Choosing the Sunny Path

On any given day we are bombarded with stories of fear and intimidation, of cruelty and loss. When we read them, sadness fills our soul. That’s the expected reaction because if we didn’t experience the horror, one might question our inner light.

It’s not easy to push those thoughts aside especially when they are replayed over and over on social media. We can choose to learn from what evil others do and behave in some way to counteract the actions that offend us or we swallow it down, sending it deep inside us.

Being an activist is not easy. It takes courage to stand up for one’s beliefs knowing that out there are people who will spit on you, call you offensive names and even threaten your life. We should applaud those we choose to disregard the safety of their lives in order to bring injustices to the forefront, thereby forcing the public to rethink attitudes and beliefs.

The sunny path is not always smooth. There are pitfalls that can suck you in and hold you there, consumed by despair. You can sit there and wallow or pull yourself up and continue down the path.

Soon another obstacle will arise, making you choose, once again, how you will react. Too many roadblocks might cause you to give up. But if you jump over each, if you move one person to act with you, if you change one mind, think of the rewards.

No one will give you a medal, but many will follow in your shoes.

That’s why we choose to walk in the sunshine: to feel goodness and light, joy and power.

 

Reality Check

My friends know that I have always struggled with my weight. It defines me as a fat person. Many people see it as a symbol of slovenliness, laziness, and carelessness. Fat people are thought to be so stupid that they don’t understand the connection between what they ingest and how it manifests in the body.

Although weight isn’t supposed to be a factor when applying for a job, it is. I have sat on interview panels looking for teachers to fill particular positions. Despite being the most articulate, the most qualified in terms of experience and having the most confidence of all those interviewed, often they won’t get hired. Why? Because of a perception that weight will interfere with job performance.

What feels like a gazillion years ago I took a weight management class that my health care provider offered. I learned a lot about nutrition, self-talk and tricks to use to distract myself from eating. I did lose weight during the four-week class so I took it again. And again. As long as I was attending, I lost. It wasn’t huge amounts, but it made a difference. I felt in control.

A long dry spell without outside reinforcement passed before I broke down and joined Weight Watchers, now known as WW. I had stayed away because I feared being weighed in public. It’s one thing for me to look at myself in the mirror and be appalled: it’s another for a stranger to see the numbers. I’m not sure what I expected would happen, but in my mind, I imagined people gathered around the scale watching as each person was weighed. Everyone would see. Everyone would know.

That’s not the way it happens. From the first meeting I was hooked. I have been attending meetings for years. I would lose a little, and then put some back on. Lose a little, gain more. Up and down, week after week.

When my knees needed replacing I took it more seriously and lost more. Due to inactivity, it returned.

It seemed that I lacked discipline and focus. I wanted to lose because it would change my life in powerful ways. A skinnier me would be a respected colleague at work. When I spoke, peers would listen to the words, not gawk at my fat.

I would bring home the proper foods and stay on track. Except for the cookie that would turn into four and the M & Ms that fell into my palm in a cluster. There would be cake and pie at parties that I had to eat. Hamburgers and candy bars that I needed at the end of every shopping trip. Over and over I overindulged in things that I knew put on fat.

Thanks to WW I began to understand that I was not alone: millions of people are just like me. It’s like being in a club of like-minded individuals. Meetings brought us together to share our stories. We listened, knowing that the words spoken represented us.

Every week I was welcomed for who I was, not for who they thought I should be. Such acceptance from strangers was new to me.  Sometimes I was the fattest person in the room, but most of the time I wasn’t. Sometimes when I was frustrated I was silent and moody, but then someone would share an insight that opened my eyes.

Even so, my pattern of deprivation followed by indulgence continued. I’d lose a fair amount of weight, buy new clothes, then something would happen and the weight would return. I saw it as a natural process: something that occurred because of an injury or illness. That image allowed me to put the blame somewhere other than in my mind, in the things that went into my mouth.

Two years ago I needed an operation that was important enough to be done quickly. However the surgeon wouldn’t operate until I had lost at least thirty pounds. Do you know how embarrassing that is? The youngish, virile man looking at me as a slab of fat, like a roast to be trimmed. If I hadn’t been in tremendous pain, like other times when doctors told me I was overweight, I would have walked away and my pattern would have continued.

