The Plan

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A good life is built on family and friends. Some people come into our lives for a particular moment and others stand with us for the long haul. We are who we are because of the relationships that we build and nurture. We learn new things, expanding our horizons because of those who share our moments. We draw our strength from the people who support is in our hopes, dreams and even our hours of grief and despair. There is always someone who surprises us, and those who are the rocks on whom we can depend. As we think about the events and the years that mark our passages there are precious moments that fill our hearts with wonder and gratitude. Without our family and friends we would be set adrift into a world of loneliness and fear. So why, I wonder, do we too often busy ourselves with tasks that are so much less important than the individuals that mean so much to us?

It’s a cliche to mention that dust and dirty laundry should wait in favor of reunions with those that we love, but we also know that it is true. Every one of us has no doubt had one of those awful experiences in which we kept promising to take the time to connect with someone, but never quite did. Then we get the horrific news that the person who meant so much to us is forever gone. We’re filled with guilt and regret for procrastinating. We wish that we had just left the unimportant tasks that we so readily prioritize over spending our hours with people. We far too often think about being with the souls we love, but never quite get there. We have appointment and tasks and routines that we dare not ruffle with interruptions, no matter how important we know it is to pause now and again to nurture our connections.

When I moved away from my old neighborhood I promised to return to visit my long time friends. Once I had left I found myself balancing work, household tasks and any number of events, but I kept putting off going to see my old friends. I told myself that there was no hurry. I would get there once things settled down, but somehow they never quite became less hectic. The next thing I knew my dear next door neighbor was dead. She had battled lung cancer and I didn’t even know of her struggles. I was devastated to learn of her passing. She had guided me with her wisdom and lovingly inspired me to be a better mom and person. Her door had always been open to me, no matter the hour of the day or night. I had loved her, but it must not have seemed so when I left and never again got around to checking on her welfare. I attended her funeral filled with angst in knowing that I never really told her how deeply she had affected me. It might have been comforting for her to hear how much she had inspired me. Instead I sat at her funeral wondering if she ever knew.

I would not feel nearly as bad about this incident if I had indeed been conscientious in other instances, but truth be told I have too often been guilty of neglecting to nurture so many of the friendships that I have known. I wonder how I might do a better job, and if there is an organized way to make my promises actually come true. Surely there must be a method for spending a few minutes here and there and staying in touch one way or another.

My friend Pat was masterful at doing that. She sent little cards to people and constantly took time to plan simple dinners and such. She’d cook up a big pot of chile and put out a call. Even when people were unable to come they knew that she was thinking about them. She thought nothing of asking someone to come along with her on her errands, making her duties more fun for her and sharing laughter and conversation with friends. She was casual and relaxed about such things because her purpose was to keep the heart of her relationships healthy and strong, not to impress.

I keep trying to improve, but I sometimes allow that basket of ironing to overtake the minutes that I might have spent sharing a few greetings on the phone with a person who is important to me. I’ve been thinking that I need to create a plan. Those calls and cards and visits need to find a place on my daily calendar along with my appointments and “to do” list. Perhaps if I designated one individual a day to get my attention I might begin to revitalize connections that appear to be stagnant or lost. It would certainly be worth a try.

We run, run, run through life hardly taking a breath until we fall into bed at night. I sometimes think that our society is as delicate as it is because we have lost our compass. If we can’t even devote time to the people who mean much to us, how can we begin to really care about the bigger problems that face us all? It just may be that the key to solving so many problems is to reach out to the people in our own backyards. We might first begin in neighborhoods and then communities. Simple acts of kindness, remembrance and appreciation done millions of times over just might transform our political landscape, but they have to start with one person at a time.

I am overwhelmed with thoughts of just how many wonderful people have impacted me, but I might reach thirty of them in a single month with a non negotiable plan to make the effort. It’s something I’m going to try. I’ll let you know later whether or not it worked, but right now I’m feeling optimistic. It seems as though the worst case scenario would be only managing to stick to my plan a third of the time. In a year that would mean that I had somehow let people know how much I care over a hundred times. That’s worth trying to do.    

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We Get What We Pay For

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Time magazine recently featured a cover with the image of a teacher declaring that she has to work three jobs and donate plasma to make it with her salary as a teacher. It’s being posted on Facebook by many of my fellow educators and is causing a bit of a firestorm among those who choose to comment. The question of how much to pay teachers has been a hot topic for as long as I can recall, and it centers around the fact that public school teachers’ salaries are paid by taxes, which sometimes means that higher pay only comes with higher taxes. Aside from the trutth that the education of our children is important to virtually all of us, the fact that we all must pay for the men and women who teach them makes our interest in what those numbers will be even more intense than with most other professions. The discussions that generally ensue invariably devolve into arguments over how much time teachers actually spend working and the relative worth of their talents and skills. The arguments take on an almost mythical aspect with emotions running high on both sides. It’s difficult to form reasoned conclusions in such highly charged environments.

