The Dialogue

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Teachers talk all of the time. They desperately want to do the right thing for their students. They literally take their worries and concerns home, sometimes keeping them awake in the dark of night. Their constant worry is whether or not they have done all that they possibly can. They wonder what is really most important for preparing their charges for life. Is a laundry list of knowledge and skills enough, or is there actually something more important than grades and test scores? What is the recipe, the correct ingredients, the proper method for putting a life together?

This past weekend I was with two extraordinary educators and a student who is on the brink of launching her career after spending most of her life learning. We spoke of our concerns about education and all agreed that what is too often missing is the opportunity to help young people develop a foundation of particular traits that will serve them well in any situation. The young lady who had once been our student is a stunning example of a process gone right. She earned a bachelors degree in psychology and immediately followed up by working toward a masters degree in clinical counseling. It has taken her almost eight years to reach her goals. In that time she has had to work as well as study. Somehow she understood the need to focus on the prize, often with great sacrifice. She adhered to an unwavering belief that God must always be first, family second and career third. All are important, but always in that order. She values life from birth until death and plans to work in palliative care at a hospital. Somehow she has made her journey appear to be easy, but we know that it was not. She had the same kind of stresses and problems that all humans have. perhaps even more, and yet she was able to overcome them and remain healthy, optimistic and kind. What we wondered gave her the courage and confidence that she must have needed on many different occasions? Why was she able to find joy and success when so many falter and fail?

One hint that she humbly provided was that her core of values guide her along the way, but mostly her faith. Her heart is strong and it is her foundation. She is willing to work, and always determined to make a difference in our society. She is less concerned with grades or scores or rankings, and more inclined toward finding purpose in the things that she wants to do. In other words, she has found a passion for people and good works that motivates her to keep going even when times become difficult.

As we explored many ideas we concurred with her philosophies and noted that as educators we have the power to help our young develop a sense of meaningfulness, but all too often our jobs force us to concentrate on areas that are far less important. We become distracted and fractured and unlikely to have either the time or the energy to encourage each and every one of our students. We want to help them on a deeper basis but know that other demands cause us to fall short. It is frustrating, maddening even. We are in the trenches with society’s most important resource and all too many times we are bombarded with so much bureaucratic minutiae that we have to ignore our own instincts about what is most important in the care and guidance of our young.

I recall a workshop from long ago criticizing the American tendency to teach a vast array of concepts in a shallow manner as opposed to going deeply into a few key concepts. As a mathematics teacher I always felt as though I was in a race to keep up with all of the topics. Too many times I was forced to move ahead even when I sensed that my students had not yet mastered what they needed to know. I wondered why I had to teach them how to create a stem and leaf plot when they lacked an understanding of fractions and decimals. I felt that I was somehow contributing to the slow destruction of their confidence, I wondered if they would one day be telling people that they were not good in math because I had made them feel inadequate by ignoring their need for just a bit more time to master certain ideas.

During my career I worked in a variety of schools. The best of them created situations that allowed our students to feel as though they were members of a caring family. There were adults watching over them and helping them to develop traits that would serve them well in any situation. We taught them to work hard and be nice. We reminded them to remember and appreciate kindnesses. We urged them to leave any place where they wandered in a better state than they had found it. We rewarded character as much as grades. We taught them about wisdom and honor. We joined hands with their parents in the work of caring for them. We showed them how to rise to great expectations even as they stumbled in the process. We encouraged them to demonstrate true grit, helping them to realize that those unwilling to give up will ultimately enjoy great accomplishment and happiness. Mostly we wanted them to know that they were never alone. There would always be someone on whom they might rely.

Dialogues such as the one I enjoyed with my colleagues and a former student are commonplace among teachers. We understand how critical our roles truly are. Educational reform is happening every day in small ways inside the classrooms of the majority of dedicated individuals on whom our future depends. Teachers are changing lives one student at a time, and when they witness the fruit of their labors in the form of an adult who is ready to commence the heavy lifting of important work, they know that their efforts have not been in vain. Such a realization is a teacher’s greatest reward.

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The Soul of a New Venture

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Our world has been made more lovely by the work of creative people and the entrepreneurs who have introduced their innovations to us. Humans are always looking for better ways of doing and presenting things. Someone is surely considering ideas that may one day revolutionize our comfort or aesthetics even as we go about our daily routines. Philosophy, mathematics, art, medicine, technology have all been driven by those gifted and dedicated enough to produce things that we have never even thought about. A secretary came up with the concept of the Post-It note and became a wealthy woman. A failed artist conceived of a cast of characters and an animated world that became the foundation of an entertainment giant known as Disney. A couple of geeky students created a computer whose brand identified with a type of fruit would one day be synonymous with elegance of form and function. A guy frustrated by the stray plant life in his yard used some fishing line and a little motor to develop a weed eating monster. Every great success story began with an interesting idea and a determination to demonstrate that notion to the world.

