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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

Serendipity and the Swampland: Fishing for Inspiration

There’s this weird feeling I get sometimes. Like someone has hit a tuning fork — but the tuning fork is my body. And it rings and vibrates. Like a silver spoon hitting chilled stainless. Like ice hitting back molars. Like wintergreen hitting veins. And the one hitting the tuning fork is the universe. Is God, if you will.

I feel awake and alive and almost raw.

So I go to my computer and I dive into the current of serendipity’s stream. And I pay really careful attention.

Words swirl around me, boomerang back at me like white water rapids. They carry me, roll me, drive me forward. The universe is in charge, and I am on a wild ride. Where I’m going is out of my hands – but I know I’m on the right track.

So I swim. Hard. And fast. To stay inside that current. Not sink beneath it.

Because the universe has given me a gift — it has given me a path and a process. But it has expectations. It has demands. And those demands are rigorous. They are… well… demanding.

This current will take me to my goal, but only with a whole lot of work.

So work, I do. At first I’m cold and rusty, and my mind misfires. A lot. But I remind myself I’m trained for this. I can do this hard thing. I am prepared. And so I just keep kicking, doing my best to stay afloat and follow directions as the words swirl around me, bump up against me.

Inside the current, my mind warms, loosens — perhaps even unravels a bit – allowing flexibility and vision and a bit of slack to reel in the difficult bits, the hard bits. Of life. Particularly, my life. My past.

Because the hard and difficult bits require a whole lot of slack — lest I get too wound up, too tense, and then break the line and lose the way, the truth, and the life. My way. My truth. My life.

Barbara Kingsolver once stated that “memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” And I totally get it — especially when the memory itself is incredibly complicated, when the truth you are recording — the twisted religion of your formative years — was itself a relative to truth, but not its twin. Maybe not even the same family… or neighborhood. But definitely the same region. My truth fits within the region — the southern region, that is.

The South — where truths become memories, loosely maintained, that become yarns, wildly spun, that become tales, twisty and gnarled.  Where truths become monstrosities.

Here in the land of Faulkner and Flannery, we drill holes in mama’s coffin (and right on through to her face) so she can breathe in the hereafter. We have kinky morticians and corrupt bible salesmen and Presbyterian ax vigilantes. We have deaf mutes and hunchbacks and dwarves – oh my! All so we can safely unearth the darkened roots of our deep-seated insecurities.

Here in the South, we love a little batter on our vegetables and a little gothic on our histories. Sure, maybe raw is better for you – but they taste so much better in a solid bath of debauchery and a heavy dusting of sin. (Minimalist, we are not!)

It’s as much about embellishment as it is about fact here. We hide our tender bits inside hyperbole and the grotesque. The crazier the tale, the deeper the truth.

For me, swimming serendipity’s stream may begin with the exquisite chill of a spoon hitting stainless, but it never fails to dump me where stainless will always fall victim to stain: childhood and the fears and tears that form its fecund swamplands.

The water there is brackish and foul with trash and monsters. Monsters ready to be raised from the near-dead. Demons with watermelon rinds for smiles. Disciples with oily words and cardboard hearts.

I land there each and every time. And after I catch my breath and adjust to the temperature change, I dredge the swamp.

And as the silt and sludge swirls, I bring in my haul — words writhing and thick with hard muscle, slippery sinew, scaly gill. They emerge slowly, but in netfuls, tangled and twisted. Words glinting with a thousand splendid refractions, bending and contorting in the light. Piercing.

I capture them all by capturing my past. Finding the way and the truth from my life.

My biggest and most-tangled of truths thus far — a Pentecostal pastor’s circumcised daughter — flesh faulted and excised amid great ceremony and pain. She emerges from the darkness demanding her reckoning. She flips silver on my screen.

She is forged from the cold steel of serendipity’s stream, humming with the frequency of the tuning fork. The chill of wintergreen hangs in the air… along with the sweetness and rot of the swamp.

