Walking With Our Young

garden

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.

Can We Just Laugh?

64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Arrivals

The Saudi Arabian government has cracked down on freedom of expression. Those who speak against the government often find themselves being questioned, jailed or worse. One noted journalist left his birth nation out of fear and then felt compelled to write about the events that he saw unfolding with his fellow countrymen who voiced their concerns. His wife became so afraid of what might happen to her because of her husband’s views that she asked for a divorce to protect herself and her children. The man nonetheless continued to speak out about abuses of freedom and ill treatment of dissidents. Eventually he found new love and decided to remarry. When he visited the Saudi embassy in Turkey to complete the necessary paperwork he was never again seen alive. Eventually his dismembered body was found, leading many to believe that he had been silenced by the government that he had been criticizing as a warning to those who dared to speak their minds.

In Hong Kong citizens have been protesting the prohibitive excesses of the Chinese government. The once democratic and free city that operated under the wing of Great Britain now struggles under the excessively restrictive rules of China. Those who dare to defy the government are being publicly beaten into submission. While here in the United States those who dare to side with the demonstrators in Hong Kong are finding that doing so can bring unexpected consequences. 

It’s seemingly unthinkable for those of us who live in the United States to imagine living in a place where we have to watch every word that we utter or write lest we be chastised or ostracized or imprisoned. We live under the assurances of our Constitution and the free speech that our Founding Fathers thought essential to a healthy democracy, and yet there is a kind of shadow hovering over our public interactions that is ruled by mobs intent on controlling what we believe. In the world of tweets and social media comments those who stray from conformance with certain opinions are sometimes figuratively pilloried in the public square.

Much that occurs on the platforms of social media worries me. I am appalled by the rush to judgement that occurs with the flick of  the fingers on a keyboard. The anonymity that we believe we have often leads to cruel and bullying behaviors from perfect strangers who somehow delight in raising our ire with the things that they do and say. Luckily a true hero emerges now and again from the sound and fury of the ether.

I have been an avid fan of Ellen DeGeneres from the time that she first emerged as a talented comedian. I find her to be an honest and loving person with a heart of gold. She’s also quite funny which makes her daily program a fun way to spend a bit of time escaping from the stresses of the world. She is lighthearted and one of those people who mostly stays away from controversy which I appreciate because I have grown weary of encountering everyone else’s political commentaries wherever I seem to go.

On a recent weekend Ellen was invited by her friend, Jerry Jones, to attend a Dallas Cowboys football game where she shared Mr. Jones’ private box with former president George W. Bush and his wife Laura. Ellen admitted that she had a good time even though she is more of a Green Bay Packers fan and to her delight her team actually won. Like any average person being treated to such a grand afternoon she took selfies of herself cutting up and laughing with President Bush and posted them proudly on Twitter.

What should have been an innocent bit of fun turned into a controversy as people excoriated her for daring to even talk to someone like Bush much less have a good time with him. The process of raking Ellen over the coals went berserk despite the fact that she had done nothing wrong other than be polite and appreciative of the hospitality that she received at the game. She behaved in a perfectly respectful manner but so many thought she should have instead ignored the Bushes or even expressed her disdain for having to be with them.

To her credit Ellen used the platform of her television program to clarify her feelings. She courageously told her audience and those who had criticized her that her friends do not have to agree with all of her views to be embraced by her. She admitted that she actually likes George Bush and that his beliefs have nothing to do with their relationship. Once again she proved her mettle in standing up to her detractors and in the process she demonstrated the content of her character. In that moment she became a role model for all of us who are weary of the often illogical and violent divisiveness that is tearing our society apart.

This is not Saudi Arabia nor is it Hong Kong. It is the United States of America and heretofore our nation has mostly been tolerant of different ideas. Sadly many among us more and more often choose sides and steadfastly ignore and despise any thoughts that diverge from their own to the point of insulting and even ostracizing those with whom they disagree. There is so much anger in the public square that many American citizens have grown wary of expressing themselves and often rightfully so because there are extremist groups who actually believe that certain ways of thinking should be illegal.

Our country is treading a very thin line that must never lead to the muting of individual opinions and actions. We must always be free to associate with whomever we desire and to freely state our points of view. It would be wise for everyone to remember that it is never a good idea to strive to be of one voice. We need our dissenters and our revolutionaries. Who knew that one day we would also realize that we sometimes need a brave comedian to remind us of the importance of respect and tolerance and the power of a good laugh?

