Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Tribe

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion. 
I am the decisive element in the classroom. 
It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. 
I can humiliate or heal. 
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” 
                                                                -- Haim Ginott

Today I went to a luncheon.  A luncheon to honor new teachers that are just beginning the long adventure of educating children.  I picked up a name tag for my student teacher and next to her carefully written name was a gold seal.  A seal identifying her as someone special -- a scholarship recipient.  We were enthusiastically greeted as guests of honor.  We were given prime seating and warm welcomes.  We were the object of grandmotherly-like affection and care and it felt great.  We were the guests at the Solano County Retired Teachers Association luncheon. In a roomful of retired teachers you can bet there will be smiles, raffle tickets, prizes, birthday celebrations, generosity of spirit, genuine interest in your well being and kindness...always kindness.

Lately, it's pretty cool to dis the teacher.  It's flat out okay to insinuate that they don't work very hard (what with all that time off and early dismissal from school), that they have luxurious pensions and health benefits and that teachers are selfish, unprofessional amateurs.  "Hey -- we've all been in school...we know the drill.  It's just not that hard." This cursory stereotype has taken the luster off of becoming a teacher.  You must be a glutton for punishment if you choose the profession.  You must feel fine with a measly salary.  You must secretly want time off or worse you're just not very smart.  It's now perfectly acceptable to condemn a teacher that questions your child's behavior or mentions a difficulty with learning.  It's the teacher's fault -- it can't be the child.

And still there's the kindness.

There's a golden thread that binds teachers of children, desire for the child's best interest and success, insatiable curiosity about how children grasp new concepts or hold onto the big ideas, deep and abiding care.  These people are the day in day out/nitty gritty heroes.  On the playground they create peace after anger and frustration are let loose.  They hold the hand of a scared child.  They nurture and nudge while watching for signs of stress or insecurity.  They believe in the big picture but pay attention to the millions of tiny details that make up a classroom community.  They take a deep breath and go back for more.

The luncheon began with a flag salute.  Standing there amidst these retired professionals, I was humbled.  Moments after we pledged our allegiance, silence fell.  A strong male voice began singing God Bless America -- like school kids we all joined in.  Strong voices and timid ones; off key and choir worthy.  We were part of a stunning whole and that moment was sacred.  I could feel the pride, the patriotism, the joy in living and teaching and children and tears unexpectedly started flowing.  I can't remember the last time I was part of a group of adults that spontaneously sang God Bless America but it sure felt beautiful.  This was my tribe.

And because it's my people I need to let you know something.  It's no slacker path to become a teacher today.  Our student teachers take 15 courses in one year, while at the same time teaching in a classroom and planning for that.  They must take the CBEST, the CSET, the RICA and pass a high-stakes assessment that might as well be considered a thesis called PACT.  They are inundated with teaching techniques, pedagogy, philosophy and practical advice and yet it all comes down to the teaching.  They stumble and fall.  They try again.  They have a great beginning and lose themselves in the middle.  They are interrupted by fire drills, second language learners, special ed, speech and language, resource teachers and sick kids.  And yet somewhere in the middle of that thick forest of fatigue and failure a bright spot reveals itself: they watch a child begin to grasp something new; they witness firsthand a caring response from a child that has never shown compassion or empathy before; they get their first note that tells them they are wonderful and they are caught unaware by this perplexing swirl of pride, wonder, awe and humility.  Their heart is full and they know that even with the difficulties this is going to be their life-long pursuit...their craft.

Today, six student teachers stood before an overcrowded room of people who knew and understood and respected them and were passed the torch.  They received compassion, praise and kindness.  They listened and interacted and felt redeemed.  I was proud to be an onlooker -- proud to see my tribe in action.  Proud to know the kindness of teachers.

Within the next few weeks school is ending.  Take a moment to reflect on the teacher in your life who made the greatest impact on you.  Offer up a God Bless America in their name...or better yet, let them know how huge they were in your life.  If your child has an amazing teacher this year make the time to write a quick note of gratitude.  They don't need any gift except for the rare one of deep appreciation and respect. Let's make a promise to take a deep breath, notice the kindness and end the superficial, insulting disrespect of teachers.  We lend them our most precious treasure: our children -- let's honor them for their hard work and dedication.  They need it now more than ever.

