A Call to Arms

A number of conversations and presentations have been accumulating over the last couple of weeks, brewing into something—writing, action, commitments.

A colleague and I were talking about how we feel at things like war memorials and sites of battles past.  She mentioned going to Pearl Harbor and feeling humbled by the sacrifices made by those men.  I told her I didn’t feel humbled.  I felt indebted, obligated.  I stand at Arlington or read history, and I wonder what commitments, what sacrifices I will be called to make, and will I have what it takes to answer the call?

I went to a cadre-organizing meeting, and we talked about why we have chosen to make the commitment to be organizers.  We all talked about the passion we have for public education.  We believe it is the foundation of equity, the framework of the economy, the shelter of justice.  We believe that public schools are utterly vital to democracy.  In short, they are worth our time, our talents, our treasure.  We talked about how important it is to share our testimony as teachers.

Today’s sermon at church was built around one of my all-time favorite poems, “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.”  Our minister, Wendy, talked about hope vs. cynicism, which has been one of the biggest battles for me as an organizer—getting my colleagues past their cynicism so they can dare to hope.

I have said before and will say a thousand times, I became a teacher to change the world.  I believe (because I have been told) that I have made a difference in people’s lives, and as my sophomores and I learned this year reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, if you move a grain of sand in the Sahara, you change the world.

I’ve taught every kind of kid, and I have loved every kind of kid.  I coached forensics for 17 years.  I’ve had students go on to work for the U.S. Senate, practice law for the Department of Justice, become college professors, and yes, even go on to teach high school.  Some coach their own Forensics teams.  I’ve taught modified classes for kids who want to succeed in school but struggle with learning disabilities and other challenges.  I’ve seen those kids graduate and go to college.  I’ve taught at-risk students who walk through school doors with the weight of a thousand non-school-related problems on their backs.  Some go to college, even so far as to get doctorates.  Some work on your cars or carefully clean your grandparents’ rooms in nursing homes, stopping a moment to ask about a child in a new picture on the dresser.  Some struggle still with addiction and mental illness.  I have loved them all, not because I’m so great, but because they are loveable, every one of them.

The residents of Jefferson County were asked what our district’s priorities should be, and we placed neighborhood schools far above charters.  The new school board majority has chosen to ignore that directive and make “choice” their pet project.

Those kids I just mentioned, every one of them, from the most motivated to most reluctant, came to me in classrooms in a neighborhood school.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not entirely anti-charter.  But here’s what I know: If there were no good neighborhood schools, my wealthier, often higher achieving students would have gone to a good charter.  (Not all charters are good, by any means.)  Their parents would have moved heaven and earth to get them there.  My free-and-reduced-lunch students would have stayed in a school with less funding and higher needs.  Many of these kids live in families with one car, and whether or not it even runs is a crapshoot.  (At least right now, none of my students’ families live in their cars, but that’s a reality for many kids in Jeffco, too.)  I’ve had students for whom even bus fare is a financial burden.  Some have to get to and from school quickly because they take care of younger siblings while single parents work two jobs or jobs with odd hours.  Some go home to alcohol- or drug-addicted parents who sure as hell don’t care how their child gets to and from school.  Some live with grandparents as they wait for their own parents to get out of prison.  What good does expanding “school choice” do for them?  They have no choice.  And if the people who do have choices abandon neighborhood schools, what’s left?

Charters are fine as laboratories for innovation.  That’s what they were intended to be.  But as ways to abandon neighborhood schools?  The school for our neighborhood struggles; the socioeconomics are changing.  My kids, both bright and motivated with parents who are very invested in their educations, went there anyway, though some of their friends open enrolled in higher-performing schools.  Our neighborhood school needed kids like these.  The school needed their test scores.  Their classmates needed them as friends and role models. My kids needed to learn to function in a diverse world, and they got it at their school.  Their friends lived in big houses with swimming pools and tiny rentals.  Some went to college and graduated.  Some started college and dropped out.  Some never went to college at all.  Because my kids have known all these kinds of people, they continue to see the humanity in all kinds of people.  They have also both done very well in college, so they didn’t seem to be held back academically by staying in the neighborhood.

A few educator-run, community-instigated charters are fine.  They really can foster innovation for all schools in a district.  But this new school board is not ultimately about those charters.  Witt, Newkirk, and Williams didn’t just pop in out of thin air.  Their election, from the timing during an off year to the many thousands of dollars pouring in from outside the state, was part of a nation-wide plan.  We’ve seen this agenda’s culmination in New Orleans, which no longer has public schools.  It’s all about private, for-profit charters—schools in which the out-of-state campaign contributors I mentioned have substantial investments.  (By the way, they also invest in the publishing companies that produce canned curriculum for many of these schools.)  The law doesn’t allow the school district to run for-profit schools, but there’s nothing to stop them from contracting with national school franchises.  These for-profit charter schools can and have played fast and loose with the rules in order to exclude kids with special needs.

As I’ve said, all kinds of kids, yours and mine, can actually see real benefits going to school together.  I assure you, the vast majority of kids are loveable and good-hearted, their test scores and grades notwithstanding.  But if that doesn’t sway you, remember this: Those struggling kids don’t disappear.  If you abandon them now, you and your children will pay for it in prisons.  Why, why, why would we pay for charter schools to put money in the pockets of already rich people, then pay those rich people even more for the private for-profit prisons they run?  Isn’t it better to invest in all our community’s children while they’re young enough to save?  We won’t save them all, but we’ll save more than we would if we don’t even try.

