An Advocate for Teachers Forever

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I’ve been thinking about history during the pandemic. I’ve considered what life may have been like for people who braved the expanse of the Atlantic ocean to set up colonies in a foreign land. I’ve thought of pioneers who left everything behind to secure homesteads far away from family and friends. I’ve considered my grandparents who sailed to America never again to see the people that they had loved. There is a loneliness about their choices because there must have been times when they awoke each morning to quiet and sameness that was devoid of contact with other humans. As I spend my days inside my very comfortable home I find it difficult to understand how they made it because I find myself missing people more than anything else.

I would be willing to do without movie theaters, malls, restaurants if I had to give something up, but I cannot imagine being this distanced from people for a much longer stretch of time. There is nothing in this world that means more to me than people and the joy of being with them. I think the vast majority of us feel the same way. We long to sit in a room laughing and talking with friends and family. We realize that our children need to be learning how to build relationships and become independent by joining their peers at school. We are social creatures who need time together as much as we must have air to breathe and food to eat. Even the hunters and gatherers of old moved in search of sustenance in groups. We generally do better together than apart.

Nonetheless I fully understand the dangers of throwing caution to the wind during this time when a novel virus continues to stalk us. It seems that each time we attempt to ignore its power we are burned. Large extended gatherings of any kind only stoke the fires and the energy of Covid-19. Kids and counselors at camp in Missouri get sick in numbers too high too dismiss. Congregants who flaunt social distancing at megachurches begin to die. Families that throw large parties watch as relatives end up in the hospital. The reality is that we cannot ignore the consequences of taking the virus lightly no matter how eager we are to return to our old habits.

We all wish Covid-19 would go away but the virus itself has other ideas. Parents understand that their children are happier and more successful when they go to school. Teachers miss their students and long to be back with them once again. We are not comfortable with the situation in which we find ourselves. Everyone wants what is best for our students and yet we are unsure what that should be. So here we are only weeks away from the start of school and instead of working tirelessly together to plan for the safest possible return to learning for our children and their teachers we are engaged in an endless argument about what we should or should not do. The clock is ticking and our president’s dictate is that every school must open and every school district must figure out how to do that with little guidance and virtually no funding.

I spent the last years of my career as a Peer Facilitator and then a Dean of Faculty. My principals charged me with the duty of making certain that the teachers had every bit of support that they needed to be able to perform their exceedingly difficult jobs. The school leaders for whom I worked believed that if the teachers were provided with a strong support system the students would be the ultimate winners. I was to be the conduit for material and mental assistance for every educator in our school.

I know all too well how dedicated teachers are. I have witnessed the stresses that they endure. Sometimes I worked fifteen hour days to lighten the load of responsibility from their shoulders. My goal was to help them to maintain the stamina to do their magic in the classroom. I did this in ordinary times when there was no specter of Covid-19 threatening them and their students and yet even then sometimes my greatest challenge was to ease their fears. I have wiped away many tears and often chased away the uneasiness that comes from teachers caring so much that emotions overtake them.

At this very moment it is not only the parents who are losing sleep at night wondering what to do when it comes time to send their children back to school. The teachers who anticipate the hundreds of ways that things may go wrong are beside themselves with worry. The possibilities of a reopening of classrooms without sufficient planning gives them nightmares. Educators are running the many scenarios through through their heads and they have more questions than answers. It is in their natures to be fully prepared for any contingency with a well reasoned response but this time in the rush to return the unanswered queries are piling up in their minds. The “what ifs” outweigh the solutions.

Anyone who thinks that returning to school will be a flawless process has never worked inside one. Sadly many of the people providing directives don’t even send their own children to public institutions. Schools are notorious hotbeds of contagion. Even though younger children appear to be less affected by Covid-19 than others they have the potential to take the virus home their parents. Teachers have families of their own whose members may infect them. The possibilities are exponential. The sticky web of potential contagion is enormous and educators understand this better than politicians. Our teachers know to proceed with caution.

I weep for and with the teachers just as I have done so often before. I am their advocate, the person who is supposed to fight for what they need. Being retired does not release me from that responsibility. I will be their voice forever only this time I feel helpless in knowing what to do. I can only urge every single citizen of this country to champion our teachers, our schools and ultimately our children. Call the school district. Call the state education agency. Call the governor’s office. Call the Congresspersons. Call the White House. Do not be silent about the most important resource we have. 

