April

I have said in various ways at various times that one of the things I remember most right after the shootings was an intense desire to talk to someone else who’d been through it—someone from Jonesboro or West Paducah, one of those places no one remembers now because somehow we became the synonym for a school shooting, and those that came before got lost to those not in the club. I wanted to talk to someone ahead of me on the path in the hopes that they could help me believe that I would live, smile, go two minutes without thinking about what happened.

Less than a week after the shootings, I did talk to some folks from Jonesboro on a T.V. show, but they didn’t seem to have any answers. It had been a year for them. I know now how silly it was to think they would have answers yet. I know now how little healing happens in a year.

This is where I am, 17 years later, for what it’s worth. I have since met, face-to-face and online, many others forced on this journey, and I know they appreciate the occasional look at what’s up ahead.

I am always acutely aware of April, from the first to the thirtieth. I am grateful that April is one of those months that hath only thirty days. I don’t dread it anymore. I don’t even remember the last time I did dread it. I don’t feel each day peel away toward the 20th like layers of skin, hardly noticeable at first until spring air starts to scald like acid. That, too, is a long time gone. I just wake up every day knowing it’s April.

I notice when the weather is like that day. It doesn’t hurt. I feel no anxiety. If I go for a walk around the outside of the school during my planning period (which I do all year when the weather’s nice), I walk out the doors I walked out of that day, past the park where we climbed the fence to get away, and I remember all of these things the way one remembers anything, really. Like “Yeah, those are things that happened.” I never walk out in April without remembering them, though.

I’m an avoider. It’s been years since I have been in the building on the anniversary. I take the 20th off. I might be able to teach again, but I cannot sit in that building so quiet waiting for 11:20 to come and go, listening to Frank read the names over the intercom or even just knowing he’s in the library reading them. I think of Rachel, Dan, and Isaiah every single day—not just in April—every day. I’m not necessarily sad; that’s not it. I just remember them. I remember them alive and smiling. I choose not to sit at school and remember how they died. I’m OK with my choice, just as I’m OK with people choosing to be there. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Tomorrow’s a bit of a crap shoot. Some anniversaries are harder than others, but if I keep busy, I do just fine. Really, I do. I get together with people or take on a big cleaning project. I did both last year. Tomorrow I’m having lunch with my stepmom; timed it so I’d be on the highway at 11:20. I’ll be thinking about traffic, not watching the clock.

It’s a long, long way from the first anniversary, when I just wanted to sleep through it—drug myself senseless, go to sleep on April 19 and wake up on the 21st. A long way from the fifth anniversary when I was drunk by 11:30 in the morning. A long way even from the 10th anniversary, when we invited the kids who’d been at school that day to come back: I braced myself for tears and trauma and reopened wounds only to find a commons area full of babies—babies—and smiles and laughter and catching up with “kids” well into their 20’s with careers and families and beautiful beloved faces.

Oh, yes, companions on this path, there can be joy even on that most dreaded day.

You may already be figuring it out. If you’re not there yet, if the anniversary of whatever you went through still devastates you, well, go back at look at the introductory phrase at the beginning of this sentence. You’re just not there yet. You’ll get there.

You’ll get here. It’s not a bad place to be. Ask me again in another 17 years.

Posted in Columbine, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 4 Comments

Resistance is: A) futile B) necessary C) too much effort D) all of the above

I’ve been thinking lately about the shades of gray along the spectrum from answering only to conscience to blind obedience to authority. Sometimes one can obey authority and conscience at the same time, when those in authority are moral, but it seems very often conscience demands more than obedience.

On Netflix the other night, I watched a documentary called Experimenter about Stanley Milgram’s famous Yale experiment where he told experimental subjects they were delivering electrical shocks to a man in a separate room. With each shock, they listened to a fake recording (unbeknownst to them) of the man crying out in pain, begging them to stop because he had a heart condition. Participants did as they were told by the researcher, ignoring the man’s cries and upping the volts; 65 percent of them increased to a point marked “dangerous” on the fake control board. The study has been recreated since with the same results.

I am also reading All But My Life, a memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein of her persecution and imprisonment in a concentration camp by the Nazis.

