Monthly Archives: May 2016

Remembering Riches

One of my favorite students ever was Elizabeth Johnson.

She was such a favorite that even now, seven years after her funeral, typing the word was brings immediate tears. She was a member of my all-time favorite class–a class that was hysterically funny, clever, and determined.They loved to laugh, and they were charmers, all. Now, as I call roll mentally, after almost every child’s name, I think, “She/he was a character.” They rollicked through the days–everything they did was fun. My room was spared from their senior prank, save a huge wooden jack-o’-lantern sitting in my chair. (One of the girls conspiratorially whispered, “We left you the jack-o’-lantern because we thought you’d think it was funny!” They were right.)

Elizabeth was special. If I summed up why, listed her good qualities, talked about our one-on-one chats, and wrote of her beauty, it would seem I was glorifying and idealizing. I wouldn’t be; I’d be telling the truth. I adored her; she was one of the students whose future I could see, the path clear: college, med school, a career in pediatrics. I could see her whole, successful life.

And then she was gone. Away at college, a victim of a car crash.

Gone: unfathomable. (Still.)

I found myself, days later, standing in a funeral home, talking to her father. Elizabeth had written a particularly good journal entry years before about a perfect day visiting him on his blueberry farm. A good writer, she’d captured talking with him, spending the day on the dirt roads with her sister and him–the simple joy of a regular day with her dad. It was all there, on paper: her love for him, the farm, and life itself, expressed well enough that I remembered it years later. Pathetically, I tried to share it with her dad, knowing that the journal entry, which I’d returned to her, had likely been thrown away, seen as just another daily grade–when it would now be treasure.

I don’t recall a conscious decision, but the next year, I found myself marking journals that talked about parental kindness and love with “C” for “copy” in the upper left corner and marking the grades on the back. These entries went immediately to the copy machine and then the copies were shoved in my bottom desk drawer. Never again would I have to hazily recollect for parents the words of their children: the parents would know–they would read them themselves, these sweet surprises in the mail. Reminders that their children, under all that bravado, truly love them.

I mail them in May, around the anniversary of Elizabeth’s death. Entries that are honest and plain: “I went back home and my stepdad taught me how to parallel park, and I realized that a lot of people don’t have a great dad like that.” “I’ve always loved going on dates with my dad.” “I am so grateful for my stepdaddy for everything he does for us. He protects us, he loves us, and he makes sure we get everything we need.” “My dad would do anything for me . . most kids would kill for the dad I have.””My dad stood me up but my stepdaddy said to never be sad because your real dad wasn’t there because I will always have him.” “It was fun to finally hang out with her on her day off. No work. No school. Just me and Mama.”

I may have inadvertently discarded one father’s memories, but I now save the words of love that parents need to hear. Things they need to know and remember. Reminders of how truly rich they are.

And I remain ever glad that I knew Elizabeth Nicole Johnson, who taught me so much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kindness: Thoughts on Those Who Double Back

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Like most fat kids, I spent my elementary years on the fringes of the playground. Classmates built my character by picking me last in PE and giving me enduring nicknames such as “Big Bertha Blue Belly” and “Rogel Wiggle.” Middle school brought with it more horrific name-calling and exclusion, but also a few kindnesses–there’s the day that every classmate still remembers when my shoes were thrown on the roof of the school, but there’s also the pleasant evening that a kind upperclassman asked me to dance with him. High school, well, it was its own land of quasi-tortures, with the requisite mix of angst, rejection, and fragile autonomy. I went alone to both proms and survived. (I was the only girl with two corsages: one from my doting grandfather and another from the kind-hearted principal.) I was also student council president, a senior superlative, and many other now-meaningless things.

My bullies taught me lots, but the most valuable thing I learned was to appreciate simple decency. To notice kindness.

In 1989, several of my classmates had a small reunion during our sophomore year in college. There were about eight of us in my cousin’s apartment; I hadn’t seen any of the others in months. I’d lost weight for the first time ever, and while I wasn’t thin, I was far closer to average than I’d ever been, and several people made kind comments. Then one of the guys bluntly–and intentionally–said, “You’ll never be pretty, no matter how much weight you lose.” 

I was shell-shocked. Having been free of bullying for over eighteen months, I had dropped my guard only to be blindsided. To be brutally dismissed, to have my success diminished–to be forced abruptly back into my place–it all left me wounded and speechless.

