It’s Never Too Late

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Back in 1988, he headed off to college. At some point on his way to earning a degree things got complicated and he quietly dropped out of school. He moved to Chicago, enrolled in the Police Academy and became a cop. The years passed by and in the interim he raised a family and made a nice life for himself, but he knew that something was missing. Not long ago he retired from the police force with a pension that gave him enough income to follow a dream that had never really left his mind. He applied for admission to college and when the acceptance letter came he proudly announced that he was going back to school to pursue a major in engineering, undaunted by the fact that he is only a year or so away from turning fifty.

I did not know this man very well, but when I heard his story I wanted to jump for joy. I admire his willingness to keep learning and to make sacrifices to enrich his life. All too often I hear adults bemoaning the trajectory of their lives and blaming all sorts of people and situations for their plight. Whenever anyone suggests steps that they might take to improve their lot in life they are filled with excuses of why it is simply not possible to make changes. They note that educational programs cost too much or take up too much of their time, and yet they prefer being miserable for the long run rather than making sacrifices for the moment.

Again and again I see examples of people who take charge of their lives and push themselves just a bit harder to make changes and reach goals that may at first glance appear to be unattainable. I recall a woman who got married and began having children right out of high school. She and her husband barely got by as they worked at a series of low paying and dead end jobs. In their late twenties it seemed as though they would always struggle just to make ends meet. Neither of them had high school transcripts worthy of even the mid range universities and they wondered how it would be possible to pay the tuition and fees even if some institution accepted them. Nonetheless they agreed one evening that they had to redirect their destinies and they applied to every sort of program imaginable. Their journey began in a local junior college where they took courses one or two at a time while working all day and managing a family.

Before long they had both earned associate degrees with honors. This one step allowed them to get better jobs, but they were not yet done. Eventually the woman became a registered nurse and the man earned a law degree. By the time they were nearing their forties they were able to purchase a nice home and treat themselves to vacations and luxuries like nice furniture. They had so inspired their children that the kids were excelling in high school and headed for some of the best universities in the country. To all the world they appeared to be a power couple. Few realized how far they had come.

I could go on and on about people who reclaimed their lives with a willingness to work hard to bring about the changes that would help them to escape the debilitating grind of the mistakes of their youth. Instead of wallowing in self recriminations or envy they did something positive to make changes. They went back to school and worked in the wee hours of the night and on weekends to master skills and write papers. At times they were exhausted and worried that they might never recoup all of the money that they spent for courses. It was a slow and demanding process, but they never surrendered to the little voices that tempted them to throw in the towel. In every case that I heard of they were victorious, standing out as exceptional students and the kind of employees that any organization dreams of having.

I tell people that no one need ever feel stuck in a rut. I think of the bookkeeper who earned a degree in accounting, became a CPA, and opened her own firm. I remember the man who was miserable in his job who attended night school to become certified to be a teacher. I applaud the friend who graduated at the top of her law class when she was almost fifty years old. I have witnessed brave souls who demonstrated with their determination that where there is a will there is a way to control destiny rather than being ruled by it. All it takes is a willingness to divert the energy wasted complaining and parlay it into tangible efforts to learn and grow.

There are countless opportunities for anyone of any age. It is never too late for any of us to become the person that we have always wished to be. If we wait for privileges to suddenly appear or lottery tickets to pay dividends we will be sorely disappointed. For most of us it will take time and money and effort and no excuses. 

I hope that the man who is embarking on earning a degree for a second career will find the success that he seeks. His is an admirable goal, and even before his journey is done he has inspired those of us who have heard of his courage. He reminds us that it is never too late.

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Finding My Way

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I spent the first seventeen years of my life in a kind of bubble. I lived in a neighborhood that I rarely left for anything other than visits to the homes of my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I walked to my school and had classes all the way through the twelfth grade with many of the same friends that I had known since the first and second grades. My life revolved around a regular routine that was carefully orchestrated by my mother. I felt safe, secure and loved, but frustrated by how little I knew of the world beyond the borders of the small area of southeast Houston where I lived.

