The Dialogue


Teachers talk all of the time. They desperately want to do the right thing for their students. They literally take their worries and concerns home, sometimes keeping them awake in the dark of night. Their constant worry is whether or not they have done all that they possibly can. They wonder what is really most important for preparing their charges for life. Is a laundry list of knowledge and skills enough, or is there actually something more important than grades and test scores? What is the recipe, the correct ingredients, the proper method for putting a life together?

This past weekend I was with two extraordinary educators and a student who is on the brink of launching her career after spending most of her life learning. We spoke of our concerns about education and all agreed that what is too often missing is the opportunity to help young people develop a foundation of particular traits that will serve them well in any situation. The young lady who had once been our student is a stunning example of a process gone right. She earned a bachelors degree in psychology and immediately followed up by working toward a masters degree in clinical counseling. It has taken her almost eight years to reach her goals. In that time she has had to work as well as study. Somehow she understood the need to focus on the prize, often with great sacrifice. She adhered to an unwavering belief that God must always be first, family second and career third. All are important, but always in that order. She values life from birth until death and plans to work in palliative care at a hospital. Somehow she has made her journey appear to be easy, but we know that it was not. She had the same kind of stresses and problems that all humans have. perhaps even more, and yet she was able to overcome them and remain healthy, optimistic and kind. What we wondered gave her the courage and confidence that she must have needed on many different occasions? Why was she able to find joy and success when so many falter and fail?

One hint that she humbly provided was that her core of values guide her along the way, but mostly her faith. Her heart is strong and it is her foundation. She is willing to work, and always determined to make a difference in our society. She is less concerned with grades or scores or rankings, and more inclined toward finding purpose in the things that she wants to do. In other words, she has found a passion for people and good works that motivates her to keep going even when times become difficult.

As we explored many ideas we concurred with her philosophies and noted that as educators we have the power to help our young develop a sense of meaningfulness, but all too often our jobs force us to concentrate on areas that are far less important. We become distracted and fractured and unlikely to have either the time or the energy to encourage each and every one of our students. We want to help them on a deeper basis but know that other demands cause us to fall short. It is frustrating, maddening even. We are in the trenches with society’s most important resource and all too many times we are bombarded with so much bureaucratic minutiae that we have to ignore our own instincts about what is most important in the care and guidance of our young.

I recall a workshop from long ago criticizing the American tendency to teach a vast array of concepts in a shallow manner as opposed to going deeply into a few key concepts. As a mathematics teacher I always felt as though I was in a race to keep up with all of the topics. Too many times I was forced to move ahead even when I sensed that my students had not yet mastered what they needed to know. I wondered why I had to teach them how to create a stem and leaf plot when they lacked an understanding of fractions and decimals. I felt that I was somehow contributing to the slow destruction of their confidence, I wondered if they would one day be telling people that they were not good in math because I had made them feel inadequate by ignoring their need for just a bit more time to master certain ideas.

During my career I worked in a variety of schools. The best of them created situations that allowed our students to feel as though they were members of a caring family. There were adults watching over them and helping them to develop traits that would serve them well in any situation. We taught them to work hard and be nice. We reminded them to remember and appreciate kindnesses. We urged them to leave any place where they wandered in a better state than they had found it. We rewarded character as much as grades. We taught them about wisdom and honor. We joined hands with their parents in the work of caring for them. We showed them how to rise to great expectations even as they stumbled in the process. We encouraged them to demonstrate true grit, helping them to realize that those unwilling to give up will ultimately enjoy great accomplishment and happiness. Mostly we wanted them to know that they were never alone. There would always be someone on whom they might rely.

Dialogues such as the one I enjoyed with my colleagues and a former student are commonplace among teachers. We understand how critical our roles truly are. Educational reform is happening every day in small ways inside the classrooms of the majority of dedicated individuals on whom our future depends. Teachers are changing lives one student at a time, and when they witness the fruit of their labors in the form of an adult who is ready to commence the heavy lifting of important work, they know that their efforts have not been in vain. Such a realization is a teacher’s greatest reward.


