Thought Experiment: Cancer, Marching, and a President’s Signature

I’m sharing this story in response to the inauguration and in response to how quickly President Trump has acted to gut the ACA.

I’m also sharing it in response to how it felt to march today with my family, and to tell our piece of the story behind this photo with the world. The photo was taken by Fairbanks photographer Robin Wood, and wound up being shared by the New York Times in a collection of photos from women’s marches around the world.

Last week when I told my 10-year-old it was up to her if she wanted to come. Appalled, she said, “Mom, protests aren’t safe.” I assured her it would be both safe and peaceful. She replied, “You’re protesting Trump. That’s not safe. Just look at how he has treated people who protest at his rallies.” My child did not believe in her heart that this county is a safe place for peaceful dissent. Our new president engendered this fear in her. By the end of the week she had decided to come. Last night she chose the words for her sign herself, choosing an issue that affects her personally. I am proud of her for marching today.

I am proud of my town. I am proud of my friends. I want all of you who do not know us to be able to imagine for a little while what it is like for us, what this new presidency means to us on a deep and personal level. Normally, I only share stories like this on a private caringbridge site that I keep for family and friends who have supported us since she was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. I want this story to accompany this photo into the world.

Please share this freely. Please comment if you wish.


I want you to try a thought experiment. Set all these imaginings back in 2014 in the world that was then. Not the world that is now. You will understand the importance of the setting later on.

You will have to be brave. This will not be easy. I am going to ask you to imagine the worst thing. Start with cancer. That’s a bad thing, yes. Cells rapidly multiplying. Cells out of control. Cells who want to live and don’t know that their skill for living kills people.

You are not allowed to imagine the cancer in your body. You probably did. That’s the cancer that we think we’re all afraid of. But it’s not the scariest kind. You’re not allowed to imagine these cancer cells in an adult at all. The person you have to imagine having cancer is not someone about whom we might have the luxury of saying “oh, but she had a full life.”

Imagine a child has cancer, your child. Yes, the cancer cells are in your child. Make her your daughter. Make her eight, a third grader. If you don’t have a child think of it this way: an eight-years-old is an oasis. No babyhood with its attendant diapers or fears. No tweeniness, with its attendant battles and sass. That moment when the tiny being you made is just on the verge of taking care of herself.

Now give that daughter cancer. A tumor. A big one. Make it about two pounds. Imagine a loaf of bread or a brick of cheddar cheese. That’s how the surgeon is going to describe it to you. And add that said tumor has exploded inside your child’s body, spreading malignant liquid throughout her peritoneum, a word you never thought about much. Imagine waiting for the pathology to come back.

Now consider this list: surgery, recovery, radiation, chemotherapy, lung biopsy, scans, scans, scans. In your mind, build your life of these words. Add nausea, tantrums. Cut out employment. In this experiment, you don’t get to have that anymore. Forget your house too because the only place your daughter can get treatment is 360 miles from your home. Forget haircuts and exercise as well.

Do you feel uncomfortable? If this experiment was not in your mind, but instead a reality in your child’s body, could you sleep? Add small moments of relief. Name them “social worker,” “child life counselor,” “pediatric oncology nurse.” If you are lucky you have devoted friends and family. If not, imagine this all being twenty times worse for you.

More relief: this experiment is set after March 23, 2010, the day former President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law. Remember, it’s December 2014. You don’t know yet whether your child is going to survive because the pathology hasn’t come back, but you at least know if she does live, at least she won’t wear a scarlet C the rest of her life. At least she will be able to get insurance to cover her later in life. And she will need coverage because she will always have a higher risk of secondary cancers, and her one kidney will require life-long visits to a nephrologist. But because her cancer appeared in the post-ACA world, at least this child would still be a person and not a walking pre-existing condition.

If she lives, you will be able to let her go into the world and be an adult without fretting over her impending medical-billing-induced financial ruin. Try to convince yourself this is “lucky” for her. When your child has cancer, even a relief that small and hypothetical helps.

