Walking With Our Young

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Teachers do more than teach concepts. Sometimes they actually become a source of inspiration and comfort for their students. They serve as mentors, guides for their pupils when they need advice or just a calming presence. So was the relationship between a teacher at Smithson Valley High School and my granddaughter.

My granddaughter first met this remarkable educator as a freshman. Somehow they both felt a kind of kinship with one another. As is often the case between teacher and student they were seemingly on the same wavelength and so my granddaughter began to seek out the wisdom of the teacher who had a way of almost peering into her soul. At first she mainly went for help with her studies but before long she opened up about her fears and the stresses that are so much a part of teenage life. The teacher was able to put things into perspective and soothe my granddaughter’s anxieties in addition to being an excellent conveyor of information in the classroom. The two of them formed the kind of professional friendship that sometimes blooms between a teacher and a student.

Even after my granddaughter was no longer one of the teacher’s students she continued to visit with her regularly, finding answers to questions and concerns about academics and life in general. She was hoping to perhaps get an opportunity to take another class from this woman who had so impacted her life, but sadly that was not meant to be. One evening without warning the teacher who was only fifty years old died in her sleep leaving behind a bereft family of eight children and students like my granddaughter who had been so influenced by her intellect, compassion and sagacity.

I suppose that there is little more shocking than losing someone who is still in her prime with so much good to offer the world. We find ourselves wondering how it could be that a person so wonderful would have to leave without warning. I know that it has been unbelievably difficult for my granddaughter to accept. She had thought that she would have the privilege of being guided by this remarkable educator for many years to come. She wonders if the woman ever realized just how much difference she had made in the lives of so many young people.

Teachers never really make enough money to adequately compensate them for the many hours that they give to their work. A teacher is almost always thinking about students past, present and future. They see learning opportunities everywhere they go. They expend enormous amounts of energy worrying over their pupils even after they are long gone. They may not remember all of the names but they see the faces as clearly as if they had been with them only a few minutes ago. Sometimes all it takes is a smile from an aging student for the teacher to recall exactly where they sat in the classroom.

Teachers celebrate the successes of their students as much as they would those of their own children. They grieve over the difficulties that their students face. They think of them in the still of night and pray that all is well with them. They wish for the power to make all of their kids happy and successful. They pray that somehow their charges understand how much they really care beyond the confines of the subject matter that they teach.

Teachers can have a profound effect on their students that lasts a lifetime but what they do not often realize is how much they themselves impact the teachers. Learning is a two way path that does not end with the completion of a school year. Teachers evolve because of the students they encounter just as the students themselves often change when they find a relationship with a particularly gifted educator.

There are few professions that provide all of the players which such an emotion filled experience. Teaching is grand and rich in human interactions. Each day provides an opportunity to literally change a life. Teachers are cautioned to use that enormous power wisely and for the good. They must be aware that what they say or do does indeed make or break the young ones for whom they are responsible.

I salute the teacher who so influenced my granddaughter. I am saddened that she left this earth so soon. I know that she was truly loved and admired. There is little that anyone might accomplish in life that is more meaningful that what this teacher did. May she rest in peace and may her colleagues and students learn the most important lesson that she ever taught, namely that each interaction inside a school is precious and may be just the one that makes someone’s life better.

Harriet Tubman

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The first time I learned about Harriet Tubman I was stunned by her story. She was born a slave as were her mother, father and siblings. Her father eventually earned his freedom but was unable to free his children. Over time he bought his own wife when she had grown old and confused and was of little use to her master but many of his children still languished as property.

Harriet was originally known as Minty. She married a free man but still had to live on the plantation of her owner. Nonetheless she dreamed of freedom and hoped to one day join her husband as a free woman and start a family. She watched helplessly as her sisters were sold and sent to some unknown place. She suffered under the yoke of slavery and finally reached a point of preferring to die rather than remain enslaved. Somehow she managed to travel over a hundred miles all alone to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she finally lived as a free woman and chose her own name of Harriet.

Most people would have simply enjoyed their good fortune and lived happily ever after without chains and the whims of slave masters but Harriet was not happy knowing that her husband still lived so far away and that the members of her family were suffering. She decided to return to the place of her captivity risking her very life to be reunited with her husband and bring him north with her.

What she found was that he had married again when he thought that she had died. He was unwilling to leave his new wife who was with child. Harriet soon found that her brothers were about to be sold and so she decided to help them escape just as she had. Others joined her in the journey north which was hazardous but ultimately successful.

Over time Harriet worked with the Underground Railroad returning south again and again to free as many as seventy slaves. During the Civil War she served as a spy for the Union Army and even became involved in combat. She is credited with freeing another seven hundred slaves during that conflict.

