Remembering A Wonderful Life

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The classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life considers the difference that one individual might make in the world. The premise is that if the hero had never lived everything in his town would have turned out differently. It demonstrated that while each of us only touch a limited number of lives, our impact is nonetheless profound.

I was thinking about this when the new RAISE immigration plan was announced. I wondered what might have happened if such a law had been in effect when my grandfather first wanted to come to the United States from Austria Hungary. He had only minimal education and no real skills beyond a willingness to do the most detestable of jobs. His English was minimal. He came with little more than the clothes on his back and did the kind of manual labor that is brutal and dirty. He was frugal and saved money until he was able to send for my grandmother. She had even less to offer our great country than he did. She spoke no English and her education was virtually nonexistent. Once she had arrived she worked as a cook, a cleaning lady and at a bakery until she began to have children and then she rarely left her home again. My grandfather eventually settled on a job at a meat packing plant. He cleaned carcasses and equipment, hardly a grand career but certainly a noble way to provide for his family. From his meager salary he built a tiny house for which he paid cash and there he raised eight children.

According to the point system of the RAISE plan Grandpa would hardly have been a candidate for immigration. There was little to indicate that he would be of great economic use to the United States. I am rather certain that he would have been denied entry to our nation. What a loss that would ultimately have been.

All four of my grandfather’s sons served proudly in the military during World War II. During their lifetimes they worked hard at their jobs, rarely missing even one day of work. Two of them were employed by the United States Postal Service and two worked for Houston Lighting and Power. His daughters held a variety of positions that included teaching, doing research for a high blood pressure study, serving the United States Postal Service and working at a Naval Station. Their children, my grandfather’s grandchildren, were even more remarkable. Among them were accountants, teachers, managers, businesspersons, firefighters, and engineers. In fact my brother coauthored the program for the navigational system of the International Space Station. I wonder who would have done that if my grandfather had never come here?

It’s difficult to imagine how different the lives of countless individuals might have been had my grandfather never been granted permission to immigrate to the United States simply because his education was lacking, his skills were so basic and his English was wanting. On the surface he most certainly may have appeared to be a risk, and yet he was a proud American who encouraged his children to always work hard and be their very best. When many citizens were struggling to survive during the Great Depression he kept his family safe in a home that he had build one section at a time, paying for each addition as he went. He was frugal and refused to even accept even charitable gifts, insisting that he wanted to earn whatever he had. He was exactly the kind of American that has made this country great, but with a law like RAISE he might never have stepped on our shores.

With each successive generation his successors have become ever more important contributors to American society. There are medical doctors and those with PhD’s in public health and mathematics. There are teachers, accountants, nurses, electricians, business people, builders, athletes, ministers and scientists. The talent pool that has come from him has widened and the future of his great great grandchildren appears to be even brighter. His was the American dream and it was fulfilled beyond even his own expectations. Certainly it has made a difference to the country in a measurable way, but what if he had never been allowed to come?

My grandfather’s story is not that unusual. It has been repeated many times over in the history of our nation. Individuals who came with little or nothing to recommend them went on to build families whose impact was monumental. If we were to take away all of their contributions how different would our land be? How can we ever know who among us will be the teacher that we need, the inventor who will make our lives better, the leader who will find solutions to our biggest problems? Each of us traces our ancestry back to some distant place and in most cases the person who first ventured here was desperate to find a better way of life, but did not appear to be outstanding on the face of things. How can we use a point system to determine which people will ultimately have the best impact on our land?

I have taught thousands of immigrant children. Many of their parents spoke no English, but they were good people who did their share of work, often the dirtiest and least desirable. Like my grandfather they wanted a better life for their children and sacrificed greatly to make it happen, many times by working multiple jobs. Among my students from such families are college professors, medical doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, police officers, soldiers, fire fighters, mechanics, builders, accountants, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, public health administrators, computer programmers, public administrators, school principals, counselors, lawyers and even politicians. In a single generation they have fulfilled the hopes of their parents and are actively contributing to society in thousands of ways. They are the true face of immigration, not the hopeless gang members and welfare takers that fear mongers sometimes portray them to be. 

I respectfully submit that we should carefully consider what we might be missing if we restrict immigration to our country as outlined in the RAISE bill. Skimming what appears to be the cream of the crop from various foreign nations may or may not be the answer to a better economy. Sometimes the desire that comes from someone desperate to improve his/her condition cannot be measured by a rubric, just as the worth of my grandfather might have been considered rather low. What made him a good candidate for consideration was the “ganas” burning inside his belly. All he needed was an opportunity to demonstrate just how valuable he truly was. Thankfully he was given that gift and what a difference it has made to the United States.