As you conduct this experiment, never ever forget how much you would give to have cancer instead of your daughter. Katness-like, you would shout, “I volunteer!” Imagine how it feels that this is not an option. Never an option. At some point every single day make a little bargain with the universe, whisper “Please just give me the cancer instead of her.” Every single day feel the universe ignore you.

Now jump ahead two years in your mind. Here comes the second part of the experiment.

Here’s the good news: Your child lived, all one-kidney, scarred-belly, spit-and-vinegar girl, she’s ten now and showing her sass. Imagine the relief. Imagine the way the specter of a child’s possible death shadows the love you have for her. Imagine how your empathy has grown for all people suffering, for all parents. Imagine how your heart breaks for refugee parents or parents of shooting victims. Imagine how your heart breaks for people every single day.

But your child is alive. You are lucky and you are not allowed to forget that in this experiment. (There are many other parents whose children are not alive. And you heart breaks for them.)

But now it’s 2017. And our new president, whose heart seems to break for no one, as one of his first acts in office decides to reaffirm his commitment to repeal the legislation that forbade insurers from discriminating against your child for her unfortunate medical history.

Imagine this is a president who feels this is so important that he went into the Oval Office in-between his inauguration and a ball in the evening. The paper will say he signed the paper “between festivities.” Imagine signing something like that being associated with such a happy word.

Imagine him in his blue suit signing with his right hand. The same hand he held over a Bible during the first of the day’s “festivities.” His wife, who held the Bible for him, lives in a golden penthouse. The White House is not golden enough for her. His son, who stood beside her has toys that cost more than your child’s chemotherapy treatments. Imagine that this man could sign a check to cover an entire six months of chemotherapy treatments and not blink.

Imagine what his casual signature between “festivities” means to your daughter. To an insurance company she will be only the person who once had cancer. Therefore, all cancer she might ever have later on will be her financial responsibility. In their profit-perverted reasoning, her eight-year-old self will always be to blame. According to them, they should not have to pay her bills.

As you imagine this new president signing this document, the pen, the ink. Remember the moment early in her treatment you had to refuse to leave the pediatric radiologist’s office because the insurance company was going to insist your child be treated by an adult radiologist with no experience with her type of cancer. You sat there politely and told them you weren’t leaving the appointment. Remember how you had to look at your social worker’s card then to call her. She wasn’t even in your contacts yet. Remember how much in that moment you wished you could have written a check to cover the cost of her entire treatment.

Now imagine your daughter’s next scan is only two days after this new president signed the paper. Imagine the fear creeping inside you. Not just the fear that the cancer’s back, an extension of the terror you felt when she had a bad cough a few weeks ago or the deep breath you have to take any time she tells you how tired she is.

Yes, she’s two years post-diagnosis with no evidence of disease. That’s good. That’s very good, but you are a parent who knows what the chairs in the pediatric surgical waiting room feel like. You know how long it takes a surgeon to remove a kidney, a tumor, a power-port. You watched the surgeon pull a long tube out your daughter’s back, a tube that had been attached to her lung after her biopsy. He counted, “One, two,” but never said three, and your child screamed as the bloody tube whipped out. Imagine you had seen that with your own eyes. Remember that is only one of the things you have seen.

And then imagine how a scan feels even after two years. Even after clear scans.

Now imagine what the parental anxiety going into that scan feels like knowing that the new president of your own country wants to end the legislation that gave you such small comfort during your daughter’s chemotherapy and radiation.

These are the two things to imagine for the next 48 hours of this experiment:

1. If your daughter is clear, still no evidence of disease, she will still be marked with a scarlet C. Think about that.

2. If she is not, you are now in a world where both Medicaid and the ACA are targets. Think about that.

There is no answer in this experiment. No outcome. Just feel what you feel and pay attention to it. Do not forget that your daughter will never not be a person who already had cancer when she was eight. Do not forget that you will never be allowed to volunteer to take the cancer for her. Both of these facts will probably make you sad.

Just think. And try as hard as you can to get some sleep while this new president holds office.


