The Strength Of Joining Forces


Last Thursday was International Women’s Day. Coincidental with that event were a number of articles and programs dedicated to women’s issues. Among them was a piece discussing a women’s conference that was held in Houston, Texas back in the nineteen seventies. It was attended by the feminist stars of the day including Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan, and Gloria Steinem. My good friend Marita was among the thousands of attendees and she gushed for weeks about what she had seen and heard. With her ever present Irish humor she also purchased a couple of towels at the event bearing an image of a pig and the words “male chauvinist pig.” She impishly presented them to her husband and mine causing all of us to laugh because neither of the two men had a chauvinist bone in their bodies. They were instead very supportive of both of us and proud of whatever path we chose to travel.

Marita ultimately became an attorney and I went all in for education. We were independent women who wanted different things which to me was the real point of women’s rights. Sadly not everyone, including Marita agreed with my thinking. In fact, one of the surprises of the Houston Women’s Conference was that it ended up with a schism among the ladies that has never really healed. As Gloria Steinem explained there was a rival conference across town designed to discuss issues important to women with more fundamentalist religious views. It was chaired by Phyllis Schafly and is sometimes credited with being the moment of when the religious right movement was born.

Ms. Steinem recently opined that the conference that should have launched a huge shift in women’s rights ultimately fizzled when the report that they sent then President Jimmy Carter was never addressed, but the fever of conservatism actually caught fire and began to burn brightly. “We lost,” she recently proclaimed. The conference that had been so hopeful for her became the important meeting that was seemingly forgotten.

I recall thinking at the time that the competing meetings represented a tendency of women that has been troublesome for centuries. Namely, for some reason too many of us of the female persuasion seem to believe that we must achieve all or walk away with nothing. We continually compete rather than compromise and our divisions make progress more difficult than it needs to be. We might find true power if only we were willing to honor all women regardless of differences. Instead we quibble and lose our advantage of numbers. We are not only fighting the status quo, but also battling with each other.

As someone who taught in middle school for a number of years I vividly recall the verbal spats between the girls that often became ferocious. In their adolescent frenzy they formed cliques that were akin to battle lines and attacked one another with hurtful wars of words. On any given day I was drying tears and attempting to arbitrate between conflicting groups and vicious comments. In some ways the continued divisions in the world of women remind me of those junior high days.

I suppose that if we had the power of going back in time to redo critical moments I would suggest to the female leaders of both the left and the right that women need to genuinely join hands to honor one another. It should not matter what choices each female makes, but that every girl is supported in her quest to live life to its fullest. I was intensely proud of Marita not because she was a lawyer, but because she achieved her own personal dream. I marvel just as much over my friend Linda who stood by her belief that the most important work that she might ever do was to be found in caring for her family and home. I have found few people as dedicated as she is and I am continually humbled by her example.

The truth is that many progressive women will fiercely defend a Muslim woman wearing a burka, but then poke fun at a fundamentalist Christian female who is pro life, somehow never noticing the hypocrisy of such thinking. At the same time, some very religious women are unwilling to accept or understand those who support Planned Parenthood or a lesbian lifestyle, They seemingly forget the parts of the Bible that tell them not to judge and to follow the commandment of love. There is a great wall between the two sides with most of us stuck in the middle feeling like I did when I attempted to quell the furor between my middle school girls. Until women everywhere stand up for each other without judgement or rancor we will all feel as if we have failed just as Ms. Steinem does.

The truth is that we really have come a long long way, but we still have problems that we must address. Culture is very difficult to change, but it is happening. There are now more women attending universities than men. Women are more and more often choosing majors and careers that were once male dominated. The barriers keeping women from breaking the glass ceiling are falling away. It’s a far better world for women than it was back in the nineteen seventies. That conference really didn’t fail after all. We have much to celebrate, and we need to do so together.

I long for the day when we women are capable of honoring Condoleeza Rice along with Hillary Clinton, Sara Palin with Elizabeth Warren. Our heroines should not be just those who think like we do. They should be all women who become successful at whatever they have chosen to do. The true women of distinction do not fit into a particular mold, but instead represent every possible point of view. Their strength is not found in their philosophies but in the capacity to love and survive.

