Praying For Her Happiness

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She came to school wearing a lady’s wig. At first I thought it was a silly prank that she was pulling because the brunette bouffant swallowed her tiny face. Still she looked beautiful with her blue eyes staring from beneath the fringe of bangs that were so long that they touched her eyelids. When the students in my class began to taunt her tears welled up like raindrops on an azure lake. That’s when I knew that something was terribly wrong.

I took her gently aside and asked why she was sporting the strange headpiece. She whispered that she had to do so because her own hair was gone. We found a private area and she lifted the wig to show me her shorn head. It had been shaved all the way down to the scalp. She explained that her mother had found nits in her hair and became enraged that she had brought such foul creatures into the house. Before the girl knew what was happening her mom ordered her into the backyard and soon met her with an electric razor, ranting her disgust all the while that she removed every last shred of hair from the child’s scalp.

When the girl cried and asked her mom how she would be able to face her classmates she was told that she had brought the embarrassment upon herself. Eventually the mother calmed her irritation just a bit and brought out the wig, insisting that the girl cover her shame with the ridiculous head piece. The little child sobbed as she told me her story. She mentioned over and over again how much she loved her parent and that she didn’t want to cause anymore trouble. She just wanted to go back to the classroom and face the music from her peers. She maintained that she would be just fine and that her hair would soon enough grow again.

I was her teacher and had to report the incident to the principal and the school nurse. We learned that this was not the first time that the mother had targeted the sweet child with abusive behavior. For some reason she was the unloved one among her siblings. In spite of her sweet nature and her attempts to please, she was often harangued with guilt trips that outlined her faults. She was compared unfavorably to her sisters and made to believe that she was somehow unworthy of praise and love.

I cried about this child. I lost sleep worrying about her. There was little more that I was able to do than to emphasize to her just how truly wonderful she actually was. I was careful to show her the kindness that seemed to be lacking in her home. Unfortunately she was one of many children in my class that year who were living in abusive situations. Even the nurse’s report to CPS did little to change her circumstances. The social workers were overworked and bound by rules and regulations that prevented them from making truly setting things right.

I’ve found myself thinking about this little girl for decades. She would have been about ten years old back then which means that she is now a woman in her forties. I hope that things turned out well for her, but I fear what might have happened. She was beautiful and brilliant and as sweet as can be, but for whatever reason her mother found her lacking. She acted as though she took the abuse in stride, but in truth she was always a bit anxious as though she was always waiting for the next insult to land. She was apologetic just for being who she was.

I worry that she went from the frying pan into the fire. Perhaps she landed in an abusive situation with a man. Nonetheless I prayed that in some wondrous miracle she finally realized her own worth and managed to heal herself. I’d like to believe that she eventually became strong enough to understand that she had never been the problem. Many people have overcome such backgrounds, and she certainly had all of the natural talents to do so. Still, I know all too well how constant denigration can erode self esteem to the point of creating permanent scars.

In my career I witnessed such sadness far more than I might have wished. I always wondered what makes a parent despise a child. In all probability the mother had been somehow abused herself. Maybe she suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. Perhaps she was simply overwhelmed by circumstances. Maybe she was just mean.

We never know exactly what to do in such cases. Children seem to love their parents even when the parents are unnaturally cruel. They prefer taking the verbal or physical beatings rather than being separated because their reality is so devoid of love. Knowing that such things are all too often commonplace was the the most difficult aspect of my time as a teacher. I grew to love each of my students and felt protective of them. When they were still overwhelmed by poverty, ignorance, or abuse I found myself wishing that I had some wonderful power to change things for them.

I have several unimaginably compassionate friends like Chrystal and Fran who serve as foster parents. I have watched them shower children with kindness and love. They have gone out of their way to welcome little lost souls into their families. They provide a refuge and a place of hope. I admire them so, because I know how difficult their roles may sometimes be. They are true angels who sacrifice physically and emotionally to help someone else’s child, even knowing that just when they become attached the little one may be returned to a questionable situation. Theirs is a goodness that I applaud, for instead of only hoping and praying they are actually doing something to ease the pain of such kids.

There are many children who are confused and battered and unloved. Perhaps if more of us were like my friends we might save them from the horrors that blight their childhood and no doubt influence their lives as adults. Whenever the image of the beautiful little girl with the absurd wig comes into my mind, I wish I had done more and I pray that she is finally happy. Most of all I hope she understood that I believed that she was wonderful.


