Rockstar Friends

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It all began with Eric. I was working at Revere Middle School when our principal hired him to be an English teacher. He was immediately popular. Many of the single women were enchanted by his friendliness, good looks and winning smile. Those who had known him from a previous campus warned everyone who was falling for him that he appeared to be a confirmed bachelor who didn’t seem destined to settle down any time soon.

Eric was a super and experienced teacher, so there was little need for me to spend much time mentoring him. We generally just passed one another in the hallway and exchanged hellos until a dear friend of mine died. One afternoon when Eric and I were both in the same area monitoring students during a passing period I blurted out that I was feeling guilty and maybe even complicit in my friend’s death. Eric listened intently as I explained the situation. I had called my friend after school one day to check on him because his wife was in the hospital. I knew that he was an alcoholic but also a diabetic with heart trouble. I had asked him if he wanted me to swing by his house to make sure that he had everything that he needed. He assured me that he was fine and that he preferred to be alone for a time because he was quite tired. Something in my mind told me that he was not doing as well as he insisted. I pushed him a bit more and then reluctantly drove home, but not before urging him to check his blood sugar and let me know if there were any problems. Later I learned that he had died from a heart attack about forty five minutes after my phone call. I felt that somehow I might have saved him had I ignored his protests and gone to his home anyway. I had been unable to shake the feeling that I had made a terrible and deadly mistake.

Eric immediately erased my guilt. He noted that because my friend was an alcoholic he had created the situation for himself, and that his death was no doubt inevitable whether or not I had been present. He assured me that nobody was going to be able to save my friend from the abuse that he was piling on his body until he decided to change his ways. From that moment forward Eric and I were fast friends and the intensity of our relationship only grew over time. Somehow I believe that it was destined for me to choose him to reveal my secret, because I truly doubt that anyone else would have been able to understand my predicament as well as he did.

One summer Eric returned from vacation to announce that he had met a very special woman named Jenny. He proceeded to visit her as often as possible even though she lived in California. The so called confirmed bachelor was obviously thunderstruck and he came to my office now and again to discuss his plans and the ever growing love that he was feeling for this extraordinary woman. Ultimately he announced that he and Jenny were going to marry and that she would be moving to Houston. He wondered if she might procure a job at Paul Revere.

I spoke to our principal, and he worried a bit that Jenny’s background was in elementary school. He asked if I thought that someone with that kind of resume would be able to transition to middle school. Since I had taken the same career pathway myself I assured him that anyone capable of working well with little ones would be just fine with older students. “Well I hope she is as much of a rockstar as Eric,” he noted while agreeing to give Jenny an opportunity to demonstrate her teaching acumen.

Of course Jenny was also a rockstar teacher and as soon as she came to the school everyone understood why Eric was so in love with her. Together they became a power couple who was beloved by students and faculty members alike. Their openness and generosity defined them as well as their adventurous  spirits. Happily the friendship that I had begun with Eric only grew with Jenny in the picture. She and I seemed to be kindred spirits and I felt as though I had known her my entire life.

After I left Paul Revere for a job at KIPP Houston High School I missed all of my former colleagues, but especially Eric and Jenny. I was exhilarated when they joined me at KHHS and brought their charisma and skills to that campus. My feelings for them developed to a point that they became family in every sense of the word. We have shared hopes, dreams, disappointments, frustrations and so much love. I have rarely encountered two people who are always so sensitive to the needs of others. They are truly beautiful souls who have enhanced my life far beyond the power of words to express my feelings.

I was crushed to learn that Jenny and Eric’s home was flooded by the rains of hurricane Harvey. I felt so far away and helpless in their hour of need. In usual fashion the two of them remained optimistic and as worried about others as they were about their own situation. It didn’t surprise me at all that they were instantly surrounded by friends. It’s not possible to be around Jenny and Eric without falling totally in love with them. They do so much for everyone that they know that it was inevitable that people would want to return the favor. For now they seem to be on their way to a return to normalcy and they have even reached out to others who had water in their homes.

