Where my hope comes from

For the past ten days, my mind has been everywhere and nowhere. Sometimes I can barely keep thoughts in my head; driving I-75 today I blinked and was suddenly aware that I had traveled miles without really thinking. I’ve spoken to dozens of people and promised phone calls and emails, but unless I get reminders I’ll forget to make those calls or send those emails. I’m not really even capable of doing my favorite things… reading has been tough because I can’t concentrate on the words and I’m having a tough time putting even these words to paper.

At the same time, I’ve been doing a lot of doing. I’ve worked, gone to church, washed clothes, attended bible study, visited Cari’s school for open house, and registered Cari for soccer—all because life has to go on, even though my heart is broken.

My dad died on Wednesday, September 3, after a long battle with COPD.

We had spent the Saturday before together; Stu and I took Cari to see my mom and dad for swimming and a barbeque in honor of the Labor Day weekend. We got to their house in time to watch Virginia play a terrific game against UCLA (my dad even tolerated watching UVA because Louisville wasn’t on). We had a great time playing in the pool, I got some pictures of Cari with my dad, and we ate my favorite meal before we packed up the leftovers to come home.

By Monday, my dad wasn’t feeling well, so he and Mom called hospice for some additional medications. When he wasn’t feeling better by Tuesday, the hospice nurses decided he needed to be transported to the hospice center. I was in pretty regular contact with both my mom and dad on Tuesday, even getting on my dad’s case a little for not advocating for himself. Even though Dad tried to keep our conversation light, I sensed that this visit to the hospice center was different. I found myself crying over dinner with my husband, who seemed to know better what was ahead than I did. We prayed that the end of my dad’s life would be painless, that he wouldn’t suffer, wouldn’t gasp his last breaths, but we had no idea that it would be so soon.

I texted my mom on Wednesday, but didn’t get any response until I spoke to her at about one in the afternoon. She told me then that I needed to get to the hospice center. When I spoke to her again, at about two, she told me that Dad was gone. The nurses had given him some medicine to help him breathe easier, and he had died comfortably in his sleep.

The moment that my mom told me that my dad was gone was one of the hardest moments in my life. Instantly, heavily, I wept. I wept for the pain of losing my dad, for the heartbreak my mom was feeling, for the misery of being an hour away from my mom and knowing she was alone. I remember tearfully apologizing to my mom that we couldn’t be there sooner, that she was alone to deal with the first moments of her own grief.

But in the very next moment, I cried out to my Lord. And I saw the beautiful way that my precious savior had been orchestrating my life, knowing that I would face that moment.

I’ve never considered myself to be someone who was great at her faith. Frankly, my life isn’t very hard. I have a great husband, a beautiful, healthy daughter, a job, a home, and very little to really worry about. Of course there have been challenges, but I can’t recall a time when I’ve seen God reveal himself so powerfully while simultaneously providing intense comfort.

In those first 30 minutes after learning that my dad had died, I understood why I needed to give up teaching AP English this year, why I was only teaching two classes, why I needed to withdraw my name from an opportunity that would take me away from Hudson. God protected me from the stress and pressure I would have felt to endure this loss while trying to impact my students as little as possible. God ensured that I would be surrounded by friends at school who would do anything to help me.

Sometimes it is easy for me to do life by myself, to relegate God to prayer time in the car before work. But even though I’m trying to hang on to control of my own life—desperately but futilely—that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have the control. He’s been beside me the whole time, and I imagine that he has been patiently waiting to reveal this truth: that I would find myself desperately out of control, but that He would protect me.

I cannot imagine how anyone endures this kind of loss without knowing Jesus. I am sad, heavy-hearted, and lonely for my biggest cheerleader, but I have hope because I know Jesus and know that my dad recommitted his life to Jesus in the months before his death. I have hope because even as my illusion of control was shattered, I learned that God would catch me. I have hope because I can see that God has ordained everything in my life, and even though sometimes things are painful, I am able to bring honor to Him. That is my prayer now… that God would find a way to use this sadness to bring honor to Himself, and that I would somehow be able to help someone else who feels this pain.

So as I grieve and heal over the next few days, weeks, and months, I have the comfort of knowing that my God is beside me, and that my dad is in Heaven, finally able to breathe free. I pray that those who are suffering from the loss of my dad can feel this comfort, too.

To my friends and family who are reading this, I say thank you. I’ve seen such an overwhelming outpouring of love in the last two weeks. I have had so many texts and messages that I haven’t been able to keep up with responding. Sweet (and tolerant) friends have helped with Cari with less than an hour’s notice. A great friend joined me for a pedicure and lots of laughs. My boss has been so patient with me not being my normal, hard working and kinda crazy self. Old, dear friends have called and messaged with sweet memories of my dad. Church friends made the drive all the way to Brandon to support me at Dad’s funeral, eating pimento cheese sandwiches and making me laugh. One of my mom’s oldest friends started a random dance party with Cari and me this afternoon. Plus, my sweet husband has done just about everything to make this easier for me; from making sure I eat to making sure the flowers were beautiful. Saying goodbye to my dad has been easier because I’ve felt so much love. Thank you all.