So what are the objective truths about being a teacher? That is a loaded question that varies with each person’s experiences in classrooms, but there are general characteristics. First, there are distinct levels of teaching, each of which has unique value for society. Someone entering the field specializes in either early childhood, elementary, middle or high school. While the public has a tendency to view high school teachers as the elite, the truth is that working with the youngest of our children requires special talents and knowledge that many of us simply do not have. In my own case, I quickly learned that I did not have the patience needed to spend a lifetime inside an elementary classroom. Nor did I want to expend the countless extra hours planning lessons for six different subjects and constantly grading mountains of papers and sorting them to be sent home to parents. In all honesty I worked far harder when I was in charge of a fourth grade classroom than when I taught a particular level of mathematics over and over again all day long as a middle or high school teacher. Yet in the eyes of the public I realized that I carried far more prestige as someone who taught Algebra than I had when I was juggling the countless responsibilities of an elementary teacher. Nonetheless, the foundational skills that I was teaching my fourth graders would be critical for their academic development, and it bothers me when I hear comments that elementary teachers are no doubt doing little more than teaching children to color inside the lines. The bottom line is that each teaching position is critically important to the successful outcome of every child who matriculates through the system. 

Teachers officially work about 180 days each school year. The key word is “officially.” While there are many who give no more and no less than that number of days in the classroom, the majority of educators rarely spend only the required number of hours in conjunction with their jobs. Teachers have lessons to plan, papers to grade, conferences with parents to attend, training sessions to enhance qualifications, school events to manage, and a host of other duties that spill into their so called off the clock hours. I estimate that the average teacher arrives at school around 7:30 in the morning and does not leave before 4:00 or 4:30 on most days. They spend an additional three or four hours (sometimes more) each evening attending to the various duties described above. It is not unusual for them to devote entire days of the weekend to their jobs on weekends as well. English teachers may need even more time to grade essays that must be read with great care. Coaches and sponsors of clubs seem to almost live at schools in certain seasons, often with the school year beginning for them in the middle of the summer. Little of this extra time is ever considered when determining just how much teachers make per hour. If it ever were the results would be shocking, and in many cases revealing that some teachers actually make less than minimum wage when every hour is factored into the equation.

The beginning salary of a teacher varies from state to state and even district to district. In general it is about midway between fifty and sixty thousand dollars which may sound somewhat generous, but the reality is that it remains somewhat stagnant over time. Annual raises tend to be minimal when they occur at all. Even earning an advanced degree makes little or no difference in pay. Most teachers actually begin to lose ground in terms of income the longer that they teach. Benefits also tend to be minimal and health insurance policies are often more costly and less generous than those of workers in other fields. Some states have excellent pensions, but others provide minimal coverage for retirees. Those who are devoted to a vocation in education do so knowing that they will never be rich. In fact, a lifetime career in teaching works best if it is supplemented with a spouse’s salary.

Public school teachers are dependent upon the largesse of the government and in particular the tax payers. This is the main reason that many argue that educators need to provide more bang for the buck to earn higher salaries. There is also an ongoing argument that other public sector employees often do not make as much as teachers even when their contributions to society may be more dangerous or more valuable. In response to such contentions I would argue that the very foundation of our social, political and economic society is built upon the education of our children. If we are to progress we must invest in our schools. Creating financial difficulties for our teachers creates a crisis that we need not endure. Right now most parents wince if their children even hint that they may want to enter the teaching profession There is something terribly wrong when what should be the noblest of careers is held in such low esteem. Providing teachers with a fair wage that allows them to live a respectable life would do wonders to change such perceptions.

I was an educator for the entirety of my adult life. I retired with a sense of pride and accomplishment. I never made a great deal of money and my pension is nothing to brag about when compared to other professions. I can’t afford the terrible healthcare supplement offered by the state for teacher retirees, but I’ve found a suitable replacement from AARP. I live comfortably mostly because of the income that my husband has brought into the picture during his working years. I had the luxury of enjoying my work every single day because I was not solely dependent on the salaries that would never have allowed me to live without fear. There is something very wrong about the idea that our nations’ teachers are so undervalued that most of them cannot survive without infusions of additional income. We all need to be concerned. If we don’t adequately address this issue we may soon find ourselves squandering the talents our most precious resource, our children. They depend on us to keep our schools running smoothly. It’s time we faced the reality that we get what we pay for. Our teachers should not have to be more altruistic than their well educated working peers.

