A Glimpse of Fame

Many years ago Mike and I were in New York City prior to going overseas. It was cold, rainy and windy. We were miserable but determined to walk all over the city.

At one intersection we were handed a flyer and invited to attend a live filming of a television talk show. Neither of us had ever done anything like that, so to satisfy curiosity and to get out of the weather, we went.

After filling out several forms, we were ushered into a large, narrow hall where we were seated with thirty others. Food was in abundance. There were gourmet sandwiches and expensive pasties along with a variety of fruits, salads and drinks. Since it was near lunchtime, we enjoyed ourselves.

Eventually a spokesperson instructed us in proper behavior during filming: to sit quietly and try not to cough or sneeze. He also explained what we would see, from the studio to the cameras and crew. It was very informative and exciting.

After the explanation we lined up and were escorted inside. A sorting process took place in which some were sent to the front row, some to the back, most to the middle rows. We were buried in the middle.

Initially I didn’t understand what decisions controlled who sat where, but once the camera swooped over the crowd and we could see on several large screens what the camera saw, it became obvious.

At that time I was quite heavy. I was not the only overweight person in the audience, but in introspect, I was probably among the heaviest. All of us fatsos were buried in the middle rows, hidden behind those in front and flanked by those on our sides and backs. We were so well hidden that the camera only picked up our images from collarbones to the tops of our heads.

In other words, no one in TV land would be affronted by fat bodies. It hurt when this realization hit me, but there was nothing I could do about it, so I resolved myself to sit back and enjoy the show.

I did.

The host had a pleasant personality. She engaged with members of the audience, often asking questions and then expanding on comments. Behind her was a large window through which we could see crowds of passersby staring in.

I don’t recall who she was, who the guest was or even the topic of the show.

I do recall my humiliation and the amazement at how taping a live show worked.

The reason I am sharing this now is that I don’t believe the producers intended to insult me, but rather present a pleasing picture to watchers. If this was so, then shouldn’t they have been aware that many of the watchers would have also been overweight? And that the message they were sending was that the overweight needed to be hidden? Invisible in plain sight?

Granted this took place over ten years ago before all kinds of awareness movements came forward educating the populace about fat-shaming. Even so, someone, somewhere in the back offices should have spoken up. Someone who had a weight issue of their own. Someone who understood what it was like to exist in a world that catered to the skinny.

 

Good News

When parents are asked about the general state of public schools, they tend to respond negatively.  They express concerns about gangs, violence, bullying, “dummied down” curriculum, and inexperienced teachers.  Yet when asked to comment about their local schools, parents are much more enthusiastic.

 

Why?  Personal contact with a child’s teacher is one of the best tools to measure potential effectiveness of the learning environment.  The vast majority of teachers love being in the classroom and working with students.  They spend hours preparing lessons that will engage students while sticking to mandated standards and benchmarks.  Many extend their work day by tutoring struggling students after school or by meeting with concerned parents, all without receiving extra pay or recognition.

As older teachers retire, they take with them years of experience which often younger teachers aren’t interested in learning.  Perhaps the lessons are now antiquated or don’t incorporate the latest trends, but there is still something that should be there.

The vast majority of new hires are younger, energetic teachers straight out of college. They come with unbounded enthusiasm, yearning to impart knowledge that there students will soak up.

One plus of being new is that often they are not burdened with the status quo.  Innovations in methodology, technology, and curriculum hopefully invite all learners to the table if delivered correctly.  Credential programs expose new teachers to the tried and true, but also to cutting edge research.

Often older teachers rely on lectures and silent reading, while newer teachers experiment with multi-modal formats that allow all types of learners access to subject matter.  Using video, slides, computer-based presentations, modern overhead tools students who struggle with printed text can now compete academically with their peers.

When hiring, districts search for the most highly qualified candidates that will also fit in the school’s atmosphere in order to create small learning groups to meet academic demands in a consistent basis regardless of teacher.

Hiring is a competitive market in which wealthier districts lure the best and the brightest with signing bonuses, housing opportunities, and credit for advanced degrees.  Candidates shop around, searching for the sweetest the hiring package.

