Sunday, August 17, 2014

Letter to Myself as a First Year Teacher

There is a video online of teachers reading letters they've written to themselves as first year teachers. I found their words touching, amusing, inspirational and powerful. So I decided to try to write my own. It has taken me all summer long to finish, but here it is:

Dear thirty-five-year-old Kay,
On this first day, you're thinking you might be too old to begin teaching. I'm looking at you from this vantage point of sixty, and I'm laughing.
I also see that you are proud and thrilled to be teaching in this brand new classroom with white boards which you are thinking are so cool and high tech, but girl, just wait. Somebody out there is working on this thing called a Smart Board. You ain't seen nothin' yet.
You should know that your carefully crafted yet coded lecture on this first day of school about not allowing "hate speech" in your classroom will become far more bold as time goes on and far less necessary. The time will come—yes, within your lifetime—when your LGBT students will be safely out and no longer in need of your protection.
You do not know this yet, but the kids who are about to swagger through the door, looking at you sideways and pretending disinterest, are actually watching every move you make, hearing every word you utter and weighing it, making judgments from the first seconds in your room as to whether you are trustworthy and kind or someone to be feared. Yes, they will seem puffed up, but they are really just frightened little bear cubs, standing on their hind legs, trying to appear large and intimidating. Inside they fear being called out and embarrassed by you or their classmates. Your first duty always is to help them feel safe. But don't be afraid to look them in the eye; for good or for bad, there is power in every word you say to them.
This year, you will make friends with the school librarian who will later be the best teacher-bud you will ever have. Hold onto this friendship as if it were the holy grail. Donna will keep you sane through all the craziness, anger, laughter and tears that is heading your way like a speeding locomotive.
At the end of the school year, take a picture of each class and keep those photos in an album in your room. You'll want to pull them out and reminisce over them when your former students stop by. And they will stop by.
Warning: Next year you'll have a student named Tabitha J. You will ask Miss J. no less than fifty times in 180 days to "Please step outside" so you can reiterate a lecture you're sick of giving and she's sick of hearing about how to behave appropriately in a classroom. She will be the bane of your work time existence for the entire year. Just wait. Eight years later, on a quiet afternoon, the phone will ring in your classroom, and it will be Miss J., calling to let you know she is now a college student working toward the goal of being a teacher "just like you" and to thank you for never giving up on her, thus beginning a legacy of naughty kids who will return, year after year, to thank you for caring about them as individuals despite their dismal grades in your class.
Your experience with Miss J. will also introduce you to one of the few aspects of your job you genuinely dislike, which is dealing with self-absorbed, unreasonable, ignorant parents. You should know now that throughout the whole of your career, you will be cussed out and threatened far more by parents than you will be by kids. When that happens, just let it go. Head for the gym or go for a run or walk the dogs, and as the sun goes down, let the conversation disappear into the wind.
Oh, and that advice your university professor gave you about never hugging the kids? Throw that out the window. When they need a hug, hug them. But be prepared; they will break your heart with stories of family tragedy. There will be a boy whose father shot his mother and then shot himself—in front of the boy. Don't worry about teaching him anything. Just love him. Seven years later you will hear your name called in a parking lot and there he will be, this boy who battled all the demons a boy can face in high school, smiling and hugging you and telling you that he is in his third year of college now, looking forward to finishing his degree.
So don't worry. Your heart will be broken often and just as often it will be mended by the daily laughter and love that will fill your classroom from top to bottom, more so with every year that you teach. Because with every year, you will love them more. In fact, there will come a day—September 11, 2001, to be precise—when you will begin to tell all your students every day that you love them.
Be ready to learn. Because yes, going into this gig, you've already raised four kids of your own, and you've got heaps of fancy book smarts. But your students will teach you volumes every year in every subject from fairness to fashion, including which music you "should" listen to. And they'll be right.
Despite your best efforts, you're going to make mistakes, just as you did with your own kids. When you do, forgive yourself quickly. Self-evaluation is great. Self-criticism is toxic. Be a role model; apologize when necessary, then move on.
Don't forget what your mentor, Dr. Hubert, told you about teaching: Learn to pat yourself on the back, because administration will have no idea what a great job you're doing in your classroom. But don't worry; the kids know, and they will always make you feel appreciated.
Most important of all, never get swept up in the current tide of educational trend. Rather be guided in your teaching by the beacon of warmest light, which is the love in your heart.
Oh—remember what you're mama said, too: Stand up straight. And lose those girlie shoes with heels; you'll be walking miles every day just around your own classroom.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Fisher King

In 1991, I was one year into a separation from the man I used to introduce as "the most wonderful man in the world," working slowly toward an amicable but irreparably wounding divorce. I've rarely felt so alone in the world.

