My Biggest Influence

Jen and IOver the course of a lifetime, we come in contact with a great number of people.  Some people just pass right on thru without us even noticing, others make a brief yet still significant mark, and others impact our entire being.  They transform us.  Maybe for you the person who made the most difference was a spouse or a child.  Maybe it was a teacher or colleague.  For me, it was a friend, one so close I consider her more of a sister.  There is simply no aspect of my life that she did not influence.

I met Jen when I was only two or three years old and she was just a newborn.  We grew up living just two houses apart in a quiet suburban neighborhood.  As a kid, my family remembers me being an outgoing chatterbox, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  I talked their ears off, yes, because they were my safe zone.  In reality, when they weren’t around, I was quite shy . . . except when I was with Jen.  She and her parents introduced me to things I never would have had access to or attempted to do without them.  I have no doubt that without the three of them I would have turned out very differently.

I got my sense of imagination from Jen and her mom, Becky.  Becky could be silly and would use words that even now I associate strictly with her.  She encouraged us to play dress up, have picnics on the porch, and hide away in Jen’s cardboard version of the Mickey Mouse Playhouse.  Jen had a lot of toys, but she didn’t really want to play with most of them.  Instead, she preferred for us to make up our own games and stories, and she was endlessly creative.

Though I may have helped Jen learn to ride a bike, she helped me learn to go off and explore, and that push to explore got more necessary the older I got. I can be reclusive and set in my ways.  I don’t go out of my way to meet new people or try new things.  Jen, however, never seemed to meet a stranger.  She would introduce me to her other friends and try to put me at ease.  Then again, she would embarrass me too!  Many a time, she would be driving us around town with the music blaring, and at stoplights, she would dance and make the car shake violently.  People would stare and I would slide down in the passenger seat not wanting to be noticed.  That was the difference.  Jen didn’t care who stared.  She made it her mission to get me to lighten up and live a little. She would take me to Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion and get me on every single ride.  She would even make me raise my hands over my head, laughing and screaming.  I’ve probably never felt so free as in those moments.

In our twenties, Jen regularly took me clubbing and tried desperately to teach me to dance.  Eventually, she declared it hopeless, saying I just had no rhythm, but she still made me go with her. She was determined that I not spend my evenings at home alone.  She got me to laugh at myself and she taught me that if you look hard enough you can find humor in most anything.  Afterall, sometimes life gets so shitty the only way to stay sane is to laugh it off. She taught me that it’s all about perspective. She could look at a problem and explain it in a way I never would have thought of.  She could calmly explain alternative viewpoints in a way that made you accept them even if you started out staunchly opposed.  She had a sense of logic and persuasion this world desperately needs.

Sadly, a year ago today Jen died, a mere three months after being diagnosed with cancer. She was 43 years old. No matter how afraid she might have been, she was still so brave. The last message she sent me was “my family (and extended family) is the shit! I have the most awesome support system imaginable.  Everyone has been so very kind. I plan to win this fight, the problem is that everyone plans to win and most don’t.  Scary stuff! This is why we have valium.A few weeks before her death, I went back to Virginia to say my goodbyes, and the only fear I saw was that she didn’t want to be left alone.  I spent the few nights I was there sporadically sleeping in a chair beside her hospital bed. Even then, she was much more worried about everyone else. Southern girl that she was, she wanted to make sure every visitor was comfortable and fed.  I don’t know how many times she offered me her Jello or her soup. She was suffering, yet still had a smile for every friend or family member who entered. Late at night, she told me how much she appreciated her parents being there with her every day, but she was concerned about the toll it was taking on them.  I know she worried about me too.  We reminisced about all the good times we had shared and she agreed wholeheartedly that my life certainly would have been dull without her in it.  We planned out all the things we would do and trips we would take when she recovered. I think that was her parting gift to me.  She knew that she wouldn’t leave the hospital, but she left me a “To Do” list.  She knew that I would feel obligated to do all the things we had talked about.  Even now, she is teaching me to face my fears and live courageously and every step I take I know that she is with me.

Daily Prompt: Neighbors

My Preferences

via Daily Prompt: Prefer

I prefer

Getting along, keeping an open mind, and embracing differences

Peace over chaos

Tolerance over hate

I prefer

Spending quiet evenings with family and friends.

Laughter over crying

Giving over receiving

I prefer

Remembering good times versus bad

Dreaming over dwelling

Faith over pessimism

Haunted House Shenanigans

It was supposed to be an evening of Halloween fun for all, but I’m not so sure that everyone would agree it worked out that way.  After all, some enjoy a good fright more than others, and depending on one’s tolerance, fear can bring out the best or the worst.

