About Terry Connelly

Terry Connelly is a retired high school English teacher. She earned her BA and Single Subject Teaching credential from California State University of the East Bay, in Hayward, California. Her short story "The Visitor" was published in the Noyo River Review after winning first place at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in 2019. She taught for 18 years at Newark Memorial High School in Newark, California. She was gifted to work with both College Prep students and those with learning disabilities.

Spring Awakening

            I am often slow to come to an awareness of things about me. While my eyes are open as I go about my day, I keep personal feelings tucked safely away. Therefore, I miss the obvious.

            For example, I might be so focused on the menu that I fail to register that friends have ordered and what they have ordered. I might not like the appetizers that they’ve chosen, so my mind races ahead trying to figure out if I am going to be expected to share the cost even though I won’t take one bite.

            Did she just order a salad and that friend a complete entrée? Or was I mistaken? I don’t want to choose the chicken parmesan meal if everyone has soup. Or soup if they order the chicken.

            Today was a perfect example of how long it takes me to process where I am and what to do.

            I had a reservation at the gym to swim. It’s a three-lane pool, and since it reopened, we’ve only been using lanes one and three. My slot was lane one, my favorite.

            When I arrived, lane three was occupied with swim lessons! I almost turned around and left. Eighty pounds ago I would have been embarrassed to swim with parents hugging the walls. I knew, sensed, that they’d all be staring at this fat old lady slapping her way across the pool. My huge, baggy arms made a whomp, whomp sound when they hit the water, something so intriguing that no matter how hard those parents might try, they wouldn’t have been able to ignore. On top of that, the sight of my huge body waddling onto the deck might have repulsed them!

            As I stood at the check-in desk contemplating what to do, it dawned on me that I am no longer that fat old lady. The eighty pounds have been gone for two years and the cosmetic surgeries that I had last year removed the excess skin from my arms and waist. I had no reason to be embarrassed, no excuse for not swimming.

            I changed, and before walking out on the deck, stopped and looked in the full-length mirror. The image startled me. Am I really that thin? Is my stomach really that flat? Are my arms really that small?

            I nodded. Yes, yes and yes. I am all those things and more.

            With my head up I strode onto the deck. I put on my cap and rinsed off. I sat on the top step and slid my feet into my fins, then pulled the goggles over my head.

            I took off, counting one, two, three, four, my arms coming up and then plunging back in, no sound except the bubbles escaping my nose. Back and forth I swam, with newfound confidence.

            I was a swimmer. A real, actual swimmer. A woman who looks good in her new body. And it made me proud.

            Now if I can hold on to that awareness, my life will be so much better.

Testimony

     

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’m here to testify.

“Amen,” you say, “Amen.”

I cross my hands and cry

The Lord, our God, is here

I see Him in your eyes

with a fire hot to sear

and drown out all your cries

He loves us, don’t you know

He calls us to follow

His straight path and to grow

in love.  He brings a glow

a radiant glow of love

so pure, so strong, so fine

that we look up above

and are blind by His shine

but don’t worry, my friends

for we can easily

cross over, make amends,

climb the heights, dizzily

basking in His wondrous

gift of spiritual life

spreading a bounteous

blessing to man and wife

children, bow down, I pray

I place my hands and sing

calling His love your way

and the joys He will bring

Halleluiah, Amen

Halleluiah, my friend

Halleluiah, again

Halleluiah,  the end.

Misconceptions

            It’s all too easy to formulate theories based on first impressions. I know that I was judged many times over my life, and in most cases, the opinion-formers were probably right.

            My parents dressed me in old-fashioned, homemade clothes. The fabrics and styles weren’t right for the times. They made me where black and white saddle shoes when others had moved on to loafers. With a penny in the slot, no less.

            So here I am, wearing skirts down to my shins, long sleeved blouses with vests on top, and those godawful shoes. Picture me walking the halls of my high school. Add to that, my hair was never in style and I wore wing-tipped blue tinted glasses.

