Last Chance U

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Last Chance U

It seems as though I have been watching a bit more television lately than I probably should. I suspect that it is because the daily rains have made me a bit more homebound or perhaps because I spent most of July on the road and now I prefer to hibernate at home for a time. Soon I will be traveling again to Colorado and then will resume my math tutoring at two different schools. I’m slacking off before getting back into a daily routine.

Last night I watched three episodes of the Netflix documentary Last Chance U. I’m not particularly enthralled by football as a topic but this series is really a kind of psychological and sociological study which of course fascinates me. It focuses on the football team of East Mississippi Community College, a school that won the Junior College National Football Championship the year before the story was filmed. It is a place where misfit athletes come for one last shot at a spot on a powerhouse university team or a job with the National Football League.

Most of the players have talent but for one reason or another have been relegated to the football ash heap. Some were once highly recruited high school players who got into trouble at the universities that gave them scholarships. They skipped classes, made failing grades, missed practices, ignored curfews or broke the law. Some did all of the above. All were summarily dismissed. Others demonstrated amazing athletic skills in high school but were unable to muster high enough grades or test scores to win admission to a major or even minor university. These young men came to East Mississippi hoping to get one more more opportunity to reach the big time. The coach there is well known for resurrecting hopes and dreams.

The stories of each of the players resonate loudly with me. I have seen so many young people with similar baggage. I have learned how difficult it is for some kids to succeed athletically when they have pronounced academic deficiencies. I often wonder where I would be today if I had been required to meet certain sporting requirements in addition to mastering the knowledge and skills of my profession. I suspect that I would still be working at a low level job without hope of ever earning a degree. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that a gifted athlete must also carry a certain average to remain eligible to play a particular sport. I understand the idea that a university is first and foremost a center for learning but what about those who truly struggle to learn but who have a very special talent to share with the world?

I once had a student who was a star in every sporting arena. Regardless of what he tried athletically he was a standout. It might be said that he was the athletic valedictorian of the school. Unfortunately he was a special education student with multiple learning difficulties. He struggled with reading and was never quite able to pass his senior year Exit exams. With great assistance he managed to earn a high school diploma but nothing about his academic credentials enticed a university to risk offering him a scholarship. He set his dreams of playing professionally aside and learned a trade after graduating. He has done well and I am quite proud of his efforts but I often wonder where he would be today if our society had a more realistic attitude about young people like him. What if someone had offered him the opportunity to do what he does so well without expecting him to demonstrate mastery of the things that baffle him?

Oddly I often saw this young man as being much like me. We both had enormous gifts and talents. Mine happened to be academic. His were athletic. We also had disabilities. I tripped over my own feet and he struggled to read. The difference was that I was allowed to follow my dreams without having to prove my physical prowess but he was barred from doing so simply because he lacked certain academic skills. There is an unfairness in that.

At East Mississippi Community College the coaches, teachers and an academic advisor work with the young men to help them through the challenges that have heretofore blocked their way forward. It is a place of redemption as long as the players are willing to put in some effort. They must attend all of their classes, complete assignments and ask for help when they need it. Four year colleges and pro teams scout them. Many of the former players at the school have found the success that had at one time seemed to be so elusive. The adults guiding them use a combination of tough love and encouragement to keep them motivated. Some of the young men make it and some burn out.

I wish that we had more adults to help struggling students to achieve their goals whatever they may be. Far too many of our youth come from environments that do little to encourage them. For example one of the players featured in the program witnessed his father killing his mother and then turning the gun on himself. He was only five years old when he endured this trauma and it is all too apparent that he continues to harbor abandonment issues that make it difficult for him to trust anyone. Another young man flunked out at his previous university. He is married and has a child. He wants to do the right things but he often becomes stressed and worried that he is wasting time when he might do better if he were to simply quit and get a regular job to support his family. Too many of the players come from high schools where the expectations were so low that they graduated without really learning much of anything. Their academic advisor definitely has her hands full but she is doing a yeoman’s job, something that we need more of in all of our schools.

