Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Kids in America

Today's the last day for my seniors. I am happy for them; they have terrific futures ahead. But I am very sad for me. I know I'll never have another group quite like this one.

There's Jackie, whose family is from South Africa, and because our system of immigration sometimes punishes the people who try to get and stay her legally while the illegals suck up taxpayer money (this is one issue I am pretty conservative on), she and her family are getting on a plane next week to go back to Johannesburg. She desperately wanted to stay in the country, and go to college here, but she is keeping a positive attitude for her family's sake. She worked very hard for me, using her writing and desktop publishing talents to make professional-looking brochures about the electronic and print parts of our collection. Losing her as a student makes me unbearably sad because our whole country is losing her, and as ambitious and smart as she is, she would have done great things here.

Then there's Seth, who never met a technical problem he couldn't solve. Not only was he a great tech guy, he also has a dry, sarcastic sense of humor you don't usually find in people under 30. When I wrote him a letter of recommendation, he gifted me with an enormous bar of quality dark chocolate, slyly slipping the bar to me and saying it was "the good stuff." Anybody who favors dark chocolate automatically gains a few points in my book. He's going to Louisville next year and is excited about the academics, but dreads being that far away from a Chipotle. I'm telling you, he's like the son I never had.

There's Erin, who wrote beautifully for our library blog and also used her artistic ability to make posters advertising Banned Books Week, Teen Read Week, and National Library Week. She was pretty quiet, but proved the old adage that quiet rivers run deep. She's one of those people who, when you look them in the eye, you can see the wheels turning, digesting everything they see to later be put into the Great American Novel.

There's Bethany, who sings and acts and is going to a prestigious southern university next year as a pitstop to eventually seeing her name in lights on Broadway. And there's Kayla, and Shea, and Megan, and Kaitlyn, and Tyler, and Ethan, all who did their jobs well with little or no complaining.

But like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, there's one I'll miss most of all.

Amanda came in early every morning to get equipment out the door well before the bell rang. She is an avid reader, and she and I spent much of the year recommending books to each other and discussing the social issues explored in the best of the books we shared. She was the hardest worker I had, and any time I thanked her and told her so she said, "I like to do it." She could have spent the last two weeks of her high-school career coasting, but instead she organized a book drive to help an elementary school in southern Kentucky that was devastated by the recent flooding. Because of her, 18 boxes of books are going to go to those teachers whose entire classroom libraries got ruined when the flood waters rushed in, reaching seven feet inside the school building. When she came up with the idea, I knew my mother-in-law might not make it and I told her that I wouldn't have the time or the energy to help her.

"That's okay," she said. "I really want to do this by myself. I feel like I need to do this."

And she did. All I did was send out an email or two and allow her to store the books here.

When people ask me what I do, and I tell them I work in a high school, I almost always hear the same thing:

"I don't know how you do it, working with these kids today." And then they shake their heads.

These kids today are exactly how and why I do what I do. Yes, there are some that are troubling. But when I look at the Amandas, I know the truth: these kids today are alright. Our future is in good hands.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Things I'll Carry

I'm back.

I'm not all here, though. I'm still grieving, and I know that I will be for a while. My life doesn't quite seem to fit right now; it's like I'm wearing someone else's clothes and everything is just a little too baggy at the seams.

Jason and I are fine when there are people around. It helped that pretty much every day last week, someone from the family or our group of friends came over for a little while. It was easy to get distracted, to not think too much about what the road ahead is going to look like.

But Monday, we were alone all day. And we had way too much time to think about her and her absence. Way too much time to look at the funeral flowers still blooming in our house, to pass by her purse, still in our living room because we still don't know what to do with it, to look at the pictures we pulled for the various tributes done for the funeral. I shed a lot of tears yesterday because so much of what I see reminds me of so much that we lost.

Aside from her purse, and aside from her pictures, there are things Kathie leaves in our home that provide comfort, not sadness. They are the things I'll always carry in my heart, the marks she left on my life. I've known Jason's mom since I was 16 years old; she is a big part of who I am.

