Celebrating Our Magnificent Snowflakes

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With each new generation there always seems to be a great deal of chatter about how spoiled or clueless or delicate they are. We hear them described as “snowflakes” not because of their unblemished beauty but because they appear to some adults to be far too fragile to take on the real problems of the world. There are those who poke fun at the ideas and ideals of our youth as though they are living in an imaginary land of unicorns and fantasies. The age old divide between some members of the older generation and our young people continues to flourish just as it always has.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 the normal routines of our youth have been twisted into unrecognizable versions of themselves. In an instant so much changed for our kids. To the utter amazement of many of the naysayers who thought that they would surely fall apart they have soared just as I knew they would. If there is any delight to come from this pandemic it should be the realization that the children are not just alright, they are warriors.

I puff up with pride when I see all of the evidence of our youngsters from toddlers to twenty somethings proving their meddle and creativity. When the track season was cancelled the athletes took to the streets and trails around their neighborhoods to keep in shape. When the lessons went online the kids tuned in to Zoom meetings and worked on assignments in their bedrooms. In the last few weeks thousands of high school students across the country have been faithfully taking the Advanced Placement exams in subjects from American History to Calculus.

I’ve watched a video of the valedictorian of Pearland High School giving a speech to his classmates from his front yard. Wearing a casual t-shirt and a big smile his words are somehow more uplifting and meaningful than they might have been in a big auditorium or sporting venue with thousands of guests squirming in their uncomfortable seats. With the same determination that earned him the honor of graduating number one in his class, he found a way to share a moment of celebration and remembrance with his classmates. I suspect that his moment will one day make a great story for his grandchildren. Moreover, it demonstrates his grit, a quality that will serve him well as he enters the adults world.

I saw a young lady try out for cheerleader at Madison High School. Imagine attempting to show your stuff on film with nobody else around. Well, she did it, and she made it. She is now a very excited member of the squad and she is still practicing wherever she finds enough space to do her flips and cartwheels and routines. She’s not about to let something like a virus hold her back.

I enjoyed the musical recital of my young cousin who continued his lessons remotely. He never quit practicing in spite of the shut down of his city and his school. When the date of his already planned performance came he demonstrated his talent and his creativity with arrangements both on the electric guitar and the piano.

I have laughed with some kids who were once my neighbors who have had their own episodes of “Chopped” for nine weeks now. Their production is professional and delightful. Mostly they spread a sense of optimism and joy with their unswerving determination to make the best of a difficult situation.

I have been impressed by the sweet sounds of the granddaughter of one of my dearest friends. Not only does she have the voice of an angel but she sings with the personality of a Broadway star. She has used her time at home to perfect her performance skills without a single sign of self pity that they have not showcased in front of a live audience.

The eight students to whom I teach various levels of mathematics have checked in on time for all of our scheduled sessions. They are alert and filled with questions. They send their homework without fail. They literally make me smile each time I see them because they are soldiering forward without a hint of complaint. We are excited to be nearing the end of this school year and planning for the new one in August however that may prove to work out.

I know that the children in my cul de sac study for most of the day and then emerge in their yards to run and play and engage in games that keep them at a distance from one another but still provide lots of fun. Their laughter brightens my afternoons and convinces me that they will be more than just fine. They have adapted more quickly to the new normal than most of us old coots have. I sit in my living room and watch their antics with so much delight. They are so alive.

My own grandchildren have been more than amazing. They have put as much effort into their online learning as they would have done in a regular classroom setting. They have offered tutoring to those who are struggling. They have continued to complete community service projects. They are entering online speech contests and trying out for offices like Drum Major of the school band. They have sought out opportunities to learn and grow outside of the required assignments from their teachers. They read voraciously and write about the kind of future they hope to see. They keep themselves in shape with regular exercise. They continue moving forward even as they realistically know that many of their dreams may have to be adjusted.

I could go on and on and on. The young ones are continually inspiring me and giving me so much hope. They are showing their flexibility and their willingness to adapt quickly. They continue to look to the future, even as they know that it may be uncertain. They are filled with ideas and are willing to make needed changes in a split second. We are very wrong if we believe that they are only focused on proms and ceremonies. They are far more mature and realistic than that. If anyone wishes to continue to call them “snowflakes” they need to bear in mind that a snowflake is a mathematically complex and stunningly beautiful and unique creation. When all of those snowflakes come together they create a wonderland that is breathtaking. We should be celebrating their magnificence. 

