Month: January 2015

Exit 39. Hearing her story really put my own life in perspective.

As I believe I’ve explained before, by some quirk of fate I’ve become The Cool Teacher to some of the kids at my school.  A group of my students likes to sit in my room after school to work on homework, or sometimes just to hang out and play games on their phones.  In the last month or so, some of their friends who are not in my class have been joining them.  Most of this group came from the same elementary school, so they have known each other for many years.

A few days ago, the usual group was there, and a new girl (new to the group, and not in my class, but not new to the school; she came from the same elementary school as most of the regulars) was with them.  I’ll give her the astrocode “Alpheratz.”  While they were there, they were talking about how Alpheratz has a key to ride the elevator.  The only students who are allowed to ride the elevator are the ones who can’t climb stairs for medical reasons, so I figured that she probably had a sprained ankle or something.  I hadn’t noticed any blatantly visible reason why Alpheratz couldn’t climb stairs.  “Why do you have an elevator key?” I asked, expecting a routine explanation like a sprained ankle.

“Cancer,” she replied, as matter-of-factly as it is possible to say that word.

“What?” I said.  I knew I had heard right, but it was totally not the answer I was expecting.

Alpheratz then went on to explain how she had started getting headaches as a kid and had been dealing with a brain tumor off and on since the beginning of elementary school.  Her friend who was in my class started talking about all the fundraisers they held for her and her family when they were going through this.  About half an hour later, when the kids were leaving my classroom, Alpheratz came over to my desk with a piece of paper and said, “Here.  This is for you.”  She had written two pages for me to read about her family, her condition, the surgery she had in first grade, and all the pills she has to take now.  (I won’t go into any greater detail about that, because it’s not my story to tell.)  And because of this, she has problems with balance and can’t climb stairs.

What struck me the most about all this was her positive attitude.  She didn’t hesitate at all sharing all this with me, and I had just met her an hour earlier.  Hearing her story really put my own life in perspective.  This girl has been dealing with this since first grade.  It’s pretty much the only life she knows.  And no one knows what will happen to her in the future.  But all she can do is keep on doing the best she can.  If I had been in her situation, I don’t think I could be so happy and positive and open about all this.  I’d be complaining about life not being fair, and I’d probably be really angry.  I’ve been in some irritable moods lately, but none of it has anything to do with the excruciating pain and uncertain future that Alpheratz must be going through.

Like I said last week, sometimes I just need to make do the best I can with what I have instead of complaining about things not being the way I want.  Alpheratz is a perfect example of this.  She was dealt a hand that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and you would never know it just from seeing how she acts around her friends.  I want to remember how much I do have.  I’m relatively healthy, and I can climb stairs.  I have so much to be thankful for.  And I really hope this girl is okay and that she makes it, so she can go on to inspire others.

Exit 38. :)&[4].

The combination of numbers and punctuation marks appearing in the title of this post is something I’ve used a few times over the years as a Facebook status.  I haven’t recently, though, because I haven’t really felt that way, although I know I really need to change my attitude.  And that’s what I need to work on right now.  But first I should explain what “that way” is, considering that :)&[4] is an abbreviation I made up (for a quote I didn’t make up, though).

:)&[4] is short for “I’ve got a smile on my face, and I’ve got four walls around me.”  To me, that means that I’m content with life at the moment.  I may not have everything I want, things may not be perfect, but I have what I need and I’m okay with that.  (Feel free to start using that in your own statuses and tweets.)  The quote is the both the opening and closing lines of this song:

As I mentioned in a recent post, the vocalist and primary songwriter for that song, Alan Doyle, recently wrote a memoir.  I just finished reading it today.  (And if I’ve mentioned it two weeks in a row, that means it must be really good, so all of you should go read it as soon as you’re done reading this.)  One of the first things that struck me about Alan’s story was when he writes about the first time he brought his future wife to the small rural fishing village in Newfoundland where he grew up.  He tells about how they had no car and his dad had to hitchhike to work, about throwing big parties to warm up the house when they ran out of heating oil, about having no bathroom at all when he was young, the non-flushing toilet in the bathroom his father built later, and taking his first shower as a preteen while visiting some relatives on his mother’s side in a different part of Newfoundland.  You hear stories all the time like this from people of my grandparents’ generation, who grew up during the Depression, but Alan isn’t that much older than me.  All of the stories in this book happened in the 1970s and 80s.  When Alan was a university student in St. John’s, he brought his future wife to his childhood home, and she said that she had no idea that Alan grew up poor.  Alan didn’t understand what she was saying at first, because he had never thought of himself as poor.  It was the only life he knew, and his family always had each other and they had all they needed in life, and they knew how to make do when they didn’t have something.  And that attitude shows up in the lyrics of Ordinary Day.

