A Force For Positive Change

Abigail Martin was a tiny newborn, several weeks premature and so small that I worried I might break her when I held her. She had to wear glasses when she was only a few months old and had enough trouble moving that she needed a physical therapist to help her turn over from her back. From day one she was a fighter, a determined child unwilling to allow any roadblocks to get in the way of meeting each of her childhood milestones. There was nothing that she was unwilling to try and in most cases become incredibly successful at doing. 

Abby was adventurous, taking risks and working hard to be her best with each attempted endeavor. Once she learned how to swim she joined a competitive team even though her age and her diminutive size did not coincide with the taller and stronger girls with whom she competed. When she later joined a theater group she ended up with major roles in plays and musicals along with spots on television and in commercials. She was a natural born artist who won prize after prize with her drawings and paintings and other works of visual art. She even took riding lessons, boldly sitting atop a horse that loomed large next to her tiny frame. Eventually she learned how to judge horses and won ribbons for accurately noting both the perfections and defects of the animals and their riders. 

Abby expanded her innate love of animals by raising goats and working for veterinarians during summers and spring breaks. She studied and took tests to earn a vet tech certification along the way. While exploring so many different interests Abby even learned to play the clarinet but realized her speaking and leadership abilities were the talents she most enjoyed. She regularly won speech competitions at both the local and state level, gaining confidence that allowed her to interact with both adults and her peers. Eventually she held offices in her school and regional chapters of the Future Farmers of America, including one in which she directed the activities of over nine thousand young members. She even represented her school at Girl’s State during the height of the pandemic.

All the while Abby was an exemplary student who will graduate number five in her class of almost eight hundred students, the only female in the top five. She took virtually every advanced placement class that she could and challenged herself even when her counselors cautioned her to take an easier course load. She was a dependable anchor on the school’s robotics team serving as the spokesperson for the group during competitions and taking them to championship status with her composed ability to field questions about their methodologies. Somehow she managed to keep up with all of her responsibilities and give each of them the kind of personal attention that they required.  

Abby is a whirlwind of activity, a cyclone of energy who never seems to rest, and she dreams large. Along the way she decided to major in political science and law studies at Bowdoin College in Maine with an eye to one day entering law school and specializing in agricultural issues. Bowdoin is one of the oldest universities in the United States and is often called a “Little Ivy.” Notable graduates from Bowdoin are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth, Joshua Chamberlain and President Franklin Pierce. I suspect that one day Abigail Martin will be one of the honored alumnae as well. 

I remember a time when Abby came to visit my husband and me during her spring break. We were taking a class on the history of Greece at the time and took her with us to Rice University on the day of the lecture. We asked the professor if she might sit quietly with us and he pleasantly agreed after warning us that he might mention some sensitive topics. We sat in the back of the room and gave Abby a little notebook and a pencil to take notes or draw during the hour and a half lesson. As it happened much of the time was spent talking about Greek mythology. Abby drew pictures of the gods and labeled each of them with notes from the professor. When he saw what she had done at the end of the session he commented that even some of his students were not as attentive or adept at note taking as little ten year old Abby was. He remarked that he hoped that one day she would apply to the university and perhaps also become one of his students. 

Later that week when we met her parents to camp at a state park she was still creating more organized notes on the topic of the lecture in the little book that we had given her. She sat for hours making an outline of what she had heard and telling her family all about what she had learned. I knew then for certain that she was going to be quite successful and interesting in her approach to life. 

The tiny girl who was too small for her car seat without rolled up blankets on either side and who worked tirelessly just to become strong enough to turn over from her back has fought her whole life to be her best. Now she is a young woman who continues to dream of one day becoming an intern for a Congressperson in Washington D.C. and maybe even being a lawmaker there in her own right. She has already proven that she is not afraid of hard work and that she has the intellect to master virtually any topic. She is on her way to taking the future by the tail with a rare determination that will make her unstoppable. I am certain that she will be force for good with a passion for integrity. I can’t wait to witness her rise. Abigail Martin is going to positively change the world.