And I gave the PARCC test to high school freshmen.

I’m not comparing the acts. Obviously nothing short of genocide is as bad as genocide. I am, however, comparing the process—the manner in which we make our way across the ever-darkening spectrum, leaving conscience behind and venturing into blind obedience at the cost of our own morality.

The state of Colorado and its local school districts spend around $78 million on testing students. In the meantime, the state has short-funded schools around a billion dollars due to something called the “negative factor” (basically paying schools in IOUs). We freeze teacher salaries and create a teacher shortage. I eye my budget and wonder whether I can afford busses for field trips. I put off ordering new books for next year.

The students I have tested are losing two full days of instructional time to the PARCC, and that doesn’t even include all the other tests we give throughout the year. And for what?

The test started at 7:30 a.m.—a time that studies show adolescents are not awake and functioning in top form. Right there, if the test is to show what they can do, we know we won’t be getting accurate results. First, I administered a 110-minute reading/writing test. Next, I gave the kids a 5-minute break, and then quieted them down for another 110-minute test. Until every kid has finished (and some take very close to the whole time), the room must be absolutely silent. The next break was a luxurious 8 minutes, complete with a granola bar because the students would not be eating lunch until after noon.

The whole process is just so unnatural and uncomfortable. Can you imagine a room with 26 tired, hungry 14- to 15-year-olds sitting at desks not designed for computer work, silently staring at tiny Chromebook screens, reading online and clicking boxes or typing for hours on end? If they finish early they try to put their heads on the desk and sleep or maybe read a bit, though they’ve already been reading and clicking interminably. Cell phones have to be surrendered, and homework involving writing—which is pretty much all homework—is forbidden. Around it all is this aura of judgment. “If you don’t do well at this weird task, someone will pay, be it your teachers or your school—someone!” One girl said she knows colleges don’t look at these scores now, “But they’re always changing everything,” she said. “I worry that this will end up hurting me somehow.” Great.

Last year, during the math test, students were required to use an online calculator included with the test. After each question, the mode of the calculator shifted to a default function not aligned to the task in the test. One of our teachers noticed this and brought it to the students’ attention, explaining that they had to reset the function after every question. This innocuous, even sensible instruction ended up invalidating the entire room’s test scores. She wasn’t supposed to help them at all, even though this had no effect other than to counter a flaw in the test design. How many math scores across the state or even the country should have been invalidated by the flaw itself? How many schools looked like their students knew less math than they actually knew, all because of poor design?

And yet, I gave the test. In fact, I volunteered to give the test because I co-teach, so it’s easier for me to miss class than is for most other English teachers. See, not only are the kids being tested losing instructional time, so are the students in all the other classes taught by the teachers proctoring.

What am I complicit in? I know that old argument: Well, someone’s going to have to do it, so it may as well be me. Like Krupps said, “Well, somebody’s going to make those ovens, so it might as well be us.”

The magnitude is not the same, of course, but the process? The logic? How are they different?

I don’t believe in all this testing. I think it is bad for kids, bad for schools, and now that I really reflect upon it, deleterious to my own moral foundation. It’s probably still a fairly light shade of gray on the spectrum, but I don’t know that I find this all that comforting. This complacency is not like me. I mean, just look at how much passive voice is in this blog entry and compare it to my usual writing. That alone says a lot.

Will I refuse to give the test next year? Should I? Should parents take responsibility and opt their kids out? Is this the hill to die on, or do we wait for the powers that be to come to their senses?

How far do we travel across the spectrum before we say, “Stop! No higher voltage. No more damaging tests. Never again will we stand by and watch innocents marched to a place of no return.” Where, exactly, is the line between “not worth the fight” and “fight the good fight”? Do you know?

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 3 Comments

A Low-Down Double-Cross

So interesting afternoon at the capital building here in Colorado:

As in much of the rest of the country, Colorado students, parents, and teachers have had more than enough pointless testing. Organizations from all over have been trying to cut back, including trying to take high school testing down to the one test in four years mandated by the federal government. Today, I went to the capital to testify in favor of a bill that, initially, promised to help do just that.

