We Never Know

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We hear it over and over again, and may even experience it, yet we so often seem to momentarily forget. Perhaps we do so because to consider the possibilities of such horror is just too difficult, and so we find ourselves being shocked by reality again and again.

Of course I am speaking of our need to cherish and appreciate all that is wonderful in our lives because we may one day find ourselves all too sadly staring into the abyss of a tragic loss. I learned that fateful truth at the age of eight when I awoke expecting to spend a day with family at the beach, but instead learned that my father had been killed in a car accident. There was so much that I might have said to him had I known what was to happen, so many questions I might have asked. Like so many I was blindsided and left with a nagging feeling of wondering if he ever truly understood how much I loved him.

Over the years I’ve seen such situations play out for me and others that again and again. There was the death of a dear friend from a heart attack, and my mother-in-law’s stroke both of which came so suddenly and unexpectedly. Beloved students died far too soon from car accidents and even murders. I comforted a cousin through marriage whose own cousin and best friend was killed in a freak accident while he was vacationing. A long time family friend was close to death after being injured while having an adventure with good friends. That time we all got lucky, and he did manage to survive but not without a long battle to regain his health. Like most people I might go on and on with examples of tragic and shocking events that knocked me off of my feet. 

Each of us has endured far too many such incidents. They tear at our hearts and sometimes even leave us with regrets. We want just one more hour with loved ones who are ripped from us so quickly, that we feel as though big chunks of our hearts went with them. We may have complete trust that God’s will is being done as it should be, but still feel as though the very earth has suddenly been pulled out from under our feet. We tell ourselves that we are going to be far better at opening our hearts to the people that we love. We pledge to never again take our lives for granted, and then we let the business of the world intrude.

I was reminded of that hollow feeling in times of great and unexpected loss by a heartbreaking post from my niece. A sweet family including a young couple, their two year old child, and their mom and dad had gone to Canada for vacation. They were traveling in a van down a mountainous highway when something quite terrible happened. They had a head on collision with another vehicle and in the aftermath six people lay dead and two were in serious condition in the hospital. Miraculously the toddler was unhurt, but his father and grandmother had died and his mother and grandfather were injured. The other victims had been in the other car when the fiery crash turned deadly.

My niece, Katie posted the article because her daughter’s kindergarten teacher was one of the survivors. Katie asked for prayers and explained that the young woman was an angel who had been exceedingly patient and kind to her little child. Katie was quite naturally very upset and concerned about the wonderful woman who had made such a lasting and beautiful impression on the children that she taught each day. 

Knowing Katie as I do, I am certain that she went out of her way to let this teacher know how much she was appreciated. Katie’s daughter truly loved this woman and in turn felt safe and secure in her classroom. There are probably countless other parents and students who feel the same way, but how many of them actually let their feelings be known?

It takes so little time to voice gratitude or to tell someone how much impact he/she has on our lives. So why do we seem to hesitate or get distracted by work and worries? I’ve brought up this topic so many times because I know without a doubt how important it is to sing praises when someone is alive to hear them. We’d like to think that our dearly departed know how we feel, but why take chances when we might make someone’s day while they are still very much with us? A quick call or note or email is all that it takes, and it will not just make the recipient smile, but will also bring a sense of joy to the sender of the good wishes.

I cried upon learning about the tragedy of this precious family that will never be the same after their horrific accident. I understand in a visceral way the physical and emotional pain that they will endure. I’d like to think that as they travelled together that they had so much fun that once the horror begins to fade, they will have beautiful memories to comfort them. I intend to pray for them, and remind myself once again just how fragile our existences really are. As the saying goes, we just never know what will happen from one moment to the next. We should always be prepared in both the way that we live and the ways in which we build loving relationships with the people that we encounter along our way. It’s a bitter lesson, but one that teaches us the importance of appreciating beyond measure every single breath that we take.

Life Is Good

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She dutifully arises from her sleep at half past five each morning to care for her beloved dogs, one of whom is a young puppy. She takes them outside and watches them as they romp around the backyard. Then she prepares their morning meals and smiles with contentment as the sun rise and the coyotes utter their mournful cries in the distance. The air is cool and just as invigorating as the coffee that she sips to awaken her brain just a bit more.

