Anything Goes

            The first time I heard this expression I didn’t think it applied to me. I was a follower of rules. Because of my home environment, I understood that straying resulted in physical punishment, ranging from being beaten with a belt, shaken, slapped and humiliated.

            The concept of anything goes was as foreign to me a Greek. There was nothing in my lexicon that allowed me to process the meaning.

            When I left home to attend college, for the first time in my life, no one hovered over me telling me what to do or ridiculing the decisions I made. It was terrifying and rejuvenating at the same time. If I wanted to skip a meal, I could. If I felt like sleeping in and not making my bed, my mother was not there to chastise.

            In essences, I could do whatever I wanted. The caveat was that I had to attend classes and earn grades good enough to graduate with a degree.

            When the Vietnam War protests began, I could march and carry signs expressing my opinion, knowing that my parents would be horrified. There was nothing they could do to stop me. It was only when smartly dressed me in tight fitting expensive suits with ear pieces arrived on campus, did I retreat from the movement. At that moment I couldn’t do whatever I wanted because I knew they were keeping track and most likely taking pictures.

            Once I was an adult, anything goes ceased to have meaning. I had to be present for my kids. I had to forsake my own wishes to teach in order to make sure the kids had food, opportunities to learn and explore, clean clothes and a responsible adult overseeing them. I did haul them to pottery classes, preschool, parks, parties, sports practices and games. I made sure they got to school on time with clean clothes.

            In other words, I was back to being a follower of rules.

            One advantage of getting old is that once again, rules disappear. Anything Goes is truly my motto. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I can choose to not do something as well. My life is my own to monitor. I can go hiking with a friend or walk with my husband. I can write or read a book. I can send cards to family and friends or laze in front of the television. Laundry can stack up in the hamper until I feel like washing it.

            The only monitor I have is me.

            I hope that sometime during a person’s life they can fall under the umbrella of Anything Goes. It’s a powerfully liberating concept. Enjoy!

Crimes of Passion

            When I was a child, my family was poor. We always had food, clothes and a place to live, so we weren’t destitute. Much of what we did have came from relatives. This included everything from furniture to food.

            I don’t recall ever being extremely hungry, but I was never full. Apply this to not just the physical sense of lacking food, but to the emotional. I missed something that was wholly mine. Yearned for something that had never been owned, worn, felt by someone before coming to me.

            At the time I lacked the words to describe the feeling. There was an emptiness that was never filled. As a consequence, my eyes sought objects that were small, so insignificant that they would not be missed.

            My mom frequented the Five and Dime, a general merchandise store that catered to people like us. My mom loved to roam the aisles, feeling this, holding that, occasionally buying the things she came there for: a spool of thread, buttons, a swath of fabric.

            Perhaps I learned from her that it was okay to pick up and hold things that you weren’t going to buy. Maybe I was taught to slip things in your purse when the owner wasn’t looking. In later years I learned that my mom often left stores with hidden items. If that was true, then I was an observant understudy.

            My sister’s birthday was approaching and on this trip to the Five and Dime my mom needed candles for the cake. In that section there were tiny pink dolls, plastic cribs to match, and paper umbrellas on thin sticks. I wanted them all. One of each size, shape and color.

            Something inside of me must have known that it was not okay to pocket too many items, at least not on one trip. My hand reached for a plastic baby on its own accord. It felt smooth and easy to touch. It weighed nothing. It fit perfectly in my small hand and even better in the pocket of my jacket.

            I wanted more. The crib, the umbrellas. I trembled and sweat broke out on my forehead. I couldn’t talk. When we approached the register I knew I was going to get caught. My eyes looked down. I feared that the owner could see guilt, could see the inside of my pocket. He said nothing.

            On the way home my fingers held that baby, still inside the pocket. At home I buried it in the backyard, hiding the evidence.

            One plastic baby didn’t satisfy the want inside me.

            The next visit to the store I pocketed a box of six crayons. The problem, I realized once home, was that I couldn’t use them without my mm knowing that she had not paid for them. The crayons joined the plastic baby in the backyard.