Lesson Plan Featuring Poems by Jeet Thayil

IMG_5698I don’t have a classroom, so I borrow Philo’s. This group of students are all preparing to be certified English teachers in India. In India, high school ends at 10th grade, and students who continue their education go to colleges which are two year programs with majors. Pope John Paul II Teacher’s College is a public school (we’d call it “private” in the US as students pay tuition). All the students here speak Tamil as their mother tongue and have learned English in school. Learning English is an ongoing process for them, so lessons must be designed to support their development as English speakers as well as to teach them to teach others to speak English.

I have to both help them as English language learners and model a lesson they could use in their classrooms  with younger English language learners in the future. It’s a complex teaching task.

I’ve chosen six poems by Jeet Thayil. Michael Creighton, teacher at the American Embassy School inFullSizeRender 4 Delhi and one of the founders of the Deepalaya Community Library Project, mentioned to me that he’s taught these poems before, Jeet’s “How to Be a…” poems. I’ve gathered a group of them for you to use in a one-page downloadable form with a shortened version of this lesson plan on the back: JeetThayilPoems. The poems have been reprinted and made available with Jeet’s permission.

As I thought about the aims of the Indian secondary classrooms I’ve observed, this group of poems seemed like a good fit. They’re excellent poems, both challenging and fun for students. They also have a combination of new and familiar vocabulary, and offer the chance to introduce some literary terms.

This lesson could work with grades 4-12 (depending on how you introduce it). Here are the steps I followed. They are designed with the students I was teaching in mind, Tamil speakers who are learning English with the intention of becoming English teachers in Indian schools.  Please feel free to modify the lesson to fit the needs of your students.

1. Choose the poem you want to start with. Pick your favorite. Read the poem aloud to the class demonstrating pronunciation. For this lesson, I focused on the needs of Indian classrooms, in a US classroom, you’ll focus more on recitation than English pronunciation. Ask students to identify words they don’t understand of vocabulary that’s new to them. Vocabulary is important in both Indian and US classrooms, but ELL students might need more words defined. Have students read the poem out loud once they’ve heard it. Choose them in groups of 3 and have one student read each stanza. That helped me get students who were shy to speak English involved–they knew they only needed three lines.

2.Discuss the structure of the poem. Usually I would do this as a guided class discussion. That was a challenge for me in this context. I have an incomprehensible accent to Indian ears, my go-to examples of explanation don’t work for students from South India, and students aren’t used to free-wheeling whole class discussion. I pointed out the three line stanzas are called tercets and that the poems are the use of imperative sentences sets the tone for the poems. I brought up directions and how people say things in English when it’s something you have to do. 

3. Practice writing some directions as imperative sentences together. I reminded them that teachers use imperative sentences all the time. Get out your books. Open to the poem. Together we brainstormed some sentences. Brainstorming was a challenge. Students here aren’t used to being asked for examples of their own thinking. When a student stands (because they always stand) to answer a question here, it’s either right or wrong. If they’re right, the teacher will tell the they’re correct and ask them to sit. If they’re wrong, the teacher will ask for another student to answer and leave the first student standing until the question is answered correctly. I’m not used to students standing. After years of being trained in the discussion-focused US system, I’m awkward with Indian students, and the questions I ask must be confusing to them. We managed to get a few sample imperative sentences written together. 

4. Ask students to read the other poems on the page aloud. In this classroom I started off by reading one aloud, defined words, and then asked for other readers. First year students at the college are shy to put their English skills on display. Once Philo told me, “The best way for me to get one of my classes to be quiet is to tell them they have to speak English,” and she laughed. I had trouble getting volunteers, so I picked groups of three and asked them each to read a stanza aloud. In that way we got to hear some of the other poems aloud. In my creative writing classroom in the US, I would have broken them into groups of three, assigned poems, and then had them read in front of the class. I’d use the group readings to coach them in recitation and public speaking.

5. Choose an animal as a class and ask each student to write at least three stanzas that are imperative sentences. Each sentence should be a direction for being that animal.

6. Put students into groups of three share their stanzas to each other, then have them choose one stanza for each person to read aloud. They should agree on an order their stanzas and practice reciting together a few times. If students in your classroom are learning English, this will provide them with good speaking and pronunciation practice. Circulate and help. Check that they’ve written imperative sentences. 

