Make Music With The Chatter In Here

the writings of Liz Riggs, @riggser

we can be good


I met you on the airport curb.

It’s strange now to remember the makeshift sign I’d created, hot gluing pipe cleaners and foam to white paper in Jen’s art classroom, giggling about my own clever joke that it was an arrival sign that actually didn’t say anybody’s name. I’d thought it was hilarious, scrambling around with buttons and glitter and a hundred thousand thoughts of what you might smell like.

I recall exactly what I was wearing, the dark skinny jeans and aztec shirt, and i straightened my hair. I put on eyeliner. Mascara. Blush. All three kinds of makeup I owned, I put them on. And I ruined it all with a Cubs bear hat I found on the streets of Chicago, wandering through Wicker Park years back with an old boyfriend.


I brought a bottle of bourbon with me, stowing it in the backseat of the car like a child, practically locking it into a seatbelt, thinking it could hold our up-close love together if words couldn’t. i was working on acquiring a taste for your beloved liquor at the time and i would take the the tiniest tugs from the bottle like it was baby’s juice, but gin is my oldest and truest love, and there’s no flinching there. You know that now.

You were shorter than I’d imagined, and your left leg was always a little out of sync with your right, and it was funny because these were the only things i couldn’t know about you from videos and emails and calls. And I have no idea what you were wearing, which I suppose says more about me than it does about you.

We drove through the main streets, the back streets, the dark streets of my city and we listened to the mix CD that had Conor Oberst and Jack White and —oh shit—Taylor Swift. You laughed and swigged whiskey out of the bottle while we drove and I told you, it’s okay, it’s legal in Tennessee and everyone always says that and nobody knows if it’s true.

I was 25 years old, the age I think is practically perfect, scientifically engineered to mesmerize us all with its fleeting hold. The flawless year of flat stomachs and tight jeans and biceps and boobs and beatable hangovers: oh, and wild abandon. The kind that allows you to exchange emails with a stranger a thousand miles away only to find that maybe, just maybe through words and whiskey and wit, just maybe.

you’re the best I’ve known, and you know me.

i knew when i dropped you off on the airport curb. haggard hair and sleepy eyes, i knew.

that first year, i didn’t spend your birthday with you. you were far away, sweating in a swampy florida winter, and i sent a cake to you. it had Oreos and your friend delivered it. i got you a journal customized with an anchor and a quote from East of Eden.

Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.

we got anchor tattoos mere months later, ink on skin and needles to bone and we didn’t tell anyone that we both had them, but i remember the look in your eyes and the last minute decision to make the anchor smaller, tilt it to the side, right? i remember.

I don’t remember almost anything about our wedding. I think about that often, because I know that it was the best day, the most love I’ve ever had in one room, the walls a giant bursting heart bleeding with every face and hug and touch, and the whole night screaming—a blur of sounds that are colors, synesthesia pouring from the balcony.

but you were there, and so was i.

that first year, i was so envious of everyone that got to spend your birthday with you. i told you that, i used the word envy so much as if to prove i knew the synonym for jealousy. and i was frustrated and sad and flailing in the possibility that maybe just maybe i couldn’t be there for every important moment of your life. that sometimes you would spend important moments in places I couldn’t be. with people who were not me. and that is not perfect, but it is good.

and i told you i promised to love you more than any of them ever would, and i do.

happy birthday, tyler huckabee. to many many more. 



Disclaimer: Tyler wrote a beautiful piece for our anniversary and I got him a silly little wallet that day, so it is worth acknowledging that he had the idea to write as a gift well before I did. His piece is also much better and makes me look like a toddler trying to write an essay on Tolstoy in cursive. But, it’s still a story worth telling, at least for me. 

On Teachers and Summer Vacation…

15478063854_c1dded1972_zAs my loyal, fiercely devoted followers likely have noticed: I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus as I’ve focused working on education pieces primarily through Education Post and The Atlantic. That being said, I wanted to share one of my most recent pieces from The Atlantic on teachers and how they truly spend their summer vacation (hint: most of them don’t spend three months in Tahiti.) Read the full piece here, and give a hug to any teacher you see this summer.

As Tall As Cliffs


About once a month, usually around the time I’m listening to Jason Isbell’s Southeastern and nursing a half-empty growler, I fall into the deep, swirling chaos of nostalgia. It comes suddenly, without warning—in the midst of an otherwise mundane day.