Navigating Through Treacherous Waters

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I am a mom, a grandmother, an aunt, an educator. To perform these roles adequately I have often had to search for the wisdom of Solomon, the compassion of Mother Teresa, the patience of Job, and the understanding of Mister Rogers. There have been times when I have also had to be steadfast in my resolve to discipline the young souls for whom I was responsible in the hopes of guiding them to the right paths of honor and morality. Perhaps the most challenging task of any adult is helping future generations to find their best selves. It is a job that garners much worry and many sleepless nights, but the reward of watching an upstanding adult emerge from the confusions of teenage years is priceless.

Anyone who has accepted the responsibility of loving, teaching, influencing the growth and maturity of a young person knows how difficult it can be, particularly during adolescence. A tiny child may demand so much of our attention that we are left panting with exhaustion. While a teen is far more independent, the challenges of parenting or mentoring are even greater. As the young persons attempts to find their way the influence of peers becomes ever more important. The need to think for themselves often causes them to push adults away in favor of making their own decisions. The pull from the outside world sometimes threatens to overtake all of the hard work that adults have invested. It can be a frightening time for even the most wonderful families each time the teen leaves home to be with friends. There are dangerous situations out in the world, and the possibilities for trouble are many. As adults we hope and pray that the lessons that we have conveyed will assist our young ones in making sound decisions.

We read of raucous parties on college campuses and the sometimes horrific consequences of such events. We know from our own experiences that these kinds of things can create mixed emotions in someone not yet firmly assured of themselves. I remember a few celebrations that went way over the top, and how I waffled between wanting to fit in with the group and longing to get away as quickly as possible. Because my mother was a single parent dealing with a mountain of problems of her own I generally monitored my own behavior lest I add to her cares and woes. Nonetheless, I recall feeling torn and wondering if I looked abnormal to my friends who were partaking fully of the bacchanal. The temptations to take dangerous risks were all around me and I might have indulged under different circumstances. Luckily neither I nor my friends ever went so far as to find ourselves in deep trouble, but the thin line between doing what was right and engaging in dangerous behaviors was never too far away. For some it was simply a matter of never being caught.

I write these things because of the importance of conveying the message to our young of the need to be resolute in avoiding the pressure of a crowd. Temptations will be there as surely as they have always been. Nonetheless there are certain behaviors that they need to avoid out of decency and respect for themselves and the people that they know. They are more likely to remember our lessons if they have seen us model the principles that we preach from day to day. Words are only as good as actions. We have to show them what righteous people do.

One of the reasons that I have loved and appreciated my husband for well over fifty years now is that his mother and father raised him to be an honorable man. His father treated his mother with the highest regard. He has always been a gentleman in every sense of the word. My husband saw the love and dignity of his parents’ relationship playing out in all of his days with them. Additionally it was his mother who spoke to him of his duty as a man to treat all women with the kind of reverence that every human deserves. He fully understood that there was never a circumstance under which it would be right to defile the sanctity of any person. His parents helped to mold him into as fine a person as ever lived. It took work on their part to do so, but ultimately it was perhaps the most important thing that either of them ever did. That is what truly good parenting is all about and I was lucky enough to be the lifelong recipient of their results.

There are of course responsibilities that go along with raising daughters as well. It doesn’t hurt to insist that our young women be fully aware of their surroundings. I used to roll my eyeballs when my mother coached me on the pitfalls of placing myself in harm’s way. I inwardly laughed at her concerns, but when I found myself in sticky situations I fell back on her advice to extricate myself from potential trouble. Over time experience taught me that she wasn’t just an old fashioned soul who had lost touch with the modern world. Indeed she understood all too well that there truly are dangers in the world that we can learn to avoid.

It would be truly wrong to send our children into the fray without the necessary tools to deal with whatever may arise. It is up to us to have frank but non accusatory discussions with our teens and to provide them with the confidence and principles that will allow them to navigate even the most treacherous of waters without coming to harm. Our children are watching and listening more than we realize. We are teaching them even when we don’t try.

Show Them How Tough You Are

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One of my educator friends posted an article about a more and more prevalent kind of enabler known as a Lawnmower Parent. In general this is not just one who constantly watches over children, but also goes out of the way to pave the way for them, make things smoother sailing. In the example presented in the article a father calls a teacher out of the classroom to ask her to deliver a water bottle to his child. The teacher is stunned that the father has gone to such lengths to accommodate the student, and proceeds to provide additional examples of a worrisome trend that she sees all too often.

