Three out of Five

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Day, I offer this thank you written for my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher during one of our testing weeks.  Please share it (or something else great of your own) with a teacher you know.  They aren’t all doing it the same way, but they know what works for their kids, and they ought to know that someone notices.  We all have opinions about testing and accountability, but until those issues are worked out, this is the process.  Take a moment today and appreciate the people who do their best on the ground, every day, within the system – whether they buy into it or not.


Three out of Five

A Long Comp from a grateful Room Mom

It is day three of testing this week. The fourth grade has come screeching to a temporary halt as MCAS week has finally arrived. Here they are. Two days on, one day off, another day on, sitting for examinations. They’re ten. Sitting through an exam today which has the name “long” right in it, as if the two long days of testing they’ve already completed weren’t enough. Ouch. Sitting still and concentrating, as if they have anything left to give, when the promise of a day off tomorrow for Easter weekend was taken away to make up for time lost to a winter of snow, snow, and more snow.  Concentrating and striving to stick to strategies they learned in chopped up weeks, in between chopping up icicles in the driveway to beat the cabin fever, because all that snow was too deep to even really play in.

My little bird has come home pale and drained this week. It’s a lot of work for her.  A lot of work went into getting her ready for this week. Practice, practice, practice. Get those sentences organized. Don’t forget to rephrase the question. Her teacher has given her strategies. We’ve checked her work at home. We hope she remembers.

Pale and drained. Is that what her teacher looks like at the end of each day, struggling to get the information and strategies across on a crazy timetable, for not just one but all of the kids? Kids who come from a range of resources, kids who bring their own issues to the classroom, kids capable of… well, all the shenanigans I know my kid is capable of.  Lord knows, she’s not standing up at the front of a classroom as 22 sets of eager eyes of our cherubs take perfect notes on everything she says.

Yet she is a master of the “whole kid.” She misses nothing. She considers everything. She calls late and meets early. She wastes not one second of time, in that room or out. But she smiles and is all energy always, and she knows those kids inside and out. Mine yearns to be understood but doesn’t like to ask for help; equal parts sage and juvenile, flighty and afraid to fly. She knows. She’s a kid brain ninja.

As we wait for the bus, sometimes my bird sings.  This morning, it was Survivor’s  “Eye of the Tiger.” I laughed out loud. She said, “What? That’s our class MCAS song!” That was food for thought. I thought back to team championships and road trips set to that song. The nerves, the energy, the confidence, the laughter.

With so little wiggle room in a school year, that amazing ninja educator is nimbly back-flipping into finding ways to make the worst stuff bearable, even fun. Giving them a sense of camaraderie and a place to put their feelings and frustration when they are tapped. Adding music, which speaks to everyone, and brings people together. Sending them into a test like Rocky into the ring, pumped up and ready to go.  As much as she believes in or disagrees with the system, or feels they’re prepared, they’ll never know. Are we ever lucky we have such a good fit for my little bird!

The bird, by the way, is sure she’s going to rock this. Who doesn’t want to feel like that on test day? And as amazing as that is, it’s no wonder. It’s because her teacher is a Five out of Five.

I love, love, love that my kid is in such great hands.


Me First

At 26, I lost a peer for the first time. Stupid cancer. I wasn’t prepared for how much that was going to shake me. Before that, death had been something relegated to grandparents and the occasional parent of a friend in tragic circumstances. This was shocking.

Linus was a friend I had lost track of for some time after high school, but when handed a diagnosis of a matter of weeks to live, he’d reached out to people for a reunion, and we’d all responded. I couldn’t imagine not responding. I hadn’t meant to lose touch; life had just happened. My family had moved away after high school, and I’d gone through college and graduate school, new places, new friends, and a time when keeping in touch was much harder than it is today with the internet and Facebook. Even email was new when we left high school, and not something everyone had for a while. It was a different time.

After that span of years, there was the same old Linus. The friend who insisted I go dancing immediately after my best friend had dumped me and my grandmother had died, on the same day. The friend whose name had been synonymous with laughter. The friend who had the ridiculous idea of going for tacos after midterms even though it was only 10:15 in the morning, buying one giant Dr. Pepper, and seeing how many of us could take turns using “one per customer” free refill coupons before they’d call us out, even if that meant each of us had to down a gallon of the stuff and stop three times on the way home to go to the bathroom. The sugar high was insanity, giggling until we all cried and tried not to pee a little.