And yet, for many minutes, and sometimes hours, I can’t escape it. Typically, it seems, I am usually catapulted back to my senior year of college, a time where I was both dreadfully sad and treacherously happy in practically every waking moment. A boy I loved too much had broken my heart, and I’d fallen quite effortlessly into the half-drunken arms of a handful of unsuspecting friends.

Suddenly, the memory of crying on Garret’s bed at 4:30 in the morning while making fun of his Thai tank top seems like a moment I want to revisit over and over and over, though in that frozen piece of time I would have wished it long gone. I can recall the brown jersey sheets from which I snatched my phone (yes, a blue Nokia being held together by neon green duct tape) to see that it was 4 in the morning. Even in Oxford, Ohio time this was relatively late, but I knew Garret would be awake, and I knew he’d let me come over if he wasn’t in the midst of some weird Internet stuff.

He let me lay there and cry about something silly I’d done that night, and since Ben was out creating art more meaningful than all of our lives, I slept in his twin bed on the floor amidst the graffiti and the photographs and the walls that were bursting with genius.

I woke that morning only a few hours later, walked home, and, if I know myself at all: I likely spent the rest of the day watching The O.C. with Maggie and Annie and Chelsea, waiting for Garret to tell me more about his mysterious brother whom I knew was going to be my brief foray back into emotional stability.

We’d unlocked the fourth bedroom door to our apartment with a hanger and a mirror so that Chelsea could stay all the time, because whenever Chelsea left the place got just a little bit sadder.

In 2014, when the song “Traveling Alone” comes through the same speakers on which I used to blast Margot and The Nuclear So & So’s “As Tall As Cliff” in my college apartment, I realize suddenly I haven’t seen Chelsea in two years. That one day she lived in a room next door to me in Nashville where we could talk about our unfathomable fears of mystery diseases and debate the coolness of Jon McCauley. And then, one day, she didn’t. And with a strange sense of speed: we are several states apart and many years removed. I think of where I will want her to stand in my wedding, but isn’t it strange that she’s never met the boy I hope to marry?

And then I think of Ben and his graffiti and art and wise, incomprehensible words and insatiable curiosity and creativity and Garret with his fierce intelligence and inspiring ambition and infectious awkwardness and giggling. Marielle and her talent and strength and discipline that I didn’t even begin to respect and admire until years after we could have been the best of friends. Chelsea and her scathing wit and kindred spirit and loyal friendship I wouldn’t be able to breathe without. And Maggie, Sniggles, and her levelheaded wisdom and ceaseless support. Sean and his broken neck and neon swimsuit. Jess, Jess, with her cackling laugh and endless spontaneity and ability to teach me everything and nothing at the same time.

How bizarre it is that the people who carried me on their shoulders through years of my life haven’t met the people I spend my days with now? That maybe they haven’t seen the city I’ve lived in for nearly five years, because isn’t that just what happens? That in ten years we’ll probably all still live in different cities and maybe there will be husbands and wives and kids and nephews that we’ll never meet. Our parents will die and we won’t be there to carry each other through the night like we used to do so often. We won’t be there to drink until our puke turns black or pile green jello into plastic bags. We won’t be there to bounce beach balls off of concrete walls or eat Chipotle in front of The Graduate or House or The OC or Friends. We won’t be there when some people get married, because work will get in the way.

Maybe, just maybe: that is simply a part of growing up. Time carries us swiftly away and nostalgia careens us back together whenever the music is right.

[Please note: nobody died. Except Marissa Cooper]

On Teacher Turnover


Today I wrote something for The Atlantic that I actually didn’t write today but spent a long time working on over the past month. I’m pretty excited about it, and it’s all about teacher turnover and why it’s an issue that most of our teachers leave the classroom within the first five years. My intent wasn’t to point fingers at anyone or place blame, I mostly wanted to highlight the issue and talk to some people about what it stems from.

Teaching is the only profession that seems to draw criticism when people decide it isn’t for them. No one seems the least bit concerned when someone decides they’d rather not be a nurse after a few years on the job. Nobody complains when investment bankers quit after two years—but, if teachers decide that being in the classroom isn’t a lifelong profession for them, then they suddenly become the antihero. I’m still not totally sure why that is, and this article doesn’t delve into that concept very much, but it’s something to keep in mind when we think about teaching. Anywho, here it is, an article that will likely be the pinnacle of my writing career: Why Do Teachers Quit?

