Being Leonard

10246301_10205604543090004_3263112611847433681_nIt’s graduation time, and when it rolls around each year I can’t help thinking of my own commencements from junior high, high school and college. So much hard work, angst and happy memories lay behind those glorious moments, and so much hard work, angst and happy memories lay ahead. Graduation day itself was somewhat like a wedding, a blur of people and speeches and congratulations that went by so fast. It somehow didn’t seem right for the culmination of so much effort to come and go so quickly, but that’s the way good times always seem to be. What strikes me most as I think back to those glorious moments of achievement is that each time I was surrounded by a core of my friends and family who took the time out of their busy lives to celebrate with me. While so many variables have challenged me in my life, such people have been a constant source of stability and love.

Graduations always make me think of my cousin Leonard. He’s the elder statesmen of our raucous bunch of cousins who is almost as close in age to our parents as he is to those of us who played Hide and Find each Friday night at our grandmother’s house. He was married and raising children while I was still happily engaged in the loveliness that was my childhood. When we saw him, he was far more interested in conversing with my mother and father than getting on the floor to entertain me. I always looked up to him not just because he was the first of our long line of cousins, but because he always appeared to be so happy and wise and confident.

Anyway, Leonard became known as the one person who never missed a single graduation. No matter what the timing was, or how bad the weather had become, Leonard would represent the whole family with his presence at one commencement after another. It almost became a game for us to scan the crowd at such events to find our own “Waldo” in the crowd. We always knew that we could count on seeing him just so long as we had sent him an invitation. While we joked about his perennial presence, I suppose that we never really took the time to think of how remarkable his devotion to family actually has been over the years. Little wonder that his own brood that has grown to gargantuan proportions is such a loving and tight knit group. With a kind of superhuman energy Leonard has managed to quietly take the helm and demonstrate to us the importance of finding time to honor members of the family as they pass through the milestones of life.

We Americans are a chronically busy and productive bunch. It doesn’t seem to be in our DNA to slow down even after we retire. There is nothing quite as shocking to us as someone who chooses to chill for a bit too long. We join organizations and volunteer and fill the nooks and crannies of our calendars so tightly that when we receive heartfelt invitations we quite often have to beg off, send our regrets. We’d love to be with family, but there is just so much to do that forces us to decline. Such has never been so with Leonard, a man who worked hard at his career, raised four delightful children, helped at his church and within his community, and still found ways to pause just enough to demonstrate his love for his us time and again. He has been as dependable as they come.

I suppose that if I were to give one single bit of advice to graduates it would be to follow Leonard’s example. As I look back on my life a sea of faces and experiences fill my head. Jobs and honors have come and gone. People entered my life and exited never to be heard from again. Many of the things that I labored to purchase have broken or gone out of style. The one aspect of my life that has continued to sustain and support me has been family and a circle of special friends who have stayed by my side. I have learned that when someone is as continually faithful as Leonard has been, it is due to great sacrifice and genuine concern. It is not easy to be as responsible and dependable as he is, but somehow he has made it his mission to be so. He is a rare gift in a day and age when behavior such as his is becoming less and less common. He has not allowed the rat race to become the focus of his pursuits. He has found balance and purpose in a life well lived.

There are so many stories of people on their deathbeds voicing regrets, being alone, realizing that they in their quests for riches, power, glory they forgot to remember the people who might have loved and remembered them most. When we hear such tales we marvel that someone who seemed to have it all actually had so little, and yet we also have tendencies to expend all of our energies chasing people and things that may ultimately leave us lonely and forgotten. Leonard on the other hand is a man who is beloved because little that he does is only about himself.

I attempt to emulate Leonard. He has demonstrated to me the importance of showing up again and again. He may not be able stay long but he always manages to demonstrate that he cares enough to be part of our most important milestones. That is all that we need to see. He has been our immutable constant in a world that seems ever less dependable, but he is growing older and time is taking its toll on his health. He won’t be able to carry the family banner forever, so its up to the younger generation to accept and honor his lead. He has shown us how its done. It would be a terrible shame to forget the importance of his efforts. It’s time for all of us to be more like Leonard.

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Grace

Nancy

I have always loved the name Nancy. I called one of my favorite dolls Nancy, and when I grew older I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that I was able to find. One of my all time favorite friends is named Nancy as well, so it was only natural that I would instantly like Nancy Marquina when she was a student in my Algebra I class. Her easy going nature and ever present generosity became immediately apparent, and so I truly enjoyed being in her presence.

