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.   

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.

It Goes On

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I suppose that my Facebook wall is mostly like the idealized version of what Mark Zuckerberg once intended it to be, due to my incredibly insightful and interesting friends and family. Each morning I scan the posts to find lovely photos of children, grandchildren, pets, travels, and good times. In the mix there are invariably yummy recipes, guides to local events, and inspirational thoughts or articles. Now and again there are pleas for prayers from someone who is experiencing difficult times, a health problem or even the death of a loved one. My wall has never really been a respository for attempts to influence my thinking on politics or any other topic save for a random comment now again from one of my more politically minded acquaintances. Instead it is a source of joy and support and a way of keeping in touch with people about whom I truly care.

I check my wall each morning while I sip on my tea and munch on my breakfast. I usually rise earlier than my husband so the house is quiet save for the chatter and laughter of the children waiting to catch the school bus on the corner. I sit in my front room and enjoy a moment of peace and serenity while learning about whatever has happened while I was sleeping. Now and again someone posts something that burrows deeply into my heart. I think about it throughout the day and sometimes long past the moment when I first read about it. Such it was a few days ago when two of my sweet cousins both shared the story of a young poet.

It seems that there was once a young man with a creative and poetic mind who was struggling mightily with the seemingly unrelenting tragedy of his life. His father was an alcoholic who eventually died from complications related to his drinking. He left the family all but penniless and struggling. Both the young man and his mother suffered from bouts of depression which was perfectly understandable given their circumstances. Adding to the young man’s woes was the fact that his attempts to publish the poems that he had worked so hard to produce had been totally unsuccessful. To make matters even worse he had a devastating row with the young girl who had stolen his heart and they had a soul crushing breakup. In a moment of sheer desperation he gave her a copy of his poems and tore up the only remaining one that he had. Then he walked away determined to end his life.

He appeared to wander aimlessly even though he had a plan for ending it all. He went into up in a dark swampy area that seemed to match the sorrow of his mood. Even though he had originally determined to end it all he just kept walking and at some point he changed his mind, found his way out of both the swamp and his sadness, and decided to carry on with the rest of his life.

The man whose journey almost ended before it had truly begun was Robert Frost. He went on to become one of the most beloved American poets in the world, winning multiple Pulitzer Prizes and earning the title of Poet Laureate. On the occasion of the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the President of the United States Robert Frost was honored by being selected to read one of his poems. (Oh, and he even made up with the girl that he so loved and she became his wife.) His life was celebrated by people from around the world as he lived to a prosperous and honored old age. When later asked about his advice for life he remarked, “It goes on.”

This was a message that I needed to hear and one that I know to be so very true. Few of us have an easy time here on this earth. Life is hard work and often filled with disappointments and suffering. There are moments when our burdens become so heavy that we wonder how we might possibly keep fighting the good fight. Sometimes it feels as though nothing is going our way. We walk in the miasma of a dark and dank swamp seeing hopelessness at every turn. It is only in “going on” that we eventually see the light of day once again. We invariably find that while our lives may not have taken the turn that we had hoped, they sometimes become even better than we had hoped.

I think of this often. I recently recalled a time when I was working in a school with people that I dearly loved. I literally believed that I would be like a female Mr. Chips and work there for the duration of my career. Sadly a new principal came and upended everything that I had enjoyed about being there. I realized that I could not bear the authoritarian and contrary nature of her leadership and so I reluctantly left without really knowing where I would ultimately land. I was anxious and melancholy and even angry. It took me weeks to get over the despair that I was experiencing. Then I found a new job that would change the course of my life. It was there that I learned how much strength I really had and it was there that I found some of the very best years of my educational career. It was also there that I truly experienced the realization of how life indeed “goes on.”

I cannot imagine how different I would have be if not for some of the moments when I was challenged to keep going into the darkness or choose a different unknown path that lead to the light. Sometimes it is truly in our most hopeless moments that we find what we really need. Like Robert Frost we learn from our suffering and choose to just go on.