First Day of School Eve

I’ve been anticipating tomorrow for weeks now; I’ve had that sour porridge of dread and exhilaration churning in my gut since July ended. At 7:30 tomorrow morning, kids will be eating breakfast in the cafeteria, their backpacks smudging the waxed tile floors. Everything that the kids bring to the table, the mischief and brilliance and voltage and personality that I’ve been missing all summer will be back, and with it will come heedless cruelty, angst and funky smells (Simmons says that on stormy days, ninth graders smell like wet dogs) not to mention my own sleepless nights and daily failures.

The dread was at its most ferocious on Wednesday. The high school had professional development all afternoon, and a former colleague was leading the session.  It was an awesome session, but it knocked the breath out of me for a minute. “Think of what you most like to teach – that lesson that gets you most fired up, every year,” he said and I drew a complete blank. I love kids, and on good days, I love teaching, but I don’t love my content. I’m a math teacher by happenstance. “I’ll give you a little longer to think about that. Think about what fires you up about that objective. Why do you love it?” My mind was like a clear blue sky. “We all love what we do, that’s why we’re in this room: we want to give what we love to kids! If you can’t come up with something, get out of my profession.”

All the air came whooshing out of my lungs and I felt like crying. It was intended as a reminder that we got into this because we’re passionate about education, but for me it was a reminder that I’ll never be an exceptional math teacher because I will never be able to teach math from the heart. My placement in math was an arbitrary decision that some TFA person in an office somewhere made nearly three years ago. The consequences of that decision are shaping the rest of my life, and I’m sick with frustration over it. Math is the most sterile subject that we teach in school: there’s little art in it at the high school level, and it’s hard to create a math project that is aligned to the curriculum and has a practical application or a community impact. I asked to move, at least for a part of each day, into a different discipline for this school year, but with the major changes our district has gone through this summer, no one has gotten what they wanted.

The school isn’t putting its best foot forward this fall: teachers still don’t have rosters for tomorrow, and the schedule isn’t finalized yet. Our building, which held four grades last year and felt full, will now host six grades. My 18 crappy old desks were replaced with 29 nice new ones the other day. The electives have been moved into trailers. Somehow, though, I’ve let it all go for this evening. It was a great day, and I have never been so prepared for a Monday. Here’s a Ta-Da! list, which is the opposite of a To Do list, in terms of both its meaning and the feeling that it elicits in my breast.

Ta-Da!

  • We did tons of laundry today, and innovated by drying hanger clothes on the hanger. This saved space on the line, clothespins, and work on the tail end of laundrytime!
  • I made four little jars of pesto and stuck them in the freezer
  • Sean made a week’s worth of curry for lunches with our amazing homegrown lemongrass and thai basil.
  • We picked another batch of paste tomatoes
  • We ran three miles before breakfast
  • I made a gallon of dish soap, which should last us months.
  • We ordered Red Ranger chicks and arranged to sell some chickens to our friends in town. Super exciting!
  • I created a class jobs system
  • I finished setting up my classroom (this counts because it was after midnight last night before we left the school, right?)
  • Sean made a cheeseless pizza with arugula, prosciutto, and homegrown tomatoes that was to die for.
  • Lesson plans were completed by all.
  • Sean planted greens in the lower garden.
  • We both did countless small things for school. Really and truly countless.
  • We left the house clean. This never ever happens!

There’s an agitated part of me that thinks it’s all futile: there’s no front-end work that can make a whole year of school go smoothly. Preparing completely for just one week is an impossibility. There’s a different part of me that’s completely at ease tonight: There is simply nothing more that we can do before school starts except get in the car and crank up the radio for the sunrise drive to Palestine.