Somehow I saw a trailer for a movie with Robin Williams called The Fisher King. Williams had won my heart years before with his brilliant stand-up routines and as the goofhead alien in Mork & Mindy, then in his more dramatic roles in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and Awakenings. Especially in the latter film, it was possible to see a depth of pain in Williams that was well-masked by his comedy, and that shared human condition resonated with my soul.

The premise of The Fisher King is this: The sanity of Williams' character, "Parry," has become unmoored after the senseless shooting of his beloved wife by a madman. Once "normal," he now lives in a homeless encampment, struggling daily against the dark force that threatens constantly to overtake him while simultaneously he extends charity, warmth and kindness to others.

I don't know how I found time and opportunity to sneak off to sit in a theater alone and watch The Fisher King. I only remember coming away from it changed. Not healed, exactly, certainly not led from the darkness of the time into a lighter place, but having been handed a sword with which to do battle. In the film, Parry's madness is made manifest in the form of a fierce and fiery figure on horseback which appears whenever something triggers a memory of his wife. Each time, his fear overwhelms him—until he finally discovers what he needs to confront the ominous form.

Wandering, lost, through this very dark time, I had lost all my power, had allowed the heart wound to bring me to my knees. Watching this film and the powerful performances of both Robin Williams and Michael Jeter, I began to find my legs again.

The screenplay, written by Richard LaGravenese, reiterates the theme that there is a very, very fine line—a gossamer thread—between sanity and madness, one step from sunlight to shadow. In watching the film, I heard a voice calling, saw a light shining—albeit far off—which led me back toward the light. Twenty-three years later, I still stand, sword drawn in readiness to ward off the darkness that I know could come for me at any time.

Tragically, we have lost Robin Williams to that same shadow, that dark sadness which menaces anyone with a tender, open heart. Like his character in The Fisher King, he spent his life reaching out to others, even as his own demons taunted him. May he step now into eternal light and peace, and may we always remember his gift.

To watch a short clip of the movie which includes both Robin Williams and Michael Jeter, click here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Treasure hunt

It's trash day. I am awakened at 4:00a.m. by the piercing screech of metal grinding on metal. I don't need to look out the window. I know that the sound emanates from the rickety metal cart used by the wizened old man who roams the cul-de-sacs of my neighborhood every Monday night, gleaning treasure from the trash of others. Black trash bags, stuffed to capacity, hang off the sides of his cart like tumors on a skinny dog.

I rise, let my own well-fed dog out into the backyard, feed the cats, then wander out front to turn on the sprinkler. By now the little man, who does not quite reach five feet in stature, has made it around the cul-de-sac, and I wave to him as he crab walks past, dragging the heavy cart behind him. I never put my trash cans out at the curb until he is gone. It's not that I begrudge him my recyclables. I have witnessed him on many occasions tear open the kitchen trash bags in my neighbors' garbage cans, sifting through god-knows-what in search of an aluminum can, a plastic bottle, any small thing with re-sale value. I am not willing to share that level of intimacy with him.

And anyway, I save my plastic one-liter Evian bottles separately. (Yes, I spend the money for Evian. No, it doesn't taste the same as filtered tap water and no, water is not water. Ask a hydro-geologist. Don't get me started.) When I moved in a year and a half ago, Grumpy Bob next door asked me to save my plastic bottles for him after I caught him rifling through my trash cans. I told him I certainly would. And I have.