The Soul of a New Venture

live edge table

Our world has been made more lovely by the work of creative people and the entrepreneurs who have introduced their innovations to us. Humans are always looking for better ways of doing and presenting things. Someone is surely considering ideas that may one day revolutionize our comfort or aesthetics even as we go about our daily routines. Philosophy, mathematics, art, medicine, technology have all been driven by those gifted and dedicated enough to produce things that we have never even thought about. A secretary came up with the concept of the Post-It note and became a wealthy woman. A failed artist conceived of a cast of characters and an animated world that became the foundation of an entertainment giant known as Disney. A couple of geeky students created a computer whose brand identified with a type of fruit would one day be synonymous with elegance of form and function. A guy frustrated by the stray plant life in his yard used some fishing line and a little motor to develop a weed eating monster. Every great success story began with an interesting idea and a determination to demonstrate that notion to the world.

We all know someone who stepped out of the box of corporate America or the grind of working for a big organization. It’s a frightening prospect to go it alone with no assurances that things will work out as planned. It takes courage and patience and the willingness to believe enough to go the distance. Small businesses come and go with the vagaries of the seasons. Only the best survive, so it takes a special kind of person to put forth the needed time, effort and resources to jumpstart and maintain the soul of a new enterprise. It is not for the weak of heart and I admire anyone who attempts to make things happen.

My brother spent decades working for the Houston Fire Department. Upon retiring he and his wife made a leap of faith and invested in a property near the Strand in Galveston, Texas where they decided to build a venture that would provide tourists to the area with an alternative to the usual beach centered activities. Escape The Island is their fun way of telling a bit of the area’s history while teams compete with the clock to unlock the clues that will allow them to exit a series of bolted rooms. They cleverly created puzzles and designed sets. They spent time publicizing their party and team building business. The work was as hard as their former day jobs had always been, but they believed that they had developed a form of entertainment that people would like. They never gave up even when the going was initially slow. They kept spreading the word and improving on their product until they began to see increased interest in what they had to offer. Today Escape the Island is a destination for families, businesses and college students. Located at 910 21st Street in Galveston, Texas they are ready to schedule fun at 409-443-5092 or http://www.escapetheisland, com

A former student of mine, Eric Guerra, went from high school to the University of Houston where he earned a degree that helped him land a job in the world of business. He was doing exceptionally well, but he felt that something was missing. He somehow knew that he had more to offer than adhering to a nine to five grind, but had little idea what that might be until he met an interesting fellow named Sebastian Martinez had quit is job to concentrate on creating furniture. He had made a table out of an old tree stump and a welded metal base and when Eric saw it his business acumen told him that the table was unique enough that it and items like it would be desired by those who want more than everyday design for their homes. The added bonus was that the furniture was made from recycled and repurposed wood that might otherwise have been burned or turned to sawdust. He envisioned a company much bigger than just a weekend way to earn some extra money, and he had the idea of forming a partnership to produce one of a kind furnishings on a grander scale.

Eric sought out advice from local businessmen who had once been in his situation and had turned small time ventures into mega successes. He convinced captains of local industries to provide him with guidance and some of them even made deals to feature his products in their stores. He set about building a business that has grown from sharing a garage with a lawn care company to purchasing a bigger warehouse near the Amazon fulfillment center west of Houston. He learned the techniques for creating the furniture so that he would be totally immersed in the process from the moment of finding the trees and the reclaimed lumber to creating the final product and then selling and distributing it. He has moved the company forward in a fairly short amount of time and its future looks promising as word of the lovely decorating ideas spreads from one satisfied customer to another.

Republic Creations pays homage to its Texas roots and the native materials that are used for the many products. The artistic builders and designers make live edge tables as small as a side accent and as large as a fifteen foot conference table. No wood is ever wasted as some of it enhances a wall or even becomes the planking for a floor. One of the most requested products is the wooden, live edge vanity for kitchens and bathrooms that provides a warmth and richness not possible with stone. Wooden kennels for pets become stunning pieces of furniture that blend in with the loveliest of environment and provide highly livable homes for pets at night or when the family is gone for the day. Everything is original and organic and environmentally friendly. Thanks to Eric Guerra and his acumen the business is quickly becoming a very popular and profitable venture. More photos and information are available on Facebook at Republic Creations and Designs or with a visit to the design center at 902 East Ave, Katy, TX 77493, 832-541-1840. Below are a few images of the designs that include the tables like the one featured at the top of this blog.