It was a cool October evening in the early 1980s.  I was around twelve or thirteen, and my best friend Jennifer, who was around ten, was spending the night at my house.  There was a church run haunted house a few minutes drive away, and we begged and pleaded for my mom to take us.  She finally caved but said that she wouldn’t go in with us; instead, she would wait in the car.  

So there we were standing in line in front of the little Cape Cod style house beside the church which was filled with all sorts of spooky surprises.  Behind the house was a small cemetery decked out as part of the experience. We would follow a path from the front door of the house to the back and out into the cemetery.  As we waited for our turn, creepy music played throughout the parking lot and over it we heard the occasional scream from inside.  At first, we giggled.  The longer we waited though the more nervous we became.  We tried to outdo each other with our mock bravery and attempted to scare each other.  Eventually that stopped when we realized we were making things worse.  We started to voice our fears.  We contemplated getting out of line and just leaving. Right about then the line started to move.  The couple in front of us had apparently been listening to us go on and on about how scared we were.  They were in their twenties and quite possibly on their first date.  Maybe Jen and I were breaking the ice for them.  We gave them something to laugh and talk about.  Anyway, the guy gallantly turns to us as we are getting ready to make our escape and says, “Don’t worry girls!  If you get scared, just hold onto the back of my jacket.  I’ll protect you.”  Made much more confident by his offer, Jen and I stayed and moved along with the line.

I don’t remember much after that.  Vague images of skeletons and cobwebs skitter across my mind.  The sound of a chainsaw hums in my ears.  I’m sure, looking back now, that my head was rotating around the room like Regan in The Exorcist. I was so scared. In a state of heightened awareness, we made it safely through the first room. As we made it through the doorway, something jumped at us from behind.  Jen and I screamed at the top of our lungs and took off running.  We’ve probably never moved so fast in our lives. We went from room to room at the speed of light in what now seems to be a smoky haze of semi-consciousness.  We skipped the cemetery and went straight for the car.  I remember one of the actors in the cemetery yelling for us to come back, that it wasn’t over yet, but it was over for us.  We were done with that mess.

When my mom saw us approaching the car, she started laughing uncontrollably.  Only then did we notice that we had followed the instructions of the guy in front of us.  We had indeed grabbed hold of the back of his jacket when we got spooked . . . and he was still in it.  The poor guy didn’t stand a chance.  I’m sure that when he made his offer to protect us, he could not have foreseen such a thing happening.  He must have been astonished by the ferocity of our grasp as we hauled him along with us.  We were certainly shocked to realize we had taken him captive and let go of his jacket as though it was scalding our hands.  Without so much as a “Thank you” or a “Sorry” we jumped in the car and locked the doors.  

I think he was dumbfounded as he turned and walked back toward the cemetery.  We never saw his date again and to this day, I wonder if he ever saw her again either.  I’m thinking their first date may have been their last.  Then again, maybe we made for the most memorable first date ever and they ended up married and living happily ever after, telling their kids and grandkids all about us.  In that case, “You’re welcome!”

There is Joy in Pet Ownership, but Please Adopt, Don’t Shop

For millions of us, they are part of the family.  They are our babies or our siblings.  We include them in family portraits, post about them on Facebook, sometimes travel with them, and typically spoil them rotten.  Our pets mean so much to us.

If you have never had a pet, you might not understand the fascination.  You have no idea what you are missing.  Our pets reward us with humor, companionship, and unbridled devotion (drool sometimes lovingly included).  Sure, pets are a lot of work and expense, and they require a lengthy time commitment, but they give so much in return.

In my life, I have never been without a pet.  Sometimes I have had up to eight at a time.  I’ve had cats, dogs, bunnies, and horses.  Each one has had a unique personality and brought me tremendous joy.

I swear to their intelligence and know my pets understand everything I say to them.  My dog knows our routine and will come stand by the bed when it is time to get up.  One of my rabbits, Tabitha, also knew what time I needed to get up, only her wake up calls were tinged with a dark humor.  She would hop into my bed and run circles around me; however, if five minutes of that didn’t do the trick, she would pounce on me and pee.  That wasn’t exactly the most desirable wake-up call, but it certainly was effective.  Once up, I was usually then forced to crawl under my bed to retrieve the slippers she had stolen during the night.  If bunnies could laugh, I’m sure she would have been in hysterics as she watched her human do such tricks.  

