I am a both a Mom and a teacher

Last week, I was reading a couple of blogs I follow regularly.  On both blogs, the women who write for them were raising important awareness around standardized testing, accompanied by its pros and cons.  Both women supported a parent’s right to choose whether or not their child should be tested, and in the conversation that followed the discussion, many parents applauded the teachers for investing in their children in spite of the pressures placed on them to raise academic bars for financial school gain.  Many commenters said that they felt people should be thanking teachers for all they do to care for the children in spite of the stress inherent to a system that is often wrapped up in dollars and cents. Systems are often more concerned with gain and profit than they are with people.

But that descriptor doesn’t accurately define any teacher I know.

With this in mind, I tried to think of the last time I wrote a letter of gratitude from a parent’s perspective to teachers.  I write a great deal from a teacher’s perspective, but often don’t allow myself the opportunity to write about educational issues from a parent’s perspective.  Perhaps this is due to the often unwritten rule that being a teacher negates me from any form of open criticism of the system (I could lose my job), any type of public comment that would expose (teachers must honor internal allegiances and loyalties) as well as (apparently) offering up any type of applause (that would come across as if I was patting myself on the back).

Case in point.  Last week, after reading comments on those two blogs, I decided that because I am a parent, and because I was reading parenting-type blogs- along with the fact that I have a vested interest in my children’s education, that I would assume the identity of a ‘parent’ and thus write a letter to teachers on behalf of parents.

I thought I could do so by virtue of the fact that I am a mother to four children, as well as due to the fact that I buy my four kiddos’ school clothes, book bags, lunch-boxes, sneakers, school supplies, coats and boots ALONG WITH…

* being one who attends meetings on their behalf, attends Parent-Teacher interviews and Back-To-School bar-b-q’s

* being one who listens to them and relays important information to their teachers, principal and guidance counselor; who studies with them for tests; who proofreads their papers; who practices with them their music.

*being one who tries to enhance their academic learning, intellectual work done in school, assist in their emotional development, spiritual understanding and gross motor/fine motor development as a partner with their schools

IN OTHER WORDS, by virtue of the fact that I am a mother to four children, I thought I could write a letter to teachers on behalf of parents commending and encouraging teachers for the good work they do each and every day on behalf of my children (and everyone elses’ for that matter, while I was at it!).

Apparently not.

You see, after I wrote ‘said’ letter and published it on my blog, a letter which I thought a wider audience might enjoy reading and receiving a word of encouragement from, I received a fair bit of backlash.  I had taken the blog article and published it on the Huffington Post as an open letter to teachers from parents, and the following comments are some of the feedback I received:

– “interesting. a teacher thanking herself.”

– “teacher thanks herself; now THAT says a lot about what is so wrong…”

– “The source of this “open” letter needs to be told. Otherwise it is just a bit of poorly written propaganda. And plagiarism. Doesn’t that deserve an F?”

– “Lori, how do you feel about the lack of resources for the schools when my taxes are paying for banked sick days so your colleagues can be paid full salary and benefits to stay home, I would say all those volunteer hours are actually paid for whether or not the teacher actually gets it immediately or is simply deferred and paid out under the current system when you cash in.”

– “Lori Gard That’s terrific. However, it (being a teacher who is also a parent?) is not a universal applicable to all teachers.”

So this is what I am thinking.  Parents who are teachers are only apparently allowed to be teachers or parents– but seemingly cannot be both simultaneously.

Which is very hard.

This reminds me of my kindergarten students a few years back who found it very hard to believe that I didn’t sleep at school.  Are adults also having a hard time imagining teachers living and functioning outside the four square walls in which they do their work?  So it seems.  I can be a teacher.  I can be a mom.  But I cannot mix the two.  For if I do, there is some kind of perceptual dissonance that seems to occur.

There is a great deal of controversy surrounding teachers who try to pretend that they might have opinions, thoughts, feelings, questions and concerns about education that fall outside their professional milieu and overlap other areas of their being and person-hood.  And for some reason, when these thoughts and feelings are expressed in a positive way (so as to promote something good), they are not viewed as a pure form of gratitude but are suspect as being plagarism and propaganda.

I am having a really hard time with this.

The Pursuit of a Joyful Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is hard to understand, to fully comprehend: how someone who brought so much joy to other peoples’ lives could himself be eluded by that same joy and wonder. And yet, here we are on a Tuesday night, grieving the loss of a beautiful life- grief those of us who loved his work feel in some form or fashion.

Another light has been extinguished. You are already greatly missed, Robin Williams.

I just came from a funeral home myself an hour ago- a loving father and husband lain to rest, his family sorrowing the loss. As I slip into the restroom to refresh, I overhear a conversation referring back to another deceased, sharing another room in the funeral parlor adjacent to the one I have come to bid adieu.