Instead I accepted his words for truth. For the first time I realized that I could no longer close my eyes and pretend that even though my clothes were huge, that it wasn’t all that bad. That was my first reality check.

I cried each time I wanted something unhealthy to eat. I walked past the package of cookies, the canister filled with candy with a sense of gloom. I couldn’t eat those things. I shouldn’t eat those things. I wouldn’t eat those things.

The pounds slowly disappeared because I embraced WW’s philosophy for the first time. I tracked what I ate. I stayed within my points for the day. I had been exercising for years, but I took things up a notch. Because I wanted that surgery, I took responsibility for myself being overweight and I lost the required amount of weight.

When I looked in the mirror in an honest fashion, I was proud of myself because of what I had accomplished. I still had more to lose in order to reach my goal weight.

Before I ignored the distance between where I was and where I should be, telling myself that I would never, ever get there. Now I told myself that I was on the way. All I had to do was keep following WW, keep attending reinforcing meetings, keep walking by temptations.

When I reached goal weight I was shocked and pleased. I also understood that because unhealthy food calls my name, that it would incredibly easy for me to put all those pounds back on. It might have taken me years, if we go back to when I took the classes, to lose eighty pounds, but if I fell back, those pounds would race back.

Two weeks ago my WW leader shared the message for the week. When tempted, we should pause and then do a reality check.

Imagine standing before a package of oatmeal cookies, your favorite. You pick up the  package salivating over the tender raisins, the oat texture. Then you pause with the package frozen in place. Conduct a reality check. Ask yourself if you’re truly hungry or if you’re just looking for something to put in your mouth.  If you’re hungry, ask yourself if there’s a better choice you could make. If not hungry, then question why you need food.

Recently I put this method to a test. I was in a grocery store and saw a package of prettily decorated miniature chocolate cakes. It called my name. I picked up the package and it was heading for my cart when it dawned on me that I should pause. I held the package, looking at the cakes. How many would I eat, I asked myself. I really only wanted one. I wanted to taste it, to see if it was as good as it looked. But then there would be eleven left. Who would eat them?

Anyone passing by probably wondered what I was doing. Imagine how peculiar I looked, standing there with a package of cakes hovering over my cart. Pretty comical, right?

The next step is the reality check. If I bought them, despite only wanting one, I would eat more. I would have at least one a day until they were gone even if they didn’t taste as wonderful as I hoped.

Did I really need them? Was it important for me to buy them? If I didn’t would I have other things to eat?

The answer to all questions was a resounding no. The package returned to the display and I walked away, telling myself if, after getting the healthy choices on my list, I still yearned for them, I could go back.

Guess what? The reality check really worked. Those cakes never entered my cart.

I have used this method several times a day since then. Every time I pass through the kitchen with the intent of grabbing something, I pause. Do the reality check. Reach for fruit or walk away.

Reality check keeps me focused on my health, my well-being, my desire to present myself in a positive image. I never again want to be the obese person that I was before. I could lose more weight, but I am pleased with who I have become. I am determined to utilize the reality check method whenever temptation arises.

Imagine if everyone utilized this method! There would be no fights, no drive-by shootings, no theft, no injuries to self or others. No hurting words would be said. No haughty smirks or cutting glances. No hurtful posts on social media. No angry emails or phone calls. The world would be a safer and happier place.

I am grateful to WW for sharing this with us. Reality check is a powerful tool that I intend to rely on as long as I have the cognitive power to do so.

How about you?

Learning to be Optimistic

Before I met my husband no one would have ever considered me to be an optimist. My heart was stuck in my miserable past, and although I tried to let it go, memories drug me down.

My dreams were minuscule and short term. Turn in that paper, make my bed, don’t say anything that would get me in trouble. Every morning began with a litany of pitfalls to avoid. You would have thought I’d learn, but no, I’d fall into the same trap over and over.

