Tooth and Nail

I know the new year came and went a long time ago, but as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t finish this post.  I started this post back in December when my friend, Lynn, shared some questions with me.  The questions began bobbing around in my mind.  I’d stare at the screen as answers eluded me and the words felt all wrong in my mouth.  Then ever so slowly the answers surfaced.

The new year always brings about a restlessness to clean out my house and gut it of clutter.  Along with the removal of physical clutter comes the move toward cleaning out life in general.  What stays, what goes, what needs to be cut away, what needs to be alloted space-all of these thoughts seem to press in on me at the close of the year and the opening of another.  It’s a time to answer hard questions, a time to resolve the year.  A resolution, but not.

What was an upset or a disappointment last year?

It’s no secret that I was disappointed with the disruption my heart caused in my life last year.  To say that it upset me is not accurate, but to say that it caused an inordinate of fear in my life was a painful realization.  The balance between pursuing medical answers and being unafraid eluded me for months.

Where and when did things not flow easily?

The obvious answer is that blood did not flow easily to my heart, but the more important answer is that my classroom has not been easy.  No, my young ones have challenged everything I thought I ever knew about teaching, but from that discomfort I’ve learned new ways to teach, new ways for them to learn, and I wouldn’t trade this impossible year for anything.  As our class becomes their school home, I hold out hope that the hardest part is now just a glance in the rearview mirror.  Far enough away that it doesn’t impede our daily progress, near enough that I am aware of our starting point.

What flowed easily?

In the absence of turning the pedals, my fingers flew across my keyboard.  It’s not that I birthed revolutionary works of literary genius, but as fear of my physical heart increased, my writing pulsed with honesty and I faced the terror of the blank page with unflinching boldness.  This boldness was a delightful surprise.  And yet I can’t help but wonder if it was that way because one passion moved aside and gave way to another.  Can I have both at the same time or is it like wanting to sprawl on the hot sand during high tide?

What’s incomplete?

My novel.  My novel is so horribly incomplete.  And you know what?  That’s okay with me for now.  I like knowing I can come back to it bit by bit, tinker with the words, change the outcome, alter the characters.  But for now I’m content to just leave it in peace.

What are insights I gained last year?

I feel like if I answer this question, I’m saying I’m insightful.  Believe me, that’s not what I’m saying.  At all.  What I learned last year, or already knew, but am remembering, is that everyone has a story.  A lovely, hilarious, heartbreaking, inspiring, tender story.  So I wonder then what if I began to listen more than I talk? To laugh more than I criticize?  To accept more than I judge?  I can’t help but think that the story of my life would become wider, richer.

What am I grateful for?

Terry, always Terry.  It’s not lost on me that I am spending every day of my life with someone who loves me and desires my love in return.  I’m acutely aware of what a gift that is and I hope that I remember that as our happy days together stack up and make me fat with joy.

How will I acknowledge and celebrate the wins of the last year?

Wins.  Isn’t that an interesting word?  My cycling team used to have a mantra “Win, Susan!” She fought tooth and nail against cancer and I pedaled my heart out to help her.  Then she died, but to say that she didn’t win is an ill-fitting phrase.  She left this Earth having lived with passion, love, and tenacity.  Our team now says “Fight like Susan.”  And so I guess, I don’t feel like noting wins or losses of 2009, but instead I want to figure out what is worth fighting for and then use this new year to fight for it tooth and nail.


I have big, broad shoulders.  Manly shoulders.  Shoulders that don’t easily fit into women’s blouses.  I’ve always wished for petite shoulders, the dainty shoulders of a real lady.  I recognize that they would look ridiculous on my six foot frame.  I get it, I do, but my whole life I’ve pined for smaller shoulders.

Until now.

It started with a thank you note, a simple card I’d scrawled to say thanks for a mug of trial sized bath goodies.  I was woefully late in writing the note, as almost a full month had passed since Christmas.  I penned the name of my student on the envelope and added on “and family”.  I didn’t give it another thought until I passed the card to my student.

“Mrs. McCauley, I can’t read this.” he said, handing the card back to me.

“Of course you can.  You’re a great reader.”  I cocked my head to the side, puzzled by this freckle faced kid who devours library books.

“No, I can’t read it because it’s says ‘and family’.  My mom and dad separated and I don’t have a family anymore.”

My heart lurched.  I felt my whole body sink under the weight of his statement.

“Honey, just because your mom and dad don’t live in the same house, doesn’t mean they’re not part of your family.  You still have a family.  Your mom and your dad both love you very much.”

“But who do I open the card with?  I’m going to my dad’s today.” he asked, still holding the card out to me.

“You can open it with your dad and show it to your mom when you go to your other house if you like.”  I took the card and tucked it into his homework folder, sorry that I’d confronted him with such a jagged decision.

“So I can still open the card?”  He leaned into me, a boy hug, all body and no arms.

“Yes, you can still open the card.”  I tucked him into me, hugging him too long until he started to squirm.