In spite of risking her own freedom Harriet was passionate about helping others who lived in bondage. She understood what might happen to her if she were caught but she nonetheless felt compelled to fight for others who were still suffering under the chains of slavery.

Harriet Tubman is indeed one of the most courageous women in the history of the world. I cannot even imagine the kind of bravery that it took for her to accomplish as much as she did. She was a fearless warrior for justice and I think she should be honored as much as historical giants like Abraham Lincoln. I seriously can’t think of another woman in the story of our country who compares to her.

Now there is a wonderful movie about this amazing woman. Harriet is a beautifully crafted film that tells her inspiring story with a cast of actors who seem to be passionate about their roles. It is one of those films that I recommend to everyone, young and old alike. It is also one that I will probably watch again and again because its story is one of faith and grit and honesty. I can’t think of when I have been so moved by a movie, and knowing that it is true makes it even more wonderful.

I once visited a landmark in Memphis, Tennessee that had been part of the Underground Railroad. The guide told us how the slaves developed a way of communicating through their songs and with quilts that alerted them to which locations were safe. There was a whole world of intrigue that helped thousands of slaves find the freedom that they so deserved. It both a tragic and touching story of the human spirit and all people’s desire to live free.

The holiday season is upon us and people will be going to movie theaters for the annual round of family entertainment. I know that there will be cute little films reprising the Frozen story and even action and adventure movies, but I can’t think of a better way to spend time with the family than watching Harriet together. It is a story that has been longing to be told and everyone needs to see it.

It Goes On

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I suppose that my Facebook wall is mostly like the idealized version of what Mark Zuckerberg once intended it to be, due to my incredibly insightful and interesting friends and family. Each morning I scan the posts to find lovely photos of children, grandchildren, pets, travels, and good times. In the mix there are invariably yummy recipes, guides to local events, and inspirational thoughts or articles. Now and again there are pleas for prayers from someone who is experiencing difficult times, a health problem or even the death of a loved one. My wall has never really been a respository for attempts to influence my thinking on politics or any other topic save for a random comment now again from one of my more politically minded acquaintances. Instead it is a source of joy and support and a way of keeping in touch with people about whom I truly care.

I check my wall each morning while I sip on my tea and munch on my breakfast. I usually rise earlier than my husband so the house is quiet save for the chatter and laughter of the children waiting to catch the school bus on the corner. I sit in my front room and enjoy a moment of peace and serenity while learning about whatever has happened while I was sleeping. Now and again someone posts something that burrows deeply into my heart. I think about it throughout the day and sometimes long past the moment when I first read about it. Such it was a few days ago when two of my sweet cousins both shared the story of a young poet.

It seems that there was once a young man with a creative and poetic mind who was struggling mightily with the seemingly unrelenting tragedy of his life. His father was an alcoholic who eventually died from complications related to his drinking. He left the family all but penniless and struggling. Both the young man and his mother suffered from bouts of depression which was perfectly understandable given their circumstances. Adding to the young man’s woes was the fact that his attempts to publish the poems that he had worked so hard to produce had been totally unsuccessful. To make matters even worse he had a devastating row with the young girl who had stolen his heart and they had a soul crushing breakup. In a moment of sheer desperation he gave her a copy of his poems and tore up the only remaining one that he had. Then he walked away determined to end his life.

He appeared to wander aimlessly even though he had a plan for ending it all. He went into up in a dark swampy area that seemed to match the sorrow of his mood. Even though he had originally determined to end it all he just kept walking and at some point he changed his mind, found his way out of both the swamp and his sadness, and decided to carry on with the rest of his life.

The man whose journey almost ended before it had truly begun was Robert Frost. He went on to become one of the most beloved American poets in the world, winning multiple Pulitzer Prizes and earning the title of Poet Laureate. On the occasion of the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the President of the United States Robert Frost was honored by being selected to read one of his poems. (Oh, and he even made up with the girl that he so loved and she became his wife.) His life was celebrated by people from around the world as he lived to a prosperous and honored old age. When later asked about his advice for life he remarked, “It goes on.”

This was a message that I needed to hear and one that I know to be so very true. Few of us have an easy time here on this earth. Life is hard work and often filled with disappointments and suffering. There are moments when our burdens become so heavy that we wonder how we might possibly keep fighting the good fight. Sometimes it feels as though nothing is going our way. We walk in the miasma of a dark and dank swamp seeing hopelessness at every turn. It is only in “going on” that we eventually see the light of day once again. We invariably find that while our lives may not have taken the turn that we had hoped, they sometimes become even better than we had hoped.