The Right Skill Sets

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One of my favorite anecdotes comes from one of my brothers. He is a brilliant mathematician and engineer who designed the software for the navigation system of the International Space Station. To reward him for his exceptional work his company thought it would be a good idea to promote him to a managerial position. He had not been doing that type of work for very long when it became apparent to everyone, including him, that his skill set did not include directing and motivating people. He was more than happy to step back into his original position when all parties agreed that the best way to use his talents was in research and innovation, not dealing with people. To the company’s credit they decided to link his improved salary to his actual talents rather than trying to fit him into a one size fits all mold of promotion.

While there are indeed brilliant individuals who seem capable of succeeding at almost any level, most of us are best suited for rather specific types of work. All too often because we are particularly good at one thing, we are encouraged to climb the promotion ladder to test our abilities in other ways. As the Peter Principle notes we often find ourselves in a place where we are somewhat incompetent. This is because, as with my brother, we simply do not possess the needed skills.

In the world of education I knew phenomenal teachers who became rather ordinary administrators and somewhat mediocre teachers who found their niches in administration. The two areas are not mutually exclusive but they do indeed require different kinds of talents, and not everyone has the ability to succeed in both arenas. Sadly not even advanced degrees and training insures that a person will be a great leader.

My mom used to speak glowingly of her boss at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Ironically her department went through a series of managers all of whom flopped. They came in highly touted with doctorates and years of experience, but they had not before attempted to lead and inspire a group of workers. One after another they failed, until finally someone thought to promote from within. The woman who was chosen possessed only an associates degree from a local junior college. What she did have that the previous bosses did not, was a clear understanding of how to encourage people to work to their highest potential. Within weeks she had turned around the morale and the production of the department. She not only outlasted her predecessors, but remained at the helm for years sharing the honors that were bestowed on the group.

I have thought about the phenomenon of finding the best fit for people’s skills with regard to the office of the President of the United States. There is a huge difference between someone who is able to garner votes by dent of personality and someone who actually knows how to be a chief executive. President Trump, for example, has been wildly successful in the world of real estate, but he is not necessarily an exceptional manager. His work has relied on salesmanship, not the quiet day to day process of guiding the ship of a business. A CEO, CFO, head of HR and marketing manager each have very different jobs that require highly specialized skills and talents. So too, the President of our country should be someone with true executive skills, not just someone with great ideas or a charismatic personality. Sometimes that person may not appear to be as dazzling as many of the contenders for that office have been, but in the end they know how to balance all of the moving parts quite well. President Dwight Eisenhower is an excellent example of such a person.

What I’m also quite sure of is that we all too often give far too much credit and blame to our presidents. The fact is that every single situation is complex and subject to so many factors that to lay either congratulations or complaints at the feet of one individual is simplistic. The economy is a great example. For the most part what is happening at any one moment in time is the culmination of many years of particular policies, and yet we blithely blame a president if things go awry and celebrate that person if all is well. In truth what we are witnessing probably resulted more from predecessors than the person in charge of a particular era.

We are also inclined to credit the outcomes of natural disasters to a single president. The very idea of doing so borders on the absurd. Most of the time the damage is determined by the intensity of the natural event as well as the reliability of the infrastructures that local governments have put into place. By the same token the response to such disasters varies from place to place mostly due to how the state and local governments have prepared as well as what kind of attitudes the people in the area have. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a tragedy waiting to happen not because of President Bush, but because of a long history of corruption in the New Orleans government as well as a neglect of infrastructures long in need of repair. What happened there was a travesty having little to do with the national response.

So too was the aftermath of hurricane Harvey a more positive event because the state and local authorities worked together along with the media and the citizens. It was an outpouring of support from thousands upon thousands of citizens that cemented the rebuilding process. It was a can do spirit among the people that made headlines. The fact that President Trump came to town was of little consequence other than his promises of pushing for funding for the victims. Ultimately it was Congress that passed bills to send relief to the city, and even there some lawmakers voted against the efforts but did not receive the bad press that is all too often attributed to a president.

