Knitting Strands . . . and the Big Picture

While not the Irish countryside, my husband's family farm in the North Carolina country offered solace on a Sunday afternoon walk today.  

In the Company of Others is one volume in the At Home in Mitford series by author Jan Karon.  This particular work recounts the trials and joys of an Episcopal priest employed in a mountain town in North Carolina (a locale which is loosely based on picturesque Blowing Rock).  Years ago, I read most of this series and found the books to be both inspiring and moving, while not as overblown and sentimental as other inspirational fiction.

     Unearthed at Goodwill, this novel is proving to be bit of a serendipity, as it deals with topics that hit close to home, such as a dysfunctional family—the one in the story is replete with an angry teen, an equally irate alcoholic mother-in-law, and disturbing secrets that keep rearing their ugly heads.  Father Tim and his wife Cynthia, find themselves in the bosom of this family at a guest house on an Irish vacation gone awry.  In the Company of Others manages to take the characters’ dark moments, unfortunate mishaps, and painful memories and use them to show the reader how unrelenting love and a little less focus on personal desires can carry us through the most trying of times.  In essence, the tale focuses on not forgetting the big picture. 

I need this inspiration at this time. A close friend and I both took new teaching jobs this year.  We are both the same age (fiftyish) and both, as self-proclaimed overachievers and perfectionists, have what I like to call a "heightened sensibility" to criticism.  Our quest for affirmation can be maddening, especially when, as newcomers to highly bureaucratic school systems, we are under close scrutiny and are subject to numerous evaluation sessions.  Unfortunately, the extensive public teacher assessment system in my state doesn’t seem to look at the overall picture throughout the year, just at isolated snapshots.  The entire process is akin to having a stranger drop into your living room while you are knitting a sweater.  The person scrutinizing you might see you finally cast off the most gorgeous lace creation or he or she might observe, instead, you, head down, mouth pursed, eyes glazed, in the process of tearing our six inches where you bungled the pattern. 

Despite my job woes.  I have enjoyed getting to know my new co-workers.  I made this sweater for the granddaughter of  an indefatigable  English teacher who has served as a wonderful mentor and guide.  I had a difficult time deciding which buttons to use. While I actually favor the ones  on the right, the flower buttons seem a little more in scale with an infant's size and add a feminine, little-girl touch.  

The pattern for this sweater, entitled "Sprinkle," can be found in Juju's Loops, a book that is the creation of Juju Vail and Susan Cropper, owners of Loop yarn shop in London.  

     When you go in to hear a detailed and lengthy exposition of the observer’s reflections, you are informed of everything you already knew:  your head was down, your expression was unpleasant and not engaging, you were oblivious to the fact that your cat was clawing the armchair cushion, and, finally, your lace pattern was misaligned by three stitches over the course of five rows.   

Years ago, before the new teacher evaluation system and the current mania for accountability, the experience would not have been the same.  It would have been less demoralizing and would not have contributed to sleepless nights where the observee envisions a future eating cat food or to his or her burgeoning phobia of squawking walkie-talkies (items typically carried by school administrators when they darken classroom doors).

My first year teaching was spent in a high school in a small southern town with a large population of low income residents.  One afternoon, right after lunch, I was told that I had to immediately move everything from my classroom to another room across the hall.  For some reason, an anticipated renovation process was suddenly given the go-ahead—or maybe the construction workers, a motley crew who proved themselves to possess less-than-stellar work ethics, had finally deigned to show up at the job site.  I had my rather rowdy third-period class (one which included five pregnant girls who were all due roughly around the same time) pick up and move furniture, filing cabinets, desks, books, boxes of papers, etc.  (Computers weren’t a part of education at that time.)  As I stood in the hallway between the two rooms supervising, a smiling, suit-clad female administrator from the downtown office informed me that she was there to observe my class.  I told her we were in the throes of moving, but she said that was fine.  She could wait. 

Since there were many hands, the moving process only took a few minutes.  I plugged in the overhead projector and got back to work.  I don’t remember the lesson content—maybe something to do with The Canterbury Tales—but as I stood in the front of the classroom the energy was palpable.  The move had hyped up the students, and I knew it would be no easy task to settle them.  As I presented the day’s activity, I noticed that one resourceful individual had found the arm (just the arm) from a ragdoll in the detritus from the move.  (I think this item was a leftover from some student's creative project.)  I also observed that the students were tossing it to one another when they thought I wasn’t looking.   Somewhere in the midst of this melee a projection screen, improperly affixed to hooks on the wall during the move, become unattached on one end and glanced off my head.  Inwardly I groaned, but I went on with things, making unpleasant faces (when I thought the observer wasn’t looking)  at whatever student was currently in possession of the doll arm.  I finally snatched up the offensive item and tossed it in the trash while the observer was bent over, scribbling on her yellow legal pad.  
As an administrator doing a formal review, my observer was obliged to keep a running script of everything that was said in class and was also to record the action around her, so I was prepared for the worst.  Ultimately, though, during our post-conference she focused on the important and positive things, on the overall picture—and didn’t even mention the doll or the projection screen.  The previous review system she had employed focused on practical things.  Were the students working? Was the teacher teaching?  Were things generally organized?  The new system is much more esoteric and political, asking other questions.  Are the activities global in nature?  Is the teacher respecting diversity?    Does the teacher “collect and analyze student performance data?”  After a recent review (of a lesson that took place on a day when I was suffering from the flu and unable to correctly process one thought, let alone engage students with thought-provoking questions) where I was excoriated for the sin of presenting mere facts about the history of the English language, I spent an evening raging and generally beating myself up.  But later, I sat down to read some of Karon’s book and felt my spirits settle.  While Father Tim and Cynthia’s trip plans are thrown off by an injury to his wife’s ankle, a theft in the guesthouse, and a cast of innkeepers with personal woes, they manage to find solace and peace.  Father Tim hears confessions and attempts to guide lost souls.  He also befriends the guesthouse dog and explores the countryside, while his wife, laid up with her injury, paints and enjoys the pleasures of afternoon tea in bed.  Both enjoy local culinary delights. 