7. If you’re using a notebook and timed writing in class, this could be turned into an individual writing assignment and each student could write a series of three stanza poems on animals of their choice. They should follow Thayil’s form, three tercets, and use imperative sentences. I keep a timer in my classroom in the US for this purpose and timed writing is a repeated practice that I use to generate topics for longer pieces of student writing. I didn’t do this in my borrowed classroom.

When I return to my classroom in Alaska, I plan to try this lesson with my students in the US. I’ll report back. I’ll use it as a chance to talk about narration in a poem and how a poet structures the voice of the speaker in a persona poem. The imperative sentences lend confidence. Often teens lack confidence in their writing. I’m interested in exploring teaching voice so consciously.

Moving away from Thayil’s poetry, if you haven’t read his novel Narcopolis (which was short-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize), here’s an interview that focuses on the novel and the structure of the novel, the changes in Bombay, and the role of addiction in both the novel and Thayil’s life. Read the book.

Postcard from India: Hot, Hotter, and Hottest

The entrance to Sri Aurobindo Ashram

Raj, my autorickshaw driver, or my automan as everyone here calls him, drops me off at the front of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The guard is perplexed by me. Standing in the midst of a group of tourists and pilgrims checking their shoes across the street, I look strange holding out my letter of invitation. I’ve come to the wrong door. 

Raj hasn’t pulled away though. He hops out and intervenes. He grabs the letter and confers quietly with the guard in Tamil. Another man comes over to look over the letter. He hands it back to Raj and gestures to a building on the other side of the street. “That door,” he says.

It is difficult to get an invitation to the Ashram. It appears to be a difficult to use an invitation also. I’m grateful to know Raj.

Through the gate in the ashram-gray wall I enter the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education. The “NO PHOTOGRAPHS” sign greets me before I even notice the necessity for the sign. Everything is beautiful. Large library windows, stone paths, a white lotus fountain surrounded by thick climbing vines. There is no sign to guide me to the office, but I’m happy to wander.

I find it. Imagine a film set: polished dark wood, swooping ceiling fans, marble floors. I wait as the receptionist makes efforts to find the teacher with whom I have an appointment. Mr. Sircar has been teaching literature at the ashram school for more than sixty years. When another teacher arrives to guide me, she explains, he’s in his apartment and we will walk.

Back out the white gate, past the ashram-gray walls, we walk. In just one block, sweat pours off me. She says, “You must be very hot?”

“Yes,” I say. “I’m more used to below zero.”

She glances at my forehead and asks, “Do you have a hat?”

“I’m alright,” I say, imagining what I must look like, dripping sweat, always shifting my dupatta around. I wonder how far the walk will be.

She tells me, “Here we say we have three seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest. There is no winter.”

“This is only hot to you?” I ask. Yes, she confirms, it is only hot.

This fall as it got colder the reading tutor at our school told us she was cold. She had come from Georgia a few months before. “It’s not even cold yet,” we told her, laughing and smiling, and launched into a few stories of how cold it really gets. After more than 20 years, I recall the feeling of being a new Alaskan. The hot of India takes me to the moment I began to learn about cold.

And for my girls, India is the place they are leaning for the first time to live with hot. This afternoon, the 11-year-old said, “I really miss freezing my butt off.” She wrote an email to a friend admitting that she even missed her snow pants.

Tips for Applying for the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching

Dear Fellow Teachers,

You have one month to apply for a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching. The deadline for the 2016-2017 program is November 4th. My advice to all of you: get going on it.

Last October, I was thinking about applying. After so many years in the same classroom, some research and travel time seemed like it would reinvigorate my teaching practice. So I worked on the application. Yes, it was long, calling for research, essays, annotated bibliographies, school and personal profiles. Yes, it was complex, requiring my passport, all my transcripts, and multiple recommendations.

But it was worth it.

Because of that effort, one year later, I’m preparing to spend much of the spring semester 2016 studying poetry and education in Puducherry, India.

