Stranger Things

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We had spent the day touring plantation homes in Louisiana. We were tired and incredibly hungry but seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our friend announced that we were near a unique and highly rated restaurant so we eagerly headed toward what we hope would be good food and some much needed rest.

In less than fifteen minutes we were in the parking lot of our intended destination. Even though there was a large crowd inside we got seated at a nice table rather quickly. The menu was quirky but yummy sounding, at least at first. While we all perused the many choices I suddenly lost what had only moments before been a voracious appetite. In fact the mere thought of food made me feel nauseous. As everyone in our party eagerly spoke of the selections they had made I announced that I only wanted some tea. The group looked at me with puzzled expressions and asked if I was feeling well.

I explained that I just didn’t feel well and was afraid of putting anything into my now queasy stomach. I mentioned that I might just be a bit car sick, but in truth I wanted to bolt from the place. Something about it made me quite uneasy. There was no logic whatsoever to my feelings.

The waiter came to our table and took the orders looking obviously puzzled at my request for only a glass of ice tea. As the conversation at our table grew more animated I began to feel as though I was somehow not present. My mind wandered and I had an overwhelming desire to escape to the car, but without a valid explanation for my sudden flight response I instead just sat silently listening to the chatter without really hearing a word.

The food arrived and admittedly looked delicious but I had no desire to try any of it. Once the waiter had placed all of the items on the table he asked if we needed anything else. My friend said that she had a question. She wanted to know what the building had once been because it was obvious that it had been repurposed. To my shock and dismay the helpful server told us that the structure had at one time been part of an expanse of slave quarters. He pointed out that there had no doubt been much misery inside its walls. He admitted that he was glad that it was now a happy place where people enjoyed themselves.

Suddenly I understood why my body and my brain were in such a bizarre state. Somehow I had intuited that I was in an evil place. It was as though I was feeling the spirit of the souls who had been enslaved and tortured there. I had to sip some tea to keep from retching. It felt wrong for us to be so casually eating in what to me had been a house of horrors.

I did not say these things to the people who were with me. I suspected that they would either laugh at my silliness or think me bizarre for having such thoughts. Instead I nursed a growing pain in my gut as I imagined the wretched souls who had been enslaved there. It felt disrespectful to be there under circumstances of being entertained and indulged.

I suppose I must have seemed sulky to my friends. There was no logic to my feelings. It was silly of me to believe that I had somehow sensed the hurt of the people who once lived there and yet how might I explain the physical and mental pain that overtook me? My symptoms were real in spite of their superstitious nature.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I do think that I had some kind of sixth sense regarding the nature of that place. I suppose that there will be those who dismiss my state of mind as just a coincidence related more to being tired than any supernatural experience. I, on the other hand, believe that somehow the spirits of those poor desperate people had somehow permeated the walls so much that a part of my brain that has yet to be defined led me to the conclusion that something terrible happened there.

I am an observant person. Maybe there were clues that sent messages to my subconscious without my realizing it. It may not have been spirits at all but instead just an uncanny ability to notice small details on my part. Perhaps I simply put pieces of a puzzle together without being able to connect the dots well enough to understand what I was seeing. Or, maybe I really did feel something, have a kind of communication with those who had suffered.

Whatever happened left me in a state of profound disturbance. I had spent a day marveling at the immense wealth of people who had seemingly thought that owning another human was acceptable. The foundations of those magnificent homes had been built on the backs of labor from people judged to be unworthy of enjoying their God given right to freedom. My body reacted with a sickening revulsion.

Mankind has the capacity to be both magnificent and horrific. I’d like to believe that we humans continue to learn and evolve toward goodness. I’m saddened whenever I see evidence to the contrary. We have made much progress but it’s up to us to be watchful for signs that we have lost our way. Those monuments to a disturbing way of life will be instructive only if we agree that we must never allow such things to happen again.

Faking It

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Minnie Bell rose anxiously from her bed at the end of the trailer worrying that she had somehow overslept on the first day of school. A quick glance at the alarm clock on the shelf at the foot of her sleeping quarters reassured her. It was only five in the morning and she had plenty of time before she had to depart.

It would be a day of firsts, the first time at middle school, the first time that both of her parents would not accompany her to meet the new teachers, the first time that her home was a twenty one foot trailer instead of the beautiful house where she had once lived. Somehow she dreaded the whole experience but school had always brought her joy and she needed  joy more than ever.

