Saving the day

I am writing today down so I can save it.

I’m saving today because there are too many times that I want a do-over at the end of a day, or wish for a superhero to come save the day for me, as in, fix it. Today, on the other hand, was chock full of moments that were worth saving, and could spill over to save many other days if I let them.

I’ll start you out where I started.

If you ever want to feel like you’re winning at life, head on down to your local district court. I was at there to testify as a witness in an OUI case that I had phoned in before the driver ultimately crashed.

This was an education.

There have been days in the past decade or so that I have told myself, “I may feel like I suck at this, but at least I kept my kids alive today and didn’t do any permanent damage, so at least I am one step above the riff-raff. Tomorrow I get another chance.” While it has made me feel better in the moment to know whatever it is will pass, what I really want on those days is to not feel like a failure. And while technically I could claim I didn’t fail, I know I’ve lowered the bar for myself so it doesn’t feel like it counts as a win. Plenty of people don’t kill their kids but the kids can’t say they’re better off. Too many people have lost a child tragically through no fault of their own. Today is proof of that. But I do know that even when I lose it, my kids know they are loved. And there are some people who never hear, or feel, that.

Today, I began to feel, was illustrating that point. While I waited, I sat in the hallway, overhearing bits of the other cases. One person had threatened bodily harm to another over the price of cigarillos, and returned to deliver on the threat, causing damage to property. Another person had sold Xanax in a parking lot while trying to rebuild their life after a prior offense, and didn’t want this on their record. Another person was reviewing their situation with their lawyer, listing living and “working” arrangements among the details of a life I could not comprehend.

I often feel that in my town especially, but you could argue state, region, and especially culture, that my kids are “growing up without.” No play room. No cable. No garage. No neighborhood. No Nintendo, or whatever the kids are playing these days. But these snippets of conversation served to remind me that they have stability. A home. Goals and dreams. Hobbies. Passions. They are warm and dry. Blessed. And so am I, with all of those things.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that things seem to happen when my phone and I aren’t looking at each other. Phones are prohibited in court, so I brought a book. I am between books, so I grabbed one off the shelf that was a Christmas gift from my husband several years ago but I’d never found time to read. Today, it grabbed me back.  Called “A Hand to Guide Me”, it is a collection of reflections by famous individuals about mentors and teachers who helped them achieve the great things they have accomplished. Hank Aaron, Gloria Steinem, Bill Clinton, Whoopi Goldberg.

Well, I don’t know what they had to say, because I only got as far as the introduction. Written by Denzel Washington, it speaks for several pages on the people who inspired him, sacrificed for him, spoke on his behalf, and pushed him to become what he is today.

I mused for a little while about all of the hands that guide a person, and how the people around me in court, all pleading guilty by the time I had finished Mr. Washington’s words, were missing the resources, inspirations, and advocates that those hands can be. A different story could have been unfolding for them that day if the right hands had been there at a different time.

It took no more than a second for me to think about my lineup of major players – teachers, mentors, friends who offered me something Real and Valuable that all became part of who I am. My first few minutes at the courthouse were spent feeling lucky to have my moderate circumstances, and by the time I left I was overwhelmed with awe and gratitude for the road I took to reach this place and so many people I could never thank enough.

Contrast made me feel like a success today. Instead of looking at a frustrating day backwards and saying, “Hey, at least I didn’t ruin my kids like some people,” I started with someone else’s nightmare and saw how lucky I am. Does that mean I lowered the bar today like I do on all those other crap days I’m trying to feel better about? Maybe.

But, then again, no. Contrast success only took me to 11AM. There was a whole day to be lived.

First, and partly because I had some reassurance, I wasn’t starting from a moment in which I felt like I did a crap job at something. That’s usually the thing that makes me lower the bar for myself. After doing my little bit of reading, I had approached the victim of the car crash I had intended to prevent by making my phone call the night of the accident.

“I just wanted to reintroduce myself as the person from the scene who called in the erratic vehicle,” I said. “I wanted to say I’m sorry about the accident. I wish I had called sooner. I’ve been kicking myself all this time for waiting to make the call.” I had been behind her for a few miles, wondering if she was drunk or just texting.

“Not at all,” he said, “I’m fine. I saw her hit the post and swerved well enough away to avoid a head on collision. These things happen. Honestly, the worst part was dealing with the other driver’s insurance.”

Forgiveness is a funny thing. I find mostly, that the person who really needs to forgive me for some overblown wrongdoing is me.

So I did. At least for this one.

Unburdened (read, slightly less burdened), I set about the rest of my day.

Second, I went to work. For some people this is where their day is going to go south, but for me it is like Christmas and Easter and my birthday every single day, even the bad ones. And today, work was even more amazing than usual. Maybe I was just mentally open to have my socks blown off, but it happened several times. Students telling me they’re joining another class because they like this one so much. Begging me to give them special permission to sign up for more classes they aren’t old enough for. Wide eyes talking about discoveries they’re making. Connections that show they’re invested. Memories they have from some of their favorite things we did together. Asking for a hug because they haven’t seen me in a week. Disappointment that we have to have a holiday break in a couple of weeks. Taking a correction so earnestly and doing something successfully as a result. Pride. Joy. All of this on a day when I feel like we never even  “accomplished” a ton.