He Was Essential

meat

In this time of Covid-19 I have found myself thinking of my paternal grandfather, Paul Ulrich, more and more often. He came to the United States on a steamer from Germany around 1912. I never got to meet him because he died at a rather young age a few months before I was born. What little I know of him is garnered from stories from my mother and a cousin who was old enough to have actually met him. I have always wanted to know more about him and painting a picture of him is almost akin to putting together an all red jigsaw puzzle. I’ve had to infer a great deal but I’ve also found documents and scraps of evidence that tell the truth of the kind of person he was.

According the family memories much of the work that he did was typical of immigrants even to this very day. He spent time working on a big farm near what is now the Houston Ship Channel and doing lumbering work in the Beaumont area. Eventually he got a job at the Houston Meat Packing Company that operated on Navigation Street just east of downtown Houston. His job was to clean the area where the butchering of the carcasses took place. It was backbreaking work that bore heavily on his health. My mother often spoke of how her father’s legs were riddled with varicose veins so painful that he had to wrapped them in bandages before going to his job each day. In spite of the hardships his children always boasted that he never missed a single day of work until he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that ultimately lead to his death at the age of sixty five.

I have been reading a great deal about the outbreaks of the coronavirus in meat packing plants across the United States. The essential workers there are on the front line of keeping the supply chain of meat products moving to supermarkets across the country. Sadly conditions in those places have lead to contagion on a massive scale. It is as though the environment of a typical meat packing production line is the perfect place to incubate a virus. The process requires workers to perform their duties without benefit of social distancing in very cold temperatures. Without proper protective gear such places have become like petri dishes for growing Covid-19, making the carrying out the duties one of the single most dangerous jobs in terms of contracting the virus.

As I have heard about the numbers of illnesses and deaths associated with meat packing and Covid-19 I have thought back to my own grandfather who was so much like the people who today work in such places. It is a job that has brutal effects on the body even in good times. During a pandemic it is dangerous, and yet we expect to see our grocery stores filled with our favorite cuts of meat without much thought of the people who are responsible for processing the products. They are all too often simply faceless persons, numbers on a data sheet that mean little to us. I suppose that because my grandfather was once one of them I find myself wondering who they are and how they are doing. My guess is that missing work is out of the question for them just as it was for my grandfather. They not only lose income whenever they are absent but in all probability they will be replaced if they choose not the be present too often.

We take so many of our remarkable resources for granted until they are not available and then we fret and complain, rarely thinking of the people who have been delivering our goods to us. We want whatever we want even as we shelter safely in our homes. The inconveniences bother us and we tend not to associate the hardships of others with our own personal needs. It’s natural to take things for granted when they have always seemed to be there. Ours is a land of plenty that is often the marvel of people the world over. Suddenly the smooth functioning of our systems is struggling to keep up with demands and it is as novel and frightening as the virus itself.

I don’t think that we always fully understand or appreciate the contributions of every person involved in the supply chain of goods and services in our world. We don’t see the long process that brings what we desire to our homes. We don’t think of the slaughter houses or the assembly lines or the person who cleans up the leftover entrails and blood. It’s difficult to imagine how grueling such jobs would become after performing them day after day. Many like my grandfather spend their entire adult lifetimes engaged in what must be terribly unsatisfying and difficult labor.

My grandfather was a collector of books. Each Friday after being paid his wages he would visit a bookstore where he purchased a new volume that he would read in the evenings. His interests were in science, mathematics, agriculture. I learned from perusing a box of old paperwork that he had once purchased land in Richmond, Texas. He told one of my cousins that he hoped to retire and create a farm there. The deed for the property was among the receipts but somewhere along the way, no doubt from necessity, he had to sell the acreage and along with it his dream.

My grandfather was not particularly respected in his neighborhood. He was an immigrant who spoke English with an accent. He had eight children crowded into a tiny house and he never made much money. Some people assumed that they knew him. They even went so far as to say that he and his family were dirty and uneducated and low status. They did not see that he was a man who worked dutifully every single day. He paid his bills, owned his home and died without a single debt in the world. His house was lined with the bookshelves filled with volumes that he had read. He was so much more than just someone who cleaned up a sickening mess over and over again. He was an essential worker in our society, and now because of Covid-19 we should all understand how important he was.

Silent Heroes

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We love our children. Parents dream of helping their offspring to live glorious lives filled with joy, success, and love. Teachers play a huge role in the journey of a youngster into adulthood. We put our educators under a microscope, judging their every interaction with our youth. Each day in classrooms across the globe men and women accept the awesome challenge of educating the adults of the future. The work is both daunting and rewarding. Teachers quietly and tirelessly perform their duties without a great deal of encouragement. In fact we are more often likely to hear criticisms of their mistakes than compliments of their dedication. Nonetheless teachers carry on with their vocations even when the conditions are difficult, the pay is subpar to other professions, and the evaluations of their worth in society are not indicative of the enormous sacrifices and contributions that they make.