We all know someone who stepped out of the box of corporate America or the grind of working for a big organization. It’s a frightening prospect to go it alone with no assurances that things will work out as planned. It takes courage and patience and the willingness to believe enough to go the distance. Small businesses come and go with the vagaries of the seasons. Only the best survive, so it takes a special kind of person to put forth the needed time, effort and resources to jumpstart and maintain the soul of a new enterprise. It is not for the weak of heart and I admire anyone who attempts to make things happen.

My brother spent decades working for the Houston Fire Department. Upon retiring he and his wife made a leap of faith and invested in a property near the Strand in Galveston, Texas where they decided to build a venture that would provide tourists to the area with an alternative to the usual beach centered activities. Escape The Island is their fun way of telling a bit of the area’s history while teams compete with the clock to unlock the clues that will allow them to exit a series of bolted rooms. They cleverly created puzzles and designed sets. They spent time publicizing their party and team building business. The work was as hard as their former day jobs had always been, but they believed that they had developed a form of entertainment that people would like. They never gave up even when the going was initially slow. They kept spreading the word and improving on their product until they began to see increased interest in what they had to offer. Today Escape the Island is a destination for families, businesses and college students. Located at 910 21st Street in Galveston, Texas they are ready to schedule fun at 409-443-5092 or http://www.escapetheisland, com

A former student of mine, Eric Guerra, went from high school to the University of Houston where he earned a degree that helped him land a job in the world of business. He was doing exceptionally well, but he felt that something was missing. He somehow knew that he had more to offer than adhering to a nine to five grind, but had little idea what that might be until he met an interesting fellow named Sebastian Martinez had quit is job to concentrate on creating furniture. He had made a table out of an old tree stump and a welded metal base and when Eric saw it his business acumen told him that the table was unique enough that it and items like it would be desired by those who want more than everyday design for their homes. The added bonus was that the furniture was made from recycled and repurposed wood that might otherwise have been burned or turned to sawdust. He envisioned a company much bigger than just a weekend way to earn some extra money, and he had the idea of forming a partnership to produce one of a kind furnishings on a grander scale.

Eric sought out advice from local businessmen who had once been in his situation and had turned small time ventures into mega successes. He convinced captains of local industries to provide him with guidance and some of them even made deals to feature his products in their stores. He set about building a business that has grown from sharing a garage with a lawn care company to purchasing a bigger warehouse near the Amazon fulfillment center west of Houston. He learned the techniques for creating the furniture so that he would be totally immersed in the process from the moment of finding the trees and the reclaimed lumber to creating the final product and then selling and distributing it. He has moved the company forward in a fairly short amount of time and its future looks promising as word of the lovely decorating ideas spreads from one satisfied customer to another.

Republic Creations pays homage to its Texas roots and the native materials that are used for the many products. The artistic builders and designers make live edge tables as small as a side accent and as large as a fifteen foot conference table. No wood is ever wasted as some of it enhances a wall or even becomes the planking for a floor. One of the most requested products is the wooden, live edge vanity for kitchens and bathrooms that provides a warmth and richness not possible with stone. Wooden kennels for pets become stunning pieces of furniture that blend in with the loveliest of environment and provide highly livable homes for pets at night or when the family is gone for the day. Everything is original and organic and environmentally friendly. Thanks to Eric Guerra and his acumen the business is quickly becoming a very popular and profitable venture. More photos and information are available on Facebook at Republic Creations and Designs or with a visit to the design center at 902 East Ave, Katy, TX 77493, 832-541-1840. Below are a few images of the designs that include the tables like the one featured at the top of this blog.

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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

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I write a blog five days a week and sometimes I wonder if anyone other than my friends, Linda, Adriana and Paula are reading my thoughts. It often feels as though I am simply exercising my long held fantasy of being a writer for an audience of practically no one. One might argue that that my public journalling has become a vain obsession, but perhaps what is more important about my literary efforts than the number of readers that I attract or my reasons for writing is that I am allowed to voice my views freely. There is something more remarkable about having such a basic right than earning a viral following.