But this morning, I give them away. There is another scavenger who comes through the neighborhood on trash day. This one is a woman, as small and wrinkled as the old man. I want to say that she is old but when I see her up close, I realize we are probably about the same age. I am a vibrant, athletic sixty-year-old who will later walk her pampered dog around these cul-de-sacs at a brisk pace. Although the physical maladies are starting to pile up, I am confident that I will live another twenty or thirty years quite comfortably, thanks to the good health care provided by my good job which I obtained with my good education.

I wonder at the longevity of this woman, though, as I see her, like the little old man, tear open trash bags with her bare hands, scrounging through toxic waste to eke out a living. Some would find her labor disgusting. I find it humbling.

As I note the full apron she wears which covers the front of her shirt and her pants down to the knees, its floral pattern edged with old fashioned rick-rack, I am reminded of my grandmother whose first job upon coming to Los Angeles was as a dishwasher in a bar. Holding my Trader Joe's stamped paper bag filled with empty plastic bottles, I shuffle quickly across the street in the gray dawn light. I tell her good morning, offering the bag and asking, "Are you looking for bottles?" though I well know the answer.

"Sì," she says in Spanish, taking the bag. "Thank you!" in English, and her entire face glows with the brightness of her straight, white teeth. Her voice is warm with gratitude, and it resonates with me as I walk back across the street to enjoy another cup of tea before heading out to walk the dog.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Security unit

I always feel like I should follow my posts about Thomas with a post about The Girls. This one will be brief, but it serves to remind us that we should never underestimate the intelligence, love and devotion of our feline friends—even if they are far less demonstrative than our canine friends.

Last week I decided the time had finally come to bathe Thomas. Although we have jogged through a fair share of sprinklers on our walks at 5:30a.m., he has never been officially bathed in the six months that I've had him. I understood his fear of hoses and of being confined, so I have put off that chore. But oh my Buddha how dirty this dog was, and he actually resembled the Peanuts character, Pigpen, as he walked through the house with dirt and hair swirling around him.

The Plan was to wait until The Girls were in the bedroom deep in sleep for their afternoon nap, then bring Thomas in and put him in the guest bathroom tub (a tiny, still pink 1950's job). I put a few inches of lukewarm water in first, then brought Thomas in, lifted him into the tub, stepped in with him and slid the shower doors closed. I soaked a soft rag with water and began wiping him down. He didn't like it, but at least he stood there compliantly.

All went well until he decided to turn around, at which point he slipped and slid down sideways, after which he panicked and started to claw his way out any way he could. Several seconds of complete bedlam ensued, with Thom slipping and splashing and me repeating his name over and over, trying to get him to stop thrashing and hold still. Finally he did, giving up and allowing his body to slide down into the water. Perfect. He lay curled at the end of the tub while I rinsed him all over. (No soap this time. I'm not crazy.)

With the completion of the task, all I had to do was roll back the shower door. He hopped out onto the mat, I dried him off, and all we had to do was get him back outside before he shook water everywhere. Yes! I opened the bathroom door to facilitate our escape, but we were met with the most intimidating security squad I've ever faced—two small cats puffed up like Halloween kitties, backs arched, ears back, mouths open with spits, hisses, growls and snarls like I've never heard (well, at least from Purrl; Sug exhibits this behavior on a regular basis). Oh no! I slammed the door closed again, looked at Thom and burst out laughing. Having heard the commotion and convinced I was finally being torn limb from limb by that huge red wolf-like creature I'd insisted on bringing into our home, The Girls had come to my rescue. (Oh, and if you don't think felines are capable of protecting their humans, you've got to read the amazing memoir Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper—especially if you're a cat lover!)

Somehow through the closed door I managed to convince The Girls that I was fine, and they eventually backed away, waiting in the hallway but allowing us enough space to exit the bathroom and get outside where Thomas, of course, ran and rolled in the grass and unfurled his beautiful flag of a tail and shook to his heart's content.

I gotta say, if anyone ever tries to come at me, I'm pretty sure it will be my cats and not my dog coming to the rescue. They are quite the formidable pair!

The Girls in a much calmer state

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How is Sgt, Thomas Tibbs, you ask?

Stay tuned after today's blog post for a brief commercial message.

