The thing about teachers

Good teachers teach. Great teachers transform.
~Queen Rania of Jordan

Teachers are the launching pad for every other career in the world. I don’t think I realized until recently how extraordinary that is. Every person goes through the third grade, and Civics, and Algebra I. I may never hire a lawyer (joke’s on you, I have a lawyer RIGHT NOW  in place to rescue an unnamed person from having points on their license). I may never cross paths with an actuary or use a massage therapist. But I’ve had teachers. Lots of them.

I was raised in the public schools in Tallahassee, Florida. If you add up the 13 years of primary/secondary/high and then 4 years of college, I found myself in the classrooms of roughly 60+ teachers. Of those 60+ teachers, I can remember the teachings, the voices, the mannerisms, and the quirks of maybe 20. Of those 20, I would say 10 were great. And of those 10, a very small handful changed my life.

It’s not a small thing to change a life.

Susan Upchurch was my 3rd grade teacher at Kate Sullivan Elementary. I loved her. She was young, blonde, single, and excited about her job. I sat at a black-topped, 2-person table with Gabe Whatshisname. Gabe was my friend. He was everybody’s friend. He was the kind of kid that showed up on picture day wearing his cub scout uniform. The most notable thing about my uniform wearing, friendly tablemate was that he was a talker. I was a friendly kid, too, and it would be rude not to speak when spoken to. So when Gabe spoke to me, I spoke back. That’s what you do. Gabe did what Gabe had to do. I did what I had to do. And Ms. Upchurch did what she had to do. Which was to give Gabe and me each an “N” in citizenship on our report cards for the first 9 weeks. An N in citizenship? I was a model citizen. A friendly citizen, even. A slightly social citizen.

N is the 14th letter of the alphabet, the third in the LMNO series, and necessary for spelling all kinds of really neat words like Nefarious and Nincompoop and Nap. But an N was not to be seen in any column of any report card of any person that lived in my house. For any reason. Ever.

My mother was livid. And when my mother got livid, she could be quite scary. I think Ms. Upchurch got an earful of why I didn’t deserve that N, why it was all Gabe’s fault, and where I would and would not be sitting in that classroom from then on.

I moved seats the very next day. I don’t remember who my new seatmate was. I do remember missing Gabe (what WAS his last name?) and his gregarious spirit. I also remember that I didn’t talk so much after that.

None of that impacted me in 3rd grade all that much. I continued to love the classroom, the kids, and the teacher.

But one day, I remember loving the work. That day is a full color, 8×10 glossy memory for me.
That day, from the front of that small, square room with the brown indoor/outdoor carpet, Ms. Upchurch opened a brand new door and stepped aside so we could catch a glimpse of a universe that was completely unfamiliar and 100% glorious to me. She taught us creative writing. I’d always been a reader, but had never given a thought to the authors that labored over the books I got lost in. But that day, following her lesson on creative writing, she gave an assignment. Write a story. Illustrate it if you want to, but not if you don’t.

Write a story. Wield words. Create. Mmm. Yes, please.

I did write a story. I think it was pretty dumb. So dumb my mother, who saved everything, who saved even my 3rd grade class picture, did not save it. But the story itself was not important. That lesson changed me. She changed me.

I walked up the street from the bus stop that afternoon, thinking about my story with every step. I thought about settings and characters and really dumb plot developments. When I walked through the back door of my house, my mom was in the kitchen. I hopped up onto the counter next to the kitchen sink while she poured me some Koolaid and asked me about my day.

“I know what I want to be when I grow up now,” I said. My mother looked over in surprise.

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?” she asked.

“I want to be a writer,” I said.

“Huh,” she said. “Alright then. You can.”

I don’t know what I expected her to say. I don’t know that anyone believed me entirely. And I’m sure everyone expected me to change my mind a few hundred times. But I didn’t. Not once. I never wavered. I took every lit class I could get my hands on. I got a degree in English with emphasis on Creative Writing. And I tried to find jobs that involved writing, even if it wasn’t writing fiction. Words were, and still are, my jam.