One foggy morning last week, I was driving to work, and while still in my own neighborhood I saw a blind pedestrian walking down the street with a red and white cane.  I don’t know who this person was, and now that I think about it, I don’t even remember if I noticed if it was a man or a woman.  But it just got me thinking about how when you don’t have one of your major senses, you have to learn to make do and do the best you can without it.  And suddenly, something hit me, like that feeling you get when you figure out something that has you stumped for so long.

I don’t consider myself poor financially.  I have a job and a house and a car.  I used to be a bit less well off financially.  I spent seven years working at a small private school that did not pay well.  In mid-2014, when I left that job, I was taking home the same dollar amount, not adjusted for inflation, as what I made in public school in 2003.  And I found ways to make do.  I didn’t jump on the smartphone bandwagon.  I had roommates for a while, and when the last one moved out, I decided to live by myself, which required more making do.  I got rid of cable TV, and I stopped getting the print edition of the newspaper.  And now that I’m taking home more money at my new job, I still don’t have a smartphone, cable TV, or print newspaper subscription, because those things aren’t really necessary for me when compared to how much they cost.

One of the areas in life where I do feel poor is in my chronic inability to form romantic relationships, and along with that, my fading hope of ever having a family of my own someday.  I came of age in an environment where I was told that dating was bad, because people who rush into relationships make bad decisions, so I should stop looking to find that special someone, and eventually God would bring her along, and we’d be married and happy and fit neatly into all those evangelical Christian stereotypes, where I’d be a strong manly Promise Keeper leading my family spiritually, and she would be a strong womanly Proverbs 31 Woman going on women’s retreats that looked like commercials for feminine hygeine products.  What no one told me was that all of that came with a deadline.  It doesn’t work the same way in real life once you’re too old for youth groups and college groups.  God isn’t just going to bring someone along with no effort on my part once I’m out there in the real world and not surrounded by singles my own age in my place in life.  Many of the people around me who heard that message with me in their early 20s got married in their mid-20s and now have happy families, and I’ve spent most of my 20s and 30s frustrated over the fact that none of that works for me.  I know there are other issues at play here.  My self-confidence issues have gotten in the way quite a bit, and those happy families aren’t always so happy all the time.  But there’s something else going on here.

And this brings me back to what I was saying earlier: I have to learn to make do, and do the best I can with what I have.  The world I knew in 1997 when I was being told all that stuff about dating is gone.  If I keep denying that, if I keep expecting life to stay the way it was in 1997, then nothing is ever going to change.  I have to make do with what I have, and what I have is a pretty awesome life in 2015.  I don’t have a family of my own like a lot of my age peers do, but I have a lot of friends and experiences and adventures to be thankful for.  And there do exist single women in 2015, but I’m not going to meet them by sitting back and waiting for them to come to me.  That doesn’t mean I’m denying the power of God in my life, it means I’m being reasonable and realistic.  I’m not meeting women my age with my values in my normal social circles, which gives me three options: other social circles, bars, or online dating sites.  Other social circles are an option, although I still think it’s hard to find people with that much in common with me.  But I’m going to be spending the next two Saturdays attending birthday parties of people who aren’t among the people I spend time with often, and that can’t hurt.  I never know how things will play out in the end.  (I should add, though, that I was at one of those same birthday parties a year ago, and I met someone.  We went out a couple times, and it didn’t end well.  In the interest of not using this blog to bash exes, I won’t say anything more about that, but I will say that I’m glad that I had the experience, as a live-and-learn growing experience type thing.)  As for bars, most women there also don’t share my values, and bars aren’t really my scene, so maybe if I want a relationship, I should try going back to online dating.  I had seven months of bad experiences with online dating, but that was on one site that was free, so there are other options to explore.  Yeah, it sucks that we live in a world that is so impersonal that we can’t meet each other face to face, that everyone is too busy to have any real interaction, but that’s the world of 2015 that I live in, so if I want to get by in this world, I have to make do.  I’m not going to meet a woman who shares my interests and values 100%, but very few men do, so I’ll have to make do.

I’m not saying I’m going to start looking for a relationship right now, I’m too busy with other things to know if this a good time for sure, but I don’t want to be closed to the idea of online dating because of that one stretch of life.  Sometimes I wonder, though, if maybe God never allowed me to have a family of my own because he knows that I wouldn’t be able to handle it with all my other commitments.  I often wonder how busy people manage to raise kids.  But if I ever do get the opportunity to have children of my own, I already know the secret: I just have to make do with what I have, and do the best I can.


Exit 37. How many kids have I hurt because I was having a bad day?

