The Marathon

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I was a tiny child and I did not grow to my adult size until I was almost a senior in high school when I had a growth spurt that made the concept of growing pains feel brutally painful. My diminutive size and late blooming tendencies made me feel inadequate when it came to athletic challenges. I was able to run but my stride was so much shorter than my peers that I rarely kept up with them in competitive situations. I also seemed to be a bit lacking in hand eye coordination so games like volleyball and basketball were unbelievably challenging for me. I learned what it was like to be the last person chosen for a team. I had to endure the groans of the group that got stuck with me during competitions. Mostly I slowly but surely did my best to escape situations that required my athleticism, thinking that I was somehow defective in that regard. The jokes leveled at my lack of prowess from my brothers did little to change my opinion of myself when faced with the prospect of participating in games that required my physical prowess. 

I kept to pursuits that used the talents that came naturally to me. I was able to learn even difficult concepts very quickly. I had a photographic memory. I sometimes joked that when God announced that he was passing out sports abilities I had my head in a book and missed the announcement. I decided to simply accept my deficiencies and move forward with my life. I became the sporting version of the kid who announces, “I’m no good in math” and then fulfills her own prophecy. It would take a gifted educator to convince me of the error of my ways.

I had to enroll several required classes in physical education as part of my college degree plan. I tried golf and was so bad that the teacher promised to give me a passing grade only if I promised never to pick up a set of clubs again and never to tell anyone that he had been my teacher. Tennis was not much better and that coach simply ignored me once she realized that I was hopeless. It would be a man with a PhD in physical education who would demonstrate to me the essence of a masterful educator. 

As part of my coursework for being certified as a teacher I had to endure a college class designed to prepare me for the possibility of having to instruct students in physical education in addition to teaching the so called “three Rs.” The goal of the course was to cycle through every possible kind of athletic game just in case we might ever need such skills. I was miserable and seemingly unable to perform well with any sport. I counted down the days when my torture would be over and vowed to never interview for a job that might somehow place me in a gym or on a field even if only for a few minutes each week. Then, just when I thought that I was going to escape unnoticed, the perceptive professor asked me to stay after class for a conference. 

I dreaded the encounter and felt that I already knew what he was going to say. I expected the usual complaints about how inept I was and a promise to pass me if I simply hung in for the remainder of the semester and promised never to even serve as a substitute teacher in any athletic capacity. I knew the drill, but it was still painful to hear such things. Instead he began asking me what kind of coaching I had received while still in elementary, junior high and high school. He listened intently as I told him that the usual sequence of events was to hand me a ball or an implement of some kind and tell me to begin playing without any formal instruction. I mentioned that I had been a baton twirler and that was the only time that my hands and my eyes seemed to work together. I also indicated that I like to dance and felt comfortable learning new steps without appearing to be a klutz but otherwise I felt like my brain and my body mostly worked at odds with one another. 

He then invited me to stay for a few minutes after each class because he wanted to actually teach me how to do the most fundamental things. Thus began my education in how to sink a basketball in a hoop, how to throw and catch a baseball or football, how to connect a bat with a ball and so forth. I was surprised to learn that there were actually processes and ways of positioning my feet or using my arms. Suddenly I was doing things that I had always thought were beyond my abilities. It felt really good to make progress in an arena that had usually been terrifying for me. It also made me realize that as a teacher I would encounter students who had given up on themselves in some regard and it would be my duty to help them to overcome their fears. It was an amazing revelation for me.

I ended up spending my career teaching mathematics, a subject that had been secondary to my major in English. I had thought that I would be instructing students in the art of dissecting literature, parsing sentences and writing eloquent passages. Instead I became the guide for one of the most dreaded subjects for many many students. I quickly learned that a good number of pupils in each of my classes would be terrified of numbers and mathematical concepts. They would prefer just getting by and getting through the sequence of topics rather than attempting to master them. They were to math as I had been to sports. 

From my own traumatic experience I knew that my duty with my most reluctant students would be to take them back to the fundamentals and build their confidence enough that they would be willing to try more difficult things. I showed them how all of the the basic skills of math came so beautifully together to lift up into an understanding of what all of those formulas and numbers actually do. I gave them my time and my patience and my encouragement until they found the belief in themselves that had been so lacking. 