During the interview process, there is an opportunity for interviewees to ask questions.  In the past questions revolved around calendar, courses to be taught, and salary.  Today’s candidates want to know about the population’s socioeconomic status, ethnic breakdown, opportunities for advancement, access to technology, and availability of consultants/collaborators.  What a pleasant change!

Students come to school, for the most part, knowing how to do things with a computer that far exceed older teachers’ abilities.  They see technology as an extension of their innate abilities.  Schools that have up-to-date computer labs provide opportunities for students to demonstrate learning beyond traditional pencil and paper tasks.  Therefor the Internet is used for research as well as for submitting assignments on school-based boards, searching for homework help, sending email to teachers and to other students.  While not all students have a computer at home, savvy students find access at libraries, recreation centers and after-school computer labs on campus.

Almost all textbooks now come with audio components.  Students can check out a CD and listen to the required reading.  What a marvelous innovation!  Having such access is a boon to all struggling readers.  Imagine “listening” at your pace, being able to move backward and forward, and hearing text presented clearly, in an articulate voice, at a fluent pace!

Curriculum is developed using fairly rigid standards and benchmarks. Teachers are forced to comply when presenting instruction.  Gone are the freewheeling days of endless video-watching as well as project-based thematic units that do not offer the rigor required.  Knowing that material will be tested and that the success of students on such tests will be the measuring stick for a given teacher, those who value continued employment must teach to the standards.  That’s the bottom line.

Add to the mix the availability of cell phones that can be used as learning tools but also to take sneak pictures, students often use them to capture and publish errant behaviors by both teachers and students.  Teachers are very much aware that everything they say or do can become public within a relatively short period of time.  Students not only record fights but also catch teachers swearing, bullying, and making ethnic, racial, or sexist comments.  Because of technology, what happens in the classroom has to be appropriate.

What is the State of Education today?  Teachers are stressed and underpaid, programs are underfunded, and some students are disengaged. On the other hand, requirements force teachers to stick to the curriculum for a particular grade or course, leveling the educational opportunities for all students, regardless of income-level. Technology, where available, opens the doors for learning as well as presentation variability.  Older teachers are leaving, but they are being replaced with teachers who are not afraid to experiment with innovative ideas.

All in all, things are looking up.  The sun is shining through the clouds.

 

 

Faith

How do I write about my faith?  What words can I put down that express what it means to me?  A difficult challenge, to be sure.

I am not a born-again Christian, but I do believe that through God, I can accomplish almost anything.  Within limits.  I’ll never be a Steinbeck or a Kingsolver, but I can, and do, write.  I’ll never climb Mount Everest or jump from a plane intentionally, but I can scale personal mountains and leap over obstacles blocking my path.  I can’t build a house, but I can mold minds and hearts through teaching.

My faith gives me balance and perspective and keeps me grounded in reality.  Because I believe in a higher authority, I accept that there is a method to all that lives and breathes and grows on our planet.  I am sad to see global warming destroying the habitats of animals, yet I have to believe that there is a reason for us to witness this.

Faith supports me when I am ill.  I had two chronic asthma attacks, that because of medical interventions and many, many prayers, I overcame.  God held my hand during those long days and nights when every breath was a struggle.  He told me that my time had not yet come, and gave me the strength to fight.

On 9/11 when the towers fell my faith kept me grounded.  I was far from New York, but that did not spare us from possible threats.  I live in the San Francisco area, and so we were on the “watch” list.  Because I believe in God, I knew that if our beautiful city should be attacked and I should die, I had nothing to fear.

I believe in my husband and his love for me.  He has stood by me when I had no job, when I had doubts about my intelligence, when I loathed my overweight body.  His faith in my abilities has given me the strength to accomplish much.  Without my husband standing by my side, I would still be awash in doubts.  He is my rock, my foundation.  He sits with the Lord on his shoulders.

I have felt the hand of God intervening when my kids were ill.  It was like a light breeze brushing my cheeks, calming my soul.  He spoke to me, not in words, but in actions.  He brought down the fevers, healed the kidneys, stood over the surgeons, and held the hands of my children as He whispered in their ears.

Faith is difficult to define, as it means so many different things, to many different people.  For me, however, the essence of faith is God.  Because of Him, I believe in myself.  Because of Him, my husband is my best supporter.  Because of Him, my children are alive and well.  Faith stands at the center of my universe.  It is my propulsion, my driving force.