Happy Birthday

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Fifty years ago on July 18, 1970, I was headed to St. Luke’s Hospital to have my first child. I had no idea whether my baby would be a boy or a girl because there were no ultrasounds back then. My husband and I had picked out male and female names just in case. We wanted to honor our incredible mothers if our child was female and combining their names into one gave us “Maryellen.” We never had to use our other choice because after eighteen hours of labor our beautiful daughter was born and my brother Pat changed his pledge to take a boy on his first fishing trip to accompanying our girl to her first dance.

Maryellen was a big baby at nine pounds seven ounces and the doctor had to pinch her shoulders together as she was emerging into this world. She began life with a broken clavicle which was the first of many challenges she would overcome. She was the delight of our lives and that of her grandparents and our world began to center around her.

Maryellen accompanied me to my first time voting for president of the United States when she was barely four months old. It was a cold November day and she was dressed in a sweet pink sweater with a little hood that an aunt had made for her. It was a doubly proud day for me as I cast my vote and smiled at all of the compliments that she received. She would always be my very good girl.

Maryellen was sick a great deal. She endured one ear infection after another and I spent so much time taking her to see her pediatrician. On many nights a sat awake with her as she raged with fever. She seemed to have allergic reactions to any foods I gave her. I worried incessantly about her health even as she grew but while she had once smiled and loved to sing she grew ever more silent. When she was one year old she still had not walked and some of my friends suggested that there must be something wrong. My anxieties only grew.

Maryellen did eventually walk. In fact her first steps were a run to reach a ball that rolled past her. Because she was always dancing around the house I took her to get lessons and she had an unexpected grace and talent for creative movement. She still got more ear infections than I was able to count and we became more and more frequent visitors to her pediatrician’s office but she always sprang back from her illnesses.

Soon it was time for kindergarten which turned out to be a painful time for both of us. I contracted hepatitis and was sick for over three months. My husband later developed a rare disease that required months of chemotherapy. In the midst of all this her teacher called me to a conference in which she intimated that Maryellen’s intellectual abilities were not as well developed as the other children. The woman used a single worksheet as proof of her theory. The exercise required the student to draw a connecting line between a household implement and either the mommy or the daddy. Maryellen had “failed” the test because she joined the lawnmower, the rake and the hammer to me. I remember laughing my head off because I was indeed the person who maintained the lawn and often repaired things around the house. Sadly the poor teacher would not agree with my arguments about stereotyping the sexes. Instead she insisted that there really was a right and wrong set of answers. Furthermore she informed me that Maryellen was also socially inept.

I grieved for my little girl but then came first grade and a most wonderful teacher who changed Maryellen’s life. This educator had been given suggestions for grouping students according to their abilities. Maryellen began in the section for those with learning disabilities but before long she was doing so well that the teacher moved her to the next group and then the next until she was keeping up with the supposedly brightest children in the class. The teacher also noticed that Maryellen’s eyes followed her like a hawk. She observed that Maryellen appeared to be reading lips and so she scheduled an emergency hearing test with the school nurse. The results were astonishing. Maryellen had an almost fifty percent hearing loss!

I made an appointment with a well respected specialist and Maryellen was soon having surgery to fix the problem. I’ll never forget her reaction as we were taking her home from the hospital and she heard clearly for the very first time. Her eyes widened and she looked around with a smile on her face as she asked, “What is all of that?”

The rest of the story is so wonderful. Maryellen became a top student in high school where she also excelled as a dancer and a leader. She went to the University of Texas at Austin and was accepted into their school of business. She earned a degree in four years along with making wonderful grades and experiencing many friendships and adventures. She met her future husband, Scott, there and once he graduated they were married and began to build a life and a family.

Maryellen now has four magnificent boys of her own. She works as an accountant but is first and foremost an incredible mom. Each of her sons is unique and she has helped them to develop their own talents. Mostly she has taught them how to be fine men with respect for all people. She has done this through one challenge after another always being the steadying force in her family.

Maryellen has always made me puff out with pride and she has lived up to the legacy of the grandmothers for whom she was named. They were strong women with gentle hearts and like them she is a warrior whose cause is to compassionately love and care for all people. She is her own person and with a quiet steeliness that champions the causes of equality and justice. She is exactly as I hoped she would be.

Happy Fiftieth Birthday, Maryellen. The world has always been more wonderful from the day you were born. Here’s to many more years of making a difference in people’s lives. 