My single parent family had no extra money to send me and my brothers to college, so it was up to us to find ways to pay for tuition and such. I worked hard in high school and graduated with enough honors to be recruited by a number of private universities including some that were rather prestigious, but most of the scholarship offers would still have left me scrambling for funds and wondering how I would manage to get from Houston to distant towns. When it came time to choose a university I felt that I needed to be in an environment far different from the one that had nurtured me in my youth. Somehow the University of Houston appeared to be the perfect solution, and as it turned out I was correct.

I found myself surrounded by a of diversity of people and ideas unlike anything that I had ever before experienced from the first moment that I stepped onto the University of Houston campus. It was a bit frightening and exhilarating at one and the same time. Even though the school was only a short drive from the place where I had lived for most of my life, it was a world away in culture. With its massive student body I literally became a number which I had to memorize to identify myself in the system. I was little more than a face in a crowd as I learned how to navigate the brutal registration process and the routes from one class to another. I had to grow up fast and toughen myself just to survive. It was exactly the kind of experience that I needed.

I soon learned that nobody was going to coddle me at UH and that I would have to use my own voice to make myself known to my professors. I overcame the shyness behind which I had hidden myself for so long. I had to develop a willingness to be an advocate by stepping forward and speaking up. I found it to be a glorious experience, and a way to become the person that I truly wanted to be. I may have returned to my mother’s home each evening, but during the day I was exerting my independence and finding delight in meeting people from all over the world. It was an exciting time that was transforming me at warp speed. I was quite proud to know that I was capable of paying my own way and choosing the direction of my life without adults hovering over me. At the same time I realized that I was receiving an excellent education as well.

In the beginning I tended to assess the students with whom I attended classes with the very narrow lens of the restricted environment in which I had spent my childhood and teen years. Suddenly I encountered people of different races, religions, and socio-economic status on a regular basis. I found that it was a mistake to categorize them according to my preconceived stereotypes.

I particularly recall one of my first classes in which the professor paired me with a girl whom I would never have chosen to approach. She literally exuded beauty, wealth and confidence with her perfectly coiffed hair, manicured nails, and expensive clothing. I had noticed her when she first walked into the room and I had felt somewhat in awe of her commanding presence. I had thoughts of dropping the class when I learned that my fate was to be tied to her for the entire semester. I assumed that she would feel the same about being with me, but I was so wrong. In fact, she became a dear friend, someone in whom I was able to comfortably confide my deepest thoughts. We not only worked together in class, but spent time riding around in the sports car that had been a graduation gift from her parents. She was open and kind and unspoiled. She taught me the important lesson of getting to know a person before making judgements about character.

I certainly recall the knowledge that I gained during my time at the University of Houston, but it was the experience of growing up that had the most impact in molding who I am today. I suspect that the process might have been less encompassing in another place. The sink or swim atmosphere was exactly what I needed even though it was sometimes daunting. I would eventually realize that there were people just waiting to help me if only I took the time to elicit their support. I learned the importance of reaching out to my professors, getting to know them so that they would know me. I began to network and expand my horizons into an ever more expanding circle.

By the time I was thrown into the real world I was both knowledgeable and capable. Virtually every aspect of my talents and character were ready for whatever I might encounter. The best part was that my own confidence and way of viewing the world had grown in ways that might never have happened had I not chosen the University of Houston. By paying my own way and mixing it up in a place akin to a small city I had toughened up and become a true citizen of the world in a very short space of time.

My life would be challenged before I even turned twenty one. I would have to be an advocate not only for myself but for my mother and brothers as well. Luckily I was prepared. Without going more than a few miles I had managed to ventured far away from home into an exciting world in which I became my own person.

The original charter of the University of Houston indicated that it would be a place of learning for the children of the working people of the city. It has sometimes been said that the school is best represented with by a set of blistered hands with the grime of hard labor under its fingernails. It is a no nonsense place in which none of the “isms” really matter. There are no walls at UH on which to grow ivy. It is a living breathing microcosm of the world as it really is. I suppose that’s why studying there meant so much to me.

