Learning Is A Beautiful Thing

img_0026A young woman that I know rightly noted that learning is a beautiful thing, and in the same breath wondered why our methods for conveying it garner such anxiety. We have somehow managed to take one of the loveliest aspects of being human and turned it into what is often an onerous competitive blood sport. In today’s world education is all too often a numbers game in which young people who are still developing are ranked and classified in life changing rituals that sometimes have the effect of changing the course of their destinies. It is a process that affects not only our students but also our teachers and our society. The attempts to quantify the learning process has ignored the more subtle aspects of people, and instead stamped them with life changing numbers that have the power of affecting where they will eventually work and how they will live.

The idea of joyful learning has become secondary to test scores and grades, often wringing the joy of schooling out of the equation. The message that we send our young is that education is a numbers game overseen by mega testing corporations and the College Board. The test is the thing, and those who learn in ways contrary to mastery of often trivial and subjective standardized questions need not apply. All too often the difference between an opportunity to follow a dream and condemnation to a lifetime of frustration is found in a rigid reliance on numbers, even as we somehow know that such things are incapable of truly determining the worth of someone’s talents.

As a small girl I was repulsed by situations that ranked me and my fellow students. The teacher who created a bulletin board with rockets bearing our names to identify those who were soaring to the moon versus those who crashed and burned at takeoff became loathsome in my mind. I understood that I knew how to please her, but that others also had great but different gifts to offer. I suppose that living with my brothers had taught me about the ways in which we grow and develop, not at a constant and linear rate, but in a kind of spiral with stops and starts. One of my brothers had a brilliant mathematical mind that was far advanced over the rest of us. He knew what he wanted to do with his life from the time that he was five. My other brother and I drifted here and there. As a people pleaser I was able to convince my teachers that I was indeed quite intelligent, but only by towing the line that they required of me. My little brother was more rebellious and thus often considered less likely to be successful. The truth was that he had a complex and creative mind that would eventually prove to be exactly what an entrepreneur needs.

Today the pressure to conform to the numbers game is more intense than ever. Students are ranked from the first day of high school. They are told that class standing and scores on entrance exams will determine whether or not they are allowed to enter the most prestigious universities and majors. They battle for the top spots by adding premium points to their GPAs with countless advanced placement classes. They worry about every little test, every rise or dip in their grades. They take courses to learn how to be better test takers. They eschew subjects that sound interesting or fun because they might cause them to fall in the ranks. Often they lose the joyfulness of learning in the process of pursuing their goals. School becomes an odious task that must be endured so that the future will be bright.

Even when they reach the hallowed halls of a favored university they may find themselves once again being sorted into the stars and the also rans. Competitions for internships and jobs are based more on grades than personalities and the kinds of traits that cannot possibly be measured with numbers. A single point difference shuts doors and opportunities. It is only after entering the real world of work that things like effort and creativity become marketable skills. An ability to work with a team is often more important than making the highest score on a test but such things are rarely considered in the world of academia.

People often ask me about my experience as an educator. In that capacity I literally taught people of all ages. My initial foray into the life of a teacher began with four year olds. By the time I retired I had worked with virtually every age group including adults. The one constant that I observed is that we each learn and progress at a different pace. Those who are the quickest to master a topic are not necessarily the ones who will ultimately do the best with it. My eldest daughter was fifteen months old before she walked, but on the day that she took her first steps she literally ran and then became a beautiful and graceful dancer. The fact that she took so long to walk upright had zero effect on the rest of her life. Thus it is with each of us. Learning is very personal and should be cause for joy, not anxiety.

One of the finest teachers that I have ever known devised a grading system that allowed for differences in the learning curve. If a student initially failed to master a skill he offered additional tutoring and then retested the individual and eliminated the failing grade, replacing it with the mark that celebrated success. His students adored him and often reported that they not only walked away from his class filled with knowledge, but they also felt more confident and willing to take new risks. They learned how to be resilient from him, and they found great joy in learning about topics that might have earlier terrified them. This is the way education is supposed to be but all too rarely is.

