Remembering A Wonderful Life

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The classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life considers the difference that one individual might make in the world. The premise is that if the hero had never lived everything in his town would have turned out differently. It demonstrated that while each of us only touch a limited number of lives, our impact is nonetheless profound.

I was thinking about this when the new RAISE immigration plan was announced. I wondered what might have happened if such a law had been in effect when my grandfather first wanted to come to the United States from Austria Hungary. He had only minimal education and no real skills beyond a willingness to do the most detestable of jobs. His English was minimal. He came with little more than the clothes on his back and did the kind of manual labor that is brutal and dirty. He was frugal and saved money until he was able to send for my grandmother. She had even less to offer our great country than he did. She spoke no English and her education was virtually nonexistent. Once she had arrived she worked as a cook, a cleaning lady and at a bakery until she began to have children and then she rarely left her home again. My grandfather eventually settled on a job at a meat packing plant. He cleaned carcasses and equipment, hardly a grand career but certainly a noble way to provide for his family. From his meager salary he built a tiny house for which he paid cash and there he raised eight children.

According to the point system of the RAISE plan Grandpa would hardly have been a candidate for immigration. There was little to indicate that he would be of great economic use to the United States. I am rather certain that he would have been denied entry to our nation. What a loss that would ultimately have been.

All four of my grandfather’s sons served proudly in the military during World War II. During their lifetimes they worked hard at their jobs, rarely missing even one day of work. Two of them were employed by the United States Postal Service and two worked for Houston Lighting and Power. His daughters held a variety of positions that included teaching, doing research for a high blood pressure study, serving the United States Postal Service and working at a Naval Station. Their children, my grandfather’s grandchildren, were even more remarkable. Among them were accountants, teachers, managers, businesspersons, firefighters, and engineers. In fact my brother coauthored the program for the navigational system of the International Space Station. I wonder who would have done that if my grandfather had never come here?

It’s difficult to imagine how different the lives of countless individuals might have been had my grandfather never been granted permission to immigrate to the United States simply because his education was lacking, his skills were so basic and his English was wanting. On the surface he most certainly may have appeared to be a risk, and yet he was a proud American who encouraged his children to always work hard and be their very best. When many citizens were struggling to survive during the Great Depression he kept his family safe in a home that he had build one section at a time, paying for each addition as he went. He was frugal and refused to even accept even charitable gifts, insisting that he wanted to earn whatever he had. He was exactly the kind of American that has made this country great, but with a law like RAISE he might never have stepped on our shores.

With each successive generation his successors have become ever more important contributors to American society. There are medical doctors and those with PhD’s in public health and mathematics. There are teachers, accountants, nurses, electricians, business people, builders, athletes, ministers and scientists. The talent pool that has come from him has widened and the future of his great great grandchildren appears to be even brighter. His was the American dream and it was fulfilled beyond even his own expectations. Certainly it has made a difference to the country in a measurable way, but what if he had never been allowed to come?

My grandfather’s story is not that unusual. It has been repeated many times over in the history of our nation. Individuals who came with little or nothing to recommend them went on to build families whose impact was monumental. If we were to take away all of their contributions how different would our land be? How can we ever know who among us will be the teacher that we need, the inventor who will make our lives better, the leader who will find solutions to our biggest problems? Each of us traces our ancestry back to some distant place and in most cases the person who first ventured here was desperate to find a better way of life, but did not appear to be outstanding on the face of things. How can we use a point system to determine which people will ultimately have the best impact on our land?

I have taught thousands of immigrant children. Many of their parents spoke no English, but they were good people who did their share of work, often the dirtiest and least desirable. Like my grandfather they wanted a better life for their children and sacrificed greatly to make it happen, many times by working multiple jobs. Among my students from such families are college professors, medical doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, police officers, soldiers, fire fighters, mechanics, builders, accountants, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, public health administrators, computer programmers, public administrators, school principals, counselors, lawyers and even politicians. In a single generation they have fulfilled the hopes of their parents and are actively contributing to society in thousands of ways. They are the true face of immigration, not the hopeless gang members and welfare takers that fear mongers sometimes portray them to be. 