The Frogs

lucky frogMy grandchildren are becoming all grown up. They are all either teens or young adults in their twenties. The days of hearing the seven of them tearing through my house playing chase or hide and seek are gone. Now they are more likely to play quiet sedentary games or engage in conversations with us older folk. They have hundreds of questions about history and enjoy discovering the movies and music that are classics from the sixties, seventies and eighties. It’s rather wonderful spending time with them because our interactions are more and more adult and they become sweeter as they age, as unafraid to admit their love as they were when they were toddlers. They no longer hide with embarrassment when they see us approaching them while they are in the company of their friends. They quite openly smile at us, squeeze us with great hugs, and express their feelings with honesty. They even solicit advice and listen to our stories with keen attention.

It’s nice to know that they are going to be the kind of adults who will do a grand job of moving our world into the future. I have to give a nod of approval to my daughters and sons-in-law for parenting jobs well done. There’s still some minor work to be completed before they are fully launched into adulthood but things are looking quite promising.

I’m quite proud of the next generation but sometimes I miss the little ones with their innocent joyfulness and laughter that used to echo through the rooms of our home whenever they came to visit. When I see grandparents with babies and toddlers I remember how much fun it was to escape into a wonderland of joyful abandon when my own grandchildren hung on my every word and laughed at even the lamest of jokes.

These days I enjoy entertaining the children of my nephews and nieces who are still in the fanciful stage of development. They wander through my house giggling and asking delightfully silly questions about the most unexpected things. They notice items that I have on display that I sometimes forget that I even have. Among their favorites are my frogs, a trio of amphibians associated with my teaching days that remind me of dear friends that I now rarely see. They are whimsical and as adorable as the children who are invariably fascinated by them, the source of smiles and maybe even a story or two.

The oldest of my frog family lives upstairs in what I fondly call “the children’s room.” She is a rather lovely creature who sits atop a shelf filled with books, games, photos of former students and mementoes from my long career as a teacher. She was a birthday gift from a counselor at South Houston Intermediate, a quite beautiful woman with an impish sense of humor. The frog, not the lady, has green leathery skin and incredibly long and skinny legs that seem almost incongruent with her plump midsection. I hate to admit that her figure now resembles my own rather closely but like me she hides her flaws under a carefully selected outfit. Her gingham dress is bright and cheery and the little apron that protects it also serves as a way to keep her fat belly from being noticeable. She has lovely eyes that protrude with a kind of happiness that matches her grin. She holds a little net for catching flies and she used to boast a cute wide brimmed straw hat but it somehow got lost over the years. She is as cute as can be and nary a child fails to notice her. In fact I do believe that she might give Miss Piggy a run for her money in attracting Kermit the frog if given the chance.

The next frog that game to live with me is from Chinatown in New York City. I bought him at the suggestion of an art teacher who had invited me to join her for an award ceremony at Carnegie Hall where one of our students was to be honored. She showed me the frog in a crowded shop and convinced me that I needed to take hime home.

He’s a fierce looking but friendly character who stands guard by my front door. He is like a soldier on duty with his immovable bearing and elegant red coat. He perennially holds a quarter in his mouth which is supposed to be a sign that we will never find ourselves without the funds we need to survive. His fabled story insists that he is a bearer of luck, a creature who represents good fortune, tranquility and harmony. He is also the one object inside my house who totally fascinates every child who enters. They are never sure whether to love him or fear him until he gently allows them to take his quarter without harm. Then they seem to understand that he may look gruff but he is indeed a kind fellow whose only job is to be steadfast in his duties.

The youngest of my frog family was yet another gift from a colleague at work. He is lustrous and elegant, well toned and athletic. His sleek body and strong legs give him the appearance of an Olympic god. He proudly poses as though he is modeling his lovely attributes. His skin is a combination of jade mottled with ebony and tiny flecks of gold. He is a muscular creature who might join the ranks of the Avengers and fit right in with the superheroes. He is worthy of belonging to a king or a queen even though his actual monetary value is not great. There is just something remarkable about him that nobody fails to notice, especially youngsters who view him with a kind of reverence. They want to know who he is and why he is in my house. I always tell them that he is a treasure that reminds me of the glory of my teaching days and the dear friends who once worked with me.

I love all three of my frogs. Until I googled the word frog I had little idea of their storied history. They are the stuff of literary metaphor. No wonder they make me and my visitors smile. Mostly they remind me of other times in my life that I shared with people who brought me the good fortune that only comes from treasured friendships. Frogs are a sign of a peaceful and accomplished life and in my own case they are reminders that I did something meaningful for young people along with so many devoted people who worked alongside me. How wonderful is that!   