The young woman that I know is so right. Learning is a beautiful thing. Let’s hope that one day we will find a way to universally bring the joy to those who embark on the journey of becoming educated.

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A Loving Tradition

Andy and ThuyMy brother married a beautiful and brilliant young woman who was originally from Taiwan. She was one of five siblings, a brave girl who sought her dreams in the United States. She earned a degree, landed a job with a NASA contractor, and caught my brother’s eye at meeting. Back then it was quite a challenge to learn someone’s contact information, but my brother was determined to find her and get to know her better. After searching the telephone book like a detective, and following many false leads, he eventually found her and not long after that they had fallen in love.

Their wedding was a fitting beginning for a truly beautiful couple. It was during all of the festivities that I first met my sister-in-law’s family among whom was her lovely and thoughtful older sister, Diana, who was married to a sweet man who went out of his way to entertain us and to be certain that we felt included in the celebrations. He and his young wife had a small son, Andy, who was close in age to my two little girls, so we had parenthood in common. I remember feeling so comfortable with them and wishing that they lived in the USA rather than Taiwan so that I might be able to spend more time with them.

My brother and his bride settled into a wonderful life in the Clear Lake area of Houston so that they would be close to the work at NASA that would become an integral part of who they are. We soon learned that in the Chinese tradition we were honored as family members just as much as those related by blood, and in the same tradition my mother held an exalted place. I truly appreciated the all loving culture of my sister-in-law and her family.

While we were still in our twenties we learned the tragic news that Diana’s husband had died. It seemed to be far too early for someone as young and kind as he was to leave this earth. It was a sad time when we worried about the widow and her young son, but our fears were soon somewhat abated when Diana came to America to earn a degree of her own at Lamar University. While she studied there Andy lived with my brother and sister-in-law. He became a beloved member of our extended family who played with my daughters and practiced his English with them. We spent holidays together, celebrated birthdays, and traveled to Colorado in an overcrowded van filled with laughter and noise.

Eventually Diana earned her degree and she too found work with companies associated with NASA. She was always the person at every event who checked to be certain that everyone was having a good time. She raised Andy to appreciate the opportunities that he had and to make full use of them. He grew to be tall and lanky like his father, and just as sweet as both of his parents. Soon he was heading to the University of Texas in Austin to forge his future. While there he met Thuy, a lovely and determined young woman whose family had immigrated from Vietnam. The two of them dated and studied and soon realized that together they were a powerful team. Both of them wanted to become doctors and they supported each other in that quest. With much hard work they were soon on their way to medical school in Dallas, but first they married in a beautiful ceremony that celebrated their love.

Much time has passed. Both Andy and Thuy have highly successful careers as physicians. He is a gastroenterologist and she is an oncologist. They are well regarded as among the best in their respective fields. They work hard and have the trappings of success, but they have never forgotten the people who were part of their journey. They now have two children, a boy Ethan and a girl Allie, who share their intellect and generous personalities. The children are incredibly bright and unspoiled. Like their grandparents and their parents they are thoughtful and respectful. They take the time to honor the guests in their home following a tradition that seems to be part of their DNA.

Andy and Thuy love to have fun. They travel the world with Ethan and Allie and attend sporting events and concerts. They enjoy trying different kinds of food and being adventurous. They appear to have boundless energy that allows them to be constantly on the go. They are happy people who work hard and play hard. Still, there are quiet times for reading and learning, always learning. They love their children and focus on bringing them up with wonderful values of kindness, honesty and determination. They make weekly visits to the library and in between they voraciously devour the stories and information contained in the pages. Their lives are busy, but well balanced.

Andy and Thuy celebrate life with incredible parties that center around themes. Each child receives such an honor every other year. They are amazing affairs with decorations worthy of a Hollywood production and a well planned schedule that includes food and fun in abundance. Mike and I have been lucky to be included in many of them, and we look forward to those occasions with almost childish glee.

