Begin With the Little Ones


Yesterday my niece posted a photo of her eight year old daughter lying in bed grieving over the death of a special little kitten. The image was heartbreaking because it illustrated the depth of the little girl’s feelings. She was so obviously bereft. Her mother sweetly acknowledge the youngster’s emotions, noting that the child was only eight but appeared to have the sensitivity of someone far older. Because my niece is a wise and excellent mother she was more than prepared to acknowledge and deal with her child’s sorrow. I have little doubt that the beautiful child will be able to work out her feelings under the loving guidance of her mom.

Sometimes we adults tend to believe that there is a sliding scale of human emotions running from one to ten with ten being the most powerful. We assume that children’s feelings lie somewhere along the lower end and that only adults are capable of feeling the full force of sorrow. The truth is that children are just as likely to endure the maximum impact of difficult situations as older individuals but they don’t always know how to understand or even express their pain. Quite often they either act out in ways that appear naughty or they withdraw into a world of confusion. Unless an adult recognizes that their behavior is a sign of inner turmoil, they may end up repressing thoughts and feelings that need to be expressed.

Like the my niece’s little girl I was only eight when I experienced a great loss, the death of my father. There was a swirl of activity around me as friends and family gathered to console my mother. She was, of course, quite bereft and almost incapable of functioning. She was in a state of shock for days and only managed to pull herself together because she was determined to care for me and my brothers. She was above all a loving mother. Unfortunately almost all of the well intentioned adults seemed to believe that I was far too young to even comprehend the magnitude of what had happened much less have strong feelings. When they came to help my mama they shooed me outside to play. They thought that I needed distractions from the whispering and crying that was unfolding inside the house. Their intentions were good. They truly believed that they were protecting me from the harsh realities. They did not realize how much I needed to be part of the grieving process.

I was feeling tortured and confused. I desperately wanted more than anything to talk about what had happened to our family. I spent my days barely holding together with an act that convinced everyone that I was totally oblivious. At night when I believed that nobody was listening I cried myself to sleep. My thoughts were so unresolved that for a time my personality changed. I became fearful and hyper-responsible. I somehow felt that it was up to me to be a very good girl for my mother’s sake, even as I wanted to scream and act out.

I suppose that it was natural for the grownups caring for me to think that my lack of response to my father’s death was proof that I was too young to have a concept of what was happening. They were probably even relieved that I appeared to be so passive and unconcerned. The reality was that I was in dire need of counseling but nobody ever picked up on that fact. I dealt with the terror inside my head on my own, sometimes convinced that something was wrong with me.

Over time I reflected on my situation and my personal feelings and I was able to self-heal. Reading and observing led me to understand and console myself. I eventually overcame the poisons that stayed so long in my mind but I suspect that I have a few more scars than I might have had I been given the opportunity to talk with a kind and caring adult who was willing to value my emotions and assure me that I was normal.

I suspect that my life-long love of working with troubled children has been a way of coping with my own inner demons. I have found that all that little lost souls sometimes need is someone willing to listen to them with respect. Our understanding of the human mind has evolved even in my lifetime. We now realize that children are as emotionally complex as adults and that in times of trauma they require the kind of gentle and loving care that my niece has afforded her little girl. We no longer underestimate the powerful emotions elicited by loss. We have come to realize that each of us no matter the age reacts to tragedy and trauma in ways that must be addressed and honored.

Most schools today are staffed with counselors and observant teachers who watch for signs from their students that something is amiss. Modern day parents talk openly with their little ones and have age appropriate discussions about the life and death situations that affect them. Children are generally allowed to express themselves in quiet and safe conversations.

We have come a very long way in understanding the human psyche but there are still terrible problems in our society. The young man who began a shooting spree here in Houston over the weekend had served in Afghanistan. Family members said that he had come to believe that society was about to collapse. I have little doubt that what he had done and seen in war had somehow broken him. There is no telling what was going through his mind. The sad truth is that our veterans are suffering in particular. Each day there are far too many of them committing suicide or considering acts of violence. We have let many of them down by neglecting to help them to deal with the stress and the terror that they have endured. All too often we send them back home to deal with the upheaval inside their minds without the assistance that they need.