I am currently reading the book Where I Belong by Alan Doyle.  Alan Doyle is a musician, best known for his work in the band Great Big Sea; the band seems to be on indefinite hiatus, and Alan has been recording and performing as a solo artist since then.  He is also known for playing Alan A’Dale in Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood movie (the similar name is a coincidence).  The book is a memoir about Alan’s childhood in Petty Harbour, a tiny fishing village outside of St. John’s, Newfoundland.  One story he told in that book really struck a chord with me.

Alan writes about a mean teacher he had in his early teens.  He was the extreme stereotypical Catholic school teacher, with all the associated ruler-hitting, but also with verbal abuse involving telling Alan that he would never be a man.  Many years later, as an adult, Alan ran into the mean teacher’s brother; he recognized Alan from knowing his music career, and knowing that Alan was from Petty Harbour, he asked if he ever had his brother as a teacher.  Alan didn’t have the heart to tell him how much he disliked his brother and how much he had been hurt, particularly when the man spoke of how his brother had taken care of their ailing mother, and how his brother had recently passed away himself of a long-term illness.

As a teacher, it often haunts me to think about how many kids I have had this impression on.  How many kids have I hurt because I was having a bad day?  How many bright young minds have been turned off of math, or of school in general, because they bore the brunt of my overreacting?

I remember one guy from my most difficult year.  He was a capable student who preferred to act like a wannabe gangbanger.  For a while, though, we did have a point of connection in that he really liked Star Wars.  One day, his class just wouldn’t be quiet, I couldn’t hear myself talk over all the noise, and I just blew up at them.  This student in particular was being disrespectful, and I think I screamed at him and slammed his book down on the desk.  I really don’t remember everything, because I tend to block out these shameful and painful memories.  After that incident, they moved him out of my class.  The vice principal told me that the student told him that my tantrum reminded him of his abusive father, who he had not seen in several years but who also used to blow up like that.  I felt so bad after that, and after they moved him out of my class, I went and found him during my prep period and apologized, and told him that I had given in to the Dark Side.

My first year teaching, there was a girl who just didn’t seem to like me, which is totally normal for high school juniors and seniors.  New teachers don’t know how things are done in their world, so the older students tend to think they don’t have to do anything that the new teacher tells them.  She fit that description, and math wasn’t her strong subject to begin with.  I said something in a phone call with her mom along these lines, and somehow it came across that she thought I was calling her daughter a spoiled brat or something like that.  She complained to the principal, and we had a conference with her mother in which the principal told me that my choice of words was inappropriate.  I honestly don’t remember exactly what I said.

I’m only human.  Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has bad days.  It has been many years since I have seen either of these students, but they, and many others, probably still have very bad memories of my class.  I can attempt to apologize, but the damage has been done.  Sure, I know that there have been many students who have enjoyed my classes and learned a lot from me, but it still hurts to know that I have failed so badly sometimes.  I can learn from those mistakes.  I can think before I speak and walk away from frustrating situations so that I don’t overreact in the future.

More importantly, when I’m on the receiving end of this kind of thing, when someone is mistreating me, I can make an effort to understand what’s going on in the other person’s head.  Alan Doyle didn’t know what his teacher was going through.  Those who have been mean to me over the years have their own sets of issues that I can’t begin to understand.  And my students don’t understand what I’m going through when I’m having a bad day.  All we can do is try our best to be patient and forgiving and understanding.

Exit 36. Climb your tree.

There’s no way I’ll have time to write anything new this week, so enjoy this post that I originally wrote in September 2006.

So I went for a bike ride this morning, all the way across town. About seven miles from my house, there is this trail about a mile and a half long that runs alongside a creek. At one point along that trail is a picnic table underneath a big oak tree. I brought along one of those little green New Testaments that the Gideons hand out, so that I could take some time to read Scripture and pray during my bike ride.

While I was doing this, I was looking at the tree, and I thought, I haven’t climbed a tree in years. I’m going to try to climb this tree. It’ll be fun. I tried a few times, but my shoes didn’t grip the trunk very well. So I went back to the bench for a bit.

A few minutes later, I got to thinking about the tree again. I thought about how if I really wanted to sit in the tree, I could always try to climb on my bike first, which would give me more height and a better position to get up in the tree. But I didn’t. Instead, I kept trying to find a way to get up the first part of the trunk without help. I tried a few times and didn’t make it up. But eventually I did. I tried gripping the branches a little bit differently, and I didn’t get up when the going got hard. And once I was up there, I climbed pretty high, and sat there for a while and continued reading and praying.

As much as it seems hard to believe at times, not to mention cliché, I really do believe that, once you have a goal and are focused on reaching it (I recognize, though, that getting to that point is often a battle in and of itself), you can do anything you set your mind to. I’m proud of myself for climbing that tree.

What’s your tree? Go out there and climb it today.