This year it was Ethan’s turn to bask in the limelight for his eleventh birthday. The theme was “Mission Mars” and we had our choice of coming as astronauts or aliens. My brother and his wife wore their work clothes and NASA badges and looked more official than anyone. Mike and I concocted alien costumes to join in the fun. Thuy made certain that everyone would be able to dress for a part in the festivities by using her imagination to design both astronaut and alien gear. I never cease to be amazed by her ingenuity.

The house was decorated with huge rockets and astronauts floating from the ceiling among the stars. There was a magician, a debate, a trivia contest, and a confetti egg battle between aliens and astronauts. Every child walked away with an incredible gift and many adults won prizes for their participation. Best of all was the camaraderie and the love that filled the rooms, all encouraged by Andy, Thuy and their children.

I suppose that I most enjoyed just talking with Ethan and Allie. They are utterly delightful in every regard. They are first and foremost very sweet, and they have been taught to honor adults, especially those who are seniors. They are infinitely polite, but also filled with unique personality traits that make them funny and delightful.

I’ve told Thuy that she if she ever finds the time she should speak to young people at high schools. Hers is an inspirational story that proves that goodness, hard work, grit, and compassion do indeed lead to a glorious life. She has dutifully sacrificed and followed an orderly progression toward a way of life that is fulfilling and purposeful. Now she and Andy are passing those traits on to their children, continuing a way of life that has roots all the way to Taiwan and Vietnam.

Andy and Thuy are family, and they make me proud. They are literally saving lives each day, but on a more personal level they teach all of us how to truly love.

When Me Too Hits Close To Home

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I have been brave in my writing. I attempt to tell truths that may be uncomfortable to others, and there is much tragedy and grief in my story and those of each human that has the potential to make us squirm. As people we often prefer to avoid reality because it is so difficult to face. Whenever I write or speak about mental illness I feel the discomfort that ensues. I know that my readers want to be uplifted and so I balance such stories with lighthearted tales of puppies and travel. Still, I know that there are times when it is my duty to be honest about challenging topics.

We are presently in the throes of the Me Too Movement. So many women are stepping forward with stories of sexual abuse that it sometimes feels as though there is a kind of hysteria washing over the world. Surely, we think, there must be a certain level of exaggeration when it comes to the numbers of accusations that are suddenly condemning men of all stripes, including priests. We wonder and worry if there is just a kind of mass paranoia that is behind all of the revelations, at least until we hear of a case that is close to home.

Earlier this week a woman who was a year behind me in high school posted a shocking essay on Facebook in which she outlined the horrors of her own encounter with sexual abuse from one of her high school teachers, a priest. It was stunning in its detail and honesty, and I might have simply disregarded it as being too fantastical to be true had it not been for the fact that I knew this priest and had felt oddly uncomfortable around him when I was in high school.

Being a single parent my mom taught me how to be exceedingly careful around men. I thought that she was overly worried that someone might take advantage of me sexually. Her constant lectures on how to comport myself and how to avoid sticky situations seemed paranoid, and in keeping with her mental illness. Her instructions also made me unduly wary of every male that I knew. Nonetheless, there were times when I sensed trouble because of her admonitions and as a result I have sailed through life having had some highly suggestive encounters, but never any actual physical attempts to take advantage of me. I ran like a deer at the first sign of innuendo.

So it was with the very priest that one of my fellow students described as her abuser. He had shown an undue interest in me and often asked me if I was dating. I was still a wall flower of the highest order at that time and I didn’t like discussing my lack of a social life with anyone save for my closest female friends, so I never engaged in his inquisitions. One afternoon at the end of the school day I encountered him in the school hallway and he grabbed me from behind and locked me in a hug in which he held me with my back being held tightly against his chest. My instinct was to kick him and run away, but he  was a priest and one who lifted weights at that. I was a very small girl who was taught to be respectful, but in that moment I was also conflicted as I thought of my mother’s instructions to follow my instincts and run from any situation that felt wrong. I remember willing myself to become as rigid as stone as he held me for what felt like an eternity.