There has been a worldwide argument over whether or not the gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo should have been killed but I haven’t heard anyone mention the needs of the young child who created the furor. He may not be able to express what this event did to him but I can almost guarantee that its impact will be dramatic. I have known children who were subjected to horrific abuse when they were infants and toddlers. They were unable to recall the details but somehow felt the enormity of the pain well into their teenage years. Their anger and confusion often expressed itself in outbursts, sexual promiscuity, depression and violence. They had been damaged and nobody had taken the time to help them properly heal simply because it was thought that they would not remember what had happened to them.

We must love, cherish and protect anyone who endures tragedy. Without the proper unpacking of the varied thoughts and emotions that result from harm or loss, repressed feelings may lead to horrible consequences. It is right and good to understand that even the smallest among us need understanding and the opportunity to express themselves. It is not up to us to judge the way that people react to life’s experiences but to allow them to honestly express the emotions filling their heads. Sometimes all we need do is acknowledge how beautiful and sensitive they are. We need to check on them as they progress through the stages of recovery. We must let them know that it is not just okay but quite normal to grieve or be angry. Mostly we need to love them.


Go Forth in Remembrance

k10304515Memorial Day on the last day in May has come to represent the beginning of summer even though the laws of astronomy give that designation to a different date. It is a three day weekend holiday designated by Congress. There are few better times to buy mattresses or large home appliances. People flock to the beach on this day and gather around swimming pools and barbecue pits. American flags fly from the porches of homes all across the land. For many the true intent of Memorial Day has become lost in a haze of celebration having little to do with what this national holiday was originally intended to be.

The Civil War left our nation broken and bereft. Over 600,000 Americans had lost their lives in the conflict. People in both the north and the south attempted to heal their wounds and sorrows with annual tributes to those who had fallen in battle. The homage sometimes included parades but the main focus was to be found at the grave sites of the soldiers who had been killed in those terrible battles. Family, friends, and sometimes even sympathetic strangers would bring flowers to the cemeteries. Some even carried food for picnics and held solemn vigils. These were days of remembrance and honor that went by different names and occurred in different times and places.

Three years after the conclusion of the Civil War an organization of Union soldiers, the Grand Army of the Republic, established Decoration Day to be held on May 30 to honor those who had died in the Civil War. It is believed that this date was chosen because it coincided with a season when there is always an abundance of flowers. After World War I President Woodrow Wilson declared that the day be forevermore known as Memorial Day and that it be a time of remembrance for all soldiers who have died in the service of our country. It was not until the nineteen sixties that Memorial Day was set to occur on the last Monday of May to create a three day weekend associated with the national holiday.

Over a million members of the military have died while engaged in active duty. It is a staggering number and yet the vast majority of Americans today have little or no experience with losing a loved one or a friend in a war. Talk with individuals in their sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, however, and there will be more and more eyewitness stories of young soldiers lost in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the War in Vietnam. While those conflicts seem to be almost ancient history now, for those who saw the blood being spilled, the memories are as vivid as the actual events.

I have watched my father-in-law cry when reluctantly relating stories of fallen comrades in the Korean War. I have friends who speak of relatives who came back home dramatically changed from the War in Vietnam. They tell of husbands and fathers who still have nightmares because of what they saw. My mother’s eyes used to fill with tears as she told of school chums who never returned from battlefields across Europe and the Pacific. I have run my fingers across the names of school buddies whose bravery is forever proclaimed on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. My great grandfather did not die in the Civil War but he was charged with burying the dead after the Battle of Shiloh and official documents tell of the horrific nature of his duties.

Today our armies are staffed with volunteers many of whom continue to die in faraway places for a cause that we all too often don’t really understand. These young men and women are our first line of defense in an uncertain and often frightening world. Somehow they find the courage to carry out missions that most of us would be too frightened to do. When they die their families and friends suffer great loss. Many times those of us busy with our own lives are all too unaware of the great sacrifices that they have made.

War is hell and always has been. It would be so wonderful if we humans somehow managed to resolve our differences in peaceful diplomatic ways. For whatever reason, even our best efforts to avoid conflict are challenged again and again. We may want to isolate ourselves from the necessity to spill blood but history has shown us that we are sometimes given no other choice than to defend ourselves and lose our human treasure in the process.

