I See You

I See You

I went to a fairly small high school in which we tended to know of everyone of our classmates, but often did not really know details about all of them. Some of my friends from that stage of my life are still very much part of my world, and what I have learned over the decades is that each of us have had to deal with difficulties both when we were young, and when we were adults. None of us have gone untouched by daunting challenges that sometimes took all of our reserves to overcome.

As I have aged I have had opportunities to get to really know some of the people who went to school with me who were once little more than acquaintances or names and faces in a yearbook. Even those that I thought had a golden touch have endured painful experiences, and many of them occurred even as they sauntered through the hallways of our school with smiles on their faces hiding the hurt and fear that was stalking them.

We are in a strange kind of era in which we almost appear to be vying to determine which people among us have been the victims of the most unjust tragedies. Certainly some among us have always had more resources for dealing with difficulties, but none of us have ever been entirely free of troubles. My brothers and I had a heavy dose of sorrow, poverty and exposure to mental illness but we also had more than a generous share of emotional support from our mother, our extended family, our neighbors, the people at our church, our teachers and our friends. We may have been thrown into the maelstrom more than we might have wished, and wondered at times if we would survive, but time and again we learned the very important lesson that we were never alone. That realization was more valuable than money or possessions or influence or privilege. In fact, we were quite young when we knew beyond a doubt that there is always is source of kindness and that often it comes from the most unexpected places.

The one thing that most people desire is to be seen and heard. I recently read a book that my grandson chose for his summer reading that reminded me of our human need to be noticed and honored for being exactly who we are. A Monster Calls is the story of a young man plagued by nightmares in the midst of his beloved mother’s battle with cancer. It is a gorgeous flight of fancy that speaks to our desire to be understood. There is no race or class that does not share the desire to be fully and totally accepted.

Just as the boy in A Monster Calls was filled with anger because he believed that nobody fully understood him, so too are many people in society today filled with rage because they feel misunderstood. They are mad about this or that and don’t want to take it anymore. They seem to be unaware of the fact that we all have been burdened with challenges beyond our control that have made our lives more difficult than we want them to be. They carry on because they want someone to empathize with their plights, some of which appear to be more deserving of our concern than others. In truth it is impossible to discern the difference between rotten apples and moldy oranges. Problems are problems and we all have them. When they pile up and become unbearable, which they tend to do in spite of our efforts, we simply want some compassion and for those around us to acknowledge our sorrows.

When humans feel abandoned they are more likely to lose hope. They lash out or devolve into depression. There is no telling where their thoughts of desperation will lead them. Sometimes they become ugly and violent versions of themselves. I always ponder when I encounter such a person what brought them to such a terrible place. I find myself wondering if someone along the pathway of their lives might have helped them to find positive ways of dealing with tribulations. I contemplate the possibility that they became so invisible that they broke.

I  have been greatly saddened by a tragedy that occurred near where my grandsons live. On a summer afternoon just before the start of school two boys the same age as my grandsons met in a park. One of them shot and killed the other. They were sixteen and my grandsons knew both of them from their high school. The shooter was in the same advisory period as theirs. The victim’s mother was an acquaintance of their mom’s. It hit all of us hard just as it did the teachers at the school. Everyone wondered what might have prevented such an horrific moment. Was there something that might have been said or done? What was the defining event when things began to go so terribly wrong?

We tend to operate as though laws and rules and allegiances are more important than individual lives, and yet there are stories after stories both in literature and history of people who were saved because someone witnessed their pain and did something meaningful to help them. Kindness often does wonders. I know for a fact that it made an enormous difference for me and my brothers when we were growing into adults. Just having someone see us and offer a hand taught us to be optimistic even in the darkest hours. Little acknowledgements were enough to sustain us.

I was reading about Latinas going to college and feeling different and a bit frightened when checking into their dormitories. It reminded me of my own college days. I was unable to live on campus. I went to the university in my city and commuted to and from school each day. I did not have a car but I had two dear friends who offered to get me there and take me back home. They went out of their way to help me.

I would have liked to have been part of college life with a dorm room and all of the activities associated with that experience, but I barely had enough money to cover my tuition which I paid from summer jobs and little bits of work here and there. I instead got something even better, a lifetime relationship with the two wonderful souls who made sure that I got to my classes. They saw me and they listened to me then and all the way into the present. I don’t know what I might have done without them, but I’ll never have to wonder because they were there.

