We’re Only Human

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Remember those stories we heard as young folk about the hardships that our parents and grandparents endured in their youth? You know what I’m talking about. They went something like this, “I walked five miles up hill in the snow to school, both ways.” Of course that’s an old joke about our elders attempting to shame us into believing that we had it easy compared to the lives that they had, but the exaggeration isn’t really all that out of line. The fact is that the act of preparing to be an adult is a tough one in almost any day and age. Behind the glamor of youth there is invariably a great deal of angst even for the seemingly most brilliant and well adjusted, and all too often we forget our own journeys and the mistakes that we made as we attempted to develop ourselves into persons able to contribute to society. We give the impression that all anyone ever has to to is set a goal, work really hard, and then watch the fruit of those labors grow. Somewhere deep in our hearts is the understanding that life is rarely that easy and that the push and pull between the world of childhood and becoming an adult is filled with challenges that often confuse and break spirits.

I continually applaud teachers and the work that they do to help build strong bodies and minds in our young. The best among them are the ones who go that extra mile “uphill” to touch the souls of their students. They understand that their duty as educators is not to play “gottcha” with kids but rather to demonstrate compassion and teach them how to navigate through the land mines that will most certainly litter their paths along the way. Teaching is so much more than conveying knowledge and then testing for learning. It is a process, a continuum that has to be individualized to the extent of realizing that we are all individuals who learn in varying ways. We bring both physical and emotional baggage to the classroom and a good teacher knows how to unpack it and tidy it up. No human is the sum of test scores, and yet we so often send the message that only those who make the grade will survive. As adults we know better but insist on spreading the myth that all hard work is duly rewarded.

I often repeat a story related to me by my husband from the days when he was a student at the University of Houston. He had a brilliant professor who had gone out of his way to know his students. This man took the time to discuss his subject in informal settings devoid of the pressures created by research papers and exams. In a conversational way he explored the gist of his knowledge with them, learning how much more they actually knew than what the snapshots of formalized appraisals might convey. My husband saw this man as a caring mentor, and took full advantage of the opportunities to become almost a disciple of him just as the students of Socrates had done in the long ago.

On one occasion my husband’s nerves got the better of him during an exam. He had one of those classic meltdowns that left his mind blank. The more he panicked the less he remembered. As he turned in his test paper he was certain that he had failed and he was disappointed and angry with himself. He immediately went to the professor to apologize for what might have appeared to be a lack of effort and concern. The kindly man began to talk about each question, prodding my husband to explain what he knew about the topics. Before long they were like two friends having one of those glorious discussions in which it is actually believable that they might change the world with their brilliance. By the end of my husband’s confessional the professor announced that it was apparent to him that his student had a deep command of the information and he promptly assigned a grade of “A.”

We rarely see teaching genius like this. In fact we are often an unforgiving society in which mistakes are held against people with dire consequences. We are proverbial Scrooges rather that Fezziwigs, sending individuals into spasms of self doubt and sometimes even severe depression. The truth is that we are continually spilling milk, messing up, making bad decisions and if we are fortunate we find people who will forgive us and help to redirect us. Sadly we are seeing less and less tolerance for the very normal and natural aspects of being human and our society is paying a very high price for so much indignation.

I had a delightful meeting with a high school counselor last week. He works hard on a daily basis to help young people find their way in our very complex society. Some of the students that he meets appear to have no problem heading straight for success, but most stumble and fall along the way. He makes a point of gently picking them back up and helping them the recover and begin again. He is one of the many heroes who takes the time to redirect and reassure even those who seem to have lost their way. This is indeed how we all should be approaching the people around us instead of abhorring words like forgiveness and amnesty.

We are losing far too many people to a competitive and combative world that chews them up and spits them onto a trash heap of hopelessness. We blithely seem to believe that we must only reward strength and perfection or we will create generations of weaklings. We set mistakes in stone and forever remind people of their faults rather than developing their best qualities. We insinuate that only those with specific talents will own the jobs of the future. We praise the young who excel, but send the message to those who struggle that their value is worth less. We even attack minors who don’t quite know how to act when they find themselves in touchy situations. We forget our duty to guide, forgive and encourage.