School Bells Will Soon Be Ringing

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Going back to school was always an exciting time for me. School was a shelter that kept me going even when times were tough. After my father died school gave me a sense of normalcy when my world felt so upside down. When my mother had mental breakdowns school provided me with a sense of purpose and control in a life that felt as though it was skidding off the rails.

Every July I would plan and anticipate the coming of the new adventure in the classroom. I bought clothes, shoes, supplies. When I was still a student I wondered who my teacher would be. When I became a teacher I wondered who my students would be. I thought of being together with my friends again. Everything about the time felt shiny and new. It was like starting with a blank slate, an opportunity to learn and change for the better.

Even after I retired from more than forty years in education I still went out in July to buy new pens and pencils and to freshen my supply of paper. I enjoyed back to school sales and somehow felt the same joy of anticipation that I had known since I was five years old. I eagerly read the posts from teachers with whom I had worked and I lived vicariously through their preparations. Eventually I had to admit that I missed working with students too much to just enjoy my new found freedom. I found tutoring jobs and taught mathematics to young people who were being homeschooled. I was still part of the educational world if only in a small way.

This year is so different. The usual teacher and student anticipation has become trepidation. The joy factor is absent as teachers consider the need for a new kind of supply closet, one filled with disinfectants, soap, hand sanitizers and extra masks. Their planning centers on how to keep students sufficiently distant from one another in a room so small that such a feat seems impossible. Teachers understand that the usual sights and sounds and smells will be very different from anything that they and their students have ever experienced. Understanding this fills them with a sense of gloom which late at night sometimes becomes a feeling of doom.

The world of school as we have come to know it will not include knots of friends playing together at recess. There will be no relaxing over lunch or trading of chips for a bag of cookies. Gatherings in the hallway will be prohibited. Teachers who have always been all things for all of the people they serve will have added responsibilities that will be exhausting both for the labor involved and the sense of responsibility incurred. They will be the ones continuously cleaning the desks and supplies. They will be the ones enforcing the safety rules. They will be the ones watching for signs of physical or mental trouble in their all too tiny classrooms where the virus has the potential to lurk in every corner.

Teachers understand better than anyone how different things will feel and be. Children will only see their friends from afar. The smiles and facial expressions that enliven relationships will be covered with masks. Only the eyes will tell a story and many of them will have difficulty focusing on learning when everything feels so wrong. No matter whether classes resume in person or remotely a deep sadness and sense of fear will hover over everything. School will not be a haven of routine but a haven of uncertainty. Being there or not being there will be equally difficult.

Teachers and their students are now part of a grand experiment and nobody can say with any assurance what exactly will happen. I can only predict that teachers will put every ounce of their dedication into to trying to make the most of an horrific situation. It is what they do. It would be nice if we would support and appreciate them as they grid themselves like soldiers going off to battle. They are quite naturally frightened because they know of the dangers they may face as they care for the most important treasures that our nation has.

Schools are getting threats of loss of funding if they don’t do things a certain way even as educators understand that one size fits all theories never work. People who have never ventured into a classroom to actually care for children all day long are creating policies that hinder the kind of flexibility that is a necessary part of teaching. There is much talk about what parents need and what students need but very little about what teachers need. There is even renewed criticism of the entire educational system because in truth it is impossible to structure learning in a way to please everyone. The outcry is leaving teachers wondering if anyone even cares about the incredible duties and dangers they are being asked to embrace without question.

The school bells will be ringing in a month or so. Many of them will be virtual. Others will be in person. It will not be the same. The routines will be different. The challenges will be many. We can only hope and pray that we are making the right choices. What we do matters greatly. We should hear what our teachers have to say. It is something we don’t tend to do very well. Perhaps now is the time we start. 

Take the Politics Out of Covid-19

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Just when I thought I it might be safe to get out and about once again the numbers of Covid-19 cases in my part of Texas are continuing to rise. Our hospitals are filling at a frightening pace so quickly that our renowned Texas Children’s Hospital has agreed to provide medical services for adults. It is a disturbing situation that I saw coming but, I hoped against hope that I was wrong. Sadly the fight against the virus became political almost from the onset when it should have been a collective community and national effort to do whatever was needed to get things under control. While the doctors and nurses in my family and circle of friends were warning me to stay the course of precaution I saw the process devolve all around me. Now the predictions of the medical experts regarding the dangers of ignoring this deadly illness are coming true.