I retreated to the kitchen and began washing the coffee mugs, and several of the boys mumbled that it was probably time for them to go. I don’t recall any of them saying good-bye to me. I just remember staring blindly out of the kitchen window, hurt and angry.

As the boys made their way past, Stephen stopped. He rapped on the window, looked me in the eye, grinned and winked. As if to say, “That guy’s an idiot. What does he know?” He held my gaze, making sure I got the message, and then sauntered off.

In that instant, my confidence was restored. He was kinder than he had to be: doubling back to reassure a casual friend. He noticed and he cared.


Now, five weeks after Stephanie Grace’s stillbirth, we have found ourselves somewhat on the mend. We managed to patch together about four good days–we ate home-cooked dinners as a family, played a few board games, watched Andy Griffith, and all laughed hysterically when, after stepping on my toe, Abby thanked me for not swinging on her. (Greg: “Have you met your Mother? She couldn’t swing on anyone!”) Those were encouraging days.

But the past forty-eight hours have brought with them stress, anger, and tears. We have all cried. We have all struggled. And as The Mom and The Caregiver, I have been trying to reassure and comfort and feed, while being close to collapse myself.

Today after school, we were all still teetering somewhere between sadness and stability, searching for distraction. Greg worked in the yard–his comfort over the past weeks. April cuddled in the recliner with a lapful of kittens that a friend dropped off yesterday, and Abby headed to the YMCA–workouts have been her redemption lately.

I decided to run errands. I was mad and tired and lonely, but the van needed gas and supper required a bag of shredded mozzarella.

I’ve been an incompetent errand-runner lately. I sometimes go to Kroger three times a day before I get it right; I can’t recall what side of the car my gas tank is on, and I can’t manage to remember to look for the helpful arrow near the fuel gauge. I ride around the pumps like a drunken rodeo clown.

Today, I remembered to look for the arrow, and I pulled in the station to wait, noticing that my former students’ mother was at the pump. “Hurry up,” I teased. She said, “Oh, hey!” and continued pumping gas. I was a little disappointed because I wanted to hear about her kids–diversionary small talk about my students is always enjoyable–but I played Scrabble on my phone as I waited.

And then, she was standing at my van’s window, her hand on my arm, asking about both my girls. Saying she was sorry about the baby. Saying we’d been in her prayers, really. That they’d been thinking of us, really. And Christ’s love shone in her eyes.

The heavens didn’t open. I didn’t feel the weight of the world lift. But I felt remembered and loved and acknowledged. She hadn’t yelled from the distance; she had come to me and touched me. Held my gaze. Cared: for my girls and for me.

Some weight, lifted.

I prayed on the way to Wal-Mart. For us. For this. For us surviving this.

I got the cheese, some granola, and artificial tears. Chatted with an indignant single father about the outrageous price of Frosted Flakes, agreeing that $4.98 was a lot to ask for “mainly air.” I didn’t see a soul I knew–unusual for a teacher in a small town–and left the store to fetch Abby.

A woman was coming in the exit and greeted me warmly. I had no idea who she was, but recognized her, and I returned her hello with all the energy I could muster. I was still trying to remember her name as she approached me on the sidewalk, smiling. “You may not remember me, but I’m J—-‘s mother,” she explained. “I just wanted you to know, I’ve been reading your blog. I am thinking of you. We are praying for you all.” She looked me in the eyes, sincere. Kind. She had doubled back to remind me that my family mattered.

A destruction complete, savage and heartless, leaves unwalking wounded.

We are, in many ways, still lying beneath rubble hoping to glimpse the blue sky. When friendly faces peer in and hold our gaze, saying, in effect, “I can’t get you out, but I know Someone who can, The Only One who can,” it offers the reminder that Our Rescuer is coming. That this will be redeemed.

We are encouraged.

And we wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stillbirth: One Month On

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Memorial flowers still absorb our silent cross-eyed stares.

(What is this? What is this, even?)

Sympathy cards pile on her dresser.

Crisp handwriting and broken words.

(There are no words when there is no life.)

So much stolen that the words go, too.

Meals feralize. We eat all. Or nothing.

Books cannot distract. (The crossed eyes, taut, refuse.)

TV–never compelling–now even worse.

Prayers surround us, unanswered:broken steppingstones.

A few more could not hurt. But they (may) change nothing.

We cannot touch each other.

The ramrod anger stiffens so; there is no bend or ease:

No reaching arm, nor hand of comfort.

Father, mother, daughters–none can hold our own hard sorrow.

(Do not, please, prop yours unthinkingly here even for an instant.)