While we stood there he wanted to know if I had been invited to the prom. I had not, and it was a great disappointment to me. I was a senior and as far as I knew virtually every girl in my class was going. I mumbled a quick answer hoping that he would loose his grip, but he persisted in his conversation by telling me that if he were my age and not a priest he would have been proud to take me to the prom. He said that in his mind I was one of the more attractive girls in the school. In fact, he rambled on, he thought that I was a real catch. As my mind raced at what felt oddly inappropriate I did some quick thinking and told him that my mom was waiting for me outside and I had to go. He let me go immediately, and from that point forward I treated him as though he was a carrier of a deadly plague, In other words, heeding my mother’s advice I made certain that I would never again find myself alone with him. I moved on and so did he.

Years passed but I always recalled how uncomfortable he had made me. I vacillated between thinking that he had indeed been targeting me for something unnatural or that I had simply been a school girl with a big imagination. He eventually moved away, left the priesthood and married. I assumed that I had made a mountain out of a molehill in my teenage mind, and then I read the expose from the woman who had borne the full effect of his attentions. With each revelation of the pain that she had endured over a lifetime I felt a pit in my stomach because my own brush with danger felt more real than ever. Her accusations might have been unbelievable given how egregious they were had I not felt so uncomfortable with this same man. Somehow I knew that her sordid tale was true, and I was sickened. 

But for my mother’s admonitions I might have been the person telling a story of deep abuse. I shudder to think how it may have changed my life as it did the woman who so endured the pain and the fear that is almost always associated with such horrors. The priest who abused her is long dead, but what he did to her will live with her forever and those of us who Knew and trusted him. The greater sin in her tragedy is that she eventually came forward with her story and virtually nothing was done to rectify the terror that should never have been inflicted on her. Her abuse was filed away as though it never happened.

It’s time for the Catholic Church to change dramatically and quit protecting bad priests from the full impact of the law. They have to listen to victims and be transparent with parishioners. In the meantime we must instruct our sons and daughters to assert themselves when vile acts are being forced on them and to speak up regardless of who is the perpetrator.We must honor those courageous enough to tell us about these incidents and ferret out those who would take advantage of innocents. I suppose that I will be eternally grateful that my mom took the time to be open and honest about such issues and to make me aware of the evil that lurks in this world. Her wisdom has protected me throughout my life. Not everyone has been so fortunate. 

Finding My Way

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I spent the first seventeen years of my life in a kind of bubble. I lived in a neighborhood that I rarely left for anything other than visits to the homes of my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I walked to my school and had classes all the way through the twelfth grade with many of the same friends that I had known since the first and second grades. My life revolved around a regular routine that was carefully orchestrated by my mother. I felt safe, secure and loved, but frustrated by how little I knew of the world beyond the borders of the small area of southeast Houston where I lived.

My single parent family had no extra money to send me and my brothers to college, so it was up to us to find ways to pay for tuition and such. I worked hard in high school and graduated with enough honors to be recruited by a number of private universities including some that were rather prestigious, but most of the scholarship offers would still have left me scrambling for funds and wondering how I would manage to get from Houston to distant towns. When it came time to choose a university I felt that I needed to be in an environment far different from the one that had nurtured me in my youth. Somehow the University of Houston appeared to be the perfect solution, and as it turned out I was correct.

I found myself surrounded by a of diversity of people and ideas unlike anything that I had ever before experienced from the first moment that I stepped onto the University of Houston campus. It was a bit frightening and exhilarating at one and the same time. Even though the school was only a short drive from the place where I had lived for most of my life, it was a world away in culture. With its massive student body I literally became a number which I had to memorize to identify myself in the system. I was little more than a face in a crowd as I learned how to navigate the brutal registration process and the routes from one class to another. I had to grow up fast and toughen myself just to survive. It was exactly the kind of experience that I needed.

