple weeks.
  • Plan everything. You know how when you leave for work you have to run upstairs six times because you took your phone but not the charger and you remembered your gym shoes but not your socks and you left the hallway light on and then you remembered that you need the book on the bedside table? When "running back upstairs" means "crab crawling up the stairs," there is a lot less room for error. Plan. Everything. Think through all of the steps of a successful day and make sure you have everything you need in place. If you're going to the shower, forgetting to bring something and only realizing it after your foot is wrapped in plastic and you're perched naked on the shower chair is maddening. Check then double check. Pretend your life is a game of Diner Dash where you have to time everything out in the right order. Make it a logic puzzle. 
  • Give your kid a break. My injury coincided with the start of a new preschool for my daughter. I broke my ankle the day before she started. The changes were all too much for her, and she has had multiple tantrums a day for the duration of my recovery. I've been exasperated. But someone mentioned to me her perspective as a three-year-old. Suddenly, many of the adults in her life were either new (the new teachers) or incapable of doing the things they normally did (me). She is feeling insecure and untrusting, and that manifests itself as acting out and tantrums, a way to test boundaries and make sure she is still safe. In fact, children with injured parents are susceptible to PTSD. So while, yes, an hour-long meltdown over the fact that her hot dog is "torn" is absolutely maddening, I need to give her a break, too. And I'm trying really hard to point out to her the things I can do instead of bemoaning the ones I can't in front of her. (I'll save my pity parties for when she's at school.)
So that's how I'm balancing motherhood, teaching, and having a broken ankle. Do you have any tips? Have you found having an injury while parenting to take an emotional toll on your kid? What helped?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Not Anti-Medicine, Just Pro-Human

The hospital where I had my ankle surgery performed is known for its crowded emergency room, long wait times, and overall busyness. It is also known for its competence and success in medicine. I am lucky to have had access to it, and I know from growing up in a rural area where top-of-the-line care was often a long ways away that it isn't that way for everyone.

Still, that busyness brings out some less savory elements of medical care as well including a depersonalization and almost factory-like precision that leaves someone (me) feeling less like a human being and more like a piece of meat being inspected before preparation for dinner.

While (by my rough estimate made while trying to sleep after getting into the ER at 8pm and finally admitted to a room at 5am) there were 11,000 people in the room per hour (expertly timed to only enter when your eyes close), none of them seemed able or willing to give me any information about what was actually happening to me. For instance, someone came in to get my dinner order long after a different someone had told me I was being discharged by noon, and that second someone told me I could have lunch while a different someone told me that the doctors "forgot" to remove the order that I couldn't eat, so I missed it. The noon discharge time came and went. Another someone came and took my insurance information while a different someone brought me my prescriptions, charged to an insurance account that didn't exist, a problem I thought I had cleared up hours before with the first someone. Another someone came and checked my vitals followed by a different someone checking my vitals about 12.3 minutes later before she would give me any pain meds, which happened to be the pain meds I hate the most and begged for an alternative but wasn't given.

It all felt, to be honest, like when I worked at McDonald's in high school. The McDonald's business model consisted of breaking down even the simplest task into tiny, tiny pieces and letting each employee have only a minuscule number of tasks assigned to him/her. They turned us, basically, into machines. I could not, for instance, put the ketchup on the buns because I'd only be "trained" (hahahahaha) to put the meat patties on the buns and might therefore put the wrong amount of ketchup and doom the entire company.

That's what it felt like with all of these medical professionals. Each one had an area in which he or she was competent (I do believe they were each competent in their own tasks, and most of them were kind, which I appreciate immensely), but they weren't able to connect with one another, and so there was an endless assembly line of Rube Goldberg proportions, and I was the product in the middle, tinkered with endlessly and (too often) pointlessly.

I never met the surgeon who actually performed my surgery. He came in the room after I was knocked out and left before I awoke. I have no idea how many plates and screws are in my leg, and I have no idea where or how large the incisions are because I haven't seen them beneath the splint--a splint that will be removed a week later than my discharge papers say because they had no openings at the office. I don't even know if my tattoo is still legible because it almost certainly got sliced. 

It's not that I expect them to stop mid-surgery in what I know is a busy day of saving people's lives, ankles, and health and take pictures of my tattoo, but damn, I am still a person, right?  

In fact, the only time I felt like someone was really paying attention to me was when I was being upsold a nerve block the way they try to sell you gap insurance when you buy a car. Those people looked me in the eye, called me by name, and were generally personable. After listening to them do the same to everyone else in the prep ward around me, I figured out that it was because they were salespeople. (I said yes to the thing but then got wheeled out of the operating room before they did it and upon waking without any pain decided I didn't really need it anyway.)

