The Teenager at Your Thanksgiving Table

46503992_918579165008420_2801454627122315264_nThe area of my life that I am good at–the best skill I possess–is a non-monetized sector of our economy. I am good with teenagers. I get them, and they appreciate the fact that I do. We actually enjoy our time together, mostly–they will say things like, “I mean, if I have to be in this school building, I guess I would rather be here then anywhere else . . . but I wish I didn’t have to be in this school building.”

Tomorrow, they are going to have to be somewhere else that they do not want to be: at your Thanksgiving table. And the reasons that they do not want to be there are many:

  1. It all feels fake: they are wearing clothes they don’t normally wear. Yes, we parents would like our children to always look Christmas-card worthy, but, after all, we aren’t parading around our prized show goats–we are just taking our kids to Aunt Helen’s. If your son wants to wear a UGA hoodie, ask yourself–are you more concerned about what Great Aunt Mabel thinks than what your son feels? Your son needs to have his autonomy respected at Thanksgiving among his relatives so that he can maintain it down by the river with his buddies on a moonlit Friday night. For teenagers, clothes are personhood. Trust your teen to be a person.
  2. It all feels fake: your nuclear family is (perhaps) pretending to be happier than you truly are. If Mom hasn’t spoken a kind word to Dad in two weeks; if elder brother Bobby Joe got arrested last week for breaking and entering; if Sis just told everyone she is pregnant–if there is any sort of ongoing family crisis at all and you are all in a tacit agreement to pretend otherwise, then you are asking your teen to participate in “finessing” everyone at dinner. And teenagers generally prefer authenticity.
  3. It all feels fake: distant relatives are acting elated to see them. I’m a fairly terrible long-distance aunt. So, when I am around my nieces and nephews on holidays, I do my best not to act as if I am World’s Best Aunt material. I am genuine and warm with them, sure, but I do not gush over them because that would be patronizing. If you see your nephew only twice a year, to pretend that you are devastated that you don’t is just wrong. As an adult, you either need to do better and see him more or tell both of you the truth: you are happy to see him when you do. He will appreciate your honesty and attention.
  4. Relatives keep asking the wrong questions–and putting teens on the spot. In one of my favorite speeches, Paul Graham tells teens, “People are always asking you [what you want to do with your life] . . . adults ask this mainly as a conversation starter . . . They ask it the way you might poke a hermit crab in a tide pool, to see what it does.” Resist the urge to poke the teenager at your Thanksgiving table–because the last thing any fifteen-year-old wants is five adults waving their forks at her while offering friendly advice. Ask her instead about books she is reading, movies she has seen–anything the two of you could talk about quietly together. Because . . .
  5. Teenagers are generally embarrassed to be alive. When my students enter my classroom on the first day of school, I herd them in while hollering, “It’s okay, I know you are embarrassed to be alive,” and they always chuckle–because they are, they really are. This is why the same kid who wins a public speaking contest can’t give his order to the waiter or talk to the cashier at Wal-Mart. It’s all just too much sometimes. And for some teens, Thanksgiving is one of those times. So, let it be. On the ride over to Aunt Helen’s, ask if there’s anything they would rather not talk about, and then don’t talk about it. While you may be ecstatic that Johnny won third place in the hog show at the fair, if he doesn’t want to mention it, just don’t–even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
  6. Some relatives play favorites, and teenagers have begun to realize this. If Grandma calls Cousin Sally “honeybunch,” buys her Dr. Pepper, and only invites her for sleepovers, then Cousin Sally has it a lot better than your teen–and you should acknowledge that. If Pop-Pop bought your brother’s son a Bobcat ATV last  Christmas and only gave your son a Carhartt beanie, well, there’s a problem–and you shouldn’t pretend otherwise. (Our family is unique in that our older daughter, who is adopted from foster care, was taken back to her birth family when she was eighteen months old–and when DFCS returned her to us four months later, we all spoiled her. Her younger sister has had to recognize and live with that: “She was given a car on her birthday, but you weren’t” is much more difficult to process if no one tells you why.) Acknowledge the why; remind your teen that Cousin Dale had three heart surgeries at birth and that’s the reason everyone dotes on him. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere; help your kid to find it.
  7. Some relatives are awful. If you have a sister who calls your child “fat,” do something about it. If there is a drunk uncle who hugs your teenage daughter for a millisecond too long, deal with him. Confront, confront, confront. Don’t put your sister’s self-worth before your child’s. Don’t dismiss your daughter, saying, “Uncle Fred is just that way, he didn’t mean anything by it.” When you make excuses for an adult’s behavior, your teen learns that other people are more important than he is: and no one else should be more important to you than your child.
  8. Some relatives are racist or sexist or homophobic. (Some parents are too.) My elder daughter dated an African-American man in college, and they were not always treated well by outsiders–watching their struggle was difficult. My younger daughter is a member of PERIOD: The Menstrual Movement at her university. Providing menstrual products to less fortunate women is something she has done for three years–but bringing that up at Thanksgiving in the South might be “too liberal”–it would definitely be too something. If your child can’t talk about her boyfriend, her interests, or her friends, why should she be excited about lunch? She is eating with people who are supposed to love her–but they can’t even accept the things and people she loves.
  9. They are made fun of for their dietary choices. If they are vegan or gluten-free or Ovo-vegetarian, please don’t mock them. Just let them eat in peace. There are toddlers in the kitchen eating only macaroni; there are adults who are just gorging on pigs in a blanket and swilling their beer. Leave Grace alone if she doesn’t want turkey. Or bread. Or milk. It’s called autonomy.
  10. Their maturation can go unacknowledged. They are seated at the kids’ table or put in charge of meaningless chores. After lunch, they are sent out of the room or even told to go outside. This wholesale dismissal badly hurts teens. If they aren’t worthy of time and attention, why should they come to dinner at all? After you eat, invite your niece or nephew to sit and talk to you. Look them in the eyes and really talk. Tell them stories they have never heard before–mistakes you made, adventures you went on, how things were when you were fifteen–and then listen, really listen, when they respond. Resist the urge to check your cell phone or to check the score on the TV: focus instead on the teenager talking to you: he’s a person, and he just wants someone to see that. Make sure you do.

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Should Church Really Stress Us Out? (Living on the Verge of Falling)

46459316_514541725729785_8217113980255076352_nDuring my teenage years, I was in church almost every night. It was a better place to be than home, where chaos ruled and supervision was lacking. Church gave me a loving God, caring adults, funny friends, and a place to be me–just me. It gave me a place away from my family, away from school, away from everything–but close to God. I could focus on His plans for me and His plans for my life.

I loved it.