"While parents possess the original key to their offspring's experience, teachers have a spare key.  They, too, can open or close the minds and hearts of children." -- Haim Ginott

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lessons from Leukemia

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage." -- Lao Tzu

So...I can't help it.  I try...honest I do.  I start the month of May and act casual.  It's normal.  I'm normal.  There aren't any shadows, memories or lingering effects.  My May baby is talking about birthday parties and cupcakes and butterflies.  Leukemia is behind the scenes.  It's an undertow, just waiting to carry me out there -- to the place of diagnosis, chemo, spinal taps, and children suffering through something they shouldn't even know about.  It's a weird paradox of hope and healing and futures stolen, childhood cheated.  It's not my reality any more so I should be able to shake it off.  But because it was once part of my life, every calendar cycle my psyche somehow needs to bear witness once again.

This time, it began with an innocent phone call and a friend telling me how she couldn't sleep that night because she was filled with worry.  Her worry wasn't life altering or even all that crucial so she was examining herself like a specimen, mentioning that the older she gets, the more she worries.  I told her that some of the remnants of surviving leukemia with your child are the lessons you learned and for me, learning not to worry was at the top of that list.

So, in order to make sense of that 1,000+ days, here are some of my lessons...

Worrying Does No Good
Trust me when I say that if I could have worried Patrick's way back to full health it would have been over in minutes.  Every blood draw I would sit for half a day waiting on the results, worrying and toying with the big questions of life. The pit in my stomach always present.  After months and months that turn into years and years of this, I finally fought with myself and wrestled with the angels enough.  I learned the hard way that worrying does no good.  It steals the moment -- the precious present. And here's the obvious: that's all we have.  All those half days I could have been reading to my toddler, hugging, painting, dancing, singing and stroller-riding about town.  Those irreplaceable moments are gone.  Worrying didn't change one thing.  I've learned my lesson for the most part.  I really am not a worrier anymore.  I focus on all I've got -- this minute with the people who are right here right now.  The story is going to play out the way it will -- why waste the day with worry?

Music Helps
Those annoying teen-agers with the Ipods stuck into their ear canals know a secret -- music helps.  It can be the anthem that powers you through another nightmarish procedure.  It can be the tender melody that envelopes you in a curtain of healing.  It can be the angry rocker that lets you kickbox your way out of the crapper. However it works, music is a salve.  It saved me and Patrick day after day for over three years.

Head to the Beach
When all is going downhill, head to the beach.  The rhythm of the ocean -- the steady ebb and flow never failed to remind me of how much bigger this world is than my small problems.  The back and forth and give and take of the tides echoed the tides of my life.  I could breathe here.  I could let Patrick be here outside and neutrophils and compromised immune systems didn't matter.  The ocean was bigger than the both of us.  It was bigger than cancer and leukemia and sad stories.  I could watch that never ending out and in and find comfort.  Sorting through the stones, digging in the sand, feeling the ocean baptize me in its vastness cleared my head and strengthened me.  Best of all, it gave Patrick a chance to play.

You Want To Be Pissed About Traffic and Bills and the Ant Invasion
If you just got a bill in the mail, if the price of gas is ticking you off, if the ants have invaded and because of that you've lost your noodle, damn you're lucky.  Those are the problems we want to have.  The annoyances of life are part of the deal.  Being able to muster up the energy to get royally ticked off at those things means that your life is pretty great.  The first time I noticed myself freaking out about the traffic post-leukemia I stopped in  I was shocked and delighted to find myself back in the land of the living...where things like that matter.  When you are dealing your child's  life threatening illness, that stuff gets tossed out with the trash.  You watch people and notice their irritations and dream of difficulties like that.  Yes, I'm telling you that you should smile if you can't find your keys and it's driving you crazy.  You are lucky!

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger
Yes, that bothersome quote that everyone tells you when you're going through hell is true.
Surviving your greatest fear puts a lot of things in perspective and it sure does make the sweet moments all that much sweeter. 

***Thank you to Chris Rumble (along with Seattle Children's Hospital) who took his terrible diagnosis and made this magic video happen.***

So go out there and kick some bootie.  Today is the day to make your dreams come true, eat your favorite food, dance, sing and snuggle with someone you love.  

