Walking With Our Young

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Teachers do more than teach concepts. Sometimes they actually become a source of inspiration and comfort for their students. They serve as mentors, guides for their pupils when they need advice or just a calming presence. So was the relationship between a teacher at Smithson Valley High School and my granddaughter.

My granddaughter first met this remarkable educator as a freshman. Somehow they both felt a kind of kinship with one another. As is often the case between teacher and student they were seemingly on the same wavelength and so my granddaughter began to seek out the wisdom of the teacher who had a way of almost peering into her soul. At first she mainly went for help with her studies but before long she opened up about her fears and the stresses that are so much a part of teenage life. The teacher was able to put things into perspective and soothe my granddaughter’s anxieties in addition to being an excellent conveyor of information in the classroom. The two of them formed the kind of professional friendship that sometimes blooms between a teacher and a student.

Even after my granddaughter was no longer one of the teacher’s students she continued to visit with her regularly, finding answers to questions and concerns about academics and life in general. She was hoping to perhaps get an opportunity to take another class from this woman who had so impacted her life, but sadly that was not meant to be. One evening without warning the teacher who was only fifty years old died in her sleep leaving behind a bereft family of eight children and students like my granddaughter who had been so influenced by her intellect, compassion and sagacity.

I suppose that there is little more shocking than losing someone who is still in her prime with so much good to offer the world. We find ourselves wondering how it could be that a person so wonderful would have to leave without warning. I know that it has been unbelievably difficult for my granddaughter to accept. She had thought that she would have the privilege of being guided by this remarkable educator for many years to come. She wonders if the woman ever realized just how much difference she had made in the lives of so many young people.

Teachers never really make enough money to adequately compensate them for the many hours that they give to their work. A teacher is almost always thinking about students past, present and future. They see learning opportunities everywhere they go. They expend enormous amounts of energy worrying over their pupils even after they are long gone. They may not remember all of the names but they see the faces as clearly as if they had been with them only a few minutes ago. Sometimes all it takes is a smile from an aging student for the teacher to recall exactly where they sat in the classroom.

Teachers celebrate the successes of their students as much as they would those of their own children. They grieve over the difficulties that their students face. They think of them in the still of night and pray that all is well with them. They wish for the power to make all of their kids happy and successful. They pray that somehow their charges understand how much they really care beyond the confines of the subject matter that they teach.

Teachers can have a profound effect on their students that lasts a lifetime but what they do not often realize is how much they themselves impact the teachers. Learning is a two way path that does not end with the completion of a school year. Teachers evolve because of the students they encounter just as the students themselves often change when they find a relationship with a particularly gifted educator.

There are few professions that provide all of the players which such an emotion filled experience. Teaching is grand and rich in human interactions. Each day provides an opportunity to literally change a life. Teachers are cautioned to use that enormous power wisely and for the good. They must be aware that what they say or do does indeed make or break the young ones for whom they are responsible.

I salute the teacher who so influenced my granddaughter. I am saddened that she left this earth so soon. I know that she was truly loved and admired. There is little that anyone might accomplish in life that is more meaningful that what this teacher did. May she rest in peace and may her colleagues and students learn the most important lesson that she ever taught, namely that each interaction inside a school is precious and may be just the one that makes someone’s life better.

It Goes On

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I suppose that my Facebook wall is mostly like the idealized version of what Mark Zuckerberg once intended it to be, due to my incredibly insightful and interesting friends and family. Each morning I scan the posts to find lovely photos of children, grandchildren, pets, travels, and good times. In the mix there are invariably yummy recipes, guides to local events, and inspirational thoughts or articles. Now and again there are pleas for prayers from someone who is experiencing difficult times, a health problem or even the death of a loved one. My wall has never really been a respository for attempts to influence my thinking on politics or any other topic save for a random comment now again from one of my more politically minded acquaintances. Instead it is a source of joy and support and a way of keeping in touch with people about whom I truly care.