Ms. Upchurch unwittingly set me on a path I’m still tripping along today. If it hadn’t been her, would it have been someone else? Mr. Beurkley in 4th grade or Mrs. Turner in 5th? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is, it was her. She set me there. She opened the gate. She lit the match.

I wish I had told her while I had the chance. She died of cancer many, many years ago, still a relatively young woman. I hope someone along the way told her that she was a game changer. A life transformer. A light.

I hope all teachers know this. I hope my kids’ teachers know this. And if I don’t tell them–if I get too busy, or preoccupied, or forgetful, or lazy, or timid–I hope they’ll somehow know. They need to know.

Ms. Upchurch is long gone from my life, but her light did not snuff out. Because she passed the flame to a weird little kid with hair like chewed up steel wool. That kid peeked into a universe she presented and tiptoed through the door with streaks of light trailing behind her.

Thank you, Susan Upchurch Wager, and all great teachers, everywhere.

The Failing at Life Club

I have a friend, who shall remain nameless, who is my equal in all the wrong ways. We are doltish, dimwitted screw ups.

We are not usually stupid at the same time, which is helpful. Because if we were stupid in the same ways at the same times, we’d either be in prison or the hospital. We trade off stupidity.

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You Are Here

Today is the first day I have struggled with my self-imposed writing schedule. After 18 blog posts, I finally reached a point where I don’t feel like I have anything useful or interesting to say. That won’t stop me. But it probably should.

On Saturday, I found myself at Disney Springs with my daughter, her friend, and my friend. If you have no idea what Disney Springs is, it’s basically a big Disney outdoor mall. There are shops, restaurants, and entertainment. We found our way there fine. We walked in from the parking lot fine, too. But that’s where fine ended. There was a Directory within 15 paces of the first entrance into the place. We stood there at the large electronic blueprint of the mall and tried to find a place to eat. A Disney employee, Joe from San Jose, saw that we looked lost so he walked over to help us. We wanted a burger. He recommended Deluxe Burger.

“Great!” I said, “Where is that?” Joe’s expression darkened a little and he leaned over our shoulders to look at the directory.

“I’m not sure,” he answered. He then proceeded to give us some directions. Apparently this was not his regular post.

His directions were bad.

We stopped at two different directories between Joe from San Jose and our eventual and somewhat accidental arrival at Deluxe Burger. I’m happy to report that my burger was well worth our wandering. When we finished eating, my daughter’s friend wanted to go into Alex and Ani. So again, we found ourselves at another directory. Each time we stopped at a new directory, our location would be marked by a large dot with “YOU ARE HERE” next to it. You would think that would be helpful. Somehow it wasn’t. I mean, how do they know which direction I’m pointing? Am I facing the directory staring at it when it says “YOU ARE HERE?” Or am I facing away from it about to walk away? Am I leaning left or leaning right? Because it makes a difference, people.

It is impossible at this point to tell you how far we walked or how many directories we consulted before finding Alex and Ani on Saturday. When we did find it, I turned ever so slightly to my left and was standing at Deluxe Burger. In case you are slower than I am, which isn’t likely, that means that we were a hopscotch game away from Alex and Ani when we walked out of Deluxe Burger. We literally could have thumped a pebble with our non-dominant hand and hit the front door of the place. But we walked a good mile to get there.

This made me think about my life just a little bit and the wheels I sometimes spin. Here’s the best I have today:

  1. It’s important to know where you are before you can get where you’re going.
  2. If you get lost, ask for help from someone who knows (aka, not Joe from San Jose).
  3. Do not be afraid to ask and keep asking. We are here to help each other.
  4. If you find yourself on the other end of things, and you have the map or the answer or the money or the time, look for someone wandering or struggling and help them. You have something that somebody else needs, guaranteed.
  5. Just keep walking. There are only so many wrong turns you can make before you eventually make the right one.

She was cold. And doesn’t like cameras. But she liked Deluxe Burger. It’s all joy…

Seeing it Through

The closer I get to setting a 5:45 alarm and everything that goes along with sending kids to school again, the more short of breath I seem to become. I dread jumping back into the fray. The last two weeks have been lovely. In preparation for the fray, I was reading an article about how to deescalate and defuse situations when the routine and the busyness cause moments of stress and chaos. I was nodding inside my own head. How badly I need the reminder. I’m many things. But a deescalator is not something I’ve ever been labeled. I’m more of a…reactor. Some might say an OVERREACTOR. An ignitor. A catastrophizer. Whatever.