I gut her and clean her. I batter-dip her in admonition and intuition and the blood of the Lamb. I sear her on tongues of flame. I lay her on a slaw of shredded scripture. And I serve her up to the world.

+ + +

In the beginning was the word.

And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us — howling to be heard. To be seen. To be known.

Ex nihilo.

Seconds (and second chances) at a swimming pool are way too slippery

It’s a scary thing, seeing your child’s head just below the surface of the pool, there in the deep end, his pudgy hands moving frantically, his feet kicking futilely.

Time ripples and blurs as you struggle to get to him, a table full of appetizers between him and you. And scattered lawn chairs. Party guests. A diving board. Three lifeguards.

Lifeguards who don’t see him. Who continue to scan the surface of the pool. While your son bobs just below their line of sight. (In their defense, these lifeguards are young and there are lots and lots of kids splashing and playing.)

Did reflections hide him? Inexperience?

You hear yourself scream at a friend. A friend already in motion. A friend halfway between you and your boy. A friend half a second ahead of you. And every second matters. Every fraction of a second.

Seconds at a swimming pool are slippery. In a blink, time is up.

The experts say young children can drown in as little as twenty seconds. They panic and inhale water. And their heads are heavy and disproportionate to their bodies, so they don’t splash around and yell for help. They can’t get their mouths above the surface — or their arms.

So everything that happens, happens quickly and out of sight and sound.

Luckily, when my son fell in, there were two sets of eyes who noticed him. My friend’s and mine.

I’ll confess, though. I wasn’t watching him very closely. I have twin boys. Five years old. So, I was scanning from one boy to his brother. But only haphazardly…

Because, I was having drinks and socializing. It was a party, after all. And there were lifeguards on duty… hired by the hostess with the express purpose of allowing her guests to relax and have adult beverages while some fully-trained experts kept an eye on the kiddos.

I did three things wrong.

  • I trusted the licensed teenage lifeguards more than I should have. They are teenagers after all.
  • I trusted my son to not go in the deep end because he knew he couldn’t swim. (He didn’t go in… voluntarily. He slipped. Quickly and silently.)
  • I had drinks and let my guard down. A mother drinking with young children swimming is never a good combination.

He was probably only under for ten seconds. But those ten seconds felt like an eternity. All I could see was water distorting his small frame, a halo of hair drifting below the surface. All I could feel was his panic.

My friend flung herself into the pool ahead of me, her years of life-guarding kicking in, even as I yelled hoarsely for her to get him.

I followed close behind. I didn’t need to jump in, too. She had him. But I NEEDED to jump in. To be there. To feel him close and safe. And he needed me there. To feel close and safe.

We snuggled at the side of the pool for a while. Until his little heart calmed. Until my need to vomit subsided. Then my friend took him from my arms and pulled him back into the water.

When you fall off a bike, you get back on. When you nearly drown, you get back in. She didn’t want him to fear the water.

And he doesn’t. Before twenty minutes were up, he was back splashing with his brother in the shallow end.

Before the weekend was up, we had signed both boys up for swim lessons. At five-years-old, we can’t wait a minute more. We shouldn’t have waited this long.

But life is busy. And time is slippery. It got away from us. And here they are five years old and not knowing how to swim. We were incredibly lucky. Not everyone is so fortunate.

I will not make those same mistakes again. Seconds (and second chances) at a swimming pool are way too slippery.

Getting Real: it’s not pretty, but it’s pretty perfect

I’m on a life-long journey to become my most authentic self. To become Real. To become a Velveteen Woman. If you haven’t read the Velveteen Rabbit story, do it. Now. You’ll cry. You’ll thank me.

Anyways… it’s a tough job. Some days I just feel way too torn and tattered to keep going. I just plain feel broken. Like I’ve been steamrolled by the planet. My bones are weary and my mind is pressed flat. But I guess that’s just part of the process.