I Call BS!

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Many of our state leaders, including our governor, are suggesting that much of the blame of the tragedy at Robb Elementary in Ulvalde is due to a level of mental illness in the shooter. I have no problem with that suggestion, but they further seem to believe that the real solution to the problem is not to limit gun rights, but to make efforts to help those with mental problems before they take their anger out in a wave of violence. I’d agree with them if I actually thought that they were sincere in their intent to make counseling and psychiatric services readily available to anyone who needs them in the state of Texas. Sadly, my almost five decades of navigating the mental health system with my mother tells me that all of their talk is hollow. 

My mom first became seriously ill with bipolar disorder in nineteen sixty-nine. I was able to get her some help but I had little idea that her condition would recur in cycles like the four seasons for the rest of her life. Since I was not satisfied with her first doctor I found someone new when her symptoms disappointingly resurfaced not long after her initial breakdown. Her journey with bipolar disorder would become never ending and frustrating. 

By the time she was in her seventies she had been dealing with the effects of her illness for over thirty years. She was mostly a noncompliant patient and the doctor who had worked with her during that time had also grown old and no longer had the patience to deal with her sporadic willingness to follow his guidelines. She was in the throes of one of her most dangerously psychotic episodes and I was desperate to find a doctor willing to treat her. I literally spent and entire week of eight hour days calling person after person and being rejected for one reason or another. One time the insurance was not acceptable. Another time only cash would work. Some only cared for adolescents. Others had full practices. I was at my wits end to find someone when I made a call to yet another psychiatrist that someone had recommended. 

He was a kindly fellow who listened intently to my anxious pleas. He admitted that his practice was closed and that he was in semi-retirement. He changed the subject and asked how I was doing. He spent the next hour listening to my concerns while I sobbed. He instructed me in the need to care for myself as well my mother and then gave me two more names of doctors and wished me luck. The last one that I called only accepted children as patients but he suggested that I contact Dr. Jary Lesser with the University of Texas Mental Health Institute. He assured me that Dr. Lesser would be just the man who would help my mom.

Dr. Jary Lesser had an impressive CV. He had worked at some of the most outstanding hospitals in the United States and was a professor of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical School. I was thrilled when he agreed to see my mother with no questions asked. By the time we got her to Dr. Lesser, Mama was in an intense state of mania. Dr. Lesser insisted that she stay at one of our homes and that she be watched twenty four hours a day. He provided a stiff cocktail of medication and asked us to bring our mother back in two days. For the next several weeks he monitored her closely and before long she was doing better than she had for decades. It felt like a miracle.

For the next three years I accompanied my mother to regular visits with Dr. Lesser. He very strictly observed her behavior and knew when she was not taking her medication regularly. He was the first person who managed to get her to admit that she had bipolar disorder and he even convinced her to described what that disorder did to her. We felt that he was the best doctor that she had ever had and celebrated the good fortune of having him available for our mother. Then one day at one of her regular visits Dr. Lesser announced with more than a hint of anger that the state of Texas had so drastically reduced funding for mental health programs that he would no longer be allowed to work at the Mental Health Institute. Instead, the state would be sending him to work full time at the county psychiatric hospital. He noted that from that time forward my mother would be treated by psychiatric residents still learning the ins and outs of treating patients with mental illnesses. 

I tried once again to find a full time seasoned psychiatrist who would take my mother, but by then she was well into her eighties and nobody wanted to work with someone her age. We had to use the program with the residents and to say it was a disaster would be an understatement. It ended with her being legally committed during one of her epic phases of mania and psychosis and since there were no beds in any of the hospitals in the Houston area, she spent the night in a locked room at Ben Taub Hospital, the only place that would take her. 