Perhaps instead of growing irritated by those who are shouting about their pain and sorrow, we simply need to let them know that we do see them and we will listen to them. That is the first step in helping someone to find the way to a better life. I had angels who gave me that gift, I pray that other frightened souls will find someone willing to provide for them.

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Those Kids

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A cousin shared a story from The Washington Post written by a teacher who considered the dilemma of THAT kid, the one that drives teachers crazy and worries the parents of the “good” children. I was sobbing by the time that I reached the end of the very well crafted piece because I thought of all of THOSE kids who crossed my path during my teaching career. They touched my heart when I taught them and to this very day I worry about what may have come of them. They were the youngsters whose lives were riddled with troubles that not even an adult should have to face. Their behavior all to often reflected the pain that they were feeling and the confusion that they riddled their minds in having to face situations that were beyond their control. I hope that I helped them in some way, but I also know that there were times when they frustrated me so that I let them down. I see their faces with those looks of longing for compassion that were often masked by actions that seemed so horrid.

The first of them was a child of only ten who disrupted class on a regular basis. Most did not know that she lived in dire poverty with absentee parents. She was followed by the nine year old boy whose mother left him to watch his little sister while she worked nights as a prostitute. There was the young man whose mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only an infant and the girl whose uncle impregnated her when she was only twelve. I’ll never forget the teen who witnessed his father murdering his mother or the one whose mother shoplifted to keep the family from starving. They were all part of a band of children whose lives were often defined by poverty and parents struggling to fight their own demons. They did not start life as troublemakers. They did not want to be viewed as bad seeds. They were innocents who got chewed up by a world that they did not fully understand. In their fight for survival they asserted themselves and pushed back. They became angry and difficult to handle.

How many of us would have been able to endure some of the horrors that they faced? Fate had subjected them to ordeals that no child should ever encounter. They acted out. They behaved badly. They were screaming for someone to help them.

I did my best with most of them but sometimes I became tired and frustrated and passed them along in anger. I wanted them to be punished for ruining the calm of my classroom. I disliked them for the distractions that they were. I fell into the pattern that they had already experienced hundreds of times from adults, that of being ignored or punished for the sin of reacting to adversity the way most of us probably would given the circumstances of their lives. I feel guilt for the times when I gave up on them.

There was a young man from a decidedly dysfunctional family. He exuded a tough guy image. It was his way of coping with abuse by those who were supposed to love him. He made an ugly racist comment to another student. He claimed that he was only joking, but I knew that he was really just crying for help. Our answer was to expel him from our school. A counselor sobbed for him and begged us to reconsider. I was afraid to counter the majority opinion even though I did not believe that sending him away was an appropriate answer. I voted with the group rather than following my instincts. He only became worse because in a sense we had convinced him that he was as worthless as his parents constantly told him that he was. I still grieve over my lack of courage in defending him along with his braver advocate. He needed love at that moment, not rejection, but we we not willing to listen.

So it often is with THOSE students. We adhere without thought to sets of rules that do not take into account what is behind the reprehensible behaviors. We wash our hands in innocence insisting that exceptions only make matters worse. It’s easier to operate from words on a paper, set in stone without consideration of all of the facts.

I think of one of my very best principals, a woman who cautioned me to be flexible with my rules and consequences. She urged me never to paint myself into a corner. She warned me that there will always be those for whom the so called rules do not really apply. She was as wise as Solomon in guiding me when I was just a pup in the beginning of my teaching career. I understood what she meant as I met more and more of THOSE kids. I realized that I had to attempt to reach them rather than judge them. I had to love them as much as I did the ones who were no trouble at all.

I witnessed transformations. The boy who threw books and told me to F off graduated with honors as the president of his class. The young man who ran with gangs doing despicable things changed his ways and became a police officer. The kid who nobody could control went to college and earned multiple degrees because “somebody took the time to care.” Nobody should ever wantonly be tossed on the dustbin of society while they are still young. Our goal should be to redeem them rather than to urge retribution against them.

I still cry at the thought of what some of my students had to endure. I flinch with guilt at the realization of how I may have failed them too. I hope that I made a difference for most of them. I’d like to think that perhaps they are now doing well. I still love THOSE kids. I hope they know.

