Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Appreciating Teaching

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day, a day for Chipotle to give out free burritos and for little children to bring in fistfuls of tulips to their favorite teachers.  Not a bad sentiment really, (although I apologize to my offsprings’ mentors since we did not remember the tulips or burritos on this hurried Tuesday morning.)

Today, however, I think it is a good day to appreciate BEING a teacher. This often-debated job is a great way to make a living….and a life.

I always say that teaching is a game of moments. In the past eighteen years, there have definitely been moments that have brought me to my knees, stolen my breath, made me laugh, cry and feel.  There have been moments when I was positive that this was the exact WRONG job for me, and moments when this career could not be more right. I have seen things that I wish their parents could: a moment of discovery, a smile of pride, an act of friendship. And I have seen countless moments that the students never thought I thought I noticed: the most heart-warming kindnesses, and the most heinous of bullying.

I am humbled to think that around 1200 students have sat in the desks in front of me over these many years. They have all left a piece of themselves behind. I remember Chris’s metaphor that blew me away: “The football field is an angry boy’s heaven.” Or the way I hugged Bridget as she sobbed about her grandma. I can remember Geoff’s poetry analysis of William Carlos Williams like it was yesterday, although 17 years have passed since he last left my class. Or the way Amanda gave a fantastic speech about a serious illness that had changed her life.

Through nearly two decades, I hope that I have shared my love of communicating, that they all know where to place the commas and how to write with imagery. I hope they can find a metaphor in a story, and always remember to get the work done first before they play.

But I don’t think they understand how I love them. How I pray for these students past and present and what will happen to them. How I hope that the lessons and discipline I have tried to instill will ripple when they leave my class. How I wish for them a job that offers moments like they have offered me: the beautiful glimpses of life and discovery that leave you with goosebumps and tears. And the knowledge that they are working towards something greater than themselves. And I even wish them the hard stuff too, which makes the good moments that much sweeter.

I am still in awe of the paths these students have taken. Joe is doing art gallery showings in San Francisco, and Maggie is choreographing musical theatre in Chicago. Bryan is a busines man in Columbus, and Emily is studying architecture in New York City. Bridget is returning home to find a kindergarten teaching job, and Kyle is serving our country in Afghanistan. So many choices and paths and moments, makes me appreciate our cosmic intersection in time.

So yes, I appreciate teaching. I appreciate the learners that have graced these desks, and the lessons they have revealed to me. I appreciate the words they have written and the trust they have shown me. I admire their moxy and the energetic lenses through which they see the world. A burrito or tulip won’t be enough to say it today, but I am thankful for all of them and all of the moments we have shared.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


I love the ways that ideas form, taking root in the darkness of my mind and germinating like these tentative fronds I see popping up in the soil on this second day of spring. I am like those hesitant flowers. Long winters of my life have passed, while I had myself convinced that I had to be snowed in. Now the great thaw has come and I see that the re-birth of spring can be a moment of eternity for me.

There is a storm brewing in my heart. Somewhere between an offhanded conversation with a friend and a resurrection of my running and a belief in the power of the moments of my life, a big dream has been born: 50 half-marathons in 50 states. The distance is doable, the challenge is great, and I am buoyed by the idea that I am just south of crazy. A laudable goal, and the devil is certainly in the details. The timeline stretches five years, maybe longer if needed, and all will be done long before my fiftieth birthday.

I laugh that this is a dream with my name on it at all. Somehow it is running that makes me feel most alive. It is what separates me from my former self and creates a sense of power and strength. I remember my first run like it was yesterday. Laced up my Target sneakers as a storm was brewing..…in my heart and in the sky. Four years have passed and I am still in awe of myself as a runner.

On May 9, 2010 I wrote: “I run as though my life depended on it. And as the storm pounds closer I can see that it does. The sky rips open top to bottom, like pale flesh covering thoracic cavity, and every bump in the road is illuminated. For an instant. Then the sky plunges to black and my feet struggle for balance.

