Who Will Hear Our Cries

pexels-photo-170840.jpegAs a mom, a grandmother, a teacher, a human being I grieve over the violence in our world. As a problem solver I wonder what we might do to lessen the number of tragedies that our society must endure. As a realist I understand that most issues are far too complex to be successfully resolved with simple solutions. As someone who prefers getting things done to continually ignoring situations, I am frustrated by the bickering among our lawmakers that seems to perennially end in stalemate. I have grown weary of being able to predict the various responses to the major concerns of our time. I find myself searching in vain for leaders who will set aside their own quests for power to become the heroes that we so desperately need. There are so few profiles in courage in our precarious times. Where is an Abraham Lincoln, a Martine Luther King Jr. or a Gandhi? What will it take for the wars of words to stop and the work to begin?

We find ourselves at a perennial impasse. We struggle to even set governmental budgets that allow us to live within our country’s means. We know that we need answers to questions about immigration, but when good souls attempt to forge compromises, the “all or nothing” crowds shoot down any possibilities of resolution. We bow to the bullying demands of the outliers rather than listening to the reason of the middle ground. We can’t even make a deal to insure that all Americans have access to rudimentary healthcare. Again and again we lower our heads in grief, shame and prayer over mass shootings that surely might be mitigated if only we were willing to set aside all of our prejudices and simply build a plan.

On the very day meant to celebrate love, a deranged shooter entered a high school at the end of an academic day and began randomly shooting. He was indeed a troubled soul whose history had alerted many who knew whom. He had been adopted by a loving family but in spite of their efforts to provide him with the nurturing that he needed, things went awry. His father died when he was still a young child. His mother did her best to raise him alone but struggled with his emotional and behavioral issues. She sought the help of therapists and even contacted the police from time to time hoping to find answers to her concerns about her son. He was different, withdrawn, violent, frightening to many who knew him. Fellow students joked that he had the mind of a mass murderer. His school expelled him. A stranger noted one of his posts on social media and even reported him to the FBI. In November, his mother contracted the flu, then pneumonia and died. He was on his own but found shelter in the home of a friend. There were so many clear indications that he needed heavy duty counseling, maybe even medication but none of it was demanded or even offered. Instead he freely purchased guns even as his online posts became more and more foreboding.

There were so many individual measures that might have been taken with this young man that were not. Whether they would have prevented the massacre that he inflicted on innocent students is debatable, but at the very least there would have been attempts to curtail the ticking of the time bomb that was exploding in his mind.

The mental health system in this country is broken. Getting needed care is costly, time consuming, and ultimately frustrating. The cards are stacked in favor of doing nothing, leaving countless individuals and their families and friends feeling alone and even betrayed. All too often it becomes easier just to give up and let the cards fall where they will. The financial and mental energy needed to ameliorate mental health issues is far more costly than it needs to be. It is difficult to find doctors willing to take  on particular cases. The cost can be prohibitive and even with insurance the coverage is spotty at best. The patients themselves more often than not fight against treatments. They can become violently opposed to any form of needed therapy, resulting in a tendency to ignore the obvious and just look away. Even when a family manages to insist on medical intervention or hospitalization the science of mental health is still almost experimental. It takes time and patience to find the right keys to health. Most mental difficulties are chronic so the difficulties become a lifelong struggle. It can be a lonely and never ending fight for both the person affected and those attempting to help him/her.

We desperately need for both our political and medical community to face the realities of the mental health epidemic that plagues us. it is real, not imagined and it is well past time for our society to embrace a well reasoned plan for insuring that nobody is left to deal with such illnesses alone. it will take money, but that is not the only resource that we need. There must be more doctors, more research, more support systems. better coverage of mental healthcare, more facilities for rehabilitation, more openness in discussing these very real illnesses.