Now, though, as an adult approaching fifty, my family has been drifting away from the church. Church has been hard because it’s been difficult to be around people. Some days we don’t want to talk, other days we do. Sometimes it’s just hard to sit still and listen and not do. Our minds wander too much when our hands are not busy.

I have a lot of Christian friends–friends who are smart and holy. Like me, they post a lot on Facebook because we live in South Georgia where there’s not a lot to do. These well-read people post interesting things–and one recent fad seems to be writing articles about the theology of worship and whether or not contemporary Christian songs are even Christian at all. So, now, when I’m at church and hear songs like “Oceans” or “10,000 Reasons,” rather than using them to focus on God, I think of Facebook articles I read about the “ad nauseam repetition” and whether the songwriters are truly Christians.

Not only do I have to wonder whether my clothes are appropriate, whether I’m sitting in someone else’s pew, whether I was polite enough to the old lady who greeted me so nicely in the narthex–now, I have to wonder whether Matt Redman is theologically sound.

My father-in-law always says that too much information is a bad thing. I think the current emphasis on worrying so much about so many things–the lighting, the sound of the drums, whether ear plugs are necessary, what kind of coffee to get, set decorations, the ambience, and, now, the theology of lyricists–all of these things distract from the one thing that we all need most in every church, and that is the presence of the Lord.

By obsessing over so many things that do not matter–and so many things do not matter–we are losing sight of the things that do. It is easier to read ten articles on Facebook about Christianity than to read one page of the Bible. It is easier to post six scriptural illustrations than to show Christian kindness to one person who smells really bad. And it is easier to psychoanalyze songwriters than to look at our own hearts and see our filthy rags–our hearts made righteous only by Christ.

I really don’t know when everything became an ordeal and nothing could be simple 46522727_573206093108602_3026601700451418112_nanymore. Maybe our parents also felt this way and had these struggles–I don’t know–but I don’t think church has to be hard.  Church doesn’t have to be a place where we dwell on all the wrong or, conversely, pat ourselves on the back for all the right that we do. Church is a refuge, a place where we are safe and we can forget about this world and how lousy life can be and focus on God, who heals and restores.

One summer day in 2001, I sat in a  hospital conference room desperately praying with a Jewish woman as her husband was dying. Later that month, I held another hysterical friend in the moments after her own husband died. In both instances, my prayers were very repetitive.  I prayed very simply because life had been stripped to its core.

Perhaps some praise and worship songs come from such places of simple truth.

When Greg was flighting his third cancer, as I walked through the house one day, I heard, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.” And then I realized I was saying that. Those were my words. My spirit man was crying out repetitively. The need for prayer was so great that it was coming forth, that it was filling the house even though I was in a wretched state, beyond prayer myself.

God was there. God was present. In my distress, He came to me.

I think people who parse lyrics, who search for nuance and subtext and sin, who subject them to “The Berean Test” and numerically rank their theology miss this: God can use anything, anyone. God can touch and heal at will, using tools that you and I would not understand or approve of.

Because He’s God.

After my granddaughter was stillborn, missing part of her skull, missing her leg, after our world was destroyed and there was nothing but loss and sorrow, every single day I spent my entire planning period listening to “He Knows My Name” and “Didn’t I Walk on Water” on a loop–those two Joseph Larson songs over and over. Their strong reminders of God’s love and presence allowed me to function.

When I Googled their singer, I found a site that talked about his alleged marijuana use and labeled him a “lascivious fornicator.” For a second, I thought I couldn’t listen to his songs anymore. I thought it would be wrong of me, to choose to listen to a “bad” person.

And then I remembered that we are all, at our cores, bad people–there are none righteous. There are none good.

Christ is, truly, for all of us, our only hope. We may rank sins, forgiving some and condemning others, but our judgment is only an attempt to soothe our own souls. The truth is, I don’t know the hearts of Joseph Larson or Matt Redman or Lauren Daigle.  I don’t know if they are singing for God or mammon. I don’t know if they have drug problems or are squeaky clean. But I do know that, through Christ, God can use them no matter their sins.

Have you ever stood in a church service and sung “Awesome God” in a loud, true chorus with everyone singing as one? Wasn’t it wonderful? You felt either complete or strengthened. You were pushed forward in your faith.

On Pinterest, you can choose your “Awesome God” imagery. There is Jesus holding the world in his hands; there are men and women with their hands upraised; there is a small child in a snow cap; there is a woman in a field–and all of these images declare, “Our God is an Awesome God.”

The song-turned-catchphrase was written by Rich Mullins, who also wrote another, less well-known song entitled “Hold Me, Jesus.”

He wrote it when he was in Amsterdam, where everything was legal, and where he was tempted by sin–even though he was a contemporary Christian artist who knew better.

He was so tempted.

Of that time, he stated, “You think you’re getting somewhere, you think you’re growing as a Christian . . . and all of the sudden, you’re in a situation where you go, ‘I am just as susceptible as I was when I was 16 to a lot of things.”

When I was sixteen and susceptible, what resonated with me about Mullins’ music was that it sounded true. The faith that he presented was accessible and human, not mysterious and complicated. His self-acceptance helped me then, and it helps me now.

He is right to say: “Whether or not I like who I am, that is who I am . . . People are gonna judge you, and there are I think actually people who look for excuses to condemn you and look for excuses to say bad things about you, but God doesn’t look for those kinds of excuses . .  . the conclusion of the matter for me was that I think I would rather live on the verge of falling and let my security be in the all-sufficiency of the grace of God than to live in some kind of pietistic illusion of moral excellence. Not that I don’t want to be morally excellent. But my faith isn’t in the idea that I am more moral than anybody else: my faith is in the idea that God and His love are greater than whatever sins any of us commit.”

I live on the verge of falling. I live among people whom I fail every day, who list my shortcomings in a litany, a continual screed of my inadequacies and failures. For some of them, I will never be enough.

Yet in spite of my flaws, through Christ, I can write this blog.

In spite of his failings, Rich Mullins wrote powerful Christian anthems.

Because in our miry pits, places from which we desperately need comfort and rescue, we know our only hope is Him.

We know that God and His love are greater than sin. Than my sin. Than your sin. Than our sin.

These days, there are few things in our adult world that make us want to “take a lap.” To get up and run and dance and shout for joy. Church, in my opinion, should be a time to focus on that amid such rubble and ash.

God’s grace is a shoutable thing.

We know how awesome that is.


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Self-Comfort: My Israel in the Wastelands

46362233_259261271386451_1887850289386487808_nI’m a teacher with two sick days. That’s a bad enough state to be in when it’s late November and teachers are exhausted, stressed, and frazzled. It’s even worse when you need to have an abscessed tooth pulled.

