Touching Our Lives

One of the things I loved best about teaching was knowing that I touched the lives of children, that I meant something important to some of them. After teaching for such a long time, I have had the enormous joy of hearing from former students who have grown up and who still remember our time together.

What I don’t think people realize, though, is just how deeply the kids impact and change the lives of their teachers. Good teachers care about their classes. We love our students. We laugh with them, grow with them, argue with them and hug them when one of us is sad.

That love and those memories stay with us at least as much as with the kids. Maybe even more.

And I know that this is a very improper thing to say, but some kids just stay with you more than others do.

For me, the kids who will always stay in my heart are the ones who struggled. Some struggled with learning disabilities. Some with hearing loss and language disorders. Some kids fought battles with depression and anxiety that made school a constant challenge. Some worked harder than any child should work just to keep their emotions and behaviors under control.

Many of my students became my heroes. Their willingness to grab their backpacks and come back day after day to the place of their greatest struggles was a constant inspiration to me. I knew kids who felt friendless and alone. But they still showed up, every single day, to try again.

I knew kids who expected perfection from themselves. When math came to them without effort, but writing felt beyond their abilities, I watched them swallow hard, blink back tears, and finish that story.

Those kids stay in my heart. They stay in my memory. I call on their example when I feel overwhelmed and unsure of myself.

Most of those kids have grown up and gone, and I can only remember them with fondness. With the miracle of social media, though, some of them have reached out and told me about their lives today. A few are friends who I get to see once in a while.

And some of them are gone. For some, the pressures of life were too much, and they chose to step away. They are still, every one of them, my heroes.

Some have been lost to accidents or to illness. For some the lifelong health struggles have finally come to an end.

They are still my heroes.

Dear parents of kids with extra needs and concerns, dear moms and dads of spirited kids and challenging kids and kids who push the teacher hard,

Please know that your kids are the kids who kept some of us coming in every day. Your kid was the one who made us throw up our fists and shout “Yes!!!!” when they finally finished that book report. Yours is the one who made us sneak into the bathroom to cry when he asked another kid to sit with him and was accepted. Your child is the one who made us think, “If she can keep going, so can I.”

Thank you, kids. Thank you, parents who trusted me with your kids.

You will all be a part of me for the rest of my life.


This is how I saw myself sometimes…..

The Green Man

Whose tracks are these?

Whose tracks are these?

Sometimes I can feel my pagan ancestors rising up inside me.

Oh, I know.   I am a very modern American, living in the far too overcrowded Northeast.  I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, and went to college in that teeming city. What pagan past?

I was raised as a Catholic: how “anti-pagan” can you possibly get? I went to church in a nice modern building.  I learned to pray under bright electric lights.

And yet, sometimes I can feel my ancient pagan past rising up inside of me, speaking of fears and dreams and magic that is a part of my bones.  A pagan past that somehow has never been smoothed away by education or social interaction or modern technology.

I feel it on hot summer nights, when the moon rises over the wetlands behind our house. When I lie awake to hear the sounds of rushing water and hunting owls and cicadas crying in the woods. On those nights, the world of pagan spirits seems benign and gentle, and I am lulled by its pull on my heart.

But in winter, I feel those ancient spirits in a darker and more frightening way.

In winter, the wind and the night conspire to remind me of  how my ancestors once felt about the shortest day, and the onset of the darkness.

I live in a place where there are woods almost all around me.  For three seasons of the year, this is a great gift.  I see deer and fox and raccoons and pheasants wandering under those trees. For three seasons of the year, the woods mean abundant life, and peace and health and comfort.  We listen for the “peepers” in spring, to signal that the great awakening has begun, and that everything is about to burst into bloom.   In summer, we listen for the sound of hunting owls, the calls of coyotes, the singing of night birds.  And in the fall, sometimes we can even hear the smacking sound of antlers as deer and moose turn on the testosterone and fight for the best of the females.

For those three seasons, it feels exhilarating and exciting to be a part of the natural world.

But in winter, everything is so different.

SONY DSCIn winter, I look out my kitchen window and I see the spindly shapes of the leafless branches, the sinister twists of the trees against the glowering sky.  In winter, when I look into the woods from the safety of my deck, I hear the sounds of branches creaking and of wind moving restlessly through the pines.

In the winter, the woods are dark so early, and there are so many shadows.  I look out to find the moon, but when it rises from behind the frozen wetlands, it looks as if it is covered in frost.

When I go outside in the early winter light, I find strange tracks in the snow, and I imagine the dangerous predators who stalk around our house while we sleep.

When I come home after dark, to our quiet, nearly empty neighborhood, and into my quiet, nearly empty house, I feel the ancient winter spirits nipping at my heels and I shiver in fear until I am inside, and the fire is lit and the kitchen is filled with good warm smells.