The thing that aggravates me the most is the pain med situation. 

I can't take Percocet without turning into a ball of crying mush. I hate it. That's all they'd give me in the hospital, even though I had a bottle of Vicodin that I got from filling a prescription from the very same hospital staff while awaiting my surgery at home. So, twice, I had to take Percocet, and twice it made me cry in front of strangers, and twice I felt small and vulnerable and panicked. 

But even small, vulnerable, and panicked, I told everyone who would listen (including people I'm sure had nothing to do with prescribing medication) that I didn't want to go home with a bunch of narcotics. I'd take them as long as the pain was horrendous, but as soon as it fell down to say, merely terrible, I'd really like something non-narctoic please and thank you. I was always polite, but I was always clear: I do not want to be on narcotics. Please give me prescriptions that allow me to get off of them as fast as possible. 

I went home happy that they had listened, armed with two prescriptions, one for Vicodin, and one for a little green pill they assured me was a non-narcotic pain pill. I made it clear that I planned to switch to those alone as soon as I could. 

Then I looked at the bottles. The Vicodin came with two refills good for six months. The other pill came with no refills. Sigh. I began to feel like maybe they weren't really listening to me. 

I stopped taking the Vicodin two days after the surgery and just took the other pill. It didn't seem to be doing much, so I Googled it to figure out if I just needed more Vicodin or what.  

I was livid. 

It's not even for pain. Its primary use is as an anxiety med that is prescribed alongside narcotics to make them work better. In other words, it was only meant as a sidecar to Vicodin, a sidecar I was supposed to drop while I continued popping narcotics for several more months despite my very clear and incessantly repeated wishes that I not be on them. 

I bought some extra strength Tylenol. I manage. 

But I have some trust issues now. 

Much like this skeptical dog. 
Maybe my dislike of narcotics is a little silly. It is based from a two-fold set of concerns. First, I hate the way they make me feel. I don't like fuzzy thoughts, drowsiness, and slow reaction times. I feel out of control and not myself. I don't want to feel like that. Secondly, I have seen several people whose lives were very negatively impacted by an addiction to pain pills that started during a routine injury. I want no part of that.

But whether my fear is justified or not, it's my body. I should have the right to say what goes in it whether it is silly or not. I should not be, as I feel like I was, placated like a child and prescribed things without anyone actually listening to what I was saying. 

I have been lucky enough to have good health and therefore very little experiences with Big Medicine, but the limited experiences I have had have not been good. Fighting for the right to give birth without being medicated into immobility and set up for months of unwanted narcotic use don't make me feel like the medical industry is on my side as a human being. 

I'm so very, very grateful that the technology exists to put my ankle back together. I am so very, very grateful to have access to people who know how to use that technology and to have the insurance to pay for it. 

But I sure wish I could still feel like a person while it happened.
Photo: James Yu, JaconYarboroughPhotography

Friday, June 13, 2014

Broken Ankles, Roller Derby, Running, and The Age of Information: A Collection of Links

I'm a child of the Age of Information. My doctor didn't . . . how do I put this? He didn't give me a lot of information about my recovery. In fact, I'm not even sure I used the right pronoun back there (though I'm not just assuming he's male; I heard someone else say "he"). I never met him. I'm assuming he was there sometime after I got knocked out for surgery and left sometime before I woke up. I met some of his students, and they all seemed competent. In fact, everyone seemed perfectly competent, but no one really wanted to explain anything (I don't even know how many screws are in my leg or where the incisions are), and I wasn't in much of a position (coming out of anesthesia) to push the point.

So, you send home an information junkie with her first broken bone armed only with some very general discharge papers (which I read 67 times) and metal plates in her leg and then tell her she can't stand up for weeks, leaving her alone with a computer, misery, and curiosity. What's going to happen? She's going to Google. That's what.

The thing I have been most concerned about is if/when/how I will recover and return to running and roller derby, the two athletic pursuits that have become a core part of me and that I really, really enjoy (and that I'm now suspecting may have been my homeopathic way to combat some depression and anxiety).

The internet, though, is a mean, mean place. Most of what I've found is either sponsored content written to try to sell knee scooters (I already bought one! Leave me alone!) or long message board threads of other people talking about how they still can't walk a year later and their lives are ruined or how the metal plates in their legs will literally eat them from the inside if they try to run.

