Sunday, June 23, 2013

One year later. Fuck Cancer, Embrace Life.

I wear my “Fuck Cancer” bracelet just about every day. I have done this since it arrived in the mail almost a year ago, right after my mother died from the lung cancer that ate up her liver as well as her lungs and started on her brain. I felt so empowered wearing it, or at least a bit stronger as I struggled through my grief. It was like my talisman.

It is my talisman. I was so mad for a long time, and I still get there sometimes but with less blasting anger and more focused and directed anger.

I have the edges of that anger softened by memories as well as the realization that I cannot reason other people’s choices and I must learn to accept, especially what I cannot change. It’s life, after all, and nothing makes ‘no sense’ like death to the living.

My mom and I are both head strong women and although she was the reason I was so head strong, it often made for a difficult and strained relationship. She always encouraged me to be educated, but I think I made her feel less-than because she was not as educated by school as I was, despite her many Life Wisdoms. And I never told her how often I used her words to get through some of my darkest times. 

My mom always kept a clean and very organized house. There were no dust bunnies, dishes in the sink and the shower curtain didn’t often look tarnished. My home must have driven her crazy with its piles and piles of papers and books and toys and general unorganization. When I was married the first time at 19, I tried to keep her schedule of big weekly cleanings on Saturdays, but I was working nights, going to school and raising babies. So I floundered. And as my first marriage deteriorated, housework took another lowering on the priority list, as I concentrated on making sure I spent time with my boys. She never knew her words, “If they are coming to see your house, then you really don’t want them there. They should be coming to visit you” and “The house will be here long after you are dead and gone; go live” made their marks on me. Although it did take me until I was in my mid-40s to really let go and allow people into my home with that kind of attitude. Thanks, mom.

Every night my mother made meals. Meat, potatoes, veggies. Sometimes gravy and biscuits, too. Every night there was dinner on the table at 5:30. Everyone sat and talked. No elbows on the table, no holding your head with your hand (thanks dad). Everyone sat in the same seat every night. We replugged into the center so we could each go back out into the world again, knowing we always had our spot at the table. I helped to clean up dishes and dry while mom washed. More time to talk over the day’s woes. I wonder if I appreciated that then, my angsty- teenage-self…probably not. It was a chore to me. But I made sure through teen years with my boys, divorce years and rebuilding lives and now with my husband and my girls that we have meal times together, even if it’s take-out. We sit and talk and tell the day’s stories. We replug into the center so we can each go back out into the world again, knowing we always have our spot at the table. (Even if that ‘spot’ gets moved each night as Kath rearranges our places at the table every night according to who she wants to sit next to and what chair--yep, different style chairs at our table-- she wants to sit in that night. :D) But we sit and talk and tell the day’s stories. I never told my mother she instilled that in my view of Family time and Life Wisdoms.

There were other words of Life Wisdom expressions and lessons like ‘never give up,’ which I have since tweaked into knowing that even if you ‘give up’ on someone or something, you really are just refocusing, and it’s okay. It’s okay. It took me a long time to learn that one, to learn that I wasn’t the Catcher in the Rye for adults who didn’t want to be caught. It took me a long time to really understand that it was okay to move on, but I did it. Thanks, mom. I get it now.

She also told me there were stories behind what people did and said. She said we didn’t always know what others were going through, sometimes what we saw wasn’t the real story. I confused this one with the above wise words for many years, until, I think, I got it straightened out. But what a gift to see that people behave the crazy way they do because there is something else at play, motivating their words and actions, and it doesn’t mean it’s a reflection on/of  you or your fault. Thanks again, mom.

I remember loving and feeling that comfort-feeling when my mom tied my winter hats on when I was a kid. There was a mixture of smells that were Her smells. I asked her to tie my hats for longer than I needed because I wanted her to touch me (we weren’t huggy people) and I wanted that comfort smell. It wasn’t until I was much older that I identified those smells as soap and tobacco.

It twists something inside of you when you realize a ‘comfort’ smell was from something that helped kill someone you love. Yes, she made choices to smoke. She made life choices. But maybe if she knew, really knew, how much her death by cancer would impact the rest of us…maybe she would have made that one more attempt to quit.

As a kid I left notes strategically placed throughout the house where she would find them, “Please stop smoking, I love you.” I came home from school, newly educated on the poisons inside of cigarettes, informing her of the dangers, and still she smoked. Looking back through pictures for her memorial at her wake, I was hard pressed to find candid pictures of her not holding a cigarette.

One thing mom wasn’t really good at was forgiving. And I got that from her too. I was angry at her for smoking, for being so hard on me (harder than on my brothers, I always felt), so 'demanding and unreasonable,’ for cursing so much, for holding me at arm’s length and not letting me lean into her, (I'm sure she thought I was all of these things too), for not being a doting hovering grandmother. But mostly I couldn’t forgive her for dying before we could hammer out all these issues.

How dare she get up from the table before we had finished talking about the day’s stories. How dare she give up. How dare she leave me to figure out the rest of my Life Wisdoms on my own.

