Glory

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As I grow older I become more and more pensive. Perhaps it is because I am retired and have more time for thinking, or maybe it’s just a characteristic of my age. I watch the elders who served as my adult role models slowly die one by one, and I become more and more familiar with the inevitability of my own mortality. I no longer have the luxury of numbering my days in large denominations. I was reminded of this when I recently purchased carpet with a twenty year guarantee and realized that I’ll be ninety years old before I must replace it again. That of course is if I’m particularly careful and follow in the footsteps of many of my long living relatives. The reality is that while the carpet may have a guarantee, my own lifespan is less certain, as is everyone’s.

I have of late been thinking about the history of my seventy years here on this earth, and I keep returning to the struggle for civil rights that so dominated my very impressionable high school and college years. As a young child I had noticed the segregation that was still so common in my native south. Whenever I had questioned my parents about what I saw they would hesitate and appear to be uncharacteristically confused and even a bit frightened by my insistence that it seemed to be so wrong. I was an innocent child who was being taught by my religion to love all of mankind and by my country that we are all equal, and yet there were visible signs that this was not happening the way it should.

When I was in middle and high school the civil rights movement began to take hold in earnest. I recall hearing about the attempts at integrating schools when I visited my grandparents in Arkansas. I had much earlier traveled north to Chicago with my parents and witnessed blacks mingling without consequence with whites on the trains and in restaurants. It seemed to be the logical and just way of doing things, and so I began following the outcome of boycotts and marches and sit ins, gleefully celebrating each victory and dissolving into disappointment each time the warriors for justice were defeated. I knew in my heart that the slowly evolving changes that were taking place had been long overdue. In fact, I was never able to reconcile the idea that humans should ever be ranked in terms of value based on highly questionable characteristics like race, religion or place of origin, a tendency that has created great cruelty throughout mankind’s history. I was thrilled to believe that our society had become enlightened enough to disavow the ugliness and ignorance that was still so apparent in many corners of our country.

Sadly I was to learn that my optimism and naivety was a bit cockeyed and premature. It took a long while for real changes to happen and in the process many of my heroes were killed, leaving me more and more unsettled. Still I eagerly celebrated each small step on the road to progress as the decades rolled by. I knew that there was still an underbelly of prejudice that was alive and well, but in my circles people were loving and eager to set our history aright. I suppose that I was so insulated by the fast paced cadence of living that I failed to notice that the road to the Promised Land stretched farther ahead than I had imagined.

I have reluctantly removed my rose colored glasses long enough to discern that our problems with getting along with one another continue to abound. Particularly of late it feels as though the scabs that had so protectively covered wounds have been torn away revealing that there are many among us who still harbor bad feelings for anyone different from themselves. The sight of people marching through the streets of Virginia emulating Nazis was particularly stomach churning for me, but even worse was our president’s reluctance to condemn them without reservation. I became more observant at that point and began to contemplate things that I had seen that niggled at my conscience but didn’t really rise to the surface. That is when I understood that if we are very honest with ourselves we will admit that there is still work to do in the area of civil rights. In fact, today there are many different groups of people who are treated as though they are somehow subservient, and this trend is sadly occurring all over the world.

I don’t believe that overt prejudice is as prevalent as it was when I was a child, but the truth is that there should never be room for any of it. When we are silent when others are being abused, we become partners in the crime. There is a disconnect when we attend church and pronounce our love of God, but then voice ugly commentaries regarding His children or allow others to do so. We must all have the courage to do what is right, rather than drawing the curtains so that we don’t have to see what is before our very eyes. We may all be wary of conflict, but there are times when we must face it down with truth, and the truth is that there are still individuals being judged not so much by who they are, but by how they appear to be.

I once went on a journey to the heartland of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties. I was accompanied by students who had learned Algebra I from me. I saw the places that had been blurry black and white images on the tiny screen of my family’s television in a time when I was only fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years old. I found myself becoming emotional over and over again as I stood in the kitchen of Dr. Martin Luther King and touched the vey table where he often sat to pray. I shed tears in the basement of a church in Birmingham where four little girls had been killed by a bomb blast set off by a racist. I touched the prison bars that had caged Dr. KIng’s body, but not his spirit. I walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma and nearly collapsed with emotion. I walked down the street with my students toward the state house in Montgomery and remembered that glorious moment when so many brave souls had finally joined together to demonstrate the need for true equality for every human.