In It For The Outcome

Teachers-teach-because-they-care.-Teaching-young-people-is-what-they-do-best.-It-requires-long-hours-patience-and-care.--300x300I happened upon a discussion of the holiday calendar for this school year on the Facebook wall of a teacher friend. She had originally been opposed to working through the Friday just before Christmas, but had changed her mind once she began enjoying the full two weeks of leisure time that this year’s schedule afforded. She and other teacher friends were quite happy with the fact that they have been able to take trips, totally relax and just enjoy a much needed break from the stresses of educating youngsters. Then the parents came out of the woodwork revealing a truth that has long troubled those of us whose profession is to teach. Namely there was a flood of complaints about having to find babysitters during such a long stretch of time away from school. In other words, schools in the minds of many adults are not just institutions of learning, but also convenient agencies for caring for children so that the parents will be able to work.

The babysitting aspect that schools have somehow inherited over time demeans the professionalism of teachers, and often flies in the face of research regarding when and how long children should be left at the doorstep of our nation’s centers of education. I have worried for some time about youngsters dragging into schools so early in the morning that they are half asleep or in tears. So too is my concern with many of the programs that keep them until late in the afternoon. This of course allows parents to conveniently complete their own work days without having to worry themselves with making additional arrangements for the care of their children, but it also requires teachers to work sometimes ungodly hours that include not only preparation for teaching but also development of ideas to keep the children occupied for long stretches of time. It is little wonder that my teacher friends are rejoicing over having a brief respite from their duties. Even worse, however, is the all too prevalent feeling that today’s educators are viewed with so little regard that many parents think of them as being little more than nannies whose function is not just to educate but also to accommodate work schedules.

I have nothing against working parents. I was a mother who worked as well. Ironically I often had to rely on my mother-in-law to care for my own children when they were sick or after they arrived home from school because I was required to stay beyond the regular hours for various programs designed to provide a safe and secure place for our students to be until their parents had finished their work days. I know how demanding it can be to be a mother and a reliable employee at one and the same time, but I have to admit to resenting that my hours at work were often dictated more by the needs of parents than either those of my students or me and my fellow teachers. It was assumed that we would be the caretakers even while our own children sometimes had to learn how to survive with a latchkey and stern warnings about how to behave while we were gone.

On most school days teachers leave home earlier than their children and return around the dinner hour. If they had the luxury of relaxing for the rest of the evening it would be all well and good but the reality is that most educators spend several hours each evening planning and grading and sometimes even conferencing with parents by phone or email. Days during the school year are long and too often filled with stress. Weekends are not much better from August to the end of May, so whenever I hear parents complaining about the free time that teachers enjoy I have to hold my anger in check.

The truth is that there are few professions that are as demanding as teaching, and those who survive for the long haul do so with earnest dedication and love for the work. The pay doesn’t even begin to equal the amount of effort required to do the job well, and the tangible benefits are minimal. There are rarely parades or honors or even discounts for teachers as there often are for soldiers or first responders. Educators toil quietly away year after year because they are genuinely altruistic and devoted to a purpose driven life. They are concerned about the outcome, not the income and yet they invoke a generalized ire for their profession and are rarely consulted as the experts that they are. Still they return year after year because in spite of all of the negativity swirling around them they are answering a calling the compels them to attempt to make a difference in the lives of their students. They are not average souls who would be unable to do anything else, but rather remarkable individuals who have chosen a vocation that requires sacrifice and a thick skin. Their ultimate reward is a self knowledge that what they do is perhaps the most important contribution to society, and at the annual holiday pause of their labors they desperately need a period of rest to revitalize themselves for the big push of the coming semester. I can’t imagine why anyone would complain about the inconvenience of not having teachers around to care for their children, and yet it happens all of the time, and I suspect that if it were possible many parents would require teachers to be on call year round with only a handful of holidays.