About the same time that I read about Lawnmower Parents I listened to the moving eulogy of Meghan McCain for her father John. There was much to talk about in her words, but one of the ideas that really struck me was her description of an incident in which she was fearful and ready to give up. Her dad encouraged her by urging her to “Show them how tough you are.”

In my own childhood, my mom often reiterated stories of hard times when she was just a girl when her father insisted that she hold her head high and ignore the taunts of those who attempted to deter her from feeling confident. He even held weekly family meetings in which he insisted that each of his children had much of which to be proud even though they were often viewed as different, poor, immigrants. He wanted no excuses, no bad behavior, and to his credit they all turned out to be exceptionally hard working and honest adults who passed down the notion of self reliance to their children and grandchildren.

Luckily I have seen very little Lawnmower Parent behavior in my own dealings with the education of students. I suppose that there have always been well meaning adults who over pampered their kids, but on the whole it has not really been a trend in my circles. I was once offered a bribe from a wealthy father if I would change his son’s final average in mathematics. Of course I adamantly declined the offer and then explained to the man why I believed that aiding his son in that manner was an horrific idea. By the end of the conversation the parent had realized that softening the blow of a subpar performance by his son would be the worst possible way of dealing with the disappointment. I had made it very clear that the student would learn far more from the experience if the full responsibility were placed at his feet rather than those of the adults. It was time to demonstrate that life is about hard work and self reflection, changing bad habits rather than covering them up.

All of us have been faced with situations that nearly broke our spirits. There will also be moments that are so difficult to face that our inclinations will be to run away. Still there are situations in which the only honorable thing to do is to show the world how tough we are. We have to work through the pain, the sorrow, the humiliation and keep moving forward.

The people that I most admire are imperfect beings, many of whom failed horribly at something. Rather than giving up or relying on someone else to fight for them, they picked themselves up and kept trying again and again until they ultimately succeeded. They overcame great problems at great prices. They were unwilling to be defeated. They showed all of us who were rooting for them just how tough they were.

I was quite excited about a post from a young woman who had attended one of the schools where I worked. She had become pregnant in her senior year and it seemed that she would not be able to fulfill her dreams with her new responsibility of raising a child. She remained undaunted and worked sometimes to the point of exhaustion while she held down a job, took care of her child, and studied at one of the local universities. She literally took one step at a time day by day, and ultimately earned a college degree. Knowing that her earning capacity would be improved with an advanced degree she continued her regimen of working, mothering and learning until she had also earned a Masters degree. She found a wonderful job, married the father of her child, and before long bought a beautiful custom built home. She showed us how tough she was, and we all celebrated her as an inspiration, a model of determination and grit.

I also know about certain instances when parents are compelled to stand up for their children. They are not being overly protective in such situations, but rather making certain that justice prevails. I have seen many occasions in which teachers were unmoving, even rude when students requested consideration for extenuating circumstances. They were so hard nosed that parents had to intervene. I’ve had such encounters with unfair teaching practices with my own two daughters. I felt compelled to speak out, particularly after my children had been ignored.

As educators we certainly hope that parents will not constantly make excuses for their youngsters, but at the same time we have to ask ourselves if we are somehow being unreasonable. Sometimes our hard and fast rules simply do not work for specific situations. We must be willing to demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to listen to our students’ pleas. When we don’t, it should not be too surprising if parents intervene.

Teaching is quite demanding, but so is being a student. Kids today seem to have virtually every hour of every day filled with tasks they must perform. We ask much of them, and sometimes forget that we are not the only ones piling assignments on them. We would do well to hear what they have to say before exhorting them to “deal with it.” We all reach a point after which we simply can do no more.

I’ve had to be tough throughout my life, but there have indeed been times when I knew that I was about to break. I often allowed myself the luxury of a bit of self pity, a mental health holiday, a pile of unfinished duties. It was how I built up the strength that I needed to keep moving forward, and because I understood how easily such a state of mind can appear I tried to be understanding with my students, my teachers, and the parents. Perhaps instead of pointing fingers at one another with insulting labels we just need to take the time to find out what is really going on. It is then that we will begin helping our young to learn how to show how tough they are.

Love and Work Ethic

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Saturday mornings never varied when my brothers and I were kids. We’d wake up with the chickens and turn on the shows designed just for children. They were so good back then, and they’d last for hours, or so it seemed. Our mother usually slept a bit late after working all week which we didn’t mind at all because it meant more time to view our programs. When she did finally join us it was usually with a big mug of coffee and a long list of chores that we had to accomplish before the weekend fun began.