            By now I was a seasoned thief. I planned my outfit, making sure I had at least one pocket. I knew I had to roam the aisles like my mother did, feeling this, picking up that, examining something else. When mom led us to the trinket aisle I knew what I was going to take: an umbrella. The problem was, which one. I chose the blue. It slid into my pocket just as the other things had done.

            By now I wasn’t afraid of looking at the owner. After all, I had stolen before and not gotten caught. With the umbrella secure, I accompanied my mom to the register, stood complacently while she paid, then walked out. Except something different happened.

            The owner asked my mom to wait, but not until after I was outside. I don’t know what was said, but when my mom stormed outside and grabbed me by the sleeve, I knew I was in trouble. She dug in my pocket and produced the umbrella. With it held aloft, she pulled me back inside the store. She handed over the umbrella which was now broken thanks to her tight grip.

            I was told to apologize. I refused. I had done nothing wrong in my mind. I had seen my mom slip things in her purse over and over. If I had to apologize, then so should she. I didn’t say it, thankfully.

            After much prodding I mumbled an apology. The owner then forbade me from ever entering his store again. I thought his punishment was excessive considering it was only a tiny umbrella.

            My parents decided I need moral guidance so they enrolled me in a Brownie troop that was being formed at the Catholic School I attended. I didn’t know anyone and had no intentions of making friends with them.

            I don’t know how I knew, but I understood that the girls and mothers who ran the troop came from wealthier families. It might have been the newness of the girls’ uniforms versus my faded one from a thrift store. Perhaps it was because the mothers wore necklaces and earrings, something my mother didn’t have. Maybe it was the way they treated me: like an idiot who didn’t understand English.

            It wasn’t on the first meeting, but maybe the third, that the mothers had planned a craft activity. It involved the use of colorful rubber bands. I don’t remember what I made, if I made anything at all. What I do recall in vivid clarity was the desire to own the bag of rubber bands.

            My palms began to sweat. My heart beat wildly. I couldn’t take my eyes off the bag. Whenever a girl took a rubber band from the bag I cringed inside. I wanted that bag so badly that my stomach hurt.

            I had to have it. I had to take it home. But how? How could I sneak it home without being caught?

            The solution came when it was time to clean up. The bag still sat on the table, all alone. It called my name. I moved closer to it. The desire intensified. I checked to see where the others were. The girls were giggling off to the side. The mothers were in a circle, talking. No one was near me. No one was watching.

            The entire bag of rubber bands slid into my school bag. I latched it shut then hurriedly left without saying goodbye.

            My mom was waiting outside. We drove the long way home in silence. At home I took my school bag into my bedroom as I always did. I removed the rubber bands and hid them in my underwear drawer. Moved them to under my mattress. Stuffed them in a shoe. Found a hole in the back of my closet and stuck them in there.

            When my mom finally asked how the Brownie meeting went, I told her it was dumb and I never wanted to go back. That was a lie. I had had fun. The mothers were kind. I felt safe there, at a time when I needed safety. I feared that the girls and mothers knew I had taken the rubber bands. That was the reason I couldn’t return.

            My crime of passion ruined what might have been a good thing.

Reliving a Moment


Every time we drive to Utah we travel past the spot where my daughter’s car slid off the road on a snowy winter day. Even though years have passed since then, goose bumps still break out all over my arms. Not only that, but shivers shake me to the core. You would think that time would dissipate the feelings, but it hasn’t. Just thinking about it now fills my eyes with tears.

At the time my daughter lived in Tooele, Utah; a bedroom community located about 40 miles from Salt Lake City. While it seldom gets deep snow, it is subject to what is called “lake effect,” meaning that moisture is pulled out of the Great Salt Lake, turned into some form of precipitation, and then dumped on Tooele.

When we arrived that January, there was already some snow on the yards and grass medians, but not on the roads.  No snow was expected; not a surprise considering our long drive from California was under bright blue skies, generally a harbinger of things to come.

On January 3 my daughter wanted to drive around the Oquirrh Mountains to West Valley, a substantially larger city with many shopping options. The purpose of the trip was to exchange some Christmas gifts that either didn’t fit or weren’t needed.