I’ve been wanting to take that civil rights trip once again. I want to share those moments with my husband and at least one of my grandchildren. I think that we all need reminders of our past if we are to continue moving toward a better future. I don’t believe that it behooves us to ever become complacent because that is when we get fooled into thinking that everything is as good as it is ever going to get. Somehow our human nature tends to slide back into old habits unless we exercise care.

I watched the movie Selma on Mother’s Day. It was a magnificent production and a reminder to me that I never again want to allow overt racism to exist in a legal form in my country. Because I believe that there is a constant danger of this happening I am vigilant and vocal. All good people must be advocates for justice lest those who are filled with hate and spite lead us down a dark path of division. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord who showed us how to trample the grapes of wrath. I will follow Him. 

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Our Foundation

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It’s the day after Mother’s Day and I find myself thinking about what it means to be a mom. I learned all that I needed to know from my mama who was exceptionally good at the task. I always marvel at the fact that she somehow managed to raise three children each of whom is totally different from the others. She allowed us to be ourselves and ultimately it made us into very happy adults. She loved and guided us, teaching us right from wrong, but then let us develop our own passions. She parented us all alone because our father had died when we were eight, five and three respectively.

A truly good mother like her is able to provide everything that children need, but it is a challenging  job that requires full time devotion, and my mom was always ready to give us her all. She admittedly spoiled us but only with love, not things. We appreciated her, but nonetheless I don’t think that we ever really knew how important she was to us until she had died Now we remember all of the little things that she did that once seemed so insignificant. In fact I find myself calling upon her wisdom and generous spirit more and more as time goes by.

My mother-in-law was another model of motherhood who was only able to bear a single child which was quite dangerous for her. She had a congenital heart defect that doctors felt would shorten her life, and so when she became pregnant they were certain that having a baby would kill her. Not to be bullied into terminating the pregnancy, she insisted on taking the risk. The delivery was complex but ultimately successful, and one of the proudest moments of her life. After my husband was born she the proceeded to love him so much that she turned him into one of the sweetest people to ever walk the earth. Her parenting style proved that some good things are never too much.

I was a young mother who still resembled a child when I first became a mom. I made the kind of mistakes that come from immaturity, but I know without reservation that my girls were the most wonderful gift that I had ever received. I literally thought about them almost every waking moment. More than anything I wanted them to grow to be great women like their grandmothers, and my dreams have very much come true. They are not just good moms. They are extraordinary.

Mothers are the foundation of society, the first teachers of the young. They quietly sacrifice for their children, rarely drawing attention to the many things that they do. They awake in the middle of the night to feed a hungry infant or to console a feverish body. They juggle routines and schedules to get their little ones to lessons and activities. They slowly help them to develop their talents and interests, sometimes adjusting their budgets to provide opportunities for their hard work to take hold. Their own responsibilities and worries grow, but they rarely share the concerns and stresses that rattle around in their heads. The children’s joys are their joys, just as the pain becomes theirs as well.

Sometimes we grow up and look back at photographs of our mothers and marvel at how lovely they were before we were born. We forget that they were once young themselves, dreaming of lives that may or may not have turned out the way they had imagined. We find ourselves one day looking at their graying hair and wrinkled skin and we remember when they ran and played with us. We think of those times when they tucked us into bed, or just smiled at us from across a room. They seemed to love us for no particular reason, but simply because we existed. We gained and lost friends, but our moms were ever faithful, ready to hug and comfort us even without being asked, even when we had ignored them or hurt their feelings.

Moms come in so many different versions. Like snowflakes no two are exactly the same and yet they are all similar. Some moms carry us in their wombs, and others choose us when we have no other place to go, loving us as much as they would have if we were their very own. Some moms dedicate themselves to the home and others balance their care of us with careers. All of them are beautiful.

This past weekend I attended a lovely graduation party for one of my former students. She spoke to us about the things that her mother had done to help her to earn her degree. There were nights when she was up in the middle of the night studying, nearly exhausted. Her mom would arise from her own sleep and bring coffee and encouragement. When she was frustrated her mother would cheer her onward. The young woman believes that her achievement is just as much her mother’s as her own. She understands that without the sacrifices that her mom made her great day might never have come. She rightly credited both of her parents for the wondrous things they had done from the time that she was born, and realizes that they will continue to walk beside her in her journey through life.