In addition, my animals have always shown me compassion.  As a kid, I would whisper all of my secrets into the ear of my sister’s horse, Rowdy, while he rested his head on my shoulder.  He would occasionally nod his head or flare his nostrils and breathe into my ear as though he was commiserating with me and giving his own brand of advice.  As an adult, I would often come home from work disgruntled over the workload or the students who refused to participate or a variety of other stresses.  It was mandatory on those days to consult my therapist (my bunny, Adam) the instant I got home.  She would coax me onto the floor and we would lie cheek to cheek while she soothed the wild beast within me.  Five minutes of that and my good mood was restored.  If it wasn’t for my therapy sessions, I would have never survived my teaching career and my family would not have been able to tolerate me during that time.

I won’t go so far as to say that every human should have a pet because some simply aren’t capable of returning such love and devotion.  Sadly, there are some miserable excuses for humanity out there who would (and do) abuse the trust of both humans and animals.  However, I believe that the vast majority of people should have at least one pet, and there are so many animals looking for a home where they can impart all of their wisdom and offer unconditional love.  The trick is to find a good match.  Spend some time with a prospective pet and introduce him or her to all the members of your family (both two and four-legged) to ensure the adjustment will be smooth on all fronts.  If you aren’t 100% sure if you are ready for a long-term commitment, consider fostering before adopting.  Fosters are usually provided with food and supplies, and sometimes rescues will even enroll you and the animal in a training class to aid in the transition. There are many small shelters looking for foster families for a variety of reasons.  Many animals have difficulty adjusting to a shelter environment, some need a quiet place to recover from medical treatment, and some who were once simply yard ornaments need to ease into living in a home environment.  Shelters do a great job of interviewing prospective fosters to learn habits and routines and then place an animal which is a good fit.  You may not know what you are looking for in a pet, but the shelter staff usually knows what they are looking for in a foster and can help you find the perfect match.  This is just one more reason to foster or adopt rather than purchasing from a pet store or breeder.  Where the store/breeder is out to make a quick buck, the shelter or rescue wants to find the right home and family for every pet in its care.

So maybe this blog has turned into a “public service announcement”, but that is simply because I want everyone to find the simple joy I have known all of my life: the unconditional love and affection of a pet.  Take my word for it; there is nothing like it, and I know my life would be incomplete without it.

Lessons from the Macabre

With the reappearance of the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks, the row upon row of Halloween candy at Walmart, and the pop-up stores full of Halloween costumes and decorations, I am reminded of one of my favorite teaching units.  Every year for Halloween, I would take my students on a trip thru the macabre.  I would fill my classroom with skeletons, chains, and black candelabra and greet my students at the door dressed in a black cape and masquerade mask, with a small trowel at my hip.  Then I would gross my students out by drinking pink lemonade out of a black martini glass filled with rubber eyeballs.  Depending on the grade level, we would read Cask of Amontillado, Masque of the Red Death, or The Tell-Tale Heart.  Edgar Allan Poe was a genius when it came to suspense and gore.  Just consider his plots: man buries neighbor alive for unknown offense; death infiltrates costume party disguised as himself; man goes crazy, starts hearing things, and confesses to murder, etc. Every one of his stories is uniquely different, yet similarly disturbing. It was one of the few days of the school year that I could count on unbridled enthusiasm from my students.  They, and I, held a morbid fascination for all things Poe.

What is it that makes us so drawn to Poe and his work? Why are we, his readers, so morbidly fascinated with death and despair?  Are we suppressing our own violent tendencies? Are we reading them to get ideas of how to off the neighbor?  Is my neighbor right this moment kicking back, reading some Poe, and considering my demise?  It almost makes you start looking at those around you with suspicion.

Why was every single one of Poe’s stories so dark . . . and where did he find his inspiration?  Was he depressed?  Finding an outlet for his extensive rage? Was his fixation on death due to losing his parents at such an early age?  Was he so upset with his surrogate father that he invented stories of murder and mayhem as way to vent? Perhaps it was being dumped by his fiance that caused his mood to sour so.  Maybe he was rebelling against authority and found pleasure in shocking those who attempted to restrain him.  Certainly, he faced challenges.  With so many losses, he was bound to be a bit melancholy from time to time, but was that the basis of his entire career?  

Considering the popularity of Poe’s work, it leads me to wonder whether suffering is destined to spawn success.  If that is the case, there should be a hoard of wildly successful people in the world.  After all, you don’t have to look very hard to find people who are suffering.  Let’s hope that, unlike Poe, those of us currently suffering realize our success prior to our demise.  Then again, that would be one more travesty.  I wonder . . . should we list an heir in our wills for the monetary gains of our posthumous success, and will leaving said heir such a fortune preclude him from achieving his own success?  If we follow that vein, one can turn trials into triumph but never live to see recognition or one can benefit from a predecessor’s pain but not be accomplished in his own right.  It’s a vicious cycle.  How depressing!