Here's to Patrick and all of the kids who have battled too soon, for too long and with so much heart.
You rock!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Meatball

"Life is like a bowl of spaghetti, every once in a while you get a meatball."
 -- Sharon Creech, Newbery winning author of Walk Two Moons

I had the joy and unexpected surprise of getting to hear Sharon Creech speak to a roomful of beginning teachers.  Two days later I had the pleasure of going out to dinner with her.  My take away from her story was inspiration, the thrill of teaching, the joy of writing and the mystery of how a series of events line up in a perfect way to create someone's destiny.

Sharon Creech was a high school English teacher for many years.  She had a fantastic childhood with many siblings and a stable family.  She went to college, got married had two children and found herself divorced and searching for an escape.  She interviewed for a teaching job in England but at the interview the man interviewing her made a snap judgment about her personal situation and determined that the job was too much for a single parent. He told her flat out that she wouldn't be good for the job or the students and ended the interview before hearing any of her qualifications.  She was so shocked and angered by his reaction that she wrote a three page letter outlining her qualifications and explaining how her single parent status was actually a benefit to her students...she would be compassionate and understanding...less rushed to judge and punish.  

She got the job.

But then, she found out the salary.  She faced the truth that the salary was so minimal that she really couldn't responsibly take her two children and herself overseas on such a small income.  She made the phone call to let the school know.  However, the man she was supposed to speak with was in a meeting.  She was told to call back at lunch.  But before she made the call she went to lunch herself.  She found herself at a communal table in an Indian restaurant in Washington, DC.  Eating alone, she heard a mother speaking to her daughter next to her.  They both had British accents. Sharon began speaking to them, pouring out her story and her inability to reconcile the wages of her job offer with the supreme effort of moving across an ocean and abandoning all she knew.  The woman's reply:

"Oh, you simply must go!  There's the Thames, and the theater and the adventure.  You simply must go!"

Like some neon road sign on a dark night, Sharon knew she must listen to those words.  She made the decision that made no logical sense.  The one that wasn't planned out perfectly.  The one that wasn't safe.  She moved to England.

"Leap and the net will appear."

When she moved to England, she ended up meeting the man that would eventually be her husband.  She taught English and filled up her soul with great wisdom from great writers.  She focused on teaching writing and literature and slowly over eighteen years the percolating words started bubbling out of her.  

She had to write her own stories.  The first two were novels for adults.  They got published but they didn't take off.  Then she began a novel for children.  She had a publisher but after a year's worth of work, the publisher declared her main character "unlikeable" and told her to go back and rework it.  After another year, the editor told her that the character wasn't believable.  After a third year, she was sitting in a Chinese restaurant in London and received a fortune cookie with a Native American saying:

 "Don't judge someone until you've walked two moons in their moccasins."

Instantly, Sharon knew that she had found a clue to her story.  The novel would have a Native American flavor...the title would be Walk Two Moons. She began writing in earnest and when she showed it to her editor, it was accepted.

A few months later she received a phone call -- the American Library Association had chosen her book as the Newbery medal winner for the year.  She thought it was her brother playing a joke on her.  She laughed it off until it became clear it really was the American Library Association calling her.  She had no idea how many Newberys were given or how big a deal this was.  Let's be clear: only one Newbery Medal winner is chosen a year for "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."

Her first children's novel won the Newbery...and it was published in England!

"You simply must go!"

That was 1995, since then Sharon has gone on to win the Carnegie Medal (the Newbery equivalent for Britain) for her book, Ruby Holler.  She's won Newbery Honor book awards and many other notable awards for children's literature for her many other compelling books.  One of my favorites: Love That Dog.  In short, she followed a winding road that lead her to her purpose.  In her acceptance speech when she received the Newbery she mentioned a line one of her students had used in his own graduation speech: "Life is like a bowl of spaghetti.  Every once in a a while you get a meatball." and went on to say: "I guess this is my meatball."

Her humble joy in writing, her insatiable curiosity about what others are thinking and feeling and her love of children and their creative way of viewing the world all meld together in her works.  At her core, she is a teacher.  She uses her words like a magnifying glass to your heart, helping you to discover your own feelings and thoughts on difficult topics like grief, isolation, independence, childhood.  She nudges, cajoles and pushes you to see your own story within hers.