Mostly so that I can have the links in one handy place but also so that anyone else looking for this can find them easily, here's what I've found that was positive and helpful:
  • Gin and Fishnets is a blog about derby, and the author broke her ankle (in a break eerily similar to my own) back in May 2013. She has some posts on it that mostly serve as "hey, you're not alone" comfort, but also have some hints and tips. The most helpful post to me was one about overcoming "The Fear," which I can already feel creeping into my mind. 
  • Pynk Fitness has a post entitled "There is Life after ORIF" which is also roller derby-specific and has amazing tips about how to recover well. It's practical, inspirational, and informational. 
  • Livestrong has a couple articles about workouts to try when you have a broken ankle. Here's one for chair cardio and here's another for strengthening moves
  • Here's another (not derby-specific) story of injury and recovery from the blog Bear to Bruin. There's a pretty amazing story at the end about the author bonding with another gym-goer over their surgery scars. 
  • Here's a site called Derby Hurts that's a place for the injured derby girls to console one another. 
That's what I've got so far. Hopefully if a broken ankle brought you to this page, you are recovering well and keeping a positive outlook. Good luck!

Blogging to My PhD: A Closer Look at the Term "Remedial" (Part 1)

I teach "developmental writing" courses. You may also hear these classes referred to as "basic writing" or "remedial writing." Whatever the term, the point is the same: these classes won't count for college credit, and they're caught in a gap between college and not-college, a zone that everyone involved--administrators, instructors, and especially students--senses acutely.

As much as I believe in my students' abilities, and as much as I know that they come into my classroom with rich experiences, perspectives, and ideas to share, there is nothing that I can do to convince them or myself that I am not teaching within a class of writing that is publicly perceived as less legitimate than, subordinate to, and at best working toward "real" college writing: the freshman composition class. 

While there have been many wonderful efforts to give students in developmental classes more (much-deserved) respect and college-level treatment (see these for example), the very designation of "remedial" consistently stands as a very real reminder (one that has economic, social, and political consequences) that these classes are, indeed, "other."

It's a little ironic that the ultimate goal of someone like myself is to eventually eliminate the need for my own position. Developmental courses are not "supposed" to exist. They are here to fill a gap, and once the gap is filled, students will no longer need them. 

The gap, though, is not a small one. Nationally, up to 40% of first-time college students enroll in at least one "remedial" course, and at community colleges, that rate is closer to 50%. 

When we're talking about up to half of the population entering college, we might need to re-think our perceptions of "remedial." This is not a handful of students who need a little "catching up." This is a significant portion of the college population that we have deemed unprepared. 

And that warrants some historical context. Let's take a little ride through time. 

It is the 1800's and American education is in crisis (sound familiar?) In particular, it's having an identity crisis. Under the rule of clergymen, American education was holding steadfast to a classical education that was having less and less to do with the actual workforce and life demands of American citizens who found themselves less with a need for reading Latin and more with a need for building steam engines and whatnot. 

In steps Harvard innovation. Under the direction of president Charles Eliot, Harvard moves to an "elective" system (which may also sound familiar) that allows students to choose courses relevant to their interests and career goals rather than simply taking a set core of classical courses. It is radical (in the turn-everything-upside-down sense, and perhaps also in the 80's slang sense). 

Alas, though, these kids! They can't write! At least, that's what the instructors were complaining about. See, it seems that no one really likes teaching people to write, and they always expect them to come into the classroom already having that skill. They blamed high schools for their lack of preparation of course (again, familiar?), but something had to be done. Thus was born what is colloquially called "English 101": freshman composition. 

In 1874, Harvard began what would become the ubiquitous freshman comp class, but people weren't exactly happy to see it. As Mike Rose discusses in his article "The Language of Exclusion," there were many concerns, including “worry that the boundaries between high schools and colleges [were] eroding.” To help combat this fear, these freshman comp classes were often denied "curricular status" and "tagged" as "remedial" (this should really be sounding familiar). 

Harvard's overall move toward an elective system was also kicking up something of an epic battle between Yale and Harvard (though as seems to be the case with most Ivy League contenders, there are only winners). 

Yale held onto the classical mode of education as long as it possibly could while Harvard was quickly making waves with its new elective model. As James Berlin explains in his history of American colleges, Harvard took on a "rhetoric of meritocracy" while Yale depended on a rhetoric that was "elitist and aristocratic." The identities had been formed: Yale was for the privileged families whose contributions to society and wealth deemed them deserving of an education. Harvard was egalitarian, open to anyone . . . as long as they demonstrated themselves to be smart enough to deserve an education. 