I never became a jock nor did I run marathons, but I felt better about myself in realizing that I was not just some hopelessly gawky loser who was born without the ability to make my body work like an athlete. I understood that we each have talents that seem to come to us without much effort and difficulties that require extra help. Teaching became my mental and spiritual marathon and my goal was always to be watchful for the souls who had convinced themselves as I once had that they were losers. I would become their coach who stayed with them until they understood that they were not always going to be bad in math or anything else. I saw that real teaching is more than just scoring the points or getting the right answers. It is about reaching both the minds and the hearts. I was not just a purveyor of facts. I became a coach.


The Little Forest

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When I was a young child my family lived at what seemed like the edge of Houston. Past the neighborhood where I lived there were mostly forests, farms and rural scenes. Even near my home there was a wooded area untouched by humans that was a mecca of fun and adventure for all of us kids. We were really free range children back then. At the age of six or seven I rode my bicycle all over the neighborhood and one of my favorite destinations was that little forest of trees that grew on the banks of a bayou. 

The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn had nothing on me and my friends who roamed under the shade of the tall oaks and pines excavating treasures buried in the ground and exploring the wonders and gifts of nature. I was never lucky enough to find Native American arrowheads like one of my cousins had but there were still feathers from birds and interesting rocks that drew my attention with their many colors. 

In the spring the floor of our little forest was covered with wildflowers that I often picked for my mom. She would proudly place the deep purple wine cups and pink buttercups in a vase as though they had arrived from a florist. She even taught me how to find edible wildflowers but cautioned me never to try a mushroom lest I choose a poisonous variety. Somehow I never had a desire or enough hunger to eat any of the flora that I found growing in the woods but I always like learning new things and then teaching my friends about my new found knowledge.

Copperhead snakes and water moccasins roamed in the area so we had to be cautious when stepping on rotting logs or wading into talk grass. We heard rumors and tales of other children who had been bitten by snakes and the stories put enough fear in us that we poked the ground with big sticks before treading where a serpent might be lying in wait. Mostly those critters were more afraid of us than we were of them so they did their best to stay out of our way.

There were cute squirrels scurrying in up and down the massive trees carrying nuts and berries in their cheeks. It was tempting to feed and pet them put we already knew about a neighbor who got too close and was bitten. She spent time in the hospital getting rabies shots and she told us how horrid that experience had been. We decided then and there to just watch the critters but never attempt to befriend them. 

Our parents had also warned us not to try to swim in the bayou. They hinted that there might be gators in water who would not take kindly to an invasion of their habitat. I never saw any signs of an alligator but I was not going to test the theory that they might be there. Besides, I was not a particularly good swimmer so I had little desire to venture into the murky waters like my mother claimed that her brothers had done when they were boys. She swore that the bayous back then were clear and filled with fish and all kinds of wildlife. She told me that she and her siblings used to catch fish along the banks of Buffalo Bayou and use it as a swimming hole on hot summer days. 

Even by the time of my childhood, which was decades ago, the bayous were brackish and uninviting for anything more than canoeing. I could not imagine wanting to eat anything that lived in the muddy brew that seemed to be more of a ditch for retaining rainwater than a source of living creatures. Still I had a fascination with the bayou and often imagined myself crafting a wooden raft and follow the twists and turns of the stream of water. Instead I made little sailboats from leaves and launched them on adventures that I watched until they had floated out of sight. 

The best part of going to the woods was building a fort and there was plenty of raw material just lying on the ground to create a clubhouse for me and my friends. There was an unspoken rule that once an area held a structure it was not to be disturbed, so when my friends and I built our little place it remained intact until a storm came along or we lost interest and allowed it to go back to its original state. There was nothing quite like camping out under the trees, especially in the hot summers. The temperature down on the ground seemed to be a good five degrees cooler than it was out in the open. It was a haven where our imaginations roamed free.

Eventually the wooded area was cleared for more homes, but by then I had become more grown-up and not nearly as interested in spending my time in childish pursuit. Nonetheless, I never forget how wonderful it had been in our little kid world. We did not need organized play or costly amusements as long as nature was available for free. I would always remember those glorious days with great joy. 

I doubt that many children today would have the luxury of wandering into woods alone at the age of six or seven. The world does not seem to be as safe and happy go lucky as it once was. There would be any number of reasons for parents to worry about such a situation and yet I find myself thinking that the children have no idea what they are missing. It is truly a shame that it is now too dangerous for them to enjoy themselves as my friends and I did so long ago. Now such a place might be foreboding and fraught with fear when it should actually be a haven of wonder. My little neighborhood forest was a gift and images of its loveliness are imprinted on my memory. it’s a place into which I return often in my mind, especially when I want to smile. 