Well, that friend had grown up to be a state trooper, giving back to the community and still very much loved by everyone who knew him, everyone with a story to share, everyone laughing as they were told aloud. We’d always known that he’d be doing something for others, but with his gigantic personality and impeccably pressed school uniform shirts, we’d always predicted he’d be a politician, kissing babies and shaking hands with the president, that permanent smile on his face and infectious laugh.

And there we sat, packed into his living room, talking about jobs and apartments and life today. Knowing he had so little of it left. It was hard to know what to say. We were stunned and in disbelief – he was so physically present, it was hard to imagine that he could slip away from us at any time. It seemed shallow to complain about a job I didn’t love when he was facing a death sentence. He was the same as ever, all of us laughing as he shuddered at the idea that they might have messed up his diagnosis and he’d have to start getting up for work in the mornings again. He said now he could finally run for office, now that he wasn’t so tied up with work. Laughter through tears.

We planted a tree. He suggested if he miraculously recovered maybe we’d all come back and dig it up together.

How did he do it? Face death and just laugh?

Why not me, I wondered. I wasn’t doing anything important. I was sitting in an office not doing the type of work I’d hoped for when I was in school, why hadn’t God chosen me instead? We needed him. No one needed me. I was angry that I couldn’t just switch places with him. I was angry for his family and for his coworkers, and for all of us. I was angry at cancer, at life, at death, and while I was at it I was angry with my dad who once casually remarked that statistically not everyone in our graduating class would live until the ten year reunion. Why did he have to be so right all the time?

When he died the world seemed very dark indeed. Even as we faced the wake, seeing, as was his final wish, that he lay in his casket holding a business card stating that he was running for state representative, the laughter came. But with it was the heavy heart of losing the bright sound of his laughter that ought to have accompanied this final gag.

I wondered, was this the other shoe, dropping? Everyone in our country had been dealt a horrific blow by the attacks of September 11, 2001. It felt like the evil in the world that we all witnessed that day, had been driven home on a personal level, and now there wasn’t anything to do but despair, and think that Linus was too good for this world – only, why, with darkness all around, had we been robbed of that light? We sang This Little Light of Mine at his funeral. I couldn’t choke out a single word. I wanted to. I knew he’d want us to smile. He’d asked for a dance floor at his funeral, for crying out loud. This guy wanted a party when he was being remembered. Only, he wasn’t there to lead the dancing. What were we to do? I knew he had always found ways to help me shine my own light on the worst days of teenage angst. I knew he’d want me to keep shining. But I hurt so much it smothered.

I couldn’t seem to get my footing. It bothered me so much, yet I didn’t feel I deserved to grieve. I was the one who hadn’t kept in touch all that time. Would it have been easier to just find out that a classmate had died in the quarterly school newsletter than to open myself up to a rekindled friendship and then a heavy loss? No, I decided, it was a reminder of the good in the world, the way he’d turned out to be just the same as ever, the way we’d all surrounded him and lifted him and each other up, the way he set the example for living even when he was dying.

You grieve in your own way, and you keep going day by day, one foot in front of the other, and you integrate your losses somehow. But it is never easy. You spend a lot of time jaded. You have a lot of life going on in there, and a full range of emotions, but this uneasiness plays like static somewhere in the background, and clouds how you feel about life. The sun rises again slowly, as much as we’d like an on-switch.

Four years later, I “graduated,” so to speak, from my grief. I had an a-ha moment. A moment when it was finally okay. Not good-okay, because life didn’t somehow become fair all of a sudden, but when you read about all those stages, the denial, anger, bargaining, depression… acceptance-okay finally came.

I’m kind of glad I recognized my moment, because I can give credit to a good friend for that moment. I know a lot of it was time passed. Time I put in sludging through feeling like crap. One person can’t transform grief for you. How I wish they could. But for me, it was the words of my dear friend Pastor Steph Smith, on Easter Sunday, speaking to her congregation where I was visiting, that made me aware of my acceptance. Being aware of your acceptance is hard in it’s own way – letting go of the normalcy of darkness can be a strange feeling. You might feel like you’re betraying the person you’ve lost. But hopefully you know that your light needs to shine, because that’s what it was put there for.