Because becoming real isn’t pretty. Becoming authentic is a far cry from being perfect.

According to the Skin Horse in the classic tale, “It takes a long time to become real… it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

So, surely I’m getting Real close. I’m fifty plus — and have been for a couple of years now — and far from “carefully kept.”

I’m loved on and jumped on and tackled and tortured on a daily basis by rambunctious twin boys with a lotta Big Love. Every. Single. Day. I also feel every knock and nick my two adult daughters receive out in the world on their own authentic journeys to become Real. Even. More-so than my own. When your babies hurt, you hurt, no matter their age.

Then there’s the fact that I’m an English teacher drowning in the 365 days of May, the 184 students on her rosters, and the endless trials and tribulations of teenaged hearts I bear witness to. Plus I’m a football wife in the midst of Spring Ball. 

So no, not carefully kept.

My joints are definitely loose. My appearance is just-this-side of shabby. My eyes haven’t dropped out yet, but they’re most definitely drooping… And I’m pretty certain this month knocked off any sharp edges I still managed to have left. Since I’ve only had one broken bone so far (knock on wood), I’m fairly certain I don’t break too easily.

Back in the day, when I was a mother fresh off the shelves, I used to have glossy hair and firm skin and stuffing in most of the right places. I had muscles and stamina for days.

But motherhood four times around has done some work on my lovely lady lumps. I wouldn’t go so far as the Bob Segar song and claim my “points were way up firm and high,” but they definitely weren’t stretched and deflated to the point of flapping in a brisk wind if they aren’t strapped in properly.  Four years of breastfeeding takes its toll.

nursing

And so do three pregnancies – especially one with twins.  My skin is puckered and striped and dimpled.  I’ve been pulled and torn and redistributed.  And even stitched back together. My belly bears a nice, six-inch seam where the good doctors scooped out two premature babes in my first and only C-section at age forty-seven. At that age, the elastin in the skin isn’t quite what it used to be.

So my stuffing has fallen and nestled into soft, comfy pooches in inconvenient and unattractive places. Add to that, my saggy hindquarters, and I’m just a soft, comfy lap of lady lumps.

34weeks

Along with my belly seam, I also bear a dog-legged scar across my right paw from when I broke my distal radius while putting away, of all things, laundry.

I had a choice while falling willy-nilly over a twin who found his way underfoot: twist to the side and sacrifice my wrist or stay on course and sacrifice my youngest. Since Tate is a relatively important component of our family unit and my right hand is my dominant and most-used portion of my body, it was quite the quandary.  In the split second decision, Tate won and my wrist lost. Badly. Between fracture and surgery, it was a five-month loss. If I’d chosen Tate, I bet he would’ve bounced back in two, tops.

dogearedscar

So my body has been sacrificed — and often — upon the altar of motherhood. 

But the sacrifice isn’t limited to my body. My mind has paid a tremendous price, too.  I’m not nearly as quick-witted as I once was. It’s a spongey mass of mire, sucking and slurping and slowing me down. I think the majority of decay occurred during the sixteen months of sleeplessness Mike and I endured after the boys’ birth. Regardless, my electrodes just don’t fire as fast as they once did.

And then there’s my nerves… what’s left of them. The boys careen off them like the ropes at WrestleMania, brawling over virtually anything — markers, play doh, DVDs, cayenne pepper (wtf?) — and my nerves are left mangled in the hot, red dust.

And then there’s my marriage.

No, I’m not about to rage against the institution, to lament on the lameness of my mate. Far from it. My marriage is what saves me. My husband… he’s my Wonder Wall. He’s my calm. My eye in the hurricane.  

I don’t know what I would do without him. He picks up my stuffing. He tucks it back in. He shoulders my shortcomings and he shelters my babes — all four of them.

It’s fitting that he’s a Purple Hurricane coach. He knows the ins and outs of my storms and he weathers them with grace. And he keeps me from falling apart at my already weakened seams.