Before my family moved to California, my brother and I discovered that the community colleges were affordable That was when my dreams of getting a degree began to formulate. I had no idea what I would study. I saw it as a way out. An opportunity to break free of the bonds that tied me to people seldom showed love or compassion.

Every class I took for the next three years was chosen to get me into college. I had no idea how I’d pay tuition as I had never worked. When an opportunity arose to make some money, I seized it with both hands. Night after night I sat at the scorekeeper’s table at the local bowling alley and kept score for league competitions. The bowlers paid well, but when they saw that I was studying while keeping score, they paid me more. Then when asked if I was intending to go to college, they gave me more. Over the course f two years I save up enough for a year’s tuition and books.

I needed my counselor’s recommendation to be sent to colleges. She told me that I lacked the skills to succeed. That I would fail out after one semester. Considering that I already had low self-esteem, she sent me deeper into the basement. I cried for days.

One morning I woke up with a new feeling: determinination. I would enroll in college. I would take courses that would count when I transferred to a four-year-university. I would prove that she was wrong.

It was hard to maintain that optimism as my family situation had not changed and I still had no friends. I was a geeky kid, one of those weirdos who don’t fit in any group. I wasn’t pretty as my father had repeated told me. I was smart, but not as smart as my brother as my mother reminded me. I wore hand-me-down clothes, shoes that were too big and had a hairdo that was ancient.

The State of California gifted me a full-ride scholarship to any in-state college. I was happy, but not buoyant. In my mind the fear still lurked that the counselor was right, that I didn’t have the academic skills to succeed.

My parents wouldn’t let me go away to college the first year, so I enrolled at a community college. I had never been a good student of English. I loved to read, but it seemed that I was unable to perceive what others did from the literature. In fact, it was as if I had read completely different books. I could write papers that got good grades, but didn’t understand how to analyze written word.

After getting two miserable grades in my first college English class, I began to believe that the counselor was right. I dropped the class. However, my Spanish professor told me I was too advanced for any classes at the college! My spirits lifted a tiny bit.

I got a job at a clothing store. Big mistake. What shopper would listen to a lower-class employee clearing wearing used clothes? No one. I was fired after a week. Spirits fell.

Then the local KFC hired me even though I knew nothing about cooking. Working the counter was intimidating. I was so shy that speaking to strangers was challenging. I felt inferior every day. The customers dressed better, spoke clearer and knew what they wanted. I lacked all of those skills.

As time passed, however, I learned the job. I was excellent at making coleslaw and excellent at strawberry pie. I kept things clean and was polite and respectful. My confidence took a step up the ladder.

I transferred to USC in the fall. My parents moved to southern California in order to keep me close. Another KFC hired me at the first interview. Another step up the ladder.

When I arrived in my dorm I was filled with excitement as this was my first time away from home. When my roommate arrived with her personal maid and boxes and boxes of brand-new clothing, I realized I was out of my element. I was the white-trash girl trying to blend in with the ultra-rich. Down to the bottom I slid.

My life was one big board game: up two steps, down ten, slide two to the right, down, then up. Meanwhile emotionally I was frozen in time. I passed all my classes, earning excellent grades, but never totally lost the fear of failure. I was a loner. Sitting by myself in the cafeteria. Spending night after night alone.

Imagine watching groups of laughing friends on campus wishing you could join in. Picture yourself in class when discussion or group projects are assigned and no one wants you in the group. That was me.

After college I was forced to move back home as I had nowhere else to go. I was back to being inferior to my siblings. Back to being ridiculed by my parents. Back to being treated like an imbecile. What good feelings I had had disappeared.

It took months to find a job, but when I did, the first thing I did was buy a car. I needed my dad’s signature. The car I wanted he wouldn’t let me have because I was stupid. Instead I ended up with a Ford Pinto, an awkwardly shaped car. But I got to choose the color so I went with the one my dad hated: bumble bee colors. Hah. An act of rebellion.

Over time things opened up for me, but I still lacked confidence. One positive was that I made a friend at work. Another was that I did have a few dates.