She was eight months pregnant at the time, with a nice round belly filled with a yearned-for little boy. I was excited to go, as shopping trips with my daughter had been few and far between over the years due to the distance between us. My husband and I figured out that if we drove, we could visit more frequently, which meant more opportunities to visit stores.

It snowed the night before our planned drive. Not a light dusting, but a sizeable storm that dropped a six-inch layer of snow. It continued to snow quite heavily all morning, depositing another four inches.

Footsteps were quickly filled and the increasingly heavy load caused tree limbs to droop. The roads which were normally clear had a thick covering.

Nevertheless, my daughter was determined to go, convinced that once we got out on the freeway, all would be fine.

We took the youngest daughter, now two, with us. Once she was settled into her car seat, we took off. It’s a twelve-mile drive from where they were living just to the freeway. No matter time of day the road is busy because it’s the only way in and out of the Tooele City. Because of the expected traffic, my daughter figured there would be safe paths despite the still falling snow.

She was wrong. There road was not dusted with snow, but rather held an accumulation of more than four inches despite traffic. And it was till snowing as we approached the I-80. In fact, the weather and roads worsened once we were heading east. Snow that should have been mashed was not. Blizzard-like conditions blurred our vision.

I tried to convince my daughter to turn around at the first opportunity, saying that we could go another day, but she was insistent that the highway would be clear the further we traveled. We moved on with windshield wipers working at high speed.

As a person who learned to drive in California’s East Bay, I was unfamiliar with conditions like these. I was nervous, terrified and anxious all in one. My hands gripped the armrests and my knees shook.

This stretch of I-80 is a major connector between northern California and states east. It is always filled with semis pulling multiple trailers, tourists, trucks of all shapes and sizes, and any other vehicle possible, all traveling at seventy miles an hour or more. It is two lanes in each direction, and because of the high speed, care must be taken even in the best conditions.

Due to the snow-covered roads and limited visibility speeds were down to sixty miles an hour, somewhat of a comfort since it was slower than normal. Even so I felt it was too fast to safely maneuver in case of an emergency.

Shortly after entering the highway we saw that the snow accumulation was getting worse. The sky was one huge gray cloud, so no relief was in sight. Because of the treacherous conditions I finally convinced my daughter to return home. When she agreed to get off at the next exit, I was relieved.

The sign appeared, but when we could see that no one had driven that way since the snow had begun, we chose to continue on. The next exit in the same condition, with deep snow and no tire tracks. The next one seemed to have tracks that were only partially filled-in, so she decided to exit even though we were still a mile away and our vision was partially blocked by swirling snow.

As we approached the exit my daughter made a slight pull on the steering wheel, heading us toward the ramp. Just as it was time to commit to leaving the freeway, we saw that no vehicles had passed that way recently, and although there were tracks, they were quickly filling.

Deciding that this was not a safe exit, my daughter corrected by turning slightly to the left.

That small movement was enough to send us slipping and sliding down the highway. We found ourselves in the fast lane, then into the slow. We drifted toward the shoulder, back to the slow, over into the fast, and at the last, we hit some hidden ice and gradually, in what felt like slow motion, slid closer and closer toward the shoulder.

I was in full panic-mode: I couldn’t speak, think, or offer words of advice. My brain was frozen as my wide open eyes stared at the embankment ahead, wondering what fate had in store for us. I should have been screaming, crying, hands up preparing for the impending impact, but I just sat there.

The minivan’s rear spun once more to the right, taking us completely off the road. I feared a rollover similar to ones my husband and I had seen on our drive to Utah. But for some reason, despite the combination of speed and slippage, we remained upright.

When we did come to a stop and all seemed well, we looked at each other and breathed a sigh of thanksgiving.

No one was hurt. The van was not damaged. No vehicle had struck us as we careened out of control. Although the lanes had been crowded with a variety of vehicles, any of which could have sent us to our deaths with even the slightest of impact, we had escaped without impact.

After a brief interlude of blessed relief, I decided to get out to see if where we had landed was safe of if we should immediately abandon the vehicle.

Because of the proximity to the Great Salt Lake, the water table is quite high all along that stretch of road. The freeway bed is raised so as to avoid flooding, but since the shoulders drop off steeply, the depressions paralleling the road often are filled with water. In this case, there might have been marsh to suck us in, a patch of dry land or a thin layer of ice that might crack.

