Keep On Keeping On

U-Turn section

When we are young we tend to be impatient. We see life as a sprint rather than a marathon. Every mistake we make feels like the end of possibilities. We fret over our futures and worry that our lives are over before we even get started. I recall thinking that I would never experience any of the things that I dreamed of doing. I was in a hurry, and life rarely works that way. Over the decades I’ve learned that there are some things that we can’t rush, but they happen all in good time.

When I graduated from high school I enrolled in college but I honestly felt totally confused about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I found love with the man who is now my husband, and nothing mattered more to me at the time. So many young men that I knew were being drafted into the army and shipping off to Vietnam where some of them died or were severely wounded. The nation was in a state of upheaval far worse than anything we are now experiencing. Somehow I lost my way and when the chance arose to marry the one person who made me feel good every minute that I was with him I leaped at the opportunity.

I was determined to continue my education even as an incredibly young married woman and for two semesters after my wedding I was as good as my word. Then my world came crashing down around me when my mother’s mental illness advanced to a stage that was more than she was able to bear. I became her lifelong caretaker even as I had little idea of what to do or how long this journey was going to take. I was playing each moment by ear and hoping for the best. On top of everything else I suddenly found that I was pregnant with my first child. Nonetheless I kept taking classes in spite of the reality that none of them felt right for me.

My mother’s battle with mental illness would recur again and again and I would need to focus my attention on her whenever she was especially sick. I decided to take a sabbatical from my university studies after my first child was born. I vowed to return to complete a degree of some kind but for the moment I had my hands full. Things became more complicated when a second daughter was born and my mom’s illness became a constant in our lives. My husband also developed a life threatening disease when we were in our mid twenties that required many months of hospitalization and chemotherapy. Any thoughts of college that I may have had were set aside as I buckled down to take care of my mom, my children and my husband. Somehow the years slipped by and any promise of graduating from college seemed remote so I found little jobs here and there teaching preschool or working as the Director of Religious Education at my church. I had turned thirty before I once again became determined to finish my studies.

I brought a great deal of wisdom and experience to my second foray into education. I found that I enjoyed my classes and gave extra effort to them out of joy for learning. I finally knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life and that certainty gave meaning and purpose to each of the courses that I took. Before long I had earned my degree in education and began teaching in earnest. I would spend the rest of my working days with children and teens. I found that I truly enjoyed my job and the real life experiences that I had encountered were as important in preparing me as my studies had been.

I earned a high level of satisfaction and success in my career. By the time I retired I had taught thousands of students in grades from preschool to middle school to high school to college. I had been an administrator and a mentor to teachers. I felt fulfilled and happy. Since my last full time job I have tutored students and taught children who are being homeschooled. I write every single day as well which was a secret dream that I had long held.

I like to tell my story to young people because I think that I am a living example of the adage that it is never too late to be the person one wants to be. I was thirty two when I earned by degree. I was in my forties when I received a masters degree. I have been learning and working hard for all of my life. I have been willing to think out of the box and try things that had never occurred to me to do. I have never given up on myself, and even when times were tough I believed that brighter days were most assuredly ahead.

Sometimes it takes a bit of sacrifice to get where we want to be in life. We may not get there in the normal ways. Our paths may be rugged and difficult to endure, but with determination we can and will overcome the obstacles that seem to stalk us. I was unable to control all of the situations that overtook my life but I could take one or two classes at a time each and every semester until I finally walked across the stage for my diploma.

I have genuinely had it all, and so can almost everyone. Where there is a will to accomplish something there is always a way. I never belonged to a sorority or lived on campus at a university, but I still made friends in my classes. I had to forgo vacations and all sorts of luxuries for years, but eventually I was doing well enough to treat myself. I had a grand purpose in caring for my family, and I’d like to think that I inspired my daughters to live their lives to the fullest. I’ve tried to help my students also understand that the problems that have daunted them are only temporary detours. If they just keep on keeping on they will emerge into the highway that leads them to their grandest dreams and a few surprises that are even better.

The Backbone of Society

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It’s that time of year when the sun bears down hotter than ever and we feel as though we are in the true grip of summer, which means it must be nearing the end of July and the time to purchase those school supplies. I still work with a handful of kids so I usually head for the stores about now to replace my Expo markers, pencils, spiral notebooks and such. The prices are just too good to ignore, and come January not only will everything cost more but it will be difficult to find.