            First impressions? That I was a nerd or poor or both. And they would have been right on all counts. No misconceptions there.

            When I was a teacher, I became aware of what happened when a new student entered the room. One: all heads turned. Two: some students averted their eyes while others gaped. Three: students sitting near an empty desk either looked welcoming or recoiled. Four: once the student was seated, almost everyone stared, trying to determine whether or not those first impressions were correct.

            New students arrived all throughout the school year. I decided to turn first impressions into what I hoped was a valuable lesson. I talked about what goes through a person’s mind when someone new appears. I asked my students to generated ideas. They were extremely adept at doing so, as long as I was the one recording words on the board.

            Once we had covered the board with ideas, I had them write. Something. It could be an original story or something they had witnessed.

            Students are incredibly perceptive. They can also be open to suggestions. Because of our idea-generating discussion, what they wrote touched on how first impressions can not only be wrong, but can also be damaging. Many of my students, who all had learning differences that made reading and writing challenging, had been subjected to negative impressions that colored their school experience.

            In my own life, I have tried not to allow myself to fall into the misconception trap, but it’s hard. A tall, gangly man stumbling down the street? Not a danger to me, right? But why is he stumbling? Could he be drunk or ill? Disabled in need of a cane? I could give him an entire story based on first impressions.

            How many of us, seeing a young man of an ethnicity not our own, formulates impressions that cause us to cross the street or grab our purse tight to our bodies? We tell ourselves that we are not racist, that that’s not the reason we were fearful, but if not fear-based racism, what is it then?

            Recently I was hiking in a local park with a friend. We are used to bicyclists and other hikers. We know that people with dogs also hike the same trails. But when we heard motors approaching, we were taken aback. What could be causing the noise? What could they be doing?

            When we made out riders coming up the hill, we both said, that can’t be legal. We froze in place, wondering what to do. We have never seen a ranger hiking the trails, neither of us had a phone, and the reception is poor anyway.

            We had both decided that whoever these riders were, they were doing so illegally. Our first impressions matched. We just didn’t know what to do from that point forward.

            Then the riders popped out from around a turn and it became obvious that our impressions were completely wrong. Every rider was from some form of police unit. There were officers in police uniform, in sheriff’s uniform and in park greens. They saluted us in greeting as they passed.

            Imagine if we had allowed our misconceptions to report unauthorized riders? We would have been humiliated when some form of law officer arrived, only to change our story that only law officers had been riding through the park! We concurred that it was most likely some type of training exercise, then went on our way.

            Misconceptions happen all too often. Many times, they cause tragic events, such as shootings or chases down busy streets. Sometimes store owners perceive individuals as potential threat and call for backup, only to find that all the people wanted was cold drinks and snacks. Imagine if the police had stormed in with guns drawn! Someone might be dead, all because of misconceptions.

             There is a lesson to be learned here. We do need to check people out for potential threats to ourselves and others, but we also need to allow ourselves to change those impressions as soon as we realize that there is no threat.

            This also applies when someone new enters our space. Instead of ruling out the person as a possible friend, lets give the person a chance. She might be lonely and frightened. He might be a gentle giant. She could love books and movies and he might enjoy the same video games.

            First impressions often lead to misconceptions that deprive us of new friends and new experiences.

            Don’t let that happen.

Salvation

Witness

As I stumble my way

Toward everlasting salvation

Tripping over my faults

I search for the golden path,

Elusive, as always.

Sometimes the path lies ahead

Shining like the sun

With God at the head

Beckoning me home

I feel His impact

A rosy glow inside

I rejoice

Through my own admission

The patch fills with holes,

Boulders that turn into mountains

Seemingly insurmountable

With my feeble

Human skills

I reach for God.

He’s there, but distant

Or so I think

My march continues,

One day after another

Always, always reaching

For His hands

For home

For my heavenly reward

Salvation

Witness

Night Dream

Death came knocking upon my door

‘cause I was feeling mighty poor

and then I gazed in that firm face,

the scariest in human race.