I almost can’t help myself. I’m way outnumbered. I’m old. I’m Type A. And I’m scared of chaos. Also I’m outnumbered. Did I already mention that? So the moment something begins, whether it’s a spat between children, an I-can’t-find-my-belt, an alarm that didn’t go off, a lunch that was forgotten, or wrong-side-of-the-bed tone of voice, I go into Smackdown Mode. I’m gonna squelch it. Fix it. Kill it. Stop it. Conquer it.

But I don’t. Because I stink at that. Mostly I just pump air at the flames and then shed silent tears as I watch those flames destroy everything I love.

The problem is, sometimes a thing can’t be fixed. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be. That’s what I struggle to remember. Maybe it’s an allergy attack that has to be lived with because there’s a big test 2nd period. That allergy attack can’t be fixed quickly. And neither can the emotions that often go along with it. But what would happen if I took a deep breath, let the kid spew a little venom about the gene pool he inherited and then tell him I love him, I’m going to pray for him all day, and it’s going to be ok. I wonder how it might go then. If only there were a way to find out.

Peace. Deescalation. Empathy. Stability. Huh.

I wanted to compile some information from other sources and write a how not to stress about stress kind of blog post. No one needs that more than I do. But I can’t put my heart into it because there are much bigger weights in the world than anything I’ve ever had to face. Things unfolding right now that just make back to school seem silly.

I had a mouth full of Qdoba at lunch today when I saw a friend’s facebook post that her niece had died following a lifelong battle with Loeys-Dietz syndrome. The worst part of that is that lifelong was only 9 years. Scout McCauley died last night following an aortic dissection that her body just couldn’t recover from. She was 9. And amazing. And beautiful. And poetic. And valiant. And very, very brave. Her family is also all of those things. They have faced grave circumstances for 9 years. But they faced them with Scout and because of Scout. Now they are walking an unimaginable road, without Scout. How do you do that? How does anyone do that? I really can’t wrap my head or heart around that one. Another friend posted a tribute to Scout with the following quote:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is… It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

So I can’t really make myself think about school uniforms and alarms tonight. Tonight I’m thinking about Scout. And I’m praying for Scout’s family. And I’m thinking about the definition of true courage. I’m in awe of people who possess it.

Tuesday is the day my kids go back to school. Much of the nation goes back tomorrow. If that’s your circumstance and if things blow up around you, take a deep breath, fix what you can, hug what you can’t, and even if you are licked before you begin, begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

Rest in Jesus, Scout. Thanks for showing us the way home.

If you’d like to donate to the McCauley family, you can do so here.

https://www.gofundme.com/the-mccauley-family?member=1441220&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=fb_tco_campmgmtbnr_w

On Your Birthday

This morning, I woke up rather leisurely in a queen sized bed in a hotel with my daughter, her friend, and my friend. I knew what today was, but it still surprised me to open Facebook and see it there. Good Morning, Missy, today is Ann Dawson White’s Birthday. Let her know you are thinking of her.

Sigh.

Well, ok. I mean, it is her birthday. And she’s not here.

But it isn’t the first birthday we’ve done without her. And it isn’t the worst one, either. Her last one on Earth, almost a full year before she died, was the worst one for me.

On January 5, 2017, my mother was holed up in John Knox Village rehab, after a hospital stay next door. John Knox is probably a very nice place to live on the assisted side. But the rehab side is a dump. So I was already a little depressed that my mom had to be in that place. The floors and walls had a gray cast to them, like the color of germs. People lined the narrow hallway who seemed to be clinging to life in the harshest of ways. She shared a room with somebody in worse shape than she was.

My mom was in that place for well over a week. She was in there on her 74th birthday. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that she didn’t care. She didn’t care where she was. And she didn’t care that it was her birthday.

I came as early that day as I could get there. When I arrived, she looked at me slowly and spoke in response to me.