Coming Home

Grandma and Grandpa Williams’ house rested on the crest of a small hill overlooking the Ohio River near the Gallipolis dam.  From the porch, if I looked between the houses across the road, I saw numerous barges and freighters, some clearly full, riding low, just above water line.  Others bounced on the wake of passing ships, much like a bar of soap floating in a tub of hot water.

Sunday afternoons were spent with my brother and I chewing the gum my mother forbade, while Grandpa worked on accurately spitting tobacco juice into an old tin can.  When he missed, there was a disgusting splat, adding to a constantly growing pile of partially digested tobacco.  I pretended not to see or hear, preferring to watch the ships and speculate as to what the cargo might be and where the ships might be going.

Much of their house was a combination of put-together rooms, a rather ramshackle affair that, at one time or another, housed up to ten people.  Not one board on the outside had ever seen a drop of paint, and the roof was nothing more than tin sheets nailed together in an overlapping pattern.  It didn’t leak, which was all my grandparents cared about. I worried about how they kept warm during Ohio’s cold, snowy winters.

The house was so old that there was no electricity or running water inside.  Grandma Williams lit the house with candles and kerosene lanterns, long enough to do “piece-work,” as she called it, for a few hours after dark.  She had a pedal-operated sewing machine that she used for “fine” stitching, such as sewing on a lace collar or finishing off her quilts.  Spools of thread sorted by color, with white always on the top, were stacked on a rounded stick that Grandpa had lovingly whittled.

Grandma’s hand sewing was accurate and precise, each stitch neatly following the next, marching in a straight line of equal length and breadth.  It amazed me that she could create such perfection without benefit of modern machinery, and while I owned one of the best sewing machines available, my workmanship fell into the barely adequate, yet serviceable category.

A coal-burning stove sat majestically in the front room, providing the only heat for the house.  When the stove was “cookin’,” as Grandpa colorfully said, no one could stand within a few feet of it without feeling feverish.  Next to the stove sat a black tub filled with odd sized chunks of coal and next to that, a dusty black shovel.

When Grandpa opened the door in the front of the stove to dump in scoops of coal, the interior reminded me of the fires of hell. While I relished the warmth it created, I was terrified of being sucked into its cavernous interior. The fire called to me, hypnotizing me, saying, “Come closer, come closer.”  Only when the door was shut and firmly latched was I able to break free and step away.

There wasn’t much in the way of furniture.  A crate served as an end table, covered with a dishtowel hand embroidered in rose-colored flowers and meandering vines.  A kerosene lantern took center place, with odds and ends scattered about, ceramic and pewter “doodads” that folks had given Grandma over the years.  Crystal birds, miniature horses, and dolls’ heads stood with a grace befitting gold bracelets and diamond tiaras.  While Grandma encouraged me to touch her beloved treasures, I never did; I was too afraid of breaking both the item and her memory.

There was a loveseat big enough for two and a half grownups, but plenty of room for four kids.  The cushioned seat lifted up, disclosing storage room underneath, like a pirate’s chest holding gold doubloons.  This is where Grandma kept her quilts and pillows, always ready for company in case anyone stopped by looking for a place to sleep.  Every quilt was of a different folk pattern, all made by Grandma, all perfectly crafted in mesmerizing patterns of shape and color.  The fabrics Grandma used amazed me: pieces of Grandpa’s well-worn overalls, a sleeve from Uncle Dowie’s flannel shirt, a pocket from a gingham apron, and the collar from her old calico blouse.

Not one picture hung on the walls or sat on a flat surface.  My grandparents believed that a person’s soul was a tenuous thing, easily stolen, and so they forbade photographs either being displayed or being taken.

As they aged, my grandparents relaxed a bit in their beliefs, and so after much begging, allowed the taking of two well-cherished photos which now sit in my bookcase as reminders of two people who loved me unconditionally.

Grandma’s kitchen was so small that two people could manage to work in there at the same time, but only by carefully orchestrating the changing of places.  When we visited, my mother helped while I watched from the back porch.  Too little to help, too inexperienced in the art of cooking, all I was capable of doing was running for more wood or sweeping up spilled flour. What amazed me, however, was the magical dance the two most important women in my life performed as they, soundlessly, moved past each other, butts touching in a tender way.

