Letters to Gramma: Envy in Grief

Dear Gramma,

I had a dream this morning, a nightmare actually.  I dreamed that it was the day you died and I was alone in your house.  I’ve had this dream before, a memory that comes back to me at night sometimes.  But this time I was in your old house, in the house I visited as a kid, not the house you lived in when you died.  I was walking through the house, crying up the creaky stairs.  In the face of such a devastating loss, I crammed myself in the little closet that used to be a telephone room and I closed the door.

Your doorbell rang and I untucked myself from the corner of the closet.  Out on the front steps was a real estate agent and a family ready to look at the house.  In my dream I didn’t even know the house was for sale.  I explained to the agent that you had just passed away that morning and it really wasn’t a good time.  The agent pushed the door open and showed the family in.  The mother started asking me all these questions.  I gave them a tour of your house, staggering through the rooms of memories with a lump in my throat and tears welling in my eyes.

My alarm clock sounded and I’ve never been so glad for it to go off.  I woke with that lump in my throat and swallowed it back down.  My pillow was wet from crying.  The dream felt so real that it took me a few minutes to realize it couldn’t have been real because you haven’t lived in that house for over 20 years.  I swept away the cobwebs of the dream and pulled the covers up under my chin, wiping my eyes with the sheet.  I miss you so much that sometimes it’s a physical ache in my chest.  This morning was one of those times.

I got up to ride my bike with Terry and Nick.  A good hard ride was just what I needed.  I pedaled up and across Shasta Dam, the water in the lake blue and glassy.  We followed a new piece of trail and at a split I jumped on the old the river trail and Terry and Nick followed the road back home.  I wanted to be by the river, to be near something beautiful.  I rode fast, pushing a big gear, passing everyone I encountered.

I reached the Sundial Bridge where there was a breast cancer awareness walk.  I got caught in a crowd of people dressed in pink.  I felt the lump rise up from my belly and bob in my throat.  I saw people walking in memory of loved ones lost and the ache stabbed at my chest.

Then I saw people walking with the word “Survivor” pinned to their shirts.  There were stickers and pins and hats and everything else rightly proclaiming survivorship.

White hot envy bubbled up.  And I know I shouldn’t be envious that they survived and you didn’t, but sometimes I am.  Most days I think you won, Gramma, that you lived the best life of anyone I know.  But some days I feel like cancer won, that it’s unfair that other people survived cancer and you didn’t.  It’s the ugly part of grief, Gramma, the part I hate the most.  It’s not that I wish these other people didn’t survive.  It’s not that at all.  It’s that I wish you were still here, too.

I tried to get out of the crowd of walkers, but no matter how many times I called out “On your left!” or “Coming through!” they didn’t move aside.  The entire bridge was filled from one side to the other with walkers and survivors and pink shirts.  I felt the tears pricking my eyelashes.  I needed to be anywhere but there.  I unclipped and walked my bike through the crowd, keeping my head down until I got to the road and onto the trail that would lead me home.  I rode uphill, stomping on my pedals, crying until hot snot ran with my tears.  By the time I got home I’d stopped crying, but the sadness remained.

Gramma, I don’t mind dreaming of you.  In fact, I love it when you talk to me in my dreams.  But this dream was different.  You weren’t in it at all.  And that’s what makes the sadness stay, the fact that each day I get further and further away from the life that had you in it.  Sometimes that loss devastates me all over again.

Come talk to me in my sleep, Gramma.  Sidle up next to me and drawl “Hi, honey.  How are you?”  Make me watch Jeopardy with you while we eat ice cream for dinner.  Come back, for just a little bit, even if it’s only in my dreams.



Best Year Yet: The Yang

Yesterday I wrote about my incredible second day of school.  In fact the first three days of school were heavenly.

The following four were a bit, uh, different.  It’s the period of time I dread every year: testing time.  Not paper to pencil testing.  It’s the period right after the honeymoon when my little ones get comfortable enough to test the boundaries.

To give you a quick snapshot of just what I mean, let me tell you the things that happened in the lunchroom on the sixth day of school, as reported to me by a lunch duty aide.  A little boy took a seam ripper with a handle that had been sharpened to a point out of his pocket and threatened kids with it.  Another little boy called a girl a “b*%ch” after he wouldn’t stop pestering her and she told the lunch duty aide.  A third little boy pointed to his private area and shouted “Penis!  Penis!  Penis!” over and over again for the entire cafeteria to hear.  And the grand finale was the little girl who pulled on another girl’s ponytail and then went home and pulled out handfuls of her own hair and told her mother the other little girl did it.