Ultimately all of the players have to man up. Only they have the final power to make the efforts needed to change the directions of their lives. In the end their story is about salvation and whether or not they have enough drive to make their final chance count. The stakes are high and I find myself rooting for them not just on the field but as they navigate the world as well. It’s been said that a mind is a terrible thing to waste but then so too is it a tragedy to fritter away any kind of talent. In Last Chance U we watch young men from broken homes and economic uncertainty as they struggle to piece together the fragments of their lives. It is a high stakes game and one which I desperately hope that each of them will win.

The Walking Dead

the-walking-dead-zombiesI’m not exactly someone who might be called a trendsetter. I’ll be celebrating my sixty eighth birthday in November and attending my fiftieth high school reunion in October. Still I’m not a fuddy-duddy either. I eventually made it to Facebook albeit at about the time that many young people were losing interest in it. I even opened a Twitter account but still haven’t unlocked the secrets to participating in its fast paced chatter. I try to keep up with the happenings in the world and I have a somewhat modern tolerance for the outrageous. I even read the Fifty Shades of Grey books and disliked them not so much because of the storyline but because the writing was atrocious. I often get suggestions for staying with it from my younger friends and former students. They have guided me to some of my all time favorite movies and television shows.

I would never have seen Breaking Bad were it not for my younger consultants so when they also urged me to watch The Walking Dead I should have at least given the first episode a try. Instead through six seasons of one of the top rated series I held on to my smug belief that my intellect was far too superior to be drawn in by what appeared to be a silly plot about zombies. Even when my granddaughter insisted that I was misjudging the program I withheld my openness and mentally noted that she is only a middle school student who in spite of her intelligence still doesn’t fully understand the world and how it works. I reluctantly sat with her one evening to watch a selection from the sixth season and I was so hopelessly lost that my interest was not piqued in the least. It took a visit to Universal Studios and The Walking Dead house of horrors to plant a tiny bug of interest in my brain.

I became intrigued at the theme park as we walked through a recreation of the desolate atmosphere depicted in the popular series while the strains of The Walking Dead soundtrack created a realistic sensation of apocalypse and dread. I had to admit that I wanted to know more about this show after that experience so that I might understand why some of the most intellectual people that I know are huge fans, including my rocket scientist and totally rational brother. When a two week long rainy season kept me from venturing too far outside I found myself with some free time and a sudden desire to see what everyone was applauding. After viewing the first episode I was hooked and I have spent time here and there attempting to speed watch the series so that I might be ready when the seventh season airs in October.

Perhaps I am reading more into this program than is supposed to be there but my English major background has led me to think rather deeply about the story and its characters. It is a dark tale of a dystopian society that has broken down as badly as the island inhabited by the choir boys in Lord of the Flies. Those left to deal with the aftermath of a deadly disease that somehow both kills and brings people back to life have to embark on a complex heroes’ journey in which questions of right and wrong, good and evil are never easy to answer. The survivors are forced to revert to a hunter gatherer kind of existence where their lives are uncertain from one moment to the next. They have to reimagine the definition of life, political systems, the greater good. It is as though they are the first of our species who have been expelled from the Garden of Eden to fend for themselves, only this world is even more dangerous than the one that Adam and Eve had to face.

The Bible has a subtle but constant presence in the story. There are characters like Cain and Able, one time friends and brothers who differ on how to deal with the realities of the situation. We see a symbolic Moses who only reluctantly accepts the mantle of leadership and makes horrible mistakes in the process. We find both sin and redemption. It is as though the entirety of the human story is being replayed with challenges not unlike those that mankind has faced before, albeit without zombies.

We only get hints as to what may have caused the illness that so quickly overtook the world. In fact, since the story mostly plays out in a rather limited area where all communication has been lost we are never completely certain that the problems exist all over the world. A kind of hopefulness remains that somewhere, somehow the people fighting so hard to carry on will one day find the safety that seems so elusive.