Fortunately, we have been studying World War II, and there are plenty of World War II movies that relate directly to the GSEs–so my plan was to drive to school and stay there until 8:10, let my husband cover my first class during his planning. and then dash back (sans tooth) by 9:50. Dunkirk was the order of the day, and I would gut my way through with the cooperation of 107 teenagers.

When I left the house, I still wasn’t thrilled–the kitten had stolen a slice of my breakfast bacon, my tooth hurt badly, and the day was cold and gloomy. Still, as I do most days, I stopped before getting in the van and stood in the carport and looked at the pine trees across the road–the sun rises behind them, and some days, the brilliant orange makes it look like they are afire. This morning, they looked as they never had before, the sky a brown misted pink.


The drive to work is four miles through a downtown mostly unchanged over my forty-eight years. I drive past a park named for the great-grandfather I never met; past the empty building that was R & R fabric shop, where Grandma and I spent many hours when I was a child–she visited while I organized the patterns by number in their metal drawers;  past the bank-turned-furniture-store, where I took my young second cousins to see the antique safe in the first hours after their grandfather, my uncle, died; past the brick gazebo where my elder daughter had her prom pictures taken on one of her life’s happiest nights.

But these are not the sights that move me. In the fourteen years that I have made that commute–the 2,660 times I have driven that road–it’s the morning sky over the CSX Rice Yard that is my favorite. Mind you, I am neither a morning person nor a joyous soul–so my looking at the sunrise is not Instagram-worthy. It’s more a desultory, at-least-I-have this moment. My consolation for all the else.

Today, there was a patch of blue sky through the gray. Fluffy white clouds peeked beneath the haze, cornflower blue behind. I stopped in a parking lot to take a few pictures–I had often told my daughters, “When I don’t have you guys with me, I’m going to take a picture of the sky here every day”–so, today, I did. But, by the time I stopped–in just those thirty seconds–everything about the sky changed. It was gray.

I drove the last mile unthinkingly. Stopped at the red light beside the high school, I sat listlessly looking at the trees; in the silvery morning light, their leaves were layered in a stony effect– it was as if I were looking at a rock wall made of trees. And then, I heard from deep within, “This is your Israel.”

It was weird, jarring.


Three of my friends have spent the past week in the Middle East–two, married Christian pastors, have been in Israel, and one, celebrating her fiftieth birthday, in Egypt. Their photos have filled my social media with camel rides and tomb visits and distant sunsets. I have viewed these photos with a sort of quiet satisfaction–happy that people whom I have known since my teens are across the world, now far away from rough beginnings and old heartaches. I’ve enjoyed seeing the shine in their eyes and instinctively prayed for their refreshing.

46313345_537456686678946_5818458578905726976_nI’ve never wanted to go to Israel or Egypt. I don’t wish I were with there. I haven’t thought about the pictures for even a moment after I pressed the heart or thumbs-up. But there it was, that voice: “This is your Israel.” 

Sunlight and rocks and sky and trees.

(And Ware County High School.)

They are my everyday, plain places. Regular and ordinary. But they restore me. I stop to look at them, and on some days, I am refreshed. Like a child running his hands over every spindle on a banister, I pass my touchstones. Are the turtles in the canal on City Boulevard on their log today? Is the sun shining perfectly down on the palm tree centered at the end of Euclid? Are there fluffy clouds in the Big Sky near Reid’s Pasture? Are there wildflowers blooming on the railroad berms? Is the sunset view better from the overpass or from Wal-Mart’s parking lot?

It seems absurd, doesn’t it? To think: the sunset from Wal-Mart is sometimes my Wailing Wall.

46459310_437930890069369_6606997772539265024_nIn the months after Stephanie Grace was stillborn, I can’t tell you how many times we checked on the canal turtles. We would drive down and sit in the van on the bridge and look down at them, eight turtles on a log, offering us solace simply by their existence, pushing us on. There was just enough beauty in the sight of them–solid and scattered on the log skimming the water–to remind us of Him. Of somewhere, goodness.

I recognize, after my husband’s three cancers, after my granddaughter’s death, that my only hope is in the outdoors–the Drake Elm, the stars over the driveway at night, the feeding of the garage opossum–in these reminders of God.

My little family has been endured much, and we are all in various stages on the journey to repair. We sometimes bravely say “ifs” to each other, almost wishing aloud.  On hopeful days, we say “catch a break” as if it is possible. On other, worse days, we find solace in our own healing Israels–the snows of Connecticut, the hills of New York, the pines of Georgia.

When Hurricane Michael brushed past our area, I was home alone.  I intended to sleep in the hallway under a table, and when the winds came I wandered outside to watch the trees in our backyard–wanting to see which were holding up, planning to sleep near the sturdiest. I was transfixed by the roar of the wind through the trees, by their swaying silhouettes against the orangey gray sky. I lay in the grass and sang the doxology, something our pastor had done sixteen years ago when my husband was first declared cancer free. It seemed fitting when he did so, and it felt appropriate on that October night, in the face of such majesty.

As the feral cats wandered around me, I lay on a quilt for an hour and sang and prayed and thought about how hard it all is, how hard it continues to be, how unholy I am, how holy and powerful He is. I got neither revelations or relief–we seem to have ordered lives that are without them. No hope sprang anew.

I was just alone in the wind, watching. I was just still, and I knew.




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[Dabbing:] Recognizing the Wanting

IMG_20181020_145034The past six days in my classroom have been days in which I have had to fight myself to do the right thing, to be the right teacher. My fibromyalgia flared right after fall break, so I came into the classroom in a position of weakness rather than rested strength. I didn’t want to have enthusiastic conversations about cruises and car rides and long naps and Netflix. I wasn’t up to greeting forty students by name between classes and then teaching one hundred and eleven for seven hours.

I have spent more than twenty years in classrooms, and sometimes, I feel them all.

This year, I’m on extended day for the first time in my career. In many ways, it is the best thing that has ever happened to me–there’s nothing like forcing an ENFP to focus–but having no planning period is really difficult for an English teacher since essays take time to grade. (Don’t ever sit down with a stopwatch, time yourself grading one essay, then multiply the minutes taken by the number of students you teach. That math is soul-crushing.)

Last Monday, the easiest thing for everyone would have been for me to say, “Since we finished reading Antigone right before fall break, we are not going to write essays about it; we are going to start something new.” We all would have been thrilled. The kids didn’t really like Antigone (my fourth block dubbed her “Sad Incest Baby”), and not grading 52 essays was much more appealing than grading them.

It was win-win, a simple call–one no one would have known I had made. But it wasn’t the right call. They wrote the essays.

I spent Saturday in my younger daughter’s bedroom at her cactus-filled desk. Her vine-covered window overlooks a walled corner of the yard. It’s kind of like Mary Lennox’s Secret Garden of my youth, and if I have to spend Saturday grading in a garret, cats and cacti and walls with vines make the task bearable.