That’s where the exhilaration comes in: when you’re whipping up a two-lane highway through fields of cotton, screaming some silly pop country song at the top of your lungs, trying to chase the anvil-weight of nine months of responsibility off of your ribcage and out the window, and dancing like a fool in the driver’s seat where no one but the rising sun can see you. The exhilaration comes when you’re listening to another boring (sometimes alarming) professional development presentation (“You’ve got to crack down on them. When they graduate from here, they’re gonna at least know their manners. Doesn’t matter if they can read or write as long as they say ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ and know not to wear their hat in the house. That’s what will set them apart”) and you’re working on your syllabus and laughing at your own corny joke of putting a thinking cap on the supply list (not that I’d allow any sort of cap in the schoolhouse, no sir!). I get a rush when I think about learning the names on my roster (which will exist someday) and letting myself be smitten with a new group of kids.

Tonight I bid the summer adieu, but I’m welcoming with open arms another opportunity to fall ass over teakettle for a crop of quirky, sensitive, ruthless, ingenuous, imaginative, terrified kids. I’ll love them even on rainy days.

In case you were wondering…

Breakfast Bunny was surprisingly tasty

Breakfast Bunny was surprisingly tasty. A little weird, but very edible.

We had a blast visiting our Ohio family. We got a chance or two to be helpful, and we learned a lot from their systems, dreams and schemes.
Here’s a photo version of a day at the farm, beginning with morning chores.

The cows provide milk, cream and butter for the family, but my understanding is that most of the milk goes to the pigs, providing them with a great source of (relatively inexpensive) protein.

The cows provide milk, cream and butter for the family, but my understanding is that most of the milk goes to the pigs, providing them with a great source of (relatively inexpensive) protein.

The golf cart pulls the chicken tractors! It's a whole lot easier to move their three than it is to move our single tractor by hand.

The golf cart pulls the chicken tractors! It’s a whole lot easier to move their three than it is to move our single tractor by hand. The chicken tractors are moved every day to provide the Cornish Cross broilers with fresh grass and a new supply of bugs to eat.

The draft

The draft horses graze ahead of the chicken tractors to clear a path in the tall pasture. Genius!

Sean is the pig whisperer

Sean is the pig whisperer

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Pumping water is one of the big electrical draws at the farm, and patching hoses is a big draw on manpower. These pigs are helping to create a pond that will provide livestock water with no hoses and no electricity!

Pumping water is one of the big electrical draws at the farm, and patching hoses is a big draw on manpower. These pigs are helping to create a pond that will provide livestock water with no hoses and no electricity!

Behold! The pond-makers in action!

Behold! The pond-makers in action!

They are the prettiest, happiest, muddiest snurflepigs I've ever seen!

They are the prettiest, happiest, muddiest snurflepigs I’ve ever seen!

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We went out looking for a group of lambs that had an appointment with the butcher. These appointments are made months in advance.

After chores, we went out looking for a group of lambs that had an appointment with the butcher. These appointments are made months in advance.

The pastures at the farm are gorgeously in bloom this time of year. Where are those sheep?

The pastures at the farm are gorgeously in bloom this time of year. They’re also very tall and easy to hide in. Where are those sheep?

Sean is sad because there's a lot of work ahead of him. The lambs we were looking for escaped and got mixed in with the flock!

Sean is sad because there’s a lot of work ahead of him. The lambs we were looking for escaped and got mixed in with the flock!

Baaa! We had to herd the entire flock through a narrow gate. They walked in circles for a while before they noticed the opening.

Baaa! We had to herd the entire flock through a narrow gate. They walked in circles for a while before they noticed the opening.

Once the sheep got going, it was mostly a matter of keeping up.

Once the sheep got going, it was mostly a matter of keeping up.

Jesse, Sean and Dante are separating the desired animals from the rest of the flock and sending them down a chute to the trailer.

Jesse, Sean and Dante are separating the desired animals from the rest of the flock and sending them down a chute to the trailer.

Get in there!

Get in there!

It was a beautiful day for a lot of work.

It was a beautiful day for a lot of work.

After a long day, Jesse, Fezzik and Sean teamed up for evening chores

After a long day, Jesse, Fezzik and Sean teamed up for evening chores

The pigs and chickens graze together. Pigs make good predator protection for the chickens.

The pigs and chickens graze together. Pigs make good predator protection for the chickens.