These are the things I carry:

1. The Gravy Song

Kathie and her mother were "gravy singers." I love to listen to music and sing while I cook; this is not something I got from my mom, whose preferred pasttime during cooking is to talk on the phone and/or cuss loudly at every little mishap. Kathie kept a music player of some sort in her kitchen, and I do now, too. She didn't just listen to her music as she cooked, though. She sang. When she tried to teach me how to make gravy one night when I was struggling with the concept of turning chicken drippings, flour, and milk into something wonderful, she told me that I had to sing to it. She and her mother sang Jim Reeves's "He'll Have To Go" whenever they made gravy, and apparently, that's the trick to making the chemistry work just right. I don't do gravy very often, but I learned from Kathie that song in general makes the chore of preparing dinner a little more like "me" time.

2. Big Sexy Hair

When I first grew my hair from my post-chemo pixie into a short, layered shag, my stylist reached for the big red can that was so familiar to me from seeing it in my mother-in-law's room: Big Sexy Hair volumizer. I had to laugh; I was going to have Kathie hair. For her funeral Saturday, I reached for that big red can and puffed my hair up into a style that would have made her proud. As her boss said at her wake, "Everyone knew her as the tall, thin lady with the big hair and pretty smile." I don't have the tall and thin part so much, but from time to time I see the value in putting on some big hair and a nice smile.

3. Stephen King

I was a big fan before Kathie and I met, but an even bigger fan after. It was one of the things we bonded over (I think once she learned that I liked Stephen King and watched The Guiding Light, she found me completely acceptable to date her son.) She introduced me to The Talisman, and loaned me her copy, which had been split down the spine and re-taped. She had ripped the book down the middle because she had wanted her husband, Steve, to start reading the book while she was finishing it. We would continue to swap and gift each other books until the very end; the last thing I bought her was the newest Jodi Picoult book for her to read in the hospital. Last night when I picked up my just-purchased copy of Steven King's novel Duma Key, which she loved, it gave me comfort to know we were sharing one last book.

4. A Well-Kept House

Housekeeping is not a skill I picked up as a child. I will admit to being pretty spoiled chore-wise and never being expected to do much more than put my dirty dishes in the sink and give my room a going-over once every couple of weeks. Having a spotless house was just not a priority for my mom. But it was for Jason's. For years I witnessed whole-family housecleaning that involved vacuuming couch cushions (something, sadly, I didn't even know you could do), dragging out a steam cleaner for carpets, and taking liquid Comet to any hard surface that could handle it. Sometimes, just for fun, she would decide she wanted a room painted 12 hours before a party she was having. When Kathie stayed with Jason and me for a few days several years ago, she praised my housekeeping and I glowed from that compliment for weeks. Everything I do around the house now I learned from watching her (and her kids, who she employed like a small army.)

5. Family Dinners That Are About Way More Than the Food

Dinner at Jason's house could be a little intimidating. There were always so darn many of them gathered around the table, and I was always afraid I would get called out for using a "sauce" word. But after the actual food part was over, it was a great time. Stories were told and old songs were sung. Most of the stories I know about Jason and his growing up came from breaking bread with his family. Since I come from a very small family, and because my dad worked second shift and only ate with us on weekends and holidays, I wasn't used to big family dinners where everyone passed the potatoes and the tall tales. Even though now my own family is small, I try to make our nightly dinners the same way, with a little time after the forks have been put down to talk and laugh and spend some time together. And of course, to make fun of each other for sauce words.

I know that soon Jason and his siblings will go through Kathie's belongings and decide who gets to keep what. I remember from doing this with my dad's things that the treasures you keep are those things you want in your home because their presence reminds you of your loved one and some special moment you shared. I feel like Kathie has already given me many treasures. All I have to do is look at the home I've made, the traditions Jason, Ainsley, and I honor, to see her presence in my life.

Thank you, Kathie, for helping to make me the wife and mother I am. And I promise I will keep writing. You liked reading what I had to say, and as long as I have stories to tell, I will tell them and know that somewhere you are listening. And probably singing the gravy song.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Touched By an iPod

So I said I wouldn't be writing for a while. But then something interesting happened, and I need to write it down so I don't forget.

If you're skeptical about life after death and all that, and if you're going to read this and think, "Oh, that's just a coincidence, Cranky," then just stop reading. Because maybe it is, but it gave me comfort, and that's all that matters, right?

Yesterday was a rough day for me. Monday was a bad day for Jason, and I spent a lot of time helping him, being at his side as his family made arrangements and dug through pictures and called extended family and friends. By 10am yesterday, I had made all the calls I needed to make, spoken to the bereavement committee at church, and even gone through my closet to pick out appropriate mourning clothes. Jason was gone running one last funeral home stop, Ainsley was at school, and I had the house to myself.