That’s part of the hope vs. cynicism thing.  I know I can’t save every kid, but I try to save as many as I can, and I do succeed sometimes.  They’ve told me so.  They’ve hugged me after finals and at graduation and flat-out said, “I wouldn’t be here without you.”  And I cry.  I am moved, and yes, by that I am humbled, because they trusted me.  They trusted me.

It’s been a hell of a career.  There were some very, very hard years as we recovered from the shootings in 1999.  I’ve struggled with PTSD.  On a more ordinary note, I’ve spent more nights and weekends grading papers than I care to count.  I’ve met with former students long after they graduated to keep loving them through illnesses, addictions, and depression.  I’m working with one to help her tell her story in a book. It’s been worth every minute, every heartache and triumph.  I wouldn’t trade my life for a hundred million dollars.  But I’m winding down.  Who will come after?

I don’t connect my work to the check that monthly makes its way into my bank account.  I teach to change the world.  The check just makes it possible for my family and me to survive while I do that.  Of course, my checks are enough for me to do that.  If they were not, no matter how much I love teaching, I’d have to do something else.  If I talk about money for teachers at all, I talk about having enough for the teachers coming after me to teach and have a family.  How honored I am, how hopeful for the future, when my students tell me they want to teach.  But how can I encourage them to go into what is rapidly becoming a dead-end profession?  Driven by the “corporate reform” model, there is a push to cap teacher salaries at 5 years.  They begin at salaries that are great if you’re single, but impossible where they end if you have a family.  I have been blessed to have a true vocation to which I could literally dedicate my life.  Don’t we want those kinds of teachers anymore?  Do we really want to relegate our children, our future, to people forced to teach only a short time, set up from the start to see it as a stepping stone, not a true calling?

It doesn’t have to be this way.  I don’t want to hear that there’s too much momentum and this is unstoppable.  I don’t want to hear about how much money the other side has.  I don’t give a damn how hard it is.  I can make a difference here.  So can you.  Cynicism is lazy.  It is an abdication of responsibility.  “It can’t be done” is just a bullshit excuse.  Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  People have sacrificed their lives for this country in battles that were lost in wars that were won.  What are we called to sacrifice, to commit to?  Are you going to answer the call?

I don’t want to hear anyone’s excuses.  I want to see your sign at the rally at the Education Center in Golden on June 5th and your face at board meetings all year long.  (I’m an English teacher.  I know better than to use the word “you” when I just mean “people.”  I mean you.)  I want to hear your voice before the board.  I want to see your letters to editors, so many letters that they cannot be ignored!  Letters to the board must be publicly displayed at meetings.  I want to see binder after binder after binder of them from everyone in the district: teachers, parents, taxpayers, business and property owners, alums and students old enough to understand the issues.  I don’t want to hear any crap about partisan politics or unions or how busy you are.  YOU CAN SAVE OUR COMMUNITY’S CHILDREN.  STAND UP AND DO IT WITH ME!

Posted in Education, Politics | 4 Comments

The Collection Plate

I think about this a lot (as you’ll see), and I’ve thought many times about a blog entry, but I keep getting sidetracked.

See, right there: My husband walked in as I wrote that first sentence, and we had lunch on the patio.  Then I went and bought flowers.  Now I’m back.

Okay, the collection plate: It used to be where church congregants placed their weekly tithe.  I’m told some churches attached a bell, and if a congregant didn’t put enough into the basket, the usher rang the bell, shaming the person into coughing up more.

Time has passed.  For years I paid my pledge by sending a check in the mail or placing it in an envelope that I dropped into the plate.  Now, with the advent of electronic funds transfer, my pledge is whisked out of my account without a single thought from me. Most of us do this these days, so the basket passes many people without a visible contribution.

Ultimately, electronic payment is great for churches, as it ensures regular payments from all, something necessary to the running of the church.  But is this good for the congregants, this mindless way of contributing to one’s faith?  I would make the argument that it is not, and this is why, in addition to my automatic pledge payment, I almost always drop a few extra, non-verifiable and therefore non-tax-deductible, dollars into the basket on Sunday.

In our house, we operate largely by cash.  We’ve found that when we pay for things in actual dollars, we spend fewer of them than when they disappear by debit.  As the week progresses and I pay for things—breaking twenties and dolling out ones—I have to try to remember to hold back a couple of ones to put in that basket on the Sabbath.  It is a reminder all week long that I am a religious woman.  This prompts me to try to truly interact with the strangers with whom I engage in commerce, because they are people with inherent worth and dignity.  It’s a little cue to keep the interdependent web of existence in mind when I make a purchase.  It keeps me mindful of the working conditions of the workers who produced and transported the things I buy.  The more times a day I am reminded of my faith, the better human being I am.

Sometimes I forget.  I sit down in the sanctuary on Sunday with only a twenty or two, or nothing at all.  I’m a good person, but honestly, I’m not tossing a twenty in there on top of an automatic pledge that is not a trifling sum to our family (unless it’s a special collection).  As the basket passes me by, and I put nothing in, I am reminded that sometimes I fall short.  It’s a brief moment, not of shame (there’s no bell on the plate), but of humility.