I read a great deal, observe continually, and watch historical documentaries in my quest for blog topics. From those efforts I have learned about the many parts of the world in which I would either be restricted in my comments or banned entirely. My freedom of speech is something that I admittedly all too often take for granted, but it is in fact one of my most precious gifts because I am someone who has a difficult time sitting silently in the background. I truly believe that I have a story to tell and a point of view to share that may not be particularly important or even wise, but that illustrates the resilience of the human spirit.

I’ve watched almost seventy years of history unfolding and some of it was ugly and tainted with violence and hatred. Most of the time, however the horrific behavior that I have noted was more of a societal aberration than a true reckoning of who we are as people. Time and again I have watched the goodness of human beings ultimately win the day, often in imperfect but well intentioned ways. Like President Barrack Obama I believe in the idea that the arc of history bending toward justice is more that just a platitude. It is our reality. Unfortunately our evolution toward perfection is slow and even jerky at times as we lurch back and forth between our better natures and our more selfish tendencies. We are often reticent to speak out or fight for what is good and right until the pain of witnessing injustice becomes overwhelming. We tend to want to be left alone, but we are unwilling to let evil fester indefinitely.

When I was young I used to think that I would one day see a time much like that described in Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, a moment when we would all be judged only by the content of our individual character. Perhaps I was a bit premature in believing that we were on the brink of achieving an almost idyllic world. Still, I do think that we are moving in that direction even though at times our progress is imperceptible. My experience with people has taught me that generally everyone possesses a sincere wish to be loving and heroic, but sometimes circumstances make it difficult to be our best.

We are a society of rules and that is as it should be. I have never been in any situation that worked out well without some form of guidelines. Rubrics and laws help us to set parameters, but we have to be careful not to become so driven by regulations that our most basic freedoms are curtailed. I suspect that we all want to be able to think, speak and act in our own manner as long as what we are doing does no harm. Of late, however, we have tended as a society to turn our backs in profound judgement on those with whom we disagree. This trend has created schisms in families and among friends. We are broken on both a personal and a worldwide level, filled with suspicions and immutable opinions. Exercising our free speech has become a means of formally bending arms rather than a vehicle of persuasion. We are being distracted by propaganda and revolutions rather than hearing quiet but often compelling viewpoints filled with reason.

We have unwittingly allowed our freedom to speak to be dominated by the passions of the fringe, the outliers on a normal curve. While those of us who are more moderate have been busy performing the tasks of living, those with louder voices and unyielding opinions have managed to assume that they represent the rest of us. While we toil to survive, they are busy choosing the candidates and the platforms from which we will have to choose at the polling places. We are busy or perhaps too reserved and unwilling to foment disagreement to concern ourselves with the raucous until we find ourselves in front of a ballot filled with the names of individuals with whom we disagree, powerless to do more than choose the lesser of two evils. We watch in dismay from the sidelines as the opposing sides of the many issues that worry us tear each other apart when we actually want them to set aside their differences and come to a fruitful conclusion. We know that we are members of a silent majority that is the glue that is so tentatively holding our nation and our world together even as it appears to be falling apart.

Most of us have been taught to be respectful. We learned from our elders that speaking of religion and politics in public is bad form, taboo. We don’t wish to rock the boat, so we walk away from disagreements. We avoid mentioning topics that may lead to arguments. We tip toe around any discussions that might provide knowledge that makes us uncomfortable or challenges our thoughts. We worry that what we say will be ridiculed or misunderstood. We tell ourselves that nobody really cares what we have to say, and so we leave the speeches and the commentaries to strangers who are leading us away from what we actually believe. We know that we want to do something to change our current situation, but we have no idea how to even begin. The answer lies in the very freedom that we all too often neglect to exercise.

A shockingly low percentage of those eligible to vote take the time to go to the polls. Even fewer voice their beliefs to those who have been elected and are supposed to be serving all of the people. It takes only a few minutes to send an email or compose a letter to a representative. We waste our time on Facebook and Twitter, but when enough of us flood the offices of the President and Congress with our opinions we have the power of collectively making a difference. We have glorious rights that we have become too lazy or cynical to use. Instead of battling with friends and family in circular arguments, we should be contacting the very people who are supposed to be working for us.

I write because I am free to do so. I will please some and enrage others. The facts of my demographics do not serve as impediments to my rights as they might in so many corners of the world. I celebrate my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness with my words. It is a glorious feeling to be able to do so, and I will continue as long as it is my right.