We sometimes forget how remarkable and demanding a job being a mom actually is. Sadly the day eventually comes when she is gone. Still her spirit somehow lives on inside our hearts. We see her in the things that we say and do. Her face in forever etched in our minds. We know that she is with us, guiding and consoling us through time and space.

God bless all of the mothers of the world and those who use their maternal instincts to help all children to grow in wisdom and grace.

Grace

Nancy

I have always loved the name Nancy. I called one of my favorite dolls Nancy, and when I grew older I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that I was able to find. One of my all time favorite friends is named Nancy as well, so it was only natural that I would instantly like Nancy Marquina when she was a student in my Algebra I class. Her easy going nature and ever present generosity became immediately apparent, and so I truly enjoyed being in her presence.

Like me, Nancy was new to the world of KIPP charter schools, but she had adjusted to the academic rigors and steadfast rules rather easily. I would learn that her flexible attitude is one of her greatest strengths, but she is also a very determined sort. Each afternoon she attended my tutorials even though I sometimes suspected that she had already mastered the concepts. I think that she enjoyed the review time, but mostly she came to encourage friends who struggled a bit more with mathematics than she did. She became a kind of assistant to me, helping other students who were struggling to learn different ideas.

My favorite moment with Nancy came one afternoon when I was doing my best to once again explain the Distributive Property. I had tried arrows and pictures and all sorts of examples and there were still students who were confused by the concept. Nancy very politely suggested that I use a chant that she had learned from one of her former teachers. She drew a little bunny next to the problem that we were solving and then said, “Hippity hoppity, Distributive Property” as she sketched little footprint tracks as though the rabbit had come to the rescue. She patiently explained that the little creature needed to multiply both of the numbers inside the parentheses, not just one.

I was about to thank her and note that this was a high school class and using bunnies probably would not be appropriate when I saw the smiles of understanding on the faces of the students who had seemed hopelessly lost only minutes earlier. A few examples later proved that they had indeed finally caught on to the process. Since that time I’ve shared Nancy’s cute little idea with many students, and each time they respond positively and with utter delight. I always tell them that it was not my notion, but one from a favorite student. 

I have been fortunate enough to stay in touch with Nancy Marquina as she progressed through high school and later entered college. What I know is that she is someone who is humble and loyal and kind, bringing joy into the lives of the people that she meets with no expectations of having her kindnesses returned. It seems so appropriate that the name Nancy means grace because that is what she brings to people, and with her natural beauty both inside and out she is the very image of grace.

Shortly after I retired form education my nephew asked me to help tutor some of his students in preparation for a high stakes mathematics test. I readily agreed because I still enjoy being able to unlock the understanding of the world of numbers in those who see them as a mystery. I soon learned that so many students had signed up for the Saturday morning sessions that there was a need for one more person to work with them. I made an appeal to some of my former students who had been especially good in math, and Nancy responded almost immediately. She was eager to do her part and I knew from my own experiences with her that she would be great.

Not surprisingly the students fell in love with Nancy. She arrived each Saturday with a big smile and tons of encouragement for her charges. She often stopped to purchase donuts for her crew which only sweetened her relationship with the kids. Mostly she used her caring and empathetic nature to instill the kind of confidence in them that had been missing before she came into their lives. That’s just how Nancy is, someone who is always thinking of others more than herself, quietly making a difference without asking for credit for her good deeds.

Nancy eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston. She took more and more difficult engineering and mathematics classes with a sense of purpose that drove her to be unafraid of the challenges that lay ahead. Over time she felt that something was missing in her major, so she did some research and spoke with some experts to see if there was another line of study that might better suit her interests. That’s when she found the world of Geophysics and it took little time for her to be hooked.

There was nothing easy about majoring in Geophysics, but Nancy has rarely avoided difficult situations. She dove into the task, taking science, mathematics and engineering courses one after another. With a kind of grit that motivates the most adventurous among us, Nancy moved closer and closer to achieving goals that she had quietly set for herself long ago. Today she will graduate from the University of Houston with a major in Geophysics and a minor in Mathematics.

I am so happy and proud for Nancy Marquina. I always knew that she is a remarkable woman. I have admired her spunk and her concern for others for many years. I have little doubt that she will enjoy many more successes in her life. She is one of those people who perseveres when others have quit. She is an unafraid warrior who pushes herself and helps others along the way. She has reinforced my belief that Nancy is a name for very special people. She is grace incarnate.