Like me, Nancy was new to the world of KIPP charter schools, but she had adjusted to the academic rigors and steadfast rules rather easily. I would learn that her flexible attitude is one of her greatest strengths, but she is also a very determined sort. Each afternoon she attended my tutorials even though I sometimes suspected that she had already mastered the concepts. I think that she enjoyed the review time, but mostly she came to encourage friends who struggled a bit more with mathematics than she did. She became a kind of assistant to me, helping other students who were struggling to learn different ideas.

My favorite moment with Nancy came one afternoon when I was doing my best to once again explain the Distributive Property. I had tried arrows and pictures and all sorts of examples and there were still students who were confused by the concept. Nancy very politely suggested that I use a chant that she had learned from one of her former teachers. She drew a little bunny next to the problem that we were solving and then said, “Hippity hoppity, Distributive Property” as she sketched little footprint tracks as though the rabbit had come to the rescue. She patiently explained that the little creature needed to multiply both of the numbers inside the parentheses, not just one.

I was about to thank her and note that this was a high school class and using bunnies probably would not be appropriate when I saw the smiles of understanding on the faces of the students who had seemed hopelessly lost only minutes earlier. A few examples later proved that they had indeed finally caught on to the process. Since that time I’ve shared Nancy’s cute little idea with many students, and each time they respond positively and with utter delight. I always tell them that it was not my notion, but one from a favorite student. 

I have been fortunate enough to stay in touch with Nancy Marquina as she progressed through high school and later entered college. What I know is that she is someone who is humble and loyal and kind, bringing joy into the lives of the people that she meets with no expectations of having her kindnesses returned. It seems so appropriate that the name Nancy means grace because that is what she brings to people, and with her natural beauty both inside and out she is the very image of grace.

Shortly after I retired form education my nephew asked me to help tutor some of his students in preparation for a high stakes mathematics test. I readily agreed because I still enjoy being able to unlock the understanding of the world of numbers in those who see them as a mystery. I soon learned that so many students had signed up for the Saturday morning sessions that there was a need for one more person to work with them. I made an appeal to some of my former students who had been especially good in math, and Nancy responded almost immediately. She was eager to do her part and I knew from my own experiences with her that she would be great.

Not surprisingly the students fell in love with Nancy. She arrived each Saturday with a big smile and tons of encouragement for her charges. She often stopped to purchase donuts for her crew which only sweetened her relationship with the kids. Mostly she used her caring and empathetic nature to instill the kind of confidence in them that had been missing before she came into their lives. That’s just how Nancy is, someone who is always thinking of others more than herself, quietly making a difference without asking for credit for her good deeds.

Nancy eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston. She took more and more difficult engineering and mathematics classes with a sense of purpose that drove her to be unafraid of the challenges that lay ahead. Over time she felt that something was missing in her major, so she did some research and spoke with some experts to see if there was another line of study that might better suit her interests. That’s when she found the world of Geophysics and it took little time for her to be hooked.

There was nothing easy about majoring in Geophysics, but Nancy has rarely avoided difficult situations. She dove into the task, taking science, mathematics and engineering courses one after another. With a kind of grit that motivates the most adventurous among us, Nancy moved closer and closer to achieving goals that she had quietly set for herself long ago. Today she will graduate from the University of Houston with a major in Geophysics and a minor in Mathematics.

I am so happy and proud for Nancy Marquina. I always knew that she is a remarkable woman. I have admired her spunk and her concern for others for many years. I have little doubt that she will enjoy many more successes in her life. She is one of those people who perseveres when others have quit. She is an unafraid warrior who pushes herself and helps others along the way. She has reinforced my belief that Nancy is a name for very special people. She is grace incarnate.

Satisfaction

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Last year my high school Class of 1966 had its fiftieth reunion. It was fun seeing people who had dropped out of my life for so long. Since then I’ve tried to stay in touch with many of them via Facebook and the occasional lunches and such that our class leaders schedule. I’ve attended a few funerals as well where I have encountered the most faithful among us. Mostly those sad occasions have been for the parents of my school pals, but now and again we gather for one of our own. I have written blogs about many of those people in an effort to honor their memories and to thank them for the impact they had on my life. It’s particularly sad to see peers losing battles with disease. It is a reminder that all of us are headed in one direction, so we need to be certain that we are getting the most out of life while we have the opportunity.