Longing to share in their loving togetherness, I stayed close enough that one of them could reach out and brush my cheek.  Sometimes my grandma blessed me with a floury kiss or a sticky touch, and then my heart leapt like a stag through the forest.

Along one wall was a good-sized cast iron stove.  A box of cut wood sat nearby.  Off and on Grandma picked up a stick, opened the bottom door of the stove and threw in the wood.  She then wiped her hands on her well-worn gingham apron and went back to peeling and coring apples or rolling out a crust or boiling eggs.

She cooked with heavy cast iron skillets that she stored inside the oven, and cast iron pans that stayed stacked on the flat burners until she put them to use.  She did own a few cheap aluminum cookie sheets, pie tins, and measuring cups that were dented like pockmarked faces, but she didn’t like to use them, believing that food never came out tasting as good as when cooked in cast iron.

Along the opposite wall of the kitchen was a metal sink as dull as an unpolished car.  On the end nearest the window was a hand pump that intrigued me.  Lifting the handle up and down, up and down, again and again, brought the coldest, crispest water imaginable.

When, Grandma pumped her arm muscles bulged with effort.   For the longest time, nothing happened, and then a dribble showed up, followed by another and another. The dribbles turned into a gush, caught by the bucket that Grandma hung just under the faucet.  As the bucket filled, I often wondered why it didn’t slip, no matter how full it got. Grandma never explained the mystery to me, but when I was much older and touring an old Louisiana plantation, the docent pointed to a barely discernable niche in the spout, just deep enough to hold a bucket handle in place: and then I understood.

Grandma knew how much I yearned for her attention, without my saying so.  One of the first things she did whenever we arrived was to bring me into the kitchen, dip the cup into the bucket and give me a cool drink of water.  She smiled as I drank, and then patted my head as softly as she would a newborn babe.  Grandma didn’t have to do much to let me know that I was loved, even though she never said the words.

Off the kitchen was the porch: Grandma’s greenhouse.  Over the years Grandpa had enclosed the room, using pieces of discarded wood and scraps of screen.  The floor’s composition was equally mismatched: boards and bricks, tiles and dirt. Being a hodgepodge affair, the porch emitted an aura unlike anything else I knew.  It was homey and peculiar, safe and mysterious.  A place of growth and death.

There were no tables, just a collection of old boards balanced on homemade sawhorses, reminiscent of shacks built by hoboes in days gone by.  Every flat surface was covered with plants: mostly vegetable, some flower.  They grew in cans, ceramic pots, old buckets and cups, tubs, glassware, all of various sizes and shapes.

Knowing that my mother would not have tolerated such a mishmash made Grandma’s collection even more amazing.  As a child I thought plants required properly identified, single purpose pots, but Grandma’s green house proved me wrong.  Her touch was as golden as King Midas’ in the fairy tales, for greenery sprouted far and wide.

Grandma carefully pinched off dead leaves, repotted plants that had grown too large for their containers, watered each plant, one by one with a gentle spray of water.  She hummed as she worked, quiet tunes that were mostly hymnals that I recognized from records my mom listened to in the afternoons when my dad was at work.

Once I joined in the humming, thinking that my grandma might share her love of music with me, bonding us together as tightly as a snail and its shell, but that was a mistake.  Grandma, immersed in her labor of love, had forgotten that anyone else was around until she heard my child’s soft voice blending with hers. Her face registered surprise and then horror, almost as if I had caught her performing a criminal act.  From then on, Grandma never hummed when I was nearby.

There was only one bedroom.  A large feather bed took up most of the space. A few of Grandma’s quilts covered the bed and a pair of pillows stuffed with chicken feathers sat at the head.  One for Grandma.  One for Grandpa.  A lace doily, reminiscent of the ones Spanish dancers wore in storybooks, daintily covered each pillow. The bed was surprisingly soft, an amazing thing for a child whose mattress was as hard as the cement floor of a garage.  I loved to crawl up on the bed, stretch out full length, and sink into the comforting softness.

The only other piece of furniture was a chest of drawers.  It was of a dark wood, with four drawers and mismatched knobs. A large doily spread across the top, along with Grandma’s hairbrush and hand mirror, facial powder and lotion, barrettes and combs and even a ragged hairnet or two.