The summer had been difficult for Minnie Bell. Her father had been driving home from work when it happened, a freak accident really, something that never should have happened but did. The deer jumped in front of his car from nowhere. There was no way to stop or swerve without hurting another driver.  The huge animal flew into the air like a missile when he was hit and then returned to earth with such force that it broke the windshield of the car and ramming its rack of antlers into her father’s heart. Death was inevitable and instant the officer told Minnie and her mom. Daddy probably didn’t feel a thing.

The funeral and all of the days after that had been a blur. Minnie Bell could not imagine life without her father, the man who had christened her with a moniker that literally made people laugh. Hers was a regal name he convinced her, one that had once belonged to his great great grandmother, a strong woman with toughness and gentleness rolled up into one very tiny package according to family lore. “Bear yourself proudly, Minnie Bell,” he had commanded her as though her silly name was both a great gift and a responsibility.

Minnie Bell thought of how she and Mama had ended up living in an RV park inside the tiny trailer as she stowed away her bed linens on the upper bunk and transformed the bed into a table with benches on both sides. Her mother had delivered the bad news of their situation after spending the day “taking care of business.” The family finances were strained for now and they would have to make some changes for a time. “Soon enough we will be in a better situation,” Mama promised, “but for now we need to sell the house. We’ll have a little adventure living in our travel trailer. It will be fun. We’ll rent a space in the RV park near your school. I’ll get a job and maybe even go back to school myself. It will be our little bit of excitement.”

During the summer things had been fun. It was like an eternal camping trip. Mama worked in the office of the RV park and Minnie Bell walked dogs and did odd jobs for the mostly elderly people who lived there. They were all so nice. They taught Mama how to keep the systems inside the trailer working efficiently. They showed her how to get good television reception and how to make the most of the free Wifi in the park. They often invited Minnie Bell and her mother to dinner and one lady even made some new clothes for Minnie Bell to wear to school.

Minnie Bell and her mother had slowly adjusted to life without her father but as she prepared for a new school year a sadness and sense of foreboding overwhelmed her. Everything was so different and she did not want to talk about it with anyone. She hoped that she might be able to just fake it, not mention that her father had died or she had moved or any of it. She just wanted to pretend that nothing had happened.

Minnie Bell filled a bowl with cereal and sat quietly at the table worrying as her mother stirred in the bed at the other end of the trailer. She sat up and smiled at Minnie Bell across the space. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready for a grand new school year?’ she smiled as though there was nothing strange about the two of them living in cramped quarters with a future so uncertain that both of them often had nightmares.

Minnie Bell returned a weak smile for her mother. She would pretend that she was happy because she didn’t want Mama to have anymore worries. “I’m excited!” she lied. “I can’t wait to see my friends and meet my new teachers.”

Her mother was beaming now. The two of them bumped into one another as they bustled about the trailer getting ready for the new reality. Minnie Bell donned the outfit that the neighbor in the trailer next door had sewn for her. She gathered the school supplies that the residents of the park had surprised her with inside a brand new backpack. Mama handed her money to buy her lunch just for that day and then as Minnie Bell walked down the metal stairs of the trailer she was greeted by a crowd of well wishing neighbors who had gathered to take first day school pictures and give her hugs for good luck.

Minnie Bell wanted to just stay with the wonderful people who had supported her and her mother all summer long but now it was time to face the moment that she had most dreaded. She thought of her father and could almost hear him urging her to hold her head high and be as tough as her namesake had been. She looked at Mama who was so genuinely and hopefully smiling and she knew that she had to set her selfish fears aside. Daddy would want her to be his amazing girl and Mama needed for her to be a help, not a problem.

The ride to the school was only five minutes away. As Mama eased the truck into the school parking lot her face lit up with a happiness that she had not exhibited since that terrible day when Daddy died. “I have a feeling that this is going to be your best year ever, Minnie Bell,” she gushed, seeming to really mean it.

Minnie Bell forced a smile as she shook her head in agreement. Somehow she was going to make it even if she had to fake it.

Note: I often use a book of writing prompts for topic ideas. Today’s prompt asked me to write the first pages of a book for young readers. This is my idea. What do you think?   