Regardless of which thread of rhetoric you follow, though, you'll find the notion that education is something you earn the opportunity in which to participate running strong. The classical model maintained that only those with superior wealth and breeding were worthy of an education. Harvard's elective system and new entrance exam (which contained an essay component) challenged that elitism by adding a wrinkle but not changing the fabric: now you could prove yourself worthy of an education by demonstrating superior intelligence. But you still had to be superior. 

Harvard's reach was so extensive that high schools changed their curriculum, “fitting their students to pass the Harvard examination rather than try to give a rounded course of training in English” (Kitzhaber). And with that, the general practice of using someone's communicative style to classify and judge them became codified through standardized testing. If you write right, you're in. If you don't, well, you're out.

In the mood for some more writing instruction history and a look at how it impacts "remedial" students today? Click on for Part 2 now! Or come back later. 

Photo: Lisa, MattysFlicks, sean dreilinger, Casey Bisson

Blogging to My PhD: A Closer Look at the Term "Remedial" (Part 2)

In the first part of this series, I took a look at how Harvard started freshman comp in the 1870's and expanded college access through meritocracy, a feat which hinged squarely on its entrance exam and essay component. This essay exam essentially existed to ensure that all of the students entering Harvard could write right. This essay will further explore what the implications of that practice mean for students and for social perceptions of their education. 

Have you ever taken an essay entrance exam? It's not really about the quality of writing at all. At least, not if writing means being able to articulately and convincingly share information with a specific audience in a meaningful way. No, an essay entrance exam is about testing whether or not you follow the conventions of writing and much less about whether or not you can actually say anything. This is why some students have found success not by making an argument, but by memorizing a boilerplate of essay conventions (key transitionary phrases, impressive vocabulary words, introductions and conclusions of the proper length, a set number of paragraphs with predictable themes) to prepare for the tests.

While Harvard's elective system did indeed open education up to people who had previously been excluded, it did so under the condition that they demonstrate their ability to conform to Harvard's language use standards. And language is not just about how you write an essay; language is intimately tied to identity and culture. In theory, Harvard's standards were based on meritocracy, but in practice, that often translated to reinforcing hegemonic power structures of race, class, and gender, all by policing the boundaries of how someone communicates.

This practice became mainstream over time. The freshman composition class that was created as "remediation" at Harvard and often deemed unworthy of college credit became a cornerstone of the general education requirements. In short, what was once considered "remedial" writing became the standard because the population of students entering the institutions stabilized around a new norm. 

That new norm, though, would not last. 

The Civil Rights and cultural movements of the 1950’s- 1970’s ushered in an implosion of previously maintained educational boundaries. CUNY’s open admission policy instated in 1969 and the rise of community colleges throughout the nation were the direct results of this rapid change in the collegiate student body. Rhetoric classrooms were now spaces in which those who had previously been marginalized were entering in relatively large numbers. Immigrant students who spoke English as a second language, female students, black and Latino students, and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds brought direct challenges to the established rhetorical notion of who could speak and how.

As open admissions policies spread with the expansion of community colleges, the crisis the Harvard professors faced in the 1870's looked tiny in comparison to this one. You thought those kids couldn't write? Well, these kids really cannot write! And there are so many of them! When The National Review published its landmark 1977 essay "Why Johnny Can't Read," it was reacting to the tension and anxiety of a nation. How in the world would we ever get all of these students to be "college-ready"?

Mina Shaughnessy (often viewed as the mother of basic writing) published her landmark book Errors and Expectations that same year (1977). In it, she wrote that basic writers were "those that had been left so far behind the others in their formal education that they appeared to have little chance of catching up, students whose difficulty with the written language seemed of a different order from those of the other groups, as if they had come, you might say, from a different country, or at least through different schools, where even modest standards of high-school literacy had not been met."

Even in this single quote, the dual tensions of basic writing are apparent. On the one hand, those of us who teach "remedial" students do so with an eye to the political exclusion they have faced in education and the hegemony of the status quo to which they are being measured against to determine their college "fitness." On the other hand, we are part of the system that tells those students that educational success is fully dependent on their ability to "pass" as a member of that status quo by passing our classes (and demonstrating a mastery of the language conventions that come with that). 

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a difficult place to stand. 