After lunch that day, I made sure the little ones who’d been picked on were okay and then I followed through with consequences for the aggressors.  All of them were absolutely shocked that I’d be talking to their parents after school.  They were even more shocked that their actions had consequences like writing apology letters and loss of privileges.  But what I think they were most surprised by is that I didn’t get angry or raise my voice.  They’re used to stirring things up.

Later that day we had a class meeting about how we can all make school a safe and happy place to grow and learn.  I followed up by reading a story about a school bully and how to respond to bullies.  Interestingly enough, in the discussion that followed the story, none of those kids saw their actions as those of a bully.  When other kids pointed out that their were behaving like bullies, the aggressors were completely surprised that the other kids would consider them bullies.

This is the thing though, within that testing period, each of those kids had really sweet, tender moments, too.  But just when we’d be rolling along having a nice day, one or all of them would do something to try to throw the whole class off balance again.

Have you ever met people who thrive on drama?  You know the ones I’m talking about, the ones who can’t stand it when everything is going well in their lives.  The ones who take the smallest difficulty and whip it into a frothy mess.  The ones who create chaos just for the sake of creating chaos.

If something doesn’t change, these little ones are going to grow up to be those people, whirling dervishes who wreak havoc because that’s what they think life should feel like.  I know a handful of adults like this.  I think of how miserable they really are, I think about what a lonely life they lead and it breaks my heart to think of that kind of future for these little ones.

Earlier this summer I encountered the word ‘ballast’ for the first time.  Then I heard it again the following day.  And again the next.  It was like this word had something to tell me and if I didn’t listen, it was going to keep repeating itself.  I’ve been chewing on this word for months, thinking about it in terms of my life in general and in terms of my life as a teacher.

Maybe you’re new to this word, too.  Here’s one definition:

ballast, noun 1: heavy material, such as gravel, sand, iron, water, or lead, placed low in a vessel to improve its stability

image courtesy of superstock.co.uk

Ships use ballast so they don’t tip or capsize in high winds.  By placing the weight in the very bottom of the keel, the ship sits lower in the water and is less likely to be swayed.  Even people can serve as ballast.  The weight of the crew can serve as  ballast.  So can that guy hanging over the edge of a sailing boat.

This idea of ballast makes me think of my little ones because for whatever reason, and I’m sure there are several, they aren’t just aren’t filled with enough weight to be steady.  They think life is about capsizing and then recovering.  Or not.  And the attention they get for capsizing things has made them good at it, very good at it.  They don’t know the pleasure of being steady, the joy of sailing through the chop unharmed and upright.

These little ones and this idea of ballast has left me thinking of what it is I want to put deep in their hulls this year.  What can I fill them with that will keep them steady?  How can I make them stop craving the chaos?

Ballast is a verb, too.

ballast, verb 1: giving stability (as in character or conduct)

In thinking about filling these little ones with things that will help them steady themselves, I’m also thinking about the things I can do to give them stability.  I’ll continue to respond to their inappropriate behaviors calmly with logical consequences.  I won’t give rise to their undesirable behaviors or allow them to create chaos in my classroom.  I’ll be on the constant look out for instances when they act in ways that are helpful and kind.  Those are the things I’ll give attention to, the things I’ll crow about.  And best yet, I’ll weight their hearts with stories of people who exhibit integrity, courage and compassion.

Did you know that when a heeled vessel returns itself to its upright position it’s called the “righting moment”?  This year is going to be a year of learning to read and write and do math and all of those things, but what’s exciting to me, what has me still believing it’s going to be the best year yet is that it’s going to be a year full of creating ballast in place of chaos.

It’s going to be a year full of righting moments.

Best Year Yet: The Yin

My second day of school began at 3:30am, perhaps the unholiest of all sleeping hours to be awake.  I laid in bed willing myself to go back to sleep, telling myself I was going to need my energy to keep up with my new little ones, but the millions of little tasks that I had ahead of me began to romp and play in my brain.  After laying in bed for an hour, I clomped out to the couch and started on my To Do List.

As I worked in the quiet of my house and watched the moon change guards with the sun, I couldn’t help but think of Jim Burke’s tweet from a few weeks ago.  Ever since I read it, it’s been resting deep in a pocket of my belly, a place reserved for meaty ideas that need time to digest.

That’s the mindset I’ve had the last couple of weeks.  Just what if this is my best year yet?  This thought also has a little brother that tags along, poking at me.  What am I doing to make it the best year yet?