Teachers are often told that theirs is a last resort occupation that is the solution for those who cannot find anything better to do. They hear snide comments about their short work weeks and three months of vacation. In conversations about improving education they are generally the last persons whose opinions are considered. Instead lawmakers, business people, and an assortment of souls with no experience managing a classroom decide how to run the educational system. Nonetheless our teachers return for insult time and again simply because they have a beautiful secret. They love their profession and they adore their students. No amount of indignation can chase them away. They have a mission that drives their enthusiasm more than money or status.

A tiny virus came along this spring to upend the educational process without warning and along with the chaos that ensued came a pleasant surprise for everyone except those who are teachers. With amazing speed all across the globe educators went into action to create remote classrooms and lessons. They transformed bedrooms and dining rooms into spaces where they might continue to demonstrate their magic. They spent untold hours learning how to manipulate technology. They found ways to bring the needed equipment and conferences to each of their students. They worried over their flocks until they were certain that everyone was present and accounted for. They grieved at the loss of being with their students in person and wondered if their pupils had enough to eat or if they were being abused. They even went on parades inside the neighborhoods that they serve and made efforts to personally congratulate the top graduates in the Class of 2020. Not for one single minute did they forget their students in fact they spent sleepless nights worrying about them.

As moms and dads contended with having their children under foot all day long they began to marvel at the patience of teachers who shepherd whole classrooms of kids and somehow remain calm. The parents realized how complex the concepts and lessons actually are and realized that one would have to be rather bright to explain such things. They began to reconsider the value of teachers in ways that had not before occurred to them. As the long weeks in isolation went by they learned of the many skills and talents that good teachers so humbly provide to society.

In spite of the newfound estimation of the educators of the world many old habits are slow to die. In planning for the reopening of schools at some future date few teachers have been consulted even though they are very people who may have the best answers for the logistical questions. When grateful citizens provide food and gifts for first responders and essential workers they tend to forget the teachers with such rewards. There are even those who wonder why teachers are still being paid since they are just sitting around at home. Some suggest beginning the new school year in July but without any extra pay even though the salary that teachers will receive in that month is part of contracted pay for this past year.

I am and always will be a teacher at heart. I think that mine has been a noble profession that ranks alongside the most needed work in all of society. We have learned during our lockdowns and stay at home orders what is most important in this world. We can live in our pajamas and walk around the house in our bare feet. We can cook for ourselves and find entertainment in very simple things. Slowing our pace has brought us new found joys and realizations of what and who we most need. Our world has become a quieter and less congested and polluted place. We see an opportunity to change some of our habits which may not have been good for us individually or for the world collectively. We stand at a moment of possibilities and among them is a new way of viewing our educational system and our teachers. Perhaps it is time that we acknowledge the wonderful men and women who care for our children as the heroes that they have always been.

Most teachers will tell you that the joy that they feel for their work is not about the money. They will admit that they don’t even need the respect that other occupations provide because there is something innately glorious about having a career that provides so much purpose. Each day for a teacher is a meaningful experience and teachers never forget the students who have passed under their watchful eyes. They think of them and dream of them and worry about them and hope for them. Their ultimate reward is knowing that their efforts have made the world a better place.

May is traditionally the month for acknowledging teachers. Find a way to reach out to the valiant and selfless people who have influenced either you or your children. Try to understand how much love was poured into their work. Let them know how much you value them. They are already planning the future and it will no doubt be very good. Let’s acknowledge them as the silent heroes that they have always been.

A Legacy From My Mother

clothes line

It’s a dreary rainy day as I write this. Nature has provided me with a platitudinous kind of feeling and an opening statement that is devoid of originality. The situation in which I find myself is confusing. I keep track of the time and the passage of each day by attempting to create a kind of routine that reminds me of my five year old self when my mother was a stay at home mom and my father was a young man with a promising future.

Back then my mama created a repetitive schedule for herself that I too used to mark the rising and setting of the sun. If I put on my “Monday” underwear in the morning I knew that my mother would be spending the day washing clothes and I would get to help her hang them on the clothesline to dry in the sun. When our things had been warmed by gentle breezes and solar rays we would take them from the wire lines and place them in a wicker basket. Then Mama would show me how to fold each of the clean pieces and together we would put all of them away save for those that required ironing. They were set aside for the Tuesday duties, a task that she demonstrated to me but never allowed me to undertake until I was many years older.

