The Heart of the Matter

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My entire life has been devoted to parenting, grandmothering and teaching. My greatest joy each day is hearing the children in my neighborhood talking and laughing as they await the school buses that will take them to elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. I still teach ten students even in my retirement and they have gifted me with purpose and feelings of great happiness. I keep in touch with my former students just to know that they are doing okay. I never forget them or how important they are to me. I think of the teachers who were my peers and those whom I mentored or directed in my final years as a Dean of Faculty. I suspect that none of the individuals that I encountered in the different schools where I worked have any idea of the extent to which I carry them in my heart each and every day. They are as much a part of my story and my concern as my children and grandchildren. They are more important to me than all of the luxuries, possessions, titles, awards, or bank accounts that we humans so often seek. Their value is immeasurable and when anything happens to them I grieve the way a mother would do. 

I know that I am not alone in feeling this way. Being a teacher is a vocation in the deepest sense of that word. Those who cannot deal with the never ending work, the privations, the frustrations of doing one of the most important jobs in the world usually leave the profession rather quickly. Those who stay are devoted to their work and most especially to their students. They would literally take a bullet to save a child and sadly all too often they do. When I speak for them I do so from decades of experience, being one of them and sharing both the trials and tribulations that are part of the work that they do. They are my people and the students are my children. I am the old woman who still sees thousands of faces that once looked to me to guide them and care for them. They come to me in my waking thoughts and in my dreams. 

I have worked with babies and toddlers, pre-schoolers, elementary aged kids, middle schoolers trying to find themselves, and high school students on the cusp of becoming adults. My students have been residents of River Oaks, the home of millionaires, and others who lived in mobile homes without working plumbing or electricity. I have known their dreams and their fears. I have loved every moment of being with them. 

I remember my student teaching experience at Pearl Hall Elementary. A quiet little girl who had special needs took a liking to me as I did to her. At Christmas time she crocheted a little pink bell and gave it to me as a gift. I still hang it on my tree every year and wonder how she is doing and hope that she is well. I wish I had a way of letting her know that I have never forgotten her and that she is family to me. 

I say these things because my heart is broken over the most recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, a nice little town that I have visited and enjoyed. I see photos of the children killed in that monstrous attack and they remind me of my own students. I see the personalities in their faces, the innocence. I imagine the two murdered teachers giving their lives to save their students. I viscerally feel the pain of the parents who have lost a beloved child. I personally know the fears and concerns that they all must be feeling and I do pray that they will somehow find comfort and understand how much we all deeply care about what has happened to them. Then I think of how many times this scenario has played out in schools, churches, supermarkets, concerts, movie theaters, synagogues, offices and I wonder why we keep looking away from what needs to be done to address the carnage that has become so uniquely American. I wonder why we keep electing lawmakers whose only response to the violence in our country is to pray and think comforting thoughts all while planning to speak at NRA conferences or create laws that make it incredibly easy to own and use guns. 

I believe in God with all of my heart and I do not think that he expects us to just lie down and accept violence when he has given us brains to solve problems. Of all the creatures he has created we have the best abilities to bring about change and to create a better world. Somehow when it comes to mass shootings and even crime in our streets we fear trying the kind of solutions that may lead to more safety in our lives. While we put things off the problems only grow more and more complex and seemingly unsolvable, but much like needed repairs on a house, if we neglect them eventually the structure will collapse in a heap. We are well past time to be honest about the kind of things that must be done and they will indeed require a willingness to sacrifice from each and every one of us, but in the end nothing is more important than the life of a single individual.

The issue of gun violence is complex and will not go away with only a few cosmetic changes. We have to get really serious about mental health, something that only President Obama and then Vice President Biden have attempted to tackle in recent times. Even their efforts were not enough, but they at least tried. I have traveled down the bumpy road of seeking help for my mother and I know that it is often almost impossible to get the needed therapies for those suffering from mental illnesses. The Texas legislature has slashed funding for state programs that once were a lifesaver for seniors and indigents. There are long waiting periods for even getting an appointment with a counselor or psychiatrist. There is often no room in hospitals for psychiatric patients. Insurance pays so little for such services that many cannot afford to even consider attempting to get help. We must make mental health a top priority with funding that makes it available to anyone who needs it. We must begin to have open conversations that help people to understand that mental illness is as real as diabetes or heart disease. We need athletes and celebrities to wear ribbons to remember those who suffer from mental illnesses. We must have huge fundraisers that make therapies and research affordable.

Our schools need to be equipped to keep out intruders. That may mean installing man traps on every campus where the only way in is through a bullet proof glass hallway that is locked from both sides upon entry and does not open until the person has been deemed to be safe. We need steel doors on classrooms with heavy duty locks. What we do not need are teachers toting guns and being trained to use them when needed. 

