The Other Side Of The Stars


‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’

—Stephen Hawking

On the day I was born a little six year old boy was running around in Great Britain oblivious to the amazing future that he would eventually enjoy. Stephen Hawking was a bright child who would over time stun the world with his grasp of astrophysics, but in 1948, nobody might have guessed that his story would become the stuff of movies. Not even when Stephen had demonstrated his intellect while engaged in his university studies did the full potential of his life reveal itself. The feeling that he was a kind of shooting star, rare but brief, only became more likely when he was diagnosed with ALS while in his twenties. Doctors told him that his lifespan would be short, but somehow he defied the odds and rather than spending his time worrying about his impending death he went on to become one of the world’s most respected scientists.

Stephen Hawking merged Einstein’s theories of the universe with the Big Bang theory, explaining the workings of the universe in an almost lyrical style. His best selling book A Brief History of Time while tackling topics often difficult to comprehend made his theories more accessible to ordinary souls like me who usually struggle to understand the complexities of how the vast world of space actually works. He became an icon in the scientific community and an approachable and fun loving character in popular culture, all while confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak without the aid of a computerized voice simulator. He possessed a love for life in spite of his physical difficulties and enjoyed poking fun at himself. He was a living miracle in our midst who demonstrated more than anything the power of optimism and an unwillingness to allow problems to dictate his destiny.

I first heard of Stephen Hawking when his book became a best seller. I purchased and read it with a bit of caution because its subject was not of the sort that I generally enjoyed. I love mathematics but my forays into the domain of physics and astronomy had been lackluster at best. They simply were not topics of great interest to me. That changed as I turned the pages of A Brief History of Time and began to grasp the workings of the universe in a manner that had previously been unattainable. I had to know who this brilliant individual was, and how he had managed to use words to so beautifully explain ideas that were almost beyond my human comprehension. I instantly became a fan.

Stephen Hawking was an unlikely rockstar. His shriveled body and strange robotic like voice should have made him odd, but instead they made his achievements feel even more incredible. He taught all of us that overcoming even the most difficult obstacles is possible. He ignored the naysayers who counseled him that his disease would severely limit his capabilities and his lifespan. He continued his work against all odds. His approach to life was perhaps even more remarkable than his brilliant mind, or perhaps it was because of his ability to envision a world beyond the limits of earth that he was so successful.

Stephen Hawking made it to the age of seventy six before he succumbed to his illness last week, an unheard of span of time for those afflicted with ALS to the extent that he was. Somehow it seems to me that he was one of those people who are sent to the rest of us for a very dramatic purpose. Like an Abraham Lincoln, a Leonardo da Vinci or a Martin Luther King he gave us all the gifts of his abilities, inspiring us to reconsider our own contributions to the world around us. His legacy should push us to do more with ours.

I have always believed that each of us has a purpose no matter how small it may seem. We may not ever have the reach of someone like Stephen Hawking but as long as we have breaths to take we have the capability of somehow making a difference. Ours may not be lives as mind blowing as Stephen Hawking’s but even bringing a smile to someone’s face is an accomplishment. If we multiply our goodness and our talents millions of times over this universe becomes a better place that we might call home with the people that we love.

Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking. You challenged us to think, to be stronger and to understand and appreciate our universe. Your imperfections were many but you overcame your challenges and demonstrated the kind of courage and determination that we should all seek. Enjoy your new view of the universe. We will one day see you again on the other side of the stars.


The Heartbreak of Misbehavior


In my early years of teaching I worked with many students who had very troubled lives. My kids were known for moving from one school to another in three month increments. That’s because it took about that long for them to either exhaust the free rent promotion at apartment projects, or for their families to be evicted for nonpayment of rent. I used paper grade and attendance books back then and they were riddled with marks denoting subtractions and additions of students. My classroom was like a revolving door with many tearful goodbyes on Friday afternoons and greetings of new faces on Monday mornings. It was hard enough on me as a teacher to maintain a sense of continuity, but even worse for the students whose lives were constantly in a state of flux. In some ways the ones who went from one low rent apartment to another were the luckiest ones, because I also knew of kids who were living in someone’s garage or in the family car.