Inspired by these characters, yesterday, the day after my disturbing “post-observation conference,"  I woke up and knit for a while, while drinking coffee in bed, and next decided to spend the day enjoying simple pleasures.  I drove to a cafĂ© for a solitary lunch and then went to Barnes and Noble, for coffee and a long period spent perusing knitting magazines.  I even splurged and bought Never Let Me Go, a new paperback novel by author of Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishuguro.  I’m considering suggesting his new work for student summer reading, if it proves to be suitable.  I then went to Cottage Yarn for a little knit therapy.  Words of comfort from a retired teacher who frequents the shop and the infectious enthusiasm of Charo, another regular customer, with a self-diagnosed knitting addiction like my own, were just the medicine I needed.  It was a bright, unseasonably warm day, so I opened the sun roof on my way home and decided that I needed to lose myself in that moment.  During the course of the day, I also talked several times on the phone with my teacher friend in similar circumstances, who—despite the fact that she is highly accomplished and has taught successfully at the university level—had spent part of her weekend crying due to similar job woes.  We encouraged one another to pay less attention to scrutiny and to have faith (despite any feedback to the contrary) in the fact that we are working very hard and are challenging our students to grow.

Despite it being the month of February, Camellias were still in bloom this afternoon.  Taking time to stop and enjoy them provided a much-needed  respite.  

We also need to stop comparing ourselves to the super teachers who spend sixty-plus hours a week at school and then spend their weekends at twelve-hour debate championships or engaged in marathon grading sessions.  Deciding to take my own advice, I have unearthed my sewing machine, an item which was put away at the start of this hectic school year, and am determined to finish some projects over the coming weeks.  I also plan to be a better correspondent to long-neglected pen pals, and I even made a pot of comforting homemade soup.  Maybe someday soon, I can also attempt to create an original knitting design.  (Efforts such as this were abandoned when I embarked on my new employment.) 
This is the Tracery Vest in progress, almost done . . . but probably too small for me.

I also have to finish the Tracery Vest, which will probably never fit me, as, preoccupied and stressed, I inadvertently cast on and worked the wrong-sized garment.  (I haven’t had a thirty-two-inch bust since the fifth grade!)  I won’t be discouraged, however, as I will have faith that this garment will expand during the blocking process.  If that fails, I will just have to keep my eyes and ears open for the perfect diminutive person to be the recipient of this item. This project has afforded me hours of knitting pleasure—as well as some expanses of exasperation—but, in the big picture, the finished garment might just turn out okay.  I hope I can say the same for the results of this wearisome school year.  

I've been working on these socks when I need to take a break from the Tracery Vest.  Maybe I will finish them in time for Valentine's Day.

A former co-worker has been waiting six months for me to make and deliver these historic pants for him.  I finally went out this afternoon and bought the brown fabric (in the background) to sew these for him.  


  1. Hi Liz,
    I'm so glad you're feeling better. Remember to not be so hard on yourself although as a former perfectionist, I know how easy it is to listen to self-recriminations. I remember turning to Jan Karon's books, too, many years ago for comfort & peace. I don't remember this one though & will have to look for it. Thank you for a lovely way to enjoy my coffee this morning! Hope you have a better week!

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Alicia. Your words have greatly improved my Monday morning.

  3. I read what you wrote here with considerable sympathy at every turn. I am afraid metrics have infested every walk of professional life and the silly thing is that they don't seem too do anything other than demoralise good people trying their very best. The pendulum will swing back I suspect because it always does. In the meantime I think all one can do is try to keep faith with oneself and the people one's work is aimed to help and forget the rest. Life is too short to do otherwise. Your knitting is phenomenal - that tracery vest is absolutely beautiful - fingers crossed it will come out just right size-wise for you once you've blocked it. I've sent you a separate email re itinerary things! E x

  4. Oh Liz - I sympathise in every way, as somebody who is also going through the same scrutiny-obsessed system. I've been so quiet on the blog front as even though I am on a part-time contract, I still seem to be working full-time hours. We all work so hard and do our very best, attending the improvement sessions and courses, and yet it never seems to be enough. I'm glad that you have found some solace in your yarn projects which continue to be amazing. I'm currently stuck making a crochet blanket - it's getting a bit boring but I'm determined to finish it because I think I started it about 3 years ago! As the man said: nolite te bastardes carborundorum (excuse my Latin/Spansih - not even sure what it is - sounds like something from a Western!)


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