Legacy

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I recently saw an interview with politicians, celebrities and sports figures who were asked to describe what they would like their legacies to be. Most spoke of accomplishments related to their craft, which is certainly understandable given that society so often judges us by our occupations and what we do with them. Surely, I thought, there must be more to what we leave of ourselves than the body of our work life since there is so much more to each of us.

Of course I truly enjoyed being an educator and hope that I somehow will be remembered for my efforts in that profession. I honestly never saw myself as the most remarkable mathematics teacher ever, but I did put a great deal of effort into finding the best in each of my students, and helping them to realize the amazing potential that each of them had. I know that I loved each of them and toiled to make the learning process a bit more important to them.

I took particular pride in my work with teachers as well. We need exceptional educators and I’ve had the privilege of mentoring some of the most extraordinary ones. It has swelled me with pride to see both my students and my teachers go on to shine more than I ever might have. I like to think that my mark on the world is enhanced by the very small influence that I had on their successes, but in the end what they accomplish is theirs, not mine.

I tried to be a good mother, but I continually found myself in awe of moms who have it more together than I ever dreamed of being. I painfully recall every mistake that I made, and they were many. I was ultimately just happy that my daughters became such fine women in spite of my blunders. Being a mother is indeed one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. At the same time it is a joy and a great blessing to have the privilege of molding a life. The pride and the worries of parenting never really end so my grade as a parent is still listed as an Incomplete. Being a mom has been the central focus of my efforts and has created the most glorious purpose in my life, but also the one in which I often felt the most inept. I suppose that most mothers have those kind of feelings because it is such a daunting responsibility.

More than anything I would like my legacy to be that I was always a person of integrity. Fame and fortune have never meant as much to me as being honorable. My life is truly an open book. Aside from some missteps here and there I have never knowingly tried to hurt someone, nor have I lied or cheated to get ahead. My heroes are not necessarily the people who have been the most successful in life, but rather those who stood for a set of principles at all times. Nothing disappoints me more than learning of betrayal. I instead try to be steadfastly loyal, and I surround myself with people of a similar bent.

Our world is too much concerned with so called “winners” these days and if I were to leave any message to the people that I love it would be to be true to yourself and the people around you. I may not have a great deal of money in the bank or a list of grand titles when I die, but I have done my best to be worthy of trust. I know that there are liars and cheats in this world, but I choose not to be one of them, even if it means appearing to lose. I truly believe that at the end of the day each of us will earn our just rewards for doing our best to live good lives. Winning through deviousness is an earthly thing that doesn’t not last through eternity.

The people that we recall with the most respect are those who are kind and loving and sincere. We are dust and to dust we shall return just as our possessions will eventually rot and become useless. Our good names will live on in the minds of those who have known us if we tried to be truly good people. That is the kind of legacy I hope to achieve. It’s something that I work on every single day.

My mother died with few material possessions left behind, but her simple gestures of concern for people are remembered to this very day. My grandfather was penniless but my brothers and I recall his wisdom and optimism. My grandmothers were so gentle that everyone felt serenely safe with them. I hardly had time to know my father and yet his imprint on me is as deep as if he had been guiding me for all of my life. He gave me a love for learning and travel and the beauty of many art forms. My mother-in-law demonstrated how to be elegantly strong. None of them reached too far beyond the confines of their tiny network of friends and family, but each of them left a footprint on this earth that really mattered, for in their actions was character of the highest order. It was from their examples that my own desire to be a better person grew.

A legacy is strictly defined as an inheritance, a benefaction, an endowment, but it is really anything handed down from the past. It is a kind of gift to the present that need not be material. In fact the best legacies tend to be those that show us ways to be our personal best. I hope that I will be remembered for the good that I have done. It’s a challenge, but one that I take seriously.

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A Mother’s Story

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Moms today seem to put so much more into their parenting than I ever did. They research child rearing ideas, learn about proper nutrition, create healthy schedules, and worry when their little ones behave badly. I have great admiration for them because I was truly a fly by the seat of my pants kind of mom. There is so much that I might have done better but I was far too ignorant to even know that I was doing some things wrong. My daughters seem to have turned out just fine, but I often wonder if I might have done a better job of parenting if only I had taken a bit more time to learn more about the best child rearing methods. I suppose that I will never know what might have been if I had not been so immature, and so I content myself with knowing that it doesn’t matter anymore because they are on their own and raising their children quite well.