Work lies like forgotten knitting. One day we craft. The next–indolence.

(It is absurd how little truly matters. The world lies: to claim value in the worthless.)

Our teeth unbrushed. Our unkempt, haphazard hair trimmed in the dim bathroom.

(Who can brave the Southern beauty shop?)

No rest is found in darkness. Nightmares abound, constant and grim.

(Except one sweet reprieve in a garden sculptured with stark metalloid poppies.)

Even the most obtuse pity our brokenness. Impelled to help, nevertheless

Sensing the ridiculous in the grand gesture, so worthless with its words.

This known, they are simple and quick. (Unrelenting.)

Repeatedly they push the stuck and damaged buttons of our broken hearts.

Daily, students press their warm faces to mine; insistent touchstones.

(The whirring cameras document their dogged reaching beyond my statuary.)

Kind questions and hugs in the acquaintance-filled grocery store,

Like spider webs flung over the Grand Canyon–

perhaps (someday) shall lead us back to the known familiar.

 

And we may find the people we were before this devastation.

Before the raging. Before such sorrow.

 

Before we fully knew.

 

 

We Should Have Said More

IMG_3726When we were in Seattle in the spring of 2001 for my husband’s bone marrow transplant, we allowed our six-year old daughter to fly home to Georgia for her last week of first grade. (This was pre-9/11; also, it was a non-stop flight.) Before April boarded the plane, I was a sobbing, hysterical mess–Greg was faring very poorly at the time; he had pneumonia, and he was in strict isolation. It was quite possible that April had seen her father for the last time, and the thought of her across the country, alone, as he died, was too much for me. My good-bye to her was an awful one.

The stewardess escorted April, clutching her Dora the Explorer doll, away; she was the last to board the plane, save one: an intimidating six-foot four handcuffed prisoner flanked by two FBI agents boarded immediately after she did.

(People who know me are now thinking: And that’s when Rachel got her child off the plane.)

I got April off the plane. But not because of the prisoner. I told the steward that I had botched the good-bye, that her father was potentially dying, and that my daughter didn’t need her last memory of her strong, steadfast father to be tainted by my blithering. I promised to do better–and be quick.

April emerged from the jetway. I apologized for crying so much. I told her, “I don’t think your daddy is going to die. He could, and that makes me sad. But I don’t think he will.” She nodded gravely, her dark brown eyes serious.

(Then, in a chipper tone, I asked, “So, are you anywhere near a rich, tall man in handcuffs???”)

From the airport, I immediately returned to Greg’s hospital room, where I told him of my first failure and subsequent second attempt. “I don’t think I could tell the girls that you might die,” he said simply. “I just couldn’t.”

Before 2001, perhaps I would have felt that way–but that year, we watched over twenty people die, among them small, beautiful children. Daily, we witnessed the rawest anguish and pain. Families had travelled cross-country or around the world in desperate hopes of saving their dearest loved ones, and their loss and the price were too much to bear. Heartbreak was a constant neighbor, and death was just a plain reality.

Yesterday, death and heartbreak found us in Georgia. A high school classmate died of complications of cancer. She was 47 and much-loved. Friends were screaming on the phone to me. “What?How can this be? I didn’t know she was ill!” “Is this a sick joke? You have got to be kidding me!” And over and over, “Her poor momma.” The shock combined with an obvious and unspoken, “I wish I had known.”

There was only one Facebook post of hers about her illness. The rest of her posts stayed true to her loves: family, friends, and pets. Casual friends hundreds of miles away had no real way to help her because we had no real way to know–so the shock of her loss is tinged with the regret that we didn’t take the time we would have to make her laugh, share some memories, and perhaps even make amends. We missed our chance to console. To remember. To honor.

Several years ago, another friend made a similar choice. One of the most head-strong women I’ve ever known, she too was ill, also with cancer. She wanted no one to know. There was to be no fuss, no one taking long trips to sit bedside and make small talk–she just wanted her family and present-day friends. The news of her death was heart-breaking, as was the knowledge that we’d missed our goodbye.

People travelled hundreds of miles to her funeral. Like us, some hadn’t seen her in thirteen years–but we laughed at the stories told from the pulpit. Yes, she did take her friends’ toddlers to Disney movies so that their weary parents could sleep. Yes, she was a germaphobe. Yes, the love of God did shine through her brightly. Eulogies and testimonies of her love for others abounded. And none of us could be angry that she chose to keep her illness private–because it was true to her character that she did so, certainly, out of humility and love.