I struggled to manage my emotions in those days and often felt as though I was making little educational progress with my pupils. Sometimes I focused my anger on the parents and in other moments I simply felt a sense of extreme frustration. So many of my kids were listless and seemingly unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities that education afforded them. They didn’t appear to care about learning no matter how exciting I attempted to make it. They came without supplies and rarely did homework. Many possessed skills far below grade level. It was a daily battle to keep them engaged and all too often just as I had finally reached them they left for a new school.

I remember voicing my complaints to my mother who had been a teacher herself. I literally ranted about the situation and the fact that I felt as though I was the only one who cared. My mom listened calmly and then turned the discussion on end when she calmly but forcefully suggested that I needed to take the difficulties of my students into account. She noted that a hungry child can’t think of anything but the pains in his/her belly. A frightened child is only focused on the dread of going back home to a bad situation. An abused child doesn’t have time to worry about homework. In other words I had to consider the most basic needs of my students first and then worry about learning.

I knew from my mother’s stories about her own childhood that she was in many ways much like my students. She grew up in a tiny house with seven siblings who shared two bedrooms. Hers was an immigrant family that was often scorned and even abused by the people in her neighborhood. When she first began school her mom was in a hospital recovering from a mental breakdown. I suspect that there were many moments when she was too worried to learn, but she always spoke of how her teachers made school a haven for her, a place where it felt comfortable. For that reason education became a source of positive reinforcement in her topsy turvy world.

I changed the way I did things with my students after that conversation with my mother. I got to know my students and mastered the art of showing sincere concern for them. The stories that I heard were often heartbreaking, but I began to also see the courage and resilience that they possessed and I praised them for that. Once I adapted my methods to their needs my students began to demonstrate talents that had been hidden. They bloomed like lovely flowers and my classroom became a happy place where all of us wanted to be.

What I learned about my kids was at times so tragic that I had to steel myself to keep from crying in front of them. There was the girl with thick wavy black hair whose mother shaved those locks in a fit of anger. There was the boy who was an emotional wreck because his mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only three. Then there was Robert whose mom was a prostitute who left him in charge of his younger sister while she worked each night. He was little more than a child himself but he bore the responsibilities of an adult. When his sister was raped one evening it was Robert who called the police and waited up until dawn to tell his mom what had happened. She flew into a rage, not at the man who had committed the crime, but at Robert who in her mind had shirked his duty to protect his sister.

Students with such severe problems acted out and sometimes appeared to be lazy or even defiant. The reality is that they were simply attempting to deal with the horrific realities of their lives. Somehow learning how to perform operations with fractions was not at the top of their priorities list and I had to learn how to help them to concentrate on the moment rather than fretting over what might happen when they returned home. It was a balancing act that took great compassion on my part.

Whenever I would witness bad behavior from kids who had such terrible lives it would break my heart. I knew their stories all too well and only had control over what happened to them when they were with me. I wanted to make that time as positive as possible, even in the face of horrific challenges. I’d like to believe that in some small way I gave them a tiny break from the ugliness and maybe even taught them something along the way. All too many times they left my care just when I felt that we were on the verge of breaking through the issues that were holding them back. I would never see them again but I would always remember them and worry about them and wonder how things turned out for them.

Every educator and psychology student learns about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It appears to be such a simple and common sense theory. We should all understand that until the most basic requirement are satisfied little else will happen, and yet we still ignore the signs of trouble far too many times. Hunger, hurt, fear, pain overtake a mind and shut it down. Once we understand that basic truth and begin to address those things, then and only then will we be able to extract the full potential of our young. It’s a big goal, but one that we must pursue just as my mother taught me to do.

In Defense of Boys


My time as a child was filled with boys. I had two brothers and a gaggle of male cousins. The only other girl, Ingrid, and I were the only girls at extended family gatherings, at least until the guys began to marry. When I became a mom my world changed completely when I had two girls. I sometimes wondered if my husband felt overwhelmed by all of the estrogen. As a grandmother I was back to what I had known as a young girl when six of my seven grandchildren turned out to be boys. I adjusted to the rough housing and gross jokes quickly because the habits of young males were all quite familiar to me. 