Each of us got special jobs beyond the usual duties of cleaning our rooms and folding laundry and putting it away. For some reason I inherited latrine duty. I was as well trained as a G.I. when it came to making our bathroom spic and span. An inspector might have run a mirror under the toilet rim and never found a single germ. I took great pride in my work and enjoyed my mother’s compliments once I had finished. My brothers often had the loathsome task of mowing the lawn which was made even more difficult by the fact that they had to use a push mower with no motor. They claimed that it made them stronger which was probably true, but I always felt terrible for them. Somehow sanitizing the bathroom fixtures seemed much easier than what they had to do.

We always had to change the linens on our beds as part of the weekly routine and our mother taught us how to make tight corners on the top sheet. With our work abilities we would have been great candidates for the military, but none of us ever leaned that way. Instead we imagined ourselves as characters in some exciting adventure as we made up stories to make our work seem more like play. Our mom turned on classical music as we merrily did our chores which were often punctuated with pauses for sword fights or pretend flying through the sky. Somehow she managed to convince us that our labors were tons of fun, so we willingly dusted and swept and made our home gleam again.

On Saturdays once the work was done we were rewarded with a shopping trip. Back then my favorite place was Palm Center because it had the best places to spend the quarter that she gave us for jobs well done. The hunt for some item worthy of our hard earned pay was all part of the fun and our mom was quite patient in allowing us to spend as much time as we needed to make a selection.

During the school week our focus was on our studies. Our mama didn’t worry too much about how the house looked when we had to read, write papers and study for tests. At the end of each evening she’d manage a five or ten minute drill that involved taking whatever belonged to us to our respective rooms. That way the shoes and socks and clothes were confined to the back of the house leaving the front area looking rather nice save for the dust that accumulated from Saturday to Saturday.

My mother and I took turns washing dishes each evening. We couldn’t even imagine having a dishwasher back then. It was a luxury for wealthier folk. Instead we used the sink as it was originally intended, filling it with warm sudsy water on one side and saving the other for rinsing. Mama was compulsive about removing all of the soap residue, so she often checked my work. Luckily she thought that it was okay to let the items air dry on a drainer making the task go more quickly.

Eventually we grew older and added real jobs to our resumes. I was the local babysitter until I landed a position as a summer receptionist at my doctors’ office. I was all of fifteen years old and appeared to be around ten. I must have been quite a sight to the patients, but the doctor thought that my work was swell. He paid me eighty eight dollars a month for my services. I suppose that I was a bargain for him because I worked five days a week from nine in the morning until six at night. I never missed a day and I faithfully accepted payments from the patients and balanced the books at the end of each day. I did this for three summers until I landed a better gig at Holiday Inn. While I didn’t make much money I would one day be quite happy when it came time to claim Social Security. Those quarters from my teen years added up.

My brothers worked at a produce stand along the side of Mykawa Road. Like me they earned little money but they took great pride in their work and were able to get regular pay starting from very young ages. They followed up with a variety of work with better compensation like moving furniture and driving a mail truck for the United States Postal Service.

All three of us eventually graduated from college and later earned advanced degrees. Our work ethic was formed in those years when we were no more than eight or nine. Our mother had high expectations for us and we never wanted to disappoint her. By the time we were adults we had created our own goals and aspirations for ourselves. To this day, even in retirement, we energetically fill our days with a variety of responsibilities and somehow make even the most mundane tasks seem like fun. Our mother slyly taught us how to do that long, long ago. Not only did she require us to learn the value of work, but she did so with heaping mounds of love. That was the real secret to our willingness to work hard even to this very day.

Researchers now agree that two important traits of a good parent are showing love and developing a work ethic in children beginning even when they are small. I recall my mom handing me a dust cloth and demonstrating how to clean her collection of salt and pepper shakers when I could not have been more than about five or six years old. I graduated from there to folding towels and carrying them to the linen closet. Little by little she advanced my skills and those of my brothers, always finding ways to let us know how much she appreciated our efforts, even when she was not able to do so monetarily.

My mother often joked that she should have written a parenting book. She was quite proud that we had turned out so well in spite of being raised in a single parent home. I think that perhaps she was quite right in believing that she had somehow found the secret to mothering success. I still have a tendency to spend my Saturday mornings tidying up my home, and then going out to shop in the afternoon. I turn on music and dance my way around the dusting and mopping and fondly recall those days of long ago when my mother’s routines spelled order, renewal, accomplishment. They set the foundation for lives that my brothers and I have lived quite well.