I check my wall each morning while I sip on my tea and munch on my breakfast. I usually rise earlier than my husband so the house is quiet save for the chatter and laughter of the children waiting to catch the school bus on the corner. I sit in my front room and enjoy a moment of peace and serenity while learning about whatever has happened while I was sleeping. Now and again someone posts something that burrows deeply into my heart. I think about it throughout the day and sometimes long past the moment when I first read about it. Such it was a few days ago when two of my sweet cousins both shared the story of a young poet.

It seems that there was once a young man with a creative and poetic mind who was struggling mightily with the seemingly unrelenting tragedy of his life. His father was an alcoholic who eventually died from complications related to his drinking. He left the family all but penniless and struggling. Both the young man and his mother suffered from bouts of depression which was perfectly understandable given their circumstances. Adding to the young man’s woes was the fact that his attempts to publish the poems that he had worked so hard to produce had been totally unsuccessful. To make matters even worse he had a devastating row with the young girl who had stolen his heart and they had a soul crushing breakup. In a moment of sheer desperation he gave her a copy of his poems and tore up the only remaining one that he had. Then he walked away determined to end his life.

He appeared to wander aimlessly even though he had a plan for ending it all. He went into up in a dark swampy area that seemed to match the sorrow of his mood. Even though he had originally determined to end it all he just kept walking and at some point he changed his mind, found his way out of both the swamp and his sadness, and decided to carry on with the rest of his life.

The man whose journey almost ended before it had truly begun was Robert Frost. He went on to become one of the most beloved American poets in the world, winning multiple Pulitzer Prizes and earning the title of Poet Laureate. On the occasion of the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the President of the United States Robert Frost was honored by being selected to read one of his poems. (Oh, and he even made up with the girl that he so loved and she became his wife.) His life was celebrated by people from around the world as he lived to a prosperous and honored old age. When later asked about his advice for life he remarked, “It goes on.”

This was a message that I needed to hear and one that I know to be so very true. Few of us have an easy time here on this earth. Life is hard work and often filled with disappointments and suffering. There are moments when our burdens become so heavy that we wonder how we might possibly keep fighting the good fight. Sometimes it feels as though nothing is going our way. We walk in the miasma of a dark and dank swamp seeing hopelessness at every turn. It is only in “going on” that we eventually see the light of day once again. We invariably find that while our lives may not have taken the turn that we had hoped, they sometimes become even better than we had hoped.

I think of this often. I recently recalled a time when I was working in a school with people that I dearly loved. I literally believed that I would be like a female Mr. Chips and work there for the duration of my career. Sadly a new principal came and upended everything that I had enjoyed about being there. I realized that I could not bear the authoritarian and contrary nature of her leadership and so I reluctantly left without really knowing where I would ultimately land. I was anxious and melancholy and even angry. It took me weeks to get over the despair that I was experiencing. Then I found a new job that would change the course of my life. It was there that I learned how much strength I really had and it was there that I found some of the very best years of my educational career. It was also there that I truly experienced the realization of how life indeed “goes on.”

I cannot imagine how different I would have be if not for some of the moments when I was challenged to keep going into the darkness or choose a different unknown path that lead to the light. Sometimes it is truly in our most hopeless moments that we find what we really need. Like Robert Frost we learn from our suffering and choose to just go on.

Our Human Dilemmas

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There was a time when most of us who are common folk knew little about what was happening in the world outside of our own little communities. News from other parts came slowly if at all. We humans concentrated on the problems of daily life that affected us directly with little thought of what life was like outside of our narrow sphere of reference. Even as late as the end of the nineteenth century most people lived in relative isolation.

My grandfather often spoke of life on his grandmother’s farm and his lack of knowledge of the happenings outside of the insulated world of his youth. It was not until World War I that the average person began to take notice of the symbiotic nature of world politics. That feeling of being part of something larger than a radius of a few square miles beyond our homes grew even stronger with World War II. By the mid twentieth century we were developing a worldview that even included a foray into the universe.