The best system that I ever encountered was at St. Anne’s Catholic School. All teachers had regular hours as part of their work contract. Any additional time spent at the school was optional and provided extra income. The before and after school programs were separate from the school itself and paid hourly stipends to those who chose to participate. Many teachers enjoyed being able to extend their pay by volunteering for such work, but they also appreciated that they were not conjoined with professional expectations. Perhaps because parents paid tuition and fees for every aspect of the education they treated the teachers with great respect and esteem. I have never before or since felt as appreciated as I did when I worked there. Nobody took me for granted and everyone appeared to understand how much effort I was putting into my work. I felt as though I was a member of a team in my communications with parents. I believe that the success of our students was built on a mutual regard for one another that is sometimes missing in public schools. There is all too often a generalized feeling that our nation’s teacher are a rather ignorant bunch that are the source of most of the world’s problems. It doesn’t seem to occur to everyone that teachers are often asked to be all things to all people with very little support and not much compensation.

I suspect that parents who complain about long holidays and summer vacations just haven’t thought about how their cries of woe actually sound. They are juggling their own problems and it is easy to view the teachers as the enemy when they appear to be lounging far too long during the holidays. Those who have to return to work the day after Christmas may not be able to understand why teachers really do need that extra time to recharge. It is convenient to view our educators as the source of childcare problems, but I would urge parents to think again before voicing such complaints. As a society we give so little credit to our teachers that it is a wonder that anyone ever wants to enter the profession. The very least we can do is smile with them when they get excited about having time to enjoy themselves. Take it from an old pro, they have earned every single minute of their free time and they will be all the better with our kids because of it. We should be happy when we hear that they are feeling good. It means that they will do a better job when the school bell rings again.


The Silence Breakers

person-of-year-2017-time-magazine-cover1In what has become an anxiously awaited tradition Time magazine selected its Person of the Year last week. Much as has often happened this year’s winner of the cover spot was a group of women known as the “Silence Breakers.” In bold moves that have toppled the reputations and careers of a host of powerful men, women both famous and unknown have stepped forward to reveal acts of sexual harassment and violence long hidden from the public eye. In a veritable deluge of accusations the stories have dominated the news cycle for weeks and pointed to a societal problem that has generally been unspoken but well known. The tales of mistreatment have included men of all stripes and have initiated a national dialogue that heretofore existed mostly in the shadows.Many wonder how and why so many women are suddenly speaking of incidents that they kept secret for decades. Particularly among doubters there are questions about why it took so long for them to reveal what happened to them and what has made the present time so different that the #metoo movement that has gone viral.

I suppose that for some the first thoughts go back to the story of the boy who cried “wolf” so many times that when the sheep were really being attacked nobody was willing to listen. Some wonder if the number of accusations has been exaggerated by a kind of mass hysteria, and I suppose that it might be easy to go to that place. Instead I would venture to suggest that the very reason that so many women have been silent is because of the doubt that is historically associated with such incidents, particularly when the man involved is a powerful person. We only need to consider the denials and insults that ensued when a number of women spoke out against former President Bill Clinton. Paula Jones was described as trailer trash. Monica Lewinsky was defamed. Kathleen Willy was thought to be unhinged. Such are indeed the reactions toward women who have the audacity to reveal acts of personal degradation that have been perpetrated on them. It is little wonder that there is great fear when it comes to speaking of such things. When a man who brags of highly degrading behavior with women then goes on to be elected to the highest office in the land it makes all of us fearful of being heroic.

There is also the strange psychological phenomenon in which the victim actually wonders if somehow she either imagined the abuse or brought it upon herself. I can attest to such situations myself that I did not discuss for a very long time because what happened was so shocking that I was unable to know for certain that it even took place. One of those times occurred when I was a young adolescent at the beach with my family. As I walked along a fishing pier my gaze was suddenly averted toward an old man with a smirky grin on his face. He pointed downward and that is when I saw that he was exposing himself to me. I turned and ran away, but I was so embarrassed that I said nothing to anyone. Instead I stayed close to my aunts and uncles and told everyone that I was feeling sick. I have since learned that my reaction is very typical. My mind twisted the shocking event into something for which I felt responsible.

Even as an adult I hesitated to admit to a situation in which one of my coworkers frightened me with highly suggestive language. I kept it to myself for many days before speaking of my discomfort to my husband who insisted that I inform my boss immediately or he would. I felt a great deal of relief when my employer believed my story and began to investigate other whispers that he had heard about the man. In only the space of a couple of days the offender was fired from his job and a number of us felt immediately safer. The news of the man’s departure was greeted with applause.