“I am so sorry for the loss of your father.”
“He would have been 93,” comes the reply. “He lived a good life, though.”
“Yes, but it is still hard,” says the first woman. “One is never ready to lose parent- it is never time.”

So too it is with the family I have come to give my deepest sympathies. It is never easy to say goodbye to those we love. Emotions strain to find the right words, the right sentiments at times like this. Saying goodbye is never easy.

It is never time.

And as thoughts drift again to the recent death of adored actor Robin Williams, comedian extraordinaire- I can’t help but wonder if his greatest legacy was that he lived as a father. His daughter Zelda leaves the following words written by Antoine De Saint-Exupery as a lasting tribute to her father’s legacy:

“You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.”

I write often of care- specifically the care of Significant Others in our lives, and particularly as it concerns children and students. But without an understanding of the role that self-care plays as a first step in the process, we cannot truly understand the impact of care in our lives and in society. I often think of the airline rule to first affix one’s own gas mask before attempting to help one’s dependents. Is this not also true of everyday life at times? If we have not given our own bodies and souls attention and replenishing, are we really of much assistance and benefit to others? We must remember that we cannot run ourselves into the ground, depleting our own resources and ignoring our own needs and requirements to the extreme that we are of no earthly good to anyone else around us. Is it worth our while contributing to the world at large at the extreme expense of losing ourselves? These are tough questions to ask and perhaps the answers will differ depending on who is answering. One thing remains- without care given to ourselves, we eventually run down. We diminish. And the cycle of care cannot be continued without more care invested from either without or within.

Since the only dependable source is from within, that is where our greatest efforts must be concentrated.

Nel Noddings writes about caring for self in terms of meeting the physical, spiritual, occupational, recreational, emotional and intellectual needs of all human beings. If I had to pick one to focus on primarily (acknowledging, of course that the basic needs of the body must be met), it is my beleif that the spiritual needs are the most significant. For without an inner purpose and greater meaning to act as our guide, where are we headed? What direction do we choose? And what benefit is everything else going to be? We must decide what truly matters in this life; for me, I have found purpose, meaning and significance in the person of Jesus Christ.

2000 years ago, I believe that very Person willingly chose to lay down His life for me. And it wasn’t a suicide pact or mental illness that compelled Him to the cross. It was love. And because of that Love, I too am free to love. Free to care. Free to give my life in service to the Call. Free to give my love with generous abandon. Free to live- free to really live.

I am free.

And even though I know that death will one day call, I daily make it a priority to care enough for myself to ensure that when that time comes, I am ready to die. No stone unturned. Living my life as if today might even be my very last (we never can know). Living each moment, each day with joy, passion, wonder and care. Living with a healthy appreciation for the fact that Death is part of life. Even as I focus on living my life to the fullest.

Even as I live this brief expanse of time that we call life with a wild and beautiful pursuit- the pursuit of a joyful life.

Good Enough…

There are days when joy comes sparingly.  When despair sets in, and disappointment robs me of the present, the immediate.  When I fall from grace.  When I succumb to pain.  And I am left empty.  Today is such a day.  And I am very aware of all that I am.  And all that I am not.  Of all I have, and all that I have lost. And then I feel my age and the bones seem brittle, the body weak.  My hair graying, my skin translucent in places, blue-ish veins lie like intersecting highways beneath pale skin, and then it is mottled in other more visible places- on hands and shoulders exposed to the unforgiving sun’s radiation.  I worry about my fair skin tone and am not as easily seduced by the sun as I was even a few years ago.  My legs bear the scars of my younger years, when pregnancy took its toll.  The skin on my belly, soft and flabby, now sags.  My heels are cracked and peeling.  Hands scarred, fingernails short and blunt out of necessity. The eyes are dark-rimmed.  And sometimes.   There is a hollowness inside.   And I realize: my life is half over.  Or maybe, it is three-quarters over.  Or who really knows, but God?   And since the only thing I know for sure is that I am closer to the end today than I was yesterday, I must needs make peace with who I am, where I am.  Depressing as that may be.  Or, maybe enlightening.   Perhaps that is all I need to push me out of this black hole.  Towards the light.

And it is when I am at my lowest that I can hear my heart whisper.  And it calls me to persevere.  To keep searching for joy.  To never give up.  And so, today, I make a list.  Of all that is good in my life.  Even when it seems there is nothing.  And I must find the good in the midst of the pain because to fail to do so is to fail in my pursuit.  To find the joy in the present.  So that I might live out this day in peace and contentment, for the things of today are all that I am required to take charge over.