These days, I shed hair and tears and sleep and health and sanity until I’m as limp and floppy as the Velveteen Rabbit. But it’s all good. 

Because I’m becoming Real. And it’s not pretty. My boobs aren’t pert. My ass hangs low and it wobbles to and fro.

But I am truly loved. By five of the most amazing humans in this amazing world. 

And I’m loved by the Creator of our Universe. I am snuggled and sheltered, and sometimes weathered and wizened — all in the name wisdom and growth.

And while that may knock me about a bit, by golly, I’m becoming authentic. And that’s a beautiful thing.

So all of you struggling women out there… getting your edges knocked off and your stuffing pulled out. Keep on keeping on. You’re exhausted. I know. I get it.

But I see you. I feel you. You are velveteen. And as Barbara Kingsolver says, “We can do this hard thing.”

We can do this hard and beautiful, and oh-so-very Real thing.

Moving Mountains and Stringing Pearls

I was listening to a country song yesterday (Yes, country. I’m that far gone.) — and I heard a lyric that resonated with me. “If I need a mountain moved, I move it myself.”

That’s me to a Grand Teton.

And it’s not because I’m afraid people will think I’m weak. Nor is it that I think I can do everything all by myself… far from it. I am definitely not the sharpest shovel in the shed, or the most diverse and multi-purposed, either.

It’s just I don’t want to be a bother. It’s how I was raised.

Chalk it up to Puritan work ethic… or cult indoctrination… but I feel like if I can’t get it all done, then I’m inadequate and unworthy of help. So most days, I just feel it all crumbling around me. Nevertheless, I carry on.

But I am in absolute awe of — and even a little bit alarmed for — people who actually do ask for help. They’re far braver than me. And have a much stronger sense of self-worth.

Because they expect people to help carry the load. They expect people to care.

And it’s not like I’m surrounded by people who DON’T care. I’m not. Far from it. As a matter of fact, I have the most amazing friends and family. I am unbelievably blessed. They would be more-than-willing to help me move my Himalayan hurdles, if they only knew about my Himalayan hurdles.

But I tend not to tell them. Because I was also raised to be invisible.

And asking for help puts you right out there in the spotlight.

So I don’t.

But I watch the ones who are out there in the spotlight, bathed in self-confidence, and I long to be more like them.

They’re all so warm and golden, so on-fire with self-love. Like they really believe the world is their oyster and that people will stumble all over themselves to help them string up its pearl and lay it ’round their neck.

And the world is. And the people do.

Meanwhile I carry on, flattened by Everest crumbling over the top me.

Anybody else struggle with that? And is it primarily a female thing? Or a Heather Candela thing?

Or are there men out there who have trouble asking for help, too?

Because my husband doesn’t have trouble. He knows his limits and he knows his worth. And he compromises neither when he asks for help. (I mean, who wouldn’t go above and beyond for such a tall mug of salted caramel macchiato? He’s delicious.)

I admire him so much, and I want to be like him so much — but I’m distinctly lacking in both salt and caramel. (Although I am tall. So I do have that.)

I have tried my best to raise my daughters to be more like those warm and golden souls of this world and NOT like their mother.

I’ve tried to raise them to have a strong sense of self. To be empowered and intelligent. To be willing and willful. To have servants’ hearts — ready to give assistance when needed — but also to have a queen’s spirit and know their value. I want them to never settle for less than they deserve and to know they are always worthy of somebody else’s effort and attention. Always.

I’m trying to do the same with my sons. And maybe it’ll be easier with them. Maybe girls struggle more with the mountains they haul. I don’t know. This is unchartered terrain for me.

What I do know is that I want all my children to be able to move mountains AND string pearls.

It must be the most amazing feeling.

Thoughts and Prayers: Same Song, Millionth Verse

Help me, Lord, to find what I am supposed to write today… A day after yet another school tragedy. More headlines. More pics of moms in panic. In mourning.  Of dads in agony. More stories of teachers and students feeling abject horror. More stories of students who made it talking about students who didn’t. More stories.