“Come, my true friend,” to me She spoke,

to which in tears I quickly broke.

“Please, not now,” I heartily cried.

“This must not be the day I died.

For I have much I want to do

to better live all through and through.”

“Come, my best friend,” She said again.

And soon the room commenced to spin.

Around and around we both went

until my life was nearly spent.

“Arise,” Miss Death quietly said,

and lifted me from the still bed.

Golden rays shone around my head

telling me that I sure was dead

settled in a heavenly place

staring straight at God’s kindly face.

Smiles lit up my worshipping eyes

“Come to me, child,” He softly cries.

Into His open arms I fall,

breaking Dream’s terrible dread pall.

I arose with first light of dawn,

knowing I was not yet Death’s spawn.

But given chance to live again,

I choose to be full free of sin.

So praising God, to whom I sing,

of goodness that the Lord will bring

to simple souls who promise love

with our heavenly Father above.

Fascination with Trees

I can’t recall a time when I was not drawn to trees. They amaze me. Day after day they change. Imagine something that grows taller and wider at such an incrementally slow pace that it is invisible to the eye.

They change with the seasons. Some burst into new life when the sun begins to shine in spring. Tiny green buds sprout forth, signaling the wonders that are to come. Those buds become leaves. All kinds of leaves, in all shapes and sizes and colors.

When I was young I collected leaves, especially the ones that from maple trees. Such broad leaves! So green in spring and summer, but when fall arrived, they morphed into shades from red to orange to brown. I loved them all.

I miss maple trees. They grew in the woods behind our house in Ohio, but not here in California. It was disappointed to discover that I would most likely never see them again.

It wasn’t just their leaves that I loved, but their seed pods. They were shaped like wings and if you tossed them as high above your head as you could manage, they would twirl down to the ground. I did this over and over, season after season, never growing tired of the display even well into my teen years when I should have moved on to other things.

In Ohio all trees shed their leaves in the fall and remain bare throughout the cold winters. Even when quite young I understood that winter was a time of rest, a time to store up energy to be ready to burst into action at the first sign of spring.

It was the same for me. In the winter I huddled inside where it was warm, venturing outside only when bundled from head to toe. Some days my breath froze on my eyebrows and hair, my teeth chattered and I thought my fingers and toes would crack and fall off.

We moved to California after my ninth grade year. The seasons here are not as differentiated as in Ohio. What we call winter is nothing to people who live in the Midwest, North or East, for there it snows and temps can drop well below freezing. Here I think it’s cold if it is below sixty.

Because our seasons are not as sharply delineated, not all trees go through the autumnal changes. Looking out my window right now, I some trees are just beginning to grow buds, some have sprouted their leaves, while many stay green throughout the year. Flowers have been blooming like crazy for weeks now and low-growing bushes are covered with leaves.

In time, all but the fir trees will lose their leaves. It is a good thing, as even in California trees need to rest, to be still so as to prepare for the wonderful gifts that are to come.

Trees that produce fruit amaze me. They are so generous, so thoughtful, even when their human caretakers are less then vigilant. Day after day apples and pears and oranges and other wonderful things ripen, all for us.

Some fruits require a little work to get inside. Some don’t. I tend to love fruit that you can bite into and have your mouth filled with sweetness, the juice spilling onto your chin. Every time I eat an apple or pear I am thankful that I am blessed with having such a marvelous thing to eat.

When I go walking around my neighborhood and see fruit growing on trees, I want to reach up, pull off just one and take a bite. But I don’t. I don’t know how needy the owners are. Perhaps that apple is their only sustenance of the day. Perhaps the orange is their only access to vitamin C. I would not want to steal that treasure from them. So I walk on.