Lots of big box stores are offering discounts to teachers which is a grand idea because every educator that I ever knew spent a good portion of the first paycheck of the school year readying the classroom. I kept mountains of lined paper, sharpened pencils, and pens in my cupboard for those students who came in without supplies. I never minded helping out even those who carelessly came to class without the things they needed. I had no patience with lecturing them about being responsible during the short time allotted to me for teaching them mathematical concepts. It was far easier to just wordlessly point them to the table where I always had some necessary items waiting for anyone in need. The remarkable thing is that the students often rewarded my generosity by repaying me with even more than they had initially taken, so I rarely ran out of my little offerings for them.

I wanted to have an inviting classroom so I was one of those teachers who joined the crowd at the teacher supply store that used to be a big draw in southeast Houston. It was like Christmas in July as my fellow educators filled the parking lot and jammed the aisles with carts filled with all of the items that might make the classroom environment more exciting for the kids. I got tired of the crank pencil sharpener breaking down at an inopportune moment, so I invested in a heavy duty electric one that cost almost a hundred dollars. It was quite an extravagance but it lasted until the day I retired at which time I passed it on to my nephew along with the mathematical manipulatives, and algebraic thinking books that I used for problem solving sessions.

I’d be at the school readying my classrooms days before the official return date. I learned over the years that administrators provide very little time for the actual process of putting a classroom in working order in the frantic week before the students arrive. Somehow principals always seem to think that the lovely environments created by the staff just miraculously pop up like mushrooms over night. Luckily I learned the tricks of the trade over time from real pros who had stayed the course and demonstrated their dedication to the ideals of teaching.

The teachers in Texas will receive a raise of some kind this year depending on how each school district decides to dole out the funds provided by the state legislature. It isn’t a great deal of money, but every little bit counts. No doubt much of it will be poured right back into the classrooms by educators eager to make a difference to their students. Altruism runs deeply in the hearts of most of the teachers I have known. Those who are less concerned about the welfare of their students usually burn out in a few years and head for more lucrative and less stressful careers.

Society spends a great deal of time discussing the pros and cons of the worth of teachers. What they rarely discuss is how exceedingly devoted the vast majority of them are. Theirs is a difficult job beyond measure. The rewards rarely come in the form of pay or bonuses. Instead they receive intangible feelings of great purpose, a sense of doing something special for thousands of individuals, many of whom rarely stop to realize how much teachers are responsible for the successes that they ultimately achieve.

I was listening to a discussion of how various occupations are valued. Most of the time the highest paying professions are the ones that return most monetary compensation to a company. Invariably such analyses point out that teachers do not generate income therefore they are more of a drain on resources. Such thinking contributes to the lower salaries that educators have historically made. In truth each teacher ultimately provides vast amounts of capital to the economy. It does not happen directly, but over time the students that educators have prepared will enter the workforce and contribute mightily to the coffers. Teachers are the foundation of the economic system, helping to mold future doctors, lawyers, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Bill Gates certainly has a level of natural genius, but along the way there were teachers who helped him to become the person that he is today. Educators are the silent force that keeps our world moving forward, and they do it without a great deal of fanfare or recompense.

I applaud any efforts to recognize our nation’s teachers. In reality we should be celebrating them even more than we presently do. They are the backbone of any nation, in many ways the most important people in society. You may soon see them in a Target or Walmart near you. They will be the ones filling their carts with extra supplies to make life better for your children. The least you might do is to thank them. 

It’s Never Too Late

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Back in 1988, he headed off to college. At some point on his way to earning a degree things got complicated and he quietly dropped out of school. He moved to Chicago, enrolled in the Police Academy and became a cop. The years passed by and in the interim he raised a family and made a nice life for himself, but he knew that something was missing. Not long ago he retired from the police force with a pension that gave him enough income to follow a dream that had never really left his mind. He applied for admission to college and when the acceptance letter came he proudly announced that he was going back to school to pursue a major in engineering, undaunted by the fact that he is only a year or so away from turning fifty.

I did not know this man very well, but when I heard his story I wanted to jump for joy. I admire his willingness to keep learning and to make sacrifices to enrich his life. All too often I hear adults bemoaning the trajectory of their lives and blaming all sorts of people and situations for their plight. Whenever anyone suggests steps that they might take to improve their lot in life they are filled with excuses of why it is simply not possible to make changes. They note that educational programs cost too much or take up too much of their time, and yet they prefer being miserable for the long run rather than making sacrifices for the moment.

Again and again I see examples of people who take charge of their lives and push themselves just a bit harder to make changes and reach goals that may at first glance appear to be unattainable. I recall a woman who got married and began having children right out of high school. She and her husband barely got by as they worked at a series of low paying and dead end jobs. In their late twenties it seemed as though they would always struggle just to make ends meet. Neither of them had high school transcripts worthy of even the mid range universities and they wondered how it would be possible to pay the tuition and fees even if some institution accepted them. Nonetheless they agreed one evening that they had to redirect their destinies and they applied to every sort of program imaginable. Their journey began in a local junior college where they took courses one or two at a time while working all day and managing a family.