Unexpected encounter, part IV

Many, many thanks to my friend Chayil for encouraging me to write this week in the middle of summer insanity.  I’m not sure how everyone else manages family, home, kids, church, AND work, but Stu and I don’t do a very good job.  While we’re working, school is all-consuming.  As a result, other things don’t get done.  I’m currently buried by endless laundry in a house that I would be embarrassed to host visitors in… even a month after school got out for the summer.  I could use work as an excuse, but the fact is that when we come home, we want to do just about ANYTHING but clean our house.  So we put it off and put it off until summer comes and we can’t stand being at home.  Plus we’ve been traveling for work (me to Jacksonville for an AP Summer Institute and Stu to Sarasota for yearbook camp) and doing other projects… so that’s summer insanity.  I could have been doing a million other things… writing curriculum, scouring websites for AP resources, sorting laundry, folding socks, or sleeping (it is 1 am after all), but I’m writing.  And I’m thrilled about it.

So here’s a continuation of Zara’s story.  Catch up on it here, here, and here.  And thanks for visiting!

Once everyone had plates piled with pasta, salad, and bread, the three dinner companions fell silent to enjoy the meal.  For Zara, she took the few moments of quiet to think about her realization about Jack.  What did it mean that he was jealous of Steve?  This wasn’t her first date; in college she had dated regularly, but not for any extended period of time.  Only after college had she dated seriously; she had been with Matt for three years before a transfer took him to San Francisco and ended their relationship.  Jack had been a good friend to Matt and they often spent evenings together.  Occasionally Matt and Zara would serve as dating buffers for him; Jack would prearrange to bring his newest lady friend along with him to dinner with Matt and Zara, and they would help Jack make decisions about whether or not he should see them again.  In fact, Jack had initiated a relationship with Mary, the girl Zara was sure he would marry, at a meal with Matt and Zara.  Mary was beautiful, successful, and so calm in dealing with Jack.  Zara’s only complaint was that Mary never seemed eager to form a relationship with her; in the years that Jack and Mary dated, Zara was only, at best, an acquaintance to her.  But that relationship had ended almost a year ago, without drama or any swell of emotion from Jack as far as Zara could tell, and Jack had picked up where he left off, dating women, introducing them to Zara for her approval, but never taking anyone very seriously.

“So, Steve, how was your day?” Zara asked, suddenly aware of the direction of her thoughts.  She would not allow Jack to dominate this meal, whether he meant to or not.

Steve beamed at this opening.  “Well, I spent most of the morning managing a large claim from an important client.  Evidently, a fire caused significant damage to one of this company’s major manufacturing operations.  But I was able to provide significant comfort in a difficult time.  Normally, I don’t work with clients,” Steve smiled to himself a little, but Zara could tell he was holding back.  “But I’ve had some encouragement from the department manager to get my feet wet in customer relations.”

Steve fixed a bright, expectant look at Zara then.  “Oh, that’s really great, Steve,” Zara smiled, but wasn’t quite sure what this meant.

“I think what Steve is trying to tell you is that a manager is looking to diversify his role within the company, perhaps move him to account management, which would require significant customer contact,” Jack interjected.  Zara frowned.  “Is that about right, Steve?”

“Oh yes,” Steve responded, a slight frown wrinkling his forehead.  “I didn’t realize there was confusion.”

“It’s just that I didn’t know you were interested in working more closely with customers.  You told me you were proudly just a numbers man,” Zara persisted.  For some reason, this news rankled her.

“Well, I am,” Steve frowned more deeply now, “but as I work with customers, my own standing with the company will improve.  This really is good news, Zara,” Steve smiled at her then looked to Jack, as if asking for his help.

“Of course.  If you’re happy, I’m happy for you.  But I don’t know how you could fit more into your already very busy work schedule.”  Zara smiled as she uttered the last, but was really concerned.  Steve was already consumed by work; she could guess what this development would mean.  Jack seemed to sense her frustration.

“Steve, does your work give you much time for relaxation?  For leisure?” Jack asked, jumping at the opening.  “You must work 80 hours a week as it is!”  Steve beamed at the compliment.

“Well, no actually.  I’m very lucky that the office provides a gym space for employees or I fear I wouldn’t get any exercise.  And if I continue to eat like this,” he smiled at Zara, “I would weigh 500 pounds!”

Zara’s nostrils suddenly flared as the cause of her discontent dawned on her: this man, who Zara had invested three weeks of her time, was casually congratulating himself on a work development that would make it nearly impossible to foster a relationship with her.

“I guess I’m lucky that you could spare time tonight,” Zara smiled, a saccharin smile that Steve didn’t recognize as such.

“A man’s got to eat,” Steve grinned, leaning toward Jack with an uncharacteristic eyebrow wiggle.  “But I’ve got a few hours of processing to be done tonight after dinner.”  Jack just smiled; Zara fumed.

“What about you, Jack? How did the law treat you today?” Steve couldn’t keep the goofy giddiness from his voice.

“I’m sure Zara has told you, but I work at a firm that specializes in business law.  However, I’m lucky enough that my practice encourages associates to participate in community service.  So I spent my day today offering pro bono legal advice through a program sponsored by my firm,” Jack never took his eyes off Steve.  “That’s why my day ran so late.  I never like to leave before everyone has been helped.  It makes for quite an interesting day, I’ll tell you.”

Zara knew how Jack spent his day.  He participated monthly, and more often when he was able.  He was always exhausted after these days, but to a certain extent, more joyful and full of life.  But for the second time tonight, she was forced to see Steve in light of Jack, and she wasn’t happy with what she saw.