Eventually she was sent to a psychiatric center in Bellaire, a dreary place that felt more like a prison than a place to get well and recuperate. My brothers and I lost all power to direct her care. Ir was one of the most gut wrenching moments of our lives, all because the state of Texas is not really interested in investing a great deal of funding for the mentally ill. 

Since that time and my mother’s death I have read over and over again that funding for mental health services in the state of Texas continue to be regularly slashed, so I don’t buy the Governor’s assertion that the state would rather provide preventive care for potential shooters than impinge on the rights of decent gun owners. My personal experience tells me that he is full of hot air, and based on information from counselors that I know the backlog of patients waiting for appointments for therapy has never been worse. 

I would be the first to applaud efforts to shore up the availability of mental health resources in our state, but at least for now I have seen no signs that such a thing is actually happening. Such a solution is also beside the point because right now in our state an eighteen year old who can’t even buy a beer or rent a car can legally purchase two AR-15s and one three hundred rounds of ammunition within a two day period with little or no hassle. Our state laws on gun possession and use are so lax that open carry no longer requires a permit or any kind of special training. There are no red flag laws either. It is unlikely that a young man like the shooter from a poor family with a mother addicted to drugs would have had any more luck finding treatment than I had in getting help for my mother, because of the scarcity of doctors and programs funded by the state. So don’t tell me that taking care of mental health is a priority for Texas. I call BS!

Aiming for the Stars

Ian Martin

I’ll never forget the message from my son-in-law that my daughter had gone into early labor with her twins. She had worked so hard to conceive them and all of a sudden the prospect of her delivering healthy babies seemed dire. Their lungs were not fully developed and if they came too soon there was a good chance that they might incur brain damage, blindness and other serious defects. I was beside myself with worry and had every person that I knew praying for a miracle. As it happened that miracle came. My daughter’s labor unexplainably stopped and with full bed rest she was able to carry her babies for a few more weeks. They were still premature but neither of them had the horrific problems that might have otherwise befallen them. 

Ian Martin was the larger of the two babies. He got very banged up in the birthing process and spent some time in the NICU to heal. When he did finally come home there was no looking back. He flourished, all the while demonstrating an uncanny ability to learn. As a two year old he was able to name all of the planets and their moons. He was adding and subtracting numbers and he wowed people with his vocabulary. It became apparent that he was indeed a gifted child. 

Ian spent his boyhood building Lego structures meant for people far older than he was. He read voraciously and had a natural ability with numbers. His Uncle Mike, who worked for Boeing as a NASA contractor in Houston, was Ian’s hero. The two of them marveled at each other in a kind of mutual admiration society. All the while Ian seemed able to excel at everything he tried, including playing the cello, writing, and learning about history. He showed all the signs of being a Renaissance man.

In high school Ian has advanced through mathematics courses with a perfect one hundred average. Taking mostly advanced placement coursework he steadily held on to the number three spot in a class of almost eight hundred students while also playing his cello at church, launching rockets, and founding the school Robotics team. He proved to have a quiet and relaxed personality much like his Uncle Mike and he continued to build more and more elaborate Lego structures and even create some of his own. His most interesting hobby became reading about history which reminded me of my own father who also was very much a man for all seasons. 

A few years ago my brother Mike and his wife Becky took Ian to the Texas Star Party, an annual gathering of astronomy enthusiasts who gather in far west Texas armed with telescopes to watch the nighttime skies and learn the latest trends in star gazing. It was there that Ian really began to focus on a dream of one day using his skills in mathematics, physics, and engineering to become an Aerospace Engineer. Thanks to some incredible coaching from his Aunt Becky, who was also a NASA engineer, he realized that his first love was always going to be focused on the exploration of the skies. 

Ian has never been a one trick pony and to that extent he competed for a spot at a summer leadership camp at the University of Notre Dame and secured one of the highly coveted spots. The experience enhanced his confidence enough that when his school selected him for Boys State he was more than ready to represent. He enjoyed the interaction with other young men from a diversity of backgrounds and beliefs, learning that there is much to be gained from teamwork. 