Keep On Keeping On

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When we are young we tend to be impatient. We see life as a sprint rather than a marathon. Every mistake we make feels like the end of possibilities. We fret over our futures and worry that our lives are over before we even get started. I recall thinking that I would never experience any of the things that I dreamed of doing. I was in a hurry, and life rarely works that way. Over the decades I’ve learned that there are some things that we can’t rush, but they happen all in good time.

When I graduated from high school I enrolled in college but I honestly felt totally confused about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I found love with the man who is now my husband, and nothing mattered more to me at the time. So many young men that I knew were being drafted into the army and shipping off to Vietnam where some of them died or were severely wounded. The nation was in a state of upheaval far worse than anything we are now experiencing. Somehow I lost my way and when the chance arose to marry the one person who made me feel good every minute that I was with him I leaped at the opportunity.

I was determined to continue my education even as an incredibly young married woman and for two semesters after my wedding I was as good as my word. Then my world came crashing down around me when my mother’s mental illness advanced to a stage that was more than she was able to bear. I became her lifelong caretaker even as I had little idea of what to do or how long this journey was going to take. I was playing each moment by ear and hoping for the best. On top of everything else I suddenly found that I was pregnant with my first child. Nonetheless I kept taking classes in spite of the reality that none of them felt right for me.

My mother’s battle with mental illness would recur again and again and I would need to focus my attention on her whenever she was especially sick. I decided to take a sabbatical from my university studies after my first child was born. I vowed to return to complete a degree of some kind but for the moment I had my hands full. Things became more complicated when a second daughter was born and my mom’s illness became a constant in our lives. My husband also developed a life threatening disease when we were in our mid twenties that required many months of hospitalization and chemotherapy. Any thoughts of college that I may have had were set aside as I buckled down to take care of my mom, my children and my husband. Somehow the years slipped by and any promise of graduating from college seemed remote so I found little jobs here and there teaching preschool or working as the Director of Religious Education at my church. I had turned thirty before I once again became determined to finish my studies.

I brought a great deal of wisdom and experience to my second foray into education. I found that I enjoyed my classes and gave extra effort to them out of joy for learning. I finally knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life and that certainty gave meaning and purpose to each of the courses that I took. Before long I had earned my degree in education and began teaching in earnest. I would spend the rest of my working days with children and teens. I found that I truly enjoyed my job and the real life experiences that I had encountered were as important in preparing me as my studies had been.

I earned a high level of satisfaction and success in my career. By the time I retired I had taught thousands of students in grades from preschool to middle school to high school to college. I had been an administrator and a mentor to teachers. I felt fulfilled and happy. Since my last full time job I have tutored students and taught children who are being homeschooled. I write every single day as well which was a secret dream that I had long held.

I like to tell my story to young people because I think that I am a living example of the adage that it is never too late to be the person one wants to be. I was thirty two when I earned by degree. I was in my forties when I received a masters degree. I have been learning and working hard for all of my life. I have been willing to think out of the box and try things that had never occurred to me to do. I have never given up on myself, and even when times were tough I believed that brighter days were most assuredly ahead.

Sometimes it takes a bit of sacrifice to get where we want to be in life. We may not get there in the normal ways. Our paths may be rugged and difficult to endure, but with determination we can and will overcome the obstacles that seem to stalk us. I was unable to control all of the situations that overtook my life but I could take one or two classes at a time each and every semester until I finally walked across the stage for my diploma.

I have genuinely had it all, and so can almost everyone. Where there is a will to accomplish something there is always a way. I never belonged to a sorority or lived on campus at a university, but I still made friends in my classes. I had to forgo vacations and all sorts of luxuries for years, but eventually I was doing well enough to treat myself. I had a grand purpose in caring for my family, and I’d like to think that I inspired my daughters to live their lives to the fullest. I’ve tried to help my students also understand that the problems that have daunted them are only temporary detours. If they just keep on keeping on they will emerge into the highway that leads them to their grandest dreams and a few surprises that are even better.

Be That Person

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It’s quiet this morning. As I write my blog the children in my neighborhood have not yet started back to school, but by the time it is posted their educational routines will have begun again in earnest. This time of year causes me to review the totality of my own life and to consider the challenges that I faced in growing up as well as those that plague today’s youngsters.