The next day, one of my little girls sat at her desk writing in her notebook.  She wrote about her mommy and pushed back thick ropes of hair to reveal tears welling in her brown eyes.  She’d never cried in class before.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I said, rubbing circles on her back like my mom used to do when she tucked me in bed.

“My mommy doesn’t like to play with me anymore.”  The tears were streaming now, rivers down her cocoa cheeks.  The boy sitting next to her pulled some tissue from a box, handing them to her in a wad.

“Oh, honey, is it because she has to spend her time taking care of the baby?”

“I don’t know.  She just doesn’t like to play with me anymore.”  She hiccupped and gulped for air at the same time.

“Have you tried telling her how you feel?  Your mommy would want to know if she’s hurt your feelings.”

“She doesn’t have time to listen to me.”  I wanted so desperately to make this all better.  To make her better.

“I know she’s busy with the baby, but I think it’s important you talk to your mom about this.  She doesn’t want to make you sad.”

“But I am sad.”

I’m convinced a more true statement has never been said.  Her eyes harbored no anger.  Just hurt, so much hurt for a six-year-old.

“I know, and it’s okay to be sad, but you should talk to your mommy about this.”

“Okay, Mrs. McCauley.  But what if she still doesn’t want to play with me?”  I hugged her tight, her tears wetting the shoulder of my shirt.

“She will, honey, she will.”

“How do you know?”  She looked at me with hope.

“Because your mommy loves you very much.”  We hugged until she picked up her pencil again.

A handful of days later, one of my more rambunctious boys stayed a few minutes after class.  He fills my days with a constant stream of chatter as he voices every thought and fidgets every second of the day.  I was sitting on the carpet and he squatted down next to me, his brow furrowed.  I took a deep breath, hoping to breathe in a little more patience for him.

“Mrs. McCauley, can you help me solve a problem?”

“What’s the problem?”  I readied myself to answer a question about double-digit addition or the Power Rangers book he’d been writing.

“My mom has a boyfriend and my dad has a girlfriend and I can’t figure out how to get them back together so I can have a family again.  Can you help me?”  He waited in earnest for my solution.

“Oh, honey, that’s not a problem you and I can solve.  Mommy and Daddy have to solve or not solve that one.”

“But what if they don’t?”  He moved closer until his lunchtime milk mustache was mere inches from my face.

“Your mommy and daddy still love you, even if they aren’t together.  You still have a family, even if they live in two houses.”  He hugged my neck.

For the first time this year, he was still, his dirty playground hands on my collar and my arm around his waist.  A minute or two later he wiggled free and packed up his things, pushing a container of markers into his backpack so he could finish illustrating his Power Rangers book at home.

It’s no wonder that this group of kids started the year stabbing, kicking, punching and biting each other.  This year is harder than any of my previous years of teaching.  Strike that, it’s harder than all of them combined.

Divorce, new babies, unemployment, dying family members.  So many problems on such small shoulders.

At night when the hum of the fridge is the only sound in the house, I lie awake thinking of my students.  I roll my shoulders in circles, trying to ease the ache in my muscles, to release the burdens of the day.

In the sheath of night I whisper prayers for the freckle faced boy and the girl with cocoa cheeks and for the boy who drives me crazy with his constant chatter.  I whisper a prayer for past students who were little more than shadows in their own homes.

And then I say prayer of thanks.  I thank God for my big, broad shoulders.

I love…

Sometimes after a challenging day at work I need to remember that there really is a lot to like in this world, a lot to love even.  This was one of those days and so turning the corner into this blissful three-day weekend, I’m focusing on the parts of my life I love.  It is not a comprehensive list by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, I’m going to come back and add more over the weekend.  I hope you’ll let me know about all the things you love in the comments section.

  • I love the smell of Terry just out of the shower, wrapped in steam with stray drips of water still behind his ears.
  • I love when we’re laying in bed and Terry reaches over and touches my leg, acknowledging I’m there with him.
  • I love the steady beat of my heart.
  • I love reading blogs in the morning before work to see how friends in other parts of the world are starting the day.
  • I love tucking under a blanket with a good book as the rain streams down my windows.
  • I love riding my bike the long way up to Shasta Dam just because I can.
  • I love the pink casing on my bike that matches my jersey and my water bottles.
  • I love going to church and closing my eyes to worship.
  • I love praying with Terry as we part ways in the morning.
  • I love when my nephew begs for more tickles and kisses me with crackers in his mouth.
  • I love when one of my students says, “I love writing.”
  • I love eating summer blackberries from my backyard.
  • I love writing.
  • I love writing so much I’m putting it on the list twice.
  • I love talking to other teachers about how to foster young writers.
  • I love visiting new places, but I love coming home even more.
  • I love Abby and her candy drawer.
  • I love Nick because he believes I’m a better person than I really am.
  • I love my Gramma because she understands the worst parts of my life and doesn’t judge me for them.
  • I love green vegetables.
  • I love when my principal has my back.
  • I love my grade level team for making me a better teacher.I love my home.
  • I love burritos.
  • I love parasailing over the turquoise Caribbean ocean.
  • I love the Olympics.