A Force For Positive Change

Abigail Martin was a tiny newborn, several weeks premature and so small that I worried I might break her when I held her. She had to wear glasses when she was only a few months old and had enough trouble moving that she needed a physical therapist to help her turn over from her back. From day one she was a fighter, a determined child unwilling to allow any roadblocks to get in the way of meeting each of her childhood milestones. There was nothing that she was unwilling to try and in most cases become incredibly successful at doing. 

Abby was adventurous, taking risks and working hard to be her best with each attempted endeavor. Once she learned how to swim she joined a competitive team even though her age and her diminutive size did not coincide with the taller and stronger girls with whom she competed. When she later joined a theater group she ended up with major roles in plays and musicals along with spots on television and in commercials. She was a natural born artist who won prize after prize with her drawings and paintings and other works of visual art. She even took riding lessons, boldly sitting atop a horse that loomed large next to her tiny frame. Eventually she learned how to judge horses and won ribbons for accurately noting both the perfections and defects of the animals and their riders. 

Abby expanded her innate love of animals by raising goats and working for veterinarians during summers and spring breaks. She studied and took tests to earn a vet tech certification along the way. While exploring so many different interests Abby even learned to play the clarinet but realized her speaking and leadership abilities were the talents she most enjoyed. She regularly won speech competitions at both the local and state level, gaining confidence that allowed her to interact with both adults and her peers. Eventually she held offices in her school and regional chapters of the Future Farmers of America, including one in which she directed the activities of over nine thousand young members. She even represented her school at Girl’s State during the height of the pandemic.

All the while Abby was an exemplary student who will graduate number five in her class of almost eight hundred students, the only female in the top five. She took virtually every advanced placement class that she could and challenged herself even when her counselors cautioned her to take an easier course load. She was a dependable anchor on the school’s robotics team serving as the spokesperson for the group during competitions and taking them to championship status with her composed ability to field questions about their methodologies. Somehow she managed to keep up with all of her responsibilities and give each of them the kind of personal attention that they required.  

Abby is a whirlwind of activity, a cyclone of energy who never seems to rest, and she dreams large. Along the way she decided to major in political science and law studies at Bowdoin College in Maine with an eye to one day entering law school and specializing in agricultural issues. Bowdoin is one of the oldest universities in the United States and is often called a “Little Ivy.” Notable graduates from Bowdoin are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth, Joshua Chamberlain and President Franklin Pierce. I suspect that one day Abigail Martin will be one of the honored alumnae as well. 

I remember a time when Abby came to visit my husband and me during her spring break. We were taking a class on the history of Greece at the time and took her with us to Rice University on the day of the lecture. We asked the professor if she might sit quietly with us and he pleasantly agreed after warning us that he might mention some sensitive topics. We sat in the back of the room and gave Abby a little notebook and a pencil to take notes or draw during the hour and a half lesson. As it happened much of the time was spent talking about Greek mythology. Abby drew pictures of the gods and labeled each of them with notes from the professor. When he saw what she had done at the end of the session he commented that even some of his students were not as attentive or adept at note taking as little ten year old Abby was. He remarked that he hoped that one day she would apply to the university and perhaps also become one of his students. 

Later that week when we met her parents to camp at a state park she was still creating more organized notes on the topic of the lecture in the little book that we had given her. She sat for hours making an outline of what she had heard and telling her family all about what she had learned. I knew then for certain that she was going to be quite successful and interesting in her approach to life. 

The tiny girl who was too small for her car seat without rolled up blankets on either side and who worked tirelessly just to become strong enough to turn over from her back has fought her whole life to be her best. Now she is a young woman who continues to dream of one day becoming an intern for a Congressperson in Washington D.C. and maybe even being a lawmaker there in her own right. She has already proven that she is not afraid of hard work and that she has the intellect to master virtually any topic. She is on her way to taking the future by the tail with a rare determination that will make her unstoppable. I am certain that she will be force for good with a passion for integrity. I can’t wait to witness her rise. Abigail Martin is going to positively change the world.

I Call BS!

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Many of our state leaders, including our governor, are suggesting that much of the blame of the tragedy at Robb Elementary in Ulvalde is due to a level of mental illness in the shooter. I have no problem with that suggestion, but they further seem to believe that the real solution to the problem is not to limit gun rights, but to make efforts to help those with mental problems before they take their anger out in a wave of violence. I’d agree with them if I actually thought that they were sincere in their intent to make counseling and psychiatric services readily available to anyone who needs them in the state of Texas. Sadly, my almost five decades of navigating the mental health system with my mother tells me that all of their talk is hollow. 