But not stories. All true. I wish they weren’t. I wish they were made up. I wish I were merely watching a Shakespearean tragedy. But alas, I’m not.

And how do I find the words to make sense of these real-world tragedies? To find words? To unearth them? To polish them and use them? To help myself through these dark times, these hellish realities?  To help me make some sort of sense of it all? To make sense of a world that steals sons? And daughters? And hearts? And grinds them into mincemeat to serve up on little slices of computer screens and news headlines…

And now snaps. On Snapchat. Snap-shots of horror and fear. Screaming and gunshots. Panic and pain. All of these things are too horrible to fathom. To absorb. To digest. I am… overwhelmed. And inept. Is there anything that can be done? Anything?

Quesions. More questions. And no answers. Only words. And words are not answers. Words don’t do much. Words are those old standbys. They are hashtags. #ThoughtsandPrayers. Affections, not action. I can polish them up all I want, they ultimately do nothing.

It is Action we need, not Words. Not Thoughts. We have active shooters in our schools killing kids. Many, many kids. And educators. And the wrong sorts of people are the only ones acting.

No, I take that back. The rest of us are acting, too.

We are all playing a role. We have taken on the role of Hamlet — the great procrastinator. The tragic hero who unpacks his heart with words. Who delays and delays and delays until it is way too late. Until there is so much death and destruction that the entire kingdom has tumbled into the hands of the enemy.

Apparently, that is the role we are all willing to play –the politicians and public alike.

And there are so many ghosts telling us to do something. So many. In hallways and classrooms and media centers and cafeterias and restrooms. Begging us to avenge their murders most foul with action.

But still, we wait… while noble hearts crack. And cease. While tragedy becomes commonplace.

So, no. I don’t need to find the words to make sense of this anymore. None of us do. Instead, we need to DO SOMETHING. We need to stop the bleeding.  And stop the madness. And stop the death…

To do or not to do.  That is the question.

And I don’t want to hear that now is not the time…  that the wounds are too fresh.

But in this, at least, Shakespeare’s words are right… It needs to happen now “while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance on plots and errors should happen.

Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this becomes the [battle]field, but here shows much amiss.”

Let’s find a way to be the change.

#DoSomethingAboutAllTheTragedyAlready

Spring Ball: Football and its Families Prepare for The Grind

It is May in Georgia. The days lean toward summer, growing warm and husky with the promise of rain. Clouds stack on the horizon and flit fast across fields, green and fresh and striped with the first mow of the season – along with the first paint. Spring Ball has arrived.

It’s a time of anticipation and adjustment – for a team and its coaches and their families, as well. The melanin and muscle and mercury are rising — the summer’s preparing to grind. And so are the coaches’ wives.

Spring ball is a time to stretch out those long-dormant football legs. To remember the rigor, to shift and rebalance the weight, to recondition the brain and the body for the upcoming football season.

As the coaches tweak their playbooks, the wives tweak their mindsets. As the depth charts take shape on their husband’s clipboards, the duty rosters get shifted at home. Laundry loads double with work clothes, plus practice gear. The cooking and dishes all rest upon her. Then there’s bath time and story time and bedtime and more.

The job of a coach’s wife is demanding. She one platoons their home life: scrambling and blocking and taking heat in the pocket; rushing and tackling and offering up pass protection where needed. Running offense AND defense is a fine balance. Maintaining that balance requires strength and focus, and passion and love – not just for her husband and family, but also for the game. Without passion and love of the game, resentment can take hold. Not everyone’s cut out for the job.

And the job of a coach is demanding. It brings long hours, low pay, and high turnover. The weight of responsibility brings bags to his eyes and weights to his shoulders. He juggles politics from parents, school systems and fans. He demands excellence from his players, and in return the fans demand excellence from him. Stress levels rise. Maintaining the balance requires strength and focus, and also passion and love – not just for the game, but for his wife and family. Without passion and love for his family, resentment can take hold. Not everyone’s cut out for the job.