In the face of Hurricane Irma

Sadly, hurricanes and the damage they can do are currently a hot topic of discussion.  The poor residents of Houston, TX are, and will be for quite some time to come, trying to recover and rebuild after the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  Now, residents of the East Coast are watching with trepidation trying to determine if they are in the path of Hurricane Irma.

Though I no longer live in an area affected by hurricanes, I still have family and friends all along the East Coast from Florida to Maine, and I am praying that they will all remain safe.  I am praying that Irma’s impact will be minimal.

Focusing on this season’s hurricanes has me reflecting on those of past years. Thankfully, though the state of Virginia has weathered many bad storms, none of them ever left me or my loved ones without a home.  That being said, I do remember a few of them.

Hurricane Gloria came thru our area in September of 1985 and to this day I wonder what possessed my mom to let me sleep in the barn with my pony.  Yes, I was concerned that Crazy 8 would be scared during the storm and I wanted to keep him calm; however, I was only 14 at the time.  I teasingly asked my mom, “What kind of parent lets their teenage daughter sleep in the barn during a hurricane? Who was concerned for my safety?”  She does apply a certain sort of logic when she tells me I was probably safer in the barn than she and my siblings were in the house.  The barn was relatively new and made of stucco (cement).  If any building could withstand hurricane force winds, it would most likely be a stucco barn.  I suppose if it flooded, there was always the hayloft (at least for me).

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit the area.  Again, I survived unscathed, but I vividly remember watching the news reports of the massive flooding in nearby Franklin, VA.  It was the worst flooding Franklin had seen in a century, and it took years to recover. The flooding of the Blackwater River also impacted the area where my sister and her husband lived.  Though it did not reach their home, nearby streets were under water.  

The hurricane which personally impacted me the most was Hurricane Isabel in 2003.  My mom and I stayed home rather than evacuating because we had no way to transport our pony anywhere else and we did not want to leave him behind.  I don’t remember us getting a lot of rain.  The day the storm hit seemed eerily calm though there must have been a good deal of wind to hit our area.  Around 9am, we watched the first tree fall.  It was a rather small one and it fell right beside my hunk of junk car.  I remember teasing my mom that the tree couldn’t even do me the favor of falling on my car so that I could get some insurance money to put towards a new one.  In retrospect, that joke wasn’t funny.  So many people near us experienced significant damage.  We were fortunate.  The hurricane left our side of the street alone, but wreaked havoc on the neighbors across the street.  When it had passed us by and it was safe to go out and inspect the damage, my mom and I went to check on our neighbors.  Their backyard full of pine trees was completely decimated.  It looked like a war zone with downed trees criss-crossing their property. All we could do was stand with our backs up against the rear of their house and stare in amazement.  They were so incredibly fortunate that none of those trees landed on their home.  The only impact Isabel had on my mom and I is that it knocked out phone and power lines and left us relying on a generator for the next twelve days.  The biggest hardship was that as our home was more or less in the country and had well water rather than city water and sewage; we needed power to run the pump.  That meant for twelve days we could not shower or flush toilets.  We had prepared somewhat by filling the tub and buckets with water prior to the storm.  We used that for flushing toilets.  Every few days, we went to a friend’s house nearby to shower and fill up coolers with water for the pony.  We did have a ton of debris to clean up, but we were exceptionally lucky, which leads me back to the present.

My few encounters with hurricanes and tropical storms were nothing compared to what Houston recently experienced.  I simply cannot begin to imagine the hardships they are facing.  The one good thing to come from the destruction is that so many people set aside their differences and gave of themselves to care for strangers in need.  Our country has been riddled with so much negativity and division in recent months, but when push comes to shove, we pull together.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn to recognize that sooner or later everyone needs a helping hand and that it should not require such blatant need to make us step up to the plate?  

You Never Forget Your First . . . Car, That Is

I remember it like it was yesterday; I mean really, 1989 wasn’t that long ago!  With a red exterior and beige interior, I thought it was absolutely perfect.  It didn’t matter that until then I had never even heard of a Renault Alliance.  My mom and I had compromised.  My first year of college was a nightmare.  I had been so homesick and without a car that 135 miles might have well been 1000.  In order to convince me to go back, my mom scraped together enough cash to buy this car from someone we knew from church.  My sister still laughs at me each time I say, “I loved that car!”  She compared it to Fred Flintstone’s car.  Maybe I can see the resemblance, but I still love that car!  After all, it was my first, and it gave me the opportunity to come home from school whenever I wanted.