At those moments, on those dark winter nights, I can understand why the ancients celebrated the beauty and hopefulness of the evergreens.  I know why they honored “The Green Man” with his ever lasting life and his ability to stand up to the darkness.

I am in no hurry to take my Christmas tree out of my living room, or to throw out the baskets of pine boughs on my hutch.

My pagan self is resisting the angry bite of the swirling snow as I light the candles and simmer the soup, and throw another log on the fire.

Happy Winter Solstice.  Happy New Year.  May we all endure until the coming of spring!



She crochets.

I was walking happily along the street this morning, swinging my bag and feeling happy to be a part of the throng.  It had been a long time since I had last ventured into the big city by myself, and I was feeling mighty fine.

The sun was shining, and the air smelled sweetly of donuts and bus fumes. The city seemed to glitter in the bright morning light as I strode along the sidewalk.

I looked up to my right, where a fountain sparkled in the sunlight.  Along its edge, a small plot of annual flowers nodded in the breeze.  Zinnia, marigolds, daisies and cheerful black-eyed-susans all bobbed their heads as I passed.

My eye was caught, just then, by the sight of a woman sitting on a stone bench, her eyes closed and her soft brown hair caught in a ponytail at the top of her head.  As I passed, I saw her smile very faintly, and slowly, gently lean herself back as if to rest against a wall that simply was not there.

Her expression of thoughtful calm never changed as she laid herself back so gently into the space behind her, and gracefully toppled off the back of the bench and onto the pavement below.  I stopped where I stood, unsure of what I had seen.  She had moved so calmly and with such grace. She had simply arched her back and let the emptiness take her down.

From where I stood on the sidewalk below the fountain, all I could see were her too thin legs, raised above the bench, the crooked knees holding her blue hightop sneakers aloft.  They didn’t move, and I didn’t dare to leave.

After a moment or two, I realized that the woman was in trouble.  I had no idea how hard she had fallen or whether she might be hurt.  I quickly mounted the granite steps and walked to the bench from which she had fallen. I looked behind it, and saw her lying perfectly still, on her back, with her legs still raised above the bench.

“Hey. Are you OK?”   There was no answer. Her closed eyes never moved, and her hands stayed curled against her chest.

“Come on, open your eyes.  Are you hurt?”, I asked more forcefully.  This time there was a sound, a faint shake of the head.  I leaned in closer, and could smell the source of both her grace and her absolute loss of balance.

I looked up and around, to this lovely urban park with its flowers and silvered fountain spray.  I watched at least 20 well dressed people walk by my fallen companion and I as if we were absolutely invisible.

Then four men approached, wearing shirts and hats that identified them as maintenance workers at a local university. They asked me what had happened, and I told the story of what I had seen.  One man knelt by the woman’s head, cradling it in his strong hands and asking her “What hurts you?”  Another pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911, while the other two went to stand on the corner to alert the rescue squad as to where we waited.

I felt somewhat useless at this time, unable to help the woman to raise her head, to answer our questions or to rise from her uncomfortably cramped space between the stone bench and the stone garden wall.  I wanted to comfort her somehow, so I held her hands and tried to ask questions. “Did you hit your head? Does your back hurt?”  Her only response was to mumble something incoherent and squeeze her eyes more tightly closed.

Then I noticed a canvas bag on the bench beside us.  It was a shopping bag, clean and crisp and still retaining its squared shape. Inside of the bag, I saw the most improbable sight: three skeins of bright yarn, yellow, orange and green; all neatly wound and as clean as new snow. And attached to the yellow yarn by a long strand of wool were two small hooks and an absolutely beautiful blanket.

“Hey!” I said, in some surprise. “Is this your yarn? Did you do this knitting?”

For the first time since I had noticed the woman, her eyes opened wide. Hazel eyes, trying desperately to focus on my face, bloodshot, wandering, golden lashed and beautiful.

“No.” Her voice was suddenly both firm and clear. “Not knitting. I crocheted it.”  She reached out one thin, strong hand, trying to grasp the bag and the treasure it held.

“This is beautiful.” I told her honestly.  “I could never make something like this.”

“Yeah, you could.” Her voice was slurred and rough, and her hands shook. “I’ll show you.”  She took the blanket in her hands, and tried again to sit up, but she couldn’t do it, even with the young man supporting her.  “Grandma…showed me.  Grandma.”  She reached for the yarn, still trying to explain it all to me.

While we waited for the rescue squad, the four gentle young men spoke softly together in Spanish, leaving me to my lessons with this unlikely teacher.   I couldn’t understand even half of what she said, but I heard the words “niece” and “blanket” and “Grandma” more than once.  And I heard her say, almost clearly, “Yes, you can do it.”

Finally, after dozens of people had walked by us without a look or a word, after a handsome young family had eaten their breakfast sandwiches not four feet from where my sad companion lay sprawled on the pavement, finally, finally a fire truck pulled up and four strapping uniformed men stepped toward us, snapping on their rubber gloves.