The Sound of Love


She was a big baby, nine pounds two and one half ounces. Her mama weighed only one hundred pounds so the nurses thought she belonged to the other woman in the semi-private hospital room. There was laughter and unmitigated pride that the child was so beautiful and healthy save for a broken clavicle that resulted during the final moments of birth. The little one wore a sling and the doctor assured the young mother that the girl would heal in a week or two which is exactly what happened.

She was a happy child who loved to sing and dance and run outside in the grass, but she always seemed to have a runny nose and ear infections. There were many visits to the pediatrician who soothed the mother with assurances that such things were normal for a little one. Still the worries increased when the tiny girl stopped singing and had uncharacteristic bouts of frustration and anger. The fevers and ear infections continued and on many long nights the mother held her child close to ease the pain that her baby was experiencing. Each time they visited the doctor he chided the mom for worrying so much, and even hinted that she was being neurotic with her concerns.

Time passed. The toddler years were gone and in a blink it was time for the child to go to school. She was terrified and clung to her mother with all of her might. The kindergarten teacher suggested that the girl was a bit slow and unsocial. She recommended counseling and perhaps even testing for special education. The mother did not know what to do. She knew that her little one was very bright, but exceedingly shy and quiet. The defiant mom insisted that they wait and see how things worked out once the child had adjusted to the demands of school. After all, it had been a tumultuous time for the whole family with deaths of loved ones and a string of serious illnesses that afflicted both parents. Somehow the mother believed that things would ultimately work out for the better.

First grade came for the little girl. She had a sweet and observant teacher who took great pains to get to know each of her students. The educator noticed that the child was carefully watching the lips of anyone who spoke. Her level of concentration for this task was intense. The thoughtful educator had an idea, and sent her student to the school nurse for a hearing test. Just as she had expected the results indicated a forty percent hearing loss. The child was not slow, quite the contrary. She was having to learn with an extreme handicap and still doing very well.

When the mother got the news about her beautiful little girl she cried. Everything suddenly made sense, the times when the child was surly, the frustrating moments when the girl appeared to be ignoring her, the sudden end of the singing. That beautiful baby could not hear.

A visit to a specialist supported the findings of the school nurse. The good news was that the condition was being caused by a build up of fluid in the ear canal. The doctor assured the mother that with a bit of surgery, the insertion of tubes and the removal of the tonsils and adenoids the child would soon be hearing quite well. A date was set for the procedures.

The mom’s heart beat quickly as she walked beside her daughter’s hospital bed that was being wheeled into the operating room. The wait for news felt like an eternity, but in a time much shorter than it seemed the prognosis was wonderful. All had gone well. The child’s future would be so much brighter.

As the mother and father drove their little girl home they were stunned by what happened next. The child’s eyes widened and she gasped while putting her hands near her ears. “What is that?” she exclaimed. “What is all that noise?”

The parents realized that their child was hearing normally for the first time in a very long time. They smiled and cried at the same time. They understood at that moment just how difficult it had been for their baby to navigate in a world full of voices that she could not hear.

Life did indeed change for the little girl. She proved to be an outstanding student, a bright girl who would achieve many great things. She began to sing and dance again and enjoy the sounds of the world that make life so much more pleasurable. The mother would always feel a special gratitude for the teacher who had so lovingly advocated for the little one rather than judging her to be slow and awkward. That educator had changed a life in a very special way.

The girl grew up, earned a college degree from a prestigious university, married and had a great big family of her own. She still had problems now again with her hearing, especially in big crowds or when listening on a phone. The wonderful world of texting has been a boon for her and she has learned to cope with the moments when she doesn’t quite catch what is being said. She still loves music as much as she did when she was barely walking when she would move her tiny feet to the beat while attempting to hum along. Thanks to her first grade teacher her life was enriched in a multitude of ways. Everyone knows that she is bright and capable and accomplished.

Today is that child’s birthday. Her name is Maryellen and she is my baby all grown up. I will be eternally grateful to the wonderful woman who took the time to unravel the paradox of Maryellen’s behavior. Today Maryellen is the incredible woman that she was meant to be. But for the intervention of her teacher things might have been very different. Because of that woman we were all able to hear the sound of love.

I wish Maryellen a very happy birthday on this morning, remembering what a beautiful infant she was, and feeling so thankful for the amazing woman she has become.