That's not really a good thing.

I started an on-and-off crying jag that lasted much of the afternoon. And then I got grouchy and started biting everyone's heads off, because that's how I roll when I get stressed out and overwhelmed.

"Why don't you get out of here for a little bit?" Jason said. "Go for a run or something to get it out of your system. You're making me crazy."

Don't judge him; he said it with love.

So I donned my running shoes, strapped on my iPod and set it to shuffle, and headed out on the longer of the two neighborhood courses I run. I wanted to wear out my body and mind.

The first song that popped up was "Love Rescue Me" by U2. I hadn't had that song pop up in a while. The lyrics in the last verse caught my attention:

I've conquered my past
The future is here at last
I stand at the entrance
To a new world I can see
The ruins to the right of me
Will soon have lost sight of me
Love rescue me

"Huh," I thought. "That's appropriate to Kathie's last hours."

The next song that popped up absolutely slayed me. I've never cried while running before, but I couldn't stop the tears. It was from the O, Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and when I hear it under the best of circumstances, I boo-hoo. It's called "I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)." Here is a link to the Cox family doing it. Have tissues at ready.

It was about then I decided Jason's mom was talking to me through my iPod.

I don't know exactly how many songs I have on my iPod. It's a Nano, and I know it's pretty close to its capacity. So I am thinking there are at least a couple hundred on there. Yes, it's possible that song could have popped up during my 50-minute run just by chance.

But wait! There's more!

The next song was a Melissa Etheridge song that I love called, "I Will Never Be the Same." It's about the indelible mark someone leaves on your soul when you love them but lose them. It's also a heartbreaker. The verse that got me was this one:

And you swore that you were bound for glory
And for wanting you had no shame
But I loved you
And then I lost you
And I will never be the same

See what I mean?

Because I believe that we can talk to people we've lost, and sometimes they hear us, I sent up a little message in my head.

"Kathie, if you're doing this, if you're trying to talk to me, send me a sign. Make the next song something that you know will make me think of you, that will show me this is you, that tells me how you feel."

When the next song started, I actually laughed through my tears. And I could swear I could her her laugh, too.

It was "Love Can Build a Bridge" by the Judds, and it was the version from their reunion concert from New Year's Eve 1999. I remember that New Year's Eve all too well; we had just lost Steve, Kathie's husband and Jason's stepfather, to a sudden heart attack. We were all together that New Year's Eve trying to comfort each other and her. When I bought the CD of the concert, I could only bear to listen to it a few times because I associate it with that dark week of our lives. But I love that song, and love that Mama Judd sings it with both of her daughters in that version. Like Mama Kath used to sometimes sing with her two daughters.

That song was followed by an Alison Krauss song I didn't even know I had on my iPod: "But You Know I Love You", a song written about a travelling musician leaving family behind.

And if I could find my way back to the time
When the problems of this life of mine didn't cross our minds
All the answers were found in children's nursery rhymes
I'd come running back to you...

After that it was almost as if I felt the sadness lift away, and if she was with me there for a little while, she went on to say goodbye to someone else. I had peace. There was a moment where I thought, "Stop being ridiculous. You just put it on shuffle while you were in your 'Sad Songs' playlist and forgot you did that." But then Beyonce's "Check On It" came on, that great ballad about working your booty to tease and catch the attention of members of the opposite sex, and I realized it was just on random shuffle and either chance or something beyond chance had decided to play with my fragile emotions for a little while.

Either way, I had a peaceful evening. I'm back at work, distracting myself with the small-by-comparison needs of our students and staff. And I've only cried once today, and that was because dear friend MelMart stopped in with her guitar to sing me a song that she would like to do at Kathie's funeral mass (I cried so hard, in fact, that I snorted, which is really quite embarrassing.) Things are better, and while I can't for sure say it's because I got a musical message from the beyond, I can at least say it's because of the healing power of music.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I just wanted to let you know, my precious and few readers, that Cranky will be taking a break this week.

Jason's mother passed away Monday morning after her brave battle with COPD. She was a fighter until the very end.