Last week we received notification that yet another among us is now gone. Harry Butler did not attend our reunion which was rather in keeping with his general personality, but I often thought of him even though I never saw him again after our graduation day. Harry was in the same honors class in which I was. Since the school chose to send us from class to class as a group we were rather constant companions for four years, but I still didn’t know him as well as some of the others. Nonetheless I was fascinated with Harry because he was one of those individuals who insisted on marching to his own drumbeat. There was always something quite interesting about him. I always believed that he would have an exciting life.

It did not take long for all of us to realize that Harry was a gifted writer with an imagination and wit that was intriguing. As someone who longed to be a journalist or a story teller I watched Harry with great interest because I believed that I would learn much from him. It became sadly apparent to me that I would never be able to equal his talent. He had a way with words that set him apart from those of us who labored away at composing. He was an artist who painted stunning pictures with his sentences and paragraphs. He was able to make us all howl with uncontrollable laughter with his essays and newspaper articles. When he created much of the script for our annual Junior/Senior banquet one year the whole class saw how remarkable he truly was.

Harry went to St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas after graduation form high school and majored in English. I lost track of him except through friends who would encounter him from time to time. I learned that he eventually went to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting. I heard rumors that he had actually done well out there and I often found myself scanning film and television credits to see if his name popped up. I really did expect to see him at an awards ceremony one day because I felt that he was that good at his craft. Of course I never saw such a thing but I never really forgot about him. When I traveled to that part of the country I found myself wondering where he lived and how he was doing. I tried to imagine whether or not he had worked with famous people and what scripts he may have created.

I learned from his obituary that he had been sick since January of this year. He had developed an infection of unknown origin that caused an embolism in his brain. This is how he died and it made me so very sad because he possessed a truly remarkable brain. I hoped and prayed that his final days and weeks had not been too painful and that he had been able to read the books that he always enjoyed and listen to the music that enchanted him.

Harry’s father had been a record distributor when we were in high school. Because of that Harry always seemed to have advance knowledge of what new music would be coming our way. He enjoyed regaling us with his insider information and I delighted in being privy to it.. Harry was a character in every sense of the word and his musical insights only added to an air of mystery that always seemed to surround him.

Harry was an exceptional debater, another talent of which I was a tiny bit jealous because Lord knows that I tried so very hard to master that skill. No matter how hard I worked at it I was unable to come close to being as exceptional as he was. Harry was quite simply one of those people who thought on his feet and was able to come up with just the right retorts at just the right moments. He and his debate partner and friend had quite a run as superstars. I often thought that he might become a lawyer but I suspect that such a career was just a bit too tame for him. Harry was out of the ordinary and we all seemed to sense that.

I learned that Harry spent his work life in Los Angeles but returned to Texas after he retired. He chose to settle in Galveston where he loved reading and listening to music. He brought a former ballerina with them and the two of them enjoyed a quiet life near the sea. Even in his final days Harry managed to seem a bit exotic and to have done things on his own terms.

It’s amazing how we never quite forget the people with whom we spend our teenage years. I regret that I never really got to know Harry just a bit better or to tell him how much I admired him. I suspect that I was too much in awe of his remarkable talent in areas in which I so wanted to succeed in my own right. It was as though I saw myself as little more than a hack whenever I compared my abilities with his. Eventually I found the confidence that I had lacked back then and realized that Harry and I had very different styles. I became content to have watched him from afar and to know that maybe just maybe he had found some magic out in Hollywood. At least I certainly hope that is true. I’d like to believe that he lived the kind of life of which he had dreamed so long ago.

Harry’s death signals the passing of another extraordinary member of our class. I feel confident that he is now resting in peace with the angels and cracking them up with his razor sharp sense of humor just as he shared his gift with us so long ago. I remember a time when he proclaimed that the Rolling Stones were the best rock group ever. I argued with him at the time and lost of course, but I always thought of him over the years as that group became my favorite as well. Upon hearing of his death I heard the strains of Satisfaction in my brain and thought of his grin and sarcastic humor that always made us laugh. Thank you, Harry, for some really good times.

Whoop!