The Power of Thankfulness

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I rarely ask other people for favors. I have a tendency to just gut out difficult situations on my own. I suppose I’ve always been that way. Perhaps I picked up that trait from my mom who was an exceedingly independent woman. Amazingly I save any requests that I may have for God. In fact, I suppose if my prayers were recorded they would sound a bit too much like a wish list. Mostly my supplications are for people that I know who are sick or suffering in some way. I never actually mention things that I need. Still, I recently realized my heavy reliance on favors from the Lord when a friend posted a meditation suggesting that we all spend one day simply thanking God for the blessings that He showers on us. I decided to accept the challenge and it was truly life changing.

I happened to be in Colorado taking a mini-vacation when I set out to notice my bounty rather than to focus on my wants, so it was rather easy to find wondrous moments of appreciation. I began with a thank you just for waking up on that day. Then I expressed my gratitude for being in the company of my loving husband, my best friend. Suddenly I the idea really caught hold and I was feeling joyful over having nice warm clothes to wear and fresh food to eat for breakfast. I was on a roll before I ever left our hotel room for which I also felt great cheer because I knew that there were homeless folk on the streets of downtown Denver who might have been thrilled to stay in such luxury.

And so it went all day long. I thanked God for the gloriously magnificent mountains that provided a majestic view. I was happy for the sun and the blue sky. I began to notice all sorts of tiny things that I might otherwise have overlooked or taken for granted, like the smiles that people exchanged with me. I began to see the glory of the world around me with new eyes. It was as though I was a newborn child experiencing life for the first time. I can’t even begin to describe how calm it made me feel. My normal tendencies toward anxiety melted away and I felt a happiness that was pure and without any conditions. Not even little irritations that might normally have made me a bit irate were able to touch me.

I have to admit that I even found myself feeling particularly thankful for the friend, Paula, who posts daily prayers and meditations that I scan but too often don’t take fully to heart. I was so glad that her passage for that day had somehow caught my attention just enough that I had decided to take the challenge. It provided me with the kind of awakening that I genuinely needed in that moment. It also taught me to take the time each day to be as fully aware of the bounty of my life as I am of the problems that I must face. I have literally changed my approach to God and to each day and found that it feels so good.

I suppose that it is only human to dwell on worries and concerns. There are even times when the world crowds in on us with such force that it is difficult to ignore the tragedies and horrors that come our way. In those moments we need help from God and any person who is willing to step forward, and we should not hesitate to reach out for any assistance that we might find. Nonetheless, we still would do well to take note of our blessings even in the most terrible of times. Focusing only on what we need rather than taking stock of what we already have can leave us feeling depressed and incapable. When we take the time to notice the gifts that we have, we realize that many of the tools that we need to survive are already in our hands.

My mother was always filled with joy and gratitude. She cherished the most utterly simple moments and didn’t seem to notice how much she lacked in material wealth. If I took her to visit her sister she was as happy as if I had given her on a grand vacation. She thought that a glass of milk and a few vanilla wafers was an extravagance. She constantly insisted that she was one of the most blessed individuals in the world even though she was a widow with bipolar disorder and an income so low that it barely covered her expenses. She read her Bible every single day and never failed to point out how generous God had been to her.

I sometimes felt irritated that she was so childlike in her appreciation for life. It seemed almost nonsensical that anyone with the challenges that she had should be so happy. I suppose that I did not truly understand the power of being thankful for the most basic blessings that we enjoy. I thought of her on the day that I was purposely looking for good things and realized that such optimism is incredibly up lifting. I knew then that it had been the secret to my mom’s ability to survive. It was the key to her selflessness and contentment.

I’ve been more and more careful to spend my days celebrating the glory of my life. It has completely changed my outlook for the better. When something bad happens I find myself looking for the silver lining. When I feel overwhelmed I take a deep breath and feel thankful that I am alive enough to still be in the race. Instead of feeling sorry for myself because so many that I have loved have died, I speak of how lucky I have been to have known them. My world is now filled with more rainbows than dark clouds. I have more energy for dealing with the inevitable worries and tragedies that come my way.