An Open Letter to *NSYNC, My Ex-Lover

Hurtful letters

The nights have been long since you left. I don’t want these words to be confused with that of another pop song, because you are the only pop song. You are my only pop song. You are my song.

For years, people told me not to wait. They said, you’ve gone your separate ways; it’s over. Then we ran into each other at the Grammy’s in 2003. Remember? The night you were singing the Bee Gees tribute, and I was wearing that slinky black dress that looked like sexuality? I don’t know if you recall—at the after party. You were on your third glass of champagne and I was on my ninth and we were flirting near the door of the bathroom, talking about the first time we met.  We were joking about how hot it was that night in 1999.

I looked younger then (like an Olsen twin, some have said.) But it was a night I’ll never forget. And then there we were, four years later, standing a hundred yards from Britney, drinking champagne more expensive than my clothes.

At the end of the night, we went our separate ways. I cried, a drunken pathetic middle-school girly sob.

The next couple of months I tried to move on. I decided if I could find some new lovers, maybe it would be easier. I went on dates with Dashboard Confessional, and hands down—he just wasn’t as youthful as you; I felt the tender kisses of Guster and swam in his patchouli musk. I developed an on-again, off-again love affair with Ryan Adams, and he refused to acknowledge that you ever existed.

I remember when I heard you were seeing someone else. That you’d split from your best friends, that you were making music, but it wasn’t the same:  You were on my television and in my brain and suddenly you were everywhere. Something of you was missing, and maybe it was me, or maybe it was just that you didn’t seem quite…whole. You’d cut your hair, remember? All that damn mess of hair—you just chopped it off— and you started doing things alone.

You made new friends. They were people I didn’t even know that you knew — which really hurt, you know? It killed when you started showing up on movie screens and arenas again and you weren’t the same. But I still loved you. I loved the new you and I loved the old you. I loved all of you.

There was a while there where I gave up on us ever crossing paths again, where I decided maybe I should move on completely. I tried another spiraling mess of lovers. I went to dingy bars and played darts while crying onto my shoes with Elliott Smith; I wore suspenders and tried to learn the banjo. It was a desolate time.

In 2009, six years after the last time we saw each other, I finally decided to put my best foot forward and move on. I met someone —I won’t say who—but I started to really feel again, to really experience life the way I had with you.  It wasn’t the same, but it was working. I moved to Nashville, and he came with me, only scoffing once or twice when your voice came through the CD player of my Honda Civic.

We almost crossed paths in 2010 after I felt like I’d finally found some peace, but I avoided you. I could see who you were dating. She was famous. She was beautiful. You were everywhere — but you still weren’t whole.

And then— I remember the day. It was late 2013. I was trying to figure out how to burn down the BuzzFeed offices when they leaked the news. I hate that I found out from them, that you weren’t man enough to call me. But I still wanted to see you, all of you: The you from 2003, not 2005 or 2008 or 2010. The real you.

I didn’t believe it to be true — almost no one did. I cried in my bedroom, looking around at the empty walls and wondering what happened to the pictures of us you that used to cover them so many years ago?

The night I knew I would see you, I tried to stay calm. I didn’t drink too much, and I waited. I remember when I first saw you show up, you still didn’t look like yourself. Not complete, something was missing. And then, suddenly, there you were. All of you at once. It was fleeting and beautiful and, yes, you had aged. But it was you. And it was me. And we were one.

And then, just like that, you were gone.

It’s been ten years, and I can’t forget you. I need you, all of you, more than ever. Our short foray into the heart of the past was not enough, I need you. I want you.

I want you back.

Love always,


Stop, Drunk Stranger. Please, Just Stop.


“We’re gonna hook up tonight,” he says. “I know it. I just know it. I know these things.” He stumbles over the alliterative th-th at the end of the sentence and tries unsuccessfully to look me in the eye.

“Okay,” I say, turning my head away. “Your wife must be a lucky, lucky lady,” I say. His wedding ring is reflecting off the shine behind the bar.

He laughs. His buddy laughs.

It’s a Sunday night, and I’m sitting at a neighborhood bar in Anchorage, Kentucky on the outskirts of Louisville, propped up on a shoddy bar stool, gazing periodically at a football game I don’t care about.