I can't help but wonder what her story today would be like had she stayed in the States and played it safe.  I can't help but think of that British voice inside an Indian restaurant in Washington, DC telling her that she "simply must  go" as an angel lighting the way. I can't help but be grateful that our paths crossed for several hours.  

Today I'm grateful for Sharon Creech: her courage, her words and her instruction.  She's a reminder for me to live bravely, to write and write and write and to listen to the angels whispering all around.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Marry the Guy Who Makes You Laugh

***This is another installment in my on-going advice to Mary Kate -- told you that letter would most likely never end! ***

 “Into each day, put in about one teaspoonful of good spirits, 
a dash of fun, a pinch of folly, a sprinkling of play, 
and a heaping cupful of good humor! ” -- Anonymous

Yesterday is was annoyingly windy and it was Saturday.  We couldn't really hang outside, we couldn't go bike riding, we couldn't plant our garden and we were tired of movies at home.  You were busy so we decided to take the two little guys bowling.  We got the funky shoes, found the right brightly colored balls and then I looked up.  Your dad had listed the order of bowlers on the super cool screen up above our lane for all to see...Studmaster was present.  I laughed.  And then I thought about it.  It's a rare, rare day when I don't laugh around him.  Your dad has a hilarious sense of humor. He is Will Ferrell, the Three Stooges, Spongebob and Dennis Miller blended into some crazy hybrid of raunchy, inappropriate, on-the-mark, goofball humor.

I submit my evidence for your dad's lasting humor:

1) First app on his I-phone.  Take a guess -- I dare you.  No, not the special Garmin GPS system.  No, not Pandora. Not the Google app.  It was I-fart.  I kid you not.  To this day, years later, I will find him giggling or all out laughing with farting sounds emitting from his phone.  For months he tried, often successfully, to leave his phone out so that you or Jack might pick it up and it would let loose like some sort of high tech whoopie cushion.  Let's not even discuss Fatbooth.

2) Our first date.  No, it wasn't a romantic dinner for two.  It wasn't a moonlit stroll. It wasn't even to a hip destination.  After our cheap Mexican dinner and assorted missteps, we ended up at a video arcade/bowling alley.  I impressed him with my rad Centipede skills -- (hey who uses quarters for laundry when you can play Centipede in the rec room of your dorm?)  He dominated an old-fashioned pinball bloomed.

3) Your dad draws cartoons.  He has this creative river just running under the surface.  It is wicked funny.

4) Your dad has brushed his teeth with Desitin.  He has had baby Patrick barf directly in his mouth as he held him up for that cheesy dad-moment of holding him up so high. He had you look him in the eye at age two in toddler fury and yell: "You sshhhtooka!!!"   He's dealt with imaginary bees buzzing in Jack's preschool dream in the middle of the night and ended up convincing our terrorized tot that he had just annihilated the swarm by slamming his hand hard against the wall. Each and every time, he laughs his butt off when it's over.  He high fives himself and soldiers on, gladly accepting every bizarre badge of courage or craziness that fatherhood bestows on him.

5) And the piece-de-resistance: the f-you maneuver.  Once I reveal this, you must promise to give it a try.  But only after you turn eighteen and never with me.  You can only really enjoy the laugh if you have done it yourself and know the absolute freedom that comes with this stealth show of resistance.  It must be done at work or some equally annoying situation -- one where it takes all of your focus and energy to deal with the annoyance. Let's pretend you are at your desk and your boss walks in unhappy with your work.  You listen with attentiveness.  You nod when appropriate.  You look interested. All the while, you are flipping them off under your desk. The boss leaves feeling heard.  You puts your hands back up on your desk equally enthused by the interchange.  You get the laugh, the freedom of rebellion and your job.  It's a win-win.  Oh and you get the story...because there is always a good story that goes with the maneuver. This excellent moment can happen while dealing with a traffic stop, paying your taxes, paying up the lottery-like numbers of your most recent gas bill or any other bothersome situation. Go ahead...I dare you -- but wait a few years and please be convincing in the listening department or you will blow it. :)

And that brings me to my advice: marry the guy who makes you laugh.