As you can imagine, this is a hard week. I don't think I can bring the funny for a while. And when I've tried to write what I'm really feeling right now it all comes out trite and cliched, so I am going to take some time off and when I come back next week, I am sure I'll be able to put something together in Kathie's honor that befits the Cranky Librarian brand. Kathie read my blog from time to time and told Jason once, "I didn't know she was that funny. She should write a book." Coming from the matriarch of the most naturally funny people I know, that was high praise and I want to write about her in a way that will make her laugh, and make her proud.

Because behind the illness, and behind the grief we all are feeling, Kathie was a person who loved life and enjoyed every minute. She wouldn't want us to take things too seriously now.

But in my own grief, and in my worry about Jason, who is trying so hard to be a rock, I am in a very somber, humorless state of mind right now.

I will return next week, and I hope that Kathie inspires me to get my sense of humor back.

Much love,


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In Praise Of: Nurses

Many of you know that Jason's mom has been fighting COPD for years. She's been in the hospital being treated for complications of this illness since March, and yesterday things took a grim turn. I got one of "those" phone calls, the kind you don't like to get, and as I raced to the hospital I really thought it was the end.

She is, however, still with us. I don't know how things are going to end, and Jason is just dealing with it the only way any of us knows how: day by day.

As I so frequently am when someone I love is in a medical crisis, I was struck by the nurses. So today's edition of the "In Praise Of" segment honors those men and women who run the show in a hospital.

I've seen some bad nurses (and after Ainsley's birth, had one attend to me) but more often than not the nurses I've seen in action have been angels walking on earth.

When Jason and I were allowed back to see his mom, one of the nurses from the last unit she was in was with her.

"I love you," she said, patting her patient's hand. "How could I not? You're so easy to love." And then she turned away and wiped away tears.

I've always heard that nurses and doctors don't let themselves get too attached to their patients, because if they did, every day would be a day of mourning and they could never make the tough decisions. Maybe I've watched too much ER and Scrubs, but I think sometimes a personal touch from a medical professional goes a long way. Sometimes it helps to know that that person with your life in their hands is a human being.

Jason's mom's nurses care about her and love her and I know she feels that.

All of my chemo nurses were good, but I had one who was great. Her name was Fran, and she was there for that very first round when I was still high from the Ativan I was given to relax me through a bone marrow biopsy. Even though I was beyond annoying, asking her over and over again if I got my anti-nausea meds because I was too dopey to have any short-term memory, she laughed with me instead of at me. She always tried to grab my chart when I came in so that she could administer my meds. On my next-to-last appointment she took me by myself into an exam room to get my IV started because I had become a difficult stick and another nurse had tried and failed to find a good vein, making me cry for the first time during a treatment. For five minutes she worked to get a vein in my hand, both of us in silence. After she finally was in and taped me up, she threw her head back in a huge belly laugh of relief. When I looked closer, she was had tears in her eyes.

She hugged me.

"Oh, kiddo," she said. "I need a beer after that one."

"Me, too," I said. And for a few minutes we cried together. I appreciated that moment of humanity from her more than she may ever know.

From our school nurse, who patiently showed me how to give myself a shot when I needed to do that during treatment and who hunts me down every fall to give me a flu shot because she knows my immune system is blown, to the hospice nurse who showed up minutes after my father died and sat with until daylight helping us find peace, to the nurses who have cared for my mother-in-law as if she were their own mother: thank you for what you do.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hey, Y'all! Breakfast Is On the Floor!

I want a Mother's Day do-over.

It started off great. There wasn't a cloud in the morning sky as I put my family's favorite breakfast casserole in the oven. Jason brewed a pot of my favorite coffee, and gave me his gift, which is exactly what I wanted: a navy squall jacket with the Northwestern crab boat logo on it in honor of my favorite vessel on my favorite Discovery Channel show, The Deadliest Catch. All was right with the world.

And then I made the biggest cooking error I've ever made: I tried to lift the 13 x 9 Pyrex casserole pan filled with sausage, cheese, eggs, and Crescent Roll dough (settle down; we don't eat this every day) out of the oven with just one hand.

You know where this is going, right? After about two seconds, I did, too, but was just as powerless as you are to stop it.

Because I am a moron and didn't have a mitt on my other hand, I couldn't just reach out and steady it. When the whole pan started to tip, and my wrist could no longer hold its weight, I just had to watch it all happen and get my bare feet out of the way.

The whole concoction, which with baking time had occupied a full hour of my morning, went Splat! on the floor. And the inside of the oven door.