Igniting the Fire

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We all know someone who appears to have walked straight down a pathway to the unfettered fulfillment of dreams and goals. From the outside looking in it may even seem as though certain groups of people have more access to lives uncomplicated by roadblocks and disappointments than the rest of us. In truth those whom we believe glide effortlessly through life are the exception rather than the rule. Most of us mere mortals are faced with multiple challenges that change the courses of our journeys or sometimes even create almost intractable roadblocks. It is in how we choose to face down the limitations and difficulties that beset us that determines our mettle as human beings.

I am quite naturally drawn to interesting stories that speak of determination. I’m fascinated by the extent to which some humans will work to be their best selves regardless of the discouragement that they may encounter. Their unwillingness to resign themselves to bitterness or self defeating behaviors serve as inspiration, but all too often we neglect to truly analyze just how much courage and effort it may have actually taken for them to succeed.

It was most unlikely that Abraham Lincoln would one day become one of the most admired and best loved presidents of all time. He was born in the backwoods of Kentucky and had the bad luck of being poor and not particularly attractive. There was little of great merit to recommend him as a leader, and besides he suffered greatly from recurring depression and thoughts of suicide. Nonetheless it was his moral code of honesty and compassion, along with his gift of speaking that slowly propelled him into history. His life was continually beset with tragedy and his melancholy produced tremendous suffering for him, but his sense of responsibility somehow overcame all of the adversities that befell him. It was as though he understood that he had a destiny to follow, so he soldiered forward even as he considered and feared his ultimate fate.

I heard a writer speaking of Franklin Delano Roosevelt recently. I had always thought FDR to be a brilliant, confident and almost aristocratic man who altruistically devoted his talents to the betterment of the country. In fact his had been a rather unsure and disappointing beginning. As a young man his appearance was somewhat awkward and his academic record was rather average. Even though he was admitted to Harvard he struggled to fit in there. He was not as wealthy or intellectual or talented as his peers. In the early days of his political career he lived in the shadow of that other Roosevelt who had been a charismatic adventurer and president. When he was diagnosed with polio it appeared that his career and possibly even his life was over, and yet it was at that watershed moment that he found an aspect of himself that would ultimately define him as one of the greats in the pantheon of history. He turned one of the biggest disappointments of his life into a lesson in humility, courage and empathy. He willed himself from the depths of despair and used both his strengths and his weaknesses to lead a nation through one of its darkest moments.

The annals are replete with story after story of individuals who seemed doomed to lives of soul crushing tragedy and lack of fulfillment who through sheer persistence found their better selves. Such was a post on Facebook about a little girl with Down’s Syndrome who told her mother that she wanted to become a model. In spite of having all of the odds stacked against her, she never gave up on her dream. She worked out and practiced her walk and sent her photographs to hundreds of places hoping that someone might provide her with a moment  to demonstrate what she believed she had to offer. Her grit eventually paid off. She has been featured on runways across the globe and in multiple fashion magazines. She has shown the world a new definition of beauty and grace. Mostly though she has demonstrated that not one of us has to wait for opportunity. Sometimes we have to go out and create it.   

J.J. Watt was just named the Man of the Year by the NFL for the good deeds that he continuously performs when he is not working as one of the premier defensive players in professional football. A fan wanted to know what J.J. had been doing at the age of nineteen, and was stunned by the answer. J.J. noted that his first run with college had not worked out well. He found himself at home again with his parents, taking classes at a community college and working at a nondescript job at night. Nonetheless, he was not done. He worked out and trained so that he might try out for a walk on spot as a player at the University of Wisconsin. Even at a young age J.J. was demonstrating the characteristics that would ultimately make him a superstar as a player and a human being.

Our society can be harsh and ugly at times. We often hear the word “No” more than we receive encouragement. We are ranked and categorized from the time that we are very young. Test scores and economic measures often serve as arbiters of our future. People with small minds tell us all of the reasons why we should not be able to accomplish certain things. Our system sometimes seems designed to push us down rather than lift us up. We are told that our qualifications are inferior, our physical appearance is wrong, our talents are mediocre, our profile doesn’t fit the norm. It is easier at times to just accept the judgements and settle into an uncomfortable rut. Then we hear of people who  have constructed their own destinies by building the roads they need or following winding and adventurous paths. They show us that there is always a way and that it is never too late to be who we want to be.