Luckily we still have many who quietly understand our human frailties and compassionately teach and reteach. They are educators, parents, friends, bosses, lawmakers who remember what it is really like to be human, those who understand that learning and becoming is a lifelong process that can’t be measured with numbers. Success is not made of discrete moments but rather a never ending progression of starts and stops, victories and defeats, exhilarations and frustrations, wisdom and mistakes. In reality it is never too late for each of us to become what we wish to be so perhaps it’s time that we set aside judgements set in stone whether they be test scores, grades or attempts to determine the content of character that is always evolving. We are all walking miles, sometimes even uphill in the snow, but the journey can and should be an adventure, not a dreaded task.    

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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When I was growing up I was surrounded by boy relatives. I had two brothers who instantly bonded with each other and dozens of cousins who were male. I remember being relegated to stereotypical female roles in our play time or being left out entirely when it came to sports or opportunities like scouting. I never wanted to be more like the boys, but I often dreamed of having a few more girls in my midst. I even wished for a sister to make things more even in my family. Since that never happened I had to learn to cope with things as they were, and I looked outside of my little world to find friendships with girls who might become like the sisters that I longed to have.

I had two female cousins but one of them lived in another city and I rarely had occasion to see her. She was also six years younger than I was and in the world of children that seemed like a gap too large to bridge. It was left to my other girl cousin to bring me the kind of companionship for which I longed.

Since she was a tiny bit older I idolized her and thought that every single thing about her was exceptional. She was beautiful with her blue eyes and perfectly proportioned features. Her golden girls brushed her shoulders and accentuated her loveliness. She was also smart, seeming to know about the world in ways that I had never encountered. I was so in awe of her that I was reluctant to share my insecurities with her. Instead I spent many years attempting to turn myself into a carbon copy of her, a futile effort given that there was little about me that was like her. It would be years before I was able to embrace myself just as I was and love her more for the beauty of her heart than her outward appearance. She indeed became my soul sister or “sister cousin” as she likes to say. We share an unbreakable bond, not to mention a long history of shared experiences.

I also found girl friends with whom I became so close that they might have been called “sisters from other mothers.” These have been the women with whom I was able to share my deepest feelings in an almost spiritual way. Some have been more reserved than others in what they are willing to discuss, but all of them have provided me with moments of understanding that only another woman can provide.

I love my brothers dearly, and my husband is undoubtedly my best friend, but sometimes I need to say and do things that are somewhat confusing to men. I have to vent some strange feelings, maybe even be a bit catty. My imperfections need a safe haven in which to exorcise themselves and the most special female friends are those who know and understand that when I make my revelations I am only clearing my head, thinking out loud, trying to free myself of poisonous thoughts. They let me carry own without judgement. They realize that once I have said the unthinkable I feel better and am ready to move on to being a very good person. Men don’t always understand such things. They want women to be angelic. They may become uncomfortable, offended or hurt if we let out our inner demons.

It’s funny how there are certain women  with whom we feel the safe kinship that allows us to be so honest. My cousin has ended up being one of those people. My mother-in-law was amazingly another one in whom I was able to confide without fear of recrimination. My friend Pat and I were sounding boards for each other and now I find that I can be the same way with her daughter.

In a kind of unique twist of fate I have rekindled the same kind of relationship with an old high school friend who had been one of the bridesmaids in my wedding and with whom I had essentially lost contact for almost fifty years. She moved to Atlanta and became a highly successful business woman. I became engrossed with raising my daughters, caring for my mother, and devoting myself to teaching thousands of students. We never meant to ignore each other, but life stepped in and kept us so busy that the years went by and it one day seemed as though perhaps a longterm friendship between us was simply not meant to be.

Then came Facebook, our fiftieth class reunion and retirement from our occupations. Suddenly there was a way for us to come back into contact. At first it was just a comment here and there on social media. Then came a phone call now and again. Eventually we were talking as though our last meeting had been only a few days before. The connection that we had felt in the long ago was as strong as ever. Even with our differing lives we had somehow remained the same, two people who could be totally ourselves without worrying about what the other might think. It was a glorious feeling to reignite our kindred spirits.

I had a meltdown last week. I needed to make some tacky comments just to get them off of my chest. I wanted to complain about some silly things just because. When I attempted to launch into a tirade with my husband as a sounding board confusion ensued. I needed a special woman to hear me. My friend in Atlanta became that person. We complained and laughed and ended a long conversation feeling a thousand times better and way more optimistic. More than anything it felt so good to know that I had found another person who would let me be the good the bad and the ugly versions of myself and still love and understand me. It was grand.