Senate Bill 5 was written to eliminate 9th grade testing. I spoke first (the speech is included below). Several other people, including teachers, spoke about how vital state test results were, for them, to placing students and developing curriculum. I would argue that if you can’t come up with a decent formative assessment for this purpose, you might be somewhat challenged in many other aspects of your career, but that’s neither here nor there right now.

You may recall that 365 days ago (adjusting for Leap Year), I wrote about meeting Senator Tim Neville on lobby day. I said, “He seemed very genuine.” HA!

Here I was, naively waltzing into the capital thinking, “How refreshing, a Democrat (me) and a Republican (him) on the same side. Boy, Washington could learn a thing or two from us.” HA!

Let me take a moment to break away and tell you about two other events colliding. Yesterday was a huge blizzard, which delayed UPS deliveries. Tomorrow, I am hosting a Chicago-themed party as part of a church auction donation. Hang with me—this all comes together. I was supposed to get a shipment of genuine Chicago Italian beef and cheesecake today for tomorrow’s party. I thought the blizzard had delayed the shipments, but then I saw that they had both been checked in, in Commerce City a few miles from Denver, at 2:00 this afternoon, so I made my excuses to my CEA colleagues at the capital in order to get home in case the packages showed up. Beef and cheesecake are quite perishable. They are also, as of typing this at 7:10 p.m., not here.

Apparently soon after I left, after Senator Neville and his colleagues said all kinds of lovely things about me, they amended the freaking bill to give rural districts the option of hiring non-licensed teachers and never allowing them to move beyond probationary status where they would receive due process protection.

What does that have to do with testing? NOTHING! God forbid Neville and his Republican colleagues work with teachers to benefit students. Did I mention that Neville is related by marriage to one of our old board’s nightmare “reformers”?

So now the Colorado Education Association has gone from supporting SB5 to opposing it, and the chance for bipartisan support of kids is out the window.

And I still don’t have most of tomorrow’s dinner for the party.

Speech:

Greetings members of the Senate Education Committee:

My name is Paula Reed. I have been an English teacher at Columbine High School for nearly 30 years, and for most of those years, I have taught 9th or 10th grade English.

I’d like to tell you about some of my more recent writing instruction. I’d been teaching kids to make arguments following a point-evidence-analysis structure.

They began by researching their topic, then outlined paragraphs. I looked these outlines over after school that day and could see they were struggling with the difference between points, evidence, and analysis. I created a mini-lesson for the next day, outlining a paragraph like a meal. Each course was a “point,” the specific dishes were the “evidence,” and the explanation of why each dish was the best choice was the “analysis.” This helped them understand the distinctions.

Next, they used the outlines to write paragraphs and highlighted each part in different colors: point in one color, evidence in another, analysis in a third. They turned these colorful rough drafts in, and that afternoon, as I read them, I could see exactly what each individual student was thinking as he constructed his argument.

They are ninth graders; sometimes it’s hard for them to keep their focus, and many were combining multiple pieces of evidence, muddying their claim. The very next day, I gave them back their papers and had them draw circles around each of what they intended to be a single, fully developed idea. They wrote to the side one unifying word. Those who could not do this quickly realized they had wandered off the topic. They made corrections, then handed the paragraphs back in.

Again, that very afternoon, I checked their progress. Almost every student was on track. The handful who were struggling got one-on-one instruction the next day while their on-track peers began the next paragraph in what would eventually become a five-paragraph essay.

This kind of instruction, not unlike sports, is comparable to a coach addressing the team at halftime, assessing the team’s progress, dispensing advice, maybe even adjusting strategy. This is what good coaches and teachers do: Deliver exactly the instruction needed so that progress continues uninterrupted.

I have heard it said that not testing students in ninth grade is “like turning the score board off in the 4th quarter.” Actually, pulling students out of class for hours of testing (which we will be doing the week after we get back from spring break) is more like stopping the game in the 4th quarter to have tryouts again. The game is in progress. It is from the players’ actual performance in the game itself that teachers and students get the feedback they need to win.