Many weeks ago the Harris County Judge, Lina Hidalgo and the Houston mayor, Sylvester Turner, mandated that all citizens wear masks in public places. They also created an overflow medical facility at the Reliant Center in the event that the local hospitals became overwhelmed. At the same time the Lieutenant Governor of our the state of Texas, Dan Patrick, was insisting that businesses needed to open up and that anyone who was afraid should just stay home. All the while President Trump refused to wear a mask to any of his briefings or appearances, boasting that he was not afraid. Never mind that he is quite possibly the most protected individual in the entire country considering that everyone who comes near him gets regularly tested. He continually bragged that he had lead the best response to the virus in the entire world and insisted that the growing numbers of cases were there only because of all the testing that was taking place for everyone else. Before long he had managed to turn the pandemic into an election issue rather than a national emergency, resulting in his followers ignoring much of the advice coming from medical experts.

Along the way Trump supporters in Houston launched a lawsuit against the mandate to wear masks. Before long wearing one had become more of a choice than a rule. The governor ignored the guidelines for reopening businesses that had been created by the CDC and the Covid 19 task force. Here in the Houston area people were hurling insults at Lina Hidalgo, calling her an “Hispanic Nazi” for daring to require citizens to wear masks. They criticized both her and the mayor for wasting taxpayer funds on an overflow hospital that they believed would likely never be used. They rushed back to normal as quickly as possible, crowding beaches and bars and tubing along the rivers in the Texas hill country. They were determined to get on with living and they spoke of their belief that all of us had been duped by a hoax designed to make our president and our state leaders look bad. They insisted that after the November elections were over the virus would miraculously disappear. They turned all of the efforts to control the virus into a political battle and created an unnecessary division between those who wanted to move more cautiously and those who laughed at the very idea that Covid 19 was any worse than the ordinary flu.

None of this ever needed to happen. The efforts to contain the spread of Covid 19 should have been a united goal devoid of even a taint of politics. We should have been working together as a nation, supporting any city, town or state that needed help. Our guidance should have erred on the side of caution. We should have been willing to see ourselves as one people with a common goal. Each individual should have been eager to make sacrifices and help in the effort. We should have listened to the medical experts and allowed them to guide all of our decisions. We should have been patient and willing to proceed forward with great care.

There will be those who will blame the resurgence on the protestors who have filled the streets night after night. There will be others who will say that it came from Memorial Day partying. There are claims that the increases are coming from migrant workers and people in meat packing plants. Others will point to political rallies in enclosed spaces. Some will simply hurl racist accusations at China, insulting our Asian Americans with taunts of “kung flu.” Sadly each of those explanations point to how broken we have become during all of this when we might have demonstrated more strength of character just as our parents and grandparents did during World War II. Somehow instead we are talking over one another and ignoring the realities of what we should be doing. This should always have been a medical issue rather than a political one. 

We will probably never know exactly why Covid 19 has refused to release the grip it has on our country. I don’t think that blaming it on any specific group serves to make things better. What I do believe is that every effort should be focused on what is good for the people of this country. It is not too late to focus on those who are sick and dying. We still have time to move beyond our differences and agree to do what is best for the protection of the many. If we continue to refuse to do this I fear for the toll that Covid 19 will take on all of us. If our leaders won’t lead us we need to take the reins and do the right thing without them. We must take the politics out of Covid-19.

A Road Trip In Isolation

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We have been locked away for a many weeks now. The last day that we did something fun was February 28, when we had lunch with my brothers and sisters-in-law and then attended the Houston Rodeo Barbecue Cook-off with friends that evening. My husband had surgery on March 8, and I had an injection of  Prolia on March 13. After that we have stayed at home. We don’t even go inside grocery stores or sit outside with our neighbors when they regularly gather on the driveway across the street. We don’t trust the frivolity because they don’t wear masks nor do they distance themselves from one another. They are mostly young and healthy so I suppose that they will ultimately be just fine, but I can’t take such risky behavior lightly and so I remain responsible for myself just as our governor and president have suggested we all need to be.

This past weekend Mike and I came up with an idea for a way to have a little outing. We decided to haul our trailer to San Antonio with the proviso that we would keep our contact with other people and crowds to practically zero. We made reservations with an RV park that we often use and packed up all of the food that we would need for the adventure. We had hoped to go to a state park so that we might enjoy a bit of nature but they were all booked up, so we decided that we would make do with any place that had a spot for us to park the trailer.

We would normally stop at Buccee’s in Luling, Texas for a bathroom break, some lunch and to gas up the truck but we had promised ourselves that we were not going to eat out or go where there were lots of people, so instead we found a service station that was all but empty, filled our tank and used the facilities in our trailer for relieving ourselves and preparing lunch.