As we have navigated the political waters of worldwide citizenry we have had to determine what exactly our obligations to people outside of our own borders are. There are few clear guidelines and so we tread a wary line between isolationism and serving as geopolitical saviors of those who are being persecuted across the globe. Sometimes it is difficult to determine who the players are. There are no perfect guidelines for choosing sides, and often we wonder if we should even think of getting involved in the politics of places so far from our own. Moral questions abound in the many decisions that we must make, none of which are without contradictions.

Our human natures prefer clear choices between good and evil and so we often attempt to distill complex issues into very simple ideas. In the process we are bound to make mistakes because very few political questions have easy answers. When we make our issues partisan we run the risk of ignoring realities on either side and making things ultimately worse. Rhetoric and emotion are more likely to result in stop gap measures rather than long tern solutions that will endure the tests of time.

The world is on fire in so many places, few more frightening the Xinjiang region of mainland China. In the north west corner of that nation there live a Muslim minority group known as the Uyghurs ( pronounced “Weegurs”). The Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and have a culture far different from the rest of China. They were incorporated into the country in 1949, but mostly lived in their own way until more recent times. Of late the Chinese government has cracked down on them with tactics that should alarm the entire world, but very little of their plight has been discussed by the world powers.

It is believed that upward of one million Uyghur men have been sent to reeducation camps that were hastily built in the Xinjiang region. Some of them have seemingly disappeared and are thought to be dead. Stories of torture and murder are rampant. While the men are imprisoned Chinese males from other parts of the country are sent to take over the Uyghur homes, often forcing the wives who have been left behind to cohabit. Whispers of rapes and great fear are captured by the thousands of cameras that police the region. At any given moment the people are subjected to random searches and accused of being enemies of the state simply because of the way that they walk or present themselves.

There are countless stories of minority people being threatened, imprisoned, and killed in places across the globe. Our instincts tell us that we should somehow help but caution asks us to wonder if and when it is right to interfere in the workings of countries that are not our own. After all, we argue, we have enough of our own problems right here. There are signs of injustice in our own backyards. Should we clean our own house before we are audacious enough to find fault with others? What is the red line beyond which we can no longer simply sit back and watch horror unfolding? How much of our own human and financial treasure are we willing to invest in problems that don’t appear to directly affect us?

These are the questions that plague us and none of the answers are either obvious or without grave concerns. Doing nothing or doing the wrong thing has consequences, some of which we cannot foresee. Our natures leave us frozen with indecision while ideologues rush in head first  often seizing the day and the power. For the most part the rest of us just quietly go along, allowing the squeaky wheels to get all of the attention until things come to a dangerous head forcing us to act one way or another. In the meantime there is so much suffering in the world that is seemingly unchallenged.

Our own civil war was bound to occur because slavery was indeed wrong and our nation was irreparably divided as to how to uncouple itself from something so horrific. In the end as is too often the case it took outright war and horror to force the issue. Perhaps the fact that the rest of the world chose to simply watch as we fought brother against brother rather than choosing sides whether for humane or financial reasons was the right response. Maybe in the long run each country has to find its own way out of social and political divisions, but what about those instances that aggressively overtake and murder innocents? Are we morally bound to help them in some way?

These are the kind of questions that fill my head and I know enough about history and human nature to understand that the world has been filled with intrigue since its very beginning. Knowing when to intervene on behalf of a person or a group is a tricky thing but something that we should always seriously consider not as a means of gaining our own power but as a way of protecting those unable to protect themselves. Such discussions should not be a matter of partisan preference but honest communication in search of reasonable answers.

Right now it feels almost impossible to achieve such noble goals. I worry about what may have to eventually happen to bring us to our senses, to help us understand that we should not be enemies. History tells me that it may be a very unpleasant learning experience that we must endure before we find our way. I pray that we figure that out before it is too late.

The Game that Filled Her Head With Dreams

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When my father was still alive football was king in our household. Of course it was not just any brand of football. It was always about Texas A&M football. After my dad died my mother kept his love of the Texas Aggies alive. Anytime a game was aired on television she faithfully tuned in and sang all of the school songs with gusto. Thanksgiving dinners were always timed to work around the annual game against the University of Texas. She’d get almost reverential when chanting the Aggie cheers and songs on those occasions and she fill our heads with stories of the times that she spent with my father on campus when they were young newlyweds and he was earning his degree in engineering.