We certainly want the best for our nation but we need to consider the consequences of limiting ourselves to rubrics that fail to recognize the intangible values that make truly good citizens like my grandfather and his descendants. The issue is far too complex to delineate with numbers. Human beings will surprise us again and again. We need to be open to thinking outside of the box, because it is beyond the confines of our imaginations that the best things happen. Let’s keep our lives wonderful and welcome the tired and the beleaguered. From them may come just the people that we have been waiting for.

Embracing Life

Come-to-Your-Senses-940x627When my daughter was in the first grade her teacher noticed that she appeared to be reading lips rather than listening with her ears. After a visit to the nurse it became clear that my little girl had lost over forty percent of her hearing. We took her to see a specialist who eventually performed surgery on her ears. As we were leaving the hospital she quite suddenly gasped and asked us what all of the noise was. Her eyes were as big as saucers as she heard normally for the very first time. For her it was a grand experience that she rewarded with a great big smile.

All too often we take so much in our world for granted that we miss some of the most remarkable pleasures. We rush from here to there with our heads full of thoughts about what we need to accomplish. We don’t even notice the hue of the sky or the singing of the birds. We fail to see the tiny gecko skittering across the yard or pay attention to the laughter of children in someone’s backyard. Our eyes don’t even see the beautiful white texture of the milk that we pour on our cereal. We don’t smell the aroma of the coffee as it brews. We are far too busy to stop long enough to allow our brains to appreciate the wonderfully simple miracles that are happening all around us, that is until something forces us to consider the most basic aspects of our lives. Then it is as though we have received a new pair of spectacles or a special hearing aide that allows us to fully experience the world as never before.

Those moments when we pause long enough to appreciate what we have refresh and renew us. They remind us that in most cases our blessings far outweigh our difficulties. We realize that the vast majority of the people we encounter are smiling and friendly. We feel the love and affection that comes our way and see that we are never really alone. We begin to fully understand the importance of the many tasks that people are performing to help us, sometimes so quietly that we hardly notice that they are there. In taking nothing for granted we are filled to the brim with optimism and gratefulness.

I pass the medical center of Houston all of the time without actually thinking about the people inside all of those hospitals. At any given moment there are so many people in distress who are being assisted by kind, caring and well trained medical personnel who are there ready to hep even on a big holiday. They do their work day in and day out with little fanfare simply because it is what they do.

I hear the sirens of passing fire trucks and ambulances rushing along the streets of my neighborhood and quickly return to whatever I was doing without considering how those noises signal that help is on the way. The men and women who rise from their sleep in the middle of the night are good Samaritans in every sense of the word. Their work is critical to us and yet we don’t even think of them until they are coming to our own personal aide.

We complain about our teachers and joke that they may not be the brightest bulbs in the pack even as we have to acknowledge that our entire workforce is built upon the foundation of the knowledge that they provide. Somehow in spite of our constant criticism they carry on with their duties, faithfully striving to help our young to learn. Neither salary nor respect matter as much to them as enriching a child’s mind.

Who ever considers the enormous contributions of engineers who anonymously advance our world? We use their inventions and products with little thought of the effort, inspiration and intelligence needed to build them. We travel down roads and cross bridges as though they somehow just miraculously appeared.

Our garbage disappears because of people who toil in the heat and the cold. Our homes are comfortable because workers built them to be solid and safe. We enjoy an abundance of food because of farmers working in fields hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Every single aspect of our lives is affected by the hard work of countless individuals who use their skills and hard work not just to earn a living but to make the world a better place. Even that ketchup bottle filled with a homespun kind of sauce is a miracle of sorts that we should never think of as just being ordinary.

We should all be like my child who rejoiced in the simple gift of hearing. The world is filled with the voices of those who would make us better. It is a repository for the music of nature and of composers who use instruments to bring us so much pleasure. It is but one of the incredible senses that we should never fail to enjoy. Even the feel of the clothing on our backs should fill us with joy and thankfulness.

Perhaps I have been reminded of late that it is a most unfortunate attitude to ignore the wonder of the people and things that are right under our noses. While a trip to an extraordinary place is a special adventure, our own backyards are also filled with treasures that we need to embrace. Rejoice that the sun rises and sets. Feel the rain as it falls. Enjoy life in every moment. The pleasure and happiness that you seek is already right in front of you. Embrace it with gusto.