I keep running. The wind chases me now. I turn the corner and head for home. I’m not in it for the distance tonight. It is too new and too raw. But now I see. There is more to me than I already know. Some strange strength is gathering like the roiling clouds blowing in from the west.”

That strength  is certainly brewing. The goal is lofty, my mind is in the game (even if a mere nine days out from state one’s race in Michigan, I am icing my leg and gimping down the hallway.) Dreams have a way of working out. And if my dream is to “suck the marrow from life” as my favorite Thoreau has said, then I will certainly make it.  He said, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” My finger is on the GO button of this dream, and I am ready to ride some waves.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Ice Garden

What are memories made of? The sun glints on the snow and from my school desk I can see the ice is building up on the lake. The polar vortex has brought ice early this year, wreaking havoc with the water supply and our school days and my memories.  The present is entangled in the past for me on this January day. Sitting in my eighth grade classroom at the biggest desk with rolling chair, the view from my window brings me back to the eighth grader I was when my world was turned upside down. Twenty-nine years is a long time to miss her, and I am literally back where I started, remembering the day my sweet grandmother died.

How is she still so powerfully with me, this woman with the map of Ireland on her face? Maybe it is because I was just talking with a friend about her. How she taught me how to do the work first: woke me up at six in the morning, fed me coffee laden with milk, and set me on my tasks for the day. We rode the tractor, weeded the garden, made the beds, cooked the lunch and put dinner on the stove. Worked hard first so that by 3:00 we were already settled in to read our mystery books on the porch, or fish off the dock with a bamboo pole.

But maybe it is something more. Her spirit is here, the way she twinkled when she spoke, the way she stood up for her beliefs, the way she made a little mischief along the path she chose. She dabbled in writing, and power tools, and making friends, and breathing in nature.  She drove her husband crazy, and never could understand all of his political and upper class dealings. She was a simple woman with a simple faith and a very large sense of who she was. Maybe she is not so far away after all. I recognize her in my grown up self, and the miracle is that the passage of time could make this so.

As my dad always said, “It’s all part of nature, you see.” But it still makes me marvel. How could a woman who spent so little time with me on this planet have had such a powerful impact? She planted the seeds: read me books, fed me pudding and beef soup, showed me how to wear a hard hat under the pear tree at the end of the lane so we wouldn’t get hit by the falling fruit. She helped the hopeless and spoke her mind and never stopped appreciating the apple trees and the starry nights and the hardening ice upon the bay where she lived.  She made her corner of the world shine.

And she nurtured a granddaughter that would stand the test of time. Somehow, I think, a garden left untended for nearly thirty years would be infested and overgrown and unkempt. But these deep roots she gave me have kept her alive, and molded the woman I have become: through my writing, my ornery side, my love of the outdoors, and in my own children who join me amid the tomato plants and sand castles and snow balls.

The ice outside my window today reminds me of the circle of nature. And I can attest that in some ways I am back where I began when she left too soon. But I am much closer to this woman in my heart, the one who taught me to work and play and laugh and believe. And I think she might be proud of the way her garden is shaping up.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bending Time at Christmas

No one talks about them, these souls we love, hovering high in the ether above the twinkling lights and well-taped gifts tonight. Arguably the most important day of the year, and it seems bizarre not to acknowledge some of the key players. Like leaving out a wise man, or an angel heard on high. Not sure why we don’t mention my father, the man who loved Christmas more than life itself and treated his own daughters better than the baby Savior rated that cold, starry night. Oh, he is here alright, my dad: in the special cheeses we chase the city to find, in the blue eyes seated around the table, in the way we look for magic. But nobody mentions his name.  What would he do with these six amazing grandchildren, each with a giant personality and an even bigger Irish dimple? Where would he start? Science experiments with Marty or Hot Wheels with Jack? Would he hoist Maggie up in his lap, or enjoy the lights from the couch with Maura by his side? Maybe the accelerated dot to dots with Owen, or building a Lego dump truck with Sean? We’ll never know for sure, but I know he would be sitting in the corner of the tree, lit up with a grin from ear to ear. Oh, how I wish I could dream this scene into being. But I certainly wouldn’t mind talking about him, telling stories from the past, and remembering the Christmases when he made all of my little-girl dreams come true.