Ian applied to some of the most outstanding universities in the United States with an eye to eventually earning a degree in engineering. In the end he was faced with a difficult choice with acceptances from the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, the University of Colorado/Boulder, The University of Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and Rice University. His ultimate decision came down to Rice and Notre Dame, both of which were dream schools for him. Notre Dame fought hard and eventually outbid Rice in financial aid, so this fall Ian will become a member of the freshman class of the University of Notre Dame.

I can still hear that little tike identifying moons and planets and describing their features while sitting in a high chair. I remember him following his Uncle Mike like an adoring puppy. I think of his ability to put together Lego sets that would give adults a hard time. I see him designing robots and launching rockets. I smile at the thought of him mixing it up with the adults at the Texas Star Party. I remember him dreaming of going to Rice University, but not daring to think that he would actually be accepted there. I’ve watched him growing into a quiet and confident young adult with a clearly defined plan that I know he will achieve. 

Ian Martin has been a miracle ever since he first began growing inside his mother’s womb. He has amazed us continually with his brilliance, humility and unending curiosity. He is a very good and kind person, but nobody’s fool. He is a man of his word and a defender of all that is right and just. Somehow it has always seemed that he was sent to the world as a special gift to us all and that he understands his responsibility to give back to the world. 

This weekend Ian Martin will graduate from Smithson Valley High School with the highest honors. After that he is figuratively and literally aiming for the stars. I will be watching him with awe and pride, knowing that his journey will most certainly continue to be spectacular.

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The Heart of the Matter

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My entire life has been devoted to parenting, grandmothering and teaching. My greatest joy each day is hearing the children in my neighborhood talking and laughing as they await the school buses that will take them to elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. I still teach ten students even in my retirement and they have gifted me with purpose and feelings of great happiness. I keep in touch with my former students just to know that they are doing okay. I never forget them or how important they are to me. I think of the teachers who were my peers and those whom I mentored or directed in my final years as a Dean of Faculty. I suspect that none of the individuals that I encountered in the different schools where I worked have any idea of the extent to which I carry them in my heart each and every day. They are as much a part of my story and my concern as my children and grandchildren. They are more important to me than all of the luxuries, possessions, titles, awards, or bank accounts that we humans so often seek. Their value is immeasurable and when anything happens to them I grieve the way a mother would do. 

I know that I am not alone in feeling this way. Being a teacher is a vocation in the deepest sense of that word. Those who cannot deal with the never ending work, the privations, the frustrations of doing one of the most important jobs in the world usually leave the profession rather quickly. Those who stay are devoted to their work and most especially to their students. They would literally take a bullet to save a child and sadly all too often they do. When I speak for them I do so from decades of experience, being one of them and sharing both the trials and tribulations that are part of the work that they do. They are my people and the students are my children. I am the old woman who still sees thousands of faces that once looked to me to guide them and care for them. They come to me in my waking thoughts and in my dreams. 

I have worked with babies and toddlers, pre-schoolers, elementary aged kids, middle schoolers trying to find themselves, and high school students on the cusp of becoming adults. My students have been residents of River Oaks, the home of millionaires, and others who lived in mobile homes without working plumbing or electricity. I have known their dreams and their fears. I have loved every moment of being with them. 

I remember my student teaching experience at Pearl Hall Elementary. A quiet little girl who had special needs took a liking to me as I did to her. At Christmas time she crocheted a little pink bell and gave it to me as a gift. I still hang it on my tree every year and wonder how she is doing and hope that she is well. I wish I had a way of letting her know that I have never forgotten her and that she is family to me. 