Thomas is doing just fine these days. It's hard to believe that I last posted about him in February. He has made amazing progress since then, most notably now wagging his tail for me (which took four months) and taking a treat from my hand (which took five). Of course, he's still the world's most quirky dog, but that's okay. I love him just as he is, and I don't mind making a few accommodations for him. Well, maybe more than a few. But still okay. Below is a brief update on his progress (and if you haven't read the previous posts about Thom, you might want to click here):

What I mean by quirky:
He's still nocturnal, and I'm not referring to sleeping patterns; he's happy and awake and alive if it's dark outside. As the light comes on, he becomes more and more wary and afraid and shut down. His ears literally begin to droop as dawn turns into day. Thus, I find myself running around the back yard at 4:30 in the morning doing dog bows with him as he huffs and jumps happily, using a stage whisper (so as not to wake the neighbors or their barky dog) to tell him, "Good boy! Good job!" if he runs to retrieve his chew bone. While he will now wag his tail at 4:30 in the afternoon when I feed him (yes! progress!), he will not play at that hour. At least, not until the sun goes down.

Anything out of place makes him anxious. He is learning to come in the house by himself (without being led in on the leash), which, again, is great progress. But if he sees anything out of place—a pillow on the floor, a chair moved to a different spot—he will turn around at the door and trot back to the safety of the side yard, at which point I have to go get him and guide him in to show him nothing will hurt him.

He will sit calmly in the family room while I vacuum the house, will stand in the doorway of the garage while I start the truck, slowly wagging his tail to ask if he can go. Neither the dishwasher nor the garbage disposal scares him. But if he hears a motorcycle start up—even if it's blocks away—he bolts for the side yard in terror. If he sees a motorcycle parked at the curb while we are out walking, he has to be coaxed around it.

His favorite spot to sleep is now the extra cab of my Ford Ranger. When I first began taking him places in the truck, he would become anxious and often get car sick. But he has slowly learned to love sitting in that protected back area between the seats and the wall of the cab, his face turned toward the wind blowing in from the open passenger side window. The loud explosions around the Fourth of July (which are still being heard in my neighborhood) were terrifying for him. One night recently when we came home from a long, leisurely walk in Mt. Baldy, a very loud boom resounded just as he was getting out of the truck in the garage (which is also something he does by himself now). He turned around and dove back in and didn't come out for over an hour. No problem. He's still sleeping part of the night indoors and part outside, so I leave the doors of the truck open in case he wants to duck for cover.

He steals things. Specifically, my gardening gloves. The first time he did this, I didn't realize what had happened (Now where did I leave those gloves...?) until the next day when I found a pile of dog vomit in the back yard and, as I cleaned it up, found both gloves. He had taken them off the patio table, ingested them, then (thank heavens) regurgitated them. Now, there were several other items on that table: His leash. His brush. His Nyla bone still smelling of peanut butter. His Kong toy that is hollow inside so that I can put treats in it (which he loves to play with to extract the treats, even though he still doesn't know how to play with toys). But he ignored all those goodies and took my gloves. So I have been very, very careful since then to always leave my gloves up on the workbench in the garage where he can't reach them. Until today. Today while we were working in the back yard—me heartily pulling weeds, Thom contentedly curled in a corner—the phone rang. I ran to get it, pulling off my gloves and setting them, yes, on that same table with his Kong toy, etc. while I went to answer it. Ten minutes later I returned to find one glove missing. Thomas was still in his corner. I looked everywhere in the yard for the glove, thinking I might have dropped it. I even made him get up to see if he had taken it to chew on and then curled back up on it. It was nowhere to be found. In the hour it took me to mow the lawn, I considered my options: I could wait for him to puke it up. I could make him throw up. I could call my vet to get his opinion. I was still mulling these things over as I went to check on Thom, and as I stood talking to him, I kicked some loose dirt with the toe of my shoe. A finger emerged. Well, not an actual finger, but the index finger of the glove. When he'd seen me set the gloves down, he'd gotten up, trotted over, taken one and trotted back to his corner to hide it for later. Son of a gun. There are just certain things—my gloves, BunnyTibbs—that he feels are rightfully his, and he will reclaim them if he gets the chance.