The beauty of shells

I’m blogging today from the seventh floor balcony of the Lido Beach Resort in Sarasota, Florida, where Cari and I are enjoying a relaxing evening while Stu does yearbook stuff. His annual yearbook camp has been in Orlando for the last two summers, and while I love Orlando, and let’s face it, any hotel, I’m thrilled to be here. On the beach. I’ve spent a good deal of my time so far right here, listening to the waves and letting the sun relax some of my anxiety and stress away. I should be doing a million other things, but I am here, reflecting on a lovely afternoon.

We arrived here today at about 11 am and spent a good hour getting our students, members of the Cobra de Capello Yearbook Staff, settled while we waited for our room. We peaked a bit at the pool and the beach, but until Stu was off to begin his first session with the kids, Cari and I just puttered around the room. Almost as soon as he had closed the door, Cari insisted that I put on my bathing suit so we could go swimming. I wasn’t opposed; the pool is spacious and mostly deserted, and I’ve been reading a book that I was interested in putting a dent into. But that wasn’t meant to be, and I’m glad for it. My iPad mini overheated… it actually produced a warning message saying that it would wait until it was a proper temperature before becoming operation again, thank you very much. So I decided to play it safe and return both my iPad and my iPhone to the room. Being digitally dark, as they say, made for a fantastic afternoon with my daughter.

When I returned to the pool, Cari was ready to go shelling. While we were waiting for our room, Cari found a coupon book in registration that featured an article about the shells that can be found in this area. Well, that was enough for Cari. She saw those beautiful shells and knew that she wanted to spend at least part of the afternoon shelling. I wanted to warn her that shells are sometimes hard to find, but she didn’t seem to mind as we made our way to the beach only steps away from the pool. Almost instantly, she was crouched the over colorful bits that dotted the sand and was storing her treasures into her borrowed bucket. We walked for thirty minutes or so at a snail’s pace, both watching the water carefully for the snake eye shell she really wanted. But what she found was what was really remarkable. I’ve been collecting shells since before I was her age from Cocoa Beach, where my grandmother lived and I visited nearly every summer. Cari, too, has been collecting shells since she was old enough to carry a bucket for herself. But what really struck me was how different the shells she picked up were from mine. Cari fell in love with broad, white clam shells, and didn’t seem to care that she had collected a dozen; every time she spotted another she would exclaim excitedly and drop the prize into her bucket. I was much more selective: I sought after the more classic shape of the scallop shell or any pattern or texture that was different. When she found a “twisty” shell, even though it was completely broken, she was positively ecstatic. “Look how beautiful, Mom!” she told me.

I wonder when it came to be that my own appreciation of beauty changed so dramatically. Really, the shell was beautiful. It was worn but still maintained strongly some of the structure that made it stand apart. But to be philosophical, it represented much more; the water rushing around our feet, the sand between our toes, the warmth of the sun on our backs, and the precious moment that we shared holding hands as we walked back to the hotel. I wonder how often we miss those moments.

Happy Summer, all…  Thanks for coming back to read this, even though I’m two weeks behind!

Do you have any shell collecting stories?  Or am I the only person who gets philosophical at the beach?

How to change a life

This week marks the end of another school year, and I’m not sad.  It hasn’t been the greatest year of my career; I’ve grown immeasurably as a leader and a teacher, and I’ve gotten a clearer vision of what I want for myself in my future, but I’ve struggled with frustrations about the nature of my work, sometimes feeling stuck or downright discouraged when I felt like I cared a whole lot more than my kids.

It always seems that when I’m faced with these dark moments that I experience these flashes of brilliance and I’m reminded why I’m in education.  Because teachers really do change lives.  We don’t always know we’re doing it, and if we’re asked, we might say that we hadn’t made a difference for anyone.  But beyond what is expressed on all of the cheesy inspirational images on Facebook about all the good teachers do, we really do change lives.

Stu started teaching four years ago with a very challenging assignment: he was given two sections of Dropout Prevention (I’m not sure if that was the course title, but it was something like that) and three sections of English I.  Those were dark days for Stu.  I tried the best I could to help him (as much as he would allow) but he struggled to keep the interest of those students, to manage their behaviors, to connect with them and help them to achieve.  He tried to use techniques and strategies he had learned in his eduction courses and in his internship with gifted students at the middle school, but one strategy after another failed, and Stu was left to feel useless and stressed.  At the end of the year, he insisted that his schedule change because he had such a hard time with it.  Stu would never say that he made a difference for any of the kids in that class, but on Monday he received a note from a student he taught in English I that year.  She said: “I wanted to thank you personally for helping me enroll in honors and advanced classes, because without having done that I may not be going to USF now.”  Stu hadn’t been in contact with her at all in the years in between, but this student recognized that his involvement in her education changed the trajectory of her life.