I needed to see for myself what the surface looked like so as to determine our next steps. What I discovered would decide whether we could remain in the vehicle until help arrived or get ourselves and the baby out as quickly as possible.

Imagine my relief when there was no evidence of water lurking under the covering of snow. The ground seemed solid beneath the layers of snow and I sensed no layer of ice.

If ever my faith had been tested before, this surpassed anything I had ever experienced. I truly believe that my Lord and Savior was watching out for us because we had landed in a spot that, I hoped, would keep us safe from sinking.

Neither my daughter nor I had a cell phone which meant we had no way to call for help. Not knowing what else to do, I climbed up the hill to the shoulder of the freeway and began waving to passing vehicles.

I was not dressed for the cold and so my fingers and toes so began stinging. My breath came out in puffs and my face was freezing. I knew that I couldn’t stay out there for too long, so I prayed that someone would see me and quickly come to our aid.

I smiled when a semi driver honked and waved. A variety of trucks passed, many of them honking. This reassured me that someone was calling for help.

A woman pulled over on the shoulder despite the risk of being hit. She ran over to where I was standing, dressed in high heels and a tight skirt, waving her cell phone. She asked if I would like to call for help and was shocked when I told her I did not know how to use a cell phone.

While she made a call, a snowplow went by in the fast lane. The driver honked and waved, reassuring me that several people now knew where we were. Hopefully they all realized our predicament and that help would soon arrive.

The woman told me that someone had alerted Highway Patrol. I expected her to leave since she seemed dressed for work, but she stayed.

I was surprised when another vehicle pulled over behind the woman’s care. This time it was a young man wearing a Fire EMT jacket. He approached the car and immediately went into rescue mode, asking over and over if everyone was fine. He asked my daughter to open her window and unlock the back door so he could check on the baby. He asked my daughter how far along she was and whether or not she needed assistance.

A third vehicle stopped while this was happening, this time a man dressed in his winter Army uniform. He took charge in a confidant, militaristic way. Speaking softly, he asked my daughter to get out of the car. He told her to leave the baby, reassuring her that all would be safe.

He got in, strapped on his seatbelt put the minivan into gear. When he stepped on the gas the car crept forward, slowly, slowly, until the front wheels reached the solid ground of the shoulder. He turned the front wheels to the right, bringing the car entirely on safe ground. He put the car into park, and when he got out, he told my daughter to stay there for a while until she was calm enough to drive.

All three remained with us while my daughter sat with eyes closed. I know that I was giving thanks and I believe that she was doing the same.

When my daughter waved, indicating that we were ready to leave, the woman, the EMT, and the Army officer got in their own vehicles.

In the safety of the warm car we watched them pull away, thanking God for sending kind people our way. If not for them, we might have sat perpendicular to the highway for a very long time.

We knew, without saying it, that our trip to West Valley was not going to happen. My daughter stated that the best place to turn around would be the exit for the airport, as it would be heavily traveled, so that became our target.

Out on the freeway she drove at about twenty miles an hour, terrified that we would slip again. It was a good decision because about mile down the road we passed an accident scene. A minivan like ours had gone off the road and overturned into the water. Victims had been pulled out and lay there covered with body bags. It was chilling.

Another half mile along we passed another accident. This time a small pickup truck was in the median between east and west, facing the wrong direction. It was on solid ground and the occupants seemed to be okay.

Not too much further along, on our side of the highway, off the road and upside down in the water, lay what was left of a minivan. Emergency vehicles were there, lights flashing. As we drove past, we could not see the condition of the passengers, but I think we both knew.

We safely negotiated the airport ramp and came to a stop at the lights with only a tiny bit of a skid. We crossed the overpass and returned to the highway, now heading west without incident. Still going slowly, we drove in the far right lane, my daughter holding tightly to the steering wheel.

Perhaps we had gone two miles before we passed another accident, this time where body bags lined the side of the road.

We said little on our return trip because I think we were both in shock.

Once we were back at my daughter’s house, I fell into my husband’s arms, tears pouring down my face. I was grateful to be alive, grateful to be able to see him and the rest of the family.