I laugh whenever a young mom is feeling a bit guilty about some meltdown or troubling incident with a child because I have stories to tell that would curl their hair and cause them to look askance at my own mothering. I always think about a time that I took my eldest child to the old Gulfgate Mall with a friend who had a son who was only slightly older than my girl. Each of us would eventually have two children, but at the time only our first born were around and they were still  toddlers who went on shopping trips in their strollers.

We were not looking for anything in particular on that day. We just wanted to get out of the house for a time with our kids. Little did we know that we were about to give a whole new meaning to the term window shopping. We went into one of the clothing stores and parked our strollers just long enough to glance through a bin of sale items. We honestly had not turned our backs on the two children for long at all, but when we turned around the strollers were empty. We began searching for them in a state of panic when we heard a commotion and lots of giggling in the showroom window. We peeked around the corner and there they were having a good time pretending to be on display for all the world to see. We quickly whisked them up, placed them back into the strollers and hurried out of the store lest we be called to task for our lack of control over our babies.I nervously imagined someone calling CPS on us, or even worse, telling my mom who would never have allowed such a thing to occur.

Once we were safely away we breathed easier that our close call had not resulted in some kind of tragedy, and we attempted to explain to the little ones as best we could how important it was for them to stay put in their strollers. Then we continued walking up and down the mall, proud of the more regimented behavior that our children were exhibiting, and once again enjoying our little walk. We became so certain that the worst was behind us that we made it all the way to the end of the stores where Sakowitz lured us with signs advertising great sales in progress. We moved from aisle to aisle being very careful to watch over our charges and then entered an area filled with fine glassware reminding our babies not to touch anything.

All was going well until we found some items to purchase and were standing in line to pay. That’s when we heard a loud crash and looked to see a display case on its side with broken glass littering the floor. I have to admit that I heaved a sigh of relief when I saw that my little girl was still sitting serenely and innocently in her stroller while my friend’s son toddled away in fear of the consequences for what he had so obviously done.

The two of us corralled him quickly and his mother fussed at him with tears of abject embarrassment in her eyes. When a manager came over to assess the situation her tears turned into heaving sobs as she explained that she would gladly pay for all of the damage, all the while worrying that the cost of the mess might be more than she actually had. The kindly man insisted that he was more concerned with making certain that everyone was okay. He chided himself for putting such a fragile display in the middle of a busy walkway, and assured us that store insurance would take care of the damage. 

His kindness and understanding was such a sweet thing to encounter, and he put the whole incident into perspective. We paid for the things we had selected and almost ran to our car from there. We felt humiliated, frenzied, and guilty about the seeming lack of control that we had over our children. The school of hard knocks on that day taught us a great deal about shopping with youngsters. We never again had such a difficult time, but a sense that we had been grossly neglectful refused to leave us. It would be years later before we were able to put our mishap into the past, and even smile a bit when we thought of it.

My advice to mothers who are struggling with headstrong, inquisitive or hard to control children is to learn how to take those bumps along with all of the wonder of having children. There will indeed be moments when they seem to be heading down a direct route to the penitentiary. That’s when we have to stay calm and carry on. As long as these kinds of moments are the exception rather than the rule, we are probably, and should consider the occasion as a way to learn and in turn teach our children. Mothers have to be prepared for many disappointing moments and find ways to judge how severe a reaction is  needed. Sometimes all everybody requires is a good nap.

Parenting is a marathon and the sense of responsibility does not end even as our children come of age and begin their adult lives. Every parent lies awake at times thinking of their offspring and worrying about them. It is part of the whole package and as normal as can be. That children’s story about the woman loving her son forever is truer than we care to admit. A child becomes the focus of our life and as a mom that intense connection never really ends. It’s good if we learn how to laugh at the little stuff so we will have what we need when the really big stuff comes around.

Decency

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I was a young twenty something when Richard Nixon was president. I never liked the man, and used my vote to register my contempt. My emotions toward him were admittedly base and immature. I’d flinch at the very sight of him, and I managed to extend my dislike to his wife and children. I realize now that my disdain was often irrational because in retrospect I have taken the time to learn more about him and his time as the president. In that study I see that he actually did some very good things for the country, but back in the day he could do nothing right in my eyes. I even cringed when one of my favorite entertainers, Sammy Davis, Jr., supported him.