So there it is, a blog entry of rare brevity on one of my daily spiritual practices.  What are some of yours?

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

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but Sometimes Words May Heal Me (Redux)

At church, one of our ministers talked about reminding troubled students who they really are, and she told about dealing with a trio of trouble-makers by reminding them of the best about themselves.  In the end, it did more than any school punishment had done to remediate their behavior.

It made me think of one of the more powerful days in ACE class a few years ago.  As it happens, it was an unplanned digression from a unit I’m currently teaching, so I thought I’d repost an old blog about it.  I originally posted this on 3/14/06.  It was a response to a regular contributor to my old blog.  I wrote it while I was away from ACE, hence the past tense about the class.  Obviously, I teach it again:

Is it true that words can’t undo the brutality that life sometimes dishes out? Not completely, that’s for sure, but sometimes, I think we forget the power of words and the power of honesty.

I used to teach ACE, which was a class for at-risk students, kids who were being given one last shot at staying in school before they were kicked out because school, Columbine anyway, just clearly wasn’t going to work for them. I’m proud to say that we kept a lot of those kids, and that their success in our program led to success in the rest of their classes and success when they went back to traditional English classes the next year. In short, this class was filled with some of the most troubled kids in our school. Sure, some were just unmotivated, but some were truly, deeply troubled.

I had a boy one year who, at the age of 16, had just moved back in with his mom after spending years in foster care. He’d been taken away as a preschooler because his mother and her friends had been giving him LSD. They thought it was funny to watch a four-year-old trip out. I had a girl who’d been adopted into a family at the age of 10. She was taken away from her home because her father had been selling her body to pay for his drug habit. A year after her adoption, her adoptive father was in an accident at work and permanently paralyzed from the waist down—a lot of upheaval in that family.

That’s a taste of what some of our kids had been through. My partner and I used to give an assignment we called the “self-perception assignment.” (We did a lot of what we call “affective education,” meaning that it was about developing life-skills and emotional coping mechanisms.) The assignment required them to first write a paragraph describing how they thought others perceived them, then one about what they were truly like—how the wrapping was different from what was inside the package. We stressed that we weren’t asking them to care how anyone perceived them, simply to be aware of what they projected. Finally, we paired them up with someone they didn’t know well in the class, and asked them to write a paragraph each of their impressions of each other.  It was a risky assignment, but the kids had been in the class together two hours a day, five days a week, and we gave it in the spring, when we’d really done a lot to establish a sense of trust and respect.

Well, one year, we had a really tough bunch, and they were VERY resistant. They insisted that there was no way to be honest with other people about how you perceived them and still be respectful. It blew me away—the idea that anything respectful anyone might say to someone else, anything complimentary, must be dishonest. These kids were all about self-esteem (they had none) and clueless about self-worth. My partner’s and my MO, whenever kids said that something we were asking couldn’t be done, was to do it and model it for them. Let me tell you, what happened this one day would never have worked if we’d planned it. It was completely spontaneous.

My partner and I took turns; he described one kid, and then I described the next. We went student by student and gave them our 100% honest, unvarnished opinions.

“Becca, you’re smart, and you don’t care who knows it. It’s evident in every word you say, but you don’t follow through. It’s like you’re afraid that if you put your ideas on paper, they won’t seem as smart as when you said them. You come off as this tough girl that no one can touch, but inside you are broken glass from every person who’s ever hurt you.”

“Evan, you struggle. School, especially reading, doesn’t come easily, and you’ve completely convinced yourself that you can’t do anything. But you’re quick with a comeback and you have a wicked sense of humor. A person has to have a quick mind to be able to do that. You don’t have to be book-smart to have a good mind. That’s the lesson you’re here to learn.”

“Nick, you have a generous heart. You’re the person everyone comes to. In a lot of ways, you take on too much, and there’s not enough room for school…”

For a full 50 minutes, the 28 toughest, rowdiest kids in the school were dead silent. They listened intently to each description. You could see the anticipation as we got closer to each of them. Many couldn’t raise their eyes from the table when their turn came, but they held perfectly still, almost didn’t breathe. There were a lot of tears that day. When we were finished, you could hear a pin drop until Becca said, “Wow. You guys really know us.”

“Do you feel respected?” I asked. “Accepted?”

Enthusiastic nods all around.

“Did you think we were bullshitting any of you?” (You could talk to them that way in ACE from time to time. I used the privilege judiciously.) They shook their heads vehemently. Then they begged to be allowed to describe my partner and me.

“Mrs. Reed, sometimes you come across as a bitch, but it’s really because you want the best for us…” A teacher can hear no higher praise.

“Mr. T, you’re like the dad of the group…”

The papers they wrote were the best we’ve ever gotten from this assignment. They were thoughtful and open. The feedback we got over and over again was that it was the first time anyone had told those kids what was good and valuable about them that they really believed the person who was saying it, because we were honest about their faults, too.

Honestly, I’m sure it wasn’t the first time. I think it was just one of the most memorable because of the circumstances. It wasn’t something we could repeat every year. It has to be the right moment, the right kids; they have to be open to it in the moment, but the words we all spoke that day were magic.