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The Farmer’s Table, July 2014

Every muscle in my body is sore from this week of hard work, but especially sore are the ones I use for smiling. When everyone had left the Farmer’s Table last night, we abandoned the dishes, scattered on the table like exhausted revelers in the glow of the garlic chandelier, and slowly strolled down the driveway. This place is more irresistible every time we visit.

Friends, white wine, sweet-tasting evening breezes, Queen Anne's Lace flowers hovering over the pastures like tiny clouds.

Friends, white wine, sweet-tasting evening breezes, Queen Anne’s Lace flowers hovering over the pastures like tiny clouds.

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The Farmer’s Table is Chelsea’s venture, a monthly dining experience hosted by the farm. There’s a farm tour, a hands-on-experience, and, at last, a three course meal served family style on the patio that showcases the farm’s meat and local, seasonal vegetables. Sean was a guest chef for this event, which constituted his public debut. We all worked for the better part of two days to prepare: Sean and Chelsea created a menu and began cooking well in advance while Jesse and I did the enabling work of dishes and venue preparation.

The lamb ribs had to thaw

The lamb ribs had to thaw

The ice cream had to be rolled up and refrozen

The ice cream had to be rolled up and refrozen

The potatoes had to be harvested

The potatoes had to be harvested

On the big day, it rained buckets. While we worked on the tent, there was lightning. the weather man issued a tornado watch, Chelsea made brioche, Sean made a pork-belly slider for a mockup, we all drooled, I decorated the tent, and Jesse built a gutter and awning system not thirty minutes before the kickoff to ensure that no one would get soaked in the rain on his or her walk to the bathroom. We were nervous. Tornado watches are not good news for outdoor dinners.

When the guests arrived, Jesse greeted them and gave them a short tour of the farm, his eyes on the sky. I met them with a basket full of umbrellas, just in case. Each couple or family got a pair of scissors and a basket to cut flowers, and we all met on the front porch to arrange them in mason jars for the table. One family had two small children, and the little girl was tremendously excited that her flowers would decorate the dinner table. That done, Jesse swept the guests off to watch the evening milking, and we had a few minutes to do some last minute prep. I placed the flower arrangements on the table, and it looked beautiful.

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When milking was over, the guests made their way to the table and Chelsea and Sean’s big moment was upon them: the first course.

The chefs were nervous, but excited

The chefs were nervous, but excited

Sean whipped up some sweet wings for the kids. We hadn't realized just how little they'd be, and he was worried that they wouldn't like adult fare he and Chelsea had prepared.

Sean whipped up some sweet wings for the kids. We hadn’t realized just how little they’d be, and he was worried that they wouldn’t like adult fare he and Chelsea had prepared.

Grilled chicken wings tossed with Asian inspired sweet and spicy sauces, served with nasturtium flowers on a bed of kale chips.

Grilled chicken wings tossed with Asian inspired sweet and spicy sauces, served with nasturtium flowers on a bed of kale chips and garnished with shaved onion and fennel.

There’s nothing like eating chicken wings with strangers to break the ice.  After the first breathless rush, everything went smoothly. Jesse and I dined with the guests and chatted about the food or farming while Sean and Chelsea continued at a manic pace in the kitchen, turning out course after beautiful course.

The second course was plated for each individual.

The second course was plated for each individual.

The chefs presented each course to the guests with a description: "the light, fresh look of our pork belly sliders is deceiving. You'll find them surprisingly rich."

The chefs presented each course to the guests with a description:
“the light, fresh look of our pork belly sliders is deceiving. You’ll find them surprisingly rich.”

Pork belly sliders served on brioche with fennel slaw and microgreens and a splash of Asian barbeque sauce.

Pork belly sliders served on brioche with fennel slaw, local micro-greens and a splash of Asian barbeque sauce.

Jesse's expression is fairly representative of the sliders' reception: blissful, blissful silence at the table.

Jesse’s expression is fairly representative of the sliders’ reception: blissful, blissful silence at the table.