I switched to a government job making enough money to get my own apartment. For the first time I was in charge of my life. I ate what I wanted. Drove around wherever I wanted. Watched what I wanted on television. Listened to my music and sang as loudly as I wanted without fear of being teased. Life was good and so my self-esteem soared.

I became a positive person because I was over being negative. It took work to make the change. I had to constantly remind myself, reset goals, reward myself when I felt good.

It was during this period that I me the man who would become my husband. He exuded confidence. Not in an over-the-top way, but in an I-know-who-I-am way. The attraction was immediate. I wanted to be like him and thought if I hung out with him at work his buoyant spirit would rub off.

It took time, but he taught me to love myself, reminded me that I was lovable, and kept me away from negative, overpowering people. He beloved in himself and then believed in me. Through him I learned that I could do many things.

Recently I was reading about a different kind of therapy for depressed individuals. Instead of dwelling on the past, which cannot be changed, look to the future and try to see yourself there. What would you want to be doing? Thinking? Feeling?

Patients were encouraged to write about future selves. Guess what happened? Over time attitudes changed and they began to see brighter days ahead.

If only I could have worked with someone like this. It would not have taken twenty-five years for me to be able to see the good in myself.

I try not to see the negative in people and want to believe that there is good in everyone. However, when I do encounter someone who drags me down, instead of blaming myself, I move away. Rapidly.

This is what positivity gives you: an ability to walk in your own shoes away from negative people. Let them be miserable in their own world: keep them out of mine.

Life is easier, too, when those you have chosen to be with echo the feelings you want to cherish in yourself. Life is too precious not to be positive. I will hold that thought dear to my heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Faith

My parents were Catholics when convenient. They baptized us as infants because it was expected and demanded by family. Going to church, however, didn’t begin until it was time to enroll my older brother in Catholic elementary school. The parish checked tithing records and saw that my parents didn’t donate regularly. Once they established a pattern, then my brother could attend.

I enrolled a year later, no questions asked.

School began with daily mass. Prayer occurred at regular intervals. Massive school-wide processions took place with regularity, rain, snow or shine. Students were disciplined with ruler, clicker, social isolation and words. We studied the saints and wrote countless reports about our favorites. All art was related to church and church teachings. No frivolous country scenes. Only crucifixions or stained-glass windows.

We read the bible, not contemporary literature except for the occasional Dick and Jane and see Spot run. We were conditioned to believe that church was our life now and in the future. Every year priests and nuns and missionaries spoke to our entire school about a life of service.

Throughout all these years I often attended Sunday Mass, but only if there wasn’t an excuse to skip it. It crops had to be planted or harvested, no Mass. If it was too snowy, icy or rainy, no Mass. Too hot? No Mass. Memorial Day? No Mass only endless visits from one cemetery to another. Relatives to visit? Well, you get the picture.

My parents made sure we received our first Communion. We processed in with our classes, hands neatly folded with a white prayer book nestled between and a white plastic rosary draped over the tips of our fingers. My brother got by with a white school shirt but I was stuffed into a stiff Communion dress and a tight-fitting veil pinching my puffy cheeks.

Once that milestone was accomplished we once again attended Mass when my dad saw fit. Interestingly enough, ten cents out of the quarter weekly allowance was handed back to my dad as our donation to the church we never attended.

My brother and I stayed at the Catholic school through Confirmation. My teacher, a strict nun, made sure I understood that this sacrament sealed my commitment to a life of service to God and church. I took it quite seriously. When the annual recruitment took place, I was ready to sign up for a monastic life of solitude and prayer. I envisioned myself in a place of peace, a place of reflection, a place devoid of the tension which was my home life. My parents wouldn’t let me go.

When we moved to California in 1964 my dad began his search for the fastest mass in town. He took us over the hills to Half Moon Bay and Pacifica where the priests spoke of fire and brimstone, damnation of everlasting hell. They terrified me.

We tried churches in San Mateo and Burlingame. We didn’t fit in those well-to-do parishes due to our extreme poverty. He found one in San Bruno that he liked until the priest asked for regular donations. There were two in South San Francisco:  one which was supposed to be our assigned parish and the other, a tiny one, with a thirty-minute mass. That’s the one my dad chose. In and out, over and done.