Strong Enough

dragonfly-wallpaper-1213cba6

I awake early each morning and follow a routine that rarely varies. I prepare a light breakfast, brew some tea and wander to my sitting room, a place that was meant to be a study. I open the blinds so that I might see the first rays of the sun embracing the earth for one more day of possibilities, and settle in my easy chair with my laptop. I check several newsfeeds to see what has happened during my sleep and then I go to Facebook to find out how my friends and family are doing. It has become a way of communicating with one another that has kept me appraised of the welfare of even those who live very far away. Once I have an idea of the general condition of the world and those that I love I sit quietly in prayer and meditation, admittedly not as faithful and trusting as some of the more spiritual people that I know. Mostly it’s a conversation with God that varies depending on the circumstances of the moment.

On some days my entreaties to the Lord must sound like those of a whining child. I am often overwhelmed by the pain and suffering that I see. I want to be able to help those in need in more tangible ways and I feel a loss of control as though I am plummeting through the air in free fall, terrified by the uncertainty of what will eventually happen to me. I feel weak and vulnerable, two conditions that terrify me and that I mostly eschew at all cost. Sometimes though there is no escape and as I pray I am overcome with the calm that comes from the faith and trust that I am not alone. In those moments of clarity I realize that I have a parachute that will open at the very time that I need it. I realized that instead of fighting I need to relax and float through the air enjoying the view.

It’s difficult even in the best of circumstances for me to be so dependent on anyone or anything beyond myself, and yet I have seen days when my only choice was to plummet to earth in a state of panic or take the hands of God and the people around me to find the help that I so desperately needed. Like every human I have enjoyed blessings both great and small and endured pain and suffering that I thought might break me.

Each of us finds ourselves in situations that threaten to defeat us. Sometimes the hardest place to be is in the role of an observant to someone’s sorrow. It is deeply painful to watch a loved one or acquaintance bearing a weight that seems almost unbearable, especially when they can’t seem to get a break from circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control. Seeing them trying so hard to be strong and watching their efforts be compounded by disappointments and horrors is enough to make us question everything that we believe. It is in those rock bottom times that we have to surrender ourselves and suspend our need to be in charge, a most difficult state of affairs for control freaks like me.

I am all too aware these days of family members who are dealing with the burden of caring for multiple members who are either very ill or disabled. They are overcome by responsibilities that are demanding more of their energy than they ever dreamed they had. I am monitoring the progress of friends who are fighting like warriors to beat dreadful diseases. I am hearing the plaintiff cries of individuals who have lost children, a state that feels unfair and out of sync with the way things are supposed to be. I am observing young people who are confused and consumed with deep sadness. I know of others who have been betrayed by spouses or friends and now feel alone and hurt. I see the pain and suffering that attacks as serendipitously as a hurricane, leaving overwhelming destruction in its path.

A few morning ago I began my normal routine and saw two posts that struck me to the very center of my being. One was from a high school  acquaintance whose daughter died during the summer. She has been mostly stoic about her feelings but on this particular day she allowed those of us who know her to see the depth of her feelings and the hurt that is still so raw for her. She is a beautiful soul as was her daughter and the bond between them is as strong as ever and always will be. While her wounded heart is still far from mending I sense that it is on its way because she had the courage to admit how devastated she is. Being unafraid to admit our pain is so often the first step in healing.

Only a few posts down was another from a work colleague whose baby boy died in her arms eight years ago. She poignantly recounted the day on which her little angel left this earth only a short time after he was born. She spoke of her weariness at that time and how she was listening to Strong Enough on the radio as she traveled to the hospital not knowing that only a few hours later her son would be gone.

I wept eight years ago when I learned that my friend’s baby did not make it and I wept again when I read her story of the moment of his death eight years later. Then I listened to the song that had played on her journey to the unthinkable and pondered it’s message. I understood how the series of events that befell her were linked together in one glorious, mysterious way that brought her the peace and comfort that she needed. Like my other friend she will never understand why she had to face something so unthinkable, but she feels the presence of both God and her beloved child supporting her in ways that can’t be explained by logic but rather by the heart.

Sometimes words fail me and I find someone else’s to fill the void. So herewith are the lyrics for Strong Enough by Matthew West. Perhaps they may help someone much like they did my friend. I know that they spoke to me.