Time Flies

Time-Flying-By-For-Sunny-And-Her-Sweetheart-3-kraucik83-21592704-380-270Time flies when you’re having fun! I celebrated my fiftieth high school class reunion last October. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles groundbreaking masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. I’ve been attending countless seventieth birthday parties for friends. We are nearing the time when it will have been half a century since we traveled to the moon. News clips from my teenage years look like ancient history, and I find myself explaining what life was like back then to my grandchildren as though I am speaking of the Middle Ages.

Of course all of it seems like yesterday to me. I can’t imagine where the time went or how my contemporaries became so gray. I remember my biology teacher telling me that one day I might begin to shrink as my bones aged. I found his conversation to be bizarre at the time but now I measure my height and find that I have lost two and a half inches to the effects of osteoporosis. The arthritis in my knees has caused my legs to bow. My hair is thinner than it once was. My face is beginning to wrinkle. Time has visibly changed me and my long time friends, just as it has done to people for centuries. Our aging is as inevitable as the rising of the sun.

I do my best to stay in concert with the times. I had a great role model for that in my grandfather who read voraciously and interacted with the young people from his church often enough to keep his fingers on the pulse of the world. I myself attempt to be informed by staying involved with friends of all ages. I like to travel and observe. Much as my grandfather did, I read constantly. I talk with my grandchildren to learn about the current state of things.

Still I have a very difficult time accepting that I have traveled through so many decades. In my mind everything happened to me only yesterday. I suppose that I view myself as a fresh faced twenty year old rather than someone nearing her sixty ninth birthday. I literally forget that I am old in the eyes of most individuals until I experience the deference that people so respectfully give to senior citizens. I realize that nobody needs to check my driver’s license anymore to determine if I am of age. I often shock myself when I glance in a mirror. It takes me a second to recognize the older woman whose image is reflected in the glass. My brain and my body seem almost to be at odds.

What is the most remarkable to me is how quickly I have rushed through the many phases and milestones of living. I have been so busy that I hardly took time to notice the clock or the calendar. I’m still mentally sitting in a rocking chair holding my babies and singing to them, but the reality is that both of my girls are middle aged women with children of their own who are rapidly nearing adulthood.

I remember my first day of teaching as though it happened only minutes ago. I can see my students sitting expectantly in front of me not knowing that my heart was beating with fears that I would not be able to provide them with the guidance that they needed. One group after another came to me and I poured out my knowledge and my love in the hopes that I might somehow make a difference in their lives. All the while the clock was ticking and I never took note until one day I was walking away from a career that I so loved and handing over my responsibilities to a younger generation.

Wasn’t it just last night when I married the man who has been my best friend for decades? When did we come to think in tandem, so much so that we complete sentences for one another and read each other’s minds? How is it that he still makes me catch my breath now and again when I see him and realize that he has loved me faithfully for so many years? I can’t believe that I have lived with him longer than I did with my parents.

The world keeps turning through its twenty four hour cycles, its three hundred sixty five day years. We work and play, celebrate and grieve. We are but a small part of a history that moves relentlessly forward. What seemed like forever when I was a child now feels too quick. I want to squeeze every single drop out of time and all too often I feel rushed in my efforts. There is so much more that I want to see and do and experience. I worry that I won’t get to everything on my bucket list. I tell myself to slow down and linger longer over the moments that I have.

I more and more find myself enjoying the slower quieter times. Spending a few hours with my father-in-law seems like a gift. Sitting in my garden watching the birds is more exciting than attending a concert. Perhaps this is a sign of age, or maybe it simply means that I have learned to value simplicity and the true essence of living.

I think of walks that I took with my grandmother in the hills behind her farm. We did little more than stroll under the shade of ancient trees listening for the songs of the birds and breathing in the fragrances of the grasses and wildflowers. We were quiet and deliberate in our personal journey as though ours was some sacred quest not to be rushed or intruded upon. My grandmother was in her eighties by then. She had developed a wisdom that I did not yet completely understand or appreciate. It would be years before I would look back on the simple conversations that we shared and understand their importance.

Each day, each minute is precious. We take time for granted when instead we should treasure it. It won’t be long till we are wistfully looking back and wondering where it all went. If we have used our hours well we will also be able to point with pride to the purposes that we have fulfilled.

  

Shining the Light

The Big IdeaDuring Teacher Appreciation Week one of my educator friends posted a rant that had gone viral. The gist of the piece was that throwing crumbs of thanks at teachers once a year is insulting. The author went on to detail the abuse and lack of respect that teachers endure and to complain that nobody ever does anything to improve the situation. I suspect the op ed became as popular as it did because there was indeed a grain of truth in what the writer had to say.