To be content and full, I must seek the good.  And so, I begin.   The good.  This moment, I am feeling that there is goodness to be found.  Of course there is, I know in my heart there is always something I can praise.  I am sitting out in the open air, under a pine tree, within which two little birds are flitting about.  A later, there are four.   I wonder if they are looking for that stuff of which to make their homes.  How easy it must be to be a bird.  The sunlight falls unevenly through the branches.  The water, directly before me, is swiftly drifting westward with the brisk breezes.  The clouds are sparse and low-lying.  The air feels fresh.  It is quiet, save for the dogs barking across the road.  The dog owners chatting it up about breeding dogs and the like.  Smells of dinner waft across the way until they reach my nose, reminding me that it is mid-day, and mealtime yet again.  I am not hungry.

This moment is peaceful.  I am starved for quiet reflective time in which to think.  And now that I have it, I feel like a child in a candy store.  What to do first?  I pour a mug of steaming coffee and inhale the brew.  Nothing like a cup of fresh coffee sipped in the open air.  I finish a novel part of a trilogy that I began during March break.   Four months later, I am finally finished.  I allow myself the time to read for pleasure- a luxury in my world.  Freedom is what I feel this morning.  And freedom feels good.

I have time to come and go as I please.  I start another novel, this one more complicated than the latter, but I like the language and the twisting plot.  I like to think that my brain is getting exercise.  I read, and then later write at liberty, for no one is calling me to do this, or that.  I hear no voices.  Only that voice in my head telling me that it is okay to let go.  To give in to my inner craving for solitude.  To embrace this freedom, for it is hard-earned and has been long-time coming my way.

For me, solitude is another blessing to add to my list of that which is good.  Freedom and solitude.  Blessings of the day.

As a mother, I have made myself into a living martyr.  I have sacrificed myself for my children and for the greater good of my family.  Even hours ago, when I told Husband that I needed this alone time, I still felt guilt for not attending to the children.  I was ready to jump in the van with them when they left.  Conflicted and guilt-ridden, I could feel anger riding up my neck.  In that moment, I wished I could just let it all go.  And even now, I still feel the desire to give up that which binds me.  This noose of duty that threatens to strangle me.  I impatiently said I would go along for the ride, but my heart was telling me to stay.  I am not one who makes plans decisively.  I waffle back and forth each time a decision comes up, no matter how minor, and then feel like I am going to scream with the frustration at my dilemma.  Why must I make mountains out of molehills?  Perhaps it is the infrequency with which I feel I have freedom to make such decisions.  I squander my time, knowing this opportunity may not come again.  I don’t want to waste such valuable breaks from reality.  And so, I weigh and consider every opportunity I have to be alone as if it might be my last.  The noose tightens.  I wish I did not feel so duty bound, so strangled by responsibility.  I wish I was not so caught up in living up to that stereotype I have ingrained in my psyche, those images of mothers sitting on pedestals.  When in reality, I am only driving myself into the ground; I am the furthest thing from an angel, as my family could certainly attest to the fact.

I embrace my imperfections and realize today that it is okay to be fallible and frail.  It is good to be weak.  For I am human.  I will never attain that which I seek- perfection is out of my grasp.  I am good enough just as I am.  I may not be all that others are or accomplish what others have achieved; and I may not meet the needs of everyone within my charge.  I may have only the resources to meet the bare minimum, and nothing more.   But I am not required to fill up those voids.  I am only required to fill the voids in my own life.  And if I can live my life out in peace and find the freedom to be all that I was intended to be, then that is enough.  I can feel fulfilled in knowing that I have lived my one and only life to the fullest.

So then:  what is good?  Goodness is all around me.  For this I believe: that God is good.  The Author of good.   The Giver of good.   And if I have been given eyes to see that if God is good, then so is this.  This life, this time, this opportunity.  I have oft been blinded to it by my own expectations of myself.  For life and breath and health are good.  Love and suffering are good.  Freedom and responsibility are both good in their own right.  The rush, the hustle bustle of the daily grind- the busyness of life.  It is good.  The moments of reflection make me see that all is good.  And I can embrace the difficulties in my life because they are part of me and they shape my identity.

It is all good.

And the good that I see right now, in these quiet moments, will inspire me to do this again.  To seize the day.  To embrace those opportunities for solitude when they present.  To rid myself of guilt.  To allow myself the pleasure of being a person, not just a mother.  To throw away silly expectations and see myself for who I really am.  Just a mortal.

To see life for what it is, that brings me joy.  And to know that life is pain and suffering, but it is also goodness and truth.  Even if but for brief moments.  Short interludes.  That is the one ‘good thing’ that tops my list.  And it will enable me to see beyond to so much more.  And to continue my pursuit in spite of it all.