I say these things because my heart is broken over the most recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, a nice little town that I have visited and enjoyed. I see photos of the children killed in that monstrous attack and they remind me of my own students. I see the personalities in their faces, the innocence. I imagine the two murdered teachers giving their lives to save their students. I viscerally feel the pain of the parents who have lost a beloved child. I personally know the fears and concerns that they all must be feeling and I do pray that they will somehow find comfort and understand how much we all deeply care about what has happened to them. Then I think of how many times this scenario has played out in schools, churches, supermarkets, concerts, movie theaters, synagogues, offices and I wonder why we keep looking away from what needs to be done to address the carnage that has become so uniquely American. I wonder why we keep electing lawmakers whose only response to the violence in our country is to pray and think comforting thoughts all while planning to speak at NRA conferences or create laws that make it incredibly easy to own and use guns. 

I believe in God with all of my heart and I do not think that he expects us to just lie down and accept violence when he has given us brains to solve problems. Of all the creatures he has created we have the best abilities to bring about change and to create a better world. Somehow when it comes to mass shootings and even crime in our streets we fear trying the kind of solutions that may lead to more safety in our lives. While we put things off the problems only grow more and more complex and seemingly unsolvable, but much like needed repairs on a house, if we neglect them eventually the structure will collapse in a heap. We are well past time to be honest about the kind of things that must be done and they will indeed require a willingness to sacrifice from each and every one of us, but in the end nothing is more important than the life of a single individual.

The issue of gun violence is complex and will not go away with only a few cosmetic changes. We have to get really serious about mental health, something that only President Obama and then Vice President Biden have attempted to tackle in recent times. Even their efforts were not enough, but they at least tried. I have traveled down the bumpy road of seeking help for my mother and I know that it is often almost impossible to get the needed therapies for those suffering from mental illnesses. The Texas legislature has slashed funding for state programs that once were a lifesaver for seniors and indigents. There are long waiting periods for even getting an appointment with a counselor or psychiatrist. There is often no room in hospitals for psychiatric patients. Insurance pays so little for such services that many cannot afford to even consider attempting to get help. We must make mental health a top priority with funding that makes it available to anyone who needs it. We must begin to have open conversations that help people to understand that mental illness is as real as diabetes or heart disease. We need athletes and celebrities to wear ribbons to remember those who suffer from mental illnesses. We must have huge fundraisers that make therapies and research affordable.

Our schools need to be equipped to keep out intruders. That may mean installing man traps on every campus where the only way in is through a bullet proof glass hallway that is locked from both sides upon entry and does not open until the person has been deemed to be safe. We need steel doors on classrooms with heavy duty locks. What we do not need are teachers toting guns and being trained to use them when needed. 

Most of all we have to look at our present day gun laws. Nobody under the age of twenty one should ever be able to purchase them. Background checks must be more thorough and take longer than they presently do. Open carry should be limited to those who have undergone strict training and permitting. In fact we need to consider whether or not we even need open carry at all. Assault weapons that fire multiple rounds of bullets need to be banned. Even some shooting ranges do not allow such weapons on their premises, so why do ordinary citizens need them? The government should consider a generous buy back system by which private citizens can surrender their AR-15s to the police. Bump stocks should be illegal. It should be illegal to have more than five rounds in rifles and detachable mechanisms for increasing rounds should be against the law. We have to crack down on purchases of guns in parking lots at gun shows without any form of background check. We must be on the lookout for ghost guns and confiscate them when we find them. We must ask our city governments not to sign contracts for NRA conventions in the future. Mostly we must act with our votes, denying our voices to those who refuse to address these issues.

People can keep their pistols and their hunting rifles if they wish, but there is seriously no need for the proliferation of guns that has led us to have the equivalent of one gun for every man, woman and child in the country. We literally lead the world in gun ownership and gun deaths and that is not something to crow about. 