My mom first became seriously ill with bipolar disorder in nineteen sixty-nine. I was able to get her some help but I had little idea that her condition would recur in cycles like the four seasons for the rest of her life. Since I was not satisfied with her first doctor I found someone new when her symptoms disappointingly resurfaced not long after her initial breakdown. Her journey with bipolar disorder would become never ending and frustrating. 

By the time she was in her seventies she had been dealing with the effects of her illness for over thirty years. She was mostly a noncompliant patient and the doctor who had worked with her during that time had also grown old and no longer had the patience to deal with her sporadic willingness to follow his guidelines. She was in the throes of one of her most dangerously psychotic episodes and I was desperate to find a doctor willing to treat her. I literally spent and entire week of eight hour days calling person after person and being rejected for one reason or another. One time the insurance was not acceptable. Another time only cash would work. Some only cared for adolescents. Others had full practices. I was at my wits end to find someone when I made a call to yet another psychiatrist that someone had recommended. 

He was a kindly fellow who listened intently to my anxious pleas. He admitted that his practice was closed and that he was in semi-retirement. He changed the subject and asked how I was doing. He spent the next hour listening to my concerns while I sobbed. He instructed me in the need to care for myself as well my mother and then gave me two more names of doctors and wished me luck. The last one that I called only accepted children as patients but he suggested that I contact Dr. Jary Lesser with the University of Texas Mental Health Institute. He assured me that Dr. Lesser would be just the man who would help my mom.

Dr. Jary Lesser had an impressive CV. He had worked at some of the most outstanding hospitals in the United States and was a professor of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical School. I was thrilled when he agreed to see my mother with no questions asked. By the time we got her to Dr. Lesser, Mama was in an intense state of mania. Dr. Lesser insisted that she stay at one of our homes and that she be watched twenty four hours a day. He provided a stiff cocktail of medication and asked us to bring our mother back in two days. For the next several weeks he monitored her closely and before long she was doing better than she had for decades. It felt like a miracle.

For the next three years I accompanied my mother to regular visits with Dr. Lesser. He very strictly observed her behavior and knew when she was not taking her medication regularly. He was the first person who managed to get her to admit that she had bipolar disorder and he even convinced her to described what that disorder did to her. We felt that he was the best doctor that she had ever had and celebrated the good fortune of having him available for our mother. Then one day at one of her regular visits Dr. Lesser announced with more than a hint of anger that the state of Texas had so drastically reduced funding for mental health programs that he would no longer be allowed to work at the Mental Health Institute. Instead, the state would be sending him to work full time at the county psychiatric hospital. He noted that from that time forward my mother would be treated by psychiatric residents still learning the ins and outs of treating patients with mental illnesses. 

I tried once again to find a full time seasoned psychiatrist who would take my mother, but by then she was well into her eighties and nobody wanted to work with someone her age. We had to use the program with the residents and to say it was a disaster would be an understatement. It ended with her being legally committed during one of her epic phases of mania and psychosis and since there were no beds in any of the hospitals in the Houston area, she spent the night in a locked room at Ben Taub Hospital, the only place that would take her. 

Eventually she was sent to a psychiatric center in Bellaire, a dreary place that felt more like a prison than a place to get well and recuperate. My brothers and I lost all power to direct her care. Ir was one of the most gut wrenching moments of our lives, all because the state of Texas is not really interested in investing a great deal of funding for the mentally ill. 

Since that time and my mother’s death I have read over and over again that funding for mental health services in the state of Texas continue to be regularly slashed, so I don’t buy the Governor’s assertion that the state would rather provide preventive care for potential shooters than impinge on the rights of decent gun owners. My personal experience tells me that he is full of hot air, and based on information from counselors that I know the backlog of patients waiting for appointments for therapy has never been worse. 

I would be the first to applaud efforts to shore up the availability of mental health resources in our state, but at least for now I have seen no signs that such a thing is actually happening. Such a solution is also beside the point because right now in our state an eighteen year old who can’t even buy a beer or rent a car can legally purchase two AR-15s and one three hundred rounds of ammunition within a two day period with little or no hassle. Our state laws on gun possession and use are so lax that open carry no longer requires a permit or any kind of special training. There are no red flag laws either. It is unlikely that a young man like the shooter from a poor family with a mother addicted to drugs would have had any more luck finding treatment than I had in getting help for my mother, because of the scarcity of doctors and programs funded by the state. So don’t tell me that taking care of mental health is a priority for Texas. I call BS!

