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.

When History Comes Alive

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I’ve become fascinated by a series of classes at the Rice University Glasscock School of Continuing Education featuring the history of the kings and queens of England. Dr. Newell Boyd uses primary and secondary sources to bring the reigns of the British monarchs to life. His courses are exciting strolls through history that illustrate that human nature tends to be the same from one era to the next. The cast of characters may change but the themes echo over and over through time. His is a very personal look at history through the eyes of those who wrote commentaries about the people and events as they were happening.

The thing that has most struck me throughout the series of lectures is that so many of the problems that we humans face today were concerns hundreds of years ago. Those of us who are not royalty or “mighty barons” today may have a better quality of life than the common folk of yore, but questions of religious freedom, power, and economic equality remain essentially the same as they were when peasants’ lives were brutish and brief. The saga of mankind has been a story of wars and intrigue but it has also been one of slowly evolving equality and freedom and opportunity even for those not born into wealth and power. Much of that trend began in the rise and fall and ultimate decline of aristocracy and the belief in the Divine Right of Kings.

I’ve learned from the study of the Tudor kings that the audacious dealings of Henry VII in his quest for an heir had more to do with keeping peace in the empire than simply attempting to father a male child. Prior to Henry’s reign there had been years of warring between families to claim the throne. Henry desperately hoped to maintain a firm hold of legitimacy and continuity in the royal hierarchy. He believed that only a male heir would insure that there would be no challenges to the authority of his line. Of course we know in hindsight that his beliefs about biology were erroneous and that a woman would ultimately rise to the throne and do so successfully.

This semester Dr. Newell is outlining the story of the Stuart kings who descended from Mary Queen of Scots. Because Elizabeth never married and died without an heir there were many questions about who was the rightful heir to the throne. Untangling the family tree that lead to James I  is a story in itself but the gist of his troubled monarchy lies in the fact that he was raised in Scotland as a Presbyterian and as such was never fully accepted by the people of England. His reign and that of his descendants was continually marked by both political and religious intrigue that lead to unrest, civil war and revolution.

The Protestant Reformation had let the genie out of the bottle. While the Church of England was the official religion of the land there were still Catholics and Puritans determined to defy the dictates of the king who served as the head of the church. In his efforts to demonstrate his power and legitimacy James I was rigidly doctrinaire which lead to treasonous attempts to assassinate him by religious groups, perhaps the most famous of them being the plot to blow up Parliament when James was present by a group of Catholic revolutionaries that included Guy Fawkes.

James’ son Charles did little better than his father to earn the love and respect of the people. It was during Charles’ reign more seeds of revolution were sowed as Parliament became more and more powerful and the king became more dependent on their whims. It was also a time when grand new philosophies regarding the rights of ordinary people began to flourish. The world of royalty in England would never again be quite the same.

I have been particularly intrigued by this period of time in history because I can trace my own ancestry to the times. Charles was being plagued by warring forces in Scotland. People of the Puritan faith refused to bow to his demands that they adopt the beliefs of the Church of England. In an effort to rid him of those problems while also diluting the Catholic influence of the Irish Charles encouraged many Scots to relocate to northern Ireland. It was from that migration that my paternal grandfather’s people came. He always proudly boasted that he was Scots Irish, a strange mix of cultures that I never before clearly understood. Now I know that they were probably trouble makers searching for a place where they might think for themselves.

I am also learning more about Oliver Cromwell, a defiant member of Parliament who would lead England to revolutionary ways of thinking. From a woman in my paternal grandmother’s ancestral line I am a relative of Cromwell, all of which helps me to understand my own somewhat rebellious nature and unwillingness to simply follow the crowd.

I suppose that many of the folks who eventually came to the New World in search of opportunity and a new start were pesky Puritans, Scots Irish, people who had grown weary of being persecuted and limited by kings attempting to assert their authority. The philosophies and tyranny that had once been accepted as the Divine Right of kings began to unravel with the reign of the Stuart kings and it would end with a revolution unlike anything that they might ever have imagined. It’s fun to watch it all unfold while already knowing how it will end and it’s even more exciting to know that my kinfolk were part of it. Dr. Boyd surely knows how to make history come alive!

What If?

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What if the people of the world decided to quit relying on someone else to fix all of the problems and we started taking care of things on our own without being asked or paid or honored for our efforts? What if we started by greeting everyone that we pass, noticing what others need and then quietly taking care of them? What if we opened our hearts and our talents to making the world around us better?

What if it became a habit for each of us to keep the environment clean? What if we were always equipped to clean up garbage along the roadsides and in the oceans? What if we got everything looking good and none of us ever again littered the environment?

What if every person found someone to help on a daily basis? What if we understood that if doesn’t take much to make a difference? What if we began to use the power of our collective good will?

What if we really managed to be free of the negative aspects of our human natures? What if we were able to rethink our priorities and work together without being forced by guilt or laws? What if we changed the world without a single selfish desire?