A New Revolution

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There are moments for almost everyone when it feels as though an entire lifetime of experiences occur in the space of only a few weeks. It is as though one is riding on the most exhilarating and frightening roller coaster ever invented. The ups and downs are so extreme and come so quickly that emotions have no time to adjust and instead leave the person feeling numb and exhausted.

I have a dear friend who recently endured one of those condensed versions of This Is Your Life, reeling from the rapidity at which her entire world was changing. Fortunately she is an amazingly wise woman who sought help and was willing to ride the wave until it left her on the shore of normalcy. By year’s end she was celebrating her survival with people who truly loved her and speaking of taking things slowly while she can.

I’m old enough to have experienced a number of instances when it felt as though I was living through a microcosm of human existence in a brief span of time. While such a thing is happening it always seems as though time truly is relative because in the moment it moves so painfully slowly but in the grand scheme of things it is in fact only a blip in the entirety of history.

My entire world was upended both mentally and physically when my father died. At the age of eight I had not yet even imagined the possibility of such a thing happening particularly since my family had been planning so many fun adventures like weekends at the beach, a whole summer of freedom from school, moving to a brand new home. Suddenly we had to adjust to a strange new reality for which none of us had prepared.

The feelings that I experienced as an eight year old child repeated themselves when my mom had her first mental breakdown during my early twenties. I had enjoyed a reprieve from tragedy for twelve years after my father died and I had foolishly imagined that I would never again face such sorrow and emotional distress. I literally dreamed of how grand it would be to simply ignore my responsibility to care for my mother by running away to some wonderful magical place where I would never again be plagued by horrors. Of course there is no such thing as freedom from tragedy as I would learn over the course of many years. I would also realize that we have to deal with the pain that comes with the terrible moments just as my friend has done even when doing that is a grueling process. It takes time and patience to heal.

This past holiday season was one of many contrasts for me. It began with the celebration for my friend who had emerged like a phoenix from the hellish fires that had seemed to consume her. It was with a sense of gratitude, happiness, and inspiration that I toasted her heroic steadfastness. I took my own life by the horns and enjoyed glorious times with friends and family. It felt as though I was gloriously blessed and perhaps even immune to sorrow, but that would have been too simple an analysis of my world because I knew that there were also hardships brewing for many of the people that I love, things that worried me in the still of night.

Somehow many of them came to a head just as the new year was dawning, reminding me that each of our lives are fragile and uncertain in spite of our efforts to control destiny. I had to say final goodbyes to two souls whose light had always made me smile and laugh. I had to watch their closest loved ones struggling to accept a future without them. My emotions and were challenged to the very core and yet in the midst of such sorrow there was a ray of hope. I saw what I had experienced so many times, the power of love. It was there in the people who went out of their way to share their stories and their feelings with one another.

We know for certain that our lives will be a series of repetitions that all of mankind has experienced. We will see births and we will watch deaths. We will come together in a state of happiness and joy as well as mournful sadness. It is a certainty that we must experience both the good and the bad. Hopefully as we do so we will be surrounded by fellow travelers on this earthly journey who will hold our hands and give us the courage to keep going, for there is always a light up ahead and we will find it given enough time and forbearance.

This holiday season has provided me with the precious gift of knowing that I am not alone and that none of us need be so. There will always be good and loving people who are willing to help us carry our burdens and share our joys. We need to be willing to let them into our lives but also to know when we are so weary that it might be best to quietly rest for a time. That gooey ball of feelings is the essence of who we are. We need to embrace both our tears and our laughter while opening our hearts and minds to understanding our own experiences.

We’ve begun a new revolution around the sun and each day there is a new rotation. We are a part of the marvel of that scientific fact. Change will happen. Loss will occur but as long as we still breathe we are not yet in our final act. More is coming our way and so much of it will indeed be very good. 

A Change In Course

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Life is rarely simple for humans. Sometimes the most horrific moments when we are at our lowest emotionally lead us to the changes that make us better people. When I think of myself before my father died versus the person that I eventually became I wonder If I would have been as compassionate if I had continued to behave as I had before his death. I suppose that I will never know for certain what might have been but I am convinced that the loss of my father resulted in my becoming far more focused on the value of life.