I respectfully submit that we should carefully consider what we might be missing if we restrict immigration to our country as outlined in the RAISE bill. Skimming what appears to be the cream of the crop from various foreign nations may or may not be the answer to a better economy. Sometimes the desire that comes from someone desperate to improve his/her condition cannot be measured by a rubric, just as the worth of my grandfather might have been considered rather low. What made him a good candidate for consideration was the “ganas” burning inside his belly. All he needed was an opportunity to demonstrate just how valuable he truly was. Thankfully he was given that gift and what a difference it has made to the United States.

We certainly want the best for our nation but we need to consider the consequences of limiting ourselves to rubrics that fail to recognize the intangible values that make truly good citizens like my grandfather and his descendants. The issue is far too complex to delineate with numbers. Human beings will surprise us again and again. We need to be open to thinking outside of the box, because it is beyond the confines of our imaginations that the best things happen. Let’s keep our lives wonderful and welcome the tired and the beleaguered. From them may come just the people that we have been waiting for.

Choose Experiences

PossessionsI have accumulated lots of things over the years. Some of what I own was handed down to me from my elders, other items are treasured gifts from friends and family. I still possess many of the wedding presents that I received almost fifty years ago. Of course I have kept souvenirs from vacation trips and art work from my children and students. There are all of the usual household and clothing items, not to mention furniture and books. I own music and musical instruments, hobby supplies and gardening implements. I keep wrapping paper and greeting cards and decorations for virtually every occasion. I enjoy my collection of little pigs that are supposed to bring me good luck and smile at the thought of the china that my brothers purchased for me using all of their savings when they were still young boys. My possessions represent a lifetime of accumulation and most of the objects are actually somewhat sentimental to me. Still, I remind myself continuously that they are just things and of little value when compared to people and experiences.

When I think back on my life I hardly remember buying something, but I always vividly recall the special times that I have spent with the people that I love. Thinking of the Sundays that I spent on the banks of Clear Lake with my cousins back when I was a kid warms my heart. I am literally able to hear the humming of the motor boats that were pulling skiers over the water. I can taste the salty spray and feel the heat of the sun on my neck. I recall our antics as we jumped the waves and lowered chicken on strings into the water in hopes of catching crabs. I see my mom and her siblings and they are so young and beautiful and fun to be around. I’m not sure what I purchased in those years or even what I wore, but I am certain that those days we spent together were magical.

I can still see and hear every single detail of my first date with my husband Mike. It’s funny how I knew on that day that I had met my soulmate. I’ve never so instantly clicked with anyone else in my life. We started a conversation back then that we have never completed. He was so incredibly handsome as he arrived looking as though he had just stepped out of the pages of GQ magazine. We saw The Flight of the Phoenix at a theater at Gulfgate. We ran into a couple of my high school classmates and I was proud to be in the company of someone as stunning as Mike. Later he took me on the first of the many adventures we would share. Our destination was to a downtown musical venue called The Cellar that was unlike any experience I had ever before enjoyed. I would later tell my friends that I thought I had met the young man that I was destined to marry.

I am able to outline every detail associated with the births of my children from the time that I learned that I was carrying them all the way through the pains of labor. Of course those wonderful child rearing years were most decidedly the best of my life. We really did have fun on Anacortes Street as they grew into lovely women. Best of all were our vacation trips that took us all over the United States in our different trucks. We slept under the stars in a canvas tent that resembled a circus big top. We laughed and shared stories and marveled at the wonders of our land. Summer after summer we traveled to all of the national landmarks making memories that have never been forgotten.

I can still feel the burning in my muscles as we trudged up the rocky path in the middle of the night on our way to the top of Long’s Peak. We watched the lights come on in the towns below and made it to the Boulder Field by dawn. We weren’t able to make it any farther because the girls were just not old enough and strong enough to climb over the huge rocks, but we felt such a sense of accomplishment and that hike became one of my all time favorite memories.

