Being Seen

In the early summer of 2008, I found myself at a pre-retreat with the Northern California Writing Project.  I sat in a circle of strangers, many of whom would become dear friends.  But I didn’t know that then as I tapped my foot against the leg of my chair and tried to ignore just how much nervous sweat was trickling from my armpits.

It was my first encounter with The Writing Project and I promised myself two things: I promised I would stick to my diet.  Secondly, I promised myself that any time the facilitators asked someone to read a piece of writing aloud, I would volunteer.  I kept one of those two promises and let me tell you, that brownie cake was worth every bite.

My promise to volunteer to read my writing aloud came out of a two-fold desire.  I desperately wanted to overcome my fear of public speaking.  More importantly I wanted to get the most out of the retreat as possible.  I’d never been to a writing retreat before and after seeing the ever-increasing sweat rings darkening my shirt, I wasn’t sure the facilitators would ever invite me back.  I knew that getting the most out of the weekend meant stepping out of my comfort zone, clearing my throat, and reading some of my writing.

Out loud.

To other people.

Who are writers.

Yikes.

One afternoon the director said to the lot of us, “Write the story of the student you will never forget, the story that keeps you up at night, the story that you still think about.”

In that moment, I knew just the student, just the story.  One so painful that I’d not spoken of it before, let alone put it on paper.  I put my pen to paper and began to write about the student who broke my heart and made me get real about teaching.  I wrote with unflinching honesty.  I wrote with a flame that left me singed and raw at the end of each writing session.

I wrote the story that visits me in the still minutes of sleepless nights.  And when it came time to read aloud, my own trembling voice gave voice to his story, my story: the story of how I failed to see the real him.  I wrote about how that failure taught me what it means to be a teacher and what it means to see, really see, my students.

I worked on that piece for the rest of the summer and throughout the following school year.  In the summer of 2009, The Writing Project sent me to a retreat in the spare desert of Arizona.  I took this piece out again, fine tuning it-adding a word here, deleting words there, restructuring paragraphs until it was finished.  Actually finished.  At that retreat I put on my big girl pants and some extra deodorant and showed it to an editor.  He encouraged me to submit it to a certain professional journal.

I did.

It was rejected.

Time and again it was rejected.

It was rejected enough times that I stopped submitting it and left it in a dark corner to mold or do whatever misfit pieces of writing do when abandoned.

Last year, the director of the Northern California Writing Project forwarded a call for submissions to me.  It was a call for teachers to tell their stories in an anthology.  I flipped through my writing samples and decided to send out that same piece one last time.  And if it wasn’t chosen, I’d retire it, sound in the knowledge that it had served its purpose, even if it never saw the light of day again.

You can imagine my shock when I received a letter back from the editors that my piece had been chosen.  Not only had it been chosen, but it would be the first story featured in the book.  I just about fainted.  I placed the letter in the place of honor-on my refrigerator, of course- and waited with anticipation for my story to make its debut.

Last week a package arrived in the mail.  I recognized the return address immediately and tore the brown envelope open.  And there it was-the book with my story.  I’d held that story in my heart for years and now I was holding it in my hands.  Not only that, but other teachers have held it in their hands and recognized their own experiences within mine.  The most exciting thing is that after reading my story and others featured in this book, teachers are putting pencil to paper and writing their own stories.  Stories of the student they will never forget.  Stories they think about in the still minutes of sleepless nights.

When I lay in bed at night, cloaked in the quiet of my own house, I think of this little boy who taught me about what it means to really see my students.  I pull the covers under my chin and I fall back asleep, grateful that after all these years his story is finally being seen.

Thankful Thursday #68

image courtesy of searchfortheresolution.com

This week I’m thankful for…

  • when my hubby says those magical words, “Want half of my candy?” Swoon.
  • riding my bike in shorts and short sleeves
  • my spin instructor who revived the Heavy Metal Monday playlist just for me
  • golden California poppies in bloom
  • going to the movies on a school night
  • the scent of storm just before it rolls in
  • hearing a Holocaust survivor speak on forgiveness and the importance of giving of oneself
  • the joy of watching one of my little ones lose her first tooth
  • picking places out in my copy of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die
  • brinner

I’m Going to Uganda. Wait, WHAT???

Yes, dear reader, you read the title correctly.  I’m going to Uganda.  Little old me in big, beautiful Uganda.  I can hardly sit still typing those words.

In June I’ll be spending a month in Gulu, Uganda volunteering at a school populated by orphans, former child soldiers and other children in need who possess leadership potential.