My first day of school was a great one and even though I’d woken at 3:30, I was determined to make my second day equally great.  I wasn’t willing to concede my best teaching year yet to a pesky bout of insomnia.

At school, I started in on my list of things to do, setting a birthday crown on a little girl’s desk and relishing the rarity that is alone time in my classroom.  Then my happy little ones trooped in from morning recess.  The room buzzed with parents and kids getting settled in for the day.

The birthday girl and her mom were one of the first to arrive.  Nodding to the food allergy sign on my door, I asked if she was going to send in birthday treats for the class.  The mom explained that they were poor, that there would be no birthday treats, no birthday party and very few presents.  I understood.  Single moms have it rough and I patted her on the arm.  Then the Birthday Girl spoke up.  She looked up at me from underneath her head of white blonde hair and said,  “We’re going to have a special day just spending time together.”  Be still my beating heart, I love this little girl.  She gets it.  She so gets it.  I smiled at her and asked if she’d like her mom to help her put her birthday crown on.  This little one’s jaw just about came unhinged.  “You made me a birthday crown?”  Her voice lifted into a squeak.  I pointed to her desk.  She clapped and rushed over, her mom following close behind.  A minute later, while I talked with another mom, I felt her hugging the backs of my legs.  It was a tight squeeze, so tight that I could feel her lips moving against my pants as I heard a very muffled, “Thank you for my crown, Mrs. McCauley.”  Later that day, when I asked about her life goals now that she’s six, she told me she wanted to learn how to do a cartwheel and learn to fly, not in an airplane, but really fly.  My heart puddled on the spot.

Best Year Yet: Flying high.

As parents said goodbye to their kids, one of my little boys, a husky guy with a heart of gold, was in tears at the prospect of saying goodbye to his dad.  I reassured him that today was going to be a good day and I hugged him for a few minutes.  He cried on my shoulder while his dad hurried off to work.  A few minutes later he was fine.

Best Year Yet: A little damp on the shoulders, but none the worse for wear.

The parents left and we got started on our day.  We counted our hot lunches, sang the Good Morning Song and said the Flag Salute.  Just as we finished “and justice for all” a sleepy faced, pale little guy, who sits right in front of me on the carpet, turned a whiter shade of pale.  Uh-oh.  I know that look.  I’ve seen that look too many times before.  The next few seconds felt like slow motion as I twisted out of the firing zone, and Lord have mercy, that kid let fly and puked all over the spot where I was just sitting.  He missed me by about an inch as I grabbed a trash can and held it under his chin.  Another kid’s mom was working in the hallway and she popped her head in at that moment and I passed my sick little guy to her and she ushered him to the nurse.

Best Year Yet: Nimble and vomit free

We had a great day together, reading, writing, graphing, and laughing hysterically during Author’s Chair at a story one of my little guys is writing about a koala bear who goes to school.  Koala Kid is going to be a ton of fun to write with.  Before I knew it, it was time to have our closing meeting and say our goodbyes for the day.

At our closing class meeting, one of my little guys, a darling little boy who happens to have autism, raised his hand and said, “Mrs. McCauley, I love you so much I want to buy you a limousine!”  I’m already tickled by how his mind works.  I told him I loved him a lot, too.

Best Year Yet: Riding in style

My little ones gathered their backpacks and I held onto the hands of my bus riders as we navigated the parents bustling in and out of the hallway.  I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I turned and saw the father of the kid who was crying that morning.  “Thank you for helping my son this morning.  I appreciated it.”  I stood there blinking.  A parent just thanked me.  Like out loud.  And sincerely.  Holy cats, was I dreaming?  I shook my head back to the present, “My pleasure.  He’s a great kid and we had a really good day.”  The two of them left and I held a little tighter to the hands of my bus riders as we wove through a maze of people.  Koala Kid’s mom stopped me and asked if her son had already left the classroom.  I assured her that she’d just missed him by a few seconds.  I walked my bus riders to their bus line and just as I turned to go back to my classroom, Koala Kid got in the bus line.  He explained to me that his mom wasn’t where she said she’d be and that he took the bus home all last year so he thought he’d take it home today.  I took his hand and was just starting to lead him to his mom when she caught up with us.  I braced myself, ready for her to blame me because he was in the wrong place.  Instead she said, “Oh, thank you for helping me find him.  I was late because I couldn’t find a parking spot.  I’m sorry.  He rode the bus home all last year, so that’s why he got in the bus line, but this year I get to stay at home so I’ll pick him up.  Thanks again for finding him.”  The three of us had a chat about where he will meet his mom each day and I walked back to my classroom.  Two parents thanking me in the span of 10 minutes?  Surely I was dreaming.