Share the Love

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A little boy named Austin Perine has captured the hearts of our nation. He’s an adorable tyke who was recently featured on CBS news because he saves his money to purchase food and drink for homeless people. He wears a red cape and a blue tee shirt emblazoned with the words Share Love when he is carrying out his mission of mercy. To say that he is absolutely precious is an understatement. He has brought smiles and hope to countless individuals in Birmingham, Alabama and now Facebook is abuzz with his delightful story.

Austin is a sweet boy who says that he one day wants to be President Austin so that he might help even more people. I suspect that he is well on his way to at the very least becoming a remarkable adult. While he may have been born with a gentle nature, the truth is that his generosity most likely comes from the lessons he has learned from the adults in his life. It is a fact that those of us who are older teach and mold the little ones that we encounter. Barring some kind of mental illness, most children bloom and blossom under the care of good people. Sadly children are also sometimes destroyed by abuse both emotional and physical. Just as Austin will probably one day be a great man because of the loving and positive influences in his life, so too will children living in an environment of hate and hurt often become the next perpetrators of violence and ugly thought.

While nothing is ever certain, a child’s environment at the earliest ages is a powerful force that is very difficult to change once it has become the model. Certainly history and literature are filled with stories of people who found their way out of horrific situations, and most of us know someone who through sheer will has been able to change the direction of his/her life. No human is automatically condemned to following the damaging ways of bad parents, but freeing oneself from such influences is perhaps the most difficult behavior imaginable. Relatives, neighbors, teachers, friends, ministers all have opportunities to help those who are attempting to overcome abuses and corrupted thinking. We never really know when we might be just the spark to foment positive change in someone who wants to be a better person.

I tend to study abusive behaviors and ask myself what may have happened to a person to make them so mean. I recall one of my students who was arrogant, abrasive and seemingly unwilling to conform to societal rules. Conferences with his mother revealed that she and her husband were actually afraid to sleep at night lest he kill them while they slumbered. Still she loved her boy and simply did not know how he became the way that he was.

I subsequently had a long conversation with the young man. As I listened I found a tale of a tortured soul. His mom had been extremely young when he was born and unmarried as well. She had little desire to devote her life to him at the time and so she left him with her own parents and went about growing up. The boy’s days with his grandparents were idyllic. He spoke of living on a farm with them and learning how to care for animals and grow crops alongside his grandfather. His grandmother adored him and taught him to love God and all people. He was incredibly happy and had little desire to live any other way, but fate was not so good to him. First his grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack and as the boy told it, this was the worst day of his life.

He would listen to his grandmother crying at night and he so wanted to console her but didn’t know how. He was as frightened as she was, but somehow the two of them found a way to carry on until his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. She very quickly fell into a state of weakness that kept her in bed on most days. She died within months, leaving the boy to an uncertain future.

His mom came to care for him. She had matured by then and realized that she loved her child and wanted to make a good life for him. It was quite an adjustment because he had to move from the farm to an apartment in a bad part of a city. At first everything was great between his mother and him, but then she met a man that she thought she loved. He moved in with them and was actually fairly nice at first. but before long he was beating both the boy and his mom. Life became hellish as he cowered in his room fearing that one of them might one day be murdered by the tyrant. For whatever reason his mother failed to protect either him or herself, so he learned how to fight back. He became strong, unwilling to back down when the man became enraged.

By the time the boy’s mother finally found a way for them to escape from the monster with whom they had been living the boy was completely changed. He felt alone and even unwanted. He vowed never again to let anyone hurt him either physically or emotionally. That meant building a wall around his heart, even with his mom.

After a time his mother found a very nice man to love. She hoped that things would change for the better, but the boy had lost his willingness to trust anyone. He was still angry that God had taken his grandparents. He was angry that his mother had once given him away. He was angry that his mom had waited so long to defend him from the harm of the man she had brought into their lives. Even though the new “father” was always kind and loving, the boy believed that one day it would all fall apart, and so he would not allow his anger to subside.