If I looked closely at the knobs, I saw indentations where Grandma’s fingernails cut into the soft wood and smudge marks where Grandpa’s farm-dirt hands pulled open his drawers.

Next to the bed was an oval rag rug.  Grandma made one for the living room as well.  Beginning with odd sized scraps of cloth, Grandma twisted each piece into a “rope” of color, then wound and wound the rope around its center until a large oval took shape.

Most of the colors were shades of blue, pieces from overalls Grandpa had worn through.  One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the rug and run my fingers along the track of the rope, inside out, outside in, sensing Grandma’s tender touch as surely as a baker senses the yeast working to raise the dough.

Because there was no running water, there was no indoor bathroom.  One of the sons had built an outhouse in the field behind the greenhouse; nothing more than a narrow building with a plank for a toilet seat.  High on one wall a narrow window provided the only light, and that was always kept open thanks to a couple of nails and a piece of twine.  No toilet paper.  Old store catalogues with missing pages sat next to the hole, giving indication as to how they disappeared.

Flies buzzed around and spider webs clung to the ceiling.  The stench was indescribable and unforgettable, the sight intolerable and sickening.

Not understanding the nature of outhouses, I wondered why it was in a different spot on every visit.  Years passed before I broached such a sensitive topic. My Uncle Joe roared with laughter, making a point of sharing my outlandish question with every member of the family within calling distance.  From then on, whenever I stepped foot on my grandparent’s gravel driveway, somoene hollered out the location of the outhouse, to my endless embarrassment.

Primitive though it was, my grandparent’s house was bursting with love.  Anyone who wandered up from down below found a warm meal, warm hearts, warm fire, accompanied by welcoming company.

To me, arriving at the small house at the crest of the hill was like coming home.

 

 

My Definition of Faith

One aspect of faith that’s important to me is the belief in the inherent goodness of humanity. I may be naïve especially in the light of the increasing number of mass shootings recently, and it might be misplaced, but it we cannot believe that the bulk of people walking with us are good, than things have truly fallen to a low level.

An example that occurred when I was still teaching Special Education at our local high school was that an article appeared in the school newspaper referring to a group of students as “Tard Kart.” In itself, the label does not seem offensive. However, in the article group members described themselves as being “crazy misfits not accepted by the rest of the school”. Hence, “Tard” is a derivative of Retard, a truly offensive term.

Because I represented all Special Education students on our campus, I felt it was my responsibility to speak with the teacher who oversaw the paper. Despite my explanation, she continued to see nothing wrong with publicizing the term and insisted her writers had every right to do so. Despite this opinion, I knew this teacher to be a kind, caring person.

Earlier in the week a student had been attacked outside my classroom door.  He was a relatively small freshman. The students who accosted him were burly seniors. When I heard a loud thump against the wall, I investigated. My student was curled in a fetal position on the dirty carpet.  Large tears coursed down his cheeks.

The ones inflicting the damage stood nearby with smirks on their faces. I do not think they intended to cause severe harm. I believe that it was a prank that got out of control. The older boys have reputations of being overly aggressive, occasionally defiant and at times, general malcontents. They were not on track to graduate with their class, so they had nothing to lose. Even so, my faith in their humanity told me that the beating was not a planned act, but rather an opportunistic reaction.

As an abused child, I grew up in an environment that was not conducive to the development of a personal faith. We did attend church when it fit my dad’s schedule. We did receive our sacraments when others our age did. I even attended Catholic school for the first seven years of my education. But it’s hard to believe that the God who died to give us an opportunity to go to heaven also allowed physical beatings, verbal harassment and emotional debasement. I prayed, every day, for salvation.

During my sophomore year of college the Neumann Club went on a trip to the mountains east of Los Angeles. Waling amidst the towering trees and seeing the snow-covered mountain tops in the background awakened my deeper faith. There I came to know that God loves the world so much that He gave us places of solitude and introspection.

God does not always grant us what we wish, for He knows that we need to be forged by our experiences. We may not want to walk the path we’ve been given, but we have to truly believe that our journey will lead us to a clearer understanding of who we are meant to be in the eyes of humanity, and in the eyes of God.