I still think back on my daughter’s milestones, their first steps and words, their school days and accomplishments. I am often reminded of their programs and performances and the glory of their graduations. Of course their weddings were wonderful even though I was so busy that I hardly had time enough to eat. Best of all were the births of my seven grandchildren who brought new and unparalleled joy into my life. Spending time with them and watching them grow has provided me a whole new set of joyful experiences.

I always loved my work and the educators and students that I met in that capacity. So many of those people are still numbered among my friends. We shared long days together, some of which were stressful at the time but always in the end we felt that incredible sense of having accomplished something very personal and important. I suspect that we are still as close to one another as we are because of the real significance of our work together.

I’ve had so much fun over the years with very special friends. I loved the times when my friend Pat and I spent weekends taking our children to movies and the 59 Diner. I still laugh at our visits with Linda and Bill and the way it took us hours to actually drive away whenever we had announced that it was time to leave. I treasure the trip to Austria that we shared with Monica and Franz as the new year dawned in 2005. I smile with pleasure at the memory of bridge games with Susan and Nancy. I love the dinners and lunches with friends and students that keep our relationships thriving and provide all of us with feelings of being loved. The concerts in which I saw the Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney were sensational. Seeing The Phantom of the Opera  on Broadway was the culmination of a dream.

It may have taken me a bit too long to get here, but I now understand the critical importance of an undisputed truth, “We should all invest in experiences rather than things.” At the end of the day even if we lose every possession, nobody will ever be able to steal the joy that we have felt from the moments in which we have seen glorious places and been with people that we love. That is what we should seek. That is what is most important.

Our Unique Selves

the-danger-of-uniqueness-1058x426People are fascinating to me, and I don’t just mean the rich, the famous or the accomplished. I am interested in the common everyday person like myself. I long to hear people’s stories. When I go to Walmart I’m not looking for crazies so that I might laugh. Instead I find myself wondering how each person got to this moment in time and what his/her past and future may be. I understand that some of the most compelling histories are found in the lives of the most ordinary people and that it is virtually impossible to judge a book by its cover.

I knew a woman who cleaned houses for a living. She rarely wore anything other than torn jeans and stained t-shirts. Her hair was long and stringy. She appeared to be little more than a good ole Pasadena gal, but upon further research I learned that she had an MBA from Harvard and a very successful business caring for homes in River Oaks.

I once had a student who appeared to be little more than an arrogant bad boy who drove his teachers to the brink of insanity. He befriended me and ultimately told me stories that made me cry when I was alone in my home. He had a single mom who struggled to keep the family from being homeless and wandering the streets. Life was as tough as it gets, and yet this young man found the time to attend church with a friend. The services provided him with solace in a world that was mostly cruel to him. He had been born again and wanted more than anything to be a good and Christlike person. He confessed to me about something that was bearing down on his conscience and desperately wanted to know what to do.

He and his mom and sister had been on the verge of being evicted. There was no food in the house. Things looked quite grim. They walked to a nearby Walmart to see what groceries they might afford with the few dollars that his mother had left. While they were perusing the aisles the boy’s mom noticed a cart with an expensive purse sitting in the child seat. The woman who owned the handbag was far away with her back turned as she searched for a particular product. Her bulging wallet was visible and just begging to be taken. My student’s parent grabbed the billfold and whispered for her children to follow her quickly away from the scene. When the coast was clear she opened the wallet to find over five hundred dollars inside. She immediately cried tears of joy and told her children that they would be able to keep their apartment and eat well on that day.

My student, her son, was conflicted. He knew his mother to be a good and honest woman but she was desperate. He also realized from his recent religious conversion that what his mom was doing was very wrong, and yet he remained guiltily silent. The theft bore down on his mind and he was not sure what he should do. His dilemma easily explained his surly behavior and the fact that he was unable to focus on his school work. It would have been easy to simply write him off, but in hearing his story I understood the depth of his morality and the pain that worrying about his mom had wrought.