I think of this often. I recently recalled a time when I was working in a school with people that I dearly loved. I literally believed that I would be like a female Mr. Chips and work there for the duration of my career. Sadly a new principal came and upended everything that I had enjoyed about being there. I realized that I could not bear the authoritarian and contrary nature of her leadership and so I reluctantly left without really knowing where I would ultimately land. I was anxious and melancholy and even angry. It took me weeks to get over the despair that I was experiencing. Then I found a new job that would change the course of my life. It was there that I learned how much strength I really had and it was there that I found some of the very best years of my educational career. It was also there that I truly experienced the realization of how life indeed “goes on.”

I cannot imagine how different I would have be if not for some of the moments when I was challenged to keep going into the darkness or choose a different unknown path that lead to the light. Sometimes it is truly in our most hopeless moments that we find what we really need. Like Robert Frost we learn from our suffering and choose to just go on.

Taking Some Stress Out of Christmas

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So many people get annoyed with those of us who start shopping and prepping for Christmas when Halloween has barely passed, but I find that if I don’t do a bit here and a bit there for many weeks I get caught at the last minute expending all of my energy in one fell swoop. Instead I learned long ago that if I slowly chip away at all of my Christmas tasks and I will have time to enjoy the season with friends, neighbors and family. It takes a bit of planning but I learned how to do that quite well as an educator when I had to be certain of teaching all of the concepts within a certain timeframe.

One aspect of my holiday traditions is the sit down dinner that I host on Christmas Day. I truly enjoy readying my home for that gala but in the past few years I have found that I spend most of the day getting the food served and then cleaning all of the dishes and pans for hours afterward. I have lovely Christmas place settings that are so festive but they generally have to be washed by hand and doing so takes far more time than it should. I have guests who quite sweetly attempt to help but the problem is that they get to visit with every one even less time that I do when they volunteer, and that isn’t much fun for any of us.

This year I decided to do something about the one Christmas duty that I abhor. I made a visit to the Party City website and ordered plastic plates that appear to be elegant china with matching bowls, dessert plates and even cups. All I need now are a few of those huge Costco garbage bags and the cleanup will be quick and easy. I will spend my time actually enjoying my guests rather than making sure that my kitchen stays orderly enough not to be designated as a toxic waste dump.

I still plan to use my Christmas tablecloths and napkins. They are easy to just toss into the washing machine. I also plan to set out my mother’s silver and the pewter utensils that my dear friend Egon left for me upon his death. I really don’t care to eat with plastic knives and forks and spoons and using the real thing will not create much mess at all. The entire lot will fit nicely into a sink of hot soapy water where it can soak until later. I’m thinking of maybe going with throw away serving bowls as well, but I have a wonderful Christmas platter that I always use for my roast or turkey or ham. It is a tradition that I refuse to surrender. It won’t take much to clean it and put it safely away. 

I feel a bit guilty about possibly damaging the environment with so many disposable items. The modern trend is to recycle everything but I will be seventy one this month and quite frankly I am tired of the annual cleanup. My mother-in-law announced her retirement from hosting the Christmas gala when she was younger than I am. My mother followed suit rather quickly thereafter. I don’t want to give away my day to provide the family with a feast just yet, but I am going on strike over the task of using all of the good china. I don’t think anybody really cares what the plates look like as long as what is on them tastes good. I’ll spend more time perfecting my menu and less washing and drying crystal and china.

Everyone seems to have a great time on Christmas Day. They have lively conversations and play games. I tend to be puttering about for so long that by the time I finally join the group they announce one by one that it is time to go home. I suspect that such has been the lot of women for decades. We eat our food cold and perform the “Martha” role to the point of missing all the fun. This year I am going to remedy that.

I’ve even sent out a family email to determine what everyone actually wants to eat this year. I have set a deadline of November 18, for the input and I will go by majority rule. I think it will be fun for everyone to have some say in what we our feast will be.

Many have suggested that I have a potluck but I don’t mind the cooking at all. It is one task that is fun for me and I prefer knowing ahead of time how to balance the meal. Besides the idea is that the dinner is a gift from me to the family. It is the one time of year when everyone comes and I have the honor of treating them. I get great joy out of the entire event.

I’ve bought a few Christmas gifts already. It’s easy to find great gifts for some people and almost impossible for others. I don’t know how it is for anyone else but the men are the hardest for me. I can only purchase so many ties or shirts or books or whatever. The guys tend to have very specific desires whereas women like just about anything. It will take me many weeks to figure it all out and then I will just have to hope that I have hit the spot.