I soon learned that nobody was going to coddle me at UH and that I would have to use my own voice to make myself known to my professors. I overcame the shyness behind which I had hidden myself for so long. I had to develop a willingness to be an advocate by stepping forward and speaking up. I found it to be a glorious experience, and a way to become the person that I truly wanted to be. I may have returned to my mother’s home each evening, but during the day I was exerting my independence and finding delight in meeting people from all over the world. It was an exciting time that was transforming me at warp speed. I was quite proud to know that I was capable of paying my own way and choosing the direction of my life without adults hovering over me. At the same time I realized that I was receiving an excellent education as well.

In the beginning I tended to assess the students with whom I attended classes with the very narrow lens of the restricted environment in which I had spent my childhood and teen years. Suddenly I encountered people of different races, religions, and socio-economic status on a regular basis. I found that it was a mistake to categorize them according to my preconceived stereotypes.

I particularly recall one of my first classes in which the professor paired me with a girl whom I would never have chosen to approach. She literally exuded beauty, wealth and confidence with her perfectly coiffed hair, manicured nails, and expensive clothing. I had noticed her when she first walked into the room and I had felt somewhat in awe of her commanding presence. I had thoughts of dropping the class when I learned that my fate was to be tied to her for the entire semester. I assumed that she would feel the same about being with me, but I was so wrong. In fact, she became a dear friend, someone in whom I was able to comfortably confide my deepest thoughts. We not only worked together in class, but spent time riding around in the sports car that had been a graduation gift from her parents. She was open and kind and unspoiled. She taught me the important lesson of getting to know a person before making judgements about character.

I certainly recall the knowledge that I gained during my time at the University of Houston, but it was the experience of growing up that had the most impact in molding who I am today. I suspect that the process might have been less encompassing in another place. The sink or swim atmosphere was exactly what I needed even though it was sometimes daunting. I would eventually realize that there were people just waiting to help me if only I took the time to elicit their support. I learned the importance of reaching out to my professors, getting to know them so that they would know me. I began to network and expand my horizons into an ever more expanding circle.

By the time I was thrown into the real world I was both knowledgeable and capable. Virtually every aspect of my talents and character were ready for whatever I might encounter. The best part was that my own confidence and way of viewing the world had grown in ways that might never have happened had I not chosen the University of Houston. By paying my own way and mixing it up in a place akin to a small city I had toughened up and become a true citizen of the world in a very short space of time.

My life would be challenged before I even turned twenty one. I would have to be an advocate not only for myself but for my mother and brothers as well. Luckily I was prepared. Without going more than a few miles I had managed to ventured far away from home into an exciting world in which I became my own person.

The original charter of the University of Houston indicated that it would be a place of learning for the children of the working people of the city. It has sometimes been said that the school is best represented with by a set of blistered hands with the grime of hard labor under its fingernails. It is a no nonsense place in which none of the “isms” really matter. There are no walls at UH on which to grow ivy. It is a living breathing microcosm of the world as it really is. I suppose that’s why studying there meant so much to me.

We’re Only Human

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Remember those stories we heard as young folk about the hardships that our parents and grandparents endured in their youth? You know what I’m talking about. They went something like this, “I walked five miles up hill in the snow to school, both ways.” Of course that’s an old joke about our elders attempting to shame us into believing that we had it easy compared to the lives that they had, but the exaggeration isn’t really all that out of line. The fact is that the act of preparing to be an adult is a tough one in almost any day and age. Behind the glamor of youth there is invariably a great deal of angst even for the seemingly most brilliant and well adjusted, and all too often we forget our own journeys and the mistakes that we made as we attempted to develop ourselves into persons able to contribute to society. We give the impression that all anyone ever has to to is set a goal, work really hard, and then watch the fruit of those labors grow. Somewhere deep in our hearts is the understanding that life is rarely that easy and that the push and pull between the world of childhood and becoming an adult is filled with challenges that often confuse and break spirits.