When away at college I discovered the Neumann Center, a tiny chapel on campus with a welcoming atmosphere. The music was contemporary with drums, guitars, keyboard and cymbals. Dancing in the aisles. Hallelujahs and lots of praise be to God. I fit in.

My husband grew up in a family that attended mass faithfully regardless of whether even when they had to sludge to church through downpours.  Going to church was part of who he was. It influenced his thinking, his behavior, his attitude toward others.

His beliefs built our family into who we are today. If we were camping, he found a church. Skiing? Church. Traveling? Right, church. Sometimes we drove for miles to find a church, but we got there nevertheless.

For almost 46 years Sunday Mass has been an integral part of our relationship. In fact, when I travel on my own, I seek out church and attend.

Not being able to attend due to the coronavirus takes me back to my childhood days of any excuse to miss going to Mass. Except for one caveat: this isn’t voluntary, but enforced.

We found a Mass on television, which is a nice substitute, but there’s a huge difference between sitting in your family room and being in the church building. There are stained glass windows in the TV church and statues and the readings and the service, but the lack of physical presence takes you away from the reverence, the spirituality.

Today things changed for me. I was asked to be the lector for today’s Sunday Mass. I put on a dress and necklace. Studied my readings. Made sure my hair was neatly combed. Put on my mask when I entered the church. Three others were there: the parish secretary, the parish office manager and the choir director. The church felt hollow. Voices echoed.

But the pews were there. Candles, flowers, statues, stained glass windows, all the things that identify that church as mine. When the priest entered and the service began I was filled with awe. Several times my eyes filled with tears. Singing with the director took me back to a few weeks ago when I’d be standing with five other choir members, lifting our voices in praise. Now there was just two of us.

The priest shared a time when he had strayed from God and how, when the call came, how powerful it was. His words carried me back to  my childhood when it wasn’t me that chose to stray, but circumstances beyond my control, and how powerful it was when I found God in my late teens. He spoke for all of us, reminding us to talk to Jesus.

Next Sunday we’ll watch the television Mass once again. It won’t be the same, but I’ll share the experience with my husband, the man who taught me that attending church was a powerful connection to our faith in God.

In these times we need reminders that there is someone up there, someone ready to listen when we’re ready to pray.

 

More Than Just Surviving

These are trying times. Because of a coronavirus are lives have drastically changed. Workers aren’t working unless they are deemed “essential”. Roads which normally would be congested morning and evening are practically empty. Restaurants aren’t serving unless they can provide to-go meals.

Libraries aren’t open. We can’t go to the gym, theater or conferences. Families can’t see each other and teachers can’t provide one-to-one assistance to their students. Baseball and basketball aren’t happening.

Many parks are closed and those that are open have closed parking lots and imposed restrictions limiting how many people can gather in a given place at the same time.

How do you survive in these changed circumstances?

Technology has become the lifeline for most of us. Virtual meetings, family visits, classrooms, even yoga studios allow us to interact with others. Of course there’s the phone, but it can’t take the place of seeing a loved one’s face or interacting with cherished friends.

Because we are curious about when life can return to normal we feast on the news. We find ourselves spending too much time online, reading reports and studying statistics hoping to see the light at the end.

There are days when circumstances seem to be changing. We smile more, laugh more, feel lighter and brighter and happier overall. Then we hear of a new outbreak and we sink back into that dark hole.

We forget that there are things we can still do. If we have yards, we can go outside. Live in an apartment building? Go up on the roof. We can don masks and walk around the block, making sure to maintain social distancing when we encounter others.

We can still barbeque and sit on balconies or decks if we have them. We can listen to music and read good books. We can watch documentaries on television and play board games with those in our homes.

If we’re crafty, we can make something. Paint, knit, crochet, sew, build. Cut, fold, stamp.

If we have the physical ability we can tackle home-cleaning tasks that we’ve put off for years. The stuff in the garage might not be needed anymore. The garden that we’ve neglected now needs plants that can provide food as well as beauty. Clean windows, showers and tubs. Polish the wood floor and wipe down blinds.

