A Moment of Truth

This entire year has been a mental struggle — never more so than lately. I find myself wondering more and more frequently why I ever signed up to teach the subject I love so much. Each day feels like a battle to protect my passion for reading & writing, a battle to continue believing in the power of education when my students and the world have so little good to say about my profession and my content area.

On almost a daily basis, I hear students disparage teachers — She doesn’t do her job. Her class is a waste of our time. This isn’t what we really should be learning. I watch friends post articles and memes mocking the shortcomings of public education, the blame for most of which — let’s face it — is ascribed to teachers. I witness other teachers devaluing colleagues’ teaching methods, subject matter, and general place within the curriculum in front of students and parents.

In short, it often feels that most of my days are spent fighting others in an attempt to desperately convince them that writing has the power to save lives; that a good book can transport one from a reality of depression and heartache to worlds of wonder and adventure; that the ability to articulate a fully-formed thought will never, ever go out of style.

Truth be told, I’m tired. I am tired of being told that I am not valuable. I am tired of being told that my job and subject matter are outdated, replaceable, and generally poorly executed. I am tired of being shamed by society and colleagues and students for doing the best that I can — which is never, it would seem, enough.

But some days — I’m reminded of these little humans. Of their joy for good stories, their hunger for learning, their trust in me to do right by them. And I tell myself that one day, things will be different.

Not every year can be a good year.

Not every class will be a good class.

Not every blithering idiot on Facebook has the brains to do my job — despite what they might think.

And maybe — just maybe — not every person deserves a piece of my mind.

I’m not giving anything up for Lent.

Every Ash Wednesday, my social feeds fill with the same tired hubbub: What are you giving up for Lent? I’m giving up soda and sweets. I’m giving up beer. I’m giving up negative thinking. And every year, without fail, the jokes come two days later: Yup, just ate a donut. I’ve already fallen off the wagon!

We’ve all been there — hasty to make Lenten resolutions with sacrifice at the forefront of our minds. However, in true consumer form, we’ve made the season of sacrifice just another season of ill-fated resolutions. (I say we because I, too, am guilty of these same shortcomings.) We laugh off our inability to abstain from chocolate for more than a week, joke about our failure to get through March without a soda, and engage in public self-deprecation when we slip up two weeks in . . . then give up giving something up for the rest of the Lenten season.

For the past few years, the sacrifices my friends and I have made have seemed less and less like True Sacrifices, and increasingly like Good Conversation Starters. I find myself wondering each year — What is the point in giving up Pepsi each Lent, if only to resume drinking it with fervor Easter morning?

Isn’t the point of Lent to sacrifice something that truly causes us discomfort, and in turn, makes us better individuals? More Christlike?

How can we become better individuals if we turn to the same creature comforts, time and again, after a short 40 days of abstinence?

What is the point in sacrificing something we love if we know we won’t take the sacrifice seriously enough to see it through to the end?

Over the past few years, Lent began to lose its significance for me. Not simply because I knew I wasn’t doing a proper job of it, or because I had a few slip-ups here and there; rather, I felt an absence of import. The sacrifices I attempted felt halfhearted and superficial, or geared toward some sort of personal body goal that had little to do with my growth as a Decent Human Being.

* * *

This past week, I jokingly told Zack that I would be giving up worrying for Lent.

With some pretty major life changes coming down the pipe in the next few months — career and family — I’ve been morphed into a whirlwind of ceaseless, furious anxiety. My nights are only partially filled with sleep; most bedtime hours I spend awake, panicking about things well beyond my control: birth defects, breastfeeding, SIDS . . . my Alzheimer’s-stricken grandpa in the wake of his wife’s death . . . my sister and her career struggles . . . the enormous financial stress that is going to be my life for the next many years . . .

Needless to say, this constant state of insecurity and — truthfully — uncontrollable anxiety has not merely worn me to a frazzle; Zack, too, is exhausted with the ceaseless questions and fears I wake him up with at three and four and five in the morning. Of course, he jumped all over my Lenten sacrifice with unrivaled enthusiasm. 😉

The next day, I contemplated my half-sincere offering. How peaceful it would be to give up worrying for forty days. . . . And yet, when I looked deep within myself, I knew that such a task wouldn’t be possible. I would fail a few days into the start of Lent and, frustrated but not surprised, attempt to convince myself I’d made a good run of it.