But I gotta give props to the geniuses who developed Pyrex, because even though one side of the dish pounded my tile floor, it didn't break. So, there's that.

The casserole, alas, could not be saved. I had done a bang-up job greasing the pan, so it all slid right out onto the very unsanitary place where my feet spend most of their time.

That didn't stop Jason from considering it.

"Hey, remember that episode of Friends where they fight over the cheesecake and it ends up getting dropped on the floor in the hallway and they just go get forks and eat the top part? We could do that..."

Um, no.

So after me cleaning eggs and gooey cheese off of my oven door and the floor, Ainsley had Pop Tarts. Jason sipped coffee. I just swallowed anger and self-loathing, which are as bitter and unsatisfying as you might expect.

Later I tried to salvage the day by taking Ainsley to a Mommy-and-Me lunch at Chipotle. As we were standing in line, Ainsley tugged on my hand.

"I'm tired," she said.

There's a certain look my kid gets when she's sick. One eyelid droops and all color drains from her face. She gets a hang-dog posture that says, I give. You win, virus. Ainsley won't ever complain about a sore throat or a stomach ache, because she thinks to do so means a strep test. And if there is anything in this world that will get my kid to fight and scream like she's in mortal peril, it's the sight of a long cotton swab in the hands of a pediatric nurse.

She had this look, and she had a hot forehead. A nice Mother's Day meal was just not in our cards. Which ended up being just as well around 8pm, when Ainsley started perking up just as I had to run to the bathroom to be sick.

I've been saying I need a do-over.

Except for this:

At the peak of me realizing I had picked up some kind of bug, and feeling really sorry for myself, all three of us curled up in the living room in front of The Amazing Race season finale. Ainsley was cuddly and sweet as she watched her favorite (and only, thank goodness) reality show with us. I looked at my little family, who despite being a tad under the weather, is happy, healthy, and whole.

At that moment, I told myself to shut the heck up about a ruined breakfast, a fevered lunch, and a mild invasion of harmless viruses. So I didn't get a nice Mother's Day breakfast, so Ainsley had a fever, so my stomach felt the way it usually only does after a turn on the Tilt-a-Whirl. It was still an awesome Mother's Day, because my little brood got to spend it together. I ended the day counting my blessings instead of having another serving of self-pity.

And really, there's not much that an evening spent watching worthy reality-show contestants racing to win a million dollars won't fix.

Happy belated Mother's Day to all of you moms who read the blog. I would say I hope yours was better than mine, but mine turned out okay in the end, spilt milk (and eggs) and all.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Out of the Pencil of Ains: Mother's Day Edition

Yesterday Ainsley proudly brought home the Mother's Day gifts her class had made this week. I now have a new paperweight consisting of a Yankee Candle candle-jar top with a wad of modelling clay in the bottom, holding a spray of felt and bead flowers.

I love my paperweight, but I love the note that came with it more.

It was typed onto a little yellow slip of paper, and I am guessing the kids wrote it down and gave it to the teacher who neatly typed and edited the kids' writing. I bet it's the highlight of her year.

Ainsley's "card' went like this:

My Mother

My mother is sweet and kind. She gives me things I like. Sometimes she even gives me candy. She's the best mother I ever had.

Take that, Ainsley's other mothers! I'm the best! Woo-hoo!

And stop laughing--sometimes I am sweet and kind.

Night Driving

My mom has a boyfriend.

She has gone on dates with gentlemen in the past, but nothing serious. This time, her special man has told her he thinks he might be in love, and when Mom tried to break it off because she was afraid of a serious relationship, he sent her the sweetest little card you ever saw. So she's giving the guy a second chance.

And going out of town with him to a family reunion this weekend.

She has assured me that she has assured him there will be "no funny business". In fact, she made it clear to me that they were going to be in separate bedrooms and that she hasn't even kissed him yet.

I find this disturbing on so many levels.

The highlight, though, is a little something she said the other night when she was talking about whether or not she and this guy have a future.

For those of you who don't watch 30 Rock, there was an episode recently where Alec Baldwin's character, Jack, was arguing with his senior-citizen mother about her new boyfriend, who is technically married to someone else and thus not the type of man Jack would like his mother to date.

Jack's spit-fire mom gets defensive about what she sees as a catch and says,

"A guy like Paul, who can drive at night? You just don't say no to that!"