After the early morning routine she eats a light breakfast and dresses for a visit with the little goat that she has decided to raise. She lovingly brings the dogs back inside and gets them settled for her departure. She sits quietly and pensively during the short ride to the barn where her kid is housed. It is a beautiful time of day when the morning promises so many possibilities with its cool breezes wafting over the rugged terrain in the Texas hill country. Deer dart in front of the car or graze leisurely along the side of the road. Now and again a group of walkers smile at her as they go past.

Nobody else is yet at the barn when she arrives. It is summer time and most of the young people with animals have chosen to sleep in a bit taking advantage of the final few days before the school year begins. They will come to carry out their duties later, but she likes working in the coolness of the morning and listening to the members of the marching band practicing just across the way. She wonders how her good friends are doing with the rigorous sessions that begin at seven in the morning and continue until four in the afternoon. She thinks of them as she feeds her goat, refreshes his water, cleans his stall and walks him around the high school campus. Along the way she sees the cross country team practicing and greets locals from the neighborhood who are enjoying their daily walks.

Later in the afternoon she will repeat her duties with both the dogs and the goat. In between she enjoys the book assigned by her English teacher for summer reading and practices some Spanish in anticipation of the language class that she will be studying in the coming school year. Several days a week she works at a veterinary clinic observing and assisting in every possible way. Her goal is to one day be a veterinarian, and so she is focused on learning as much about animals as possible, which is why she chose to dedicate her time to a goat rather than playing the clarinet in the band. She enjoys being a musician by being a member of a youth orchestra instead. She is unquestionably focused on her goals with a maturity that belies her age of fourteen, almost fifteen, years. She even chose to stay behind while her family went on a vacation trip so that she might dedicate herself to her animals, at least for now.

On Sundays she takes riding lessons, mostly so that she will have the opportunity to learn about horses. She looks rather tiny as she sits tall and erect on her steed. It takes far more strength and athleticism than she had imagined to manage the animal, and she is often quite tired after guiding the horse around barrels and getting him to jump over gates. She takes instruction from her teacher quite seriously, repeating drills over and over again.

She will be a freshman in high school when the new academic year begins near the end of August. She has chosen a STEM pathway which will feature extensive studies of science and mathematics, but she is also set to take advanced English and Social Studies classes as well. She already understands how competitive it is to gain admission to the universities that she hopes to one day attend. She feels certain that she has chosen a goal that is doable and will also bring her much joy, but she understands how much time and work she will have to invest to get there. She is unafraid.

She is also a quite typical teenager. She sends and receives text messages from her friends all day long. She loves to shop and get the latest styles for her school wardrobe. She talks on the phone for hours once her duties have been completed. She exercises to keep fit and watches makeup tutorials to learn how to use beauty supplies correctly. She loves going to the mall with her best friend and trying on prom dresses and dreaming of one day buying and wearing one to a special event. She is fully aware of world events and has definite opinions about politics. She wants to one day have a positive effect on the environment and the people around her. She is wise and serious, innocent and quick to laugh.

She is our future as are her friends and so many young men and women who will one day be running our businesses, schools and governments. Her earnestness and unflagging dedication leave me feeling quite confident that we have no worries. With the thousands and thousands like her the world will move forward just as it should, just as it always has. When I see her I know that we often worry needlessly. The human spirit always finds a way to shine in people like this remarkable girl, and all of us will benefit from the endless wave of very good individuals like her who step forward to join the ranks of honest, productive adults. When I see her I know for certain that life is good.

The Stranger

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It was a very hot August day when the sky began to darken and lightning cracked nearby. I was a passenger riding in the comfort of my truck when a I saw him, an elderly man with skin darkened to the color and texture of leather from working outside all day. He was on a riding lawn mower, desperately attempting to finish his job before the rains came. He wore a straw cowboy hat and a bandana was tied around his neck to prevent the sun from burning his skin. His work clothes included a pair of khaki pants and a long sleeved shirt, a uniform well suited for the kind of labor he performed. I thought of how noble he looked as he continued to cut the grass and the weeds even as the threat of a storm became more and more imminent. I found myself wondering who this stranger was, where he and his family lived, how he had come to be so dependable and hard working. I wanted to know his story, for he reminded me of my grandfather who had once labored in a meat packing plant cleaning carcasses and dirty floors. He too had worked proudly and reliably to feed and clothe and house his wife and children.