Posted in Columbine, Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Leave a comment

The Jefferson County Education Association and Me

I am a teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, and I am a member of JCEA.  I am “the teachers’ union,” and I thought I’d tell you all a little about that.

I joined in 1986, my first year at Columbine High School.  I didn’t really know anything about unions or any other kind of collective bargaining unit.  Neither of my parents had ever belonged to one, though my step mom was a teacher and a member of her association.  (JCEA is an association, not actually a union.  No Jeffco teacher is required to be a member, and whether they belong or not, they are covered by the contract negotiated by JCEA’s collective bargaining process.)  My step mom never talked about compensation.  As for most teachers, it always took a backseat to her classroom.  I just knew that NEA, CEA, and JCEA were my professional associations, so as a professional, I joined.

I belonged until the controversial dismissal of a colleague.  I will tell you true, I don’t think he was a high quality teacher.  Many people have the idea that unions and associations protect weak members, and I felt that was happening in this case.  I know the association has to represent all its members, but I didn’t feel they were looking out for kids’ best interests, and that has always been my primary focus, so I quit.

Several years later, while Bush was still governor of Texas, before NCLB became the law of the land, our governor, Bill Owens, pushed through high-stakes test legislation for Colorado.  In short, we had NCLB before the rest of the country.  I knew that legislation had been written and backed by pro-voucher, anti-public education organizations.  I saw what it meant: Create tests so poorly designed that kids won’t do well.  Make them the be-all and end-all of schools.  Make school complicit in their own demise chasing that ridiculous test.  Who would get screwed in this process?  My students.  As one person, one voice, I could do nothing.  I knew I had to join my voice with other teachers who, like me, were worried about kids.  I rejoined JCEA.

For years I was a nominal member.  I knew my CEA and NEA dues were supporting efforts to tone down the testing craze and to keep teachers’ voices in the discussion about education.  Then my district implemented a curriculum that I believed very strongly was designed only with the TCAP (the Colorado state test) in mind.  It was not a curriculum that prepared students for colleges and careers.  It would have made my job easier, but I didn’t become a teacher to have it easy.  I became a teacher to make a difference in the lives of kids.  Let me tell you, you do something I think hurts my students, and I get pissed!

Unsure whom else to turn to, I went to my association to set up meetings with district curriculum developers.  It didn’t go exactly as I wished, but here’s what the general public needs to understand: I could go to bat for kids because I had the association behind me.  I didn’t have to fear for my job if I dared to speak out for kids.  To this day, I continue to speak passionately on behalf of meaningful curriculum for Jeffco students, and the association continues to protect me.

This more active roll in the association led to my attendance at the CEA leadership conference last summer.  Contrary to what the general public might expect, I did not attend a single meeting about compensation—no talk of salaries, benefits, or pensions.  We talked about how we could better partner with community groups to strengthen public schools.  We talked about how to be more effective in the classroom.  We talked to each other to share ideas and best practices.  The entire focus was getting the best results for kids in Colorado schools.  I loved it!

When I came back from that mountain retreat, I became part of the steering committee for an academy of professional development for teachers, creating classes to make teachers more effective.  I volunteered hours of my time for this.  I also learned all that the association was doing to help develop meaningful, rigorous teacher evaluation.  To my surprise, I met people who, as part of their association duties, helped counsel ineffective teachers out of the field.  The association absolutely understands that poor teachers are not good for kids or for the image of our profession.

I should mention, too, that when our district faced a serious funding crisis, our association negotiated a contract that cost teachers many thousands of dollars.  It sacrificed pay increases, and in fact created pay cuts then froze our salaries there.  This didn’t just affect our year-to-year pay.  It cost each one of us many thousands of dollars over the course of our careers and our retirement. We traded in staff development days for furlough days, too.  We could have avoided this by increasing class sizes and pushing for many more cuts to classroom funding, but we didn’t.  We voted voluntarily to make these sacrifices because we knew the district truly was in crisis, and we wanted to keep cuts as far from the classroom as possible.  I wish I could say that I am super special in my dedication to my students, but I’m actually quite typical.

I know people have the idea that teachers complain a lot about their compensation, but I don’t.  Like I said, I willingly and without complaint made the sacrifices I was asked to make.  That said, we cannot always balance school budgets out of teachers’ salaries.  At some point, we have to think about attracting and keeping good young teachers.  If I love my students (and truly I do), how can I, in good conscience, encourage them to enter a field where they cannot make a living?  Right now it’s not amazing, but it’s not bad, but if we keep cutting…?

Last November, Jefferson County elected three anti-public education members to the school board.  The voters didn’t know that’s what they were doing.  These three were not at all forthcoming about their agenda.  Even now that they are on the board, they make decisions behind closed doors and behind the backs of the two other board members who are in the middle of their terms.  People are going to notice that teachers, both inside and outside the association, are very much opposed to the actions of these members.  In turn, I hear the anti-teacher rhetoric going full-throttle, often not directed at individual teachers so much as “that teachers’ union.”  So I just thought I’d tell you that I am the teachers’ union.  Chances are very good that, if you have kids in Jeffco schools, their teachers are also “the teachers’ union.”  The JCEA office is in a little strip mall behind a craft store.  It has a staff of five.  Please, look at their pictures.  There isn’t a thug among them.  The rest of “the union” is made up of teachers like me who love kids.