To this day I derive pleasure from a clean load of clothes and I use the methods of ironing that my mom taught me as I watched her deftly sprinkling water from a bottle and then using the heat to remove all of the wrinkles. Of course during this current time of pandemic neither I nor my husband wear clothing that needs to be ironed. We are more likely to don jeans and whichever t-shirts happen to catch our eyes. We don’t even worry about losing socks from the monsters inside the washing machine and dryer that eat such items. Our feet are mostly bare and as free as they were on summer days when we were children. Our freedom nonetheless is constrained by an invisible virus that keeps us at home and causes me to remember each day of my mother’s seemingly confining routine. 

After the laundry chores of Monday and Tuesday my mother allocated Wednesday to sewing and mending, a task that was more creative and interesting to her. She was quite clever with cloth and made most of the dresses that I wore along with those for herself. I always enjoyed accompanying her to choose the fabric and look at the pattern books from Simplicity and McCalls. Mama was quite meticulous with her measuring and if a seam was not perfect she would rip out the threads and begin again. Everything had to lie just so. Her finished products were worthy of the tailors on Savile Row and if I was lucky she would design lovely clothing for my dolls with the extra fabric.

My mom worked in the yard on Thursdays even in the winter. There was always a flowerbed to be weeded, a plant to be fed, or a tree to be trimmed. She was not quite as gifted with a green thumb as my Grandma Little, but her yard was always stunning. She liked climbing vines that flowered in spring and old fashioned shrubs like gardenias. She grew fig trees and pear trees and then used the fruit to make jams and other delights. I loved those Thursdays when we spent whole days outside putting our hands in dirt and delighting at the sounds of the birds.

Friday was house cleaning day, a time when Mama prepared for the weekend. She was as particular with cleaning a toilet as she was with her sewing. The process had to be done just right and as I watched she would demonstrate the proper manner of reaching every nook and cranny in which germs might lurk.

Fridays were quite busy because we changed the sheets, dusted the furniture, swept and mopped all of the floors. I had a job even though I was only five. I was very serious about dusting the wooden surfaces of everything in our home. I dared not miss a single inch because I felt so wonderful when my mother complimented my efforts.

Fridays also meant an evening at my Grandma Ulrich’s house. All of my aunts and uncles and cousins would gather there as well. We had a raucous time with the adults playing poker and the kids inventing games of every sort. I treasured those times then and to this day they remain one of the most wonderful aspects of my life.

On Saturday we would go shopping with my father. It was a day filled with fun and surprises. My father often wanted to buy new records for his collection and so we would visit a music store where they allowed us to preview the recordings before purchasing them. I so enjoyed putting on the headsets and listening to my father’s selections while sitting in between my mom and dad.

We’d always end our adventures with a visit to the grocery store that was filled with the aroma of baking bread and coffee being ground by machines. My father always convinced my mother to add some cookies or ice cream to the cart and he would smile knowingly at me as though we were co-conspirators in some plot.

Sunday somehow felt more like the end of the week to me than the beginning. We attended mass at St. Peter’s Church and then visited my father’s parents. My grandmother almost always took me and my mother on a tour of her yard which was as glorious as a photo spread in Southern Living magazine. Then Grandma would finish up cooking a spectacular meal while I had the privilege of setting the dining table with her china and silver. We’d end up sitting on the front porch talking of life and watching the neighbors parade down the sidewalk on their afternoon walks.

I suppose that I have kept my sanity during this time of isolation by emulating my mother’s habits. I keep track of each day by creating a kind of schedule. I give myself regular chores to do and routine tasks to perform. I make certain that I set aside a time for reading, and even more for writing. I have a washing day and a cleaning day, a lesson planning day and a teaching day. I insist on exercising and walking on my treadmill even though doing so only reminds me of the sameness of quarantine. I call people that I know each day to see how they are doing and to let them know that I am thinking of them. I have devised a sense of order out of a confusing and often chaotic time and it calms me.


These days I often find myself thinking of my mother who so happily and pleasantly performed her household chores while teaching me how to derive pleasure from simple tasks. I don’t recall her ever complaining that she was stuck at home doing jobs that might have seemed meaningless and unimportant had she not tackled them with so much joy and pride. How could I have known way back then that her example would sustain me in a time when I might otherwise have been filled with bitterness at the losses that we have all experienced? This woman who seemed so simple in those times would eventually become a warrior in my eyes as she battled untold tragedies and challenges always with that same gratitude for life that she conveyed to me on those routine days when I was still an adoring child of five.