Neither of my grandmothers were able to read or right, and yet they are two of the most powerful women that I have ever known. They taught me that I have the capacity to be as strong as any man. The showed me how powerful love can be. They helped me to understand the importance of honoring every single person.

I suppose that I will never forget a time when my grandmother Minnie Bell took me to see one of her Arkansas neighbors, a woman with ten children who lived in abject poverty. Before we arrived Grandma cautioned me to treat the lady with the utmost respect. She insisted that I was about to meet one of the greatest people ever, and in fact I was so taken by my grandmother’s admonitions that I was able to see past the dreary environment in which the woman lived. Instead I noticed her understated elegance and heard the intelligence in her conversation. I suppose that my grandmother in spite of her lack of education was a bit wiser than many of the leaders of various political movements aimed at women. She had the right idea and I have never forgotten the lessons that she taught me. We women are capable and beautiful just as we are. If we stop long enough to actually listen to one another I think that we will begin to make the progress that we seek. There is power in our diversity, strength in joining forces.


It’s Not Too Late


There is a teacher shortage. Schools of education at universities across the country are finding it more and more difficult to attract students. Young people are entering the Teach For America program to eliminate loan debt, but rarely staying past the the required two year term. Even experienced educators are leaving the profession far more frequently than their counterparts of the past. Concerns that this trend will lead to a crisis in our schools are being whispered but only minimally addressed, mostly without the kind of difficult and honest discussions that are needed. Will we one day awake to find our classrooms packed with children, but understaffed with qualified adults to guide them in their educations?

The problems inside schools began long ago when the public took it for granted that intelligent women would provide the bulk of the heavy lifting in education. There was indeed a time when there were few career paths readily available for college educated females beyond teaching or nursing. A few brave souls became doctors, engineers and such, but mostly those avenues were exceedingly difficult to travel. The roadblocks for women were quite real save for the worlds of service. The best and brightest were often attracted to the idea of educating future generations, and many women found a way to display their intellectual talents in classrooms across America.

All of that began to change once pioneering souls pushed their way into what had always been male dominated professions, sometimes at great personal cost. Slowly opportunities in high status, well paying jobs opened for more and more women. Schools were no longer able to assume that the cream of the female academic crop would automatically opt for traditional roles in the nation’s schools. Teaching more and more often became a vocation with only the most dedicated individuals willing to endure the low pay and increasingly low opinions of the public toward educators. The mantra “Those who can’t, teach” became a national indictment of the teaching profession, and all the while did little or nothing to shore up the reputation of the career while also creating increasingly more difficult demands for those who stayed.

Teaching is a rewarding profession, but mostly in psychological rather than tangible ways. Most educators are akin to missionaries in their zeal, and like those who toil to save souls they rarely achieve the levels of financial success accorded to their college educated peers in other careers. Their work hours are much longer than the visibly prescribed school day, often extending into the late night at home and intruding on the time shared with their families. The public perception that teachers are paid sufficiently because they do not work for three months out of the year and are finished during the school year at three in the afternoon is a falsehood that somehow continues to be perpetuated by government bureaucrats who set teacher salaries at the lowest possible levels. Anyone who has ever taught knows of the late night planning and grading marathons that extend daily hours to ridiculous levels, not to mention the required training sessions that have reduced summer vacations for teachers to little more than a month. If educators were actually paid by the hour for every minute that they spend engaged in their work they would all be earning six figure salaries. As it is they are likely to find less financial security both during their active working years and later in retirement than those who work for the United States Postal Service.

If pay were the only concern for the teaching profession there would still be legions of altruistically centered individuals who would be attracted to the profession because of the sheer joy that comes from helping young people to learn. It is noble and important work. Sadly it has become so politicized that it has been made more and more difficult to endure. The responsibilities piled on teachers and the lack of respect accorded them have made the work less and less attractive to all but the most dedicated. Teachers constantly hear the insults of politicians and the public hurled at them. Our president speaks of them with disdain. Parents wince when their bright children indicate an interest in being educators. Reformers tend to listen to everyone but the teachers in crafting plans to improve the situation. All the while once willing teachers are driving away from schools never to return to what they view as a far too difficult and thankless task.