It’s not as though there is never an endgame. Federal law requires one test in high school, and the ACT this year and SAT next ultimately provide adequate measurements of Colorado’s students. Colleges have trusted these tests for decades. Please, don’t stop the game needlessly. Allow teachers like me to use every minute on the clock to students’ benefit.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 1 Comment

Spring Cleaning

Here we are, smack-dab in the middle of spring break and in the midst of a blizzard that would have unquestionably resulted in a snow day if school were in session. I don’t feel too bad about that. If we’d had to call a snow day, we’re at the point where we’d have to add a day at the end of the year. It’s also not surprising, given that March is usually among the snowiest months in Colorado.

The snow is wet and heavy, clinging to trees just budding, weighing them down, and we look anxiously out the windows, hoping the branches, now touching the ground, will hold. I think at least one branch on our neighbor’s tree has cracked. My lilac bushes against the back fence are just low-to-the ground mounds of snow at the moment.

On such a day, cookie-baking is de rigueur. It’s a fairly mindless activity, measuring ingredients I nearly know by heart, checking the recipe just to be sure. I was spooning dough onto a cookie sheet in a kitchen nearly spotless. Monday and Tuesday the temperature was in the seventies, so I threw open the windows and rented a carpet scrubber. I’ve dusted baseboards, shaken out curtains, cleaned nooks and crannies. Today, even as I was mixing, I automatically put each utensil in the dishwasher as soon as it had measured its last ingredient, and I wiped up all the bits of flour before I started scooping out cookies. Suddenly I remembered all the times I baked with my mom, and her admonishment that baking was much more enjoyable if you cleaned as you went. I can feel her body in mine as I tidy and wipe. I know we move much the same.

My mom died just a little over a year ago. I was very exacting with myself. I gave myself one year of unrestricted complicated grieving. Guilt, relief, all the less noble emotions that often accompany the death of a parent—not for all, but for many of us—all were allowed. I could berate myself for not always having been the daughter my mother wanted me to be. I could be angry with her for not allowing me to be the daughter I could be. I could wish and wish that our relationship had been simpler, less painful for us both.

When the year was up, it was time to move on. To fully accept that both of us had done our best, that the pain was a shame, but couldn’t be undone, and to remember the simplest, best of times. Like baking together. Like our last luncheon and shopping trip, just three weeks before her death.

I suppose I should add here that today I learned that a friend, the woman who has cut my hair for nearly 30 years and in whose chair I went into labor with my now 25-year-old son, died last night of the same illness that took my mom.

The sun will come out tomorrow. (Stop singing; that really is the weather prediction.) As is the wont of Colorado spring snows, this will have melted away by Easter Sunday. I’m not a Christian, but spring is archetypically a time of resurrection. It seems to me that when we are ready, we can recreate relationships with people who are gone. It’s not about denying the past or trying to forget it. It’s about coming to the place where we choose what to bring to mind. Where nature and we focus on all the good that lies under the snow on the trees and the dust in the house. The promise of summer awaits.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | 2 Comments

Knick-knacks, Tchotchkes, and Curios, Oh, My!

First, let me assert that I am speaking only for myself. I am aware that there are folks out there for whom these items create a home. Some people can gaze upon figurines, stuffed animals, snow globes, and decorative plates and feel a rush of aesthetic wonder or a flood of lovely memories or even a combination of the two, amounting in pure bliss. God bless you. Collect to your heart’s content. I promise, I’m not judging.

I am not one of these people, though. In a culture of things, this is a little tricky. For one thing, on those occasions when it is proper to give a token—a hostess gift or a holiday trinket at a gathering—I am at a loss. (If I need to give you a hostess gift, I hope you like wine. Or cut flowers.) Everything I look at tends to make me wonder what the recipient will do with it. During the holidays even food can be thorny, since at that time of year you most likely have more than you know what to do with, and I loathe giving anything useless. Third world problems.

As I gathered things together for the garage sale, I felt these odd twinges of guilt for laying out plaques that said lovely things about teachers and figurines that had once belonged to grandparents—ceramic ladies in flowing dresses and flowered hats. I set out a glass square my mother gave me for my birthday one year. She knew how I felt about tchotchkes. “You won’t like this, but I did,” she told me as she handed me the wrapped package. She was right. Still, I felt guilty putting a price sticker on it last weekend.

