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.

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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.

The Silver Lining

silver-liningEvery time I am in the Santa Fe area I make it a point to travel to Chaco Canyon. Getting to that remote national park is difficult. In the last many miles the road becomes so unbearably rugged that I always consider turning back. Since I know what adventure lies ahead I always choose to continue the journey to my destination. I am never disappointed. Chaco Canyon is one of the great wonders of our country and it is worth all of the effort to see it.

The year 2016 has been much like navigating the trail to Chaco Canyon. There have been many potholes and bumps in the last twelve months that made life a bit more difficult that usual but now that I am at the end of the course I can see the breathtaking beauty of my trek. All things considered, 2016 was another wonderful year in my life even though it may not have been quite as spectacular or free from loss as other times have been.

I learned when I was teaching that I should never judge the worth of a day’s work by a single negative incident. There were many times when I felt like a rockstar only to be plummeted to earth by a negative encounter with a difficult student. Early in my career when I still lacked experience and maturity I was overly critical of myself, always seeking perfection and hopelessly disappointed when my teaching was even slightly flawed. I lost my optimism and felt that I was a failure as an educator on many a day. A wise mentor came to my psychological rescue when she suggested that I begin to list both the good and bad aspects of each week in two columns. She assured me that I would almost always have visual proof that my efforts had been far more positive than I had thought. She noted that we humans have a tendency to magnify and remember negativity so much that it often overwhelms the excellence in our lives. In carrying out her suggestion I learned that even in the most frustrating weeks I had always accomplished way more than I had realized. It became my habit to look at the totality of a day, a week, a month or a year before focusing exclusively on the moments that had seemed to threaten my happiness.

Such it has been with 2016. I lost a friend and a very dear cousin during the year. I took a number of unexpected financial hits that strained my pocketbook and forced me to change some of my habits. I was surprised and disappointed by the results of the political primary races in the spring and then the national election itself in the fall. I grew weary and worried about the massive divide that has so torn the citizens of my beloved country apart. I worried about world events that seem to threaten peace. It would be easy for me to write off the last twelve months as a total loss if I were only to think about the things that made me sad and weary but that would be an incomplete analysis of the year. When I take the time to wander through my memories I realize that I was graced with many glorious blessings in 2016.

The year began in Galveston with all of my children and grandchildren. It was too cold for the beach but we spent time playing games, watching football, enjoying Moody Gardens and The Strand. It was fun and best of all I was with the people that I most love. It was really a dream come true because in most years my kids are so busy with other pursuits that I may see them on Christmas Day and not again until February or even March. I will always treasure January 1, 2016 as a very special day when we celebrated together.

On January 6, Mike and I met with a group of friends at Killen’s Steakhouse. The food was certainly a treat but being with Adriana, Tim, Jenny and Eric was the main attraction. I always feel revitalized just being around them and that evening was no exception. In fact it was one of those unforgettable times that bring warm feelings to the surface whenever I stop to remember.

There were the usual family birthday parties for my brothers, sister-in-laws, nieces, nephews, father-in-law, husband, children and grandchildren. All of them were fun and festive and gave us a perfect excuse to clear off our calendars and celebrate the love that so defines “the best family ever.” Perhaps the most extravagant and wonderful of them all was a Harry Potter themed birthday spectacular for one of my nephews who lives in Dallas. There was a quidditch game, a magician, a sorting experience and some of the best food I have ever tasted. As Muggles, Mike and I were in awe of the magic of that evening.

My sister-in-law retired from her work as a NASA contractor and spent many weeks touring in Europe with her sisters. My brother hung up his boots and retired from the Houston Fire Department after a career that spanned his entire adult lifetime. Both of them had gala parties in which we celebrated their dedication and achievements which were numerous. I felt so proud of both of them and excited that they now have the time to pursue their hobbies and to travel to their hearts’ content.

Of course Mike and I went camping and sometimes met up with our friends Monica and Franz in Huntsville or Blanco and enjoyed the solitude and the local sites together. We even traveled with our long time buddies to Colorado and stayed in my brothers’ cabin for a glorious week in the fall. We enjoyed nature’s colors and the art festivals as well as the food and quaint shops. Mostly we realized just how much we love being with our dear friends.

In the summer we took two of our grandchildren William and Abby on a grand excursion in our trailer. We reveled in the sights from Santa Fe to San Diego. We took that terrible road to Chaco Canyon and almost baked in the punishing summer sun but were enthralled by the powerful images of a past long gone. We stood over the rim of Grand Canyon at sunset and marveled at the beauty of Sedona. We escaped into a world of make believe at Universal Studios in Los Angeles and spent an entire day slathering our bodies with sunscreen at the beach. We sat under a clear sky and watched the stars in the Davis Mountains. We realized how vast and beautiful the United States truly is.

In October I met with many of my high school friends in a fifty year reunion. It was wonderful to see so many of the people with whom I had spent four years of my young life. They each had special stories to tell and even though the evening flew by with the pace of speed dating I walked away with renewed friendships and a glorious feeling that we had all learned our life lessons well. The people there were good and honest folk just as our teachers had wanted us to be.

There were glorious graduations. My cousin earned an advanced degree and a number of my former students became the first in their families to hold bachelor degrees. I gave a party for those who graduated in May and together we celebrated their stunning accomplishments. I felt a sense of pride in knowing how dedicated they had been and what wonderful futures they would surely enjoy.

I watched my grandchildren perform in musicals and plays, in swim meets and cross country competitions, in robotics games and concerts. I realized even more than ever how gifted and talented and hard working they truly are. I understood that in those moments when I don’t get to see them they are busy charting their own trails that will most assuredly lead them to achieving the goals and the dreams that they have designed for themselves. They will be ready to accept the challenges of the future and be the generation that keeps the faith in our family values.

I met with friends and family and former students throughout the year and truly enjoyed those quiet moments when we conversed and considered the challenges of the world. One particularly fun evening was spent with a large group of women laughing at the antics of less than perfect moters in the movie Bad Moms. The film reminded all of us to be kind to ourselves.

It was in the laughter and the love of friends and family that 2016 was transformed from a frustrating year to one that brought me enough happiness and satisfaction to make me optimistic about life and the world in which we live. Those bumps in the road were a mere disturbance far outweighed by the spectacular moments that happened when I least expected.

Happy New Year to everyone. May 2017 bring each of you the love and the happiness and the simple pleasures that make each day just a bit brighter. Look for the silver lining even on the cloudiest of days.