So why does my sister laugh at me?  What was wrong with the car?  Well, I admit there were a lot of things wrong with it, but driving it was always an adventure.

It was quite innocuous at the start.  The first thing I noticed was that the rewind button on the cassette player (I did say it was 1989) would fly into the backseat if you didn’t hold your hand there to stop it.  This resulted in either fishing around the floor of the back seat for it while trying to keep your eyes on the road or bloodying your finger on the sharp metal prong that was now left exposed should you feel the need to rewind the tape once more.  No big deal, just a small quirk.  Everyone has them.

The next thing I noticed was that the car had a mind of its own when it came to speed of travel.  The route I took from home to college was by no means mountainous, but it wasn’t flat either.  My car decided that it would only be willing to go 35mph uphill and 55 down.  That certainly extended the drive, but when you have your collection of cassette tapes with you, who really cares.  The other stipulation regarding speed was that if it was raining, I could go ahead and press that pedal to the floor.  I was only traveling 5mph.  My car did not appreciate moisture. It didn’t matter if it was pouring or slightly sprinkling.  Like the dog who refuses to step a foot outside to potty if the ground is wet, my car revolted.  The message was clear: I should avoid driving in wet conditions at all costs.  Just in case the speed factor wasn’t enough to deter me, the car eventually decided to turn things up a notch. On a rare early Monday morning trip back to school for my 8:30am class, my car decided to give me a wakeup call.  Have I mentioned that I am not a morning person? Well, things were uneventful until the last five miles.  I entered town and slowed for a red light.  It wasn’t even raining, but I guess it had rained overnight.  The second I hit my brake, my car responded by doing a complete 360.  As if that wasn’t an eye-opening experience, what shocked me even more was that everyone else at the light appeared to be in collusion with my car.  They completely ignored what had just happened and continued to drive right past.  Perhaps I should have dropped out of college to become a stunt driver because after that particular morning, my car decided to make it a habit. In fact, my sister witnessed one such occasion.  I was following her home one afternoon (to her house in the middle of nowhere) and she was taking a route with which I was unfamiliar.  She made a sharp left turn and then made an immediate stop for a stop sign.  Unsuspecting, I was forced to slam on brakes sending my car into a spin.  Once stationary, I looked up only to find my sister watching me in her rearview mirror, laughing, and giving me a thumbs up.  She apparently had no concern for the fact that I could have rammed her Mustang or gone into a rather deep ditch on the right side of the road.  She thought it was hysterically funny.  Perhaps the sibling rivalry went deeper than I had previously thought.

There are so many other tales to tell.  My radiator started acting up requiring me to stop halfway between home and school to add water to the tank.  Once, when my roommate came home with me, I happened to mention that her cigarette appeared to be generating a lot of smoke.  She replied by saying she had put her cigarette out five minutes earlier.  My car had decided to take up smoking.  My friend, Jen, always had the bad luck of being with me when my car obnoxiously refused to budge an inch.  Of course, since I was rather petite back then, it was only logical that Jen would be the one to get out and push while I steered us out of traffic.  She was with me, along with some of her other friends, the night my transmission gave up the ghost.  The car had been running fine.  We went to McDonald’s and were on our way back to her house when we had to stop for a light.  One of the boys in the backseat decided to be funny, reaching forward to shift the car into neutral.  When the light changed and I hit the gas, my car said, “Nope, not budging!” So many memories! Sigh, I told you it was always an adventure.

Even the last hurrah went off in grand style.  I had been at the Navy base visiting my boyfriend and was traveling home via the interstate at two in the morning when my car decided to simply coast to the embankment on the side of the road and die.  In the absence of cell phones, this required me to put my life in jeopardy by walking a mile to the next exit and then an additional mile to Frank’s Truck Stop in order to call my mom.  In fear that I would be carted off by a truck driver and never seen again, I called Jen from the payphone and demanded she stay on the line until my mom arrived.  Though we had the car towed home, it was unable to be revived.  The timing belt had snapped and subsequently resulted in engine failure.

Man, I LOVED that car!!

Dear Students,

Dear Students,

You probably don’t need the reminder, but it is that time of year again.  Summer break is ending and school is getting under way.  Perhaps some of you are eager to return; you actually like school.  It is probably no surprise to you that you are in the minority.  Some of you don’t really care about school, but you have missed your friends and can’t wait to see them again.  Most of you, though, are filled with dread.  Sorry!  School is a rite of passage we all must endure.  You might as well make the best of it!