Back in December, I felt God stirring me to make use of my summer in a new way.  Usually I have a big bike adventure, raising money for LiveStrong or some other worthy cause, but this summer I’m taking on a whole different kind of adventure.  After watching a video about two regular guys  who built an entire brick school out of dirt, I knew I wanted to be part of the work happening in Northern Uganda.

But what did I have to offer?  I’m not a foreman or an architect who can create a school.  Trust me, you do not want children occupying a school built by me!

I’ve got three skills.  I teach.  I write.  I ride my bike really far, albeit very slowly.  Really, I’ve only got two and a half skills at best.  Apparently that’s enough because an idea began to take form in my mind and heart.

What if I ventured to Uganda and helped the students write their stories?  What if I published their stories in a book, with all of the proceeds of book sales going back to the school?

All of a sudden it felt like all my summers with the Northern California Writing Project learning to teach children to love writing were coming to a pinnacle at that very moment. I could use my heart for writing with kids to help these children write their own stories.  With a pounding heart and trembling fingers, I emailed my idea to an organization working in Uganda.

Then I waited to hear back from them.  I waited to feel confirmation from God that this was what I was meant to do.  And then I waited some more.  I waited for weeks.

I didn’t hear a thing.

Then it struck me, chances are if I wasn’t hearing God, it wasn’t because he wasn’t speaking-it was because I wasn’t listening.

So I did a daring thing.

I turned off my television for 10 days.

I know it doesn’t sound very daring, but for me it was.  I decided that for 10 days, I would actively pray and listen for direction.  In the third day of my fast from television, the organization emailed me back.  They loved my project idea and specifically wanted me to work with students in Gulu.  I was thrilled and began to plan the details of my project and trip.

Since that time, Northern Uganda and the Ugandan children have received a lot of press about the oppression inflicted by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.  In a time when many people are voicing opinions about the turmoil in Uganda, I know that now is the right time for me to go and help give voice to the stories of the students there, to let their stories speak for themselves.

Reversal of Fortune

Yesterday I managed to crack my own Top 5 Most Embarrassing Moments.  And that’s saying something.

I’ve given it some thought, and I can say with assurance that what happened to me yesterday was more embarrassing than cutting myself out of a velvet party dress.

More embarrassing than walking around a cruise ship for a day with a gaping hole in the seat of my pants.

And yes, it was even more embarrassing, albeit less terrifying, than having a bird mistake my hair for a nest.

Yet, is was less embarrassing than accidentally calling the Personnel Director “bitch” while I was inquiring about the possibility of a job.

Yes, I do believe yesterday’s, uh, episode has landed squarely in the #2 spot of Most Embarrassing Moments

It all began in my classroom, which is currently serving as a dragonfly nymph nursery and has a pungent, swampy smell.  I’m sensitive to smells and so when my stomach felt a little unsettled, I chalked it up to the funk and cracked my back door open for a little fresh air.  I felt much better and worked for another hour or so.

After school I stopped by the pet store to pick up some dragonfly supplies.  The smell of pet stores always makes me a little nauseated and so I thought nothing of it when my stomach gurgled.  I quickly paid for my items, declining the plastic bag offered by the clerk, and shoving the items in my purse as I rushed out the door for some air.

I was just coming around to the driver’s side of my car when my stomach dropped and twisted sharply.  I looked around for a nearby trashcan.  Why didn’t I just take that plastic bag?  Before I could hobble over to the trash can, I felt a revolution rising in my stomach.  I gripped my purse with one hand and the side of the car with the other.  Home was only 5 minutes away.  No way am I going to make it.  And no way am I going to puke inside my car.

And I made the decision then and there to let fly in the parking lot.  Or rather my stomach made it for me.  It’s what competitive eaters call a “reversal of fortune”.  And I was reversing all over the parking lot.

A man with a lap dog was on his way into the pet store.  When he saw me, instead of looking the other direction, he started walking toward me.  Chivalry is alive and well.  That’s what ran through my mind while gasping for  breath and wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.  He patted me on the back.  Incidentally the only thing that makes my stomach turn more violently when I’m puking is having someone touch me.  But this stranger was going out of his way to be nice and so I tried to quell the heat churning in my belly.

“Morning sickness is the worst,” the man said, shaking his head.  Wait, what???

“What?” I said gulping air.

“Morning sickness is the worst.  My wife was sick for three months straight.”

Dear reader, let me pause for a moment and catch you up to speed.  I AM NOT PREGNANT.  I have never been pregnant.  In fact I will never be pregnant.  Apparently I look pregnant, which is just about the worst information to find out while blowing chunks for a public audience.

Believe it or not, that’s when things got worse.

I started to cry.

I turned a deep, radish red.  I was SO humiliated.

And continued to puke, narrowly missing his dog.  I should have aimed better.  There I was: a puking, sweating, crying mess in the parking lot.