Last week, I had visits from two of my favorite students (I know I’m not supposed to have favorites, but I can’t help it).  One student, Lauren, was in town to visit family before spending her summer working at an internship in DC and then heading off to NYU in August for law school.  I’m sorry, Lauren, if you’re reading this because I’m about to tell your story.  I taught Lauren as a freshman, sophomore, and senior in my first ever AP Literature class.  I knew she was something special from the day she walked into my classroom, and she has never proven me wrong.  Lauren was valedictorian of her senior class and attended Emory University where she did even more remarkable things.  I nearly peed my pants when Lauren announced that she had been accepted into Harvard Law School (cue Perfect Day lyrics here).  Ultimately, Lauren recently interviewed for, and earned, a very prestigious scholarship to NYU law school.  In fact, she interviewed in DC with Justice Clarence Thomas in his offices.  At the Supreme Court.  You know, because that’s normal.

Such a remarkable young woman seems like she can do all things on her own.  But Lauren has never let me forget how thankful she was to have had me for the majority of her English courses in high school.  I helped Lauren on her way (honestly though, she would have done brilliantly in anyone’s English classes; I’m just glad I was lucky enough to teach her).

It isn’t just teachers who make this kind of impact.  Our parents or children, our families and friends, our bosses or coworkers, our pastors, the random girl you speak to on a two-hour flight, all have the potential to make a difference.  If we let them.  And we have the potential to make a difference for anyone we come into contact with if we’re engaged enough to recognize the opportunity.

Unexpected encounter, part III

Here for the first time?  Read part I and part II before getting started here… and thanks for reading!

Steve was still rattling off statistics about Yale and its merits as Zara’s world shifted on its axis.  Jack?  She was suddenly intensely aware: of his presence, of the subtly angry cast of his face as he gathered a bottle of wine from her tiny collection on the counter, of the faint smell of his cologne, the same cologne he had been wearing since he graduated from high school.  It was a gift from her.

Oh dear, she thought to herself.  Jack wasn’t attending this little meal as a casual friend, a pest intent on disrupting her evening for fun.  He was jealous, and she was suddenly incensed.

For the first three years of their acquaintance, Jack had been a spectacularly platonic friend to Zara: they spent hours sitting on the concrete steps to her front door, perfecting the basketball spin between games of HORSE, they hiked through the woods behind their neighborhood, talking for hours and picking through muddy ditches.  But Jack spent the summer before his senior year lifeguarding at the beach near his grandmother’s house, and Zara took a job at the local Twistee Treat.  She was surrounded by gossiping girls, who quickly discovered that Zara’s best friend was the very tall, very handsome Jack Cooper, and Zara was suddenly forced to reckon with the fact that her best friend Jack was more than the goof ball who stole more than his share of popcorn at the movies or exploited his height advantage in basketball.  It made her nervous, unnervingly so, to even speak to him on the phone.  She steadily built a crush on Jack while he was 100 miles from home, convincing herself that he would come home in August and fall desperately in love with her.  Unfortunately, the reality was less pleasant; in the small town where he spent the summer, Jack became a hot commodity, and he came home with a serious tan, muscles honed from the outdoor work, and a girlfriend named Amelia.

Their reunion was one of Zara’s most uncomfortable memories.  He called to tell her he was back in town and asked if he could come by Twistee Treat that evening for an ice cream.  Zara, who didn’t know anything of Amelia, complied instantly with his plan, and spent the two hours before her shift primping in front of the mirror, blowing her hair until it fell smooth into soft waves down her back, applying unfamiliar black eye liner and mascara, and obsessing about what to say to her best friend.  She even rehearsed a few flirtatious lines she heard her coworkers use on the hopeless boys who made the shop their summer hangout.  Zara even practiced laughing demurely at the mirror.  The rest of this story is pretty obvious: Zara worked nervously until nine when she caught a glimpse of Jack through the tiny glass window, her smile huge until she followed his hand, which was pulling Amelia behind him.  The only consolation to her heartbreak was that Zara never revealed her crush on Jack to any of the gossiping girls at the Twistee Treat.

“Hey Z,” he had said when he sidled up to the window, “Since when do you wear eye liner?”

And in that moment, Zara schooled her expression as he introduced Amelia, a tall, very buxom blonde with a beautiful tan.  They had met lifeguarding.

From that summer night, Zara decided that it would be best for her if she protected her heart from Jack.  So his sudden and inconvenient jealousy was wholly unfair to her and Steve and whatever they had started at the coffee shop three weeks before.

Zara stiffened and bristled as Jack moved away from her, snatching potholders carelessly to drain the pasta, and burning her finger in the process.  When she snatched her hands away from the offending implement, Jack relieved her of her potholders and carefully took over the task.

“I’m sure Steve doesn’t want to waste this evening at the emergency room, Z.  Be more careful,” Jack said, smiling at Steve where he still stood at the edge of the counter.

“Uh, yes.  Zara, please be more careful.  Kitchen incidents are responsible for a significant number of insurance claims, after all,” Steve said solemnly.  Zara couldn’t help but roll her eyes.

Finally, dinner was ready.  Zara poured the drained pasta into a massive serving bowl, and then poured her famous sauce over the whole, arranging meatballs artfully on top.  Jack arranged Zara’s garlic bread into a basket.  Steve, who finally seemed spurred to action by both Zara and Jack finding their way to Zara’s living room laden with some dinner necessity, found Zara’s impressive cheese grinder and followed.  Zara placed the massive bowl of pasta into the center of her square coffee table with a flourish, sat cross-legged on the floor across from the couch, and made quick work of serving herself some spaghetti.  Jack toed off his loafers and slid to the floor as well, loosening his tie before serving himself some salad.  Neither paid Steve any attention as he seemed to battle internally with proper etiquette for the situation: both his host and her other guest had made themselves comfortable on the floor, but that was not where he would be most comfortable.  Ultimately, he decided to follow Jack’s lead, and after removing his shoes, he sat on the floor beside Zara.