All too often people like this man go unseen, invisible figures in the routine of our lives. We do not think to notice the challenges that such people face or to wonder how the world is treating them. Does he get stereotyped merely because of his complexion or the dirt and sweat on his clothes and skin? Do people turn up their noses at him simply because he does a task that few of us would ever want to do? Is he viewed as an outsider, an outcast, someone that we would not care to have near us even though he is doing an honest day’s work? How often is he misjudged?

I found myself thinking of this man long after our brief encounter. The rains started within minutes after I drove past him, no doubt either drenching him or interrupting the cadence of his work. I thought of how there are so many individuals who labor long and hard day after day only to earn barely enough to stay afloat, and yet they show up to perform their duties again and again because they are unwilling to simply exist through the charity of others.

I recalled a conversation that I once had with one of my students who revealed that he and his mother cleaned office buildings until the early hours of the morning. It was how they paid their rent and kept food in their pantry. He would return home each evening to sleep on the couch rather than in a bed because his siblings had already filled the bedrooms. He snoozed for a few hours and then awoke to go to school to wrangle with his teachers before heading to his night time job. He was a bright boy, but his grades were dismal because he had little time to complete homework assignments. He had to choose between studying and helping his family, and, of course there was no contest as to which to do in his mind. He was perennially exhausted, so he considered dropping out and maybe getting a second job and a bit more sleep. So many people thought that he was lazy, having little idea of how truly wonderful he actually was. Eventually his fate was determined by the economic demands that he faced. He left school, knowing of the dreary prospect of living from hand to mouth for the rest of his life unless some miracle allowed him to return to his studies.

We only think we know and understand those who struggle with poverty or live differently from the ways that we do. We pontificate about the importance of education and working hard and adhering to a budget as though the people who are facing unimaginable challenges are always responsible for their own fates. We choose not to see through their eyes, instead passing unfair judgements that are not backed up with evidence.

Another of my students once cried in my office as he spoke of his mother. This was a big and tough young man who seemed to have no fears. In truth he worried about the woman who loved him so much that she worked double shifts even though her health was rapidly failing. He described how she often came home from her job so tired that she fell asleep in the car, unable to make those last steps into the comfort of her home. When she did manage to stumble inside he would see that her ankles were swollen twice their normal size and the veins in her legs were bulging. She would be out of breath, almost unable to even speak. It was a sight that worried him, but he felt as though there was little more that he might do than earn a high school diploma, become certified for a trade, and then support her so that she might finally rest. He hid is concerns behind a kind of bravado peppered with jokes and attitude. He too was often estimated wrongly by well meaning adults who truly believed that he would never amount to anything. Their expectations for him were nonexistent, so he created his own goals and dreams.

I’m happy to say that both of these young men eventually did well through sheer will and a great deal of hard work. They have survived in ways that few of us would be able to manage and created bright futures for themselves in spite of their circumstances and little encouragement or support. They make me quite proud because I know what it has taken for them to make the changes in their lives and those of their family members. They are glorious in my mind just as that man on the tractor and my grandfather are.

It is sadly true that far too often those who do not match our own standards are thought to be somehow inferior. If we were to take just a moment to walk in their shoes we might learn that they are instead quite remarkable. Such wonderful souls deserve a salute for they are truly the salt of the earth. Think about that next time you see someone toiling away.