The experience at the RV park was exceptional. The manager was masked and gloved and insisted that Mike use hand sanitizer after opening the door and passing the credit card. We got a wonderful spot in between two very quiet trailers that did not even appear to be inhabited by anyone. We enjoyed a great dinner and were finally able to try out the new mattress that we had purchased from Costco back in early February. We learned that it was the best investment we have made all year because we slept like babies and I did not wake up with the usual aches and pains that the old mattress always produced.

On Saturday morning we had a leisurely breakfast, did some reading and then had lunch before setting out on a drive to Inks Lake. Riding through the Texas hill country is always delightful and it felt even more so since we have only seen the view from inside our house for so long. We passed through little towns like Boerne where the streets were filled with people dining and shopping. Sadly I realized that we would not want to stop there because only one person was wearing a mask and the people were literally on top of one another as they walked along the sidewalks.

When we got to Kingsland we knew we were quite close to Inks Lake and our favorite winery, Perissos. We decided to stop there to buy some of the wines that cannot be found in stores, so we donned our masks and made our way inside for a quick purchase. We were the only two people wearing masks and those who were there looked at us as though we were curiosities from another planet. Seeing that nobody was being precautious we made our selections and left as quickly as possible, stunned that the place was filled with people drinking and listening to the live band as though nothing like a pandemic was still happening in the world.

That evening we went to see our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren all of whom have been very guarded in their behavior since schools let out in March. My son-in-law is still working from home and his company, USAA, has urged any employees who can to continue working remotely. My daughter only goes out to pick up groceries and she has been happy to see most of the customers at her HEB wearing masks and keeping their distance. The children have stayed home mostly finishing the school year, gaming and texting friends.

We met on the driveway and sat on chairs that my daughter had carefully placed well over six feet apart. Mike and I sat on one side and everyone else sat on the other. We talked about what we had been doing since we last saw each other and discussed the happenings in the world. Then we played a game of Scattagories at the suggestion of one of my grandsons because the rules allowed us to maintain our distance without physical interaction with one another or the necessity of using game pieces. Of course we had a blast laughing at the answers and just being together

The next day we decided to take a drive through the heart of the hill country. We traveled to Bandera where we once again noted no people wearing masks as they walked along the sidewalks and went in and out of little shops. A bit farther on we saw crowds tubing in the Medina River. Tents were set up side by side and the water was so congested that it appeared to be difficult to even move.

Our route eventually took us to Kerrville where we encountered a very small group of young girls standing along the roadside holding Black Lives Matter posters and waving at passersby. Every one of them was wearing a mask and attempting  to stay safely apart. They were as peaceful and earnest as can be and they made me smile.

Before long we were in Fredericksburg where we found some shade in Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park and ate the lunch I had packed for our long ride. As we later drove down the main thoroughfare  I observed about twenty five percent of the people wearing masks, but it appeared to be nearly impossible to keep a safe distance from others because the sidewalks were jammed with people.

We head back to the RV park using side roads that took us through the loveliest of vistas, including a brief stretch of Luckenbach, Texas.  We listened to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings on our radio and felt contentment in just being in such a beautiful place. We even got to pass through Kendalia, the town where my grandson William was able to find a home for his pig Daisy so that he might rescue her from slaughter.

We returned for another visit with my daughter after dinner in our trailer. We played a contrived version of “Hedbanz” which my grandson put together to provide us with hands free, contact free fun. Once again laughter filled the air especially when the next door neighbor drove up and looked a bit askance at the post-it notes on our foreheads.

We gauged our little trip as a success and think we might be able to venture out even further once I have concluded my sessions with the children that I teach. We have learned that with our self contained cocoon we do just fine. We don’t need to eat at restaurants or visit stores or museums or other amusements to have a glorious time.

We still plan to be careful because we know that the dangers of the virus are still with us. Only this past week someone we know attended a family funeral, spent some time with extended family in Galveston and then learned that one of the people in the group had only days later tested positive with Covid-19. So far only one of them has tested positive for the virus but all of them are going into quarantine. They will no doubt have to do some contact tracing to inform anyone with whom they interacted before they knew that the virus had entered their family circle. The extent of people that they have seen is unbelievably large and will affect the lives of countless individuals. That’s why I am still being very precautious. We may be tempted to just wish this virus away but it seems determined to stay. For now I’ll stick to my road trips in isolation.