Sadly not all such situations turn out so well. On another occasion in which I informed the Human Resources Director of the highly unprofessional behavior of a supervisor I was accused of attempting to foment a rebellion. It was long after I had decided that my only recourse was to leave that job that it was determined that everything that I had said was true and that the reality was even worse than I had described. It had felt horrible to be deemed a trouble maker and someone who might be stretching reality. While I treasured the fact that I had done the right thing, I also understood why so few women are willing to endure the humiliation that I suffered at the time. The pain associated with being a witness can be quite real.

My mother was a beautiful single parent, someone who was quite attractive to men. She often told me of situations that became very difficult for her. In her infinite wisdom she taught me how to proactively avoid the pitfalls. She instructed me to watch how much alcohol I drank when I was out at night so that I might be in control of my faculties. She noted that I would be better served if I did not dress too suggestively. She taught me how to sit and stand and carry myself around strangers. She cautioned me to never ever meet with a man alone in a hotel room. She even worried about the moments when I was in a car at night with a male that she did not know well. At times I thought that she was overly paranoid or that she only imagined her allure, and yet over time I realized that she knew exactly what she was saying to me. Her intentions were profoundly protective and effective in a world that can be hazardous for women.

I’d like to believe that there is a movement afoot that will make things safer for women in both the workplace and private life, but when a politician who is accused of child molestation is ahead in the polls I lose heart. When the members of his party are unwilling to speak out for what is right, I become cynical. I realize that we have a very long way to go and that mothers still need to school their daughters in how to take care of themselves. I also understand how brave the “Silence Breakers” are, because I know that even now there are those who doubt their motives and perhaps even think of them as liars.

I believe that we all have to be silence breakers to the extent that we have to condemn the actions of men who sexually harass women. The process of reeducating our society begins with each one of us. It’s critically important that we teach our children the importance of mutual respect and individual dignity. Our actions will be more important than our words. When we condone sexual abusers by ignoring their grievous actions we are guilty of creating an environment that accepts the degradation of women as simply locker room antics. Instead we must send the loud and clear message that such behaviors are wrong and that those who cross the line of propriety will be duly punished.

We must take this movement seriously, and be just as angry with anyone who falsely accuses a man as we are with the perpetrators of indecency toward women. It is well past time that we make the relationships between the sexes less fraught with dangers. It is obviously possible because the numbers of men who treat women with the respect that they deserve far out distance the predators. We have the capacity for making incidents of sexual harassment less and less frequent if we all agree that we have reached a watershed moment, and if we honor the women who finally took the first step in regaining control of their lives. 

Update: In a dramatic election decency won last night. Thank you, Alabama.


The Number Line of Our Lives


Last week I was at the University of Houston where I was planning to have lunch with a student who is considering returning to Texas from his out of state college. Our first stop was at the offices of transfer counseling services in the Cougar Village. I waited near the reception desk while he met with a representative to outline his needs and learn how to proceed in making the change. It was somewhat quiet in the office and my chair was right in front of the receptionist who was a tiny young woman who appeared to be quite businesslike but nonetheless polite and inviting. I thought of my own experiences with academic counseling at U of H in the long ago and remarked that I truly appreciated her kind demeanor, relaying a bit of my own experience when I too was little more than a slip of a woman.

My initial contact with the university had been quite a discouraging affair that almost sent me running. I sat for well over an hour before I was even seen by anyone. When my moment to garner information finally came I was greeted by a surly woman who literally barked the obvious fact that she was behind schedule and had very little time for conversation other than that related to the business at hand. There were no warm greetings, not even a tiny smile. Instead her angry demeanor set a tone for the interaction that left me flummoxed and almost as ignorant about policies and procedures as I had been before I came. My session ended on such a rushed note that I felt as though I was being pushed from the office. I somehow maintained my composure in spite of how I was feeling until I reached the ladies room down the hall where I found a stall and proceeded to cry for at least five minutes. Luckily once I got past the bureaucratic arm of the university it was smooth sailing. My classes were challenging and interesting, and my professors were always accommodating and determined to help me navigate through the years of my college life. I grew to love the University of Houston, but shuddered at the thought of having to deal with the business and paperwork associated with entering and exiting.