I still have three more seasons to watch. I don’t want anyone to spoil the story for me and I don’t intend to give away anything to those who have not yet tuned in to this remarkable series. I have become emotionally attached to many of the characters but I keep thinking about something that one of my professors said when I was taking an education psychology class many moons ago. She remarked that it was not until the twentieth century that societies became so focused on issues of children. Sadly the mortality rate among the young had heretofore been so high that most parents understood that they might lose some of their kids before they became adults. My own grandmothers each lost two babies of whom they never spoke. They had steeled themselves against the realities of the way things were. We, on the other hand, more often have the luxury of modern medicine and conveniences to make death a less common part of our existence. We allow ourselves to become very attached to the people that we know and love believing that they will in all probability have long and fruitful lives. Those who die young have become the outliers. In The Walking Dead the possibility of death is as constant as the fight for life.

I suspect that we are drawn to stories of dark dystopian worlds because somewhere in the recesses of our minds we believe that in spite of all of our progress it would not take much for society as we know it to collapse. History has shown us that once cultured and advanced nations are capable of devolving into horror. Our hope lies in the fact that when pushed to the wall the better spirit of mankind somehow finds ways to defeat the darkness. We are an imperfect lot that has warred and enslaved and murdered but we keep trying to get things right. Our lives can at times be brutish and we can feel as though we ourselves are surrounded by walking dead, unfeeling, unthinking creatures who bear only passing resemblance to humanity. Our challenge is to keep the lights of our better selves burning and we know how difficult that may be. Still we soldier on mostly attempting to do the right thing. That is what differentiates us from the beasts. 

Welcome Back

cw_set-art-multi-cupcakes_s4x3We encounter so many people as we travel through life. Some are simply strangers that we pass as we carry out our daily routines. Others provide services for us. We get to know them and even like them but our only interaction is when they assist us. We work with many individuals. We often find kindred spirits who become lifelong friends. Others are destined to walk with us for a time and then quietly drift away. We see the faces, remember the stories, understand that each of them has touched us in some way.

I have taught thousands of students. Most of them are now lost to me. They moved on with their lives and I hope and pray that they have found happiness. I remember them and the impact that they had on my own life. It probably never occurs to them that I may be thinking about them, but I do. I worry about the ones who struggled and dream that somehow they ultimately found a way to change direction and find the pathways that they needed. I imagine what the outstanding ones may have achieved. Mostly I want to think that they are all doing okay.

Once in a while we experience the great joy of being reunited with people who have been absent for a very long time. It is an exhilarating experience to find them once again. Of late I have learned about the fates of many people from my childhood, my teenage years. I now know that they have done their best to be good people. They have families and accomplishments of which they are quite proud. They did well during the years when we had drifted apart. It is comforting to find them again and realize that our friendships are so easily revived.

I have also found my former students from time to time. They have recognized me in stores, at the movies, while I was dining out. They are adults who are hardly recognizable save for the smiles that return their faces to the innocence of their youth. I remember their names, where they sat in my class, the talents that they were displaying way back when. It thrills me to learn about them. There is no greater gift.

Facebook may have its flaws but it has served as a conduit for finding those who have been lost. On any given day I may learn about yet another person who was important to me but who somehow became a stranger. Just a few days ago it was through that social network that I learned about one of my students, a brilliantly talented young woman who had caught my attention when she was in my class.

She had found my profile on Facebook and had tried to reach out to me with a private message over three years ago. She opened her heart to me and must have felt hurt when I never replied. Somehow the algorithm that determines what I see on my wall prevented me from receiving her message. It simply languished in a file somewhere in cyber space while I was unaware that it even existed. In a twist of fate, last week it somehow showed up along with other notes that had not previously come to my attention. I can’t explain why the words of my student suddenly appeared from so many  years before but I am glad that they did. In the hopes that she was still somewhere out there I replied. Only minutes later she and I were conversing. It was so wonderfully serendipitous and somehow seemed to be destined.

There are people who touch our hearts so dramatically that we never forget them. This student is one such person. She was in a period of rebellion when I met her, often misunderstood by those who demanded a more regimented loyalty from the younger generation. I saw her as the magnificent soul that she was. Her talents were extraordinary. She possessed a creative imagination that marked her giftedness in virtually everything that she touched. She was so wonderfully unordinary. Mostly though I realized that somehow those demanding conformance had somehow confused her so that she didn’t fully understand her own brilliance. I tried to encourage her but never knew if I had been able to touch her beautiful heart.