When we’re feeling sad we can do something uplifting. Bake cookies to nourish, sew masks to give away, connect via email, phone or internet.

We have to change our mindset. Instead of dwelling on what we can’t do, think of all the blessings we’ve been given. Instead of moping about, rejoice in another day of life. Instead of carrying sorrow on our shoulders, find reasons to rejoice.

Things may not be wonderful right now, but an end will come. When it does, let’s not look back on these times with regret for what we didn’t do, but instead on all the things we did.

That’s the attitude needed to survive. We can do this. We can choose to walk alone or we can use what tools we have to pull others into our circle. We are children of survivors. We are survivors.

 

Family Time Situation

I love family.  Who doesn’t?  When, however, do you draw the line and say that enough is enough?  Is five hours of “together time” enough?  Ten hours?  How about two days?  What happens when two long days drag into three or four?

It depends upon how you define “family”.  I love spending time with my grown children, but I intentionally keep the time short so as to not wear out my welcome.  Four or five days, max, and I’m gone.  Don’t get me wrong. I love our time together, but I recognize that lengthy visits become an imposition.  After all, tall my “children” lead hectic lives filled with work, school, children (in my daughter’s case), and a social life all their own.  They are not dependent upon me for their entertainment.

With my husband’s family it is different.  They seem to suck up time like a tornado, sweeping along anyone caught in their path.  Hours slowly turn into days, which then morph, painfully, into weeks.  Invitations crop up more regularly than armpit hair, and turning one down causes an earthquake that sets new highs on the Richter scale.

Is my perception an “in-law” thing?  That would be a partially correct interpretation.  The family shares a long history of names and places that mean little to me.  My husband’s family is huge, with roots beginning in Nebraska and with branches stretching from coast to coast, north to south.  I can’t keep all the cousins straight, let alone all the children produced within those relationships.

There are only so many times you can hear what someone’s house looks like, in a painfully drawn out explanation.  How is dear Uncle Jay doing?  The story is good for another five minutes, at most.  Then there are the wedding plans for the niece, which have to be retold every time an arrival steps into the room.  Comments about decorations, food, remodeling projects and health only carry a conversation so far.

Walking out of the room to enjoy some solitude is only permitted when a bathroom break is needed.  It’s amazing how many times that toilet seat calls!  One has to be careful even then, however, as too many visits prompt discussions about intestinal mishaps, surgeries, cancers, and deaths.

I do care for my husband’s family.  They are big-hearted people who accept everyone into their lives and hearts.  Once met, never forgotten and you are family for the rest of your life.

What is overwhelming are the never-ending parties that start late, run even later, and go on for days.  Dinner at five?  Arrive at four for cocktails and snacks?  Don’t worry if you get out of the house late or if you are held up in traffic, for you won’t have missed a thing.  You’ll be lucky to eat by seven.  Over by eight? Forget it.  Family parties frequently run into the early morning hours, dying only when the last standing person caves and crawls out the door.

Refusing an invitation is tantamount to causing a revolution.  Shock and dismay registers, for who could turn down such a lovely family?

After a few hours, I get restless.  My legs twitch and my eyes glaze over.  My patience takes a hike after hearing about Aunt Mabel’s hip surgery for the sixth time.  I yearn for a good book and a quiet corner like some folks salivate over rare tri-tip roast beef.  Give me my computer!  Put on a good movie, even one that I’ve seen!  Turn on the stereo so that music fills the gaps in conversation.

As a hostess, I am conscious of my guests’ time.  Things begin and end when stated.  Dinner is served promptly.  Dessert and tea to follow.  An evening together is just that, and no more.  Never do I stretch a gathering into double digits, even when the guest is staying at my house.  I retreat into my solitude, allowing my company time to relax and recoup energy.

One time declined an invitation.  Mind you, this was after being together for twenty-four hours.  I thought that the earth would shatter and swallow me up!  My husband gasped and turned pale, so I quickly amended my decline by adding that he could come if he wanted.  My mother-in-law gave me a look that questioned my competence, and my sister-in-law giggled nervously, followed by a muffled cough.