I know I will endure this COViD-19 experience regardless of where it takes me. I’ve learned from the best how to take each day as it comes and make meaning out of even small endeavors. Regardless of where this all goes my mother’s legacy of  joy will guide me.

A Message For All Time

Jesus

This is Holy Week in the Christian world, a time to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. His was a story that changed the world and is embraced to this very day by millions across the globe. After weeks of sacrifice and good works during Lent we pause to consider Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem when people lined the streets to see him, laying precious palm leaves in his path as a sign of respect and adulation. This no doubt only added to the concern of political forces who worried that his growing popularity might lead to rebellion and so the time seemed right to convict him with trumped up charges of crimes against the state.

Of course Jesus saw it coming and told his apostles in a final gathering that one among them would betray him. It was Judas Iscariot who led the Roman soldiers to Jesus by identifying him with a kiss. The trial was swift and the punishment was brutal. Jesus was nailed to a cross alongside other criminals. His pain was excruciating and his captors taunted him with commands that he prove his divinity by coming down from the cross. His apostles meanwhile were hiding behind locked doors, afraid that they too might be captured and found guilty of their association with him. Only Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, a cousin and a kind stranger stood at the foot of the cross to watch him die. All seemed dark and unbearable after the triumphs of the past. His followers must have wondered if they had been fooled, if it was all over.

Three days later when the tomb was opened Jesus was gone. His apostles still hiding were told that their prophet and savior had risen from the dead. From that moment forward the story of Jesus spread throughout the world until today Christians around the globe continue to celebrate the glory of his life and his word.

Of course we know that many did not then and do not now believe that Jesus was a savior, the son of God. Some have their own alternate prophets and beliefs. Some continue to wait patiently for the true savior to come. Others do not believe in any form of higher power, thinking it foolish to even consider the idea a being who watches over us and guides us in our behavior toward one another. They think of prayers and religious ceremonies as silliness. The world is made of believers and nonbelievers of every sort. We humans have often injected our personal thoughts and feelings onto the teachings of religion or disbelief. Little wonder that the whole idea of Jesus as God is confusing to some.

I am a Catholic, a member of a religious group that some believe is not Christian, although I can’t imagine why such a differentiation would be made. Mine was the first organized church to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Over time there were those who began to question the direction of Catholicism and so they made efforts to reform Christianity by creating new sects. The variety that evolved from such efforts makes it clear that even among those of us who strive to adhere to the teachings of Jesus there can be great differences in how we react to and interpret his words. Somehow just as with nation building we humans have complicated the most basic essence of Jesus which he so very clearly iterated and reiterated while he still walked on the earth.

Jesus represented a new way of thinking and doing things and his message did not involve thousands of little dictums and instructions. He made his message very simple by example and word. We are to love one another, not just those who think and act and look like us, but everyone. That is essentially all we need to know. It does not take a magnificent cathedral or a list of rules to follow his example, but he showed us that following his commandment of love may be difficult. Our intentions may be misunderstood and like him we may be abused for our beliefs. We will endure hardship and suffering just as he did. The miracle of Jesus is not found in riches or success or lack of difficulties but in the comfort that he provides us with his teachings and his love. He did not come down from the cross to save himself because he wanted us to know that part of our humanity requires enduring difficulties.  He helped us to understand that the rewards for following his commandment to love will be immeasurable but not in the usual ways that we interpret good fortune.

As the world struggles with a virus that has changed our lives in ways that are daunting to comprehend it is fitting that we think of Jesus from behind our locked doors in the safely of our homes just as his apostles did so long ago. He would want us to think of all of the people on the earth with love and compassion. The best way to honor him and his teachings is not found in judging one another but only in love. Our prayers should focus not on asking for special favors from him but on pleading that we have the courage to always do what is right and just. The glory of the Easter message lies in hope and a determination to continue to follow the goodness of Jesus throughout our lives. He is with us in all things, even our darkest hours. The cup of agony was not lifted from him and so too must we cope with this moment doing our best to remember all of humankind and its salvation, not just our own. He taught us the way to live and in doing so became a light for all the world.

In this holy Easter season I pray that those who feel lost will find comfort. I pray that those who are hated will find love. I pray that the sick will be healed. I pray that the doctors and nurses and first responders and all people engaged in the fight against Covid-19 will be honored and supported for being the finest possible examples of the kind of people that Jesus asked us to be. May this be a glorious Easter in which we love and respect all people just as Jesus would have done. Go forth and be kind.