I found out that she had dropped out for a time. I suspect that she had to determine who she really wanted to be. She moved to Arkansas where she experienced nature and the seasons. She began her own business as a baker and she one day began to consider even bigger ideas. She told me that I had influenced her thinking and that she wasn’t sure if she should consider being a teacher. Mostly she believes that her true talent lies in being a counselor and to that end she has enrolled in classes at a university near her home. She seems to have found an inner peace with her own soul.

I believe that she has the intellect and the strength to be anything that she wishes. She will be an asset in whichever field she chooses to pursue. She is a gentle soul filled with kindness and understanding. She has accepted herself and found the maturity and determination to march to her own drumbeat which is in actuality much like a symphony. I’m glad that I may now once again encourage her to be the person that I always believed she might be.

Somehow each of us manages to sometimes be in the right place at the right time. I suspect from her comments that this young woman thinks that I may have saved her when she was still young but the reality is that she saved me. At the time that I was teaching her my mother was in one of the most horrific stages of her mental illness. Were it not for the beautiful distraction of teaching I too may have gone insane. Working with students and especially those like this very special one kept me optimistic. They also provided me with a purpose beyond caring for my mom. It was good to get away from the horror over which I seemed to have so little control and to believe that just maybe I might be able to accomplish something worthwhile. Knowing that I did touch someone’s heart is a great gift because there were times when I was juggling so many balls in the air that I felt dizzy. I wondered if I was doing anything right.

What I would want this wonderful student to know is that she burrowed into my soul. I kept an image of her there and took it out from time to time with great pleasure. Now perhaps the two of us may keep in touch and support one another anew. I’ll never understand exactly how or why that simple message from her so suddenly flashed on my screen but I do know that it meant the world to me. Welcome back, Kristen. I’ve missed you.

The Best Gift Ever

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There are moments in life that are forever etched in memory, so vivid that even thirty years later they evoke powerful emotions. I have many such recollections. Among them is an evening on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was late spring, a time when days grow warm and new life is sprouting here in my Houston home. My husband was attending a conference in Denver and he invited me to come along. The hotel room after all was already secured. I only needed to purchase a plane ticket, find someone to watch our daughters in our absence and take a couple of days off from work. It seemed an audaciously frivolous thing to do which made me reluctant. I not only had children who relied on me at home but also at the school where I worked. Additionally I was taking a class and it was nearing the end of the semester. Papers were due; tests were coming. Nonetheless some force inside my soul told me that the brief retreat might be fun.

While Mike was attending the seminars and functions associated with his work I stayed in my hotel room reading from my textbooks, writing essays and studying for an exam that was coming within days. The quiet atmosphere complete with room service was perfect for the work that I had to do. I seemed to accomplish five times as much as I would have at home but it still felt silly to have flown hundreds of miles just to hole up inside four walls. I had to wonder what I had been thinking when I agreed to Mike’s plan.

When Mike’s business day ended much earlier than he had anticipated he appeared in our room with a mischievous grin. He announced that we were going to take a drive to Estes Park to see the mountains up close. I quickly gathered my purse and put on my shoes and we were soon heading toward an adventure that would make my trip worthwhile. The mountains loomed ever larger in our view as we drove out of Denver and through Boulder. Soon we were on a highway cut through a national forest which was dotted with mountain streams and incredible vistas at each curve in the road. Before long we were navigating the streets of Estes Park with its quaint shops and restaurants on our quest to ride along Trail Ridge Road inside Rocky Mountain National Park. 

The ranger who greeted us at the entrance of the park told us that we were fortunate because the road had only recently opened but he urged us to be careful because it was growing dark and the weather report indicated that it would be foggy on our trail. We were not dissuaded by his warnings. The mountains beckoned us with a primal urge and we preceded with a growing excitement.

The path was easy at first. We drove along the side of a mountain sheltered by groves of trees that obscured the view. It grew unseasonably cold and we had come dressed for Houston, not the wintry temperatures that surrounded us, so we turned on the heater in our rented car. Here and there were gaps in the pines that showed us that we were indeed going higher and higher. The valley below receded and the air grew thinner. Before long we were driving above the tree line observing ancient glaciers on the tundra. Just as the ranger had predicted a wall of fog and clouds darkened our view. There were no signs of life, just a white blanket of snow and ice on the majestic peaks.