Best Year Yet: Surreally happening

Back in my classroom, a former parent was waiting for me with Simpson University bag in her hands.  Our school is doing a big push for university preparedness and we have a College Shirt day coming up.  I don’t have a shirt from my alma mater, but this mom works there, so when I bumped into her the day before, I’d asked if she had a shirt I could borrow and maybe some letterhead or something I could use for the bulletin board I was supposed to make to display my degrees.  This mom did so much better than that.  She came with a bag full of stuff she’d bought from the university store.  There was a t-shirt, a pennant, a stuffed mascot, stickers, folders, etc.  I thanked her and asked how much I needed to pay her.  Nothing, she said.  I insisted again.  She refused saying that the university had donated the items because they wanted to be publicly represented by people like me.

Best Year Yet: All decked out in free swag

A couple of minutes after the Simpson mom left, one of my little ones from last year popped her head in to see if I needed any help.  This little one was a challenge last year, as was her mother, both of them questioning my every decision.  I love this little one, but I did not love being her teacher.  But this year, I’m no longer her teacher, meaning I get to enjoy her in small doses.  I had a few tasks she for her and as we worked, we chatted about her summer and second grade so far.  She showed me the teeth she’d lost and we laughed at misadventures at the waterslide park.  Half an hour later, her jobs were finished and she bounced back to the after school program.  I was truly glad to see her and grateful for her help.

Best Year Yet: Still going strong

As I walked to my car, I checked my e-mail and there in my inbox was a notification that I’d won a huge basket of school supplies from Rose Art.  I’d put my business card in their drawing at BlogHer, but I never thought I’d win.  I never win anything, let alone something as useful as school supplies.  I mean, just look at that basket!  I walked to my car with a little more of a spring in my step.

Best Year Yet: Duh-winning!

After school, I met up with a friend to see her new house and walk her dog.  This friend had a couple of tough years and as we chatted down the streets of her new neighborhood, I heard a lilt of happiness in her voice.  Her new house fits her, like a reflection of all her best parts.  We walked and talked and it was just so apparent that she’d found herself again.  I watched her wrangling her huge dog on a leash, and caught her smiling just as the sun hit her face.  It was a beautiful moment and I have a feeling she’s in store for a lot of them this year.

Best Year Yet: Progressing beautifully

As I was leaving her house, That Laura called to see if I had time to stop for frozen yogurt.  When don’t I have time for frozen yogurt?  Because everything was going my way, the yogurt shop had my favorite flavor, of course.  We let the cool yogurt slide down our throats, a blessed relief from the 104 degree heat that day.  As we slurped our yogurt down, I told That Laura about my amazing day.  One of That Laura’s best qualities is that she is genuinely happy when good things happen to other people.

Best Year Yet: Tastier than Ever

Back at home, Terry and I spent a quiet evening together, filling each other in on the day.  We read our books and just hung around the house, a perfect ending to my day.  In bed that night as I waited for sleep to find me, I replayed the day again in my head.  It was filled to the brim with sweetness, like if one more lovely thing had occurred, I  would have overflowed.  And maybe that’s the key to making this year the best one yet: not only being open to receiving the grace and generosity of others, but seeking out opportunities to be gracious and generous to those I encounter.

Best Year Yet: Definitely.

Stay tuned for Part 2, The Yang.

Thankful Thursday #36

This week I’m thankful for…

  • the conclusion of the first week of school.  They’re cute, but, oh man, training them is exhausting.
  • my Neti Pot for battling it out with my first cold of the school year.  Breathing out of both nostrils is awesome.
  • Just Because roses from Terry
  • Garrison Keillor and his red shoes
  • my students, even the challenging ones
  • my awesome parent volunteers who are my saving grace with twenty-seven 5 and 6 year olds and no classroom aide
  • my little one who turned 6 this week and told me her two goals this year are to do a cartwheel and learn to fly
  • Mike & Ike’s after they’ve been in a hot car all day
  • my grade level team
  • morning prayers with Terry

Thankful Thursday #35

This week I’m thankful for…

  • brand new, freshly sharpened pencils
  • coffee with a friend
  • kayaking on the lake and the heron who didn’t poop on me
  • first day of school outfits
  • chick flicks
  • Terry, always Terry
  • my amazing helpers who worked hard to get my classroom ready
  • my custodians who always have a smile and a helping hand at the ready
  • my new little ones who have stolen my heart in record time