Forever in School

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I love living my life by the school year.  I mean I love school.  A brief history of my life goes like this:  elementary school, junior high, high school, college, 3 years in the “real world”, masters program, doctoral program, professor, masters program, elementary school teacher….So for 3 years of my adult life I wasn’t in a school living by a school year calendar.  Three of the not-so-good years.

And it’s not because of the breaks and summer.  Just to clarify, most teachers I know, the really great ones, work way more than 40 hours per week.  I work even more because I’m a workaholic.  Summer is only 2 months, not 3 (kind of like pregnancy is 10 months, not 9!) and we spend at least half of the summer packing from the previous year, writing curriculum for the next year, and setting up our rooms for the new year.  There is also a mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual meltdown after the last day of the school year that takes at least two weeks of recovery.  I’m not complaining, just stating the facts.  So, no.  It’s not about the time off.

I just love the circle.  I love how there is always a fresh beginning each year.  When school starts in the fall, everything is possible.  Kids will learn to read, artists will be discovered, young poets will write their first poems, architects will be born in the block area, you will finally know exactly the right things to say and do at exactly the right times.  Whatever happened last year is done.  Everyone gets a fresh start.

Then there is the fall when the 20 young and 3-4 older personalities will come together and spend 8 hours per day in the same small room.  Friendships will be made, conflicts will arise, laughter and tears, and a family will emerge.  There will come a day early in the school year when I will say to one of my students, “There is nothing you can do or say that will make me stop loving you.” and another day when I will say to the class, “Look, this is our class, we are all going to be here all year.  We might not all like it, but we are a family and we are going to take care of each other, and that’s the way it’s going to be because that’s what families do.”  Usually there is a day at some point mid-year when I will say, “Everyone listen!  Tommy (or fill in any boy’s name) does not like the haircut he got and he doesn’t want to show it.  He’s going to wear this hat and anyone who touches it or takes it off of his head is going to be in big trouble.  We are going to respect Tommy’s choice to not show his haircut.  Is that understood?!”  And slowly, but surely we become a family, as dysfunctional as any family.

Then there is the first snow and it usually happens when we are inside and doing something “quiet”, but being the Texan that I am, I’m the first one to scream and we all run to the windows and watch the first snowflakes.  Whatever we were doing becomes significantly less important than reading Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day.  Everything is magical for the rest of the day because of those snowflakes falling outside.

There is Christmas and all the holidays which give us breaks and markers throughout the year.  And we all need breaks from each other.  25+ personalities all living and learning together…most people have no idea…

The winter is the most productive time.  The children come back from winter holidays looking taller and knowing more.  Suddenly they can do things they couldn’t do two weeks before.  And then the winter continues.  The adults and children trudge to school weighted down with several pounds of boots, wool socks, long johns, sweaters, flannel-lined pants, coats, scarfs, hats, mittens, and backpacks.  By the time we get to school and get it all off, it’s time to put it all back on again for recess…and it is COLD.  It is cold and yet I am sweating.  And if your teacher is from Texas AND entering menopause, you might have to wear your coat all day because she has the air conditioning on!  Winter becomes dull, grey, and gloomy.

Then Spring!  And we write poetry.  We grow butterflies and Morning Glories.  Everything and everyone feels lighter and brighter except those oh so rainy days.  Many, many canceled field trips, rescheduled over and over again due to rain.  Then we go to an all school picnic and we run in a field and call it field day.  Then the year winds down.  I assess them all and we have all grown in so many ways!  There are successes and there are disappointments.  There is frustration and guilt for the child I just couldn’t reach, the one I never figured out.  We are tired of each other.  Tired of each other’s faces and the sounds of each other’s voices.  Parents are done with me and I with them.  But there is love and there is music and singing on the last day.  And we all cry and hug and say goodbye.  It is an ending and endings are just as good as beginnings.