I joked a bit with the student with whom I had outlined my story and then she in turn relayed hers. She was from Asia and was majoring in mathematics. There were a number of career pathways that she was considering, but she was most interested in applying math in the business sector. She was excited about graduating in the spring and spoke of the many people at the university who had supported her when she first came and knew so little about the city or even our country. It was apparent that her efforts to be hospitable to those who visited the office had stemmed from her own experiences and the appreciation that she felt for those who come to the university attempting to make life changing decisions. She delights in the fact that she is now the one who greets so many of them. She wants their first impression to be be positive because she understands their fears.

I enjoyed my little talk with this stranger who now seemed a bit more like an acquaintance. I appreciated that she had taken the time to relate her own story with so much candor. I felt the kind of bond that two people enjoy in that brief moment when their worlds collide and they are willing to approach each other with mutual respect. It amazed me that even though our collegiate ties were separated by many decades we had both felt the same sense of apprehension and hopefulness as we imagined our lives stretched out before us. I was now viewing mine from the rearview mirror of nostalgia and she was just placing her foot on the accelerator to forge into unexplored territory full speed ahead. Both of us felt a kinship and gratitude for those who had helped us to reach our respective points in life. In particular I understood that her lovely demeanor toward everyone who walked into the office would set the tone for a wonderful experience that might encourage even those who felt lost to take the risks that most certainly would lie ahead.

Eventually the student with whom I had come for a lunch date finished his own appointment and we headed to a restaurant on campus. I saw in his eyes that his meeting had not given him the answers that he had hoped to hear. He felt a bit discouraged by all of the hoops through which he would have to jump if he decided to transfer his work from one university to another. It would be almost like starting over and losing all of the time that he had already invested. He was caught in a quandary that I too have faced, and so we began a quiet discussion of his options over a lunch of grilled cheese and tomato basil soup. The fact that it was a grey and cold day did little to help his mood, and I could see the wheels turning in his head as he calculated the cost of staying put in a place that made him miserable versus changing to a more positive environment where he has friends who care about him and encourage him to make the move as they have already done.

Time feels very different to me than it does to a young adult barely entering his twenties. I have the advantage of knowing how quickly it passes. i have experienced enough to know all too well the importance of being happy. Our minds tell us when something is wrong and while it may be challenging to extricate ourselves from certain situations in the long run we will always land on our feet and find the contentment that we seek. I have learned all too well that life rarely follows a straight line. Instead it is a series of curves looping back and forth often throwing us off balance. It is a high wire act that is both frightening and exciting. If we take a deep breath we learn that most of the platitudes that we hear have some merit. We won’t fail as long as we follow our hearts and keep trying. The clock will keep ticking but we soon learn to ignore it as well as the unsolicited advice and critiquing from well meaning people who think that they have a better understanding of what we need than we do. We almost always find the confidence that we need to be the person that we want to be regardless of what others may think, Our happiness comes from discovering a sense of purpose rather than pursuing a job and concerning ourselves with wealth. In the process we often find that we get exactly what we have needed all along.

I can’t help thinking about the continuum on which we all fall in a kind of curvy number line of life. As long as we are breathing the ray of hope shines ahead. There is always time for adjustments to our trajectory. I am at a far end, but still aware that unknown challenges and joys lie ahead. The young lady in the office is both ending one phase and beginning another. The student with whom I had hoped to convey some wisdom is stopping and starting and making circles as he attempts to come to the right conclusion that will work for him. None of us is a fortune teller capable of predicting exactly what will happen once we make a choice, but based on what lies behind I understand perhaps a bit better that the secret to a full and rewarding life begins with a little spark that tells us when we are heading in the right direction and when we are not. We learn to alter our course and adapt more and more quickly on our journey. We become like  race car drivers whose muscle memories react quickly to bumps and turns in the ever changing environment. Somewhere along the road we also become proficient in rejoicing in our uniqueness and gain confidence in the choices we have made. We ultimately realize that when all is said and done it is in the people we have loved and the lives that we have touched that we have found the keys to our puzzling searches.