I used to naively believe that one day mankind would evolve to a point at which the killing would forever stop. A lifetime of observing human nature has convinced me that there will always be some form of evil in the world and that sometimes we have to cut off the head of the serpent to save the innocent. Thank God for those with the courage and the willingness to do what must be done, even understanding that their efforts may result in death.

We must never forget the brave souls who gave their lives so that we might retain our freedoms. We may not know their names or be related to them in any significant way but we have benefited from their acts of courage nonetheless. There is no greater love than a man or woman laying down his/her life for another. It is incumbent on us to spend some time today reflecting on such sacrifices.

If you have children don’t fail to talk with them about why we have this holiday. Far too many of our youth are sadly ignorant of the real reason for our celebrations. It is up to us to teach them to remember and honor those who gave so much in the long arc of history. Simple gestures can be powerful reminders. Our children understand symbols and they like to hear stories.

My son-in-law and my grandchildren awoke early this morning to place American flags throughout their neighborhood. It is a ritual that they have repeated for many years now. I am proud of them for doing this in memory of our fallen heroes. It displays a special reverence that we as a nation are sometimes in jeopardy of losing. We must not equate respect for the dead with unbridled nationalism. It is the duty of present and future generations to never forget the true cost of war. Every life that is lost represents dreams that will never come true. If we honor those who gave everything, they will not have died in vain.

I have read that in our nation’s capitol the flag is raised on this day in the early morning and then lowered to half staff to remember all of the soldiers who have died for this country. At noon the flag is raised again to represent the glory of our nation that has resulted from their courageous deeds. I encourage you to both remember and celebrate. Go forth and enjoy the fruits of the sacrifices made for all of us.

One Picture, A Thousand Words

minnie bell85759993_133385194360A former colleague and friend has agreed to help me include photographs in the body of the book that I have written. I’ve spent a great deal of time  to that end sorting through boxes and albums containing images of family members that tell as powerful a story as the one that I have related with phrases, sentences and paragraphs. The old saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words and I have been reminded of the truth of that statement as I study each of the snapshots from my family’s history that have been forever captured in black and white, Kodachrome and pixels.

After my mother died my brothers and I spent many hours inside her home dividing up her few belongings. I was amazed at how many cards, drawings, letters, invitations, programs and photos she had saved. I found pictures that I had never before seen that had long languished inside boxes. It appeared that at some point my mom attempted to identify the people and the places so that we might one day have a clearer understanding of her personal history. The best of the lot were the black and white images from the nineteen forties when she was young and her whole adult life lay before her. Many of those images held commentaries such as “Those Happy Days” or “Such a nice person.” It was as though she wanted us to understand who she had been when the road before her was still based mostly on dreams.

I so enjoyed seeing my mother with her brothers and sisters, mugging for the camera, walking arm in arm down 1940’s Houston streets, and looking so incredibly young and beautiful. There were at least two quite handsome young men whose photos she kept, noting that they had purchased engagement rings for her before she had even met my father. One of them was killed during World War II and the other she turned down even as she noted that he was always a gentleman. I mostly loved seeing the pictures of my grandparents when they were younger than I remembered them, younger than I am now. I lingered over the postcards and panoramas from trips that Mama had taken. I laughed to learn that she traveled alone to San Diego when she was only seventeen to visit with a friend, demonstrating the daring spirit that would always define her.

My favorite photos were the ones that showed my mother and father flirting with one another during their courtship and early days of wedded bliss. It was almost shocking to see how young and in love they were. They mugged and teased in the style of the day. Mama vamped on top of automobiles and Daddy leaned on lamp posts gazing at my mother as though he had just won the lottery. Mama carefully recorded her feelings on so many of those pictures that show them in the first blush of their courtship.

Eventually the chronology of their life together led to photographs of me and my brothers. They took noticeably fewer snapshots of each other once we were born. Their lives appeared to shift focus. Their own visages became more serious. Instead of looking at each other they looked adoringly on us. Nonetheless, one image taken only months before my father’s shocking death shows them holding hands while walking down the streets of Hot Springs, Arkansas. It provides a testimonial of the depth of their feelings for one another. It shows one of those rare moments away from their children when they were relaxed and still so much in love.