I have to note that neither my brothers nor my cousins ever treated me as though I was somehow less than they were just because I was a girl. The only abuse that I sometimes endured from them came in the form of crass jokes that I soon enough learned to laugh about. All of those guys celebrated my successes and encouraged me to reach for all of my dreams. When I met my husband the supportiveness continued on steroids. I grew up believing that I was one hundred percent equal to any man which is why I find myself wanting to defend young boys these days from a kind of implied assault from rabid feminism. As sometimes happens the effort to create a level playing field for women has at times resulted in some people believing that the only way for girls to rise up is to pull down the guys. Because of my own positive relationship with boys I find this kind of thinking not only to be troublesome, but more pervasive than it needs to be.

Of late, and in particular during Women’s History month, I have read a number of opinion pieces that are tearing into parenting practices for young boys and even the record of male accomplishments in the past. It is as though our society is in attack mode when it comes to maleness and that worries me for the sake of the boys as well as the girls. It’s important that we keep our perspective when it comes to raising our children and preparing them for the adult world. We have to remember that there are physical and psychological differences between all children and most especially between males and females. Teaching each person how to become healthy and happy requires individualization and an appreciation of diversity.

We sometimes hear of the battle of the sexes, and in truth we should not think of the realization of goals as being a kind of war. Certainly there are instances when girls are abused or harassed by men, but we all know of cases when women have taken advantage of good men as well. We should be aware of such outlying behavior, but also admit that for the most part the relationships between boys and girls, men and women is more akin to my own positive experiences. Our goal in raising our children should be to continually emphasize a spirit of mutual respect between all people regardless of sex. We only create more tension by insisting that boys are somehow a privileged lot who must be humbled so that girls will finally get their turn.

I go to the gym five or six times a week and I am steadily becoming stronger but I can’t help but notice that even the weaker men who use the weight machines before me are capable of lifting poundage that is far beyond my capacity. I don’t believe that this is because we have somehow given men more opportunities and encouragement for physical development, but because they have a different genetic and physical structure. When it comes to intellect the playing field is much more equal. Through hard work I was able to rise to the number one rank in my high school class. I did that not because someone held back the young men so that I would make better grades, but because I put in a bit more effort. Nonetheless, I always understood and appreciated that the males in my classes were as capable as I was. I just ended up with a slightly higher GPA than they did. In the end we were generally equal in abilities.

I had every opportunity accorded to the men both in college and in my career. I made my own choices and when I encountered the occasional male chauvinist pig I ignored him and worked even harder. Mostly the males with whom I worked pushed me to advance and be successful just as my brothers and boy cousins had. Ironically I was more likely to find problems with women than men when it came to road blocks on the job, so I’ve always wondered why our society is more and more often setting up barriers for boys while opening the gates for women.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the efforts of women to tackle male dominated jobs, and I am a realist when it comes to accepting the fact that there will be those who still harbor very old fashioned ideas about the roles of men versus women. I just want to be certain that in our enthusiasm to remember the women we do not steamroll the men. Progress is of little value if it comes at the cost of damaging half of the population.

So as we celebrate the advances of women and do our best to continue the progress that has been made, let’s all agree not to trample on the boys in our enthusiasm. We need for all people to be able to make the best of the talents and intellectual abilities that they have. Our goal should be to raise each child in an environment that motivates and inspires. Our focus should be more on the future and less on the mistakes and injustices of the past. If we are constantly indicting the boys for sins that we worry that they might one day commit we will stifle them in nonproductive ways just as was sometimes done in the past with girls.

Girl power is wonderful, but so is boy power. Together we can make a better more equitable world, but if we continually devolve into quibbling and put downs we haven’t got a chance. It’s time to work for everyone in a spirit of fairness. That’s how we create the adults who will one day be able to carry on the work of humankind.

Becoming Our Personal Bests


I was driving home in the dark after spending the evening helping my grandsons complete a Geometry test review. It had been a long day and I was quite tired so I needed some sound in the car to keep me alert during the fairly long journey. I keep my radio tuned to NPR and just as I had hope there was an interesting program on the air. All of the guests were speaking about the idea of giving humans a small nudge to motivate them to do something difficult. It seems that there is a right way to get people to take risks and a wrong way that makes them complacent and uncomfortable with trying new things. Unfortunately much of the parenting and guiding and teaching that we tend to do is often exactly the opposite of how best to inspire humans,

As a mom, grandmother and long time educator I found myself instantly fascinated with the topic, so I turned up the volume and listened intently to a parade of experts giving pointers on how to create adults who are willing to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. It seems that every single theory was grounded in the idea that making mistakes can be a powerful tool for learning as long as it happens in the right kind of environment. If the emphasis is on personal growth rather than ranking, an individual is far more likely to demonstrate a willingness to venture into uncharted waters. There is something in our human natures that wants to be adventurous, but we throw on the brakes of caution whenever we realize that we are being compared and judged. We don’t want to be embarrassed by our mistakes and so all too often we quietly give up rather than endure the pain associated with failure.