Most of all we have to look at our present day gun laws. Nobody under the age of twenty one should ever be able to purchase them. Background checks must be more thorough and take longer than they presently do. Open carry should be limited to those who have undergone strict training and permitting. In fact we need to consider whether or not we even need open carry at all. Assault weapons that fire multiple rounds of bullets need to be banned. Even some shooting ranges do not allow such weapons on their premises, so why do ordinary citizens need them? The government should consider a generous buy back system by which private citizens can surrender their AR-15s to the police. Bump stocks should be illegal. It should be illegal to have more than five rounds in rifles and detachable mechanisms for increasing rounds should be against the law. We have to crack down on purchases of guns in parking lots at gun shows without any form of background check. We must be on the lookout for ghost guns and confiscate them when we find them. We must ask our city governments not to sign contracts for NRA conventions in the future. Mostly we must act with our votes, denying our voices to those who refuse to address these issues.

People can keep their pistols and their hunting rifles if they wish, but there is seriously no need for the proliferation of guns that has led us to have the equivalent of one gun for every man, woman and child in the country. We literally lead the world in gun ownership and gun deaths and that is not something to crow about. 

The young man who carried out this most recent attack had been struggling for years according to some of his friends. He had a mom with a drug problem which is yet another difficulty that we seem unable to control. Other students bullied him for a speech impediment that somehow seemed to be ignored by the adults in his life. He was very poor. While none of these are excuses for his vile behavior, I can’t help but wonder how differently things might have turned out if his mother had been able to get rehabilitation for her addiction, his family had been provided with enough income to live decently, the young man had received early intervention for his speech problems, the schools had been staffed with enough counselors to spend time addressing bullying, the elementary school had been built with a man catcher at the entrance, the shooter had been under the care of mental health professionals, the eighteen year old had not been able to purchase two assault weapons or guns of any kind. The “might have beens” all at the heart of the matter. They all point to the places where the solutions might begin if we use our God given brains.

There are no doubt many other ancillary issues that we must address if we are to stop this heinous trend that is sending our country into spasms of grief more and more often. We have to take a hard look at ourselves and ask what has gone so very wrong and then honestly devote our time, our talent, and our funding to actually making our country a place where we no longer fear carrying out our normal daily routines. Right now the nation’s rules or lack of them are dangerous to our health. 

A Man With A Plan

I remember when my dear friend, Pat Weimer, called to tell me that her first grandchild had been born. I was in the Chicago area helping my daughter who had just delivered a set of twins. I felt so much joy that my friend and I would be watching our grandchildren grow up together. Sadly that was not to happen. She departed this earth when her Alan was still a toddler, but she left behind a recording of her undying love for him. It is I who has had the privilege of watching Alan Anderson grow into a very fine young man.

I often stayed with Alan and his younger brother whenever his parents were out of town. I got to know Alan quite well during those precious moments. I saw that he was a quiet and inquisitive child whose thoughts were always deeper than his age might have suggested. He enjoyed reading from a very young age and when he was still a boy our days would end with me reading a chapter from his latest book while he listened intently to the story. He always had profound thoughts about what he had just heard.

On one occasion I accompanied Alan and his brother to Boston while his mother attended a  conference associated with her work. My task was to take the two boys around town to see all of the historical sites. Of course we visited all of the many wonderful places that Boston has to offer, but it seemed that Alan enjoyed the museums the most. 

Alan would intently read every single sign and stand before artifacts as if pondering every detail about them. He rarely said much regarding what he saw, but when he did his comments were insightful and demonstrated his own knowledge of history. I learned that he was an avid fan of historical tracts and he had memorized people, dates and political discourse because of his fascination with such things. The trip to Boston had only reinforced his interests in learning about the past and applying its lessons to the present.

Alan and his family moved away and I did not get to see him as much as I once had. Even when I visited he was often busy being a teenager so our interactions dwindled. He remained a very quiet person, but whenever he did speak he became animated by the thought of entering college and finally studying history and political science and international relations more in depth. It was apparent that his passion for such topics had only increased over time.

Alan will graduate from high school this weekend. He plans to attend Texas Christian University in the fall where he will join the Honors College to major in political science and international relations. I think of his grandmother and how proud she would have been of his accomplishments and of the kind and thoughtful young man that he has become. 

In the long ago my husband and I often visited Alan’s grandparents. We sat around their kitchen table talking for hours. The topic of politics was a regular feature of those sessions. We used to joke that my husband and Pat’s should have had a regular television show in which they sat around discussing past and current events because both of them were so well versed in the evolution of governments at home and around the world. We could never have known back then that one day there would be an Alan who would carry on that tradition in planning his life’s work. 

I wish Alan the greatest success as he ends his time as a child and enters the adult world of learning. I hope that he still knows in his heart how much his grandmother loved him and always will even from her heavenly home. I smile when I think of that little boy with the big thoughts that seemed to come from a mature spot in his mind that always surprised me. I suppose that Alan has been on this path for most of his life, and now he will gather the knowledge that will lead to great contributions to our world. 