We spoke very little. Somehow chatter seemed to defame the glorious sight that lay all around us. We were alone in God’s country, viewing His majestic architecture, the cathedrals born from His hand. When we reached a point that overlooked the massive peaks through which we were traveling Mike parked the car and we exited so that we might stand in silence observing the breathtaking scene before us. The wind was howling, the temperature was freezing and neither of us had thought to bring coats but we cared little at that moment. Somehow we felt immune to the punishing weather. We were sharing a timeless vision. It felt as though we were the only human beings on the planet, an Adam and Eve discovering the world for the very first time. I wondered at that moment how many intrepid individuals had trekked into the mountains before there were roads or trails only to reach such a place and gaze into infinity just as we were doing. Did they feel close to God and to the core of their souls as I did?

Our faces had grown red from the harshness of the wind. Our fingers were becoming numb from the cold. Shivering we saw our own grins reflected in each other’s expressions. We needed no words to share what we were experiencing. We hesitated to leave but our more rational natures told us that it would soon be dark and a light snow was beginning to fall. We had seen something so spiritual that it would forever bind us with a love for Rocky Mountain National Park and each other. 

We would return to that spot many more times over the years. We would never tire of seeing the wonders of the mountains in different seasons. We would bring our daughters and they would become as spellbound as we were. We would travel to the park with my brothers and their families. We celebrated our fortieth anniversary in those very same mountains along with good friends. We came back with our grandchildren. The lure of Rocky Mountain National Park never seems to grow old and we plan to return once again in a few weeks.

A hundred years ago the idea of preserving our national wonders in a system of parks and monuments that might be shared by all Americans came to be. Today our National Park System cares for our nation’s treasures from north to south, the Atlantic to the Pacific. Over the years Mike and I have marveled at Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Zion, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, the Smokey Mountains, the Missions in San Antonio, Shilo, The Washington and Lincoln Memorials and so many others that it would take pages to list and describe them. We now have a senior pass that allows us to enter any of them without even paying a fee. It would be impossible to justly describe the joy that visiting these places has brought to us again and again.

Our national parks represent the best of our country and who we are as people. They belong to all of us. The idea of preserving them forever was inspired. It came at a time when the entire world was weary from a war that had ultimately seemed so useless. We had paid a heavy price for peace and little knew the horrors that still lay ahead. Our national parks would become havens for even the common man as we grappled with the uglier sides of humanity during the decades that followed.

Our nation’s problems seem to persist but we the people mostly agree the we got it right when we chose to protect our glorious heritage through the national parks. They are a gift to everyone of us and inside their borders we are reminded again and again of what really matters.

Happy Birthday to our National Park System! May the next hundred years be even more glorious. 

Dun Da Da Dun

 

“Dun da da dun” is the sound of trouble in the middle of the night. It is an alert warning me that something significant has happened while I am sleeping. It comes from my husband’s phone which he 160824110618-italy-earthquake-debris-large-169charges on his bedside table each evening. It is tells me that the BBC has an important story. It usually signals bad news.

In the early hours of Central Time on August 24, I heard the familiar alarm and knew that somewhere something of import had taken place. The fact that it was still quite dark outside made it most likely that the occurrence was from another part of the world. When the sun finally peeked through my bedroom window it teased me from my slumbers. Remembering the sound that had roused me earlier I immediately checked my own phone to see what event had been so earth shattering that it merited a signal. As I stared at the headlines still blurred by my not quite awake eyes I learned of a horrible earthquake in the middle of Italy that had destroyed towns and taken far too many lives.

I sadly scanned the images and the details while clearing my head with my morning jolt of caffeine. I felt a great sadness wash over me as I read of the suddenness with which the rumbling earth had destroyed so many lives. One moment it was a beautiful day on which tourists and townspeople filled the streets, a time when the populace planned for weekend festivals. The next brought unimaginable horror as buildings that had withstood wars toppled to the ground burying the humans unfortunate enough to have been inside of them.