I adore my husband, my brothers, and the men who are my friends, but I also know that now again only the ear of just the right woman will do. Luckily I have some darn good “sisters” to whom I can turn.

Ignoring the Distractions

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My foray into genealogy has provided me with a clearer understanding of the history of at least one branch of my family. My paternal grandmother was a Smith, descended from John William Seth Smith and Christina Rowsee. Her roots center on Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Despite the southern bent of her background she was not a child of Dixieland. In fact, her father was a soldier in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers. Still her hard scrabble story was typical of the people from those places who lived in an era during which life was often uncertain and harsh.

Grandma never had the time or the opportunity to take advantage of education, leaving her illiterate but not unwise. She possessed a folk knowledge and a strength that came from living in corners of the country that were often untouched by modernization. She embraced what she saw as her role in life, that of a partner in the daily contest for survival. Little in her life was easy, and yet she was a happy and content person, not out of ignorance but out of a feeling that she had enjoyed the fruits of progress in the march of time.

She reveled in the joy of knowing that her son had achieved levels of education and success that were beyond her dreams. She took pride in having plumbing and electricity in her home as she recalled times when such things were yet to become the norm. She took little for granted and was a model of thrift even going so far as to make clothing out of the flour sacks that held the lovely white ingredient for her biscuits and pies. She was a woman who straddled the agrarian society of her birth and the industrialized wonder of her later years, and she marveled at the glory of it all.

I try to imagine the kind of life that she and those who came before her must have led. I recall so well her folksy manner of expressing herself that seemed quaint and of another time even in the early nineteen sixties. Memories of her ways have become for me a kind of link to her parents and how they must have talked and believed. I witnessed the hint of her Kentucky background even though she never actually lived there. Like the earnest and hard working folk who struggle to this very day in that part of the country, she was never afraid of long days filled with sacrifices and back breaking labor. She was a survivor, someone who gallantly faced whatever came her way with determination and a sense of wonder, but still she worried. It was as though she understood all too well the fragility of life. She knew how quickly all for which she had worked might go away.

Kentucky has been in the news of late with sweeping generalizations about its nature as a state. We’ve been hopelessly focused on an event in which nothing really happened until our collective anger and beliefs set our discourse on fire. We’ve aligned ourselves with one side or another without actually knowing anything about the players in this farcical debacle. We’ve drawn conclusions and made judgements based on soundbites of a few seconds and photographs taken out of context. In an instant we’ve turned on a group of young boys and even more so on each other. Our outrage and indignation has occupied our thoughts for days which is ironic given that if we want to focus on Kentucky there is a far graver issue of which we barely speak.

Much of the state of Kentucky is reliant on coal mining, an industry that is slowly dying and causing its workers to die as well. Entire generations of people have worked in the dark cramped caves filled with dust that invades their lungs and quietly begins to ravage their bodies. We have eagerly taken that coal to run our electrical plants. Coal has fueled the very progress that so awed my grandmother. It has kept the northern climes warm in the dead of winter. We have given little thought to the price of our modernization. We don’t worry much about the people who have been left to face harsh economic times and even worse medical problems that are decimating young men who never realized what the act of working each day would do to them.

The real tragedy related to Kentucky has nothing to do with a few teenagers who may or may not have reacted well to a supercharged situation. It is instead to be found in the towns where the mines and the factories have become empty shells. It is to be witnessed in the rising numbers of people with are literally suffocating as they attempt to breathe with their damaged lungs. The fact that we are not outraged for them on a national level speaks to the twisted ways in which we find ourselves viewing the world these days. We have somehow got it wrong all the way around as we quibble over nothing while real problems fester.

My great grandfather who served in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers was sick and tired after the Civil War. He eventually hid himself away in the remote forests of Arkansas where he quietly tended his land. He had seen and buried the dead at Shiloh. He must have understood the horrors that come when we lose our way in anger. I suspect that if he had the chance he would caution us to calm down and strive for more understanding and compassion.

We are all far more complex than the sides that we choose, the uniforms that we wear, the work that we do, the places where we live. Life is a continuum, a marathon, an opportunity. It’s time that we once again learn how to move forward from our mistakes and agree to disagree now and again without pushing each other away. There are very real problems that we must tackle, and none of that will happen when we are distracted and filled with anger. It’s past time to prioritize. There are coal miners needing our help, young people watching to see how we guide them, issues crying for our attention. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and reach across the chasms.