In our neighborhood there are not as many trees as when we first moved in forty years ago. Some have died. Some have been taken down by their owners. Some removed by the city because their roots were growing into the pipes. I miss all the once grand, sprawling trees that hung out over the road creating a marvelous canopy! So beautiful. Now gone.

We get to drive through forests on our way north and east and south when we get into the mountains. I love to look at the trees, how magically they grow out of rock and cling to the sides of granite cliffs as if they were meant to be there. When the sun shines on them they are a wonderfully deep green.  They sing with life! And when you get close enough you can take in their rich aroma, like sticking your head in a cedar chest from long ago.

When they are covered with snow it is a picture straight from Christmas cards. I imagine myself riding on a horse-drawn sleigh under their boughs and having dollops of snow fall on my head as I lean back laughing. I have never done this, but nevertheless I can place myself in the scene.

When I was young I did not wear glasses. Trees frightened me because I thought each and every one would fall on my head, killing me. In fourth grade my teachers demanded that I get glasses. I remember the bus ride home, looking out the window and seeing that the leaning trees no longer leaned! It was a miracle.

These are the reasons that I love trees. Not only do they defy the passing of time, but they stand tall as a reminder of all that they offer us. Beautiful colors and tasty food. I hope that I will never lose my ability to appreciate the wonderful gift that each tree is.

The Rails are Calling

The rails are calling me

Clickety-clack

I’m yearning to be free

Never look back

Black engine rolls along

Puffing my name

Grunting and groaning strong

As in fame

Cities, fields, and hills fly by

Magical blur

Free as a bird, I cry

Contented purr

Look outside!  See new things

Happiness abounds

Wonderful offerings

Mystical sounds

Engine picks up the pace

Fly, fly away

Wind blows against my face

Feeling quite gay

My heart echoes the sound

Of wheels on track

Knows I’ll not be around

Take a new tack.

I’m yearning to be free

Clickety-clack

The rails are calling me

Never look back.

The Saints Went Walking

The saints went walking down my street

waving flags and shouting, “Amen.”

They marched to a steady beat,

calling children, women and men

to join God’s growing army squad.

Beaming bright with an inner glow

they stood, maybe forty abroad

and aligned in six even rows.

“Come, join our ranks,” they loudly cried

and sang the most heavenly tune.

My neighbors hopped aboard the ride.

I waited, not brave to commit too soon.

Just as the parade passed me by

a rainbow appeared high in the sky

and a horde of angels asked, “Why?”

I fell upon my knees to cry

and beg for forgiveness so kind.

One young saint raised a mighty hand

and grace flooded my trembling mind.

I knew then, that in all the land

I was called to follow God’s way.

I stood, strong from heavenly grace.

With steady legs I did not sway

as I rushed to find my own place

among that blessed saintly band.

So now with them I proudly say

to doubters across all the land,

“It’s time to jump aboard God’s way.

It’s now or never,” I demand

of all who just bow down to pray

without sincerity at their hand.

It’s not enough just to obey.

So with the saints I now march by.

Open your heart, ears, hands, and eyes.

Don’t stop to think or question why,

Just step right up.  Win the great prize.

The Teacher Who Changed My Life

            Academics did not come easy for me. The alphabet made no sense, so I couldn’t read or write. While math was easy, time and money stumped me. No one had ever read to me and there were few books in our house, so that was probably the main reason that everything was so hard.

            I did attend preschool for a while. I recall that the teachers were nice, but they only gave me assignments that involved coloring alone, at my desk. Kindergarten wasn’t much better.

            The one skill that I did master was being invisible. I was the student who disappeared into her desk. When my reading group was called to the front of the room, I scooted down so far that only my forehead was above the desk. If the teacher had been paying attention, she would have noticed that I was missing, but she seldom did.

            My returned papers had poor grades. When I realized how poorly I was doing, I decided to teach myself. My determination was what helped me succeed.

            I still struggled, so much so that at the end of each year, when the teacher called me to her desk and marked on my report card whether or not I had passed, I never knew what would happen. It could easily have gone either way. Repeating a grade might have been the best thing for me except for the punishment I’d have gotten at home.