Aiming for the Stars

Ian Martin

I’ll never forget the message from my son-in-law that my daughter had gone into early labor with her twins. She had worked so hard to conceive them and all of a sudden the prospect of her delivering healthy babies seemed dire. Their lungs were not fully developed and if they came too soon there was a good chance that they might incur brain damage, blindness and other serious defects. I was beside myself with worry and had every person that I knew praying for a miracle. As it happened that miracle came. My daughter’s labor unexplainably stopped and with full bed rest she was able to carry her babies for a few more weeks. They were still premature but neither of them had the horrific problems that might have otherwise befallen them. 

Ian Martin was the larger of the two babies. He got very banged up in the birthing process and spent some time in the NICU to heal. When he did finally come home there was no looking back. He flourished, all the while demonstrating an uncanny ability to learn. As a two year old he was able to name all of the planets and their moons. He was adding and subtracting numbers and he wowed people with his vocabulary. It became apparent that he was indeed a gifted child. 

Ian spent his boyhood building Lego structures meant for people far older than he was. He read voraciously and had a natural ability with numbers. His Uncle Mike, who worked for Boeing as a NASA contractor in Houston, was Ian’s hero. The two of them marveled at each other in a kind of mutual admiration society. All the while Ian seemed able to excel at everything he tried, including playing the cello, writing, and learning about history. He showed all the signs of being a Renaissance man.

In high school Ian has advanced through mathematics courses with a perfect one hundred average. Taking mostly advanced placement coursework he steadily held on to the number three spot in a class of almost eight hundred students while also playing his cello at church, launching rockets, and founding the school Robotics team. He proved to have a quiet and relaxed personality much like his Uncle Mike and he continued to build more and more elaborate Lego structures and even create some of his own. His most interesting hobby became reading about history which reminded me of my own father who also was very much a man for all seasons. 

A few years ago my brother Mike and his wife Becky took Ian to the Texas Star Party, an annual gathering of astronomy enthusiasts who gather in far west Texas armed with telescopes to watch the nighttime skies and learn the latest trends in star gazing. It was there that Ian really began to focus on a dream of one day using his skills in mathematics, physics, and engineering to become an Aerospace Engineer. Thanks to some incredible coaching from his Aunt Becky, who was also a NASA engineer, he realized that his first love was always going to be focused on the exploration of the skies. 

Ian has never been a one trick pony and to that extent he competed for a spot at a summer leadership camp at the University of Notre Dame and secured one of the highly coveted spots. The experience enhanced his confidence enough that when his school selected him for Boys State he was more than ready to represent. He enjoyed the interaction with other young men from a diversity of backgrounds and beliefs, learning that there is much to be gained from teamwork. 

Ian applied to some of the most outstanding universities in the United States with an eye to eventually earning a degree in engineering. In the end he was faced with a difficult choice with acceptances from the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, the University of Colorado/Boulder, The University of Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and Rice University. His ultimate decision came down to Rice and Notre Dame, both of which were dream schools for him. Notre Dame fought hard and eventually outbid Rice in financial aid, so this fall Ian will become a member of the freshman class of the University of Notre Dame.

I can still hear that little tike identifying moons and planets and describing their features while sitting in a high chair. I remember him following his Uncle Mike like an adoring puppy. I think of his ability to put together Lego sets that would give adults a hard time. I see him designing robots and launching rockets. I smile at the thought of him mixing it up with the adults at the Texas Star Party. I remember him dreaming of going to Rice University, but not daring to think that he would actually be accepted there. I’ve watched him growing into a quiet and confident young adult with a clearly defined plan that I know he will achieve. 

Ian Martin has been a miracle ever since he first began growing inside his mother’s womb. He has amazed us continually with his brilliance, humility and unending curiosity. He is a very good and kind person, but nobody’s fool. He is a man of his word and a defender of all that is right and just. Somehow it has always seemed that he was sent to the world as a special gift to us all and that he understands his responsibility to give back to the world. 

This weekend Ian Martin will graduate from Smithson Valley High School with the highest honors. After that he is figuratively and literally aiming for the stars. I will be watching him with awe and pride, knowing that his journey will most certainly continue to be spectacular.

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