At long last, I am letting my husband put my grandmother’s prodigious Hummel collection on Ebay. I have not kept them for almost twenty years for sentimental reasons. I just felt horrible for selling them. Grandmother willed them to me because she thought I’d love them. I don’t think she intended them to sit in my crawl space so the boxes could get mold damage from a rainstorm years ago. Two pieces do have an honored place on a shelf in my study: the Goose Girl (Grandmother’s favorite) and a little boy forever waving good-bye.

There are some other things I have kept. My mom gave me this totally funky little book-lady sculpture when I sold my first book. I love it. It’s different, and it was for a very special occasion. My mother-in-law (a gewgaw collector of the very highest order) gave me two little cottage sculptures. She felt I “ought” to collect something. Then she realized that, while I thought they were pretty, I really didn’t want anymore, so she rather disgustedly gave up. I still have them and would never sell them. They are so emblematic of her good intentions–of our relationship, really–and they make me smile. In my dining room are several pieces of my grandmother’s best cut glass, handed down to her by her mother. They don’t go at all with our rather Asian tone in that room, but I don’t care. They are beautiful, and they bring to mind all the women I come from. So does the picture of my great-grandmother that hangs nearby, in which she wears a pearl necklace (it is in my jewelry box) worn by four generations of brides and that will one day go to my daughter. I have photos in frames, though not a ton, and a few other select items.

I feel overwhelmed by shelves peopled by tons of things, especially things that don’t fit into niches. Ask anyone who knows me well; I am compulsively concrete-sequential. My husband gives me tiny painted mice for holidays, and I love them. For one thing, he paints them just for me, and they are a genuine labor of love. For another, I swap them out on my kitchen windowsill for the given season, which is an easy way to decorate and keeps them always a little new. Something to be admired again, rather than quickly dusted and forgotten. Finally, they have a category all their own: Tory’s Teeny-tiny Mice.

If you look around our house, though, you will see that most of the trinkets are my husband’s. He’s more along the lines of the people I mentioned at the beginning of this. Between us, we have a home that is interesting without overwhelming me.

I think the curio business is upheld purely by the notion that there are times when one must give a gift. My mother-in-law gave both of my children a stuffed animal every Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. That doesn’t seem like much, until you realize that over the span of merely 10 years, that’s 60 stuffed animals. And trust me, she wasn’t the only source of the furry creatures—other grandparents, friends, God help me, even my husband and me! My daughter had a friend who liked pigs. Well, of course, that meant that whenever anyone who knew her saw a cute pig thing, or a silly pig thing, a pig thing of any stripe or variety, they gave it to her. Two hundred plus pigs later she cried uncle. “NO MORE PIGS, PLEEEASE!”

I, for one, never feel the need for anyone to give me tokens. If it’s my birthday, I would love to go to lunch or have a good friend join me for a walk in the park. Contribute to a charity in my name. I like to read, but I will most likely not keep a book given to me. I keep very few books. Shocking, I know, given that I am an author and an English teacher, but there ya go. If I don’t give trinkets to you, it’s not because I don’t appreciate you. It’s because I never want to make you sell it with a twinge in your heart. That’s why what I give you will be experienced, eaten, or will die (flowers, not critters). I may throw caution to the wind and give you a scarf.

I’m posting this on Facebook, and you can comment there, but comments left here are easier to find later, and you never know who will appreciate something you write. What do you like to give people, and what do you like to receive?

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | Tagged | 1 Comment

The “We’re Not Dead Yet Estate Sale”

In a six-year period, my family has been faced with the task of clearing out three homes after someone’s death and liquidating the things therein. Two of those homes belonged to hoarders—piles of papers and magazines, 40 years of receipts, clothes, and shoes, new things still in boxes, enough socks for an army, toiletries and food long expired. My mom was very different. She purged stuff regularly and was very neat and tidy. Still, just the furnishings, clothes, and other everyday items were overwhelming, and under the surface were bottles and bottles of lotion, an absurd number of scissors, several broken curling irons, things like that.

It’s enough to make one take a long, hard look at one’s own home.