I’m flipping through the latest issue of American Songwriter; Jason Isbell is on the cover, and I’m trying to read the article about Deer Tick and John McCauley’s renaissance, but I can feel the eyes of the drunk stranger two seats down peering through my clothes.

Drunk stranger is the obvious kind of drunk — the kind where you assume he’s been drinking all day for no reason whatsoever. He’s got those rosy cheeks and blurred eyes and he keeps reaching over to his buddy’s plate to grab fries using all of his fingers, like he’s clumsily pulling weeds out of dirt.

I ignore his stare and keep reading, sometimes laughing or scoffing at an absurd comment I overhear from down the bar.

When I look up a few minutes later, drunk stranger is staring at me. Chin out, eyes wide and locked and dizzied.

“What’s up?” I say. He has become impossible to ignore, his glazed over eyes leering over his friend’s plate to my face.

“We’re checking you out,” he says, trying to bring his friend into his mess.

“I know.”

His statement is not flattering or flirtatious; it’s just a horribly dull mention of the obvious. I can sense him staring and I can feel his face off in its close distance, lips apart just a centimeter or two, drenched by stale air—a brief repose from the incessant deluge of booze.

I’m not uncomfortable—yet. I’ve sort of given up on the Deer Tick story, even though I want to know when John McCauley cut his hair and stopped drinking beer. I keep my magazine open and my hand on my IPA and my eyes on the screen.

“Do you find me attractive?” drunk stranger asks me. I turn.


His buddies laugh, as though I’ve just made a joke. Drunk stranger is startled by my honest response and has to shake his drunk stranger head and wiggle his blurry eyes to try to comprehend.



“Why not?”

This isn’t the right question to ask, I think. Just call it a loss and move on. Come on, drunk stranger. Just stop. Please, just stop.

“You look like somebody I maybe knew in high school that I don’t talk to anymore,” I say, referencing almost every guy I knew when I was sixteen who dressed in polo shirts and chinos.

He thinks this is a hilarious joke and throws back his head in drunken man giggles. It is not a joke.

Drunk stranger gets up to stumble around for a little while, maybe to go to the bathroom, maybe to find another young girl who is by herself. I start reading my magazine again, momentarily free from his clenching stare. I stop a few times to chat with his totally sober and mundane friend, a scruffy looking pilot in his mid thirties who seems both attached and distanced from drunk stranger.

He tells me drunk stranger is harmless.

Oh, he is?

To me? Or to you? Right now? What about when I leave here in the dark alone? What about when the two of you get up and go to the bathroom? What about if I stay to have one more beer? Is he still harmless then? What exactly are you standing up for? Who exactly are you standing up for? Your friend? Who has a wedding ring on and a seventeen-year-old daughter? Who is probably fifteen years my senior and drunk enough to struggle putting on his own flip-flop? Oh, yeah, he’s harmless.


Drunk stranger walks up to me and puts his arm around my waist.

I move it, and tell him he doesn’t need to be touching the small of the back. No, no, no thank you. I did not invite you to touch me. I did not ask you to feel the curves of my hips or the nape of my neck or any other divot or crumple in my skin or bones.

“Let’s go outside,” he suggests, leaning closer and seemingly growing drunker with every second.

“No.” I say, and laugh. Because I do not know what else to do. Because I am uncomfortable and he is not harmless. Because he is creepy. Because he is married. Because he has children. Because he is offensive. Because he is disgusting and unattractive and unwanted and because it is so much easier to laugh than to punch or cry or crumble or run.

“Are you serious?” he says, drunkenly confused and insulted.

“Yes,” I say. “No thanks.”

His friends tell him it is time to go; they have swooped in to save the poor little blonde girl at the bar by herself and they walk drunk stranger out of the bar so he can presumably drunk drive himself home to his wife and children who will be oh-so-luckily waiting for him.

The owner of the bar, an older man in his sixties who looks like my dad, approaches me to apologize and tell me how well I handled myself.

I smile and thank him.

Except that I do not care how well I “handled myself.” I do not care how anybody “thinks I did” with drunk stranger, because there shouldn’t even be a drunk stranger to handle.

If you are drunk and alone and married, do not talk to me when I am sober and alone in a bar. If you have children, go home and see them. But really, really: Do not ever tell me that we are going to hook up, because that is not even close to being your decision. Do not tell me that you “know this” because you do not know this, you do not know anything, and it is not your right to tell me what I will or will not do. Do not touch me unless I give you permission to. Do not insist. Do not push. Do not move closer.