Oh, well.  Here we go again.  How much time is too much time to be together as family?  When I quantify it with charts, graphs, and concrete statistics, I’ll let you all know.  Meanwhile, I’ll stick to my gut instincts.  When the stories recycle, then the party should be over.

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.

 

 

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.

 

Being Me

For the longest time, I really didn’t like myself. I knew, intrinsically, that somehow I was not the child that my parents wanted. That’s a hard cross to bear.

I was not pretty. I was not talented in any way. I took a long time to learn things. My memory was not the best, so I repeated the same mistakes over and over.

I was not girly. I wore dresses only because that’s what my mother gave me to wear. I wanted to wear pants and shorts and t-shirts because that’s what my brother wore.

I hated long hair. It took too much time to brush it, and then what I got older, it was difficult to style it because I had no skill in that area. I wanted short hair cut in a “boy” style. When I finally did get it sheared off at shoulder length, it angered my father so much that he called me foul names.

In terms of academics I was not my brilliant brother. He excelled in science. I excelled in nothing. No, there was one thing that I could do better than him! I could write beautiful cursive.

I was so slow to learn that I spent most lunches in a tutoring room, supervised by a strict nun who offered no support. I hated the room in the summer as it was sweltering. In the winter, however, it was shelter from the cold.

In high school I discovered that I was good at math and languages. I was still awkward. I was still not pretty. I was still not girly. I was now able to wear shorts and jeans at home, but had to wear dresses to school and church. I felt fat and dumpy. When I sat, the width of a single one of my thighs matched the width of both of anyone else’s combined.

I discovered that I had a talent for bowling and badminton, so played on my high school teams. I was not the best, but I held my own. This gave me something to crow about. I held my head higher and walked prouder.

When a young man asked me out, I felt desired. Not at first, but as he continued to date me, I accepted his amorous fumblings with positive regard. Because of him I began to understand that beauty is not defined by what you see on television or in magazines, but what others see when you walk by.

Once I was in college I realized that my skills in math and languages were appreciated by my professors. My heart swelled with pride.

When contacts came on the market, I entered a trial program on my campus to wear them. Without my glasses I didn’t feel as old-fashioned or as clumsy. I dated several men at the same time! Wow! Imagine how it felt to be popular for the first time!

I smiled when I walked about campus. I greeted casual acquaintances and sat with people I barely knew. I worked in the bookstore and found myself a valued employee. I was a good roommate and a good friend.

As my circle of friends grew, so did my self-esteem. By the time I graduated, I must have had at least fifteen friends! A record number for me.

After college I had no choice but to return home, back to the environment in which I was less-than my siblings. I was subjected to cooking lessons which I never mastered. I was forced to clean house every day, including my sibling’s rooms which I felt was grossly unfair. I was little more than a servant.

To make matters worse, I could not find employment. I applied wherever I could. I was rejected over and over because potential employers didn’t like that I was a college graduate with no office skills. I wasn’t even hired to distribute cards from store to store! What skills would that require?

The longer unemployment went on, the lower my self-esteem plummeted. At home I was that unhappy, unfeminine little girl. I was worthless because I lacked domestic skills and had no desire to learn. My activities were monitored, so I was not allowed to be social. I could only go out when my activities were chaperoned by an adult.

I was an adult! I was twenty-one. I could drive and vote and drink legally.

When I finally got hired at a now defunct furniture store, I was out of the house forty hours a week. I bought a car. I rented a studio apartment. I was free! And once again I began to like myself.

From there I slowly became who I am today. It was not an easy road. I spent hours alone, but I also went skiing, saw movies, ate out with colleagues. I saw Joan Baez in concert. I went camping in the Santa Cruz mountains. I took a class in hiking and went with the group. It was tough! My backpack was canvas on a metal frame. By the time it was packed and on my shoulders, I feel over backwards! But I went.

The rest of my story, my story of learning to like myself, was like climbing a ladder. Each rung up taught me that I could do things, that I could succeed, that I had value.

When I look back and I realize how long I struggled to overcome those early restrictive years, it’s amazing that I emerged as me. I wish I could spare all girls the struggle. What I can offer is my life as example.