As I sit here, shocked by another too-soon death, I look back over our messages about pets and husbands. Mundane, but joyful. And I think about what I might have added, had I known: “I always admired your smile. You were always so kind to everyone, no matter the circumstances. It is obvious that everyone in your adopted hometown adores you. I wish you peace.”

I would have done and said more.

And so, here it is: all we can do is say more. It may be uncomfortable at first, but we can say things like, “I appreciate you so much.” “Thank you for standing there with me.” “I can always count on you to be by my side.” “You make me laugh when nothing is funny.” “You were like a mother to me.” “When my day was lousy, you were always there.” “I could not have survived this without you.” “You can always make me feel better.”  “My life is better because of you.””I love you.”

Our friends, our true friends, can hear it–the simple and pleasant truth that they matter. They’ve made the journey survivable for us.

Then, one day, should their own journeys become unsurvivable, they will know that their love mattered, their friendship was valued, and they will be forever missed.

And great will be the peace.

 

 

 

 

 

Mothering (Gray Day) Warriors

If you get the wrong mother, hush.

Never speak of it.

(Maybe she didn’t want you, either.)

 

When you see your classmate with a quiet, lip-sticked Mother

(who is not dancing with the policemen and perhaps never has)

do not want that muted version.

If, at age eight, you play Monopoly at Cynthia’s house and

enjoy brownies, milk, or actual conversation with her Mother

(who framed Cynthia’s artclass hydrangea and hung it in the living room,

shocking you with the power of maternal display)

want what you have instead and be grateful.

When you hear the spectacular anthology of things your mother did

while you were young and insistently ill–your illness precipitating hers

(do not blame yourself, but do not forget that you were the root,

the first pull on her sanity, the initiate seed. That was you.)

accept her warranted beatification without question.

When she now calls at 3:00 AM because her feet are cold and she needs socks

or at noon when her dentures are lost, or at midnight to talk about her sick cat

(you woke her once upon a time, and please do not forget

all of those library trips, which were at least three miles round trip)

listen to her politely. Be kind and good.

(She cannot, after all, be blamed. Tragedy is its own jagged fault.)

If you cannot buy enthusiastic flowers or calligraphed cards

with words of praise and pleasantry on Mother’s Day

(it would be easy to–for one day–feign a right celebration)

do not write the honest words

of hardwood, worthy truth:

She did (every day) the best she could.

(Though you know not how that is not Most Purely Beautiful.)

 

Why not acknowledge that she did (and does) her muddled best

with only the sloppy constant tool of inadequacy and pain?

And chanced to create children who withstand and see and acknowledge and survive

Life. Abundant tragedy. Galore.

(Isn’t it cruel that the world demands a day of silent Hallmark honor

And yellow roses of such warrior offspring?)

The better reward may be

that these resile often-hollow brittled children invite her

to sit on their sofas; bring her cold drinks; answer their phones

rebelliously delighting in the sound of her mothering voice.

They bring long-wrought absolution in

Hopeful cups of over-iced tea; salvation and forgiveness.

Acquitting even the weary gray-bed weeks when, thinking to hide her pain,

she shifted it instead unknowingly to their young clean backs.

 

Society demands plasticine homage.

But she will gratefully sip

even the most lukewarm thimbled water

in mute and reverent celebration of her best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teachers Deserve Biscuits–and Respect

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I am a teacher. I know because I was given a Burger King biscuit today. And I got to wear jeans. And a link from ClassDojo popped up promising an inspirational video. And Google’s doodle of the day is related to teaching. It’s Teacher Appreciation Day, after all. A $1.29 biscuit, a cartoon crayon, and a three minute video should fill my empty tank right up.

I’m grateful for all these things. (I even had two biscuits.)

I live in the small town I grew up in. I was in the top five in my high school class in the late 1980s. The other four, all men, are now a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, and a retired Air Force officer. Me, I teach high school three miles from the one we attended, and I see two of the four men fairly often since their children attend our school.

These men are, by our community’s standards, well-off. They live in nice brick houses in desirable subdivisions and drive fairly new cars. They are not snobby or ostentatious. They are kind-hearted and are always genuinely glad to see me. The doctor has cared for my husband, a two-time cancer survivor, for over twelve years now. He is patient and thorough and calm, and my husband’s continued health is due in part to the excellent care this former classmate has given him. These men are great. Their success is not a problem at all.