“Can I serve you some spaghetti, Steve?” Zara asked amiably, suddenly certain that the only course to take was to ignore Jack and his jealously as much as possible.

“Please,” answered Steve, who still seemed quite unsure of how to handle this strange meal.

An open letter to my students, on your graduation day

My Facebook feed has shown little other than caps and gowns in the last month.  Many, many former students graduated from college in the last few weeks, and today many Cobras will become alumni.

Let’s face it: this year has been interesting.  New expectations of teachers in our school district — that we work in professional learning communities, that we align our teaching to the Common Core standards, that we demonstrate effective teaching through observations — well, your teachers have been more stressed than normal this year.  And you all know how well I deal with stress.  I was out so many days for various professional development activities, all with the hope that I would be a better teacher as a result; that seemed a bit counterintuitive, hm?

I’ve taught so many types of students this year.  Some of you made me nuts from the first day of school, challenging every word that came out of my mouth.  I managed to make some (many?) of you cry.  I’ve had near shouting matches with some of you in the hallway outside of my classroom.  Some of you hate me (although, I don’t think that those of you who hate me will actually read this).  Some of you don’t think I’m not worth listening to, while some of you think too highly of me.

You are a resilient, determined, snarky, spirited group.  Some of you have experienced more pain in 18 years than I have in 35.  Some of you are gifted, as thinkers, writers, or workers, above anything that I’m capable of.  Some of you make me want to cry for all the growth I’ve seen in the last four years.  You make me want to work harder and be better for you.

To the class of 2014, I couldn’t be more proud to have taught you.  Thank you for a year that caused me to grow, professionally and personally, above anything I could have expected.  Thank you for challenging me to be a better teacher.  Thank you for your words of encouragement.  Thank you for working hard.

Unexpected encounter, part II

Wow, I’m having fun thinking about Zara, Jack, and Steve.  But this story is already bigger than I intended.  Read ahead for Part II…  and if you have any ideas for a better title than “Unexpected Encounter,” please let me know in the comments!

Read the beginning of Zara’s story here.

Zara had met Steve Kaufman, predictably, at her favorite bookstore, where she was grading papers one Friday evening.  She had ordered a black coffee from the friendly barista, but managed to pick up his latte instead.  His sputtering upon taking a hearty gulp of her coffee when he expected the much more mild latte and the ensuing confusion had all the makings of a meet-cute, but his restraint prevented anything more than a few shared words over the mishap.  Steve was cute in an absentminded professor sort of way, and Zara offered a few attempts at conversation, but he went about scolding the barista for her mistake and requesting another latte.  At his apparent disinterest, Zara shrugged her shoulders and waited patiently for another cup of coffee before returning to her papers.  A solid 10 minutes later, Steve seemed to remember himself, finally approaching her and striking up a conversation.  He even apologized to her and the barista for being so short, and Zara was persuaded to give him her phone number as he arranged to take her to lunch that Sunday.  That had been three weeks ago.

Before she could open the door herself, Jack stepped quickly to the entryway and opened the door for her guest.  Just as Steve hadn’t really seemed to notice anything of Zara’s appearance in their earlier meetings, Zara didn’t really notice how Steve looked until she saw him in contrast to Jack.  Steve, too, had just come from work, but his long day didn’t really seem to agree with him.  He wore a pair of subtly shiny taupe slacks, which she supposed would be pretty luxurious if they weren’t paired with a brown crew neck sweater.  He wore his brown, curly hair long on top, which, paired with his dark framed glasses, gave him an impossibly youthful look.  Steve looked completely perplexed to find Jack at the door, and looked down at the index card he held in his hand as if to confirm that Jack was in the wrong place.

“You must be Steve,” Jack began, solicitously.  “I’m Zara’s best friend, Jack.  I hope you’ll forgive me crashing your dinner.”  Jack moved to the side, allowing Steve to pass, but didn’t offer any explanation for his presence.

“Of course,” Steve began, his deep voice confused but untroubled, “Zara has told me a lot about you.”  This information caused Jack to grin blindingly, giving Zara a meaningful look from across the alcove.

“Hello, Steve,” Zara began, and leaned in to give Steve a peck on the cheek.  Jack’s grin faded instantly.  “Yes, Jack conveniently ignored the fact that I had a dinner guest tonight and showed up unannounced.  I can kick him out if you like,” she said, and frowned lightly when he shook his head.

“No, no.  That won’t be necessary,” he said as he looked around her apartment.  There was only interest in his eyes, and she was glad for it.  Her tiny one bedroom apartment wasn’t much, but it was home.  In a way, this was a test.  If Steve was going to be a snob about her place, she would rethink spending time with him.  Jack closed the door and found his way back to his usual spot at the bar and an uncomfortable realization struck.  She didn’t have any place for three people to share a meal; she didn’t have a dining room table.  With a resigned shrug of the shoulders, she realized they would be huddling around her coffee table to eat their spaghetti and salad.

“So Steve, tell me about yourself.  What do you do for a living?” Jack began amiably.