Every school needs additional counselors devoted only to the mental health of the students. In far too many instances those designated as counselors are too busy creating class schedules, coordinating testing, and serving as college admissions advisors than actually working with the mental issues of students in conjunction with their parents and teachers. In so many cases teachers are the first to notice warning signs and these should be taken seriously. The counselors should be ready to investigate and draw up plans for addressing concerns. If a student has a history of behavioral problems the counselors should be involved in all discussions of what to do. No student should just be expelled without being also sent to therapy as an additional requirement. If indications of violence are present this may even necessitate informing law enforcement. Under no circumstances should this process be so hidden from view that the individual has the freedom to purchase guns and ammunition.

We do not allow anyone under the age of twenty one to purchase alcohol and yet we allow teenagers as young as sixteen to buy certain weapons as long as they pass a background check that most likely does not include an accounting of their emotional difficulties at home or school. This needs to be remedied immediately and parents who circumvent this law by encouraging their knowingly disturbed children to have weapons should be held accountable for such egregious transgressions. When a parent is worrying about how a child is acting to the point of calling police or seeking professional care for them, it should be apparent that giving access to guns is the last thing that should happen. Even the most stable of youngsters should be supervised and limited in their contact with weapons.

There are common sense laws that we might pass with regard to types of weapons and ammunition clips that should be allowed as well. Nobody other than law enforcement officers and the military needs an arsenal nor do they require weapons that fire rapidly. Furthermore we need to make it more difficult to purchase weapons without some form of training and a more in depth background check. We require anyone driving an automobile to receive driver’s training and pass a test in order to earn a license. That license has to be renewed periodically as well. Perhaps it is time to initiate such a program for guns. Nobody should be able to legally purchase a gun without qualifying for a license after fulfilling age, training,  mental health and testing requirements. 

I am no fool. I understand that if someone wants to kill others that person will find a way. I also know that there will always be an underground community willing to provide guns and ammunition illegally to those who can’t get what they need within the law. No plan will ever be one hundred percent perfect. Nonetheless such arguments are not reason enough to do nothing at all. We craft many laws to make untenable situations better all of the time, and yet when it comes to issues such as mass shootings we wring our hands as though frozen in fear that anything we choose to do will be so flawed that it is better to do nothing at all.

As I cry for the lost souls and the people who loved them I worry that we will just keep kicking the can down the road and responding to our fears by arming more and more people. I shutter as I listen to the snarky comments being hurled back and forth from the differing points of view that do little to instill calm and reason. I wonder when we will come to our senses all around. Surely we can get past our differences and at least try to make things better. How many more need to die before we act? Who will hear our cries and step up to lead us?

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Finding The Godliness Inside

screen-shot-2016-02-09-at-3-31-32-pmThe calendar can be quirky at times and this year is especially so. We found ourselves celebrating Valentine’s Day and ushering in the Lenten season on the same Wednesday this week. When Easter rolls around we will celebrate that holiest of religious feasts right alongside April Fools Day. Sometimes the heavens enjoy a bit of humor or perhaps just a bit of irony.

I’ve long believed that donning a hair shirt and beating my chest on the first of the forty days before Easter is a rather fruitless task. In fact I generally dislike the idea of the inwardness of artificial sacrifices such as giving up sweets or eschewing joyful celebrations during Lent. For that reason I find it particularly appropriate that Valentine’s Day reminded us to show our love on the very day that Lent began. In fact it served as a hint of what the season should be all about.

I’m not suggesting that we shower loved ones with gifts and cards and boxes of chocolate, but rather that we imbue our forty days of reflection with daily doses of efforts to love even the seemingly unloveable. Perhaps the most productive thing that we might do as we prepare for the joy of Easter is to emulate the life of Jesus, who over and over again in His teaching emphasized the best of our human attributes like compassion, forgiveness and love. Even a nonbeliever must admit that His philosophy was punctuated with a kindness and understanding that is all too often missing even among His most faithful followers. Self proclaimed Christians all too often ignore His message even as they pronounce their self righteousness. Our human tendency to hypocrisy becomes especially noticeable whenever we cloak ourselves in indignation and anger.