He still refuses to come when I call him. (I say "refuses" because I'm pretty sure he knows what I want, he just doesn't see any good reason to comply.) But he has gotten better and better on the leash. When we first began walking together, he would bolt through doorways or gateways and around corners or up onto curbs. We worked on it constantly, and I finally began teaching him the command, "Walk slow, Thom." Doing so was serendipitous. Just as he began to become proficient in responding to it, I tore a tendon in my ankle. At first I was devastated because I assumed we'd be unable to take walks for a while. But a day later we were limping around the culdesac, Thom on "walk slow" and me hobbling beside him at a snail's pace. Yes, it probably took much longer for the tendon to heal, but I just wasn't willing to give up our daily walk. Now when I tell him "Walk slow," he immediately slows his usual trotting pace to that of an old arthritic woman, which is basically what I am these days. I use this command to take care of my ankle when we are ascending or descending steep trails. He will continue the slow stroll until I tell him, "Ok, thank you, Thom," at which point he resumes his standard trot.

He still has a long way to go in terms of recovery. I know there are memories that still haunt him. Sometimes in his sleep, he barks or emits a low, ominous growl. But he has never uttered a sound while awake—even when all the dogs in the neighborhood are barking, even if that pesky little black cat is taking a swipe at him again. If people pass us while we're walking, he still cowers and tries to move to the side, tucking his tail so far between his legs it touches his belly. When friends stop by, he runs outside, remaining in his safe corner until he's certain there are no strangers present. But he has slowly warmed to my son and my friend Doug, so I see a time in the future when he will begin to trust other humans more readily.

My favorite time of day with him is early in the morning, just after he's had his breakfast, when it is still dark and he is feeling as happy and goofy as a much-loved dog can feel, trotting around the yard with his tail and head held high. My second favorite time is in the afternoon when he lies sprawled beside my desk as I write (as he is right now, matter of fact), softly sighing in his sleep. Just his presence here makes my life better.

And now for that brief commercial message: If you have enjoyed reading about Sgt. Thomas Tibbs, you might also enjoy the memoir I wrote entitled The Dogs Who Saved Me. All of the royalties for that book are donated to animal rescue groups who do the hard work of rehabilitating dogs like Thom. There is a link to the Amazon page for that book right here in the column on the left. And thank you!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Birthday Gift

Back in the late 1970's when I was a young wife and mother with very little money, someone in our church began selling Avon products as a way to supplement her family's income. I sympathized with her plight, and so I found one thing to buy when she made her obligatory pitch over tea one afternoon. The "Dear Friends" cologne decanter (pictured above) with its lovely girl holding a cat reminded me of my then three-year-old daughter and her tenderness with a tiny orange kitten she named "Sweetheart" (because that was what I called her). The scent, "Roses, Roses," seemed like such an extravagance, but it really did smell just like roses, and I really did want to help out the young woman whose young family was struggling like my own.

So I bought the little decanter, and I kept it on my dresser, and every time I dressed for church or to go to dinner with my husband, I dabbed on a few drops of the sweet scented water. It took years to empty the bottle. Once the cologne was gone, I kept the bottle on my dresser because I loved the figurine, and the scent of the roses lingered in it. Now my granddaughter has it. She's sixteen.

A couple of years ago for my birthday, my daughter bought me some rose water, telling me, "This reminds me of you because you always smelled like this when I was growing up." It swept me back across decades in an instant. Until that moment, I'd had no idea she associated that scent with her childhood.  I used the rose water she gave me, though it didn't smell quite as sweet as the original cologne, and of course it was lacking the nostalgia of that lovely Avon bottle.

Then yesterday, for our birthday—because my daughter was born on my nineteenth birthday, still the best birthday I've ever had—she handed me a small gift bag. In it, wrapped ever so carefully, was a very familiar figure. Somehow, she and my granddaughter had found (online, of course) a woman selling the Avon products her mother had collected for years. As I opened the package, tears in my eyes, my granddaughter reminded me that she still had that old "Dear Friends" bottle because, she said, it reminds her of her childhood. My son, sitting beside me, didn't remember the bottle at all, but when he smelled the cologne inside, his eyes widened. "I remember this!" he said. Of course. When scent is connected to memory it can snap us back to places and experiences from long, long ago.

