My Namesake

From the time I was old enough to process and understand names, I have hated mine. There was something ominous is the way my parents used it to call me to attention. When I heard Teresa, I understood that I had committed some grievous wrong. When they tacked on my middle name, Louise, then severe physical punishment was coming.

There were other issues that I encountered once I entered school. First of all, no one knew how to spell it. In Ohio, Teresa was always spelled with an h. My mother’s limited education must have negatively impacted her academic skills as it wasn’t just my name she had difficulty with.  She struggled with grammar, sentence construction and subject-verb agreement as well. But Teresa instead of Theresa affected my perception of how others saw me.

Because my brother’s nickname was Billy, my parents called me Terry whenever I wasn’t in trouble. Which, by the way, I frequently found myself embroiled in one controversy after another. Terry is a boys’ name. Girls whose names are shortened spell it Teri. Because mine was the male version, I was ridiculed mercilessly.

In the Catholic Church at that time, when a child was confirmed a new middle name was added. My brother took on my father’s first name. When it was my turn the next year, I chose Marie, my beloved grandmother’s middle name. Forever on I would be Teresa Louise Marie.

I never knew that names could be legally changed. It never came up in a class and I never heard anyone mention it in casual conversation. If I had known such a thing was possible, today I would go by Marie, a beautiful name in honor of our Virgin Mary.

Another error my mother made was theoretically naming after St. Therese the Little Flower. She told me repeatedly that’s who she chose as my saint-name. Obviously it wasn’t, I discovered when as an elementary-school student I was assigned to research and write about my patron saint. Imagine my embarrassment when I found out the error!

All my little life I’d been the Little Flower. Now I was not.

So who am I really named after? St. Teresa of Avila. Last year when we traveled through Spain, one of our rest stops was at an overlook of Avila. Off in the distance was the city where she lived. Along the path leading to the city were a series of signs that spoke of the history of the city as well as that of St. Teresa. In fact, she was such a huge factor in the beliefs of the time that her burial spot and the church at which she worshipped are now part of a pilgrimage tour.

It’s ironic that my mother got things wrong. The Little Flower lived a cloistered life and died at the age of 24. Unlike many saints, she never left the cloister to go on a mission, she never founded a religious order but chose to live within hers, and she is not credited with performing any great works. There is a collection of prayers attributed to her, the only book that she was known to write. She grew up in a family of nine. Most of her sisters entered religious orders.

When Therese fell seriously ill, she prayed to Mary, not aloud, but in her mind. After that her goal was to be a saint and the way to accomplish that was to live in a cloister. While she was not a vocal participant, her quiet way of praying impressed those who knew her.

Those of you who know me, understand that I am, in no way, the Little Flower. I will admit that at the age of 13 I wanted to join a convent. Not due to religious fervor, but as an escape out of what I felt was a miserable life, one in which I was treated as inferior to my older brother and my younger sister. That was the only reason. I did not fully understand the dedication to prayer that life would entail, not did I care. I was only searching for a way out.

In actuality I am more like St. Teresa of Avila, who was a mystic, a writer who published several books, and extremely well-educated. She had earned a Doctorate in Theology and was a reformer who challenged her religious order who was incensed at religious laxity. Her books contribute an important understanding to mysticism and meditation. Her beliefs have inspired a variety of researchers, namely philosophers, theologians, historians, neurologists, fiction writers and artists.

When she was young, during a bout of severe illness, she came to believe in the power or prayer to overcome sin. This led her to split off from her cloister and to establish a new one with stricter rules. She then received dispensation from the church to travel about instituting new cloisters.

While I am not a leader in the church, I do pray daily, and have from childhood. I enjoyed attending Mass, and when we didn’t go due to inclement weather, I was despondent. To this day I am active in my church, choosing to sing in the choir and to be a lector, one who reads sections of the bible from the ambo at the front of the church.