People are always so much more than they seem, but we don’t often hear their entire stories. That is where my most passionate interest lies. I truly enjoy discovering the essence of the people that I meet and I suppose that I have always been that way. My mother used to chide me for staring at strangers. I certainly meant nothing by doing that. I simply wanted to know them better. I liked to read faces and body language. I desired to know why someone was angry for no apparent reason. I realized that we are who we are because of a totality of experiences.

I think that it would be quite wonderful just to sit across from someone and say, “Tell me all about your life. I want to know what it has been like for you.” I suspect that if I were to do so I would find out that almost everyone begins with similar hopes and dreams, but the serpentine nature of reality often sends him/her along routes that challenge and sometimes even defeat. Those people who seem ridiculously strange are more often than not just victims of situations over which they have lost control.

Fighting one’s way out of poverty or abusive situations is much more difficult than it may appear. The sad truth is that we are not all equal in terms of intelligence. I have encountered so many individuals with major learning disabilities who struggle mightily to learn. Others are afflicted with mental illnesses that stalk them so often that they are unable to create routines for working and achieving success. Then there are those with major health problems. The list of reasons why some people remain in a state of economic or psychological distress are quite real and often not of the individual’s making. As a society it is up to those of us fortunate enough to lead relatively stable lives to help those who are less able but we don’t always do that. We instead look the other way or poke fun at those who are different.

I’ve also known people who are far more remarkable than they are willing to let on. They tend to be quite humble individuals who rarely toot their own horns. Sometimes it is only when they have died that we really begin to know them through the eyes of the people whose lives they impacted. As stories of their generosity, contributions and talents are shared we realize that a saint or a rock star was hiding in plain site, but we had no idea because they would never have sought recognition for their incredible deeds. My cousin who passed away just before Thanksgiving was one of those souls. All of us were stunned to hear of the innumerable kindnesses to one person after another that he displayed all very quietly. We knew he was a good man, but never quite realized the extent of his largess.

Most people have a hobby of some sort, but mine is learning about others. I would love nothing better than to make appointments everyday to just listen to the folks with whom I have been acquainted and those that I have yet to meet. I can only imagine how many wonderful things I would learn. This world really turns from day to day not so much from the movers and shakers but from the millions of nameless individuals who rise with the sun and do their best to make the most of the cards that have been dealt them. It is in their stories that we find profound truth and maybe even inspiration. We need to hear from them because each person is a beautiful and unique gift to our world who deserves to be celebrated and understood.

Summer Reading

LordOfTheFliesBookCoverMany students will be receiving summer reading assignments in the coming weeks. The ingenuity of their teachers will play a large role in determining whether this is a pleasant experience for them or not. Sadly it too often becomes a dreaded task that young people avoid until the last possible moment instead of being a source of pleasure. In our quest for accountability those of us who are teachers all too often concentrate more on how to ascertain if our pupils have actually learned certain things from the experience and less on how much they enjoyed it.

Kylene Beers is a well known reading specialist who strongly believes that children should have much more say regarding what they will read in their leisure time than most teachers are willing to grant them. She insists that our students should have many book choices and that they be the ones to ultimately decide which ones to tackle. She also cautions teachers from creating assignments and tests that erase the satisfaction that should come from digesting a truly interesting novel or nonfiction text. She notes that much of the joy of reading is extinguished each summer by well meaning teachers who lack the trust that their students will actually choose worthy volumes and then critically read them.

Dr. Beers suggests that teachers provide students with a long list of acceptable titles and then allow them to pick the ones that are most appealing. She feels that proof of reading should be checked in creative ways of the students’ own design. Otherwise, she points out, it becomes an odious task and the act of reading is associated with very negative feelings.

I find myself agreeing somewhat with Dr. Beers. I had to read several books each summer. Some of them were quite delightful and I am happy to this very day that I discovered them. I read others grudgingly and shutter even now at the thought of how uninterested in them I was. While Kon Tiki was a bestseller and a great adventure for some, for me it was a nightmare. I had a difficult time remembering what had happened from one paragraph to another. I simply had no desire to read such books back then. I eventually became enthralled with Into Thin Air and other similar titles but being exposed to such nonfiction in my youth did little to change my attitude. Thankfully there were enough titles on my teacher’s list that I mostly enjoyed my summer reading.