The remainder of the memories are the story of our family life without our father. Somehow we managed to hit all of the milestones and find our own special kind of happiness. Of course that was mainly due to our mother’s determination to provide us with the safety and security that we needed at a time when our futures appeared to be so bleak. She did a yeoman’s job and somehow found the inner strength to provide us with a show of optimism in spite of our circumstances. I would find notations and writings that indicated the truth of the struggle that she silently and bravely endured.

My mother remained a pretty lady for all of her days. She possessed a radiance and unselfish spirit that drew people to her. Her albums are filled with memories of celebrations and parties and the people who meant so much to her. Eventually she grew tired and her friends became less energetic themselves. Many of them even died. She spent a great deal of her time alone. She collected readings from the Bible and verses that appealed to her. She wrote about the positive aspects of suffering and how enduring pain and loss had only made her feel closer to Jesus.

I discovered aspects of my mother’s personality and life story that I had never before known. I was able to gaze objectively into her world, not as her child but as a fellow human being. She had kept pieces of her heart hidden away and it felt amazing to get to know her in a whole new way. She became more real to me than she had ever been. I began to understand her on an almost spiritual level and I was awash with gratitude for all of the sacrifices that she had made for me and my brothers. It was a truly humbling experience to take a marathon tour of her memories.

We each travel through the modern world recording our own histories with selfies and images of the people that we know and the places to which we travel. Our faces and expressions tell stories of our passages through time. I wonder how many of our most special memories might one day be tossed away or deleted by distant descendants who don’t even know who we are. Will there be no one left to understand the meaning of our poses and our smiles? 

Whenever I eat at a Cracker Barrel restaurant I find myself looking at the old portraits lining the walls. I wonder who the people are and how their pictures ended up so impersonally decorating a place where nobody knows their names. There is a kind of sadness in knowing that their fate has become being a caricature of an era long past. It seems wrong that their lovely photographs have met such a lonely fate.

I now have a new goal. I plan to organize the thousands of photos that are in my possession. They will be far more meaningful for the next generation and those that come in the years long after I am gone if I take care in identifying their importance. My first step is going to be to include some of them inside the covers of my book so that my readers will have faces to put with the grand story of a little family that did its best to muddle its way through life. I hope that my words will equal the grandeur of how special they really were. Perhaps then the people that mean so much to me will find a way to live on forever. 

Summertime Classrooms

kids-playing-for-the-summerSo Memorial Day weekend is coming and the schools are closing for the summer. Tomorrow will be the last day for teachers and students across the land…NOT! Shockingly, virtually every child still has an entire week of classes left and some even have two more weeks to go. What happened to the launch of summer fun on Memorial Day? Who decided that it was a great idea to keep the kids working until well into June? How did this happen without someone protesting? Is this really healthy or necessary for our youth?

I just left my daughter’s home and I worry that my grandchildren are majorly stressed out. They are only in the sixth grade but they have comprehensive final exams in every subject next week, Can you guess what they will be doing over the so called holiday weekend? They have intricate multi-page study guides with information that they must review before the big tests which begin on Tuesday. There will be no time for barbecues or swimming or a quick trip. Instead they will spend the three day weekend making certain that they remember everything that they have learned during the school year. There goes all of the fun for them and their parents!

I honestly don’t understand what anyone hopes to accomplish by extending the school year more and more. When I was young we were always finished in time for Memorial Day and we knew that we wouldn’t have to return until after Labor Day. We weren’t exactly an ignorant generation because of that schedule. In fact we actually learned quite a few bits of practical information and skills during our three month vacation. That was when a week spent with my grandparents on their farm taught me about birds, rocks, gardening, cooking and survival skills. It was the time when my mother taught me how to touch type without looking at the keys and how to sew. I went on a book reading binge each summer, checking out as many volumes as the library allowed and consuming them well before they were due to be returned. That was also when I got my first jobs and because they actually lasted for three months I earned a full four quarters of Social Security time before I had even graduated from high school. I also found out how to keep books in a medical clinic and what it takes to run an office. No amount of class time would have given me such fantastic experiences. I literally had an internship with life each and every summer.