On top of this, a lot of my life has felt out of control. My son got engaged (yay!) and he and his fiancée are looking at buying a business in Sequim, WA, a plane flight and 3-hour drive from the closest airport (boo for the distance, yay for the opportunity, emotional clutter galore for the mom). My husband’s business closed, and we still haven’t figured out what that means for us. Aspects of my job are changing without my say-so; our contract is back up for negotiation; much about next year is up in the air. Stuff.

It’s enough to make one try to figure out what she can actually control, and once again, she looks at her home. The one she has lived in for 21 years.

It started with the master bathroom vanity. Suddenly I found myself looking at it all through the eyes of someone cleaning it out after I’m dead. (I had a lot of scissors, too, BTW. What’s with scissors? And curling irons?) I imagined the kids looking at each other and saying, “Another one of these?” Then I figured it couldn’t hurt to go through the study. I could hear one of the kids asking the other, “Why did she keep this? What is it, even?” I started to gather up things to give away.

Tory noticed it all, and we realized that, with a number of the people who would look askance at us giving away old things gone, we could actually divest ourselves of a lot, like the oversized and prodigious dining room set we inherited from his grandmother. Why, we could create a dining room that allowed the person in the farthest seat to actually get up and leave the table if necessary—a feat that could not previously be accomplished because of the huge table, buffet, and china cabinet.

And while we were at it, we attacked the basement and even (insert horror movie scream) THE CRAWL SPACE!!!

All of which leads to next weekend and the “We’re Not Dead Yet Estate Sale.” Yes, I’m taking a sick day. No, I guess I’m technically not supposed to, but I’m genuinely considering it mental health. After all the stress of the last year—the chronic acid reflux, the hair falling out (for which I strongly recommend Mediceuticals for Thinning Hair, BTW; great stuff!), the weird and inexplicable meltdowns—I’m calling it a legit mental health activity to clear this stuff out and regain control over some aspect of my life.

To my children: You’re welcome. You have no idea what your father and I are saving you from someday, though hopefully not soon.

Looking for dining room furniture? A queen-sized brass bed? Cedar chest? Ginormous bean bag? Christmas tree? CDs? DVDs? China? Linens? Silver-plated trays? Lord knows what else? I’ll be creating an event and putting it on Facebook. Come, buy, chat. Oh, and if you’re looking for Hummel, let me know. It was my grandmother’s, and while I kept a few sentimental pieces, you’ll never believe how much is left.

Posted in Family, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 2 Comments

Sue Klebold on 20/20

It’s the end of a 4-day weekend, and the wind is blowing so hard that I know it’s not safe to be out and about, so what do I do? Watch Sue Klebold’s interview with Diane Sawyer.

I have never felt anything but sympathy for Sue. Maybe because I taught her son, and all I ever saw was a sweet, quiet boy. Granted, that was two years before the shootings, but that was the only Dylan I could bring to my mind’s eye. My own son was 8 at the time of the shootings, and I remember looking at him and wondering what he would be like at 17. What would I fail to see in him? What was Dylan like at 8?

There are other things about me that keep me from judging her as so many others do. First, I came home to both of my healthy children after the event. I do not judge the victims’ parents who judge her. I have no right to judge anyone in any direction. Also, I remember very vividly who I was the morning of April 20th. People who weren’t there who now insist that they would see what Sue Klebold did not do not remember as I do. You see, the me I was then died that day. Some parts have since been resurrected, but I know what I buried—the denial, the steadfast belief that nothing like that could ever happen to me, that I would see such a thing in one of my students. I totally get her denial while Dylan was alive. I get why she didn’t rifle through her son’s room, why she believed that no child she loved so could ever be so messed up. I have nothing but compassion for her, as well as for those who hate her for what her son did to their children or to themselves as kids, physically and/or psychologically. I don’t give a shit about the judgments of anyone else. If you weren’t there, you don’t know jack.

For those who are so certain they could never be in her shoes, I ask, how do you know? My son went through bouts of depression as a teen. As one of Dylan Klebold’s former teachers, it worried me horribly. In the end, my son was a normal kid, going through the normal mood swings of adolescence. Depression can be a part of that, you know, regardless of how loving and aware parents are. Where are the bright lines: this side normal, that side suicidal, over there homicidal?