Steve blinked a little at the direct question, but looked Jack in the face.  “I work as an accountant for an insurance firm here in the city,” he answered steadily, almost flatly, without elaborating further.  He stood, looking vaguely uncomfortable, at the edge of the counter with his hands pushed into his pockets.

“I’ll just start the pasta,” Zara interjected, suddenly uncomfortable.  “I’m afraid we’ll have to eat in the living room, gentlemen.”  At her words, Jack started gathering plates and silverware to take into the living room, but Steve stood fast.

“I hope you’ve had a chance to read the article I emailed earlier this week, Zara,” Steve began, as if he was aware that he needed to make some conversation.

“Yes,” Zara’s response came, clipped.  “Why else do you think I invited you over to dinner tonight?”

“What article?” Jack asked, amused by Zara’s tone.

“In my field, I am regularly reminded of how very important it is to be wise about our spending.  I shared with Zara an article from the New York Times about how twenty somethings are notoriously reckless about their spending habits,” Steve responded with more vigor than he’d managed since he got there.  Jack barked out a laugh.

“Yes, it is very important that we are wise about our spending, isn’t it Zara?  Some of us don’t have lucrative careers, do we?” Jack’s pointed stare made Zara’s blood boil.

“As it happens, I agree with the points made.  I am a teacher, after all, and I shouldn’t be frivolous,” Zara’s concession, even though it was made to silence Jack, still set her teeth on edge.

“It isn’t only about income, Zara,” Steve cautioned.  “I am so lucky as to have secured a comfortable living, but I am constantly reminded that I should be more frugal.”  Jack smiled to himself, but sensing Zara’s discomfort, he changed the subject.

“Where did you go to school?  You must have a very impressive education if you’ve been so lucky to secure such a great job,” Jack asked.

“I graduated from Yale, and you’ll never know a finer institution,” Steve declared boldly, but suddenly remembering himself, he added, “Of course, the University of Virginia is a very respectable regional institution.”  At that, Jack’s smile faltered somewhat, but he gritted his teeth.

“When is that pasta going to be done, Z?” Zara, for her part, had been quiet for this brief exchange, and she smiled at Jack’s discomfort.  Jack was a proud Wahoo and would take any insult to his alma mater very personally.  But he had insisted upon these games by coming to her apartment tonight and provoking Steve, so she fought a smile.

“In just a few minutes.  Steve, why don’t you tell Jack about Yale’s admissions numbers?  Jack, Steve is a generous benefactor of the university.” With that encouragement, as Steve started rattling off statistics about the most recent class of students admitted into Yale, their high school GPAs, their SAT scores, their remarkable achievements, Zara turned away and barely concealed her laugh.  He deserved it, she thought.  But she stopped short when Jack pressed against her with the pretense of reaching over her head for another glass and whispered low into her ear.

“You’ll pay for that,” he warned.

Unexpected encounter

This is a departure from the writing I’ve done here so far.  I’ve done a whole lot of writing ABOUT myself, but today I hope you’ll indulge me as I do a little writing FOR myself.  I love fiction, and in my reading over the past few months, I’ve been struck with the desire to write more of that… making up stories and helping characters to come to life.

So here is the beginning of a short story about a woman who begins an evening expecting to entertain one date, but who finds herself caught between two.  When I took part in the Tampa Bay Area Writer’s Project a few years back, my instructors told me to stop prefacing my work, so without further ado…

“Just a minute, I’ll be right there!” shouted Zara over her shoulder toward the front door of her apartment.  “He’s thirty minutes early,” she grumbled to herself as she pulled the comb through her still wet hair.

Zara gave herself a brief glance into the mirror before leaving her bedroom.  Her wavy brown hair dangled limply around her shoulders, her face was washed clean of makeup that she hadn’t had time to reapply.  But her skin was smooth and porcelain, her blue eyes bright and darkly lashed.  Briefly she was tempted to apply a little lip-gloss, but shook her head to herself.  Steve wasn’t picky.  In their three dates he hadn’t once made a comment about her appearance.  Perhaps a low maintenance guy was exactly what she needed.  Her favorite, well-loved jeans and a classic gray t-shirt would have to do.

A sharp knock sounded again.  It wasn’t like Steve to be so impatient.  She rolled her eyes to herself as she made her way to the door.

“Hey gorgeous,” the completely unexpected visitor drawled when she opened the door.  He swept into the room, pulling her into his arms and lowering his nose deliberately to the top of her still damp head, taking a deep breath.  “Z, I love your shampoo.”

“Jack, what on earth are you doing here?” Zara couldn’t keep the irritation out of her voice.  When they had spoken earlier in the day, she made it clear that she wasn’t available that night, that she was making Steve her famous cooks-all-day spaghetti and meatballs.  But her best friend was often hard headed, and hard of hearing.  Or that’s what he would like to pretend, especially when she told him what he didn’t want to hear.

“I’ve come to visit my favorite girl in the world, of course,” Jack beamed, and Zara relented; she couldn’t resist his charm.  Grinning, she looped her arm around his waist and led him into the kitchen where he promptly claimed his usual spot at her counter.  He was still wearing his work clothes, dark gray, perfectly tailored slacks, a crisp white Oxford, and a slim argyle tie.  For someone who had just wrapped a nearly 12-hour day, Jack looked impossibly fresh.