Today the favored tactic is to assign a single book to the entire class. Usually it is a classic with appeal to most students. I often wonder, however, how terrible it must be for someone who just can’t get into the story. We’ve all had that problem with one book or another. We aren’t the same and sometimes a story simply doesn’t speak to us. Maybe we need to be sure that students have a number of titles from which to choose rather than assuming that we have found one that will be acceptable to all.

One summer my grandson had a reading requirement for an American History class. There were four or five titles from which to choose. He enjoyed the first one that he read so much that he later tackled some of the others. When he had the freedom to decide his interest was piqued more than ever. Because I wanted to be able to discuss the books with him I bought copies of all of them. Like him when I discovered how great his first choice was I realized that his teacher had excellent taste and that I would probably like the others as well, which I did.

How to assess the students on reading assignments is another issue. Dr. Beers believes that many teachers find books that their student like, but then kill the appreciation with tests that ask questions about minute details that few of us would recall. Instead she recommends that the teacher should attempt to determine the student’s reactions to themes and characters. She suggests that asking students to discuss their feelings about the book is far more beneficial than having them tell what color a certain character was wearing at a particular juncture. She wants students to create questions that they may have and to list aspects that they had difficulty understanding. Just as members of a book club get together to critique a selection, so too should students be able to comment rather than being tied to an assessment that destroys their exuberance. The summer reading experience should never be a “gottcha” moment.

I am not naive enough to think that none of the students will take advantage of a teacher’s largesse if such changes are made, but there are ways to determine how much a student derived from reading without making it a laborious task. First, everyone should have a choice of titles. Assignments should be variable as well. Students can use their creativity to demonstrate what they learned. For some an essay will suffice. For others the creation of some type of object representing what they lessons they drew may be preferable. I suspect that allowing students to demonstrate their appreciation in various modes and then present their ideas to the rest of the class will result in far more interest. 

Think of how you usually decide to read a particular book. Quite often you see someone you know engaged in it. You ask him/her about it. Something about the response intrigues you. You find a copy and become enthralled. The next time you see your acquaintance you mention the text. The two of you begin a lively discussion. You share ideas. It is a pleasurable experience. Nobody is forcing you to do this. Reading becomes something that makes you happy and so you read even more.

I love the idea of having students spend time reading during their summer vacation. I like that they are often introduced to new authors and topics that they might not have otherwise discovered, but I also believe like Kylene Beers that they should have some freedom in deciding what sounds interesting enough to pursue. When the assessment is creative enough to keep that spark of enjoyment growing the experience is pleasurable and remembered forever.

I still tell people to try Things Fall Apart, The Kite Runner, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, A Separate Peace, The Lord of the Flies and so many other titles because they touched my heart. I will talk about them with anyone willing to listen, not because I had to read them, but because I wanted to. Reading should be a joyful experience. Let’s keep that in mind when we ask our children to spend some of their summer inside the pages of a book.   

Facing Our Failures

Failure.jpgThere is a trite little platitude that goes something like this, “Failure is not an option.” In reality it is a very human trait to fail at something even after exerting great effort to succeed. We all find ourselves in the midst of a fiasco now and again. It is part of who we are as people. We may fail a class even though we thought we were prepared. A relationship may sour in spite of our efforts to save it. We find ourselves being fired from a job or unable to successfully complete an important project. We wreck our car in the split second of a careless moment. We say and do exactly the wrong thing in a situation with our children. We fudge on a diet or exercise program. We inevitably make mistakes in the course of living our lives.

Perhaps instead of suggesting that there is something innately wrong in failing, we should instead concentrate on how we will behave once the genie is out of the bottle, the milk is spilled, the horse is out of the barn. Our character is often defined more by how we react to failure than how we reach success. It really doesn’t matter how many times it may have taken us to achieve a goal as much as how resolved and persistent we have been in getting there. Our willingness to keep trying often determines the trajectory of our lives. Those who adapt optimistically to their circumstances are likely to ultimately overcome even the most challenging situations. In addition, we need to teach ourselves and others how to identify toxic situations and to recognize when to walk away from them.