I don’t think any president should either take credit or blame for most of the things that happen in the country. The truth is that there is a long history behind every calamity or success. There is also a reality that the best outcomes derive from sending the people with the appropriate skill sets to do each of the necessary jobs. The president should be someone capable of guiding the ship of state, and encouraging and supporting the individuals and groups who have the know how to get things done well. That’s how it supposed to be.

All Is Well

 

 

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It’s an amazing thing when someone you knew as a baby becomes a peer and a dear friend. Watching a youngster grow into a remarkable adult is one the the best aspects of life. It warms the heart and instills a strong sense of hope for our future. Thus it is with Scott Scheffler, an energetic, hard working and kind hearted young man who also happens to be the son of long time friends that I have known since elementary school.

Scott was an adorable child with his blonde hair and ready smile., He and my daughters became playmates as toddlers along with his younger brother, Bryan. I’ve got photos of Scott dressed in Halloween costumes and wearing Houston Cougar red regalia when he was still just a little boy. My family spent many a glorious time with his family cheering for our favorite sports teams or just chilling while the kids played all sorts of creative games. In the summers Scott took swim lessons with my girls and the best part of those hot days was visiting the shaved ice snow cone stand on Old Galveston road, and trying out all of the flavors.

Scott was a Boy Scout who eventually earned his Eagle Scout badge. Shortly after that he and his family moved out to California and I missed them so much that I went to visit only months afterward. He was in high school by then and he was the consummate host and guide along with his parents. Always a hard worker he was soon holding down very responsible positions at Magic Mountain and then The Cheesecake Factory. He was and still is a very charming soul, but it has always been hard work that defined him. With a seemingly endless supply of energy, he threw himself into whatever task his employers ask him to do.

Eventually Scott and his family returned to Texas and he enrolled in classes at the University of Houston. As always he worked part time while earning his degree. He’s always had many irons in the fire, including continuing his relationship with the Boy Scouts of America. Perhaps the best aspect of Scott’s personality is his sense of humor. He finds a way to laugh at almost anything that happens, lightening everyone else’s spirits in the process. He liked to joke that the University of Houston was going to erect a memorial bench in his name because he had spent so many years there. The reality is that if they did so it would be because of the successful man that he has become. He took the lessons that he learned there and melded them with his charismatic presence and diligence becoming well regarded in his profession.

Never one to waste precious time, Scott got a real estate license in addition to all of the other things that he does. That turned out to be quite fortunate for me and my husband when we needed to sell some property. With his usual enthusiasm Scott threw himself into the process which turned out to be far more complex than any of us had ever imagined it might be. He went out of his way to keep us informed of developments and to walk us through the minefield of regulations and annoyances. He even spent an entire Saturday helping my husband clear out a garage and yard full of junk from one of the houses. He provided my husband with a sanctuary of sanity during the grueling process. I don’t think anyone else would have been as successful at keeping everyone happy. His calm demeanor and sincere interest in our welfare lead my husband to exclaim one day, “I love that young man!”

Each Christmas we gather with Scott and his family and parents along with our daughters. We have dinner and share stories and laughs. Then we exchange Christmas ornaments, a tradition that we have followed since Scott and our children were quite young. We usually close down whatever restaurant we have chosen and then spend another thirty minutes or so saying our goodbyes in the parking lot. I suppose that it would not be too far fetched to say that in many ways Scott is like the son that I never had. I am as proud of him and the person that he is as his own parents most surely are.

It doesn’t surprise me that Scott is such a fine man. His parents are the salt of the earth, people with generous and kind hearts of their own. They taught him not so much with rules and lectures but by example. He emulates the behaviors that he saw from them, and does so magnificently. It makes my heart my heart sing to see that the key to parenting is being the role model that one wants the children to become. It is a simple concept that is often difficult to follow, but it is clear that in Scott’s case the method worked magnificently.

My husband says that he wants to shout from the rooftops that Scott Scheffler is the best real estate agent in the state, but the truth is that he is so because he is the best kind of individual that any of us would ever hope to see our children grow up to be. We do indeed love him and smile when we see others recognizing him as well.

There is still much of that sweet and innocent little boy in Scott, but there is also a strength and determination and a sense of service that truly makes him special. He is my friend and I am all the better because I am lucky enough to be able to say that. The next time I become worried about the future of our world I need only think of him and my soul will rest, assured that all will be well.

Our Fallen Unity

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When I was growing up my mom became emotional every December 7. With tears welling in her eyes she would attempt to describe the fear that she felt upon learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the confidence that the nation gleaned from President Roosevelt’s address to the nation. In all honesty I was hard pressed to understand why she remembered that event each year with such great reverence. I’d listen to the repetition of her story and view it through the lens of ancient history rather than that of the life changing event that it was for her. It was not until I experienced the assassination of President John Kennedy that I began to have a fuller appreciation of why it was so important to her to never forget what had happened in her own youth.