Then summer. And whatever failures I may imagine are washed away.  I have learned and know better.  My successes are mostly not even known to me yet and may never be.  I sift through papers, most of it going in the trash, except for those few pieces going into the back of the file cabinet, in the folder marked “momentos.”  A few pieces of stray art work, go home to grace my walls.  And before I leave the building, the school secretary puts my next year’s roster in my mailbox.  The list of names representing a new beginning, magic that is yet to happen, lives that will become entwined with mine in ways that I cannot imagine.

And I love it.  I love it all.  Forever in school.

 

The Day I Didn’t Kill Myself

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Recently I watched a short clip by Pets for Vets.  A soldier was explaining how his service dog has given him a new reason to live and saved him from killing himself.  It reminded me of the day I didn’t kill myself.  It’s an uncomfortable subject for some people.  For some it is shameful.  But not for me because I lived.  And I talk about it because I want to keep living.

I have a mental illness called depression.  It’s not sadness.  It’s not feeling blue.  It’s not fatigue.  It’s not shameful.  It’s an illness.  It’s part of my chemistry.  It is actually part of the whole beautiful package that is me.  It is the same chemistry that allows me to feel emotions very deeply.  It is the same “illness” that makes me so passionate about making the world a better place.  But left untreated, it is an illness that makes my life a black pit.  My depression makes it hard for me to breath.  It makes it impossible for me to see a way out.

So it was on that day 18 years ago.  In a marriage that was killing me and also still part of a religion that said I couldn’t get divorced.  There was no way out.  At the same time I was working on a PhD that I didn’t really want anymore and couldn’t remember why I started it in the first place, but was too far along to quit.  I saw no way out of that.  There were 29 years of life behind me and many tiny and monumental events and circumstances along that way that had lead me to this place.  I had a plan.  After my husband left for work, I would get in the car in the garage, turn on the motor and wait to die.  There was only ONE thing that stopped me.  Actually, two beings named Roxy and Ripken.  My dog and cat would be inside the house.  What if the carbon monoxide seeped inside and hurt them or killed them?  I couldn’t bear that thought.  I added to my plan and thought I could put them in their carriers and put them out outside on the back deck, but it was the dead of winter and they would freeze before my husband got home.   So I cried for four hours and lived another day.

There were other days and many other plans, but I was never as close as that day.  A few years later I eventually got help when two doctors finally convinced me to take medication to treat my illness.  There are many misconceptions about depression and about suicide.  Is it a cry for help?  Well, yes, but not a conscious one.  I didn’t want help.  I wanted O-U-T.  Is it self-centered and selfish?  Well, yes, but in a twisted way.  Everyone in my life was unhappy with me at that time.  The two most important people, my husband and mother were pretty disgusted with my depression and my inability to get a grip and shake it off.  I still believe to this day that both of them would have handled my death better than how they handled my eventual divorce.  I knew I was hurting them and that with my death would eventually be able to move on.  When you want to kill yourself, you don’t see another way out.  This is compounded by people around you who don’t “believe” in depression or therapy or medication or people who are giving you solutions that don’t work for you such as religion.

On that day my dog and cat saved my life.  And sometimes it is as simple as that.

 

To All the Mothers

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Thanks to all of the mothers in my life….

To my own mom for showing me how to be courageous and head-strong.

To my sister, Sue, for being my mom when my mom couldn’t be. For being the light in Texas that always brings me back home. Home is where you are.

To my sister, Vel for showing me what a lady looks and sounds like.

To my sister, Shirley for always making sure that I had a patent leather purse to match my patent leather Mary Jane’s even before I could walk.

To my sister-in-law, Cindy, for loving my brother and taking care of him all these years.

To my niece, Cary who can spin a yarn like you wouldn’t believe.

To my niece, Tracey, for being tough as nails and beating that robber down with a broom.

To my niece, Emilie, for being my partner-in-mommy-crime and the best vacation planner ever.

To my niece, Linda, for having such a tender heart.

To my niece Elizabeth, for walking through hell and not stopping.

To my grandmothers who made such beautiful quilts that comfort me and my son when we are sick or feeling far away from home.