One last note, because it’s such a huge part of anti-teacher rhetoric, let me tell you a bit about pensions.  One of the reasons I don’t complain about what appears, on the surface, to be a ridiculously low salary given my education and years of experience, not to mention my expertise as an English teacher gleaned from my experience as a published author, is that I am fully aware of the value of my pension.  What you may not know is that I have paid into that pension for the past 26 years (and I will continue to pay at least 4 more years, or until I retire).  It hasn’t just been handed to me.  Of course, the district has paid in, too.  I often hear people say, “I don’t get a pension; why should you?”  Well, I don’t have anyone paying mortgage payments to me, but that’s no excuse for not making my mortgage payments.  No one pays me for home loans because I never loaned anyone money for a home.  I make a mortgage payment because I didn’t pay full market value for my house up front.  I agreed to make smaller payments over an extended period of time.  Basically, the public did the same with my salary.  I have accepted less than others with similar education and experience because the rest was coming later.

Also, in case you didn’t know, I and many other teachers have worked outside of education, as well.  When we have done this, we have paid into Social Security.  Because we are getting PERA (pensions), we are ineligible to collect Social Security.  Where does the money we put in go?  To those of you who will collect SS!  (You’re welcome.)  My husband has never paid into PERA.  He has paid into SS since he was 15.  If he dies before me (and he’s a male who is older than me, so there’s a pretty good chance of that) I cannot collect any SS widow’s benefits.  I gave those up in exchange for my pension.  Where will the money he paid go?  You guessed it.  (And again, you’re welcome.)  Does my pension still sound so exorbitant?

So that’s it.  My experience with JCEA.  No union thugs.  No complaining about how awful my job is.  Just a teacher who loves kids working together with other teachers who love kids to preserve a quality public education for all.

Posted in Education | 17 Comments

Merry Christmas (No Matter Your Persuasion)

I was making fudge and listening to The Priests’ Christmas album, Noël, and I was filled with such contentment, despite the upheaval of the past few days.  I’m not Catholic, but that trio of voices is so beautiful that I do find them spiritually compelling.

I find Christmas spiritually compelling, too.  I am a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, which means that like other Unitarians before me (Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Paul Revere, Ralph Waldo Emerson, ee cummings, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc.) I do not believe that Jesus was divine.  I do not believe that he was any more or less a child of God than the rest of us. I do not believe that he died for my sins.  I don’t even believe that he was born on December 25.  I’m not sure he’s not an amalgamation of a number of spiritual leaders.

All of that is immaterial.  Here’s what I love about the Christmas story and its pagan roots: I love the idea that, if something personified and sentient and omniscient existed, it could look down on us all, with all our faults and foibles, observing us in our best and worst moments, and see in us something worthy of salvation.  In the end, despite acts of violence and political strife and individual pettiness, we deserve longer days, perhaps so we have more time to strive for something better.  I have no idea what, if anything, comes after this life, but I like the idea that this Being would see in each of us something worth preserving for all eternity.

Whether Jesus was real or not, whether he died for our sins or not is, to me, immaterial.  (I know it is utterly material for some of you, and that’s cool.  This is just MHO.)  Jesus is the personification of our belief in our ability and worthiness to be redeemed.  We can be less than we wish we were, but in the darkest of times, we see the light within each other and ourselves, rise to love.  That’s worth celebrating.

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

To Sandy Hook for a Difficult Day

I’ve known for a few days what I wanted to write here for my friends in Sandy Hook.  Then today Arapahoe tasted this experience.  I know that it made things even harder for my friends in Newtown.  It scared up ghosts for me, too.  But I still feel this is true, so here goes:

For a year now you have lived with the ghost of “one year ago today” and “the last time I did this.”  You have stopped a thousand times and thought, one year ago today I was (fill in the blank), and I was…so innocent…I had no idea what was coming…or I was annoyed at something so trivial.  One year ago today she was alive, and we….  The last time I taught this it was to this child lost or that child forever changed or I was my old self.  The last time I did this I thought my life would be…

You want the anniversary gone, over.  I wanted to sleep through the anniversary; go to sleep on April 19 and wake up the 21st.  Oh, how I dreaded it.

I’ve been saving this bit for the day you need it.  The morning will tick by: one year ago right now…one year ago right now…one year ago right now…

And then the moment arrives.  On April 20, 2000, I had been living with the fear that I could never love another student I hadn’t loved before the shootings.  I thought I would be too afraid of losing them.  At 11:20, when we released 13 balloons, I was holding the hand of a student—one of my sophomores—that I hadn’t known exactly one year before.  She had come to me and shyly slipped her hand in mine, and we stood in silence, and I thought, “How could I have doubted?  Of course I love this kid, and I will love a thousand others,” and in the 14 plus years since, I have.

At 9:35 December 14, it will be time to lay the ghosts of “one year ago today” to rest.  At 9:36 you will know that “one year ago today” you were pushed onto a path you would never have chosen for yourself, and today, you are 365 steps through the darkness.  You are 365 steps closer to that place of peace and strength for which you yearn.  One year ago today, you wondered whether you could make it to this moment, and you have.  For the next 365 days, you can rest assured that you are stronger than you were one year ago today.