* * *

Instead, I decided to do what should have seemed obvious in the first place: I’d take something up for Lent. Instead of attempting to stop worrying for forty days (which would be akin to the Hulk giving up fits of rage for forty days), I will do something that actually has an impact on the kind of wife and person I want to be: I will take up a simple prayer to accompany my worries.

I know, I know — some of you are probably thinking What an idiot. Isn’t that something you already do? and I’d love to pretend that yes, I say a prayer every time a worry crosses my mind; but I don’t. (This shortcoming has to be some sort of logic that stems from the idea that we should give thanks as often as we give praise; being a pessimist, I generally find far fewer things to be grateful for on a daily basis, and as such, haven’t been a big fan of bothering the Big Man Upstairs with a rather unbalanced barrage of concerns with a sprinkling of gratitude.)

Instead of spending my 40 days halfheartedly trying to resist carbs and sugary sodas (or tackle the impossible), I will work on forming a habit that contributes to the development of the kind of wife, friend, mother, person I know I am intended to be.

I guess it’s as good a place as any to start, by praying — Lord, help me find peace.

Ode to the Matriarch

First she was a daughter and a sister. Then, a wife to a hardworking blue-collar man for sixty-odd years. A mother to three children, one of whom left her arms far too early; two who live on, bearing their own stamps of her personality like badges of honor. An aunt. Each of these roles prepared her to fill the shoes I selfishly like to believe she loved most: Grandma.

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When we were small (enough that three of us could squeeze into the cab of the Blue Bomber alongside Dad), we loved traipsing along for chores in the mornings. Mom would fix up a hard-egg sandwich for each of us, which we’d scarf down at the table in our cowboy boots and t-shirts. Dad would fill a mug to the brim with coffee, seemingly in pursuit of some sort of daredevil quest to see just how much jostling and bumping his steady hand could withstand before a drop could slosh over the top and onto my leg (or his).

Without fail, minutes after breakfast each morning, Barrett wanted to know: “Is it time for snackies?!”

We’d drive the half mile to Grandma’s, each of us a Real Cowboy reporting for duty, and hop out of the bumbling old pickup and race to the front door, yelling the traditional “Knock! Knock!” before we were even within hearing range. As politely as snackie-minded children could manage, we’d burst through the doorway and into the kitchen that never changed even once in my lifetime. There, she waited: dark eyes glittering, soft wrinkles intersecting on her joy-mapped face, lips stretched upward in a teasing grin. In her soft hands, empty Ziploc baggies waited for each of us.

I’m not sure, anymore, who loved morning snackies more—us kids, or Grandma. She’d shovel fruit snacks and chocolate chips and Gushers and peanuts and orange slices into the baggies until Dad firmly said, “Okay, that’s enough, Mom,” for the second time—and with a wink, she’d drop in just one treat more. The price was all but free: a kiss or three and a tight hug before whoosh!—we were out the door, off to feed cows and check fences and revel in the dynasty that Grandpa and Dad had built: Simon Angus Ranch.

* * *

During summers, we wore the road thin between our house and Grandma’s, riding our bikes with squeals down the Big Hill (and groans up the Bigger Hill). It was there, in the comfort of her sunken living room, that we learned of Oklahoma! and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz. She cherished these classic musicals and fostered a love of theater in the heart of my sister, who later became Grandma’s favorite actress. In this same space, I also learned to appreciate Dirty Dancing—though it didn’t strike me as odd that she allowed a 12-year-old to watch this until just a few years ago. It is here that Barrett spent an entire summer—nearly every single day—watching Miracle and discussing the Cold War and hockey plans with Grandma, who had never seen a game of hockey in her life. While we reveled in the classic films that came from the treasure trove that was Grandma’s TV cabinet, she’d perch in her armchair with a magnifying glass, reading some article or completing a puzzle; or she’d disappear into the kitchen for a while, from which savory fragrances would emanate later on.