Because I listened and because I understood, the boy began to do well in my class, but he literally gave hell to other teachers. Before long his actions had become so egregious that he was expelled. He came to may classroom to say goodbye. He was crying, his wall completely gone. All he really wanted was to be able to believe once again that someone loved him. I told him that I did and that I furthermore believed that his mother did as well. I urged him to make peace with her and his stepdad who was genuinely concerned. I promised him that I would pray for him and never ever forget him. I have kept my word, but I worry about him and wonder what ultimately became of him. I hope that he remembered just enough from his grandparents to feel good about people once again. I wanted so much to be the spark that may have helped him, but I also understood that he had so much baggage that might never be undone.

There are very good souls in our midst like Austin Perine. He is sharing the love that he himself has known. Follow his example and share yours.

Start the Habit

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It is apparent that the clock is ticking for me, but in truth it is also moving quickly for even the very young. Our human reality is that we do indeed have to seize each day and each relationship or endure the possibility of missing our opportunities to do so. We’ve all known that God awful feeling of wanting the tell someone how much we have loved and appreciated them only to wait until that person was gone. Our lives can be built on a series of regrets or a foundation of courageously using each moment to its fullest.

Obviously we have routines that we must perform. We go to school, go to work, take care of our human needs. All work and no play makes us dull and even unhappy, so of course we make time for fun. Still there are so many Moments when we might spend just a few minutes doing something greater than just surviving. How long does it really take to reach out to the people around us? As busy as we are, sometimes just one brief comment can literally change the course of someone’s day, and maybe even his/her life.

I know that such things have happened to me. They have been glorious moments when my heart soared. I have so appreciated the people who made those times happen. We all treasure acknowledgement. We all crave love. We want to believe that our lives are making a difference, but we also need to remember and appreciate those who have helped us along the way.

I recently received a thank you note from my friend Linda. I had brought her a card, flowers and a gift certificate on her birthday. It was not nearly enough to demonstrate my undying affection for her. It gave me pleasure to see her smile. I was even more touched when she sent me that note. My husband remarked that Linda was “old school” because so few people bother to demonstrate their gratitude these days. I agreed that Linda is most thoughtful, but I also grieved a bit that we have become so blasé about expressing our thanks when someone does something nice for us. Linda is beloved by all who know her because she is a very giving person who never takes anything for granted, no matter how busy she may be. I wonder why we have allowed this tendency to become less and less common.

Stamps are expensive and snail mail is slow, but there are so many other means of letting people know how we are feeling. An email or text or comment on Facebook can brighten someone’s day. Even just clicking the Like button might make someone happy. Each of us has moments when our confidence wanes. We have all experienced loneliness, loss, insecurities. We sometimes wonder if anyone even notices that we exist. When that one person takes the time to let us know that we have done something that made a difference we soar with happiness, so why don’t we pay such compliments forward?

I recently saw a program in which a young woman was advised to do nice things for people without expecting anything in return. She did as she had been told for quite sometime, but because nobody seemed to notice her kind acts she began to falter. Her counselor insisted that if she just continue her kindnesses she would find the happiness that she sought. Surely enough she realized that she felt better about herself that she had in a very long time. Furthermore the people that she encountered were more drawn to her. The members of her family and those in her circle of friends smiled when they saw her and embraced her in ways that she had not experienced before. The acts of generosity that she performed for others became a kind of gift to herself.

Have you ever noticed that the happiest and most popular people that you know are much like Linda. They never miss an opportunity to be thankful. They send personal greetings that are filled with so much love that the persons receiving them float on air for a time. Another friend Jenny is like that as well. She spreads sunshine wherever she goes. When her home flooded last summer she kept up an optimistic front even though she was actually terrorized by the event. Because she has always been such an angel people immediately rallied around her. She was almost overwhelmed by the response to her cause. Still she thought of others and once her own home was repaired she shared her bounty with those who had also lost so much. She concentrated on students who had also been affected by the floods. She kept a smile on her face and always seemed to be asking how everyone was doing. Her peers acknowledged her optimism and generosity by naming her the Teacher of the Year at her school. It was a fitting tribute for a deserving person, but even then Jenny was quite humble about the honor.

Right now we each know someone who could use a boost or who has had so much impact on our own lives that we would be remiss if we failed to take the time to do or say something amazing for them. Start the habit without expecting anything in return and it will change your life. It is impossible to be unhappy whenever we think about others. There is something quite astounding that happens when we forget about our own difficulties or state of mind and focus instead outside of our own heads. Try today. Don’t delay. Someone somewhere is going to have a very good day if you do.