A Great Destination

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It’s January and I have roses and azaleas blooming in my yard. Houston is a funny place. Some years the weather is like Florida or southern California. The temperature stays in the sixties and seventies for most of the winter and the plants are fooled into thinking that it is already spring. Now and again we actually get some ice and snow, but generally our winters are mild. It’s one of those lovely things that makes up for the heat of the summer, and it’s still just cool enough to allow women to wear their boots.

Houston was named a top place to visit by Forbes magazine. Lots of folks wondered why in the world anyone would choose our city as a destination. After all our roads are perennially under construction and the traffic can often be brutal. Most of us who live here take it for granted that nobody would come for the scenery with our flat as a pancake landscape. What we don’t seem to think about are some quite wonderful attractions that we have that might actually be quite appealing for visitors.

For some time now Houston has been ranked as one of the best foodie towns in the country. It competes nicely with New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are some who believe that the food here may even be the best in the country. We have some amazing chefs and they don’t just provide a meat and potatoes kind of fare. The diversity in our city brings cuisine from all over the world and innovations in cooking that make it worthy of a visit for anyone who enjoys fine dining at its best.

Of course it may seem ridiculous to think that anyone would want to visit H-Town just to eat, and that’s a good point, but there are still lots of things to do here. We have sporting events at the professional level year round and our universities provide additional athletic venues that are lots of fun. Our museums are wonderful and boast variety from science to medicine to space to modern art. It would take a week to visit each of them and the effort would be well worth it.

Speaking of the arts, our Alley Theater is world renowned and it’s not the only cast of players in town. There’s also the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet, and Theater Under the Stars. At any given moment there are great musicians and comedians playing in town at Jones Hall, the Reliant Center, the Toyota Center, the Smart Financial Center, Jones Hall, the Woodlands, the Wortham Center or the Hobby Center. Our universities also host plays and musical festivals which are of exceptional quality.

Shopping is world class as well with the Galleria attracting folks from all over the world and smaller places like Memorial City, Highland Village, or the Woodlands offering a wonderful experience in their own right. There are even outlet malls and quaint shops dotted all over the city and its suburbs. Houston has a number of Farmer’s Markets as well that offer everything from spices to pottery along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

A short trip of about an hour will take visitors to Galveston with its beaches, historical homes, and quirky shops. There’s fun to be had swimming, boating or just relaxing in the sun and sand. The seafood there has its own unique taste and ranks with some of the best to be found anywhere.

I think that those who are quick to make fun of Houston’s designation as a great place to visit forget about how fun a trip here might be. With the right planning a traveler can catch the Houston Rodeo or spend a day at the Nutcracker Market. We host quilt shows that feature exhibitions from all over the world. The Houston Garden Club Bulb Mart is a fall favorite along with some of the most glorious weather that the city has to offer.

Those of us who live here are always so busy that we don’t stop to think of how much there is to do at any given moment. For a newcomer the possibilities for fun and entertainment are almost endless. We don’t boast any mountains or grand natural wonders but our springtime Azalea Trail is breathtaking. A trip along Buffalo Bayou is a wonder. A day spent at Brazos Bend State Park is both educational and inspiring with its up close encounters with wildlife and its observatory aimed at the heavens. A drive through River Oaks is a fun as visiting the lovely homes in New Orleans.

I suspect that an out of towner would easily be able to fill a calendar with activities for weeks just with things I have mentioned and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of the many sights that we have here in Houston. I totally understand why my city was chosen as a great destination for anyone hoping to have a great vacation. In fact, I’d like to challenge Houstonians to try a “staycation” someday to enjoy what our great city has to offer.

I am the first to admit that Houston has its flaws but I have yet to travel to any place that is perfect. In the grand scheme of things Houston can be lots of fun and even provide a few nature activities for those who prefer the outdoors. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to find more than enough to do. 

Where Were the Chaperones?