That’s Jenny and Eric. Two rockstar friends and amazing human beings whom Mike and I are so fortunate to know. The world would be so remarkable if it were peopled only by individuals as wonderful as they are. I hope that life will continue to pay them back for all of the wondrous favors that they have given literally everyone that they know. I also pray that we will remain fast friends, or should I say family, forevermore.   

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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.

A Heartless Insult

05BE14010000044D-0-image-a-71_1431039744759I am a woman who has my feet firmly planted in two distinct eras. I recall a time when working women with children were a bit of an oddity. Most of the ladies in my neighborhood wore the badge of homemaker with pride and those who left each morning to work in offices seemed exotic and maybe even a bit mysterious. Then my father died and my own mother found herself in need of a full time job. She chose an occupation that was very much the domain of highly intelligent women at the time, teaching. Through her connections to education I found myself intrigued by the world of work inside a classroom.

Somehow in my mind I always knew that I wanted to share my talents with the youngest members of our society, but for quite some time I fought my inclinations to become a teacher. I considered a number of alternative occupations and even stalled in my pursuit of a college degree as I struggled to find myself. Regardless of what I tried I somehow returned again and again to the very career that my mother had chosen in her moment of economic need. I realized that I was secretly happiest when I was helping some youngster to learn and so even though I had at times dreamed of becoming wealthy I decided to forge ahead in a career that I understood would reward me more with good feelings than financial gain.

My very first teaching job was one of my very best. I adored my principal and my students but I only made eleven thousand dollars a year, hardly a resounding figure and well below what my female peers were making as accountants or businesswomen. Still I was happy every single day, and so I told myself that money really didn’t matter, but of course it did. When I got an opportunity to move to a different school and up my salary by eight thousand dollars I leapt at the chance and realized soon enough that I would earn that extra money in blood sweat and tears. Still, it was a grand experience where I learned how to work with children with some of society’s most horrific problems. I became a bonafide educator in those challenging days and sensed that I had truly found my destiny despite the fact that my salary rarely increased more than five hundred dollars a year.

Time passed and I went to different schools and had new experiences, all of which delighted me. Still, by the early nineteen nineties I was not yet earning even thirty thousand dollars a year even though I had been plying my trade for decades. Teachers simply did not get paid well regardless of years of experience or the difficulty of the subject that they taught. Then the Texas legislature finally realized that they needed to make the profession more attractive if they were going to recruit and retain talented young people. They voted to dramatically increase the starting pay of educators so they had to do the same for those of us who had been faithfully working for years. Sadly they did not do so proportionately and the old timers were ultimately making not much more than the new kids on the block.

By this time my own children were in college and I began to feel the pinch of paying their tuition, board, and other expenses. I wondered if it was time to consider a career change and so I returned to college and earned a Masters degree in Human Resources Management. I had enjoyed the courses that I took and my professors believed that I would be quite outstanding working with employees. I had even worked in a Human Resources department at a chemical company one summer and my boss became my cheerleader. Having once been a teacher herself, she understood my dilemma and we became the best of friends as she encouraged me to transition into a new profession.

Somehow I was never able to force myself to make the change. I turned down wonderful offers and made excuses for not following up on leads. One of my professors confessed to me that he believed that I should stay in education because I was subliminally shouting that I didn’t want to leave the profession that had brought me so much satisfaction. After much reflection I knew that he was right. Instead, I took the five hundred dollar a year increase in salary that my new degree had earned me and kept at the job that I truly loved. Over time my pay began to approach a more reasonable level as teacher shortages became more prevalent, but I never broke into the kind of earning power that I might have achieved in the world of business. I loved my work and adored the students, so materialism didn’t seem to matter. Besides, the state had promised all of us a comfortable retirement with reasonable health insurance and so I felt that I had all that I would ever need.