Like my namesake, I love to write. Many of her works were published after death. I hope I don’t have to wait that long! She persevered in her writings, as so do I. She was the inspiration for changes within her order. I tried to inspire changes within how special education students were perceived and taught. Teresa was a leader in her time. In many ways, when I was still teaching, I was also seen to be a leader.

When I look at this image of her, I see myself in the shape of her chin, the wrinkles about her eyes, and the way she holds her pen.

Although my mother made a mistake in spelling, her choice more closely matches who I have become.

I still don’t like my name, but it has grown on me. If someone called me Marie now, I wouldn’t know who they wanted to speak with. I will always be Terry, the Little Flower.

 

Lessons I Have Learned

Academically I am a relatively fast learner, in most subjects. I excelled in anything math-related, struggled with science and English, but picked up languages as easily as ridding sidewalks of garbage.

I loved most PE exercises unless it involved swimsuits or leotards (primarily due to weight issues and fat-shaming). When computers came on the scene, wow, did I ever master that quickly!

Unfortunately due to poor awareness in social situations, it takes me a lot longer than most to process what’s happening and develop an appropriate response. This is the area where I have had to work very hard over the seventy years of my life. It’s something that I continue to struggle with today.

So what have I learned?

When entering a given social situation it’s best to find a spot off to the side of the room, close enough to what’s happening to hear words and register facial responses, but not in the midst of the crowd. Once I have analyzed the situation and calculated an appropriate strategy, I move in, with a pat comment prepared. This works almost all the time.

I seldom initiate an invitation to lunch as I afraid of rejection. This means that I rely on the kindness of others to include me, a strategy that often fails. Because of this I seek out loners. Say there’s a woman sitting by herself, I will approach and ask if I can join her. Since she’s also a loner, conversation can be awkward, but at least there are two of us!

When someone asks a question about an interest of mine, I assume that person is simply being polite. I have learned to give a short response then turn the conversation toward the asker. Since most people love talking about themselves, this strategy has paid off.

For example, if I’m walking with friends and one asks what I’d like to eat, I might say, “Oh, a lot of different things. What would you like?” Notice how easy that is? Of course now I have to hope that she chooses something I really do like to eat!

Because I belong to several groups, this strategy is incredibly effective. The few times when I have clearly stated a preference, if it’s not supported, I will acquiesce.

My husband’s family is quite large and they love to gather together. These are challenging for me. He grew up with a ton of cousins that all have a shared memory, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time together as adults. Within minutes of the greeting, they are deep in convivial conversations that I know nothing about. My strategy is to get something cold to drink and find a corner in which I can find solace in my own thoughts.

Hiding in plain sight is something I excel at due to years of invisibility, so I find it exceptionally easy to implement. Unfortunately it also means that I am isolated for the duration of the gathering.

The most challenging situation for me is when my writing is being critiqued. I want to hear the advice of colleagues, but I also want my turn to end as soon as possible in order to move the spotlight away. The thirty minutes or so that my submission is being discussed are the longest minutes of my life! I have learned to minimalize eye contact, take copious notes, and never ask clarifying questions. The problem with this strategy is that now that I am older, it is hard for me to write and listen. I am much better with eye contact than depending upon what I hear, so my pen can’t keep up with spoken ideas.

What I need to learn is to ask for written comments. Notes. Critique. But I don’t because that requires the strength to initiate the request, which I don’t have.

Not everyone who is socially awkward has the same issues that I have, but many do. I hope that by sharing strategies that work for me, others will find something that they can implement.

Or perhaps someone reading this will look about and find that loner and realize that she is sitting on that bench or at that table or leaning against that pillar not because she wants to be alone, but because she doesn’t know how to reach out. Then when realization hits, the outgoing individual will remember what I have shared and approach, smile ready, and invite the loner into the circle. And invite her over and over and over again.

Life’s lessons are sometimes challenging because often life dishes up issues that are never resolved. You just learn to deal with them. To make do.

That’s what I have learned.

 

A Glimpse of Fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Good News

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

A Different Kind of Bravery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a wonderful way to live!