I stopped heaving for a moment and the man said something like, “I’ll go inside and get you some paper towels.”  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure that’s what he said.

My embarrassment was too loud.

The second he set foot inside the store, I jumped in my car and sped away, leaving a black tire mark next to my other offerings.  Back at home I had an encore performance and topped it all off with one more crying jag.

While recuperating and setting up my post as Couch Captain, I ruminated on a few lessons from this incident.

  1. Listen to my gut.  Especially when it’s making noises that can only be from the pit of hell.
  2. Men, this one is especially for you.  The only time is it ever okay to assume a woman is pregnant is if you are in the same room actually watching her physically give birth.
  3. This last one is more of a practical tidbit for me to keep in mind should I find myself in this situation again.  Aim better.  Aim for the dog.  No, not that one.  The one who somehow managed to add insult to injury by inadvertantly calling me fat.

Here’s hoping you have a weekend full of good fortune, dear reader, and none of it in reverse.

Dear Every Cyclist

Dear Every Cyclist,

You delight me, absolutely delight me.  I’d kiss you all on the mouth give you all a nice hearty pat on the back if I could.

Yesterday That Laura and I went for a flat spin along the beautiful Keswick Reservoir.  It was to be a short ride, a ride just for the pure joy of riding.  It was a thing of beauty.  The sky was blue, mirrored by the water.  We set off in shorts and short-sleeved jerseys.

image courtesy of happehtheory.com

About five miles from the end of the ride, Laura rode over a freakishly pointy rock that bit into her rear tire.  The tire fizzled out and we pulled to the side to change the tube, meaning That Laura replaced the tube while I held stuff for her and said “Good job!”.  I am excellent at holding stuff.

Here’s the part where you come into the story, Every Cyclist.  Every single one of you who pedaled by asked if we had everything we needed.

We did.

Many of you also asked if we needed help.

We didn’t.

But darn it all, Every Cyclist, if you didn’t make my heart grow two sizes that day.  You are the best of humanity, I’m sure of it.  Offering to help is a foundational tenet of the Sacred Cyclist’s Code.  Every Cyclist, it’s with a big smile that I say you did our sport proud yesterday.

I look forward to returning the favor.

Thankful Thursday #67

Image courtesy of audneal.typepad.com

This week I’m thankful for…

  • the little girl sitting one row ahead of me on the plane and singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.  You made my day, little one.  Twinkle on.
  • sleeping in my own bed
  • reading in bed
  • the 90-year-old woman celebrating her birthday at the Kings v. Clippers game.  They showed her on the big screen and I was simultaneously filled with joy and pangs of grief for my grandmother.
  • carefully trying to pour ladybugs into habitats only to have them creep out in a mass invasion.  You should’ve heard the squeals and giggles coming from my little ones as ladybugs crawled all over my arms, legs and hair.  We eventually got them settled into their habitats on our desks, but we’re still finding rogue ladybugs around the room.
  • dragonfly season in my classroom
  • local theater
  • Easter morning


An Open Letter to an Uninvited Chin Hair

Dear Uninvited Chin Hair,

Just who do you think you are showing up as I wiped grains of sleep from my eyes and stared blearily into the bathroom mirror?  At first I thought you were an errant head hair that somehow landed underneath my chin in the middle of the night, but no, when I went to brush you away, you stayed there in all your black, curly horror.

How long have you been sneaking along underneath there, coiling underneath my chin until you reached a full centimeter or two in length?  Surely you didn’t grow that much overnight.  Just how many days have I unknowingly been The Bearded Lady?

Image by Bridgette at brigetteb.blogspot.com

Admittedly, an apology on my part is in order for the profane names I spewed at you as I tried in vain to remove you.  In my defense you were a tenacious little sucker, claiming your turf through two tweezing attempts and only finally giving way on my third and final tweezing.

Sadly, Evil Chin Hair, I am well acquainted with unwanted facial hair including an errant head hair that springs out of my right eyebrow.  Chin Hair, I am not one to be trifled with.  I will bust out the wax and demolish you and any of your unsuspecting cousins who just so happen to be innocently meandering between my chins.  So you tell ’em I’m coming and hell’s coming with me!

Sorry, I watched Tombstone the other day and have a tendency to get a little carried away.

The point, Chin Hair, is that I’m standing tiptoe on the edge of 35 and I just can’t be sprouting unwanted patches of hair for at least another ten years.  So kindly pack up your follicles and leave at your earliest convenience.  Meanwhile, I’ll be stocking up on waxed strips and keeping vigil against your nefarious sneak attacks.

Sincerely,

Your Huckleberry