Now I am retired. My monthly earnings are not exceedingly great because I never really made huge amounts of money. A brand new teacher of today earns only a few thousand dollars less than I did in my last year of work. Still my pension provides me with enough to be able to travel now and again and pay the expenses that I have. I’m not sure how well I will do if I lose my husband because I do depend on his Social Security checks and those will go away once he is gone. The federal government in its infinite wisdom seemed to think that teachers were double dipping when they received payments from both the federal and the state governments. I did pay into Social Security for enough quarters to get my own check each month, but because I have a state pension even that amount is offset so that I receive only about a third of what I actually earned. I have to maintain my composure each time I think about how teachers are slapped in the face over and over again, but then I remind myself of the intangible rewards that I have received and just count my blessings.

I suspect that the actions of the current Texas legislative session have sent me over the edge. As the saying goes, “I’m mad as hell.” With little regard for those who worked for decades inside public schools for ridiculously low salaries and conditions that were often verging on the abusive, our state senators and representatives have decided to cut the health benefits of retired educators and school staff members. Whereas we have heretofore been able to choose from four different insurance plans at a fairly reasonable cost, we now must accept a Medicare Advantage plan and pay almost three times more. Not only that, but the deductibles and copays have increased to the point where it is doubtful that we will ever receive a cent from the insurance company since Medicare provides the primary coverage. In addition, many of my doctors have already indicated that regardless of assurances from the state, they will not keep me as a patient if I have a Medicare Advantage plan. Furthermore, I am in the final months of taking a very expensive treatment for my osteoporosis and the pharmacy will suddenly change in September leaving me to wonder if I will be able to complete the two year regimen since it took me almost three months to be approved by my present carrier. I wonder how many of my fellow educators will be adversely impacted while they are in the middle of health crises and I truly worry for them.

The average retired teacher receives about twenty one hundred dollars a month in pension payments. By the time that they pay for supplemental medical insurance and Medicare they will have spent one seventh of their incomes. While I do far better than that, I still plan to continue tutoring as long as I can to offset the increases that are coming soon. Many of my colleagues are not fortunate or healthy enough to find alternative ways of handling the unexpected changes. They will instead be forced to tighten their already rather constricting belts.

The state has the income to help defray the expense of keeping promises made to its teachers but has chosen not to take that route. It has been almost nineteen years since retirees have been given a cost of living increase. When my mother, a former teacher, died she was receiving less than a thousand dollars a month from the Texas Teacher Retirement System. Luckily she had spent her final working years at the University of Texas Health Science Center and thus had health insurance paid for by the university. Still, she had felt forgotten and betrayed as she struggled to stay financially afloat and she quite often urged me to take my skills to a more profitable marketplace. She all too well understood how frightening it is to work for a lifetime only to find that it is almost impossible to meet the most basic needs. She worried most of the time in her final years.

I suspect that there are many former educators in the state of Texas who are wondering what they are going to do. Like my mother they are afraid. Somehow I can’t understand how Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and most of the Republican members of the state legislature can be so insultingly heartless. I worry about those who will be crushed by this travesty at the very time in their lives when they have earned the right to rest and reflect on the great gift of knowledge that they imparted to so many young people. Shame on the men and women who have forgotten their contributions. 

Shining the Light

The Big IdeaDuring Teacher Appreciation Week one of my educator friends posted a rant that had gone viral. The gist of the piece was that throwing crumbs of thanks at teachers once a year is insulting. The author went on to detail the abuse and lack of respect that teachers endure and to complain that nobody ever does anything to improve the situation. I suspect the op ed became as popular as it did because there was indeed a grain of truth in what the writer had to say.

Teaching is one of the most important and toughest jobs on the planet as anyone who has ever tried it knows. I would still be heavily involved with it were it not for its grueling nature. Quite frankly I no longer have the energy for the unrelentingly long days. When I was still working I was up at five thirty in the morning and often did not return until nine or ten in the dark of night. Even when I managed to arrive home at a relatively decent hour of five or six in the evening I spent most of my nights grading papers, tutoring students over the phone, conferring with parents and planning future lessons. I was lucky to finish by the time I needed to go to bed. Of course there were multiple school events on weekends and at night, not to mention the hundreds of hours needed to prepare for state and advanced placement testing.