Regardless of which category you fall into, I hope you will keep your future goals in mind and try your best.  Remember that you can’t learn unless you try.  If you try yet still fall short, then seek help.  Though you might feel more comfortable asking a classmate for assistance, that may not always be in your best interest.  For one, how certain are you that he or she actually understands the lesson.  Second, that scenario also brings with it the temptation to simply copy his answers, which will get you both into trouble and doesn’t teach you anything.  If you have a reliable friend who makes good grades and can explain the assignment to you without actually providing you the answers, then great.  Let him tutor you.  Otherwise, your best bet is to seek help from the teacher.  Be prepared to stay after school though if you need significant one-on-one instruction; that simply isn’t possible in class when the teacher has to divide attention between thirty other students.  If you can’t stay after, then write down specific questions you have when you turn work in and see if the teacher responds.

Don’t give up simply because you earn a few low scores.  You won’t achieve your goals by giving up. Keep trying.  Keep asking questions.  And remember the saying, “Practice makes perfect.”  Sooner or later, it will click, and you will figure it out but only if you try. Whatever you do, don’t earn a zero.  At least attempt to do your work.

You might not always appreciate the assignments you are asked to do or understand how they relate to your future goals, but the teacher is privy to a bigger picture and wouldn’t ask you to do it if it wasn’t in support of your goals, or at least in preparation for the state exams.  Yes, I do realize that some teachers do give what you consider busy work.  I am not saying that all teachers are good teachers, but I do believe that the vast majority are rather brilliant.  That being said, not all assignments can be made to be fun.  Sometimes you have to put in some elbow grease to build the foundation before you can construct a beautiful home.  Education is the same principle.  You have to learn the basics and you have to master skills before you can apply them on a cool project or experiment.

If you hate school in general, hate that one class, or simply choose not to try the assignments, do your classmates the favor of not distracting them.  Be a stand up guy – or girl!  Don’t be the one to negatively impact the learning process.  Show not only self-respect but respect for your classmates and teachers as well.  You are not the only one with goals!  Do what you can to help others achieve theirs.

Having a great – or at least a tolerable—school year revolves around integrity and accountability.  Have integrity and be accountable for your own work, your own learning, and your own behavior.  Accept responsibility for your actions.  Do your part to make the classroom a place conducive to education.  Participate.  And if you choose not to participate, then observe rather than distract.  Your teachers and fellow students will thank you, and in the end, you might just realize that you actually learned something in the process.

Parents, It’s Time To Give Them Back!

Dear Parents,

While some of you wish that summer break could go on forever, I know many of you are excited to once again send your children off to school.  It has been a whirlwind summer spent chasing the little ones around the house, listening to the older ones complain of boredom, keeping everyone sane and out of trouble, and possibly even coercing your children to complete the dreaded summer reading projects.  Finally, you can take a deep breath and pass the baton to the teachers and school administrators.  Don’t get so excited though that you fail to aid both student and teacher in making a clean transition.

As a former teacher, I can assure you that you play an integral role in how the year will play out.  Start the year off right by attending Open House if possible or by emailing the teacher.  Future conversations will go more easily if you build a relationship now.  Alert teachers now to any vision or hearing issues, any learning challenges, and any behavior issues your child has been known to have.  It is so helpful to know these things at the start.  You have no idea how many students will tell the teacher a month into school that they can’t see the board. Often after accommodating them, the teacher suspects that the student’s complaint was really just an excuse to sit next to his best friend as the quality of his work has actually decreased and the level of distraction has increased.  Without parents providing such valuable information (preferably in writing so it can be referred to later), it really is just a guessing game for teachers.  Which students have legitimate issues and which are just trying to pull a fast one?

Another thing you can do to make the year go smoothly is to see the guidance counselor or registrar about getting online access to your child’s grades.  Every teacher has experienced the phone call of a parent who calls at the end of the quarter to say he or she should have been made aware of the child’s poor grade.  Please understand that teachers have the best of intentions, but they also, at least at the middle and high school level, have 100+ students and a mandatory twenty to thirty assignments to grade each quarter.  With 2000+ papers to grade every nine weeks, it simply isn’t possible to contact parents every time a student fails an assignment or doesn’t turn it in at all.  That doesn’t mean that teachers don’t want to hear from you.  They love to hear from concerned parents.  They don’t need you to be the helicopter parent that calls every other day, but they certainly don’t want you to be hands off either.  For most teachers, an email is often easier than a phone call as they can return it from home or in between classes or meetings.  Email them every couple of weeks to check on progress, behavior, and upcoming projects, but do what you can at home to hold your child accountable.  Be mindful that teachers are not just teaching the curriculum; they are also trying to instill in students a strong work ethic and other skills necessary to succeed as they move from school to the workforce.  Like you, they want your child to be a happy, healthy adult who is capable of chasing and fulfilling his dreams later on.  You and your child may not always appreciate the hard lessons of losing credit for late work or not having it accepted at all.  Just remember the teacher isn’t trying to be mean or lessen his workload; he is simply attempting to teach your child accountability.