I watched the Watergate investigation with a certain level of glee and celebrated Nixon’s darkest hour when he was forced to resign his office. I watched him leave the White House will nothing less than exuberant self satisfaction. In my mind he had earned his  too long in coming humiliation. I gladly wiped him out of my mind and was overjoyed that he decided to live out the rest of his life rather quietly out of the public eye. I had no desire to hear from him again.

When Richard Nixon died it was a newsworthy event in spite of his transgressions. The airwaves were filled with images of people honoring him and his family. Being a person who is interested in such things from an historical perspective I watched the proceedings with little emotional attachment. After all, this was a man whom I had never liked even though the passage of time had warmed my heart to him a bit more than when I was still a very young adult. Nonetheless, I recall feeling disgusted when I witnessed one of Nixon’s long time friends and allies breaking down in a fit of emotion and tears at the funeral. I sarcastically poked fun of the man only to be chastised by my husband Mike in a manner that he rarely uses with me. He derided me for lacking sensibility at such an emotional time. “His friend has died!” he reminded me. “Show some compassion for the people who have lost someone that they love.”

I was shocked because Mike had never been a Nixon fan either, but I understood in that moment that I was exhibiting a lack of basic decency. There are lines of decorum that just don’t need to be crossed, and I had gone too far in my criticism of Nixon with my churlish commentary. He was dead and the funeral was a time for those who genuinely loved and respected him to demonstrate their feelings. After all, his daughters insist to this very day that he was always good father. Friends admired him and loved him. Who was I to poke fun at their genuine emotions?

I am still not a fan of President Nixon, but I have studied him and his administration enough to understand that while he had many imperfections he also did some very good things. His insecurities and fears ended up ruining his reputation, but he was more of a tragic figure in the Shakespearean sense than a truly evil man. There were very good things that he did like opening up relations with China and brokering peace in the Middle East. In fact it was he who ended the Vietnam War that I so loathed. As a young person I was far too generally incensed to take the time to parse his good traits and separate them out from his bad. In the end he allowed his own demons to overtake his reason, but that did not make him a totally evil man in the sense that I judged him back then. He was merely a human filled with both good instincts and glaring imperfections.

I’ve thought about the intemperate insults that I hurled at the people who were grieving the loss of President Nixon as I’ve listened to the immature and unnecessary rantings of President Trump regarding John McCain. While I too have been guilty of hyperbolic criticism of people I would like to think that those in high office might be more circumspect in their utterances, particularly once a person is dead. At this point there is little reason for Trump to continue to stew over the differences that he and Senator McCain had. If nothing else a sense of decency should lead him to let go of his anger.

Sadly our nation is engaged in a long winded and petty brawl in which anyone is fair game for insults and jibes. Almost every politician is sorted and categorized into narrow estimations of character that mark him/her as good or bad depending on point of view. There is no room for considerations of the continuum of reality in which we all exist. In truth the idea of either totally vilifying or adoring any individual is absurd, and leads to illogical assessments of important decisions. It might be a natural trait of exuberant youth to be more emotion driven, but we all need to grow up at some point and learn how to think without melodramatic outbursts. Right now those who show moderation are often thought to be without ideals, and yet it is likely that they are the true adults in the room. Perhaps that is why someone like Senator John McCain is a conundrum not just to President Trump but to most democrats as well. He was a man who considered each issue on its own merits, not from the perspective of a set of values frozen in concrete.

It was once said of me that I am capable of finding good in everyone, even an evil person like Charles Manson. That is indeed true of me because I have learned that every person who lives is an amalgam of both good and bad. Some learn how to tame their ill natured tendencies and others are defined by them. Perhaps the route that each of us follows is formed by the ways in which people see us and we then see ourselves. Our humanity is complex and who we ultimately become as individuals is determined by a million different things. Perhaps the good in us wins out because people are willing to see it, just as the bad sometimes seizes the day because our negative traits are the only things that define us in people’s eyes. 

If we have any hope of being a nation of integrity, then we must begin to publicly acknowledge good acts when we see them regardless of who is performing them. We need to stop the practice of turning people into incomplete caricatures of themselves, and instead admit to both their positive traits and their flaws. It would also do us well to return to adherence to a bit of decency befitting of logic and compassion.      