Jason and I cracked up at that at the time.

So, days later, I'm on the phone with mom and she's wondering where her relationship is going and whether or not she wants to have a man in her life. She really enjoys being her own woman. Plus, with this guy living 45 minutes away, it's a long-distance relationship of sorts.

"I don't know how long this thing is going to last," she said. "I mean, neither one of us drives at night."

I actually had to put the phone down for a second to laugh. Is driving at night really such a huge relationship issue to our senior citizens? How tragic. And funny.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

2 Teach Is 2 Touch Lives 4 Ever

I used to have a refrigerator magnet that said, "2 Teach Is 2 Touch Lives 4 Ever", written out like a math problem. The magnet either got lost or broken years ago, and I have grown up enough since then to realize the corniness of that item and have not replaced it.

Corny or not, that sentiment is the driving force of why those of us who work in education our entire careers do it. It's not for the money (we don't make that much) or the respect (not much of that, either.) I would say that 95% of us got into teaching because we wanted to make a difference in the world, and because somewhere along the way a teacher changed the way we looked at the world and became something like a personal hero.

Which is why I am always amazed at those people who put us down.

Most days, while I am sitting at the desk directing library traffic, I pull up the online opinion pages of our local paper and read what's getting the tri-state area worked up on that particular day. I pay closest attention to any editorial piece about education, and there have been a lot this spring. Yesterday was election day in Ohio and a score of school levies were on the ballot, and in my own state there has been much discussion and debate about the changes made to our student testing and accountability system.

Somehow, teachers always get pulled in when people start posting comments. Some people say that the only reason teachers fight for levies is so that they keep getting pay increases (never mind that the teachers in most of those Ohio districts have already agreed to pay freezes for next year to help reduce costs). Some call us overpaid and say we should get the same cuts in pay and benefits, including retirement, that workers in the private sector have seen in this recession. Some say we have no right to complain or ask for anything because we only work 7 hours a day, 9 months a year. One commenter on a story about the levies today actually said, " 'Educators' are the most selfish people in the world," and more people than you would think seconded that remark.

The fact that I knew how to properly punctuate that shows that I've had some wonderful, unselfish teachers who deserved every penny they earned.

I could go on and on here about how no teacher I know, not even a lazy one, only works a 7-hour day. And how those summer "breaks" are really mandatory, unpaid vacation time during which most of us fulfill our state-mandated continuing education requirements, or teach summer school, or work on lesson plans because the curriculum is always changing. And how our salaries really don't reflect those Master's degrees we are required to get in our first years teaching on our own time and our own dime. And how, if it weren't for decent health benefits and retirement (which, by the way, have been cut in the decade-plus I've been working in education) none of the truly talented folks in the profession would be crazy enough to do this job and put up with other people's kids in the first place.

But to spend the entire blog doing that would be preaching to the choir, because so many of you are, if not teachers, then public-service or university employees who I am sure get it. And let's face it; there are some teachers out there who don't represent us so well. Who perpetuate every negative stereotype of the American teacher, who can't do, but can teach.

I would also bet my "overly generous" salary, though, that every profession has a few bad apples that, forever reason, are able to hold on to their jobs even though they wallow in mediocrity-going-on-incompetence.

For anyone who might be lurking and who might be thinking that teachers are whining and asking for money for their schools that they don't deserve, and that losing teaching positions might thin out the ranks in a desirable way, let me say a few things.

You want to know the real reason why teachers ask for levies and flood their senators' and representatives' offices with phone calls and email any time the education budget is discussed? The real reason why we sometimes picket busy intersections or descend en masse at board meetings?

Because we care about your kids more than you could ever imagine.

They may not give a darn about us; we can't reach every kid, and since we're human, our personalities and the fact that we're authority figures aren't going to exactly be endearing to every teenager. But even when we don't leave a mark on a kid, they leave something with us. I remember the names of an awful lot of my students. Some I remember because they did well, or because they let me know they appreciated what I was trying to do. Some I remember because they drove me crazy and I counted down the days until they were another teacher's problem.

But whether I meshed with the kid or not, I wanted him or her to do well. To succeed. And if I wasn't able to make that happen, I just hoped that, someday, someone would get through to that student. Or stick that kid with a big, fat, reality check.

Either way, I cared. And I still remember.