I know a man who literally spent almost a decade attempting to earn a college degree. He had to work to pay his tuition and the coursework was sometimes quite difficult for him. He would joke that he was going to be the oldest graduate ever. Nonetheless, he kept his eye on the prize, never giving up, even when it seemed hopeless. The day came when he held his diploma in his hand. Ultimately it was his unstoppable tenacity that earned him a great job and his willingness to keep trying against all odds has become his hallmark. He has risen to the top of his profession, admired by peers and bosses alike as someone with a dogged willingness to get the job done. He is the go to man when the situation gets tough. Everyone knows that he will not take no for an answer.

Beethoven composed symphonies even after becoming deaf. Thomas Edison had to create hundreds of prototypes before finally finding a lightbulb that would work. Albert Einstein was thought to be a slow learner at school. Abraham Lincoln was initially seen as someone incapable of achieving much of merit. Walt Disney was told that he had no creative instincts. The list of so called failures who eventually became famous for their contributions to the world is long because the reality is that we all hit walls from time to time.

Too often we dwell on the things that we have done wrong rather than just picking ourselves up, deciding how to improve and then moving on. When we become captive to the negativity associated with failure we give up, run away. We assume that there is no reason to keep banging our heads against walls. We end up with regrets. We think of our might have beens. The go getters, instead, dust themselves off and get back in the saddle. They learn from each unsuccessful iteration and apply their new found knowledge to improving their lots. They remain unafraid to take risks.

I sometimes wonder if our society creates individuals who give in to failure because of the ways that we speak of it and react to it. In schools there is linear progression of learning with tests along to the way provide evidence of accumulated knowledge. Students mostly move in lock step from one skill to the next. For those who may take a bit longer to master concepts the process becomes a series of failures that all too often result in a feeling of hopelessness. I all too often heard the refrain, “I’m just not good in math.” The truth was that everyone of those who uttered such remarks was more than capable of becoming adept with numbers. They just took longer to grasp the ideas. With a bit of effort and encouragement they were eventually able to achieve a high level of comfort with very complex algorithms. They felt a sense of accomplishment that in turn lead to a greater willingness to explore even more difficult ideas.

When I was in middle school a gym teacher told me that I was the clumsiest, least athletic person that she had ever met. She ridiculed all of my efforts to please her. As a result I mostly traveled through life thinking of myself as a total klutz, unable to even catch a ball. It was not until I met a professor in college that my attitude changed. He convinced me that I too could be skilled if shown the proper techniques. He insisted that my old teacher had been remiss in expecting me to possess natural born abilities in sports. He taught me the fundamentals and my world as well as my attitude was transformed.

We certainly value the child who is capable of taking the school team to the championship. We send our finest debaters to the competition. Still we must be willing to provide opportunities to shine for those who are not as gifted. It is up to us to model behaviors that will teach them that improving is just as important as winning the prize. We have to let them know that they will ultimately find their pathways by participating in many different experiences.

I am particularly taken with the attitudes of my twin grandsons. They are incredible athletes but they do not measure success by the number of medals or trophies that they earn. Instead they focus on being their personal best. Their goals always involve moving just a bit closer to a better individual record. If doing so happens to give them a championship it is wonderful. If it only demonstrates that they are getting closer to their goals they are just as happy. They have already developed a way of thinking that is going to take them far. Would that we might be able to do the same for everyone.

Failure never feels good. It is a downer that we don’t want to experience but it sometimes happens. If we can analyze our situation and make improvements our mistakes will not have been for naught. We are all on a journey. How well we do depends on our ability to adapt and become stronger. That requires a positive willingness to keeping trying to find our way. If we keep the faith it will happen. Perhaps our new mantra should be, “Giving in to failure is not an option.” We would be wise to teach that to our children as well.