Mom felt guilty sometimes, I think, for all the days we pestered Grandma; but I know Grandma loved these unsolicited visits. Sometimes we’d call (forced by Mom in an attempt to establish something resembling manners), but even when we didn’t, Grandma was somehow never caught unaware. I think it’s safe to say our daily visits were more valuable to her than gold.

* * *

Grandma is most often tied to memories of food and family in my mind, and with good reason: summers and school in-service days meant lunch at Grandma’s. We children would salivate with anticipation in the hours leading up to lunchtime, usually abstaining from breakfast in order to more fully appreciate the glory that would come at precisely 12:15.

In the small, dark wood-paneled dining room, a crowded table waited: decorative seasonal napkins on each plate; glasses filled to the brim with sweet tea any Southerner could appreciate; serving bowls piled high with corn on the cob and heavenly hash, roasted potatoes and her famous cherry Pepsi Jell-O. We learned self control at that table as we waited, squirming, for Grandma to bustle in with the main dish—if we were lucky, tater tot casserole; if we were luckier, pot roast—and beam at the faces that she so loved. Grandma’s table was a bit like those of the dining hall at Hogwarts: even when Tyler and Jacob and Barrett were all three present with their formidable appetites, food somehow continued to appear in dishes until all were stuffed to the gills.

Those who were fortunate enough to join family at that table (most often Jacob’s buddies, come to haul hay or fix fence in the summer) never left hungry—Grandma made sure of that. She made it her top priority on those beloved lunch days to ensure that we were fed like a troupe of the Queen’s finest soldiers, even if that meant we left to work cattle with our pants unbuttoned and pleasurable groans escaping from our lips. (We also may have learned a thing or two about Gluttony at that table. . . . )

* * *

We could all count on Grandma for a few certainties in life. First, her front door was always open to visitors—and you’d better yell “Knock! Knock!” on your way in. Second, she’d always have a pile of lemon crap prepared when Jacob visited from college (we used to think this meant he was the favorite, which I’m sure he’d love to believe, but I’m also sure is completely inaccurate). And third—the most certain and meaningful of all—Grandma could be depended upon to never miss a game.

She became something of a fixture at Flinthills High School, always arriving to games at least 45 minutes in advance (which became a bit of a running joke in the family), her cushioned #1 Fan! seat settled in prime viewing location for the activity at hand. During football, that seat could be found as far as possible from the “Ding-a-Lings,” whose cowbells were Grandma’s archnemises. During basketball games, her stark head of curly black hair could be spotted smack dab in the upper-middle section. I often marveled that she didn’t bring high-focus binoculars—all the better to see her grandchildren with, of course.

No matter the distance, Grandma was always there, decked out in red and black and gleaming saucer-pins from which our faces beamed outward. On weekends, she’d follow Courtney and Brianne’s volleyball teams to day-long tournaments, scribbling notes from the game in her program in that loopy calligraphy so unique to her. When the boys were in high school and lost most of their games by the 45 rule, Grandma didn’t care—she was still in the stands an hour before, watching warm-ups with her eagle eyes; often driving hours to watch forty-five abysmal minutes of football and offer a few hand-squeezes and whispers of tender encouragement before hopping back in the car for a long drive home. She braved long trips and ninety-degree afternoons on sun-baked golf courses for fifteen-minute cross country races, during which she was lucky to catch a few fleeting glimpses of me running.

Distance did not matter to this woman—only Family. Nothing was more important to her than ensuring each of us were adored to full capacity.

* * *

Grandma’s fridge is a testament to her greatest love. It is a collage in the truest sense, papered from top to bottom: newspaper clippings from Jacob’s college games, ticket stubs from Brianne’s performances, photographs of Seth’s matriculation and Courtney’s family (and Grandma’s first great grandchildren), Mother’s Day envelopes with Dad’s signature hidden “MOM” heading. Over the years, the collage changed to reflect her family’s newest accomplishments; the fridge eternally a billboard of all that she held dearest.