And So It Begins Again

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Old habits die hard. I still find myself living by the school year calendar even though I have now been retired for seven years. It seems as though summer vacation gets shorter and shorter for my friends who are still giving it their all in classrooms. Their time off gets squeezed into little more than five or six weeks when training sessions and voluntary prep time are considered. Somehow in spite of the low pay, lack of respect and physically and emotionally draining environment of their jobs, they return August after August filled with hope, altruism and optimism. As they troop back to their stations I find myself empathizing with them, understanding just how demanding their occupations actually are. At this time of year my body reverts to a mode of insomnia, peppered with concern for my fellow teachers and the battles that they will face in the coming months. My thoughts are focused on sending them good vibrations in the hopes that all will go well for them and for their students. Even knowing how challenging their days will be, I still find myself quietly envying them for the wondrous feelings of accomplishment that they will no doubt feel as they educate yet another group of young people.

I laugh as I read comments from my teacher buddies as they sit through those first days of seemingly useless inservice sessions that keep them from doing what they really want to do. Their thoughts are on planning lessons and preparing their classrooms, not reinventing the educational wheel or climbing ropes to build relationships with their colleagues. For the most part they find most of the mandatory sessions to have little value in preparing them for what they are about to encounter. They feel anxious and care little about what is being said.

Ironically I spent the last several years of my career being that person charged with designing the district required meetings that every teacher was compelled to attend. I did my best to make them interesting and a bit fun even though I knew in my heart that I had a captive audience that would have rather been free to ready themselves for the exhausting road that lay ahead. It often felt like performing at a comedy club with a tough audience that refused to laugh at even my best jokes. I read the body language that was ever so polite, but far from being engaged. What they rarely knew was that I mostly agreed with them that those first days back at work needed to be spent tackling the nitty gritty of working inside their own classrooms, not considering recycled education theories. It was simply neither the time nor the place for such things.

When I think back on my forty odd years of returning to work each August I remember only a handful of inservice moments that somehow struck my fancy. All of the others were akin to the vacuous sound of the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon. Mostly they were lessons in how not to inspire, and reiterations of theories that came and went. Because so little time was allowed for the things that we actually had to accomplish before the students came the following week, most of us worked long after being dismissed from the sessions, often returning on the weekend just before the opening day of school. Generally we were exhausted before the first bell had even rung.

One year I heard a vivacious women speak. She was a true story teller and her remarks were both touching and funny. What I recall the most about her talk was her admonition that we understand that there never has been nor ever will be one best way of teaching. Because each person is unique she advised us to adapt to the individual needs of our students, and sometimes that meant stripping down our efforts to the most basic and primitive methods, requiring only a stick and a plot of wet sand. Mostly, she advised us, it meant connecting with our students in truly meaningful ways, understanding what they needed to feel confident and successful.

On another occasion we began the academic year by taking a brief personality test, eating a glorious breakfast, and then being set free to take care of the business of preparing for the arrival of our students. It was such a magnificent experience to be trusted by our superiors to do the right thing. Everyone worked hard and there was more team building that year than I ever before or since experienced. At the end of the week when the entire school was gleaming and fabulous lesson plans were in the books, we gathered once again to enjoy a deliciously catered lunch and to learn the results of our personality tests. The gifted principal used the occasion to stress that the faculty with its differing individuals was a microcosm of our own classrooms. She emphasized that each type of person brought particular talents to the table just as our pupils would.  She ended by insisting that we leave early and reserve the weekend for some final relaxation. She gave each of us a basket filled with supplies, snacks, coupons, and even a little bonus check. Somehow I still remember that school year as the best ever, and I suspect that it was mostly because of its glorious start.

Teachers do indeed sacrifice a great deal for their students. It is a ridiculous myth that they are mostly individuals who are not suited for better pursuits. Those without talent and intellect are lucky to last for a year. The ones who return again and again are generally the best of our society. They come because they are truly dedicated to a breathtaking cause. They will work for peanuts for twelve or more hours a day from August until June. They will spend their weekends planning and grading and worrying about their students. They are known for generously spending hundreds and even thousands of their own dollars to keep their classrooms stocked with supplies.They will develop weak bladders and problems with their feet, backs and knees from the abuse that comes from being on constant alert for the welfare of their charges. They will learn to ignore the never ending insults that are hurled at them from a public that has no idea how difficult their jobs actually are. They will soldier on because deep in their hearts that know how important their work is to our society. They are building the foundation upon which everything else depends, and accomplishing it without much respect or help.