The thing about grading writing, really, is this: assuming the students have “bought in to the assignment,” it’s like they are parading in front of you, telling you what they know and what they don’t. So they were there with me with all things they’d noticed: “Mrs. G, Antigone knew what she was getting into, she knew she was going to die–but Creon did not know at all. And he lost his whole family in one day. And it was his fault, and he knew it. He definitely had it worse.” “Mrs. G, Haimon killed himself when Antigone died, so he must have really loved her–because you are not going to kill yourself after the death of someone you don’t love.” “Sophocles was a deeply disturbed man.”44520823_2261701637409170_2002534433109835776_n

Granted, it was a mixed bag–there were papers that lacked theses or text evidence; some were sloppy and rushed–and there were a few A+s that the [standards-based] rubric gave that I myself might not have, but the papers were, as a whole, mostly good, effort-filled work that the kids could be proud of.

We had all done something we didn’t want to do.

Saturday, as I graded in a rotation–37 minutes grading, 20 minutes playing Scrabble; 37 minutes grading, 20 minutes reading Daily Mail; 37 minutes grading, 20 minutes petting the cats–all I could think of was the empty Sunday, a true Sabbath. The rest I needed, the potential promise of a good week.

Though I had planned on church, when the kitten woke me, Greg wandered in the bedroom. He said, “If you can’t go back to sleep, maybe we could go over to Mallery Street Cafe. ” It is in nearby St. Simon’s and was a respite for us after Stephanie Grace’s death, as close to a “spot” as we have gotten in decades. We can eat potatoes and look at art and dogs–and we can remember or forget.44620881_484223005423710_312645439868370944_n

We drove over with no music. We have never needed music–not when I was nineteen, not now at (almost) forty-nine. We ate our eggs and potatoes, then wandered to the pier where we admired a fat chihuahua and a pony-tailed toddler. We sat at the pier’s end and watched a shrimp boat trailed by hundreds of birds.

We didn’t talk then.

We watched it for a long time and thought about alternate lives.

All that time we have spent doing things we didn’t want to do.

This morning, I was so sullen. (Surely someone who loved me in 1987 could have taken me aside and said, “Listen, if you teach school, you will get up before the sun for the rest of your life,” then shaken me and said, “Don’t do it! You need to sleep!“) It was awful, so bad that Greg even gave me a kind motivational speech: “You’ll feel better later.”

At 7:35, I sat at my desk and ate egg and mushroom muffins. I read Daily Mail about the Bloomingdale wedding. I looked at the bride’s mother in her navy blue-tassel covered dress and thought about how I could have had that life, drawn her straw.

At 8:05, the students were released from the gym and cafeteria. They came tromping down the hall as either half-asleep zombies or hyper puppies. There was no middle ground.

I stood beside my door, half-heartedly greeting them. Some students I taught last year passed me in the crowd, then hollered back over their shoulders, “Shavon wants you to dab.”

I looked at them blankly–feeling fifty, overweight, and tired–but, oh, their shining eyes.

I dabbed, deeply.

There’s a lot about wanting that you don’t understand until adulthood–when no one cares what you want anymore. Your childhood full of sandwiches with the crusts cut off, shoes tied just right, and evenings playing favorite games ends–and a meet-your-own-emotional-needs world begins.

We have so much power: to give peace at a pier, happiness in a hallway, to simply do right.  And while it’s awfully tempting to choose to say no and remain passive when our own needs are not getting met, it’s not right to deny others simply because we ourselves are being denied.

Late yesterday afternoon, my classroom door opened. The bright-eyed girl stood there, chuckling. “I just wanted to say, Mrs. G, your dabbing was the best part of my day!”

Her laughter echoed even after the door had shut.


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Taunted to Death (A Bullied Child Remembers)


In recognition of World Day of Bullying Prevention, I’m reprinting an op-ed that was originally published on Friday, November 6th, 1998, in the Atlanta Constitution. I wrote this editorial in response to a bullying victim’s beating death and another student’s suicide. Their names are omitted to avoid reopening their families’ wounds. (To my bullies who have apologized, this is not meant to reopen your wounds, either.)

It began in kindergarten where I was “Big Bertha Blue Belly.” In sixth grade, I was “Ratchet the Hatchet,” and by eighth grade, “Rogel Wiggle.” I walked down the hall to chants of “Rogel Wiggle, see her jiggle” or “Big Bertha Blue Belly, see her stomach like a bowl full of jelly.”

Born with brain damage, uncoordinated and overweight, I found school a nightmare where, from kindergarten on, my friends were the fat, buck-toothed girls. They were the only ones who were kind, because they, too, knew the agony.

Like most parents, my mother told me to ignore the taunts, while my father taught me at an early age that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

But by sixth grade, I would have willingly been stoned just to have had a square dance partner in PE. Like ———, who committed suicide in 1994, and ———-, who died Wednesday after being beaten by a 15-year-old, I found that words did hurt–and that my teachers and my parents didn’t understand the torment because, after all, ‘kids will be kids.’

Beyond adult platitudes, there’s the child reality, in which 180 days a year of eating alone at lunch, being chosen last for teams, having hair pulled, glasses stolen, and jeering taunts become simply too much. If my principal had made pig noises while my fourth-grade teacher ate her lunch, perhaps she would have understood. If someone picked the back of my science teacher’s neck with straight pins as he worked at his office desk, he might have glimpsed the reality of my life–because there is a point at where the intolerable actions of others make the thought of living unbearable.

Like ————, I became “tired of it.” When my shoes were stolen and thrown on the school roof in eighth grade–my ninth year of enduring mindless torment–I reached my breaking point. I ripped open the door to my science classroom, stormed upon the boys who made my life miserable, and yelled, “I have had it!” I think I threw books: I know that night was the first of many I thought of suicide.

The transition to high school helped some–a 240-pound ‘nerd’ who read a book a day, I was still an outcast, but at a larger school there were more kind people. My English teacher, Mrs. Dillard, encouraged me to write–and capturing my torments on paper lessened their power. Raff wanted to be my lab partner; Julie, a cheerleader, took me to her hair stylist for prom, and Mark, the drum major, sat with me at lunch–these people chose to be bright spots in my otherwise dismal life, and I am convinced they kept me from taking —–‘s way out.

I needed a place to confess how hurt I was, what the years of ridicule had done to me–and I also needed to be accepted for who I was: fat and suicidal, yes, but smart and funny, too. The consistent kindness of a few, over the course of four years in high school, offset the agony inflicted by others. By graduation, though still somewhat depressed, I was STAR student, student body president and yearbook editor–but more important, I knew that there were good things about me.