Perhaps the true caliber of our nation’s teachers is no better illustrated than in the horrific times that a shooter comes to a school intent on inflicting harm. Time and again educators protect their students with their very lives, taking bullets rather than allowing their kids to become victims. The heroes who do such things are not as unusual as they may seem. Teachers, like first responders, do not run away from such situations They stay to insure the safety of their charges. It is who they are, and yet we rarely see events honoring them the way we do our military, police officers and firefighters. Teachers quietly maintain the safety of our children day in and day out with little or no fanfare. Now adding insult to injury there are some who would have them train to use guns in the event of an emergency, all while we ridicule them and complain about how ineffective they are.

Teachers have been tirelessly doing their jobs with pay that does not fairly compensate them in conditions that are enormously stressful and without the kind of appreciation that they have duly earned because they understand the importance of their work. They are generous individuals who don’t require much more than the knowledge that they have made a difference in people’s lives. We as a society have taken advantage of their good natures far too long. Unless we begin to recognize their enormous contribution to society by honoring and compensating them fairly we may one day take our children to schools and find that they are closed for lack of manpower. The handwriting is on the wall. It is time to remember, appreciate and hear the dedicated individuals who provide the foundation of all that runs the engines of our society. It’s not too late, but if we wait too long it may be. 

The Legacy

Mary B. Ulrich & Sharron

We each possess a unique gift which we might give our children and our grandchildren. It is the story of who we are and from whence we have come. The links that we provide from one generation to the next form a foundation for the young. Sometimes to get where they are going they need to know where they have been. They learn this when we tell them about our family history. 

I grew up in two different worlds. The first was marked by refinement and a certain level of privilege. Before my father died we lived in homes that were newer and more spacious than those of the other members of our extended family. Our house was always beautifully furnished and filled with books and music. We went on yearly vacations, traveling all over the United States in fancy cars. I mostly took my good fortune for granted. I had little idea how much work it had taken my father to earn his college degree so that he might have a well paying job that supported our lifestyle. I did not then understand that our position in the middle class had been an enormous social leap for both of my parents. I had no idea that our situation was as fragile as it actually was.

Part two of my biography was one of great challenges. My father’s death changed our situation in palatable ways. Our economic status shrunk overnight. My mother had to use her intellect and resources to stretch our budget into almost impossible proportions. Every decision had to be weighed and measured with great care lest we find ourselves without the basics of living. Somehow she always managed to see us through each struggle that we faced, but I still find myself wondering how she performed so many miracles. We had just what we needed to survive and not a bit more. Vacations became a thing of the past other than visiting our grandparents’ farm. Somehow in spite of the rigidity of our budget we never felt deprived. Our mother put food on the table at every meal and kept our few articles of clothing clean and mended.

As children we were entertained by friendships with children in the neighborhood. We built forts out of Christmas trees or by hanging sheets and bedspreads on the clotheslines where our laundry dried on warm sunny days. We held games of Red Rover and Swing the Statue in the front yard and rode our bicycles down to the woods or the park. Someone was always inventing some adventurous way of spending the daylight hours, and everyone ran free in their shorts and bare feet so that we hardly noticed that we may not have had clothes as fine as theirs.

On Friday nights we always went to visit our Slovakian grandmother who welcomed us with  mugs of sugary coffee laced with so much milk that we hardly noticed the taste of the brew. She gave us slices of fresh rye bread from Weingarten’s grocery and on very special days fried up slices of round steak in her big iron skillet.

The most English we ever heard from her was her greeting of “Hello, pretty boy/girl.” She made us feel loved and special even though we never once were able to have a conversation with her. Most of the time she sat in her chair and in the corner of her tiny living room smiling at us while we ran around like a bunch of noisy hell cats. My aunts and uncles engaged in games of penny poker or argued as though they were still young children vying for their mother’s attention. We played “hide and find,” our own version of the childhood game that has been around for centuries. Sometimes we created our own family newspaper or watched episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or Friday night wrestling.