When the moment is over, and 9:35 passes, you will know that one year ago today you shivered in the dark, lost and alone, terrified of the monsters that lurked.  Today, you have companions on the journey.  You have faced the demons, and while you haven’t killed them (a few of mine reared their ugly heads today), you know what they are, and you know you have survived them time and again, so you can manage to do battle with them some more.  I promise, the demons get tired after a while.  They lose interest.  They let you stop and rest in the sunlight when it breaks through, and it will break through more often this year than last.

I once wondered whether April 20th would ever be just a day to me again.  Now I know it will not, not ever, but I am surprised at how often 11:20 comes and goes while I am busy, and I don’t notice.  Sometimes it’s hard, and others, it’s surprisingly easy.  I don’t know what determines which it will be.  I only know that one year ago today, I didn’t know any of you, but you were all in my heart.  Today, you are my friends.  Because of you, my life is more blessed than it was one year ago today.  I wish there had been no need for us to meet, but playing the cards none of us ever asked to be dealt, I am richer than I was one year ago today.

Thank you for making me part of your lives.

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

Holy Work

All over Jefferson County, ninth graders are trying to figure out what they believe so they can write “This I Believe” essays.  What the heck, I’ll throw in something I believe, but all to often forget that I believe.  This is my reminder to myself.

All work is holy work.  For those of you allergic to religious language, all work is wholly work—not to say work that is only work and no joy, but work that is connected to that whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I’m a teacher who has always believed her work to be sacred work.  Most people get that, I think: I touch the future (always appropriately, of course) and all that.  Doctors do holy work.  Ministers, obviously.  There are all the self-evident vocations, but what about the true service jobs?  Sometimes they are the holiest work of all.

Yesterday, my husband and I had a waitress who barely made eye contact with us and was exceedingly slow.  I imagine she had something else on her mind, or she does this job because she has to, but she has bigger dreams, or she doesn’t have bigger dreams, and this frustrates her.  I was feeling a little grumpy, and I wasn’t happy that she was dragging her feet.

But what if she had known how much I needed a beer and a date night with my husband?  What if she had known that she was a part of keeping a 36-year relationship whole and healthy?  What if I had remembered that she was doing this, as well?  That however slowly and unenthusiastically she was doing it, I needed her to do it?  What if we had both remembered that she was doing holy work?

This morning, the guy behind the order counter at Einstein’s seemed happy to be there.  I was happy to be there.  I was getting to sit down with my stepmom, who’s been out of town for many weeks, and catch up.  I’d just come from church (where I am intensely reminded of sacred connection), and the interaction with the Einstein’s guy was just so different—he was different, I was different, and on the whole, I think the world was a better place for that.

I mean, truly, imagine if we all remained acutely aware all day that all work is holy work. If the guy who works at the gas station remembered that his job makes it possible for people to get to work to provide for their families or to the hospital to say a final goodbye to a loved one, and we pumped our gas knowing that, even if this tank of gas seems mundane, it will take us all the places we must go, and we cannot know where, by the time we are down to the last gallon, all those places will be, but we couldn’t go anywhere without the guy behind the counter (even if he’s just monitoring automated pumps).  The grocery store—my God, the grocery store: I swear there is no more sacred place on earth.  What connects us more fundamentally than food?  There on the shelves are birthday celebrations and comfort for mourners.  A thousand hands have performed the seemingly mundane tasks of picking, packaging, stocking, and they touch the lives of a hundred thousand others in ways that are anything but mundane.

And if I pause in the business of paying for those groceries and, unable to thank everyone who brought them to me, I look into the eyes of the cashier—really look—and smile—really smile—because her work is holy, what world do I create?

My son works at Starbucks, as does a much-loved former student.  Tomorrow, as you accept your sacramental latte, take it in both hands with reverence, because the barista’s work is holy work, indeed.

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

Empty Nest

As of this Thursday afternoon, my nest will be empty.  My youngest heads off to the dorms to begin her freshman year of college, while my oldest moved to Seattle last month.  I suppose it’s logical that this is a time to reflect upon the parenting I’ve done in the last 22 years.

I feel fortunate that my husband and I have had excellent relationships with our kids.  Every time someone has wanted to commiserate with me on the difficulties of raising teenagers, I haven’t been able to reciprocate.  I thoroughly enjoyed my kids’ teenage years.  There was no door-slamming, no yelling, no tears as a result of conflicts at home.  The kids’ rooms were disaster areas, but I really didn’t mind.  There was some foot-dragging about household chores, but they got done without fighting and only a soupçon of attitude.

One theme I’ve heard from my peers has been a general sense that their children haven’t given them the respect they owe them, haven’t demonstrated love and concern the way they were expected to.  I have generally listened sympathetically and thanked my lucky stars.  But I’ve thought more deeply about that, simply because, as I lose my kids’ constant presence, I’ve thought more deeply about what their presence has meant to me.  I’ve come to appreciate even more what their love and respect have meant.

The more I thought about that, the more I realized I didn’t really “expect” these things.  I mean, I guess I did—I certainly hoped for them—but I didn’t think about them much, about what I expected love and respect to look like.  And I realize that perhaps that is why I appreciate them so much.  They have felt more like gifts freely given than like something paid because they are owed.