Strength and Focus; Passion and Love. Without them, football will defeat you. When things get heavy (which they always do) the weight can get one-sided. It can topple you. You have to find balance. Strength and focus on one side, passion and love on the other. And then you have to maintain it.

Football families redistribute their balance in the spring. We put our bodies and our minds through the paces. We tweak our playbooks and our attitudes. As the mercury rises, our muscle memory takes over and we find ourselves ready.  Ready for the grind.

It is May in Georgia. The days lean toward summer, growing warm and husky with the promise of a football reign. Spring Ball is here.

My students are young and ignorant. And alive. Notes after our lockdown…

I experienced my first school lockdown today. A real one. Not a drill. The adrenaline surge has left me in a puddle of exhaustion.

The announcement came in the middle of sixth period, just after final lunch had been released. We were in journalism class in the computer lab when we heard, “Code Red.”

Students looked up, eyes wide. “Is this real?” they asked.

We had always been warned if there was a drill about to take place. “Turn off your monitors and get in the corner,” I said.

And they did. Twenty-one kids, sitting knees to chest, huddling under a giant window, blinds closed above them, cinder block walls at their back, silent. And there we sat in the dark. Feeling unbelievably vulnerable.

It was the only place out of view from the door — a door with a window and no blinds, no posters, no covering whatsoever.

From our corner, I looked around… noticed backpacks. Took a risk and stepped into the open to slide them out of view. If somebody saw them through that door window, they would know we were there. I contemplated how best to upend tables and block that door… and its bare, vertical window. A window a full-sized person could walk straight through.

Did I mention we felt vulnerable?

But we also felt prepared. We knew what to do. We’d had dry runs before. So we did it.

They stayed calm. I stayed calm.

But of course, my mind flew to the anniversaries of recent history. Visions surged in time with my pulse.

Bloody students tumbling out windows at Columbine.

Twisted concrete and metal and a day care in rubble in Oklahoma City.

A religious zealout, a dusty compound, the dense smoke of Waco.

An April birthday as a target date. Hitler. And unhappily my grandmother’s.

So I never forget.

Yes, I was more than a little terrified. We heard helicopters. Administrators with radios. Each other’s heartbeats.

Until our principal came on and said we would remain in a soft lockdown, and that we should resume teaching.

My kids went silently back to their desks. No one was allowed to leave. There would be no class change. No check outs. No work-release.

For approximately an hour, we sheltered in place. Until we received an all-clear.

I’m mush. I’m exhausted. I’m completely spent.

My students, though — they went right back to their daily lives. They went right back to laughing and completing study guides and making weekend plans. To being kids.

And I’m glad. I’m glad they don’t truly understand the weight of the hostile world that is riding roughshod on my adult heart right now. I’m glad they are still young and ignorant enough to be young and ignorant.

Reality can come later for them. Like it couldn’t for Columbine’s kids. Like it couldn’t for Newtown’s kids. Like it couldn’t for Parkland’s. Like it couldn’t for so many, many, many other kids. Twenty years’ worth of senseless tragedies. Twenty years’ worth of lives and innocence. Lost.

Our students are so, so fortunate to remain young and ignorant. And alive.

The end of school is not always a happy occasion…

We are six weeks away from the end of the school year. Six weeks away from summer. Six weeks away from unlimited sunshine and freedom. A week ago, I could hardly wait.

But then, my principal said something in a faculty meeting that really hit me. Hard.

She reminded us that graduation is approaching. And while graduation generally means the culmination of over a decade of hard work, it also generally means the culmination of childhood.

And some students are not ready for adulthood.

And some students have already had far too much adulthood. And they long for a return to their schooldays. And to innocence lost.

And believe me, there has been so much innocence lost.