I understand that there is a belief among many that children need more, not less time in classrooms. Still, our society has gone a bit overboard in demanding so much of a young person’s time. I have watched my grandchildren leave for school at seven in the morning and not return until after five in the evening. They have no time for independent play. After a quick dinner they have to hit the books because they have so many assignments and projects to complete. There is rarely a moment to spare. If they are very lucky they manage to get everything completed before bedtime but there are also nights when their work keeps them up far longer than they should be. They become grumpy and tired and mostly they just don’t get to be kids. At this moment in the school year they are hopelessly burned out and yet the demands continue unabated.

I realize that some children live in deplorable conditions and that school is the safest and most productive place that they might ever be. I certainly agree that we need to create programs for them but why pull the entire population of children into the same one size fits all schedule? We really don’t need to over-plan the lives of our youth. It is often in those moments when they have to rely on their own creativity that they learn the most.

I remember putting on shows for the neighborhood. It took rehearsals and imagination to produce a worthy program. I garnered more knowledge during those moments than I might have filling out worksheets and tests during an extra week of school.

On other occasions me and the other neighborhood kids created a local newspaper, complete with comic strips and editorials. Each of us contributed to the process and had to use our writing skills as well as our business expertise. It was great fun. I would later read that Truman Capote and Harper Lee did the same thing when they were children living next door to one another. They used an old typewriter and spent entire summers creating stories and using their fledgling writing abilities. Who knows how things might have turned out for them if they had been stuck in school instead.

I don’t want to underestimate the power of education and adult guidance but I also believe that there is much to be said for providing children with the freedom to innovate. It is in those moments that adults are not watching that we are often the most curious. When nobody is there to help us we use our minds to find solutions to our problems. We also learn how to work with others without the interference of well meaning parents. We navigate around the bully who lives down the street and negotiate with friends to distribute power. We learn teamwork from experience.

I don’t expect to see the powers that be changing our educational year anytime soon. I suspect that the pendulum is swinging in favor of ever more time spent in classrooms which actually makes me a bit sad. Children are flexible and they will adapt to whatever the adults tell them they must do but when I think about what they will be missing it makes me worry. I had a near perfect childhood and I would so love for all youngsters to have the adventures that I had. I had no father and very little money but each morning for three whole months I was the ruler of my day. I got to decide if it was going to be spent reading a new book from the library or playing a life or death game of Scrabble with my friends. I could ride my bicycle to the swimming pool at the junior high or walk to art lessons at Ripley House. It was my call and I loved it.

Perhaps we can find a way to compromise. Children today are certainly being exposed to ever more information and opportunities but they often have no idea how to entertain themselves. We need to help them to develop that skill along with the others that prepare them for life. Sometimes being stuck in the yard with only a water hose and a few friends is the perfect invitation to creativity. When faced with boredom, most children eventually discover how to have fun without spending money or attending a class. Sometimes the best classroom is the one that they have to run by themselves.


Mighty Men Too

I spent the last years of my career in the KIPP Charter system. I had heard about the work of two young men who had created a different kind of school based on high expectations and the simple but direct imperative, “Work hard. Be nice.” I saw working at one of the KIPP campuses as an opportunity to be adventurous before I retired. I wasn’t going to start my own school but I wanted to see what it was like to educate kids in a dynamic environment where first generation high school graduates were groomed from a young age to attend and complete college.

It was an exciting and often exhausting five years. As a teacher I had always given more of my time and talents than required and I felt ready to tackle the long work days of KIPP Houston High School. Somehow I had been a natural in my profession and I had few worries about meeting my responsibilities in a highly charged atmosphere. I was already that teacher who spent three or four hours each evening poring over student work and planning exciting lessons. I was ahead of my time in building personal relationships and keeping students and parents informed. I thought that being a member of the KIPP world would be a piece of cake for someone like me. I learned soon enough that it would be perhaps the most challenging, but also rewarding, five years of my life.