The Final Entry

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I regularly watch the first thirty minutes of Sunday Morning on CBS while I prepare for church each week. It’s generally an informative and upbeat program  with interesting human interest stories that make me think or laugh or even cry. This past Sunday featured a segment on a young girl named Alexandra who had committed suicide by throwing herself off of an overpass bridge. After her body was found her parents also became aware of journals that she had kept that were filled with vivid descriptions of the angst that drove her to kill herself.

Up until the moment of the gruesome discovery of Alexandra and her diaries nobody, not even her parents or her closest friends, had any idea that she was so troubled. She appeared to be a happy successful high school junior with a sweet smile and a joyful laugh that filled her parent’s world with a feeling of being especially blessed. She was an A student who was so well liked by her classmates that they had elected her to one of the class offices. She wanted to major in engineering in college and to that end she belonged to the school robotics team that had only recently qualified for the international finals. She was a favorite of her teachers, one of whom indicated that she was possibly the number one or number two student that he had ever taught in his twenty years in the classroom. What nobody seemed to know was how desperate and worthless Alexandra actually felt.

She had a checklist of things she needed to accomplish to get in M.I.T., her dream school. She was striving to be the valedictorian of her class and to score high on entrance exams. In her journals she confessed that she felt as though she was a failure, valueless, unmotivated and unhappy. She hid her worries and her depression from her parents even though she spent time lots with them and talked openly with them about her life and her aspirations and her feelings, only what she told them was far different from what she recorded on paper. Everyone saw her as one of those extraordinary teenagers that every parent and educator hopes to have, while she saw herself  as a hopeless loser.

Alexandra’s English teacher, like her parents, was stunned by her death. He still wonders what signs he might have missed that would have allowed him to help his beloved student. So also was the school counselor who had never sensed the depths of Alexandra’s desperation. Her best friends were also left wondering how their pal had managed to hide her feelings from everyone. She was a golden girl in everyone’s eyes the lines in the notebooks described how overwhelmed she actually was.

I have spent the majority of my life advocating for care for those afflicted with mental illness and for the students that I have taught.  I have often uncovered problems with my pupils before they escalated to a point from which there might have been no return. I used my observational skills to ascertain that one of my students was self harming herself. I saw another student’s outbursts not as disregard for authority, but a cry for help. I was particularly good at ferreting out the truth behind student behaviors of all sorts, but there were still moments when I missed all of the signs. Those times were particularly difficult because I truly cared for all of kids, even those who gave me grief. They were like my children and I wanted to be a person of understanding and compassion for them, but sometimes my they were hiding the truth of their feelings from me and everyone else. They put on Academy Award level performances designed to hide the pain that they were feeling.

I suppose that the key to really knowing a person comes in keeping the lines of communication wide open. Teens and young adults need to know without reservation that it is safe to ask for help, admit mistakes, discuss worries. Adults need to ask themselves if even the students who appear to be handling challenges are pushing themselves too much. As parents and teachers we must continually have discussions regarding how much work/life balance our youngsters have. As a team we can indeed work to alleviate some of the pressures and fears that plague their journeys to becoming adults. We can start with very frank discussions and a willingness to really listen between the lines to what our kids are telling us. They need to know that we do not expect perfection and that erring is not failure but an opportunity to learn, We must be certain that we are not making them feel trapped in a whirlwind of unreasonably high expectations.

Years ago Rice University, sometimes known as the Harvard of the south, was the suicide capitol of universities. The numbers of students killing themselves was so dramatically high as to cause the board of directors to ask what the reasons might be. They found that the university in general focused almost exclusively on competition and grades with little or no regard for social skills and psychological health. Brilliant students were continually made to feel inadequate as they were quantified and ranked and pushed beyond their endurance. It was only after dramatic efforts were made to help students to achieve a realistic balance of work and pleasure that the rate of self inflicted deaths began to drop. Not long ago the university was even named as one of the happiest  campuses in the country, an honor that spoke to the hard work of truly concerned educators who had worked together to find ways of developing the whole individual.

Alexandra’s parents have made their daughter’s writing public. They lecture at high schools  and parent meetings. Their advice is that we must be watchful of every young person for signs that our systems are devouring them. They believe that if their daughter’s tragic story saves even one more life her words will not have been in vain.

Alexandra’s final entry was addressed to her parents. She insisted that they not blame themselves. Of course as loving parents they do, as is also true of everyone who loved this precious girl.