I struggle with the same questions at my in-law’s house later. Uncle Brian and Pa are Christmasing with the angels, and nobody brings this up. I don’t like to forget. My father-in-law loved to tease me about my love of well-done meat. I make the mistake of bringing it up tonight, and am met with silence. (He would be proud of the pink in my dinner, I think.) What is wrong with the remembering? Later, my sons ask if their Uncle Brian liked to golf. That was met with a laugh, and a strong denial, but that is all. But he is there in the Tony Hawk gifts from Nana, and the long legs of my daughter, and the sharp wit of his brothers.  I wish we could make him more real for my kids.

Christmas is a season for bending time, for understanding the miracle of a baby born and re-born to save a tired world. What I wouldn’t do for a little magic dust to spend an hour with these men I miss.  More than that, I want the scene played out for my children, so they understand why the night is so holy and starry and crisp. So they know the feeling of being loved beyond all understanding, past the earthly vale and beyond all space and time. And so that one day, when little eyes twinkle on their own laps, they will realize with pride and longing where the love and the laughter began.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Purity of Fire

Yahoo tells me of a baby sold on Facebook,
And four Southern children dead in a fire
Not to be out-headlined by a missing student in Boston
And two boys shot dead in an Illinois town.

Too much death and ache and angst.

But all I can think about
Is the toughest girl I know
And how she rises from her daily deaths,
Rolls away the stone and walks tall.

Today, the spelling bee
And her fourth place finish,
Brought down by “purification”
and kept off the podium another year.

But her disappointment is less piercing
Than her resolve to carry on, and do the next thing
With heart and light and risk.

These million little deaths of growing up
And growing toward….
And not one Yahoo headline to be found.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

For My Eighth Graders.....

"Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful. John 16:33

100 Ways to Create a Peaceful World

1.     Breathe deeply.
2.     Stand for something. 
3.     Have courage to be who you are. 
4.     Have empathy to help OTHERS be who THEY are.
5.     Play fair.        
6.     Hug your mom.
7.      And your dad. 
8.     Invite someone new to eat lunch with you. 
9.     “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44.
10. Speak carefully.
11. Do your homework.  Do it right
12. Exercise your body.
13. Exercise your mind.
14. Sign the pledge at http://www.r-word.org/
16. Play a game with your little sister.  Don’t whine about it.
17. Talk to a kindergartener on the playground.
18. Twirl the jumprope for a child.
20.  Forgive someone.  And forget about it.
21. Listen to your parents.
22. Listen to your priest.
23. Keep your hands to yourself.
24. Study during your study hall.
25. “You have heard that it was said,x ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” Matthew 5:38-39.
26. Sign up to learn about peace-building at http://www.buildingpeace.org/user
27. Stay off Facebook.
28. Don’t fight back.  Walk away.
29. Smile at someone on the bus. Especially the driver.
30. Choose your words carefully.
31. Find out what it takes to earn the Nobel Peace prize at http://www.buildingpeace.org/act-build-peace/learn/famous-peacebuilders-quiz
32. Earn the peace prize in your family, your classroom, and within your group of friends.
33. “Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.  Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” Matthew 5:36-37.
34. Say YES to your parents.
35. Choose your words carefully with your friends.
36. Tell the truth.
37. TRY YOUR HARDEST.  In everything. And ALL THE TIME.
38. Pick up some trash: at the lake, at Weiss field, on your street.
39. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” Matthew 6:25
40. Have faith: in God, in YOURSELF, in your family.
41. Use your church envelope.
42. Put your own money in it.
44. Play fair.
45. Clean out your closet.  Give the good stuff to someone who can use it.
46. Tell your friends you appreciate them.
47. Smile at someone you don’t know.
48. WANT to be closer to God.
49. WORK ON being closer to God.
51. Accept people: what they wear, what they say, who they are. Especially the ones in your class, on your team, in your house.
52. Study a new language.
53. Learn about a foreign country.
54. Rejoice with your friends’ victories.
55. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.f 8For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Matthew 7:7-8.
56. Ask for grace and answers.  Listen to the message you receive.
57. “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.i Matthew 7-12
58. Share your good stuff.
59. Go to http://www.aalcrs.org/how-you-can-help.html#donate_goods and donate to Avon Lake CRS.
60. Vacuum your house.
61. Vacuum your grandma’s house.
62. Pay it forward: buy someone dinner without getting repaid.
63. Do something great that no one will ever find out about.
65. Bring life to your classroom.  Say good morning, smile, encourage your mates.
67. Believe that the good guys in the white hats will always win.
68. Be the good guy.
69. Do your schoolwork with integrity. 
70. Keep your answers to yourself.
71. Listen to your friend and his problems.
73. Go to adoration.
74. Seek quiet.
75. Be tough. Be vulnerable, Know that God is in charge.
77. Care for the marginalized.
78. Stand up to a bully.
80. Be nice to the lunch monitor.
81. Clean up your own garbage. 
82. Push in your own chair.  And your friend’s.
83. Exert positive peer pressure.
84.  Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8.
85. Love one another. ESPECIALLY those who are difficult.
87. Help your friends make good choices.
88. Listen.
89. Tell an adult if something is not right.
90. Sign this petition to stop bullying.  http://www.pacerkidsagainstbullying.org/#/home
91. Don’t talk behind someone’s back.
92. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
93. Stay clear of violent video games and television shows.
94. Volunteer at Vikings Club or a local nursing home.
95. Study. Sweat. Pray.
96. Work to your potential.
97. Believe YOU have the power to change the world.
98. Be responsible.
99. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philipians 4:6-7
100. Cultivate patience.

“If you want peace, work for justice.” Pope Paul VI

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Autumn's Promise

This is the kind of day I was made for.  The air is ripe with flavor.  And desperation.  The slanted sun warms slowly now, dappling through the changing leaves and kissing the top of my hooded sweatshirt.  But there is nothing slow about this world.  Or my stride.  The ground is littered with acorns and rotting fruit, the summer’s promise past its prime.  The squirrels scurry for winter, too.

I understand their pursuit.  I am also frantic.  The clock is ticking and I have miles to go.  The metaphor is not lost on me.  An ache really, this feeling of need and time twirling me into captivity.  I am not a willing prisoner. 

Autumn is the procrastinator’s paradise.  The lessons are not subtle here.  The looming skies and swirling leaves demand much of me.  No time to fritter and wonder and wait.  I go all-in and take it to the wall.

I cut the grass today, each stripe a sentinel marking time, each pile of leaves and clippings packed into the bag to await the recycler’s truck.  I throw aside the obstacles in my way.  Three squirt guns lay, still at the ready, in the back yard; a bat and ball are tucked away beneath the swings.  In the corner, a pail and shovel from summer digging, and shells and rocks piled high in some strange Aztec ruin.

Why do I scurry so, trying to pack away the summer and the accouterments and games?  The shadows deepen and my memory clears.  The cold is coming hard and fast; this is what I know.  The animals feel it too.  The squirrels are frenzied and skittish, gathering their winter’s meal.  The acorns fall like bullets on my house and head and car. The sharp cold turns my fingers as white as pall.

But this is the kind of day I was made for:  sucking marrow from the last straws of warmth, breathing deeply as the leaves careen to earth and the acid tang burns my nostrils, joining the critters in my backyard in their race to the great chill that is hurtling towards us.  Our urgency is ripe with truth and hope and longing, as the shadows swallow the deepening light.