“Well, my friend, you have about 30 minutes before you’re going to have to make yourself scarce.  I’m making Steve dinner tonight.”  She pulled her enormous pasta pot from under the counter, and turning away from him, Zara started filling it with water.  At that mention of spaghetti, Jack took a deep breath.

“That must be why I couldn’t resist coming over.  I’m a sucker for your sauce,” he grinned, leaning over the counter for the wooden spoon she’d left there, snatching the top off of her slow cooker, and stirring the sauce before sneaking a taste.

“Stop that!” Zara scolded as she turned around to catch Jack with a mouth filled with her wooden spoon.  He at least had the grace to appear repentant, but Zara had to reach over the counter to wipe away a spot of sauce that was caught at the corner of his mouth.  It was unexpectedly intimate; Jack coughed a little and the moment was broken.

“I thought I’d stick around for dinner, meet this Steve,” Jack said dismissively.  When Zara opened her mouth to object, he smoothly continued.  “You’re not going to wear that, are you?  What about your makeup?  This is a date, after all.”  His distraction technique worked.

“I think it’s refreshing that I don’t need to worry about what Steve thinks about how I look,” Zara said, but even to her own ears the excuse seemed thin.  “Besides, I just got home from work and I haven’t had a chance to do anything more than shower.”

“Well then, it’s good I’m here.  I can finish up the salad and bread while you finish getting ready,” Jack said, stepping off his perch at the counter and gently leading her toward her room.

“Oh fine,” Zara said, almost to herself as she walked into her room, suddenly grateful for a few more minutes to herself before Steve’s arrival.  She would have to deal with Jack’s inconvenient visit before Steve arrived, but she was too grateful to have a little help that she was willing to overlook it, for the moment.

This is pretty typical Jack behavior, and to be honest, Zara should have known to avoid mentioning her spaghetti to him.  But they had been best friends for years, since meeting for the first time when she was a brand new student at their high school.  She walked into her first period class, hopelessly tentative, a recent transplant from Suffolk, England, and froze, completely shaken by the dozens of pairs of eyes that landed on her instantly.  Jack walked in behind her, towering over her even then, as a sophomore in high school, and warmly greeted her.  “You must be new here.  My name is Jack.  Come over here and sit by me.”  And that was it.  They were fast friends, and as it turned out, lasting friends.  When Jack graduated from high school and left for the University of Virginia, Zara followed a year later.  When Jack was admitted to law school at Georgetown University, Zara followed a year later, accepting a teaching position in suburban northern Virginia.  He teased his shadow endlessly, but Zara didn’t complain.  She loved being close to him, even when it meant her date nights would be interrupted.

At her vanity, Zara suddenly wasn’t terribly interested in fixing herself up, but dutifully she applied blush, a swipe of eyeliner, and the subtlest lipstick she could find.  Then she went to her closet to replace her gray t-shirt with a royal blue sweater that revealed more of her shape.  After scrunching her waves artfully, Zara rejoined Jack in the kitchen, where he was layering vegetables in a serving bowl.  His eyes fell on her, and she stopped, turning briefly as if to get his approval.  All of his earlier levity was gone; his gaze was more serious than any he’d had all evening.

“That’s better,” he said gruffly.  “And dinner is nearly ready.  You just need to drop the pasta when this Steve gets here.”  Jack wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Well, thanks so much for your help, Jack,” Zara attempted.  She bustled into the kitchen to take over washing the cutting board in the sink, but Jack wasn’t having it.

“Oh no, you’re not getting rid of me, friend.  I said I wanted to meet this Steve, so I’m going to meet Steve.  Plus, you have to feed me.”

Just as Zara opened her mouth to protest in earnest, a gentle buzz began at the door.  Steve was right on time.

I’ll write more about Zara and Jack (and Steve) next week!


Getting an education

In 2006, when Stu started working on his undergrad again at PHCC and I started at Saint Leo, I had a sort of vague idea that I might, one day, want to leave the classroom to become an administrator.  I was brand new at Hudson, only teaching my second semester of classes when I was applying for graduate school.  I barely knew what it meant to be an administrator, but I probably thought I could do it easily.  I remember seeing my peers taking the classes and completing the projects required of the masters program, thinking that I could very successfully do the work they were being assigned.  So I entered the Masters in Education Leadership program at Saint Leo University.

I kept pace with Stu; as he was toiling away at the tedious prerequisites in math and science, I was taking one class at a time.  When he transferred his credits to Saint Leo, and started his Bachelors in Education program in earnest, driving to Saint Leo two or three nights a week on top of a full-time job and homework for several online classes, I plodded along as well, taking more classes online so I wasn’t out of the house any more than necessary.  We had Cari, after all, and she was still in daycare.

For those who knew us then, our family must have looked very scholarly, as if this intellectual pursuit was something so noble and pure.  We would stay after hours at school to complete our school assignments before picking up Cari.  Then I would take Cari home while Stu drove to Saint Leo for his three-hour classes, and I would grade papers at the kitchen table while Cari hung out in the other room.  Stu would finish up classes and nearly fall asleep on the long drive home along 52 because there isn’t anything to look at on 52 except cows and trees.  We managed this while serving as class sponsors and chaperones, attending football games on Friday nights or conducting fundraisers on Saturdays.  But the truth of our experience wasn’t nearly so noble.  When we were both in classes, Stu and I would bicker constantly, we really sucked as parents, and we allowed TV to parent Cari while we finished homework.  I have a sharp memory from this time: one Wednesday night, the night when discussions were due in every single class EVER, Stu sat in the bedroom struggling to complete an assignment, and I sat in the living room struggling to complete an assignment, while Cari cried and screamed hysterically from the bedroom.  I was certainly crying, too, blinking through my tears to focus my vision on a stupid, ridiculous, pointless, and meaningless discussion post before 11:59 so I could get the credit.