Look at that list! That happened today!! Not just to me, but to those young people!!

All because someone – several someones – I should say Someones – gave this to me.

Wow.

I have to write this down and save it, I thought, because I won’t believe it later. Someone gave this to me, now I get to pass it on. Look at that light.

Third, I locked up for the night. As I did, I glanced at our bulletin board. We are featuring our graduating seniors’ photos there. About a month ago a parent said to me, “Look at that. Look at what you did.” And I looked, and saw these four lovely girls I have known through braces and PSATs and blisters and falls, and beautiful red letter days, listening to me some days and incessant talking on others. “Look! You did that!” she said, and pointed out to me that two of the girls had their senior photos taken in their ballet costumes, one even holding her pointe shoes over her shoulder.

She spoke those words to me a month ago, amid Nutcracker preparations and a stampede of noisy dancers, amid recovering from Lyme disease and worrying about props coming together, amid my routine of organized chaos.

Tonight though, I heard them.

I heard them louder than the voice in my head that criticizes me for “not using my degrees.” Louder than my worries that I’ll never do enough or be enough or make enough. Louder than whatever ridiculous double standard I have that idolizes my own teachers and mentors but still sometimes has me seeing myself as “just” a teacher. What is that?

Bullshit. That’s what that is. I couldn’t have done better in a million years than to fashion my life in the way they did theirs.

It wasn’t about those girls loving to put a costume on, no matter how awesome those costumes were (and they were pretty incredible). It was never about how they feel in a dress. It’s about how they feel doing something they love, with people they love, because someone is there to give them that gift of love.

So now I get to be someone’s Someone. Thanks to all my Someones.

Seriously, I really have to write this down, and save it.

These are things that I know, but too often, I don’t believe.

Fourth, I stopped at the bank on the way home, and realized that, although we did not plan to (or want to) buy two cars this year, there is still money in my bank account. This may seem like a dumb thing to add after all that good stuff about being someone’s Someone, but you know what? In court today, the issue that seemed to hold up each case was how the defendant was going to be able to pay their fines and in what time frame. These were not enormous fines. But these individuals were quite obviously facing tough decisions – feeding a daughter or staying out of jail. I had found myself wondering what Christmas will look like where they live. What we have – it is not nothing.

Write it down. For all the days you feel like your paycheck disappears faster than you can earn it thanks to special dietary restrictions and the unending renovation that is your house, write it down and save it. There is enough.

Fifth, I was home, to hot soup and a chance to pick out a Christmas present with my third grader for his teacher. It was our part of the class gift. And for all of his obstinance on certain issues, his love is fierce and strong; this was a moment of him being his best self not only for her but thinking of his classmates too. I loved this moment.

I had to ask him to turn his back while I “checked out” online because there was something previously in my cart that was for him. He giggled a little bit. I love that he still giggles.That is something I wish I could save; it will be gone before I know it.

When I was done, he turned around and asked me, “Why are you buying something for me? I don’t even know what I want for Christmas yet. How can you know?”

I reminded him that sometimes people get us things we didn’t ask for but we need, want, or just plain like anyway. He nodded. But then his forehead wrinkled. The same way mine does. Oh baby, I am so sorry I gave you that worry wrinkle. “I just don’t know what I want,” he said.

“Ho, ho, ho!” I pulled him onto my knees and said, “What do you want for Christmas little boy?” (I tried to make it sound like the Santa in “A Christmas Story”, but even I can’t be that freaky.) He smiled a little, but sat quietly. I guess it was a thinking day for him too.

“I want it to be that nobody is going to be hungry,” he said.

“Me too,” I told him. “I want that a lot.”

“I want it to be that people don’t kill each other or hurt each other because of their religion or because they come from a different country. And just, …peace.”

Write it down, Mama, write it down.

“I want people to know that a boy doesn’t have to marry a girl, it could be a boy if they want.”

“Wow, Buddy, I think you and I want all the same things.”

We headed upstairs to get him tucked in.

“I want people to know that it doesn’t matter if someone is rich or poor, it doesn’t make anyone better or worse.”

Preach.

“I want segregation to stop.”

“Hm. That’s an interesting one. It is illegal.”

“Yes, but it’s still there. People are apart from each other and there should just be people.”

“You’re right.”

“Also,” he said, climbing under his covers, because this old soul is still only in third grade, “I would like this stuffed dog to be real. But not so real that it would die if I strangled it while I was sleeping from hugging it so tight.”

Then he made a few potty humor type jokes and went right to sleep.

And I came downstairs to save the day.

 

 

 

The Indian Restaurant on Georgia Avenue

Five years ago was a hard time.

In the middle of the God-awful time I was having in my personal life, I had a calm-in-the-storm opportunity to catch up with an old friend. Wise Old Turtle, we’ll call this friend. Wise Old Turtle is not one for keeping in touch, and Wise Old Turtle is not much for social media. So in this day and age, we had the rare experience of catching up the old fashioned way, by talking. Digging into what we’d been up to for the previous, oh, 17 years, and presenting our take on the highs and lows from current perspective. Neither of us even had a smart phone yet, so there were no photos to rely on for proof of anything. Just words, and eye contact. The retro stuff.