To my Patterson aunts who showed me what a country girl really is and how to raise a boy.

To my Turner aunts who showed me how to make a home and craft and never, ever sit still.

To the mothers in Africa whose daughters have been kidnapped for bravely sending your daughters to school, for believing in their future and the future of your country.  May your daughters come home soon.

To the mothers of children with special needs, you are doing the right things.

To all the mother bears out there both human and animal.  Hear us roar!

 

Top Ten Things I Learned in 2013

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In no particular order…

1.  No matter how old you are, when both of your parents are gone from this earth, you feel like an orphan.

2.  Things may get better or worse, but mostly they just get different.

3.  Where you come from and who you come from matters a whole lot more than you realize.

4.  Having a porch to sit on, even if it’s not your own,  is a key ingredient to well-being.

5.  Sometimes it’s best to let things lie for awhile and not try to resolve it.  Sometimes it gets resolved for you.

AND

6.  Sometimes you need to get off your ass and get yourself OUT of the crappy life situation you have somehow gotten yourself into.

7.  Withholding judgement is the greatest gift you can give to others and to yourself.

8.  I have abandonment issues which have become self-fulfilling prophesies.  I’m not so sure about this one, but it’s a theory I’m working on.

9.  Living with a miniature version of yourself can be HELL, but also somewhat endearing!

10.  Watch and listen carefully to what people do to themselves to create their own suffering and try not to do that to yourself.

Contents of Upended Junk Drawer

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7 Metrocards which may or may not have any rides left on them

10 Gift Cards which each have less than $2 left on them

12 pencils in need of sharpening

1 pencil sharpener

1 Halloween pencil

2 felt tip markers

10 Sharpie markers of various colors and sizes

1 green marker

1 highligher

2 mini Swiss Army knives

3 reward member cards

3 post-it note packs of various sizes

1 set of math playing cards from Sal’s homework

2 unopened packs of Dentyne gum

blue painters tape

clear Scotch tape

1 plastic Army guy

1 large glue stick

1 tube and 1 tub of carmex

2 eyeglass screw drivers and 1 screw driver for mini Deck Tech skateboards

1 postage stamp

1 pair of “decent” scissors

1 pair of cat claw cipplers

2 rechargeable batteries (the charger is no where to be found)

1 subway map of manhattan

2 garment tags

1 empty tictac container

1 screw

3 safety pins

3 paperclips

21 ballpoint pens and 1 pen shaped like an electric guitar

3 color pencils

 

From Someone Else’s Porch

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Recently my niece, a gifted writer, wrote about traveling.  As an Army brat, she grew up all over the world and, as an adult, continues to travel throughout the world every time she has saved enough money for a plane ticket.  She writes that it’s important to experience the world and get out of your own small space in it.  I agree.  But I have done most of my traveling through books.

At the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout walks Boo home and then looks at her neighborhood from Boo’s porch.  Suddenly, she sees the world and the life she has lived through Boo’s eyes, from his porch.  It is a transforming moment.  It is what her father, Atticus, has been trying to teach her to do.  This is what travel can do for you and this is what reading has done for me.

I read so many posts and articles about how unhappy we are as Americans.  We are unhappy that children are obsessed with video games.  We are unhappy that our President wants healthcare for everyone, but the system is full of glitches.  We are unhappy that we are involved in wars that are “none of our business.”  We are unhappy that our country has a welfare system.  We are unhappy that we send aid to foreign countries.  We are unhappy that most of the wealth in our country lies with only 1% of the people.  We are unhappy that people risk their lives to enter our country to work for 95 cents a day because it is better than what they can make in their own country.

And, I am unhappy too.  I am unhappy that I need to pay $100 per hour for a tutor for my learning disabled son and $6000 for a neuropsychological exam to figure out all the various ways that his brain and personality are making school so impossible for him and life so hard.  I am unhappy that people who make less money than me can get all of this for free for their children.  But I don’t make enough money to pay for it myself.  I am unhappy that I can’t get divorced from my husband because he wants half my pension and refuses to pay child support.  I am unhappy that, as a teacher, I make so little money and that I’m being pressured to teach completely inappropriate curriculum.  I am unhappy.