We may not be famous or even find riches as we inch forward, but we will experience the happiness and sense of well being that comes from finding the spark inside our souls that ignites the joy that comes from a sense accomplishment. Each of us has the capacity to make the most of our lives. We only need begin.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

The Car

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The stories on the television series This Is Us are so heartwarming and real that rarely a week goes by that I do not identify with some aspect of an episode. They have a universal appeal that reaches into the heart and soul of who we are as members of a family. I have duly noted the kinship that I have with the characters depicted on the show. As with my own situation there are three siblings, a girl and two boys, who continue to struggle with the impact of their beloved father’s death. I have known the pain of their loss of their father all too well, and like them I have never quite come to grips with the reality of the situation even years later. The writers of the series are certainly gifted to make each of us feel as though they have somehow tapped into our own personal memories. The title itself hints that we are all part of a great big family of mankind that endures the same types of struggles. The characters are us. Their history is ours.

A recent episode of This Is Us was titled The Car, a brilliant look at how an inanimate object becomes a symbol for a father’s love and all that is good about a family. The storyline was particularly touching for me because it was one car that devastated my family and another that brought us a new day of hope.

My father was a Pontiac man. He loved the sporty nature of that brand and insisted on getting a new one almost as soon as the last payment was made on the one he was driving. He had proudly purchased a brand new Pontiac with all of the bells and whistles for our move from Houston, Texas to San Jose California. It was an automobile boasting the kind of luxury that earned second glances as we drove down the road. It carried us in grand style and comfort thousands of miles to our new home. When things didn’t work out there it brought us back to Houston and the promise of a fresh start in familiar surroundings. We used it to visit friends and family whom we had missed while we were gone. We drove it to inspect houses that we might purchase to set up a household. We were planning to take it to the beach on Memorial Day to launch a summer on the Gulf Coast. We loved that car and the sight of our daddy sitting so happily behind the wheel. How could we have known that it would become the instrument of his death?

He died in that car on a lonely stretch of road when he accidentally drove into a deep ditch that was unmarked and laying in wait on a dark night. It had no seatbelt to protect him, no collapsable steering wheel, no exterior designed to take the brunt of the crash. Instead the car built as it was became a weapon that crushed his chest and stopped his heart. It would change our lives and create questions in our minds that haunt us even to this day.

We would later find evidence of our father’s loving nature in the gifts that he had already purchased in anticipation of his wedding anniversary and my mother’s birthday. A card would arrive in the mail from him with a postmark from the day before he died. He had used his car to plan for a future that would never come for him. He was dead and the car had become a heap of scrap.

My mother had to pull herself together somehow. She began the process of building a new kind of life for us, and for that she needed a car. The one that she purchased became the auto that would carry us through our youth and into our adulthood. It was a homely thing, almost ugly, but it was reliable. It was painted in a two tone pattern of white and a strange beige color. It had ordinary cloth seats and rubber mats on the floorboard. It was as basic as a car might be, not even possessing an automatic transmission or an air conditioner. It was so unlike anything our father might have purchased, but my mother was able to pay for it with the insurance money that she received from his accident. It was so stripped down that there was very little that might break, and best of all she owned it. It was a good car in spite of its appearance and it became the vehicle that drove us into our future.

Once we managed to move beyond our grief that car became a source of great fun. We used it to visit our grandparents in Arkansas, and piled inside on Friday nights to meet up with our aunts and uncles and cousins. We sat inside it at drive-in movie theaters enjoying grand epics on the big screen even as we batted the mosquitoes that buzzed about. We ran our weekend errands and drove to church in our ever faithful auto. We motored to Dallas and San Antonio for vacations, and went to Corpus Christi to enjoy the ocean that our dad had so loved. When we were sick we sat safely inside the car as we traveled to see the doctor. The car took us to ballgames and bowling alleys, pancake breakfasts and excursions at the mall.

From time to time one of our mechanically inclined uncles would change the oil, rotate the tires, or install a new battery. Year after year passed and it was that ugly old car that took us to the places where we celebrated the milestones of our youth. It was ever dependable, always waiting to help us enjoy a new adventure. It helped us to heal and to move on from the tragedy that had so changed us. It served us as well as anything might have, requiring little attention to keep faithfully working.

About the time that I was close to graduating from high school my mother decided that it was time to replace the car which was nearing its eighth or ninth year of service to our family. One of my cousins purchased it from her and our next car was a great deal fancier, but somehow not as comforting as the old one had been. I found myself missing our friend even as we toured the city in grander style more akin to the kind that our father had always enjoyed. We had carpet on the floorboards and air conditioning to keep us cool, but somehow it would never feel as secure as “The Car” had been. In fact, I have few memories attached to the new model. It would always be that ugly old stripped down Ford that I would remember with so much fondness.

It’s funny how a car can become such a vivid part of life, representing all of the things that are good about its owners. That’s the way it was with ours. The car was one of us and we loved it.