But in May 2010, at the same ceremony, Stu earned his bachelors degree in education, and I earned my masters degree in education leadership.  It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Working through my masters program while my husband earned his bachelors revealed to me so much about what education really looks like for some people.  I thought, in my naiveté, that everyone’s college experience should be like mine.  I went to Mary Washington College, which I’ve mentioned here before, and experienced college in a stereotypical, but not very realistic, way.  I lived in the dorms for all four years.  I huddled into the library, pouring over thick, stinky books for obscure commentaries.  I wrote papers until the sun came up.  I worked impossibly hard, and I had the opportunity to delve deeply into Dickinson, Shakespeare, and Milton.  To this day I cannot recreate the level of analysis I was able to achieve in those days.  Lord, I was self-important!  But I never worked a job during college other than as a resident assistant or English Department assistant.  My only serious relationships were with my roommates and friends; I didn’t date seriously, and certainly didn’t have a child.  I had no idea what many, many others experience in getting their education.  But as a grown up, I was able to understand that just making it through was an accomplishment worthy of great praise, and one hell of a big party.

I consider myself lucky to have had both experiences: the stereotypical college experience and the adult learning experience.  As a stereotypical college student, I learned how to really, really work at something, content so challenging that I had to pick through it to understand every. single. word.  I learned how to speak with other smart people without making myself look like an idiot.  I learned how to operate under deadlines.  I learned how to BS like a pro, when necessary, and I learned that sometimes BS wasn’t going to cut it.  But as an adult going back to school, I learned to balance priorities that really count.  I learned how to support my husband selflessly.  I learned that sometimes Cari needs to see me work at something so she gets how important it is for her to work at something, too.  I learned that sometimes just getting something done was worth celebrating.  And I learned how to work impossibly hard, even when a million distractions are rattling around in my head fighting for attention.

So it isn’t only the content of my masters program that I will use one day as an administrator.  I will also use the grit and determination that I picked up while writing discussion posts while tears blurred my vision and my daughter cried in the other room.

Eight Things

Earlier this week, I messaged my friend Chayil for some inspiration about what to write this week.  She challenged me to write 8 things I love about myself and why.  If you know me outside of blogging, this is a real struggle for me, but I’m not afraid of a challenge.  So here goes…

  1. I love my eyebrows.  I’ll never be able to say that my eyebrows are low maintenance exactly, but I’ve always gotten compliments on this random feature of my face.  But they frame my otherwise boring brown eyes, and they are super expressive.  Plus, I don’t have to fill them in, and I’ve never plucked them to the point of needing damage control.
  2. I love that I love to create.  When I have down time from the business of teaching, I’m crafting unit plans, which totally counts as creating, or writing for this blog, or playing with Photoshop or Illustrator.  My second novel is rattling around in my head, waiting to get put on paper.  I love music and art.  It makes me feel whole and fulfilled.
  3. I love my drive to learn.  I take pride in the fact that even though I’ve been teaching for 13 years that I still love to learn more about the craft.  I’m not complacent…  I don’t just dig out my old handouts from the filing cabinet, or from the files on my computer, to teach from every year, but I always ask how what I’ve done in the past can be improved.
  4. I love that I love Jesus.  My relationship with Jesus has grown so much since I was saved in 2004, but I can look back to the person I was before I was saved and see how much my love for my savior has changed me, softened me, grown me.
  5. I love that I’m still moved to tears by experiences.  Perhaps this makes me too tender hearted, but I don’t EVER want to let go of the joy I feel to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July, or to stop crying at worship from the movement of the Holy Spirit, or to let go of the feelings I get when I read an incredible book.  Life would be so boring that way.
  6. I love my relationship with my parents.  It hasn’t always been easy, but I am so grateful to have built a strong, steady relationship with my parents.  I love that I can call them and it isn’t hard to just talk or share our days.
  7. I love that when I wear purple, my eyes look green.  Brown eyes are pretty boring, even though Van Morrison memorialized them pretty spectacularly.  But in my first year of teaching AP, a student asked me to look at her.  So I did.  And she looked back at me with such an intense stare that I was left to wonder if I had something in my nose.  When she finally looked away, I asked her what that look was all about.  She said, “Oh nothing.”  It turns out she was using me as the inspiration for a poem I had asked them to write, and she had complimented my hazel eyes (!)  What a nice compliment that was, and how random that I remember it even now.
  8. I love my naiveté.  Let’s face it, this one isn’t always a good thing.  But I’ve found myself blinded to a number of things this year, and when all was revealed, I realized how lucky I was to have missed the signs of something obvious.  As a result, I was less stressed about the possibility of something scary, and while I wasn’t thinking or stressing about it, I was able to be pretty relaxed.

OK, Dad…  I challenge you to do the same!