I was holding my very squirmy toddler on my lap, so the fact that I heard a word Steph said was a miracle in itself. But I think I was meant to hear her words. I will paraphrase what I remember:

Who gets excited about some things like cake or going on a ride? Everyone, right? Not just kids. Who sometimes says, “ME FIRST!” Mostly kids – adults have hopefully developed a little more patience. Now who sometimes gets a little nervous about something, like a diving board or a really tall slide, a new job or opportunity that you know might be good but you don’t know if you’re brave enough? Do you still say “ME FIRST!”? Some of us maybe have a friend who will go first, that one really brave friend who will try anything because they just aren’t scared. How about at the doctor’s office, does anyone say “ME FIRST!” about getting a shot? No? If you know something is going to hurt, no one really ever says “ME FIRST!” – there are just some things that no one is going to volunteer for. Well, that’s what so special about Jesus on Good Friday. Jesus said, “ME FIRST!”. He said he was going ahead and would prepare a place for us, yes, but he also said he was going to handle the pain and the dying first. And what’s even better than that is that he’s told us he’s going first, so that we don’t have to. He’s taking that pain from us, and for us, so we don’t have to hurt anymore.

I got to thinking about Jesus and his “ME FIRST!” campaign. I don’t know what made me think of Linus laughing in the face of death, but I could see that he was a “ME FIRST!” friend too. A person who wasn’t afraid to push me to laugh in moments when I wanted to cry, when my other friends might have thought I was too brooding or stressed to be any fun. A friend I’d want at the bottom of a tall scary slide to catch me, a friend I’d want cheering for me from the far side of the bridge, a friend I’d hope would be the welcome committee at the proverbial pearly gates, if that’s how things looked on the other side. He would have the party ready and in full swing.

In that moment, a feeling: I’m not scared when it’s my turn, because my friend went first. So did Jesus, yes, and I’m thankful… but admittedly he’s a little harder to know. In this case, I have to accept the idea that God makes Himself accessible, and visible, to us through each other.

With the idea that my ME FIRST! friend was going to be standing at the door someday, I was able to accept. All that time I was looking for an answer to WHY WHY WHY??? here and around me. I was clouded by grief and couldn’t see the long view. I was too burdened by the heaviness to remember, Faith, duh. Or maybe I logically remembered, but didn’t actually feel it, and it took all that time. Now, I don’t know how someone could bear loss without faith, even if slow in coming, even in its own time – faith as an action, not a thing, as though we could simply possess it. I’d be giving out free refill coupons to friends on faith if that were the case, because I know how desperately needed they are. Then we’d all giggle until we had to pee a little, and it would be easy.

Unfortunately, we have to earn them.

There have been other losses, both before and since then. Some much more close, and still and always healing on my heart. Grandparents. My in-laws leaving us before they could hold their grandbabies. The too-small baby I held in the palm of my hand on my bathroom floor. Grief emptied me in different ways each time. But because Linus was the first peer, I had to comprehend differently the reality of death touching my generation. As Dickens wrote, “I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim — shall we — or this first parting that there was among us.” Somehow youthful innocence was being destroyed. I was acutely aware of the process of coping with loss because it was a first, new. New, unfair, tragic, harsh, deflating.

The discovery that acceptance would come eventually has been the gift that keeps on giving. It doesn’t dull the pain of loss or make faith easy, but it’s like knowing the light at the end of the tunnel exists, even if the tunnel is only the size of a pinhole on the horizon right now and there’s no way you’re squeezing through anytime soon. Not until you’re much further down-river in this boat with no oars. Not until you are like Alice down the rabbit hole, shutting up like a telescope and wondering what it will be like if you are going out altogether, like a candle. But it is there. And you can look for it. If there was only one distant star in the sky, would it be hard to find? Of course. The sky is enormous. But once you know it’s there, you know what you’re looking for and can find it. And maybe you can’t take your eyes away once you know.

That pinhole. Keep going. The sun will rise.

Having just lost another friend, Sarah, to stupid cancer, I have thought again about the struggle to ever come to acceptance of a life cut short. This feels just as unfair, tragic, harsh, and deflating. Sarah was the kind of person everyone wants as a friend: a better listener than talker, witty, smart, and hopeful, a quiet leader. I need the reminder that at some point I will come to accept, even if I hate it. I know a lot of people in her inner circle who are just beginning the long journey of grief over her loss, who are simply gutted by the senselessness of this, and to whom my heart and prayers are flowing. And the mark she left on us ripples out through many more circles, touching so very many people.