 Through the Students' Right to Their Own Language movement, a group of scholars fully embraced one half of this challenge by insisting that measuring students against a hegemonic status quo (one that was white, male, and wealthy) was oppressive and rooted in prejudice. They insisted that students should not be forced to demonstrate adherence to the standard academic conventions of English and should instead be allowed to express themselves academically in non-standard dialects. This work was bolstered through the research of scholars like Geneva Smitherman who ably demonstrated that what we often read as "error" in African American speech patterns can be directly traced back to linguistic features in African languages. They presented their assertion in 1974, and the language of their movement was renewed as a pillar of the CCCC in 2003. 

During this time, many basic writing courses became lightning rods for the movement. Impassioned by the rhetoric of this movement and the larger national conversations surrounding identity, race, gender, and diversity, some basic writing courses were essentially places to enact these principles. 

But the pendulum began to swing back. While virtually everyone I've ever spoken with who deals with developmental education embraces the principles of the Students' Rights movement, they became harder and harder to use in any practical way in the classroom. Soon, the basic writing classroom, which teetered between a space to assimilate students to standard language practices and one to help them explore non-standard ones became what it largely is today: a gatekeeper. 

Want more right now? Go ahead and read Part 3

Blogging to My PhD: A Closer Look at the Term "Remedial" (Part 3)

In Part 1, we looked at how Harvard's elective system expanded the boundaries of who got to go to college while using written entrance exams to police language standards. 

In Part 2, we examined how the creation of open admissions colleges and the expansion of community colleges imploded existing boundaries around college admissions and created new crises in language standard maintenance. 

I started this series by questioning what it means to label classes as "remedial." As we've seen, what was once "remedial" can quickly become the new standard. Some will view this as meaning that we have "dumbed down" our curriculum to accommodate students who couldn't meet the rigor of the previous standards. That's one way to look at it, I suppose.

But once you take into account the socioeconomic elements of identity that are tied around educational inclusion and exclusion, it can't be that simple. Language is so much more than an entrance exam, transitional words, introductions and conclusions, or conventions about whether you should say "who" or "whom." Language is how we express our sense of self and our relationship to the world around us. As many postmodernist theories have posited, language may very well be existence as we know it. When you're policing how someone can speak, you are--at the core--policing who they can be.

So when we say that the standards changed and what was once "remedial" became the new norm, it doesn't necessarily mean that we simply accepted something that was once substandard and weakened our educational expectations. It means, quite frankly, that we stopped excluding some people from the norm. Once they were no longer labeled as "remedial," as "lacking," they simply became freshmen taking freshman comp. 

But there are always new boundaries. The influx of students to open admission colleges in the 1970's that continues today is the greatest challenge to those boundaries imaginable, yet they hold. They hold through the gatekeeping power of classes like the ones I teach. That's a fact that I have to grapple with every single day. 

When you read the grim statistics about remedial education, they can certainly be daunting. Students who take remedial coursework tend to not graduate. In fact, these remedial courses--which were initially simply juggled from four-year institutions to two-year institutions--are now seen as a drain on resources overall. Some states are now taking legislative action to weaken the gatekeeping role that developmental courses play. 

As these legislative mandates are passed down, schools are finding innovative new ways to manage their courses and students. Many are accelerating and integrating their existing developmental classes to get students to college-level coursework faster. Some, though, are concerned that these classes are actually just juggling labels, renumbering what was once a 000-level (non-credit) course as a 100-level (credit) course and, again, "watering down" the quality of instruction. 

I don't want to completely dismiss these concerns. There are valid, complex issues in play here, but I do want to offer a perspective that I feel gets lost in these discussions of policy and course credit and financial aid. 

The American college composition class was "remedial" from its inception. Its move into a standard position is directly connected to an expansion of American educational opportunities that are more diverse and inclusive, an expansion of standards that challenged hegemonic power structures. 

We need to admit that those standards and that hegemony (while broadened) are still in play today. When we talk about the "crisis" of remedial education, we are talking not just about what students write, but also who they are. A label of "remedial" often allows us the comfort to dance along the borders of a power structure we'd rather not admit we see (or maybe would just rather not see at all). When we really start to question what that label means, we can no longer ignore that the margins of our educational frameworks contain some fences that don't quite fit with our cultural ethos of equality, meritocracy, and diversity. 

Sometimes, I think we wear the comfort of our educational standards like a blindfold that protects us from the truths we'd rather not confront. When those standards are challenged, we're forced to sneak a peek. 