There are a few other helpful pointers, which may seem like common sense to you, but believe me, they are issues in many classrooms.  First, don’t do your child’s work for him.  How else is he or she going to learn the material?  Not only that, what lesson do you teach when you do this?  It certainly doesn’t make the student accountable for or appreciative of his learning. It also shows him that teachers do not have your respect, which will, in turn, affect the respect he affords his teacher.  Second, talk to your child about the importance of doing his own work.  Classwork and homework are preparation for upcoming tests and if your child has copied answers from a friend rather than working thru things on his own, how will that impact his test scores?   He should also do his friends the favor of not letting them copy his work either.  He does want his friends to be able to pass the test, right?  Teaching them that copying is cheating and that cheating is wrong instills accountability, integrity, and self-esteem.  It is better for him to fail an assignment completed on his own so that the teacher is aware he is struggling and can offer assistance than to copy, get a good grade and no extra help from the teacher, and fail the test.  Third, know that lack of attendance and excessive tardies are a big issue in middle and high school.  Talk to your child about the need to be at school and in class on time.  Most parents are on board with this and struggle right along with teachers to nip this negative behavior; however, some parents knowingly allow students to regularly miss school.  By allowing absences and tardies without consequence, students learn that school is not important.  This leads to a lack of respect for authority and other such issues.  Please, please, please stress the importance of being at school.  Finally, talk to your child about being prepared for school and organized.  Yes, there are students who genuinely lack supplies and teachers/schools do their best to provide for those in financial need.  The problem is that approximately  one-third of students show up to class each day without paper, writing utensils, and other supplies.  Whenever I brought up this issue at parent/teacher conferences, nine times out of ten the parent informed me that the child had a full supply of materials at home and didn’t understand why these supplies weren’t making it to school every day.  Just imagine all the time that is wasted each day as the same students wander the room in search of these items.  Everyone expects teachers to offer up a pen or sheet of paper when needed and trust me I tried to do just that but as items borrowed were rarely returned, I found I could go thru at least a full case of pens bought in bulk every quarter.  This is an expense teachers can ill afford.

So to recap, here are my tips for a successful school year: 1) contact teachers now to get and give vital information; 2) monitor your child’s grades online and hold them accountable; 3) stress the importance of the student doing his own work; 4) let your child know you think school is important and he is expected to attend regularly and be on time; and 5) do what you can to provide the necessary supplies and ensure they actually make it to school.  By doing all of these things, you will give your child an academic advantage, make the learning process more pleasurable for other students in the class, and show support for the teacher who will be forever grateful.

Welcome Back, Teachers!

Teachers across America started returning to school this week and many more will follow over the next two.  Some are still trying to recover from the mishaps and sleep deprivation of last year, but most return with optimism.  They have charted their course for the new year and set sail with a calm, steady wind at their back.  Let’s be realistic though.  That calm, steady wind can easily turn into a typhoon by the end of September when the grading gets heavy, the students lose interest, and the meetings seem endless.  Try not to panic.  Take a deep breath and know that educators and parents around the world are rooting for you.  I am going to recommend taking a proactive approach. Rather than being surprised when the unavoidable waves rock your boat, prepare for them now by focusing on the four key elements mentioned last week: integrity, accountability, respect, and support.

As teachers, many things are out of your control, so focus on the things you can manage.  Set up a support system now, or even a variety of support systems.  Most schools mandate that you attend common planning meetings.  It took me a long time to learn to make the most of them.  Sure, my team and I would discuss what curriculum we planned to cover in the next week or two, as well as ideas for projects, essays, or quizzes but more often than not, we were all teaching the curriculum our own way and frequently considered these meetings a waste of time.  Often the conversations prompted some creative idea we might like to try, but how often do teachers find the time to implement these innovative new lessons once the school year is in full swing.  My advice is to get with your team now, before the students arrive, and decide on some things that are standard that each of you can contribute on a regular basis.  That doesn’t mean you have to teach the same things the same way all the time but use each other.  Perhaps one team member wants to be responsible for finding a current supplemental reading related to the unit, another wants to find an introductory video, and someone else wants to put the notes students will take into a brief PowerPoint.  You can each still do different activities with those materials; however, you don’t each have to create all you will need to teach the unit.  Decide on responsibilities now, so you can get into a routine and make those mandatory meetings a little more productive.