“Happy Birthday, Mom,” I said, sitting down on the edge of a chair near her bed. She didn’t smile or say thank you, so I kept talking. “You’ve been getting a ton of birthday messages on Facebook. You want me to read you some?”

“Yes,” she answered flatly. So I began.

“Happy Birthday, Ann! We have shared many birthdays as special friends. May the trend continue!”

“Happy, happy birthday, dear, sweet Ann! I hope you are feeling better quickly! Miss you.”

“Happy Birthday, dreadnaught friend!”

“Happy Birthday to a very sweet lady! I hope you have a wonderful day!”

“Happy, happy birthday to an amazing woman and such an inspiration to myself and my boys!”

I stopped every now and then and looked at her. She was looking off to the right, toward the curtain barrier between her bed and her neighbor’s. Was she listening? Could she hear me? She wasn’t digesting the messages. There were 80 of them.

“Mom, you got 80 messages for your birthday,” I said.

I wanted her to care. I needed her to still care. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. That was the hardest birthday for me. The following year, on what would have been her 75th, I was able to rejoice that her spirit was no longer trapped in the prison of her very sick mind and body. The same way I can rejoice today.

The last birthday I remember really celebrating was her 70th. 2013. The entire family came out to our farmhouse and ate with us around the dining room table. Mom wasn’t totally herself, as we’d already begun to notice her slipping bit by small bit. But she was mostly herself. Smiling. Laughing at the right moments. Poking fun at herself. We had made a pretty big deal out of her because it was a milestone birthday. When she walked out my front door that night to go home, I knew she was happy. I knew she was properly loved. And I knew that she knew it too.

Facebook told me to let her know I was thinking of her today. Of course I am. I’m thinking of her laughter, which almost always caused a total face collapse. I’m thinking of her fierceness and how many times she went to bat for me. I’m thinking of her pride in me… afro and bad outfits me… buck tooth me… tube socks and canvas sneakers me. And I’m thinking that she spent 74 birthdays getting herself ready to stand in front of God, and helping me get ready, too. There is no question that I’m thinking of her. Of the her she was before disease. The real her.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I’m thinking of you. And I didn’t need Facebook to tell me that. Silly Facebook.

The Showerhouse and the Reading Room

As I’ve already mentioned, and clearly bear scars from, I didn’t like to shower at the beach. I would do almost anything to avoid it. But there was no avoiding it ultimately. I mean, I was a kid. When a parent told me I had to shower, I had to shower. And sometimes, the salt gumming up in my arm hairs was motivation enough.

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Brick and Mortar

My granddaddy was a grocer. He owned White’s IGA on the corner of Tennessee Street across from Leon High School in Tallahassee. By the time I was old enough to be curious, that IGA had become a coin collector’s business and my granddaddy was long gone. He died when I was 2. I’m told that I walked around to every relative who would look my direction and asked “where’s Granddaddy?” when we were back in town for his funeral. Talk about salt in a wound. I never did know when to shut up. I still don’t.

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Controlled and Habitual

You know what’s a real sleep ruiner? 32 ounces of water imbibed at 10:30. I needed the water. But then I got to rethink that decision every hour for the rest of the night.

So I’ve been thinking about that whole discipline thing as it relates to the changes I’ve wanted to make for about 10 years now. Since Jenna. Oh, Jenna.

I figured out that, for me, the key is discipline. And the key to discipline is controlled and habitual. And the keys to controlled and habitual are–some other stuff.

I really don’t want to go all self-helpy, because I’m the farthest thing from a life coach and we’ve already established that it’s been more than a decade since I completed a New Year’s Resolution. I’m not qualified. You shouldn’t listen to me. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep talking. Because I’m thinking it onto paper. If you keep reading, that’s your choice. Your time.