And what a gift it is when someone can give us something so simple yet so powerful! I love this gift because it will remind me, every time I splash it on, of those long ago but much beloved days... and how far we've come as a family. And now, having seen my granddaughter, as beautiful as her mother, gently cradle a kitten in her arms, this simple glass and plastic container takes on an even deeper value.

So here's a birthday toast to nostalgia, to vintage memories and to making new memories as our family grows in ever widening circles of love.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Our New Normal (wherein I anthropomorphize to my heart's content)

Summer is here. As I write this, Sugie is beside me, curled into a fold of the softly worn green blanket that has covered this swing for eight summers now. During the school year, when things get so crazy with early hours, papers to grade, parents to call and impossible time schedules, this is what I daydream about. This is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other, shuffling one more graded essay to the bottom of the stack, these long blissful moments of swing-sitting with this little chunk of a cat… and writing slowly, leisurely, thinking through my word choices as the ice cubes twirl slowly in my glass of sweet tea.

This is heaven for both of us. For me it’s the writing. For Sug it’s having her mom home so she can spend hours outside on the patio if she so desires (as long as I am out here with her).

This summer, of course, our routine is just a wee bit altered. Sug now shares me with annoying little sister Purrrl and the world’s most quirky dog, Sgt. Thomas Tibbs. So far, things are working out just fine.

In previous summers, when I’ve done my annual pilgrimage to Missouri, Sug has been left with various housesitters. I have always returned to find her somewhat emotionally shut down, always clingy and anxious for many days after my return. (And if you think I’m simply projecting or anthropomorphizing here, take a moment to read this piece in today’s Los Angeles Times by Amy Hubbard.) Even those closest to me have never fully understood that my deep anxiety in leaving her stems not from worry about her physical well-being but about how her psyche will fare while I’m gone. I am the center of her daily routine, her source not only of food but of safety and security. My absence means subjecting her to her own ‘worries,’ primal as they may be. Keep in mind, this is a sentient being I have cared for and loved for eight years. I know the difference in her response when I’ve been gone for an hour compared with an absence of twelve hours. It’s not about the food; she does truly ‘miss’me.

To help Sug feel slightly less alone when I travel—or when I’m gone from the house for a grueling early-morning-to-work-plus-parent-meeting-plus-grocery-shopping day—I brought little Purrrl into our lives last fall. And this year, when I returned from Missouri, Sug had not shut down. Well at least, not to the extent she usually does. Yes, I’m sure there were some moments of anxiety—my housesitter, with whom Sug is acquainted, invited people over a few times, so the house was noisy and there were strangers. But when the girls get anxious, they dive under the bed and huddle up together. They don’t cuddle, but I have no doubt that being near each other during a potentially scary experience helps them both to cope and offers them the comfort of familiarity.

All of that is preamble to say that, where my late summer mornings used to consist of yawning, stretching, and strolling outside to the patio with Sug, there is a bit more to it now. Now when I wake I have to move cautiously around a sleepy gray kitten who hogs the middle of the bed (Sug and I relegated to the left side, always) and who will lash out with cranky claws if her beauty sleep is disturbed. But ten minutes later, I will hear the girls chasing each other through the house. Because apparently cats do not need one or two cups of tea before they can officially begin to wake up; they seem to be able to go from I’m-still-sleeping-Mom! to I-got-you!/I-got-you-back! in about thirty seconds.

And after everyone is fed—except for me, though I am allowed one cup of tea to drink while I dispense fresh water, pick up rawhide chew remnants from the floor, start the sprinklers and put my shoes on—there follows a long, luxurious walk with my boy, Thomas, who is quite the happy dog these days. (Update on the good boy in an upcoming post.) Later in the morning, Sug will let me know it’s time to stop cleaning or folding laundry or goofing off on Facebook, and we will wander outside together to this very spot. This routine is what keeps me sane, and I am grateful to the Universe that the sanity it brings will last me for ten months when school starts again.

Today’s blog post is dedicated to my dear friend and faithful reader Barbara Tinsley, who gave me just the nudge I needed at just the right time.