One of the guests discussing this issue spoke of an horrific childhood experience that she had with a teacher who seated children in the classroom in order of IQ, from highest to lowest. Aside from the personal humiliation associated with such an arrangement she noted that it created artificial barriers to learning in which those lowest in the ranking began to believe that they didn’t have a chance to improve or master new concepts. It also segregated the students from one another by making them believe that those at the front of the class were smart and part of an exclusive group and those at the end were hopelessly doomed to uninteresting lives. The woman who was subjected to this horrible situation still shudders at the psychological damage it did to her and her peers.

My own high school experience was not much better. We were grouped according to an entrance exam and previous grades. Each six weeks a list noting our class rank was posted on a bulletin board in the main hall. We gathered together each time it appeared to determine where we were in the order, trying not to look at the very bottom because we somehow understood that there was indignity associated with being last. To this day I shudder at the idea of such shameless and ignorant humiliation that the listing created and the fear that it planted in me.

As humans we are born with a willingness to try different things. As babies we innocently explore and develop. Nobody thinks it odd that each little one grows at his/her own pace. It is the natural way of things and generally there is no worry unless the child shows signs of some type of extreme difficulty. In those early years our curiosity is at a peak. We want to know about and try everything. Learning is natural and fun. It is only when we begin to impose the artifices of tests and grades and competitions that many children begin to waver. When they feel that they are being judged badly because they are not quite as good as their peers, they sometimes slowly become and less and less inclined to participate in the process. In fact, even those at the top reach a certain comfort level and sometimes stop exploring lest they fail and lose their status.

As adults we want to encourage our young to be the best versions of themselves and so whenever they succeed at an endeavor we tend to praise them not so much for the attempts as for the outward judgement of their accomplishment. In other words we celebrate a good grade more than we cheer on effort. We pin our hopes on winning rather than a willingness to try. There is a kind of invisible ranking by IQ or ability that destroys a young child’s natural instinct to try things out. It deadens their souls just a bit, and in the worst case scenario convinces them that their possibilities for life are severely limited.

Sometimes it has the most deleterious effect on those children who started out at the top. They become so accustomed to being the best that they come unglued at the first sign of a challenge. They question themselves and withdraw from the race. They choose easy pathways that allow them to maintain their status, but their interest in reaching higher and higher is stifled. This is particularly true whenever a child suddenly fails after a lifetime of seeming perfection. We sometimes neglect to show them how to rebound from disasters.

The world will no doubt always be competitive but during the formative years the ideal is to instill a growth mindset into our young. We must strive to praise hard work and progress as much as mastery. We need to break learning down into doable chunks and celebrate the achievement of reaching particular milestones as much as we do high marks.

I have learned from watching my grandsons in swimming and track that each effort that they make is measured in personal improvements that may be little more than a tenth of a second. The focus of competition is with themselves. They understand that by beating their own records they move closer and closer to besting those who run with them. Races are generally won with very small but important differences. My grandsons work hard to close the gaps and they begin with themselves. Even if they do not gain a medal, they feel excited when they learn that they have shaved just a bit more time off of their own records. Improvement is a slow but focused process that they keep chasing because they are willing to stay in the race.

We can do so much much better with our young, but for now it is a difficult battle as long as tests are used to rank them, their teachers, their schools, and their communities. We are killing the natural instincts and curiosity one mistake at a time. Instead of encouraging our children to develop a love of reading we force them to submit to comprehension tests having little to do with how we humans enjoy the written word. We make the world of mathematics terrifying and far more difficult than it needs to be. We mystify science and insinuate that only a select few will ever be bright enough to work with its principles. We categorize children before they have even had the opportunity to explore and enjoy the wonders of learning. By the time we are adults we have boxed ourselves into rigid mindsets from which few of us ever escape.

It’s time for an overhaul of how we guide and teach our children. We have the know how and potential to use our most precious resource to the fullest. We just need to begin.