She had a way of making Texas A&M seem like a magical place with her tales that she spun like the fairytales of old. The Aggies were heroes in my mind and my father was a knight in shining armor who captivated my beautiful mother with his Aggie manners and brilliance. I listened to her memories of happy times with a kind of reverence and awe.

My mother remained faithful to the Texas Aggies and their football team throughout her life with a fervor that belied the fact that she had not had the opportunity to be a student there because it was an all male institution back when she was young. Sometimes she even hinted that she thought it should have remained that way, but once my youngest daughter was a student there she changed her tune. She was quite proud of finally having another Texas A&M graduate in the family and felt doubly blessed that she also gained an Aggie grandson-in-law in the bargain.

If possible, my mother was an even bigger fan of baseball. She made sure that both of my brothers took part in Little League and was rather proud of their prowess on the field of dreams. She recounted the times that she attended baseball games for a minor league team in Houston back when she was young. Baseball was her game and she knew it well. As soon as the city of Houston landed a major league team she became an instant fan. The guys started as the Colt 45s and she would take us to watch them play in an outdoor park filled with hot nights and mosquitoes. Those were amazingly fun times when my mother became as raucous as the most enthusiastic fans. 

Eventually the Houston team got the first ever indoor playing field and a new name, the Astros. Mama was giddy with excitement each spring when the season began and she never once lost her childlike spirit when it came to the hundreds of games that the Astros played. If she wasn’t at the stadium or if the team was out of town she tuned in on her radio listening to every play and punctuating the air with her cheers and groans. I’ve never known anyone to be as faithful to a team particularly during some years when the Astros were not doing well at all. She weathered many disappointments with optimism and spoke of the players as though they were her good friends.

Mama had grown up listening to the radio so just hearing a game was as vivid to her as being there in person. She was able to feel the excitement and see each play in the vividness of her mind. She often spoke of the stats of each player and described their incredible feats as though they were living heroes. She knew the opponents just as well and talked of what to expect from them. She critiqued the manager’s decisions and made predictions that often came to pass. She was not to be disturbed whenever there was a game. During those times she did not answer her phone and only came grudgingly to her front door if there was knock.

She had a collection of baseball cards that she purchased over the years. Most of them were Astros but she also had those of other players that she admired for their prowess. She thought of Nolan Ryan as a kind of baseball god and she boasted that she had actually seen a couple of the famed “Killer Bs” in a restaurant on one occasion. Getting her started on a discussion of baseball was unwise unless there was a great deal of time to hear a long history of what she saw as the greatest game in America.

When I was a teen my mother befriended a woman named Emily whose brother worked with the New York Mets. The lady was as much of a fan as my mom and the two of them often went to games together at the Astrodome. Mama would come home as giddy as a child at Christmas with blow by blow accounts of every inning and every play. Sometimes she even got extra special seating when the Mets came to town compliments of her Emily’s brother. You would have thought that she had won the lottery.

We took our mother to an Astros game at Minute Maid Park one Mother’s Day. She was having trouble walking by then and she became easily exhausted from the hike to the seats. She enjoyed being there in person but somehow knew that she would have to be content with “seeing” them on the radio in the future. When she spent her last spring in my home I often heard the sound of the play by play announcements coming from her room. She would lie on her bed and visualize the ballpark, the guys in shades of orange and blue and white, the hotdogs and peanuts and beer.

My mother never got to see her Astros go all the way to the big championship. She died six years before they won the World Series, but somehow I knew she was watching. She never missed a game, not even on the day that she died. From her bed in the ICU she watched her beloved Astros one last time before she fell peacefully asleep and later breathed her last breaths.

I think of her each spring when the Astros take to the mound. She would have been so happy and proud of their accomplishments, even when they struggled. I suspect that her spirit is always with them each time they take to the field. There was a never a more devoted fan. Spring and summer were her favorite times of the year when her boys took to the field and played the game that filled her head with dreams. 