When the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded in real time as I was getting ready to go to work seventeen years ago, I realized for the first time just how soul searing a violent act against our country felt. In that moment I knew how my mother had felt on December 7, and why she was never able to forget the shock of what had happened. Like her, I now find myself reliving the horror of September 11, and it never fails to leave me untouched by a kind of grief and longing for the world as it had appeared to be before that fateful day.

Of course, I like most of my fellow Americans had been far too blissfully ignorant of the undercurrent that had been building toward that brazen act of terrorism that might as well have been called an act of war. I was enjoying my life as never before, having reached a peak in my career, and measuring my contentment with a host of friends and the arrivasl of my first grandchildren. The times were so good, almost perfect, and my worries were few. I was far too busy living the good life to worry about signs that things were not as right as I thought. Suddenly on that September day I felt my confidence and even my trademark optimism collapse along with the twin towers. A kind of fear that I had rarely known invaded my psyche, strangling the fairytale world that I had created for myself.

I remember wondering if our country would ever again be the same, and in many ways that concern was well founded. I tend to believe that most of the political problems that our country faces today rose to the forefront on that day. In the ensuing seventeen years they have become more and more complex because of the divides in the way the citizenry viewed the event. Literally one fourth of the present population was not even born on September 11, 2017. Another significant portion was to young to really understand what was happening. Then there are those who watched the attack unfold forming the differing reactions that are inevitable given our human complexities.

I tend to believe that those who are of a more conservative bent are not really racist or any of the other isms that are bandied about so frequently. Instead they were simply shaken to the very core of their beings on that day. They see progress as being a way to reinstate the sense of security that they felt before that day. Others have a perspective of hoping to defeat terrorism by providing a sense of contentment and justice to more people. They truly believe that if we try to be understanding and make life better for everyone that we will finally be able to live in peace. Then there are the youngest among us who have moved on to other issues that seem far more important than dealing with terrosism. It is the friction, the push and the pull, between contrasting solutions that is causing the rancor and distrust between us.

In many ways the events of September 11, 2001, did so much more than take down two buildings and kill thousands of innocent people. It damaged all of the citizenry. We are scarred and our wounds still have not healed. The terrorists accomplished the unthinkable in turning us on one another. I doubt that even they ever thought that the ultimate result of their attack would create a psychological battlefield within families, friendships, cities, states and the nation. Essentially we have yet to come to terms with our biggest fears therefore everything that we touch is tinged with distrust.

I am reminded of my teaching days whenever I witness the misunderstandings between individuals with differing opinions that are now so commonplace, and often filled with hatefulness. It occurs to me that everyone is chattering, but nobody is taking the time to quiet the scene and make a genuine effort to hear and understand what each person is trying to voice. We can’t get to the heart of the issues because there is so much confusion about what people actually believe.

I suppose that if we were to really learn anything from 9/11 it would be that we are far more vulnerable than we ever thought we were. We all suffered in some way on that day. We internalized our emotions and considered ways to move forward, but we weren’t willing enough to share what we were thinking. As our pain grew we allied ourselves with those who appeared to be like minded and turned our backs on those whose beliefs differed. Over time we fell into the trap of justifying ourselves by vilifying anyone with whom we did not agree. The battle lines were drawn, and few among us have the courage to admit that in many ways we have all been wrong and in many ways we have all been right. Our real enemies have won, while we bicker among ourselves.

I had a more difficult time thinking about 9/11 this year than ever because our nation is so fractured. I even attempted to push it from my mind until my granddaughter interviewed me for a school project. All of my old emotions came rushing back into my mind. It was as though I was watching those terrible images all over again. Then on the anniversary of the event I cried as I heard the national anthem being played at the 9/11 memorial site. My chest heaved as I watched a New York City firefighter ring a bell for the fallen. I was reminded of how united we had been for a brief moment. I thought of President George W. Bush climbing onto a pile of rubble and assuring the rescue teams and all of New York City that we heard their plaintive cries. We were the United States of America, the united people ready to do whatever it took to restore a sense of well being.

Somewhere along the way we forgot what we had set out to do. We lost our way. Now is the time to open our hearts and our minds and to remember who we really are as people. We should not fight with each other anymore. If we are to honor those who lost their lives, then we must find ways to get along or the very foundations of what we most cherish will fall.