Photo: dreamwhile, Geeta Nambiar, Sybren Stuvel 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Small Walls: When Busy is Gone

I just read this post on banishing busyness. If I had read it two weeks ago, my response would have been more positive. I would have said something like "Exactly! What's the point of busyness? It's not a badge of honor to wear! It's especially pointless to brag about a busyness that doesn't even lead to more productivity."

I might have even gotten a little self-reflective and said something like "The post made me think about my own level of busyness, one that I do sometimes bemoan to friends looking for sympathy and also (sometimes, not always, but yes) a little admiration. Do I take on all of these roles searching for something? Am I chasing away fears through signing up for another committee or enrolling my daughter in a swim class and signing up for another 10k? What am I trying to prove? Am I afraid of what I would be if it were all stripped away?"

But this is not two weeks ago. This is today, and today I am on the tenth consecutive day of immobility. Today I am on the sixth consecutive day of having only seen my bedroom, the bathroom, and the hallway between them with glimpses of sun and storms through windows that are behind me and my propped up, fractured ankle. Today I am down.

I may be down, but my foot is up.
I'm a good patient, following orders. 
I was in complete denial of how much this injury would impact my life. I am completely aware, intellectually, that this is a minor setback in the grand scheme of things. I know that two or three months is a short window of time and that it could be much worse. I know that I am lucky to be receiving good health care and that I am young and healthy and can afford physical therapy to get me back in shape. I am wallowing for a moment today, but I also know that it is a luxury to even be wallowing. I contain multitudes.

In the hospital, before I knew that I needed surgery, I was mentally planning how I would get to the park in two days to keep a play date that I had set with one of my daughter's best friends from the daycare we just left. It was so important to me to keep that play date because I didn't want her to feel like she had been ripped away from everyone she'd just spent most of her life getting to know and love. I asked the ER doctor not to give me narcotics so that I would be okay to drive myself home that night after they released me. They didn't release me. 

By the next morning, my phone had been dead for hours and I had been very much awake. They had splinted my leg three times in the ER but were unable to get the bones close enough, so they admitted me. A nurse took pity on me when she heard me freaking out to my mom on the hospital phone that I couldn't even call to tell them I wasn't coming to work. She found me a phone charger.  Later they said my leg was okay to wait, scheduled me for surgery four days later, and sent me home. I rode propped up in the back, not in the driver's seat. 

I gave myself several pep talks while looking at my calendar. There was all that busyness spread out before me in my neat (sometimes neurotic) color coded charts. It's all electronic. At least if it were on paper I could scratch them out and still have the evidence that there were plans. There were things. I had purpose. But as I deleted each little bubble from the screen, the calendar grew emptier and emptier. 

I wasn't going to be off narcotics in time to drive to that meeting, I realized, as a bear trap surge of pain shot through my leg when I stood at the walker to go to the bathroom. Delete. I wasn't going to be able to take my daughter to the swim class that I had just enrolled her in. Delete. My husband had taken a day off work so we could have a family day date at my favorite museum, one where you climb all over things and through caves of found materials. Delete. All of those roller derby practices in the orange I'd chosen because it made me think of energy? Delete, delete, delete. Drinks out with friends? Delete. A one-year-old's birthday out of town? Delete. A mass birthday celebration for all the derby girls who are born in June (including me)? Delete. All those tasks at the top to run two miles, then three, then four as I worked toward my first half marathon? Delete. Delete. Delete. 

Suddenly, I was left with the thing that I sometimes claimed to yearn for: a blank slate. 

And then there is all of the busyness that doesn't make the calendar. Bathing the child, walking the dog, cooking dinner, grocery shopping, getting dressed in the morning. I planted a garden for the first time this year, and I had spent a few minutes every morning checking on it, pulling out a weed here and there, propping up a wayward pea plant. Now I can't go in the backyard because the ground is too soft to hold crutches and there are too many stairs. I normally pick my daughter up in the afternoon because my schedule is more flexible than my husband's, but now she gets picked up two hours before bedtime, and I can't keep her home with me because if she ran downstairs, I couldn't follow her fast enough to keep her safe. 

And still, I am lucky. I have a husband who is wonderful and who has taken on all those burdens (even watering the garden he didn't really care much about planting in the first place). His days have become long and full of tasks that he really can't fit in, but somehow does. I am lucky that I can afford daycare so my daughter can be safe and active while I recover. I am lucky, lucky, lucky. 

But I have spent the entire morning crying. 