Develop a support group among your colleagues to not talk about work.  Meet after school once a week to walk the perimeter of the campus or go off campus for a bite to eat.  Do something together to de-stress.  If you really can’t make the time, then plan an occasional grading party.  Grading is often silent and solitary.  Why not grade with a friend to music and snacks?  Eat lunch with your colleagues and don’t talk about students.  Make that thirty minutes when you are trying to miraculously heat up your food, ingest it, and squeeze in a restroom break a complaining free zone.  Trust me!  You need that mental break or you will burn out.  If you don’t put these things into place now, you will find excuses later and the stress will get to you.  It is inevitable.  Teaching is a stressful job.  You support your students all the time; make sure you get support too.

Another easy way to gain support is to write notes.  Write a few notes to yourself and post them places where you will see them when you really need them.  For instance, in your desk drawer next to your pen place a note saying, “You can do this” or “You do get summers off for this”.  Put a note on your stash of referrals that says, “Breathe”, “Don’t let them see you sweat”, or “Yes, this day is almost over”.  Write what you know will bring a smile to your face.  Periodically leave a note for a colleague.  You never know when they might need the encouragement.  Get the support of your students by leaving notes for them as well.  And don’t just give them to the “good” students.  Give that student whom you regularly write up a note that says, “Your behavior sometimes makes me crazy, but I love you anyway” and it just might make him/her straighten up for a few days.  Now I know you only have so much time in your day, but set a goal to write notes to five students a month, whatever you think you can stick to, and then do it.  They don’t have to be long; one sentence is enough.  I’ve seen students slip those notes into the front of their binder and keep them there all year; that is how much it means to them that you gave them something you didn’t have to give.

Hold yourself and your colleagues accountable.  It is unrealistic to think that we can do it all; know your limitations, set goals you absolutely have to accomplish, and then follow thru.  Administrators and district leaders expect teachers to do a million things that are next to impossible to complete in a near to normal work schedule.  Don’t kill yourself working eighty hours a week because even when you do, someone is bound to be disappointed and you will definitely be disgruntled.  Try to anticipate as much as possible the expectations of those in charge and make a commitment now.  What things absolutely need to be accomplished and what things can take a backseat?  Now hold yourself accountable for getting those items you know are mandatory done.  Set a limit on how many hours you plan to commit to work each week or how late you will allow yourself to stay at school each day.  You won’t always be able to stick to your guns, but try.  Set a timer so you don’t look up from your desk and suddenly realize it’s 6pm, you’ve been grading for three hours, your stomach is growling, and your family is probably getting ready to send out a search party.  Set up a partnership with a coworker in a nearby classroom to shoo each other out of the building by a certain time each day. If you are always the last teacher to leave (like I always was), then make friends with the custodians and get them to politely kick you out. Unless it is the end of the grading period, leave work at work.  Don’t take things home with you, at least not on a regular basis.  You do want to hold onto your sanity until the end of the year, don’t you?

Finally, show respect, earn respect, and maintain your integrity as much as possible.  Do what you can to develop a positive and open relationship with your administration. Respect your administrators enough to be honest about how things are going in your classroom, whether you do it in person or on the yearly school climate survey.  Politely, let them know when you feel their expectations are unrealistic.  You don’t have to be rude or go on the offensive.  Let them know you are trying to be the best teacher possible, but you are struggling to meet all of their expectations.  Ask for clarification on how to complete a task or the reasoning behind a certain task.  Ask for support but also be prepared to offer support.  Earn the respect of fellow teachers by pulling your weight, keeping to the schedule, and being positive.  I’m as guilty as they come in regards to being pessimistic when stressed and yes, everyone needs to vent sometimes, but try not to be negative all the time.  Be respectful to your students, even when they pluck your last nerve.  Remember that though you might have behavior problems in your classroom, other students are also struggling to learn and maintain their positivity during the distractions.  Don’t lose their respect by arguing and making the disruption worse.  Handle it calmly and move on. Respect your students by making lessons meaningful.  That doesn’t mean your class needs to be fun and games all the time but don’t just give worksheets and busy work.

I am quite sure that none of this is new information.  However, I also know from experience that these things are often pushed to the side and forgotten once the school year gets under way when time is limited and stress is high.  Remember that you are a superhero and though I am no longer in your club, I will pray for you each and every day.  May this be your best year teaching yet!