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.

Taking Some Stress Out of Christmas

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So many people get annoyed with those of us who start shopping and prepping for Christmas when Halloween has barely passed, but I find that if I don’t do a bit here and a bit there for many weeks I get caught at the last minute expending all of my energy in one fell swoop. Instead I learned long ago that if I slowly chip away at all of my Christmas tasks and I will have time to enjoy the season with friends, neighbors and family. It takes a bit of planning but I learned how to do that quite well as an educator when I had to be certain of teaching all of the concepts within a certain timeframe.

One aspect of my holiday traditions is the sit down dinner that I host on Christmas Day. I truly enjoy readying my home for that gala but in the past few years I have found that I spend most of the day getting the food served and then cleaning all of the dishes and pans for hours afterward. I have lovely Christmas place settings that are so festive but they generally have to be washed by hand and doing so takes far more time than it should. I have guests who quite sweetly attempt to help but the problem is that they get to visit with every one even less time that I do when they volunteer, and that isn’t much fun for any of us.

This year I decided to do something about the one Christmas duty that I abhor. I made a visit to the Party City website and ordered plastic plates that appear to be elegant china with matching bowls, dessert plates and even cups. All I need now are a few of those huge Costco garbage bags and the cleanup will be quick and easy. I will spend my time actually enjoying my guests rather than making sure that my kitchen stays orderly enough not to be designated as a toxic waste dump.

I still plan to use my Christmas tablecloths and napkins. They are easy to just toss into the washing machine. I also plan to set out my mother’s silver and the pewter utensils that my dear friend Egon left for me upon his death. I really don’t care to eat with plastic knives and forks and spoons and using the real thing will not create much mess at all. The entire lot will fit nicely into a sink of hot soapy water where it can soak until later. I’m thinking of maybe going with throw away serving bowls as well, but I have a wonderful Christmas platter that I always use for my roast or turkey or ham. It is a tradition that I refuse to surrender. It won’t take much to clean it and put it safely away. 

I feel a bit guilty about possibly damaging the environment with so many disposable items. The modern trend is to recycle everything but I will be seventy one this month and quite frankly I am tired of the annual cleanup. My mother-in-law announced her retirement from hosting the Christmas gala when she was younger than I am. My mother followed suit rather quickly thereafter. I don’t want to give away my day to provide the family with a feast just yet, but I am going on strike over the task of using all of the good china. I don’t think anybody really cares what the plates look like as long as what is on them tastes good. I’ll spend more time perfecting my menu and less washing and drying crystal and china.

Everyone seems to have a great time on Christmas Day. They have lively conversations and play games. I tend to be puttering about for so long that by the time I finally join the group they announce one by one that it is time to go home. I suspect that such has been the lot of women for decades. We eat our food cold and perform the “Martha” role to the point of missing all the fun. This year I am going to remedy that.

I’ve even sent out a family email to determine what everyone actually wants to eat this year. I have set a deadline of November 18, for the input and I will go by majority rule. I think it will be fun for everyone to have some say in what we our feast will be.

Many have suggested that I have a potluck but I don’t mind the cooking at all. It is one task that is fun for me and I prefer knowing ahead of time how to balance the meal. Besides the idea is that the dinner is a gift from me to the family. It is the one time of year when everyone comes and I have the honor of treating them. I get great joy out of the entire event.

I’ve bought a few Christmas gifts already. It’s easy to find great gifts for some people and almost impossible for others. I don’t know how it is for anyone else but the men are the hardest for me. I can only purchase so many ties or shirts or books or whatever. The guys tend to have very specific desires whereas women like just about anything. It will take me many weeks to figure it all out and then I will just have to hope that I have hit the spot.

Christmas is undoubtably my favorite time of the year and I plan to keep streamlining it so that I can get every bit of enjoyment out of the season and keep stress at a bare minimum. I’ll let you know how the plastic place settings work out. I suspect that they will be a hit.

A New Way To Praise

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I once went to a church service with one of my former students. As a cradle Catholic I grew up with a very formalized kind of religion that has often been critiqued and misunderstood so I kept an open mind as I experienced a very different way of connecting with God. After a reading from the Bible and a few words from the minister the people began praying aloud, sending their petitions to God all at one time in a confusing mix of sound. I was not quite sure how to react so I simply attempted to quiet my mind. That’s when I began to hear the profound beauty of their individual prayers and their deep faith that God would somehow comfort them and ease their pain. Before long the sounds of their very personal pleas brought tears to my eyes and a realization that each of us longs for hope and peace in different ways.