So Beautiful To Me

pexels-photo-658687.jpeg“She woke up every morning with the option of being anyone she wished. How beautiful it was that she always chose herself.” —-Unknown

I was a gangly, awkward girl all the way through high school, so shy that I often hid in the library pretending to do homework so I wouldn’t have to mix it up with my fellow classmates in the cafeteria each morning. I often found myself wishing that I was more like this girl or that. There was the beautiful young woman with that almost electric smile, the sweet person who was able to talk with anyone. All of them had something that I wanted and thought that I would never have, a car, a boyfriend, tons of confidence. I was a mound of teenage angst, and all the while so was everyone else but I had little idea that they were as confused and self conscious as I was.

Ultimately I grew up, literally overnight. When my mother had her first and scariest mental breakdown I found myself mostly on my own in finding her the care that she needed. My love for her was so strong that I was able to pull strength from deep inside my mind that I never thought that I had. At first I simply copied the attitudes of the women that I knew and admired for their courage. Eventually muscle memory trained from encounters with doctors and bankers and such transformed me into my own person. I no longer needed to pretend to be someone. I knew that I was someone.

I met a married a remarkable man who loved to tell the story of how he was “thunder struck” from the moment that he first saw me. He became my best friend and my muse. He thought that I was beautiful just as I was and that even my imperfections were made me unique. I was hardly the kind of person who would turn heads in a room full of people, but he convinced me that loveliness begins from inside and radiates outward with little relationship to external features. It is an aura derived from depth of character and inner determination to live life with joy.

I vividly recall the very day when I totally embraced and chose myself. It had started with an unremarkable daily routine of washing my face and brushing my teeth. I was in the process of hopelessly attempting to tame my fine fly away hair when I caught a unique glimpse of my image in the mirror. It was as though I was seeing myself with a new set of eyes, and I realized how much I liked me. I smiled at the realization that even if I had the option of being anyone I wished, I would choose myself. It was a stunning moment that transformed me forevermore. It was as though I had unlocked the power that had always been there, but I had never before realized.

Over time I worked with young adolescents in middle schools and high schools. I saw their unsteadiness firsthand, and understood that even the most self assured among them was in truth filled with self doubts and sometimes even self loathing. Trying to fit into our own skin is a painful developmental process that takes as much time to achieve as physical or academic growth. Researchers into such things now know that our brains are not fully developed until well into our twenties and even then some of us take a bit longer. Just as babies meet their milestones at varying ages, so too do we adults find and believe in ourselves at different times of life. Sadly there are those who sometimes never reach a point of fully appreciating their own essences.

Of course it is in our natures to question ourselves from time to time. The stresses of living bear down on us and cause us to become dissatisfied. We look over our fences and invariably find grass that is greener than ours. There is always someone who ages more gracefully, drives a better car, lives in a more exclusive neighborhood, earns more money. If we spend a lifetime of comparing we are continually wishing to be someone other than ourselves. We never quite reach that joyful moment of truly liking ourselves and wanting to be no other, or we interrupt our contentment with waves of jealousy.

I once read a book whose title now eludes me that posited a theory that even if we were to have multiple opportunities to think and act in ways other than the ones that we initially chose we would in all probability react to various people and events in much the same way. In other words we each view the world based on our genetics and environmental realities, and those factors guide our thinking through a series of motions and emotions that slowly but surely teach us how to be. We become ourselves through trial and error, and hopefully learn to accept ourselves with whatever strengths and weaknesses we may have. As mature adults we work with what we have to make the changes that we desire. We learn to use our best traits not so much to make ourselves more attractive, but to better the world around us. The most lovely among us are those who have been able to think less about how they may appear and more about how to help the people they encounter.

I now enjoy and embrace the opportunities to be with the individuals who once walked the halls of my high school with me. We have all grown older and wiser and far more beautiful than ever before. Our thoughts are not of who seems to have done the best, but simply of each other’s welfare. We know and like who we are as individuals and we revel in the well being of every member of our group. Looking back we are able to see that our blessings have outweighed our trials. All of us know that our thinning hair and expanding waists do not define us. The wrinkles on our faces and wear and tear on our hands are badges of honor, bearing witness to our hard work and compassion. The mistakes we have made attest to our adventurous spirits. We smile at the images in the mirror without seeing the flaws or wishing that it were that of someone else. It is beautiful to choose ourselves.