The main course was slow-roasted lamb ribs with a tangy coriander pomegranate glaze; roasted fennel glazed with local maple syrup; cucumber and tomato salad with feta, all sourced locally; and roasted potato salad with herb dressing. I was too busy consuming my share of the feast to take many pictures, I’m afraid.

The head chef grinning ear to ear with her main course in hand.

The head chef grinning ear to ear with her main course in hand.

After a short break wherein the guests surreptitiously let their belts out a notch (not really, as far as I know, but you get the picture) came dessert. Dessert was mouthwatering to look at and symphonic to taste. It couldn’t have been a more perfect take on the classic ice cream sandwich.
“Did you make the ice cream here?” on woman asked.
“Of course. We used eggs and cream grown right here on the farm.”
Her jaw nearly hit the floor.

Sugar beets grown on the farm were grated and dried to make these crisp, yet chewy cookies. The blueberries in the compote were locally sourced, and the lemon-lavender ice cream was made here from eggs and cream

Sugar beets grown in Chelsea’s garden were grated and dried to make these crisp, yet chewy cookies. The blueberries in the compote were locally sourced, and the lemon-lavender ice cream was made here from eggs and cream produced on the farm.

Everyone stayed to talk after the meal, to ask how the pork belly was prepared or to comment that they’d never imagined that fennel could taste so good. When the last guests had left after promising to reserve for the next three dinners and to give The Farmer’s Table a sparkling review on tripadvisor, the four of us shared a happy, laughing, bouncing hug, and then a glass of wine, which takes us back to the beginning of this post. If you are in Ohio, you will not regret a pilgrimage to Fox Hollow Farm to eat at Chelsea’s Farmer’s Table. Check out her website or facebook page to make reservations.

Carnivory in Ohio

We all slept poorly last night. It was hot, and the ticking ceiling fan and open windows couldn’t cool our dry skin. Chelsea and I rose from our sleepless beds at sunrise and ran down the farm’s long gravel driveway and then to the end of the road.
“Good morning moo cows. Good morning hounds. Good morning sheep. Good morning chickens.”
The dawn spilled over the hill that cradles the farm and sopped into the clouds that had carpeted the sky overnight. The breeze was cool and it left a chill where it lifted the sweat from our necks. The sky was soaked in a watercolor purple, and the birds were chirruping in the blooming weeds that filled the ditches. My legs hurt. As we started the jog back up the driveway, the world brightened and began to glow in Technicolor. I let a smile stretch my face.

The countryside in this part of Ohio is idyllic in mid-summer. The roadsides are overwhelmed with queen anne’s lace and something that flowers purple, the trees are blushing green, and the rollercoaster hills are spread with sunny pasture and crisp shady forest, and sprinkled with weathered barns and cattle. When we arrived yesterday, I went for a long run in the heat of the day. The heat billowing off the pavement and the gluey, humid air could have been Arkansan, but there was no mistaking the ambience of Midwestern Americana. When I got back, dinner prep was in full swing. We ate ribeyes from right here at the farm to kick off the inevitable week of carnivory that’s to come. We could hear cows mooing from our table on the patio.

Before the sun was fully up, Sean, Chelsea and I were weeding raised beds in one of the hoophouses. Jesse brought out steaming cups of coffee, and we surveyed our progress, listening to the beginnings of rain on the plastic roof.

Breakfast was Ohio eggs, potatoes and sausage with Arkansan tomatoes and cucumbers. Lunch was all Ohio: raw zucchini pasta with basil and nasturtium flowers, beet greens and crispy onion crostini, and broccoli raab. Not home-grown: bread flour, lemons, olive oil, balsamic vinegar. Summer is the best time of year. I forget what grocery shopping feels like for days or weeks at a time.