“What do we got?”, they asked.  I started to explain what I had seen, how this woman had toppled so slowly and gracefully, losing her hold on the earth like an old birch tree in the wind.  I started to tell them what the woman had said, but they cut me off. One shook his head, the other gave a sharp, barking laugh.

“Oh, yeah. We know her. We’ve had her a bunch of times before.” They stepped toward her, bending with confidence over her huddled form, reaching down to where she lay, clutching her crocheting hook and her bright, bright yarn.

I knew that she was safe for now, that the right people were taking care of her.  I knew that my momentary cameo in her drama was over, and I turned to walk away, following the broad backs of those kind men who had stopped to help. I left the woman there, surrounded by a flock of young, healthy EMT’s, so sure of themselves and of their place in the world.

But all the way down the street, past the tourists and the flowers and the pretzel vendors and the businessmen, I wanted to find a way to tell somebody about her.  “She is a person.”, I wanted to say. “Her Grandma taught her to crochet in neat, perfect, beautiful rows.  She is making a blanket for her niece.”

She made me so sad.  She is someone’s beloved grandchild. Someone’s sister. Someone’s Aunt.

I don’t understand how she came to be on that stone bench on this sweet summer day. I don’t understand how she came to so gracefully bend and sway and fall to the earth the way that she did.

I hope she remembers that I saw the beauty of what she had created, and that I held her hands as she lay on the clean gray stones.

Lessons from a dog walk.

I think I may have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating.   I am a coward.  I am afraid of an entire list of things in this life, including but not limited to: rollercoasters, fat spiders with hairy legs, skinny spiders with long flexible legs, eighteen wheelers on the highway, a strong undertow, flying in turbulence, ebola virus, wasps, piranhas, big crowds and ladders, no matter who is on them.

Now that I have two big, athletic dogs, I have added some new fears to my repertoire. Those fears mostly involve walking the dogs.  You see, at first we only had Tucker.  He was energetic, excitable, but he generally followed along fairly well on his walks.  When he was four, though, we added seven year old Sadie, a big, shaggy lab/shepherd mix.  Off of her leash, she is gentle, affectionate and somewhat submissive.  On the leash, she is a whole nother story.

Shortly after we got her, I took both dogs for a walk around our neighborhood, and we came across a guy with a little yellow lab pup.  I stopped to chat, after getting my two dogs to sit at my side. I was feeling pretty good, pretty “in control”. I kind of felt like a good Mommy, with sweet obedient kids.

Suddenly, both dogs lunged toward the puppy, and I was pulled right off my feet. I landed on the snowy roadway on both knees, my chin and an elbow.  The dogs ran, and I became a human luge, flying along behind them.  Needless to say, this was something of a traumatic event for me, and I became afraid to walk them both by myself.

Gradually, with patience from Paul and lots of short trips with the dogs, I have regained most of my confidence. I am able to control the dogs when we walk past people, cats, turkeys, deer and most other dogs.  Sadie, however, still goes ballistic when we pass that one yellow lab (his name is “Trouble”, does that tell you anything?).  I try to avoid the route that his owner takes, and I almost never walk past their house.  I haven’t been able to get myself over this part of my fear.

Well, yesterday I got a call from our local animal control officer.  She wanted me to know that a completely different dog, a dog who once came silently through his yard and attacked my dogs, has been deemed “dangerous and vicious” and there is going to be a hearing next week because his owner has been unwilling to restrain him. Yikes!

So I got up this morning, and got ready to take my morning walk with the dogs. They need the exercise (oh, OK!  so do I…..), and I didn’t want to shortchange them, but I was really nervous.  If I walked around the block, I would have to pass Trouble’s house. Gulp.   If I went to the left and toward the dirt road, I would be within range of the vicious dog.  The fact that that has been my daily route all summer had my imagination going in overdrive.  One reason, I suspect, for my extreme chickenheartedness, is that I have a very vivid imagination!  I can picture every single horrible possible event in full color, with sound effects. I can scare myself to death without ever leaving my house!

There I stood, on my lawn, filled with uncertainty. And frustration.

I hated the fact that I was letting “what if” control my behavior.  I hated the fact that being afraid was taking away my freedom and my control. I’ve let that happen more than once in the past.

So I thought about Cesar Milan, and the hundreds of episodes of Dog Whisperer that I have seen. I stood up tall, I relaxed my death grip on the leashes. I headed around the block.  I kept my head up, and I pictured myself confidently marching past the yellow lab with Sadie and Tucker right beside me.  Past the spot where I face planted two years ago. Past Trouble’s house, and all the way to the corner of the street where the dangerous bulldog lives.

Once again, my dogs have taught me a valuable lesson.

Now I am off to climb a ladder with a spider on my head before heading down the highway to catch my flight to the roller coaster park.