Now an adult and a teacher of the cruelest of the cruel–middle-schoolers–I am, I hope, succeeding where many of my teachers failed. I punish bullying and harassment, but more important, I take time with the harassed child. I listen to him, acknowledge his pain, encourage others to befriend him–because I remember what it is to be tormented: very real and very painful.

May God be with ——-. May we not lose another child like we did ——-. May we see beyond “kids will be kids” to the child the kids are hurting.

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Long Past Wedding Vows

42418592_2035089123468957_7188472379469725696_nFebruary 2018: There are 202 people on Facebook who are very excited that my husband’s cancer hasn’t spread to his lymph nodes. They are rejoicing, hallelujahing, and praising God with excitement over that clear pathology report.

Greg and I didn’t even exchange a glance when we got the good news. There was no warm hug, no hand squeeze, no smile across the room. We wordlessly let the receptionist validate our parking and headed to the van.

After about an hour in the car, I asked him, “Why aren’t we happy?” His reply was quick. “Because we are so tired.”

The media forces cancer archetypes and a code of behavior for all participants: patients must be perky, wear ribbons and participate in fundraising walks; caregivers should be long-suffering, level-headed, and, above all else, self-sacrificing; and the cancer journey must be only minimally clouded by cancer itself.

The media’s prescribed cancer journey is NOT about a disease that can kill you and orphan your children: it’s about inspiring others–always.

Above all, this cancer paradigm requires that you never grow weary.

But from the outset, cancer number three found us weary, our twenty-six-year marriage in one of those separate-corner lulls that the long-married know: you read novels while petting a cat; he dozes while watching MASH; you both hope that someday you will like each other again.

Last September, I even started a blog with the working title, “Sitting Past the Hate.” It read, in part:

In the category of “things you probably shouldn’t say,” I really don’t like my husband right now.

I don’t think he likes me much, either.

You’re not supposed to say that, at least not out loud, in print, to the world, but he’s already said that he wouldn’t marry me again. Since I shared the sentiment, making it unanimous, I think I can say that there’s some dislike in my house.

Still, I feel bad typing that. Except for the two words at the end: right now.

I didn’t get much further–didn’t get to the part about how, if you have been married a for decades, you learn how to wait–to be quiet, cook a good supper, and to move very slowly forward . . . because you know that there will come a time, the right song on the radio during a family trip, a simultaneous blue heron sighting, a long laugh over a private joke . . . you know that something will come and make you reconnect to the very spouse whom, right now, you wish you’d never met.

You know you will love again, so you sit past the hate.

We were doing that most of the winter before his diagnosis–skulking around, talking some days, silent others. No one ate dinner together, but a Phase 10 game could still draw the whole family to the kitchen table and, with a bowl of peanut M&Ms, we almost passed for normal.

Most weekends, even in the worst of our marital doldrums, my friend Tasha usually wanders over, collapsing on the love seat after planting her son in front of the Wii.

On the Friday after Greg’s cheek was biopsied, we all sat chatting while watching her son enthusiastically kill Wii chickens. One of us asked Greg about the biopsy–whether it was painful, if he thought he had cancer.

I was too stricken that night to write his words, and I’m too stricken still to remember them–whatever they were, they were coldly terrifying.

When I walked Tasha out to her car, we stood under the full moon, the garage cats swirling at our ankles. “He believes it’s cancer,” I hissed. He never believes he has cancer. It’s cancer.

“I know,” she replied. Her eyes were wide.

42377465_331046797644204_4859132531892551680_nIn January, I couldn’t navigate the distance between “I don’t want to drive five minutes through town to go eat a donut with you” and “I’m going to go hear your third cancer diagnosis, then ride in a car with you for almost two hours.”

I couldn’t see any way the post-diagnosis car ride would not plummet into disaster. I knew I would be unable to say anything comforting or helpful–for I knew, innately, that on cancer #3, there would be neither comfort nor help.

I knew cancer #3 would take us to an awful place.

Still, if he wanted me in the car, I would be. I asked repeatedly, “Do you want me to go?”

“I want you to do what you want to do.” Always polite and firm.

“I want to do what you want me to do.”

And so it went, even the morning of the appointment–when he went alone.

There was a lot of “not wanting” during that time: Greg did not want me on the drive; I did not want to wait three weeks until surgery; we did not want to go through every painful thing again. After the lymphectomy and facial reconstruction, I did not want to clean his neck wound; he did not want me to either, but there was truly no one else, no other option. It had to be done, and there I was.

I wasn’t stoic. I couldn’t clean the wound with the practiced neutrality of a veteran nurse. During the leukemia battle of 2001, I saw inside his esophagus, stomach, and lungs–I stood right beside the doctors as they ran the scopes. I measured his urine, charted his bowel habits, sat in the hospital for thirty-one days. I passed those tests, but now, I was failing.

He was angry. After three years of hard losses–his mother and his granddaughter to death and his treasured daughter to New York–didn’t he deserve health, or at least a more competent wife???

I could give him neither apologies nor promises. All I could do was make the observation that in our wedding vows, if silently cleaning up a bloody slit neck three times a day for weeks upon weeks been announced as a requirement, I would have run back down the aisle screaming, “I am not the girl for that.” Oh, how quickly I would have left this life.

I have not left this life.

It is September again. Our nest newly empty, we are at my brother’s timeshare in Hilton Head, South Carolina. We are in separate bedrooms. It is considered a kindness if one of us brings the other something from the next room. If our elbows accidentally touch, we jerk away instinctively.

I am not his. He is not mine.

But it is September again. We have made it through one year of misery. We have sat,  separated by rage and weariness, each of us carrying an anger that would have been inconceivable to the Christian kids we were in 1991. (They are long dead now, but Tasha tells our daughters about them, stories that start with, “Your parents used to be . . .”)

I think it is a sadness that couples do not talk about the sorrowful times that they sit through. No one confesses that marriage is sometimes a long heartbreaking train ride where all you can do is look out the window. People pretend that all is well when nothing is–and, in doing so, they do a disservice to others. We need to see one another’s hard times firsthand. We need front row seats to sorrow and tragedy, not for the spectacle of it, but so that we know that our someday tragedies will be survivable–because we know others who have survived.

I don’t know why Greg and I are enduring the race that we are–so unhappy, angry, and broken–yet we are still here, enduring.

It is September again.

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Carrying Your Big Wet Dog (Thoughts on Cancer Survivorship)



June 2018

I am in a day-long staff development, never a good place for me. I have a hard time sitting still, being quiet, being professionally “appropriate.” I interject, grow restless, stand in the corner and stretch. I admire the way other teachers can sit and listen and contain their restless minds–how the elementary teachers listen patiently while the speaker discusses high school standards.