She is gone, now, and those words leave a hole in each of our hearts. Decades of matriarchal devotion to her children and grandchildren have come to a close, but she’s left each of us something far greater than material wealth or tangible objects.

Grandma never missed an opportunity to make it clear just how dearly she loved each of us. With each return home, she’d grasp us in a tight embrace, peppering our heads and cheeks and shoulders with kisses as she’d squeak out in that high-pitched, excited squeal of hers, “Grandpa and I have missed you so much! You’ll never know how much you mean to us . . . we think of you every single day.” Her soft, thin hands—surprisingly strong—squeezed ours tightly at every opportunity, as if she could somehow transmit this fierce passion to us through touch.

It worked. She is gone now, and there is a hole in each of our hearts. But over that aching gap, Grandma is already at work, papering a new collage of old memories to tide us over. A Christmas stocking here, a snackie bag there, and nearly-world-famous chocolate brownies filling in all the spaces between.

A Letter to My (Disgruntled) Students

To My Students (the Disgruntled Ones):

When I first started teaching four years ago, I was so excited. I relished the idea of sharing my passions — literature and writing — with the minds of the future; I looked forward to having a positive impact on your lives, lives that would touch so many others. I worked diligently to obtain licensure; frenetically worked to meet college deadlines; wearied myself writing a teaching portfolio that was some 50-plus pages filled with data, research, and observations.

I desperately wanted to be good enough for each of you.

The first year was tough. I left for school most mornings before 6:30 and stayed long after 8:00 most evenings. My weekends were consumed with countless hours of lesson planning, and my first year of marriage took a backseat to 67 kids I’d only known for a handful of weeks.

Mornings were for preparing myself, mentally. Mornings were filled with fear and nervous anticipation — Is today’s lesson what they need? Am I helping them to deepen their knowledge?

Evenings were for grading and planning. I saw each of you for 50 minutes daily (when you didn’t have ball games or special masses to attend or school assemblies or confession or bake sales) and was expected to teach grammar, writing, reading, vocabulary, and spelling. Evenings should have been for family and rest and four-mile runs, but they weren’t. They were for work.

The second year was better (I hit some sort of almost-effective stride), but I still stayed up at night wondering: Did I teach them anything of value today? Should I have handled that situation differently? Did I make a mistake that will leave a lasting impression on them?

Last year, I began teaching high school. I thought I would love this. I thought, Finally! I’ll get to teach the novels I cherished as a high schooler! and These students will be much more capable of complex logic and reasoning, and They will be more independent. I thought you would be more like the student that I was: driven, respectful, curious.

And above all, I still desperately wanted to be adequate.

For all of those hours of anxiety and fear and fervent planning, you have gifted me with contempt.

You have told me to f*** off, you have cursed me in the hallways, you have posted hateful remarks about me on Twitter and Facebook and even your locker doors. You have told lies to your parents, who then took to Facebook to further berate me.

You have refused to participate or listen in class. You have refused to attempt reading and writing assignments, to study vocabulary terms, to come in after school to make up missing assignments; then blamed me for your failing grades.

You have lied to me. You have disparaged me in other teachers’ classes. You have criticized my teaching methods, whined about my expectations, and questioned my curriculum choices.

And still, I lie awake at night thinking about all of the ways I have failed you. I stare into the darkness, dreaming of ways that I can become more Enough for each of you.

I cannot accept that I have done all that I can. I cannot accept that this is the best I can do for you, and because of these standards for myself I am miserable.

But that is not all. Here is a list of other things I cannot do:

I cannot make you understand the weight of your choices. I can only foster opportunities for you to learn that your actions have consequences, whether you like those consequences or not; and hold you accountable for those choices, hoping that one day you will appreciate what I have done for you.

I cannot make you realize that when I ask you to read books on or near your ability level (rather than 5 levels below), I’m not doing so as a punishment, but because you will only develop your vocabulary and ability to cognitively reason at a higher level if you read harder. I can only continue to set forth challenges and hope that you will rise to meet them.

I cannot make you want to work hard; I can only encourage you to, and hope that you respect yourself (and your teachers) enough to do so.