I’m going to split my goals into the following bite-sized pieces:

  1. I’m setting attainable goals for me, for now. I’m not going to set a goal of running a 10k. I dropped out of a 5k in November. Gretchen Rubin tells me to “lower the bar.” Be realistic. Don’t kill the goal before it even gets going good. Voltaire said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
  2. I’m setting measurable goals. How else can I know if I’ve met them? Saying I want to lose weight is worthless unless I can identify how much weight, per week, and by what method. Saying I wanted to write more didn’t work, until I decided that meant I would write Monday-Friday and post a blog per day. So far so good on that one.
  3. I’m making daily deposits into many different accounts. One load of laundry a day. 20 minutes of reading my Bible a day. 20 minutes of exercise a day. A blog post per day. No more Smarties (taking a moment to let my eyes fill with sugar-free tears…) on any day.
  4. I’m cutting what doesn’t fit (That originally came out ‘I’m cutting Wyatt Durant Fur’ on my phone). Currently the biggest time sucker I can cut completely is TV. I mean, I watch ALL the Hallmark Christmas movies and we all know if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen 24 others with an identical formula. There’s 48 hours I could get back right there. After Hallmark comes reading fiction. But let’s not talk crazy…

Controlled and Habitual needed some detail. I’ve got a few things in place. It’s attainable. It’s measurable. The rest is up to me.

I can only hope the rewards will be greater than the withdrawal I’ll be feeling when my Smarties and the Hallmark winter movies start singing their siren song, softly and sweetly in a strain only a hearing aid can hear…

The Slate

Everyone loves a clean slate.

A new year.

A brand new white board. A fresh sheet of paper. An empty journal soon to be filled with the brilliant ideas in your head. A new workout program. Resolutions.

New. Fresh. Clean. Shiny.

But then.

Not new things happen.

Not fresh things show up.

The unclean invites itself.

You misspell a word on page 2 of the journal. In INK.

You skip two days of the new workout because your thighs were screaming horrible things at you. But they scream more and louder when you go back.

You can see the last two weeks of white board markings and can’t get that shiny new finish back no matter how much spray you use.

It’s old now.

Spoiled.

Ruined.

Eh. It’s easier to quit than fail.

Pretend you never started.

I’ve done that. Been doing that for years, actually.

I’ve tried picking a word of the year. 2016 was “intentional.” I intentionally did not make it to February. 2017 was “change.” I wrote down in a journal, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” Wow. Deep. And nothing changed. Because nothing changed. 2018 was the hardest year of my life, with more conflict and change than I’ve ever experienced. As much as I didn’t work toward a New Year’s resolution or set specific goals this year, I did work and my regrets are fewer than usual. The hard stuff kept me on my knees, which is the safest and best place I could be.

But something hit me the day after Thanksgiving just a few short weeks ago. In the unlikely and uninspiring setting of a laundry room, I leaned over a dryer and read a Sean Dietrich blog post (www.seanofthesouth.com) from start to finish. It made me cry. It was simple, poignant, and powerful. The next day, I read another. And the day after that, another. I loved reading. He kept writing. That’s when it occurred to me that he writes every day. New material. From January 2018 until that moment in November, I had written 3 times. I wanted to write. I needed to write. But I wasn’t writing.

Inspired by the simple and consistent words of a man I’ve never met, I decided that if he could, so could I. At least on a Monday-Friday basis. Monday-Friday means 5 posts a week. That’s a specific goal that is 1,000,000 times more than I’ve been writing. How would I make that happen? What magic could I tap into to pull it off?

That’s when it hit me. Magic isn’t how things happen. Inspiration isn’t the source of great ideas and fancy words. It’s time. It’s effort. It’s determination.

It’s DISCIPLINE. Training myself to do something in a controlled and habitual way. (Thanks, internet.) Controlled and habitual. Ok then. I can develop the discipline to write daily. To do anything daily.

And out popped the word for 2019: discipline. In 2016, I tried to be intentional without any discipline. In 2017, I tried to change without applying discipline. In 2019, I’m going to develop discipline. To read. To write. To get healthy. To study. To whatever. Put in the time and the energy every day for whatever I’m working toward. 20 minutes here. An hour there. It’s a focus not so much on the outcome as it is on the process. For any goal I set, there has to be a controlled and habitual in place to accomplish it. In order to get something done, I must do. Well, then.

It is the simplest of all plans. So simple it’s almost guaranteed to fail. But let’s not talk about failure. That’s so negative.

So pessimistic.

So unnecessary.

So February.

Happy 2019, friends.