It’s fine to prepare for Easter by denying ourselves certain luxuries that we do not need as long as we couple those sacrifices with loving gestures. Now is the season to forgive and to choose to understand. Perhaps through self reflection we might consider the possibility of learning more about people with whom we disagree. This is a time to begin to openly dialogue with people that we have hurt or even those who have hurt us. This is when we should begin reaching out to those who are suffering, and they are many. We should be conscious of our prejudices and close mindedness and work to be less judgmental. Doing such things is always difficult and definitely more meaningful that denying ourselves a piece of cake.

Humanity is suffering all around the world and there are good people working hard to help them. If each of us chose to do something small but remarkable not just everyday during Lent, but all throughout the year think of how much things might improve. Surely we see opportunities for doing good everywhere that we go. Letting a car move in front of us in a traffic jam may literally make someone’s day. Telling the cashier at a crowded store how much you appreciate his/her courtesy may be all that they need to feel less harried. Helping a neighbor with a task or even just shouting a greeting will lift spirits. Responding to anger with love may calm a precarious situation. Attempting to really see a differing point of view will enlighten. Stopping to take a breath and just smile even on a difficult day will make you feel so much better and it will bring a bit of joy to those around you. These are the kinds of things that will make Lent more meaningful and all persons of good will might begin to focus more on acts of kindness than solitary denial.

I suspect that I would want to live like Jesus even if I did not believe in God. Every aspect of His story was an act of love. He was a kind of rebel who was willing to lose His very life in pursuit of what was right. He embraced lepers and sinners and outcasts of every sort while pointing to the artifices of self righteousness that were more centered on ridiculous rules than the needs of people. I have always believed that if He were to return to earth today He would patiently demonstrate one more time the simplicity of His message of love. He would teach us how we must be more aware of those among us who are suffering, and show us how to minister to their needs.

It’s comforting and easy to link ourselves only with those with whom we agree. What is far harder is also loving those whose ideas we abhor. We demean ourselves and lose our credibility when we crawl into the gutter with them and spew the same brand of hatefulness that is their stock and trade. We need not allow them to bully or harm us or those around us, but we also do far better when we fight them with reason rather than engaging in wars of ugly words and insults. Even as they spit in our faces, we must stand honorably and without rancor, never willing to simply run away from defense of the least among us.

Look around and you will find beautiful examples of individuals who carry the spirit of love in their hearts wherever they go. Learn from such beautiful souls. Practice being like them and remember to be kind to yourself if you fail. Each day is another opportunity to try again to overcome the frailties that plague us and to reach outside of ourselves. The true spirit of Lent is found in our efforts to be more and more like the godly natures that live inside our souls.

Talent, Compassion and Wit

27857957_10216399335842193_7355374117100203653_nThree teachers stand out as my favorites when I was a school girl. I simply adored my first grade teacher, Sister Camilla, because she was kind and understanding of my needs both academic and psychological. I’ve always had a tiny bit of dyslexia and she created a number of visual tools to help me to distinguish between the letters of the alphabet, as well as encouraging me to use multiple modes of learning to decipher. Given that I was only five and feeling overwhelmed when I was her pupil, she somehow managed to use her skills to help me to enjoy the process of learning.

The next educator who had a lasting impact on me was Mrs. Loisey, my sixth grade teacher. The key to her greatness was an ability to explain virtually any topic in ways that were easy to master. Additionally she was perhaps the most wise and just instructor that I ever had. I think that I was more relaxed in her classroom than at any other time in my life, which speaks to her talent because the first year of middle school is usually filled with angst.

It was in high school that I met my muse, my English teacher Father Shane. He opened my eyes to the world of artistic expression and firmly instilled a love of literature and poetry in me. He introduced me to authors and playwrights, writing and self expression. I loved him and his class so much that I dreamed of becoming an author and teaching English just as he had.