At the age of eight I was rocking along in a rather self centered bubble which is rather normal. I was quite aware that my father was better educated than my uncles and that as a result our family lived and moved in a higher socio-economic world than the rest of the extended clan. Our house was newer and larger than theirs were and we travelled around in more luxurious autos. I saw those differences even as a child and felt a sense of pride even though I had done nothing personally to earn such perks. It would not be much of a stretch to guess that I was somewhat spoiled, taking my good fortune for granted.

I learned somewhat easily but never really pushed myself to improve academically. Just before my father’s tragic accident he openly worried that I did not seem to care about learning the way he had hoped I would. I was somewhat silly, even lazy, and used only a small portion of my abilities. He worried that I was more focused on being a social butterfly and that I was stereotyping myself as a giddy girlie girl. Of course I was still quite young and in the process of finding myself but I also had little concern for anything beyond my own perceived needs.

On the day of my father’s death something snapped inside my juvenile brain. I literally felt a strong sense of obligation to be an example for my little brothers and to ease the burdens that I  believed my mother was feeling. I found myself noticing people other than myself and considering the impact of my actions. It was as though I had taken a quantum leap into maturity that had not existed before. As I grieved I had a strong desire to better appreciate every aspect of my existence because I had suddenly seen how much I had taken for granted and how much I had lost in an instant.

I began to look outward and realize the fragility of everything and everyone. The ruins of our family car and the loss of my father were eternal reminders that I must cherish each moment and fulfill the purposes for which I was placed on this earth. I floundered a bit as I attempted to be a better person in my childlike way. It would take years for me to become more adept in my attempts to lead a good life, but I embraced my new role with gusto.

I saw with clarity how wonderful every single person is, even those who seemed lost and confused. I somehow realized that the human potential is only constrained by our own fears and unwillingness to work hard. I often heard my father’s voice in my head reminding me to rise to the challenges of responsibility that I would most assuredly face. I saw that the marks of a person do not lie in educational level or economic status but in the heart. I remembered my father’s lessons and the frustration that he had felt when I seemed not to care about them.

My mother was an enigma much like the bipolar disorder that lurked inside her brain. She was a tower of strength who nonetheless seemed on the verge of falling apart at any moment. I did not want her to endure any more burdens than necessary so I was very conscious of staying out of trouble and helping her in any way possible. My motives were not born because I was some sort of angelic person, but because I did not want to see her hurt more than she already was. I shunned the risky behaviors of adolescents so that she would have one less thing about which to worry. I earned the reputation of a very good girl only because I was keenly aware of the impact that my actions might have on my mom.

In honor of my father I took my studies seriously and found that I actually enjoyed reading and writing and learning about new ideas. Whenever possible I pushed myself to do just a bit more than I believed was possible. My efforts soon became a kind of routine way of living for me and would ultimately help me through the difficult days of caring for my mother whenever her mental illness overtook her ability to be the rock of the family. It also allowed me to see the hurt and pain of the people around me. I developed a sixth sense for knowing when someone was hurting, a skill that guided me to the teaching profession. I wanted to share both my joys and sorrows so that I might help those struggling to find themselves.

I still miss my father and wish that he had never died. I suppose that I might have eventually developed into a better person without having to endure the tragedy of such great loss but it may have taken me longer to come to the same conclusions inside the bubble of privilege that shielded me when he was alive. When my world burst so suddenly I was forced to face realities that I had never before even noticed. Something quite extraordinary clicked in my mind that changed everything and I suppose that this is so for many who endure the pain of loss. After the sorrow there is a glorious moment of clarity that illuminates the pathway to a purpose filled and happy life. All any of us need do is find the courage to follow it. Therein lies the glorious difference that creates great good from something so profoundly bad. 

Our Horrific Infinite Loop

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There has been another school shooting in Santa Clarita, California. A sixteen year old brought a gun to school inside his backpack, fired it before entering at the beginning of the school day, and killed two innocent bystanders as well as himself. Once again we are stunned and worried and left wondering what had driven a young man to do something so egregious on his sixteenth birthday.

Accounts indicate that authorities were initially baffled about the motive. The young man was an athlete who gave no signs of having a grudge or being bullied. He was quiet and generally thought to be a nice young man. Sadly there were indeed indications of trouble that may not have been adequately addressed. The clues were there but putting them together in the environment of a large public high school where teachers and students are often overworked can be difficult if not seemingly impossible. There are young people falling through the cracks across the nation and their fates are too often going unnoticed.