My daughter seemed moody to us. We knew she was introverted, physically in need of time to herself, but we worried about that, too. Later, she told us about the darkness of her depression, but she didn’t tell us at the time, and we were close, the kind of parents who would have listened without judging. It’s just not all black and white.

I have been a teacher of teens for nearly 30 years, and let me tell you, every one of them has a secret internal life that parents can never know. If you think you know everything about your child, you are the one in denial.

What have we learned? At least kids have learned that they can and should tell on each other, whether they worry that a friend is suicidal or possibly dangerous. Last year a kid came to me to tell me he thought his heroine-addicted friend was using again. We called the friend’s mom. He was using again. His mom knew. She wasn’t in denial. She got her son treatment, listened to him, loved him, was tough when she needed to be. He died this past year of an overdose. We do what we can. We do more now than we did in ’99. The world is still fatally imperfect.

Posted in Columbine, Family, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

Be fused and mingle, Diverse yet single…

I understand deep emotions and heated conflict over politics and social issues. I have those deep feelings, myself, and I engage in discourse with passion. I guess I prefer such heated emotions to apathy, which is the response that brings out my inveterate anger. What I don’t understand is being mean to people over these conflicts—mostly because I just don’t get the use in being mean.

This morning there are two articles in The New York Times about communities being torn apart by suddenly being thrust upon the national stage. One is Burns, Oregon, the other Manitowoc City, Wisconsin. People who have been friends and neighbors for years in both small towns have stopped speaking to each other. Their deep political divisions are spilling into elementary school playgrounds.

I am not untouched by this. Where I live, a hotly debated school board recall became snippy and unkind online, pitting neighbors against each other. One man in our county called for the execution of all members of our local teachers’ association. Of course, how can this surprise anyone in a country where the governor of New Jersey said teachers who belong to their union deserve to be punched in the face?

While the violent threats did seem to be mostly anti-teacher, there were moments of online pettiness worthy only of cruel adolescents that came from the side I most identified with, and let me tell you, those made me cringe. I believe we had right on our side. We needed no more than to make our case—loudly, yes, but civilly, too. The only time I made any sort of personal outreach to one of the board members with whom I vehemently disagreed, it was to offer condolences on the illness of his father. Perhaps everyone should sit down and reread (or read for the first time) Countee Cullen’s “Any Human to Another.”

Over a decade before the recall, I saw how the judgments of outsiders, people who knew nothing of Columbine High School, poisoned our community. I saw kids who were as traumatized and bewildered as anyone suddenly feel unwelcome in a school that had always operated as a family, simply because they had been friends with two boys who had done something no less shocking to those who knew them than it was to those who didn’t. (If it is any comfort to Burns and Manitowoc City, time has done much to heal those wounds, though they have left scars, for sure.) I saw kids who thought (correctly, I believe) that their school was a great place to learn, suddenly wonder whether they had all been ruthless bullies without knowing it. (They were not.)

We can, will, must disagree. Conflict can often lead to the best outcomes, because any one side on any given issue is seldom 100 percent right. But we can love each other anyway in the meantime. We all need comfort when we grieve and watchful eyes on our children because we can’t be everywhere at once. Weddings and births are causes for joy, whether the parents of the newlyweds or babies will be voting for Trump or Sanders, whether they own guns or eschew them.

The beauty of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will endure decades (centuries, if we care for it) beyond the grudges of today’s strife. In time, I hope, we will learn what we can from Manitowoc City to further the cause of justice throughout our nation, and we will leave behind our judgments of the community and its people—people we don’t know and, ironically, cannot ourselves fairly judge.

For the second time this week, I come back to the quote attributed to Unitarian minister Francis David: We need not think alike to love alike.

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January 2016

Today I packed away Christmas, tucking away all the decorations and ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, with their memories, experiences, and anticipations. Away go the sadnesses and joys that belong to this season, alone. Has anyone else noticed that putting up Christmas decorations feels sometimes like pure joy, at other times a tiresome obligation, but putting them away is always a bit melancholy? At any rate, by January, I am ready to reclaim the house for the rest of the year.