We accompanied our friends to the farmers market this afternoon. They sell grass-finished beef and lamb and pastured pork and poultry, in addition to eggs. I listened with pride as they fielded questions about the humanity of their farming practices and the quality of their meat products and eggs.
“Is there an agency that certifies that your animals are raised humanely?”
“Our certifying organization is our customers. We’re happy to give farm tours so that you can satisfy yourself that our animals are treated humanely.”
“Are these eggs free-range?”
“Free-range can mean that the hens have access to a concrete slab. Our hens are pastured. They eat plants and insects in addition to their organic feed, and their access to the outdoors is unlimited.”
This is a business to be proud of, and those eggs are worth every penny their customers pay for them.

Sean and Jesse hamming it up at the market

Sean and Jesse hamming it up at the market

Tomatoes are just coming on up here in the North. Sean selected this luscious beauty at the market.

Tomatoes are just coming on up here in the North. Sean selected this luscious beauty at the market.

Dinner was Thai food. Sean and I enjoyed the extraordinary luxury of ordering dishes that incorporated quality meats. My (droolworthy) masaman curry featured locally raised beef! I was swooning all through dinner. This was easily the best Thai food I’ve had in years. The four of us stopped at the grocery store on the way home and picked up two pints of Jeni’s ice cream for dessert, which is locally made and incredible. In the checkout line, we realized that we had no spoons and no way to transport the ice cream home without excessive meltage.
“Where’s the metal cutlery?” Sean asked.
“Aisle nine or ten” replied the cashier.
We looked, but couldn’t find it. We looked again, then met up in toiletries, befuddled.
“I’ve just had an idea,” Sean stated. “Let’s find cones and get an ice cream scoop. It’s better than plastic spoons that we’ll just throw away.”
So we did.

Sean scooped us each a cone and, as the ice cream began to melt, scooped us each another. We rolled over the hills in the dusky evening sunshine in a perfect, blissful, ice cream silence.

“Aw, shit!” Jesse exclaimed as we crested a hill. He swerved, but caught the rabbit anyway. It lay still in the road behind us, receding as the truck charged on.
“Go back.” Sean said.
“What?”
“Go back. We can take it home and skin it.”
“What?”
“We could eat it for breakfast if it’s in good shape. Keely can at least tan the hide.”
“Yeah! I absolutely can!” I said
Sean grinned. “We’ve been in Arkansas for… two years now?”
Laughter.

Skinning game animals might be an Arkansas thing, but eating roadkill is decidedly a liberal hippie environmentalist thing. We had late night beer floats not two days ago with two young intellectual-type people who had broken their vegetarianism on roadkill.

Meet Breakfast Bunny!

Meet (Meat) Breakfast Bunny!

The rabbit was in good shape when we picked it up. It had been hit only in the head. It had bitten through its tongue and one eye was lolling out of its socket, but the hide was completely intact and no damage was done to the internal organs. I got the rabbit skinned and gutted with a minimum of fuss, though I lost the tail. Fleshing is proving to be the hardest part of the process for me. I tore the hide in several places and didn’t succeed in removing all of the fat and membrane from the skin. I did, however, wind up with a perfectly respectable attempt at a clean hide, which was conveniently sized and shaped for a brief puppet show.

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A Day in the Life (Summer School Edition)

5:50 a.m.  I try to wake up and start my run before I realize what I’m doing. Sean stays in bed, letting the sun pink the walls slowly as he eases into the day. Usually by the time I wake up fully, the sun is just breaking over the trees and I’m smiling, halfway down the road. I try to push my distance a little every day, to run the length of that sorghum field, to circle that pole barn, to turn around at that road cut. This morning, I startled a young possum in the ditch and was myself startled by a rattlesnake, as big around as my bicep, curled dead in the road.
I come home, shower, and get dressed in my teacher uniform: usually a skirt, a t-shirt, flats, and earrings. Sean packs my laptop, a waterbottle and a banana in my bag and pops in a bagel for me. At 7:00, we’re out the door.