The puzzle pieces of the shooter’s life were there if anyone might have had reason to suspect that he was about to blow. His father died in December two years ago when he was only fourteen. His dad had been an alcoholic who often fought with the boy’s mother. Eventually the ravages of alcoholism caused the father to die of a heart attack and it was the sone who found his father’s body. The father and his boy had gone hunting together in happier times. The dad had a collection of guns and even made his own bullets, none of which is horrific in and of itself but it indicates that the shooter had access to weapons. The sixteen year old lived with his mother, a single parent who was no doubt stretched to her own limits both emotionally and physically. His life was a powder keg just waiting for the moment to blow, particularly given his age. Sadly I find myself wondering if anyone ever took the time to talk with him, counsel him, make certain that he was psychologically sound.

We humans have a tendency to be stoic in public. We hide our suffering, pretending that nothing is wrong even when we are dying inside. We are all too often afraid of uttering the truth. We worry that people’s perceptions of us will change if we reveal the hurts we are experiencing. We have all had experiences in which we trusted someone with our deepest thoughts only to be hurt by them, or even worse to be asked not to talk about such things. It sometimes seems that our society wants everyone to put on a happy face and pretend that all is well.

My happiest times as an educator took place at KIPP Houston High School mostly because so much time and financial investment was dedicated to have a fleet of counselors along with caring teachers who were encouraged to get to know every one of their students. For a student body of just under five hundred individuals there were six counselors, two Deans of Students, grade level teams that met weekly to discuss concerns about their pupils, and four Grade Level Chairpersons. At any given time there were multiple adults ready to help each student through troubles. We watched carefully for changes in personality, unusual behaviors, fluctuations in grades, lethargy or mania. When we saw worrisome signs we provided intensive counseling for both the students and their parents. We knew and loved our kids. Their well being came before anything in our focus. While we did not have a perfect record, I believe that we demonstrated how much we cared to the benefit of the entire student body.

One of my daughters recently noticed that an Advanced Placement elective was causing great stress for her son. She immediately contacted the school and set up a meeting with the teacher, an assistant principal and a counselor. She voiced her concerns and requested that he be reassigned to a history class that his twin sister was taking since he always enjoys learning about the past. The switch would have taken place within the first six weeks of school and would have required no major overhaul of his schedule since the elective and the history class were at exactly the same time. The history class only had eighteen students so it would not have burdened the teacher who had expressed excitement of having my grandson in his class. It seemed to be a grand solution for a young man who makes good grades and is generally happy and relaxed about academics, but just felt a disconnect with the elective.

The powers that be at the school not only refused to make the change in schedule, but they did nothing to address the issues of anxiety that my daughter had revealed to them. Instead they took a defensive stance making my daughter feel as though she was a trouble maker rather than a concerned parent, and embarrassing my grandson with insinuations that he wasn’t tough enough to take the heat even though he was doing well with advanced classes in Pre-Calculus and Chemistry. In other words they shoved the problem under the rug and moved on without consideration of my grandson’s individual needs.

I suspect that many mega high schools operate in such a manner with disregard for students’ unique requirements. I understand the limited resources of time and energy for teachers because I have been in their shoes. What bothers me most is that schools so rarely have the budgets to hire enough auxiliary staff to provide intensive support for every student. With dedicated professionals and a restructuring of the campus to create small groups of students who become members of a school within a school, it is more likely that someone will notice those who are troubled and become advocates for them before they reach a breaking point. I have seen such a system work miracles in leaving no child behind.

As a larger society we also need to be willing to hear things that make us uncomfortable. At a recent collegial gathering of individuals who had just completed a college level class together the topic of the California shooting entered the conversation. The usual thoughts about guns came to the forefront and sides were quickly defended. Ultimately there was no resolution because one of the participants yelled out, “Can we change the subject! I don’t want to talk about this!”

It’s time that we forced ourselves to have those very difficult discussions. Problems do not go away simply because we refuse to speak of them. In fact, they only grow more dire the longer we ignore them. It’s time we get our priorities straight. It’s time we make it easier for troubled individuals to find the help they need. Turning away from troubles, quibbling among ourselves and changing the subject will only cause us to experience horror in an infinite loop.