When someone tells me “Give me this,” I often give it, but then it isn’t a gift; it’s an obligation.  There is considerably less joy in the giving.  For me, there would be less joy in the receiving under those circumstances, which is, I suppose, why I demand very little from those I love, yet seem to receive in abundance.  Or perhaps I truly am just very lucky, and because they have been freely given, I have never had to ask.  That is a distinct possibility.

I know there is a danger of seeming self-congratulatory here.  That isn’t my intent.  Really, it’s just to float the possibility to other parents that, the less tightly they dictate what love and respect must look like, the more likely they are to see them in places they had previously missed.  Perhaps they won’t come in all the forms you want, but you will appreciate the ways they are shown because they are gifts, not payment due.

I know empty-nesters who are incredibly glad to see the kids and the conflict go.  They love their kids, no question, but they don’t miss the conflict.  I don’t envy them the overall experience, but I can tell you, having kids you get along with leave is just about the most bitter-sweet experience out there.  Every time I think (selfishly) how much I don’t want them to go, I remember how very much I want them to be happy, to find their passion, to live their lives, and they’re doing it, and it’s so exciting.  But I cry a lot anyway.

Posted in Family, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Tagged | 7 Comments

RedLake Redux

As entries from my old, defunct blog at blog-city become relevant to my friends from Sandy Hook, they will find their way into my new blog.  I wrote this after the Red Lake tragedy, but I’m reposting for the Sandy Hookers:

Red Lake 3/27/05

This is not even remotely writing related, but I have such an intimate connection that the Red Lake, MN community is all I can think about today. But the connection doesn’t feel as close as it would have six years ago, or even three years ago. Just as I am no longer who I was before the shootings at my school, neither am I who I was when I was still so totally drowning in the tragedy.

I do remember wanting so much to talk to someone who had been through it. I would have given anything to be able to sit down with someone from Jonesboro or somewhere like that. I wanted to know that there really was light somewhere at the end of the tunnel. Now, I wish that I could talk to the teachers at Red Lake. I would tell them that it’s a long row to hoe. They (whoever “they” were) told us, right after the shootings, “This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” God, truer words never spoken.

I’d tell the folks in Red Lake that there will be so many days that you are sure you are going to break to your knees and just spend the rest of your life kneeling in the dust, puking. You will be so damned angry when you have to keep pulling yourself to your feet again because people keep expecting you to go on living. It gets easier, though. And then it gets hard again. You want to give up and no one will let you. Honestly, it’s like that for years. And then you start to find that you can live with it. You never get over it, but you can live with it.

Finally, you reach a point where you can walk away from it. It’s still there with you, always—every day—but it’s on the periphery. It’s a place you stumble across unaware more and more rarely. You know where it is and get better at avoiding it. Unless you want to go and visit, stand at the edge and look it all over. It’s familiar territory in your soul, but it feels different each time you go back. After a while, you can let go of all the useless questions and futile wishes that it could have been prevented. In time, you understand that it’s senseless to beat yourself or anyone else up over it.

It’s like going back to stand on the bank of a lake you nearly drowned in once—a lake that took people you love. You can choose to go in again or not, but you’re not drowning anymore, and you have to work to remember the exact inflection of their voices, their quirky gestures, their smiles. I know so intimately what those teachers and students are going through at this minute. They still aren’t entirely convinced it isn’t a dream. There’s still a part of them waiting to wake up. They are clinging to each other and pushing away well-meaning outsiders. They feel violated by the media. They feel so helpless and sad and angry. They are looking around at their community, and it seems at once familiar and strange, because they have changed, and they will never see the world the same way again.

This, too, they will come to live with. The survivors among them will even find an odd comfort in it. It’s impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t been through it. Soon, the rest of America will begin to point their fingers at whatever they believe was “wrong” with the Red Lake community. They’ll come up with inane theories about Native American culture or the Neo-Nazi connection or stick a microscope into the boy’s dead grandfather’s life and the way he was raising his grandson. I won’t be listening. We are members of the same club, but I am not a member of their community. I may understand what they are going through more intimately than most of the rest of the country, but I wasn’t there, and I am not one of them, and I cannot begin to judge.

There are so many people affected by this. Teachers’ marriages will go on the rocks, and their spouses will want to shake them until their teeth rattle to “snap them out of it.” Community members will see profound changes in their young people. Some changes will make them sad, others will seem like changes for the better. Those changes won’t last. The bonding, openness, caring, will gradually fade as the kids who experienced this grow up and move on, and the new teens become normal kids with all the old issues. This brings its own pain and frustration—a sense of losing what good there was to be gained.

All I can do is pray, and I know what to pray for. I pray that the people of Red Lake will dig deep and find a wellspring of courage and strength they never knew they possessed. I pray that they will find the ability to remain compassionate toward each other, despite the soul-searing agony each of them is experiencing individually. I pray that they will be able to keep their eyes inward, and not allow the rest of the world, people who do not know them and only think they understand them, to define them. For the families of the victims, I pray that they can find some comfort and some positive way to channel their pain and anger.