I still know that I can petition God for favors if need be. I understand that my requests may not always be fulfilled in the ways that I had hoped. I have learned over a lifetime that I don’t always get what I want, but sometimes I get what I need. I thank God just for being around to hear my complaints and my pleas. Then I move forward with thankfulness. 

Anyone Can Do It!

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In all of my years of teaching mathematics the refrain that heard most often was, “I’m no good at math.” My job became to convince my students that anybody has the ability to learn the algorithms and fundamentals of math given a willingness to invest time and effort.

We all know someone who has a natural ability with all things mathematical. In my own case it wasn’t me. It was my brother. I had to go home from school each evening with my math book and my notes and work through problems until a light bulb lit up inside my brain. Sometimes that took just a few minutes and other times it took a couple of hours, but in the end I mastered one concept after another.

Most of my students have insisted that it is impossible to study for a math test. They are accustomed to memorizing facts for their liberal arts classes and they tell me that one will never know what problems will be on the quiz. Therefore they assume that working sample problems is fruitless, but I insist that it really helps. Just as doing reps in the various sports generally brings about improvement in muscle memory, so too does practicing mathematical ideas help imprint problem solving methods on the mind.

It took me several years before I understood the value of homework in math. I used to grudgingly do the problems as quickly as possible and I was unwilling to ask questions about things that I did not comprehend lest I be regarded as being not so bright. I was literally in college before I understood the value of asking my professors for help. I not only became more enlightened, but I also became known by them which was a big plus in my large university. I encourage anyone who is struggling with anything, particularly mathematics, to take full advantage of tutoring opportunities with teachers. It is one of the keys to mastering skills that may at first seem far too difficult.

I like to think that my own struggles with mathematics in my early years led me to being a better and more understanding teacher. I know how it feels to read a word problem and draw a complete blank. I recall tearful sessions with my mother after school when I would insist that I was never going to be good at solving problems. She taught me how to first work with the words, taking them apart enough to discover what I was being asked, and then applying the knowledge that I had learned. With pictures, highlighters and diagrams I now find that I am able to tackle any challenge, but it wasn’t so until I followed my mom’s advice.

I have a granddaughter who used to think of herself as being a bit slow on the uptake when it came to math. It bothered her that her brother never seems to have a problem to immediately understand even the most difficult concepts. She and I talked for a long while about my own struggles when I was her age, and she took my advice regarding the value of hard work in mastering her math lessons. Last year she was anxious about the end of course Algebra I exam that she would have to take. She spent hours studying definitions, processes and different types of problems. Whenever she came up with an incorrect answer she found out why and then worked dozens more until she was consistently getting the correct answers. In the end she received one of the highest scores in her class, but more importantly she learned that it is not only possible to study mathematics, but preferable indeed.

Confidence is usually the element that is missing whenever a student who is bright in every other way does poorly in math. At some point in time he/she has become convinced that it is useless to even try. Such students truly believe that they are missing some gene that would allow them to do better. They take tests feeling defeated before they have even lifted their pencils. It’s up to their parents and teachers to help them to find the good feelings that they need to do well with mathematics, and to show them how to work hard to get there. That means eschewing a temptation to tell the young ones that they come by their dread of mathematics naturally because difficulty with math runs in the family. There is little worse than instilling such fear.

We have to be certain not to create self fulfilling prophecies in our young. It is possible to master mathematics slowly but surely and often with a great deal of work. It is no different than practicing a butterfly stroke or learning a new techniques for drawing. It takes patience and determination in some cases, but it can be done. I have watched hundreds of my students become adept in a subject that had previously been terrifying for them. My job was not to trick them, but to show them the way.

The best mathematics teachers that I have known all rejoice when someone who has struggled finds the light. There is no better feeling. If I were able to accomplish one thing in my lifetime it would be to replace comments like “This is too hard. I can’t do it. I’ve always been terrible in math.” with ideas that speak to the value of practice, asking questions and being positive. One day I hope to hear more of “I don’t get it now, but I know I will. I know that anyone can do it.”   

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.