If I want you, you will know. Until then, I do not. I do not want you. Stop. Just stop.

Why Our Low-Income Students Need College Mentoring


It’s 11 at night, and I’ve just opened an email from one of my former students. After a few minutes, I begin to cry.

As I read the email, I remember what K.* and I have talked about. We had sat down several weeks ago and gone over his class schedule, ordered some of his books online and looked through his syllabi. He was in several remedial classes that he wouldn’t receive credit for, burdening his class load even more. He was also working thirty hours a week in addition to taking a full schedule of sixteen hours. He was living at home and paying for most of his classes with grants and loans, and working at a restaurant to pay for books and life.


I remember when this charmingly sweet Jamaican boy sat down in my third period English class during my first year of teaching with his thick accent and a grin that covered half of his face. He wore a blingin’ belt with his shirt tucked in and stereotypically or not, he was always smiling, always happy, and always a little bit, well, out of it. He would tell me he wanted to be a police officer, which horrified me and the other teachers because the thought of him driving around with the authority to ticket people was terrifying.

Very quickly, I noticed K.’s reading, writing and spelling skills were lagging tragically behind those of his peers— even though the majority of his peers were grade levels behind in reading to begin with.

Some of this was a language barrier; as a Jamaican, he spoke English, yes. But, he also spoke a Jamaican Patois that I would hear when he picked up the phone to talk to his mother, his language suddenly becoming incomprehensible.

Some of it was his educational background (Jamaica cites hundreds of thousands of its 9th graders as being unable to read or write, and there is no free education after 6th grade).

Some of it was perhaps his own lack of interest and work ethic in school.


Back at the burrito joint, we eat quesadillas and work through a brainstorm of his first big college paper. It’s a vague topic, and he has to turn in an outline to be approved first. We discuss that a reputable source means “legit,” and after some brainstorming, K. lands on the subject of immigration; later that week, I send him very specific instructions (quite literally, a fill-in-the-blank guide) for how to complete his outline using what we had started with.

It’s now 11 p.m. a week and half later; I have downloaded the outline and am searching the screen as if something were missing, my brain is being bombarded with guilt and frustration and sorrow, I put my hand over my sternum,  then both of my hands  over my face, covering the tears and wiping my noise and  the backs of my eyelids and my lips and my cheeks.

He’s not going to make it, I think. How can he make it?

I had been wired and trained and determined to believe otherwise—to fiercely uphold the ideal that no matter what, he could do this—that every student, no matter his circumstances could rise above and graduate from a four year college.

But this outline, this outline with five roman numerals and five sentences, only two of which made any sense at all, this outline was the work of a third or fourth grade student. This outline was the work that a teacher never wants to see come across her desk, because, no, of course, no, please, this can’t be real; this student can’t truly be at this level and be enrolled in a four year college. Could he?

And so, I cried. I cried because I felt like even in my years of weekend tutoring and paper editing and summer library sessions, he had still ended up so behind. I cried because he was working so hard, so hard always, and it was still not enough. I cried because of how proud he was and how proud his family was and how proud I was. I cried because I was afraid he wouldn’t make it. I cried because I didn’t believe he was going to make it. I cried because I knew how many other students out there have made it this far and don’t have me crying for them.

We push our students through elementary and middle school and high school and then they get to college and we assume that they can do it all on their own, that they are grown; that they are ready. And, many students can. Many students will. But lots of them will not. Lots of them are not ready. They are going into college and they cannot read twelfth grade material. They are going into college and they are working forty hours a week and in class for sixteen and the only hours left are for sleeping and studying. They are behind and then they fall more behind and then they just fall.

We take our education reform notions and we funnel them into our nation’s most struggling high schools and middle schools and elementary schools; we send our Teach For Americans and our New Teacher Projects and our undergrad education majors into the trenches for years at a time to pump up students who will suddenly get to college and have no teacher by their side. And we cannot let that happen.

We cannot let that happen.

*Student’s name has been shortened to K. for privacy purposes.

On September 12

WTC Picture

It is just after midnight on September 12, 2013 and I am watching footage of September 11, 2001.

It is hard to explain this dark and voyeuristic ritual on my part, but it is my way of remembering. I don’t always attend a memorial, or watch the news, or journal about it or tell my friends where I was (walking from Geometry to World History in the 9th grade), but I do typically watch some of the news footage from that morning, some of the videos, some of the shaky shots.