I continually applaud teachers and the work that they do to help build strong bodies and minds in our young. The best among them are the ones who go that extra mile “uphill” to touch the souls of their students. They understand that their duty as educators is not to play “gottcha” with kids but rather to demonstrate compassion and teach them how to navigate through the land mines that will most certainly litter their paths along the way. Teaching is so much more than conveying knowledge and then testing for learning. It is a process, a continuum that has to be individualized to the extent of realizing that we are all individuals who learn in varying ways. We bring both physical and emotional baggage to the classroom and a good teacher knows how to unpack it and tidy it up. No human is the sum of test scores, and yet we so often send the message that only those who make the grade will survive. As adults we know better but insist on spreading the myth that all hard work is duly rewarded.

I often repeat a story related to me by my husband from the days when he was a student at the University of Houston. He had a brilliant professor who had gone out of his way to know his students. This man took the time to discuss his subject in informal settings devoid of the pressures created by research papers and exams. In a conversational way he explored the gist of his knowledge with them, learning how much more they actually knew than what the snapshots of formalized appraisals might convey. My husband saw this man as a caring mentor, and took full advantage of the opportunities to become almost a disciple of him just as the students of Socrates had done in the long ago.

On one occasion my husband’s nerves got the better of him during an exam. He had one of those classic meltdowns that left his mind blank. The more he panicked the less he remembered. As he turned in his test paper he was certain that he had failed and he was disappointed and angry with himself. He immediately went to the professor to apologize for what might have appeared to be a lack of effort and concern. The kindly man began to talk about each question, prodding my husband to explain what he knew about the topics. Before long they were like two friends having one of those glorious discussions in which it is actually believable that they might change the world with their brilliance. By the end of my husband’s confessional the professor announced that it was apparent to him that his student had a deep command of the information and he promptly assigned a grade of “A.”

We rarely see teaching genius like this. In fact we are often an unforgiving society in which mistakes are held against people with dire consequences. We are proverbial Scrooges rather that Fezziwigs, sending individuals into spasms of self doubt and sometimes even severe depression. The truth is that we are continually spilling milk, messing up, making bad decisions and if we are fortunate we find people who will forgive us and help to redirect us. Sadly we are seeing less and less tolerance for the very normal and natural aspects of being human and our society is paying a very high price for so much indignation.

I had a delightful meeting with a high school counselor last week. He works hard on a daily basis to help young people find their way in our very complex society. Some of the students that he meets appear to have no problem heading straight for success, but most stumble and fall along the way. He makes a point of gently picking them back up and helping them the recover and begin again. He is one of the many heroes who takes the time to redirect and reassure even those who seem to have lost their way. This is indeed how we all should be approaching the people around us instead of abhorring words like forgiveness and amnesty.

We are losing far too many people to a competitive and combative world that chews them up and spits them onto a trash heap of hopelessness. We blithely seem to believe that we must only reward strength and perfection or we will create generations of weaklings. We set mistakes in stone and forever remind people of their faults rather than developing their best qualities. We insinuate that only those with specific talents will own the jobs of the future. We praise the young who excel, but send the message to those who struggle that their value is worth less. We even attack minors who don’t quite know how to act when they find themselves in touchy situations. We forget our duty to guide, forgive and encourage.

Luckily we still have many who quietly understand our human frailties and compassionately teach and reteach. They are educators, parents, friends, bosses, lawmakers who remember what it is really like to be human, those who understand that learning and becoming is a lifelong process that can’t be measured with numbers. Success is not made of discrete moments but rather a never ending progression of starts and stops, victories and defeats, exhilarations and frustrations, wisdom and mistakes. In reality it is never too late for each of us to become what we wish to be so perhaps it’s time that we set aside judgements set in stone whether they be test scores, grades or attempts to determine the content of character that is always evolving. We are all walking miles, sometimes even uphill in the snow, but the journey can and should be an adventure, not a dreaded task.