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The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Life…

As I write this, it’s the last day of the ninth month of the year. The song “Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day keeps playing in my mind. I’ve never paid much attention to the words of the song until today, and as I listened to the last line, it was haunting.

“As my memory rests
But never forgets…”

The entire reason I was even thinking about this song was simply to rename it and change the title to “Wake Me Up When 2020 Ends,” the year that keeps on giving, The year that seems as if it will never go away.

As I selfishly thought of myself and how ready I am for any version of normalcy, or calm, or simply a day without some sort of horrifying news, I decided to delve into the lyrics of the Green Day song to understand its meaning.

What inspired this song? And why September?

As I perused the lyrics, I realized it was obviously about the death of a loved one.

And that revelation furthered my quest to discover more about both the song and the story behind it.

It turns out, the song was written by the band’s front man, Billie Joe Armstrong, and is about the death of his father. In Armstrong’s words, “the most autobiographical song I’ve ever written and the hardest to sing.”

The song was part of Green Day’s album, American Idiot, which was released in 2004, with “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” being released on August 31, 2005. Hitting the charts only days after Hurricane Katrina, this anthem soon became symbolic of that tragedy, as well as a dedication to the victims of the September 11th attacks. The music video further pushed the narrative of the song’s central theme of loss, as it depicted a couple torn apart by the Iraqi war.

Whew! That’s quite a heavy load for one song! And I never would have known any of this information had I not wanted to go into a long slumber until this dreadful season that is upon us finally passes.

Over the last seven months, it’s been relatively effortless to sit at home on the couch, and let the television describe the effects of COVID19. I don’t mean this in a flippant way, like observers were simply receiving information and weren’t filled with concern and worry. I mean effortless in the sense of not actually being out there in the midst of it.

I have been shielded from the virus in many ways. While things in my everyday life have changed, and I have been inconvenienced, I’ve not been directly in the fray, experiencing the day to day devastation. I know people are hurting, and there is still fear and uncertainty, and businesses are struggling, and people are restless. But it was sort of like being a “Monday morning quarterback.” It’s easy to coach from the couch, but far different when you’re a part of the daily grind of dealing with all that comes with this pandemic.

When I returned to school this year, I wasn’t mentally or emotionally ready. One would think after having five months off I would have been refreshed and ready to go. It took being thrust back into work to make me realize I have been sleepwalking through the pandemic, and I’m still not fully awake.

For the past few months, in many ways, time stood still. Things were put on hold. We didn’t venture out unless it was absolutely necessary. We lived day to day without making plans for the future. We used a pencil when writing appointments and events in our daily planners.

These days, we seem to have more questions than answers. How do you deal with all the things that come with a nation that has been locked down?

The answer is simple. You just pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and do it.

As I began my thirty-fifth year in public education, I definitely wasn’t prepared for how wearing a mask or face shield all day would make me feel—like I was a shadow of myself, separated from everything, disconnected from others and myself. Suffocated. Stifled.

But the effects go so much deeper as we learn about the experiences of our students and the things they endured.

I’ve begun my counseling routine, and have started meeting with children on a weekly basis, and I’ve been saddened by the things I’ve heard.

There hasn’t been a horrible story or revelation, although I know there are many of those lurking deep within these students, but like this quarantine, the students have shut down and aren’t ready to talk. It’s obvious that they are still a little socially and mentally awkward.

One student who I met with all last year seemed confused when I went to his class and walked him down to my counseling room. I finally asked, “Don’t you remember me?” and he quickly replied, “I’ve never seen you before in my life!”

It was funny at the time, but later it made me a little sad. Sad to know the isolation and lack of contact many students had for months on end. Sad about the depressing atmosphere that surrounded a majority of the students I have spoken with, and it was uncanny how identical the answers were to this question:

“What did you do during the quarantine?”

“I played outside in the yard, watched TV, and played video games.”

In an effort to try to find out more, I asked:

“Did you color, or draw, or write, or learn anything new (aside from school lessons that were sent home)?”

“Nope.”

“When it was okay to go to restaurants, or travel did your family go anywhere?”

“Nope.”

“Did you read a book?”

“Nope.”

A couple of students did say they went swimming (in a pond or lake). Others had changes in their home situations, with relatives or other adults, leaving or coming to stay with them.

Aside from these conversations, I asked the primary aged students about their goals for the year. Most replied that they didn’t know what that meant. I explained a goal was something you want to achieve, or do.

When they understood the meaning of the question, I had to prompt them with answer choices like “make good grades,” or “have good citizenship/behavior.”

I also asked who their role model was, and after explaining what a role model is, the most common answer was “my brother,” or “my sister,” or I don’t have one. And sadly, that was probably the most accurate answer. In their world, many of these students don’t have people they look up to outside of school.