And then I read a book like A Long Way Gone:  Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah.  Beah writes of his young life in Sierra Leone.  How at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.  I read about how this is how wars are fought now: by orphaned children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers.

Or I read a fiction book by T.C.Boyle titled Tortilla Curtain and I am seeing the world alternately between Mexican illegal immigrants and priviledged, but unhappy Americans.  Boyle’s characters are written as real people, neither all good nor all bad.  The reader can experience both sympathy and anger toward each one as you see the world through their eyes.  An even more disturbing immigration story is found in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.  It is a story of a Hmong family’s experience immigrating from Laos and the disastrous clash of cultures around their young child’s epilepsy.  I learned that during the Vietnam war, the U.S. government needed the help of the Hmong, a mountain people, so we promised them protection and U.S. citizenship if they would fight against the Vietnamese.  When we pulled out of Vietnam, we left them behind and all promises were broken.  Those that did manage to make it to the U.S. were not given citizenship.

I am uncomfortable as I read these stories.  I see the world from someone else’s porch.   I see my life from someone else’s porch.  I realize that I have so much more to be happy about than the things that make me unhappy.  I turn to my problems and tackle them as best I can.  I take a deep breath and I carry the boy soldier, the Mexican immigrant, the Hmong girl with epilepsy, and Boo Radley with me as I go.   

Puzzle Pieces (for Ed, Memphis, 1997)

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Puzzle Pieces
all spread on a table
can’t seem to make them altogether fit
broken promises, broken people
we want to make sense
so at the table, we continue to sit

Puzzle Pieces
all spread on a table
color’s the same,
but shapes don’t match
a curve, a point, a two-headed piece
we want to leave,
but sometimes it’s fun, and that’s the catch

Puzzle Pieces
all spread on a table
cut from one picture, then scattered wherever
why do we try so hard to finish
when the point of the puzzle
is the putting together?

Puzzle Pieces
all spread on a table
wrong pieces forced together are later wrenched apart
that’s okay, no harm done
just spread them out again
and we’ll begin from the start

The Boxes (September 2013)

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A few weekends ago, I rented a UHaul Van. I drove 90 miles with my 7-year old son down to his father’s house to get my boxes. Instead of telling people that I come with my own baggage, I’m going to start saying that I come with The Boxes. Over the course of my adult life, I have moved a lot of boxes of stuff. Some of The Boxes have gone everywhere with me, some get left and some new ones get added each time.

The boxes are filled with bits of my life that I can’t part with yet. Every time I move The Boxes I want to divorce myself. It’s usually a huge pain. It usually costs money, is physically exhausting, and I end up fighting with whoever it is that is with me. My son helped me this time. At one point, he said, “Can’t we just return this van, go home, and get on with our lives!” Little does he know that he will be moving his mother’s Boxes for the rest of his life.

When I move The Boxes it’s also emotionally exhausting. There are always moments when I think “What the hell have I done with my life? Where am I going?” But I also have to admit that every time I sit in the seat of the moving truck or van I get excited. I like new beginnings. Unfortunately new beginnings mean you also have endings and those are not nearly as pleasant.

The Boxes have followed me and landed in the following places: my childhood home in Austin to a living room in Abilene to a spare bedroom in a Dallas apartment to an attic in a Dallas house to another attic in a Memphis condo to a basement in St. Louis and back to an apartment in Memphis to a friend’s spare bedroom in Memphis, to an apartment closet in San Antonio to a storage unit in San Antonio to a storage unit in the bowels of Newark, NJ to an attic in Toms River, NJ to my current living room in New York City.