But as you think about applying, know that the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching is about more than the time abroad. I haven’t even left yet, and the program has changed my perspective on the profession. At the Fulbright orientation in Washington DC in August, I met educators from all over the U.S. and the world. Among them, I found antidote to my growing burnout.

Burnout is hard to avoid for a public school teacher in the US. You’ve likely felt it too, listening to the rageful screed about teachers on the radio, being asked to write another letter to a legislator justifying your role in society, struggling to learn the fresh crop of acronyms brought on by your district’s mass purchases from edu-corp giants over the summer. Teacher morale in the United States is a smoldering ashtray on a 70’s era coffee table, slow consumption of fuel and lots of stink as by-product. My morale was smoldering too.

FulbrightPinNot any more. Post-application, post-acceptance, post-orientation, and in the pre-research and travel mode, my energy is back in the classroom. The Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching renewed my commitment to helping young people (especially struggling ones) learn. You could feel that way again too.

1. Don’t be shy about exploring the application if you don’t yet have a project in mind. You don’t need a project formed before you begin the application. The application is an opportunity to explore and create a project. Think about what parts of the world you want to visit and consider what you might be able to do in your content areas in that part of the world. Next year the participating countries are Botswana, Finland, India, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, the Palestinian Territories, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Chile, and Vietnam. I had always wanted to go to India, and with Indian culture’s focus on poetry and the fact that the colonial influenced curriculum reflects the curriculum we teach in the US, I found lots of connections.

2. Talk to your district early about your project. Before your application will even be considered, you need an official from HR to sign off on the project and agree to grant your leave (either paid or unpaid). Schedule a meeting early in the process with an HR official. Think of this as a “pitch” meeting. Show up informed.Research your district’s sabbatical and professional development policies. You need to highlight how your district will benefit from your project. Yes, it is likely that you’re going to be offered leave without pay, so be prepared to seek alternate funding, but that’s something you will have time to work on in March once you receive your acceptance.

3. Help your recommenders to be specific. You need three detailed recommendations. One has to be from your principal. If you work in a large traditional high school, as I did when I applied, your day might be structured in such a way that you don’t see your principal much. Perhaps he doesn’t know about the great project your were involved in three years ago, or perhaps she’s unaware that last year you served on a curriculum committee. Don’t be shy about providing that information to any recommender. Once my recommenders agreed, I provided each of them with a copy of my CV. That way they had access to dates, titles, and details as they wrote.

4. Reach out to teachers and researchers in other countries. Email experts in the country you’ve chosen to make connections as you work on the application. As I worked on my application for India, I read articles Indian teachers had written about the curriculum there. I found one of the authors on Facebook and started a correspondence that helped me shape my application. Whatever topic you’re studying, you’ll find educators in other countries who are interested in the same thing.

5. Seek out feedback from an education researcher. Invite a university professor to consult on your application. Because I live in a university town, I was able to find an education researcher who was willing to look over an early draft of my project proposal. While I’ve spent 16 years in the classroom, this is my first educational research project. She had excellent suggestions for action research and for methods I could use. My discussions with her shaped and changed my project and made it stronger.

6. Be thorough. Take the application seriously.  The applications that aren’t filled in all they way, that seem off the cuff, that lack development do not make it past the first round. Your application should be detailed and thorough. Don’t consider any part of the application optional. In the application the year I applied there was a space for an “optional” annotated bibliography that could list up to ten sources. If I hadn’t filled that in, I would have missed a chance to communicate with the Fulbright Selection Committee. I turned in a detailed annotated bibliography with the maximum number of sources. Each one of those paragraphs was another opportunity for me to demonstrate my skills and enthusiasm to the members of the selection committee.

7. Read some of the blogs of previous Fulbright Distinguished Teachers who went to the countries you’re interested in. Those blogs are helpful in so many ways, but during the application stage, they’re especially helpful in giving you a close up portrait of the country you want to explore.

Do it. Start the application. Dream about where you want to go, figure out what you want to know, make a plan for how you’re going to find it out. You have until November 4th to apply. It’s worth it.

Good luck! I hope I’ll have the chance to meet you at orientation next year as a returning Fulbright Distinguished Teacher.

Best wishes,