Last year, I asked the same question, and many times the answer was their teacher. But these precious little children have been so far removed from the comfort and security that schools provide, that they couldn’t think past the adults they had been with for the last several months.

Earlier this week, I visited with the Writing teacher on our campus. She made the comment that her students were struggling to write. As a writer, this is something I don’t understand. Yes, I struggle at times to come up with ideas to write about, but once that’s out of the way, I find it easy to just sit down and let the words flow.

As a former English teacher, I know all too well that feeling of trying to help students put their thoughts on paper. And it all comes down to this:

Many students, (especially in the rural schools where I have always worked), haven’t had any life experiences, therefore, they have nothing to write about.

I was completely oblivious that this was even possible—–not having anything to write about——until I began teaching.

I was in my second year as a sophomore English and history teacher. The first writing assignment I gave that year was to write about a family trip. I was young, and energetic, and every time I had them write something, I would write too.

The students turned in their finished papers, and I read my composition to the class. I wrote about the time our family drove to Washington, D.C. during the Bicentennial Year, and how we got lost in the middle of the nation’s capital.

The story was descriptive, and pretty funny, since it centered around my father’s struggle to get us to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, which would take us into Virginia where we were staying. We kept missing the exit, and finally, my aggravated father saw a road that would take us to the street we needed to be on to get to the correct exit.

He had no idea it was actually a sidewalk through a park, and that our wood-paneled, pea green station wagon, would strike fear in the hearts of bicyclists who were directly in our path. As we successfully navigated our way through the park committing all kinds of traffic violations, my dad laughed and said, “Well, if they see our Texas license plates, they’ll understand.”

My students loved the story, and I began asking what they wrote about. And there was a silence.

Most wrote about going to a restaurant in the town which was ten miles away. Or the time they went to Walmart. Many had never been on a family vacation.

I was both shocked, and discouraged. In my somewhat sheltered upbringing, I never imagined there were people who hadn’t experienced the excitement of loading up in a car and seeing the world.

That day changed me. It made me realize the many discrepancies and inequities that exist between students. And I also realized how foreign and unattainable most of my life experiences and lessons seemed to them.

I felt defeated.

Throughout my years as a teacher and counselor, I have also discovered the limitations of standardized testing. I know we need to have a standard, or a baseline, but I also believe that there should be more local control when it comes to assessments. Students from urban and rural areas live completely different lives, and there is a gap for for both sides in many of the questions, stories, and information on the tests.

I first became aware of this when I was a Middle School counselor. As campus testing coordinator, it was one of my duties to make copies of the 7th grade Writing essays for the TAKS test. After tests were turned in, I took the stack of 100 plus essays to the copier and prayed it wouldn’t choose that day to break down.

The copies were placed in a large envelope and given to the writing teacher, who, on a certain date proclaimed by the state, could open the envelope and read the student essays. When the scores were received, this enabled the teacher to have an idea of how/why the paper was given the numerical value (between 1 and 4, with 4 being the highest score).

I can’t remember the exact topic that year, but it was something like “Write about the worst thing that has ever happened to you.”

When we were allowed to read the essays, across the board students who had experienced a horrible event or tragedy all made higher scores than the others.

I’ll never forget the essay written by a twelve year old girl whose mother had died. It was not only well-written, but was heart-wrenching. Compare that to the student whose worst day was when she ripped her jeans while at school. The contrast is striking.

Over the years, I realized that the topics selected for the writing prompts were usually about something life-changing. Something the student overcame.

My oldest son always aced the grammar portion of the writing test. In fact, he scored 100% every year that he took it. But on the writing prompt, he always made a 2, which not only bothered him, but in his eyes was unacceptable.

He vowed that on that last writing test of high school, he was going to make a 4. As I tried to give him some pointers before the test, we discussed the fact that the prompts generally deal with an obstacle that was faced, or something that the writer overcame.

As we talked about this, I realized how easy my kids had it. They had never really experienced a life-changing event or situation. They didn’t know what it was like to struggle, or go without something. I guess he could write about the disappointment of losing a playoff game, or the fact that his parents wouldn’t buy him a “top of the line cell phone,” or allow him to have a Facebook account until he went to college. Other than those fairly insignificant issues, life for him had been easy and good.

When we were concluding our conversation, I finally summoned the courage to say, “If you really want to make a 4, and the topic is along the lines of a hardship you endured or overcame, you might have to make something up.”

I concluded with this statement, (which I’m not exactly proud of), “They won’t know if you’re telling the truth or not. You’re being judged and rated on your writing ability, and how well you follow the prompt.”

Little did I know these words would come back to haunt me.