If you’ve read this far, you are probably wondering what the hell is in The Boxes. One very heavy box has all the notes for my doctoral dissertation. Every post-it note, every diagram and rejected idea…it’s all there. I wanted to get rid of it, but a friend once said, “Your children will love to find that one day.” Another box has my dad’s Stetson and a few other keepsakes from his office. Another has one of my baby dresses and booties and childhood keepsakes. There are lots of photos and cards and letters. There is my mom’s crystal. There are small wooden boxes that I collected as a child into adulthood.

Boxes.

It’s the stuff that absolutely no one cares about, but you. It’s the stuff that you are willing to move and store no matter what. It’s the stuff that you could live without, but cannot throw away. It’s the stuff that will reveal to your friends and family many sides of you they never knew and some that they did.

And while I may leave religions, cities, careers, and husbands….I will always have The Boxes.

EPILOGUE: I just rented a storage unit in Bloomfield, NJ…..

Pretentious People (Memphis, 1997)

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Pretentious People (Memphis, 1997) also called “I’m not bitter!”
Song Lyrics (think Green Day)

i want to pop
all those pretentious people
right in their pretty little heads
with their pompous personalities
and their perfect perceptions

i want to pop those people
those pretentious people
i want to pop those people
those perfect people

i want to stomp
all those stupid stereotypes
right out of there silly little heads
with their superficial show
and their saccharine smiles

i want to pop those people
those pretentious people
i want to pop those people
those perfect people

i want to cut
all those crappy comments
right out of their cute conversations
with their careless candor
and their conceited concern

i want to pop those people
those pretentious people
i want to pop those people
those perfect people

The Nose Job

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So I got a nose job. It was many years in the making. The first time I got teased about my nose (specifically the bigness of it) was in junior high (middle school). I had a cute nose when I was a kid and then something happened. Puberty happened. Ah, puberty. It was not kind to me. It was vicious. Long silky hair became curly and frizzy. Acne. Glasses. Nose explosion. Menstration. Ugh…what a horrible, horrible way to enter adulthood.

For most of my life, I thought I inherited my nose from my mom and dad. They both had large noses and I felt that I got a double dose. I got the biggest nose in my family. Like it was saved for the baby, the best for last. My nose had several aspects of bigness which was confirmed by my plastic surgeon upon first consultation.

By the way, I never stopped getting teased about it. Really. My most recent ex-husband teased me about it (yes, he’s gone) all the time. At 44, walking in NYC a teenager called me a “big-nosed bitch.” One of my first graders once said that I didn’t need a Halloween costume because I already had a witch nose.

I wanted a nose job for a long time. First, it just wasn’t conceivable. Plastic surgery is not common in my family or in Texas (as compared to LA or NYC). Second, it just didn’t feel right. I looked like my mom and dad. Did I really want to look different from my family? Then there was the money issue. In the past 10 years or so I started saying that if I got any inheritance, I would get a nose job. Then…I got inheritance. So then I really did have to decide if I wanted this or not.

So I did it like I do most major things in my life. I just did it. I didn’t shop around for a doctor. I looked up the top 100 doctors in NYC and called the first plastic surgeon on the list. His office is in the highest rent district of Manhattan so that was recommendation enough for me. I went for a consultation. I put a deposit and set the date. For two months, every time I looked in the mirror my nose looked bigger than before. My only hesitation was how to explain it to my son. Turns out that was no big deal. Kids are very self-centered!

Am I happy? It’s a few weeks now and I’m still swollen and a bit bruised and every time I look in the mirror it looks a little different and the pain was WAY more than anyone suggested. And it does continue to feel like an alien mass has landed on my face. But I AM THRILLED!! I admit that it might be more psychological than physical, but I don’t care. I feel so much more confident. The only thing I regret is not getting it sooner.

It’s really hard for me to keep a secret, but I did a really good job before I had it done. Other than my family, only 2 people knew. Right before, I did start getting panicky and needed to tell more people. I didn’t think I’d tell because I felt ashamed, but the only way I know to live my life is to be open and out there. Being mysterious is not my strength.
Besides, feeling ashamed just sucks! Viva la nose!