I was five years old when I became a student for the first time. My father dropped me off rather unceremoniously at St. Peter’s Catholic School where I began the first grade with little preparation for the routine that would overtake my life. My mother had only days before returned from the hospital with my brand new baby brother. My favorite uncle was fighting for his life at the Veteran’s Hospital in a battle that would not end well. There was a bit of chaos in my little world and thus the adults decided that I would be happier in the structured environment of school than the free range of a home turned upside down by life’s events.

Nobody took a photograph of my milestone entrance into school nor did they explain to me what lie ahead. I was simply told at the last minute that the time for my formal education had arrived. To say that I was unhappy and a bit overwhelmed would be an understatement, but I was always an obedient child and so I quietly demurred to my parents’ wishes even though I was frightened and confused. Luckily my teacher was an extraordinary educator who sensed my reluctance and did her best to help me to feel more comfortable about being away from my family for long periods of time. A sweet girl named Virginia who befriended me in my hour of need helped to soften the experience as well.

I soon found that learning provided me with a profound sense of control over my life. I was by nature an anxious child, but once I began to read and perform mathematical calculations I actually became so caught up in the experiences that time passed quickly and I hardly thought about the concerns that so often crowded my mind. I found solace and escape from worry in the lessons that inched me toward becoming the person that I would ultimately be. Still, as each successive school year rolled around I found myself dreading the return to structure and assignments and being away from my family only to be surprised at how much I enjoyed being a student.

My fourth grade years brought eight year old me to school as a fatherless child. My world had been turned upside down by my father’s sudden death and I had spent the summer in a kind of sorrowful haze. I remembered how much he had loved learning of all kinds and thought of him dropping me off at the first grade. I was a psychological mess, and sadly I did not get a kind and gentle teacher that school year so I experienced my first episode of school as a source of stress. I protected myself by retreating into my books and I found that even without the kindness of the adult in whose care I existed each day I still felt a sense of serenity within the pages of those tomes that carried me to faraway worlds.

Year after year I repeated the rituals of school until one day I was the one greeting the children and directing the lessons. Knowing how important it had been to me to be in the presence of a compassionate teacher, I suppose that I spent an inordinate amount of my efforts trying to make the learning experience a lovely one for my students. I understood all too well what it was like to come to school carrying baggage that made it difficult to concentrate or think. I had learned the power of kindness and understanding in breaking through my own walls, and so I did my best to appreciate each of my students just as they were rather than worrying too much about how I wanted them to be. I always hoped that they understood how much I cared about them.

So many children today begin their educational journeys as infants when their parents place them in daycares and pre-schools while they work. The educational scope and sequence has been accelerated to a level that is demanding and allows little time for relaxing. The buses that come to my neighborhood arrive before seven in the morning and don’t return until after four in the afternoon. The school year begins earlier and earlier. Today’s kids spend most of their young lives outside of their homes and the demands placed on them are often enormous. In an effort to help them be well rounded they are enrolled in extra curricular activities and spend afternoons and weekends competing in athletic events. Their time at home just resting and being themselves is ever shrinking. With homework and projects they are at times in a perennial cycle of exhaustion that allows them less sleep than they actually need and few moments of quiet time.

As adults we have seen these things and maybe even worry about them but continue to simply go with the flow lest our youth fall behind the progress of their peers. After all the college years are looming and our kids must be competitive enough to earn spots on the finest campuses. There is no time to waste, or at least it seems so. Our intentions are good but sometimes the pressure is too much for certain individuals to bear. They break and feel as though their lives have ended. I know this because I have counseled many a young person who felt as though he or she had reached the end of all possibilities. They saw themselves as failures who would no doubt spend their adult lives feeling ashamed. They had been programed to judge themselves with rubrics that did not allow for those moments in which we demonstrate our humanity with bad decisions or horrific mistakes.

As we send our children off to school this year each of us would do well to help them to maintain perspective. A life is not a series of sprints, but rather a long distance marathon that requires us to save some of our energy for the inevitable times that become difficult. The best lessons that we might teach our children are how to pace themselves, how to keep balance in their lives, how to know when they are attempting too much, how not to constantly compare themselves to others, how to choose the right people to be in their lives, how to learn from mistakes and get back in the race. We owe it to their futures and ours to help them keep a positive perspective and to give them our time and attention every single day.