That Out of Body Feeling

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It was December and we were looking forward to a wonderful holiday. My daughter Catherine who was living in Chicago had delivered twins in October and we were excitedly anticipating her visit with the babies on Christmas Eve. It had been a glorious year during which my nephew had married a wonderful young woman and we had all celebrated at his wedding. Then without warning things began to unravel terribly.

I was at school when my principal called me into his office to deliver the grim news that my mother-in-law was at the hospital. She had apparently had a stroke. I only half listened to his attempts to support me. My mind was racing a million miles away. I vaguely recall laughing off his concerns and telling him that my mother-in-law was a tough women who would most assuredly be fine. I almost laughed when he asked if I needed to have someone drive me to the hospital. I was tough. I had weathered many family tragedies. It seemed silly to think that I would require some sort of assistance.

I called each of my daughters to tell them what had happened and talked with my husband who was on a business trip at the time. We all remained calm in the belief that our beloved “Granny” would survive her latest ordeal. We knew she was a very strong woman even though she stood only five feet tall. She was the rock of the family who wasn’t supposed to live past her teen years. Somehow she had persisted and proven one doctor after another wrong. We believed that she would ultimately be just fine.

I picked up my daughter who lived nearby and together we made the trip to the hospital where the news was more dire than we had expected. My mother-in-law had gone into a coma. The doctor told me to call my husband and urge him to get on the first plane home. He explained that there was nothing more the doctors might do. Suddenly I felt the full gravity of the situation and I began calling family members to tell them what had happened. It was a grim task.

We began a death watch, sitting in my mother-in-law’s hospital room seeing her breathe as though she was in a deep sleep. She looked so peaceful and beautiful that it was impossible to believe that she was nearing death. A ray of hope stayed alive in my soul because I knew that she had proven the medical community wrong so many times before. I could not imagine our family surviving without her. She was our glue, the person who brought us together and provided us with wisdom and strength.

I suppose that I was hoping for some incredible miracle without ever thinking of how her entire life had been a miracle. As the hours and then the days passed we rarely left the confines of the hospital as a parade of friends and family came to express their love. When we did allow ourselves to leave for brief moments it felt as though we were trapped in a never ending out of body experience. The lights and decorations of Christmas seemed somehow out of place. The smiling faces of people celebrating the holiday season seemed our of sync. I recall feeling quite alone in my grief, a sadly all too familiar state of mind that had visited me upon my father’s sudden death and during the many times when my mother’s bipolar disorder took her away from us.

My mother-in-law’s passing was peaceful but that feeling of being at odds with the entire universe followed me throughout the rest of the season. Somehow we stumbled through her funeral and found a way to gather together on Christmas day. I remember thinking that the whole world was rejoicing at the very moments when we were the most bereft. It was an incredibly lonely feeling. At the time it seemed as though we had suddenly lost our way as a family and that nothing would ever feel right again.

It’s been sixteen years since my mother-in-law left this earth and we did indeed survive. I still think of her often and miss her sage advice and calming presence. I sometimes wonder how she might advise me when I am faced with a difficult situation. Somehow I still hear her voice whispering to me and telling me what I need to know. Her presence is not nearly as far away as I had imagined it would be.

I have become more aware of those who are suffering around me. I see them even when my own life is bursting with joy. I realize that at any given moment in time there are others who are wondering how it is possible for everyone to be so happy when they are bearing great burdens. I try not to ignore them simply because I am busy. I realize how difficult it is to be living in the midst of tragedy when everyone else appears to be so happy.

After my mother-in-law died it was in the gestures of people who took the time to show that they cared that I found the strength to soldier forward. I realized that their acts of kindness meant the world to me. They had stopped their Christmas revelries just long enough to let me know that they understood my sorrow. I have never forgotten them.

Regardless of the time of year when tragedy knocks on our door we often feel alone in the hell of our circumstances. The people who rally to show their loving concern are our lifelines. Even the tiniest efforts are never forgotten. We find our way back when we realize that we are not alone. Look around. Someone needs you right now. Take the time to comfort them. Your efforts will mean more than you might ever know.