Christmas is undoubtably my favorite time of the year and I plan to keep streamlining it so that I can get every bit of enjoyment out of the season and keep stress at a bare minimum. I’ll let you know how the plastic place settings work out. I suspect that they will be a hit.

Our Human Dilemmas

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There was a time when most of us who are common folk knew little about what was happening in the world outside of our own little communities. News from other parts came slowly if at all. We humans concentrated on the problems of daily life that affected us directly with little thought of what life was like outside of our narrow sphere of reference. Even as late as the end of the nineteenth century most people lived in relative isolation.

My grandfather often spoke of life on his grandmother’s farm and his lack of knowledge of the happenings outside of the insulated world of his youth. It was not until World War I that the average person began to take notice of the symbiotic nature of world politics. That feeling of being part of something larger than a radius of a few square miles beyond our homes grew even stronger with World War II. By the mid twentieth century we were developing a worldview that even included a foray into the universe.

As we have navigated the political waters of worldwide citizenry we have had to determine what exactly our obligations to people outside of our own borders are. There are few clear guidelines and so we tread a wary line between isolationism and serving as geopolitical saviors of those who are being persecuted across the globe. Sometimes it is difficult to determine who the players are. There are no perfect guidelines for choosing sides, and often we wonder if we should even think of getting involved in the politics of places so far from our own. Moral questions abound in the many decisions that we must make, none of which are without contradictions.

Our human natures prefer clear choices between good and evil and so we often attempt to distill complex issues into very simple ideas. In the process we are bound to make mistakes because very few political questions have easy answers. When we make our issues partisan we run the risk of ignoring realities on either side and making things ultimately worse. Rhetoric and emotion are more likely to result in stop gap measures rather than long tern solutions that will endure the tests of time.

The world is on fire in so many places, few more frightening the Xinjiang region of mainland China. In the north west corner of that nation there live a Muslim minority group known as the Uyghurs ( pronounced “Weegurs”). The Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and have a culture far different from the rest of China. They were incorporated into the country in 1949, but mostly lived in their own way until more recent times. Of late the Chinese government has cracked down on them with tactics that should alarm the entire world, but very little of their plight has been discussed by the world powers.

It is believed that upward of one million Uyghur men have been sent to reeducation camps that were hastily built in the Xinjiang region. Some of them have seemingly disappeared and are thought to be dead. Stories of torture and murder are rampant. While the men are imprisoned Chinese males from other parts of the country are sent to take over the Uyghur homes, often forcing the wives who have been left behind to cohabit. Whispers of rapes and great fear are captured by the thousands of cameras that police the region. At any given moment the people are subjected to random searches and accused of being enemies of the state simply because of the way that they walk or present themselves.

There are countless stories of minority people being threatened, imprisoned, and killed in places across the globe. Our instincts tell us that we should somehow help but caution asks us to wonder if and when it is right to interfere in the workings of countries that are not our own. After all, we argue, we have enough of our own problems right here. There are signs of injustice in our own backyards. Should we clean our own house before we are audacious enough to find fault with others? What is the red line beyond which we can no longer simply sit back and watch horror unfolding? How much of our own human and financial treasure are we willing to invest in problems that don’t appear to directly affect us?

These are the questions that plague us and none of the answers are either obvious or without grave concerns. Doing nothing or doing the wrong thing has consequences, some of which we cannot foresee. Our natures leave us frozen with indecision while ideologues rush in head first  often seizing the day and the power. For the most part the rest of us just quietly go along, allowing the squeaky wheels to get all of the attention until things come to a dangerous head forcing us to act one way or another. In the meantime there is so much suffering in the world that is seemingly unchallenged.

Our own civil war was bound to occur because slavery was indeed wrong and our nation was irreparably divided as to how to uncouple itself from something so horrific. In the end as is too often the case it took outright war and horror to force the issue. Perhaps the fact that the rest of the world chose to simply watch as we fought brother against brother rather than choosing sides whether for humane or financial reasons was the right response. Maybe in the long run each country has to find its own way out of social and political divisions, but what about those instances that aggressively overtake and murder innocents? Are we morally bound to help them in some way?

These are the kind of questions that fill my head and I know enough about history and human nature to understand that the world has been filled with intrigue since its very beginning. Knowing when to intervene on behalf of a person or a group is a tricky thing but something that we should always seriously consider not as a means of gaining our own power but as a way of protecting those unable to protect themselves. Such discussions should not be a matter of partisan preference but honest communication in search of reasonable answers.

Right now it feels almost impossible to achieve such noble goals. I worry about what may have to eventually happen to bring us to our senses, to help us understand that we should not be enemies. History tells me that it may be a very unpleasant learning experience that we must endure before we find our way. I pray that we figure that out before it is too late.