A little more than a year ago we packed up her apartment and I couldn’t part with anything, except the things my family took and a few odd dishes that held no memories. My house, even a year later, looks even more cluttered and chaotic but I am surrounded by her towels, her bedroom furniture, her clothes, her lighthouses. The bowls she made chocolate chip cookies in. The colander she poured boiling hot potatoes in for our mashed potatoes every night.

And yesterday my daughter unplugged the winter humidifier in her room and plugged in the room freshener from my mom’s apartment and I was transferred back to a year ago. I smelled my mom’s apartment at the time of her death. And this time I wasn’t as angry. I smiled.

As my mom lay dying in the hospital bed, not looking at all like the mischievous, hard-working, wise mother, who drove me nuts my whole life, I could not stop touching her and telling her that we were alright, that she was alright if she wanted to go. I meant it. I meant that she could leave the pain, that I would be alright. I meant that I knew that she fought hard and she wasn’t really 'giving up,' she was refocusing (against her will) to the next part of her journey. And I knew, eventually, I would be alright, because she had given me so many Life Lessons and Wisdoms to be okay.

By being so hard and so demanding on me, she held me to a higher level, and as a mom, especially one so young, high standards were necessary. While cursing holds no scientific research indications, I believe words are a powerful thing, they help get feelings out. For my mom her cursing was a way to release all that bothered her. While I have writing to help me release all that bothers me…I still curse like a truck driver and have no real excuse, but it certainly does feel good! I don’t know why my parents weren’t huggy people and I am, but it’s okay. It’s not that they were withholding affection or that I was weak, it’s just the way we are.

And I accept that. Now, a year later. I accept that.

I know I cannot change people, try as I might, and this still frightens me as I watch one of my sons and a few friends try to fight their smoking addictions. I can’t catch those who don’t wish to be caught, though I do still put my arms out and try to warn about that cliff, I just can't help myself.

The inside of my “Fuck Cancer” bracelet says ‘Embrace Life’ and now I am working with less anger and more of the directed ‘embracing’ those moments. I think I am on a different phase of my grief.

I am trying to pay attention to those details, smells and memories while continuing to move forward. And I will continue this life path. Today I went to Home Depot to look for a tree or a bush, that will be a living memorial for my mom, to plant and remind me to live the Wisdoms; forgive the things I can and forgive myself for the things I can’t; to keep going and keep trying; to remember people’s stories are not worn on their skin (no matter how worn their skin is!); to play; to curse, if need be; to collect lighthouses and to make mealtime a good center to my family’s core.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for today. I couldn’t remember what my mom’s favorite flower or tree was, if she even had one. But then suddenly I started to tell my son (the one who needs to stop smoking and who accompanied me on this soul trip) about how I’d love to find a mimosa tree. We had one in my front yard for my most of growing up childhood until a gypsy month plague spread over Long Island and killed our tree and all the mimosa trees in the region (I think that was that plague that got that tree). I told him all this, but I also said that I hadn’t seen any of those trees in years and never upstate. And just then I walked into a tree and it was a mimosa! 

“Embrace Life” is the talisman I try to focus on these days, especially these days and weeks surrounding the anniversary of your death. Thanks, mom. I miss you. I love you. It's been a really hard, slow and painful year without you with us, but thanks for the Life Wisdoms and Lessons, for those feelings like little taps on the shoulder, and for mimosa trees to walk into showing me that I'm heading in the right direction. That I'm going to be alright.

Friday, June 21, 2013

To the Classroom Warriors K-12

To the Classroom Warriors K-12:

You have gone through the year plugging along with your kids, teaching your curriculum, leading your school, aiding and supporting students throughout the entire building while also trying to swallow the bile from the public opinion and APPR requirements.

You have done so much more than what you will ever be scored for on your evaluations; things that could not possibly show up on your SLOs and although some people in the public and State Ed may not think these other things are important, you know, we educators know, how treasured and foundational these moments are for growing a student into a human.

And I do not just mean those of us with degrees in teaching, I mean all of us who are involved with the children in our buildings each day: the nurses, the assistants, the aides, the hallway monitors, therapists, all support staff no matter your title, custodial, etc.

You may not think anyone even noticed these non-core curriculum-APPR-standards-for being a Classroom Warrior, but they were marked and measured in the hearts and souls of every student you worked with.

You may think you were just going about your usual day-to-day living and being, but it was observed and noted.

You stayed after school with that student who didn’t understand even after you explained it 3 more times in class.

You spent your lunch with those girls or boys who were afraid of the lunchroom and the unkind words their friends from last year threw down.

You brought that book, picture, piece of music, story, artwork, car, in to share with your kids, to share a piece of you.

You stayed late, came in on Saturdays, missed putting your own kids to bed so that you could grade or prep, generally just get things done that you couldn’t get done all day while you worked with students.

You cried when your students or colleagues told you about their mom, dad, brother, sister, aunt, grandmother, uncle, grandfather, friend who was sick or worse. You hugged them and comforted them and were there for them. Even showing up for them at the wake.

You told that kid who drives everyone nuts that he was going to make it, that he’d do something with his life. And he now believes he will.

You sat up ‘watching’ TV, creating Animoto accounts from your couch on your own time for students because you were asked.