Teaching is one of the most important and toughest jobs on the planet as anyone who has ever tried it knows. I would still be heavily involved with it were it not for its grueling nature. Quite frankly I no longer have the energy for the unrelentingly long days. When I was still working I was up at five thirty in the morning and often did not return until nine or ten in the dark of night. Even when I managed to arrive home at a relatively decent hour of five or six in the evening I spent most of my nights grading papers, tutoring students over the phone, conferring with parents and planning future lessons. I was lucky to finish by the time I needed to go to bed. Of course there were multiple school events on weekends and at night, not to mention the hundreds of hours needed to prepare for state and advanced placement testing.

Don’t get me wrong. I understood the nature of my profession and performed my duties with joy, but I was chronically tired. I especially enjoyed comments from those who didn’t know better that I was lucky to have a job that provided me with so much free time. I learned to just ignore such lack of understanding. I knew that nobody would believe me if I told them the truth about how hard my fellow teachers and I worked, but my family saw what I was doing. To this day I feel a bit guilty because I really did put my students before them time and again. They were troopers as the relatives of teachers generally are.

Teaching is truly a vocation. Few people would agree to spend a lifetime making far less than their peers in other occupations if they did not totally and completely love the experience. It punishes the body and the vast majority of teachers eventually require knee surgeries and suffer from bladder diseases all because of the daily abuse that comes from few opportunities to take care of their needs. The only time during a regular day that a teacher gets to relax is the thirty minute lunch that is really only about twenty minutes by the time getting there and rushing back to the classroom are factored in. Eating is a speed sport for educators.

Teachers are accustomed to hearing derogatory remarks about their profession. It’s especially disheartening because they put so much of their souls into every single day. Their students become their children, members of their extended family. They worry about them as much as they do their own. They let their kids burrow into their hearts and the sense of responsibility that they feel is as strong as that of a doctor with a patient. They have learned to ignore the barbs, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t hurt.

American society is somewhat unique in giving teachers so little prestige. In other cultures teachers are elevated in status. They bear noble titles and receive compensation equal to the amount of education, time and effort that teachers give to their work. I have had moments with my Vietnamese students in which their family members and friends actually bowed to honor me. Here we mostly get cracks about how bad our schools are and how only those who can’t do anything else become teachers. When announcing my profession to strangers I see the knowing looks that tell me that they consider my life’s work to have been very unimpressive.

I’ve been in my grandchildren’s schools quite a bit in the last few weeks. It is apparent that some of the teachers practically live there. When I am leaving at ten I know that they probably won’t get away until eleven. I see photos of some of my old colleagues who are still working at competitions that take entire weekends. Somehow few seem to notice how much teachers continually give of themselves.

When we retire it is not much better. Teachers in the state of Texas for example have not had a cost of living increase in their monthly pensions for over twelve years. Now the legislature is doing nothing to save the healthcare insurance for educators and they may face increases in premiums of fifty percent this fall. None of this had to happen but for the fact that teachers and their needs are mostly ignored. To add insult to the situation, those who like me paid enough into Social Security to receive monthly payments have an offset that takes most of what is due. Furthermore surviving spouses who receive pensions are not eligible to get spousal social security. It is a wonder that anyone wants to take on the job of educating our children.

So are teachers masochists? Why would they want to do this? Is it true that they are not able to do other things?

The answer is quite simple. The teachers who stay for the long haul are altruistic in every sense of the word. They care less about compensation and honors and more about making a difference. In their hearts they know that what they do day in and day out is important. While they appreciate acknowledgement, they do not require it. They do what they do because they value the idea of impacting the future by educating a generation. Even on the toughest day they feel good about what they are doing. There is a purpose to their work that not everyone has. The rewards come from those moments when they realize that their students have been elevated to new levels of understanding, or when they sense that they have somehow positively impacted lives.

I always said that when I retired I was going to work to bring more honor and respect to a career in teaching. I suppose that I haven’t really done very well but I plan to keep trying. I dream of a day when no teacher has to worry about making a living decent enough to provide for a good life both while working and in retirement. I would love for those one week teacher appreciation perks to become routine. There should be teacher discounts everywhere and they should be substantial. I will strive to encourage anyone who has ever been impacted by a teacher to make their gratitude known. Believe me, I am quite touched by those Vietnamese people who bow in my presence and I suspect that others would be as well.

I don’t think that those of us who are teachers need to complain because we all know that we love what we do and that is a gift that many people never enjoy. Still it would be well for our society to finally give educators their due in salaries, pensions and perks. It is a noble profession and its time that we all insist that it be elevated to the status it deserves.