My prayer for all of you is this: that you find faith. Through the clouds, the oppressive darkness, and the sludging through crap, may it come. Faith even like a pinhole, or a single star in the endless black night, until the sun rises again. May you have a “Pastor Steph moment” sometime – of course with your own person, place, or revelation, definitely in your own time. And not too soon, because to wish your grief away would be to diminish that Sarah had ever held your hearts and smiles the way she did; grief is necessary. But may you find a moment at some point when you know that she has just crossed the bridge to make the journey ahead less scary for you. May you find faith and comfort in the promise of a sweet reunion. May you find the faith that she’s your ME FIRST! friend, and may we all grow bolder in living for having known this amazing soul that it hurts so much to lose.

ME FIRST! friends. They are the good in the world. They were ME FIRST! about that too, while we had them, weren’t they? ME FIRST! to run toward us when we were scared or crying, not away because they were afraid to be sucked into our despair with us. ME FIRST! to find big and little ways to brighten our days, with a coffee run, or a punny joke, or a homemade pinata, or just showing up to our lives. ME FIRST! to wear Chucks in a world of pointy shiny shoes. They were the dynamic characters that can’t be written: ridiculous and sage, and spontaneous and thoughtful. The darknesses in every day were no match for the light they shone as they – ME FIRST! – lifted us up.

And they brought out of us the good in the world too, as we surrounded them and lifted them up at the end. Because we couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Because of who they were. And are, to us, for always.

Today, let’s all shine like the light of our ME FIRST! friends for each other, and brave the darkness like they did, and lift each other up, and help each other find the light, until the sun does rise.

It will never be the same, but the sun will rise.

I know it is so very, very dark right now. But the sun will rise.

P.S. Brownie sundaes. Because you can’t shine on an empty stomach, and when facing the bitter, you might need a reminder that there is still sweetness.

P.P.S. You may want to shout, “ME FIRST!” if you encounter someone serving brownie sundaes.

P.P.P.S. There is still sweetness.

P.P.P.P.S. Those extra P.S.’s were for you, Sarah.

I wasn’t meant for twitter.

I think a lot. I spend too long inside my head sometimes. And then out come these long rambles. Sometimes they are in an email, sometimes they hide on my computer and help me sift through something. Sometimes I post them on Facebook because I want to say them out loud.

Sometimes, someone tells me they like what I wrote, or that it helped them. Sometimes, someone tells me I should blog.

Today I think I will. It won’t be 140 characters though.

Half Happy

“What are we doing that’s special for my half-birthday?” I got asked by my Thing 1 this morning. It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, Nurse Appreciation Week, and Mother’s Day is approaching. Half birthday. Huh.

Well… I have 21 dancers from my ballet ensemble performing 3 classical pieces tonight. Thing 1 herself is dancing with her dance team in other fun pieces like “Let it Go”, “Happy”, and the cutest, “Stripes”. I’m proud of all of them. What’s more special than seeing performance energy and joy on super special faces?

I have a feeling she’s looking for something more though – she’s always one to squeeze out any bonus feel-good opportunity from any situation. (Upon opening any gift, on any occasion: “Thanks! Did you bring me any MORE presents?”) How about I drive you both ways and actually remember to bring your leotard this year? That’s pretty special!

But I get it, I am looking for more today too. But not the way she is. Mother’s Day stuff is lining the shelves and screaming “BUY ME!” And I just want to scream back, “ENOUGH.” (No actually, I’d need to whisper it, with my eyebrows raised and my teeth gritted. We are in a store, you know.)

Ten years have passed today – a decade – since we told our parents and siblings that we were expecting our first baby, over a deliriously happy Mother’s Day brunch that also celebrated my brother’s marriage and may just have included more gushing than Niagara, which we visited later that day. Six days later, we lost my mother-in-law. And six months later, Thing 1 arrived.

There was no first meeting of that bundle of joy. I could never ask how she felt when she was pregnant, how my husband was when he was teething, what he wore on his first day of school, or whether she had any tricks up her sleeve about getting kids to sit still in church and eat their vegetables.

Oh, what you will postpone when you don’t know someone will be gone in six days.

So for ten years now I have wanted more for my mother-in-law, who left us too soon. And for Thing 1, who missed out. And for myself, always the information seeker, the connection maker. I wanted something special too, for all of us. I’ve realized that I have to bring the something special, and it’s a big and thankless job. I have to be the connector that loves both of them, that passes on the fragments that I do have, and honors the days we miss.