KIPP charter schools set the bar high for teachers, parents and students. The hours were long and the standards were demanding. It took some time to become accustomed to rising before the sun and arriving back home long after dark but it was the KIPP way of life and I had to adapt. There was a sense of urgency for everyone within the system, unspoken rules that each of us were capable of giving just a little more of our time and talents. There was no rest, not even in the summer. We were part of a grand crusade to change the trajectory of the lives of the young men and women who had promised to do whatever it took to get to and through college. We had to teach them the skills, knowledge and habits that they would need and they had to meet our never ending challenges. In the end what we accomplished appears to have worked rather well.

I have been attempting to showcase the talents of the students who were part of my KIPP family during my five year tenure. If I were to adequately mention every single person, it would take weeks. The success rate of KIPP Houston High School is astounding. So many of our kids have rewarded our own efforts with their incredible determination to overcome the odds that were often stacked against them. In talking with them I have noticed that there is a common denominator that defines their success. They mention again and again that they felt a kind of pressure to complete their educations because it was expected by the school, the teachers, their parents and their peers. They learned from their KIPP experience that dreams were more likely to come true if they put in effort day by day by day, just like climbing a mountain. Last weekend more incredible young KIPP men and women graduated from college and with the taste of success freshly rewarding them, they all realize that their journeys are still incomplete. 

Isaac Rivera was one of my Algebra I students. When he was in my class he often took advantage of my after school tutoring sessions, a fact that alerted me to his willingness to put forth extra effort when needed. He has always been an affable young man with a grin that spreads across his face without warning. He loves people and laughs with a twinkle in his eyes. He’s the kind of person who embraces the world full force, wanting to know as much about it as possible. Isaac enjoys having long conversations and learning about people, a trait that is endearing because it is always apparent that he is truly interested. In other words, Isaac is someone who is quite charming and easy to like.

Isaac took a bit longer to complete his college degree than he would have wanted but he understood that it was not a race. Besides, he was dealing with health issues as well as attempting to help his family. He worked hard and always believed that he would finish what he had started. This past Saturday I watched him as he proudly received a degree in Finance with a minor in Economics from the University of St. Thomas. It was fitting that the guest speaker, Governor Greg Abbott, spoke of the importance of being flexible in life and holding fast to dreams because that is something that Isaac has most certainly done. He now plans to begin a career of his own while helping his family to grow their business. Eventually he hopes to work toward an MBA as well as a PhD so that he might one day become a college professor. Given his track record so far, I have little doubt that he will achieve each of his goals.

Jesse Ortega was a member of KIPP Houston High School Class of 2012. He possesses a kind of charisma that has always made him a standout. He is a brilliant young man who received a scholarship to attend the University of Texas in Austin, an accomplishment that made him one of the elite students in the state. With an eye toward one day becoming a medical doctor, Jesse majored in Nutritional Science. He also graduated this past Saturday. He performed so well in his classes at the University of Texas that he was recently accepted to the Southwestern Medical School in Dallas where he will fulfill a dream that he has harbored for a very long time.

Jesse has a beautiful family that has stood behind him every step of the way. Like Isaac he experienced some health problems that might have detoured his journey were it not for the intense devotion of his parents and his sister, Guadelupe, who is perhaps his biggest fan and supporter. Together they have overcome one roadblock after another and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to help Jesse to realize his ultimate dream. Jesse knows what he wants and how to get it. He is unafraid to expend as much effort as needed. He will be a great doctor.

I am proud and honored to know these outstanding young men who are but two of the remarkable success stories coming from the KIPP world. Others who also took to heart the lessons that we worked so hard to convey are Christopher Jordan, graduate of Texas Tech, Taaha Akhtar, graduate of Georgetown University, Erik Guerrero, graduate of Lamar University, and Nathan Thai, graduate of the University of Texas in Austin. I am truly overwhelmed to know that I along with my colleagues played a teeny tiny part in helping these men to dramatically shape the direction of their lives.

I applaud those who continue the tireless work in schools across the country that serve to create a better future for our society. I thank the parents for the sacrifices that they have made as well. Mostly though I have to give credit to the young men and women who did the heavy lifting. They deserve all the praise. It has been great to watch them enter the adult world with determination and optimism. They continually show me that the world is progressing just as it should.