Academics are important, but it will be in the love and understanding of caring adults that our children learn the lessons that will sustain them for a lifetime. Be that person in the life of every child that you encounter. Never underestimate the power that you have to make a difference in the world one young person at a time. The best lessons are not found in books.  

The Old West

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I grew up watching westerns with my Uncle Jack. I loved all of those shows about the old west but perhaps my favorite was Bonanza with its stories about the Cartwright family. Hoss and Adam and Little Joe were heroes to me and I loved the tales of their adventures. On many an episode they wandered into Virginia City to take care of business or meet up with friends. I was fascinated by the lifestyle of those long ago towns where folks endured hardship in search of gold or silver or some better way of life. Imagine my delight when our recent travels took us to the real historic Virginia City in Nevada just outside of that state’s capitol, Carson City.

This was once the site of a booming gold rush town. The decaying remnants of the old mines still litter the hillsides in a haunting way. They serve as a reminder of the ebb and flow of booms and busts in the story of mankind. Once they were alive with frantic activity designed to pull riches out of the earth. Now there is little more left than worthless mine trailings and rusty tin walls.

The road into Virginia City climbs through the hills along a paved highway that was no doubt a muddy dirt trail that people from across the globe traveled in the latter half of the nineteenth century in search of opportunity. Most of the buildings in the town date back to the glory days after the 1849 discovery of gold. An old school house tells of the families that came and a saloon is evidence of a different way to create wealth through a more insidious form of entertainment. The buildings are alive with history and seem to be whispering that if one only tarry for a time the secrets that are buried there might be revealed.

As we drove along the main street of Virginia City I found myself feeling the spirit of its settlers of old, people hoping against all hope of finding the mother lode or earning enough to survive by providing services of one kind or another. “Who were the folks who traveled here?” I wondered. What motivated them to leave everything they had ever known to travel to this desert like place where there were no guarantees that their efforts might be rewarded? What dangers lurked? How many if them left broke or forever changed?

We like to romanticize the old west but it was truly a harsh existence. There were many dangers not the least of which was being broken by the challenges. Somehow the folks who came here never thought that perhaps the land they were invading might already belong to Native Americans whose roots were hundreds of years old. They somehow assumed that they had a right to make claims of ownership without compensating those that they displaced. I truly wonder how they could not have known that there was something a bit wrong with their thinking, but then I wasn’t there. Humankind’s journey has been fraught with battles between opposing groups claiming ownership of land since the beginning of time.

Virginia City is a place where time seems to have stopped. It is a tangible piece of history that tells us a story of folks desperate to make something more of their lives. Fortunes were made and lost there. Lives were treated to elation and great disappointment. We have romanticized those tales and made them part of the tradition of the hero’s journey when perhaps they were little more than ordinary efforts to survive. Maybe back then it took great courage just to eke out a living from one day to the next, but there was probably very little glamor in any corner of places like Virginia City.

My paternal ancestors never ventured very far from the land east of the Mississippi River. It was my maternal grandparents eventually found their way to Houston, Texas from Austria Hungary. They had heard stories of a new kind of black gold, oil. While they never engaged in the search for the goo that gushed from the earth they understood that other kinds of services might be needed and they were willing to work long hours cleaning other people’s messes to provide a decent living for themselves. I suspect that their story is mirrored in the lives of those who set out to tackle the old west. Many never became rich but they found ways to work and enjoy a better lifestyle than they might otherwise have had. I suppose this is what people everywhere have always done.

We now debate whether or not this decision or that choice of our ancestors was right and just without ever knowing what peoples’ real motivations were. It is in reality a kind of self righteous judgement on our parts for we will never be able to truly understand what life was like or how the thinking of the past influenced people. Until we are able to walk in a person’s shoes we are only conjecturing as to their thinking and there is something rather presumptuous about that.

I am fascinated by the old west and all of history. Our human imperfections are in full view in the chronicles of the human story. The people who came before us made mistakes just as each of us does even now no matter how well intentioned we might be. We can never judge the actions of others without demonstrating some of our own imperfections. Perhaps it is best just to learn from them and to change our own ways rather than judging whether are not they were worthy of our respect. What happened happened in a world far different from our own. For now it’s just fun to visit the places where people once did their best to make life just a bit better for themselves and their families. It’s really cool to see vestiges of how they lived and to realize the scope of human efforts through the evolution of time.