I cannot make you appreciate the doors that will open to you when you become fluent writers and speakers; I can only bear your complaints, time and again, as we struggle through essays and blog posts and presentations and classroom discussions, and hope that you someday communicate in a manner that beckons others to bend their heads and listen.

I cannot make you see that the sun does not rise and set from between the cheeks of your arse, despite what you may have been led to believe by your parents or your own egocentrism. I can only hold you to the same intensive standards to which I hold each of my students and hope for the best.

You see, students, teaching is all about hope. There are no certainties, no infallibilities, no Definite Absolutes. When I teach you, I do not do so with the assumption that I know everything or that my methods are the best or perfect or even always okay. When I teach you, I hope that I am doing something right, amid all the wrong.

Teaching is rarely a rewarding gig. The moments of illumination and gratitude that educators talk about? Fleeting and far too sparse. But we trudge onward, arms swinging in a march-like cadence, because we hope.

Please — don’t take that from us.

With a fervent heart,

Your teacher

 

A Reflection on Identity

In the third grade, my teacher was Mrs. Bagel*. She had pale blonde hair that curled at the ends and sharp angles at all of her corners; I remember thinking she was very birdlike. Her bones seemed frail and tiny, like a sparrow. Or a meadowlark. Something dainty like that.

Mrs. Bagel had a voice that could boom over the classroom like a football coach with a megaphone; but mostly, I remember her as quiet. She didn’t speak unless words were necessary. Most of the time, when she wasn’t using her Teacher Voice, her little bird mouth would open and she would softly chirp out some petite rebuke or encouragement or observation.

Mrs. Bagel and I were opposites.

My mouth could not stop opening like an out-of-control faucet that has no hose attached, only a gaping end where words splashed forth with vigor while onlookers watched in a sort of curious panic — Can this damn thing even be turned off?

Even when the faucet was tightly clamped shut, sound found its way out. Within the pockets of my soft round cheeks, I developed the ability to make crackling, croaking noises like a dolphin might make (or so I imagined). In what was likely a moment of silent boredom (compounded with rebellion), I also taught myself the art of making ripply near-farting noises by pushing bubbles of air through the space between my gums and upper lip. This not only made a pleasing sound, it also produced a tactile distraction for my mouth — and annoyed the ever-living wits out of Mrs. Bagel.

In the third grade, I became a Problem Student.

Initially, I think it’s safe to say I truly couldn’t shut the faucet off — as a younger-middle child, I had an innate need for attention that could only be achieved by running my mouth at the speed of light (so I thought). Over time, though, the inability to stop talking became a signature. It was my trademark. It was also my downfall that year of third grade.

At the time, my mother did not teach at the school that I went to. (That came later, when I was in 5th grade.) So the first that she learned of my Inappropriate Behavior was probably at parent-teacher conferences in the fall. I didn’t attend conferences with my parents, so I’m not really sure what was said, but I can imagine about how things went down.

Mrs. Bagel: So, I’ve noticed Renee is a bit of a talker.

There it is, talker: my main identifying noun.

Mom: *chuckles* Yeah, she’s our little chatter-bug! She’s quite the storyteller.

Mrs. B: *mouth tightens in a firm line* Well. She also likes to make noises.

MomNoises?

Mrs. B: *nodding firmly* Noises. With her mouth. All the time.

My mom came home that night and asked me to “recreate” some of the noises I regaled Mrs. Bagel’s classroom with. Beaming proudly, I puffed out my third grade chest and delivered a top-notch series of bubbly, nearly-farty noises and sharp, dolphin cheek-squeaks. It was my finest work.

My mom, a teacher, gazed at me with a burning sort of intensity while my dad stifled a chuckle at her side. I was sharply reminded of my obligation as an Honorable and Hardworking Student Representative of the Simon Family and sent on my way.

As the year played out, Mrs. Bagel and I remained amicable enough; as pleasant as Taciturn Teacher and Loquacious Learner can be, I suppose. . . . That is, until The Incident.