Remember the name, Alan Anderson, for surely you will hear it again one day. He’s always been a man with the plan and he’s on his way to the greatness that his grandmother once imagined for him. Congratulations, Alan. I am proud to have had a part in your life and I wish you all the best in your new home for the next few years. Be the best Texas Christian frog than you can be and enjoy each and every moment. Most of all, always remember that you are loved.  

Slow Down

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If the pandemic has done nothing else of a positive nature, it has helped me to finally become a patient person. I have actually learned how to wait gracefully and to appreciate people’s efforts in trying to help me get things done. When the people of the world finally began to emerge from our homes in mass, there was a great deal of need to catch up with repairs, health screenings, even travel. I found out rather quickly that everyone seemed to be on the same page and that meant waiting for weeks and even months for things to happen. There was very little instant gratification on the horizon.

The rush for vaccines was the first obstacle that I encountered. I behaved badly that task. When I had difficulty finding an appointment for my jab, I became anxious and at times even angry. My little fits did absolutely nothing to speed up the process, so before long I realized that I simply needed to wait my turn and I too would eventually find an opening for getting the shot. I saw that my turn would come to pass whether or not I stayed calm or pitched a hissy fit. Because I actually angered some long time friends over my initial theatrical panic attacks, I learned how to control my need to be in charge and get quick responses to all of my demands. It turned out the be the best thing that might have ever happened to me. 

I began to empathize with service people who wanted to help me but scheduled repairs weeks and even months from my requests. I assured them that I understood their dilemmas in attempting to fulfill all of the demands for their help. Getting a chimney repaired took three months, but the completed project was perfection. Having a generator installed required a wait of almost a full year, but now I hear it running each Wednesday as the weekly test, and I smile. It was January before our trailer was put back together after an accident in July. Appointments with doctors sometimes took months to procure. Somehow I found myself smiling peacefully and reassuring the people who were apologizing for delays that I was perfectly willing to wait as long as needed. I knew that sooner or later everything would begin to fall into place. 

This new attitude is so contrary to my usual personality. I am a go getter who wants everything set right yesterday. For most of my life waiting has been annoying to me. I tend to take charge of situations before any grass grows under my feet. I’m the kind of person who will work into the early morning hours getting things done and I usually expect others to be as reliable as I am in meeting deadlines. Somehow in the past year I have made a one hundred eighty degree transformation. It’s not important to me to race to the finish line like a rabbit anymore. I’m content to approach life with a casual stroll and support those who need to go even slower than I am moving. I have learned to admire the tortoise.

The world has been through a great trauma that was not caused by any particular humans, but by a microscopic virus. We attacked it with everything we had, but it was a mysterious critter and so we made many false starts along the way. That’s how it usually goes when we are faced with a mystery. We try a bit of this and that hoping that the route we have chosen will be the right one. Along the way we may have to change our course or rethink our hypotheses. It’s all part of anatomy of living in a pandemic. 

I now laugh at ever demanding a set answer, a certain time frame. I know that I can rant all that I want, but the virus and its collateral damage does not and will not march to my drumbeat or that of anyone else. It will do what it is going to do and hopefully we will find tools to deal with the fallout. My response has been to just go with the flow. I expected to have problems re-adjusting, so inflation and gas prices seem to just be part of the process of returning to normal. I adapt to this bump in the road and have no desire to blame any single person. The fact is that the whole world is hurting in one way or another. Why should I be immune to the pain? My mantra these days is, “This too shall pass.”

At the same time I try to find ways of helping those who are really in need. I’ve weathered the Covid storm relatively well. I’ve managed to stay healthy and keep teaching and writing. I’ve enjoyed the quiet times in my home and the precious reunions with family and friends. I use less gasoline by planning my errands strategically and I find myself eating less food and liking the idea that I may get lucky and shed those extra pounds that crept in over the last two years. I try to portion my own good fortune with people who have been brutalized by the pandemic. It’s something that I think would be good for all of us to do rather than complaining and pointing fingers to find scapegoats for all that has happened. 

This should be a time for healing and that process often comes slowly. I learned from an injury to my arm last summer that it would take many months of physical therapy, home exercises and much time before I was once again pain free. So it is with all of the world trying to adjust to the harsh effects of two years of pandemic. It won’t be a quick fix, but it will be a more pleasant process if we approach it with patience and understanding. 

We have a large number of people who deserve our gratitude. There are doctors and nurses and even staff members of hospitals and medical clinics who sacrificed so much for us. We can’t forget the teachers who have dedicated themselves to keeping our children learning under the most difficult conditions imaginable. Now should not be a time to attack such people, but a moment to be profusely thankful that they were willing to carry on while the war with Covid was raging. We can’t forget the folks who kept our grocery stores and service stations running or the owners of restaurants who struggled to stay afloat. It’s time that we stop demanding and accusing and agreed to work on our patience and our consideration. 

We are all tired. We’d do well to just float for a time. There is no hurry. We will reach better days just as the blooms of spring come back at their own pace after the freezes of winter. It feels good for me to have finally and truly learned how to do this. For now I plan to look to the tortoise.