Before long they had both earned associate degrees with honors. This one step allowed them to get better jobs, but they were not yet done. Eventually the woman became a registered nurse and the man earned a law degree. By the time they were nearing their forties they were able to purchase a nice home and treat themselves to vacations and luxuries like nice furniture. They had so inspired their children that the kids were excelling in high school and headed for some of the best universities in the country. To all the world they appeared to be a power couple. Few realized how far they had come.

I could go on and on about people who reclaimed their lives with a willingness to work hard to bring about the changes that would help them to escape the debilitating grind of the mistakes of their youth. Instead of wallowing in self recriminations or envy they did something positive to make changes. They went back to school and worked in the wee hours of the night and on weekends to master skills and write papers. At times they were exhausted and worried that they might never recoup all of the money that they spent for courses. It was a slow and demanding process, but they never surrendered to the little voices that tempted them to throw in the towel. In every case that I heard of they were victorious, standing out as exceptional students and the kind of employees that any organization dreams of having.

I tell people that no one need ever feel stuck in a rut. I think of the bookkeeper who earned a degree in accounting, became a CPA, and opened her own firm. I remember the man who was miserable in his job who attended night school to become certified to be a teacher. I applaud the friend who graduated at the top of her law class when she was almost fifty years old. I have witnessed brave souls who demonstrated with their determination that where there is a will there is a way to control destiny rather than being ruled by it. All it takes is a willingness to divert the energy wasted complaining and parlay it into tangible efforts to learn and grow.

There are countless opportunities for anyone of any age. It is never too late for any of us to become the person that we have always wished to be. If we wait for privileges to suddenly appear or lottery tickets to pay dividends we will be sorely disappointed. For most of us it will take time and money and effort and no excuses. 

I hope that the man who is embarking on earning a degree for a second career will find the success that he seeks. His is an admirable goal, and even before his journey is done he has inspired those of us who have heard of his courage. He reminds us that it is never too late.

The World Is A Choir

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I have lovely memories of my home life when I was a very young child and my father was still alive. The house is filled with the sounds of piano concertos from the records playing on our RCA Victrola. My father sits reading, a habit that was integral to his daily routine. My mother is busy with baking or sewing, her own hobbies that she delightedly enjoyed. I bask in the calm of the moment when my life seemed perfect, and I had no idea of the challenges yet to come. I suppose that ever since those idyllic moments I have had a penchant for reading, and I have secretly wished to be a pianist.

I have few regrets about the pathways that I have chosen in life save for one. I have always wanted to play the piano beautifully. I had a cousin named Lily who entertained and awed us with her skill on those ebony and ivory keys. I so longed to have her talent. Somehow I have always imagined that is must be incredibly rewarding and relaxing to be able to bring music into the world. I have romanticized the very act of playing a piano and wondered what it must be like to have such a remarkable ability.

I have learned over time that there is definitely a branch of my ancestry that possesses musical talent. In fact many of them gather each spring in New Mexico to learn more about our family’s history and to sing and play instruments. I suspect that this may be the source of cousin Lily’s abilities, but in my own case it is rather unlikely that I would ever have been capable of taming those keys the way she did. My fingers are quite short and even in my younger days I was unable to stretch them far enough apart to span the distances between keys. Somehow I inherited the hands of my maternal grandmother, short and stubby and strong but not particularly flexible. I appear to have been made for other talents unrelated to making actual music.

Thus it is with each of us. We have the power to orchestrate different kinds of music that is as lovely and necessary as that of a concert pianist. Some like my brother Mike are masters of mathematics with the capacity to chart and direct pathways to the stars. Others like my friend Tricia have an innate ability to understand and guide our human natures to health and happiness. Jose is an artist in the care of my lawn. Dr. Septimus understands how to keep my body working in tip top condition. Teachers like Father Shane led me to finding my own talents and then helped me to perfect them. In other words, we each have destinies that are important for the functioning of our world. Some appear to be more glorious than others, but all of them are necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Each of us contributes in important ways based on our interests and our potential.

I was helping a young girl with an essay and I was reminded of how unique and important we each are. She is in that confusing adolescent stage during which we humans question ourselves and wonder if we will ever find the purpose for our existence. It can be a frustrating time during which we more easily see the wonder of everyone else, but can’t seem to realize our own essence. So it was with this teen.

