Reading Lessons and A Note About Gratitude

The last couple of months have been a whirlwind of activity–beginning with a serious career adjustment. I “hit the streets” in Midtown as a sales rep for a food distribution company, and the learning curve has been massive.  Serious highs, and serious lows.  I joined our local pool board just in time for the chaos of summer and started a boxing class at the gym around the corner.  I signed up to teach “Julie’s Can and Jam” classes at a local co-op, where I’ll teach 21 and up classes on making homemade jam and the canning process.  At the same co-op, I’m re-launching some new branding for my detergent line and attempting to improve my image and marketing.  Last, but certainly not the least, I began teaching reading classes for the elderly, two nights a week.

I get overwhelmed sometimes, and then anxious about daily to-do lists left undone and the tasks of the week that I’m not sure I’m completing with the attention they deserve.  I dream about sending an order of groceries to the wrong food truck, and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about whether or not I sent the correct allergen-free pan spray to a particular account.  I stress about not knowing enough, not working hard enough or long enough, and not knowing how to ask the questions that make sense in my head.  And then I met a few people with amazing attitudes and a seriously challenging situation in life.

My “students” for evening reading classes are incredible, resilient people, who at the ages of 70-85 are looking to better themselves, and learn to read.  Their reading levels vary from Kindergarten to 2nd grade, and are quick to set goals about their future.  “Ella” told me that she throws away all her mail because she can’t read it anyway, so what’s the point? Tomorrow we’ll begin reading her mail together and making sense of it. “Wallace” told me that he’s never been read to before, and can only drive within a mile radius because he’s memorized all the street signs…beyond that mile, he wouldn’t be able to read the signs and get back home.  “Nellie” cried tonight when I read her a Bible story, because the only time she’s been read to is over the pulpit at church, and when I told her that she’d be able to write a thank you note by the end of summer, she wept openly and told me she never imagined she’d be able to master such a task.  Talk about a reality check–and a serious dose of gratitude.  I’m a month in, and they do their homework, get excited about evening class, and thank me profusely at the end, in spite of the fact that they have harder lives than I’ve ever even read about.

I know that I’m a blend of blessed and fortunate, and as stretched as I feel these days, I’m super thankful for my new batch of students who have already taught me much more about life than I’ll ever teach them about reading.  I also love that my role of teacher will never really be over.

Gatsby? My Gatsby.

I didn’t teach The Great Gatsby this year– for the first time in 11 years of teaching. I have a somewhat bizarre obsession that began long before Leo and Jay-Z made it cool again.

I first taught the Gatsby the fall after I turned 22, when my one of my only serious relationships finally came to its last end. in a lot of ways, I still chased my own past while I struggled to teach a novel that I didn’t even enjoy in high school. I found its lessons on love, letting go, and reserving judgement profound, long before I became enamored by the glitz, glamour, pearls, and lace of all things flappers and Daisy Buchanan.

My first go at the Gatsby probably left my students with few memorable classroom lessons, as I think I was the one who learned most. In many ways, I grew up this last decade with Gatsby by my side– a trusty friend and teacher who reminded me that that a long summer ahead holds all kinds of promises and life will inevitably start over again in the fall. As a teacher, this has absolutely held true, every year for the last decade, as summer always provided renewed hope and fall meant another chance to be a better person, a wiser teacher, and correct the mistakes from the prior year.

Over the years, I’ve honed the lessons of Gatsby into ways to reach students and have learned how to make a classic applicable and even modern to teenagers. The last few years my classroom has turned into a full fledged 20s throwback, complete with a movie project and a full costume Gatsby luncheon on the last days of school in May.

Last May, I wrapped up my last full year of teaching in a style of which I’m sure Fitzgerald would have been proud. I began the day in white as Daisy Buchanan, and most of my students dressed up; the guys wore snazzy suits and the girls went all out with flapper dresses, pearls, floppy hats and feathered hair pieces. We drank school appropriate versions of Mint Juleps, ate finger sandwiches and watched the student remakes of Gatsby scenes. It was a fantastic final day of glitz, jazz, pearls and Gatsby charm. As the new movie released, we took our party to the theater in partial costume to witness the modern interpretation.

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Daisy Buchanan at our luncheon last May.

In the absence of a classroom to decorate this spring, I redecorated our guest bathroom in Fitzgerald’s honor. My two copies of the text with 10 years of annotations and insights made up the wall paper and I hung the 70s movie posters from my classroom. A few bits of homemade lace and old pearls helped to soften the space, and while I have yet to figure out how to hook up motion censored audio, I’m pretty content with my Fitzgerald tribute.

In spite of the fact that the past constantly does reshape my future, I also know that summer does stretch out ahead with new promises and life most certainly does start over each year; the lessons of Gatsby are inevitably accurate, even this year as the school year ends without me in it.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

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