You see, I was standing at Mrs. Bagel’s desk, probably asking for her to look over my cursive or math sums, and the faucet had been pretty well-managed all day long. As with any weak pipe, there was bound to be an outburst at some time. (This probably followed a 24-hour pledge to Not Talk So Much.) I teetered on my tiptoes at the edge of Mrs. Bagel’s desk, where she sat perched in her chair looking down her sharp beak — I mean, nose — at the work I had submitted for review. It was at this crucial moment of silence (think Inside-an-Egyptian-Tomb Silent) that the dam broke. With a sudden desperate urgency, I began a series of dolphin squeaks — softly, at first, but crescendoing with every unchecked moment of noisy freedom.

The (bird)shit hit the fan.

I don’t think I’d ever been loudly reprimanded by a teacher before, and though this certainly didn’t classify as “yelling,” my cheeks burned with shame as Mrs. Bagel delivered the dressing-down of the century. (Okay, it wasn’t really that bad; but to a third grader . . . who never got in trouble . . . )

I vowed to be a Better Student. I did my work relatively quietly, sat in a sort of sulky silence, and visualized duct-taping my mouth shut whenever I had the urge to chime in. I was devestated when this resolve weakened and completely dissolved within a matter of days. I berated myself over and over.

Why couldn’t I be more like Jamie? She was quiet; she never spoke unless spoken to, and teachers seemed to prefer that.

Why couldn’t I be more like Bailey? She never made weird sounds . . .

Why couldn’t I be more like . . .

Every year, at many different junctures, I asked myself the same questions of myself. I compared myself to my much more meek and soft-spoken peers; you know, the ones who knew when (and how) to simply exist in peaceful reticence. As an adult, I sometimes still find myself longing for this piece of identity that does not belong to me.

Most of the time, though, when I am honest with myself, I can admit that softness and silence and serenity are not components of my identity. No, I am a faucet with the handle cranked wide open, a torrent of words and noises spilling forth without reservation.

I am the Bubbly Fart-Noise Maker. I am the Dolphin Cheek-Squeaker. I am my own Self.

*This name has been changed.

2016: Year in Review

It’s just like me to have every intent of writing a “year in review” post at the start of January . . . but fail to actually write said post until the near-end of January. (In my defense, I’ve thought about this post often. It’s been at the top of my weekly to-do list in my planner for three weeks now.)

Normally, I’m not sure that I would write a review post about my year; after all, my life isn’t really that significant to anyone other than my family members and closest friends. However, as the year came to a remarkably negative and divisive end, my Twitter and Facebook feeds were riddled with posts and blog articles about just how terrible 2016 had been. “The Worst,” in fact, judging by the majority of articles, statuses, and tweets I stumbled upon.

Y’all, I’m one of the most negative people I know — my middle name should really be changed to Chief Pessimist — but I was blown away by the negativity that had clogged my social media feeds like a massive, undesirable wad of hair left to its own devices in the depths of the shower.

Call it optimism, call it white privilege, call it whatever you wish: as the year came to a close, despite the political unrest in America, I felt an absence of despair and a renewal of hope. (This would ring true, regardless of the outcome of the 2016 election — I don’t place much stock in political leaders, no matter their leanings.)

Here’s why:

  1. I survived another “first year” of teaching! In August of 2015, I moved from teaching middle school English at a private Catholic school to teaching middle and high school English at a rural public school. Even with two years of experience under my belt, the job still felt overwhelmingly new, as I was teaching new age groups and content for the first time ever. The entire year was an overwhelming blur of anxiety, stress, and insecurity — but in May 2016, it became official. I had survived. (At times, the likelihood of enduring seemed hazy at best.)
  2. I earned a second degree. The day before my first-ever class of seniors graduated from high school, I graduated from FHSU with my Master of Science in Education. After three years of online coursework and “learn as you go” teaching, tears of relief leaked from the corners of my eyes as I crossed the stage at my alma mater and accepted recognition for completing hours of school work with honors.
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    The last day of school doubled as my graduation date, and these two goofballs desperately wanted to “graduate” with me — so I let them play dress-up. 