At the same time, I know that’s a tall order. I know this is a long and rather depressing entry. I apologize for that. I guess I’d just like to wrap it up by wishing you all well. We all have things in our lives that we’ve had to rise above. I’ll be sending out an extra prayer for everyone who could use a little comfort and a little extra strength. Peace be with you.

Posted in Columbine, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Tagged | Leave a comment

Creedless, Spiritual, and Religious

This blog entry is brought to you by this book review: “Spiritual-Not-Religious or Just Lazy?”

It caught my eye because so many people I know describe themselves as SBNR and because Peter Morales, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has been spending quite a bit of time discussing this group and their close cousins the “nones,” the growing number of Americans who check that box when asked to describe their religion.

Once again, I find myself frustrated by the absolute unwillingness in our culture to accept the idea that a person can be truly, deeply religious without believing in a personified, sentient deity.  A number of years ago I was reading an article in an education journal that described the demographically “average” teacher.  She was described as female, in her early forties (which I was at the time), married, white, and religious.  “What do you know?” I said to my son, who was sitting next to me at the time.  “I am exactly demographically average in my profession.”  To which he replied, “Religious?  That’s pushing it.”

That boy grew up going to church every Sunday, and more often than not, his grandmother and I were his Sunday school teachers.  I had missed family dinners on a monthly and sometimes weekly basis throughout his upbringing to attend church committee meetings and rehearsals for church plays.  And if the problem were merely that he saw me going through the motions of our faith without practicing it, that would be one thing, but my faith infuses every aspect of my life—the way I do my job, the way I interact with my family, and the way I treat strangers.  He questioned my religiosity because I do not believe in a personified, sentient deity and I doubt any kind of afterlife.  He lives in a society that insists that, without this set of beliefs, there can be no religion.

But I am a member of a religion, and I am orthodox in its practice, because here’s the thing, my religion has no creed; it’s all about the practice.  Being a Unitarian Universalist does not require me to believe in any single set of scriptures or any deity or an afterlife.  It requires me to affirm and promote the following:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

I would argue that living by these principals 24/7 requires ruthless self-examination and genuine repentance when I fall short.  (In religious terms, which is the context I use here, to repent means to feel genuine remorse and endeavor in all ways never to commit the same error twice).  In short, it requires rigorous spiritual practice.  It must be done religiously.

At work today, a colleague and I got into a discussion we’ve had before.  It’s the general “public education is going to hell in a hand basket” discussion.  The almighty tests are designed to manufacture a crisis in schools, and they’re doing a great job of it.  The ultimate goal of this manufactured crisis is to get schools to be complicit in their own demise so that schools can be privatized and the haves can gain an even greater advantage over the have-nots.  It’s working like a charm.  A more detailed explanation of this would have to be the subject of another blog, because it wasn’t the point of contention today.  My colleague and I agree on this.  The point of contention was whether or not we should just give up.  Her daughter is in 3rd grade (the first year kids take the state test) and had such a terrible experience that my colleague is considering exempting her from the test from here out.

This is an important part of how the test is designed to undermine public schools.  Her kids get exemplary scores.  If she exempts them, the school must average in a zero instead of the high score her daughter would surely earn.  The more parents who exempt their bright kids from the test in hopes of avoiding the passion-killing effects of the damned things, the more zeros average in, lowering the school’s scores and reinforcing the illusion of crisis for those who wish to privatize education.  I was arguing that by exempting her child, she was aiding an agenda that would ultimately leave the poor without access to quality education.

Her argument is that the demise of public schools is inevitable at this point.  The wheels are set in motion; public schools will ultimately collapse, and the best she can do is look out for her own child. She says one person cannot stop this.  I say that every single person who sees this situation for what it is must try.  She says it’s futile.  I say I have to do it anyway.  She is thinking rationally.  I assert that I am thinking religiously.

Yes, that’s right.  I’m a UU who just juxtaposed “religious” and “rational.”  While I don’t think that religious thinking has to preclude rational thinking (in fact, it shouldn’t—that’s the mess many religions get bogged down in), it is a different kind of thinking.  Rationally, I can see my colleague’s argument that the task is beyond her individual influence or even her professional one, and that she has far greater influence over her own child’s progress.  But if I am to live my faith, I must affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  Since I also believe that strong public schools are necessary to these things, I have to do everything I can to preserve them, including subjecting my own two children to that clusterfuck of a state test every year they were required to take it, because their scores would be helpful to their schools though they were meaningless to them.  Doing everything in my power to preserve public schools is, for me, a religious mandate.  How is that any different from a Catholic opposing abortion on religious grounds?

And don’t try to say it’s different because God doesn’t figure into it for me.  God absolutely figures into it.  I may not believe in a personified, sentient god, but I believe that I am a part of something much bigger than me, that to live in service of that greatness, I must live my faith.  Poetry and mythology have personified death.  The fact that it is not actually person-like does not mean it isn’t real.  I feel the same way about God, and while you may disagree, what it all comes down to is this: we’re talking about religion, so in the context of this argument, what I believe about God is as valid as what anyone else believes.  Other UUs may not use the word “god” to describe what I’m talking about, but they get it, I assure you.  In the end, when I go to church on Sunday, I join in community with others of my faith who serve the greater good, regardless of what they call it, in whatever capacity they can.

We got religion.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Tagged , , | 4 Comments