Show Up

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Show up on time ready to work.

It’s graduation season. In the coming weeks kindergartners will be ready to move into the big time of elementary school. Eighth graders are excited about the prospect of going to high school. Seniors anticipate college life. Graduates of universities are hoping to join the work force. Emotions are running high as each of these milestones are met and transitions take place. It is the way we do things here in the United States of America and our national health is riding on how well our youngsters ultimately perform.

A hundred years ago few women made it past the eighth grade. My own grandmothers were both illiterate, unable to read or even write their own names. I’m not certain how far they went in school but it could not have been more than a few grades, if that much. My grandfathers attended school a bit longer, enabling them to become prolific readers who treasured books as something akin to gold. Still their educations were scant enough to keep them doing labor intensive jobs for all of their lives. Nonetheless, both men understood the concept of showing up on time ready to work and were valued for their attention to even the smallest details of their jobs.

Today more and more of our population gets to high school, but there are still too many who do not make it all the way through. There are now a higher number of women graduating from college than men, but they often still lag in terms of pay and position. Ours is not a perfect system but it is considerably better than the realities of the world in which my my grandparents lived. There has been progress but we continue to have plenty of room for improvement.

Some of what needs to happen to move closer and closer to a more perfect world lies not so much with government programs but within each individual. We still have far too many people who do not take advantage of the opportunities that exist. Every teacher knows of students who approach schooling as though it is a bitter pill rather than a grand experience that will open the doors of the world to them. They too often do not show up at all or they are late when they come, arriving unprepared to put in a full days work. They either have not learned or choose to ignore the most basic key to success which is encapsulated in the statement, “Show up on time ready to work.”

There is a man who has taken care of my yard for twelve years now. I know that he is as dependable as the rising sun. He has never failed to arrive with his crew weekend after weekend to turn my lawn into a landscaped showpiece. He does superb work each time that he comes, demonstrating great pride in a job well done. I am confident that he will not let me down. The money I pay him is well spent and I often find myself applauding his can do spirit. If every person along the continuum of life were to put as much effort into the tasks that they need to perform as he does, our society would be productive beyond imagination.

School is hard. Work is hard. Even the most joyful aspects of life have their mundane and stressful moments. Those who are successful at the things that they do have usually expended a great deal of effort. They are focused on the tasks at hand and have the patience to take one step at a time in pursuit of a goal. Sometimes there is an element of luck involved in achievement, but mostly it is individual sweat and determination that results in the fulfillment of dreams. The process of doing well begins by showing up on time. It builds momentum by being ready to work.

I saw a post from a former student a few days ago. He stood smiling in front of his place of employment looking quite professional. He said that he has “a dollar and a dream.” What I know of him is that he has built his budding career on a foundation of thousands of hours of studying and learning and working to do whatever is needed to create a niche for himself. I have little doubt that he will be a resounding success because he understands the power of determination and effort.

When I was still in the classroom I often had students who were known as high achievers. Some teachers would sniff that such kids did not really possess innate intellectual abilities but rather a willingness to work harder than their peers. They noted this as though there was something wrong with having such a personality. I on the other hand always defended such pupils, noting that in the long run it would be those willing to put forth the effort who would be most valued in society. Most of my students known as the worker bees have gone on to outstanding careers in medicine, engineering, law, business and education. They developed the habits of highly successful individuals early in life and they took those skills to work.

At the same time I also had a number of students who were capable of doing extremely well who gave up anytime they had even the smallest challenge. They complained that they did not like math or reading or whatever. They whined that school was just too hard. They played around rather than focusing and their grades became a dismal record of their unwillingness to even try. Such individuals always filled me with sadness, and my only hope was that one day they would realize that it was time to grow up. Luckily many of them did, but it has been more difficult for them than it had to be.

Those of us who have children or work with them have a responsibility to do our best to inculcate them with the attitudes and values that will serve them well in the everyday struggles of living. The sooner we teach them the importance of the simple act of showing up on time ready to work, the more likely will be their ultimate success. It may appear to be just a platitude but it is far deeper than just a one size fits all way of living. There will be times when the going gets very tough, but the persons with the willingness to work hard, be nice and take no shortcuts will be far ahead in the race. There is nothing worth striving for that does not take a great deal of sweat equity, so when giving advice to those young people who are moving to the next phase of their lives don’t forget to provide them with the one piece of advice that has never failed to produce results. Every day in every way they need to show up on time ready to work.