I was good friends with the high school counselor, and I ran into her shortly after the test was given. She pulled me aside and said, “You’re not going to believe what your son wrote about on his TAKS test…”

The prompt was “Write about the hardest decision you’ve had to make.”

My son, the one I told to “make something up if he didn’t have an experience that would fit the prompt,” wrote about the time he had to put his single, drug addicted mother in re-hab.

Upon hearing this, my mouth flew open, and I was in complete shock and a little humiliated, imagining the judgment that had been made about me by the test grader/rater sitting in her cubicle in Austin.

My immediate response was, “Oh, my goodness. You’ll probably get a call from TEA (Texas Education Agency)! They will put a red flag on his composition!”

She laughed and said, “Oh, surely not.” And then I shared with her about the time I received such a call when a 7th grader wrote about “rasslin’ and cage fighting in his backyard.” The lady on the other end of the phone wanted to share her concern with this behavior, and thought I might want to investigate and possibly contact Child Protective Services.

I knew it was within the realm of possibility that my friend might receive such a call.

That afternoon, after hearing the news about my shattered life of addiction, I asked Christopher about the writing prompt. He said, “I couldn’t think of anything to write about, so I just patterned my essay after an episode of ‘Criminal Minds’ when Dr. Reid had to put his mom in re-hab. I just changed some things up to make it work.”

I was both horrified and a little proud. And guess what? He finally received a 4 on the writing portion of his test.

It is a heavy truth that as public educators, not only do we have to teach subject matter, citizenship, manners, and respect, we also have to give these children positive, mind-extending experiences. Experiences other than let-downs, hardships, heartbreaks, and isolation. The kinds of things which were foreign to my son.

Many students I know have never even been into Tyler or Longview (20 or 30 minutes away). One student even told me her mom lived in the city. When I asked what city, she replied, “Overton,” whose population is just over 2500.

So what do we do, as teachers, and as a society, to provide experiences, and challenges to those who are in many ways landlocked? Stranded?  Isolated?  Alone? How do we teach them about a world they know nothing about? How do we encourage them to imagine? To dream? To believe?

The answer is simple. We teach them to read.  And to love to read. And to understand that books not only entertain, and teach, but they are also an escape. They are a means of transportation, taking the reader to places he’s never been before, allowing the reader to imagine, and dream and see and believe.

Reading has always been a part of my life. My parents read to me nightly as a very young child, and we did the same for our kids.

As a reader, I can ride a steamboat down the Mississippi River with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I can experience life on the prairie with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I can dream about rivers of chocolate with Charlie, and can pray that the sorting hat reveals that I will be in Gryffindor rather than Slytherin.

I can learn about history, and sports, and famous people.

Books give us the world. They fill in the blanks and enhance our general knowledge. And the more children read, the easier it becomes for them to write. Reading gives them facts, and information, and experiences, and writing gives them a voice.

During these times, it’s more important than ever for our children to be encouraged to read and to write. Reading can be a great escape from the everyday problems, fears, and worries that many children face; a coping mechanism. And writing can be a tool for children to put their thoughts and dreams on paper, which helps them learn how to deal with the things in their lives they can’t control or change.

I want to ask you as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends of young people, to please encourage children to read and explore. Encourage them to be curious, and inquisitive. Teach them simple lessons. Invest in them. Give them more than an iPad or a cell phone. Give them adventures, and help them discover who they are through nature, and art, and books, and music.

And if you want to take it to another level, volunteer. Donate books and/or your time. Teachers are doing all they can, but they need everyone to step up and do their part at home and in the community.

Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day was only ten years old when his father died of esophageal cancer, an experience which impacted, influenced and shaped him. An event that led him to later write a song that has  uplifted, and paid tribute to people who have survived times of turmoil and uncertainty.

I know nothing about his life more than this. But for me, Billie Joe Armstrong is an inspiration. He turned his tragedy into triumph, and shared a song with the world that reflects the human condition and the tenacious will it takes to survive and overcome a great loss. To stop sleepwalking. To wake up. To live again.

My youngest son was a sleepwalker. He had night terrors, and we quickly learned that whenever he was experiencing one of these, we needed to talk to him gently, being careful not to scare him. Although this was always frightening for us, we did have many humorous conversations, and the next morning, he never even remembered it.

During these difficult times, we need to remember to treat our children as if they have been sleepwalking—-gently guiding them without making them fearful. We need to provide as much normal as possible, and work hard to fill in the blanks and gaps from the months of school that were lost last year.

The lessons learned during the last few months will be simple for some and life-changing for others. I pray that as individuals and as a nation we have become stronger, kinder, and more resolute.

And as our memory rests, let’s never forget…

September is over.

I’m awake.

And I’m ready for whatever lies ahead…

Click here to listen to Wake Me Up When September Ends

 

 

 

 

 

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