            Along the way my academic skills improved, enough so that by the time I went to high school I was able to enroll in the more challenging courses. I was on was on the college-bound track. Even so, English was still difficult.

            My ninth grade English teacher seldom called on me, which was good, because most of the time I had no idea what he was talking about. He’d ask about theme, moral of the story and characterization. What I thought was the theme, was never what he thought. My interpretation of moral was always wrong. I confused characters and so didn’t “get” what one character intended or meant or said.

            There was one time when the teacher called on me to answer a question. I had thought I knew the answer, but I froze. Instead of saying what was on my mind, I replied, “I don’t know.” Not only did he laugh at me, but so did all of my classmates.

            When we moved to California, I had a chance to start over with new classmates, in a new school where none of the teachers knew my history. My Algebra teacher was Mr. Kjekegard, a short, squat, ruddy-faced, pleasant man. He was incredibly patient and explained things in a way that not only made sense, but allowed me to excel.

            Mr. K saw something in me that no previous teacher had seen: a person capable of becoming whatever she wanted to be. When the class was working independently, he often stopped by my desk to give words of encouragement. Sometimes when class ended, he called me to his desk and commented about how well I was doing.

            His demeanor and support encouraged me to work harder, to master complex problems and to push ahead of the class. When he asked for students to come to the board to solve problems, I frequently volunteered, something I had never done before.

            He didn’t teach Geometry, so I had a new teacher, one who was not patient or kind. I found Geometry complex and confusing. It didn’t follow any mathematical principles that made sense to me. No matter how hard I worked, I struggled. The teacher offered no help or encouragement.

            My senior year I was assigned to Mr. K’s class for Trigonometry. I rejoiced when I saw his name on my course schedule. Once again I was a stellar student, mastering complex problems with ease.

            The best part was that Mr. K encouraged me to think about college, something that I wanted to do, but felt I’d never have sufficient academic skills to even consider the possibility. I applied as a Math major, of all things! And, surprise of all surprises, I was accepted at every college.

            While I eventually changed my major because of a misogynistic Math Department Chair, I was always grateful for the confidence that Mr. K had given me. Under his tutelage I discovered that not only could I succeed in higher lever math, but that I could also excel in almost all academic areas.

            Mr. K changed my life. The child who was once invisible later became the teacher who stood at the front of the room, the teacher who made sure to recognize the good in all of her students.  

A Dose of my Own Medicine

I don’t consider myself the mask police, but I am aware of who isn’t wearing one when I’m out hiking.  When such an individual approaches, I make sure mine is on properly, but I don’t correct their behavior. Likewise, I say nothing when I’m at a store or the gym and catch someone wearing theirs incorrectly. It seems that the most common error is not covering the nose.

Perhaps they don’t realize that we send droplets into the air with every exhalation. But, rule are rules, right?

I have reported a few individuals at the gym and have requested that staff walk the gym floor on a regular basis to ensure compliance. My health and that of others is at stake.

Now that we are fully vaccinated, we went on our first trip out of Alameda County over the weekend to visit relatives. They live in an area that resists compliance with any laws, so I was not surprised to encounter folks not wearing masks of any kind. It made me both angry and sad. It’s one thing to not care about your own health: it’s entirely another to not care about what you might inflict on others.

Coming home Tuesday we stopped for lunch at a fast food restaurant that had tables outdoors. My fingers got quite messy. When I was finished I tossed our trash and went inside to clean up. A woman, who appeared to be in line, waved her hand in a circle when she saw me. I assumed she meant she wasn’t in that line, but the one for food.

As I washed my hands, I glanced at myself in the mirror and discovered, to my embarrassment and horror, that I had not put my mask on before entering!

I made a promise to myself that I will no longer look askance at those who are not compliant. After all, they might not be aware that their mask had slipped, or like me, had simply made a mistake!