I can’t sit like that. I organize my Google drive, catch up on Poem-a-Day reading, and still hear every word. I try to self-regulate. I watch the clock, limiting my comments to one per half hour.

(Years ago, after attending a monthly series of regional staff meetings together, a teacher from another county stopped me as we were leaving. “You know,” she said, her hand on  my shoulder, “I have never in my life seen someone who looked like they weren’t paying attention at all who heard every word.“)

I do hear every word. I just can’t idly sit with my wandering mind. It might go to yesterday afternoon, when, in the back of a desk drawer, I found the inky footprint of my stillborn granddaughter. It might go to the recent death of my co-worker. The death of my best friend. The tests my husband Greg is about to have–since, fresh off of cancer #3, he couldn’t see the other day. My brain may scream, “HE COULDN’T FOCUS HIS EYES.”

I think it is better for everyone if I quietly read a poem 

During the meeting, I messaged a co-worker who was sitting in a waiting room in St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital where his young daughter, an ATRT survivor, was having her quarterly brain scans. He texted that she was in recovery. I replied, “I’m sorry. Every time. I’m so sorry.”

What I wanted to say, what suddenly sprang from my heart, was, “I’m so sorry you have to carry this wet dog around.”

I didn’t say that, of course. Too odd, even for me. Carrying a wet dog? 

September 2018

I’ve sat with that analogy all summer–long enough that he is today, again, at St. Jude’s awaiting his daughter’s scans. No one I’ve run it by gets it. They don’t understand when I look at them and say, “Surviving cancer is like carrying around a big wet dog.”

But . . . picture your dog lost in the woods. He has been there overnight, and you have been searching desperately, wandering down spider-webbed trails, your good shoes getting ruined by the muddy muck near the river. And, finally, there he is–you see him on the shore’s edge–he is soaked, the water running off his matted fur in rivulets. His paw is badly hurt, but you are so happy to see him that you don’t care. You elatedly scoop him up and begin to carry him home. He smells. He is sticky and panting and soaked. Your arms ache. The walk is long–through dry creek beds and briars; you dodge broken vines and stumble over tree roots. Your dog is whining–he’s tired and hungry and hurting–but you happily carry him. You whisper into the warmth of his ear: I will take you home, and all will be well.

You will rest together. He will be in his bed. You will be in yours.40862229_900181213506411_5640981768501723136_n

That’s the goal in Cancer Land. While well-meaning nurses may talk about survival in terms of children’s high school graduations and wedding days, the real goal is only this: everyone back in their proper place. Children in their beds, parents in theirs, under one roof.

When cancer causes you to miss that, even briefly, you realize that life’s treasure is simple: it is presence.

The ordered dinner table with every chair full–Dad, Mom, and offspring. Quiet chatter about boring days. Bickering about the last piece of chicken or who has to bathe first.

During a thirty-one day hospitalization, it’s all anyone craves: presence.

In understanding the treasure of presence, you truly comprehend the cost of loss.

The same hospital stay that teaches you to treasure a family dinner, a carpool ride, or a Monopoly game also allows you to survey the spectacle of death and sorrow. You are there when a grade-schooler gives a eulogy for his newly-dead father. When a groom diagnosed weeks after the wedding dies days before anniversary #1. When Val, who is young and beautiful and kind, dies anyway, and the nurses leave her name tag up by her empty room for days–until, when you can’t look at it anymore, you take it down.

(You still carry it in your wallet seventeen years later. You couldn’t throw it away in 2001. You are no closer to being able to now.)

If you are in the hospital long enough, you watch dozens of people die, sometimes two or three a day.

One weekend, five people die. Children die.

You still remember the wails.

319704_10151036722415980_65686374_nIt is a miracle that anyone escapes–that anyone walks away from their front row seats of sorrow and horror–and so much more of a miracle when it is you.

Miraculous to stand, to find some footing, to gather yourself and make your way past the travailing parents, their only daughter dead. To walk past the orphaned children, the people wailing, “All is lost!” To look at them, recognizing that, for them, all is truly, truly lost–yet you yourself are able to continue to walk.

To exit that place, to walk away from the helpless and leave them unhelped–it is, in some ways, the greatest sorrow of your life.

But you don’t care what it is you have to carry–how damaged or mangled or heavy your load–because you are walking flint-faced past scores of the barren and empty-armed.

Your arms are laden, and soon, you will rest.


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When God Laughs

39184517_1736073739836405_7478252427066474496_nToday was interesting at work. Teachers know that’s code–a code that encompasses things both good and bad, and as such, a lot of emotion. My new kids are still sorting me–and themselves–out; we are learning each other.

Theirs: Is Mrs. G serious about no cell phones? Does she give a lot of homework?

Mine: Which kid can I trust to actually come back if he runs something to the office? Are any of these kids actually going to talk to me? 

In these first days, too, last year’s kids are still “mine” enough that they drop by for a hug, or to complain, or to sneak an oatmeal creme pie.  And then there’s hall duty, where enforcing dress code amid the boundary-pushing requires an almost exhausting intensity.

I am knee-deep in children as I am about to lose mine: Abby is headed to Yale in two days. So sleep has not been a priority: I’ve been staying up late with her, laughing and eating Reeses and watching NCIS Los Angeles while she does the crossword on the couch and Snapchats pictures of the kitten.

Yet the kids, who are wonderful in every way, still need to be taught. And since I am on extended day this year–with no planning period–I am on all day. (In one of the best essays I have ever read about the demands of teaching, Anna Quindlen writes, “Teaching’s the toughest job there is . . . writing a column, I can stare off into the middle distance with my chin in my hand any time. But you go mentally south for five minutes in front of a class of fifth graders, and you are sunk.”) Walking a tightrope so early in the school year is difficult–doing so without even a chin-rub is more so.

Today, there was need: big need, little need, big need, little need, little need, snack need, very big immediate need–just a whole bunch of kids with their switches turned on. Of course, my co-workers and I helped every single one of these kids–I think educational lingo requires me to use the words “seamless cohesion” when describing how well we helped those kids, whose gratitude made sacrificing our lunchtimes worth it.

Facing collegiate errands, I came home tired; Abby met me in the driveway–I’d called on the way and told her to be ready to jump in the van the instant I pulled up. As she got in and slammed the door, I put the van in reverse, only for it to roll forward. I checked the gear shift again for the R. Again it lurched forward, but before it could hit the carport, it shuddered and died, windows down in the rain in the driveway. Please, God, I prayed, just let me roll the windows up. He did.

The third-hand fishing truck would have to get us to the bank at 20 MPH. There was no stress. No worry or obsession about the van–the Old Gray Mare, her catalytic converter, air conditioning, and now (likely) transmission problems were not worth our worry, so we didn’t talk about it. Didn’t even wonder how we would get around.