  3. My painful encounters with endometriosis were finally diagnosed and addressed by doctors. After several years of excruciating pain and a general sense of depression/fear every month, and several visits to doctors and specialists, I finally gained an answer — and a sense of validation — about the pain I had been led to believe was “normal.” (For more, see this post and this one.)img_4736
  4. I traveled internationally for the first time ever! During the week of Thanksgiving, my family — siblings, significant others, parents, and all — trekked to Puerto Vallarta Mexico and indulged. Big time. We soaked up sweet rays of sunshine, sipped on two-for-one margaritas at Happy Hour, and mocked one another relentlessly (as Simons always do). The week wouldn’t have been possible without my brother and his future wife, Mari, who generously provided access to their time share. Numerous days in the sun were a blessing for me, as the winter months are marked with dark hours of travel to and from my classroom (which lacks exterior windows). I dream of returning one day . . .img_4742
  5. I discovered a workout group in Jetmore, and made a few friends. This was a huge victory for me in 2016. For almost five years, I’ve lived in southwest Kansas and felt so very isolated for most of that time. I mean, husbands are fantastic . . . but a girl needs girlfriends to get by. Sure, I’ve made friends at work (many of whom remain near and dear, though we’ve parted ways professionally), but for almost five years, I lacked any semblance of friendship within my hometown. A local “boot camp” workout group reached out to my husband, I took that tentative first step forward, and have felt lighter and more joyous ever since. The group of women that I work out with are supportive, amusing, and truly a gift from God.
  6. My blogging game got strong(er). Sure, I tapered off there a bit toward the end of 2016; but for the most part, I feel good about the effort that I put into reading and writing consistently over the course of 2016. Naturally, I have much higher ambitions for the coming year . . .
  7. I spent my summer at an adults-only writing camp. For an entire month, I spent my days surrounded by fellow writers/teachers/writing teachers and it was glorious. Although I missed most of harvest and summer days on the four-wheeler with Zack, the opportunity to write and study writing daily felt like a lottery jackpot. Four whole weeks devoted to my greatest passion, riddled with coffee-shop pit-stops, evening field trips to local breweries and chocolatiers, unexplored walking and running paths in a new city; in short, a paradise of sorts.
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    Evenings at Mulready’s provided ample people-watching opportunities to inspire writing and, ridiculously enough, sing-alongs inspired by 1960s beer commercials (per the recollections of more seasoned members of the writing troop).

  8. And, of course, last but certainly not least, I became pregnant! Just a few short days after Zack’s birthday in September (and only two months after my endometriosis surgery), it became clear that we two would become three. We kept the secret a bit longer than normal, perhaps, waiting to tell our families until just before our trip to Mexico; but we wanted to be certain that all was healthy and normal. For me, the first few months of pregnancy were marked by extreme fatigue and anxiety. I was certain that I’d miscarry early again; instead of being ecstatic, the first few months were filled with fear and great doubt. I’m 21 weeks along, though, and the doctor says that all is going well within the womb — I’m finally starting to feel confident that my body will do its job this time around.
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    20 week bumps with my ornery guy.

So, yeah — 2016 left a lot to be desired on the political spectrum, and our country seems to be on the brink of devouring itself whole, but . . . it wasn’t all bad. In fact, it was mostly good.

I guess it all boils down to perspective.

A Note on Compassion

This week, my eighth-grade students began a project-based learning (PBL) activity that blends their coursework in science, English, and history classes. They’ll work on this project for three weeks, during one or all of those class periods. Their task?

Establish a society from the ground up.

Vague? Absolutely. Challenging? You bet.

These students have just spent more than a month learning about the development of the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and government system; they’ve also been studying the government’s influence on the preservation and allocation of natural resources, paying special attention to the National Parks Service and humankind’s impact on our environment.

The two teachers that I am collaborating with on this project want students to think about the natural resources for their designated regions, draft rules and government systems, determine basic human rights, etc. I want them to collaborate effectively, develop presentations that are compelling and informational, research to find information, and market their countries to compel others to “move.”

We knew this undertaking would be a challenge. We knew that students would argue about menial components (like the design of their country’s flag, or what their nation’s song should be); and we expected groups to struggle with the concept of compromise. We knew that some students would do very little, whereas others would attempt to shoulder their entire group’s burden singlehandedly.