So, yes, I think of all the teachers at this time each year. I feel the sense of anticipation, the worries, and the wish that just once our world might truly acknowledge the massive contributions of that all of these wonderful individuals give so freely. Perhaps one day we will learn how to treat them the way that they deserve.

A Fit of Nincompoopery

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According to the dictionary a nincompoop is a silly or foolish person. Nincompoopery refers to the beliefs and behaviors of a nincompoop. It is folly, stupidity. With a tip of the hat to Nero Wolf who first proposed the turn of the phrase, I submit that each day Twitter becomes the locale of many “fits of nincompoopery.”

Let’s face it, how much of great worth can be stated or argued in only one hundred forty characters? The comments are generally so terse that they might be interpreted in dozens of different ways, and therein lies a great number of the problems. Add to that the trolls lurking under the Twitter bridge and the so called discussions often become quite nasty, festering like plastic bags for perpetuity. Many a soul has lost a job or been revealed as a scum bag because of an outburst of tweets that might better have been left unsaid. We now live in a world of instant verbal arguments among strangers who somehow erroneously believe that they are doing no harm. It all reminds me of the back and forth that I sometimes heard among rival groups of fourth graders when I was teaching elementary school long ago.

Sure it’s a free country and all that, but frankly I’m becoming quite weary of the vast numbers of degrading tweets, particularly when they come from people who should know better than to let their fingers run afoul of common decency. We all see and hear things that make us angry, but generally control our temptations to lash out. There is a certain level of immaturity associated with outbursts that are hurtful to other people, so I find myself wondering when we lost our sense of decorum.

We have Roseann Barr, who has never seemed to know when to keep her mouth shut, losing a popular television series over rash racist observations. There is a New York Times journalist who seems to think that there is nothing particularly wrong with hurling invective at white men. The director of the highly successful Avengers series was recently fired over troublesome tweets and jokes made many years ago. Of course there is also the embarrassing aspect of the President of the United States making a fool of himself and the country far too many times with his late night rants. Regardless of the defenses being suggested in these cases, we somehow have a sense that something is going terribly wrong, particularly when we accept such behaviors as normal.

Freedom of speech is an important aspect of our Bill of Rights and certainly insults between adults are nothing new, but the more frequent incidence of such behavior is bothersome to me. I prefer a bit of propriety in public. If two people wish to engage in verbal fisticuffs in private, so be it, but why do we now seem to actually encourage public verbal executions, and even sometimes get down in the mud with the perpetrators?

Believe me, I do not wish to indict certain individuals or political persuasions because quite frankly there is plenty of criticism to go around to all sorts of people. I’d just like to encourage everyone to be careful about rapid responses that are hurtful and ugly. Those kind of things have a nasty way of coming back on us, but more importantly we need to rise above the muck and grime as a way of life. Nobody ever wins an argument with invective, and most often it’s not even necessary to attempt to do so. What does it really matter if someone disagrees with our beliefs? Why should we feel compelled to put down individuals with whom we have a difference of opinion. The likelihood that we will actually make a difference in their thinking is slim to none. Indeed what will probably happen is that we will make them even more enraged.

I refuse to be that person who gets pulled into verbal battles, and I think that we would all do well to walk away when a fight of words seems imminent. I learned long ago as an educator that ignoring nincompoopery is the quickest way to shut it down. Most people who engage in such shenanigans are just looking for an audience and I refuse to give them one. Perhaps more of us should consider bringing in the crickets whenever someone is being outrageous.

As a society we still have not yet learned how to deal with social media successfully. We forget our manners and too often neglect to take a deep breath before reacting. We have people using our outrage to stoke their own egos. We don’t have to play their game.

I am slowly learning how to move quickly past comments and tweets that make me feel uncomfortable. I choose to let them just lie on the ground seemingly unnoticed. I am seeing more and more evidence that lots of folks are following the same routine. The most egregious remarks that I see are frequently going without response, which is the way that we might all shut them down.

There is a flock of mockingbirds living in the trees in my backyard. They chatter day and night, but I have learned how to turn off the volume in my head. Now I scarcely hear them even though they are still there. I’m doing the same with Twitter.