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My head is filled with so many thoughts as I sit here on a chilly morning attempting to focus on one topic rather than the variety of ideas that are racing through my mind. It’s a holiday today so the sound of children chattering as they load onto the school bus that stops across from my house is missing from my usual routine. I’m often inspired by those little voices because more than anything my life has been devoted to preparing our young ones for the future. Hearing them is always music to my ears and I often long for the days when their journey in the big yellow bus might have brought them to me. Like the mothers that hover over them as they depart, I too became thoroughly engrossed in concern for their well being, so it is only natural that even in retirement I think of what they need to know and learn if they are to have the strength and determination that they will need to navigate through the challenges of life.

I had to learn how to be an observer in my work, someone who rarely missed a single thing that was happening or about to happen in my classroom. Mine and that of all teachers was an exhausting job. I had to wear “Granny Gump” shoes because I rarely sat down. My bladder stretched to an unhealthy volume because I did not have the luxury of attending to it right away. Every minute of every day I assumed the role of a guardian angel for each of my students. I believed that I had a responsibility to provide them with more than just a knowledge of mathematical concepts. I was indeed responsible for their very safety and I took that charge quite seriously.

I had a love/hate relationship with field trips. I enjoyed the times when my students had opportunities to learn more about the world in an up close and personal fashion, but I also became hyper vigilant in such circumstances. I was about as relaxed as a secret service agent whenever I was out and about with them. I counted heads and watched every movement, listened to every word. I learned from experience that bad things might happen in the blink of an eye. For that reason I enlisted the help of multiple chaperones and stressed the importance of each adult keeping track of their designated group. I despised occasions when the leaders of the trips allowed the students to run freely even inside a contained area. I felt the need to watch over them every second, not so much because I did not trust them, but because I did not trust what kind of bad situations they might find themselves in if no adult were guiding them.

I’m saddened by the stories of last weekend regarding the group of young boys from a Kentucky High School who found themselves in the center of controversy in an incident that occurred near the Lincoln Memorial. The full details of the what happened vary depending on whether or not the context of what occurred is taken into account. That being said I find myself thinking of how easily this entire situation with the students might have been avoided if only adult chaperones and a set of rules had been followed. I find myself wondering why nobody was in charge.

Rule number one would have been to break the large group of young men down into manageable groups of five or six students assigned to one reliable adult who was either a teacher, administrator or parent. That individual needed to be instructed to keep his/her group in sight at all times. After all, most of the kids were minors and even though they may have thought of themselves as being perfectly capable of navigating through Washington D.C. alone the school ultimately was responsible for them while so far away from home.

Another little trick for keeping the boys safe would have been to coordinate the clothing for each day of travel. This can usually be done with special trip shirts or uniforms. One day might be all blue shirts, another white and so forth. In such circumstances it becomes quite easy to spot the members of the school even in a crowd. Extraneous items like baseball caps and such might be purchased as souvenirs but not worn in the public excursions. With such rules there would be no worry that someone might be offended by the appearance of the students because they would all look the same.

Any teacher or adult who has ever been on a trip with a group of high school students knows that even with the best possible planning things can and do go awry. Nonetheless, with a good procedure and lots of instruction regarding what is and is not permissible things certainly go more smoothly than if the youngsters are left to their own resources.

What happened on the National Mall was unfortunate. A large group of boys was allowed to tour on their own and instructed to meet at the Lincoln Memorial at a certain time to wait for a bus. With protestors lurking around every corner and some of the boys wearing political caps leaving them without adults to supervise was negligent. As minors they were almost certain to find trouble in the highly charged atmosphere. They may have reacted badly but we have to remember that their adolescent brains still don’t work as well as we might wish. It was naive and dangerous to leave them to their own resources.

I suspect that everyone over the age of thirty can point to something that they did as a teenager that was foolish and perhaps even brutally wrong. In retrospect we may wonder what we were thinking, but the truth is that we probably were simply reacting rather than forming any rational ideas. Very few people can honestly say that they have been perfectly perfect particularly in sticky situations. I suspect that these boys got caught up in something that they did not know how to control and I blame a host of adults for both agitating them and not properly being there to help them.

The take away from this story should be the acknowledgement that the adults dropped the ball. They were not around to guide and protect school boys who might have learned some valuable lessons if things had been handled properly. There were many teachable moments during the confrontation. Sadly the people who might have guided them were nowhere to be found. As a former teacher and a parent I would be demanding answers from all of the adults who failed our young on so many levels regarding what seems to have happened. Where were the chaperones when they were needed?