We often sat in our bachelor uncle’s bedroom talking and telling jokes within view of his loaded pistol which we would never have dared to touch. Sadly we did use his records as coasters for our drinks, but he didn’t seem to notice our disrespect for his prize collection of music from Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. We knew that he worked for the Post Office and had once been a railroad man until he broke his leg in an accident. He had matchbooks from gambling spots in Galveston and there was a mysterious air about him. He was both a bit scary and a great big teddy bear at one and the same time and he loved us all.

We often wondered about our grandfather who had died before most of us were born. We knew little of him, but heard that he had worked at a meat packing plant all the way up until the time that he had a stroke from which he eventually died. He had built a huge library of books of all sorts that he brought home one at a time each Friday evening after he was paid. He owned a cow that provided milk for his eight children and cherished the goal of one day having a farm of his own. Each Sunday afternoon he gave his family lessons on morality and good citizenship and taught them to be proud of who they were. I would have like to have met him because I think he must have been a very interesting man.

On Sundays we always went to see people from our father’s side of the family. Our mother thought that it was important for us to stay in contact with them. My paternal grandmother was a tiny woman who was famous for her cooking. Going to her house always meant that we would be treated to an extraordinary meal. When she wasn’t busy creating yummy dishes, she was either crocheting or embroidering or making quilts. Her sewing was like delicate works of art and her crooked old hands belied her ability to weave intricate stitches and knots. Her gardens were legendary and she even knew how to talk with birds. I always found it fascinating that her knowledge of the world was encyclopedic given that she was illiterate. I don’t have any recipes or instructions from her because she carried all that she knew inside her head.

My grandfather was a strong man with great big hands that he used to build things. He smoked a pipe and told the most delightful stories. He might have been a wonderful writer but for lack of time. He worked until he was eighty eight years old and only quit because his supervisor thought that his advanced age made him a liability. He read for hours every single day and was able to quote passages well into his nineties. He drove an old black Plymouth whose leather seats smelled of sweet tobacco. Life had always been hard for him, but he was a survivor of the highest order and insisted on maintaining optimism no matter how terrible things became.

I learned that I was from strong stock, people who were determined to live and love and carry on regardless of what befell them. They taught me the value of hard work, education and determination. They helped me to realize that I need not be held back by my circumstances. They encouraged me and my brothers to dream big and to believe in ourselves. They were always there in both the good and bad times. We knew that we were never alone, and still aren’t. This is who we were and what has made us who we are. Our children and grandchildren are part of the unending thread that traces back through the centuries. I hope that they always remember how grand and noble their heritage truly is. The legacy of their family is indeed rich.


The Soul of a New Venture

live edge table

Our world has been made more lovely by the work of creative people and the entrepreneurs who have introduced their innovations to us. Humans are always looking for better ways of doing and presenting things. Someone is surely considering ideas that may one day revolutionize our comfort or aesthetics even as we go about our daily routines. Philosophy, mathematics, art, medicine, technology have all been driven by those gifted and dedicated enough to produce things that we have never even thought about. A secretary came up with the concept of the Post-It note and became a wealthy woman. A failed artist conceived of a cast of characters and an animated world that became the foundation of an entertainment giant known as Disney. A couple of geeky students created a computer whose brand identified with a type of fruit would one day be synonymous with elegance of form and function. A guy frustrated by the stray plant life in his yard used some fishing line and a little motor to develop a weed eating monster. Every great success story began with an interesting idea and a determination to demonstrate that notion to the world.

We all know someone who stepped out of the box of corporate America or the grind of working for a big organization. It’s a frightening prospect to go it alone with no assurances that things will work out as planned. It takes courage and patience and the willingness to believe enough to go the distance. Small businesses come and go with the vagaries of the seasons. Only the best survive, so it takes a special kind of person to put forth the needed time, effort and resources to jumpstart and maintain the soul of a new enterprise. It is not for the weak of heart and I admire anyone who attempts to make things happen.