No matter where you are in life, never give up on yourself. Fight against whatever forces hold you back. Find something that you do well. Anything. It doesn’t have to be academics. It doesn’t have to lead to career, but it could.

Believe in yourself. No matter how others treat you, no matter those who try to hold you back, know that in you, there is value. You have much to offer the world.

Like yourself. Be you.

 

Gift Giving

From the time I was a little girl I loved giving gifts much more than getting them. This applies to all occasions, not just Christmas.

Why? I love watching the expressions on faces as they open each item. It thrills me when the person’s eyes light up and a smile graces their face. It lets me know that I have chosen wisely.

Therein lies the problem. I love the thrill of the hunt: finding just the right gift for each individual on my list. Flannel pjs for the grandkids? Perfect. New shoes for Mike? Yes.

I leave home with something in mind to search for. If I’m lucky, I’ll find it in the right size and color and at a discount! Yippee.

On the way I might find other things that tickle my fancy but had never entered my sphere of interest. That makes the trip worthwhile. Finding wonderful things to give to the people I love.

I’m not as excited about wrapping as I used to be. In the past each gift would have tied with a color-coordinated ribbon and topped with a bow. I might start out that way, but as time passes and my back begins to hurt, I give up on fancy and go with simply getting the job done.

Since all my kids and grandkids live far away, I have been spared hours of wrapping. I do online shopping and so packages are delivered in brown boxes or green plastic bags. Certainly the excitement for the recipient has been downgraded as there are no colorfully wrapped gifts from me under the tree, but the idea is still there. I have thought of them, chosen something, and had it sent to them.

I also love gifts for myself, but the act of unwrapping them in front of an audience intimidates me.   I don’t like being the center of attention, everyone focused on my eyes and lips, waiting to see if I smile.

Interesting dichotomy, right? What I enjoy most about being the giver is what I dislike the most about being the recipient.

One good thing about getting older is that there are fewer opportunities to open gifts in public. For many years now it’s been just my husband and I on Christmas Day. An audience of one.

We work hard to find appropriate gifts for each other. Mike gives hints…but mostly it’s me telling him what to buy me, where to find it, what it looks like, how much it should cost. He’s great at following suggestions. In fact, he loves it when I practically outline for him what would be nice gifts for me. But sometimes he surprises me.

For example we often pass a jewelry store on our walks about the neighborhood. One time I spotted a necklace that I liked. No price was posted so I didn’t know if the jewelers prices were reasonable or not. I never told Mike to buy it, but one time we went past and it was gone. Imagine my surprise when I unwrapped a box and found it nestled within!

When I was a kid my family had an interesting unwrapping routine. Each of us would hold a gift in our laps. At a nod from my dad, we ripped off paper, ribbons and bows altogether. The item was revealed, hopefully appreciated, then we moved on to the next box. There was little giving of thanks or admiration. It was open, open, open.

My husband’s family, however, had a different ritual which we adopted for our family and still follow today.

We each hold a gift in our laps. One person opens their gift, we appreciate it, give thanks to the giver, then move on to the next person. It is a slow process. When our kids still lived with us, opening gifts could span hours with breaks in between to eat breakfast, stoke up the fire, go to the restroom, get something to drink.

I loved it. Instead of the mad dash that I grew up with, there was now a patient revealing. It allowed me to do that which made me happiest about gift-giving: watching the faces of those I had chosen gifts for.

Today I began the wrapping of gifts. My first gifts are for an exchange tomorrow. Each time had to be Christmas-themed and under ten dollars total. Since I am a great sale-shopper, I found awesome things that stayed under the limit. I can hardly wait until tomorrow when the exchange happens.

I then wrapped the gift for the teenager from the church’s giving tree. She only asked for leggings, but she’s getting two books and a gift card as well. Each of them is wrapped and nestled into one large box. I wish I could see her face when she gets to unpackage all those things! I hope she is excited.

During this time which can be hectic, please reflect on how you feel about gift-giving. Which part excites you the most? The hunt? The wrapping? The giving or the receiving? Or maybe all of it!