I next checked Facebook to see if any of my friends of Italian decent knew anyone who had been affected by the quake. Before I was even able to locate their posts I noticed a plaintiff cry for prayers from one of my cousins, a young woman with a beautiful family and an even more lovely soul. She revealed that she had been diagnosed with lymphoma and requested that we all ask God to help her. I felt as though I had been stabbed in the heart. I was shaken.

After gathering my wits I noticed a comment from a childhood friend whose family had immigrated from Italy long ago. She shared an image of the damage caused by the earthquake in the country of her ancestors and remarked that we should all live with the realization that everything that we take for granted can change in a heartbeat.

I was reminded for the millionth time just how fragile our lives really are. We assume that we will arise each morning and begin our routines. We make plans for the future never believing that anything will impede them. We have great intentions to do this or that but somehow become distracted with the mundane. We complain about small irritations that are generally easy to resolve. We act as though we have all the time in the world to do the things that are most important. We rush from appointment to appointment and often find ourselves apologizing for not having enough time to call a friend, check on a neighbor, visit someone who is lonely, send a card to someone who is sick.

We only have so many hours in a day and we have to prioritize, save our energy. “I’ll think about that tomorrow,” we reply echoing the now famous words of Scarlet O’Hara. All too often tomorrow never comes. We pile up regrets. The regrets turn to sorrow. We don’t quite know how to slow down the pace of our lives just enough to engage in a concerted effort to enjoy our blessings.

Of course our immediate responsibilities must come first. We have jobs. Our family members require our care and attention. We must maintain our own health. The drive just to accomplish those things may begin before dawn and only end in the dark of night. Our energy is limited. We can’t and shouldn’t push ourselves into to an early grave by attempting to be all things to all people. We know that this is true and yet each of us have known individuals who managed to redirect their lives just enough to be able to reach out to someone every single day. They demonstrate that it requires only a bit of organization and practice to include acts of kindness in the fabric of our daily routines.

I know people who keep rolls of stamps and boxes of generic greeting cards at the ready to send their love and concern to those who may need a burst of sunshine. It takes only a few minutes to jot down a note of encouragement but that tiny slice of time has the power to change someone’s entire day. Our phone calls don’t have to be long or move beyond a few sweeps of the clock. Just a quick few words tell someone that they are important. It need take no more than the time to say, “I was thinking of you. How are you doing?” At work we can give someone a thumbs up, acknowledging effort and the  importance of what they do. We shouldn’t wait for another day to express our sorrow or offer our contrition for mistakes or mend a broken relationship. A simple wave, a post on Facebook, a smile, a hug are gestures that take so little of our time and energy but have profound consequences. We should all strive to insert a few more of such endeavors into every one of our days. By doing so we are less likely to be filled with the regret of leaving our words unsaid, our actions undone.

The clock is slowly ticking. Each day is filled with uncertainty. It is a waste of time to dwell on the possibility of sudden tragedy but it is wise to realize that we only have so many opportunities to accomplish the most important tasks that center on the people about whom we care.

Last week I watched a biography of Jimmy Carter. It mentioned that President Carter loved and respected his father but sometimes felt that he was a bit too stern, unemotional and formal in his relationships. He didn’t think that his father’s business dealings merited much praise. He would have preferred to see his dad performing corporal works of mercy and charitable acts.  Upon his death Jimmy learned how wrong he had been in estimating his father. The funeral brought an overflow crowd and even more praises for the many kindnesses that Carter’s father had extended quietly and humbly to virtually everyone that he had ever encountered. Story after story told of small gestures and sacrifices that had made enormous differences in people’s lives. President Carter at that moment began to realize that it is in those everyday encounters that we touch the most hearts.

I will most assuredly once again hear the “dun da da dun” from the BBC announcing the latest news. My phone may ring to tell me of births, accomplishments, joys, sorrows, death. The unrelenting rhythm of life will march forever forward. The clock will tick. Hopefully I will have set aside a tiny slice of my day to live my best life. I can’t afford to wait until tomorrow to think about the things that deserve to be done today.