These three individuals became my gold standard for excellence in educating the young. I modeled myself after what I had witnessed from them and measured the teachers that I would ultimately mentor by comparing their abilities to my masterful exemplars. I carried a mental rubric of what I considered to be exceptional teaching and it included the very best traits of my favorite teachers. My yardstick was exacting, but along the way I was gratified to learn that many of the educators with whom I worked were as dedicated and inspiring as those who had so influenced me.

The last years of my career as an educator were mostly spent recruiting, interviewing, observing, coaching and supporting teachers in my role as Dean of Faculty. My constant goal was to provide our students with the same quality of teaching that I had enjoyed when I was a student. I was proud to note that most of the individuals with whom I worked were indeed the best of the best, but even among such an elite group there were always shining stars such as Jenny Brunsell.

Jenny literally combined all of the traits that I most valued in an educator. Like Sister Camilla, Jenny was perennially patient and pleasant with her students. She spoke in a quiet and soothing tone making her pupils feel safe and respected. At the same time she was wise and fair like Mrs. Loisey and had a knack for explaining key concepts in a manner that made them attainable for everyone. Best of all, Jenny’s classroom was a fun place to be just as it was with Father Shane. She spent a great deal of effort searching for ideas that would make the time spent with her enjoyable and entertaining. She taught with grace and enthusiasm and I always sensed that her students loved her just as much as I had adored my own favorite teachers.

I eventually retired and Jenny went to another school where she continued to ply her magic. In addition to teaching English she became an Academic Decathlon coach with her husband. In a very short span of time her teams became perennial winners and the students in her classroom fell under the spell of her enchanting ways. It did not surprise me at all that she was so successful and that she was named the Katy Taylor High School Teacher of the Year earlier this week. My only question was why it had taken so long for someone to honor her with the recognition that she had earned long ago.

I believe that the key to our future lies in a three pronged effort from our children, their parents and their teachers. When all three of those groups work successfully together we produce a healthy productive society and all of the rest that we need follows. We do not often enough identify the finest traits of each of those three important contributors to human development. Sometimes due to uncontrollable conditions one or more of the triad is weak or even broken. A very strong effort by any of the remaining elements has the power of overcoming such difficulties. In particular a truly great teacher may literally change the course of another person’s life. This is the essence and the power of someone of the caliber of Jenny Brunsell. I have little doubt that many of her former students treasure the moments that they shared with her, and understand just how significant she has been in helping them to learn and grow.

We spend untold amounts of money on education each year. We do research and struggle to find ways of making our schools more uniformly excellent. The truth is that we need only begin to list the traits of the teachers that we love best to discover the elements needed to create thriving classrooms. The trick is in helping those who do not organically possess the qualities to learn how to incorporate them nonetheless. Therein is our challenge.   

Even in retirement there are parents and students and teachers who consult me. I hear horror stories of educators who are the antithesis of Jenny Brunsell. They seem uncaring and harsh to their pupils. They appear to lack justice, instead wielding power over their charges. They are unwilling to walk that extra mile for their students or to just be that one person determined to stay the course until everybody learns. They often even appear to dislike the very youngsters whom they are supposed to guide. Luckily that are the exception rather than the rule but even one of them is too many.

To know the greatest teachers is to be in the company of talent, compassion and wit. To have such a teacher is a never ending gift. I have been fortunate to learn from Sister Camilla, Mrs. Loisey and Father Shane. I have been encouraged by understanding that there are still teachers like them toiling away, often unsung. It’s good to know that now again someone takes the time to acknowledge the most remarkable of them like Jenny Brunsell.

Elon, Larry, Mike and More

Starman_SpaceXIt’s been a very long time since I have felt the rush of excitement that I used to get whenever a new space mission was televised. I grew up in an era of rocketry firsts that literally took my breath away when they were happening. I saw Alan Shepard become the first American to go into space. I watched John Glenn make history with his orbits around the earth. I was tuned in when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words as he stepped onto the surface of the moon and worried with the rest of world when the crew of Apollo 13 announced to Houston that they had a problem. I marveled at the Space Shuttle and the very idea that there might be a vehicle that could return from a journey to be used again and again. I was watching in horror when the Challenger blew up just after launching. I enjoyed the advances that allowed astronauts to make repairs and live for weeks in a space station. I believed that the most wonderful qualities of humans were encapsulated in the space program and as it all seemed to fade away I felt a sadness that was difficult to explain. Then seemingly from out of nowhere came a most remarkable feat that has reawakened my belief that one day in the future we will be able to journey across the universe.