Several hours later I fell into a deep sense of despair, thinking about how differently the ending might have been. I kept myself grounded by reminding myself that we escaped thanks to the grace of God.

I haven’t driven past the spot of our accident in quite a while, but I know that the next time that I do, the same feelings will arise. The space between survival and death was tiny. If we had stopped six inches along the freeway there was the possibility that our back wheels might have been in the muck. Six inches saved three people from impending death. Six inches allowed three people to return home to rejoice in thanksgiving.

People say that you should get back in the saddle after being bucked off. That by trying again, you can conquer your fear. I believe this is true because when I returned to the scene on our next visit to Utah, I was able to relive that terrifying journey, see how close to meeting my Maker I truly was, and rejoice in the time that I have been graciously given.

The “I Do” Moment

Forty-six years ago when Mike and I were planning our wedding, one of the first things we had to do was meet with our pastor. Because we weren’t active parishioners at the time, the man didn’t know us at all. He did, however, know his job.

After the preliminary questioning was complete, he handed us a brochure with the traditional Catholic vows inside. We could choose one of them, or, if so inclined, could write our own.

At that time I had neither the time nor the inclination to write my own. Because Mike was shy and unsure of his ability to craft something original, we made what we thought was the right decision: we chose a traditional vow.

As our day neared we discussed many things. We knew we wanted to buy a house, have children and travel. The fine details of wedding planning fell entirely on my shoulders.

I visited the tuxedo rental shop. I loved the blue one as it would to go with Mike’s deep blue eyes. However, the size-ranges available wouldn’t cover his groomsmen, so I chose white with black trim. The shirt was a deep yellow with ruffles, something Mike would never have worn in a hundred years.

My mom was going to make my wedding dress as the ones I had seen were too expensive. She chose a simple pattern then embellished it with tiny fake-pearls.

I had no idea what bridesmaid’s wore, but I knew they would have to be homemade as there was no money to buy premade ones. At the fabric store my mom and I sorted through rolls of fabric. The only one that looked like a gown was a Kelly green with large white dots. There was enough of it and the price was good. My poor bridesmaids had to wear ugly gowns with cheap white hats!

As the date neared Mike and I settled on our vows. I thought I heard him say the second one, so that’s what I memorized.

Meanwhile he kept me on edge by telling me that it didn’t matter what he said or did because all eyes would be on me!

By the time the day arrived and we were alone at the front of the church, stars filled my eyes and I had difficulty breathing. All I could think of was all those eyes, those eyes of our family and friends, staring at me.

When the time came in the Mass for us to exchange vows, I was prepared. I had the words down. There was no way I was going to mess this up.

Mike went first. He held my hands in his, looked into my eyes with a confidant and reassuring gaze and said, “I, Michael Connelly, take you, Teresa Haack, for my lawful wife, to have and to hold from this day forward…”

But, wait! Those weren’t the words! That was the first vow, not the second. I panic. Do I listen with a sick smile plastered on my face and recite the words I’d memorized or try to repeat what he was saying?

“for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,” he continued.

I’m collecting his words, trying to plant them in my brain.

“in sickness and health, until death do us part.” He smiled such a warm, loving smile that I braved repeating his words.

“I, Teresa Haack, take you to be my husband.”

I pause trying to recall what came next. “to have and”, I can’t remember! What do I do?

He smiles and squeezes my hands. I continue saying the words I’d learned: “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love and honor you all the days of my life.”

It was done. With the final blessing we were married. We headed down the aisle with grins and exuberance.

Later on as we were driving away I asked Mike what had happened. He thought we had chosen the first version!

Well, in the end it didn’t matter. Our marriage has been a success. We love each other as much now as we did back then.

If I had to do it all over, though, we’d practice before each other to make sure our words matched.

An “I do” moment that almost failed, didn’t.

 

He Smiled

Imagine being able to say that OJ Simpson once smiled at me!  Guess what? It really happened. This is the story of my “brush” with the famous.

When I transferred to the University of Southern California in the fall of 1968, I knew little about college football.  At the time, I was soon to discover, USC was an athletic powerhouse, thanks to a phenomenal bunch of handpicked athletes in a variety of sports. The Trojans dominated in football, men’s and women’s basketball and swimming.  Not only that, but their track and field teams were equally strong due to multisport athletes.