It was almost like we trusted the God of the sparrows and lilies.

We went to the bank, then to Ruby Tuesday’s, where we ate pretzels and drank strawberry drinks and looked at our phones too much. Next was TJ Maxx, which is our default safe haven. (You can look at ceramic French bulldogs with the same idle pleasure whether your life is tip-top or despairing.) Abby saw a favorite high school history teacher, and he was delighted to get “one last eye roll before she leaves.”

We went home. I tried to crank the van again. Nothing.

There was a large package on the kitchen table–definitely not the highlighters from Amazon that Abby was expecting. It was a late graduation gift from a friend who’d read Abby’s Common App essay, which includes her salute to a favorite song:

“Humble and Kind” is a little, gentle song sung by Tim McGraw. It stops me in my tracks, every time, with the solace it offers me. Tim McGraw sounds like me, drawing out his words, giving everything too many syllables. With the guitar I have heard my whole life, he sings “Always stay humble and kind/ Hold the door say please say thank you/ Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie.” I listen to this song constantly, doing physics, writing essays, unloading the dishes, because it is something I can do and something I have been doing. I am humble, most days, and kind.

There was a thoughtful card full of kind words with a check tucked in, and there was a wrapped gift that was obviously framed artwork. Abby unwrapped it, read the handwritten note on the back of the painting, then flipped it over. There they were: the framed song lyrics–a touchstone for my daughter’s dorm wall, a sign to say, “You may be at Yale, but this is who you are.”

I just put my head down on the entertainment center and cried. This whole Yale thing has been cobbled together piecemeal, and in this summer of a long cancer pay dock, God had once again shown His compassion and provision. The check would have been enough of a reminder of His sovereignty through this–but the picture? Well, that was just God waltzing through my house, chewing some gum and saying over his shoulder, “I knew you would want your kid to have this, so I got it for her,” and flinging it on the table.

I could see His wink. I could hear His laugh. He Done Showed Out.

39257743_214631729398385_6875106334283399168_nAn hour later, we headed to my dad’s for the start of the Goodbye Tour. As we pulled up, I noticed a small, cute red Honda I’d never seen before nestled under a tree in the yard.

We sat around the snack bar sneaking servings of my step-mother’s stuffing and talking about Yale and cats and cousins. I talked about my difficult day in vague terms, told them about the coup de grace, the likely death of the Old Gray Mare. Off-handedly, my step-mom said, “Well, there’s an eighteen-year-old Honda in the yard.”

Dad took me outside to see it: mildewed from sitting, with a leak in the roof, it cranked right up. The AC worked, and I wouldn’t have to duct-tape over the check engine lights. He wondered if I liked it.

I just stood there in wonder.

This is what we have learned from Stephanie Grace’s death; from cancer three times; from April’s return to her birth family; from Abigail’s admission to Yale; from our long-standing financial problems and all those medical bills: to see God’s hand.

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A Slow Walk to Wonder: Anencephaly, and Love

37233069_10215261927874206_5466771748877762560_nOn the day that my daughter April found out that the baby she was carrying had anencephaly, we weren’t terrified. We didn’t know enough to be. Even the baby’s gender was still unknown. We weren’t given sonogram pictures to obsess over, and we certainly didn’t know anyone else whose baby suffered from it.

Our friends, likewise, had never heard of anencephaly, and several googled it–and saw things they wished they hadn’t. More than one friend said, “You should have told us not to look that up.”

On the day of her birth, for just an instant after delivery, life felt like Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It was not until we saw her that we learned Stephanie Grace’s anencephaly was brought about by a severe case of Amniotic Band Syndrome,  in which bits of the amniotic sac’s lining somehow tangle around the baby.

Our world had shifted once on diagnosis day; on her birthday, those amputations and alterations we did not know could even be–horrors so great no one talked about them–changed our world again.

But the wholly-engulfing terror and loss lasted only a moment–a millisecond where the roller coaster plummets, the stomach goes–and then everything settles, the breath returns. The terror is gone.

In 2016, on those early-summer afternoons when I stared at the Drake elm in my backyard, I was lost. We all were. And people were scared to try to reach across our chasmed grief, since, as a cousin in New York confided, “They don’t make greeting cards for this.”

I’m not easily soothed. I can’t soothe, either. From the outset each school year, I tell my students that I will not pat them. They will not get daily compliments from me; praise will not be flung like confetti. I stand there and say some sweet things, “Honey, I love your jacket” or “Your hair is lovely,” and even though they do not know me yet, they agree: it sounds fake.

Then I talk about alcoholism, privilege, and pain. I talk to them about self-doubt and pregnancy and wild parties–things on teenagers’ plates. I tell them that I know that a teacher is just another problem in their lives; I know they pay their parents’ water bills, and Mom sometimes does crack before school. I acknowledge their pain.

I sound real.


It was not until four months after Stephanie Grace’s birth that we found the Facebook support groups Anencephaly Info and Anencephaly Hope. April, by then, was a thousand miles away living with her birth family, and I suppose my initial thought was that Facebook could provide her connection–a virtual peer group.

My initial Messenger exchange with Info’s founder was twenty-three words. It hardly seemed life-changing.

In those days, I listened to Shane & Shane’s “Though You Slay Me” on a loop during my planning period. Over and over I listened to John Piper declare, “Of course you can’t see what [your affliction] is doing . . . It’s not meaningless . . . do not lose heart. But take these truths and focus on them. Preach them to yourself every morning . . . until your heart sings with confidence that you are new and cared for.”

I saw no meaning in my granddaughter’s horrific death or my daughter’s anguish.

To even consider the possibility of a singing heart was absurd.

But on a quiet Spring morning, on the day of what should have been a sad stillbirth, my family instead had witnessed the hand of God. In that little hospital room, we felt the splitting of time, we glimpsed the eternal, we lived a Truth that most do not. And I will say it always, testify forever: I didn’t know Time could freeze like that, that Solitude could descend, that Love and God could wholly fill a space.

I shake my head as I type those words. I marvel still.

I imagine God chuckled, looking down at me that day–broken, willful, and impulsive on my best days–and said to Himself, “She is going to tell everyone what she sees Me do,” as He wooshed into that room.

37209108_10216042626315933_6139790444101369856_oBecause that’s what you cannot fathom on the dark diagnosis day: you cannot fathom that anything good will come; you cannot see any option other than pure pain. You see loss, loss, only loss. Such an abundance of loss.

And there is no room for joy in the words “incompatible with life, ” because, for parents, their children’s lives are their joy–the cuddling in the bed on Saturday mornings, everyone warm under the covers, safe and together; the first walk in the muddy backyard in the pouring rain, reveling in the toddler’s joyous splashing of his rubber frog boots; the simple pleasure of looking at cows.