My mother was a confirmed Catholic. She believed in its teachings and traditions with all of her heart. Nonetheless she was quite open to other religions and often voiced her philosophy that her main hope was that each person would find a relationship with God in the manner that worked best. To that end she was just fine with the idea of people following their own hearts in deciding which kind of religion worked best for them. She believed that God comes to humans in many forms. She had great respect for the beliefs of others but was always troubled by those who thought that the very idea of a
God of any kind was a human myth. She prayed that each person might find the goodness and power that she felt from a closeness with a personal God.

I watched my mother’s faith and prayer life take her through challenges that might have defeated a lesser person. There was nothing easy about her life and yet she was known far and wide as an optimistic and happy person, someone who gave when she had so little of her own. I witnessed her love of God firsthand and I saw the incredible strength that it gave her. It convinced me that she was not just experiencing some human fairytale. What she felt was unexplainable in the scientific sense but nonetheless quite real.

Religions of all kinds have taken heat in the long course of history. My own Catholic Church is a target for derision these days because of scandals that shake the very foundations of belief. Other sects sometimes appear to be far less kind that they ought to be. The human discussion of all things spiritual is often fraught with anger and hypocrisy and yet at the heart of the matter is the idea that there is a being much bigger than our humanity upon whom we should depend. For some this is the stuff of legend and a source of ridicule, but for people like me and millions of others it is a deeply held conviction.

The most recent class that I have been taking at Rice University School of Continuing Education centers on the Stuart kings, the monarchs who took the throne of England after the death of the childless Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor rulers. That particular moment in history was marked by sometimes violent religious struggles between the Church of England, more fundamentalist sects like the Puritans, and the Catholic Church. At that point in time the tendency was to attempt to eliminate any group of believers who did not concur with the monarchy and the national church. Strict laws prohibited true freedom of religion and in many ways served to influence later attempts to form fairer democracies, including the one that resulted right here in the United States of America. By law we are supposed to be as tolerant of all faiths as my mother always was.

I bring up all of this because I see so many instances of derision and sometimes even hatred being aimed at various religious groups and individual beliefs. We all too often presume to understand what is in the hearts of people who profess particular philosophies. We judge in places where we have no business to do so.

A perfect example of this is to be found in the person of Kanye West, a brilliant and talented musician and master of words who has by his own admission led a troubled life. Much like my mother he is challenged by the sometimes crippling mood swings of bipolar disorder. He has courageously admitted to having this terrible illness even knowing that it is so misunderstood. We are still in the dark ages when it comes to tolerance and compassion for the mentally ill, and so Kanye has been ridiculed and sometimes even spurned in his journey to find peace of mind. Along the way he has experienced a seemingly dramatic conversion to the Christian faith.

His enthusiasm for Christ has been mocked by those who think that perhaps he is just going through a manic phase. They call him crazy and joke about the strange twists and turns of his life. Others cynically suggest that he has just found a new way to make money. They see his foray into religion as nothing more than a scheme. Thus his new album Jesus Is King has been panned by many of his critics as little more than the mad ravings of a diseased mind.

I have listened to Kanye’s songs that praise the glory of Christ and I hear instead the work of a genius who has found a power that had previously been missing from his life. I applaud his courage in putting his entire career and reputation on the line with such a daring project. He will no doubt be questioned and misunderstood by many but the message in each track tells the story of someone who truly believes. He has taken his God given talents and used them to shout the good news that he has found. Jesus Is King is a gloriously creative gift, not the ravings of a madman and it is impossible and even wrong for any of us to question what truly lies in the heart of Kanye West. Instead we should celebrate the happiness and comfort that he appears to have found in God.

Liturgical music has included the compositions of giants. There have been Gregorian chants and litanies, symphonies and gospel pieces. Now the voice of Kanye West uses rap to tell of the glories of Jesus. It is both brilliant and lovely. His is a new way to praise. We should all celebrate that he has found a way to ease the tempest in his mind by sharing his genius with those of us who believe.

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.