I am losing my sense of self in all that nothing. Those play dates and swim lessons and unscheduled afternoon pick ups that led spontaneously to the zoo or the splash pad at the park do not make me a mother, I know that. But they give me a center of "mother" to hold onto. They are not the only way to enact "mother," but they were my way, and right now I have no others. And those runs, those derby practices, those drops into the gym to lift some weights are very much the elements that made me (however hesitantly) declare myself "athlete," and without them, how can I claim that identity at all? 

And the things that are left on my calendar, days away, pages away, I worry about. I am teaching a summer class that starts on Monday. I will be in a splint, unable to put any weight on my foot at all, directed to sit with my foot elevated as much as humanely possible for at least two weeks. So when I maneuver a walker on the second floor, scooting down the steps to crutches on the first floor, hobbling out to the car and driving to work, finding out where the handicap entrance to my building is that's not under construction (because there was an email, but I barely paid attention), maneuvering without hands to carry even my first-day syllabi, when I do all of that, will I still be a good teacher when I can't walk around the room? If I can't stand to give my introductory spiel, will it still work? If I am sitting with my foot propped up while we talk, will the discussions be as good? This is not about whether someone can do those things and be a good teacher (as I'm sure they can; as I've seen myself), but can I

And the truth is that I long to be busy. All of those bubbles on the calendar, even the ones that felt like burdens to make in the first place, they are a part of who I am. It's not just a show I'm putting on to assure the world that I am "busy enough." Those things that I do for love, for necessity, for work, for entertainment, for health, for me, those things are central to who I am and how I know who I am. 

And I know that it is only temporary. And I know that it could be so much worse. But today, I feel down, and I wish I had busy. 

Photo: Zutaten

Friday, June 6, 2014

I'm a Grown Woman, I Can Read Whatever I Want!

I know I shouldn't reward this click bait by giving it exactly what the author wants, but, hell, isn't that a good two-thirds of the internet by now? Click bait getting more than it deserves?

Ruth Graham has a post at Slate bemoaning the fact that adults read Young Adult (YA) fiction and (the horror) enjoy it!

She tries to justify this bit of snobbery in a couple of different ways. First, she's concerned about our use of YA lit as inadequately motivated:
But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.
Secondly, she reminds us that the real world isn't as simple as that portrayed in these books:
Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.  
Wait, what?! You mean life isn't just a series of Katniss Everdeen-inspired montages? Real life is hard? If only I hadn't wasted all that time reading The Giver I might have been better prepared for applying for that home loan!

As someone who just downloaded The Fault in Our Stars on Audible and who read The Hunger Games in three days, I have to say how much I vehemently disagree with this author's stance. Reading YA fiction as an adult is a pleasure for the very reasons noted in this piece: escapism, satisfying (even if sometimes simplistic) conclusions, and a quick read.

My main problem with arguments like this one is that it treats reading as an all or nothing activity. If you read YA fiction, then you can't possibly also read Foucault or Shakespeare or Woolf.

It's ridiculous, and it's something that we don't extend to any other of life's activities. I watch Knocked Up and Citizen Kane. I eat macaroni and cheese from a box and gourmet pasta marinated in a reduction sauce. There have been times when I was running while listening to The Hunger Games and reading Hannah Arendt in the same day.

I guess you better not come to my dinner party, Ms. Graham.

I read YA literature, and I'm not ashamed.

This isn't just a personal defense of my own tastes, however. (I have watched Con Air more times than should be legally allowed and realize that I'm not in much of a position to protest my own bad taste). This is about the way that we police the boundaries of acceptability when it comes to literary practices. Reading is good for you. It's good for your brain, makes you more empathetic, and is fun! It's one thing to not enjoy YA novels yourself (though I have to say, I think thou doth protest a bit too much, Graham), but actively saying other people should be ashamed for finding enjoyment in reading is mean-spirited and irresponsible.

As a teacher of developmental English, I have plenty of adult students who have tons of life experience, intelligence, and accomplishments. They are often, though, not readers. Reading has often been an intimidating, boring, laborious task. Many of them find some respite in YA literature that leads into more comfort reading in other contexts. And if it doesn't? Well, then I'd rather people find the pleasures of reading where they can get them than not at all, and shame on Graham for trying to take that away.

Photos: cheri, Pearl Pirie

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Slowing Down, Sucking it Up, and Not Dwelling in the Dark

If I ramble, I blame the pain pills.