On diagnosis day and in the shell-shocked weeks that follow, when so much is newly ruined, to imagine any possibility of redemption is almost impossible. To suggest it is nonsense.

But that’s what comes. After the funeral home, with the tiny Moses basket; the coffin so small a mother can carry it; the urn smaller than a child’s fist. After the months spent in the dark on the sofa–or in the rocker on the patio staring at silent trees. After the memory garden is planted and the headstone with its tiny angel wings arrives. After the first Christmas is survived, the Mother’s Day endured. After all those tears.

After all that, redemption slowly comes.

When I was younger, at church youth group, we had testimony time. We would stand in front of everyone, the microphone tightly gripped, and tell each other: this is what I’ve seen God do. This is what I know for sure. And there would be applause.

Truthfully, at that point in our lives, most of us had endured very little.

But I am thankful for that seed, for the understanding that it is important to say to others: I have done this hard thing, and I am standing here–because your standing implies that if they, too, have to walk that route, then they, too, will also stand.

That’s how I spend several hours a week now: testifying into a Google phone, talking to women in England and New Mexico and Belgium. Telling them how terrified we all were, how April didn’t think she could bear her sorrow, how I wanted to run from the room,  how we all thought we would collapse, but instead, we saw God.

I reassure them their babies are going to be beautiful, that their lives’ best worst day is coming. I tell them to try and believe me, despite the pictures on Google.  I ask that they instead look, really look, at the anencephaly family pictures posted in our Facebook group–the bonneted babies held by truly proud parents, their tiny fingernails painted like their mothers’, their footprints pressed into the family Bible, their beaming siblings bedecked in “Big Brother” and “Big Sister” shirts.

I tell them of the Love in the room.

Last week, two moms had their sweet babies. Born alive. Miracles, both.

And their moms’ first report was, as I promised them it would be, of all that Love.


About that Fried Chicken: Thoughts on Your Teenager’s Safety

fried_chicken_leg Money has been tight around here lately, what with college application fees, SAT and ACT score fees, and the $16 it costs to tell each college how broke you are using the College Board’s CSS form. The pantry certainly isn’t bare, but is full of boring apples, popcorn, and raisin bran–so Greg and Abby were both excited when, on a recent Sunday after church, I texted that I was bringing home some hot grocery-store fried chicken.

When I walked through the door with the bright yellow box, Abby happily told me that she had invited my longtime best friend to join us, saying,  “Momma bought some chicken.”

I had bought one $6 chicken. Eight pieces. (And grocery-store wings are small.)

Greg and I acted as if she’d invited the Son of Sam to lunch.

“What??? I got one chicken.”

“Your mom only got one chicken!”

Abby didn’t understand why we were so mad; she didn’t know that a chicken had only eight pieces. That her dad usually ate three. That grocery-store wings are small.

Even at eighteen, there’s a lot she doesn’t know.


The other night, Abby stood in her small bathroom, raging about college.  She’s applied to twenty-six schools, all thousands of miles north or west. To any college that waives the fee. To state universities “that don’t have Georgia in the name.” To heart’s desire “reach schools.”

She is going far away.

Despite the fact that this has forever been her plan (this is a girl who was drawing scenes of Paris at three), no one in our small town can believe it.

As she applied eyeliner, she ranted, “All these moms are like, “How’s Abby going to survive? My Leslie doesn’t need me as much as Abby needs her mom,” and I’m like, ‘But there’s a Snapchat video of your Leslie snorting coke.’ Maybe your kid isn’t dependent on you, but she is dependent on other things–boys or drugs or partying–maybe she does, in fact, need you and you just won’t see it.

It is amazing to her.

After twenty years in the classroom, it is time for me to yell, “Amen.”

Those of us who spend decades knee-deep in teenagers learn the mischief they create (“I just drop my cell phone whenever I need a new one, and then I tell my mom it broke.”); the things they believe (“My dad would rather see a beer than me.”); the people they admire (“My Papa is kind, but he is also tough.”); and the things they do (“I snuck out at three AM.” “I met a guy on the pier in Florida, and we went off riding.” “I bought my girlfriend a pregnancy test last night.”).

Of course, we report what we hear and see. We pull students into the hall for quick chats; we hand them Post-it notes with scrawled pleas–“Think about your future”–and stop by ISS, where the kids can’t escape us, and whisper long speeches about choices and decisions. We tell them, “You are going to break your mom’s/grandma’s/auntie’s heart.” We sometimes care too much.

So we nearly lose our minds when parents don’t seem to care enough.

Because, above all, teachers have to be polite. Always. We have to measure our words, phrase things kindly, restrain the urge to scream, “Don’t you see that your child needs you?”

We have to censor. I am censoring even now.

And I just want you to know how hard it is, especially when I am considering my daughters’ classmates, children I have known since they were four, whose hair I have brushed, whom I have fed pancakes, whose knees I have patched with band-aids. I love these children, and some are imploding, and I can’t say anything because IT IS NOT POLITE. 

There’s something in South Georgia permissive parental culture that says, “I drank beer by the river as a teen, and I’m okay.” “I went to that cheerleader’s house when her parents were away, and that party was wild, but hey, I didn’t die.” But there is nothing wrong with holding your children to a higher standard than you held yourself; to do otherwise is to allow your seventeen-year-old self’s decisions to impact another seventeen-year-old child–who needs, desperately, for his forty-two-year-old father to show some judgment and some interest.

What parents need to tell honestly one another is something along the lines of, “If my daughter starts to lose her mind, I want you to tell me. If you hear things about her or see pictures or just get suspicious, I want you to let me know. I won’t get mad at you. I promise not to hate you. Just help me before things get too bad.”

We care more about Sunday church-pew appearances than Friday night realities, and it shouldn’t be that way.

33363778_10214857303318845_6814365961890562048_nLast week, as students piled in my classroom, they were chattering about the previous night’s parties in a neighboring county. Their social media feeds that  night were evidently full of drunken kids, including middle schoolers, and their worldly sixteen-year-old minds were blown.

“There are going to be parties all week, Mrs. G.”

“These children thinking they’re grown.”

Loudly unspoken was the “and you have to do something.

I warned parents on Facebook–as did that county’s sheriff. He said he’d called in the Georgia State Patrol, but more importantly, he reminded parents to be parents, ever so politely, since this is the South: “Nobody wants to get a late night phone call that their loved one has been killed or placed under arrest for any reason. So parents and young adults please help me in preventing any of this from taking place.”

It is true that soon enough, our children will be hundreds of miles away on campuses full of drugs and frat parties and kegs and one night stands.  But they aren’t there yet. As the sheriff reminded us, we parents are still in a place to prevent–literally, “to hinder before.” 

And that’s what we should do.