7:45 a.m.  Papers laid out, pencils sharpened, we’re in the cafeteria, watching the kids eat breakfast, breathless from the whirlwind of copying and tidying before class. At 8:00 we walk our groups to our respective classrooms, and teach for two 90 minute blocks with a thirty minute recess in the middle where we supervise the kids on the patio. The first few minutes of class is always a push to get kids settled and working on their do now/bellwork/entry task. The bells don’t ring during summer school, so there’s no distinct start to class, and kids take advantage of that blurred line. Someone is usually singing or building a paper airplane or pretending they can’t find a pencil or paper (I provide them: they’re right in front of you, dingbat), or squabbling about a seat. After bellwork, we get rolling with a discussion or experiment and I get them going on a problem or a problem set within ten minutes. At Lee, I’ve found I can count on about a three-minute class-wide attention span. I’ve got ten at Palestine, but I have more relationships, authority, and reputation up there. I break up the work-time accordingly, so we review problems frequently and I give plenty of opportunities for kids to talk math. It looks like mayhem, but it works pretty well. I did a bangup job of captaining my team to victory over function notation today. The most fabulous disruption of the day was this:

I’m assisting a student on one side of the classroom.
A student asks permission and then gets up to sharpen his pencil.
There’s a commotion on the other side of the classroom from me, near the pencil sharpener.
K: Whoah! he’s getting sexual over here!
R: did you see – he – he – he tried to kiss me!
J: (from across the room) BWAKAHAHAHAHA  — HE’S GETTING SEXUAL!
I glare at J and she turns down the volume
M: I didn’t try to kiss him! I was just making kissy noises! (Makes kissy noises)
J: (from across the room) OMG (Makes unreasonably loud kissy noises)
R: He tried to kiss my EAR!

12:00  It’s hot at noon in Marianna. It’s really, really hot. I get headaches and I sweat like pigs would sweat if they could (they can’t). We wait outside on a covered walkway for the buses to come after lunch, and keep kids from hurting each other or sneaking away to do who-knows-what behind the building. It’s a steam-mirage of sneakers smacking the concrete, yellow buses, sticky blacktop, yelling voices, sweat. At 12:30 we get to leave, and it’s a horrible relief to sink into the soft passenger’s seat of the Nissan: a relief because I’ve been on my feet for six hours already, horrible because our car is black and the inside at noon is hot enough to explode cans of soda (true) and melt rubber bands (true). Sean starts the car and we crank the A/C. It roars and sputters and blows hot air like a salon for the first few minutes, then blessed cold. By the time we’re halfway home, we can turn it down to half-power.

1:00 p.m.  It’s too hot to work outside. Sean fixes us lunch and I spend a few hours in the afternoon each day working on indoor projects: canning, tanning, lesson planning. I do some dishes, dick around on the internet, read a little, tidy something somewhere, check on the chickens, and suddenly it’s sunset, and well past time to think about dinner. Sometimes, we manage to work in the garden for a while, but lately it has not cooled off until just before dawn, and gardening in the afternoon in these conditions is out of the question.

8:30 p.m. Dinner is usually something wonderful: we rarely visit the store these days, so our meals are almost all Arkansas-grown. Tonight, it’s braised cabbage with green apples and caramelized onions, our cherry and tarragon turkey sausage, and cucumber, basil and mint salad with slivers of red onion. Not from here: red onion, green apple. We eat on the futon under the clicking ceiling fan and watch a movie or an episode of something (Freaks and Geeks, tonight) with the volume up to drown out the window unit that growls in the background.

900 p.m. It’s storming and, inevitably, there’s a crisis. Sean goes down to check on the pigs and I hear him hollering over the thunder. I rush to the porch door and peer out through the curtain of rain, looking for the flashlight.
“are you there, Sean?”
a flicker of light through the six-foot tall jungle of wet grass
“yes but the pigs aren’t. I can’t find them anywhere.”
Sean slumps up to the steps, exhausted at the prospect of the wet, muddy search ahead, and I’m ready to head in and grab my coat when there’s an unmistakable grunt from under the porch, then a chorus of snurfles. The pigs are under the porch, sheltering from the storm.

10:00 p.m. late, cold dinner. Turns out, there’s not a damn thing you can do to move a 150 lb pig that doesn’t want to go out in the rain. Damn. They’ll be there in the morning, the impudent swine.