Strong Enough

You must

You must think I’m strong

To give me what I’m going through

Well, forgive me

Forgive me if I’m wrong

But this looks like more than I can do

On my own

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

For the both of us

Yeah

Well, maybe

Maybe that’s the point

To reach the point of giving up

‘Cause when I’m finally

Finally at rock bottom

Well, that’s when I start looking up

And reaching out

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

‘Cause I’m broken

Down to nothing

But I’m still holding on to the one thing

You are God and

You are strong when

I am weak

I can do all things

Through Christ who gives me strength

And I don’t have to be

I don’t have to be strong enough

Strong enough

I can do all things

Through Christ who gives me strength

And I don’t have to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

Oh, yeah

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

Strong enough

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Matthew West

Strong Enough lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc

The Dreamers

many cultures

They came to America with little more than a few belongings and hope that somehow their lives might be better than they had been from where they had traveled. They were refugees from a government that wanted to erase their language and their culture. They were hated and accused of being lazy in a place where their family had lived for ages. Perhaps in their new home things might be different, at least that is what they desperately wanted to believe as they settled into a small apartment in the foreign environment of Houston, Texas.

They found jobs that were menial by most standards but they were proud to have work so they didn’t complain. He toiled in the blazing summer sun while she worked over a hot stove cooking for the hired laborers. It was back breaking work that left them aching and exhausted at the end of each day. They struggled with learning English and their dark looks and strange accents gave them away wherever they went. Not everyone was welcoming. In fact some people insulted them without ever attempting to get to know who they were. It was a difficult and lonely life, but it was still better than what they had known. They were free. They were saving money, things that never would have happened back home.

Before long their first child was born, an honest to God official citizen of the United States of America. The man told his wife that their son must speak English and learn everything possible about this great new country. So he did as did his brothers and sisters who numbered eight before the woman was no longer able to bear another child. She had her hands full at home now raising her boys and girls, taking care of the garden and the house that they had built from the fruit of their labors. They paid for each room in full, adding to the square footage bit by bit until it was finally done.

They were not always loved by all of their neighbors. Some of them worried about having strange  people from a strange land in their midst. The children of the man and woman knew nothing of the old country. They were red, white and blue Americans right down to their toes, but still they heard taunts that they did not understand as they walked to school. Sometimes they had to dodge the rocks that hurtled dangerously close to their bodies. They did not understand why they were despised and they complained to their father, but he urged them to hold their heads high and be proud because they were citizens of the greatest country on earth. He assured them that hard work would one day change their fates. He reminded them again and again to love the United States in spite of those who wanted to chase them away.

They grew into a fine lot. They earned diplomas and served in the military. They worked as hard as their parents had taught them to do. Nobody noticed that they were the children of immigrants once they left home. They blended into society as though their ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower. They married and had children of their own. Those children became college graduates and climbed even higher up on the economic and social ladder. Their grandchildren knew nothing of hard times or being shunned. The dream that had sprouted in the hearts of their immigrant ancestors had burst forth in full bloom. It was a beautiful thing, the American way.

Those were my people. A grandmother and grandfather from Slovakia who risked all that they had ever known to find opportunity. Never again did they see their homeland or the people that they had known there. They had mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends whom they left behind. How frightening it must have been. How courageous they were even as they sometimes found prejudice and lack of understanding in their new home. What a precious gift they gave to their children and ultimately to those of us who descended from them.

Surely we owe that man and that woman some kind of payback. Perhaps it should be in welcoming the newest immigrants from foreign lands to America. If we can’t understand the people who are searching for the same freedoms that our grandparents sought, then who will? How can we deny them a new start? Why should we assume that they will not work as hard or be as devoted to the country as our ancestors were? How can we see them as less than the rest of us? Once before it was believed that people like my grandparents would ruin the United States with their ignorance and questionable habits. No such thing occurred. In fact we have contributed to the good of the country in remarkable ways. History demonstrates that in most cases those that we allow to join us enhance our society rather than tearing it down.

Houston, Texas where my grandparents settled before World War I has become the fourth largest city in the nation. It is also the most diverse. No race holds a majority position. We have people of many colors from all over the world. They have made our city vibrant and exciting. We are the future whether the rest of the nation realizes it or not. No wall will erase the fact that we are living in harmony and demonstrating to the entire world what it means to be generous of spirit and talents. Ours is the kind of place that my grandparents wanted for their children when they traveled across the ocean in a steamboat so long ago. Today there are others who are longing for the same chance. Such people have always made this country great. Perhaps it’s time for the children of yesterdays dreamers to extend a hand of welcome to the dreamers of today.