The launch of Falcon Heavy by SpaceX last week was so stunning that I literally found myself crying tears of sheer joy and excitement. Everything about the event was spectacular from the music by David Bowie that accompanied the liftoff to the glorious humor that sent a cherry red Tesla into orbit with its Starman passenger gleefully hitching a ride. Perhaps even more stunning, however, was watching the booster rockets return to earth and land precisely on target to be used again, a triumph that at one time seemed impossible. Elon Musk, the innovator and maestro of the flight is surely a pure genius, who like Da Vinci and Einstein before him has an ability to see the world in ways that move all of mankind forward in our quest for knowledge. He is one of those people who does the impossible. He has managed to make America and humanity great again in ways that no politician has enjoyed.

Progress has always depended on those who are unafraid to gaze into the future. They are the dreamers and risk takers among us. Sometimes we scratch our heads as they announce their ideas, thinking them foolish or worse. We can’t always comprehend the seeming silliness of their notions, but they believe nonetheless and are compelled to move forward in spite of the negativity that often surrounds them.

I have a friend named Larry who long ago announced that he wanted to start a business selling t-shirts with messages and illustrations on them. This was at least fifty years ago at a time when shirts of all sorts were generally plain and of all one color save for stripes or plaids. The very concept of clothing with more personality seemed strange to those of us with whom he shared his proposal. He wanted to set up a kiosk inside a mall to sell his wares. He had heard of a machine that would place a decal on a shirt using heat. He imagined people flocking to personalize their clothing, We instead insisted that he would be wasting his money and his talents to pursue such a bizarre notion. How were we to know that he was indeed on to something very, very big? He was a seer of sorts, while we were too tethered to thoughts of how things had always been to be willing to accept his out of the box thinking.

On another occasion when we visited Larry he proudly showed us a huge box near his television. He explained that the machine would record any program that he wished to keep for the future. We were polite as he explained how it worked and what its uses might be. Inside our heads, however, we felt that his had been a ridiculous purchase. After all,  we wondered, who would ever want to make a recording of a show? Once you watched it why would you want to see it again? We simply did not have the vision that Larry had. Our ability to see ahead was far too limited. Unlike Larry we were not willing to think of the world as it might be.

My brother Mike was very much like Elon Musk and Larry from the time that he was only three or four years old. He walked around with a book written by Werner von Braun that told a tale of man one day  going to the moon. He tucked it under his tiny arm like a treasured toy and gazed at the illustrations of rockets and living quarters in space vehicles as though he was enjoying the characters of a little Golden Book. He told everyone who would listen that one day a man would go to the moon and that he was going to be a mathematician so that he might help to design systems for building the craft. Adults laughed good-naturedly at his assertions, but he was totally serious, and he built his life around those goals. He created a marble computer when he was in high school that won him the Grand Prize at the Houston Science and Engineering Fair. He went to Rice University and studied mathematics and Electrical Engineering. In time he went to work for Boeing Aerospace in conjunction with NASA and eventually authored the computer program for the navigation system of the International Space Station. He too was someone who was always able to envision a future that was far more exciting and complex than most of us are capable of realizing and he sustained the confidence to follow his journey.

Now I have a grandson named Jack who is imagining the possibilities of one day being part of the SpaceX team designing software. A granddaughter named Abigail is already recording ideas for making the care of animals more humane. Grandson William is writing stories about the future. The odyssey of the mind continues with amazing individuals who see a box of junk as a source of possibilities. These kinds of people turn problems into magical creations. They are the thinkers and dreamers who move us ever forward. They are the future and instead of chuckling at their imaginations we would do well to encourage them to propel us forward. 