My husband’s business of the last 18 years officially closed its doors on December 31. He still has a lot to do to sell off assets, close accounts, and clean out the building for the long board company buying it in March. He also will be moving on to another job, though we don’t yet know what that will be.

As I move closer to retirement from teaching, I am getting restless, frustrated with many aspects of the classroom these days. This has me looking at my post-teaching options (the most appealing of which still revolve around working with at-risk kids—it has never, ever been the kids that have contributed to my professional frustrations), and I feel torn between the commitments I have made and my own longing for something else.

There are also about two months to go to get to the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death. It’s been a complicated grieving process, and I’m kind of hoping that having made it through this year will allow me to pack some of that away, as well.

The next year and a half or so promise a lot of changes in the Reed family—none of them bad, some downright exciting, but I confess that it all has me feeling—yeah, that word I used before: restless. Maybe Monday will settle me a bit, back in the classroom and kids I love.

I hope that 2016 will be good to us all, though I know that it will be kind to some and cruel to others—really a mix of both for most, as every year is. Perhaps it is wiser to wish for us all courage, compassion, grace, and most of all—love.

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In the Bleak Midwinter

December—winter—a time when we are enveloped in darkness and, God willing, we huddle in warm homes where light spills from the windows onto the snow—is supposed to be a time for quiet contemplation and renewal of the spirit.

For years my December looked nothing like this. December was a time of taking final exams, and then giving and grading them. It was a time of Christmas concerts at my kids’ schools squeezed in between the grading. Then Christmas break came, and there were cookies to bake, and gifts to wrap (and let’s be honest, often still to buy). When I was a child, my mom stayed home, so gifts were wrapped and under the tree in plenty of time for a couple of weeks of anticipation—rattling and examining, maybe tearing a tiny, tiny corner to see if there was enough there to guess. But I work, and when I had children at home, December was frantic. I was doing pretty well to get gifts wrapped and under the tree in time for Christmas morning.

My last child left home two and a half years ago, though she often comes to visit. There are no more school concerts, and I find I miss them. My son’s first Christmas in Seattle, I worried something awful because it looked like he would be entirely alone Christmas day. (It turned out he found a friend in the same straits, so he was not alone.) This year he will be in Florida with his girlfriend and her family. I miss him but am so grateful that he will be with a family.

You would have thought that empty-nesting would bring more time, but the school board battle revved up the fall my daughter left for college, so the previous two Decembers meant all kinds of union stuff. It seemed life would never let up. And then this past fall, we won…

This year, I’m teaching ACE full time, so the kids had their plates full getting all their assignments done. I didn’t give a final, per se, and I’d already graded the assignments they were resubmitting at least once before, so the process was not as grueling. I didn’t bring work home the last week before vacation.

Gifts are wrapped and either sent or under the tree. My daughter and I baked yesterday, but there was no sense of rushing to squeeze it in.

One night last week, I had nothing that I simply had to do. The kitchen was clean, the house overall acceptable. I was in the mood to sing Christmas carols, but I had nothing to do while I sang. I mean, you can’t just sit in your house all alone (Tory was off doing something else) and sing. I have these compelling Protestant roots. One must be doing something productive at all times.

It says something about me, I suppose, that I had to work to give myself permission. Singing, I assured myself, is a verb. It is, as a part of speech, doing something. It is producing music. Granted, singing is something I usually do in conjunction with something else—cooking, cleaning, driving, etc.—but if I played an instrument, I would have to sit down and just make music. No one would think it odd that a violinist would sit by the Christmas tree and play carols.

So I gave myself permission to do what people did around the solstice in years past, before electricity and 24/7 productivity. I sat down in a living room lit only by the tiny white lights on my tree, pulled out my hymnal (yes, I own a hymnal), and sang songs I love but that seldom appear in sing-alongs: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” that kind of thing. It was a form of prayer. And when I got tired of singing, I just thought about my parents, both gone, and my kids—random memories. Then I read a bit. It was lovely.

So, I know y’all are busy, and sometimes you just can’t pull off an hour or so of true midwinter contemplation amid the hustle and bustle of December, but if you can, I recommend it. It really is doing something productive.

Happy holidays.

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