I’m an admitted dreamer. I think of the possibilities of human interaction if only we were able to fully harness our most positive powers and negate those that create problems. I love to think of a time when our intelligence evolves to a point at which we instinctively know what we must do to help one another and to honor our earth. I see examples of the kind of behaviors that I long to see multiplied millions of times over and I imagine a more perfect world. I still believe that we have the power to be our best selves but that we all too often refuse to make the sacrifices and do the hard work that must be done.

I recently saw a group of people working at the ocean to eliminate garbage from the beaches and the water. They removed mountains of debris that had been thrown away by thoughtless people. I wondered why we can’t all agree to come together regularly to sweep our waters and their banks just as we clean our homes. I thought of how we should not have to pay people to do this work when so many of us are able bodied enough to form daily crews that labor all over the world to make the waterways pristine and then keep them that way. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever think it proper to throw paper or cans or bottles or balloons or any object into our precious resource of life. It seems logical and right and just for all of us to be participants in the efforts to once and for all rid our waters from the garbage with which we have so blithely and unthinkingly polluted two thirds of our world. I wonder what if…?

I constantly worry about our young and the way in which we educate them by moving them along a preconceived pathway to knowledge that makes learning feel harsh and unpleasant for so many. I see our society missing the mark by making the act of learning a project filled with stress and sometimes even punishment. We act as though every child is just alike with our scopes and sequences that drive them like cattle from one concept to another whether or not they have mastered the previous ones. We make them feel stupid. We cause them to question their worth. We make them anxious at a time when they should be experiencing the joy of exploring the world around them. I wonder how we might make the act of acquiring knowledge a happy endeavor by tailoring more individualized programs that take differences into account. I long for a kind and gentle kind of school experience that builds children up one by one rather than consigning them to a kind of conveyor belt style education. I wonder what if…?

I see and hear of people who are lonely, bullied, abandoned, feeling hopeless. I think of how they are often treated as though they are somehow less than human. I know that many of them even lose faith in themselves. They become lost souls who turn to drugs and alcohol to ease their pain. In the worst case scenarios they use anger and violence in a perverse way to feel better about themselves. I find myself wondering why we did not notice them earlier when they were still young and open to change. Who was it who beat them down? Why was there no one to counteract the harm being done to them? I think of a world in which we are each like guardian angels watching over even those who are strangers to us. I see wonderful people taking those who are abused under their wings. I consider how incredible it would be if we were to all make efforts to help save a life. I wonder what if…?

Such thoughts may sound naive when faced with the ugly realities of the world and yet there have always been individuals who left the fray and simply dug into the work of making a difference even if its impact was small. That one piece of garbage that we remove from the street becomes a clean sweep when multiplied millions of times over each day. That one child who feels the power of mastering a new skill becomes an army of confident people when multiplied a millions of times over each day. That frightened soul who heals by the touch of kindness becomes a member of a confident, happy and productive society when multiplied millions of times over each day. What if we finally decided to see what might happen if we all agreed to do such things every single day? What if, indeed?

Suffer the Little Children

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The children at my church make me smile. They are so precious and innocent, God’s special creations and the future of our world. At our church they gather in the center aisle just before we adults hear the readings from the Bible and the homily from the priest or deacon. They are always so incredibly adorable that I see all of what is most beautiful in the world reflected in their little faces.

On a recent Sunday there were two brothers among the group who could not have been more than four and five years old. They were dressed in matching plaid shirts resplendent with fall colors and the older of the two tightly held his little sibling’s hand with great pride. The love between the pair shone brilliantly throughout the church and there were smiles in abundance as we all watched the little tykes sauntering off to learn about Jesus in a lesson geared more appropriately to their ages.

The gospel reading and homily is always followed by offerings from the congregation for the support of the church. The children return at that time and have their own little ceremony in which they drop dollar bills and quarters into a special basket. Once again the two brothers captivated my heart as they proudly presented their gifts. One of the parishioners gave them an extra bit of cash to place in the basket and they went back and forth between him and the place where they left the donations. All the while the big brother of the two never once let go of the younger one’s hand.

Eventually the two literally danced down the center aisle of the church in an effort to rejoin their parents. In that moment I felt certain that Jesus was smiling along with the rest of us who witnessed their guileless joy. It was such a pure and beautiful sight.

We are centered on children these days, but not always in the most appropriate ways. We know that we can’t protect them from reality forever but it’s nice to enjoy the time when they are still so filled with innocent joy. They are watching us and learning from us even when we don’t even realize that their eyes noticing everything we do. They will get tired sometimes and not behave well. They may even make us angry and impatient. We have to remember that they are not yet fully formed. We must teach them how to manage their feelings and allow them to be open and honest with us. We don’t have to be authoritarian but we must set appropriate limits from which they learn how to direct their lives.

We speak a great deal about developing and becoming the best possible versions of ourselves, but we can’t forget the children when as we continue to grow. Once my own children were college bound I offered more of my talents to my work. I was able to stay later on the job and take classes to improve my knowledge and skills. I often saw little ones who were left at school at seven in the morning and did not leave until six in the evening. They and their parents were exhausted and harried. Moms sometime complained that their babies would fall asleep on the way home and when they awakened them for dinner and bath time arguments and cranky behavior dominated the evenings. It was sad to see how anxious so many families were because of the imbalance of work and home life.