When the Rich Get Richer

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I’m livid about the college admissions scandal that is rocking the nation with its accusations of cheating by moneyed parents in order to obtain spots for their children. As an educator I am appalled but not really surprised by the idea that wealthy families are buying their way into prestigious universities. The whole affair speaks to monumental problems with the way things work in the acceptance process for schools and it addresses the pressures that our college bound students are facing, particularly when they lack influence or financial backing. As far as I am concerned this story reveals only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg and a societal problem that we have generally refused to discuss openly. There is something very wrong with the way things presently work and it is hurting everyone of us.

Right now suicides and attempts at suicide are at an all time high among high school and college age students. It’s a complex issue with so many facets that narrowing it down to just one thing is ludicrous. Nonetheless we have to consider the pressures to attend the top universities as one of the reasons that our kids are so anxious. The almighty class ranks and test scores are dominating their teen years. High schools are no longer ranked just by the number of graduates but also by the number of students taking advanced placement classes, the scores of students on the various tests, the number of students being accepted into universities and the supposed quality of the university admissions.

To get to the pinnacle of their high school careers students are carrying almost impossible study loads and being urged to compliment their academic achievements with participation in sports, extra curricular activities, and community service. Our kids are leaving their homes before dawn, arriving back home after dark and studying into the wee hours of the night so that they might receive acceptance letters from the most coveted schools. They are continually challenged  and ranked and asked to perform better and better. The idea of personal bests pushes them to the point of exhaustion and steals away time with their families. Little wonder that so many are crashing and burning. Few adults work as many hours without relaxation as so many of our high school students presently do just so they will rank high enough, score high enough  and perform well enough to one day gain admittance to one to a top university.

We’ve always known that wealthy families buy buildings, support athletic programs and serve on collegiate boards expecting payback in the form of special treatment for their children. I suppose I don’t have to mention the names of famous people who graduated from Ivy League universities without seeming to have had the intellect to do so. Money has always talked, but the new schemes are particularly egregious. How many worthy students have languished on a waiting list while a less qualified but rich son or daughter of a scion has been welcomed to a big name school with open arms?

Given the revelations of cheating what are we to tell the students who are genuinely attempting to demonstrate their worth? How do we convince them that the deck isn’t stacked against them before they even try? Furthermore, why are we as a society so convinced that the diplomas from the more highly regarded schools are worth more than others?

I’m a graduate of the University of Houston and quite proud of the education that I received there. I had the grades and the chops to attend the more elite schools but as the child of a single parent I did not have the resources or connections to be able to afford attending such places. I happily commuted from home each day and learned from some incredible professors who worked hard to inspire me. I was a Summa Cum Laude graduate who had won several academic honors. I quickly learned after landing my first job that what counted most was the quality of my work. No body ever again wanted to know where I had earned my degree, what my GPA had been, or whether or not I had earned honors. As far as my employers were concerned my performance each day was of the most importance, and I worked hard to earn their respect. That was all that really mattered.

There have always been individuals whose lives were set for success even before they went to school. The influence of their families has been their key to getting and staying in high paying jobs. The rest of us have to work our way to the top, but I wonder if starting that grind too early can have devastating effects on the overall development of our young. There is a time and a season for everything and if we join the rat race too soon we will eventually burn out. We have to learn how to find balance in our lives, so why are we pushing our students to levels of dedication that are unhealthy both physically and mentally? Do we not understand that wide scale cheating is a symptom that should tell us that something is very wrong?

I recall conversations with high school teachers about preparing students for college and beyond. What few high school educators note is that university students are not stuck in a classroom for seven to eight hours a day and then given enormous amounts of homework, research projects, and papers to write in the hours when they are at home. In college there may be three or four hours of class time each day with many more hours to complete course requirements. If the students wants to participate in extra curricular activities they can, but that is not forced on them. In other words, college presents a far easier schedule than most of today’s high schools do.

It’s time that we adults speak up for our young, and speak out against the practices of testing companies, admission policies, grading systems, continual ranking and other processes that are wreaking havoc with our teens. Learning should be our focus, not competition. The experience should be joyful and meaningful, not a source of stress. Until we repair the damage that has been done we no doubt will continue to see greedy individuals taking advantage of the gaming nature of the system. So far fifty people have been implicated in the latest scandal. Something tells me that the real number is in the thousands or perhaps the hundred thousands. We are sending our young a horrible message and we have to change that now.