Football begins the season. Banners covered surfaces all across the campus. Rallies were held every day and when the teams weren’t at home, all ears were tuned to the radio. You either followed the sports or you were an outcast. It was that simple.

The athletes, no matter what sport or how great they were, dominated the social life of the campus. Partying to celebrate their successes was a nightly affair since some team played almost every day, whether at home or away. If they weren’t off playing or pratcicing, they strutted their stuff around campus, practically oozing greatness.

I quickly learned the “culture,” of partying. There was a booze-filled affair the night before a game, partying during the game, and another party after the game, all in celebration of a victory won or a record broken. And if you didn’t find what you were looking for at one party, all you had to do was stroll down fraternity row to find another. This was especially important if you didn’t like the booze being served or the music thundering out onto the street.

None of the better-known athletes lived in the Greek houses and few had their own apartments. Instead they had their own dorm which was shielded from the peasants by locked doors and glazed windows.  It was rumored that their meal options weren’t the standard bland food that the rest of us got: instead legend had it that they feasted on huge, juicy steaks, fresh vegetables and a cornucopia of cheeses and desserts.

When they had nothing better to do they swaggered about campus in their lettermen jackets emblazoned with every type of recognition (except for a noticeable lack of academic awards). That’s not to say they weren’t capable, but at that time, achievements on the field or court were what kept them at college, not the grades received or classes taken.

With their rippling muscles, impossibly broad shoulders, and over-confident leers dished out to fawning fans, they stood far above the crowd. And they knew it.

Periodically small groups of “stars” strolled through my dining hall, snickering at the dismal fare splattered on institutional grade plates and trays.  I imagined that they had just dined on mounds of steak cooked to perfection, served with steaming mashed potatoes and crisp fresh greens.

Equality among students did not exist and there was no pretense of leveling the playing field, because the athletes were, literally, the bread and butter of university funding.  The stronger the athletes, the more likely the university would rack up victories, which then correlated to increased donations from alumni.

If I hadn’t been awed by their very presence, I should have despised the athletes for they were the epitome of all that I was not.  My family was low income which qualified me for a rather generous “pity” scholarship from the state of California. Without that gift I would not have been at such a prestigious college as USC.  But, like the vast majority of students, I didn’t hate the arrogant athletes, but rather worshipped the ground they walked on.

One evening, in a rather unusual move for me, I got as dressed up as I could and went downstairs where a dance was being held in the cafeteria.  I am not sure what possessed me to go as I was a horrific dancer.  I was also painfully shy and so operated solo the vast majority of the time, in classes as well as while on campus.

I did have friends, academics like me, but more extreme for their heads dwelt more in the clouds than in reality.  None of them were what I considered marriageable as they were more interested in finding a spouse to complete a given responsibility than having a relationship of equals. But, like any teenager, I yearned to have a boyfriend.  The dance “called” my name, speaking to me of an opportunity to meet, greet and date and so I went.

The dining hall had been transformed, as much as possible, into a disco dance hall.  With lights down low, revolving points of light danced across the walls, creating an eerie spectacle of glowing, gyrating bodies.  It wasn’t Halloween, but the bizarre lighting gave off the same feel.

The music was ear-shattering making it impossible to do more than look at all the beautiful people.  I meandered about the perimeter of the room with a plastic smile glued to my face, hoping that just one person would nod kindly in my direction. Once my circuit was completed with no takers found, I wanted nothing more but to leave this place of loneliness among confusion.

I headed toward the door, but just as I got within sight of the doorjamb, the crowd parted as miraculously as the Red Sea.  In walked none other than OJ Simpson, flanked by two humongous football players.

OJ was an incredibly handsome man with an earthy skin tone that spoke of roots, faithfulness, integrity, and family.  His eyes sparkled and a shy smile gave a sensuous lift to his lips.  I saw no semblance of arrogance, but warmth.

Like the rest of the crowd, I stood transfixed, enjoying simply being in the presence of greatness.  This was OJ’s year, the year he earned the Heisman Trophy, broke a number of records, and was first pick in the professional football draft.  Everyone knew that he was bound for the record halls and that his name would be spoken around the world.