Enough stuff. Enough “buy her something because it’s expected.” Give her some time, call her for no reason on some random Tuesday, write things down for each other – it’s so short, and you just don’t know.

I’m happy we’re dancing today because it’s something Thing 1 and I both love and share. And I’ve spent all of my adult life with the conviction that it’s a gift I was blessed to receive and am now honored to pass on. But ten years passing hasn’t changed the audience, and the world, feeling a little bit empty with no Grandma out there. We keep dancing though, because the gushing that May 9 was the joy of life that spilled out of our eyeballs, and sometimes it’s best to just let the joy spill out. Eyeballs, feet, fingers, hips, whatever. Cue the music… and gush.

If you know my Thing 1 at all, you might agree she is a paradox of joie de vivre and needing instant gratification. She’s everything that today is for me. I’m bursting with pride and missing a link; she’s going to be full with her own awesomeness from dancing, and still want a present. Bless her heart, she drives me crazy. But I found her first tooth the other day in my drawer (gross, I know, she gets her hoarding from me), and just wished for more time. More. More. More.

What are we doing that’s special today?

Picking out the biggest strawberry from the box with breakfast. Sending you off with a hug and kiss, even though that’s not your thing. Waiting for the bus to bring you home. Yes, remembering your leotard, I will remember your leotard. Trying to keep my patience while I put your hair in a bun. Watching your smile and not just your feet. Remembering your grandmother. Thinking about how proud she would be. And remembering that your life is now. Maybe there will be pizza. And dessert, even though you didn’t finish your chores again this week, you little stinker. There will be your daisy-petal fingers and your bright eyes and effervescence, your feistiness, your snarky humor and your lack of volume control, your quickness to forgive and say “I love you.” I couldn’t have imagined any of those things ten years ago at brunch.

Definitely there will be showing up for life. And joy. Which may not seem special to you at nine-and-a-half, but they are. So very much so.

After Newtown

I was trying to find an “awesome” in every day this year. It was my New Year’s resolution. I almost made it.

It has taken me until now, well after midnight, to try and find an awesome in this day.

Surely it was a day in which I could appreciate and not take for granted the simple awesome fact of my children’s existence. The mental pictures of my smiling buddy reaching for my hand on the way into school, and of my little bird needing a third hug and sign-language I-love-you message this morning are burned into my brain. Much like the crisp blue sky on my commute on the morning of 9/11 is for the day of that senseless tragedy. Those pictures, so seemingly unconnected, all say, “before you knew.”

In 2001, it was before I knew our nation could be shaken as it was. Before I knew I could feel something along with my entire nation at all. Of course, that was before I had children, so it was also before I knew what it was like to love my own child. Tonight, I keep thinking back to an article I once read by a mother who had lost her daughter who came home from the hospital to find her dirty capri pants lying on the kitchen floor. How many parents today have dirty laundry with no owner… Or Christmas presents.

How many more?

I spent a long time with my son at drop off this morning, watching 5 year olds dancing. They were figuring out how this process has to work socially, expressively, and geometrically… hilarious and heartwarming, uninhibited and innocent. I then spent a chunk of the morning volunteering in my daughter’s classroom helping 7-8 year olds with math: some trying to please, some trying to just finish, some crying over spilled manipulatives, all of them wiggling and squirming. Each of them mostly secure, each very much in the moment. Each blissfully unaware of how precious the waters they test are.

And in each of those places I, like parents all over the country, with children of these very ages, confidently left my most prized of treasures, knowing they were better off for their time in their classrooms than with me for the day.

Teachers, oh, teachers.

You who are asked to focus and manage and inform them. You are not asked to protect yourselves and those for whom you are responsible as our other public servants are, and provided with tools to do so.

You are barely given the tools you need and are judged by test scores not characters or team work. You are underpaid and still buy your own supplies.

And what we have come to is that on days like today you protect with your life and you provide safe harbor with the unspeakable unfolding around you. You – and all those who step up in these moments – are awesome, as you look after our most awesome gifts. And our future.

For it is you who so often get the issues identified and correctly serviced, you who do much more teaching right from wrong than was expected in previous generations, you who now also guide eating habits, peer relationships, and health alongside academics.

Already today people are discussing the moral content of what happens in schools looking to blame. Schools are the heroes today. Our culture of excess and violence, refusal to take responsibility, and just-because-we-can-we-should is the problem.

Yes, we must do better, and yes the time to talk is now, as it has been for a very long time with the call going unanswered. This is not okay.