I’ve taught a lot of students in my eighteen years as an educator. All teenagers, but ultimately, all still children. Children who deal with standard kid things. Like puppy love and shoe-envy and math allergies.

And, sadly, children who deal with standard adult things. Like work and money-troubles and death and pregnancy.

And tragically, children who deal with things no child OR adult should ever deal with. Things like rape and sex trafficking and addiction and suicide.

Teach for a year. Teach for a month. Teach for a day — And you will start to understand the obstacles and downright darkness surrounding some of our most vulnerable and precious of resources: our children. And the numbers are far greater than you can imagine.

I’ve taught students — children — who have been raped.

Children raped by strangers. Children raped by friends. Children raped at parties. Children raped at home. Children raped by fathers.

Children whose mothers sold their child’s virginity for a $100 meth fix.

Children coping with the trauma and shame of rape, plus the trauma and shame of family serving time for avenging that rape.

I’ve taught students — children — engaged to be married to high school sweethearts. And insanely happy about it. At sixteen. Seventeen. And I’ve taught students betrothed to men they didn’t know back in a home country they scarcely remembered. And insanely hopeless about it. At sixteen. Seventeen.

I’ve had students addicted to smart phones, to video games, to porn, to substances.

I’ve had students high in my classroom. Glassy-eyed and giggly. Or cracked out and twitchy, picking endlessly at arms, at scalps, at cheeks, at skin rupturing, crusting, rupturing again.

I’ve had students who are pregnant. I’ve had students who’ve had abortions.

I’ve had students who sleep around. Students who sleep on mattresses in kitchens, who sleep on blankets in closets, who sleep on sofas, on floorboards, in backseats

I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they work all night in a factory to put food on the table for siblings.

I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they stay up all night playing Fortnite to escape the reality of abuse.

I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they stay up all night playing Fortnite because there is no one home to tell them to go to bed.

I’ve taught homeless students. Homeless students living with friends. Homeless students living in shelters. Homeless students living in cars.

I’ve taught hungry students. Hungry students with nothing at home to eat. Hungry students on free-and-reduced breakfast and lunch service. Hungry students who go home on Friday afternoons with backpacks full of ready-serve dinners and snacks. Full backpacks; far-from-enough.

And I’ve taught hungry students whose parents won’t fill out the paperwork. Hungry children who go home on Friday afternoons with nothing at home to sustain them at all. Not food. Not love.

I’ve taught children who’ve eaten friends’ leftover pizza and bread crusts, proffered snacks from my emergency stash, restaurant refuse, their parents’ prescription pills.

I’ve had students have meltdowns, have seizures, have medical emergencies. I’ve had students who’ve overdosed.

I’ve had students who made it. And I’ve had students who didn’t.

I’ve had students who’ve died in car accidents. I’ve had students who’ve died by suicide.

I’ve had students lose parents to cancer, to violence, to addictions.

I’ve had students whose moms are in prison for child endangerment. I’ve had students whose fathers are regularly subpoenaed for child support.

I’ve had students whose grandparents are raising them. Whose foster families are raising them. Whose siblings are raising them. Who are raising themselves.

I’ve taught students who dropped out. I’ve taught students who stayed in — but failed grades repeatedly. Not because they were incapable, but because they were in chaos.

Because school is their sanctuary. Because the classroom is their cocoon. Because at school there are adults who care. There are classmates. There is structure. There is connection.

And outside there is only darkness.

There is so much darkness in this world. So much heartache. My students’ hearts have broken a hundred-thousand times.

My own heart has broken a hundred-thousand times.

Yes, summer is coming. Graduation is coming.

But as you and your loved ones celebrate accomplishments and rites of passages and bright, shiny futures, please remember that the same cannot be said of everyone.

Because for some, the end of school means no more breakfast or lunch. No more smiles and assurances. No more illusions of normalcy.

No more safety net.

No, the end of school is not always a happy occasion.