It's as simple as that.  That clever mind, genuine honesty and kindness can be discovered by his willingness to laugh.  If he laughs often and openly he shows you his view of the's not so serious, rather interesting and pretty darn funny in the most unexpected of ways.  He reveals his optimism, his lack of ego and his ability to have fun.  Best of all, even in the darkest of times his humor will stay steady.  Trust me, that's important. Because the dark times are guaranteed and it's just so much easier to deal with when someone can find something funny somewhere.

So tonight I'm grateful to the guy who makes me laugh.  The guy who always offers up a simmering pot of mirth.  A funny, funny man who can find humor just about anywhere, any day of the week. Who makes you laugh?  I need to know.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things

"Be sure to celebrate the many small things...bright days, good friends and anything with sprinkles."
                                                                                       -- Greeting card  

So, lately I've been overwhelmed by the tiny, miniscule daily things that imbue my life with beauty and grace.  Almost every time I say to myself, "I'm going to write a post about that" and then the time slowly drip drops away and there's no post.  So to make up for my severe tardiness I'm just going to list my favorite things.  Like David Letterman I'm going to do my Top 10 in reverse order. Here goes:

10. Daddy Donut Day -- John was on morning-get-the-kids-up-and-off-to-school duty.  This is not a strong point for John and so he employed the ever famous parenting technique -- the bribe.  Exhibit A, two dressed and ready for school kids at the donut strore...happy faces galore. It worked! Daddy happy, kids happy and mom was able to do her morning work without any phone calls. YAY!

9. Orange Blossoms -- Wish I could insert fragrance button -- like some ultra-cool Willy Wonka invention -- and you could click on the scent of my backyard right now.  Light, refreshing, fragrant and spring in one deep breath.  Go out and take a big whiff...hope you get to smell some blossoms in bloom near you.

8. Losing that first tooth.  There's nothing like it...wiggle, wiggle, wiggle...wait...wiggle, wiggle, wiggle...wait.  Finally it came out and the tooth fairy made a visit to our house.  Magical notes, golden coins and glitter...nothing better.

7. Sunsets -- every evening a show is freely given.  We have to make the time to stop and notice.  Every single time I do, I'm grateful.  I need more sunset pauses in my life.

6. White picket fences with white roses growing around them...whenever I walk by this house near my neighborhood I smile.  I know when I see a dream come true.  Someone wanted to be welcoming, formal, beautiful and classic while at the same time being quintessentially small town America.  It happened right here.  Love it!

5. If you live in California, you know about the Golden Poppy -- our state flower.  If you don't you may not get to see the bountiful blossoms that tumble out from even the most manicured place.  They are unruly, prolific, wild, fragile, momentary and glorious.  Imagine whole hillsides and valleys covered in them!  Breath-taking and inspiring but only for a few months.  Like so much of life, we must cherish them while they are in bloom and don't bother to pick them -- they wilt and fall apart immediately.  They can only be admired in place.

4. Buddy turned two just a few days ago.  Faithful, devoted, thrilled by your presence...this sweet dog has completely snuggled his way into the secret place in my heart reserved for unabashed, uninhibited, all-out love. I get to see him every day and I still can't get over it.

3. Creativity -- recognize the bread hook from our mixer?  Yep, it's alternate life is as Captain Hook's hook.
Dads + Kids + Tin Foil = Magic!

2. Being in a parade!  If you ever get a chance to walk or ride in a parade, do it!  Our town has the annual Picnic Day parade to celebrate our university --  UC Davis Picnic Day Parade. It is low key and filled with floats made at the last minute by various university clubs and organizations.  It has several different marching bands, Picnic Day dignitaries, rolling farm equipment, electric vehicles, fire engines, double decker buses, and plenty of unusual bicycles. It also includes the Girl Scouts.  My daisy scout got her groove on and had the hand wave down.  She high-fived her way through the crowds and generally worked the parade route like a pro.  She came alive with the applause and the cheers and had a blast.  As a chaperone I have to say that I pretended to be part of some royal contingent and did my own hand-waving...fantastic!  Cross that off my bucket list.  Next up: marching in a band!  Maybe I can sneak into the Cal Aggie marching band just in time for next year's parade.

1. My view of the world right now.  She's obsessed with this new found freedom...a bike ride, a moment at the park and time to just relax.  I have to agree -- it's pretty great. It's my favorite thing... right now.  Of course, tomorrow's another day...enjoy anything with sprinkles, friends.  Life is short -- seize the day!