As the trio neared me I was shoved back into the crowd.  I didn’t mind, for I intrinsically knew that these men were well beyond my social reach.  What I didn’t expect or count on was being seen.

As O’s greatness neared me, his eyes glanced in my direction and he smiled.  Not an I-want-to-talk-to-you smile, but one that recognized me as a fellow human being.  Since the contact was short-lived, I realized that there was the possibility that the greeting wasn’t even meant for me.  I acknowledged that OJ was simply flashing his famous smile at everyone, sort of like the priest sprinkling Holy Water over the congregation in a quick pass down the aisle.

Even though I knew that the encounter meant nothing to OJ, I stood a little taller and felt a tad more important than I had before.  It was a moment that I will never forget.

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.

 

 

Conference Behaviors

As I am getting ready to attend my favorite writer’s conference, I need to remind myself of how to get the most from the experience. You’d think by now that I’d have it down pat, but because I am essentially a shy person at heart, I need to keep in mind all the tips that I’m going to share.

First of all, come prepared. Make sure you have paper and pens for notetaking. If reading materials have been provided, make sure that you have read them!

Convince yourself that no matter how shy you are, don’t sit there with your mouth shut. If you have questions, ask them. If you want to make a comment, do so. Introduce yourself to total strangers. Walk up to them or lean over when seated and give your name, ask theirs, ask what they’re working on and share your work as well.

Participate whenever there is an opportunity to do so. If there are panel discussions, ask one clarifying question. If there is a chance to read, do so. If you can submit a work for critique, so it.

Step outside your genre whenever possible. While you might not write poetry, you can learn something. Maybe memoir is not your thing, but they might talk about pace, backstory, and dialogue, things you need to relearn.

Take advantage of any opportunities to meet one-on-one with professionals, even if it means paying for the privilege. This is your chance to solicit advice from the very people who are there looking for new clients.

After the conference is over, stay in touch with friends you meet there. I have been blessed to have several good friends that I met at the same conference that I am going to this week. Many of us have been meeting regularly over a period of five years. It’s been a blessing that’s worth every moment spent on the road to see them.

Lastly, don’t feel that you have to do everything offered. You can’t pop into every session for a few moments and think you can walk away with gems that will influence your work. Be reasonable and make the best choices that you can. If it works out, great. If it’s not working and there’s a break, don’t be afraid to walk out. Your time is valuable.

You also need time to rest. Learning is exhausting. If you are too tired to process, go back to the hotel or go for a walk. It’s okay.

I hope this helps you as much as it helps me. Now I am ready!

A Precious Cat

Today a friend shared an interesting story.

Out for a walk, she spotted an orange cat sleeping on the sidewalk. She had never seen this cat before, but thought it was strange behavior.

What cat sleeps like that?

She approached the cat, speaking softly to it, but it did not react.

My friend continued on her walk, never stopping thinking about the cat.

When she neared her home, the cat had moved. It was now lying in the street. It did not appear to be injured, but my friend believed it was probably ill.

She approached the cat, determined to rescue it. Just as she was about to touch it, it hissed at her.

The only thing she could think to do was knock on doors.

Eventually she found someone who thought the cat might be hers. The woman picked up the cat and put it in a carrier. She took it to the vet where X-rays and blood work was done. The vet found nothing despite the fact that something was obviously wrong. Six hundred dollars poorer, the woman returned home.

Just as the woman opened her front door, her cat appeared! She had taken an unknown cat to the vet.

My friend offered to post a notice on the neighborhood blog. She got the woman‘s contact information, composed the notice, then called the woman back to confirm.

The woman was distraught. The cat had just died!

Imagine the range of emotions that the woman had experienced. Everything from worry, fear and then relief when it was not her pet.

My friend felt quite guilty for involving a total stranger in the story. She would have taken care of the cat herself if she wasn’t afraid of being scratched.

Instead, because of her actions, a neighbor had spent a huge sum on a cat that was not hers, all the while terrified that it was her dear pet.

The moral of the story is not clear. Do you get involved or walk away?