We gave each other the highlights: What we did after college. Places we’d lived, trips we’d taken, career paths, kids. I put my best face on, but I was frankly in the middle of one of the worst times of my life. I had recently suffered a pregnancy loss which was consuming all my emotional energy. You don’t want to throw that one out there. My marriage was at a low point – also not share-worthy. My kids were at an age where they were young enough to still be needy and old enough to have started sassing me, making me feel like an abject failure. Well, at least you can spin that one by making them sound cute. I was working in two jobs, one of which was in my chosen profession but I was frustrated with it, and the other was teaching ballet, which was allowing me to keep alive a creative passion that I’d always assumed I was just keeping as an outlet of sorts. It was about to turn into something amazing but hadn’t really blossomed yet. I was in a rough spot emotionally and beating myself up for not using my degree to the extent that I had once thought I would, or having much to show for the “other thing.” Hard to know how to package that up neatly.

Wise Old Turtle, on the other hand, is a career person; seriously kick-ass career awesomeness, changing the world one day at a time, on a trajectory since birth to do exactly one thing and do it astoundingly well. Or at least that’s how I saw it. Luckily Wise Old Turtle was also a trusted friend, so I didn’t feel judged for a second, but, cue my inferiority complex anyway.

To validate the amount of time and effort I was putting into my not-yet-blossomed life, I shared a story about a student I had once had, I’ll call her Spirit, who had reached back to me through the years to thank me. See, the thing about teaching is you don’t always know who you touch in the moment, and rare is the student who will let you know about it later. But I had one. Spirit had gone on to rock the world in a completely different creative field, yet on occasion would get in touch and say, “You made me believe I could do this,” or, “If you hadn’t made me want to express myself, I never would be doing this today,” or, “You opened a door I didn’t know existed, and I am so grateful.”

Wise Old Turtle doesn’t work in a creative field, but has unbelievable acuity when reading people. Wise Old Turtle could tell that teaching, and the creative work, not just the gratitude from Spirit, really lit me up, but that I was judging myself.

This was entirely true. Whenever I heard from Spirit, I thought, “Woah. She’s awesome. Look at her go! I can’t believe she’d say something like that about me,” instead of, “Woah, I’m awesome. Look at her go! And I had a hand in that! I’m so glad she told me.” I was looking at a piece of paper I had earned from school and telling myself, “According to this paper, you are good at ‘A’, so a life of ‘A’ you shall have, or your dollars invested and time on this planet shall be considered a waste,” instead of listening to my heart which told me, “You learned so much from ‘A’, and you will use it in more ways than you can ever hope to realize when you are on a much happier and more fulfilling life of ‘B’, so do what you love.” Life being a non-linear experience was not something I had begun to accept yet. And the state of my unhappiness at that moment was aiding and abetting the poisoning I was doing of my own thoughts.

“I think it’s amazing that you can do something you love, that’s so creative, and it makes a difference to people,” Wise Old Turtle reassured me with kindness that in the moment, in my funk, I shrugged off. It has obviously resonated over the years, but right then, I scoffed. It didn’t measure up to a super-career saving the planet. It wasn’t what I was “supposed to be doing.” It was only one person. One.

Wise Old Turtle then said something that has stuck with me ever since, every minute of my life, and changed me entirely: “Well, what more could you want? Someone came back and told you. Imagine how many there are that don’t. That doesn’t make you happy? Proud? Honestly, what would be good enough for you? What’s your magic number? 50? 200? And even if it was only one person whose life you changed, you are making a difference to someone. One should be enough.”

After we said our goodbyes, I got into my car and thought I was going to cry. The same flooding feeling rushed up from my chest and guts that would usually have been accompanied by uncontrollable sobbing, and I had done a fair bit of it that year. But no tears came. Just a feeling of validation welling up into the empty places I’d been feeling, and slowly, ever so slowly, came acceptance that life is messy, and hard, but that we all find our paths in different ways, with different teachers at different times helping to show us the way.

I have been so fortunate to have many amazing teachers over the years, some in the classroom, some elsewhere. Some family, some mentors. Some peers, some friends. Some are my students. Spirit was my student in the classroom, but I was hers in life, because she embraced her passion without hesitation, and I was so slow to take the wheel with my own. Wise Old Turtle was my dear friend, but in that moment also turned out to be my Best Teacher Ever, just by saying what I so obviously needed to hear, at exactly the right time for me to hear it. And so, my life changed forever at a tiny Indian restaurant on Georgia Avenue.

Over the past five years, I have learned over and over, that one should have been enough. But I’ve also learned that by doing what I love, I make a difference to far more than one. I’m not going to hit the mark for every single one, but for some, what I do will make them light up or point them toward something that will. So every day, I just meet them each where they are, one at a time.

Thank you, Wise Old Turtle. Thank you, Spirit. You are the bread to my Awesome Sandwich.

And…

One more lesson from that day, for all of us: Put down your phone. You could be someone’s Best Teacher Ever too, just by being human, and present.

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.