Living With Passion

27751901_10214050313705370_7567982830482257335_nI suppose that it is a natural human trait to want to be someone who makes a difference in people’s lives. Sometimes that just means being an exceptional friend, or parent or co-worker. Most of us leave a small but nonetheless meaningful footprint on the earth. Some of us achieve a wider reach. Joann Stringer was a woman who impacted a multitude of lives in an exceptional way.   

I did not know Joann Stringer personally other than through contacts at parent/teacher meeting, and yet I loved her and even modeled my own teaching style after hers. She was a biology teacher at South Houston High School for twenty six years and both of my daughters as well as scores of my former students spent time in her classroom. She had a gift for making what might have been a difficult subject not only understandable, but also fun and exciting. Both of my girls came home from school filled with gleeful stories about the topics that she had introduced to them. They felt that she had opened a whole new and interesting world that had hitherto been unknown to them. Best of all she did so in a gentle and loving way that took into account the needs of each of her students. They never felt stressed or unworthy in Ms. Stringer’s care. There was no time in which they believed that she had been unfair or had not tried hard enough to teach difficult concepts. As a parent I appreciated their anecdotes about a truly caring and passionate teacher. As an educator I quietly filed alway those stories to use in my own classroom, knowing that I was learning from a giant in the profession. 

Even after my own children had left Ms. Stringer’s classroom I continued to hear about her magical abilities. Former students would tell me of how her inspiration had literally changed the courses of their lives. So many of her pupils realized possibilities that they might otherwise have never considered with her encouragement. They became doctors, nurses, researchers and even teachers. They fondly told and retold stories about this incredible woman who had so influenced the trajectories of their lives. I understood what they were telling me because one of my daughters who is presently launching a career as a science teacher often mentions how much she hopes that she will be able to teach as effectively as Ms. Stringer.

Joann Stringer truly dedicated her life to the thousands of students who came to her as freshmen, uncertain about what high school life would be. She reassured them and helped them to find their best selves. She made Biology seem almost easy with her artful explanations and exciting activities. They remember skinning rats, dissecting cats and even being reminded of how to be more mannerly. Ms. Stringer took them on field trips and mentored them as they followed pathways to careers in science. She kept in touch with them, attending their weddings and congratulating them as they reached so many adult milestones. She was in every way an exemplary teacher, the kind that we wish for all of our young people.

Joann Stringer retired in 2011. She pushed herself to keep going long after she might have taken the opportunity to rest. I suspect that she was so devoted to her calling that she was reluctant to leave even as she grew more weary. She suffered from a number of illnesses in her final years but still managed to reach out to her students via Facebook. She always seemed ready and willing to continue to assist them. Last week she died, leaving so many bereft, but also grateful for the imprint that she had made on their lives.

I watched as my Facebook feed filled with one tribute after another for this incredible woman. She indeed lived her life so fully that we would all do well to emulate the best of her qualities. I doubt that she grew rich in a material way, but her spiritual and emotional rewards were surely beyond our ability to count. As we walk through this life each of us has a vocation, a reason to be. Joann Stringer found hers and ran with it like a champion.

I suppose that Joann Stringer is still teaching those of us who knew of her in her own unique way. Her life is a lesson in itself. She showed us that our goal should always be to discover whatever we were meant to do, and then execute our talents unselfishly and with passion. Each of us has something to share, and Ms. Stringer taught us how to do that well. Perhaps it was her ability to help mold young people into happy and productive adults that was after all her greatest contribution to this world. Thousands of her students are paying forward the gifts that she helped them to develop. Her work was of the greatest importance for the future of our society and her impact will be felt for years to come.

I truly hope that Joann Stringer knew how loved and appreciated she was. I will always remember meeting her as a parent and feeling so reassured by her gentle words and her sincere smile. Now she will rest with the angels and we will hopefully carry on her work wherever we may happen to be.