It is my way of remembering.

It is my way of grasping at the fragility of humanity and it is my way of trying to understand the loss and the grief and the pain and the suffering of everyone and anyone connected to this tragedy in even the most minute way.

It is my way of grappling with God, of trying to wrestle with someone in whom I believe fiercely; it is my way of stopping to ask Him why? It is my way of feeling like a child again, of feeling like a helpless baby who doesn’t understand the world or the way it works, who has yet to hear that “life isn’t fair” or that “bad things happen to good people.” It is my way of crawling into my fourteen-year-old self and then deeper and still deeper into my five year old self, the self that sat on my mother’s lap as a child and prayed to Jesus because he is so good; isn’t he so good?

It is my way of trying to determine what is good about a God that lets September 11 happen.

It is my way of praying for the families of the victims, for the bombers, for all of the pain and ache and hurt and torment in the world.

It is my way of remembering how much I don’t understand. And so I cry without ceasing. I pray to my God silly, incomprehensible prayers for people who are already dead. I close my eyes when the screen gets too scary. I turn off my computer when the images make me too sad. I curl up in a ball and I sob for those who lost, for those who could not turn of the screen or shut the computer or look away. For those who turned on the news that day and realized that dad was not coming home. For the wives who lost the men they loved that morning. For the parents who realized their son went to work early and for the friends who wondered, what now?

I do not understand my God.

Sometimes, I do not know if I trust my God.

When I cannot stop crying, I do not know and I do not feel how much my God loves me or the people in the planes or the firefighters on the streets or the women and men in the buildings and on the ground and out of the windows and floating through the air and space and time. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know.

I cannot comprehend such massive tragedy. I have read that He can. I have read that He knows. But I do not understand, and I do not know.

But I do understand the way that people come together as one, the way people huddle around after the horrors to hold hands and clutch hearts between their fingertips. I do understand the way people can shake in the arms of one another and pour prayers out of their pursed lips. I do understand the way tears fall on an old t-shirt draped over the shoulder of a friend. I do understand how infinitesimal our lives are despite our human fight to prove otherwise.

I do understand the voice of a mother or a father or sister or brother that whispers, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” I do understand the way it feels on my face after the salt and the sweat and the fear wash away. I do understand the calm after the storm, the way the rain settles on the porch as the dark clouds roll away. I do understand the brightness of the sun. I do understand that nobody is without somebody.

I do understand hope.

Neon Nights (Or, The Time You Broke My Heart)

Night Shot -or-  Rainy Night in Brooklyn NY

It’s the brokenness of mutual feelings somehow thwarted by the logistics of life, by the distances of our highways, by the weekends we spend working and the mistakes we never intend to make. Of the pile of papers we call our thoughts, thoughts that we fumble over as we trip upon each other’s shortcomings and shoelaces and scrape our knees on the gravel and dust.

It’s the brokenness of failed possibility, of the disappointment in human nature, and the realization that even the best of people with their mightiest of intentions and most fiercely clenched fists, can let us down with their bundles of sweaters and suitcases that rest against mustard-colored nightstands.

It’s the brokenness that thinks: I’ve found it all. Oh, but how baby our brains are, the ones that we so carefully carry around in our heads and use for storing up stories; but what good are these tales when we have no one to tell them to? Do you have anyone to tell them to?

It’s the brokenness of sudden and painstaking humility—learned too late for the last round of drinks or the whisper of the truth. Of embarrassment and frustration with this dimly lit world that is out of our control, out of our hands, and there we lay, out of our minds with all of the words we didn’t say.

It’s the brokenness of the neon nights with fresh skin and lips we forgot to endure for the fight of it all.

It’s the brokenness of gifts delivered too late, my dear, and promises whispered too early—the ones, you remember?? We mumbled them next to stop signs and beneath the bar lights, as we fumbled through each others’ hearts for the maps of our future.

It’s the brokenness of wondering what if? The what if of your toxic hands and outstretched arms and those hardwood floors you’d spend years walking across, slowly, the kind of slow you should have walked with me. Of the mountains and railways and rivers between us, of the lives we got a glimpse of living.