Sunday night I was testing to get to the next skill level in roller derby. I already knew I wasn't going to pass (that's not naysaying, just truth speaking), but the one thing that I thought I could make if I pushed myself was my laps. I needed to do 25 laps in five minutes. As we were doing them, I could hear my teammates cheering us on for the last few laps. I have no idea if I would have made it or not, but in what had to be the last lap or two, I crossed over with my right foot, slipped, and came down with all of my weight on my left ankle. It was a simple fall, one that I could have taken while running or even walking, and I knew immediately that something had snapped. I pulled myself off the track so that I wouldn't trip up the other people still testing, and I waited for help.

My teammates rallied in the most amazing way, and after one gave me a ride to the hospital, I found out that I had fractured my ankle in three places with a pretty serious fibula break that would require surgery. One of the other breaks was not going back into place easily, so it had to be splinted and then re-splinted a total of three times (ow).

Early on, I was cracking jokes with the ER docs and mentally rearranging my schedule. "I can drive myself home," I thought, as I turned down narcotics so that I could stay clear-headed enough to do so. "I'll still make that meeting tomorrow," I said to myself as I realized that my phone had died and I couldn't let anyone know I wasn't coming. 

Over and over again I got told how positive my attitude was and how well I handled things. I think that's true from what I put forth into the world, but it's also not the whole truth. As soon as I realized that no, I couldn't drive myself home because they were admitting me and that I wouldn't be able to tell anyone I was missing the meeting until about an hour before it started, I panicked a bit. Later, my thoughts started to go dark. I am a very active person who works out every single day. I was at the tail end of a challenge to walk 15,000 steps a day for a week, and the only one I didn't get was the day I broke my ankle. I'm signed up to run a half marathon in October, and now I won't be able to train for it. I'm going to the beach in July, and I will likely still have a boot on my foot when I go. I have a three year old, and I live in a house with a narrow staircase where the only bathroom is upstairs and the kitchen is downstairs. I started looking at my calendar, and I needed to cancel (on a week off from work) no less than six fun dates and errand-running appointments. 

There were a couple of moments where I didn't feel like being positive or cheery at all. For a minute or two, I wanted nothing more than to wallow in how very, very sad I was that my life was (temporarily) derailed. 

But I couldn't stay there. The floods of offers for help came pouring in almost immediately, and even though I didn't know what kind of help I needed, the requests made me smile. My calendar was so full of things to cancel because I lead a full, happy, meaningful life. All of those things can and will be rescheduled. Yes, getting upstairs sucked (I had to climb up backwards without letting my left foot touch the floor) and yes, getting to the bathroom is basically the equivalent of doing 60 pushups on the walker, but I have an amazing husband who took off work to help me get things set up, and I will get through this. 

Darker still, were my thoughts surrounding the impending surgery. I have never been put under anesthesia. I gave birth without any pain meds, and when I had my wisdom teeth removed, I opted to have them all done under local anesthesia because I am terrified (irrationally so, I know) of getting knocked out. I am so terrified that once they told me it had to be done, I laid alone in an emergency room with tears rolling down my cheeks. 

But that's when I realized just how much my perspective has spun. 

If I'm afraid of anesthesia, it's really a fear of death, of getting put to sleep and not waking up, of losing the life that I live. 

There was a point in my life (one I don't talk about much here) where I basically saw things in exactly the opposite way. I saw everything in its worst possible light, and something like breaking my ankle would have sent me into a dark, long, all-consuming depression. Having someone put me to sleep wasn't a fear because I didn't see anything worth missing in the first place. 

I'm sad now that I'm not sure how I'll finish finding all of the St. Louis birthday cakes with my daughter. I'm sad that I'll probably have to walk most of the half marathon I was hoping to run. I'm sad that I'll likely have to start over with learning to skate for roller derby. I'm sad that my husband has to do double duty at home until I can get up and about again. I'm sad that the meetings for a project at work have to be postponed until I can attend. I'm sad that I can't go on that playdate to the park or meet up for lunch this week. 

I am sad, basically, that things have been paused because I love my life so much when I'm living it. And those things aren't going away. 

I joke that I have two speeds: fast forward and pause. I rarely do things slowly. For the next couple of months, I will have to, and it will frustrate me. I will get down in the dumps about the things I cannot do, but I will also find ways to do other things. I will get disappointed in the accomplishments that go undone, but I will be fine. 

When I make a conscious choice to give public voice to the positive thoughts and not the negative ones, it can feel a little dishonest. So let me say now to all those who have remarked on how positive I am and what a great attitude I have: that's not always the case. I get pissy, mopey, and scared, too. But I have learned that while it is okay to give those thoughts a little voice, it's not okay to give them legs. They will run all over you until you've forgotten why you're working so hard in the first place. And that's something I hope to never forget again.