Don’t get me wrong. I understood the nature of my profession and performed my duties with joy, but I was chronically tired. I especially enjoyed comments from those who didn’t know better that I was lucky to have a job that provided me with so much free time. I learned to just ignore such lack of understanding. I knew that nobody would believe me if I told them the truth about how hard my fellow teachers and I worked, but my family saw what I was doing. To this day I feel a bit guilty because I really did put my students before them time and again. They were troopers as the relatives of teachers generally are.

Teaching is truly a vocation. Few people would agree to spend a lifetime making far less than their peers in other occupations if they did not totally and completely love the experience. It punishes the body and the vast majority of teachers eventually require knee surgeries and suffer from bladder diseases all because of the daily abuse that comes from few opportunities to take care of their needs. The only time during a regular day that a teacher gets to relax is the thirty minute lunch that is really only about twenty minutes by the time getting there and rushing back to the classroom are factored in. Eating is a speed sport for educators.

Teachers are accustomed to hearing derogatory remarks about their profession. It’s especially disheartening because they put so much of their souls into every single day. Their students become their children, members of their extended family. They worry about them as much as they do their own. They let their kids burrow into their hearts and the sense of responsibility that they feel is as strong as that of a doctor with a patient. They have learned to ignore the barbs, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t hurt.

American society is somewhat unique in giving teachers so little prestige. In other cultures teachers are elevated in status. They bear noble titles and receive compensation equal to the amount of education, time and effort that teachers give to their work. I have had moments with my Vietnamese students in which their family members and friends actually bowed to honor me. Here we mostly get cracks about how bad our schools are and how only those who can’t do anything else become teachers. When announcing my profession to strangers I see the knowing looks that tell me that they consider my life’s work to have been very unimpressive.

I’ve been in my grandchildren’s schools quite a bit in the last few weeks. It is apparent that some of the teachers practically live there. When I am leaving at ten I know that they probably won’t get away until eleven. I see photos of some of my old colleagues who are still working at competitions that take entire weekends. Somehow few seem to notice how much teachers continually give of themselves.

When we retire it is not much better. Teachers in the state of Texas for example have not had a cost of living increase in their monthly pensions for over twelve years. Now the legislature is doing nothing to save the healthcare insurance for educators and they may face increases in premiums of fifty percent this fall. None of this had to happen but for the fact that teachers and their needs are mostly ignored. To add insult to the situation, those who like me paid enough into Social Security to receive monthly payments have an offset that takes most of what is due. Furthermore surviving spouses who receive pensions are not eligible to get spousal social security. It is a wonder that anyone wants to take on the job of educating our children.

So are teachers masochists? Why would they want to do this? Is it true that they are not able to do other things?

The answer is quite simple. The teachers who stay for the long haul are altruistic in every sense of the word. They care less about compensation and honors and more about making a difference. In their hearts they know that what they do day in and day out is important. While they appreciate acknowledgement, they do not require it. They do what they do because they value the idea of impacting the future by educating a generation. Even on the toughest day they feel good about what they are doing. There is a purpose to their work that not everyone has. The rewards come from those moments when they realize that their students have been elevated to new levels of understanding, or when they sense that they have somehow positively impacted lives.

I always said that when I retired I was going to work to bring more honor and respect to a career in teaching. I suppose that I haven’t really done very well but I plan to keep trying. I dream of a day when no teacher has to worry about making a living decent enough to provide for a good life both while working and in retirement. I would love for those one week teacher appreciation perks to become routine. There should be teacher discounts everywhere and they should be substantial. I will strive to encourage anyone who has ever been impacted by a teacher to make their gratitude known. Believe me, I am quite touched by those Vietnamese people who bow in my presence and I suspect that others would be as well.

I don’t think that those of us who are teachers need to complain because we all know that we love what we do and that is a gift that many people never enjoy. Still it would be well for our society to finally give educators their due in salaries, pensions and perks. It is a noble profession and its time that we all insist that it be elevated to the status it deserves.

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.