It’s the brokenness of foolishness and folly, of hastiness and immaturity. Of the roads that we drove when the streets were too wet and the fences we jumped with the ignorance of our youth, of the shortcuts we took across farmlands that told us: you’re too lost to be found; you’re too scared to be brave. Of everything you wanted someone to be, and knowing they can’t be that. Of the heavy truth of imperfection.

It’s the brokenness of unfulfilled assurances and wasted vulnerability. Of lipstick smeared on tequila-rimmed glasses of regret, and the ink from pens writing the Words of God.

It’s the brokenness of frustration: with all the ways in which we fail each other because we are, in fact, people, and are destined-despite our best attempts otherwise- to disappoint and destroy and crush and be crushed. To weave broken stories out of shards of glass and dying leaves. To pick up the pieces of our hearts with cracked skin and bloodied palms. To fall short and to fail and to scare easy and often. To tear down the stars and light fires with our pain. To move too quickly or too slowly, to do it all wrong. To miss out, to leave behind, to fall apart under the weight of it all.

Go Watch Great Teaching


A good teacher in action is a beautifully intricate art. It’s like watching an Olympic gymnast find her way onto the balance beam and steady herself with her arms in the air, or seeing an eight-year-old wind his way through a violin arpeggio.

It is the kind of performance that I would nearly pay to see — except that it’s not a performance, per se. It’s simply someone doing his job. And yet, when these people are at work, they are in the midst of not only weaving together (unknowingly) performance after performance, but they are, as they oft do know, weaving together pieces of children’s lives.

Teachers are the boiling point in the melting pot of education reform conversation right now, and they are the constant source of inspiration and frustration from our nation’s students and parents. We love our teachers while simultaneously hating them, and we praise our teachers by simultaneously condescending them.  We thank them and fawn over them in our speeches and our blog posts, and then we pay them poorly and harangue them when our students don’t succeed to our own arbitrary standards.

They are working on a performance more finely tuned than most arts or athletics, and what do we give them for that? More work, usually.

On Friday, I saw a tremendous teacher in the midst of her craft. She was teaching a simple concept to a room of nearly 30 5th-grade-students; they were reviewing the directions of the compass and learning to discern those directions on a map. The female teacher balanced on her toes at the front of the classroom, a sincere grin spreading across her face as she reeled her students in with her eyes, her smile and her words. Each time she called on one of the dozen raised hands, she directed her students to track their peer speaker, which nearly every single student did. They commended each other for their participation, and the teacher praised students by name, citing exactly what they’d done or said to earn such sought after verbal praise.

It was a beautiful sight, this silently buzzing classroom with energized, engaged, focused students. They missed answers, but it didn’t matter; the teacher would circle back to students after incorrect guesses to give them another opportunity to shine — the mark of a talented and experienced teacher, finding ways to make students feel invariably successful even after they have supposedly failed.

The class took place late on a Friday afternoon, just hours before students would be dismissed for the weekend, and yet there were no signs of the sluggishness that can come with the waning hours of a Friday. The teacher showed none of the typical drained-educator signs; she was fiercely energized, wildly enthusiastic and quick to showcase her class.  Sure, she was being filmed — but she had no idea that cameras were coming into her classroom at any point that day.  There was no visible moment of “turning it on” for the three strangers that slinked into the back of the classroom; this was merely a steady stream of ferociously strong teaching.

What’s interesting about teaching is that it is a career that is rarely witnessed, because the people who care about what teachers do (parents and others not in the classroom) rarely see what happens on a day-to-day basis. For the most part, everything the outside world knows about teaching comes from film portrayals and the words of children. And we all know how misleading both of those can be.

So why aren’t we paying more attention to what our teachers are doing? Why aren’t we showcasing these talents the way one might showcase those of a musician or a writer or a football player or a doctor? Why are the secrets of a classroom so often kept within the doors of a classroom? What if the public saw what really good (and, simultaneously) really bad teaching looked like? Would it make a difference for our students? Would people have a better understanding, a better respect or a stronger desire to change what is happening in education?

I don’t know what this looks like. I don’t know if people need to start visiting classrooms to understand what the life of a teacher is like or what fantastic and champion teaching looks like; I don’t know if videos of phenomenal teaching need to go viral (or if they ever would) — I simply don’t know.  But I do know that an amazing teacher is a truly special sight to see, and everyone should get a chance to watch an exceptional teacher in action. Maybe then we would have at least an inkling of understanding of what happens in our nation’s classrooms so that we could speak with intelligence and understanding about what should happen in them.