18195028_10212752944999176_1547173858954972621_nI was working at South Houston Intermediate when a messenger came to me with news that my eldest daughter had gone to the hospital to deliver her second child. Luckily I worked for an understanding principal whose instant reaction when I asked if I might leave was to tell me to go immediately. I contacted my husband who worked nearby, and the two of us met up at home where we hurriedly packed a few items and then rushed off toward Beaumont where my girl was living at the time. We raced as fast as the speed limit would allow and completed our ninety mile journey in record time, literally running into the hospital to find out where the birth was taking place. Unfortunately there were two hospitals in Beaumont and we had gone to the wrong place. We retraced our steps to the car and set off once again in search of the correct location. We found our way to the right spot and literally ran to the labor room only to encounter our son-in-law exiting our daughter’s room with a big smile and the announcement that Jack Michael Greene had been born minutes before. We were allowed to peek inside and see our elated daughter and her newborn son who appeared to be strong and husky. Thus began a journey of eighteen years with a most extraordinary young man.

Jack Michael Greene was named for my father, Jack, and my husband, Michael. It was a noble name representing the two men who have meant the most to me in my lifetime. It suited the youngster quite well for as he grew it became apparent that he possessed an exceedingly loving and gentle personality along with a multitude of talents much like his namesakes. He was so sweet that he rarely even cried and he brushed off injuries and slights with smiles. His easygoing ways helped his mother to cope with an ever expanding family. He was always that kind of child who just rolled with the punches and adapted to change without fanfare.

He was a wiggly and active little boy who always seemed ready to take on life with his trademark grin. He tumbled and danced his way into our hearts, embracing the world and all that it had to offer. There seemed to be nothing that he was not willing to try and so he ran on the soccer field and then became a tough defensive player in football. He dove into swimming and eventually taught his younger brothers how to do the various strokes. He took knocks and bruises and disappointments in stride, always viewing challenges as a necessary aspect of living.

There was a serious side to Jack that people didn’t always see. He was a deep thinker who quietly surveyed the world and asked questions about things that bothered him. He loved to hear the silly stories that I invented and when I slightly changed them in any way he reminded me of the correct way of telling them. He wanted to be brave and courageous so he forced himself again and again to do things that were difficult and frightening. He was bold in a quiet and unassuming way.

Jack has always been so much fun that people sometimes ignore his intellectual side. He was taking Algebra I in the seventh grade and he walked from his middle school to the neighboring high school in the eighth grade to take Geometry with high school students. He excels in subjects like Physics and finds coding software programs to be as much fun as playing a game.

When Jack was in about the fourth grade he asked his mother to sign him up for an acting classes. He was a natural and landed a role in the musical Annie Get Your Gun. It seemed to have been just one more thing that he wanted to do, but he had been bitten by the bug. When he reached high school he enrolled in theater as a freshman and continued with the troupe for all four years. He starred in musicals and dramas and found friendships along with his voice.

A few years back Jack accompanied me and Mike on a vacation trip to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park. We had an enchanting time and Jack threw himself into enjoying himself with the same level of enthusiasm that has always been his trademark. We had the opportunity to engage in some exceedingly thought provoking conversations and to experience moments that will be special to all of us forever. I realized at that time that Jack has layers and layers of intelligence and sensitivity. He is truly a man of substance.

Jack will graduate with honors from George Ranch High School tomorrow. He has packed a great deal of hard work and energy into the last four years. He was a varsity swimmer, an actor, and he enrolled in virtually every advanced placement class that his schedule would support. He also earned the rank of Eagle Scout and served as a leader of his patrol. He completed hundreds of hours of community service all while holding down a job delivering pizza and Italian food. Somehow in spite of having a mountain of responsibilities he maintained the same calmness and sunny outlook on life that has defined him since he was a tiny boy.

I have favorite Jack moments that remain forever in my memories. I see him dancing exuberantly and confidently when he was a toddler as though he is the happiest person on the planet. In another treasured recollection he is a smiling boy wearing a Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat at Disneyworld. I’ll never forget staying awake until an ungodly hour watching Forrest Gump with him. Then there was the time that we walked among the giant sequoias of Yosemite speaking of what is most important in life. Finally are those times when I watched him miraculously transform himself into other characters on stage, bringing a stunning sensitivity to his performances.

In the fall Jack will be a freshman at Texas A&M University which seems fitting since his namesake, my father, graduated from there. He was selected to be in the Honors Program and plans to major in Computer Science. I find comfort in knowing that Jack will be at Texas A&M. My father loved the school so. He often spoke of the grand times that he had as a student there. I suspect that like my dad Jack will immerse himself in all that the school has to offer just as he always has with everything that he has done. It is in his nature to experience life in its fullest.

I am bursting with pride and love for Jack Michael Greene. He is and always has been rather amazing. I suspect that there are many exciting adventures in his future, and it will be fun watching as his life unfolds. He has become as wonderful as I always knew he would be.

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.