In all our conversations about the project’s learning objectives, though, we failed to consider one crucial desired outcome: compassion.

On day two of the collaborative experience, I sat with one of the groups as they discussed their country’s would-be rules (based on the group’s core values, established the previous day). Here’s a snippet of the conversation that ensued:

Student A: “Okay, we’re banning Muslims, right?”

Student B: “Yeah, no Muslims, for SURE. Have you seen what they’re doing to our country?”

Student C: “And Jews.”

Student B: “Add ‘build a wall’ to the list.”

Maybe I should have intervened after the first student opened her mouth; maybe I was right to let them talk through it for a few minutes. Either way, I sat in a shell-shocked kind of stupor for a solid 2 minutes. Then I chimed in. “Why are you banning Jews?” I asked.

One of the girls, who had been pretty quiet thus far, asked, “What are Jews?” My soul wilted a bit. We chatted for a few moments about the religion and culture, and then she asked, “Wait. Why are we banning Jews?” The other kids in her group couldn’t think of a good reason, so they agreed to remove that list item. We went on to discuss their issues with Muslims, as well, and the students quickly realized they didn’t know as much as they thought they did. I urged them to replace the word “Muslims” in their doctrine with the word “Christians,” and see if they still thought their rules were fair.

During my drive home that evening, I reflected on the experience.

They’re only 13 years old, I reminded myself, as I knew many others would say. They’re just repeating what they hear at home.

And isn’t that sad?

In the two hours we spent together that morning, I watched students spend more time arguing about who to exclude, discriminate against, and condemn than they spent talking about any other component of their projects. I was left wondering, after it all — How am I going to teach these kids compassion? Isn’t that something that parents are supposed to instill from Day One? 

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about parenting. I don’t have kids. But during my four years of teaching, I have reflected often on the upbringing my parents bestowed me with. I don’t wear rose-colored glasses: I am well aware that my parents likely harbor some racial prejudices. I think this is true for all members of society, whether people are willing to admit it or not. But my parents did not raise my siblings and I to treat others maliciously. We were not taught to believe that exclusion is right and just, or that others are automatically bad or good due to the hue of their skin or the dialect with which they speak or the religion they do (or don’t) practice.

We were taught, above all, to respect others — and always, always stand up for what is right. To know that it takes all kinds of people to make this world turn. To know that sometimes, we will encounter people we don’t like or disagree with — and that those feelings are perfectly acceptable and normal for us to experience, but we should always treat others the way we want to be treated.

My dad’s always been a beacon of integrity for me, when it comes to dealing with others. I have strong memories of him passionately expounding on situations in which someone was being pushed around by somebody else, simply because one person had more power or sway than another. He told me time and again when I was younger, “You must defend those who cannot defend themselves.” I’ve met few people that feel as passionately about doing what is fair and just.

I know, I know — those of you who know me are probably thinking, Sure, this is well and good, but you’re an asshole sometimes, Renee. Point taken. I don’t claim to be perfect, and there are many times in my life I’ve acted in ways that I regret and wish I could undo. But imagine how atrocious I might be, as a human being, if my parents had taught me that entire cultures of people are bad. What if my parents had instilled in me the belief that we should separate ourselves from those who have differing opinions or unpopular viewpoints? What if they’d raised me to believe that different is bad and that same is good? Holy automaton, Batman!

I’ve been rambling, friends, and for that, I apologize. For those of you who have stuck with me this long, I have a request:

Think about the messages you share with your children on a daily basis. Are they messages of love, or messages of hate? Are you teaching them to forgive others, or condemn and hold grudges? Are you challenging them to expand their horizons, or are you teaching them to remain stagnant? 

I think sometimes, it can be tempting to isolate ourselves and the ones we love. I think this occurs because we fear change — we fear losing the people we love to different perspectives and ideals and lifestyles. Certainly, in this age of political division, it’s easy to allow ourselves to be consumed with contempt for anyone who dares to think differently. But I also think if we spend too much time building a wall, we will miss out on all the diverse beauty that the world has to offer, and that would be a crying shame.