My brother spent decades working for the Houston Fire Department. Upon retiring he and his wife made a leap of faith and invested in a property near the Strand in Galveston, Texas where they decided to build a venture that would provide tourists to the area with an alternative to the usual beach centered activities. Escape The Island is their fun way of telling a bit of the area’s history while teams compete with the clock to unlock the clues that will allow them to exit a series of bolted rooms. They cleverly created puzzles and designed sets. They spent time publicizing their party and team building business. The work was as hard as their former day jobs had always been, but they believed that they had developed a form of entertainment that people would like. They never gave up even when the going was initially slow. They kept spreading the word and improving on their product until they began to see increased interest in what they had to offer. Today Escape the Island is a destination for families, businesses and college students. Located at 910 21st Street in Galveston, Texas they are ready to schedule fun at 409-443-5092 or http://www.escapetheisland, com

A former student of mine, Eric Guerra, went from high school to the University of Houston where he earned a degree that helped him land a job in the world of business. He was doing exceptionally well, but he felt that something was missing. He somehow knew that he had more to offer than adhering to a nine to five grind, but had little idea what that might be until he met an interesting fellow named Sebastian Martinez had quit is job to concentrate on creating furniture. He had made a table out of an old tree stump and a welded metal base and when Eric saw it his business acumen told him that the table was unique enough that it and items like it would be desired by those who want more than everyday design for their homes. The added bonus was that the furniture was made from recycled and repurposed wood that might otherwise have been burned or turned to sawdust. He envisioned a company much bigger than just a weekend way to earn some extra money, and he had the idea of forming a partnership to produce one of a kind furnishings on a grander scale.

Eric sought out advice from local businessmen who had once been in his situation and had turned small time ventures into mega successes. He convinced captains of local industries to provide him with guidance and some of them even made deals to feature his products in their stores. He set about building a business that has grown from sharing a garage with a lawn care company to purchasing a bigger warehouse near the Amazon fulfillment center west of Houston. He learned the techniques for creating the furniture so that he would be totally immersed in the process from the moment of finding the trees and the reclaimed lumber to creating the final product and then selling and distributing it. He has moved the company forward in a fairly short amount of time and its future looks promising as word of the lovely decorating ideas spreads from one satisfied customer to another.

Republic Creations pays homage to its Texas roots and the native materials that are used for the many products. The artistic builders and designers make live edge tables as small as a side accent and as large as a fifteen foot conference table. No wood is ever wasted as some of it enhances a wall or even becomes the planking for a floor. One of the most requested products is the wooden, live edge vanity for kitchens and bathrooms that provides a warmth and richness not possible with stone. Wooden kennels for pets become stunning pieces of furniture that blend in with the loveliest of environment and provide highly livable homes for pets at night or when the family is gone for the day. Everything is original and organic and environmentally friendly. Thanks to Eric Guerra and his acumen the business is quickly becoming a very popular and profitable venture. More photos and information are available on Facebook at Republic Creations and Designs or with a visit to the design center at 902 East Ave, Katy, TX 77493, 832-541-1840. Below are a few images of the designs that include the tables like the one featured at the top of this blog.



Talent, Compassion and Wit

27857957_10216399335842193_7355374117100203653_nThree teachers stand out as my favorites when I was a school girl. I simply adored my first grade teacher, Sister Camilla, because she was kind and understanding of my needs both academic and psychological. I’ve always had a tiny bit of dyslexia and she created a number of visual tools to help me to distinguish between the letters of the alphabet, as well as encouraging me to use multiple modes of learning to decipher. Given that I was only five and feeling overwhelmed when I was her pupil, she somehow managed to use her skills to help me to enjoy the process of learning.

The next educator who had a lasting impact on me was Mrs. Loisey, my sixth grade teacher. The key to her greatness was an ability to explain virtually any topic in ways that were easy to master. Additionally she was perhaps the most wise and just instructor that I ever had. I think that I was more relaxed in her classroom than at any other time in my life, which speaks to her talent because the first year of middle school is usually filled with angst.