I remember the girl whose older brother had committed suicide the year before and who I was warned would never talk about it. When I asked her class to write a memoir about someone important in their life, she wrote a truthful and heartbreaking piece about her brother. And when I gave her an A as much for her bravery as for the execution, she took it home and read it to her parents, who later told me was the first time she had opened up to them about how she felt.

I remember the boy labelled as a future prison inmate who skipped class and sometimes slept when he was in class but who, when he had moments of caring about his grade, could write circles around his peers and made insightful comments about what we were reading that would have impressed a college professor. When I called his mother, hoping to light a fire under him since he had a lot of potential, she was clearly drunk or stoned and pretty much told me I was wasting my time on a lost cause. I cried when I put the phone down, and again after the last day of school that year when I heard he had dropped out. I have spent over a decade now hoping he beat the odds.

I remember the kids who have thanked me, like the girl who wrote me an email when she heard I was going through chemo saying she was student teaching in English because she wanted to be like me. I remember the kids who told me I was terrible, and who complained about me to administrators (and whose parents backed them up on those complaints.) I am grateful for kids like the former, but learned something from kids like the latter, too.

I've been out of the regular classroom for a while now, but the students still get to me. There are some students I see every day for four school years. I watch them grow up and am a witness to some of their major and minor dramas. And of course, to a small group of my library students every year, I am a teacher and a supervisor and a mentor.

If I am your kid's teacher, here's how I feel. Your child does not have my blood in his or her veins, but I care about that kid's future and whether or not he grows up to be a productive member of society in a way that's almost parental. When your daughter gives her valedictory speech at graduation and gets choked up, I will choke up, too, because I'm proud and know that she's going to make it. And if I hear that your son is going to drop out at 17, that will break my heart because I will wonder if there is more I could have done.

We fight because we care.

Maybe just because I need to hear it after all the poison I've been reading, or maybe because it's Teacher Appreciation Week, write about a teacher you had who made a difference in your life and helped you be the person you are today.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

In Praise Of...Volume 1

I've been feeling grim here lately. I am sure you noticed. My posts have been a bit of a downer, I know.

So today starts a new segment I am going to try to do once a week. I shall call it "In Praise Of" and it shall honor those things that are done well. In a time when it seems like incompetence and half-assery are the norm, excellence needs to be rewarded. The news is full of failing banks, failing auto companies, and failing solutions. It would be too easy to think that no one is succeeding at anything anymore.

But there is excellence out there. I've seen it! So let's throw out some kudos, shall we?

Today I honor a true American gem. A bright spot on our dark national horizon. A product that proves that American ingenuity is alive and well.

Today's blog is in praise of...


Oh, do tell me you have eaten those golden crisps that somehow manage to be both intensely crispy and downright fluffy. If you don't think such a combo is possible, you must never have popped open one of those orange metallic bags of fat-fried and wholly unnatural goodness.

Ah, I'll never forget my first bag, purchased from a laundromat vending machine during my "Lost Year" in Barbourville. We were poor as the proverbial church mice, and my mother's only social life consisted of Friday night trips to the local Wash 'n' Dry. There were always enough quarters left, though, for a bag of Munchos and a can of Pepsi (not Coke back in 1984, because my main man Michael Jackson was telling me that Pepsi was the choice of a new generation.) I'm not sure why I first chose that bright orange bag over my perennial favorite, Grippo's Bar-B-Q; I guess I just needed some change with my change. But it was love at first bite.

They're not even called potato chips, though dehydrated potatoes are the first ingredient. They're "crisps" and bear little resemblance to any potato I've ever seen. In fact, they don't look like they came from anything actually found in nature. They're kinda yellow, and so thin you can see through them, and so dotted with precious little air pockets that if you hold one on your tongue, you can feel a peculiarly Rice Krispies-like snap, crackle, and pop. I imagine if you crumbled them in a bowl with milk you'd be able to hear it, too. And following them up with a dessert of Diet Coke and Mentos could possibly be lethal unless you're a really proficient burper.

They're not healthy, I'm sure, since their only tenuous link to the vegetable world is that, before being dehydrated, cut to a width that borders on one-dimensional, puffed with air, blown in cornmeal, and fried in an oil that may or may not contain one or more of a variety of oils, they were once potatoes. And their fragility makes them not suitable for packing in a standard brown-bag lunch. But as an occasional snack, best enjoyed when you don't really need to hear the TV through the snap, crackle, and pop of chewing up all those air don't get no better.