The problem is this: when you read the sentence, “The five top graduates are now a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a teacher, and an Air Force officer,” you don’t want to be the teacher.

You don’t think, “Man, that must be some teacher.”

Your heart doesn’t immediately cry, “My son could become a teacher.”

You don’t instantly imagine the teacher’s nice car or nice house or–if we’re really being honest–nice anything.

Money and esteem, typical measures of American success, don’t apply to the teacher.

Money? I can’t earn more if I’m the best teacher in the school (I’m not). My students once were fourth in the state on a high-stakes test. My reward?  A certificate signed by the state school superintendent. Cashiers at Kohl’s earn fifty cents when a customer signs up for a credit card, but a teacher can’t expect something as gauche as money for being the fourth best in the entire state. I was recognized as a STAR teacher: a brilliant student who made a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT picked his English teacher as the most impactful educator he’d ever had. I got a padfolio, a pen, and lunch. 

I am, honestly, properly grateful for these awards. They’re more than many of my hard-working coworkers will ever see, and, really, I can do the noble teacher. I drive my 2004 Sienna and my teacher husband drives his 2000 Tacoma, and we don’t even THINK of newer cars. We live in a modest cinder block house in a good neighborhood. We’re happy enough. In our community, where the entire school system receives free breakfast and lunch, we see enough daily poverty to know to be seriously grateful for what we have. We appreciate our jobs’ benefits and our summers “off.” (We get up at 5:50 AM all school year. Do consider that.)

Esteem? A doctor can make you feel better, sometimes instantly. A lawyer can draw up legal documents and give sound advice. An engineer? Not only can he design bridges, but he can do hard math. And the Air Force? In a word: Jets. Of course these skilled people deserve societal esteem.

I can’t compete with jets. But I went sixteen years without a fight in my classroom.

I can’t do hard math. But I can talk a nervous teenage boy into telling his mother that she’s going to be a grandma.

Although I can’t draw up a legal document, I can give advice. I can talk to a cutter calmly. I can make an LGBT teen feel welcome and safe. I’ve helped suicidal and mentally ill kids reach out for counseling. After all my years in a public school classroom, there is little that startles me, and if I’m calm, my hurting kids usually are, too.

Certainly, I cannot give anyone medical help. But if a student needs to talk about the fact that Grandma died, I’m here. If she is struggling with a sick mom and an angry dad, I’m here. If a student writes about the pain of never having known his father, I’m here, and I’ll tell him the secret: a lot of his classmates haven’t met theirs, either.

I make students feel less alone every single day. I make the outside world seem welcoming and accessible. I remind them of college and scholarships and stable families–things that await them if they will just stay in school and relentlessly pursue the dream while perhaps living in a nightmare.

Why is this not esteemed? Our society is more impressed by a doctor’s ability to complete a two hour gallbladder removal than a teacher’s ability to keep thirty teens engaged and learning for the same two hours. We should recognize that classroom management is a skill set that is worth rewarding. The ability to unify very different students, to create lifelong bonds in just ninety days, to teach things like synecdoche while simultaneously competing with Snapchat–these are true talents. The men and women who possess these skills–the people that our children come home talking about day after day after day–merit something more than a Google doodle and a breakfast sandwich.

My younger daughter is a high school sophomore at the school where we teach. She is profoundly gifted; our older daughter, who is learning disabled, is a graduate of our school. Both girls shared three teachers, and now, discussing them at the kitchen table, their eyes shine as they chatter.”S—— is great!””E—— made learning fun–he was serious, but he joked around sometimes.” “H—– pretends to be mitochondria–it’s real great!” They laugh. These teachers were so much fun. They taught my very different daughters the same things: to be confident, hard-working learners. To be responsible. To dream and to pursue.

Teachers are the only professionals that children need in droves–for music and for math, for volleyball and Spanish. Every student usually has at least thirteen teachers, and perhaps as many as fifty-two. Children don’t need that many doctors or lawyers.

Students spend over 16,000 hours with teachers by their high school graduation. It’s astounding–years ago, my daughters knew nothing about medieval England, atomic mass, polynomials, or word processing. They have spent thousands of hours learning these and so many other things under the tutelage of professionals who wake up daily at dawn, who arrive at work early and stay late, who are inventive and compassionate and kind, who could make more money immediately in the private sector, but choose instead to help my daughters–and students like them–go forth.

I wish our society could see teachers’ skill, reward their merit, and esteem them for what they are: true professionals.

Societal respect–it’s the one thing that would always beat a biscuit.