***

Please research how you can best help young people in need in your community, your church, your neighborhood. Volunteer. Be connected. Stay connected.

A Case of the Vapers (and other contagions sweeping teachers’ classrooms)

It’s a tough time to be a teacher.

We’re expected to captivate, motivate and differentiate, to remediate or accelerate, to teach students to calculate and communicate, to participate and cooperate, to formulate and postulate, to stay celibate and not procreate, and to ensure that every last one of them will graduate.

When it comes to “ates” we have a belly-full — including the hate thrown at us from seemingly every direction.

Legislators fight over whether or not we’re worth the most meager of pay raises. The Secretary of Education wants to cut billions from public school funding. The sons of world leaders call us losers. Parents bully and badger and question and condemn us.

Teachers are blamed if students fail at math, at manners, at life.

And for the most part, most of us can weather the demands piled upon us while still teaching with skill, enthusiasm, and grace.

But all of us still wonder, at times, if we have what it takes to meet the rapidly accelerating expectations.

And now, this year, a new challenge has emerged. One I’m not quite sure I know how to handle.

These days, teachers have a major case of The Vapers. Not to be confused with The Vapors (with an O), which was some crazy, female, hormone-fueled hysteria and hocus-pocus of the Victorian age, the current Vapers (with an E) is a crazy, female AND male, nicotine-fueled hysteria and smokus-pocus of the modern age.

The Vapers: teens who are vaping. And I’m sad to say we have ourselves an epidemic.

I’ve been a professional educator for the last 18 years, but until this year, I’d never had a case of The Vapers. This year, though, vaping is one of middle and high school’s major discipline and health concerns, and we teachers have had emails, training videos, and faculty meetings devoted to the topic. That’s how quickly the epidemic has grown.

Before those trainings, I had no idea that the sickeningly sweet smell that followed in the wake of students in stairwells and bathrooms and classrooms was the lingering scent from vape pens and juuls. I just knew I was getting lots of headaches from what I thought was bad teenage perfume. That is, until a student stopped me in the hall.

“You do know kids are vaping in your classroom, right?”

Wait. What?

Then she told me all the tricks. She explained that kids keep their hoodies pulled up over their mouths and around their ears, not because they’re cold from the drizzly, wettest season on record, but because they are taking hits of nicotine (or sometimes THC) bathed in sweet, glycerin-based liquids and then exhaling into their jackets.

And the cartridges are disguised as flash drives or writing utensils — making The Vapers really, really hard to catch. Despite the irony of them multiplying like cancer cells.

Here’s how hard they are to catch…

I personally witnessed a misty cloud dissipating above the head of a student at the back of my classroom. And I smelled the sickeningly-sweet odor I now knew was not bad teenage perfume.

So I promptly called an administrator.

But when the proper authorities searched the student, nothing was found. The Vaper either passed it off to somebody else or hid it in places admin wasn’t comfortable searching for fear of lawsuit.

Since then, I’ve found vape pens in my classroom, have had students caught vaping in bathrooms, and have had friends’ children serve detention for vaping.

I definitely feel out of my league on this one… I fear I’m about to succumb to a massive plague that may deplete the ranks of teachers everywhere. And it’s not just The Vapers. It’s the pressure from all angles that is getting to us: the legislators, the policies, the public, the parents, the drug paraphernalia. It’s all the demands. All of them.

But every morning I put on my game face… and I put on three bracelets. Three bracelets bearing messages to remind me of why I do this difficult and thankless job.

One says “Blessed” in braille.

One says, “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”

And one says, “I am not a Teacher, but an Awakener.”

They are my spiritual chain mail, girding my soul in positivity and light.

I say the phrases as I head out the door, ready to captivate, motivate and differentiate, to remediate or accelerate, to teach students to calculate and communicate, to participate and cooperate, to formulate and postulate, to stay celibate and not procreate, and do my absolute best to see every last one of them graduate.


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