And they recently dropped their price to $2 a bag, and actually put this on the packaging so that stores have to play along! See, it's recession-friendly.

I still like my Grippo's with southern delicacies like the fried bologna sandwich, and I like regular Husman's or Lay's chips with my lunchtime ham and cheese. But the snack I love best comes in an orange Mylar bag and defies categorization. It is itself, and it is Munchos.

Can I get some Munchos love up in here? Anybody else a fan?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Odds and Ends

It's been an eventful week. I mean, it's not every day that you lose your kid (thank God. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, read yesterday's story.) So in writing this week I overlooked a couple of funnies.

First: Out of the Mouth of Ains, Tooth Fairy Edition

The kid lost a tooth Wednesday evening. (Yep, shortly after she gave me a heart attack.) We were up at her school for a final open-house-type-thing when it happened and she finally twisted the sucker out, and her teacher and I rejoiced. For a week, it had been so loose as to just be hanging on by spit and whenever she would concentrate on something it would stick straight out of her mouth through her pursed lips. It was waaaay grosser than I can describe it, and it was making both her teacher and I a little queasy.

The going tooth fairy rate in our house is two bucks. Some kids in her class get fivers (their fairies must not be saving for future orthodontics the way ours is), but we feel that $2 per tooth with an added bonus of a Barbie move for that very first one she lost is a fair contractual agreement.

Ainsley may not agree with that.

When she pulled off her pillow Thursday morning and saw the pair of bills sitting there, she sighed.

"When is she ever going to leave me a twenty?"

Second: The Shirt I'll Never Wear Again

Hey, this one happened Wednesday, too. How did I get through that day? The 8pm bourbon helped.

Once Ainsley had been located, I had to pick her up at drama. Given the scare I'd had, I got there early; I just wanted to see her with my own eyes and make sure our little story had a happy ending.

If you don't have a kid in school and your last experience trying to get into a K-12 educational building was your last day of high school in the laid-back world of the early 90s, well, things have changed. The doors to everything but the front office stay locked during the school day and immediately after school, when the office if closed, you're out of luck unless someone knows you're coming and can let you in.

To pick Ainsley up early from drama, or to get into the building to get something Ainsley has forgotten, I have to stand by the front doors and wait for a teacher to pass into view and then pound on the door like a loonie to get her attention. I might have to wait 15 minutes for such an opportunity. And then I have to be escorted to wherever I'm going. It sounds nuts, but it really does make me feel safe that things are this way now, both at the high school I work and Ainsley's school.

Joining me outside waiting for an opportunity to get in was another drama parent. We were talking about the things parents who don't have anything in common besides their kids being in a school activity together would talk about, biding our time, when out of nowhere I got asked the absolute worst question in the world:

"So...when are you due?"

You guys know I'm not pregnant, right? See why it's the worst question in the world?

Weighing no more or no less than I have in about two years, and being what I thought was a healthy size, I was a little taken aback. And before I could even respond, just that quick, I started hating my body. Because if you're not pregnant, and someone asks when you're due, it's not really a compliment.

"Oh, I'm not due. I guess I'm just wearing a really unflattering shirt today."

And though I love the shirt I was wearing that day, it really was to blame. It's one of those big shirts. Not a puffy shirt from Seinfeld, but a pleated A-line shirt that in hindsight made it look like I had something to hide. It definitely could serve as a maternity shirt, though that day, it wasn't. I had been hoping that, with its nautical stripes and loose, jaunty fit, it was giving my look a "spring day on the yacht" vibe.

Instead, it was clearly giving off a "check out the fact that I don't have a waist" vibe.

Of course the parent who said that blushed, and stammered her way out of it, and for a little while I kinda felt bad for her. But then my evil side kicked in and I was glad she was embarrassed. Because unless a woman has a belly that is absolutely HUGE and you can see her belly button sticking through her shirt like a pop-up turkey timer and she's wearing a tee that says, "Baby On Board", I really think that's a question you just don't ask a stranger.

I can blame it on the shirt, but I have also taken it just personally enough to decide to up my workouts a little and try to lose a couple of pounds. Not in this area so much (motioning to my upper body) or in this area (motioning across my hips), but in this area right here (pointing to my apparently largish stomach).

Ah, nothing a little Tommy Boy reference won't fix.