The young man who carried out this most recent attack had been struggling for years according to some of his friends. He had a mom with a drug problem which is yet another difficulty that we seem unable to control. Other students bullied him for a speech impediment that somehow seemed to be ignored by the adults in his life. He was very poor. While none of these are excuses for his vile behavior, I can’t help but wonder how differently things might have turned out if his mother had been able to get rehabilitation for her addiction, his family had been provided with enough income to live decently, the young man had received early intervention for his speech problems, the schools had been staffed with enough counselors to spend time addressing bullying, the elementary school had been built with a man catcher at the entrance, the shooter had been under the care of mental health professionals, the eighteen year old had not been able to purchase two assault weapons or guns of any kind. The “might have beens” all at the heart of the matter. They all point to the places where the solutions might begin if we use our God given brains.

There are no doubt many other ancillary issues that we must address if we are to stop this heinous trend that is sending our country into spasms of grief more and more often. We have to take a hard look at ourselves and ask what has gone so very wrong and then honestly devote our time, our talent, and our funding to actually making our country a place where we no longer fear carrying out our normal daily routines. Right now the nation’s rules or lack of them are dangerous to our health. 

A Man With A Plan

I remember when my dear friend, Pat Weimer, called to tell me that her first grandchild had been born. I was in the Chicago area helping my daughter who had just delivered a set of twins. I felt so much joy that my friend and I would be watching our grandchildren grow up together. Sadly that was not to happen. She departed this earth when her Alan was still a toddler, but she left behind a recording of her undying love for him. It is I who has had the privilege of watching Alan Anderson grow into a very fine young man.

I often stayed with Alan and his younger brother whenever his parents were out of town. I got to know Alan quite well during those precious moments. I saw that he was a quiet and inquisitive child whose thoughts were always deeper than his age might have suggested. He enjoyed reading from a very young age and when he was still a boy our days would end with me reading a chapter from his latest book while he listened intently to the story. He always had profound thoughts about what he had just heard.

On one occasion I accompanied Alan and his brother to Boston while his mother attended a  conference associated with her work. My task was to take the two boys around town to see all of the historical sites. Of course we visited all of the many wonderful places that Boston has to offer, but it seemed that Alan enjoyed the museums the most. 

Alan would intently read every single sign and stand before artifacts as if pondering every detail about them. He rarely said much regarding what he saw, but when he did his comments were insightful and demonstrated his own knowledge of history. I learned that he was an avid fan of historical tracts and he had memorized people, dates and political discourse because of his fascination with such things. The trip to Boston had only reinforced his interests in learning about the past and applying its lessons to the present.

Alan and his family moved away and I did not get to see him as much as I once had. Even when I visited he was often busy being a teenager so our interactions dwindled. He remained a very quiet person, but whenever he did speak he became animated by the thought of entering college and finally studying history and political science and international relations more in depth. It was apparent that his passion for such topics had only increased over time.

Alan will graduate from high school this weekend. He plans to attend Texas Christian University in the fall where he will join the Honors College to major in political science and international relations. I think of his grandmother and how proud she would have been of his accomplishments and of the kind and thoughtful young man that he has become. 

In the long ago my husband and I often visited Alan’s grandparents. We sat around their kitchen table talking for hours. The topic of politics was a regular feature of those sessions. We used to joke that my husband and Pat’s should have had a regular television show in which they sat around discussing past and current events because both of them were so well versed in the evolution of governments at home and around the world. We could never have known back then that one day there would be an Alan who would carry on that tradition in planning his life’s work. 

I wish Alan the greatest success as he ends his time as a child and enters the adult world of learning. I hope that he still knows in his heart how much his grandmother loved him and always will even from her heavenly home. I smile when I think of that little boy with the big thoughts that seemed to come from a mature spot in his mind that always surprised me. I suppose that Alan has been on this path for most of his life, and now he will gather the knowledge that will lead to great contributions to our world. 

Remember the name, Alan Anderson, for surely you will hear it again one day. He’s always been a man with the plan and he’s on his way to the greatness that his grandmother once imagined for him. Congratulations, Alan. I am proud to have had a part in your life and I wish you all the best in your new home for the next few years. Be the best Texas Christian frog than you can be and enjoy each and every moment. Most of all, always remember that you are loved.