As I stood in that forest all those years ago I understood for the first time that I was not the horrible child that my parents saw. Faith allowed me to witness the goodness inside myself, the goodness inside my parents, and the goodness in those sharing life with me. It’s a cliché, but I felt a golden glow spreading throughout my body. That glow was faith.

Faith continues to be my rock. It gives me strength to transcend the travails of daily life. It opens my eyes to the good of others and allows me to feel generosity of spirit. When disheartening events rise forth, it is through faith that I am able to move on.

I believe that all are capable of living lives ruled by basic tenets of kindness. Even when challenged, my faith does not waver. That is my belief. That is my faith.

 

Could Of/Could Have and Other Such Things

Some cultures prefer slow-talking conversations. Words slither out, each with its own emphasis and pronunciation. The words are treasured for their meaning and elocution is a critical element in the delivery.

However, there are places and times when we find it necessary to rush through whatever we want to say. In this case words are shortened into sound fragments that are not grammatically correct.

For example, dropping the final consonants in words ending in “-ing.” I’m writin’ a letter, he’s callin’ his friend; we’re goin’ to the mall. Acceptable in casual conversation or when writing in dialect, but it is never acceptable in Standard English.

A huge mistake seen by learners is using “of” instead of “have” as an auxiliary verb. “Of” is a preposition that is followed by a noun or pronoun. “Have” is a verb that can be followed by other verbs. For example; I could have gone. You should have called. This is also true for could, should, must and might.

If this is hard for you, then avoid the use of those verbs altogether. Chose a verb that stands alone, expressing the emotion, feeling, action that you intend. I traveled all over Europe. You screamed at me. Bill tumbled down the hill.

If you believe that auxiliary verbs are necessary to your writing, there is a tip to ensure that grammatically correct English is used: skip “have” altogether and go straight to the bare form of the main verb. I could send an email. You should enroll in classes. Tim might build a rocket.

One more thing: I often see writers use “alot”. Please be aware that no such word exists. Instead use “a lot”. A lot of things happened on our trip. We bought a lot of souvenirs. Stan fell a lot when he was learning to ice skate.

These little tips will strengthen the finished product. I hope you find them useful.

 

 

A Different Kind of Bravery

By nature I am not a brave person. Put me in a room with unfamiliar people and I cannot speak. I want to join in, but can’t find the strength to open my mouth and risk not fitting in.

On top of that I don’t embrace change and am incredibly happy living my life as is.

Yet despite how I am, when I think back over the years, a number of events arise in which I had to fight against my nature and step outside my box.

As a young child I preferred my own company, so going to school for the first time was a frightening experience. Because I was socially awkward my parents found the money to put me in private Kindergarten. I learned a lot of things that set me on the right path academically, but I did interact with others. I spent playground time in the sand box, constructing my imaginary worlds.

Age did not improve my ability to meet new friend, but I did learn how to function within the system. And I did it on my own. No teacher, no school counselor, no administrator helped me negotiate the ins and outs of school. I roamed the playground lost in my own world, circling around and around, spinning stories both fantastical and what would now be called magical realism as they had nothing to do with what was feasible. I knew I was weird, and when you’re weird, you don’t have friends.

I had the grades and a massive scholarship so I was able to go to college, but this required a tremendous amount of bravery as this would be a new experience in a foreign environment. I was terrified. The first months were painful as even my roommate ignored me. But as time passed thanks to people that spoke to me first, I made a few friends.

Finding a job scared me, because as before, it meant entering unfamiliar places, approaching unfamiliar and often cold people, and facing repeated rejection. Once I did get hired, there was the problem of new expectations and jobs that I knew nothing about, which meant asking for help. I asked only when tears filled my eyes, but each time I was successful, my confidence grew.

I would like to think that age has increased confidence, but it hasn’t. What it has given me is the understanding of myself and has given me the ability to move into new situations despite the terror that such things create.

I am blessed with a husband who encourages me to continually step outside my box and go out into the world. Because of him I travel, write, and sing. Because of him I join clubs, go to luncheons and meet up with friends.

Sometimes I wonder how different I might have been if there had been someone like him in my life from the first time I ever left the house as a child. Because of my husband I am learning to be brave.

And because of people I’ve met through conferences, book clubs and the senior center, I prefer the company of others. I am no longer isolated in my head.

That’s a wonderful way to live!