She spoke of a friend who has the gift of compassion and wisdom. She wondered why she can’t be more like her brother for whom learning appears to come so easily. She complained that she works twice as hard as he does, and still comes up short. She worries that perhaps she will never find her own talents because she suspects that they may not exist. She is not yet able to understand that her willingness to take risks, accept challenges and dedicate herself to overcoming difficulties are qualities that will take her farther than innate aptitude. She is unafraid to experience the world warts and all. This will make her strong and interesting and able to persevere when the going gets tough, which it most certainly will.

We underestimate ourselves and the people around us. Sometimes we are unable to see the remarkable value of that person who smiles and greets us as we enter a Walmart. We joke about such jobs as though they are unworthy, and forget to consider the impact that the simple act of greeting has in humanizing us in a busy world. We take people and their life’s work for granted, focusing only on those whose skills seem superior. We rarely stop to think of the importance of each contribution made by our fellow humans.

I’ve recently become a Eucharistic minister at my church. It has humbled me and made me ever more aware of the people around me. I stare into the faces of the communicants and I am moved. I see longing and goodness and earnestness in their eyes. I realize how precious they are, and how much we need them. 

I don’t have to be able to play the piano. I can simply appreciate the music of those who do. I have found my own muse, my distinct talents and those of each of the people that I encounter. We are all important, unique, and wonderful. The glory of our diversity is what makes our world a choir. 

The Quest

MichaelSome people seem to have a destiny. They know from an early age what they want to accomplish in life, and then pursue that dream as soon as they are able. My brother, Michael, is one of those people. When he was still a toddler he walked around the house carrying a book by Werner von Braun describing a futuristic journey to the moon. It was filled with illustrations depicting how the spacecraft might look complete with drawings of the accommodations inside. Micheal studied the book carefully even before he was able to read, and he told anyone who asked that he wanted to be a mathematician because he liked numbers.

Michael was true to his word, graduating from Rice University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and later earning a Masters degree in mathematics. His job search involved deciding what sounded the most exciting because he was recruited for a number of positions. It did not surprise any of us when he chose to work for a contractor with NASA. After all he had been fascinated by space from those early days and by the time he was ready for the workforce mankind had already found its way to the moon. Sensing that there was more to come he eagerly began what would be a long career associated with our nation’s exploration of space.

I don’t think I have known many people as eager to go to work each day as Michael always was. His job was fun, exciting. He never told us much about what he was doing other than to sometimes speak of the long hours that he devoted to his occupation quite willingly. It was only over time as we prodded him with questions that he told us about his work with the International Space Station. We learned that he had been part of a unique team that developed the computer program for the navigational system for this extraordinary feat. He was proud of his contribution, but quite humble in his description of the need for precision in all of the necessary mathematics, noting that a slight mistake had the potential of causing a spacecraft to overshoot the destination and wander forever in space.

Michael’s work with NASA also led him to a meeting with the woman who would become his wife, the love of his life. With a characteristic determination he decided to call her but soon found that she was not easy to find because her name was more common than he had realized. Not to be daunted, he dialed one number after another until he finally reached her. By then he was already hooked and determined to win her heart. The two of them worked at their NASA related jobs and raised three terrific children in Clear Lake City, the home of NASA and many of their dreams.

Michael spent the entirety of his career working toward the various goals of the space program. He was so well regarded that his superiors often urged him to stay a bit longer than he might have. Finally he decided that it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labors in retirement. so in December he left his full-time position with the promise to return one day a week to help in the transition from his expertise. His was a glorious career that brought him great satisfaction and an unparalleled sense of purpose.

Micheal plans to travel, spend time at his cabin in Colorado, and spend more moments searching the heavens with his telescope. He will be free to revel in reading and enjoying music and his grandsons. I suspect that he will continue to see mathematics as something fun to explore, and will no doubt keep abreast with any and all steps forward in the quest to learn about the vast universe in which we live. His curiosity knows no bounds and will not be subdued by a lack of formal work.

All of us are very proud of Michael and his achievements. His brilliance never fails to stun any of us. We all marvel at the intricacies of his mind, especially my grandson Ian who has seemingly followed in his uncles footsteps by showing tendencies toward genius early in life much as my brother did so long ago.

My mother was always unabashedly enchanted with Michael and his capabilities. She nurtured his talents and encouraged him to follow his dreams. She would be quite happy to note his accomplishments as would my father if he had lived long enough to see his son finding so much joy and success in his career. I suppose that nature and nurture joined together magnificently in creating the outstanding person that Michael became.

We will celebrate Michael’s birthday tomorrow as well as his retirement. There is something somewhat poetic about the fact that he was born on Three Kings Day, the Epiphany. Three wise men followed a star on a long ago day and found the meaning of life in the form of a child born in a stable. Like those men Michael too was a wise man whose quest lead him to a most satisfying life. He has seen and done wondrous things all while looking toward the stars.