I felt for everyone because I had enjoyed the luxury of staying home with my children until they were both in school during the same hours that I worked. We had the same holidays and the same summer vacation. They never actually missed me and even when they got sick my beloved mother-in-law came to the rescue to watch them while I went to work. My girls still talk about how much they enjoyed those golden days.

I know that children are amazingly adaptable to whatever circumstances become their reality. My brothers and I learned how to live without a father in the house. So too do little ones thrive in differing situations as long as they have guidance that is centered on their well being. It does not require money or extensive activities to build character. A wise parent need only model with love and integrity to turn a boy into a man, a girl into a woman. We know that we can’t keep them as angelically innocent as the two brothers who brought smiles to our faces on that Sunday morn, but we can make certain that they will one day venture out on their own with the tools that they need to meet whatever challenges the world throws their way.

I suspect that those two boys already have a good start. Their parents are preparing them emotionally and spiritually. They are learning that they belong to and are loved by an entire community. They feel the security and protection of each other in the grip of their hand hold. Surely they will know that God is smiling on them and rooting for their success as people. It’s a wonderful start.

My Guru

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My life as a wife, mom, and teacher was always busy. Everyone in the household was constantly coming and going. Often it seemed as though the only times that we were all together was when we finally managed to get to sleep at night. I’d like to be able to say that I ran a tight and orderly ship but what we mostly had was a state of controlled chaos.

When the demands of our schedules and responsibilities became overwhelming I found myself wanting to go visit my grandfather who had a mysteriously calming influence on me. Being with him felt something like I imagine it would be to have an audience with the Dali Lama. Just seeing him sitting in his recliner puffing on his pipe brought my blood pressure down instantly and the wisdom he exuded with his every remark settled my anxieties more surely than the most powerful medication.

I never had to call my grandfather to set up an appointment. If I just showed up without warning he welcomed me as though he had been planning for my arrival. He was invariably clean shaven and neat in his khaki pants held up by suspenders. He wore the same style of his meticulously polished high top leather shoes that might have been the fashion in his youth before the dawn of the twentieth century. He had lost all but a ring of his hair that he kept neat and trimmed. He was a fastidious man of routine and habit whose calmness was always reliable. I knew what I would find before I even reached his home, and he never disappointed me.

His deep southern drawl cultivated in the foothills of Virginia had a soothing lilt and he gloried in telling the stories that delighted me no matter how many times I heard them. He might have mesmerized an audience in a one man show had he taken his talent on the road, but that is not who he was. Instead his magical effect on me lay in his constancy and the very story of his life that was rooted in hardship and survival without complaint. He was a person of impeccable character who had journeyed through life with grit and hard work. When he spoke he did not so much offer advice as model it through the thematic threads of his tales.

Grandpa was of another time and place who had somehow both transcended and embraced the marvels of the Industrial Revolution and the twenty first century. With his keen intellect and a set of hardcore values rooted in integrity he had somehow overcome one challenge after another. By the time I was making my pilgrimages to see him he owned little more than the clothes on his back and survived in a rented room with a meager pension that provided him with the most basic human needs. In spite of what some might call a very restricted lifestyle he found great joy in the simplicity of his existence which he always boasted was so much grander than what he had known as a boy.

I suppose that his optimism and faith in mankind was the thing that most inspired me. He taught me how to find satisfaction and joy in the most simple aspects of life and to eschew comparisons with those who appear to have more. He believed that it was futile to wish that things had been different in his story. He accepted the many hardships that he experienced as just part of the human experience. He reveled in knowing that he had overcome so much and was still standing.

When my grandfather died I was devastated. His one hundred eight years on this earth had somehow mislead me to believe that he would always be waiting to talk with me. I found myself regretting that I had not gone to see him more often or stayed just a bit longer instead of deferring to things that I had to do. I still hear his comforting voice and smell the aroma of his pipe tobacco wafting into the air. There is so much more that I want to know about him and so much that I would like to say to him.

We seem to be living in a time when society is rushing around faster than ever before. The trend is to tie ourselves and our children to unrelenting schedules. We are continually exposed to an infinite loop of complaining about how terrible things are. We attempt to assuage our stress with entertainments that are of little or no value. Some attempt to hide their pain with drugs and alcohol. It can feel overwhelming to observe the level of dissatisfaction. All of it makes me long for the calm and contentment of my grandfather, a man who dealt with the hand that was given him with grace and appreciation.

When all is said and done my grandfather taught me that we have more control over our lives than we may think. Both good and bad things will indeed happen but we have the ultimate control over what attitudes we choose to have. His philosophy was to find a grain of good even in the worst possible scenario. He was a strong and courageous man not just because he had to be but because he wanted to be. He embraced each moment just as it was, learning something about the world and himself as he went. I miss him greatly but he taught me how to survive and showed me how precious life can and should be. He was my guru.