You spent a day, or two, after classes ended in June, giving that kid a chance to pass your class, you did it all with patience and grace, never showing how far behind it put you in your other work.

You challenged those students, kept them engaged and stretching while still reaching those who struggled. You made all of the students feel you were focused on them.

You kept that kid going, knowing that although he started to pay attention late this year and the school year time ran out for him to catch up, you created a space of time for him so he could find success and confidence.

You spent your own money on books, on crayons, on markers, on paper, on candy, and on food stuff for those hungry kids.

You were exhausted that night you dragged your own kids to the baseball field, the track, the gym, the auditorium to watch your ‘other kids’ play their sports or perform their plays or music.

You created CDs containing pictures of every student in your class highlighting different parts of the year for family’s memories.

You asked that student what kind of book she likes and then you brought it from your home or purchased it. Just because that’s what you do.

You see your students as more than a number on your APPR score. You’re not afraid to work with any type of student who needs you. And we all know that the kids who need us the most, will not be the ones who ‘help’ our teacher evaluation scores the most.

You smiled that huge smile when you watched as "one of your own" accomplished something that even her mom didn't think could happen.

You waited patiently and reassured your student instead of doing it for her.

You went off task/topic with your class when it needed to go there for a ‘teachable moment’ knowing how important they are, curriculum be damned.

You have been moved from grade to grade, school to school, to the purgatory of waiting to see if there is a position for you for next year…again. And yet you never teach like you are stuck in a nightmare, you teach and love it and it shines through to your students.

You research, read and study all summer to bring new ‘things’ into your teaching. And to reach kids like the ones who keep popping into your head when you can’t sleep, the ones who slipped through your fingers last year.

You taught then gave room for kids to perform, to fix cars, to build tractors, to design and build bridges, to design and build tables, chairs and sheds, to sing, to write, to create music and art, to build and throw pumpkin catapults. You taught by doing, just as John Dewey professed all those years ago, and the powers that be in curriculum management still don’t listen to.

You kissed boo-boos; applied more Band-Aids than you can count; you cleaned up accidents (and never complained or showed impatience); you supplied tissues and medicines and untold amounts of counsel from topics ranging from fights with enemies, best friends, boyfriends, teacher and parent issues, abusive relationships, unplanned pregnancies; did medical screenings and spoke to more parents than anyone else in the building.

You found books and shared new technology.

You used your own money so teachers could have what they needed and you said you ‘found’ it.

You are doing the job of more than one person and keeping the rest of us afloat during a crazy year in education.

You brought your husband/wife/friend in as a guest speaker.

You found a local author and made that connection to benefit for all of our kids.

You brought in a guest speaker to show us/remind us how to breathe and SARM.

You created quirky creative videos to encourage students to do what you needed them to, to help them learn something and remember it, to make them laugh.

You supported and did the dirty work (paperwork) so teachers could focus on kids.

You lent an ear to fellow colleagues when they were stressing and calmed them down so they could go back in the classroom and do what they do best.

You tracked down wandering kids in the hallway and herded them back to classrooms so they could be students again.

You taught students about the world outside of our school district.

You brought in creative fundraising ways to provide help to Haiti, Japan, Africa, as well as local places that needed help.

You showed kids that showing support for cancer research, epilepsy research, heart disease and strokes are also ways to heal.

You showed students that drinking and drugs are not your friend.

You played your old music, which introduced the students to something ‘new.’

You taught kids that having healthy choices and exercise regimes help their brains.

You found a way to get a greenhouse and garden going.

You brought in dogs and taught compassion and participation in a bigger picture.

You made your students create then share, all the while making sure they were always visible, never allowing them to be ashamed or discouraged by their disabilities.

You made your classroom a place of safety so all students felt comfortable and able to take risks in their learning.

You have class pets….

You took field trips.

You made sure every girl had a chance for a pretty dress for their big dance because you shopped and bought dresses for the the ones who couldn't afford their own.

You pay attention to the flower, the rock, the book, the sheet of music, the picture, the marks on their skin because you know how important it is not to miss the little things.

You made baked goods for students who promised and kept their word to do something to improve their lives and you made adults baked goods on Mondays because you knew how hard Mondays were otherwise.

You took the time to comment on those papers to suggest what could be done to improve for next time. And you allowed for a next time.

What happens to us when we believe this stuff about the ‘developing/ineffective’ teachers and those designations--erodes us and what we truly do every day.

We dare to disturb the universe and make a difference in the millions of little and big things we do each day for our kids. I could go on and on with my list of what we do and the impact we make, but I think the idea is clear. Despite what the public thinks, despite what some parents think, despite what state ed thinks...we know that growing humans is not a job that fits neatly in a bubble. It’s often messy and unwieldy and chaotic…if done properly. It’s in the moments of kindnesses shared, a laugh treasured and a feeling of being okay with oneself. It’s in the modeling of being honest, compassionate and critical thinking. And it’s what we do each and every day. SLOs, points, percentages and titles, be damned.

We teach, we care, we give, we love, we hurt, we rejoice, we tire, we challenge, we praise, we rejuvenate, we pull our hair out, we learn, we accept, and we get up the next day and do it all over again.

See you in September.