It was in high school that I met my muse, my English teacher Father Shane. He opened my eyes to the world of artistic expression and firmly instilled a love of literature and poetry in me. He introduced me to authors and playwrights, writing and self expression. I loved him and his class so much that I dreamed of becoming an author and teaching English just as he had.

These three individuals became my gold standard for excellence in educating the young. I modeled myself after what I had witnessed from them and measured the teachers that I would ultimately mentor by comparing their abilities to my masterful exemplars. I carried a mental rubric of what I considered to be exceptional teaching and it included the very best traits of my favorite teachers. My yardstick was exacting, but along the way I was gratified to learn that many of the educators with whom I worked were as dedicated and inspiring as those who had so influenced me.

The last years of my career as an educator were mostly spent recruiting, interviewing, observing, coaching and supporting teachers in my role as Dean of Faculty. My constant goal was to provide our students with the same quality of teaching that I had enjoyed when I was a student. I was proud to note that most of the individuals with whom I worked were indeed the best of the best, but even among such an elite group there were always shining stars such as Jenny Brunsell.

Jenny literally combined all of the traits that I most valued in an educator. Like Sister Camilla, Jenny was perennially patient and pleasant with her students. She spoke in a quiet and soothing tone making her pupils feel safe and respected. At the same time she was wise and fair like Mrs. Loisey and had a knack for explaining key concepts in a manner that made them attainable for everyone. Best of all, Jenny’s classroom was a fun place to be just as it was with Father Shane. She spent a great deal of effort searching for ideas that would make the time spent with her enjoyable and entertaining. She taught with grace and enthusiasm and I always sensed that her students loved her just as much as I had adored my own favorite teachers.

I eventually retired and Jenny went to another school where she continued to ply her magic. In addition to teaching English she became an Academic Decathlon coach with her husband. In a very short span of time her teams became perennial winners and the students in her classroom fell under the spell of her enchanting ways. It did not surprise me at all that she was so successful and that she was named the Katy Taylor High School Teacher of the Year earlier this week. My only question was why it had taken so long for someone to honor her with the recognition that she had earned long ago.

I believe that the key to our future lies in a three pronged effort from our children, their parents and their teachers. When all three of those groups work successfully together we produce a healthy productive society and all of the rest that we need follows. We do not often enough identify the finest traits of each of those three important contributors to human development. Sometimes due to uncontrollable conditions one or more of the triad is weak or even broken. A very strong effort by any of the remaining elements has the power of overcoming such difficulties. In particular a truly great teacher may literally change the course of another person’s life. This is the essence and the power of someone of the caliber of Jenny Brunsell. I have little doubt that many of her former students treasure the moments that they shared with her, and understand just how significant she has been in helping them to learn and grow.

We spend untold amounts of money on education each year. We do research and struggle to find ways of making our schools more uniformly excellent. The truth is that we need only begin to list the traits of the teachers that we love best to discover the elements needed to create thriving classrooms. The trick is in helping those who do not organically possess the qualities to learn how to incorporate them nonetheless. Therein is our challenge.   

Even in retirement there are parents and students and teachers who consult me. I hear horror stories of educators who are the antithesis of Jenny Brunsell. They seem uncaring and harsh to their pupils. They appear to lack justice, instead wielding power over their charges. They are unwilling to walk that extra mile for their students or to just be that one person determined to stay the course until everybody learns. They often even appear to dislike the very youngsters whom they are supposed to guide. Luckily that are the exception rather than the rule but even one of them is too many.

To know the greatest teachers is to be in the company of talent, compassion and wit. To have such a teacher is a never ending gift. I have been fortunate to learn from Sister Camilla, Mrs. Loisey and Father Shane. I have been encouraged by understanding that there are still teachers like them toiling away, often unsung. It’s good to know that now again someone takes the time to acknowledge the most remarkable of them like Jenny Brunsell.